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

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READING ROUND-UP DECEMBER 2021

FICTION

Piranesi – Susanna Clarke. An elegant concept, and elegantly constructed in the telling. A Chinese-box sort of novel, gradually revealing its secrets. Curious as to the title, I googled the Italian Piranes, which helped my understanding and enjoyment of the book. A wildly different novel, that will  haunt me for some time to come.

A Mumbai Murder Mystery – Meeti Shroff-Shah. The thing I most enjoyed were the  descriptions of the mouth watering food served frequently to  the Jain family that are involved in the murder mystery. Sure, I puzzled over  the whodunnit aspect, but the background and setting stood out for me. I hope Ms SS  gives us another murder mystery  soon.

The Bear – Andrew Krivak. A Re-read. Just as moving, the second time around. The natural world continues its age old cycles of  birth, life and death, the seasons change, the equinoxes wax  and wane, and so does human life. An adult fable elegantly written in sparse prose. Probably a masterpiece.

What are you going Through – Sigrid Nunez. A thoughtful, reflective quiet novel about friendship,love, death and dying. Wise and  compassionate but not an easy read. Fans of Literary Novels and Sigrid Nunez will enjoy the novel.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns. A Virago Press reprint. The two things I enjoyed about the book were the catchy title and striking cover. Other than that,  London in the 1930s, Bohemian artists’ life, poverty, children, selfish, immature characters did not appeal. The book was promoted as funny, but didn’t tickle my funnybone. Fortunately the book was a quick, short read.

Before the Coffee Gets Cold: Tales from the Café – Toshikazu Kawaguchi. Appropriately, my last read of 2021, came from my TBR shelf. On my second attempt to read the book , I reached the last page, but with relief.  Whether due to  the author’s natural style, or the translation from Japanese, the story was stilted, which was a pity, because the premise of the book is time travel. Visitors to the café can travel backwards or forwards in time, but must return before the coffee in the cup turns cold. Four stories of guilt, grief and regret unfold: husbands, lovers, sons, surrogate fathers all wanting to make amends, or explain . The book was a big hit in 2019, but not with me. You can’t win ‘em all.

NON FICTION

Dear Reader. The Comfort and Joy of Books –  Cathy Rentzenbrink.  I devoured the book,  what a joy to share Cathy’s love of books and reading!  She’s my soul-mate.  A book to keep, treasure, and re-read many times. A must for booklovers.

Underland  -Robert MacFarlane. I’ve found my quintessential Desert Island Book. If permitted only one book for my Desert Island sojourn, I wouldn’t hesitate to pack Underland. It is a marvellous mosaic of science, history, culture, personal memoir, a veritable treasure chest of facts, travel writing and stories. A slow, thoughtful, delightful read.  Highly recommended.

Bon Appetit! – Peter Mayle. With his customary charm, the foodie writer par excellence,  shares his travels around his beloved  France, visiting Festivals and food fairs en route. The book is sub titled: Travels through France with Knife, Fork and Corkscrew. A neat summation of a delightful, atmospheric read. Perfect armchair travel with a light touch.

DECEMBER DIPPER

Zen Dust.  A Journey Home through the back roads of South Africa – Anthony Osler. A couple of pages daily is balm to the soul.  A mixture of gentle humour, wisdom , travel notes, the occasional poem or haiku fragment, together with elegant black and white photographs.  Occasionally a glimpse of a beloved teacher or local Sangha member that I know,  make the book personal for me.  Another book to treasure .

MY 2021 READING HITS

My 2021 reading year was brightened by the  discovery of three new authors, who illuminated my year in bursts of glory. 

Novelist Nicola Barker –  endlessly inventive, wildly creative, completely original. Thus far I’ve read and loved: 5 Miles from Outer Hope, I am Sovereign and The Cauliflower. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

Humorist Ben Schott – who has written two brilliant homages to the Master of British humour: P G Wodehouse. I own Jeeves and the King of Clubs and Jeeves Takes a Chance. Schott has channelled  The Master’s style, frothy plots and witless characters; and of course featuring  the brainy Jeeves. Both books were a tonic in a difficult year.

SF Writer Becky Chambers –  her Wayfarer series has provided hours of entertainment, plus intriguing ideas, fresh possibilities, with  future scenarios peopled by vivid characters. Her series has a strong feminine slant, and not a raygun in sight. This is thoughtful, philosophical young writer with a fresh take on the Universe. She has taken SF writing into a  fresh dimension.

On the Non Fiction side, I discovered Robert MacFarlane, via his wide ranging  book, Underland, which is a rich and varied reading experience. I  knew RMF was a Nature writer, but I had no idea that his approach was so eclectic,  including  elements of History, Myth, the Anthropocene, and  Travel, to mention but a few. His book is both literary and scholarly (it took ten years to write) but the writing is lyrical,  vivid, thrilling ….  I shall treasure and re-read the book.

And the Misses? I decided to let them sink quietly into the depths of my hard-drive. Of course I had Did Not Finish and Definitely Not for Me reads during the year, but after a hard year I’ve no wish to re-visit past disappointments.

 Ten Terrific Reads 

  • Motion of the Body Through Space – Lionel Shriver (novel) #1
  • Little Family – Ishmail Beah  (African novel)
  • Hum if you Don’t Know the Words – Bianca Marais (South African  novel)
  • The 100 Years of Lenni and Margo – Marianne Cronin (novel)
  • Patron Saint of Liars – Ann Patchett  (novel)
  • Word Freaks – Stefan Fatsis (Non-Fic) Scrabble
  • The Salt Path – Raynor Winn (NF) memoir
  • Look at Me – Nataniel (NF) memoir
  • Vesper Flights – Helen MacDonald (NF) nature writing
  • The Library Book – Susan Orlean (NF) Libraries!

My book of the year. After some agonising I am nominating the novel Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke. Apart from the strange and wildly original story, the book itself is a thing of beauty with the  metallic copper lettering on the black cover, plus a dust-jacket executed in the same black/copper theme, plus an elegant faun playing his Pan Pipe, atop a slender classical column.

The book offered a missing person mystery as a sub-theme, but the major theme was : the existence of a different corporeal reality, into which people from our world are inserted. Followed by another theme: what is personal identity ? and another question: what constitutes mental derangement? A haunting read. .

Wishing my readers an enormous pile of gift wrapped books during the Festive Season, and another splendid reading year ahead in 2022. May we all be safe, and be well.

FEBRUARY BUYS 2021

I can’t resist stories about twins, so when I heard about The Grammarians, I knew it was a book I really, really wanted to read. I had to wait for over three months for the books to struggle through the difficulties of overseas orders and Covid problems, plus postal delays, but the book finally staggered in, and now its in my possession. I can’t wait to read it! Twins, words, language …. what’s not to like?

I’ve been dithering around over the Salt Path for at least a year. Despite my efforts to loan the book from the Library (regret not in the Cape Town Library system), or borrow the book from my bookish friends (no, sorry, haven’t got that one) or buy a second-hand copy but again no luck. So in the end, I had to bite the bullet and buy the darn thing. I like the cover. It reminds me of lino print designs, which I always enjoy.

As usual, I’m late to the party. The Salt Path was published in 2018. What a good thing books don’t “go off” like the contents of the grocery cupboards. Although this said, I was hunting through my book cases last week, and found a book dating back to the 1980s, where the pages have turn a deep, dark, toasty brown, and I promise you, the book has never been left lying in the sun. Oh the very idea! oh, the horror!

The Salt Path is part memoir, part Nature writing, and it poses a difficult question: what would you, the reader, do if faced with a massive, life-altering situation like the onset of an incurable disease coupled with homelessness and financial ruin. I certainly wouldn’t chose to walk 638 miles around the British coastline, which was the Winn’s solution. I’d probably hide in the darkest corner of the biggest library, whimpering pitifully, and praying for a heavy book shelf to fall on me and deliver me from my plight.

And my third purchase was another book that I’ve been dithering over for some time. I read a glowing review in one of the many recent Best Books of 2020 articles, so I went mad and bought it. Again, I love the vibrant, fiery cover – I’m a pushover for yellow and orange. Fingers crossed that the contents live up to the cover.

Have you acquired any new books in the last seven weeks ?

FEBRARY 2018 READING ROUND UP

index

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

Two books with the word Mountains in the title. Two books which could not have been more dissimilar – one a beautifully written book about nature & landscape (reviewed on this blog) , the other a somewhat surreal novel set in Portugal. I wrote a review of Part One on this blog. The remainder of the book was surreal in parts – particularly Part Two – but the final Part Three was wonderful, culminating in one of the most dramatic endings I have ever read. I have already added the novel to my 2018 Best Books list, under the heading of Most Original Novel.
Another huge contrast: Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jasmal. Quite a read! Funny, shocking, erotic – plus – as a sub-plot, the solving of a murder. There’s also a romance on the go, so the book has plenty to offer. Those who dislike erotica should leave this book well alone!
I’m including a mention of a poetry book I read this month : The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra – Thanissara, but I haven’t star-rated it. It’s a wonderful epic poem – see review on this blog – and perhaps some of you may be encouraged to try it? At one point I read (and wrote) poetry, but not so much these days. So Thanissara’s poem made a refreshing change to my reading month.
I spent an enjoyable Quick Dip (QD) half hour with Maurice Kibel’s collection of Rhyme & Reason; another TBR bites the dust! At the opposite end of the Spectrum to the Bitter Almond Hedge collection – but there’s room in my life for a limerick and a smile, alongside the serious reads.

5* Mountains of the Mind – a History of Fascination – Robert Macfarlane. NF A wonderful rich read – spellbinding, actually. Reviewed on this blog.
5* The High Mountains of Portugal – Yann Martel. Dazzlingly original. A Must Read for me. Reviewed on GR: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2308999253

4* Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows – Balli Kaur Jasmal . Southall, London and the Punjabi widows with erotic stories to share; growing sisterhood and overturning prejudice. Reviewed on Goodreads https://www.goodreads.com/review/edit/32075853

3* The Right Way Up – Paige Nick. Light, fun read. Family drama at its breathless best. Reviewed on this blog.

The Heart of the Bitter Almond Hedge Sutra – Thanissara . Poetry, Buddhism, San stories and Buddhist Heart Sutra. Reviewed on this Blog.
General Tso’s Chicken and the 7 Deadly Sins : A Collection of Rhyme and Reason by Maurice Kibel. Limericks, light verse. Fun!
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