JUNE 2018 READING ROUNDUP

 

 

 

 

 

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My first read in June was a small collection of Indian stories – I was seduced by the writer’s wonderful name: Twinkle Khanna. It was okay, but not among my best Indian reads. I am a fan of Indian themed fiction, chiefly for the colour and the vivid characters. If you’ve never tried Indian themed novels, give yourself a treat and try one. But not this book. Try one of Vaseem Khan’s Inspector Chopra’s series for a lively introduction.
I tried a Tony Hillerman Western crime novel but I’m a committed Craig Johnson fan, so I’m afraid the book ran a poor second best. The Hillerman crime novel had a heavy focus on the anthropology & cultural aspects of the case, which didn’t interest me hugely. By contrast Jassy Mackenzie’s South African crime novel was a gripping, one-session I-can’t-put-it-down read.
All in all, a pretty good month’s reading. It’s winter: chilly, damp, grey days are perfect for reading. A warm blanket, a hot cuppa and a book – what better combo could there be? Don’t answer that – I can think of several, but this is a sedate bookish blog!

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill; 1* – dismal; zero * – no comment. DNF – did not finish; NF – non-fiction

5*The Sudden Appearance of Hope – Claire North. The poignant life of a living ghost; and an expose of a sinister marketing scheme . Reviewed on this blog.

3.5* The Lost Empire of Atlantis – Gavin Menzies. NF. Fascinating account of research into the lost Minoan civilisation in the Mediterranean. Reviewed on this blog.
3.5* The Music Shop – Rachel Joyce . A delightful story of middle-aged love against a background of music. Reviewed on this blog.
3.5* Bad Seeds – Jassy Mackenzie. South African crime novel, featuring feisty female PI Jade de Jongh, solving theft of nuclear material. A real page turner. Reviewed on this blog.
3* The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano. A study of loneliness. Original concept for a novel, but bleak and frustrating characters. Not a happy read! Reviewed on this blog.

2.5 Touch – Claire North. Original, intriguing, but overlong. Reviewed on this blog.
2* Talking God – Tony Hillerman. Crime novel featuring two Navajo Indian detectives.
2* The Legend of Lakshmi Prakash – Twinkle Kahnna. 3 short stories & a mini-novella. Strong feminist themes in an Indian setting. Reviewed on Goodreads.

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THE SUDDEN APPEARANCE OF HOPE – Claire North

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I liked everything about the book, from the title (inspired), the jacket (a blurry outline colour pic of a woman) the story-line , the characters, and the ending. My 5 star rating is awarded not in gushing enthusiasm, but for a well-crafted story based on a strikingly original concept – the hallmark of Claire North’s writing, dazzlingly original concepts.

 
In short: Hope Arden is the girl who nobody remembers within 3 minutes of her departure from their field of vision. Think about it. Whenever Hope revisits people, to them this is a first time encounter. Regardless of location or circumstance. For example she is stabbed, lands up in hospital, and once put in a ward, receives no food or medical attention because the staff have forgotten she’s there. Quite literally.

 
Consequently Hope has no friends or lovers. Even her own family forget her! She is effectively a living ghost. I found her lonely life a poignant one, and her fierce, focussed fight to remain sane, and survive, to be the most notable ingredient of the book.

 
Of course, there is a plot in which Hope pits herself against an insidious Image & Celebrity Lifestyle marketing company called Perfection who are brainwashing their greedy gullible customers and making mega tons of money. Hope’s a crusader, and so is the shadowy Byron14, who is equally determined to stop the juggernaut of Perfection. Actually, the plot isn’t half bad, and I enjoyed the story on the level of Good versus Evil.

 
I hope Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t got the novel on his radar, because Claire North has a jolly good go at Facebook en route . But no doubt her publishers have squads of lawyers at the ready.

 
The book left a lasting impression on me. Not so much for the plot (which was unusual) but for the portrayal of Hope Arden, the girl who had total freedom to do exactly as she liked because nobody would remember who had committed the crime or the good deed; but oh what a price she paid.
A book not to be missed.

BAD SEEDS – Jassy Mackienzie

 

 

 

 

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My first encounter with tough PI, Jade de Jongh. She needs to be tough because she works in Joburg, South Africa’s biggest city that has its fair share of hardened, greedy criminals. The story revolves around SA’s nuclear industry and there’s explosive action (literally) , plus plenty of other murders and mayhem besides.
The characters are authentically South African, the story line is topical and credible, the atmosphere is gritty and exciting. I don’t care overly for thrillers, but this one had me turning the pages at a rapid rate until I reached the finale.
I will definitely be hunting for another thriller in Jassy Mackienzies series featuring Jade de Jongh.

TOUCH – Claire North

 

 

 

 

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Amazon Synopsis:
The electrifying new thriller from the author of the acclaimed The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.
Kepler is like you, but not like you. With a simple touch, Kepler can move into any body, live any life – for a moment, a day or for years. And your life could be next.SOME PEOPLE TOUCH LIVES. OTHERS TAKE THEM. I DO BOTH.

I’m a Claire North fan. I am in awe of her imagination. She dreams up highly original plots and has the ability to drive stories forward at a breakneck pace. But I’m afraid this book didn’t work for me.

 

It started off with a bang, and raced off. I found the constant touches/jumps/switches confusing, and – ultimately – wearisome. The narrative became repetitive: touch – jump/switch/ violent confrontation –jump- run/flee through some part of Europe, and repeat. Had this pattern been reduced by one-third, or even half, I would have enjoyed the book more.
I suppose Claire North wanted the identity of Galileo to slowly unfold, hence the length of the touch/jump/switch/run process, but for me it was too long drawn out.
The fault is probably mine, but I didn’t really understand the ending. As the phrase goes: I didn’t get it.
I’m sure other will love the book. It’s well written and exciting. But not for me.

THE MUSIC SHOP – Rachel Joyce

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A heart-warming feel good read: exactly the right book for winter!

 
I enjoyed the fact that the two main characters – Frank who owned the vinyl shop and Ilse the mystery lady of green coat fame – were middle-aged. I also enjoyed the fact that there was a fair amount of misunderstandings, disappointments, heartache and heartbreak along the way to true love. This wasn’t a story about hearts, flowers, fluffy pink marshmallow people. The characters were splendid , especially Maud the tattoo shop owner (often described, very accurately, as resembling the bad fairy) and Frank’s determinedly bohemian, music mad mother, Peggy.

 
I don’t know much about music, so while music plays a central role in the story and is crucial to the final scenes, even I , with scanty musical, knowledge, could enjoy and love the book. Even the most curmudgeonly reader or the music snob, should enjoy this one.
Recommended.

THE LOST EMPIRE OF ATLANTIS – Gavin Menzies

 

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A fascinating account of Gavin Menzies’ research into the ancient Minoan civilization, which Menzies thinks may, in fact, have been the lost island of Atlantis, famed in myth and legend.
Despite the wealth of archaeological and historical evidence, the book is an easy read. So often non-fiction tends to be dry, and a real slog to complete. Not in this case. Menzies writes chattily of his investigative travels, and I’m so glad he has the grace to continually refer to his wife – many of this type of book places the writer in a vacuum, as it were, and never mention their travel companions.

 
What I liked about his account is that Menzies’ 20 years experience as a professional mariner (submarine commander) gives him the background knowledge to intelligently interpret frescoes depicting Minoan life. His technical knowledge enables him to present facts and figures, along with reasonable extrapolations based thereon. This enables him to turn History on its head – very refreshing!

 
The New York Times Book Review says “ …Menzies advances a thesis that would fundamentally rewrite history. “ He certainly made History come alive for this reader.

 
The book has a wealth of maps, notes, and colour pictures . Highly recommended.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers – Paolo Giordano

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Amazon Synopsis
A prime number is a lonely thing. It can only be divided by itself or by one, and it never truly fits with another. Alice and Mattia are both “primes”-misfits haunted by early tragedies. When the two meet as teenagers, they recognize in each other a kindred, damaged spirit. Years later, a chance encounter reunites them and forces a lifetime of concealed emotion to the surface. But can two prime numbers ever find a way to be together? A brilliantly conceived and elegantly written debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers is a stunning meditation on loneliness, love, and what it means to be human.
I’m not sure I enjoyed this book. However, it was sufficiently engaging for me to keep on reading until the end. The story left me with mixed emotions . Sadness, at the two wasted lives. Two people – soul mates, I suppose – who clearly belonged together but due to their flawed nature were never able to voice or act upon their deep feelings for each other. Both their flawed natures were due to their individual childhood traumas, which quite literally, scarred them for life.
I didn’t warm to Alice. She revealed a vindictive cruel side to her nature. And Mattia ? Somehow I found myself excusing his preoccupation with numbers.

 

As I read the story I grew increasingly irritated that Mattia and Alice seemed incapable of ever saying anything meaningful to each other, which might permit them to break through their protective cocoons ,to acknowledge their feelings , and join as a couple.

 

The book won Italy’s premier literary award and it certainly is an outstandingly original story. The translation provides an easy to read flow of narrative, and many of the chapters are short. Yet again I find myself in a dilemma as to how to give a Goodreads grading on their star system. The book is contemporary, insightful, original and well-written but again, I can’t say I enjoyed it.

 

If you enjoy star-crossed lover stories, or psychological themes, you will probably enjoy the novel.

MAY 2018 READING ROUNDUP

 

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I am posting the May roundup on 1 June and have been reading other WordPress posts on a Reading Challenge : 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy of 746 Books. Starting date for the Challenge is 1 June.

 

Most participants seem to be making assaults on their massive TBR piles. One blogger confessed to having 300 books and counting in her house! I’m not in that league, but my own TBR pile seems to grow exponentially. On-line Challenges are too pressurized for me. However, maybe, just maybe, I’ll haul 5 ? maybe even 10? Books out of the pile and make a determined effort to read them by the end of August 2018. 90 days to go.

 
How do you feel about a Reading Challenge for Summer? I’m quite surprised that the challenge is so popular. I thought Summer was the time to be out and about, enjoying the outdoors and the sunshine, but apparently die-hard bookworms are unmoved by weather patterns.

 
Finally: whilst cleaning my bookshelves I found an ancient little book, Oh My Word which was the spin-off from a beloved English Radio programme, featuring two Word Wizards and Punsters of note, Frank Muir & Denis Norden. Their off the cuff rambling stories that work around to delivering the punchline as a mangled version of well-known sayings are hilarious. I’ve taken a couple of Quick Dips into the book since re-discovering it, and always come away laughing. We need to keep books like this on our shelves!

Ratings: 5* – Outstanding! 4*+ – Good to very good; 3* – average; 2* – run-of-the-mill;
1* – dismal; zero * – no comment. DNF – did not finish; NF – non-fiction

5* The End of the Day – Claire North. Brilliantly inventive thought-provoking read. My Read of the Year, thus far. Not really a Fantasy Novel, difficult to classify but not to be missed. Reviewed on this blog.
5* The Paper Menagerie & other stories – Ken Liu. Dazzling collection of SF / Fantasy stories, with an Asian slant. Highly recommended. Reviewed on this blog.

 

4* Mothering Sunday – Graham Swift. A much hailed novella; reluctantly rated 4* with reservations – see review on this blog.

 
*3.5 A Climate of Fear – Fred Vargas. A rattling good murder mystery set in Iceland and Paris. Plenty of historical and personal background. Reviewed on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2394035917
3.5*The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star – Vaseem Khan. Comic detective story set in India. Colourful, gripping and very funny. Reviewed on this blog.
3.5* Bertie’s Guide to Life & Mothers – Alexander McCall Smith. Another Edinburg story, in the 44 Scotland Street series. Gentle and charming. Reviewed on this blog.
3* Why Did You Lie ? – Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Creepy Icelandic murder mystery with a real whammy right at the end. https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/31342377

 

DNF * A WORD FOR LOVE – Emily Robbins. Reviewed on this blog.

QD – Oh My Word – Frank Muir & Denis Norden – always brings a smile.

THE PAPER MENAGERIE & OTHER STORIES – Ken Liu

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Short story collections have hit the Big Time during the last two/three years. Suddenly publishers are presenting us with a wide choice.

 
Ken Liu has won numerous awards for his work in the field of SF – no surprises here . He is a Chinese-born American science-fiction and fantasy writer and translator of science fiction and literary stories from Chinese into English. He gives us an Asian perspective and setting in many of his stories, and I enjoyed that. It makes a refreshing change from the usual fare.

 
Liu’s dazzling stories are highly original. He offers views into the far future which – due to his powerful imagination – are thought provoking and present alternate realities that I never even dreamed of! Despite his wide ranging scenarios, the stories are often deeply human, and frequently emotionally moving. The Paper Menagerie and Mono ne Aware affected me deeply.

 
The fact that he writes easily make his story collection a joy to read, but it’s not a collection to be zipped through. I found I needed an interval to digest each story before moving on to the next.

 
If you’ve never read him, I urge you to do so. Even if you don’t usually read short stories, do yourself a favour, and make a detour in his direction.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Liu

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A WORD FOR LOVE – Emily Robbins

 

 

 

AMAZON SYNOPSIS:

”A mesmerizing debut set in Syria on the cusp of the unrest, A Word for Love is the spare and exquisitely told story of a young American woman transformed by language, risk, war, and a startling new understanding of love.

It is said there are ninety-nine Arabic words for love. Bea, an American exchange student, has learned them all: in search of deep feeling, she travels to a Middle Eastern country known to hold the “The Astonishing Text,” an ancient, original manuscript of a famous Arabic love story that is said to move its best readers to tears. But once in this foreign country, Bea finds that instead of intensely reading Arabic she is entwined in her host family’s complicated lives—as they lock the doors, and whisper anxiously about impending revolution. And suddenly, instead of the ancient love story she sought, it is her daily witness of a contemporary Romeo and Juliet-like romance—between a housemaid and policeman of different cultural and political backgrounds—that astonishes her, changes her, and makes her weep. But as the country drifts toward explosive unrest, Bea wonders how many secrets she can keep, and how long she can fight for a romance that does not belong to her. Ultimately, in a striking twist, Bea’s own story begins to mirror that of “The Astonishing Text” that drew her there in the first place—not in the role of one of the lovers, as she might once have imagined, but as the character who lives to tell the story long after the lovers have gone.

With melodic meditation on culture, language, and familial devotion. Robbins delivers a powerful novel that questions what it means to love from afar, to be an outsider within a love story, and to take someone else’s passion and cradle it until it becomes your own. “

 

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Initially I was intrigued to read a novel set in a modern Middle Eastern country with the conflict lurking as an ugly shadow in the background.

I was equally intrigued to have  a first-hand account of life, as a foreign American student, living with a Muslim family.  The background details of social attitudes and daily domestic life , from an almost solely female point of view, were unusual; obviously new to me, a non-Muslim living in a Westernised African country.

But this said, the tortoise pace of the story, the claustrophobic domestic atmosphere , (he home is virtually a prison for the females in the story) the minutiae of trivial domestic detail, began to bore me. The   cautious  progress of the love blossoming between Nisrine the maid in the household and the policeman, Adel, visible on a nearby roof was initially  scary – downright alarming, given the political activism of Baba, the head of the household, but it all gradually trickled away due to the slow pace of the narrative. No doubt my loss, but in the end I decided I didn’t care whether the lovers did or did not meet; or whether the American student Bea ever succeeded in prising the famed love poem text out of the university library.

I suppose maybe  Bea’s witness of the Adel/Nisrine romance, accompanied by Adel’s shower of poetry might be taken as a substitute for the famed un-available classical text, but again …  I simply lost interest.

The information about the formation of Arabic words, and the elegance of Arabic script was interesting . My Google search informed me that Emily Robbins did indeed spend time with an Arab family, as a foreign exchange  student. The novel has a bright ring of authenticity about it, no question.

 

I would like to hear from readers who have read and enjoyed the novel. For me it was a “DNF”  read .