March Summary and Plans for April

March has been a frustrating month reading-wise. A lot of books failed to live up to expectations and only Calamity Leek managed to really impress me. Luckily I’ve ended the month with some books that have started really well – Honour by Elif Shafak  is especially good. Hopefully it will end as well as it began.

Book of the Month

The First Book of Calamity Leek

Books Reviewed in March:

The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz 

Ignorance by Michèle Roberts 

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (Audio Book) 

Secrecy by Rupert Thomson 

The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell 

The Sunshine Years by Afsaneh Knight 

Big Ray by Michael Kimball 

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany 

Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey 

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal stars21

Abandoned books: Alif the Unseen by G Willow WilsonThe Red Book by Deborah Copaken KoganJohn Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk,  and Hunger by Knut Hamsun

Plans for April

I’m hoping to finish the 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize Longlist before the shortlist is announced on 16th April. I only have 5 left to try so hopefully I’ll be able to manage it.

I then hope to finish all the books that I wanted to read in March, but didn’t get the chance to start:

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Magda by Meike Zervogel

The Russian Dreambook of Colour and Flight by Gina Ochsner

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

If I manage all those I’ll enjoy some random reading from my shelves!

For the next two weeks my boys are off school for the Easter holidays so I’ll be spending most of my time entertaining them. This means that my online presence maybe patchy, but hopefully I’ll be able to put together a post showing what we’ve been up to at the end of it all.

Have a wonderful Easter!




2012 Orange Prize Uncategorized

Ignorance by Michèle Roberts

Ignorance Longlisted for the 2013 Women’s Prize for Fiction

Five words from the blurb: village, Jew, war, society, truth

I have to be honest. When I saw this book on the WPF longlist I groaned. Did the world really need another book about hiding Jewish people during WWII? The subject has been covered so many times, often by people who actually experienced it first hand, that I failed to see how another book could add anything new to the subject. Luckily I was wrong. This book looks at the situation from an interesting new angle and I’m pleased that the WFP brought it to my attention.

Ignorance follows two girls from different backgrounds as they grow up in the French village of Ste Madeleine. Marie-Angèle’s father is a grocer, so when WWII breaks out she is one of the lucky ones. She has access to food and when she becomes involved with a man who does deals on the black-market her position in society becomes even more inflated. On the other hand, Jeanne’s mother was born a Jew and her family are desperately poor. Jeanne must deal with all the issues that involve being at the bottom of the social pile, problems compounded when Jews become persecuted. 

This book was easy to read and engaging, but I also loved the way it worked on multiple levels. Themes of ignorance ran through the book, questioning whether or not it is better to know the truth or live in blissful ignorance of it. 

I also liked the way the book looked at the structure of society. It didn’t concentrate on the horrors of war (in fact these were barely mentioned) instead the book examined how different groups of people were affected by the social changes brought on by war. 

Some of the peripheral characters were a bit vague, but the two girls were well drawn and I thought the way different chapters were written from their opposing view points worked very well. The writing was particularly evocative and I especially loved the strong use of smells throughout the book:

 Behind me the bakery door opened, letting out gold light, the smell of warm yeast. Soon, people would start arriving to buy their morning loaves. Take them home to their families. Eat breakfast with their mothers, just as they did every day. I wanted to dive into that yeasty scent, that shop full of loaves warm as mothers.

I’d be happy to see this book on the WFP shortlist and recommend it to anyone who’d like to read an interesting story with literary depth. 



The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell

The Death of Bees

Five words from the blurb: different, sisters, secret, parents, suspicious

The Death of Bees is a strange book. Strange in terms of premise, but also in my response to it – I can’t decide whether or not I liked it. The book gripped me throughout, but I found the characters, the plot, and the writing style annoying. Perhaps it is one of those books you are meant to love-to-hate? I’ll take the fact I had such a strong emotional response as a positive and try to explain the reasons for my reaction.

The Death of Bees begins with fifteen-year-old Marnie and her younger sister, Nelly, burying the bodies of their parents in the garden. Rather than risk being taken into care and separated the two girls decide to cover up the death of their parents and try to continue life as normal.

Unfortunately both Marnie and Nelly were irritating characters. A stream-of-consciousness writing style is normally enough for me to abandon a book, but even though their teenage thoughts drove me nuts, the ramblings of these girls was strangely mesmerising: 

The only reason I know him at all is because he used to go to school with Lorna, but then they kicked her out and now she goes to our school, but he’s still hanging around her and so are we these days. Kimbo and Lorna are pretty tight. Both of them want to be artists and they spend hours in her studio and I don’t blame them. Lorna’s house is amazing. 

The plot was weird and unconvincing. Lots of aspects felt unrealistic and I groaned at the plot twists on numerous occasions. The next door neighbour was especially strange and I failed to understand his motivations. But, despite continual issues with the book, I couldn’t put it down. I wanted to know what happened to these strange characters and I guess that proves the book was a good one. 

On a positive note, the inclusion of a child on the autism spectrum should be commended. I especially liked the fact this wasn’t included in the marketing and many people will be oblivious to it. *

Overall this book really annoyed me, but I can’t escape the fact that I enjoyed my mental rants at its absurdity. Recommended to book clubs who’d like an animated discussion!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…the writing was incredible and the story line was unique and original! A Simple Taste for Reading

…the end was just too pat, too sweet, too nice, too happy, whatever you want to call it. 2013: The Year in Books

  …refreshingly different The Book Jotter


* although in an ideal world I’d like everyone to spot an autistic character/person straight away.



Three Mini Reviews

Big Ray

Big Ray by Michael Kimball

Five words from the blurb: father, died, guilt, unusual, understanding

Big Ray was a morbidly obese man who died alone in his home. His son, Daniel, is distressed that it took several days for anyone to discover his body and over the course of the book we see his grief and the turmoil that results from the difficult relationship he had with his father.

This book is written in an unusual style. It is made up of over 500 mini chapters. This gave the book a fast paced urgency, but also meant I could never become fully immersed in a scene. I found the continual flipping from one idea to another irritating and wished it had settled in a scene for more than half a page.

The writing was of a high quality and there were some lovely moments in the book, but overall the story was too ordinary.

I don’t understand my complicated feelings about my father. I hated him, but I wanted him to like me. I was ashamed of him, but I wanted him to be proud of me.

This is a compelling read, but I’m afraid I reached the end without any new insight.



Alif the Unseen Longlisted for 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize

Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson

Five words from the blurb: Middle Eastern, mysterious, world, magic, djinn

 Alif the Unseen is a unique book that combines computer science with fantasy. Alif is a Middle Eastern computer hacker who inhabits an almost familiar world. He falls in love with Intisar, royalty already promised to another man, but as a parting gift she gives him a special book that opens a door into another world.

This book is clearly genius, but I’m afraid it wasn’t to my taste. Fantasy is a genre I’ve never enjoyed and this book was too weird for me. I think my lack of knowledge of computer programming and Muslim mythology also contributed to my lack of appreciation for this book.

Alif heard Dina turn on music in her room-a cheerful debke dance song-as though she too, found the storm unsettling. He got out of his chair and curled up against the wall they shared. When his computer was on and connected to the grid, he never felt as though he was alone; there were millions of people in rooms like his, reaching toward each other in the same ways he did. Now that feeling of intimacy seemed fraudulent. He lived in an invented space, easily violated. He lived in his own mind.

I became increasingly confused until I eventually abandoned the book on page 75.

From the glowing comments from fantasy authors such as Neil Gaiman I’m sure this book pushes the boundaries for its genre and so I’d love to see it make the shortlist.



The Sunshine Years

The Sunshine Years by Afsaneh Knight

Five words from the blurb: Sydney, thirty-somethings, relationships, observations, truths

The Sunshine Years is set in Sydney, Australia and follows a group in their thirties as they come to realise that they haven’t achieved anything worthwhile in their lives and are unlikely to do so.

The book is wonderfully entertaining, contains well developed characters with realistic flaws, and gives an insight into the hopes and fears of a generation who have failed to live up to their childhood dreams.

The book could be described as chick-lit, but it has a maturity and depth that lifts it above the majority of books in this genre. I spent a happy weekend involved in the lives of this group and developed an emotional bond with most of them.

If you can’t be happy in Sydney, you can’t be happy anywhere. Sydney put joy in the water and forgetfulness in the sand, and as long as you drank water and stood on sand, happiness would curl up and stick like heat from a campfire.

It had the perfect blend of light-hearted banter and deeper emotional insight and I recommend it to anyone looking for an entertaining read, especially if you are familiar with Sydney.


Have you read any of these books?


2012 Orange Prize

Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany

Mateship with Birds Longlisted for 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize

Five words from the blurb: farmer, observes, birds, teach, sex

Mateship with Birds was one of the books on the 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize Longlist that didn’t really appeal to me. Luckily the writing quality was fantastic; it’s just a shame that the plot was so simple.

Mateship with Birds is set on an Australian farm. Harry is a lonely farmer who decides to teach his neighbour’s son about sex. Very little happens in this book, but the writing is vivid and the animals on the farm are particularly well described:

The wings of a moth opening and closing over the cape weed catch the sun in a silvery flash. One grazing cow startles forwards slightly, her hind legs make clumsy haste, almost overtaking the rest of her. She settles quickly enough but the plug of fear is transferred to her sister, and then the next cow and the next, until the whole herd has felt a diluted fraction of her fear. The herd, together in the paddock, is a sponge. Feelings run like liquid in the irregular, porous spaces between each animal.

If there were awards for the best sex in literature then this book would be a strong contender. The tenderness of the writing was beautiful and the relationship between each character felt realistic. I felt a little distanced from events, but this style worked well given the sexual nature of the text. I should warn sensitive readers that this book contains scenes of slaughter, beastiality, and lots of sexual content.

My main problem with the book was that the plot was too simple. It was so short I read it in a single sitting, but it lacked the power and insight required to make such a quick read memorable. The individual passages were fantastic, but they failed to come together to form a compelling novel.

Overall the writing quality was enough to justify a place on the WFP longlist, but I can’t see it progressing any further.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

 …if writing style can be true to the Australian agricultural  landscape, this is it – sparse, brittle, obvious. Books are My Favourite and Best

…it felt as though there were the beginnings of a great novel here, but one that isn’t given space to develop. Crikey

Carrie’s writing style is unique, and incredibly readable. That Book You Like



2000 - 2007

Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey

Mr Mee

Five words from the blurb: Octogenarian, Rousseau, Internet, philosophical, history

I added Mr Mee to my wishlist when Scott Pack compared the author Andrew Crumey to David Mitchell. I think he’s right to compare the two, but unfortunately Mr Mee felt a little dated to me.

The book begins with Mr Mee, a wonderfully entertaining elderly gentleman, discovering the Internet for the first time. His pleasure on discovering all the information now available at his finger tips was heartwarming and it there were a few amusing scenes involving Internet porn. Woven with this plot thread were two others: the story of two eighteenth-century French copyists who have a rare encyclopedia in their possession; and a narrative about a Jean-Jacques Rousseau professor who becomes obsessed with one of his students.

This book contained lots of interesting ideas. It reminded me of books by Scarlett Thomas in the way it combined philosophy, history and science in a clever, thought provoking manner. It was refreshing to read a book that wasn’t afraid to be intelligent, but, despite my degree in chemistry, some of the quantum theory went over my head. I also struggled with some of the philosophy. I’m sure that those familiar with Jean-Jacques Rousseau would gain more from the book and re-reading would reveal many more layers.

Historians might after all be able to understand the past, by virtue of its sheer unfamiliarity, better than those who experienced it; and the moment in which we live, like the self we inhabit, is the one we are least equipped to understand. Recognition is a faculty we are forever denied with regard to our own selves; unless perhaps one can become, at least temporarily, a person called ‘I’ who is not necessarily oneself.

The main problem with the book was that Mr Mee’s sections felt dated. Although it was only published in 2000, the Internet has come on a long way since then and details about the British high street were almost painful to read in the way they mentioned numerous shops that have gone into administration.

Another problem was that I had little interest in the historical section. This could be because my philosophy isn’t very strong or because the French copyists weren’t as well developed, but either way I lost interest whenever they appeared. The university lecturer was more engaging, but he also lacked the special spark shown by Mr Mee.

Overall I was impressed by the writing and the concept, but unfortunately too many aspects didn’t quite work for me. Andrew Crumey’s writing is impressive and I’ll be seeking out more of his work, but I’m afraid I read this one 10 years too late.


Have you read any of Andrew Crumey’s books? 

Which ones do you recommend?