Two Short Reviews of Summer Reading!

I am enjoying some light reading over the summer months, so just posting some brief thoughts on the two books I have read recently.

The first was The Woman in The Window by A.J. Finn.

the woman in the window

This is a psychological thriller in the style of ‘The Girl on the Train.’

Dr Anna Fox is a child psychologist who has developed severe agoraphobia due to a traumatic event and cannot leave the house.  She lives alone in an upmarket neighbourhood of New York.  She drinks copious amounts of Merlot, chats to people online and spies on her neighbours with a long lens camera.

The novel is about what happens when she hears a blood curdling scream coming from across the road at her neighbour’s house, ‘The Russells.’

I found this a thoroughly enjoyable read, if complete nonsense at times.  If you can suspend your disbelief about certain events, then you are in for an enjoyable time.  If you are stickler for realism, this may not be for you!

It moves along at a ferocious pace, so boredom was never a problem for me.  I found the main character likeable and believable for the most part.  I did suspect something about the person who turns out to be the murderer, but I was never 100% sure. Another plot twist I guessed immediately, but there was one I didn’t get.   So pretty good if you like your thrillers to keep you guessing!

What I didn’t like (very similar to The Girl on the Train) was how together, competent and razor sharp the main character could be, having just downed the guts of two bottles of wine.  This really bugs me about these types of thrillers.  OK, so maybe I have a low tolerance to alcohol, and the character has built up a huge tolerance, but what she is able to achieve whilst supposedly ‘drunk,’ really stretches the limits of plausibility in anyone’s language!

However, if you are looking for an entertaining beach read, look no further!

Now, important question.  Is anyone watching ‘Tales of the City,’ on Netflix?

tales of the city image

It popped up on my recommended list and I had heard about the books by Armistead Maupin, so off I went in search of more info.  It turns out there are many books in the series – 9 to be exact, but I ventured forth nonetheless and read the first one.

Set in the 1970s in San Francisco, it’s about Mary Anne Singleton who arrives in the city, and rents a place at 28 Barbary Lane. The book follows an endearing cast of eccentric characters who either live in Barbary Lane or know someone who does.  The writing is witty, the characters superbly drawn.  My only gripe – and it’s a small one – was that I didn’t get several of the cultural references.  I am now interested to check out the original T.V. series which is online at channel4.com.

I think I’ll see what the original T.V series is all about. I would love it if you could let me know if you are watching it on Netflix.  Apparently, it’s a continuation of the story, but me being me, I need to know what I may have missed!

I haven’t decided yet if I’ll read any more of the Armistead Maupin series. I would be happy to, but there are too many other books I want to read first.

Next book on the reading list – He said/She said by Erin Kelly.

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Transcription by Kate Atkinson

I have been contemplating what it is about Kate Atkinson’s novels that I enjoy so much and have concluded that it is not just her style of writing, which is so effortlessly brilliant, but the way she writes humour.  She writes these witty asides of what her characters are really thinking, and they are just so endearing and true to life.

I have been a huge fan of Kate Atkinson since I read ‘Life after Life’ and ‘A God in Ruins.’

This novel was much more of a slow burner for me.  It took me a while to get going.  It’s not what I would call a page turner, but it’s still fabulous, nonetheless.

The story centers around Juliet Armstrong who in 1950 is working for the BBC.  The story then takes us back to 1940 where we discover she worked as a secret agent. The novel runs along these two parallel strands of the 1940s and the 1950s.

During the Second World War Juliet is employed by M.I.5 and taken to a flat in London, where she is told she will be transcribing what goes on in the next-door flat which is bugged.   An agent called Godfrey Toby is sent undercover to listen to the secrets of a group of British Nazi sympathizers in the flat next door to Juliet, while she is taking down every word.    The conversations are mundane, but Juliet’s life takes an unexpected turn when both her and Godfrey’s boss, a man named Perry gives her a job in the inner circle, where she goes undercover as Iris-Carter Jenkins and befriends a British Nazi Sympathizer called Mrs Scaife.   This is where the book really came to life for me (about a quarter of the way in) and from then on, the intrigue develops, and the plot really does thicken (sorry!)

However, Juliet takes it all in her stride and seems totally underwhelmed by the drama unfolding around her.  She is even bored at times – “There was a better life somewhere, Juliet supposed, if only she could be bothered to find it.”

Although I found this novel a slow starter, the prose is beautiful, full of humour and wry observations, and if you can stick with it, it’s a rewarding read in my view.

I have included a link below to some quotes from the novel on Good Reads. For if you need convincing of what a glorious writer Kate Atkinson is, read them and weep!

https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/64175388-transcription

 

 

 

Ordinary People by Diana Evans

Melissa, Michael, Stephanie and Damian – the four friends in ‘Ordinary People’ have discovered that: “Adult life has fully revealed itself, wearing a limp, grey dressing gown.”

I would suspect there aren’t many married couples with children who can’t identify with many of the sentiments and behaviours found in Evan’s extraordinary novel.

Both couples live in London.  Michael and Melissa in 13 Paradise Row in Crystal Palace and Damian and Stephanie live in Dorking.

ordinary people by diana evansOrdinary People on Amazon

Evans focuses her attention primarily on M&M (as they are known to some of their friends) and specifically on Melissa. She is a freelance journalist, an independent spirit who is beautiful, cool, and feeling utterly suffocated by the chores of domesticity.  An earth mother she is not.  Michael after thirteen years together is still entranced by her, but even he is feeling worn down by life and by Melissa’s coldness towards him. Her unhappiness permeates their life.

Their house is another character in the book and is a metaphor for Melissa’s increasingly fragile state.  The more the house deteriorates, the more her mind follows suit.

Meanwhile Stephanie is a no-nonsense earth mother who adores her children and puts up with her husband.  I felt it was a pity that the author did not spend more time on this couple. They seemed to be making up the numbers a lot of the time, especially Stephanie.  She was the most sensible of the foursome, so perhaps less interesting to the writer, but I would have liked more of her. I admired her resilience and her capacity for getting on with life.

Evans prose is majestic.  She allows the miseries of the characters to unravel slowly, while London is described in Dickensian terms and adds to the stifling, sometimes hectic slightly crazy atmosphere.

Music plays a large part in the novel – indeed the title is taken from a John Legend song which include the lyrics: “This ain’t the honeymoon/ passed the infatuation stage.”

Both couples are also strongly rooted in their heritage.  Melissa feeds her children Eba and follows superstitions passed down from her African mother.

I adored everything about this novel.  The prose is gloriously atmospheric.  The story never felt depressing, just intense, and such a vivid, portrayal of ordinary lives that I was genuinely sorry when I finished it. The characters will live on in my memory for some time to come.  There is also a wonderful slightly bizarre gothic twist towards the end which I didn’t see coming, but which, although surprising, was not at all out of place.

Reader beware though – if you are going through a difficult time in a marriage or a relationship, the intensity may be too much.  On the other hand, it may provide some comfort to read of others’ struggles.   I leave that decision up to you!  For most people (I hope!!) I couldn’t recommend this highly enough.  A wonderful book.

 

 

 

The Party by Elizabeth Day

Elizabeth Day moved to Northern Ireland when she was 4.  During her life she has lived in several different countries and attended boarding school as a child.  She said she always felt an outsider.

the party by elizabeth dayThe Party by Elizabeth Day

She wrote ‘The Party’ following an extremely difficult period in her life. She had fertility treatment, she suffered a miscarriage and the break-up of her marriage.  On the writing of this book she said, “it came from a place of untrammelled honesty. It came from a place of me.”

Her understanding of suffering and anger is evident and visceral.

This is Elizabeth’s Day’s 4th novel and in my opinion it’s a belter.  The sort of novel that has you aching to get back to it, sneaking an extra couple of pages while you should be doing something else.  Engrossing, with intense characterization – a delicious reading experience in every way.

The story is told in alternative 1st person narratives by Martin and Lucy who are married.  The plot jumps between the present day and Martin re-living his past. Martin and Lucy also fill us in on how they met and how they have come to be where they are now, neither is in a good place either literally or metaphorically speaking (no spoilers!)

Martin is an only child who suffered at the hands of his controlling unaffectionate mother.  His life changes when he is sent off to boarding school and meets the glamourous and worldly Ben Fitzmaurice.  This is where the novel becomes a little ‘The Talented Mr Ripley.’  Martin sees a different life for himself and goes to dramatic lengths to get what he wants.

Ben and Martins’ lives become entangled in a way in which escape for either is impossible.

The novel is structured by Martin’s interview at a police station following Ben’s extravagant 40th Birthday party.  We know something dreadful has happened – but what and to whom?  This is only one element of what kept me turning the pages.

How could Martin be so cold on the one hand and yet seemingly caring on the other?  Love turns to obsession and therein lies the inherent danger of human suffering.

This is also a novel about entitlement and the power and abuse that can occur with untold privilege.  Ben Fitzmaurice has had everything he ever wanted his entire life.  He is charming, intelligent and on the surface, apart from being a little superficial, he could be an all-round good guy.  Until we begin to perceive his complete lack of empathy and understanding for Martin’s experiences in life. Ben has a total lack of self-awareness and is entirely unwilling to take responsibility for his failings.   He is weak.

The heroine of the novel is Lucy.  She may initially appear downtrodden and desperate for Martin to like her, but her courage and anger propel her  forward, and as she comes to the realization that many women do later in life, that she is worth loving and doesn’t have to be ‘the perfect wife,’ we see her glorious true self emerge.   Elizabeth Day says of writing about Lucy:

“I loved writing Lucy, because it was a cathartic experience in many respects……And what I wanted to do with ‘The Party’ is show that a woman can be as empowered by her anger as a man. I think we’d live in a much healthier society if women just faced their anger, realised it was part of them and that it can be a really creative stimulus, in the same way happiness can be or love can be.”

Martin’s anger is destructive, where Lucy’s is cathartic.

This novel had me hooked from the first few pages.  The writing seems effortless (I have no doubt it was anything but!) the characterization is brilliant.  Elizabeth Day has recently written a non-fiction book entitled ‘How to Fail.’  I am breathless with anticipation to read that and her back catalogue of novels. Oh, the joy of finding a new writer that I love never gets old!  I hope you enjoyed the novel as much as I did, and if you haven’t read it yet, take it on your hols, you can thank me later!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney.

This novel made me nostalgic, it frustrated me and by the end I couldn’t decide if I loved it or hated it.

normal people

I read this novel over a day and a half. It usually takes me at least a week now to get through a novel, time permitting. I found myself wanting to keep reading, so it certainly didn’t bore me.  Far from it.

It was the writing and the plot that had me a bit discombobulated at times.  Rooney’s style is so pared back, so effortlessly simple, that sometimes you wonder if it is any good at all, and yet it is this which makes it so brilliant.

The characters frustrated me at times.  So melodramatic, but then again, we are dealing with youth and perhaps I have forgotten how intensely you feel things at that age?

The plot centres around Marianne and Connell.  We first meet them when they are at school.  Marianne is a loner at school and not popular.  Connell is popular.  Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house, so we are immediately aware of the class difference.

The two develop a friendship which develops into something altogether more complicated.

We follow them as they both go to Trinity College in Dublin where money and class matter.

I think what bothered me about this novel is that Marianne is clearly suffering from some very serious psychological issues, brought about by the abuse, both physical and psychological, dished out regularly from her mother and brother.   We never get an insight into why they are so horrendously abusive towards her.  Also, surely to God someone in her circle would have spotted this and insist she get help?

Yet instead her friends seem happy to ignore this – she finds she is in the right social class at Trinity and develops a large group of friends.  If anything, some of her friends seem as damaged as she is.    It’s just not ‘normal’ life!   Perhaps this is the point that Rooney is making, that people slip through the gaps.  But Marianne is far from stupid.  How can she be so blinded to the trauma she has experienced, and why doesn’t she do anything about it?

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.  Of course, the drama in the book relies on Marianne and Connell being equally dysfunctional in their own ways, but I felt this was both a bit oversimplified and a bit overdone on occasion.

What I loved about this novel was the dialogue, which is subtle, witty and extremely clever.  I also loved how Marianne and Connell’s relationship developed, then suffered a serious setback, when Connell does something unforgivable, and how Rooney slowly revealed the long road to whether it would recover, thrive or die.   A fascinating roller-coaster of power struggles, and the thin line between love and hate.

Like ‘Conversations with Friends’ this is a novel that I would love to re-read and no doubt will.  Rooney’s novels have a way of staying in your head, causing you to dwell on the characters, their lives, and in turn you remember your own fraught youth, first loves etc.  For me, that is the greatest compliment a novelist can receive – to make the reader question life, love and our place in the world.  In this, Sally Rooney fully succeeds.

Review of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.

eleanor oliphant is completely fineBook on Amazon

I can now fully understand why so many people have urged me to read this novel.  Gail Honeyman has brought to life an eccentric lovable character, who brings to life the themes of loneliness and isolation and forces us to confront them.

Written in the 1st person we are introduced to Eleanor as she goes about her dull daily life.  Her eccentricity is immediately apparent.  She drinks vodka like water, yet her superiority towards the rest of humanity is at complete odds with the reality of her own life.

Following a chance meeting with a guy from work called Raymond (after they help a gentleman called Sammy, who has collapsed on the pavement) Eleanor finds herself making small changes to her life.  Raymond is gentle and kind, and despite herself, she finds herself accepting invitations to go places.

The heart of this novel is about how humans cope with trauma and loneliness.  Eleanor is seen as different because she doesn’t conform to the rules of beauty, fashion or some social norms. The rest of society doesn’t understand her, and bar the kindness of Raymond, Sammy and a few others, Eleanor would continue to live a tragic and lonely existence.

There are many laugh out loud moments.  My particular favourite was when she had her first make over (make-up etc) and described herself thus:  “‘I look like a small Madagascan primate, or perhaps a North American raccoon,’ I said. ‘It’s charming!’”

As the novel unfolds, we receive clues as to why Eleanor is as she is, and the life she has had. The spectre of ‘Mummy’ lurks in the shadows and Eleanor must deal with a weekly phone call with her mother which is littered with abusive put-downs.

Eleanor is a plucky, incredibly resilient heroine – now one of my favourites in literature.  Her need for human connection is visceral, and my heart ached for her. I cheered her on as she began to emerge from the cocoon of her traumatic life.

This book is a joy to read.  It is beautifully written and heart-warming.  I loved it.

Milkman by Anna Burns

milkman image

Hailing from Northern Ireland myself, I was looking forward immensely to reading this Man Booker Prize winning novel.  I was a little trepidatious however, having read both glowing reviews and this odd criticism of it being ‘hard going.’  Well the reviews I can now agree with, and the idea of it being hard going, I must disagree with.

In saying that, I understand how it came to be said.  Anna Burns writes in such a unique style, and in my humble opinion, there are moments where the stylistic devises take away from the story itself.  She is fond of the repetition of three, long lists of adjectives, in fact long lists of anything.   There are also no names in the book.  Everyone is called by a title, which I thought added greatly to the humour.

The novel is set in an unnamed town in Northern Ireland, where our 18-year-old female narrator lives with her mother and ‘wee sisters.’  She also has three older sisters who are all married and living nearby.   She goes running with third brother-in-law, and life then takes a strange turn when she is followed by a character by the name of Milkman.

We soon come to know that he is a paramilitary and the novel follows our narrator’s journey, as she tries to deal with the unwanted advances of Milkman, as well as contemplating her current life with ‘maybe-boyfriend.’ All this takes place during the many complications of the Troubles which form the constant dangerous undercurrent of this brilliant novel.

She tells us about the ‘beyond-the-pales;’ anyone who doesn’t fit in or follow the rules of the tribe (there are many of them in the town including herself.)  She also describes the different tribes, ‘the renouncers,’ and the ‘issue women’ who hold power in the town.

Violence is part of everyday life:

“The only time you’d call the police in my area would be if you were going to shoot them.”

There is plenty of humour thoughout, although it is dark humour indeed, but I found myself laughing out loud many times.  There are also plenty of incredibly touching moments throughout the novel, where there is hope that light and love can replace the utter darkness of the time.

The writing is sublime.  It is ironic, black, harsh and yet gentle too.  Honestly it is hard to describe its nuances and cadences.  Just read it and weep at its brilliance.

I adored this book.  There were several lovely moments between the main character and her mother and wee sisters, not to mention her third brother-in-law.

I felt frustrated and yet completely understood how and why our heroine felt powerless to change her situation, always wondering how bad it was going to get.   No spoilers so can’t say anymore than that!

I highly recommend this novel.  I could read it again and I intend to. I will probably get a whole lot more from it the second or third time around.  It is not light reading but oh, (sighs with sheer pleasure) it is so worth it.  Divine.

 

Making Time to Read in 2019

Hello, dear followers.  Yes, I am still here!  I apologize sincerely for the lack of posts in 2018.  Not at all what I had intended.   You see, I was working extremely hard at developing my career in 2018, and this necessitated reading a lot of non-fiction for my work (I am an executive coach and trainer.)   Alas, this left little time for reading fiction.

This year I am going to make time to read fiction.  I intended to read so many books in 2018.  I can’t believe I haven’t yet read Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, or ‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine,’ by Gail Honeyman, two books I am SO looking forward to reading in 2019.

What I did read at the end of 2018 was The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Jackson.  Not at all my usual reading choice, but my 12 year-old niece could not believe it when I said I hadn’t read them, and promptly leant me all three books and requested my immediate opinion on completion!  I must say I was pleasantly surprised.  A gripping story, excellently told and I did enjoy it much more than I expected.

Over Christmas I read the final installment in Jeffrey Archer’s The Clifton Chronicles.  Once again, this is not my usual type of reading material, but long story short, I was given the 7th novel in the series as a present, so out of sheer stubborness,  I decided to read the other 6 books.  If you are looking for some light reading, it’s a good long family saga and will not tax the brain, but is no less enjoyable.  I thought the writing in the first few books of the series was deplorable, but I think the writing improves as the saga develops, and the 7th is by far my favourite.  It also has a few good twists along the way.

marilyn-monroe-photo-awesomepeoplereading-tumblr-com-23-4-14

So with great hope, I intend to try and read at least a book a month and post a review every couple of months.    I am starting with this year’s Man Booker Prize Winning novel, ‘Milkman’ by Anna Burns.   As I am from Belfast, this is one I am really looking forward to getting stuck into.  I will report back next month!

Any reading desires for 2019?  Please share thoughts and opinions.   Thank you and I wish you all a Happy New Year.

The Circle by Dave Eggers

the circle

Social Media.  Harmless fun or privacy nightmare?  If you have ever found yourself wondering whether you might be allowing too much of your private information to be shared, and maybe it’s not such a good thing, then reading this book may confirm your fears.

Mae Holland finds herself employed at one of the most prestigious internet companies in the world – The Circle.

The mission of The Circle is not just for everyone to be connected, but for total transparency.  This is done through various programmes such as SeaChange, where tiny lollipop size cameras are filming people all over the world unbeknown to them.

The campus is utopia.  Everything is “perfect.”   The company is run by ‘the three wise men’ who are only accessible to the elite.

Mae works diligently and obsessively to become part of this elite and this is where the thriller aspect of the novel kicks in.  The further into this murky world, of being seen and being accepted, Mae dives, the further into a dystopian nightmare she falls.

I found this novel a rollercoaster ride of fun and satire which posed some interesting questions such as, our right to privacy, where does your duty to others begin and end, and most interestingly is technology becoming more of a danger to our society than a help?

Some of Mae’s actions I found wholly implausible, not to mention the actions of some of the other characters in the book, but whilst the novel pushes the boundaries of reality at times, it is none the less an extremely enjoyable read.

I have had little or no time to read recently as is clearly evident from the lack of posts on my blog, so the fact I had this read in three days speaks for itself.  I apologize for my lack of posts and also that this one is short.  It’s been a crazy year so far.   I hope to be able to resume more reading and blogging in the near future.

This is a great read – holiday or not!  I would give it 8 out of 10.

 

 

 

Musings on Roth, Wolfe and More!

This year my book reviewing has gone to pot, due to circumstances beyond my control!

Well, actually, whilst I have had to temporarily move out of my home (long story) and have also been busy with work matters, part of the reason I haven’t reviewed as much, is that I am also reading a lot of non fiction.

I have re-discovered the joys of non fiction and I am currently reading ‘A Tribe of Mentors’ by Tim Ferris, which I highly recommend.  It is a hefty book though, so taking me a lot of reading hours to get through.

With regards to fiction, I have discovered that when my routine is turned upside down, so is my reading.  I have been trying to get back into a regular routine of reading fiction, but haven’t as yet been able to do so.   I hope once I am returned to my home and my ‘normal’ routine, and all this house stuff is done and dusted, my reading life will improve!

Anyway, in fiction, I have been reading ‘Good Evening Mrs Craven,’  by Mollie Panter-Downes.   A wonderful book of short stories set during World War II.  Available from Persephone books.

With news of the death of both Philip Roth and Tom Wolfe, my husband is reading ‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth and enjoying it very much.  I am determined to add both authors to my reading list (yes I know….I can’t believe I haven’t read either of them yet.)

I have been meaning to read ‘The Bonfire of the Vanities’ by Wolfe for so long.   I plan to read it sometime over the next few months and will put a review up here.

the bonfire of the vanities

If you have read any Roth or Wolfe, what would you recommend?  Would love to hear your thoughts on this, or anything else book related!

Due to the lack of reviews, I thought I would share some books worth a read this summer as recommended by Bill Gates.  This link came via Literary Hub which I read weekly.  A great resource for book lovers.

https://www.gatesnotes.com/About-Bill-Gates/Summer-Books-2018