Weekend Miscellany

It’s been a busy week – but now I have half term – although nothing planned, as my daughter is revising and has her Duke Of Edinburgh Bronze expedition next weekend. I ought to start work on the summer edition of the school magazine, but it’s also a time for catching up with blogging. So here’s a miscellany of my bookish week:

Firstly, a huge thanks to Vintage Books (and Will Rycroft) for picking my name out of the hat to win their latest newsletter competition. It was all about writers who have worked for the New Yorker and their links to another author who was editor of the magazine for a long while. My prize was a set of Vintage classics by that editor – William (Keepers) Maxwell.

Maxwell

I must admit I’ve never read Maxwell, and before I looked him up to enter the competition I had never heard of him! He had a long life, being born in 1908, dying in 2000, and appears to have had an equally long writing career. Will tells me I’m in for a treat, and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in… But which to read first?

  • They Came Like Swallows (1937) is a family drama
  • All the Days and Nights (1965) is an anthology of short stories
  • The Folded Leaf (1945) is a coming of age tale set in 1920s Chicago
  • So Long, See You Tomorrow (1980) is about jealous farmers in rural Illinois
  • Time Will Darken It (1948) turn of the century Illinois
  • The Chateau (1961) An American couple holiday in France.

I’m drawn to The Chateau or The Folded Leaf, but do tell me if you’d particularly recommend any of the others.

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Secondly, it’s time for a little non-fiction Shiny Linkiness…

All I Know Now by Carrie Hope Fletcher

All I Know NowThis book is part memoir, part advice guide from the young star of Les Miserables who is also a Youtube vlogger and younger sister of Tom from McFly.

Aimed squarely at the teenaged girl market, I snaffled a proof copy to write a ‘Mum’s-eye review’ of it for Shiny New Books – it’s stuffed full of relentlessly cheerful good advice from an obviously lovely girl who wants to be your ‘honorary big sister’. Unlike Zoella and co, Carrie has only herself to plug, and she makes it clear that hard work is required, but tells it with a lot of good humour whilst trying to be a comfort too. If you have a younger teenaged daughter, buy it for her and get in her good books!

Click here to read my full review.

Naked at the Albert Hall by Tracey Thorn

naked at the albert hall Tracey Thorn is back with another book which allows her to explore in detail one area which didn’t fit in the first book, specifically the art of singing.

She serves us up an enticing mixture which includes snatches of memoir, interviews with other singers, singers in literature, the mechanics of singing, ruminations on what it means and its power. She also talks frankly about her stage fright, which has prevented her singing live now for many years.

As with her brilliant memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, this volume is shot through with wit and wonder; she writes beautifully and I really enjoyed reading in her company again.

Click here to read my full review.

Shiny New Books now has an affiliate link to The Book Depository, so if you want to find out more you can click through at the bottom of my full reviews. SNBks remains totally independent though, the affiliate account is just to help pay for the webhosting.

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mostly_booksThirdly, I was shocked to find out this week that the owners of my favourite bookshop – the amazing Mostly Books in Abingdon – have put the business on the market, so they can concentrate on their kids and other things. The good news is that they’re not in a particular hurry and are hoping to sell to the right kind of person.  Could I?….

Despite having no experience of proper retail or bookselling, I do have ideas, and have always had a dream of owning a bookshop. I can’t afford to buy it outright without downsizing my house, which I wasn’t planning to do until my daughter goes to university. But, if I had a business partner, that would give half the financial risk, double the ideas, the ability to have holidays and not necessarily work six or seven days a week. Anyone interested?

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The bells, the bells …

A Musical Interlude

I’ve just finished reading Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller, which I shall be reviewing for Shiny New Books. I’ll just say it’s the best book I’ve read so far this year …

In the novel, the narrator’s mother is a German concert pianist – and Liszt’s piano étude La Campanella (the little bell) is an idée fixe running throughout the novel.  I was shocked to find that I don’t own a CD of this amazing piece of music, which is based on a theme from Paganini’s second violin concerto.  So I set out to explore, and there are just so many recordings out there – the tune is now a complete earworm for me! On my travels I came across some other bloggers’ favourites:  Eric at Lonesome Reader picked Valentina Lisitsa, whereas Claire at Word by Word chose Yundi Li to illustrate her post.

I hurried off to Youtube. Top of the list comes Lang Lang – technically perfect, yet far too showy for me. Alice Sara Ott was too clean and measured. There are many clips of Lisitsa playing it – including one on an out of tune piano in a park – her left hand, accompanying the dextrous tinkling of the right, is particularly lovely. The one for me though turned out to a performance from the Proms in 1997 by Russian-born, British-Israeli Evgeny Kissin. His intensity is ferocious, you see the sweat pouring off him in the later stages yet, he just sparkles in the light passages – he really inhabits the piece.

Do you have a favourite?  Here’s Evgeny…

Trending: Tough Issue Lit for Teens

See, being an eternal optimist, I can’t even bring myself to say the word ‘suicide’ in my blog post title – yet as a subject of teen novels, I’m seeing it and mental health related illness cropping up more and more…

I was hereI bring the issue up as I’ve just read Gayle Forman’s new novel I Was Here, (which I reviewed for Shiny New Books here).

To cut a long story short, on page one, you read the suicide note of Cody’s best friend Meg. They’d grown up together and only just gone separate ways when Meg went off to uni. Everyone is grief-stricken in their small town in the US northwest. Asked by Meg’s parents to collect her things from uni, Cody is shocked to find that there was so much she didn’t know about, and that Meg had been visiting the wrong kind of internet forums – essentially being anonymously groomed towards suicide. I was shocked to find that Forman’s novel was based on a real case! Importantly, Cody’s investigations lead to an appropriate ending, and she is able to move on.

I was here though, is just the latest (bound to be) bestselling YA novel covering this territory – there seems to be more and more of them at the moment. To see just how many there are – a good sample of titles and some intelligent discussion around the subject can be found on the Stacked blog here and here.

Of course, there have always been books which include suicides and attempted suicides, many of which will be read by older teens – The Bell Jar being the classic (see my review here), but many of the suicidal protagonists fail in their attempts to end their lives, recovering to some level and overcoming their depression.  The gritty memoirs Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen and Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel sharing their experiences will be familiar to many too.

its-kind-of-a-funny-storyMoving to 2007 – Ned Vizzini wrote It’s Kind of a Funny Story about a suicidal high school student who gets over his depression (my review here); Vizzini himself tragically committed suicide in 2013. Plath of course committed suicide just months after finishing The Bell Jar. Knowing the authors’ fates makes for a doubly sad read. These two books both feature protagonists who overcame their depression to engage with life again.

The current crop, including I Was Here, often feature successful (that’s so the wrong word, but you know what I mean) suicides though. This does change the emphasis towards what happens next and the effects on their friends and familes, but the act of the suicide always hangs heavily over the whole stories.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen ChboskyAgain this isn’t new, Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel was The Virgin Suicides about a family of teenaged sisters who all committed suicide, told after the events from the girls’ boyfriends PoVs; that wasn’t targeted at a YA audience although many older teens will read it. (I’ve yet to read it, but did see the film). Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower is particularly well-written in its sensitivity and wonderful young hero Charlie – I highly recommend it.

Despite their sad themes, if you look around the blogosphere you’ll find many YA bloggers who are welcoming these books for giving their teenaged readers a way into discussing their own problems, and explaining to them what being depressed in particular is like – a kind of reading therapy perhaps. For them, it’s all about overcoming the old taboos and fostering a kinder, non-judgmental and more supportive atmosphere in which it’s good to talk. I applaud that wholeheartedly, because I see the pressure to achieve being put on teenagers today and I worry for them.

These days there are also hundreds of books for children and teens about grief, coming to terms with terminal illness, or the death of a parent or loved one. These range from Patrick Ness’ exceptional A Monster Calls about a boy whose mum is dying from cancer, to Sally Nicholl’s heartwarming but sad Ways to Live Forever about a boy with terminal illness, Clare Furniss’ bestselling novel Year of the Rat about a girl whose mum dies in childbirth, and not forgetting Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece which has to win the prize for most elegiac title.  These novels, many of which are eminently suitable for older children and younger teens, are perhaps the natural precursor to those above, but, they are also totally different in that no-one wants to die in them…

So, I also worry because these latest suicide lit books are so real. Where is the escapism and mystery?  I remember escaping into books as a teenager, never reading books that were so close to real life. Admittedly, the thrillers I read were terribly violent (Alastair MacLean and his ilk), but they were not ‘real’ – you engage with them differently. With the exception of The Bell Jar I can’t remember any similar titles around when I was a teenager, but then you didn’t talk about any mental health issues either.

Don’t get me wrong, I thought that all the novels I’ve mentioned and read above were good, they nearly all made me cry too, but so much teen fiction these days is so bleak and seems to want to shock. Given that many of the protagonists are on verge of becoming young adults, it’s such a brutal way to come of age too!

That’s why one of my favourite recent YA novels is Meg Rosoff’s Picture Me Gone. No-one dies, there’s a mystery to be solved, and it still has lots to say about modern life and families. From those I’ve read so far on the longlist I’d be very happy if it won the Carnegie Medal. But, I also fear that to stick one’s head in the sand over this YA trend would be the mark of becoming a sentimental old fool – I’m not ready for that yet!

The first in an Italian trilogy…

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Translated by Ann Goldstein

my brilliant friendI came to reading this book, the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Trilogy, with more than a little trepidation. Firstly I have only heard good things about it, so I was hoping that it would live up to its reputation.

Secondly, my only previous experience of Ferrante’s work – her early novel, Troubling Love, which I read back in the early days of this blog, was not entirely a success, particularly as I was thrown by the first sentence: “My mother drowned on the night of May 23rd, my birthday, in the sea at a place called Spaccavento, a few miles from Minturno.” May 23rd was my wedding anniversary, and a new relative by marriage died of a heart attack on my wedding night. (I hasten to add that he was already in hospital, not at the wedding and it was his third heart attack, so while terribly sad, it was not sudden nor unexpected.) In fact, having read this book, I’m beginning to wonder if I have a psychic connection with Ferrante, because the major event which takes place at the end of My Brilliant Friend happens on my late mum’s birthday – it’s a happier date in both cases this time.

So, to the books … The Neapolitan Trilogy is the story of childhood friends, Elena and Lila. The first volume opens in the 1950s and follows the story of the girls up until Lila’s marriage while still a teenager. The second sees them mature into young women, and the third volume, which will be published in September, carries on their story.

The prologue to My Brilliant Friend is narrated by Elena, now in her mid-sixties. She is contacted by Lila’s son worried about his mother who appears to have done a disappearing act.

It’s been at least three decades since she told me that she wanted to disappear without leaving a trace, and I’m the only one who knows what she means. […] she wanted to vanish; she wanted every one of her cells to disappear, nothing of her ever to be found. And since I know her well, or at least I think I know her, I take it for granted that she has found a way to disappear, to leave not so much as a hair anywhere in this world. […]

I was really angry.
We’ll see who wins this time, I said to myself. I turned on the computer and began to write – all the details of our story, everything that still remained in my memory.

We can immediately sense a rivalry between the two women, and that Elena is not necessarily the top dog in their relationship. Let’s go back to the start in the 1950s – and here I can’t help but think of the song Where do you go to (my lovely)? by Peter Sarstedt from 1969, which towards the end includes the lyric…

I remember the back streets of Naples,
Two children begging in rags,
Both touched with a burning ambition,
To shake off their lowly born tags, they tried.

A rough and tough neighbourhood in Naples is the scene. Everyone fights; including the women who fight between themselves. ‘Life was like that, that’s all, we grew up with the duty to make it difficult for others before they made it difficult for us.’ Don Achille is feared by all, and the tentative friendship between Elena and Lila is cemented by a series of dares, the most scary of which is to sneak up the back stairs into Don Achille’s house and the little girls hold hands to go together.

Lila’s family run a shoe-repair business. Her older brother aspires to craft handmade shoes rather than only repair them. They are poorer than Elena’s family, her father is a porter at the city hall. Both girls start school and both are clever. The teachers are amazed that Lila has already taught herself to read and write, but Elena soon catches up and the girls study together. Both could get into the senior school, but Lila’s family can’t afford it. This is the first point at which the girls’ lives could split, but Lila has an urge to keep learning – and after she finishes her work in the shop, she continues to study with Elena.

Becoming teenagers, their lives outside school and work begin to take a different emphasis. The arrival of puberty and their periods, Elena before Lila for once, brings boys to the forefront. Getting a good match is the key to elevation in Neapolitan society, and while the girls will get to know most of the boys of most of the local families, their paths are still set by circumstance. Elena, doing well at school, can’t now marry someone uneducated, and Lila has always had her eyes set on the son of Don Achille.

Ferrante brings this story of working class Neapolitans to life with an incredible eye for detail. We really get to see what life is like for these families in 1950s Naples. One eye-opening aspect that would never have occurred to me was that they don’t speak Italian as their first language, using a Neapolitan dialect instead. It soon starts to become a barrier for Elena as some childhood friends who don’t go on to the senior school can’t speak Italian, let alone read Latin as she will. This is one reason why Lila continues to teach herself and study with Elena.

They live in a close-knit community, full of feuds, the haves and the have-nots with a hierarchy of families. Every so often events will happen to shake things up a little – Lila will often be involved somewhere, yet as her wedding approaches, she begins to have occasional strange turns (are they symptoms of petit mal? I don’t know). It ends with Lila’s wedding – a mostly happy event, but for the cliff-hanger ending…

In making Elena her narrator writing from memory, Ferrante very cleverly builds the two girls’ characters, with Elena usually looking to Lila to take the lead, yet relishing those occasions when she came in first. We come to realise that Lila does need Elena as much as Elena needs Lila, yet there will be falling-outs aplenty along the way. As I found in Troubling Love, Ferrante is an author very concerned with the physiology of womanhood, there is a power in the coming of monthly blood, here it wasn’t overpowering – it just marked the transition.

Ferrante is famed for her elusiveness – yet in sharing her name with one of the characters, we do wonder how much the Elena on the page is based on Elena herself, or is there more of Lila in her?  We’ll probably never know, but I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the other volumes as soon as I can. (9/10)

I read this book for Women in Translation month. Finally, having mentioned it up the page, I shall leave you with Peter Sarstedt…

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Source: Publisher – thank you! To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. Published by Europa editions, 2012. Paperback original 336 pages.
The Story of a New Name – Volume 2
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay – Volume 3, pub Sept 11.

Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own…

I don’t usually take part in the Top Ten weekly meme, but occasionally they and/or other regular memes will pick a topic that piques my interest. A couple of weeks ago the Top Ten topic was ‘The Top Ten Authors Whose Books I Own’. I’m glad they made the distinction between own and read! Thanks to Librarything this was easy as I could sort my catalogue accordingly. I wasn’t really surprised by the results (except one), but it was fun. So here they are:

beryl bIain Banks BanksReadLeading the charge with 24 books on the shelves each are two of the three authors I am most passionate about. So much so that they have their own pages up at the top of this blog. Of course it’s the late-lamented Beryl and Iain. Have a look above to see more about both of them.

I really must make time to continue my plans to (re)read everything they’ve ever written.

ackroydFollowing close on their heels with 23 books is Peter Ackroyd. I find his books are a little hit and miss with me, but his best are wonderful, and the others are always interesting. Amazingly prolific, I’ve only managed to read/review one of his (The Death of King Arthur) since starting this blog. Others I’ve enjoyed include Hawksmoor, English Music and Dan Leno & The Limehouse Golem.

Then come four authors with twenty books apiece.

Paul auster sh #1:4Top of the list alphabetically is Paul Auster, who happens to be the third of my favourite authors. Again he is definitely overdue another read. See here and here for posts on him and his books.

Don’t you think he has the most compelling eyes?  Married to Siri Hustvedt, he’s a New Yorker, and is the king of meta-fiction. Some people don’t like that, but I do!

Auster shares twenty books with Lawrence Block, John Le Carre and Michael Connelly. Two crime writers and one spy novelist.

liam-neeson-as matt scudderI see that Block’s tenth Matt Scudder novel A Walk Among The Tombstones will be on the big screen soon starring Liam Neeson as the ex-cop, alcoholic but now TT private eye. Again I say to the adapters – why do you always start in the middle of a series?  Actually I’ve read up to about number twelve, so am ahead so to speak, and I really recommend them.

More spies and crime next.  At sixteen comes Ian Fleming – I have a complete set of James Bond naturally, and he keeps company with Elmore Leonard, who is probably the crime writer that makes me laugh the most – his dialogue-driven novels are usually hilarious as well as violent!

Having told you about nine authors, I can’t have a top ten – it’ll have to be a top twelve as three tie on fourteen books each. They are the incomparable Graham Greene, the prolific Stephen King, and the intriguingly named L Du Garde Peach.

l du Garde PeachPictures of Du Garde Peach are few and far between, so you’ll have to make do with this painting by Thomas Cantrell Dugdale (not dated but Dugdale died in 1952, Du Garde Peach in 1974).

LDGP was the author of many plays for radio and stage, having a long association with the Sheffield Playhouse. He also wrote film scripts including the Boris Karloff film The Ghoul (1933).

Nelson ladybirdBut how would I own fourteen books by him?

Well, he wrote thirty titles for the Ladybird Adventures from History series, and I still have a pile of them from my childhood – much treasured (and all bearing my homemade library stickers).

If you want to find out more about old Ladybird books, visit The Wee Web which has them all!

So that’s my top twelve authors whose books I own.  Which authors feature at the top of your lists? 

 

A novel way of revisiting children’s classics…

Although I only studied it up to O-level, possibly my favourite subject at school was Latin. I continue to surprise myself by the amount of Latin I’ve retained over the years, but I do try to use it whenever I can.  Viz my blog’s Latin motto: Noli domo egredi nisi librum habesNever leave home without a book.  (Mottoes just have to be in Latin!)  On holiday in Normandy I revelled in being able to translate bits of the Bayeux Tapestry; I like reading Latin engravings on tombstones in old churches and so on. Now, I’m able to help my daughter with her homework (she doesn’t share my love for the subject, but is naturally good at it!).

winnie-ille-pohpu-001

Years ago I acquired Winnie Ille Pu and Domus Anguli Puensis translated by Alexander Lenard, which were first published in 1958 (and many other Pooh spin-off books not in Latin – The Pooh Perplex, The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet etc. Sadly, I’ve not kept any of them.)  Back to the Latin – it’s lovely to see Heffalump declined in Latin – Heffalumpus, Heffalumpum… It is an intuitive translation and is great fun for Latin-lovers.

One of my daughter’s favourite picture books as a child was Olivia by Ian Falconer. She’s since become a bit of a media star and had many sequels, TV series and merchandise, but that first Olivia book before all that was pure gold. She’s a precocious and genius of a piglet, of course! Fashion-conscious, arty, likes ballet and so on.

Recently I saw that it had been translated into Latin some years ago and The Book People had it in their sale – I just had to have it!

P1020163 (600x800)I love the bit where she’s bargaining with her mum over bedtime reading… her first bid is five. I’m going to have to buy the original again, aren’t I to make sure I got it all right, I think we passed it on, but it goes something like this…

‘No, Olivia, one only.’
‘Perhaps four?’
‘Two.’
‘Three.’
‘Done. Three.
But that’s enough!’

A piglet who enjoys reading – attagirl!

The one thing that all these books and the many parodies and cod-philosophical volumes have in common is that by their nature, you have to have read the original to enjoy the adaptation.

Go on, own up! Which books of this sort are on your shelves?  Be they foreign versions or parodies.  

I’ll also admit to owning several Asterix books in French (which is commendable), but also the funny (well it was back when I read it) Harvard Lampoon’s Bored of the Rings (1968).

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Source: Own Copies. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Olivia by Ian Falconer (The original book)
Olivia: The Essential Latin Edition by Ian Falconer trans Amy High.
Winnie Ille Pu by A.A.Milne, trans Alexander Lenard. O/P but S/H available.
Bored Of The Rings (GOLLANCZ S.F.) – Harvard Lampoon.

 

 

A ‘Shiny’ review …

I was so busy doing other things behind the scenes etc with issue 2 of Shiny New Books this time, that I didn’t write as many reviews, plus a couple of the books I’d hoped to recommend there didn’t quite come up to scratch, so there won’t be as many linky posts from me this time!

However, I did read several really, really good novels and would like to direct you over to read my full reviews, and the first I shall highlight is:

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

Benedick

I think that Much Ado About Nothing is possibly my favourite Shakespeare comedy (especially the film version with Ken and Em), and Marina Fiorato is one of the few authors of mostly historical novels that I really look forward to reading. Her first novel The Glassblower of Murano was one of my first book reviews on this blog (here) followed by The Madonna of the Almonds the following year (see here).  I find her novels more fun than many other historical ones, and although they’re based upon impeccable research, they are not slaves to recorded history living happily alongside.

So to Beatrice and Benedick. It’s a brave author who takes on Shakespeare to write a prequel – to flesh out the sparring would-be lovers back story that it’s obvious they have, but old Shakey never told.

I loved it. It’s very dark in places, but also very funny, and if you liked Ken and Em in the film and imagine them in this novel, you’ll love it too. Perfect lighter summer reading. (9/10)

So get thee over to SNBks ==> full review here.

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Source: Review copy – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato, Hodder & Stoughton, May 2014, Hardback 448 pages.
The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato, paperback.

Celebrating IBW with the Inky Fool & a Giveaway

Last night I was at my local indie bookshop and spiritual home Mostly Books for an event to celebrate Independent Booksellers Week. Each year the IBW people commission an essay to be sold as a little booklet only in indie bookshops. Previous authors have been Julian Barnes and Ann Patchett.

ibw2014Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and Elements of Eloquence, and blogger at The Inky Fool, who has been to Abingdon a couple of times before (see a previous report here) has written this year’s essay entitled The Unknown Unknown after Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote.  It’s about the joy of discovering books that you didn’t know you wanted to read when browsing in bookshops amongst other ‘state of the book’ discussions.

I have two extra copies of this great essay, which Mark kindly signed for me, to giveaway – details at the bottom of the post.

mark forsythMark (left) is on tour throughout IBW, and last night came to Abingdon to talk to us. The previous night he’d been at a big event at the new Foyles ‘The Great Bookshop Debate’.

Mark and Mark from the bookshop started off the evening talking about the essay and its main theme of ‘Discoverability’ – it’s difficult to google or search amazon for books you’re not aware of – but walk into a bookshop and you’ll find all those books you didn’t know about and didn’t know you wanted to read – it’s the joy of browsing. He told us how this very afternoon he found a book in a bookshop that he didn’t know he wanted – Peter Rabbit in hieroglyphics!

They talked about how the publishing industry appears to think the physical book is ‘doomed!’ (in Dad’s Army pronounciation of course), but Forsyth thinks they are whingeing a bit and it’s not as bad as all that. Actually it’s going alright he said, especially when you think about how the younger generation are communicating in text – you have to craft a text or tweet. He thinks the world is getting more literate in this respect. Also, surprisingly, he said that ‘e-books have made books beautiful again.’  Publishers are working harder on covers etc to attract readers of physical books.  He’s also not a fan of bookshops turning into coffee shops with a few books – people have to pick up the books to discover they want them.  Forsyth is a very engaging and refreshingly honest speaker which made for good conversation.

Browsing in the bookshop after the talk, I did find an ‘unknown unknown’ book that I just had to buy …  In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans from the German by Anthea Bell).  Which brings me to the…

* * * * * GIVEAWAY * * * * *

It was a lovely evening and I bought two extra copies of Mark’s essay to give away to you lot, which he kindly signed for me.  These are limited editions and can only be bought in UK indie bookshops.  I will happily send them worldwide.  You have until UK tea-time on Wednesday.

To go into the draw, please tell me about the last ‘unknown unknown’ book that you purchased (preferably in an independent bookshop – and give the shop a plug).

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth. Icon books 2013. 224 pages, hardback.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (transcribed into Egyptian Hieroglyphic script) by Beatrix Potter.
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge. Faber paperback.

On not finishing books and dentists!

You’d think that by my nearly mid-fifties I’d have grown out of not finishing books, wouldn’t you?  Life’s too short, the TBR’s too big and all that. Yet generally I desperately still want to finish reading any book I start.  There’s no ‘owing it to the author to give their book a fair read’ duty to this, I’m coming to the feeling that it’s mostly ‘hope’ that keeps me going, an optimistic outlook that hopes that a book that I’m stuck in, or not enjoying turns around by the end. Combine that the the sense of personal challenge, and that generally keeps me reading. It’s rare for me to give up on a book, but I did on the following one:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

ferris

I really enjoyed Ferris’s first novel Then we came to the end about office politics, downsizing and corporate management gobbledegook – I recognised elements of the latter in particular from the multinational I used to work for. I read it pre-blog and in my spreadsheet my capsule review says the following:

“On a normal workday you spend more time with your colleagues than your family and are forced into relationships with people you probably don’t like. Add a failing business where people are getting laid off one by one, and everyone else is scared witless that it’ll be them next – this makes for some strained behaviour which is exploited to the full in this novel.
By turns comic and sad, but always with tongue stuck firmly in cheek, my only complaint was it was too long; it was a bit flabby in parts and 300 pages would have been a better length. There were just some of the team I just couldn’t care less about that I got bored with, and others like Joe the supervisor who we never really got to know at all – but that was probably deliberate! I did love the bit with the Office Co-ordinator checking serial numbers on chairs (believe me that really happens!).”

Anyway I was looking forward to reading his new one which is about a dentist – especially as I’ve just had £1000 worth of root canal and crown work done!

It started well. The main character, dentist Paul O’Rourke, narrates the whole book as a monologue and the following paragraph is from the second page:

A dentist is only half the doctor he claims to be. THat he’s also half mortician is the secret he keeps to himself. The ailing bits he tried to turn healthy again. The dead bits he just tried to make presentable. He bores a hole, clears the rot, fills the pit, and seals the hatch. He yanks the teeth, pours the mold, fits the fakes, and paints to match. Open cavities are the eye stones of skulls, and molars stand erect as tombstones.

Soon after though Paul starts rambling, and essentially he rambles his way through the whole book. About golf, the Red Sox, his love-life or lack of, and especially religion and the meaning of life.  For an atheist, he seems to want something to believe in – and when a departing client commits identity theft and starts posting religious comments, from the devout to the weird to the nasty in his name – the rest of the book gets obsessed by him wallowing in it.  I lasted until about page 75, and then very quickly skimmed my way through the rest.  I’m glad I didn’t bother.  The main character is so tedious.

If the book has one saving grace – it’s Betsy Conrad – Paul’s super-efficient dental hygienist. She’s sixty, a widow, a devout Catholic and all round good egg whose role is to constantly question Paul and keep him running on the right track.

I’d come out of the bathroom and she’d be standing right there, “I’ve been looking all over for you,” she’d say. “Where have you been?” I’d tell her the obvious, she’d say, “Why must you call it the Thunderbox?” I’d tell her, adding a few details , and she’d grow severe, she’d say, ‘”Please do not refer to what you do in the bathroom as ‘making the pope’s fountain.’ I know the pope is just a joke to you. I know the Catholic Church is nothing but a whetting stone for your wit. But I happen to hold the church in the highest regard, and though you can’t understand that, if you had any respect for me you would mind what you say about the pope.”

There are some really funny moments, and some passages that are brilliantly written particularly about work (again), but they get lost amongst all the psycho-babble about the meaning of life and finding yourself, and Paul being so self-centred. Ferris can write though, and I’ll certainly read more of him hoping that his best is yet to come.

P.S. I did like the epilogue though… (DNF)

For another take on this novel, see Rachel’s review at Book Snob

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Source: Publisher – Thank you!
To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris, pub Penguin Viking, May 2014, Hardback 352 pages.

Two *Five* Star Books for you …

One of the greatest pleasures of reading and blogging is to discover books that I adore, that few will have heard of, and then to bring them to a wider audience. Recently I read and reviewed two such novels for Shiny New Books. Below are tasters of my reviews with links to the full thing…

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding

american sycamore
It is lovely to be able to heartily recommend a début novel published by a smaller independent publisher – American Sycamore is exactly that and it deserves a wide readership.

Set in the 1970s, it’s a coming of age story of two siblings, Alice and Billy Sycamore who grow up in a small town by the Susquehanna River in north-eastern USA. I know that coming of age novels aren’t to everyone’s taste, but this one is very special. The descriptions of character, landscape and the river which runs through it are amazing and the meandering story is told by a narrator you warm to instantly. (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams

into the trees

Imagine a house in the middle of the forest, somewhere you feel safe, at home; somewhere to hide away perhaps? What springs to mind? One such place I instantly thought of was the seven dwarves’ cottage in Snow White. Then I thought of the gingerbread cottage in Hansel and Gretel – except that wasn’t exactly a safe house until they’d disposed of the wicked witch.

I hasten to add that Into the Trees is no fairy-tale. It is a thoroughly contemporary novel, not even a reworking of a fairy-tale and yet, you can’t help thinking of them all the time when reading it. Forests in themselves are potent symbols of nature, spirits and earth-magic, remember the forest of Fangorn, home of the Ents, and Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest in Lord of the Rings for instance. Add a house in a clearing and you’re back in Grimm territory, or is it more like the Cullen’s modern glass sanctuary in the Twilight film? Whichever, you know that something bad happened when someone came knocking at the door looking for Snow White …

This novel isn’t a thriller – you encounter the key event in the prologue.  Instead it explores the effect of living in the forest before and after this event on a family.  Deep, complex and superb writing – dare one hope for a happy ending?  (10/10)

Click here to read the full review.

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Source: Both courtesy of the publishers – Thank you.
To explore further on Amazon UK (affiliate link), please click below:

American Sycamore by Karen Fielding. Published February 2014 by Seren Books, paperback original 200 pages.

Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Published April 2014 by Faber & Faber, Hardback 352 pages.