Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

Dear Thief Longlisted for 2015 Baileys Prize

Five words from the blurb: woman, writing, friend, past, revealing

The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey’s debut novel, was an outstanding book. It was beautifully written and packed with emotion. Her second novel, All is Song, was dull in comparison. I tried reading Dear Thief on its release, but abandoned it because it felt more like her second novel than her first.  Dear Thief was recently longlisted for the Baileys Prize so I decide to give it another try. Unfortunately my initial assessment was correct. It is a lot better than All is Song, but not in the same league as her debut.

Dear Thief takes the form of one long letter from a women in her fifties to a friend she knew thirty years ago. There are wonderful descriptions of their childhood in Shropshire and these are contrasted with life in London. Harvey brilliantly observes the natural world and interactions between different people. I can’t fault the writing on a paragraph level at all:

I suppose the world is constantly producing things of wonderment, every moment, at every scale, and one time in every million or so our minds will be such that we will be open to seeing it. To see the silver effervescing of that dust was as beautiful a sight as any mountain or waterfall; but then, when I saw it, I was in love and as happy as a human being can be. Of course this helped. The world is heavily changed by the way we perceive it; in all my reticence and doubt, this is one thing even I haven’t been able to dispute.

Unfortunately the writing lacked emotion. Even scenes that should have been packed with feeling were tempered by meandering thoughts.

Very little happens throughout the book and I found that there was so much foreshadowing I knew most of the plot before it was revealed. If you can enjoy a book simply for the beautiful writing then you’ll appreciate it, but I prefer a bit of emotion or plot.

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The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a stunning novel. The Writes of Woman

It has so many merits and so many good things about it yet I still don’t feel right saying I truly enjoyed it because I don’t think I did. Plastic Rosaries

…a most unusual book, alive with matters of spirituality and philosophy. Shiny New Books

I Am Radar by Reif Larsen

I Am Radar

Five words from the blurb: secretive, scientists, puppeteers, identity, history

I Am Radar is an outstanding book and is epic in terms of both size and scope. It is almost impossible to explain the plot, and to attempt to do so would ruin the magic of discovering it for yourself, but I can say that it is an immersive experience, vividly describing places as diverse as Norway, Cambodia, America and the Congo. The central theme is one of identity, but this single word is not enough to convey the complex range of subjects covered.

This book is like a literary springboard and I was surprised to discover that the numerous books mentioned within the text existed (and I have since bought a couple). It is a global book, realistically portraying each individual culture and providing the reader with information about a range of historical events.

In the world he had left behind, the differences people used to judge each other, to kill each other, to declare war upon each other – these  differences were often largely invisible: religious, ideological, ethnic distinctions not obvious until a name, an accent was revealed. During the wars, the armies wore uniforms that designated them as Partisan, Chetnik, Ustase, but for the populace at large, one could shape-shift between these definitions, depending on who was knocking at your door.

The science in this book was also extremely well researched. I loved the way that it included complex theories, developing them in plausible new directions. Charts and diagrams were used to explain concepts, the beautiful way they were drawn further enhancing the reading experience.

I Am Radar effortlessly blends fact with fiction and I enjoyed looking up anything that sounded too far-fetched, only to discover that it had actually happened. Some people might complain that the plot meanders too slowly, but I was so engrossed in each element I didn’t care.

The ending was disappointing at first, but with time I realised how clever it was. This is one of those books that improves with scrutiny. There are so many layers and different aspects to think about that more is revealed with every re-reading.

It is the sheer intelligence of this book that impresses me so much. The author’s grasp of such a diverse range of subjects leaves me in awe. I finished it feeling as though I’d learnt more than whilst reading any other book. If you enjoy learning  about the world then this is an essential read. It isn’t easy or quick, but all effort is rewarded.

 

Redwall by Brian Jacques

Redwall

Five words from the blurb: mice, monastery, attack, evil, rats 

Redwall is a classic of children’s literature. I didn’t read it as a child, but my husband has fond memories of it and so bought a copy for our boys. I decided this was the perfect opportunity to give it a try and so offered to read it with my oldest son. 

Redwall is a typical story of good versus evil. The peaceful mice of Redwall monastery come under attack from the evil rat, Cluny, and his band of followers. A range of other woodland animals are recruited on each side, but size is not relevant as bravery and quick thinking win every time.

This is a lovely story for older children. It has the perfect amount of action to hold their attention, but manages to combine it with vivid descriptions that create a wonderful atmosphere. It also contains many good moral messages, encouraging children to believe that anything is possible given thought and determination. 

“This sword is made for only one purpose, to kill. It will only be as good or evil as the one who wields it. I know that you intend to use it only for the good of your Abbey, Matthias; do so, but never allow yourself to be tempted into using it in a careless or idle way. It would inevitably cost you your life, or that of your dear ones. Martin the Warrior used the sword only for right and good. This is why it has become a symbol of power to Redwall. Knowledge is gained through wisdom, my friend. Use the sword wisely.” 

The vocabulary is quite complex so I’d only recommend it to a strong reader. It hasn’t dated in the 30 years since it was first published, but many of the words aren’t in frequent use and I had to use a dictionary more than I normally do when reading complex adult literature. 

I enjoyed reading Redwall, but I think I’d have appreciated it much more as a child. It probably works best for those between the ages of 10 and 12, but even as an adult I was still able to appreciate its charm. Recommended to anyone looking for a bit of escapism.

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Redwall is the first in a series of 22 books. My son is planning to read more, but would I get anything from the rest? I fear they might be too similar to each other to make it worth it?

Have you read Redwall? Did you enjoy the series as an adult?

Scorper by Rob Magnuson Smith

Scorper: A Novel

Five words from the blurb: American, English, ancestral, tools, ghosts

Scorper is a strange, but beautiful book. I’ve not read anything like it before, but it could be described as a cross between All Quiet on the Orient Express by Magnus Mills and Strangers by Taichi Yamada, with a bit of The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling mixed in. The story is set in Ditchling, a small village in rural Sussex, where an American has travelled in order to study his ancestors. The book combines realistic (and often humourous) observations of British village life with surreal scenes in which the American meets his long-dead relatives.

The writing quality was outstanding – I think this is the first time I’ve enjoyed a book written in the second-person narrative style. It felt so original and I loved the meta aspects of the text:

Yet another critic will opine, in a morally brave departure from this historically limited binary approach to literary criticism: ‘We must allow that Mr Cull has captured a thoroughly modern England in his depiction of our rural village life. With an outsider’s broad perspective, he is simply more aware of England than the English themselves. Resist the easy, outmoded accusations of “bad faith”. Put away the knives. This American exhibits a fresh boldness of vision: one we should celebrate, not vilify.’

The book was also very well researched. It introduced me to Eric Gill, a stone mason who invented several different typefaces, and explained the art of carving wood (using a scorper, the tool referred to in the title). I loved the way the book mixed fact with fantasy, creating something that felt almost Japanese in origin – a strange outcome for a text so rooted in the English countryside.

My only criticism is that I had no emotional connection to the characters – the reader simply has to enjoy observing this strange story. Luckily the writing was so strong I was able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy this bizarre tale.

Recommended to anyone looking for something a bit different.

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Mini Reviews: The Buried Giant, Outline and No Such Thing as Failure

The Buried Giant

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

Five words from the blurb: Romans, Britain, couple, journey, son

I loved Never Let Me Go so was looking forward to reading Ishiguro’s new book. Unfortunately they were very different in style and I failed to bond to any of the characters. The Buried Giant has a fairy-tale like quality and there was a lack of emotion throughout. The reader is kept at an arms length from the action and this lack of engagement frustrated me. I know that there are clever allegories running beneath the surface, but I didn’t care enough to investigate them. I started skim reading after about 100 pages and nothing I saw drew me back into the text. Recommended to those who enjoy modern fairy-tales and analysing books for hidden messages.

DNF

 

No Such Thing As Failure: The Extraordinary Life of a Great British Adventurer

No Such Thing As Failure by David Hempleman-Adams

Five words from the blurb: British, explorer, highest, peaks, poles

I got this book from the library because the author was coming to do a talk there. Hempleman-Adams has achieved an extraordinary number of feats – including climbing the highest mountain on every continent and reaching both poles. I admire everything he’s done, but I wish I had just listened to his 45 minute summary of the book instead of reading it in full. No Such Thing As Failure is simply a catalogue of his adventures. He does reveal the problems he faced, but there was no tension behind them. I’m sure this is just a reflection of his calm nature, but I prefer a bit of peril and emotion in my adventure stories! 

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Outline: A Novel

Outline by Rachel Cusk

Five words from the blurb: woman, Athens, writing, meeting, indistinct

Outline is beautifully written. Each character springs vividly to life and I admired the atmosphere that Cusk managed to create in just a few short pages. Unfortunately the book failed to come together as a whole. It felt more like a series of short stories and I was frustrated by the lack of plot. I appreciate what the author was trying to achieve, but I prefer a book with a plot and a more conventional structure. 

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The Martian by Andy Weir (Audio Book)

The Martian

Five words from the blurb: Mars, astronaut, alone, survival, rescue

The Martian was on the “Best of 2014″ list of many bloggers I trust, so I bought the audio version. I’m so pleased that I did as it is one of the most entertaining stories I’ve ever listened to. It is basically a survival story, but combines the tension of a man living in daily fear for his life with the mundane reality of being an astronaut for an extended period of time. It also shows how complex science can solve problems and combines this with well researched technical information about Mars. I was gripped throughout and found myself laughing and amazed in equal measure.

Mark Watney is one of the first astronauts to visit Mars, but just hours after touching down on the surface there is an accident and the rest of the crew evacuate, sure that Watney has perished. He regains consciousness and discovers that he is alone on Mars. He must use every ounce of his training and intelligence to find a way to survive until he can be rescued. The majority of the book is made up of Mark Watney’s daily log entries where he records everything that happens each day, including his thoughts and frustrations. Some people might find the language a bit harsh, but I thought it was appropriate and realistic given the situation he was placed in:

Log Entry: SOL 118
My conversation with NASA about the water reclaimer was boring and riddled with technical details. So I’ll paraphrase for you:
Me: “This is obviously a clog. How about I take it apart and check the internal tubing?”
NASA: (After about 5 hours of deliberation) “No. You’ll fuck it up and die.”
So I took it apart.

Watney is one of the best characters I’ve ever come across. His flaws and strengths were given equal attention and by the end of the book I felt as though I knew him. I loved his attitude to life and think many people could learn from his reactions to adversity. The book also raised interesting questions about how much one life is worth and whether we should ever gamble with the lives of others in order to save someone else.

The Martian works particularly well on audio. R.C. Bray is the perfect narrator – making the wry humor spring to life, but maintaining the tension when serious problems arise.

Overall I can’t fault this book. I was transported into the mind of an astronaut whilst being thoroughly entertained. I learnt many new things and admired the way technical information was integrated into the gripping plot. It’s the best book I’ve read in a long time.

Highly recommended.

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