MARCH 201 READING ROUND-UP

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My read of the month was undoubtedly The Overstory by Richard Powers, award winning American author. As ever, I am catching up on the Back List. This time it was well worth the wait. I’m in rave mode about the book. See my mid-March update post : https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/726
Brit spy writer, Mick Herron does it again in London Rules. I’m an unabashed fan of his Jackson Lamb series. Lamb is repulsive in every possible way. He’s the slovenly, cruelly manipulative, lying boss of the reject spies department, housed in a suitably dreadful building called Slough House. Its refreshing to have a bunch of White Hats who could not possibly be put into the category of Squeaky Clean – no, amend that to any degree of clean, physically, mentally or careerwise. And yet, they succeed. In their own lunatic, hamfisted way. Herron gives us modern, urban life in London. It’s so authentically gritty you want to wash your hands after reading the book.
I took a short excursion to Venice, via Donna Leon’s latest Guido Brunetti mystery The Temptation of Forgiveness. I always enjoy her Venetian crime novels, as much for the setting and the characters as for the unfolding of the solution to the crime. In this case, all I will say is the solution to the drama was unexpected and there were some skilful red herrings planted en route.
And then there was my introduction to the wild, post-modern world of Donald Barthelme. 45 short stories, like nothing I have ever read before. Stunningly original. The closest I can get to describing my startled reaction is: imagine if the Surrealist artist Salvador Dali were to write stories? Displaced familiar objects, airborne human organs, distorted images, weird landscapes, we’ve all seen his work. And now for something completely different – read DB’s short stories prepare to be entertained, stunned, diverted and a hundred other emotions besides. If you’re in a Reading Rut, this is the shock treatment cure!
FICTION
The Overstory – Richard Powers. Magnificent novel about the role of trees and humans on earth. Absorbing and engrossing. Not to be missed.
London Rules – Mick Herron. Terrific spy/terror attack novel . Suspense filled, and vastly entertaining. Recommended.

Down Cemetery Road – Mick Herron. #1 in Zoe Boehm series. Patchy in plot and characters; not in the same league as London Rules.

The Temptation of Forgiveness – Donna Leon. Venice, and the calm thoughtful mind of Guido Brunetti. Recommended.

The Convent – Maureen McCarthy. Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne, Australia, plays a pivotal role in four generations of women. Intriguing and enjoyable.
Flying to America – Donald Barthelme. 45 hitherto unpublished short stories by one of America’s foremost post-modern writers. Extraordinary doesn’t do justice. Wow! Recommended.

DHL DELIVERY TO MY DOOR ON THURSDAY
Two books by the Australian writer Gerald Murnane, a writer I ‘ve long wanted to read. I’ve seen him labelled as Australia’s greatest writer, so I’m keen to try him. The books are slender, so I’ll probably read at least one in April.
And leaving the best until last The Binding by Bridget Collins. A reviewer on the first page says : The Binding is a dark chocolate slice of cake with a surprising, satisfying seam of raspberry running through it. (Tracy Chevalier). My mouth is watering, both lit and met; I can’t wait to dive in! watch this space in April!

 

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MARCH MID-MONTH UPDATE

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What I’ve just finished: A magnificent novel, The Overstory – Richard Powers, followed by what I thought would be a quick, light read and turned out to have more substance than I’d anticipated: The Convent by Maureen McCarthy.
My first six years of schooling were at convents, so I had a nun-laden childhood. Going to an ordinary government school was a real eye opener, I can tell you! But it left me with an abiding interest in the religious life under whatever label. So I’ve read books by Western nuns (I leap over the Wall by Monica Baldwin) and Buddhist nuns (Cave in the Snow by Vicki Mackenzie, a Tibetan nun) plus other titles. I found the Australian convent themed book to be engrossing, particularly the details of convent life, and also the history of the infamous Magdalene Laundries.

On a more positive note, I finally got to grips with The Overstory. What a wonderful read! Richard Powers Richard_Powers writes beautifully. His description of the life cycle of trees, the forests, the history of trees is lyrical and enchanting. And his description of the humans, eco-activisits and others, who try to halt the rampant, destructive logging on the Pacific Northwest coast of USA is powerful and compelling. I know I will re-read the novel. There’s so much going on, I know I missed out on detail, nuances and plot connexions. The books is ambitious and sweeping, I was swept along with the story. Try and read it if you can. A Not to be Missed read.

I was disappointed that it didn’t win the 2018 Booker Prize.

What’s coming up next: Two TBRs . One I’m dying to read and that’s Educated by Tara Westover, and the second, a dutiful attempt to try and reduce the TBR shelf: Flying to America by Donald Barthelme. I bought the Barthelme collection of short stories three years ago at the famous McGregor Annual Book Sale in aid of the Donkey Sanctuary, & blush to report that the book has been languishing on the TBR shelf ever since. The e-book has only been waiting three months, so that’s nothing, by comparison.

Local reading conditions: Tricky, due to the daily load shedding (i.e. rolling electricity blackouts). My TV viewing has taken a knock, but I can fire up my Kindle and that works fine, provided I remember to charge it when we next have power. And then I have a LED lantern, which, if held very close to the page, enables me to read printed paper i.e. the beloved old-style book. All of which reminds me of the parafine hurricane lamps of my childhood which made night time reading almost impossible. As a result, to this day, I hate dim lighting with a passion.
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FROM LONGFELLOW TO LONGMIRE

 

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While tidying my bookshelves, I found my copy of the poet, H W Longfellow’s epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. Donkey’s years ago, when I was probably between the ages of 5 and 9 , my Mother introduced me to Hiawatha. My Mum enjoyed poetry, and had a copy of the book. She read aloud to me, and I loved the rhythmic sing-song cadence of the poem, especially the lines:

On the shores of Gitche Gumee,

Of the shining Big-Sea water.

Stood Nokomis, the old woman,

Pointing with her finger westward,

O’er the water pointing westward,

To the purple clouds of sunset.

For years I mistakenly thought the poem was written in rhyming couplets, but after re-reading, I discover it is not. In fact, the metre of Hiawatha is borrowed from a Finnish collection of poems that Longfellow had studied. The lines are unrhymed … notwithstanding this, the lines have a simple flowing rhythm. This explanation is from the introduction by D C Browning, to my 1960 J M Dent & Sons (London) edition, in The Children’s Illustrated Classics series.

I picked up my copy 6 years ago, while on a tour to Matjiesfontein, of all places! Matjiesfontein is a tiny, quaint , restored Victorian village in the middle of the South African Karoo. The little village came to prominence during the Anglo Boer War, but these days it is a prime tourist destination for history buffs, and travellers seeking a jolly good lunch en route up the N1 to Johannesburg. In the souvenir shop there were two bookcases, which I dived into, and to my joy, there was Hiawatha.

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The paper jacket is remarkably intact, given that the book was published in 1960. Insects have nibbled a few holes in the jacket, but all in all, for a 50+ year old book, it’s not bad. The pages are foxed, and there’s a musty smell, despite my airing the book in the sun on a windy Cape summer’s day.

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It’s a ‘proper book’ in that it has a hardcover, which has a repeat woodblock print pattern of an Indian brave in feathered war bonnet on the inside. And best of all: there are two-colour line drawings on every page of the text, drawn by Joan Kiddell-Monroe. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Kiddell-Monroe. As you can see from the photos in this post, the drawings are simple and elegant.

 

I think it must have been my early introduction to Hiawatha that led to my interest in the American West. Which was odd, considering I was a child with a British Colonial heritage and lifestyle, growing up in Central Africa. Or possibly it was the influence of the exciting black and white spaghetti Westerns that I was very occasionally taken to see; but only if I’d been good.

In my teen years I devoured every single Western that Zane Grey wrote – and he wrote over 90 of them*. I loved every page. Men were men, and women were glad of it. The horses were magnificent and the villains were real baddies. Nothing complicated. You knew where you were. Right would triumph after tests and trials, and the lone ranger would ride off into the sunset. *His book sales numbered 40 million ! (thanks, Wikipedia).

My Western phase petered out after my Zane Grey teens, but was revived with gusto with the advent of Sheriff Walt Longmire onto our TV screens about 4 years ago. This time we were looking at the modern West – murder and robberies, Indians on The Rez (reservation) gambling casinos, domestic dramas, and Lou Diamond Philips as the impassive Standing Bear, sidekick and friend of said Sheriff. I’m hooked all over again.

Quite what H W Longfellow (an American poet and academic in the Victorian era) would make of the modern shenanigans in the West, I shudder to think. No more exploits of hunting, fishing, physical prowess, warring, battling with the winds, wooing the fair Minnehahha . Modern Westerns are much grittier, and far less mythical. It looks as if childhood discoveries through poetry have influenced me at different stages of my life. I’m glad Mum introduced me to Hiawatha!

 

FEBRUARY 2019 READING ROUND-UP

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Our Page Turners Book Club presented the Fairvale Ladies Book Club in its January selection, so seduced by the title I borrowed it. I have to report it had very little to do with book club matters and much to do with the anguish (and occasionally joy) of the members’ personal relationships. It slowly dawned on me that I was reading Ozzie chick-lit. The aspects I enjoyed most were the descriptions of the land and the life in Australia’s vast Northern Territory. I know, from experience, how hard and harsh life can be in the African bush, but seemingly Australia’s Top End can give us a run for our money!

 

Warlight : I hesitate to write a review about this magnificent novel, and recommend you visit Booker Talk on WordPress to read her excellent review: https://bookertalk.com/2019/02/04/warlight-by-michael-ondaatje-bookreview/:

I enjoyed the quality of the writing, and the depth of characterisation and setting; plus it was a delight to read a story with such an unusual plot, that offered unpredictability. How refreshing! A Must-Read for me.

 

The Marsh King’s Daughter was another unusual book . Set in the wilds of the Upper Peninsula, Michigan, it described Helena’s childhood ruled by her Indian father, who trained her in traditional hunting and survival skills, in the woods and marshes. As a youngster she loved (and feared) her father, but as puberty set in, she began to see the complexities and dissonances of their family life and ultimately she rebelled.

Helena grows into an independent, self-reliant, resilient young woman and I loved the book for giving us a strong female protagonist. I seldom re-read books, but I’d read this again. Recommended.

 

On the Non-Fiction side I was presented with a delightfully quirky little book of literary anecdotes about famous English writers and cities, towns and villages that featured in their writing and their lives. Oliver Tearle is an English lecturer at a British college and is vastly knowledgeable about Brit lit. I’ve always wanted to visit the Hay-on-Wye annual Lit Fest, and was fascinated to learn that the tiny, fading village of Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh border country was revived in 1962 by Richard Booth, who opened a bookstore dedicated to old, obscure books. Six years later his store was flourishing. Then in 1988 Peter and Norman Florence launched the Lit Fest with the winnings of a poker game. And the rest, as they say, is history. How about that?

 

FICTION
Warlight – Michael Ondaatjie. A wonderful read. Not to be missed. Story set in post-war London. Apart from the quality writing, the unpredictability of the plot was refreshing.

The inaugural meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club – Sophie Green. Chick-lit with an Australian Northern Territories setting. An easy read.

The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth – William Boyd . Short stories at their best – witty, entertaining and a pleasure to read.
The Marsh King’s Daughter – Karen Dionne. Dances with Wolves combines with a psychological thriller. Original, absorbing, and unputdownable!

Harry Mac – Russell Eldridge . The 1970s in South Africa, the birth of the apartheid regime, through the eyes of a curious ten year old boy, Harry Mac’s son Tom. Engaging characters an absorbing read about a horrible period of SA history.

NON-FICTION
The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran – Jennifer Klinec . An insight into the Iran of the mullahs. Interesting and unusual. Not so much emphasis on the food & recipes.
Britain by the Book – Oliver Tearle. Sub-title: A Curious Tour of our Literary Landscape. Thoroughly entertaining Brit Lit trivia.

 

KINDLE SAMPLES
Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik. Grim & Slavic – not much sign of her fantasy in the sample. A No for me.
Flights – Olga Togruczk . Not for me.
Black Lamb & Grey Falcon Rebecca West. Reckoned by some to be her masterpiece, but from my perspective : boring obscure European history; dry! No thanks!

JANUARY 2019 READING ROUNDUP

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Early January saw me feasting on Stories, an anthology edited by Neil Gaiman & Al Sarrantonio. The anthology was a Library Book Sale buy, for a mere ZAR10.00 and what value I found for my ten Rand’s purchase! The book is old and worn, published in 2003, and clearly much read, and I’m sure enjoyed, by many others. And now entertaining me.
I’m delighted to have been introduced to the spy novels featuring the awful Jackson Lamb – surely one of the world’s most horrible bosses ! But highly readable and vastly entertaining. I’ll be looking out for more Mick Herron novels.

 
On the non Fiction side I read a deeply moving, beautifully written memoir by Australian actress and writer, Ruth Cracknell. It’s a sensitively written, thoughtful account of a forty-one year love story and its difficult ending.

 
At long last I’m getting to grips with my Kindle. Apart from the relief of expanded print size, there are the downloadable Samples, so useful, when you’re undecided whether you should buy an e-book. So I’ve included a Samples section in the monthly Reading Roundup.

 
January is the month when we are exhorted to clear up our lives and – shudder – our bookshelves. British writer Deborah Levy feels strongly about this and writes how : Marie Kondo can’t have my bookshelves
I have reached a stage where many of my books no longer speak to me, but I won’t be persuaded to part with Jack Kerouac or Colette  ..    an article in The Guardian.
Did you chuck or cherish your books in January? I didn’t Kondo my bookshelves, but I did chuck out some. I realise that if an unread book has been languishing on my shelf for years, then I’m probably never going to get around to it. Big moment of truth!

FICTION
Stories – All New Tales – Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio. An anthology of imaginative fiction by some of the world’s best known authors. The whole shebang from horror to humour and pretty much everything in between. Recommended.

Spook Street – Mick Herron. Stylish, very English spy story set in modern London. Funny and gripping. Reviewed on this blog: https://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/17/spook-street-mick-herron/

The Word is Murder – Anthony Horowitz. Terrific crime novel, written by acclaimed Brit writer. Highly Recommended. . Reviewed on this blog: https://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/2019/01/29/the-word-is-murder-anthony-horowitz/
The World my Wilderness – Rose McCauley. Re-issued by Virago Classics; great writing and characterisation. Shows the effects of WWII on one young girl. Worth reading. Lighter than it might sound. Recommended.

 

NON-FICTION
The Low Carb Solution for Diabetics – Vickie de Beer & Kath Megaw. The focus is on feeding a Type 1 Diabetic child. Clearly presented easily accessible layout. Informative, practical and useful.

Journey From Venice – Ruth Cracknell. Memoir. A long awaited pre-retirement holiday in Venice turns into a travellers’ nightmare. Achingly personal yet restrained. Recommended.

KINDLE E-BOOK SAMPLES
The Library Book – Susan Orlean. NF. She’s one of my favourite writers. And I love books about Books & Reading. So – a big fat Yes, to buy later in the year.
The Lonely City – Olivia Laing. Moody. Introspective, arty – a Maybe.
Blackfish City – Sam Miller. SF. Fantastic world-building, but no thanks.

THE WORD IS MURDER – Anthony Horowitz

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Despite the fact I’m not a huge fan of thrillers, Anthony Horowitz had me hooked. His story of the murder cunningly constructed – BTW, all I can say is without writing a Spoiler: there’s an enormous red herring, a whale sized red herring, at the heart of the murder story. More than that I must not say. If you’re looking for a challenging murder puzzle, look no further.

 
Leaving the crime aside, I enjoyed the semi-autobiographical perspective of the novel. What do I mean? Horowitz has chosen to use a First Person narrator i.e. himself. He explains how he is hired by the enigmatic detective, Hawthorne, to write a book based on the crim Hawthorne is investigating. Despite his misgivings, because Hawthorne is a difficult man, Horowitz agrees.

 
So he tells the story in a very personal way, giving us his reactions to unfolding events, as he follows Hawthorne around London hunting down leads and clues. Interspersed with the events, are Horowitz’s thoughts, plans, misgivings about the book he is supposed to be writing; he worries whether he has made the correct choice in taking on the job. He gives us fascinating insider anecdotes on his past writing career, notably as writer for the BBC series Foyle’s War.

 
I loved the episode where Horowitz is in a face to face meeting with Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings Fame) and Steven Spielberg ( major movie fame!) and Hawthorne barges in, disrupts the meeting ( and, incidentally, Horowtiz’s prospective future career as a writer for Spielberg!) and manipulates the writer into leaving immediately with him.

 
The tone of the narrative is personal, confidential and flattering because we’re privy to a very successful writer’s angst about his writing and his career. Let it be noted that Anthony Horowitz is highly successful  – so I think his angst may have been misplaced.

 
To me the book read as a blend of fiction (the crime) and fact ( Horowitz the writer) so perhaps I should label it as ‘faction’. Whatever we choose to call it, it was a terrific read and I can highly recommend it.

 

A LITTLE BOOKISH BYTE *

 

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Why, oh why, do people write comments in novels and short story collections?

 
A recent Book Sale buy, a short story anthology, has heavy underlinings in green felt-tip, plus awestruck comments elsewhere on the quality of the writing, liberally sprinkled with exclamation marks.

 
By all means annotate non-fiction textbooks or reference books, if these are going to be keepers on your shelf. Or, even in treasured poetry anthologies which you know you will keep on your shelves, and have been carefully detailed in your Will to follow you in to the grave or the fires. But works of general fiction that you will probably donate or give away? Sorry, no!

 
I do wish you wouldn’t. Its visually distracting, that heavy, coloured wobbly underlining and really, I neither care nor agree with your notes about the ‘stunning’ or ‘amazing’ prose. Grrrhhh.

 
You may visualise me adjusting my bi-focals, and polishing my Fuddy Duddy Book Nerd Badge.
** You will note the emphasis is on BITE.

SPOOK STREET – Mick Herron

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24 pages into the spy thriller I thought : this reminds me of those dreary John le Carre spy novels. If this doesn’t improve I’m abandoning it. Page 30 is the deadline.
Whilst I read many of the JlC spy novels I don’t know that I enjoyed them that much. Half the time I didn’t have a clue what was going on – they were so vague, so murky, so is he/ or isn’t he? However, the Mick Herron Spy Thrillers came highly recommended, so we put a couple into the Milnerton Library Book Club.
And I’m so glad we did! I can’t wait to read the next one! Because – suddenly – the story took off and I was hooked, breathlessly turning the pages.

 
Herron’s style is very English – wry, dry, witty . There’s no 007 boobs and bullets stuff here. It’s all London in the rain (it never stops raining throughout the novel) and the workers in Slough House – the reject spies, the psychopaths, the drunks, the deranged, lurching along under the command of the ghastly Jackson Lamb – find themselves embroiled in the enigma when one of their own is killed – or is he?

 
There’s a rogue ex-CIA spy up to no good in France – if I write more, it’ll be a spoiler. There’s a retired top dog who’s gone cuckoo (dementia; if you read the novel, re-read my review; there’s a pun here) . What do you do with elderly spies, suffering from dementia, who know far, far more than is safe for them, us, and everybody?

 
Herron shows the morally murky world of spydom where solutions to sticky problems are always pragmatic and expeditious. They have to be. The ending of the novel is in the same vein.

 
Highly recommended. I can’t wait to read the next one!

OH! THOSE BOOKISH NEW YEAR PROMISES!

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Some of the book bloggers I follow are rashly committing themselves to public promises and revealing their personal reading plans and promises. Reaching a target of 100 books during the year is a common theme, ditto entering x-number of Reading Challenges. Entering Goodreads annual reading challenge is another recurring theme.
Others are vowing to limit their number of book purchases, or lay waste to their TBR shelves (not before time in some cases; I recently read about a book addicts whose 1300 book TBR shelves were proving a traffic hazard within her house.). Adds a perspective to my own modest TBR shelf.
Others are determined to write book reviews of every book they read; good luck with that one, is all I can say! But: each to their own.
Another blogger asked: when did reading become a competitive sport? Good question!
I shall continue to meander peacefully amongst the Backlists, with a very occasional foray into Booker Short List territory. One cannot keep up with the Latest, Hottest, Raveworthy new novels. It’s a physical impossibility.

 

I read for pleasure, and always have done. If I’m looking for information, I hop on-line, and hey presto! Thank you Wikipedia or Google.
But I am prepared to publicly reveal that I will briskly abandon boring books. My time and my eyesight are too precious to waste. More than this – no, that’s between me and my Reading Diary, in which I record my bookish thoughts and stats. When the spirit moves me, that is.

 

My motto for 2019 is: Relax! Read and enjoy!

DECEMBER READING ROUND-UP 2018

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After the effort of reading the big Robert Galbraith novel, Lethal White, in record time, I was overtaken by the usual Silly Season hurly burly of shopping, planning, and socializing which didn’t leave much reading time.

 
Despite it’s misleading title, Himmler’s Cook proved to be a historical novel, ranging from the Armenian genocide in the early 1900s up to the current decade, focusing on the colourful life of Rose (the cook ), who survived by whatever methods she could, to live to age 105. What kept her going so vigorously for so long? Vengeance! Forget about the Christian virtues!

 
Consulting my Reading Diary I discover I haven’t reached any of my optimistic 2018 targets. I despatched 9 from the TBR pile and not the target 12. And of course I didn’t stick to my promise of buying only a measly 18 new books. My additions to the bookshelves totaled 25. Not so bad, really. In my defense, I donated many books to my local Library, so a Noddy Badge for this one. However, I was indeed ruthless about abandoning boring books. The latest casualty was my first Helen Oyeyemi novel : Boy, Snow, Bird. I know she’s widely read and admired, but I simply lost interest in the book. Sometimes one does!

 

So: I have written up a new Reading Diary for 2019, and have made my annual list of Reading Promises to myself. Actually, they serve as guidelines and reminders, more than anything else.

 
My dear daughter gifted me with an Amazon gift voucher, so tomorrow I shall be carefully selecting as many titles as I can possibly cram into the money, to read on my Amazon Kindle.

Wishing you all a splendid, enjoyable and wonderful reading year in 2019 !

FICTION

Lethal White – Robert Galbraith. Reviewed on this blog. https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/682
Himmler’s Cook – Franz-Olivier Giesbert. Story proves you should never upset the cook – this cook took revenge! Historical novel with a difference. Life in France, then WWII Berlin and the Nazis, then the USA. A long & lusty life!
The Lonely Desert – Sarah Challis. An easy read with an unusual background – the Tuareg in Mali. Dorset-born Clemmie falls in love with a Tuareg and choses to stay with him. Holiday reading!

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott. A 5-star historical Fantasy, blending Elizabethan history with modern day; written by a QC so well written and intelligent, but still entertaining. I’m looking forward to Book 2. Ken Mogi

 

Helen Oyeyemi

NON-FICTION
The Little Book of Ikigai – Ken Mogi. My big Life Changing Book of 2018.  Review to follow.

DNF
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi