February Summary and Plans for March

February was a disappointing reading month. Most books had great potential at the beginning, but failed to carry the brilliance through to the end. The standout that bucked this trend was Into That Forest by Louis Nowra, a wonderfully atmospheric book about two girls rescued by Tasmanian tigers. I highly recommend that you get hold of a copy!

Book of the Month:

Into That Forest

Books Reviewed in February:

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra 

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis (audio book) 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (audio book) 

The Darkroom of Damocles by W.F. Hermans 

If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie 

Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni 

Ben in the World by Doris Lessing stars21

Plans for March

At the moment I am listening to the audio version of The Martian by Andy Weir and I’m loving it! It combines survival and great science –  two of my favourite subjects. I hope to have a review up soon.

I am also taking part in Stu’s Eastern European Month by reading The Book Of Fathers by Miklos Vamos. It’s really good so far, but I’m a bit worried the magical realism is going to take over. I’ll let you know how I found it soon.

Next week I’m going to see David Hempleman-Adams talk at my local library so I’ve got his new book, No Such Thing As Failure: The Extraordinary Life of a Great British Adventurer, to read in advance of the evening. I’m looking forward to hearing him speak, but after seeing the dangerous trips he enjoys I am really glad I’m not his wife!

March is packed with fantastic new releases. I’m lucky enough to have review copies in advance so I will be reading:

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen (I’ve nearly finished this chunkster and it is amazing!)

I also plan to read Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng and The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen.

I have high hopes that this could be the best reading month I’ve had in a long time. Fingers crossed!

I hope you have a fantastic March too!

 

Mini Reviews: The Sweetest Thing, Esperanza Street and If I Fall, If I Die

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If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie

Five words from the blurb: never, outside, mother, anxiety, freedom

If I Fall, If I Die had an amazing beginning – the observations of Will, a child living with an agoraphobic mother, were perfectly captured and the claustrophobic atmosphere was built up beautifully. Unfortunately it all seemed to fall apart when Will ventured outside. The other characters weren’t as strong and the plot meandered too much.

Michael Christie does a fantastic job of capturing the anxiety and emotion of mental illness, and this book might be worth reading for these aspects alone, but don’t go into it looking for a compelling plot.

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Esperanza Street

Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni

Five words from the blurb: Philippines, destruction, community, houseboy, choices

Esperanza Street is another book with a great start, but a disappointing middle/end. The novel opens with eight-year-old Joseph beginning work as a houseboy in Puerto, a coastal town in the Philippines. I immediately bonded with Joseph and loved learning about his difficult life. As the book progressed a large number of other characters were added. I found it difficult to keep up with them all and I failed to form an emotional connection to them. This detachment meant that I began to notice other problems with the book. There was a lack of atmosphere and I didn’t feel any real passion for the country. I later learnt that the author isn’t from the Philippines and wonder if this is the reason that the book isn’t as culturally rich as I’d hoped?

Overall this book had some good scenes, especially towards the beginning, but the rest fell a bit flat for me.

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The Sweetest Thing

The Sweetest Thing by Fiona Shaw

Five words from this blurb: Victorian, York, factory, asylum, gentleman

I bought The Sweetest Thing because a quote on the front compared it to Sarah Waters. It is also set in York – a city I know well. Unfortunately this book isn’t in the same league as Fingersmith - it is much lighter and doesn’t contain the atmosphere of a book written by Sarah Waters. If you’re after a simple piece of historical fiction that zips along then you’ll probably love this one, but I prefer the characters to have more depth. After about 100 pages I decided that I didn’t care what was happening and so abandoned it.

DNF

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (Audio Book)

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August 

Five words from the blurb: death, knowledge, life, before, mystery

Harry August was born in 1919, but when he dies he is born again at exactly the same moment – with a complete knowledge of everything that happened during his previous lives. He discovers a small number of other people who experience the same phenomenon. This secret group support each other, sending messages forwards and backwards in time, until one day they receive a worrying message from the future. Harry must use several lifetimes of knowledge to try to prevent an unbelievable tragedy from occurring. 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was chosen by my book group, but I can’t decide whether or not I enjoyed it. There were many things to admire in this book:

  • accurate science with theoretical concepts developed to a high level.
  • a great cast of characters, some deliciously evil.
  • original ideas that stretched the imagination.
  • information about global historical events I was unfamiliar with.
  • a clever concept that managed to stand up to most scrutiny.

Unfortunately the brilliance of this book was undermined by the fact I was bored for most of time I was reading (listening to) it. The gripping scenes were buried in a mountain of mundane behaviour. I appreciate that this was realistic and the meandering nature of living many lives served an important purpose, but I found it very frustrating. At the end of the book everything came together and I admired what the author was trying to achieve, but I’m not sure the effort of reaching that far was worth it. 

The writing style was also quite strange. It had a clipped, almost mechanical feel to it – something probably exacerbated by the narrator. I found it irritating for the first few discs, but after that I managed to cope with it:

“Complexity and simplicity,” he replied. “Time was simple, is simple. We can divide it into simple parts, measure it, arrange dinner by it, drink whisky to its passage. We can mathematically deploy it, use it to express ideas about the observable universe, and yet if asked to explain it in simple language to a child–in simple language which is not deceit, of course–we are powerless. The most it ever seems we know how to do with time is to waste it.”    *

There was also a lot of violence in this book. Harry was tortured on many occasions and the graphic descriptions were occasionally too much for me. 

Overall I can only admire the ambition of this book – not many authors attempt to include quantum physics in their fiction. Unfortunately no one really understands quantum physics and so it could be implied that no one really understands this book either. The majority of my book group abandoned it and half of me wishes I’d done the same. The other half is proud to have reached the end and (thanks to a quantum physics module in my chemistry degree) have had a slightly better understanding of what was happening than most.

Recommended to patient people of a scientific disposition.

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Did you enjoy this book or were you as frustrated as I was?

* Quote taken from Goodreads as I could not take one from the audio version. 

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August has been nominated for an Audie in Science Fiction. I’m surprised as I didn’t think it worked that well on audio.

The Armchair Audies are a group of bloggers shadowing this award. Take a look at the Armchair Audie blog for links to reviews of other shortlisted titles.

In the Time of Madness by Richard Lloyd Parry

In The Time Of Madness: Indonesia on the Edge of Chaos

Five words from the blurb: Indonesia, violence, cannibalism, besieged, crisis

People Who Eat Darkness is my favourite true-crime book so I was excited to read another of Richard Lloyd Parry’s books. Unfortunately In the Time of Madness wasn’t in the same league and I found the brutality too much to bear.

In 1997 Richard Lloyd Parry found himself in Indonesia, reporting on the elections there. By chance he heard about the terrible violence that was taking place in other areas of the country and decided to investigate it.  This led him to witness some of the most savage violence in recent history; including beheadings and cannibalism.

Richard Lloyd Parry is a fantastic journalist, clearly explaining the situation without bias or sentimentality. I loved the way that this book explained the history of Indonesia to me. I was aware of the violence that took place there, but I have to admit that I didn’t know the reason behind it or anything about the different tribes at war with one another. Unfortunately his lack of emotion was a problem for me. It was good to read that it troubled him too:

I had never worked in such conditions before, and nor had anyone I knew. The experience produced two contradictory reactions. The first was relief, together with a guilty pride, in finding myself unable to confront horror without nausea or fear. The second reaction took the form of more troubling questions, which nagged me at odd moments. Why wasn’t I more upset my this? What was wrong with me? I don’t know what to call such an emotion, but it is something close to shame.

The graphic (but never gratuitous) descriptions of violence were too disturbing for me and I found myself skimming sections to avoid adding the terrible imagery to my brain. As the book progressed I was skipping more than I was actually reading.  It lacked mystery/intrigue and it didn’t have the outstanding structure of People Who Eat Darkness so there was no imperative to read on. In the end I had to admit this book wasn’t for me and I abandoned it at about the half way point.

If you have an interest in the history of Indonesia then this book is a must-read, but don’t go near it if you have a delicate nature.

DNF

 

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis (Audio book)

Lost & Found

Narrated by : Helen Walsh, Nicolette McKenzie and Nigel Carrington 

Five words from the blurb: girl, journey, discover, death, hope

Two trends seem to have dominated the fiction market recently:

  • Old people discovering the joys of life and doing adventurous/dangerous things
  • Child narrators, particularly those having a tough life.

Lost and Found manages to combine the two in a charming, but poignant way.

Millie is a seven-year-old girl who is abandoned by her mother after the death of her father. She is discovered by Agatha and Karl, two elderly people with their own set of issues. The trio embark on a journey across Australia in an attempt to reunite Millie with her mother. Lost and Found manages to combine the heartbreaking pain of a neglected child with the issues facing the elderly – wrapping it all together with warmth and gentle humor.

I started off reading a proof copy of this book, but when I was about a third of the way through the publishers contacted me, mentioning the audio version. I requested an audio download and switched to listening instead. This was definitely the right thing to do as the narrators were fantastic. They brought the jokes to life and the entire thing felt much more entertaining. The Australian humor benefited from being read aloud and I think this enabled me to pick up on many of the more subtle references.

It wasn’t great literature, but there were many original concepts that made me stop and think, particularly those involving the innocent logic of a child:

The start date and the end date are always the important bits on the gravestones, written in big letters. The dash between is always so small you can barely see it. Surely the dash should be big and bright and amazing, or not, depending on how you had lived…..Did Errol ever know that his life would be just a dash on a gravestone? That everything he did and all the food he ate and all the car trips he took and the kisses he gave would end up as a line on a rock?

Everything was much larger than life and the reader has to suspend their disbelief on many occasions, but I didn’t mind as it all added to the adventure. If you coped with The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson then this will seem almost plausible!

There were some points in the middle of the book where the story lost a little momentum and I occasionally became frustrated by Agatha’s aggressive rants at the world, but overall this was an entertaining read and it may well go on to win my mythical “ending of the year” award.

Recommended for those looking for an amusing distraction from conventional fiction.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

…there’s an undercurrent of mischievous delight and black humour that stops it from being sentimental or emotionally manipulative. Reading Matters

Nothing in the book was really believable enough to allow me to engage with it properly. Stephen Lemon Good Reads Reviewer

 It might be a “light” novel, but it’s not a prosaic or formulaic one. Whispering Gums

Into That Forest by Louis Nowra

Into That Forest

Five words from the blurb: girls, lost, wild, Tasmania, tigers

Into That Forest is a powerful book about two girls who find themselves alone in the wilderness after a tragic accident. Lost in the dense forests of Tasmania, they are cold and hungry; but their lives are saved by a Tasmanian tiger. They develop a relationship with a pair of these wonderful creatures, learning to hunt and communicate with them. Over time they begin to forget their human past, developing the posture and expressions of the tigers. This book does a fantastic job of questioning what makes us human and how close we are to being wild animals.  

TasmanianTiger.jpg

Tasmanian tigers are large, carnivorous marsupials. I knew nothing about them before reading this book, but the atmospheric descriptions brought them to life. By the end I felt I completely understood the behaviour of these animals. They were thought to have become extinct in 1936, but recent discoveries indicate that there may be a small population surviving in remote regions. I hope that this is the case. 

The two girls were fantastic characters, each with their own unique personality. I loved the way they had different reactions to the situations they faced. It all felt very realistic and I felt immense empathy for them both throughout. 

The book was narrated in a halting dialect. It took a few pages to become used to this style, but it quickly became natural:

There were no reason to remember English any more. Words were no use to us when we were talking to the tigers, it were much easier to use our own language of grunts, growls, yawns, snuffles, coughing, looking, staring….Me parents, well, they just slowly slipped out of me mind. They were like dreams, not real people.

My only problem with this book was the small section towards the end involving the ship. I can see why it was included, but I felt that much of the emotional power of the text was lost over this section and I wish it hadn’t been included. Luckily this episode was brief and book quickly returned to its fantastic plot, finishing with appropriate power and sentiment.  

This book had me gripped from beginning to end. I loved the originality of the story and the way it introduced me to the lives of these half-forgotten creatures.  Highly recommended.

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Has anyone read anything else written by Louis Nowra?

Was it as good as this one?