Three Disappointing Reads

Flight Behaviour Shortlisted for 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Five words from the blurb: butterflies, marriage, climate, destruction, poverty

Flight Behaviour begins with the discovery of thousands of monach butterflies a long way from their usual migratory path. An investigation into their behaviour change begins; a story that runs alongside that of one woman’s marital breakdown.

This book had many beautiful passages, but the climate change argument was heavy handed. I felt as though I was being given a lecture, with a weak, meandering story occasionally getting in the way of this verbal battering.

Climate change is an important subject, but I’m afraid this book lacked the emotional power required to motivate anyone to change their habits. I was surprised to see it shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction Prize.


Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

Five words from the blurb:  graphic novel, relationship, psychoanalyst, readers, mother

A few years ago I read Fun Home and loved its dry humor and originality. Unfortunately the sequel didn’t live up to my expectations and I ended up abandoning it after about 50 pages.

Are You My Mother? follows the same graphic novel format as Fun Home, but is a lot darker. It concentrates on the relationship between Bechdel and her mother, but feels repetitive. The continual introspection bored me and I longed for the book to take on a wider subject matter. Unfortunately my wish was granted with the introduction of Virginia Woolf. I’m not a fan of Woolf and the references to her work did nothing for me. The book went on to quote numerous passages from a psychology text book and the plot was too meandering to engage me with its weird content. I gave up after about 50 pages.

I recommend reading Fun Home, but only try this one if you’re a fan of complex psychoanalysis.



Marks of Identity (Spanish Literature) Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

Marks of Identity by Juan Goytisolo

Five words from the blurb: Spain, exile, searches, history, political

I’m going to Barcelona soon and so wanted to read some fiction set in the city. This book was described as a Spanish masterpiece and seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. Unfortunately I found it very difficult to read – after about 30 pages I still had no idea what was happening. This is probably because I don’t know much about Spanish history. I’m sure that anyone familiar with the political situation within the country will appreciate this, but I’m afraid it was lost on me.


Have you read any of these books?

What did you think of them?

2013 Uncategorized

First Novel by Nicholas Royle

First Novel

Five words from the blurb: creative, writing, mystery, blend, fact

First Novel is an original, experimental piece of meta-fiction. The central character teaches creative writing at a university in Manchester and has an obsession with first novels. The book is packed with literary references, but these are the only things in the book that are reliable. Everything else is ambiguous, leaving the reader to puzzle over events.

I normally love meta fiction, but for some reason First Novel didn’t work for me – I thought it was trying too hard to be clever. Lots of people love it, but I found it detached. The ambiguous writing style also annoyed me and I began to crave some actual facts:

In the morning I walk down the dismantled railway line as far as the bottom of Burnage Lane, where I stop and listen to the sound of my own breathing. I face a choice. Either I go left up Didsbury Road and catch a bus to Stockport in order to pick up the car, or I go straight on through the little tunnel and then down to the river and Overcoat Man. Either or.

It felt like a creative writing exercise, but perhaps it is supposed to come across that way and I just missed the satire? The majority of other reviews praise the shocking plot twist, but I’m afraid I wasn’t connected enough to the characters to care and so took the twist as just another example of the writer trying too hard.

On a positive note, I loved the way Manchester was portrayed in the book. I have been to some of the areas and it was lovely to see so many familiar streets on paper.

In the past I have struggled with other experimental novels (for example, The Rehearsal by  Eleanor Catton and Light Boxes by Shane Jones), but if you enjoy books that push the boundaries in this way then I think you’ll love First Novel. Many people are predicting this book will be longlisted for the Booker Prize. I think they’re probably right – it takes a special book to annoy me, but still make me want to read to the end!


The thoughts of other bloggers:

…this is a progressive, intensely contemporary, brilliant work which challenges the easy certainties of the traditional novel. Words of Mercury

 If the writing assignment was to use all the most interesting techniques of postmodernism to create an intellectually stimulating, funny, serious and clever novel, Nicholas Royle has more than made the grade. Slightly Bookist

The real majesty comes from the construction of the novel and how easy it is to read despite the origami-like concepts. Dog Ear Discs

Books in Translation

Soufflé by Asli Perker

Souffle Translated from the Turkish

Five words from the blurb: cook, family, freedom, loss, people

Soufflé is a multi-generational story, packed with a passion for cookery. Set in New York, Paris and Istanbul, the novel looks at family relationships and shows how cookery can help to heal emotional wounds.

The book has three main protagonists: Lilia, who is struggling in an unhappy marriage; Ferda, who is looking after her elderly mother; and Marc, who is grieving for his wife. All three discover that food can bring joy back into their lives.

I initially struggled with the number of characters, as the peripheral ones were fully developed and I didn’t realise who the central trio were for a while (I don’t read blurbs when I start a book, for fear of spoilers). But after about 70 pages everything clicked into place and I connected with them all. The emotions felt realistic and I developed a deep sympathy for their problems.

The novel was packed with beautiful descriptions of food. I especially loved the multi-cultural aspect, as many of the flavour combinations were unfamiliar to me. I found myself writing down the names of new dishes; longing to taste the things mentioned.

No, there was no extra ingredient in the bread Ferda baked; her friends were wrong about that. The delicious taste came from the organic wholemeal flour she used, which wasn’t purchased from the supermarket but came straight from the countryside. Her tarhana soup smelled different, of course, because the pepper she used it in had come from Urfa, one of the Eastern cities. What made her meat stew more delicious than other people’s was the lime tree leaf she always added to it. Anyone who ate this stew relaxed instantly and then went on to discover the love in their souls.

I also liked the way the characters struggled with the cooking, showing the mistakes they made and how they improved with practice. It inspired me to try cooking soufflés – I’ll be interested to see if I have better luck than the characters in the book!

My only complaint was that the different settings of the book often felt the same. There was little difference between the scenes set in Turkey and those set in New York. I’d have liked to have seen some more atmosphere, so it was instantly obvious which country the characters were in.

This book shares many similarities with The School of Essential Ingredients and I think anyone who enjoyed Bauermeister‘s book will appreciate this one.

Recommended to people who enjoy reading about cookery.


2000 - 2007 Non Fiction Uncategorized

Moondust by Andrew Smith

Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth

Five words from the blurb: moon, journey, men, future, lives

Only twelve men have walked on the moon. Andrew Smith was intrigued by their rare experience and wondered how those few days in space affected their lives. He tracked down the nine moon walkers who were still alive (sadly Neil Armstrong died last year, leaving just eight) and attended space conferences in order to understand the unique place these people have in our hearts.

The book detailed the political and historical events that enabled the space program to occur, something I found particularly useful as I wasn’t alive at the time. It also gave me a new appreciation of how difficult the moon missions had been. I didn’t realise how frequently they came close to disaster and the knowledge that the entire command centre used the same memory as a couple of our modern mobile phones was a scary reminder of how much technology has advanced since then.

Unfortunately the book didn’t explain what daily life was like in space, giving only the briefest details of their time up there; instead the book focused on the way looking back at Earth changed their perspective on life.

….”with the right computer program, it would be possible to know precisely where everything else in the Universe will be ten, or a hundred, or a hundred thousand years from now. The one thing in the Universe that we can’t predict,” he concludes – and we know what’s coming, yet that doesn’t diminish the thought – “the one thing that we don’t know where it’s going to be even ten years from now, is us. We may be small, but we’ve been given the most extraordinary gift in the Universe.”

Most of the astronauts found being in space a profound, life changing experience and it was interesting to see how it had impacted each of their lives in a different way. Coping with their strange celebrity status was another issue they had to learn to master and I felt deep sympathy for the way some of the astronauts were pestered continually. 

My only complaint was the lack of photographs in this book – a small section containing a few black and white images would have been a big bonus. 

Overall this was a thought provoking piece of non fiction and I have a new-found appreciation for the men who risked their lives in order to step foot on the moon. 


2013 Novella

Magda by Meike Ziervogel


WARNING: Review contains spoilers. If you are unfamiliar with Magda Goebbels’ story and are sensitive to spoilers I recommend that you read the book, not the review!

Five words from the blurb: Goebbells. Hitler, relationship, mother, foreboding

A few years ago I read The History of History by Ida Hattemer-Higgins, a fantastic, albeit slightly weird, book set in Berlin. It introduced me to the story of Magda Goebbels and numerous other families who committed suicide during WWII. Since then I’ve been intrigued by the forces that drive people to kill their own children;  so when I was offered a review copy of Magda I jumped at the chance to read another book on the subject. The fact this one was written by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, was an added bonus. She has published lots of fantastic novellas over the years and I was interested to see what kind of book she’d write herself.

Magda was an illegitimate child who had a difficult start in life. Her problems seemed to be solved when she fell in love with Josef Goebbels, but his place by Hitler’s side only lead to further heartache.

Humans need hope and faith in order to live. Some are born with the ability to have faith, to have hope. They are the blessed ones, like the Führer, Father and Mother. Most people, however, are born without hope and faith, but they can learn it from a Führer. And then there are people like me. We have to struggle, to fight for our faith and hope. We have to be continuously aware of the enemy inside us. We are never allowed to let go.

The book gives a brief glimpse into Magda Goebbels’ early life, but as the second world war draws to a close, and the family move into Hitler’s bunker, the point-of-view switches to that of her eldest daughter, Helga. I was initially disappointed to see the focus taken away from Magda, but as the book reached its conclusion I realised what a clever structure this was.

The plot was simple and, despite knowing how the story ends, it was still a heart wrenching shock to read the final chapter. The book shares many similarities with Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi*, one of my favourite books. They both have the same sense of foreboding that permeates every page and a simple clarity that allows the characters and their emotions to shine.

The book left me with many questions about Magda’s decisions, but filling in the gaps gave the story an enduring quality and left me wanting to know even more about the women in Hitler’s bunker.

This is a brief, but powerful book. I highly recommend it.


*published by Meike’s Peirene Press

Orange Prize Pulitzer Prize

Two Literary Prizes

The 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize Shortlist

The shortlist for the 2013 Women’s Fiction Prize was announced this morning. I wasn’t surprised to see any of the books on the list, as all are strong enough to justify their place, but I was sad that the list consisted of so many well-known authors.  Many of the longlisted books by lesser known authors were equally good, if not better, than those selected and it is a real shame that they don’t get a chance in the spotlight.

I was especially disappointed that The Marlowe Papers by Ros Barber didn’t make the cut as her novel, written entirely in verse, is an amazing achievement that deserves more recognition.

Here are the six lucky books that made the shortlist:

Where'd You Go, BernadetteNWMay We be Forgiven


Bring Up the BodiesFlight BehaviourLife After Life (Signed, Limited Edition)

Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Five words from the blurb: genius, Microsoft, child, charismatic, comic
Wonderfully entertaining and quirky – I recommend this to anyone looking for something a little different.

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 won’t be to everyone’s taste.

May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

Five words from the blurb: quiet, life, family, strange, finding
Engaging book, packed with satire. Lots of people love this one, but I’m afraid the plot twists were a bit too unrealistic for me.

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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 the shortlist.

Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Five words from the blurb: Appalachian Mountains, mother, discovers, nature, miracle
Global warming is an important subject and this book has many fantastic passages, but I’m afraid it was a little preachy for me.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Five words from the blurb: turbulent, events, chances, past, moments
This is the book that everyone is raving about. It didn’t work for me, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win the big prize. I think this is Atkinson’s year.

What do you think of the shortlist?


The 2013 Pulitzer Prize

The Orphan Master's Son

WINNER: The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

Five words from the blurb: North Korea, kidnapper, spy, glory, love

The first half of this book was outstanding, but unfortunately I found it became unrealistic and silly as it progressed. I’m surprised to see it winning the Pulitzer – especially since the prize is supposed to go to books dealing with American life. This ones seems far too rooted in North Korea to be eligible, but what do I know!?


The Snow Child

FINALIST: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Five words from the blurb: Alaskan, wilderness, snow, girl, magical

I loved this book. It was like a modern day fairy tale and was gripping throughout. I’m surprised to see it on this prize list though. I found it hugely entertaining, but didn’t think it had the depth to justify a Pulitzer. Those judges are doing strange things this year!


What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank

FINALIST: What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander

Five words from the blurb: comic, dark, vision, universe, questions 

I’m not a fan of short stories so I haven’t tried this one, but I’ve heard lots of great things about it. Were the judges right to select it?

What do you think of the selection?