MARCH 2022 READING ROUND-UP

On the whole, I’m not a fan of crime fiction.  However, this said, there are a few crime writers whose work I do enjoy. Donna Leon is one of them.

She has created a wonderfully human fictional detective, Commissario Guido Brunetti who works for the Questura in Venice and shrewdly unravels a variety of  crimes.  I enjoy the meticulous detail, for example: what Brunetti is wearing,  or eating for dinner on a particular day –  tiny family details; the route of the vaporetto, or his rapid walk through the calle and over the many bridges; the Venetianness of it all.

I’ve noticed in both this month’s Leon novels,  that she’s not averse to taking a swipe at Italy’s cumbersome legal and bureaucratic structures, always expressed in cool, clinical terms. No soapboxing here, just critical reportage with a touch of cynicism. Her novels are multi faceted, one of the qualities that makes them so readable.

Throughout the many novels the same characters appear, familiar as ever, but with light touches of difference that make each read enormously enjoyable. Donna Leon provides her audience with a completely rounded story and for me, that’s the standout quality that brings me back again and again. And, as I often state: I don’t read crime. But I will, if its written by Donna Leon.  

FICTION

The Night Circus -Erin Morgenstern. Magical Fantasy. See my review 13 March 2022. https://thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/2022/03/13/re-visiting-the-n

La’s Orchestra Saves the World – Alexander McCall Smith. WWII, Britain, gentle and philosophical . People exhibiting fortitude and courage during wartime.

Trace Elements – Donna Leon. Commissario Guido Brunetti, Venice,  an eco crime. Excellent, as ever. Authentic detail.

Doctored Evidence – Donna Leon. Commissario Guido Brunetti, Venice; the  title cleverly hints at the unravelling of the motive of the murder of an unpleasant old woman.

The Map of Salt & Stars – Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar. The 1001 Tales from the Arabian Nights and Al-Idrisi, the legendary mapmaker, melded with modern story of refugee family from the current Syrian war. History, myth, fantasy and the modern mingle and mix. Exotic and unusual.  

Weather – Jenny Offill. Brilliantly minimalist, no doubt, but not for me.

The Rules of Magic – Alice Hoffman. An enchanting family saga about a magical (literally) family. Herbalism, magical powers, animal familiars, tragic doomed loves, ancient historical family feuds. A jolly good read.

Ness – Robert Macfarlane & Stanley Donwood. Mythic prose poem. Nature overcomes human madness. Wildly unusual.

Unusual uses for Olive Oil –   Alexander McCall Smith. The gravely serious exploits of Prof. Dr von Igelfeld, recorded by that  comic genius, Alexander  McCall Smith. Priceless.

Hex – Rebecca Dinnerstein Knight. Bright sharp writing, but neurotic, obsessive narrator with supporting cast of solipsistic characters. Enjoyed the writing but not the book.

NON-FICTION

The Bookseller’s Tale – Martin Latham. Rave, rave ….. See my review 24 March 2022,https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/1429

RE-VISITING THE NIGHT CIRCUS

I seldom re-read books. Tempus fugit, and all that. Plus my TBR shelf growls and snarls at me, every time I walk by, which I do many times per day. I resolutely averted my eyes, ignored the miserable muttering from the books imploring: read me! read me! me-me-me! Instead I re-entered Erin Morgenstern’s magical world of The Night Circus.

I read the book when it first launched in a fireworks-flurry of promotion, hype, excitement and cultish rapture. Our Book Club bought a copy and I read it super-fast, because other members were hounding me, so I rushed through the story, barely comprehending the ending, in order to pass the book along to the next eager reader. I recall enjoying the story, but being vaguely puzzled by the rapturous reception. I have met readers who, upon finishing the book, raced to the nearest bookstore to secure their own copy, and have , by now, eleven years since publication, re-read it many times over. I used the word cultish earlier. I stand by it.

So how did the book perform, the second time around, after a much slower, careful read?

It certainly scores top marks for atmosphere, and for originality. Erin M weaves a skilful spell when it comes to creating ambience, otherness, magical delights and sensuous experiences. And no, the book is not dripping with sex. A little restrained eroticism, yes, but no purple pages. What does drip off the pages is esoterica, by way of runes, sigils, symbols, arcana, tarot, white doves, stars, misleading mirrors, vanishing doorways, smoke and mirrors . Like I said, very, very atmospheric.

The plot is more comprehensible the second time around, but I disliked the hoppy-skippy approach to time. My only complaint. The characters were acceptable, the major characters came across to maximum effect. Basically, its a story of two master magicians involved in a power struggle via their apprentices, bound to their masters, and set to complete a mysterious, unnamed challenge. Love and sacrifice are demanded, and given, but all finally ends well.

Did I enjoy it? Yes. It was an engrossing, atmospheric read.

Will I dash out to buy a copy? No.

I expect, by now, you’ve all read it. What did you think?

P.S.: Here’s the bookmark I used for this read. “The Weaving of the Enchantress” by Thomas Matthew Rooke (1842-1942). It struck me as the perfect bookmark. I keep old, favourite postcards and re-use them as bookmarks.

FEBRUARY 2020 READING ROUND-UP

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Rave rave – The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. I was swept away by her follow-up to The Night Circus, a book, which in retrospect, I didn’t enjoy nearly so much as her latest. See my separate review, 17 Feb, on this blog: https://wordpress.com/post/thebooksmithblog.wordpress.com/842.

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, an award winning Italian novel, was an unusual read. I tend to forget about the northern Italian regions, being more familiar with the central (Rome) and Southern regions. My mental associations with Italy are stuck in stereotypes: food, wine, sunshine, agriculture, scenery, antiquities, fashion. But Eight Mountains is set in the North – the Alpine areas. The narrator starts with his boyhood, his moody, uncommunicative, mountain-mad father who drags him up high altitude mountains, never mind that his son suffers from altitude sickness! Despite this off-putting start, as a young man Berio finds himself longing for the mountains and eager to escape his city life. He returns to the tiny village of Grana and reconnects with Bruno, his boyhood friend (his only friend). On his father’s death, Berio inherits a tiny mountain property above Grana, and he, together with Bruno, spend months restoring a ramshackle mountain cottage. Bruno has always remained in the mountains, and is content to do so.
And so the book goes on. It reads like a memoir, but is in fact a novel. Essentially it’s a story of male friendship, father-son relationships, a coming of age story, finding one’s place in the world, and the mountains. An unusual read, not a contender for my Top Reads list, but a solid novel nonetheless.

 
Although I’m a Clare North fan, her dystopian fantasy 84K defeated me yet again. I can take only so much bleak, and after the glorious Morgenstern fantasy, the contrast was too jarring. Sorry: this is one I’m going to have to wave goodbye to.

 
Kira Salak’s  account of her 600 mile solo paddle in a kayak, up the Niger to fabled Timbuktu is a Travel Writing classic. Breathtaking fortitude, bravery, and a deeply felt inner journey as she encounters Mali, its people and its mighty river. She was inspired by the earlier explorations of Mungo Park, the Scottish explorer in the early 1800s. Another example of mans’ insatiable desire for knowledge and adventure. And, (in the case of Mungo), it must be admitted, for the discovery of gold, and the acquisition of territory for the British Empire.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mungo_Park_(explorer)

FICTION

The Starless Sea – Erin Morgenstern. Wonderful read for me: a 10 star Fantasy novel.
The Eight Mountains – Paolo Cognetti (translated from Italian). Prize winning novel, mountains, men and male friendships. Different.
The Sentence is Death – Anthony Horowitz. Another workmanlike whodunnit from a first rate crime writer. Very enjoyable.
Small Kingdoms and other stories – Charlaine Harris. YA crime – a quick, easy read, but shockingly casual about crime and violence.
84K – Clare North. DNF . Bleak dystopian tale set in Britain.

NON-FICTION

The Cruellest Journey – Kira Salak. Adventure/travel writing in Mali – by kayak down the Niger River to Timbuktu. “A real life Lara Croft!” is one frequent title bestowed on Salak.

How to Read a Novelist – John Freeman . A fascinating collection from the reviewers articles interviews and essays. Quick-dips into 50 of the best-known current novelists. Enjoyable.

RE-READS
Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott. I have finished re-reading this classic on life and writing, with the utmost enjoyment. If you’ve not read the book, then do so immediately!

THE STARLESS SEA – Erin Morgenstern

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I was hooked from the moment I read the gold title, and read page 1. I am unapologetically in rave mode. If you didn’t enjoy the book, then read no further.

For me it was a ten star Fantasy read. Never mind Goodreads miserable 5 star top accolade.

When I reached The End, I immediately turned back to the beginning to reacquaint myself. I didn’t want the story to end; it swept me away, for 494 glorious pages. I never noticed the length. It probably took me a week to read, because the writing is so lush that it was good to read slower, and savour the prose.

The back cover is an abstract design, reminiscent of brocade: rich colours interwoven with gold thread, forming a dense, gleaming fabric. I felt as if I was reading brocade.

The book is a dazzling amalgam of fantasy, myth and fairytale, books, libraries, hidden underground worlds, magic doorways that are portals other realms and times; there are star crossed lovers, time loops, oh! and cats! It doesn’t get any better than this.
I will be buying my own copy.