November 29, 2010

Perfect Lives - Polly Samson

I wasn't much of a short story reader before I began blogging and I'm not sure if it is the blogging itself that has made me take the leap into this genre or more so the great recommendations I get from reading other bloggers experiences with short fiction.

I first read about Perfect Lives over at Dovegreyreader and her review tempted me to pick up my own copy of this collection. Unlike Dovegreyreader though I greedily read through these stories one after the other - I just couldn't bring myself to put them down and leave the English seaside village.

Perfect Lives reminded me a lot of Olive Kitteridge in terms of its structure - it is a collection of short stories but all of the stories are based on characters living in a particular village in the English countryside so that a peripheral character you meet in one story might become one of the main character's in another story and so on so that there is an interwoven community of characters and story lines created.

My favourite stories of the collection were the first story in the book, "The Egg", whose revelation part way through actually made me gasp out loud and "Ivan Knows" which focuses on a little boys infatuation with and adoration of his babysitter. But having chosen favourites I now feel sad for the other stories that did not get chosen - as they were so very wonderful too and certainly not lacking in detail and emotion. I think with short stories in particular there is a strong instinctual feeling about what you connect with as a reader - there is a such a skill in being able to capture and hold the attention of your audience in such a brief period. I will now be going back to find Polly Samson's first short story collection - and hope that she writes another one very quickly!

November 28, 2010

Saturday - Ian McEwan

I have continued my Ian McEwan fest this week by reading Saturday, his novel that focuses on one Saturday in the life of London based neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne.

The personal and the political collide in this novel as it is set after the tense period of 9/11 and on the day that millions took to the streets to protest the predicted invasion of Iraq by the allied forces. In amongst this political activity is the "normal" Saturday routine of Henry as he looks forward to playing squash with a colleague, check in on the condition of his patients, attend to his roles as parent and husband and prepare a meal for a family reunion that will take place at his house later that night.

Except it is evident from the beginning that this Saturday is possibly not going to follow the regular path when Henry is, for some unknown reason, woken very early to witness a burning plane from his bedroom window.

The narrative of the novel weaves between the action taking place on the Saturday in question to Henry's memories and recollections of his recent and not so recent past. It is in this way that we learn about Henry's wife, Rosalind and his two adult children, Daisy and Theo and the significant parts they play in Henry's life. We also learn about Henry's job as a neurosurgeon and the passion and commitment he has for this role. Apparently McEwan spent two years following an actual neurosurgeon around watching him at his job and this clearly shows in the detail and precision McEwan conveys about neurosurgery in the book.

I quite enjoyed this particular detail (I have worked in a neurosurgery ward of a major hospital and it was a joy to see the area detailed so accurately) however some of the other intense details portrayed in the book (such as learning step by step how to make a fish stew!) I could have done without.

McEwan built the tension in this story wonderfully - the balance between what was happening in Henry's day corresponded nicely with what was happening in greater London at the time and it was clear that something was building to crisis point which kept me hooked into the story. I was left wondering if it was all just a little too dramatic though??

I'm still a huge McEwan fan - he builds and tells fantastic stories and characters - I might just take a break for a little while and read something a little less threatening to the heart!

November 21, 2010

Madame Bovary - Gustave Flaubert

I had originally ordered the new Lydia Davis translation of Madame Bovary so that I could take part in Frances's read along but unfortunately my book did not arrive in time for me to join in. However, it did mean that I was able to take my time with the gorgeous book and even though I have read Madame Bovary before this time the reading experience was much more pleasant.

For a start (and I know this probably shouldn't matter but it so does!) the book looks divine - the cover design is perfect and suits the tone and subject matter of the book. Moving on to the content I have to say that this is my first experience of really seeing how important a translator's job is. I have previously not given much thought to what particular translation of a classic book I buy or read - I have always thought it couldn't possibly make that much of a difference. How wrong I was! Even though this was my second reading of Madame Bovary it felt like me first - this reading felt like a completely different story and approach and I was hooked!

I think the sadness and tragedy of the story struck me so much more this time - I was practically crying for Emma from the very beginning and begging her not to make certain choices. I felt so much more engaged with the story and the character of Emma in particular this time around. I felt frustrated by the social and historical period that placed women in this situation in regards to marriage and choice - although I can also see many parallels to today's society and the emphasis on marriage and partnership as the only valid life path for women.

November 16, 2010

Amsterdam - Ian McEwan

I didn't have a lot of time to devote to reading over the past weekend so I was on the look out for a sharp, quick read that would hold my interest and satisfy my lust for a good story.

Amsterdam was the perfect choice! The only other book by McEwan I have read is Atonement - which I think is a wonderful book in so many ways but for some reason I have never read another novel of his up until now (maybe I was afraid another book would ruin the image of almost perfection I had for his writing??).

Amsterdam starts off with two old friends, Clive and Vernon, attending the funeral of another one of their long time friends - and lover to both of the men at various stages in their lives - Molly.

The funeral scene enables McEwan to set up the history of the friendships and the relationships between these three characters and others who have been a part of their history and present.

Clive is a composer about to finalise a symphony he is writing to celebrate the upcoming millennium and Vernon is a newspaper editor - both men are successful in their careers and clearly see their professional roles as a defining part of who they are.

Throughout the novel both Clive and Vernon's careers - and their dedication to them - will come into question as they are both placed in the position of making two very different moral decisions that will impact on their careers, and subsequently, their lives.

I found this book gripping - I think McEwan has a fantastic ability to write the inner minds of characters in such a way as to make you feel you are in their space with them. Reading other reviews of this book it seems that many readers were not happy or convinced by the ending of this book - and if I was being completely honest I would probably have to agree with most of them but the way that McEwan draws you in to this story made it virtually impossible for me not to stay with him right until the very end. That's the sign of a brilliant story teller for me.

I'm definitely on the look out for more McEwan reading now - can you tell me where you think I should look next?

November 12, 2010

Testimony - Anita Shreve

Testimony is a book I have had on my shelf for the longest time - pretty much since it was released in 2008 (in fact I think it was a Christmas present from my parents that year). I must have been waiting for just the right time to read it because when I had a day off from work a few weeks ago I managed to read the whole book in one day, and in pretty much one sitting.

The way Testimony is written and structured encourages the "one sitting" reading. It is narrated alternatively by different characters and as each chapter is read we learn a little bit more of the story from a slightly different angle and with a slightly different focus that just makes us want to keep reading to get the next little piece of the puzzle.

The book is set in an exclusive New England boarding school which is thrown into a scandal when a video tape is discovered and distributed showing several of the students engaged in sex acts - the students being 3 boys and 1 girl (and another student who has captured it all on camera).

The book focuses on telling the story of what happens after the tape has been made public from the viewpoints of the students involved, teachers, parents and other students and community members.

As I was reading this book I found I was thinking about it from different angles myself. As a reader I was impressed with Shreve's ability to build a story and create controversy and debate by having different characters hold very different views and opinions about the acts that had taken place - I think this would be a fantastic book for a reading group to take on. On the the other hand I was also reading it as a feminist, a woman and a social worker who has worked with women and men who have experienced sexual assault and from that perspective I found myself becoming very angry and frustrated with some of the views that were expressed by some of the characters. I think this passion only contributed to my reading experience though as I found myself fully engaged with this book and the final outcome. I'm not sure why I left it on my shelf for so long!

November 11, 2010

Great House - Nicole Krauss

I am going to go out on a limb (although personally I don't really feel as though it is that big!) and say that I have found my best read of 2010 and possibly one of my all time top ten favourite reads - I loved Great House that much.

My first Nicole Krauss read was The History Of Love - which I also adored saying about it at the time; "It is simply stunning" and at the risk of sounding like a broken record I am definitely going to have to echo that sentiment in regards to Great House.

Great House weaves several people's stories together with the central and connecting character being a large wooden desk which is first introduced to the reader in this way;

I looked across the room at the wooden desk at which I had written seven novels, and on whose surface, in the cone of light cast by a lamp, lay the piles of pages and notes that were to constitute an eighth. One drawer was slightly ajar, one of the nineteen drawers, some small and some large, whose odd number and strange array, I realized now, on the cusp of their being suddenly taken from me, had come to signify a kind of guiding if mysterious order in my life, an order that, when my work was going well, took on an almost mystical quality.

The desk is described in varying ways by different characters - depending upon their relationship to and connection with it. The author of the above quote is Nadia - an American writer who originally acquired the desk from the Chilean poet, Daniel Varsky when he returns to his homeland. The desk is meant to be on loan but when Varsky is arrested and then disappears Nadia ends up holding on to the desk and building it into her writing routine and success.

The book is told in alternating chapters from different characters who have had a connection with the desk in the past - or who are going to have a connection to it in the future. In their stories the desk becomes far more than just a simple piece of furniture and we see the meaning it holds for each of the characters and how it has impacted on their lives and decisions.

The writing in Great House is haunting and memorable and the structure is perfection. Each character was so richly drawn and their memories, purpose and goals were clearly portrayed to the reader - although not so much that I didn't feel as though I could not attach my own meaning to the story through my reading.

I love, loved, loved this book and am already ready to go back and read it all over again.

November 07, 2010


My beautiful roses from last weekend have succumbed to nature - but I did manage to make use of their gorgeous petals before they said goodbye.
The weather has once again been toying with us this weekend - Saturday was wet and miserable but today spring made an appearance again.
I took the opportunity of having to be inside on Saturday to start reading my new copy of Madame Bovary. Unfortunately it did not arrive in time for me to join in with Frances's read along but I am enjoying my reading of it now just the same. I totally agree with what JoAnn posted recently about the importance of translation - I have read Madame Bovary before but I do not remember it being this fluid and emotional - I am so caught up in the writing and the story this time around.
My fluffy boy has even been tempted to dive in...

November 01, 2010

The Distant Hours - Kate Morton

Kate Morton has her winning formula and her latest book, The Distant Hours, shows she's sticking to it - and why wouldn't she? It's creating one bestseller after the other. As in her two previous books, The Shifting Fog and The Forgotten Garden Morton weaves together story lines from the present and past, has a heroine in each time period - each more lovelorn than the other, sets the majority of the book in a beautiful and historical part of the English countryside and throws in a long lost secret (usually involving the writing of a letter or a book) to be uncovered.

Now that I think about it - it definitely does sound like a winning formula - at least it was for me in relation to the first two books, unfortunately for The Distant Hours the formula has now become a little boring and predictable.

The heroines in The Distant Hours are varied and numerous, the two main ones being Edith (Edie)Burchill a young woman working for the publishing business in London in the present day and Juniper Blythe, a talented and ethereal woman who goes to London at the outset of World War 2 and falls in love. These two characters are brought together by Edie's mother, Meredith, who at the start of the war is sent to the countryside as part of the evacuation of children from London to stay with Juniper's family in their family home, Milderhurst Castle. Juniper's father is the world famous children's author, Raymond Blythe and his impact on Juniper and her two older half-sisters, Persephone and Seraphina is felt by Meredith and later relayed to Edie who stumbles upon the castle in the present day and thereby bringing the connection full circle.

The Distant Hours was a compelling and easy read - it is a large book at 499 pages but I found myself half way through it in almost no time at all - the problem being that I never felt as though anything of any significance was happening. I felt I had worked out the formula, and therefore the conclusion, very early on in the piece and the characters themselves were too stereotypical and predictable to interest me.

Definitely a great holiday read for when you just want to tune out and not have to work too hard with your reading but if you are after substance and originality it might be best to look elsewhere.