H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

Five words from the blurb: goshawk, taming, grief, nature, process

H is for Hawk gives an account of the winter in which the author acquires and trains Mabel, a young goshawk. This period of time coincides with the death of Helen Macdonald’s father so there is an emotional rawness that penetrates everything. Much of her grief is reflected in her attitude towards Mabel and these heightened emotions are beautifully described.

The writing in this book is excellent. I don’t have a special interest in birds, but Helen Macdonald managed to captivate me with her simple story. Emotion bounces from the page and I could vividly imagine every scene she describes:

The landscape is changing before my eyes. What I see is not just winter moving onwards to spring; it is a land slowly filling with spots and lines of beauty. There’s a brittle sun out on the hill this lunchtime, and a fresh westerly wind. Mabel’s pupils shrink to opiated pinpricks as I unhood her, both of her eyes narrow with happiness.

The English countryside has a special place in the heart of this book and I think any nature lover will enjoy reading about the wide variety of flora and fauna. There were some scenes in which the hawk hunts prey. I was impressed by the concentration and speed of these birds and found these scenes exhilarating, but some might find their graphic nature disturbing.

H is for Hawk also includes information about TH White, a man who wrote a book on falconry in the 1930s. It was interesting to see how their lives mirrored each other, but I found these sections less interesting – probably because they lacked the intense emotion of the rest of the book.

Overall this was an impressive book that gave me a new respect for those who train birds of prey. Not much happens, but this didn’t matter as the simple tension of the bird’s unpredictable behaviour was enough to hold my attention. Recommended to anyone who enjoys nature writing.

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Flight of Passage by Rinker Buck

Flight of Passage

Five words from the blurb: plane, boys, across, America, adventure

A few weeks ago, in an effort to ease my fear of flying, I requested recommendations for positive stories about aviation. Alex suggested Flight of Passage and I’m so pleased that she did as a passion for flying oozes from the page and I now have a bank of positive images to combat the negative ones I’ve seen on the news - it is exactly what I was looking for!

Flight of Passage is written by Rinker Buck, who was fifteen-years-old when he flew from New Jersey to California with his seventeen-year-old brother Kernhan. The pair bought an old plane and spent the winter lovingly restoring it in their barn. They set off in the summer of 1966 and it is easy to see why they became minor celebrities as news of their adventure spread across the country:

buck1

Buck and Kern, the teenage pilots

The book gives detailed descriptions of flight, but it wasn’t boring and technical in the way I found Saint-Exupery to be.

I constantly peered forward to the altimeter on the instrument panel, whacking my brother on his shoulder when he let it get in the way. The little hand on the dial couldn’t move off that 6, and when it did, I wiggled and fishtailed and nudged the stick to move the nose into better wind, to get us back up.

The book was perfectly structured to enable the reader to understand the process of flying. The technical difficulties they encountered showed how resilient aeroplanes are and it was reassuring to understand how pilots are able to overcome problems. It was especially good to know how much can be achieved, even with an old, basic plane.

As well as being a fantastic book about aviation it also showed the fragile relationship between teenage boys and their father. There was a real emotional depth to the story and I loved seeing the way in which they matured over the course of their journey.

Flight of Passage was a fascinating book and contained exactly the right mixture of suspense, information and emotion. Their youthful enthusiasm was contagious and I think it has done a lot to alleviate my fear of flying. For that reason alone I highly recommend it.

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The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Miniaturist

Five words from the blurb: truth, hidden, obsession, betrayal, love

The Miniaturist is set in Amsterdam during the 17th century and follows 18-year-old Nella Oortman as she begins a new life in the city. She marries Johannes, a rich merchant, but unfortunately he barely notices her and the household is packed with secrets. She feels isolated, but when she complains her husband buys her a miniature version of their house, including exact replicas of everything in it. This strange gift seems to have some magical properties and Nella soon becomes captivated by the miniature world.

Eight dolls are laid out on a strip of blue velvet. They are so lifelike, so delicate, items of such unreachable perfection. Nella feels like a giant, picking one up as if it might break.

This book started off really well – it was atmospheric, contained well developed characters and had an original premise that intrigued me.

Unfortunately everything came apart in the middle. The plot began to flag and many of the best elements of the book disappeared. As the forward momentum was lost I increasingly noticed flaws within the writing.  There were many wonderful elements and some of the scenes will remain with me for a long time, but those looking for outstanding literature will be disappointed.

The magical realism aspects of the novel were wonderful and had a creepiness that few other books have been able to create, but unfortunately these weren’t followed through. There was no adequate resolution to this thread of the story and so the ending lacked the special spark it deserved.

This review sounds negative, but I did enjoy the reading The Miniaturist. My criticisms are mainly due to the fact that the first half of this book was outstanding so I felt let down as the brilliance began to unravel. The positives do outweigh the negatives and the multiple elements of this book, coupled with its readability, make it a great book club choice – I could discuss it for hours!

Recommended to anyone looking for an intriguing read!

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

Jessie Burton is as good as Daphne Du Maurier. Utter Biblio

It is intelligently written although it is not for readers who want speedy action and easily-definable characters.  The Elephant in the Writing Room

Nella feels less like a character than a vehicle through which Burton can make social commentary on the life and times of women in 17th century Amsterdam.  Curious Animal

 

July Summary and Plans for August

I’m better! It’s been a slow recovery, but I’m finally well again. After a lot of tests I was diagnosed with myocarditis – a viral infection of the heart. Several months of no exercise mean that I’m not as fit as I was before, but hopefully I’ll be able to change that over the coming weeks.

My illness has changed my reading habits slightly – I now have little tolerance for books I’m not enjoying and so am abandoning even more than before. I’ve also found myself enjoying a book of short stories (The Moth – see my sidebar). It’s a very strange experience for me! I wonder if I’ll enjoy others now?

Book of the Month:

After the Bombing

Books Reviewed in July:

After the Bombing by Clare Morrall 

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey 

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl 

The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (Audio Book) 

Darkling by Laura Beatty 

Red Leaves by Thomas H Cook 

Plans for August

I’m now in the middle of the school holidays and so am spending my time with my boys. We’re currently having an extension built on our house so it’s not a safe place for them to play. This means we’re busy travelling around England visiting friends and relatives. We’re also off to Florida for a few weeks to enjoy the excitement of Disney World/Universal Studios and whilst there I’m looking forward to meeting Sandy, one of my oldest blogging friends. All this means that my blogging will be sporadic for the next few weeks.

I’ll be back to full speed in September; when I’ll hopefully have a lovely new house and lots of stories about my time in America.

I hope you have a fantastic August!

Mini Reviews: Red Leaves, Man’s Search for Meaning and The Sunne In Splendour

Red Leaves

Red Leaves by Thomas H Cook

Five words from the blurb: son, suspect, murder, brother, family

This reads like a watered down version of We Need to Talk About Kevin. It reminded me The Good Father by Noah Hawley and numerous other books that have tried to copy Lionel Shriver’s outstanding novel. Recommended to those who are too disturbed by Shriver’s powerful writing and would like to approach the subject in a lighter way.

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Man's Search For Meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Five words from the blurb: Holocaust, survivor, hope, life, human

Powerful book about how man can find hope in even the darkest of places. Written by a man who survived Auschwitz, this is a poignant reminder of the strength of the human spirit. Disturbing in places, but positive overall. Recommended.

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The Sunne in Splendour

The Sunne In Splendour by Sharon Penman

Five words from the blurb: Richard, loyalties, royal, battle, betrayed

I went to see the fabulous re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury a few weeks ago, but because I knew nothing about the battle I decided to do a little research before going. I discovered this book contained the details and so bought a copy. It started really well, but the number of characters ballooned (to 50+?) and because I don’t know my history very well I found it impossible to keep up. If you love your historical fiction then this is for you, but I’m afraid I didn’t have the interest required to complete all 1000+ pages. I highly recommend going to The Battle of Tewkesbury though! 

DNF

The 2014 Booker Longlist

The longlist for the 2014 Booker Prize has just been announced. I’m impressed by the selection as it appears to be a nice mixture of themes and styles and some are new to me. Five books aren’t published until September, so we’ll have to wait a while for those. 

The 2014 Booker Longlist:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Five words from the blurb: Burma, prisoner, camp, starvation, letter

 
The Blazing World
 

The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

Five words from the blurb: female, artist, experiment, conceals, identity
  
The Bone Clocks
 

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

Five words from the blurb: teenage, runaway, asylum, Metaphysical, shadows 
  

 History of the Rain

History of the Rain by Niall Williams

Five words from the blurb: Ireland, twin, hopeful, ancestors, farming

The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

Five words from the blurb: saga, Bengali, society, fractures, family

Us

Us by David Nicholls

Five words from the blurb: family, husbands, wives, parents, children

Orfeo

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Five words from the blurb: composer, police, experiment, music, fugitive

The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

(no cover or blurb available)

How to be both

How to be both by Ali Smith

Five words from the blurb: art, versatility, love, playful, mysterious

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Five words from the blurb: sister, vanished, unique, trouble, story

The Wake

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth

Five words from the blurb: battle, Hastings, Norman, resistance, fighters

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

Five words from the blurb: New York, dentist, privacy, Facebook, sanity

J

J by Howard Jacobson

Five words from the blurb: love, questions, brutality, suspicion, denial

My thoughts

I’ve only tried three of them:

The Narrow Road to the Deep North was an impressive book, with fantastic writing, but I’m afraid I abandoned it as the subject matter was too dark. 

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves was a lovely book, but it was ruined for me as I accidentally discovered the spoiler in advance and I think the magic of this book is lost if you know the twist

Blazing World was an impressive book - see my review

Of those that I haven’t tried I’m most looking forward to reading Orfeo and The Wake. I haven’t had much success with novels by Howard Jacobson (don’t get his humour), Joshua Ferris (too experimental) or Ali Smith (too experimental) in the past and so may give them a miss unless someone can convince me they are vastly different/better than their previous novels. The rest look interesting and I look forward to trying them, but I’m in no rush, especially as most aren’t even out yet.

What do you think of the longlist?