Category Archives: Books Read (But Not Reviewed)

Six Degrees of Separation – from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to Prodigal Summer #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, yet another book I haven’t read but I know it’s set in Botswana and that’s its author was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

As was Petina Gappah, author of The Book of Memory in which a young black albino woman tells her story from the prison in which she’s detained for a brutal murder she insists she didn’t commit.

The title of which leads me to Margaret Forster’s The Memory Box about a woman whose mother died when she was a baby leaving her a box of mementos – clues as to who her mother really was. Naturally, dark secrets are revealed

Randal Keynes’ Annie’s Box is the story of Charles Darwin’s eldest daughter who died aged ten. The eponymous box contains keepsakes from Annie’s short life, shedding light on Darwin, his work and his family.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, The Signature of All Things, tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a botanist, and her relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace who published a paper on evolutionary theory with Darwin in 1858. While Whittaker was a figment of Gilbert’s imagination, Wallace was not, although his achievement has been eclipsed by Darwin’s reputation.

Gilbert wrote a book about her struggle to accept the idea of marriage despite being deeply in love with her partner. Ann Patchett wrote of a similar experience in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which is very much more than that. It’s made up of a set of essays, an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work as well how she came to finally marry.

Patchett wrote what you might call an eco-novel, State of Wonder, set largely in the Amazonian rainforest. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer could also fall into that bracket. It follows a park ranger, a recently widowed entomologist and an old man hoping to find a way to bring an extinct American Chestnut tree back to life. Not one of her best for me – I preferred The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – but worth a read.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a Zimbabwean prison to small-town Appalachia. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in June 2016

Cover imageVery little was read (but not reviewed) this month. There was far too much going on in my part of the world, consuming almost all my attention. The first part of the month was taken up with obsessively checking the polls on whether the UK was likely to leave the EU or not. The latter part was spent even more obsessively scanning social media and listening to the news in the hope that someone had a way out, or at least some sort of plan. It seems my country has cut off its nose to spite its face and has nothing to fill the gaping wound that’s been left. So, only two books to report on beginning with a thoroughly engrossing piece of non-fiction.

If you’re nosy like me (no pun intended) you’ll probably enjoy Joanna Biggs All Day Long which looks at all sorts of ways people earn their living – from cleaners to dancers, rabbis to shoemakers – taking in a few more off the wall or controversial occupations such as giggle doctor and sex worker along the way. Made up of interviews with a wide range of employees, self-employed, volunteers and the reluctantly unemployed, Biggs’ book is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, always interesting. I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy most of my working life but I’ve also spent time doing a wide range of scuzzy jobs – some grubby, some menial, others utterly tedious and soul-destroying. It’s something that everyone should do. I’ve never forgotten the people who were kind to me when I was a naive, uselessly impractical student working at something deadly dull but safe in the knowledge that I’d be out of it in a few weeks while they faced a lifetime of it. And I always remember them when I vote.

The novel I read intermittently through the last two weeks of the month was Elizabeth H.Cover imageWinthrop’s The Why of Things. The ‘H’ is important – there’s another Elizabeth Winthrop who is a prolific writer of children’s books.  A family from Maryland visit their summer home in Massachusetts only to find that someone has driven a car into the water-filled quarry in its grounds. Sadly, the driver – a young man – has died and the general consensus is that it’s a suicide. As the novel progresses, each member of the family dealing with what has happened in their different ways, it becomes clear that it is not the upset of the death of the young man they are trying to cope with but a far greater loss.  It’s a perceptive, compassionate piece of fiction – well worth your time – and deserved better attention that it got from me, I’m afraid, distracted as I was.

That’s it for June. Hoping for better times next month, or perhaps a miracle.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in May 2016

Cover imageI seem to be adding one each month to my books read (but not reviewed) tally after March’s miserable single score. May saw three excellent novels added to the list, each very different from the other, starting with one that I wrote a post about well over a year ago, prompted by a friend’s experience of reading a review which revealed her current read’s dramatic twist, much talked about at the time on social media, albeit obliquely. The book was Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and I now realise how difficult it is to write about and not refer to that all important, much vaunted twist. If you’ve read it you’ll know what I’m talking about. So, all I’m going to say is that it’s told from the point of view of a woman whose brother and sister are both missing. She and her sister were particularly close – almost the same age but entirely different. The disappearance of her brother is linked to that of her sister. It’s both funny and heartrending but to do it proper justice I’d need to spill the beans which I’m determined not to do. All of which just goes to show that it’s very easy to sound off about things when you’re not in full possession of the facts.

I’d read and enjoyed both of Janice Galloway’s memoirs – This is Not About Me and All Made Up – but had not got around to any of her fiction until last month. Her first novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing, was reissued under the excellent Vintage Classics imprint last year. They’re the publishers responsible for rediscovering both John Williams’ Stoner and Thomas Savage’s The Power of the Dog: they know their onions. Written from the point of view of a woman suffering a profound breakdown, Galloway’s increasingly fractured narrative reflects Joy’s unravelling as, failed repeatedly by her psychiatrists, she buckles under the weight of grief at the sudden death of her lover. It’s a harrowing, visceral read – utterly convincing.The Gallery of Vanished Husbands

Natasha Solomons’ The Gallery Of Vanished Husbands is a much more cheerful affair. Juliet sets off one day in possession of enough money to buy a fridge but finds herself wandering down her favourite street, the Bayswater Road, its pavements populated with artists. Throwing caution to the winds she commissions a portrait from Charlie Fussell, beginning a relationship which will eventually see her as a doyenne of the art world. Solomons’ novel takes her protagonist from the uncomfortable position of  an aguna – a Jewish woman deserted by her husband and considered to be neither a widow or a wife – into a very different world. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying journey. Great jacket too!

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in April 2016

Cover imageJust two books read (but not reviewed) worth recommending in April but not for the woebegone reason of March’s sad little tally. This time it was the sheer door-stopping size of Philip Hensher’s The Emperor Waltz which weighs in at a chunky 600+ pages. It’s one of those books that having bought it enthusiastically I promptly buried it in the pile, intimidated by its bulk. I wasn’t at all sure I’d get through it but despite its length and meandering structure it was well worth the time invested. There are nine sections and an epilogue. Several sections are set in the ’70s and ’80s in London’s first gay bookshop, several are set against the backdrop of the Bauhaus movement in ’20s Germany and it is these two sets of characters who provide the backbone of the novel,  all supposedly linked – albeit very tenuously – by once piece of music. On the whole  it works, although the section set in AD 203 and the one in a present-day hospital in which a writer called Philip is recovering from an infection, sat a little uneasily in the rest of the novel for me.

It’s an indication of my new-found enjoyment of short stories that my heart didn’t sink when ICover iamge realised that Andre Dubus III’s Dirty Love was a collection of four stories rather than a novel.  All four are set against the backdrop of a small New England seaside town.  In ‘Listen Carefully As Our Options Have Changed’ a man learns a thing or two about himself from a woman he sleeps with after having his unfaithful wife followed. ‘The Bartender’ sees a vain, philandering man – still pretending he’s a poet to any young attractive woman who will listen – faced with the responsibilities of adulthood. In ‘Dirty Love’ – more of a novella than a short story – a young woman whose sexual indiscretion has been broadcast via Facebook comes to live with her uncle who struggles with his guilt at letting her down. By far my favourite is ‘Marla’ in which the eponymous character finally achieves her aim of coupledom only for a nagging internal voice to start carping about her boyfriend’s habits.

That’s it for April, a much happier month for me than March, I’m relieved to say. I hope all those suffering from the same miserable bug I had then have now recovered.

Just One Book Read (But Not Reviewed) in March 2016

Cover imageMarch was a miserable month for me, thanks to the man who sprayed his germs all over the carriage of the Didcot to Oxford train as I was on my way to meet a friend. That horrible hacking cough became all too familiar. What I thought might be a nasty cold turned out to be proper flu which laid me low for weeks, deprived me of my appetite for food, the savour of that quintessential British comfort – a nice cup of tea – and, worst of all, my ability to lose myself in a book. Many were started, few were finished. Of those the only one I’m not reviewing was dug out of my ancient proof pile out of desperation: S. J. Watson’s Second Life. I’d enjoyed Before I Go to Sleep, not usually my kind of thing but it suited a plane journey perfectly and was satisfyingly taut, reminding me a little of Christopher Nolan’s film Memento. Second Life with its premise of the dangers of engaging in a secret life online seemed to offer an easy way back into reading – untaxing but compulsive. Sadly, it was no match for Before I Go to Sleep – its twists were somewhat predictable and its coincidences stretched all credibility – but it was hard to put Cover imagedown and I did finish it which felt like a triumph at the time.

It’s the small acts of kindness from friends and family that get you through the miseries of life, both major and minor. In this instance one of those friends is a blogger pal – Marina Sofia who blogs at Finding Time to Write. A little while ago I’d commented that I’d been having trouble tracking down Michelle Bailat-Jones’ Fog Island Mountains which Marina had mentioned in one of her posts. Not only did she send me a copy but she’d had it signed by the author – so thoughtful and perfect timing arriving when it did at a particularly low point for me. I’m looking forward to reading it but I’m waiting until my brain’s fully functional. Hoping for a better April than March.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in February 2016

Cover imageBoth novels read (but not reviewed) in February sit in similar territory but each is very different from the other. You may have already read Delphine de Vigan’s No and Me. It was a Richard and Judy choice way back in 2010 so I’m a little late to the party but I can see why they chose it. It’s narrated by Lou, a precociously bright fourteen-year-old with a massive crush on the school rebel.  When her class is set a project of their own choosing, Lou decides to talk about the homeless, asking No, a young woman she’s noticed on the streets, if she’ll take part. Out of this grows a friendship which changes both their lives and helps rescue Lou’s mother from her paralysing grief at the loss of Lou’s sister. It’s a little gem of a book, touching but never sentimental. Not easy to carry off a teenager’s voice well but de Vigan, and her translator George Miller, manage it convincingly.

This one’s also been lurking in the depths of the old TBR pile for a while despite rave reviews Cover imagefrom all and sundry. Akhil Sharma’s Family Life follows eight-year-old Ajay from India to the US as his mother joins his father already ensconced in a job there. Ajay’s brother is all set to take up a place in a prestigious high school when a diving accident renders him irreparably brain-damaged.  What was to be a bright, sunny new life turns into something very different. Narrated by Ajay, it’s an unflinchingly honest book – often very funny, inevitably poignant and made all the more so by the knowledge that it’s based on Sharma’s own life. It look him years to write it – many deadlines missed as he mentions in his acknowledgements – but once published it went on to win the Folio Prize last year of which it is entirely deserving.

That’s it for February. Perhaps March’s adventures in the TBR heap will be a little more cheerful.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in January 2016

Cover imageSlim pickings for January Books Read (But Not Reviewed) – just two books and, unusually for me, both are non-fiction. Regular readers will know that this blog is all about recommendations – books I’d be happy to give to a friend – and indeed I did give this one to a friend for her birthday and bought a copy for myself at the same time. John Lewis-Sempel’s Meadowland, is a year’s worth of observations of a slice of meadow on his Herefordshire farm. I loved the idea – still do – but as you may have gathered, it was far from an unalloyed joy. The problem is over-writing, florid phrases of the type which need a good trim. No lilies left ungilded, here. I prefer my nature writing in the Kathleen Jamie style: nice and spare. That said, it taught me things I didn’t know and for that I’m grateful.

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, however, comes with a wholehearted recommendation. Life expectancy has rocketed over the past few decades yet most of us are hopelessly unprepared for ageing, choosing instead to see our final years as pleasantly free of work, pursuing new interests and spending more time with family and friends before quietly dying in our sleep. The reality is far more likely to be a long slow decline which we will need help to negotiate. Gawande is a surgeon who decided to explore how we cope with ageing after Cover imageobserving what happened to his American wife’s grandmother who had no plan for dealing with infirmity and comparing it with his own grandfather’s declining years spent with his extended family in India – far from always the idyll we might like to think and even when it is, now becoming more of a rarity as India’s economy flourishes. He explores the current solutions on offer including some inventive and original approaches, later extending his investigation to palliative care for those suffering from a terminal illness bringing both together in a moving case study of his father’s last years living with cancer and how the family dealt with it. His emphatic conclusion is that we need to listen to those dear to us when they tell us how they want to live as they become more frail and know what it is we want for ourselves in the same situation. It’s a humane, compassionate book but I was very glad of a rare few sunny days as I worked my way through it.

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in December 2015

Cover imageFour novels read but not reviewed this month, all very different but all fine books in their own way, beginning with Rebecca Hunt’s Everland. It’s taken me a while to get around to this novel which follows two expeditions a century apart, charting their progress on a tiny Antarctic island. The second is in commemoration of the first, which we know from the start ended disastrously, and to some extent the parties mirror each other: one member inexperienced, apparently weak, there because of nepotism; one young and a little arrogant; both led by a seasoned leader whose heart is firmly tethered to home.  The shifts and realignments in relationships between the characters are sharply observed and Hunt captures the natural world beautifully with poetically descriptive language. I enjoyed it very much but Andrea Barrett’s The Voyage of the Narwhal with its vividly evocative writing and perceptive characterisation remains my benchmark for this kind of novel. A click on the title will take you to Naomi’s excellent review at Consumed by Ink.

I came to Deirdre Madden’s Time Present and Time Future after reading the lovely Molly Fox’s Birthday which follows a woman’s thoughts over the birthday of the friend who has lent her the house she is staying in. This one was not quite the match for Molly but Madden excels at that subtle understatement and exploration of family in the way that so many Irish writers do, examining how our past elides with our present as Fintan Buckley’s newly awakened interest in photography changes his perceptions of those around him. Nothing much happens but it’s thought-provoking and beautifully written.

I very nearly gave up Thomas Christopher Greene’s The Headmaster’s Wife but there’s a magnificent twist about half-way through which made me sit up straight and carry on. Arthur Winthrop is found wandering naked in snowy Central Park. Dull and somewhat stodgy, he’s the headmaster of a Vermont school, following in the footsteps of his father. Arthur tells the first part of his story to the police, a tale of scandal and betrayal. Halfway through the book a lawyer appears and suddenly, like a twist of a kaleidoscope, an entirely different picture appears. The second part of the book is written from his wife’s Cover imagepoint of view, neatly putting into perspective everything Arthur has told his captors.

My last book of 2015 was NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, the second Zimbabwean novel I read this year. Bulawayo’s debut begins in 2005, the year Robert Mugabe bulldozed tens of thousands of houses, leaving families without shelter at a time when the economy was in tatters. Told through the strikingly vivid voice of ten-year-old Darling who roams the shanty town where she now lives with her friends, no longer at school now that teachers are not paid, it’s very different from Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory but equally as good. How nice to end the reading year with such an excellent book!

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) November 2015

Cover imageJust two books worth recommending that I’ve read but not reviewed this month. Thanks are due to Jacqui at JacquiwinesJournals for pointing me in the direction of one of them – Daniela Krien’s Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything, set in 1991 in what was still the GDR during the summer before German reunification. Johannes has taken sixteen-year-old Maria home where she’s remained, living with him in the top two rooms of the old family farmhouse. Her mother’s divorced and her father is about to marry his pregnant nineteen-year-old Russian girlfriend. Maria stops going to school, reads The Brothers Karamazov and learns how to cook, settling into family life until she catches the eye of forty-year-old Henner on the neighbouring farm. Soon they’re embroiled in a violently passionate affair. The backdrop of a GDR emerging from years of separation with its neighbour amidst all the conflicted feelings of joy and resentment that brings are beautifully expressed in this lovely novella translated by Jamie Bulloch who seems to have an eye for interesting German fiction. A click on the title will take you to Jacqui’s very thoughtful review. Cover image

Every so often I like to read a bit of straightforward, neatly structured, well-written, good old commercial fiction. Flagging energy levels and murky weather provided the trigger this month and Susan Elliot Wright’s The Secrets We Left Behind filled the gap nicely. It takes the form of a dual narrative – one set in 1976 when our narrator was sixteen and living in a Hastings squat after her mother died; the other in 2009 when she’s just become a grandmother and is suddenly faced with disclosing the eponymous secrets. It’s all very deftly handled, deserving of the Maggie O’Farrell comparison adorning its jacket, although not quite a match. That would be a tall order, indeed – O’Farrell’s the mistress of the dual narrative, and – so Twitter tells me – she has a new novel out next summer. Oh joy!

Books Read (But Not Reviewed) in October 2015

Cover imageBit of a thin month on the read (but not reviewed) front thanks to the sheer door-stopping size of one of the two books I finished. Philipp Meyer’s The Son was raved about last year – fulsome tweets were legion and it was a Waterstones Book Club choice, although presumably only for thoroughly committed readers or those with time on their hands as it’s well over 500 pages of tiny print. It’s the story of Texas told through the voices of three people: Eli McCullough, kidnapped by the Comanche with whom he lived, and grew to love, for several years; his son Peter caught up in his father’s battle with Mexican settlers, and his great-grand-daughter Jeanne who presides over the multi-million dollar oil business the family ranch has become. It’s undoubtedly good, although not for the faint-hearted – there are some stomach-churningly violent scenes – but far too long. I found myself desperate for it to end but unable to give it up.

Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s feminist classic La Femme de Gilles was a useful antidote in terms of size although not emotional impact. First published in the 1930s it’s told from the point of view of Elisa who realizes that her beloved husband Gilles has become besotted with her sister. Elisa isCover image quietly distraught and all the more so when she gathers that she’s the source of gossip. She decides to take the extraordinary step of becoming the love-struck Gilles’ confidante. It’s a beautifully expressed novel, translated by Faith Evans whose illuminating afterword demonstrates her passion for the book. Well done Daunt Books for reissuing it. Seems to be a bit of a trend in bookselling. My own local, Mr B’s, has set up an imprint under which they’ve reissued one of my favourite books: Tim Gautreux’s The Next Step in the Dance.

And the 900-page plus City on Fire? Reader, I tried but it was all too much, and Squeaker wasn’t impressed either. Try holding that kind of weight aloft as your cat shifts uneasily in what she considers her rightful position on your lap. I wanted to like it with its appealing 1970s New York backdrop but for someone whose preference is clean, spare prose it was never going to work – nothing, it seemed, is left unsaid.