Monday, 10 April 2017

Speed book reviews

My reading list from Cayman, London and Italy... 29 books reviewed in around 2-3 sentences each.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
  • When we travelled to Cayman back in April last year, my hand luggage contained a half-read copy of War and Peace by Tolstoy.  I'd seen the BBC adaptation over the preceding winter and was totally seduced by it.  And it made tackling the famously convoluted epic novel less daunting.  Don't get me wrong, it still took me several months of off-and-on reading to finish it, and I never did manage the second epilogue.  However I really enjoyed the book, and found it quite different to the TV series.  In the book, Tolstoy devotes much more time to Maria and Nikolai's romance, and less to the (let's face it quite annoying) Natasha and Andrei. 

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
  • the first time I've read a book written entirely in 2nd person.  This style is clearly not for everyone, but it worked for me.  I found the voice really captivating and the story was devastatingly sad.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
  • an over-hyped book, sadly.  I thought it was ok, and would probably have enjoyed it more if I wasn't thinking "when is it going to get really good?".  So many convenient coincidences and in the end it was hardly a huge surprise. 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  • a real treat of a book club read.  I thoroughly enjoyed the dual narrative style and the way the two young protagonists were eventually brought together.  

Promise Not To Tell by Jennifer McMahon
  • I really enjoyed this one (another book club read): two murder mysteries, plus a bit of mysticism.  Hard to describe/pigeon hole but definitely recommended!

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • one of the best short stories I have ever read, and certainly the one that will stay with me the longest.  It charts the emerging psychosis of a young wife and new mother as she is confined to an attic room in their supposedly convalescent summer house. 

After You by JoJo Moyes
  • like most of the rest of the world I had really enjoyed Me Before You.  This is the promised sequel and it does what it says on the tin.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
  • I didn't enjoy this as much as I thought I would.  For a modern novel it is a dense and frustrating read.  

I Let You Go by Claire MacKintosh
  • this was a great holiday read, with all the components I most value in a novel: likeable but flawed characters, mystery and plot twists, and a bit of romance.

The couple next door by Shari Lapena
  • a holiday page turner that delivers a pacy, looping story in stylish fashion.  Don't read if you're anxious new parents!  Baby goes missing while parents are over having dinner with their unlikeable neighbours.  Drama ensues.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
  • this book has been on my "to read" list since my teen years.  It doesn't disappoint, with its acerbic tone and put-downs.  The autobiographical content is fairly obvious and that lends the book a great pathos, as obviously we all know what happens to the protagonist next.

Islands in the Stream by Ernest Hemmingway
  • reading this on a warm Caribbean beach was a perfect treat. Hemingway evokes casuarina trees, palms, warm reefs and cool drinks.  He devotes one long chapter to an abortive fishing expedition which transports the reader right there.  If you are going to read one book about alcohol, it should probably be this one.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett
  • this is a great, sweeping, American novel that frustratingly somewhat peters out.  I did enjoy it but was left wanting to know much more about the six grown children and their hapless adulterous parents.

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
  • argh.  This book was so well written it was almost soulless. I didn't warm to any of the characters (three former 80s bandmates now settled in supposed domesticity in a middle class part of Brooklyn) so really didn't care who was sleeping with who or how or why.  

The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  • a short novel set in early 1950s Vietnam.  A romance and a war/spy thriller at the same time.  I didn't exactly "enjoy" this book, but it was an education.

The Pursuit of happiness by Bertrand Russell
  • a bit of nonfiction for a change and who better than modern philosopher Russell. This book had quotable wisdom on almost every page.  His authority isn't really from any great intellectual pursuit (although clearly he is an academic master) but through his obviously hard-learned life experience.  A great read for anyone pondering the meaning of it all.

The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
  • picked this off the shelf at our holiday apartment, for want of anything else to read.  Really enjoyable book: full of humour and hubris as the main character tries (and mostly fails) to navigate his way through the 1980s.

Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig 
  • the one book I want any of my friends or family who are struggling with mental illness to read.  Really interesting / voyeuristic journey into one man's struggle with depression and anxiety.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche
  • hard to review this novel.  It is clearly a very well written work, but seems to have been stitched together somewhat: political point-scoring, social commentary, all written almost in blog post style.  Seems the main character was created as a mouthpiece for the author herself.  But if I had as much intelligent things to say as Adiche then why the hell not.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • I'm sorry it took me so long to read this famous novel.  Smith's style is so engaging that I was very quickly engrossed.  It tells the long tale of two wartime friends, reunited in a fast-changing London.  It is insightful on race, marriage, bringing up children and friendship.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi 
  • my new book group all loved this debut novel, although it is not without a few faults.  I thoroughly enjoyed the tracing of two sisters' family lines up through the generations: from slave master's mistress and captive slave bound for the cotton plantations up to modern day America and Africa.  The lack of plot was sometimes problematic, as was the lack of space for each character to come through, but it was an ingenious premise for a book.  I was left wanting to know so much more: about the slavers in Africa and what factors drove them to sell their own cousins to the white men, and about the modern day dynamics between different colours and nationalities and economic groups in both Africa and the US.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
  • one of my favourite reads in a long, long time.  I could lose myself in these pages.  Jane's story is melodramatic, but she is such a worthy heroine I never tire of it.  The friendship, scandal, separation and then reunion with Mr Rochester is a masterpiece of romantic fiction.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
  • Mr Rochester is never actually named in this book, but it is more than apparent who he is and what he does to the poor woman he eventually decides is insane and locks in his attic. The young creole girl is taken from her idyllic Caribbean life and married off to an aristocratic second son with a name but no money.  You finish this book nothing less than appalled at the way he dominates and castigates his young bride.  It puts an entirely different spin on his second marriage to Jane Eyre.

Outline by Rachel Cusk
  • I thoroughly enjoyed Cusk's writing.  It's not really a novel, more a series of vignettes tied together by one woman's encounters during a few days in Greece.  But it's so well written I really didn't mind.  Makes me want to read her entire works!

The Humans by Matt Haig
  • an awesome idea for a novel: you never know whether this is one academic driven out of his mind by work, or a sci-fi caper about aliens landing on earth.  Either way it is maddeningly realistic with loads to say about the modern human condition.

A River Ran Out of Eden by James Vance Marshall
  • a short story I had read in high school, I happened across it again while clearing out my old bedroom.  It's a great example of descriptive naturalist writing, with the setting of remote Alaska hard to beat.  You immediately take against the stranger who intrudes on the family's harsh but harmonious existence.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker 
  • I read this book as a young teenager, but got so much more out of it as a 36 year old mum. The story is absolutely heartbreaking and heartwarming: it is a love story between two sisters, forced apart by the cruelty of their times and a racist and misogynistic society.  I loved following Celie as she gradually "finds" herself: from her clitoris up to her own mind.  Would recommend this book to all young girls, and old ones too.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
  • this was billed as a classic American novel, adapted into a fairly so-so film.  Having not seen the film I was curious about the book.  It seemed to take ages to plough through: what should have been an easy read seemed laboured, as none of the characters (apart from perhaps poor Mrs Givings) were easy to warm to.  And there was never much of a plot or story arc.  It did make me think: about relationships, what we do and what we say to keep domestic peace.  And the well trammelled paths of least resistance that we all tend to take.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

  • I read this short novel in less than a day.  It was so engaging: writing of the highest quality.  Simple, pure and true.  Strout never divulges the hideous childhood abuse suffered by Lucy, but we instead are given an insight into how her past shapes her present.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Kathryn, thank you so much for sharing your thought on these reads. It's like visiting a town where your good friend lived and could give you tips on the truly enjoyable places to go. Priceless. Hope you are having a lovely family time in Italy.
    Love, V