Friday, 30 October 2020

Micro Review 15


The Readers' Room by Antoine Laurain (trans. Aitkins, Boyce & Mackintosh) from Gallic Books

I've been a fan of Laurain's books since the very first one appeared in English and he has become one of the authors I look up regularly to see if there is a new book due. The problem with this eagerness is that once I get a copy in my hand I become really nervous that the book won't be as good as I hope and I put off starting it.

This time I had to read the book relatively swiftly as it was a library book with a waiting list of people also looking forward to it!

As with all of Laurain's books it is relatively short and really couldn't be anything other than French, the locations just really wouldn't (or couldn't) translate to anywhere else. This book was always going to appeal to me as it is set firmly in the book world and to be honest my dream job would be in Violaine's Readers' Room.

The mystery of this book is two fold - an anonymous book is taking the French literary world by storm and yet at the same time the events in the book are coming to life away from Paris. Can the two mysteries be solved before people lose their jobs or their lives?

I loved reading this book, I guessed very small details of the mysteries but regardless I loved spending time in the world of these people and like all the best books they lived for me. I could 'see' the book really clearly in my mind as I read which in no small way is down to the trio of translators who catch the whimsy of the writing so well.

Monday, 26 October 2020

Book shadows


How Should One Read a Book by Virginia Woolf (and also Windsong Summer by Patricia Cecil Hass)

I wrote recently about how I was rediscovering old favourite books recently and it was a weird feeling when I read Sheila Heti's introduction to Woolf's essay around the same time.

Heti is talking about the 'shadow-shape' of books that we read and the lines that stood out were:

"A book is a watery sculpture that lives on in the mind once the reading is done. When I think back on the books I have loved, I rarely remember the names of characters, the plot, or most of the scenes. It is not even the tone or mood I remember, but some residue remains - and that unlikely word is appropriate here - of unique shape.

Sometimes the shape of an entire book will be compacted into the memory of a single scene: something simple - a room that was conjured in the mind, in which two characters sat, speaking." (p7)

Heti and then Woolf go on to talk about how to read and evaluate books but it was this initial sentiment that struck and then stayed with me.

Windsong Summer was another book I remember buying from the school book sale. Even though 30+ years have gone since I last read the book it definitely left a shadow shape with me. I remembered that it was set in the summer in a tropical location, that boats were involved and that there was a hurricane but very little else. Except that at some point in the book they eat chowder...

I had no idea what chowder was as a child but I know that as soon as I saw it on the menu on a trip to San Francisco a few years ago I had to try it and that it instantly took me back to this book. 

That feeling passed but earlier this year (before lockdowns and travel bans) Mr Norfolkbookworm and I were in the Florida Keys I instantly started thinking about this book again...the seas were the colour I imagined as a child and we even saw some yachts that had been damaged in past hurricanes.

I have now read the book, and I quite enjoyed it. Again it was an experience where I felt like I was reading a new book and at the same time reading a book I knew word for word... as an adult I can see more flaws in the book and I can see why it hasn't made it as a modern classic but I'm not going to focus on them as right now we all need nice things and I am going to take myself back to a world of clear blue seas, warm weather and summer adventures!

Many thanks to Net Galley for the advance copy of How One Should Read a Book.

Friday, 16 October 2020

As the Women Lay Dreaming - a review for the IndieBookNetwork

 As the Women Lay Dreaming by Donald S Murray (Saraband)

After running a 5 year project during the WW1 Centenary commemorations I've not read too many books set in 1913-1919 but the offer from Bex (Ninja Book Box) to expand my reading of independent publishers with a book set at the very end of the war was too good to miss.

In the small hours of January 1st, 1919, the cruellest twist of fate changed at a stroke the lives of an entire community.

Tormod Morrison was there that terrible night. He was on board HMY Iolaire when it smashed into rocks and sank, killing some 200 servicemen on the very last leg of their long journey home from war. For Tormod – a man unlike others, with artistry in his fingertips – the disaster would mark him indelibly.

Two decades later, Alasdair and Rachel are sent to the windswept Isle of Lewis to live with Tormod in his traditional blackhouse home, a world away from theGlasgow of their earliest years. Their grandfather is kind, compassionate, but still deeply affected by the remarkable true story of the Iolaire shipwreck – by the selfless heroism and desperate tragedy he witnessed.

A deeply moving novel about passion constrained, coping with loss and a changing world, As the Women Lay Dreaming explores how a single event can so dramatically impact communities, individuals and, indeed, our very souls.

I learned about the Iolaire disaster during my centenary project, the loss of a ship bringing men home to the Western Isles from the war within sight of the harbour on New Year's Day 1919 hammered home the utter futility of that war to me.

This book is very clever as the Iolaire disaster is central to the plot, but at the same time not. Ostensibly this is the story of Alasdair remembering a short period in his life when he lived with his grandparents long after the ship went down, but every interaction Alasdair has is coloured by how the war and shipwreck impacted the community.

I found myself immersed in the book and found that I was incapable of putting it down once I'd started it. I liked learning about how life in the Western Isles remained untouched in many ways during WW1 but that the people involved were completely altered, however hard they tried to stay firm with their beliefs. It was such a feast for the senses reading this book, I really could see, hear and smell everything which helps to explain how hard it was to stop reading and return to 2020.

Surprisingly for a book that enthralled me so much I am finding it hard to articulate why, and I am now realising just how many gaps the book has left me with. 

I wanted to spend more time in the family's world and I definitely want to know about all of the female characters whose stories are tantalisingly mentioned but never completed.  There is a lot to be said for a short, beautiful book but I'd have loved this to be a big, sweeping saga and to feel like I was a part of the family rather than someone peeking through the window and listening to snippets of the family's story being told around the fire place.

I'm really pleased I've read this book, and huge thanks to Bex at the Indie Book Network and Saraband for the book, I'm now off to look for more books set in the Western Isles and about HMY Iolaire.


Sunday, 11 October 2020

Rediscovering old (book) friends


Earthstar Magic by Ruth Chew (Scholastic)

In the UK it has just been National Libraries Week and several threads on social media have been about favourite books from childhood, which set me thinking about books that stand out in my memory.

I loved the Garden Gang books, and then there was the dreadfully didactic Learning Tree that I was very attached to but the first books to really stick in my mind are ones that I got from the book catalogue leaflets that came home from school. I don't recall if I was bought them, or if I saved up pocket money for them but there are four titles that have always stayed with me.

Two are standard children's classics being The Little House on the Prairie and We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea. These books helped spark my love of series fiction and I still have my copies of these books (and all the other books by Ingalls Wilder & Ransome - plus a lot of books about them!) I often reread them, and with Ransome visit the locations he wrote about.

The other two books were more obscure and I don't think I've ever met anyone else who's read them. Idle online browsing recently led me to discover that both of them were currently in stock with a 2nd hand bookseller and I decided to treat myself.

The first book I decided to read was Earthstar Magic by Ruth Chew. In my mind I could see the cover really clearly and I knew that it was about a flying mushroom.

My mind had made it far more salacious than it actually was - I thought that the mushroom was more like the food Alice tries in Wonderland and that the children ate portions of it to grow/shrink/fly!

Instead the mushroom, an earthstar, belongs to a discredited witch and when Ben and Ellen first save and then befriend Trudy they learn the secrets of the earthstar's magic and have several adventures over a couple of days of summer.

The book is in fact very reminiscent of Jill Murphy's Worst Witch or even James Nichol's stories about Arianwyn and just a very sweet early reader about families, holidays and friendship.

Reading the books was a funny mix of familiarity and discovery and unlike so often when you go down memory lane very much not a disappointment, however a little research into the author shows that she wrote many books in a similar vein but I don't think I will tarnish my nostalgia by trying any more of them!

Friday, 9 October 2020

Micro Review 14


Pandora's Jar by Natalie Haynes (Pan Macmillan)

Regular readers will have hopefully picked up on my love of mythology and Haynes' writing style and will thus be unsurprised that I though this book simply wonderful.

Pandora's Jar is a non fiction book taking a critical look at many of the females in classical literature and then their portrayal in art and literature through the centuries since. Fans of Haynes' previous work will not be surprised to find that the original tales were often very different to the tales we know today.

That Pandora had a jar not a box is just the start of this look at the original stories and their subsequent retellings and the reasons for the alterations. The classic Harryhausen film Jason and the Argonauts would have been quite different if the original source material had been used too...

Looking into the retelling, simplifying and reworking of 'classics' fascinates me - to the extent that I wrote my MA dissertation on the topic. This book reminded me of the research I found so enthralling whilst also making me laughing out loud (and snorting in disgust) at the points Haynes, in her inimitable way, makes.

Another book that I know I will dip in and out of in the future.