Top Ten Tuesday: new-to-me authors in 2016

Of the 26 books I’ve managed to finish so far this year, more than half have been by authors I’ve not read before. That’s quite nice. I had a bit of trouble finding time to work on this post as thoroughly as I’d have liked so here are just five that stand out:  

1.      Ismail Kadare. The Fall of the Stone City was a bewildering read and I’m not sure I did it justice but while I failed miserably to get to grips with the plot, I loved the beautifully lyrical writing enough to want to read more. 

2.      Elena Ferrante. An obvious choice but I read the first two books in the Neapolitan series (reviews here and here) earlier this year and got shamelessly hooked on both. 

3.      Theodor Fontane. Not that I know the names of any other works by Theodor Fontane but I liked the gentleness of On Tangled Paths.  

4.      Azar Nafisi. I love love loved Reading Lolita in Tehran. Books about the love of books are always brilliant, especially when they take old favourites and look at them from a completely new point of view. 

5.      Isabel Allende. Ok. I know I didn’t like Daughter of Fortune  all that much but I’ve heard so many good things about her books that I think I probably need to give her another try. I’m truly desperate to love her. 

That’s it for this week, folks!

The Squire’s Story (1855) by Elizabeth Gaskell

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The problem with short stories, I sometimes find, is that they don’t always have enough time to lodge themselves in your memory. I read this particular tale, number 5 in my old ghost stories collection, on my lunch break two weeks ago and then I reread the whole thing again just now so that I could write this review. In the intervening period the plot and the characters had vanished right out of my head and I was left with just a vague memory of a house and a bad man and a bit of hunting.

Now that I’ve refreshed my memory I can tell you that this is the tale of Mr Robinson Higgins who moves to a small town where nobody has heard of him and takes up residence in the grandest house he can find. He ingratiates himself with the locals and even marries the daughter of a local squire.  In spite of his occasionally reckless behaviour he’s admired by everyone – except wise old spinster Miss Pratt, of course – but the source of his wealth, and the real reasons behind his occasional absences from the town, remain a mystery.

This is my first time reading anything by Elizabeth Gaskell (I know, right?) and I was a little disappointed to find that this particular story hasn’t aged too well. I like the way that Gaskell plays on that age old suspicion of outsiders by showing how a quiet, rural community welcome a stranger into their midst without realising what a monster he really is. It’s a sinister tale. On the other hand, I wonder whether the final reveal just isn’t as shocking today as it would have been a hundred and fifty years ago. Maybe it’s because few of us have quite such a close relationship with our neighbours these days or because murders are old hat; we see real and fictional accounts of them all the time on TV and in the press. Either way, it’s a little sad that Gaskell’s story has lost something of its power to alarm now.

On a slightly more pedantic note, while I appreciate that this is a gothic horror story and may have been fairly creepy to her contemporaries, it doesn’t actually feature a ghost (as far as I noticed, anyway).

 

The Woodlanders (1889) by Thomas Hardy

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I’m back from a short break with lots of apologies for the unexplained absence. In the two weeks since I was last online I’ve had a lovely holiday in snowy Eastern Europe whilst what can only be described as a political shitstorm went down in the US. Yikes. However, I’m not going to dwell on all that too much because I finally got round to reading The Woodlanders after a year of procrastinating and this is of much more relevance to the here and now. Hurray. I’m now ready with tea, custard donuts and a few spare minutes in which to get some thoughts down.

“There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child.”

The Woodlanders is the story of Grace Melbury, whose adoring father has devoted a large portion of his small income to educating his daughter well above her station. It’s not done out of greediness or pride exactly but out of a sort of sacrificial love for his beloved only child. Until now Melbury has always intended that Grace will marry woodman Giles Winterbourne, the son of his late neighbour, but his daughter’s growing refinement convinces him that she’d be happier marrying someone richer and more successful. And so it happens: the lovelorn Giles is ditched, rather reluctantly it must be said, and Grace is encouraged to fall for the worldlier, more exotic, newcomer Edred Fitzpiers. It all goes horribly awry in the end of course. You wouldn’t expect anything else.

Poor old Grace. No one ever really asks her what she would like to do and I wonder whether, if they had, it might have saved everyone a lot of bother in the end. I suppose they’d probably just have ignored her wishes though. It isn’t her fault, of course, that she’s been educated to such a level that she no longer fits in with her old friends, who regard her as too clever for them, or with the upper classes who think she’s too low down in the social pecking order. Her relationship with her well-meaning father is quite touching though and her story really brings home how very much at the mercy of their husbands and fathers women used to be. For this precise reason, however, I wasn’t overly happy with the ending of the novel – I think I’d have preferred something a bit more radical from Grace even if it would have been quite out of character. Still, after all the heartbreak that had gone before, it was nice to see Grace make her own decisions about something; even if I didn’t approve of her choices they probably went down a bit better with the audience of the time.

I read the Penguin Classics Edition because, well, I love Penguin Classics. This one, however, let me down. It wasn’t the fault of the novel itself but the footnotes. Normally I’m a bit obsessive about footnotes; I don’t always like interrupting the flow of the story to read them straight away but I’ll wait a while and check several at once when I get to a good place for stopping. On this occasion though I found myself becoming increasingly reluctant to check because they kept cross referencing events yet to happen in the plot, and not just small events but major plot twists. I was less than a hundred pages into the story and I already knew that so and so were going to get married, this person would have an affair, and these people would be dead before the final page. Brilliant. Thanks, Penguin.

The Tell-Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe

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Harry Clarke [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Harken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story…”

This story is number four in my Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories anthology which, I must say, I’m enjoying immensely. This particular tale is the most well-known of the four but it’s also one of the shortest. I found that it can be read in about the time it takes to consume a jacket potato and a cup of hot tea in the staff canteen. It’s also, I think, the edgiest of the four I’ve read so far.

The unnamed narrator of this tale tries to persuade the reader of his sanity whilst simultaneously describing his decision to murder an old man in his bed. It’s a carefully planned murder but not one motivated by hatred or greed, at least not according to our narrator who is clearly mad and not worth trusting. Considering the time in which it was written there’s an unusually frank description of his efforts to dismember the body and hide it under the floorboards. Unfortunately, however, these diligent attempts to cover his crime are thwarted when three policemen arrive to investigate the strange noises reported by a neighbour. It’s at this point that the tale takes a supernatural turn although it’s unclear whether the events that follow are genuine or whether they are simply the paranoid hallucinations of a guilty man.

Unlike the other three stories, there’s no scene setting here; Edgar Allan Poe jumps straight in with the deranged ramblings of the murderer and his insistence that the events he’s about to describe are the actions of a sane, rational human being. It means there are a lot of unanswered questions but, unlike with The Botathen Ghost, the air of mystery worked really well here. I also really like the fact that the precision with which the murderer plans and carries out his crime is at such odds with his behaviour after the murder and with the tone of his narration. It makes him all the more menacing. This is a simple story but Poe’s clever timing and his tension building are pretty perfect. Within a few short pages he’s whipped his narrator, and the reader, into such a frenzy that you feel like a lot more has happened. I think this might be my favourite one so far.

Top Ten Tuesday: Some Agatha Christie favourites

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and Bookish. 

This week’s TTT is a Halloween freebie. I don’t read a great many spooky things – and it’s still early days with those Victorian ghost stories – so I plumped instead for a murderous theme rather than a supernatural one. I know Christie isn’t particularly fashionable these days but I love a good, old fashioned Golden Era murder mystery, much, much more than their grim modern equivalents. Here are some of my favourites:

1. The Hollow (1946). On the face of it, this is a fairly typical example of the Christie country house murder but the characterisation is particularly good and the suspects are surprisingly sympathetic. I didn’t really want any of them to be guilty. Full review here.

2. The ABC Murders (1936). Christie takes a pretty silly premise – beginning with the murder of Alice Ascher in Andover – and turns it into something weirdly compelling. Is there an alphabetically obsessed serial killer on the loose? Or is it all a cover for something a bit darker?

3. Murder in Mesopotamia (1936). The murder here takes place amongst a remote community of archaeologists working on an ancient site in the middle of the Iraqi desert. I particularly enjoy Christie’s non-English settings and I remember finding this one particularly atmospheric.

4. Death Comes as the End (1944). A murder mystery set in ancient Egypt was always going to catch my eye. Christie’s expertise shines through and although it never feels particularly authentic I love the idea. Full review here.

5. Five Little Pigs (1942). Poirot is asked to solve a sixteen year old case by the daughter of a woman wrongly hanged for murder. I was pretty happy that I’d caught the murderer with this one, and then absolutely enraged when I got it wrong.

6. Death on the Nile (1937). The murder of a honeymooning heiress on a cruise down the Nile sparks Poirot’s investigation here. There’s some good double and triple bluffing in this one and it’s all so much more complicated than it may first appear.

7. Murder on the Orient Express (1934). Poirot is trapped in a train carriage full of suspects when an infamous child killer is found dead in his compartment. It’s wonderfully tense and another one of those morally ambiguous cases where you don’t really know whether you want the detective to succeed.

8. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960).  A short story from late in Christie’s career, this one gets a mention because it was the very first of her works that I read. I was hooked.

9. Sleeping Murder (1976). It all rests on a fairly unbelievable coincidence; what are the chances of returning to the country of your birth and unwittingly buying the house in which your mother was murdered all those years before? But still, I like the creepiness of the first few chapters when Gwenda can’t quite work out why everything feels so familiar and so wrong at the same time.

10. A Pocket Full of Rye (1953). Christie takes her nursery rhyme references quite literally with this one; there is an actual pocket full of rye, some blackbirds baked in a pie and a ‘Queen ’ eating some bread and honey at the time of her death.

You’ll see that there are some notable omissions here, such as And Then There Were None, 4.50 From Paddington, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and so on. It isn’t that I don’t like them or rate them highly – just that I haven’t read them yet!

As always, recommendations are welcome🙂

 

The Botathen Ghost (1867) by R. S. Hawker

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By Richard Budd (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

She floated along the field like a sail upon a stream, and glided past the spot where we stood, pausingly. But so deep was the awe that overcame me, as I stood there in the light of day, face to face with a human soul separate from her bones and flesh, that my heart and purpose both failed me…

After swearing a few weeks ago that I’d tackle some of the old unread books on my shelf, I diligently picked up Malcolm Bradbury’s To The Hermitage, which I’ve been hoarding for years. Sadly, within a couple of pages I quickly discovered that I wasn’t really in the mood for such a wordy, convoluted book right now. It’s not the fault of the book – I’m sure on some other occasion we’d have gotten along just fine – but at this moment it just felt like a bit of a chore. This seems to be happening to me quite a bit recently and I never know whether it’s best to persevere or just give up and move on to something else. On this occasion I laboured on for another two weeks, so unenthusiastically that I managed to read just thirty more pages, before deciding that enough was enough. Time to move on. To be brutally honest, I don’t know whether I’ll go back and finish To The Hermitage as this isn’t the first time I’ve given up on it. Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

I was feeling a bit demoralised by the whole experience so I reached for my Penguin volume of Victorian and Edwardian Ghost Stories for comfort. It’s been nearly a year since I last read any of the short stories in this anthology and it was really quite relaxing to jump back into them. The first of the two stories I read this week was R. S. Hawker’s The Ghost of Botathen. Hawker, I’ve discovered, was an eccentric Cornish clergyman (he apparently excommunicated his own cat) whose works were relatively popular in his time, although they don’t appear to be very widely known today. This particular story is based on a local legend and takes the form of extracts from a diary kept by seventeenth century clergyman, Parson Ruddle. Ruddle describes being called to comfort a teenage boy who claims to have often seen the spectre of an old woman at Botathen, an isolated spot on the Cornish moors. The woman is none other than Dorothy Dinglet who has been conspicuously deceased for several years already so Ruddle blithely trots off into the wilds to witness this vision for himself.

The setting of Ruddle’s encounter with the woman is wonderfully atmospheric although not particularly threatening. This being the seventeenth century he’s unable to exorcise the phantom without express authorisation from a bishop so there’s a bit of a lull in the middle of the story while Ruddle trots off to ensure all the administrative boxes are ticked. In the end, however, the exorcism itself is wrapped up in a few brief, rather unsatisfying sentences that don’t really illuminate things a great deal. It’s all very vague, presumably because the dead woman’s reappearance in the physical world was caused by unfinished business so shocking to Victorian readers that it couldn’t be spelt out in black and white on the page. You can make some guesses, of course, but some cold, hard facts would leave you feeling less cheated. It’s a little austere, this one, but I quite liked the atmosphere and the setting.

The Road to Little Dribbling (2015) by Bill Bryson

“I like being in a country where when cows attack, word of it gets around.”

I read this book’s forerunner, Notes From A Small Island, for my A’Levels, alongside Great Expectations and A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (both of which I loved) and As You Like It (which I hated more than I can tell you). At the time Notes from a Small Island occupied a happy middle ground between those two extremes; I didn’t love it or hate it, but it was quite amusing and very easy to read. Back in August my dad came back from his holiday raving about how much he’d enjoyed reading the follow up so I bumped a few things off my TBR list (AGAIN) to make way for an impromptu Bryson fest.

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In this latest instalment Bryon travels the mainland UK along an imaginary line stretching from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath. To be fair, the Bryson Line, as he calls it, is a piece of fiction as Bryson thankfully spends very little time on his official course. In between his stated starting and ending points he’s free to wander into Cornwall, Wales and East Anglia or anywhere else he chooses to visit. The nice thing about reading this now, compared to when I was seventeen, is that I’ve since seen a bit more of my home country and am able, much more than before, to recognise some of the places Bryson stops to admire. My old university gets a mention, as does the seaside town where I spent many childhood summers with my grandparents, along with the village P and I visited a few August Bank Holidays ago. I probably didn’t realise it at the time but it does make a bit of a difference.

I remember, when I read Notes from a Small Island as a teenager, being a little bit baffled as to why anyone would admire Britain so much, let alone love it to the extent that Bryson seems to. I can’t say that I’m any wiser now but I’ve never been particularly patriotic and at the moment I’m still suffering from horrible post-Brexit pessimism. It’s nice that in amongst all that twee British stereotyping Bryson still finds plenty to rage against, whether its austerity, the decline of the high street, littering or the alarming rise in anti-immigrant feeling. I’d have been troubled if Bryson’s picture of the UK had been an entirely rosy one. On the other hand, as much as I think Bryson is at his best when he’s bit peevish, there’s only so many times you can hear someone rant about how expensive absolutely everything is before it becomes a little exasperating. Trust us, Bill, we already know.

On the whole, however, this was really quite funny at times and it was nice to be reminded of some of the places I really do love in the UK. It’s a shame Wales, Scotland and the north get quite short shrift in comparison to the south but I suppose it’s unfair to expect that Bryson should visit every last place in the British Isles. I don’t remember enough of Bryson’s first book to say whether I like this one more or less but I think it’s probably still in that middle ground. It was a pleasant enough way to spend a few hours of reading time.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (1999) by Stephen Chbosky

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There are two things that attracted me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Firstly, it’s become something of a cult classic recently and that just makes me curious to know what all the fuss is about. In 1999, when this was published, I turned 16 and was just starting to turn away from the Young Adult novels that had dominated my reading for the past few years so I didn’t read this book then. Instead I was spending my time scratching Jared Leto’s name into my pencil tin with a compass, writing angstily (with lots of exclamation marks!!!) in my diary and hiding behind the school bike sheds to avoid the monthly cross country run. In some ways it’s nice to know that those days are well and truly behind me but occasionally, just occasionally, it’s nice to revisit them and reminisce. The Perks of Being a Wallflower stood out as one of those books that might be a pathway into all that teenage nostalgia. Secondly, it’s an epistolary novel and god knows I love a novel written in letter format. They’re just so personal and chatty.

The letters in this case are written by troubled teenager Charlie who needs a stranger to talk to while he works through some of the big changes that are happening in his life. There’s a new school, new friends and the absence of old ones, bullies and parties, homework and so on and it’s all quite overwhelming. Charlie’s letters are readable and funny. To me he sounded a bit younger than his years but I can see why Chbosky did this; it’s Charlie’s naivety, I think, that draws people around him but itd also what makes him vulnerable. His problems are manifold but Chbosky treats them all sensitively and never once tries to suggest that Charlie might just grow out of all this one day. On the flip side, however, I did wonder whether there was just too much going on here: abortion, abuse, rape, homosexuality, domestic violence, drug taking, suicide, depression… I wasn’t a bit surprised Charlie found it overwhelming. Give the guy a break, Chbosky. The difficulty, of course, with a novel that tries to cram in so many big issues is that you just don’t get to address them with any depth. They lose their impact and you start to wonder whether this is all a bit manipulative, a cynical attempt at getting you to engage with the novel by forcing you to feel something.  It’s a shame really.

All in all, I had mixed feelings about this book. I love the fact that Chbosky treats some serious issues with real care and feeling and I really loved Charlie. But I wonder if I’d have liked it more if I’d read it back in 1999; reading it now it just fell a bit flat.

Apologies for the very brief review. I’m waaaaay behind at the mo and it’s already three weeks since I finished this one. I need to get back into the habit of blogging about books soon after I’ve read them. I’ll do better next time!

Top Ten Tuesday: Autumn TBR

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Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week we’re looking at upcoming books on our To Be Read lists…

My last To-Read list was made back in March. Since then I’ve read two of the books I listed. Just two. This means that almost all the books on this new list will sound annoyingly familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with this blog. It also means I’m going to have to work harder at reducing my TBR pile to stop this happening EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. It’s pointless to keep listing books that I then don’t read and then having to keep relisting the same ones each time there’s a Top Ten Tuesday theme like this. So, decision time: between now and the end of the year I’m going to have a serious go at some of my unread books, even if it means all my other reading plans get neglected in the mean time. These are dire times and they call for desperate measures.

Here are some of the books that I really hope will get read soon:

1. The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy. Still on the list nearly a year after its first TBR appearance, this is proof (if it was necessary) of all the things I’ve just said.

2. Shylock is my Name by Howard Jacobson. This one hasn’t been on the list for quite as long as it was a present on my last birthday. I’ve not read any of Jacobson’s other books but I’m intrigued by the subject.

3. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Andichi. Yes, I know I’m the only person who hasn’t read it yet.

4. Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh. I bought this in a tiny but brilliant bookshop in Ironbridge. I keep forgetting I have it.

5. The Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury. I bought this in my first year at university. Thirteen years later it’s still lurking on my shelf, making me feel guilty.

6. Katherine by Anya Seton. I made such a fuss about how much I wanted this book.

7. A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel. I’d feel more optimistic about reading this one if it wasn’t so bloody huge. I seem to have read a lot of big books this year.

8. The Warden by Anthony Trollope. I had every intention of reading loads of Trollope novels last year. It never really happened.

9. The Plague by Albert Camus. I’m just put off by the title. I expect it’s going to be a little bit grim.

10. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. I don’t know why I haven’t read this yet. 

There’s a lot for me to be getting on with here. Wish me luck!

The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante

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I surprised myself with how much I was looking forward to jumping back into Ferrante’s Neapolitan series. My Brilliant Friend, which I read back in April, is still one of my favourite books of the whole year and I’ve been desperately impatient to get my grubby little hands on the follow up. It took a while – mainly because of that whole changing jobs/libraries thing – but it finally appeared on the reserve shelf, with its little white label marked with my name, last week and I was over the moon about it. I did a silent dance right there and then in the library. I finished the book in a week (not bad at my current reading pace) and I’m already thirsty for book three so I’ll be back there later this week to add my name to another reservation list.

“How easy it is to tell the story of myself without Lila: time quiets down and the important facts slide along the thread of the years like suitcases on a conveyor belt at an airport; you pick them up, put them on the page, and it’s done. 

It’s more complicated to recount what happened to her in those years. The belt slows down, accelerates, swerves abruptly, goes off the tracks. The suitcases fall off, fly open, their contents scatter here and there.

 

The Story of a New Name begins almost precisely where My Brilliant Friend left off: with Lila’s marriage and Elena’s growing acceptance that her best friend is finally escaping the poverty and the violence of the neighbourhood they’ve known since childhood. I’ll let you guess whether that actually happens. In this novel Lila has chance to adjust to her new life as Signora Caracci while Elena reluctantly continues her studies, pining for Nino and quietly envying her old friend’s glamorous new existence. This is a surprisingly long (and tumultuous) novel; a lot happens and all I can really say, without giving too much away, is that the friendship between the two becomes increasingly complicated and troubled.

The weird thing about this novel is that my feelings towards Lila evolved almost in time with Elena’s, which almost proves how utterly convincing Ferrante’s writing is. You can completely understand the fascination Lila holds for those around her and why they all seem to love her and hate her in equal measure. She’s at her most ferocious here; she lashes out at others to compensate for her own humiliation and sometimes she seems to do it with real relish. On the other hand you also get a real sense of how terribly afraid she is. You never doubt that she’d happily claw your eyes out to get what she wants, to prove everyone wrong and to salvage some sense of herself from her unhappy existence. Now that I think it over fully I wonder whether she might be one of the realest characters I’ve ever come across. Elena never manages to be quite so compelling but I think that’s probably the whole point. In her reluctance to dwell too much on the details of her own life away from the neighbourhood we get a very clear message that without Lila there’s not much worth dwelling on. Their relationship is frequently exasperating but it’s also engrossing and, at times, horribly distressing to witness. You wish that they weren’t quite so quick to push each other away when times get tough.

Ferrante’s writing, as I’ve now come to expect, is like nothing I’ve really read before. It’s brutal, intense, fierce even, and somehow quite urgent. It really emphasises the volatility of the relationships and the stark realities of life in this violent but rapidly changing neighbourhood. I find it emotionally exhausting at times but in a strangely positive sort of way, almost like I can’t read fast enough to satisfy my hunger to know what will happen next. There aren’t many authors who have that ability to provide such a brilliantly nuanced insight into a relationship or who leave you quite so emotionally drained afterwards.

Bring on book 3🙂