Category Archives: Books at Length

Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan

4 stars

4/5

If you are a fan of Ian McEwan’s writing then Sweet Tooth shouldn’t disappoint.

Jonathan Cape, 2012 edition, 336 pages – gift

Set in the early 1970s in the shadow of the Cold War and IRA violence, the story follows Sylvia Frome, an attractive and bright young woman as she muddles her way through Cambridge university and then after a brief affair with an older man, tries to find her feet in the secret service. At a time when women were considered most usefully employed as paper-shufflers or secretaries Sylvia’s expectations are fairly low until she becomes involved in a special mission to seed literature with appropriate political undertones into public consciousness.

Sylvia is a likeable character – passionate about reading and knowledge. She has a quality about her which Spark’s Miss Brodie might call ‘instinctive’. She doesn’t always seem to know what path she is treading but makes the best of what is given to her. She doesn’t pass as a true ‘heroine’ because she isn’t quite formidable or solid enough – the reason for this lies at the end of the novel.

I admit that I was thrown a bit by what I expected from the novel (from the premise and early part of the story). I would recommend that you don’t pick this up thinking ‘ooh Ian McEwan does female James Bond!’ Sweet Tooth is really much more a book about character development, the feeling of a certain era and literature, with the spying element being more of a vehicle for this. Have I confused you enough with that explanation?

The pace of the novel is fairly leisurely and McEwan – skilled writer as he is – uses language to create sounds, scents and to pull the reader into his character’s memories. I marked the page for this short but lovely sentence;

“It became one of those childhood paradise places burnished by nostalgia”.

I found it fascinating to read about how the government tried to influence people’s political views through literature, especially in light of some of the recent discussions I’ve heard since the Olympics about China’s use of “Soft Power” to increase it’s national profile worldwide.

It is worth mentioning that critics of Sweet Tooth, would probably say that it doesn’t really go anywhere concrete, and some readers may feel tricked by McEwan. It won’t be for everyone (especially if you are  looking for a thriller) but I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I rather like to be led down unexpected paths when I’m reading.

An enjoyable and surprising read for me, and thanks Simon for giving me a copy for my birthday – his review is here.

Have you read or would you like to read Sweet Tooth?

And here are the books I read while I was away…

Over the past few months I guess I maybe haven’t read as much as I usually would. I’m not sure if that was just being very busy doing other things, or a bit of reading-fatigue.

I do think I felt less motivated to read as my head was so full of ‘to-dos’ and, as you may have gathered from my previous post on blogging principles it had started to feel a bit like a chore. Participants of Riverside Readers will also recognise that the selection below are almost exclusively book group choices. When you’re on a slow-reading run, reading a monthly book group choice can mean you don’t get to read much else but thankfully our members made some good choices.

Favourites;

Wide Sargasso Sea was my choice for Riverside Readers, a dark and moving tale which imagines the background and once vibrant personality of Antoinette Cosway a character Rhys plucks from Jane Eyre. Rhys’ sparing prose and darkly vivid descriptions of post-colonial Jamaica kept me spellbound. One that I would like to re-read.

Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus will always bring me fond memories, as I was reading it during my holiday to Prague where I became engaged to be married. It was such a delight to read about the magical world of the circus and it’s also a romantic story on many levels. Unusually for a book I’m enjoying, I found myself wanting to read it slowly so that I could savour it. One of the things that I loved was how the circus popped up all around the world (including Prague) so I could enjoy the descriptions of all the places that I have been. I also loved the imaginative characters.

Sweet Tooth is the last book I put down. A certain Savidge Reads gave me a copy about a month ago – we are both big fans of McEwan. I was a little uncertain about how much I would enjoy it as his last book Solar (review here) was was well written and topical but I wasn’t blown away with it as I was with other novels like Atonement or Enduring Love. In the end, it was that perfect combination of being both enjoyable to read and clever too. I also enjoyed reading from the point of view of Serena and the secret service plot-line although the storyline turned out a little differently than I thought it might – in a good way.

Worth checking out;



I also enjoyed Charlotte Rogan’s debut The Lifeboat which uses the plot device of  a stranded lifeboat to examine human behaviour in a claustrophobic and life-threatening situation. For me it read like a very well written television series – it was gripping but ultimately accounts of human behaviour under pressure such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies or Shute’s On The Beach (review here) disturbed me much more deeply.

God’s Own Country was excellent and also very dark. In the wild setting of the North Yorkshire countryside we meet local Sam Marsdyke who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young girl who has just moved to the area with her family. Raisin keeps the reader in an ambiguous haze as to Sam’s mindset – is he just a naive country bumpkin or are his motives more sinister?

The House of Sleep is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe and one that I very much enjoyed. Featuring an insomniac and a narcoleptic who have a tormented relationship as well as a slightly evil doctor who studies sleeping habits it is an original and involving story. I found the narrative at the start of the book which jumps between different time periods a little confusing, but the way that the plot develops towards the end is very satisfying.

Fifty Shades of Grey. Well a friend gave me a copy of this though I’m not ashamed to admit that I was intrigued to read it. Long story short – a bit racy (oh I sound like a maiden aunt don’t I?!) but not that racy in the scheme of things (you’re wondering what else I’ve been reading now…). Not a literary feat, but not as terrible as I had been led to expect. Am I intrigued to find out what’s next for Christian and Ana…? Erm… kinda. Will I get prioritise reading Darker and Freed… probably not.

The Rough Guide to WeddingsThe wonderful Claire (of Paperback Reader) who comes along to Riverside Readers book group with me, and is going through her own big life-stage moment doing her new house up, gave me this one. I’m not going to lie – I at first thought “Ooh that’s absolutely lovely but I don’t need this, I am not after all BRIDEZILLA!”. Well you know what. I do need it and it is great. I started reading it on the tube home and I’ve read it cover to cover and referred back to it at least ten times already. It is also the most un-bridezilla wedding book as it is very practical and encourages you to think carefully about how nuts you want to go. Or maybe it is a bit bridezilla but I just can’t tell now because I’ve already transformed!

Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Manis one of those that I really enjoyed reading at the time but now can’t really remember much about except that I enjoyed it. I remember it being quite clever and prompting a good book group discussion but main threads… gone!

The rest;

Jasper Kent’s Twelve was Sakura’s choice for book group. I was really quite excited about this as the synopsis sounded thrilling – a vampire novel set in the Napoleonic wars in Russia. I was expecting a romp. It was a bit long and drawn out and not quite romp-ish enough. The main character was also really annoying and the female characters were totally unexciting. Overall quite entertaining but I wouldn’t read the next one unless I was on holiday, it was on the hotel bookshelf and I’d run out of books.

The Terrible Privacy Of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe was quite good but paled in comparison to The House of Sleep as mentioned above. It follows a some poor bloke whose life is falling apart as he goes on a mission to sell a prototype toothbrush to the furthest corners of the UK which involved going a long way out into the middle of nowhere and going slightly batty talking to his Sat Nav. Nice Novel Insights was thinking ‘poor old Maxwell Sim’ and nasty Novel Insights was thinking ‘oh sort it out!’

The Curfew (Vintage Contemporaries)by Jesse Ball was the choice of one of our lovely book group members Armen. I look forward to Armen’s choices because he always picks something I wouldn’t have heard of and often from a far-off land. This one just didn’t do it for me though. Maybe it was just a bit ‘too Kafka’ for me and you know I don’t always like that

I hope you enjoyed that whistle-stop tour of the books I’ve been reading and maybe saw one or two you are interested in.

What books have you read in the last six months that really stood out as favourites?

Anne Frank – Diary of a Young Girl

5 stars5/5

At almost twice the age Anne was when she write the last lines in her famous diary, I think back and try to remember back to my own inner-monologue as a teenager.

Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl Penguin 60th Anniversary Edition

Penguin, 2007, 60th Anniversary Edition, 368 pages - personal library

On one hand I wonder at her expressive writing and then remember that I as a young person I naturally had a certain freedom of expression and might have been as bold, although not as eloquent! I believe it is Anne’s candidness, which is both innocent and knowing that has made Anne’s diary appeal to millions of readers. As a young person you instantly relate, and as a ‘grown-up’ you suddenly remember what it was like to feel all those complicated emotions. Although it cannot be denied that Anne is self aware, there is an unguarded spirit that is not usually found in adult writing. I can see why some people have refused to believe it was real, because she writes so well, but then it is my view that people often do not give young people credit for the ability to question and for their depth of thinking. Perhaps those people have truly forgotten their youthful selves and how serious and important their concerns were to them.

I picked up my copy of The Diary of a Young Girl when I visited Holland last August. In my Religious Education classes at school I learned the contextual significance of Anne’s diary but I didn’t actually read it, and I have to admit that going to visit the Anne Frank Huis wasn’t top of my list of things to do. Then a friend at work warmly recommended I add it to my itinerary on my visit to Amsterdam and I’m glad to say that it was a truly excellent because of how thoughtfully the exhibition was put together. It also made me want to finally read the diary so I picked up a copy in the shop and when Savidge Reads chose it as one of his books to read before his 30th (his recent review is here) I bumped it up my TBR.

Bookcase - Hidden Stairway - Anne Frank

Amazing - the hidden stairway behind the bookcase - and rather appropriate for a book-blog don't you think?

Well by the 5 star rating and my effusive comments you must have guessed already that I found Anne’s diary to be a fantastic read. I was completely drawn into Anne’s world, shared her moments of speculation, boredom, anger, claustrophobia and fear, sheer delight at simple treats and her emotional ups and downs with her Mother (some seriously harsh words!), her much-admired Father, Peter, and the aggravating Mr Dussel and Mrs van Dann. At times Anne is petulant, irritating. At times she is grateful. Throughout she remains honest and her words sound out her feelings as clear as a bell. Curiously, I didn’t feel overly emotional while reading it, but when I read the afterword her story really hit home. I suppose it’s because by the end of the book I felt as if I had come to know Anne, warts and all, and then to read in black and white what I already knew – that she died in a concentration camp after all that time hiding away – I just felt such sadness. What a waste of a life, and how representative of the lives wasted in that war, through hatred and ignorance. Well I’m really getting on my soapbox now, but it is a story which compels you to consider that fact and it is a heavy warning.

The funny thing is that though we know that the story ends sadly and there are  bitter moments of expression – Anne’s ‘violent outbursts on paper’, but the diary is mostly joyful and optimistic – full of beautiful words and thoughts.

“I’m young and strong and living through a big adventure; I’m right in the middle of it and can’t spend all day complaining because it’s impossible to have any fun! I’m blessed with many things: happiness, a cheerful disposition and strength. Every day I feel myself maturing, I feel liberation drawing near, I feel the beauty of nature and  the goodness of the people around me. Every day I think what a fascinating and amusing adventure this is. With all that, why should I despair?”

The Diary of a Young Girl is unmissable piece of History, and more than that it is a great piece of writing.

To sign off, a couple of photographs from my trip to the Netherlands last year which I never got around to posting at the time. [Photo credit goes to the OH as usual]. “Memories mean more to me than dresses” – Anne Frank.

Houses on the Canal, Amsterdam, Netherlands / Holland

Houses on the canal, Amsterdam.

Windmills - Kinderdijk, Netherlands.

Have you read Anne Frank’s diary or studied it at school?

Do you remember how you felt as a teenager (if you’re not any more!)?

The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant

4 stars4/5

In The Red Tent, Anita Diamant takes a fleeting moment in the Old Testament of the Bible and transforms it into an epic narrative.

The Red Tent

Pan, 2001 edition (first published in 1997), 386 pages - personal library

Dinah is a biblical character around which a violent set of events occur. If you are religious or at all acquainted with theology, you will know what they are. The Red Tent turns the story on its head by telling the story through the eyes of Dinah herself and turns her from a victim, into a fascinating protagonist.

This is a book to read if you love folklore and storytelling. Dinah’s narrative drew me into the world so that I felt as if I was sitting down next to her, listening.

“We have been lost to each other for so long. My name means nothing to you. My memory is dust.”

From the very first line I was excited to know more about this woman and I felt it was going to be a story of adventure, love and betrayal.

One of the strongest themes in The Red Tent is women’s relationships. How Motherhood, Sisterhood and female hierachies work in a situation where it is perfectly normal for a man to have multiple wives. I’ve no idea what it was really like of course, but Diamant’s vision of this time in history feels so authentic, it is as if she was there observing as part of the family of Jacob. She imagines the concerns of the women in the group and the dynamic between them created by their contrasting personalities. Leah is arguably the strongest of the women and mother to Dinah, beautiful and tempestuous Rachel, and the ‘lesser wives’ generous and humble Bilhah and spiritual Zilpah. As you would expect in such a situation, feelings of jealousy and spite are present but are also tempered by the bond connecting the women and the common experiences of childbearing and daily rituals. While the narrative never makes a clear moral comment on a man having multiple wives, perhaps it is telling that the real romance in the book is that of Dinah and Shechem who is the prince of Egypt who have an intense and exclusive love.

The real drama in the book comes from the action taken by Simon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers. What makes the story so heartbreaking is that as a reader you have come to know and empathise with these strong female personalities and appreciate the loving bonds between them, yet just a moment of unwanted violent revenge spurred by illogic male pride changes everything.

A word of warning, The Red Tent is a book more sympathetic to female characters than male and the first half of the book is pretty much all about the relationships between the women. For anyone with a very traditional view of the story of Jacob, I can also imagine that it would be challenging as it plays so strongly with the received view of events. That said, male or female please don’t let these things put you off. The Red Tent is a fascinating story – a real yarn – that has the power to transport you to a completely different era.

Thank you to Anirban from the Riverside Readers book group who gave me this a year ago in a ‘Secret Santa’ book swap.

Have you read The Red Tent and if so did you enjoy it?

Eline Vere by Louis Couperus

5 stars

5/5

I planned to spend Sunday reading through extracts from the Waterstone’s Eleven choices, that I picked up on Thursday, but instead gave in to my desire to finish the last 80 pages of the WONDERFUL Eline Vere.

Pushkin Press, 2010 edition (first published in 1889), 540 pages - personal library

Thank you, thank you to my ‘Secret Santa’ Armen (hmm.. not so secret!) who gave me this Pushkin Press translated Dutch classic novel by Louis Couperus at December’s Riverside Readers book group. I have thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this delicious doorstop of a novel for the past three weeks. Before I continue, I want to do a little plug for Pushkin Press. I’ve only read two novels by this publisher of translated European literature, but this, and Journey by Moonlight have completely won me over as an advocate for their titles – Literary gems, beautifully bound quality paperbacks with yummy illustrated covers in muted tones. (NB neither of these were sent by the publisher – I just really dig this publisher!) Anyhow, to the novel itself…

My experience of reading Eline Vere was a bit like watching a very good period drama series on the television. A sumptuous visual experience conjured up by descriptions of the vivid colours of dress and opulent surroundings of well-to-do members of Dutch society at the close of the 19th century. The narrative is frequently broken up by intimate tête-à- têtes between the different characters, sometimes philosophical, sometimes frivolous, occasionally candid and cutting. This creates the impression of multiple little scenes, so that although this is long book it is broken up into enjoyable and manageable segments.

I haven’t gone straight into describing the plot because although there is a central character and several plot-lines, this book is really driven by a set of circumstances and the relationships between different characters and how they react to each other. There is much discussion of the role of fate in this novel and yet although the main character Eline, comes to believe that her future is pre-destined, what Couperus seems to play with as a device is really the idea of chance – how a word uttered or held back can make a mark on a person’s future, which can be indelible depending on the nature of the person. And this idea of a persons nature is really key to the novel as it centres around a young woman who despite having everything in her favour – riches, beauty, grace and intelligence – is unable to take control of her own will to the extent that she undermines her own chances of happiness.

Eline is an incredibly complex character. A less skilful author would be unable to gain the reader’s empathy for this charming yet doleful figure. How frustrating she should be, but yet I was sympathetic to her because despite orchestrating her own misery she genuinely seemed paralysed by her mental state. Couperus’s subtlety in conveying each characters’ core ‘being’, giving the reader insight into their mind is almost magical and it was a genuine pleasure to be introduced to the contrasting personalities in the novel. I loved the outwardly frivolous yet wilful Frederique (Freddie) and revelled in the descriptions of young Lili Verstraten aware and happy with her own indolence –

“She was never bored, even when she was idle. On the contrary, she would sit back and enjoy the notions drifting through her mind: rose petals wafting on a gentle breeze, soap bubbles, fragile and iridescent.”

But as you have probably determined by my earlier comments Eline Vere is not simply a frothy book. Couperus’ insight into people, and their sense of self-awareness is remarkable. His writing is beautifully descriptive yet well paced. Themes of love, free-will, spirituality and psychology are interwoven deftly into the story. This isn’t a novel to consume in one sitting – as that would be rather too much, like eating a whole pile of profiteroles! When enjoyed at a languid pace however, this is a richly rewarding read.

Has anyone read any of Couperus’ other novels? Can you recommend any translated foreign classics?

The Visitor, by Maeve Brennan

3 stars

3/5

Originally written in the 1940s, The Visitor is a novella about a young woman named Anastasia, who returns to Ireland after living in Paris for six years. When she arrives, her Grandmother – Mrs King, greets her with a cool manner and instead of finding a welcoming home, is faced with the realisation that she is considered a ‘visitor’.

Atlantic Books, 2001 edition (first published in the 1940s), 86 pages - personal library

I’m not quite sure what I feel about The Visitor. I enjoyed the way that the novel had an element of suspense about it. Brennan builds an unsettling atmosphere with curious characters who either keep a cold reserve (Mrs King) or who are, at the other end of the scale, overwhelmingly emotional with an undertone of desperation (Miss Kilbride). Like Daphne du Maurier’s Manderley, the house appeared at times to have it’s own creepy personality. Despite, the suspenseful start, I was a bit baffled by the ending because I couldn’t decide if it was really quite disturbing or a bit of a let down. I think that I was expecting something more dramatic, whereas the drama is really all in the psychology of the novel and the way that Anastasia feels and the other characters respond to her.

I think that there is also an important element of the reader’s perspective. The Grandmother is portrayed as a monstrous person, but perhaps this is because we experience everything from Anastasia’s point of view. There is clearly an important piece of the puzzle missing – it is implied that Anastasia’s mother and the Grandmother were always at odds and that Mrs King was an unhealthy influence on the family. That said, is Anastasia, or more to the point her understanding of the situation reliable or not?

At certain points in the novella, I found my empathy for Anastasia faded. She seemed to be missing some vital spark of self-preservation. This frustrated me, but possibly being a woman who has grown up in a modern-world, makes it harder to relate, and I suppose Brennan isn’t exactly trying to portray a heroine – but a situation and a impression of Anastasia’s circumstances.

I couldn’t help but compare Brennan’s style to that of Barbara Comyns, who was writing during a similar period. I think she teases out the nastier elements of human behaviour in a more disturbing way and somehow her quirky writing packs more of a punch. The Visitor was an interesting and clever piece of writing but it felt incomplete, and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

For a different perspective, you might like to read Savidge Reads’ review who in contrast to me appreciated the lack of drama, but was also a little non-plussed by the ending and also this glowing review at Reading Matters which also adds some useful context about the author.

Have you read this or any of Brennan’s other writing and would you recommend reading more?

In Love and Trouble, by Alice Walker

5 stars

5/5

I have loved reading this book. In the last few weeks it’s felt as if I haven’t been able to stop, but each time I picked Alice Walker’s collection of short stories, I felt as if time was suspended and I was transported completely to heat of the Southern America.

The Women's Press Ltd, 1984 edition (first published 1973), 144 pages - personal library

Alice Walker, in In Love and Trouble tells us stories of black women living in the rural American South. They are a mix of the strange, the devastatingly sad and totally delightful. They are brief, yet deep. In just a few lines, Walker drops you into someone’s life and you feel as if you had been a fly on the wall all along.

Flipping back through the pages, I would find it difficult to pick a favourite story, but to give you a feel for them I will highlight a handful.

Her Sweet Jerome is the story of a woman who falls in love with a studious school teacher. Handsome and ten years younger than her, she desires him so much that she won’t rest until “I were Mr and Mrs Jerome Franklin Washington the Third, and that’s the truth!”. But after she gets her wish, she becomes suspicious of his behaviour. Though she supports him financially and lavishes him with beautiful things, the relationship is troubled. She lacks his “eddicashion” and is conscious of the fact and that she is older. He has no respect for her, beating her black and blue whenever she opens her mouth. She believes that he is cheating on her in some way and in desperation, rifles through his clothes and belongings until dramatically she discovers that what he is being distracted by is to her even more devastating than she could have guessed.

In The Child who Favoured Daughter, an angry father sits on his watch awaiting the return of his teenage daughter. Memories from the past, of a white man damaging his dearest sister whose face, his daughter resembles haunt him. Discovering love letters from his daughter to her love – a “white devil” – a dark and destructive jealous fury wells up within him and he viciously takes his anger out on the girl that he loves.

To Hell With Dying is the final story in the collection and describes the love of a little girl for family friend, Mr Sweet. A troubled man, but kind and charming Mr Sweet plays with the children and plays them songs, sometimes happy and sometimes melancholy on his steel guitar. A drunk and a diabetic Mr Sweet’s ailing health leave him laid out and the children are called to bring him back from the dead numerous times with tickles and kisses. Later, the little girl who narrates the story has grown up and left for university but drops everything to run back home to Mr Sweet one last time.

Walker manages to paint heavy and conflicted human emotions with a light brush. She roots the reader firmly in the sense of time and place, demonstrating a turning point where young people are struggling against prejudice and also the deep seated anger of a previous generation scarred by racism. I consumed each of these unique stories slowly, and as a collection they left me feeling totally satisfied. The richness and vitality of Walker’s writing makes this book an utter pleasure to read.