1940s Classics

Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son (Vintage classics)

Five words from the blurb: black, prejudiced, poverty, death, crime

Native Son was originally published in 1940. It became a best seller, catapulting its black American author, Richard Wright, into fame and controversy. The book highlights the deep racism that was present within America at the time and is one of the most important books written within the last century. I only discovered its existence last month, but I loved everything about it.  I’m shocked it isn’t well known within the UK, but I aim to spread the word as far as I can.

The story focuses on Bigger Thomas, a black American who accidentally murders a young white woman. His crime highlights the deep divide between blacks and whites, showing the hatred and prejudice present on both sides.

I know I oughtn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. Every time I think about it I feel like somebody’s poking a red-hot iron down my throat. Goddammit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s like living in jail. Half the time I feel like I’m on the outside of the world peeping in through a knot-hole in the fence.

Bigger’s character was fantastic. Richard Wright’s skill as an author enabled me to feel immense sympathy for him (and other criminals in a similar situation). By explaining the difficulties Bigger had faced since birth I was able to understand his actions and root for him throughout the book.

Native Son has everything a good novel needs – it is gripping, enlightening and contains vivid characters who are all flawed in a realistic manner. Most of this book reads like a thriller – I was on the edge of my seat throughout, unable to put the book down. Occasionally I wanted to avert my eyes from the disturbing scenes, but all the violence was necessary to explain the problems within the society.

The final section of the book is more political in nature, explaining the history of racism within the US. It slowed the pace of the book down, but by that point I was so invested in the characters that I didn’t mind this unusual change of style. It was fantastic to see a well written piece of fiction given such a strong historical grounding.

This is the best American novel I’ve ever read and I think you’ll struggle to find a book that does a better job of highlighting the racism present within 1940s society.

Highly recommended.


2012 Chick Lit

The War of the Wives by Tamar Cohen

The War of the Wives

Five words from the blurb: married, husband, dead, wives, battle

I was sent a copy of this book by its publisher, but it was a review from Leeswammes Blog that pushed it straight to the top of my reading pile. I’m really pleased that Judith enthused about this book as it was an entertaining read.

The War of the Wives is narrated by two women who discover that they were both married to the same man when they attend their husband’s funeral. Distraught with grief and betrayal, the women must adapt to a life where most of what they previously believed to be true is a lie.

Trapped indoors I lug my rage around like one of those strap-on bellies designed to show men how pregnancy feels. But equally I’m too ashamed to go out. Imagine how people will laugh! There she is, the woman whose husband was married to someone else. What an idiot she must be.

The two women are very different. Selina is rich and thinks nothing of buying expensive flights to Florence to enjoy time in their second home; whilst Lottie struggles to buy everything she needs for her small flat in London. Their personalities clash and neither can believe that their husband could enjoy spending time with the other.

The War of the Wives is one of the most modern books I’ve ever read. It effortlessly manages to include Skype, Facebook and Twitter in a realistic and compelling manner. The short chapters and the continual switching of narrator led to a fast paced read that engaged me throughout.

This book isn’t without faults. The characters, especially the peripheral ones, weren’t fully developed and were often flat. And despite only being published one month ago some aspects of the book were already out of date – some comments, especially about London hosting the Olympics, felt wrong now that the Games have been such a success. The plot was also quite implausible, but I didn’t mind as I was entertained throughout.

Overall this was an enjoyable book that highlighted differences in personality. Perfect for when you need a light, fast paced read.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…at times droll and darkly humorous, at others deeply emotional and tragic. The Little Reader Library

I was unconvinced by the ending; the revelation was too brutal and sudden. Reading with Tea

I was very impressed with this second novel, I enjoyed it just as much as her first book. Random Things Through My Letterbox


2012 Booker Prize Short Story

Communion Town by Sam Thompson

Communion Town Longlisted for 2012 Booker Prize

Five words from the blurb: city, stories, imagined, diverge, voices

I’m not sure how this book ended up on the Booker longlist. The writing quality cannot be disputed, but this book is a collection of short stories and I don’t think you can argue that they are connected enough to justify status as a novel. All the stories are set in the same city, but that is where the connection ends. Characters do not reappear and I could not see any other link between them all. As a result I was disappointed by this book.

The first chapter was slow to start, but by the end I was completely hooked. SPOILER (highlight to read): People trapped underground with monsters!  Exciting premise for a Booker longlistee! Unfortunately that great story line was dropped, never to be mentioned again. There were a few other fantastic scenes sprinkled through the book, but they were never developed enough for me to care about any of the characters. I frequently found myself bored by entire sections and despite the beautiful writing I never rediscovered the excitement of that first chapter.

It was easy to read, containing a simple, but vivid writing style:

Blackness crept into the edges of my vision and I lashed out at the so-called doctor, colliding with him awkwardly shoulder-first and knocking him aside. Hunched against the wall, shaking, he cradled his phial. His face contorted and tears pressed from the corner of his eyes. I spun around and swung  my fists at the Captain, but he danced easily away, his hands billowing. He quivered with the effort of restraining himself. He couldn’t even speak any more.

Each chapter was slightly different in tone and some were very different in terms of content and genre. Everything from science fiction to crime, and even dark suspense, was included at some point, but rather than be impressed by the variety I just craved some consistency. I’m afraid I’m just not a fan of short stories. If Sam Thompson wrote a novel then I’d be keen to try it, but this was too disjointed for me.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…a highly recommended book that offers an exquisite reading experience with its many voices in an imaginary city that vividly comes to life. Fantasy Book Critic

There were a few stories I didn’t care for at all, but for the most part, the writing carried throughout the stories I liked and didn’t like. Nomadreader

There are some truly beautiful speculative concepts to be unearthed here. Strange Horizons 

2012 Recommended books

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Five words from the blurb: family, friendship, life, AIDS, death

I first heard about Tell the Wolves I’m Home in November last year. I went to meet publicists from Pan Macmillan and they were all raving about this book, despite the fact it wouldn’t be published for another 7 months. I have to admit that I was sceptical – the blurb didn’t sound anything special and I’ve read so many coming-of-age type novels that I rarely find one that adds anything new to the genre. On this occasion I was wrong. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a fantastic story and I’m pleased I gave it the benefit of the doubt.

The book is set in New York during the 1980s and focuses on June, a 14-year-old girl who loves spending time with her Uncle Finn. He is a famous painter, but is dying from AIDS. June must learn to accept life without her uncle and also deal with the secrets that emerge from her family’s past.

June is an amazing character. By the end of the book I felt as though I knew her personally. Her thoughts and emotions were described with incredible clarity, perfectly capturing the turmoil of adolescence. June’s roller-coaster relationship with her sister was particularly well portrayed and I’m sure that anyone who has a sister will relate to many of the scenes described.

The pace of the book was quite slow, but I was captivated by June’s problems. The quality of the writing enabled me to be engaged throughout, despite the relative simplicity of the plot.

I used to think maybe I wanted to be a falconer, and now I’m sure of it, because I need to figure out the secret. I need to work out how to keep things flying back to me instead of always flying away.

This book does a fantastic job of showing the terrible attitude those with AIDS had to endure in the 1980s. Having only been a child in that decade I don’t think I was fully aware of the confusion and misinformation that was spread around during those years.

If you enjoy reading vivid, emotional stories about families in conflict then this is for you. The beautifully rounded characters will stay with me for a long time.




A Week in Edinburgh

I’ve just returned from a wonderful week in Edinburgh. I visited friends, enjoyed the comedy of the Fringe Festival, and saw some great authors at the book festival. Here are some of the highlights (and one disappointment):

Daniel Tammet

I have been a big fan of Daniel Tammet since I read his autobiography, Born on a Blue Day, and watched the documentary in which he showed the amazing power of his brain by reciting Pi to 22,000 places and learning Icelandic in two weeks. In the past seven years he has changed a lot. He is no longer the quiet, shy man seen in the documentary. He is confident speaker who engaged the audience with his passion for mathematics; entertaining people with amusing stories and a vast amount of knowledge.

Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives

His new book, Thinking in Numbers: How Maths Illuminates Our Lives, aims to show mathematics in a new light; encouraging people to enjoy its many different forms. Daniel cunningly explained that mathematics is very like literature in that both contain many different genres; no-one will like all of them, but everyone should be able to find at least one that they love.

He also explained how important literature has been in his life. His autism means that he had difficulty understanding other people, but fiction has enabled him to have a better understanding of social interactions. He recommended War and Peace as he loved all the complex calculus sprinkled through the story!

If you get the chance I highly recommend seeing him as his outlook is unique and thought provoking. I’ll be reviewing his new book at some point in the next few weeks – it is very good so far!

Elliot Perlman

The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper is one of my favourite reads this year and so I was excited to hear him talk. He was an accomplished public speaker and very easy to listen to. He explained that he had the idea for the book when he lived in an apartment opposite a New York cancer hospital. Every day he got a bus from outside the hospital and he witnessed the amazing variety of people who mingled on the street there. Groups of people who would never normally meet were forced together, often at a difficult emotional time. Perfect for setting up a great story!

It took him 6 years to write the book and he did a massive amount of research for it. I think it was well worth every year he spent and I encourage you to read it soon.

The Literary Death Match

I had heard a lot of positive things about this global literary event, but unfortunately I wasn’t very impressed. The title led me to believe that people would pick their favourite book and then argue passionately about why it was so amazing. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case. Four authors read extracts from their own books and then 3 judges decided who read best. There are several problems with this:

  • Authors are rarely the best person to read their book
  • If you’ve read the book already then you learn nothing new
  • The audience doesn’t discover amazing books, only newly released ones plugged by the author
  • How are judges supposed to decide who reads best? It is all meaningless, especially when trying to compare different genres

I’m afraid I found it all so dull that I walked out during the semi final. Perhaps I was just unlucky? I can’t blame the authors (who did their very best in the circumstances) but it would have been much better if they’d

  1. had the ability to talk about their book, instead of just reading an extract
  2. chosen their favourite book and talked about that.

Have you had a better experience at a Literary Death Match?

Baby Wants Candy

Nothing to do with literature, but I highly recommend this Canadian improvisation group. They invented an entire musical on the spot based on an audience suggestion. It was amazing to watch the speed of their minds – they created an entertaining story that had me laughing the entire way through. Look out for them!

Back Home

I’m slowly adjusting to life back at home and hope to have a review or two ready for you soon.


The Best Books of 2012….so far!

2012 has been an outstanding year for new fiction – in the first few months I read more 4.5+ star books than I did in the whole of 2011. The positive reviews just keep on coming…..

Here are my favourite books of the year so far:


HHhH by Laurent Binet 

An original, thought provoking look at the way we perceive historical fiction. Focusing on a mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Nazi secret services during WWII, it is gripping and informative. Books don’t get better than this!

The Street Sweeper

The Street Sweeper by Elliot Perlman

An epic book that analyses the way we record history. It combines the racism faced by black Americans and the horror of the Holocaust in a complex, but thought provoking plot. Some of the scenes are disturbing, but all are necessary. This is an emotional read that I highly recommend.

 Tell the Wolves I'm Home
Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt 

The premise doesn’t sound that exciting, but this quiet story about a girl and her uncle, who is dying from AIDs, is packed with emotion. Family secrets and relationships combine to form a beautifully story that will stay with you for a long time.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky by Simon Mawer

A fantastic love story set during WWII. The central character is a young female parachutist who we see develop as she undergoes training and then performs dangerous secret missions in France. It is wonderfully entertaining and packs an emotional punch.

Salvage the Bones

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Atmospheric and emotional book about one family preparing for the arrival of hurricane Katrina. It is a powerful insight into the lives of a family who have little in common with me, but I loved the way I was made to understand their problems and motivations.


Heft by Liz Moore 

A wonderfully entertaining book about what it means to be a family. Focused on a morbidly obese man, this book manages to avoid stereotypes to produce a heartwarming story that will keep you guessing.

The Snow Child

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey 

Balancing on a thin line between fairy-tale and reality this is an atmospheric book set in the Canadian wilderness. The book begins with a childless couple building a snowchild in their garden. The next morning their snow sculpture has disappeared and they catch a glimpse of a real child running through their garden. Are they imagining it?

The Cook

The Cook by Wayne Macauley 

Combining reality television with the ruthless world of the professional kitchen this dark book is as shocking as it is entertaining. It’s not for the squeamish!

The Colour of Milk

The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

This short book is a wonderful piece of historical fiction. It is atmospheric, engaging and packs an emotional punch. I recommend giving it a try!


You can also find recommendations for other outstanding books on my posts predicting the Orange and Booker Prize longlists.


Have you enjoyed any of these books?

Can you recommend any other books that you think could make my “Best of 2012” list?