November in Books

Image: The Guardian

A short but sweet one from me this month. I have spent more time selling books than reading them, but nonetheless I still managed to make my way through two.

Broken Harbor, Tana French (2013) Crime Fiction

Set in a coastal Irish town, Broken Harbor follows the unraveling of an attempted triple murder that occurred in a seemingly perfect family home. French frames the murder through the eyes of one prominent suspect, however, it all becomes far more complex as the novel progresses.

Not only is the crime not what is seems, the area itself and all the promised dreams of suburbia it was meant to fulfill to middle-class newly-wed couples, is far from the lived reality. On the surface, the lives of Patrick and Jenny Spain always appeared to be happy, thriving and successful. But behind closed doors there appeared to be something far more sinister lurking.

A group of lifelong friends encompass the parameters of the novel as memories from the past begin to haunt the present. Not all that glitters is gold for the lives of Patrick and Jenny Spain.

I very much enjoyed this novel and was genuinely surprised at the twist. I found myself invested in the lives of the Spain’s and the type of life they appeared to suggest to their friends and family. I will definitely be reading more of French.

4/5

Killing Commendatore, Haruki Murkami (2019) Fiction

Murakami’s latest novel follows the life of a Japanese, recently divorced painter who abandons his life in Tokyo, for a secluded house in the mountains of former famous painter, Tomohiko Amada.

In this move, the painter hopes his immersion in rural life and the home of such a former successful painter, will transform his own work to have more meaning. Tired of painting the same souless commissioned portraits, he hopes to create works of art with far more depth and understanding.

He soon makes friends with his neighbor across the hills who lives in a glaringly big mansion – which has parallels to Gatsby’s manor across from Nick Caraway in The Great Gatsby. Murakami has regularly stated that he draws influence from F Scott Fitzgerald; and in many ways this novel does in the discussion of wealth and beauty which is contrasted with moderate simplicity.

A strange series of events involving the discovery of an ancient well, a hidden historical painting in Amanda’s attic and the disappearance of a young girl change the unassuming painter’s life forever.

This new novel from Murakami is arguably one of his best, where he appears to return to his earlier style featuring a single protagonist and an acute eye for detail and synchronous beauty. I loved this book but I am biased towards Murakami as always.

5/5

October in Books

Image: The Lake District, Pixabay

I didn’t get round to reading much this month, but the two books I did read, I very much devoured and loved.

Imaginary Friend, Stephen Chbosky (2019) Thriller/Horror Fiction

I initially piked up this book as I was attracted to its beautiful, reflective cover. Having devoured Perks of Being a Wallflower during my teens, I had high hopes for this book, the first Chbosky has written in twenty years. However, I was disappointed and actually abandoned it after 200 pages. I just couldn’t get myself invested or hooked on the story. Working in a bookshop has made me realise that life is far too short to plough through books which I am not enjoying.

I started off intrigued, as the book gave me Stranger Things vibes right from the beginning. I enjoyed getting to know the characters in the brief period I was reading the book, however, I felt the book got progressively silly. The story is narrated primarily through Christopher, a seven year old boy. One night, after him and his Mother have moved house, Christopher goes missing in a nearby woods.

Christopher eventually returns, but mysterious voices remain stuck in his head and he is instructed to build a tree house in the woods to ensure his loved ones are safe. As I said, I didn’t get far and soon abandoned it. The narration through the eyes of a child kind of annoyed me. But some might like it.

Beartown, Fredrik Backman (2018) Swedish Contemporary/’Sports’ Fiction. See my in depth review here.

Although being branded as ‘Sports Fiction,’ this book is far more complex. It is a critique of the bonds of community in the face of injustice and a tale of youth culture. But above all, it is a book of remarkable strength and one where the central message remains long after finishing the final page.

The story is narrated through different residents of Beartown in alternating sections – some of which can sometimes be just a few lines. This gives the impression of the interconnectedness of the small community. The beauty of the rural community is constantly critiqued by the featuring of rape culture, alcoholism, toxic masculinity, adolescence, loneliness and drug abuse which engulfs various inhabitants.

Hockey is the central force which binds the community together – but it is also the reason for its downfall. An awful crime is committed by one of the town’s leading hockey players which divides the community in ways not experienced before. It offers an insight into how communities can be so tightly bound that justice is ignored in the face of their own preservation. It is far more than a tale of a sporting team in a small town, but a critique of contemporary society and exposure of the social problems rural communities across the world can face.

5/5

The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District (2015) James Rebanks Non-Fiction/Nature writing

With its endless, glorious greenery and mountainous views under a constant gaze of misty fog, it can be easy to forget that the landscape of the Lake District is one maintained by committed farmers who spend their lives working this landscape. However, this well written memoir is an ode to the lives of those who do just that.

“The farms and the flocks endure, bigger than the life of a single person. We are born, live our working lives and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter.”

This book is written by farmer, James Rebanks, whose family has been farming the same area for nearly six hundred years. Rebanks narrates farming life through the seasons, as well as adding his own personal insights and thoughts about the changing landscape. Rebanks, although born and bred in the Lake District, made the difficult decision in his early twenties to attend Oxford University, in an attempt to widen his skill set and employability, in a period where farming was beginning to decline. He explains the difficulties and strains of this period of his life – especially when revealing these plans to his farming family.

“It felt like the whole modern world wanted to rob me of the life I wanted to lead.”

The book acts as a memoir, rather than a history of the Lake District as such, but dicusses some imperative points. Rebanks gives attention to the impact of tourism, decline of rural farming in the modern world and the historic legacy of romanticizing the landscape – from writers like William Wordsworth. Despite his many criticisms of the fleeting tourists, whom may pay little attention towards the hard work which goes into maintaining the landscape, Rebanks does acknowledge that everyone should be allowed to appreciate the beauty of the landscape.

However, his central argument which he draws upon is that visitors should appreciate the centuries of hard labour which has gone into making the Lake District the beautiful place it is today. It is not just a fleeting, glamorous visit for inhabitants, but a lifelong commitment. Above all, it gives central attention to the financial hardships which current farmers are facing, and the ins and outs of daily farming tasks in an environment which is just as harsh as it is beautiful.

This book is beautifully and coherently written, and one which I would recommend to anyone. I am very much looking forward to James Rebanks second book, due to be published in 2020.

5/5

Book Review: Beartown – the quietly unassuming novel

Image: Pixabay

For a long time, I haven’t been so taken away by a book. I am a sucker for reading books I know are good due to their reputation, but I decided to read a book which hasn’t had the grand reception of other leading titles.

I was quite blown away by the premise and central message behind this book, which came as a reminder to myself to branch out and read lesser known titles. For once – this book has warranted an entire post by itself!

Beartown revolves around its surroundings – the geography and nature of the small, isolated hockey town, nestled in the icy depths of a Swedish forest, forms an essential part of the novel. The story is narrated through its various inhabitants, each paragraph takes on the perspective of a different character. At first, I found this format quite hard to keep track of but as the novel wore on and I got more familiar with the characters, I came to appreciate it more. The structure of the narration fits in with the centrality of community in Beartown and how nobody in the town has secrets or can live in complete isolation. They are all, in some way, bound to each other in some relation.

Hockey has central importance – at first, it is outlined as the running economic force behind the entire town. Due to its isolation and harsh climate, Beartown has little else to offer economically – the hockey industry is its saving grace. In some ways, it is a complete necessity. However, hockey also becomes the reason for its downfall. Hockey and community become completely intertwined in the novel, as “community” is the binding force behind the residents in Beartown – nobody would do anything to break that force – even for social justice to flourish.

The novel hints at the idea of how a community force can be potentially disruptive, even dangerous, when a sudden and unexpected, brutal crime takes place, perpetrated by a member of the town’s prized hockey team. Because everyone is intertwined and dependent on hockey to serve and maintain the community, the players, the managers and the investors all try to hide what happened. The lines between justice and injustice get blurred and members seem to be blinded by the actuality of what is going on around them. Community, rather than justice, is the force that is preserved.

“But they’re all silent. Because that’s easier.

Not only is this crime ignored by most, but residents in their defense of their humble “community” appear to be in the dark about other related social problems which feature heavily in the novel. Told through a range of character perspectives; the novel points to the issues of teenage mental health, rape culture and alcoholism – and how they can become so prevalent in small, rural communities. It feels like the novel is trying to make a critique of the concept of “community” and all the glamour and perfection which was presented at the beginning. At first, the community seemed humble, full of friendship, love and commitment. But as the novel unravels it is presented to the reader that it is all an image, a facade for what is simmering underneath.

“Difficult questions, simple answers. What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.”

A small town in rural Sweden, nestled between a vast and beautiful forest, at a glance seems idyllic, even desirable for most of us who live in busy towns. We tend to look at small town communities in wonder. However, this novel pays homage to the idea that nothing is ever perfect or what it seems. The grass is always greener in our imagination.

As the novel draws to a close, a small sense of justice and re-evaluation is gained by some residents of the town. Some are beginning to question the nature of their community and realise that things have to change. But others simply move away from the town and do not address the problems they helped to create.

I found this novel to have a very profound and relevant message, presented in a very complex way. It deals with some central social issues such as homophobia, alcoholism, rape culture and loneliness – but in such a subtle way that the reader becomes invested in the people rather than the big issues at large. The criticism is subtle but prolific, and one that is entirely relevant.

4/5

I hope this post does not read too cryptically, but it is hard to write about this novel without giving the main event away!

August and September in Books

Caught between packing up my life in York and finishing my degree, it has taken me a while to sit down and write this – but I haven’t stopped reading (quite the opposite!) This is what I read between August and September.

Featuring: The Help, Gone Girl, The Goldfinch, Normal People, Dance, Dance Dance and The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect.

Image: The Telegraph. The Goldfinch, Carel Fabritius (1654)

The Help, Kathryn Stockett (2009)

I spent my first, initial bout of freedom with The Help, a book I had been meaning to read for years. Having only read about its reception after finishing the book, I was shocked to discover the critical reviews and accusations of ‘white washing’ surrounding Stockett’s depiction of the black maids. Upon reading it, I found quite the opposite. It was so refreshing to read a book set during the Civil Rights movement which was centered on depicting the struggle through the eyes and experience of the marginalized.

The novel is told through the experience of black, female maids working in Mississippi whilst the Civil Rights movement begins. Another perspective offered is through Eugenia Skeeter, an aspiring, young white journalist. Through her attachment to her own previous maid, Constantine, it becomes her ambition to write a book portraying the experiences of black maids in Mississippi. Through her lens, we get an insight into the difficulties of writing about a ‘taboo’ subject in an era still favoring the use of black maids in white households, the segregation and pull of white supremacy.

Stockett herself, makes no claim to be documenting the entirety of black maid experience. However, she draws upon her own experience having grown up in Mississippi during the 1960s – she was also close to an African American domestic worker – which formed the inspiration for this novel.

I loved this novel and thought it was incredibly eye opening and cleverly written. (5/5)

Gone Girl, Gillian Flyn (2014)

I found myself fully immersed in this novel as soon as I started reading it. I was gripped towards the two leading characters, Amy and Nick Dunne. Their relationship and lives are told through alternating chapters, featuring their perspectives of each other. The reader is left not knowing who is the ‘mad’ one in the relationship and who is responsible for the series of events which escalate.

The beginning of the book outlines their rather chaotic and different lives and questions how they have ended up together in the first place. It is interesting how Flyn has paralleled the two alternative perspectives of the same relationship to the point where the reader cannot side with either perpetrator.

Up until the point where Amy Dunne goes missing, I was hooked. But when the novel begins to shift towards its ending, I lost interest. I felt the initial complexity of it was lost and the ending was rather dull. I was left with the impression that the author had gotten bored with it and wanted to quickly wrap it up.

Still worth a read though, 3/5.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (2013)

These few words I’m about to write about The Goldfinch, will never pay homage to its genius (I am thinking about writing a separate post on it altogether), but I would just like to say I think it is one of the best novels I have ever read. Not only is it written beautifully, but it draws on all the essential assets of being human in the modern age.

It plays on what is is to be human and how we are all, in some way, suspect to being driven by the fallibility of beauty, art and illusion. Featuring the 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius, which is stolen by the protagonist, Theodore Decker, during an explosion in an art gallery, each aspect of the story comes back to the painting and its central, symbolic message. There is beauty in everything but is is all essentially an illusion, and not necessarily worth saving.

It is also deals with the imperfection and fallibility of human experience, against the backdrop of urban America. Theodore experiences the trials and tribulations of an adolescent growing up in modern America. It touches on the sensitive, human issues of our times in the most beautiful way.

The extent of character development Tartt is able to create in this book blew me away. Although Theo was flawed, often wrong and subject to countless stupidity, I was always drawn to him and I felt bound to him in a way I never have to any other fictional character.

A must read for anyone, 5/5.

Normal People, Sally Rooney (2019)

For all the hype surrounding this book, and the claims it is the next D.H Lawrence or J.D Salinger, I failed to see how it could be comparable. I found it to be a good book, but I am unsure whether it is one of the best of our times.

It explores the lives of two main characters growing up in Dublin, Ireland. The two protagonists, Marianne and Connell, find themselves always drawn back to each other, whether by a platonic or sexual relationship, which appears to constantly alternate. It draws upon wider issues of class in the contexts of ‘modern’ relationships and the barriers that can remain between them.

Their lives are complicated, as all young adults’ are. I did I feel connected to them and the novel in general, but it hasn’t really resonated with me in the same way as it has with other people.

The relationship between the two protagonists is explored against a backdrop of the class inequalities in modern Ireland. However much I appreciate the sentiment and the characterization of the protagonist, I cannot quite fathom why it has had such a great reception. 3/5

Dance, Dance, Dance, Haruki Murakami (2011)

I go through periods where I absolutely devour Murakami and others where I don’t touch his books. These few months were the former.

I will be biased as Murakami is by far one of my favourite authors but I really did love this book. The novel is told through the protagonist whom is struggling to acquire work as a commercial writer. A sense of restlessness seems to follow him around, so much so that he always ends up at the same strange, Dolphin Hotel; the place where two worlds meet. Strangely enough though, the protagonist is never named. Perhaps, like the premise of the book, he is not known in the present world? Who knows.

Like most Murakami novels, there is not just the present world, but an abundance of worlds where characters lose and find themselves. Although technically a sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, I think this novel still works as a stand-alone if you are familiar with Murakami’s writing.

The novel deals with sexuality, friendship, love and loss through the typical sense of strangeness and restlessness which appears in most of Murakami’s novels. It also contains a subtle critique of some elements of modernity, including the wrath of capitalism and how it can be a force for destruction. 4/5

The Wolves of Leninsky Prospect, Sarah Armstrong (2019)

I found this book whilst browsing through the proof copy bookshelf in the shop where I work. I was drawn to it as it was written by an author I had never heard of. Sarah Armstrong actually lives in the same town as I do, so I naturally wanted to become more familiar with her work.

I instantly fell in love with the feel and intrigue of this book and learnt a lot about life in Soviet Moscow in the 1970s. The book follows the main protagonist, Martha as she moves to Moscow with her new husband Kit, who is effectively, her gay best friend. Martha moves to Moscow in the hope to start a better life, having been sent away from Cambridge University for distributing left-wing leaflets.

Martha attempts to fully immerse herself into the Moscow life in her attempt to learn the language and make friends. But she is unaware of the dangers of her actions and the spy-like consequences of her actions. Life in Moscow is never quite what she imagined.

Armstrong depicts the Soviet state in the 1970s with startling realism. Like Martha, I too was lured in by the beauty, fascination and sense of the unknown that Moscow seemed to portray. The novel always feels slightly uncomfortable, but all the while, utterly fascinating and alluring.

I was very pleased to find out there is a sequel is in the works! 4/5

July in books

Image: On Chesil Beach (film adaptation, 2017)

Although two and a half books in one month is not a lot too most people – it is more than I have read for a while! Earlier on in the month I told myself I wanted to read more for pleasure – and I guess I have succeeded. Next month’s target will be three books – which should be more achievable as I will have finished my exams!

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)

The first book I chose to read this month was one of the most harrowing books I have read for a while. I feel in love with Atonement when I was studying A-Level literature and have always wanted to read more McEwan and this didn’t disappoint. I read the short novel in about two days and was at once taken back to the writing style which made me fall in love with literature. McEwan has such a rich palette for detail and makes every scene come alive. On Chesil Beach follows the account of a newly wed couple on their honeymoon evening. Flipping from their student days until the present, McEwan tells the story of their upsetting struggle. Subtle but innovative, the story is compelling but nonetheless devastating. A perspective not often covered in literature, but tackled with beauty and elegance, the reader can almost feel the tension prickling through the pages. 4/5

Autumn by Ali Smith (2016),

Considered to be the first fiction book written in response to Brexit, this book (and following series) follows a contemporary criticism of Britain in the aftermath of the 2016 vote. Written in the third person, in prose somewhat resembling poetic voice, it offers a stark criticism of the feeling of Britain in a post-Brexit world. Although being fiction, one cannot help but interpret Autumn as symbolic of Britain’s Brexit sentiment as a historic moment. Leaver or remainer, upon reading Autumn, readers should agree that it is a remarkable work of fiction based on a current, real life political event that everyone should read regardless of political persuasion. Autumn is a set of four books which include Spring, Summer and Winter. Each is a reflection of the moments following the Brexit vote. Stark, yet wonderfully written and reflective. (5/5)

Saturday by Ian McEwan

I cannot really write a review of this as I am only half way through, but I thought I would include a some thoughts anyway. As I was impressed by Chesil Beach, I thought I would continue the McEwan theme. Saturday is set in the post 9/11 age and offers a subtle reflection on British politics in the 2000s; the threat of nuclear war with Iran and urban life in modern London. As expected, McEwan intricately describes every nook and cranny of the life of the protagonist, the neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne and his family. It is a novel set in one single Saturday, but the intricacy makes it feel like a lifetime. I am very much looking forward to reading more of it!