June Round Up! – #20booksof summer

The curse of 20 Books of Summer has struck again!

For yet another year, my reading is going really well, but the reviewing is falling by the wayside.

I swore I wouldn’t do mini-reviews, but I have to face facts. We’re one month in and by my calculations, I should have 6.66 books reviewed. I haven’t. I have managed to review the grand total of three. So, I’m going to do quick reviews of the two books I have read and while they both deserve a full review in their own right, I am afraid they are going to have to be disappointed in me.

norwegian

No 588: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood is not at all what I expected from my first Murakami. I anticipated something weird, futuristic and challenging, but instead got a beautiful, languorous meditation on youth, love and the power of memory.

When he hears the famous Beatles song as he touches down on an international flight, Toru Watanabe recalls his first love Naoko, the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki, who committed suicide. The song transports him back almost twenty years to his student days in 1960s Tokyo, a world of faltering friendships, obsessive love, loss and passion, He recalls his consuming relationship with Naoko, conducted mostly at a sanitarium where she has chosen to stay and how their relationship is threatened by Midori, an impetuous and passionate young woman who forces Watanabe to choose between the future and the past.

The novel is set at a time of student unrest and volatile demonstrations, but this only serves as the background to a more delicate love story as Watanabe tries to recall all the details of this emotional time in his life.

What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?

If this were just a straightforward tale of a love triangle, Murakami would give answers, relationships would be cemented. What he presents instead is not a rose-tinted love story. It is an honest, beautifully written coming of age story that explores the difficult transition between adolescence and adulthood, where sanity and self-preservation are constantly under threat and ‘ordinary’ love is anything but ordinary.

”I once had a girl / Or should I say, she once had me,” are the opening lines of the Beatles song and they are an apt summary of this lovely, questioning book. Murakami gives us no resolution, but then this is a book of memory with all the shadows and whispers that memories contain.

Read on: iPad

Number Read: 159

Number Remaining: 587

yellow wallpaper

No 587 The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

I did cheat slightly by including The Yellow Wallpaper in my 20 Books, given that it is really a short story. But what a story it is and I would argue, it packs more emotional intensity and vivid imagery into its 30-odd pages than a lot of novels I’ve read.

The color is hideous enough, and unreliable enough, and infuriating enough, but the pattern is torturing.

The Yellow Wallpaper has become a classic of feminist fiction, a pioneering portrait of the trauma of postnatal depression. Written with a barely concealed fury, this autobiographical horror story scandalized readers on its publication with its portrayal of a woman who loses her mind because she has literally nothing to do.

A century on and The Yellow Wallpaper has lost nothing of its unsettling power. The first person narration, in the form of a diary, gives it an urgent immediacy, and the fact that it was born out of Gilman’s own experience of mental illness, makes it undeniably prescient. The narrator is a nameless young woman who has recently had a baby. She is suffering from a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency’ as diagnosed by her husband and her brother, both doctors. Treatment for her illness is rest. She is confined in an upstairs room of a large country house and it is in this room, with a lack of anything else at all to occupy her, that she becomes at first disgusted, then enthralled and finally obsessed with the yellow patterned wallpaper.

I never saw a worse paper in my life. It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions… The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.

Studying the wallpaper becomes her only self-chosen activity. She is not allowed to look after her child, see friends, read or write – so the examination of the wallpaper becomes a kind of freedom. Before long, she begins to see women trapped within the pattern, jailed just as she is. When she starts to see these women from her barred window, creeping in the garden below, her madness is complete.

I don’t like to look out of the windows even–there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wallpaper as I did?

The lack of mental stimulation has created a situation where she is literally bored out of her mind and Charlotte Gilman Perkins captures perfectly the eroding of her mental faculties brought about by the actions of the very people who were supposed to care for her. This is an incredibly well-written story, paced perfectly with a growing sense of paranoia and terror. It would be powerful enough without knowing the biography of its writer and as it stands is a stark rejoinder to the treatment of post-natal depression and the repression of the female mind.

Read On: Book

Number Read: 160

Number Remaining: 586

So how is everyone else doing in the challenge now that we are one month in? I am three-quarter of the way through THREE other books, so if I could just get them finished, I’d be close to be on track with my reading.

Do let me know how you are all getting on!

20 books

 

 

 

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

20 books

My 20 Books of Summer List is Finalised!

 

 

20 books

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:

the hunters

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.

blue tango

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.

yellow wallpaper

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!

calf

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.

sundance kids

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.

goat's song

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.

london train

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.

hateship

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!

bad behaviour

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!

norwegian

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.

half blood

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.

dead stars

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.

olive

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.

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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!

 

 

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…..

August in Review

August has been a very busy month here at 746 Books.

Well, not so much on the blog at 746 Books, but in the real life of 746 Books!

August was the final full month of 20 Books of Summer and I watched in envy as several participants tweeted details of their 20th review! What I’ve discovered this year about my summer challenge is, that the reading itself is not the problem. 20 books is a totally acceptable amount of books to read within that timescale.

So, it’s not the reading. It’s the reading and reviewing 20 books is the problem for me! Although I am just about to start book number 20 (with 3 days to go!!) my reviewing has stalled at 13. I will round up on the last 6 I have read here, but we are talking 2 or 3 line reviews rather than 2 or 3 paragraphs, which is disappointing to me as there are a few of these books that I would love to have looked at in a more in depth way.

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I think I may have been able to dive in to this challenge better if I hadn’t started a new job in the middle of it. I am loving my new position as Arts Programmer at the new Seamus Heaney HomePlace Arts Centre, it’s challenging and exciting but it has also been all-consuming. The building opens to the public on 29 September and we are all working very hard to get everything ready for that. It has meant that after work, kids, dinner and anything else I have to do, I have had very little energy for posting on my blog. I am hoping that things settle down over the next few months and I will get back to my usual regular posting schedule, I mean it’s not as if I won’t be surrounded every day by amazing literary inspiration!

Quick plug – do check out the website for the HomePlace – if anyone is visiting, please do say hello!

I was also on holiday last week with the family to the beautiful Rathmullan in Donegal. We had a wonderful week, the kids made friends with a neighbouring cat and the weather was kind to us. No mobile coverage also meant it was a very relaxing week and I got a lot of reading done. Some of it outside at the picnic table no less – a phenomenon that is often unheard of in Donegal!

But today has an autumnal feel. The twins went back to school, starting in P2 and yet again there were tears. And yet again, they were mine and there is a distinct chill in the air here in Northern Ireland. I can’t deny that I’m an autumn kinda girl, so I’m looking forward to coats and tights and scarves and all things cosy!

And finally, I have just found out that 746 Books has made the finals of the Littlewoods Irish Blog Awards in the Books and Literature category. I am so delighted to have made the final 7, it’s such an honour and am currently frantically trying to source a babysitter so the hubbie and I can put on our glad rags and head down to Dublin for the ceremony on the 15 September! Thanks to all of you who voted for me, it was much appreciated.

finalist

So, back to books – here is a very quick run down of the last 6 of my 20 Books.

No 616 The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

As expected, Wharton didn’t disappoint. I loved The Age of Innocence, not as much as The House of Mirth, but it was still wonderful. I found this one to be more biting and often more funny in its dissection of New York society than the other works have read and it has a final scene that is poignant and perfect. Now to watch the movie!

Read on: Book
Number Read: 131
Number Remaining: 615

No 615 Small Island by Andrea Levy

This was another winner for me, with the multiple viewpoints bringing a depth and insight into the story. Perfectly formed with a range of incredibly authentic voices, I enjoyed it very much.

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Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 132
Number Remaining: 614

No 614 I Am No One You Know by Joyce Carol Oates

I adore Joyce Carol Oates short stories as she usually veers towards the darker side of humanity in her shorter works. This collection is no exception, featuring some stunning stories that explore those moments when we do something impulsive, or make a small decision, with no idea of the often devastating consequences that might follow.

Read on: Book
Number Read: 133
Number Remaining: 613

No 613 Geek Love by Katherine Dunn

‘You must have wished a million times to be normal.’
‘No.’
‘No?’
‘I’ve wished I had two heads. Or that I was invisible. I’ve wished for a fish’s tale instead of legs. I’ve wished to be more special.’
‘Not normal?’
‘Never’

I loved this book, which I have been meaning to read for a long time. Telling the tale of the Binewski family, circus ‘freaks’ featuring the megalomaniac Arturo the Aqua Boy, telekinetic Chick and sometime prostitute Siamese twins, this is a dark, funny tale is narrated by bald, albino hunchback Olympia which explores sibling rivalry, family loyalty and how society judges between the beautiful and the ugly, the weird and the normal. A must read.

Read on Book
Number Read: 134
Number Remaining: 612

No 612 The Republic of Love by Carol Shields

This is the one occasion where I wish I had time to write a full review, as The Republic of Love is my book of the year so far. A smart, sprawling, witty and heartwarming exploration of love in all its forms, the story follows Fay McLeod and Tom Avery as they stumble through failed relationships, muse on the impossibility of finding a partner, meet, fall in love at first sight and try to navigate the pitfalls that great romance can bring. If this makes it sound slight, it’s not at all. It is a wonderful musing on all aspects of love and is one of the most charming, humane and entertaining books Ihave read in a long time.

Read on: Kindle
Number Read: 135
Number Remaining: 611

No 611 Solace by Belinda McKeon

solace

The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that Solace was not on my original 20 Books of Summer list. I should have read Moon Tiger, but it was on my iPad, which I hadn’t brought on holiday, so I turned to Solace instead. I’m glad I did. I adored Tender, Belinda McKeon’s second novel, which was my favourite book of the year last year. Solace is like Tender’s quieter little sister – not so showy or attention grabbing, but a book with real depth and beauty. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Solace starts slowly, exploring the relationship between Mark and Joanne as they deal with a pregnancy not long after they have started dating. It changes pace halfway through following an unforeseen tragedy and excels in exploring familial bonds and the relationship between fathers and sons against the backdrop of agricultural Ireland before the financial crash.

Read On: Kindle
Number Read: 136
Number Remaining: 610

So there we have it. 19 books of my 20 books of Summer read, with just Bogeywoman by Jaimy Gordon left to read and I am determined to finish it by Monday – although I doubt I will manage a review before then! Plus, I’m a little excited that I am only 10 books away from getting in to the 500s of the 746!

So, how are the rest of you doing with your challenge? Are you looking forward to Autumn or pining for the last few days of summer?

More Mini Summer Reviews!

 

The summer is slipping away from me and although I’m reading LOADS, my reviewing has stalled. I have been very busy in work trying to get everything in place for leaving my current job, and this has left me incapable of doing much in the evenings bar drinking some wine and watching some telly.

 

Adobe Spark

So, here I am again with a few mini-reviews to get be up to date with my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

No 620 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’ Farrell

my lover's lover - Copy
I wanted so much to love My Lover’s Lover as I’ve been so impressed with O’Farrell’s other books. Unfortunately, this one didn’t really work for me. It starts well enough – Lily (a strangely vacant character) moves into a flat with the charismatic Marcus and the moody Aidan and begins a relationship with Marcus with almost ridiculous haste. Very soon, she is haunted by the ‘ghost’ of Marcus’ ex Sinead, whose room she has taken and whom Marcus refers to as ‘no longer with us. References to Hitchcock would suggest this is a tale of the dead taking retribution on the one who has taken their place, and the first half of the book is creepy and interesting. Things fall apart though as Lily, and the reader, discover that Sinead is in fact alive and well but devastated by the break-up of her relationship with Marcus. The novel then shifts focus to explore what happened between Sinead and Marcus before seemingly running out of steam by the end. My main problem with My Lover’s Lover is that the characters were so insubstantial. Lily doesn’t register much of anything, and Aidan remains on the periphery throughout. For a man that two obviously smart young women fall for without hesitation – Marcus is actually a bit of a shit, if you’ll pardon my language. Unpleasant, unpredictable and unfaithful, it’s amazing that he manages to hang on to one girl let alone too. Add to that, the supernatural aspects of the book, which I found most intriguing, are presented and then never explained. As an exploration of how our past relationships can affect our current emotions, the ghost is a potent symbol, but it is jettisoned halfway through this rather disappointing book.

Read on: Book
20 Books of Summer: 9/20
Number Read: 127
Number Remaining: 619

No 619 – The Keep by Jennifer Egan

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Given that I expected so much from My Lover’s Lover and felt disappointed, it was great to follow it with a book about which I expected little, but enjoyed a great deal. The Keep is a clever, well-structured tale within a tale that confounds expectation at every turn. It opens with Danny, a feckless Wi-Fi addicted 30-something New Yorker, arriving at a European castle to work for his cousin Howie. Howie plans to turn the castle into a boutique hotel where people come to turn off their devices and turn on their imaginations. The castle contains a mythical keep, inhabited by an old woman who claims ownership and refuses to leave it. With incredible stylistic skill, Egan also introduces Ray to the story. Ray is in jail, attending a creative writing course and writing the story of Danny, Howie, the castle and its keep, to try and impress Holly, his teacher. Either one of these stories would have been interesting enough, but that Egan manages to interweave the two and have them mirror, blend and bounce off one another, is quite a skill. The reader is at all times reminded of the authorial voice, but is never jolted out of either story. This is a stunning piece of metafiction and through the imagery of trap doors, reflections, pools and caves, Egan reminds us that we can only come to know ourselves and heal ourselves through the power of our imagination. The Keep is clever and stylised and also immersive and moving. One of my favourites of the summer.

Read on: iBooks
20 Books of Summer: 10/20
Number Read: 128
Number Remaining: 618

No 618 – Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty

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Apple Tree Yard is another case of me hearing the hype about the latest exciting thriller, feeling the need to buy it immediately and then never getting around to reading it. By the time you find out that a book is getting a BBC adaptation, you know you are coming a little too late to the party. Apple Tree Yard is an interesting courtroom drama, well-structured and well- paced, but something about it left me a little cold. Dr Yvonne Carmichael is a successful 52 year old woman, with a good career as a geneticist, a loving husband and two grown up children. One day, while giving evidence to a select committee in the Houses of Parliament, she meets a man, chats to him briefly and ends up having sex with him in a public place without knowing his name. We then find out that Yvonne and her mystery man are in the dock in the Old Bailey, accused of murder and Doughty examines, as you would a court case, the decisions and acts that brought a seemingly normal woman to this point. Yvonne narrates her story as a letter to her lover, looking back over their relationship, her relationship with her husband and the chain of events that led them to more destruction than they could have imagined. Apple Tree Yard is a novel about stories – the stories we tell ourselves to justify our behaviour, the stories we invent to make ourselves appear more successful or attractive and then ultimately, the story that is told to a jury – all open to interpretation. It is also about manipulation and the far reaching consequences that can have. As a courtroom drama, it’s very successful and it was refreshing to read a book about the sex life of a middle aged woman that was clear eyed and unpatronising. However, as with My Lover’s Lover, I couldn’t quite understand Yvonne’s attraction to her lover, who came across as shifty and dangerous from the start. However, this is a chilling novel that explores the lies we can tell ourselves to justify what we have done.

Read on: Kindle
20 Books of Summer: 11/20
Number Read: 129
Number Remaining: 617

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

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This last year has felt like a bit of a golden age for the female rock autobiography. From Patti Smith’s M Train to Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band, there is no shortage of musical memoirs at the moment, with Viv Albertine, Chrissie Hynde and Brix Smith Start all releasing books. Carrie Brownstein in the founder member of Sleater-Kinney one of the break out Riot Grrrl bands to come out of that 1990s scene. Now a respected actor and screenwriter (Portlandia, Transparent), Brownstein documents her life growing up in the suburbs of Seattle through the early days of Sleater-Kinney to the ultimate breakup of the band while on tour in Europe. Brownstein had a troubled childhood, her mother had anorexia and left, while her father came out as gay while she was in her teens. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl captures perfectly how performance came to be both an escape and an identity for a young woman trying to make sense of a confusing world a create an identity of her own. Brownstein writes in a clean, downbeat manner, always willing to share her own embarrassments as much as her successes. She explores her relationship with band mate Corin Tucker with insight and clarity and her feminist voice demands to be heard. Fans of her later work in television may be disappointed but Brownstein is clever to end the book when the band ends, self-imploding just as things were going well. This could have been a frothy, girls on the road melodrama of a book, but by avoiding the high drama, Brownstein insightfully explores a life lived the only way it could be.

Read On: Book borrowed from my very accommodating husband
20 Books of Summer: 12/20

So, I’m back on track – 8 books to go in 6 more weeks, which I really hope I can manage. I may do a swap as I have now tried to start Moon Tiger on several occasions and it is not grabbing me at all, but I may give it one more go.

How is everyone else getting along? Can you believe there are only 6 weeks of summer left?

 

No 621 This Is How by MJ Hyland

Adobe Spark (8)

 

MJ Hyland’s third novel, This Is How, opens as the narrator, 23-year-old Patrick Oxtoby, arrives at the seaside boarding house he has just moved to, shortly after his fiancée has broken off their engagement.

I put my bags down on the doorstep and knock three times. I don’t bang hard like a copper, but it’s not as though I’m ashamed to be knocking either

This examination of everything that he does is a central feature of Patrick’s fascinating character and drives the rest of this stunning, visceral novel, which follows Patrick from jilted boyfriend to convicted prisoner in jail, charged with the worst of crimes.

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As the novel begins, Patrick is hoping to start a new life, in a new place. He has taken a room in a boarding house and has a new job lined up as a car mechanic. His fiancée Sarah has left him because he can’t express his emotions but according to Patrick, ‘the thing is, I didn’t have that many’. His internal reaction to the ending of the relationship subsumes those emotions into imagined violence,

“I wanted,” thinks Patrick, replaying the scene in his mind, “to push her down the stairs, make the kind of impression I didn’t know how to make with words… I got this sentence in my head, over and over, ‘you broke my heart and now I’ve broken your spine’. It was something I’d never say… I’ve never done any serious violence to anybody, never even thought about it all that much.”

It’s an ominous thought and many more like it surface in Patrick’s head as he tries to leave his past behind. He takes seaside walks, starts a new job and tries to find himself a new girlfriend, but through his dispassionate internal monologue, his dependency on alcohol and his obsessive checking of his tool kit, it becomes apparent that the end of his relationship is only one of many problems.

According to Patrick’s father, he was born without ‘that knack for happiness’. Only feeling able to express his wish to be a mechanic to his beloved grandmother, he responds to her death by digging a hole in the ground and screaming in to it. His coping mechanisms don’t improve as he gets older and he has a complete inability to know what to say or do in any given situation. His need for precision and his painful self-awareness seem like a way for him to control a world that appears unstable and confusing.

I want this and I don’t want this, and there’s a feeling in me like I’m sorry for the way I’ve been to her and there’s a feeling that I’ve no notion what I’ll do next. Today, tomorrow or the next day. I don’t know where I’ll go, or what I want to do, a feeling like there’s nothing I’ve got to look forward to.

He is unable to participate in daily small talk, always questioning the motives of those around him. He has a precarious relationship with his landlady Bridget and struggles to communicate with his fellow lodgers Welkin and Findall.

Where Patrick thinks he has little emotion, he is actually being overwhelmed by it. His body expresses the pain he cannot through excruciating head and neck pain, vomiting to expunge tension and uncontrollable sobbing. He speaks without hearing his own voice and questions what he has said and what he has heard. The slightest things cause him great frustration, and an unexpected visit from his mother elicits an emotional reaction that he once again erupts in violence.

I go up to my room and take a pillow and get the ball peen hammer out of my tool kit. I put the pillow on the floor and put a towel over it and bash good and hard.”

Hyland brings us right inside Patrick’s head. The story is told with great detail, but few descriptive pointers. Like Patrick, we are unsure of what his employer or his landlady think of him. Are Welkin and Findall bullying him or is their behaviour just an attempt at banter? The book is set in the 1960s, but even that takes time to establish. The reader experiences the world through Patrick’s inner thoughts and we are groping for signposts and indicators just as he is. This shared dissociation means that we may not like Patrick, but we can certainly understand how he feels.

Like when you lose something really important, leave it on a bus seat or something stupid like that. You know? That fear and shame that goes through you like poison…Well, I get that feeling of shame after doing something stupid, I get it hundreds of times a day.

The tension builds to an inexplicable and ruinous act of violence that Patrick can neither accept nor defend. This is How focuses on how lives can be changed in an instant, how one decision, one emotional reaction, can change the course of lives. The second half of the novel follows Patrick as he is tried and sentenced for his crime and adapts to life in prison.

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Image: Shutterstock

 

Hyland depicts the trial with precision and immediacy, rendering the self-denial, fear and dull bureaucratic detail with a keen eye. In prison, forced into the close human contact that he has so far avoided for most of his life, Patrick adapts to this world that has the manageable rules he could never find in the outside. He finds himself able to form relationships, with his cell-mate and a psychiatrist and in a heart-breaking admission he admits;

I’m sometimes happier in here…life’s shrinking to a size that suits me.

As his world shrinks to the size of a prison cell, Patrick comes to understand himself better than he ever could before and if his self-awareness has limits, it is we, the readers who come to fully understand him. It is to Hyland’s credit that Patrick remains an empathetic character throughout and as he grows in to himself in prison, we are presented with a haunting and tragic reminder of the man he might have otherwise become.

This is How is an absorbing and complex novel. It is a portrait not of a monster, but of someone who has made monstrous choices, that even he cannot understand. Hyland does not judge Patrick, rather she presents him as fully human and her novel is shot through with the hints of what this man might have been, which gives the story real force and emotional impact. The novel is beyond characterisation – it is not a crime novel and not a thriller yet it is one of the most thrilling books I have read in a long time. Its brilliance lies in the compassion and humanity in the depiction of what could happen to any of us if the wrong choice is made.

Read on: iReader

20 Books of Summer: 8/20

Number Read: 126

Number Remaining: 620