Five words from the blurb: Harvard, graduates, lives, twentieth, reunion
The Red Book was longlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize last week. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it sounded as though it had the potential to be a good read. Unfortunately the plot was too gentle for me, but I can see it appealing to fans of quiet books that focus on relationships.
The plot revolves around the special book that graduates of Harvard University receive every five years. This book details the private lives and accomplishments of each graduate, showing how their lives have progressed since they received the last installment. The Red Book concentrates on four women who were roommates when they studied, twenty years ago. It focuses on their relationships; detailing numerous affairs, the grief of lost loved ones, and the problems of motherhood. It was basically chick-lit for the slighter older woman.
The initial section of the book was fantastic. Each character was developed fully, with an interesting back story and a range of flaws. Unfortunately as the book progressed I began to lose interest. The plot was too ordinary and I failed to form an emotional connection to the characters. If I’d been to Harvard University then I might have enjoyed some aspects of the book more, but as a UK graduate the details left me cold:
Traffic in front of the Microbus has halted, an admixture of the normal clogged arteries at the Charles River crossings during rush hour compounded by the arterial plaque of reunion weekend attendees, those thousand of additional vehicles that appear every June like clockwork, loaded up with alumni families and faded memories, the later triggered out of dormancy by the sight of the crimson cupola of Dunster House or the golden dome of Adams House or the Eliot House clock tower, such that any one of the drivers blocking Addison’s path to Harvard Square might be thinking, as Addison is right now (catching a glimpse of a nondescript window on the sixth floor of that disaster of a modernist building that is Mather House), There, right there: That is where I first fucked her.
This sort of story has been told many times before and I’m afraid that other authors have done a better job. It lacked the depth and insight required to raise this book to the next level. I read the first 200 pages, but in the end I couldn’t force myself to read the remaining third.
Five words from the blurb: believe, world, constructed, books, explain
Calamity Leek lives with 11 ‘sisters’ in a large house. The garden is surrounded by a high wall and the girls are taught to fear life on the other side of it. ‘Mother’ and ‘Aunty’ impose a strict series of rules on the girls. These are explained in a book, along with a twisted version of history, which the children must learn by heart. As the girls grow up they begin to question their surroundings and the reason for their isolated life is slowly revealed.
This book was wonderfully atmospheric! The writing took a little bit of time to get used to, as the girls speak in their own dialect and have invented words for things, but once adjusted it was fascinating to learn about their life.
Aunty’s eye looked over us, and her mouth snapped open in a full-teethed smile. ‘My eye, but I’ve missed you, nieces. It shocks me to say it, but I really have.’Mr Stick went counting down the row one by one, and bounced on the belly of Adelaide Worthing. ‘But where was I? Oh yes, I was saying there’s a wonderful surprise waiting outside. Oh, but hush my mouth, I don’t want to ruin it. Chop-chop, girls, headscarves on, and out with you!’
I was gripped throughout, desperate to learn the reason for their captivity.
The book drew heavily from classic pieces of literature. I spotted similarities to Never Let Me Go, Roomand Lord of the Flies, but I’m sure there were many other literary references in there too.
The First Book of Calamity Leek wasn’t without faults – certain aspects of the plot didn’t quite add up and I was a little bit disappointed with (mild spoiler, highlight to read) the reason for their captivity. I was expecting a more profound, thought provoking revelation of a dystopian nature. But I’m willing to forgive these minor issues because the plot was so compelling. I was totally absorbed in their story, loved their debates about the outside world, and felt their conflicting emotions as they decided who they could trust.
The structure of the book was also very clever. I admired the way that some scenes were flashbacks and these, along with the fact that certain words were given different names, meant that the reader had to work hard to decipher the truth.
The originality of the writing style was refreshing and I highly recommend this book to anyone looking for something a little different.
The longlist for the 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize was announced this morning. I was very pleased to see a few genre books selected and it was nice to be introduced to some books I hadn’t come across before.
Overall the list seems to be very balanced, with a nice mix of literary and mainstream fiction.
I’ve already tried/read half of the longlist and have taken the time to look at the other books selected. I’ve summarised my thoughts below:
The 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize Longlist
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
Five words from the blurb: genius, Microsoft, child, charismatic, comic
I listened to a dramatic production of this book on Radio 4 (hence the reason that there is no review on this blog). I found it wonderfully entertaining and am very pleased to see it on the longlist.
Five words from the blurb: funeral home, death, mother, deaf, brother This chatty, compelling read had lots of interesting facts about the work of an undertaker, but I’m afraid I found it lacked that special spark.
NW by Zadie Smith
Five words from the blurb: Londoners, estate, moved, different, lives. The writing in this book is fantastic, but its disjointed nature means that I am struggling to connect with it. I’ve abandoned it two times already, but, given its prize longlisting today, I’ll persevere a little longer and see if it can win me over.
Five words from the blurb: Australia, lighthouse, childless, baby, keep The Light Between Oceans is a book of two halves. Most people seem to enjoy one half, but not the other. I fell into the “loved the beginning” camp, but if you enjoy lighter, faster paced books then you’ll probably prefer the end. I’m surprised to see this on the longlist and can’t see it progressing any further.
The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber DNF
Five words from the blurb: playwright, killed, Stratford, Marlowe, exile, Shakespeare I don’t enjoy Shakepeare, but anyone who does will love this ambitious story written entirely in verse. It wasn’t for me, but the skill and originality of the text mean that I am rooting for it in this prize. It deserves to be the 2013 winner.
The People of Forever are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu
Five words from the blurb: Israel, army, guarding, refugees, danger I hadn’t heard of this book until today, but it sounds like an important work of fiction and I’m pleased that the prize has brought it to my attention.
May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes DNF
Five words from the blurb: quiet, life, family, strange, finding I’m afraid the satirical elements of this book were lost on me and without the humour this book was just a strange string of outrageous consequences. It deserves its place on the longlist, but it wasn’t for me.
Five words from the blurb: kid, reckless, heart, beautifully, idea Lamb is fast paced, gripping and thought provoking. I’m very pleased to see it on the longlist.
Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel DNF
Five words from the blurb: Thomas Cromwell, rise, destruction, Anne Boleyn, Catholic Over the years I’ve come to realise that Mantel isn’t for me, but it is no surprise to see her on this longlist.
Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany
Five words from the blurb: country, lonely, farmer, observes, life I hadn’t heard of this book until today. It doesn’t sound that exciting, but hopefully it will prove me wrong.
Honour by Elif Shafak
Five words from the blurb: mother, died, Turkey, betrayal, past Elif Shafak is an author I’ve heard mentioned a lot, but I’ve not read any of her books before. This one sounds as though it could be emotional and so I look forward to trying it.
Five words from the blurb: wife, disappears, police, suspect, secrets It is great to see a fast paced thriller on the longlist – its inclusion will hopefully bring a new audience to the prize. I’m afraid that the irritating characters and the large number of coincidences didn’t appeal to me, but the majority of the population disagree with my point-of-view!
The Red Book by Deborah Copaken Kogan
Five words from the blurb: power, burden, privilege, reality, woman I hadn’t heard of this book until today, but I’m looking forward to reminiscing about the last few decades. It sounds like an entertaining read.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti
Five words from the blurb: self-help, confessional, shameless, conversations, life I had heard of this book and seen the way it divides opinion, but I assumed it was a self-help guide, not a novel. I’ve never been a fan of self-help guides so I’m pretty sure it will annoy me, but I’ll try to keep an open mind and hope I’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Five words from the blurb: Appalachian Mountains, mother, discovers, nature, miracle I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time. It is next on the TBR pile and I’m hoping it is just as good (or even better than!) The Poisonwood Bible.
Alif the Unseen by G Willow Wilson
Five words from the blurb: magic, adventure, beasts, Arab, censor I hadn’t heard of this book until today, but I love the fact that a fantasy novel is on the list. This book sounds wonderfully original and I’m looking forward to trying it.
The Innocents by Francesca Segal
Five words from the blurb: sweethearts, family, intertwined, unexpected, trouble I’d heard of this book, but the troubled family premise didn’t excite me. I’m hoping that the writing will be good enough to win me over.
The Forrests by Emily Perkins DNF
Five words from the blurb: sensory, flickering, moment, odd, family I’m pleased to see The Forrests on the longlist. I found the meandering, dreamlike prose frustrating, but the quality of the writing was obvious from the start. Recommended to fans of Virginia Woolf.
Ignorance by Michèle Roberts
Five words from the blurb: society, Jew, war, village, hero I’d not heard of this book and I’m a bit worried that I’ve heard the story of Jews hidden during the war too many times before. Hopefully this book will contain some special spark that enables it to compete with all the other books on a similar subject already out there.
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
Five words from the blurb: turbulent, events, chances, past, moments I’ve not had much success with Atkinson’s previous books, but this one is receiving rave reviews. Hopefully the originality of the premise with be enough to entertain me.
Five words from the blurb: witchcraft, book, ancient, dishes, love
The book started well, with a wonderfully atmospheric scene in which a young boy and his mother are persecuted as witches.
Oily-smelling tallow-smoke laced the warm night air. The banging of pots and pans mixed with the villagers’ shouts. John felt his mother’s hand tighten, pulling him along. He heard the bag knock awkwardly against her legs, the breath rasp in her throat. His own heart pounded. Reaching the edge of the meadow they clawed their way up the first bank.
The pair escape and seek refuge in a forest, but child ends up working in the kitchens of a large manor house. Unfortunately the book became less gripping as it continued. There was lots of interesting information about cooking in a busy 17th century kitchen, but I failed to bond to any of the characters. Although individual scenes were vivid there was no forward momentum and I frequently found it difficult to pick up the book after a break. Many people love this novel, but I found it patchy and I’m afraid that even the snippets of historic cookery weren’t enough to hold my attention. I started skim reading after about 100 pages and abandoned the book shortly after that.
Translated from the Norwegian by Sverre Lyngstad
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Knut Hamsun won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920
Five words from the blurb: mind, writer, starvation, fluctuating, insight
Hunger had been on my wishlist for a very long time. It had been recommended to me on numerous occasions, is cited as a modern masterpiece, and Paul Auster describes it as “one of the most disturbing novels in existence”. On seeing it named on yet another “must-read” list I decided to buy a copy. I was worried that it would be too disturbing, but was disappointed to discover that the book had a light hearted tone and lacked any real darkness.
The book centres on a young writer who is so poor he can no longer afford to buy food. He desperately tries to get articles published in the hope of receiving enough money to buy his next meal. Unfortunately the book contained almost no plot – instead it meandered from one non-event to another. The stream-of-consciousness writing style was almost bearable, but the light-hearted tone annoyed me.
As I lie there in this position, letting my eyes wander down my breast and legs, I notice the twitching motion made by my foot at each beat of my pulse. I sit up halfway and look down at my feet, and at this moment I experience a fantastic, alien state I’d never felt before; a delicate, mysterious thrill spreads through my nerves, as though they were flooded by surges of light. When I looked at my shoes, it was as though I had met a good friend or got back a torn-off part of me: a feeling of recognition trembles through all my sense, tears spring to my eyes, and I perceive my shoes as a softly murmuring tune coming toward me.
I appreciate that it may be an accurate description of a person on the verge of despair, but I’m afraid I couldn’t connect with it. I abandoned it after about 80 pages.
Five words from the blurb: Italy, sculptor, hidden, dangers, revelations
Last year I read The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson and was impressed by its original and thought provoking plot. So when an unsolicited review copy of Thomson’s latest book popped through my letter box I was keen to see what he’d written. Secrecy is very different in style to The Book of Revelation, but his ability to write such accomplished books in different genres is a testament to his skill as an author.
Secrecy is a vivid piece of historical fiction set in 17th Century Italy. The central character, Zummo, is an artist who creates macabre models from wax. Zummo has many secrets and is forced to flee from his home town to Palermo, then Naples. Luckily he finds favour with Tuscany’s Medici ruler, Cosimo III, who commissions him to make a large wax sculpture, the nature of which is to be kept secret from everyone around them.
The writing was atmospheric and reminded me of Pure by Andrew Miller in the way it also contained depth and insight:
Secrecy has many faces. If it was imposed on you, against your will, it could be a scourge – the bane of your existence. On the other hand, you might well seek it out. Nurture it. Rely on it. You might find life impossible without it. But there was a third kind of secrecy, which you carried unknowingly, like a disease, or the hour of your death. Things that could be kept from you, maybe for ever.
The plot contained many twists and turns, but none were jaw-dropping – it was simply good old-fashioned story telling. Unfortunately I never connected emotionally with Zummo, but I remained interested in his story throughout. He was a fantastic character and I loved the fact that he was so flawed; encouraging the reader to be disgusted by him one moment and then feel sympathy for him the next.
This period of history was unfamiliar to me so I enjoyed learning at little about life in the Medici court. This book was clearly very well researched, but I liked the way that the historical facts were present, but never over-burdening.
Overall this was an enjoyable read and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a good piece of literary historical fiction.
Five words from the blurb: mistakes, divorced, refuse, operation, relationships
Jonathan Tropper is one of those authors that I’ve always wanted to try, but for some reason he never made it to the top of my TBR pile. When Sandy raved about the audio version of his latest book I added it straight to my wishlist. Since the book wasn’t published in the UK at the time she kindly offered to send her copy across to me. I’m so pleased that she did as this is a beautifully written book that works very well on audio.
One Last Thing Before I Go centres on Silver, a dysfunctional middle-aged man who is told that he will die unless he has surgery on his heart. Silver decides not to have the operation and is surprised when his ex-wife, daughter, and everyone else, try to persuade him that his life is worth living.
I have to admit that I initially struggled with this book. The first disc (of seven) bored me. I had no interest in this former rock star, his divorce, or his grumpy outlook on life.
Silver is forty-four years old, if you can believe it, out of shape, and depressed—although he doesn’t know if you call it depression when you have good reason to be; maybe then you’re simply sad, or lonely, or just painfully aware, on a daily basis, of all the things you can never get back.*
Then, part way into the second disc, Silver had his medical emergency and I was instantly engaged. The tone of the book changed as Silver began to think about his fate and I almost began to like him.
Many readers rave about the humour in this book, but I’m afraid it never made me laugh. The jokes were so dry that I barely registered their presence and I suspect that a lot of them went over my head as the Jewish culture is unfamiliar to me. Despite this problem I was impressed by the way Tropper made me sympathise with a man I’d never normally be interested in. His observations of a dysfunctional family felt realistic and there were many pieces of wisdom sprinkled through the text.
I initially thought the narrator was dry and boring, but as the book progressed I realised he was the perfect choice. He sounded exactly as I imagined Silver to be and his lack of enthusiasm reflected that of the character. By the end I was very impressed with everything he’d done.
One Last Thing Before I Go is one of those rare books that enables you empathise with characters that are initially repulsive. Recommended to those who like darker insights into dysfunctional families.
Have you read this book?
Which of Jonathan Tropper’s books should I read next?