Unread, now read book 14 – Every Day, David Levithan

Every Day

For all of you who have fond memories of watching Quantum Leap in the early 90s, Every Day is for you! A 16-year-old, wakes up each morning to find himself in a different person’s body. Every day. They are always the same age as the protagonist (known as ‘A’) but that is the only common denominator: pretty, mean, gay, jock, emo’, suicidal, happy; ‘A’ experiences each person’s life from waking up to falling asleep, approximately 16-18 hours, before then waking up as the next person the following morning. Apparently ‘A’ doesn’t remember a time when this hasn’t happened to him. He has never spent more than one day with a family as far back as his memories stretch. Luckily (and usefully for the plot!) ‘A’ can access the person’s memories and use these to get through the day.  It’s also helpful that ‘A’ has access to an email account as this means that he can keep track of his real ‘self’ across his daily transitions; he frequently emails himself information and notes on the people he was ‘in’ and thoughts he has about his predicament to give himself continuum (and then cautiously wipes all internet history from whosever computer he has used). ‘A’ has also set himself rules, and constructed a coping mechanism to help him with the transitions day after day:

Follow the person’s daily routine.

Don’t draw attention to yourself.

Don’t interfere.

Respect the person you are ‘in’ and keep them safe by making good decisions.

Don’t leave traces of yourself.

Don’t fall in love.

But of course, one day he meets Rhiannon. And ‘A’ breaks all of his rules.

Rest assured, this is not a soppy coming of age, a Romeo and Juliet-esque doomed romance novel. Every Day intelligently explores a fascinating concept and makes the reader think about what makes ‘you’ you, what drives people to make choices, and reminds you that no-one should another judge another on appearance alone.

I think I would class this as a YA novel, but only because the main character(s) are teenagers and the novel centres around everyday issues that teenagers face. It would be a fabulous text for use in schools to discuss ethics, or in English Literature when discussing ‘issues’ such as bullying, or how to analyze character. Because ‘A’ is always someone else, as well as himself, it teaches him to be tolerant and thoughtful of others. And some of the moral/ethical dilemmas he faces are genuinely tough; for example, he wakes up one morning as Kelsea Cook who has some form of mental illness and is suicidal. ‘A’ finds her journal and realises that she is planning to kill herself in six days’ time. What can he do? He will not ‘be’ her after that day so has to take action instantly. Then there is ‘Day 5998′ (chapters are titled as consecutive numbered days) when he wakes up as a drug addict.

Anyway, I could list all of the people’A’ ‘inhabits’ and what happens to him and Rhiannon… but I think you should read it and find out for yourself!

Unread, now read book 13 – Goodbye Columbus, Philip Roth

Goodbye Columbus

Out of all the impulsively bought books that have been languishing around unread for the last year on my shelves, this probably has the silliest reason as to why I bought it. Put simply, it’s because Julian Morrow in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History makes a sly joke to Richard Papen about English freshman needing to purchase a copy of Goodbye Columbus for their course. Told you it was silly.

For some reason, that literary reference always stuck with me even though I didn’t know anything more about the novel than the title, not even who it was by. So when I saw a copy in a secondhand bookstore and noticed it was written by Philip Roth who I have read and (kind of) enjoyed, I decided to buy it. Like I said I have read other novels by Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint, made the mistake of reading it in public and blushed quite a bit; American Pastoral, which I liked a lot) so I assumed that Goodbye Columbus would have similar themes and focus on a Jewish male protagonist who had some sort of angst going on.

And now that I have read it, I don’t have a lot more to say about Columbus than that! It’s always interesting reading a novel written at/set in an earlier time to which you currently live; the social mores portrayed are usually very different, particularly what men and women respectively want from life, their attitudes towards sex and marriage, etc. And Columbus is no different. But it didn’t really hook me; I didn’t get interested in any of the characters, who all felt a little two-dimensional. But then, it is his first novel; if you read some of his later novels, such as American Pastoral, his writing is highly accomplished. So there you go, not a novel (well novella, it’s pretty short) I would reread but it wasn’t a ‘bad’ novel. And for those who are interested, apparently it was made into a film, starring Ali McGraw and Richard Benjamin in 1969.

 

Unread, now read book 12 – The Glass Room, Simon Mawer

The Glass Room

This is a domestic novel, concentrating on one family, the Landauers, and their close friends and what happens to them all throughout the 1930s and 40s (and up to present day) in the First Republic of Czechoslovakia (as it is called at the time). Liesl and Victor Landauer are newly married, happy and looking forward to their future together, starting with an ambitious new house build in ‘Mesto’ (fictional Brno) in the First Republic of Czechoslovakia. A modern house, a glass house, it reflects and reinforces all of their modernistic dreams and is a meeting place for the cultural figures of their acquaintaince, including pianists and poets. But Victor is a Jew. And war is coming. Soon they have to flee their home, first to Switzerland, then Cuba, then eventually the US. Their beautiful glass house is abandoned,  is requisitioned first by one occupying force, then another, before finally being claimed by the Communists and turned into a museum.

From an historical point of view I found this novel interesting as I didn’t know much about the Czechs’ experience during the war; obviously I have read a lot of novels set in WWII France, Britain, Germany, etc. and learnt a lot of WWII history at school but I have never really read much about the political and cultural situation in Eastern Europe at this time. The tension between Germans and Czechs (then the Russians and Czechs) is well drawn and the architectural, lyrical descriptions of the house (which is a real house the the author once visited, the Villa Tugendhat in Cerna Pole in Brno) are excellent. In fact, quite honestly the house displays more personality than the characters who are quite one-dimensional (except Hana Hanakova, Liesl’s best friend, who is fabulous!).

However, the heavy-handed symbolism and the reliance on coincidences to drive the plot annoyed me. That the plot relies on five or six outrageous coincidences experienced by Victor and/or Liesl beggers belief. I refuse to list them here, they are just silly. So not sure I would recommend this novel.

Unread, now read book 11 – Old Filth, Jane Gardam

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I bought this novel, along with Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room,  because they were part of a nice point of sale display in my local bookstore containing the 40 years of Abacus special edition books, and had lovely covers. Shallow of me, I know, but really sometimes that’s all it takes. Which is why I don’t let myself in bookstores very often.

Anyway, I digress. Old Filth.Essentially Old Filth (FILTH standing for Failed in London Try Hong Kong) tells the story of Sir Edward Feathers, a retired judge who, having spent most of his long career in Hong Kong, has now retired to Dorset with his wife. At the beginning of the novel he loses his wife suddenly to a heart attack and that is when he starts to unravel and we get the extended flashbacks to his childhood and early career. Born a child of the British Empire, a Raj orphan who is then shunted off to Wales, where he suffers dreadfully at the hands of his sadistic guardian before escaping that life to go to a boarding school where he is happy, Edward’s life arc appears to be as unpredictable to him as it is to the reader following his story. At the mercy of the whims of family members who have jurisdiction over him till he turns 18, then the war and the army, then his career, Edward seems constantly surprised by where he is in life. But he is no Paul Pennyfeather. Everything good that happens to him is a result of him showing kindness or understanding to someone in need that he has come across. But he isn’t a goody-goody either. Oh, it’s really hard to explain.

Suffice to say, I loved this book. Got to the end and wanted to read it again. I still can’t really tell you why; the writing was strong but not wow, amazing; the characters were well-drawn but most of them weren’t very likeable; the plot was interesting and the constant shift between the present and various points in the main character’s past kept me on my toes. So why so engaging? I think because when I reached the end, although I thought I understood buttoned-up, emotionally desolate Edward, the final reveal made me revisit everything that had gone before. I would normally say that I felt cheated but it’s not that. Having read the introduction written for this particular edition by the author, I was relieved to see that she felt the same way. Old Filth was meant to be a standalone, a one-off but once she had finished writing it, she felt the urge to write two more linked novels and turn it into a trilogy. The second novel (The Man in the Wooden Hat) tells the same story but from Betty’s (his wife) point of view and the third (Last Friends), focuses on the retirement of all of the protagonist from Hong Kong to Dorset. I can’t wait to read the second, I feel as if there is so much more waiting for me. So once again, I add to the list of books I want to read when I have finished my current list of unread books!

Unread, now read book 10 – A Whistling Woman, A.S.Byatt

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Coming in at number ten on my unread, now read list (in a neat twist, as this is the tenth book by A.S.Byatt that I have now read) is A Whistling Woman. The last of Byatt’s ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’, A Whistling Woman portrays Frederica in the late 1960s and her reaction to all of the extraordinary social changes that was happening so rapidly at this time. I wouldn’t recommend reading this if you haven’t read the other novels in the Quartet (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower) as I don’t think it stands alone as well as Still Life, and you will get more out of it if you have traced her journey from her 17-year-old self through to the 33-year-old she is in this novel.

Particularly interesting in A Whistling Woman is the general attitude towards television, which is still in its infancy; the newly-formed BBC is looking around for programming ideas, and decide they need a programme that hosts a very cerebral, political and philosophical debate with guest talking heads – reality tv isn’t even a twinkle in an executive’s eye at this point! Frederica is offered the role of hosting the weekly debate accepts and is thrust into the brave new world of television with very little, well no, training. Running in parallel with Frederica’s story, are the stories of her friends, her lover and her family, back in her native Yorkshire; an ‘anti-university’ is being promoted to students who are currently following studies at a traditional university; a cult is forming around a psychologically-disturbed man at a farm nearby; all of the stories intertwining and acting as a catalyst upon one another.

Always erudite, crammed with literary, biblical and philosophical allusions and references, but wearing her learning lightly, Byatt dazzles again in this novel. However, I have to admit though that Possession will always be my favourite novel of hers, partly because I have a weakness for Victorian-esque literature and partly because it has everything – a quest, multiple love stories, fabulous poetry. So if you haven’t read any Byatt, start with Possession, then The Game, and then move onto the ‘Frederica Potter Quartet’. If you get through all of those, come back to me and I will suggest more of hers to read!

Unread, now read book 9 – Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Helen Simonson

Major-Pettigrews-Last-Stand

From outback Australia in my last read, to a small-minded village in the English countryside in this one. Much as I am struggling with my (self-prescribed) reading list, I am enjoying the randomness of my current reading. Usually I read a couple of similar books in a row, maybe Golden Age crime novels, or Booker prize winners, or Australian-themed, dystopian novels, etc. Reading in such a disconnected way is quite liberating; I find the juxtaposition of the novels I am reading one after the other add, rather than detract, from my enjoyment of them.

And so, onto book 9, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Major Pettigrew is rather a dear. He could easily have been turned into a cliché by the author, Helen Simonson, but actually from the moment he is introduced, reeling from a phone call that has informed him his brother has died, Major Pettigrew confounds the reader’s expectations of how a retired major should behave. His growing friendship with Mrs Ali, the English-Pakistani owner of the local shop, is beautifully drawn as is his dawning realization that she means more to him than anything else – including the opinion of his neighbours who struggle to welcome and approve of this friendship. Throw in his self-obsessed ‘city boy’ son, a snobbish social committee, an ineffectual vicar and the casual racism displayed by the local golf club members and you have a lovely modern manners novel.

Don’t get me wrong, Simonson is no Austen but this village life novel, with its insular characters, rather charmed me. Well, to be fair Mrs Ali and Major Pettigrew did. Some of the more far-fetched plot developments felt a little forced and, in my mind, were clichés and/or distracting but on the whole a nice read. Not a novel I would necessarily re-read, or even recommend as a ‘must-read’ to friends, but a nice read.

Unread, now read book 8 – The Pages, Murray Bail

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Moving between a sheep station in rural NSW, Sydney and various European cities, the story traces Wesley Anthill’s determination to become a philosopher, the siblings that support his dream, his trip to Europe, the events that drive him back home and his life back on the sheep station. After Wesley’s death, Erica, a philosopher is employed the Anthill estate to go through all of his writings and papers and to establish if Wesley really was a philosopher of merit and therefore whether his papers should be published. Accompanying her is a friend from Sydney, Sophie, a psychologist.

I could have done without Sophie. Bail uses her as a motif, sets her psychological musings against Erica’s philosophical ideals but her characterization is very clichéd and she is given very silly things to say. And the subplot involving her father is a bit obvious. If the intention is to compare and contrast the approaches of philosophy and psychology then at the very least Bail could have provided ‘combatants’ of equal stature. However, I can forgive him this for his lyrical descriptions of the Australian landscape (which is what I loved most about another novel of his, Eucalypus, a must-read!!).

A meditation on love, the complicated dance between man and woman that is the start of any relationship, and the difficulties of thought itself, The Pages is a beautiful, tightly-written novel that stays with you long after you have finished reading.

Unread now read book 7 – Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Book Store, Robin Sloan

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Well, what to say about this novel. The title of the novel implies a heartwarming, quirky tale of people bonding over books or possibly a spot of magic realism. In reality it’s a mish-mash of quest, love story, adventure, and a debate on the merits of traditional methods of publishing (print) versus modern (Google books, etc.). When I searched for other reviews of this novel, I found a good one at lostinagreatbook that described it as a “… a mix of the DaVinci Code and Douglas Copeland’s J-Pod, with a dash of Lord of the Rings.” I think that is a great summary!

Clay Jannon, the ‘hero’, is an unemployed graphic designer with some basic web programming skills who takes a job as a night clerk at the book store of the title. Customers are few and far between, and the ones who do come in seem only to want to ‘borrow’ books from the mysterious section at the back of the store rather than buy anything. Clay has little contact with the owner and spends most of his time trying to work out what the store is a front for and coming up with tasks that will keep him occupied over the long nights. He is required to enter the details of every ‘customer’ in a log book, the latest in a long line of log books that he occasionally flicks through when he is bored. Being the conscientious type, he decides to try to drive more business to the story and sets up a whole load of GoogleAds, etc. which works when a young woman (Kat) comes in (who coincidentally works at Google) and they bond over the 3D image of the store he has created on his laptop.

And then the story just kind of takes off – but not in a good way. I won’t even begin to try to explain the plot here as it is not only complicated but wouldn’t make any sense! I don’t mind complex plotting but it needs to lead to you somewhere, which this novel doesn’t. Suffice to say, there is a mysterious book society, complex code-breaking, global conspiracies, high-tech data visualization, several subplots including one about a popular font (Gerritszoon by Griffo), another about a wizard saga trilogy that Clay loved as a kid – you really have to read it, to believe it.

However, I didn’t mind the random sub plots as much as I minded the heavy-handed ‘infomercials’ that are jammed into Clay’s mouth. I happen to find typography, bookbinding and web programming all very interesting but the chunks of the book devoted to these areas are just that, chunks, and very clunky too. Let’s just say that the author’s knowledge is not worn lightly in this novel!

In summary, great idea, poorly executed.

Unread now read book 6 – Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons

Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm

I had been looking forward to reading about Flora Poste’s Christmas exploits at Cold Comfort Farm, she is rather a hero of mine and I thought a Starkadder family Christmas gathering would play to her strengths. As a result, I did not even peek at the book until Christmas Day so as to better enjoy it.

Imagine my disappointment then when I found that the ‘first chapter’ of Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm wasn’t a chapter, but a story, and the story was not about Flora, or even Cold Comfort Farm, but about a single woman who thinks she loves her perfect single life Christmas in her perfect cottage, but then realises that maybe her life isn’t as perfect as she thought (oh and that she needs a man).  Yes, that’s right…it’s a collection of short stories! With only ONE story about Cold Comfort Farm which even more upsettingly doesn’t even include Flora. Nowhere on the cover or on the back cover blurb does the publisher flag that this is a collection of short stories, and I quote [front cover] “Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm. Where better to spend the most wonderful time of the year” and [back cover] “Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm will remind you that Christmas is a magical time of year and that romance can blossom in the least likely of place.” Does this or does this not sound like a story, set during Christmas, AT Cold Comfort Farm? You have to flick through the front matter to the publisher ‘Note’ and then the contents page to establish its short story status. Bah. 

Anyway, rant over. Setting my disappointment aside, and losing my Christmassy feeling very quickly, I read my way through the short stories and actually quite enjoyed them. They are very much period pieces and only two of them are Christmas-based (they reminded me of E. M. Delafield’s writing) but two I liked specifically were ‘The Murder Mark’ and ‘The Hoofer and the Lady’.

Cold Comfort Farm

Oh and a word to those who have not yet come across the joy that is Cold Comfort Farm (winner of the 1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize according to goodreads.com) and therefore the wonders of Flora Poste who would have common sense written all the way through her if she was a stick of rock. Read it. You will snort, laugh, titter and generally smile your way through this novel. And once you have read the book, please then watch the 1995 BBC adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm. It has great casting – a young Rufus Sewell plays Seth Starkadder, the virile, rutting farmer’s son and Kate Beckinsale plays Flora Poste (pre-Underworld of course!) that most sensible and pragmatic hero; even Stephen Fry shows up as Mr Mybug, surely one of the best comic characters ever written, and all in all is as much fun to watch as the novel is to read.

Unread, now read books 4 & 5 – The End of Your Life Book Club and Mr Norris Changes Trains

I have decided to run these two book reviews together as I don’t have a lot to say about either of them, though that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy them.

the end of your life book club

I liked The End of Your Life Book Club more than I thought I would; as a rule, I don’t like ‘inspirational’ books (I must be the only woman to hurl Eat, Pray, Love across the room in despair) and I had erroneously assumed that this particular book would be mawkish, depressing and full of religious platitudes, but actually it was refreshingly pragmatic, thoughtful and well-written and acts as a love letter from a son to his mother whom he portrays as a strong, independent, hard-working, deeply caring and loving woman. And the central theme of how a shared love of books and a shared love of talking about books can bring people together struck a chord with me. Many of the books that the mother and son read and discussed together will not be going on my reading list, nevertheless it was interesting to follow their journey. Would I recommend it? Yes, I would.

mr norris changes trains

It was a little disconcerting to shift from The End of Your Life Book Club to Mr Norris Changes Trains, as they really couldn’t be more different. The first of Ishwerwood’s ‘Berlin novels’, there are no likeable characters in this rather slow-paced novel but despite that it still captured me. The lack of self-awareness shown by Norris, the arrogance displayed by both Norris and Bradshaw to all non-Englishmen they meet, the political conversations, the shiftiness of, well everyone; I found it all rather fascinating. I will definitely go on to read Goodbye to Berlin (once I have worked my way through the other 22 novels on my unread list of course!). Oh and I loved the cover of my copy, which is a Vintage edition!