Talking about books
~ at home
books we read in June
Unusually, two books that I have enjoyed recently both happened to have the same type of format, with chapters set in one time period ( a few years ago from today but in the 21st century) intercut with chapters set in the past so that the backstory of how the main character got to where she is today is gradually built up.
The Call of the Curlew by Elizabeth Brooks
The story is set in a house on the edge of a huge marsh. It starts in the (roughly) present day with an old lady, Virginia, deciding that she will walk out onto the marsh that night to meet her end. The story then moves backwards and forwards from the present day to the period of the second world war when she was adopted by the couple who originally lived in the house on the marsh. The events of a few years during the war are gradually told and we learn of Virginia’s early life along with the present day story of elderly Virginia and a runaway teenager who has appeared at her house. The characterisation of Virginia and her relationships with her adoptive parents and other characters is very good and the atmosphere of life beside a desolate marsh is well described. I very much enjoyed the story.
The Trick to Time by Kit de Waal
The lead character in this book, Mona, is just reaching her 60th birthday in the present day part of the book, living alone in a seaside town. She has a small shop and a mail order business selling hand-made wooden dolls. A carpenter makes the wooden dolls for her; Mona paints the dolls and then sews beautiful clothes for them, usually made out of second hand clothing she has bought mainly from charity shops. She also helps women who have suffered the loss of a baby using her hand-made dolls. The chapters intercut with the present day ones, gradually telling the story of her life, from her childhood in a quiet Irish town in Wexford, her move to Birmingham for work in her late teens in the 1970s, her meeting with the man who becomes her husband and the tragedy that they experience. It is almost as if the chapters in the past are helping her work through her sadness so that she will make the most of finding happiness again, as she is determined to do. I like Kit de Waal’s writing and also enjoyed her previous book, My Name is Leon, about a child who is taken into care and separated from his baby brother. It has been some years since I read My Name is Leon but I still remember it, which is more than I can say about many books. I would happily read more by Kit de Waal.
Peace by Garry Disher
On a completely different theme, I enjoyed Peace by Garry Disher. This is a crime story set in a quiet outback farming town in a very dry area south of the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. The lead character, Constable Paul ‘Hirsch’ Hirschhausen, is the only policeman in town and a lot of his normal job is almost social work, dropping in on residents who live far from town in outlying farms to make sure all is well, dealing with small-scale petty crime, etc. It is set around Christmas/New Year so it is the hottest time of the year. After a round of some outlying farms where he finds what looks like arson at a scrub fire and then a cache of copper wiring (probably stolen), he returns to town to find a toddler locked in a car in scorching weather. Saving the child sets off a chain of violent events which means more senior detectives (both local and interstate level) arrive to solve the crimes, not trusting a junior constable to be capable of doing that. The story has lots of twists and turns and it is not clear which of the incoming police detectives are trustworthy. Hirsch had previously been the whistleblower reporting some corrupt detectives so he has some experience of this. The story was a very good page turner. This is one in a series from Garry Disher and I intend to look for some more in the future.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman
Last month I decided I needed some light relief in my reading matter so I chose this! I enjoy Mr Osman’s wit on Pointless and House of Games, so how does he rate as a writer? Of course, he is clever and has plotted the story well, I found the characterisation good and I could identify with the elderly ladies. However, I think , at my age, perhaps I should have taken notes as I became confused towards the end and I feel he tried to include too many murders and criminals with changed names.
At The Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
North America in the 19th century and a white family are trying to make a living by growing apple trees. The story follows the son, Robert, as he leaves the family home to travel west across the country while trying to make a living. Tracy Chevalier cleverly combines fact with fiction and Robert meets up with William Lobb, a plant biologist employed to find new trees and plants and send them back to Veitch Nurseries in London and also Kew Gardens. At the back of the book there is information about the real characters mentioned and I found this book both an interesting part of history and a gripping story.
The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
Winner of the Commonwealth Prize in 2007, this was our book group choice for June. Again, the setting was America, but 18th century in the deep South. Aminata tells her story, born in East Africa she is stolen by slave traders aged 11 and shipped to South Carolina. Her experiences are, not surprisingly, grim but she is bright, resilient and resourceful as well as a good narrator. What I found particularly poignant was the way Hill manages to convey Aminata’s thoughts and feelings as she enters and survives in a world she knew nothing about. It ends in 1802 when she is in London as a free woman. The real “Book of Negroes” is a record taken of freed slaves and there is a copy at Kew – this time not the gardens but the National Archives. I found this book a reminder for us of what was once tolerated, a tale beautifully told.
Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood
It’s 60 years since I first read this book and I have done so at least once each decade since. The first time, as an impressionable teenager who knew little of the world, it had a massive effect on me and although I was aware that times had changed, I couldn’t wait to go to West Germany and visit Berlin. I achieved my dream during the 1960s and although physically the city was not as Isherwood described, because most Berliners were ‘locked in,’ there were elements of society and in particular entertainment that imitated Weimar.
I have witnessed every manifestation of Sally Bowles, but still prefer to return to the original set of stories. Every time I read them I find something new and a few weeks ago I was struck, after reading about the rise of the Right in current German politics, by the fact that we could witness some repetition of actions from the 1930s.
I still enjoy Isherwood’s straightforward style of writing. His short sentences, his observations, non-judgemental reporting and believable dialogue. It’s difficult to think of the stories as fiction, in fact they are probably extensions of his diary. The greatest joy of rereading the book is that a small part of me can pretend I am still 18.
I am writing this sitting on a promontory overlooking Bardsey island in Gwynedd. It is a fantastic view but cold so I shall be brief!
Underland by Robert Macfarlane
I have been bowled over by parts of this book. The author gives you such a different view of the world. The chapters on Epping forest and the inter relationships of trees and the woodland floor was fascinating. The chapter on the underland below Paris was also incredible. The book is beautifully written and gives you much to think about. You can pick it up anytime and just read a new chapter on a different place geographically. Wonderful!
I find it difficult to write much about books as the garden takes all my spare time. I decided just to give you a list of books I’ve particularly enjoyed. (By the way, Anna, I do love Barack Obama’s writing and also found A Promised Land enlightening on how difficult it is to get anything done in the USA.)
My favourite books recently are;-
The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri
I love the Bones of you by Chris Ecclestone
War Doctor by David Nott
Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin
The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power (experience of American international politics)
Loving Frank by Nancy Horan
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Hungry by Grace Dent
This month’s selection ranges from one extreme to another! And if ‘bad big wolf’ sounds odd to you, read on to the extract from Mark Forsyth’s book.
Past Tense by Lee Child
This is the first ‘Jack Reacher’ novel I have read. Having heard about Lee Child for a long time, when I saw this book on a family bookshelf, I borrowed and read it within a day, confirming the author’s reputation for writing page-turners! All very exciting and improbable and if ever I go again to an airport I might read another. I prefer Sam Bourne and Maggie Costello!
Everyman by Philip Roth
The first Philip Roth book I read was American Pastoral. It is one of the best books I have ever read, and two more of his, The Human Stain and The Plot Against America are, in my opinion, also staggeringly brilliant with writing to take your breath away. I have just re-read Everyman, a short (182 pages), sombre novel about life and death. I was reminded of it while reading Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions, another thought-provoking series of reflections on the human condition. Everyman tells the story of the unnamed subject, starting with his funeral and ending with his death. We learn of his life, loves, health and fears with more fine writing leaving the reader in silent contemplation about life. Roth is somehow able to convey the older male’s mindset exquisitely, as can Richard Ford in his ‘Frank Bascombe’ novels.
The Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsyth
This delightful, quirky book takes us on a journey through the English Language. Subtitled How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase, its short chapters explain and illustrate almost every rule in the language, many of which we obey and follow without even knowing them. Here’s a wonderful extract about the order of adjectives:
Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest, you’ll sound like a maniac. It’s an odd thing that every English speaker uses that list, but almost none of us could write it out. And as size comes before colour, green great dragons don’t exist.
See what I mean about the ‘bad big wolf’? – and just imagine ‘Red Little Riding Hood’!
The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donaghue
This is set in a Dublin hospital maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic with the backdrop of imminent Irish Independence. It is as gripping as Room. The cast of almost entirely women characters are instantly relatable. Particularly fascinating is the understanding (or lack of it) of the virus one hundred years ago. It is a harrowing read but I would not have missed it. A real pandemic novel – although she actually wrote it just before Covid 19 struck.
The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer by Joël Dicker
I was thrilled to find this pristine newly published book in Shrewsbury library. A journalist is investigating an allegedly solved murder from 20 years earlier in a small upstate NY town. The original star detectives make a comeback and the sequence of events are re-examined from the diminishing list of suspects. The style is terrific and satisfying. The 500 pages fly by. Joël Dicker’s previous books Harry Quebert and The Baltimore Boys are both excellent, too. He is Swiss and writes in French (this is a very good translation)and his depiction of the US is more convincing than many American writers.
An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson
Being a huge fan of the original Josephine Tey books and seeing a friend reading #6 in the homage series, I went back to my ‘to be read’ heap that is often neglected in favour of newer and more exciting stuff that has been borrowed or has to go back to the library. This one didn’t really do it for me. The cast of characters were too indistinguishable and the style is confusing. However I did like the atmosphere of London theatre-land between the wars.
The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex
One of the Haywood Hill annual subscription books borrowed from trusted book-adviser-nephew. The mystery of three men who disappear from a lighthouse off the Cornish Coast is told from the alternating points of view of the vanished keepers and those left behind. This is an oppressive book but highly readable. She captures the spooky atmosphere inside the lighthouse in adverse weather beautifully. It is well researched and loosely based on a real life case. It keeps you guessing until the very end.
Exit by Belinda Bauer
Another first time out of the library book. My only criticism is the nauseous green page edges (hardback edition, the yellow paperback is listed here). This is a highly original novel that you can almost read in a single sitting. It is about a well meaning man in his 70s who joins a group (The Exiteers) who witness the deaths of those who want to end their lives without implicating anyone with a charge of assisted suicide. Doesn’t sound like a bundle of laughs? Think again. I loved it. (Her previous novel Snap was less original but still an OK read)
The Military Orchid by Jocelyn Brooke
The subject matter in the title is very much incidental to the autobiography of a man’s life. Interested in botany from an early age nonetheless he passes through three decades of his life; his childhood and the development of his precociousness, his later school days at a co-educational private school and eventually in the second world war as a medic. All remarkably described as he relates the influences that shaped him and the experiences he enjoyed – and sometimes those that he didn’t. Described by one fan as ‘a very singular man’ he seems an engaging character. I’d never heard of him but this was a lucky find. The fact that he has written other books since is exciting; those, once found, will be next to be devoured.
Seed to Dust – a gardener’s story by Marc Hamer
A fascinatingly gentle description of life experienced but the remarkable Mr Hamer. This is a record of his work employed by an old widow as the only gardener to her large manor house but with many digressions and ruminations on his life and experiences as he edges towards the end of his working life. The whole gamut is written as a calendar but over a single twelve months. He reflects too on her life, somewhat more advanced than his own. He reviews much of what his life has involved and assesses, with much hope, the potential for an enjoyable retirement with his novelist wife Kate. Much anchored in the natural world but with fascinating philosophical considerations on all sorts of matters beyond the façade of a jobbing gardener and his unusual employer. A truly stimulating and captivating read.
Eothen by AW Kinglake
The recollections of a solitary traveller in 1834 in the near and middle east. They remain highly acclaimed and his experiences and insights are still interesting today. He started in Hungary and moved down through Greece and Turkey into the middle east initially onward to Syria and Palestine. He includes visits to various biblical sites as might be expected but this is Arabia well before the discovery of oil and the repercussions of the second world war. Throughout he maintains a remarkably cavalier approach to his experiences and at one stage he journeys alone across a desert without a map or guide mounted on a camel that eventually manages its own escape. His visit to Cairo coincided with an outbreak of the plague and the approaches then interestingly differ from our current situation. He also fashions a visit to the still well respected explorer Lady Hester Stanhope to report on his mother, a friend of hers. A very engaging book with some incredible insights into life and attitudes in those days.
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
The sequel to In Pursuit of Love with many of the former characters and a few new ones added too. It is similarly observed and narrated by Fanny but this time the first part is rather stodgy. However it improves when new characters become involved taking activities in different directions and the whole family and acquaintances arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A moving and deeply personal story of the impact of the slave trade on two strands of one African family.
10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange Life by Eli Shafik
This was unusual and well written, and I learnt a lot about a culture I am very ignorant of but for some reason I didn’t quite connect emotionally with any of the characters ~ not sure why?
Golden Hill by Francis Spufford
This I loved, although there was a time early on when I wasn’t sure if I would continue with it ~ so glad I did. An historical romp with huge intelligence and a brilliant twist.
3 Hours by Roslund & Hellstrom
Apparently the team of Roslund and Hellstrom are credited with changing the face of Scandi-noir. This was good, so I’m going back to the beginning of the series now.
Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud
A wonderful read, gloriously written and full of life. Set in Trinidad, we follow the story of three characters: mother, friend and son. Brilliant.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
This man can write! I loved Dreams from my Father, and while this one is very much a political memoir, with more information in it then I’ll ever remember, I am enjoying it immensely.
Thank you so much to everyone who contributes to this book blog, and to all our readers ~ thank you for getting in touch to tell me how you like it!
Please let me have your reading recommendations for the July post by 23rd July ~ or (even better!) as soon as you like! Then there wil be a break for August so time to get all those summer reads lined up.
And just out of interest, which books do you re-read most often? I’ve an idea brewing on this topic …
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