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September 2015 Reading Round-Up

September was a lovely month and I read some good books. I’ve five here and I read about 300 pages of Anna Karenina, too. I’m currently at 42 finished books for the year; the plan as of now is 50.

All books are works of fiction.

The Books

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Amy Stewart: Girl Waits With Gun – Constance and her sisters are harassed by a businessman whose car hits their buggy. Interesting historically, average overall.

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E Lockhart: We Were Liars – Cadence spends every summer on her family’s private island but the younger relations start questioning the perfection. Phenomenal.

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Gøhril Gabrielsen: The Looking-Glass Sisters – A disabled woman living with her sister tries to gain her love amongst the frustrations of being ignored. A good book about perceptions and an unreliable narrator.

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Judy Chicurel: If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go – Katie and friends live their youth in a somewhat run-down town where there are few prospects. A fine look at a variety of mental and physical issues.

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Robert Merle: The Brethren – Pierre recounts the tales of his father and of his own as he grows up. A fair start to a series set in medieval France, not without its problems.

My favourite this month? No question – the Lockhart. I’d give it a 6 if I could and it’s highly likely it’ll make my best of the best list for this year. I would be happy to read another Gabrielsen and the Chicurel was the perfect late summer book.

Quotation Report

Gat from We Were Liars states that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments, which is a lovely way to put it and surely what we often look for when we sit down with a book.

I believe last October saw the hottest Halloween on record. It’ll be interesting to see where we go this year.

What was the last 5 star read you read?

Reading Life: 30th September 2015

A photograph of an autumn rose, salmon coloured

It’s an odd time, autumn but still warm, sunny, and few leaves have fallen. I’ve been thinking about October, Halloween and pumpkin spice lattes. They’ve made an appearance here in recent years – us Brits are no longer stuck trying to imagine them. Last year’s plan to try one went awry, I didn’t realise they’d be available for so short a time.

So everyone is talking about Elena Ferrante. When I first saw the cover I was uninterested – it looks like something from the 70s to me – but Alice thinks they’re good so I’ve put the first book on my list. I do like the mystery surrounding the author, no one knows who she is, and if it’s got literary appeal then I’m on it because I’m going through an extended literary fiction and general fiction stage.

A few days ago I opened my book database to add a couple more entries and mark off the books I’d read since the last edit. I decided to calculate the percentage of physical books I’ve read. The result was 70%. I liked that number… when I first saw it six months ago. My percentage hasn’t changed and whilst its going to happen when there are new books, I’m hoping I can make at least a tiny dent by the end of the year.

I’ve been trying to read more deliberately, not let myself be distracted, increase my attention span. I’m doing most of my reading away from electronics and have created a new place to sit where I can get that romantic idea of nature working for me – namely beside the window overlooking greenery. Part of this reading has included Anna Karenina which I’d put on hold in May. For now I’m doing well and really enjoying it. Hoping it will happen is a sure fire way to make it not happen so instead I’ll word it thus: If I read at my current pace I’ll have finished it within two weeks. Whenever I do finish I’ll be celebrating with the Keira Knightley adaptation. It’s the reason I started the book in the first place.

Reading the tome has led to Wikipedia browsing. I now know about Tolstoy’s marriage, religious views, and how Levin fits into it all. I’m enjoying Levin’s story a lot more for it. The ‘should I, shouldn’t I’ of Levin’s peasant life fantasy is interesting especially as he repeatedly realises it won’t work. I like the way Tolstoy shows it is fantasy in some respects, that some of Levin’s ideas wouldn’t fit and that to an extent he’s appropriating peasant life. From there I found myself reading about Gertrude Stein; I’d not heard of her until watching Midnight In Paris.

I’ve been researching the famous painting of the Brontë sisters. The Internet has informed me that whoever told me Branwell removed removed himself because he wanted to emphasise the greatness of his sisters was not strictly correct – that’s more likely a personal conclusion. I thank the Internet.

I went further and discovered Charlotte was no fan of Emily’s work. Whilst I agree with her on the story I can’t say I didn’t love Wuthering Heights I did love it as a literary work. It seems Charlotte didn’t like it at all and she hated Anne’s The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall, also, though whether it was her true opinion or a pretend hatred to mitigate worries or complaints about mental health is unknown. Charlotte does appear to have been far more opinionated in this manner than I thought, however. I knew about her hatred of Catholicism but there’s a possibility she went as far as destroying Emily’s second novel. This page is a compelling read.

How is your reading life lately?

E Lockhart – We Were Liars

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Be aware that whilst I don’t discuss the ending here, I do talk about some of the themes. Some genre tags have been left out on purpose.

If you’re not happy or having trouble you sweep it under the rug and plaster a big ol’ smile on your face.

Publisher: Hot Key Books
Pages: 223
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-40398-9
First Published: 13th May 2014
Date Reviewed: 23rd September 2015
Rating: 5/5

The Sinclair family holidays on their private island every summer. It’s a paradise where they can enjoy their time away from the world. Have fun, spend time together, not discuss anything of importance. Because the Sinclairs don’t do problems. They are normal, perfect, wealthy, and heaven forbid anyone who rocks the boat.

I knew within the first few pages of this book that it was going to be exceptional. I’ve never experienced that before – going in knowing nothing but recognising excellence straight away. The best way to describe We Are Liars is to say that it’s uniquely unique – there’s the thought that all stories have been told, all books now just variations, but this one seems far from it. The basics may have been told but the way Lockhart handles the situations makes it individual. You’ve never read a book like this.

The author favours a particular style of writing. She uses the same colloquialisms as many others but you’d be hard-pressed to be unable to tell it apart from the rest. Lockhart interweaves her prose with the concept of poetry, pieces of sentences set one line after the other without applying the same amount of effort, so to say, as your usual poet does. The poetry aspects do read as poetry but whether there’s rhyming or a steady pace is not important, rather Lockhart uses the concept of poetry to get the reader focusing their attention on the exact words, thoughts, she wants you to focus on, to emphasise her meaning. It’s amazing.

Both plot and characters are important to Lockhart, who greatly favours showing. So much does she show, in fact, that you may well miss the hints she provides as to what happened. But this is not a bad thing. The author abides by the sentiment expressed by one of her characters, who says:

“Someone once wrote that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments.”

This well describes Lockhart’s method: draw the story out. Let the findings start small, slowly building before the crescendo. Slow it down without increasing the word count. This method means you’ll think you’ve discovered the essence of the book only to realise there’s far more to it, and far more to that and so on. Even though there’s a definite end to the book that rests on plot, mini themes abound and are important.

Most obviously there’s privilege. The whole set up, the private island with its big houses and staff and owners who have enough money to be able to call the island a summer holiday home whilst owning even more property elsewhere, is almost unbelievable. The set up is paradise for rich white people, people who don’t even know the names of the staff who’ve stocked their fridges for years. Lockhart need say little; whilst it may be fun, an escape from the reader’s own life to read about this ideal, it’s also uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable on its own and because of the way white is supreme. You could almost call this book delicious in its handling of the subject of racism. By this I mean there’s a lot of racism but it drifts out, ripples in a soft, slow, motion. It’s the subtle sort, the oh my gosh darling we must be polite but try not to shake their brown hands sort. Thus Lockhart demonstrates the sort of prejudice that can be difficult to call out because it’s deftly handled by those who own it, deniable because it’s kept under the surface. Warnings, such as the hints at what could happen to those who overstep their mark are couched in nice terms that fly over others’ heads.

“Watch yourself, young man,” said Granddad, sharp and sudden.
“Pardon me?”
“Your head. You could get hurt.”
“You’re right,” said Gat. “You’re right, I could get hurt.”
“So watch yourself,” Granddad repeated.

This deals with Gat, the only non-white family member on the island whose presence signals a new episode of sorts to this pristine family. As he says himself, he is Heathcliff, a good person, family – sort of – who is expected to become angry in time and ruin things because that’s what outsiders are supposed to do.

Along with privilege and trying to keep everyone away from the family comes the drive to be ‘normal’. You cannot show feelings, no one is an addict or a criminal, everything must be nice, normal, at all times. The media and the world must see perfection. This has a huge affect on the family. Your father leaves? No tears, pick yourself up. Don’t reference your dead grandmother. Forgetting people is a large part of keeping up appearances – taking down photographs is very important. We see the affects mostly in our narrator, Cadence, who finds it difficult to stay silent, who grieves for longer than she would if she were allowed to express her thoughts. A lot of metaphorical bleeding and falling goes on in this book.

The island is a paradise away from the world that never changes and can’t be ruined by life in general but as Cadence says in one of the many variations of a fairy tale she writes (in order to further explain situations):

If you want to live where people are not afraid of mice [Gat], you must give up living in palaces.

I can’t neglect friendship here. It’s what holds the novel together from the beginning, the emergence of a generation that sees the falsehood in the world their parents have created. The title has as much to do with the teenagers – literally the liars – as with the whole family. The false happiness shrouded by a one-upmanship as the sisters try to gain daddy’s love and property.

If you work out the truth of what happened before it’s revealed you may find it easier, if you don’t, and in a way I hope you don’t because it would lose its impact, it’s both satisfying in a literary way and emotionally draining. Lockhart provides all the answers, preferring to restrict vagueness to the middle of the story, leaving the end complete. You need to know what happened to understand a lot of this book and to appreciate what Lockhart is saying about impact.

We Were Liars is awesome. Individual, beautiful, wretched, poetic and embedded in life as much as it’s a blissful escape from it. Let the prose warm you as the story leaves you chilled. Even paradise must face reality.

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A Rambling Exploration Of Reading Everything An Author’s Written

A photograph of David and Leigh Eddings' Belgariad series

It all began with Shadows And Strongholds. I think it was one of those ‘if you liked that you may also like…’ recommendations Amazon gave me. The cover was appealing so I bought it, read it, and promptly wanted to read everything Elizabeth Chadwick had ever written. There were a fair few by that point and I can’t say I’ve read many yet but I had one thing in my favour – right place, right time. By the end of Christmas Day I’d acquired almost all her backlist.

When you fall in love with an author’s work more often than not there’s that desire to read everything they’ve written, that ‘read all the books’ colloquialism. Read them all now. Sometimes this is fine because the author may have only written a couple of books but in many cases your discovery is accompanied by an extensive backlist and that’s daunting. So daunting, in fact, that your desire can dwindle – you might read a couple of the books or you might never read any more than that first one you started with.

Certainly it works best if the author hasn’t written much by the time you discover them. You’re in no danger of your reading being taken over and as such a thing can cause slumps that’s a good thing. It means the catch up won’t take too long. Until I decided by my own accord to stop reading Lisa Jewell – I was getting bored of the casual usage of ‘retard’ and ‘spastic’ in every book – I was doing fine playing catch up with her work. I read the couple of books from previous years and then it was just a case of picking up the latest release each summer. When I think of my late teenage years in terms of reading, I think of Lisa Jewell.

To read all of a prolific author’s work takes a chunk of reading time. Unless you really space them out – which will not help if the author’s still writing – your reading will be less varied. It’ll be hard going if you’re someone who likes to read widely. I stopped reading David and Leigh Eddings so this wouldn’t happen; I’m not sure when I’ll be reading book 2 of series 2. In this case there is at least a firm ending point as David passed away a few years ago.

It’s hard to know where to start after that first book: should I read Rose Cottage, Nine Coaches Waiting or Touch Not The Cat? If I can’t find the one I’ve been recommended I’ll choose at random. That’s certainly what happened with Mary Stewart. Do you find that you’ll read your first book by a famous author only to hear it doesn’t do justice to their talent? I wanted to read Angela Thirkell and opted for The Brandons because it happened to be in the shop.

The want to read everything – do you? should you? I want to read Austen’s letters because I’m sad I’ve no more novels left. I drew the books out as long as I could; I can’t do those re-imaginings. There’s that feeling of loss once you’ve finished. Perhaps not if you’ve managed to ‘finish’ Nora Roberts – that deserves a party – but certainly finishing that last book is like coming to the end of an era. It’s the end of your era of reading insert author’s name here.

Where the most prolific writers are concerned there are going to be times you pass them over for those with a shorter backlist. The reward is closer, it won’t take as much time, and similarly to the way our attention spans have shortened I’d say sometimes the length of time we’re willing to wait for a reward has, too.

Who did you last discover in this context?

Robert Merle – The Brethren

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All for one and one for… sort of.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 402
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27123-9
First Published: 1977
Date Reviewed: 21st September 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Fortune de France (Fortune Of France)
Translated by: T Jefferson Kline

Pierre was born in a time of war. Some time before his birth, his father, Jean de Siorac, made a pact with Jean de Sauveterre; whilst the Siorac family grew in number, de Sauveterre stayed with them, sharing leadership duties. The war is as much about land and rulings as it is about religion: as Calvin states his ideas reform begins to sweep across France and the people of Mespech begin to join them.

The Brethren is historical fiction, the start of a series that suggests the rest will be epic. A fairly long story, it focuses on Pierre’s childhood and the background of the family. Heralded a modern Dumas, though not quite the same, Merle looks at those who were both at odds with and in favour of the crown.

This book requires a fair amount of attention, composed as it is of battles both factual and not so, other pieces of information, and a number of characters. You’re forgiven for confusing people on occasion – Merle tends to include descriptions with his references and dialogues (for example Colondre’s lack of speech, Coligny’s battle experience). Though technically repetitive it never seems so as it’s helpful. The story is very well set in its era with the benefits of hindsight the author can include. The women are occasionally allowed to be involved in battle (to an extent) and Jean de Siorac’s understanding of health and hygiene is ahead of its time. (As far as the latter is concerned, it’s interesting to note the way what we would now consider common sense is discussed as an unhealthy obsession. Needless to say, however, the good hygiene pays off!)

This book sports action but it’s mostly related third-hand as I’ll be discussing shortly. The story therefore deals more with the domestic side of the sixteenth century – Pierre’s upbringing, the effect of reform on a divided household, childbirth and wet-nursing, and relations between masters and their servants. The family at Mespech have a good relationship with their tenants – they don’t offer in the way of money but there is a relative equality and no one goes hungry. This element, the relationship between the well-off and not so, is perhaps the strongest element of the book.

And there is humour. Some of it must be seen in its historical context to work, for example the woman who always talks of being ‘forced’ into having intercourse, who is always the brunt of laughter because everyone knows she went willingly, enjoyed herself over the course of fifteen times, and uses the notion of being forced to mitigate the problems that would accompany infidelity. Such comedy wouldn’t work nowadays, would be awful. Whether or not Merle’s humour here is comfortable enough for the reader is something else, of course.

The characters are okay – the men developed, a pun that’s intended because the women, as much as they can talk and banter with the men and as much as they don’t have to stay in the kitchen, are somewhat reduced to body parts – again, explained in a moment. Due to the way the story is narrated by a child rather than any of the adults there is not quite enough development for you to feel particularly strongly but then this is the start of a series.

Amongst all the goodness, then, are a fair few problems. The first is the way so much of the book is non-fictional. Historical fiction often deals with fact but Merle has included information as though he were writing a text book, whole swaths of historical information which is often background context rather than anything that affects the characters directly. This means the book is semi-non-fictional and begs the question of how smaller the page count could have been without it.

Merle is absolutely obsessed with breasts. Almost every time a woman is mentioned, so too are her breasts as well as, often, her size. (Most older women are very large, most young very thin.) The female characters are mostly servants of the household but one would not be remiss in believing they’re also there to serve lusts. There are two scenes wherein all heads turn, all gazes fix, upon the firm buxom wet-nurse who takes out her beautiful white breasts during dinner to suckle the lucky little babe the men wish they could replace. Talk of heads enveloped by chests almost forms a theme. Doubtless the male characters would not gawk so much if Merle wasn’t forcing them to do so.

There’s distance between narrator and reader. Where Pierre narrates what happens to his father, third-hand, there is distance and the story is perhaps not as interesting as it could’ve been if, say, these adventures had happened to Pierre himself. This looks set to change in book two, but for this, book one, it’s very much the case.

Finally, exclusive to the English translation, is the language. Merle wrote his story in a sort of sixteenth century French which may sound hard going and potentially off-putting but that’s the way it is. The translator has written the English version in modern English, a little on the Victorian side; what you’re getting is one person’s interpretation more so than you would usually. The lack of comparable sixteenth century English may entice some readers but those wanting to read Merle may find the English drier and less thrilling than the French.

The Brethren has a lot going for it but also a fair amount that’s not in its favour. It is quite fascinating, the modernity of the characters is capable of winning you over, and most importantly it will make you want to continue to book two; but it is best noted that it’s far from flawless and has the ability to disappoint in places.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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