No 589 The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee: Book 3 of #20booksofsummer

 

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Eoin McNamee has made his name as an author of noirish literary reimaginings of real life crimes. From the Shankill Butchers to Princess Diana, he mines the novelistic possibilities that real life murder and conspiracy is alive with. His writing is lyrical, at times beautiful and always at odds with his subject matter.

The events of The Blue Tango may read like a fiction, but are actually based on an actual murder. In November 1952, the body of 19 year old Patricia Curran was discovered in the driveway of her home in Whiteabbey near Belfast. She had been stabbed 37 times. Iain Hay Gordon, a shy and solitary Scotsman serving with the RAF in Northern Ireland was convicted of her murder on the grounds of temporary insanity. It emerged that there had been a serious, high-level cover up into Patricia’s murder and despite it emerging that evidence had been withheld and that Gordon had been coerced into signing a confession, it wasn’t until 2000 that Mr Gordon managed to clear his name and has his false conviction quashed.

It is easy to see what would have drawn McNamee to this story. The wrongful conviction aside, the circumstances and characters surrounding Patricia Curran’s murder are the stuff of pulp crime novels. Her father, the high profile, highly connected Judge Curran was a gambler and heavily in debt. Before her death they had fought and he had cut off her tuition fees at university. Her moralistic, brow beaten mother hated the fact that Patricia had boyfriends and that she took a summer job driving a truck.

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Patricia photographed with her family

 

Her brother Desmond was a prominent member of the evangelical Moral Rearmament, and it was Desmond’s attempts to convert Iain Hay Gordon that initially brought Gordon in to contact with Patricia. Throw into the mix a dark, foreboding family house, a gothic Manderlay of sorts that held secrets that can still only be guessed at.

There was something not right up in that big house. There’s a twist in that Curran family that’s what I’m saying.

Outside of the big house, the peripheral characters are equally unsavoury from the bookie who is holding Judge Curran to ransom over unpaid debts, to the homosexual barber who is in the middle of everyone’s business, McNamee captures them all perfectly, particularly their need to be in the middle of the drama and excitement that such a high profile crime brings to a small town. They discover roles for themselves within a story that seems to be driven along by the hand of some invisible narrator. A local doctor is ‘a minor character, but one determined to imbue his role with an air of competent integrity’ while the Judge’s ‘role in the public narrative was established early. He was to be the good man bowed low by parental grief’

Rather than play this down, McNamee heightens the noir aspect of the story, emphasising how everyone begins to play the part expected of them. This is a book full of men hiding their true selves. Iain Hay Gordon pleaded guilty to the murder of Patricia Curran on threat of his mother being told that he was gay. Patricia’s father maintained the façade of successful upper-class business man while his life was falling apart around him. The only person who seems to have been truly herself was Patricia Curran.

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The search of the crime scene

 

The great success of The Blue Tango is to bring Patricia to life as something other than victim. Brash, headstrong and lively, the Patricia that comes off these pages is a fascinatingly independent young woman who loved painting, drove a delivery truck for a builder’s yard and had a wicked sense of humour. McNamee highlights her early feminist leanings, her disdain for the societal pressures put upon her and her yearning for a different kind of life away from the suffocating atmosphere of the family home.

He cleverly depicts how Patricia, in her role as murder victim, simply became a vessel for everyone else’s thoughts and fears – an iconic figure defined only by the mystery of her last few hour, rather than the life, albeit a short one, that came before.

Patricia seemed to accumulate images about her that day. The kind of images that photographers look for when they are attempting to find a study of grimy, mid-century atmospherics…the policeman wasn’t asking for evidence of a crime, but for a sign that she was already in the vicinity of death, that she was within its spectral confine and had conceded part of herself to it

Her final night at a club called Orchid Blue takes on an eerie prefiguring, as what happens later that night casts a shadow back over what has gone before.

Others maintained that there was indeed an escort, one that accounted for her deathly pallor, the way she drank and refused conversation with others, and that, at the end of the night, she was seen in the middle of the dance floor on her own, dancing with jerky reluctant steps as though she took her lead from a sure footed and macabre suitor.

In order to make Patricia’s death fit a neater narrative, her virtue is pored over – her sexual activity, her relationship with a married man, the nature of her death. The press and the public found it more palatable to think that she in some way deserved what she got.

They talked about Patricia Curran. Rumours had reached them of her sexual history. They said she drank in the bars of Amelia Street where the whores were. She was the kind of girl that was referred to as out of control. They thought she might be better off as a victim of murder. It brought a softness to her….They felt it had rescued her femininity. It brought a grandeur and a pathos to the meanness of her life. It enabled them to feel sympathy for her, feel for her as if she were a daughter, full of promise, a little wayward, in need of a guiding hand. They used words like wayward. They used words like guiding hand.

So, what did happen to Patricia Curran? Why did her father call her boyfriend and ask him if Patricia was there after he already knew she was dead? Why was there a delay in the finding of the body and calling the police? Why was Patricia’s body moved and taken to the local GPs office, disturbing the crime scene? Why did her parents strip everything from her bedroom, including carpets and curtains and burn them?

While these questions are mulled over, The Blue Tango doesn’t answer them. How could it? The facts are that Patricia was murdered and high ranking members of the police and the judiciary moved in and framed an innocent man. To protect whom? The most likely answer is Judge Curran or another family member, but McNamee has said himself that he doesn’t explore these crimes through fiction in order to offer solutions. There are no solutions because the facts of the case are unchangeable. But fiction can shine a light on what we can’t know, the humanity at the centre of these lurid, headline grabbing tales. As McNamee says,

“I often feel if you get the art right, the truth tends to follow. Someone said the job of the artist is to deepen the mystery, there aren’t any easy solutions and I’m not trying to offer any. I would like people to come away with an appreciation of the depth of humanity and the mysteries of life, not offer glib solutions. This is where my books differ from the crime genre where things are tied up neatly at the end.”

The Blue Tango is undoubtedly a crime novel, but despite the dark and painful subject matter, the writing style is luminous and lyrical, often poetic at times. McNamee is particularly thoughtful in his depiction of the other victim of this story – Iain Hay Gordon.

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Iain Hay Gordon pictured entering the courtroom

 

Gordon had constructed a version of his childhood that portrayed his parents as small, unemphatic people, tending to their child with gentle hands. This illusion of their vulnerability was among the elements that contributed to his eventual confession to the murder.

He thought his mother could not bear any pain. In fact, following his conviction his parents sold their house, moved into rented accommodation, and set about attempting to establish his innocence with a calm-eyed and undemonstrative rigour that sustained them for years….until at first one then the other died and were buried in a shabby Glasgow graveyard.

This is where the writer’s imagination meets with factual realism to create a picture of the humanity at the heart of this noirish tale. Patricia Curran was a victim of someone and Iain Hay Gordon was a victim too. In The Blue Tango, Eoin McNamee remembers them as people, rather that characters in a lurid press story and that is the main success of this fascinating book.

Read on: Book

Number Read: 158

Number Remaining: 588

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No 590 The Hunters by Claire Messud : Book 2 of #20booksofsummer

In Claire Messud’s acclaimed novel The Woman Upstairs, her fascinating character of Nora was held up as a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, to the point where some readers even questioned her sanity.

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In The Hunters, a collection of two novellas, Messud seems to be dissecting the very idea of what a narrator is.

Maria, the lead character of A Simple Tale, discovers blood-streaked walls at the home of Mrs. Ellington, her employer whom she has worked for and cared for every Tuesday for over 40 years. The situation is not as critical as Maria fears, but the situation her employer finds herself in triggers a reminiscence as Maria looks back over her own life, a life of displacement and disappointment which has been marked by looking after others.

As a young girl in Ukraine, Maria was enslaved by the Nazis in WW” before emigrating with her Polish husband to Canada. One form of enslavement becomes another as she works in service to a series of wealthy women for most of her life. Her hopes for her son are dashed by his marriage to a woman she feels unworthy of him and as the employer/ employee relationship becomes unstable, Maria comes to realise that she no longer needs to be silent about who she truly is. The story that she has becomes a story to be told.

In general, she knew that her employers felt an unspoken pity for her unspoken suffering; that they considered, at least initially, their employment of a Displaced Person to be a moral act; and yet, that, unable to imagine her provenance and unwilling to consider it anything other than benighted, they required her silence about her previous life as much as, if not more so than, they required her promptness and efficiency in the acquittal of their household chores.

Maria’s story is a fascinating one, from an historical perspective, and Messud captures well that feeling of superfluousness that can pervade even the most fulfilled of lives. In an attempt to make an effort with her son and his family, Maria goes on holiday with them, only to find that being in the middle of their lives only serves to highlight the distance between them.

Maria could not have explained the helplessness she felt….the hideous superfluity. It wasn’t the morning’s rage, it was instead an agony, a physical agitation, a more profound sense of not belonging than she had ever before, in all her life, experienced. She was to this scene like the flag on the back of the boat, or like the occasional burst of an engine in the distance: a tiny rootless fact, an irrelevance

However easy it is to empathise with Maria’s situation, it is hard to engage directly with her. Messud leaves her reader is kept at a distance, and like the plastic covering that Maria keeps on her living room furniture, there is a veneer to the writing that keeps us at arm’s length.

In the second, a title story The Hunters, we are distanced even further from the narrator in that we are not even aware of the American academic’s gender. Following the breakdown of a romantic relationship, our sexless and nameless narrator has moved to a disappointing London flat to carry out research for the summer. An unusual woman called Ridley Wandor, who lives downstairs and cares for the terminally ill repeatedly tries to make friends with the academic, who in turn becomes obsessed with discovering a darkness in Wandor’s seemingly innocuous attempts at friendship.

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This is a spooky tale, through inference rather than action and it has been noted that it carries a real debt to Henry James. Like the governess in The Turn of the Screw, it becomes apparent that the motives being ascribed to Ridley Wandor may actually be a projection of neurosis on the part of our narrator. Is Ridley Wandor inadvertently killing off her patients? Does her mother really exist? And what happened to the man who lived in the flat previously? All these questions come directly from the narrator’s imagination, rather than anything Ridley does, or doesn’t do.

It’s a vague story, strong on atmosphere and tension, but again distancing. This is in part due to the first person narrative voice, whose flowery prose and old-fashioned style of language may prove too convoluted for some readers.

Take this description of the woman downstairs,

I noticed her hands because I could not bear to look too closely at her face, the ugliness of which resided not in any tangible, and hence admirable, disgrace, but in the lack it represented – lack of color, lack of distinction, lack of features. No eyebrows to speak of; no nameable hue to the blinking little eyes; no form to the little nose; as I have said, virtually no lips, and what slivers there were, bloodless.

The writing is gleeful, but it goes on in this overblown vein for the whole of the novella and can, at times, be exhausting to read. Messud is a fan of parentheses and complex sentence structure which means reading these stories takes time, despite their brevity.

Overall though, these are incredibly well written stories, elegantly constructed with powerful descriptive passages. Messud seems to be exploring the power of the story itself, the stories we tell others and the stories we hide. Maria pretends that her story doesn’t exist because it is what the practicalities of her life demands. The American scholar is so bored of the narrative that they find themselves in, that they create one for an unfortunate other. Displacement looms large in these pages, the character in The Hunters does not feel at home in London, while Maria has never felt at home in Canada. Their stories have been uprooted and fragmented and as such no longer feel relevant. The breakdown of significant relationships have left them both feeling lonely and hunting for relevance.

It was not the same, but it was similar, to what she felt herself, which was too, a sensation of the lights going out – of the people who could know her, or who cared to know her, disappearing – until rather than not seeing, Maria was above all unseen.

Unwilling to be unseen, the characters in these two short novels tell stories, of themselves and of others in order to remain seen and not forgotten.

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Read on: Kindle

Number Read: 157

Number Remaining: 589

 

 

 

 

20 Books of Summer 2017!

20 books

1 summer.

95 Days.

20 Books.

6128 pages.

65 pages a day.

Can I keep up my winning streak and complete my 20 Books of Summer challenge this year?

From now until 3 September I will be attempting to read my 20 Books of Summer. Why not join in with your own 20 (or 10, or 15!), read along with some of the books or just cheer me on as I try and get that dreaded 746 down by another 20 in just 3 months.

Here are my 20 books:

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  • The Hunters by Claire Messud
  • The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Christine Perkins Gilman
  • No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
  • Sundance Kids: How The Mavericks Took Over Holywood by James Mottram
  • Calf by Andrea Kleine
  • A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy
  • Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner
  • The London Train by Tessa Hadley
  • Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
  • Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin
  • The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee
  • Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill
  • Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
  • Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
  • Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley
  • Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  • Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

Now, anyone who knows me, knows I am flexible with rules, so I may swap some books for something else during the course of the challenge and I will be keeping reviews short and sweet for the sake of my sanity!

If you are taking part, please link up your list of books to the Linky below. I look forward to seeing your choices!

My 20 Books of Summer List is Finalised!

 

 

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I have finally managed to come up with my reading list for 20 Books of Summer – always my favourite part of this challenge. I’m excited to read these books now, but you can sure as hell bet that by August I’ll be sick of them!

From 1 June to 3 September, I’m going to attempt, for the fourth year, to read my 20 Books of Summer. That’s 7 books a month, which is pretty daunting, but I think I can do it. I managed it last year, although reviews were shorter than usual!

As always, I had great fun putting this list together, although, this is about the sixth version since I started planning. I’ve tried to go for a broad range of genres, eras and styles so that there is always something I’m going to want to read! There are factual books, memoirs, short stories, a very short story and some classic and more contemporary novels.

As with last year, I’ve done a page count, so I have 6128 pages to read over 95 days, meaning I have to read 65 pages a day to complete my challenge. If I could just stop playing Jelly Crush and watching Line of Duty that would be completely do-able…

So, here are my 20 Books for summer 2017, you can click on the titles read their descriptions on Goodreads:

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1. The Hunters by Claire Messud

I adored The Woman Upstairs when I read it a few years ago, so I’m looking forward to this collection of two novellas. And yes, the phrase ‘novella’ is always attractive when putting together my 20 Books list.

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2. The Blue Tango by Eoin McNamee

I’m a sucker for true crime and really loved Resurrection Man by Eoin McNamee, which is filled with beautiful writing despite the harrowing subject matter. The Blue Tango is a fictionalised account of a real life murder in Northern Ireland in the 1950s.

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3. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

This one is a little bit of a cheat as it’s a short story rather than a book, but I need to cut myself some slack here! I’ve been meaning to read this feminist classic for some time now, and at 26 pages, this seems like the perfect time to read it!

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4. Calf by Andrea Kleine

Calf was a birthday present from my husband, so won’t be one of the 746, however I’m intrigued by the description of it as being a cross between Are You There God It’s Me, Margaret and Taxi Driver. Taking the real life assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan as her inspiration, Kleine fictionalises the story of John Hinckley and Leslie Deveau and tells it through the eyes of a 12 year old girl.

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5. No one Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

I’m a fan of Miranda July’s movies, particularly You, Me and Everyone We Know so I’m looking forward to this collection of short stories.

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6. Sundance Kids: How the Mavericks Took Back Hollywood by James Mottram

This is one choice I may well regret, as it is a BIG book, but I do love a book about the movies. Here James Mottram charts the rise of the indie filmmakers in the 1990s – Spike Jonze, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino and Stephen Soderbegh – and explores how their work changed the cinematic landscape.

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7. A Goat’s Song by Dermot Healy

Dermot Healy died in 2014 and remains one of the most underrated Irish writers. His fans included Seamus Heaney, Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle. A Goat’s Song is considered to be his greatest work, as it chars the doomed love affair between an alcoholic playwright and his actress muse.

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8. The London Train by Tessa Hadley

I actually know very little about this novel, or Tessa Hadley’s work but imagine I bought this after it was longlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction in 2011.

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9. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro

I must have about five Alice Munro books in the 746, so I think this is a well overdue choice. A twitter call out suggested this collection of short stories was a good starting point for her work.

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10. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Another classic I’ve been meaning to read for several years, The Awakening shocked readers in 1899 with its depiction of female infidelity.

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11. The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee

Here’s another novel I don’t remember buying and know very little about! Anyone help me out? All I know is it’s an epic love story played out against the backdrop of the Korean War!

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12. Bad Behaviour by Mary Gaitskill

This collection of short stories seems to be a love it or hate it kind of book, but edgy, creepy short stories are just my thing and any book that contains the story that the movie Secretary is based on gets my vote!

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13. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Like Alice Munroe, I’ve bought loads of Murakami books and never got round to reading them. I really hope I like this, as I think I’ve got about five more to get through once I’m finished!

housekeeping

14. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

It was a toss-up between Housekeeping and Gilead, but I thought I would go for Robinson’s first book for my first reading of her work. I’ve heard rapturous praise for Housekeeping, and Robinson’s work in general so this should be a good one.

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15. Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

I started Half Blood Blues last year and gave up after a few pages for no good reason, so I’m putting on the list to try and finish it this time round.

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16. Dead Stars by Bruce Wagner

I have a feeling this is going to be a strange one. A satire on Hollywood, it sounds less La La Land and more Maps to the Stars. Featuring drug addicted American Idol contestants, failed celebrity photographers and Michael Douglas, I could be in for a treat here, or I could want to throw it out the window.

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17. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout

Is I just me, or has Elizabeth Strout been everywhere for the last few years? Having read all your glowing reviews for My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, I was delighted to find a copy of Olive Kitteridge lurking, forgotten in my iBooks.

theft

18. Theft: A Love Story by Peter Carey

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Peter Carey, but have always enjoyed his books, particularly Oscar and Lucinda. As a former Art gallery manager, I’m always drawn to books about art and artists, so should enjoy this tale of an old famous painter whose life is turned upside down by a mysterious young woman.

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19. Duplicate Keys by Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is another writer I haven’t read for a long time and I like the sound of this character driven thriller.

gig

20. Gig: The Life and Times of a Rock Star Fantasist by Simon Armitage

Anyone who knows me, will know my love for Simon Armitage, so he fills this year’s music memoir slot as he explores the importance music has had on his life and career.

So that’s my 20 books, however this year I’ve allocated two ‘spares’ just in case one of my 20 isn’t working for me and they are:

1. Zone One by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad is getting rave reviews and Zone One has been on my TBR for ages now. I’ve tried to read it quite a few times now, which it why it’s a possible replacement rather than a firm choice. I’m just not sure that it’s for me, although I do love a good zombie story…

2. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson hasn’t let me down yet, from Life After Life to Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The only reason this isn’t on the main list is because I’ve read a lot of Atkinson’s work over the last couple of years and would like to try some other authors this time round.

So, what do you think of the choices? Any I should start first? Any you think I’m mad to include? Does anyone think my spare reads should be in my main list?

I’ll be keeping a pinned Master post on the blog from 1 June, with a Linky where you can share your lists if you are taking part.

Remember, if 20 seems too daunting, then there are the 15 and 10 options also!

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10books

 

Just take the Books of Summer image, pick your own 10, 15 or 20 books you’d like to read and link back to my Master post so I know you’re taking part.  I’d love your support and as anyone who has taken part before will know, I am wonderfully slack with my rules!

I’ll be tweeting my way through the challenge as well using the hashtag #20booksofsummer. Do let me know if you will be joining in and don’t forget to link up your lists on Thursday when it all kicks off!

 

 

2017 Bloggers Bash Awards – I’ve been nominated!

I am delighted to have been nominated for this year’s Bloggers Bash Awards in the category of Best Book Reviewer!

Book-Review

This is the first time I have been nominated and I am really chuffed. I’ve no idea who nominated me, so thank you to my mysterious benefactor!

The Bloggers Bash Awards is an annual ceremony held in London that celebrates blogging in all its forms and has awards nominated for and voted by bloggers themselves.

Voting opens today, so if anyone would like to cast a vote for me here I would be very grateful. I’m nominated alongside some of my favourite blogs so I’m delighted to be in their company!

Cathy x

20 Book of Summer is just around the corner!

I will be taking a little break from my usual Monday Books that Built the Blogger post as I’m starting to plan for my annual 20 Books of Summer!

Yes, it IS that time already.

Well nearly….

20 books

The weather here in Northern Ireland has been amazing for the last few weeks, blue skies, sun, no rain…yes, there has been no rain in Northern Ireland. We don’t know what to do with ourselves. So, as usual when there is a bit of sun in May and I’ve booked by summer holiday, I start planning my 20 Books.

For anyone who hasn’t taken part before, 20 Books of Summer is a reading challenge I do each year from 1 June to 3 September where I read 20 books from my TBR in three months. I just about managed to complete it last year as I read all 20 books, but didn’t manage to review them all, although I was hampered by a mid-summer change of jobs. Hopefully now that life is a bit more settled, I’ll be able to complete it in style!

I haven’t chosen my 20 books yet, but it will be the usual mix of novels, short story collections, memoirs and a couple of sneaky short ones to make my life a little bit easier! I’ll post my list in a few weeks and see who’s up for joining in this year.

As ever, there will be a 15 books and 10 books option and as previous years, a few Australians might take part and rename it the 20 books of winter! I’ll have a Master Post with a linky where you can share your reading lists and the #20booksofsummer hashtag will be buzzing again.

I do hope a few of you can join me, but if not, I’ll need all your encouragement to try and get another 20 books knocked off my never-ending pile of books!

Now, I just have to pick my 20…..

The Books that Built the Blogger with Karen from BookerTalk!

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This week on The Books That Built the Blogger I am excited to welcome Karen, from BookerTalk. If you haven’t checked out her blog yet, please do! IT’s a fantastic mix of reviews and articles on Booker Prize winners, classic literature and translated fiction. I love her reviews and insights and am a regular visitor to her blog.

Here are her excellent choices for the books that have made her the reader and blogger she is today!

 

Hello or as we would say in my native country of Wales “Schwmae”. I’m Karen, the blogger behind BookerTalk which is a mixture of reviews and comments on anything to do with reading/buying books. When I started blogging five years ago my plan was to use the site to capture my thoughts as I read my way through the list of Booker Prize winners. It’s evolved to reflect my other interests in the classics of literature (especially the nineteenth century) and fiction in translation.

 

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a reader. As a child I was into Enid Blyton of course – rattling through The Famous Five, Secret Seven and Naughtiest Girl in School series as fast as my pocket money would allow. By the time I was 12 I’d graduated to historical fiction and began devouring everything that Jean Plaidy could throw at me, including those novels she wrote under two other pseudonyms Philippa Carr and Victoria Holt. Of ‘classic’ literature I knew very little ….I can’t remember reading anything by Charles Dickens for example.

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Merchant of Venice: William Shakespeare

My epiphany came when I was 14 and had to start the syllabus for a major set of exams (called O levels in the UK). Until then English lessons had passed in a blur and I have little recollection of what we studied. But this first day of the new term was my introduction to Shakespeare. The play was The Merchant of Venice and I was so hooked that when I went home I read the entire play twice. By the time the next English lesson rolled along I could recite from memory the key speeches from Act 1.  I recall that day so clearly; me in

the second row of desks oblivious to anyone else in the class as I answered every question; the teacher looking at me rather stunned. The experience triggered in me not just a love of Shakespearian drama but of literature in general. Oh and in case you’re wondering, I can still recite Shylock’s speech that begins:

 

Signior Antonio, many a time and oft

In the Rialto you have rated me

About my moneys and my usances:

Still have I borne it with a patient shrug,

For sufferance is the badge of all our tribe.

You call me misbeliever, cut-throat dog,

And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine,

And all for use of that which is mine own.

Well then, it now appears you need my help:

Go to, then; you come to me, and you say

‘Shylock, we would have moneys:’ you say so;

You, that did void your rheum upon my beard

And foot me as you spurn a stranger cur

Over your threshold:

 

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George Orwell: Collected Essays

 

The hands of the clock moved on a few years and I was in a different classroom, this time studying for my Advanced level in English. Who choose the set books I have no idea but they were masochists for making us study John Milton’s masque Comus. I am eternally grateful however for their choice of George Orwell’s Collected Essays.   I can’t recall all of the essays now but it was the sheer versatility of the writing that astonished me. This was a form of journalism I’d never before experienced. One moment he was writing movingly about the long and painful death of an escaped elephant (Shooting an Elephant is one of his most famous essays), the next he was delivering a witty critique of the stereotypes portrayed in boy’s comics. In between he found time to condemn Charles Dickens for merely posturing as a social reformer and to demonstrate the connection between political orthodoxies and the debasement of language. I was heady with Orwell…

Years later I took my own steps in journalism. I never reached the heights of Orwell’s prose but I like to think as I bashed out my reports on an aged typewriter that he was looking over my shoulder all the time, reminding me of the possibilities of the spoken word.

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Daily Mirror Style: Keith Waterhouse

The Daily Mirror, one of the biggest tabloid newspapers in the UK, was delivered to our house every day during my teen years. The version on sale today is a pale imitation of the campaigning journal I recall that frequently ran exposes of corruption and social injustice. My favourite columnist was Keith Waterhouse who held forth on topics such as his love of public libraries, his contempt of computers and his obsession with the smallest, most ordinary things, such as the change in his pockets. He also fought a one-man battle against what he considered to be a decline in the standards of modern English, regularly berating shopkeepers whose window displays advertised “potatoe’s” and “pound’s of apple’s and orange’s.” His passion carried through to his book Daily Mirror Style in which he argued against a cliché-ridden, overblown style of writing seen in tabloid newspapers. It became my bible as a young reporter. This is the book I hold responsible for my hatred of the kind of jargon I found all around me when I moved into the world of multi-national business and heard such aberrations as “leverage” and “mind-set”.

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The Raj Quartet: Paul Scott

It took just one paragraph for me to fall in love with Paul Scott’s quartet which is set in the dying years of the British Raj in India. The first novel, The Jewel in the Crown, begins with a British girl fleeing the men who have raped her: Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance…” The girl we discover is Daphne Manners (one of my favourite literary characters). She’s clumsy, awkward and shy but very spirited and independent. She doesn’t believe in the privileged lifestyle or the racism inherent in the British presence in India. Nor does she believe it’s wrong for her to fall in love with a young Indian boy. Her attack threatens the stability of a regime already under pressure from Ghandi’s independence movement. In this and the next three novels Scott shows how the British in India were as much trapped by codes and principles as the Indian subjects of the Empire. It’s a superb series that taught me a lot about India’s history and ignited my interest in the sub-continent.

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Germinal: Emile Zola

I’ve read this novel four times and it never fails to make me angry and sorrowful. It’s set in a coal mining village in northern France in the 1860s. Life here is harsh but when the miners go on strike to try and improve their lot, it becomes brutal. It’s painful to read descriptions of the way these villagers toil underground with little in their bellies to sustain them and of the indifference of the mine owners to their plight. I know it’s a faithful and uncompromising depiction because Zola visited French mining towns, seeing at first hand the effects of the miners’ struggles. It’s a book which has a deep personal resonance since I come from a coal mining family myself so as I read Zola’s words I picture my own grandfathers and uncles underground, experiencing similar conditions to those he describes. It’s a book that always reminds me how hard my parents had to work to get out of that life and to find a better future for themselves and for their children.

What great choices from Karen and the second outing for The Raj Quarter in the Books that Built series. I’m most intrigued by the Keith Waterhouse, whose plays I love, but whose essays have passed me by so far and I am always happy to see a Shakespeare play in the mix!

Are any of your favourites here?