What I’m Reading This Week: 14th June, 2016

So, I have to say last week (well this week as I’m writing on a Sunday not Monday as I normally do) didn’t go as well as planned reading wise. I had a master plan of listening versus reading to my book choices because I was away for the first part of the week and had six train journeys in my future. This way I could work and do something I actually enjoyed at the same time. Unfortunately, I forgot my headphones…meaning no listening at all to distract me from some mind-numbing spreadsheets.

Thankfully, I had taken a book with me so not all was lost. The book was Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, a collection of short stories.  I picked it because I had really liked Lives of Girls and Women, which I’d read back in April.

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A young wife and mother receives release from the unbearable pain of losing her children from a most surprising source. In the aftermath of an unusual, humiliating seduction, a young woman reacts in a clever if less-than-admirable way. Other stories uncover the “deep holes” in a marriage and their consequences, the unsuspected cruelty of children, and how a boy’s disfigured face molds his fate. And in the long title story, we accompany Sonia Kovalevsky—a late-nineteenth-century Russian émigré and mathematician—on a winter journey that takes her from the Riviera, where she visits her lover, to Paris, Germany, and the Danish Isles, where she has a fateful meeting with a local doctor, and finally to Sweden, where she teaches at the only university in Europe willing to employ a female mathematician.

Too Much Happiness is from the library and was part of a great haul.

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Without You by Saskia Sarginson: When 17-year-old Eva goes missing at sea, everyone presumes that she tragically drowned. Her parents’ relationship starts to fall apart, undermined by guilt and grief. But her younger sister, Faith, refuses to consider a life without Eva; she’s determined to bring her sister home alive.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: It is 1922, and London is tense. Ex-servicemen are disillusioned; the out-of-work and the hungry are demanding change. And in South London, in a genteel Camberwell villa — a large, silent house now bereft of brothers, husband, and even servants — life is about to be transformed as impoverished widow Mrs. Wray and her spinster daughter, Frances, are obliged to take in lodgers.

The Boy Who Could See Death by Salley Vickers: Eli is an ordinary boy with an extraordinary gift. It will shape the course of his whole life but, he learns the hard way, he must keep it hidden from those who know him best. Seeing death is a mixed blessing. 

All The Little Pieces by Jilliane Hoffman: She could have stopped an awful crime. She could have saved a life. She tried to forget about it. But now, the truth is out.

How To Be Both by Ali Smith: How to be both is a novel all about art’s versatility. Borrowing from painting’s fresco technique to make an original literary double-take, it’s a fast-moving genre-bending conversation between forms, times, truths and fictions. There’s a Renaissance artist of the 1460s. There’s the child of a child of the 1960s. Two tales of love and injustice twist into a singular yarn where time gets timeless, structural gets playful, knowing gets mysterious, fictional gets real—and all life’s givens get given a second chance.

Tucked in amongst the pile is The Other Child by Lucy Atkins, which I won in a Goodread giveaway.  I never win anything so a rather chuffed to have received it.

Sometimes a lie seems kinder than the truth … but what happens when that lie destroys everything you love?.

When Tess is sent to photograph Greg, a high profile paediatric heart surgeon, she sees something troubled in his face, and feels instantly drawn to him. Their relationship quickly deepens, but then Tess, single mother to nine-year-old Joe, falls pregnant, and Greg is offered the job of a lifetime back in his hometown of Boston. Before she knows it, Tess is married, and relocating to the States. But life in an affluent American suburb proves anything but straightforward.

Unsettling things keep happening in the large rented house. Joe is distressed, the next-door neighbours are in crisis, and Tess is sure that someone is watching her. Greg’s work is all-consuming and, as the baby’s birth looms, he grows more and more unreachable. Something is very wrong, Tess knows it, and then she makes a jaw-dropping discovery…

I’m not sure which ones I’ll read first because they have all been on my to-read list and all sound good, which makes this post not so much a what I’m reading but what should I read?  Any suggestions? What about you, what are you reading?

Emma

This week, I’m linking in with Kimberly at the Caffeinated Book Reviewer and her Sunday Post. Head over to see what other bloggers have read, written about or just added to their shelves.

The Sunday Post

Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway by Sara Gran

17847024When Claire DeWitt gets a call from the local police to tell her her old boyfriend, Paul, has been murdered she knows – whether anyone asks her or not – she needs to find out who killed him and why. How she goes about figuring it all out had me hooked from pretty much the first page and, along the way, I fell a little bit in love with Claire.

In a way, this book reminded me of James Sallis, who I’m also reading this week.  The crime is there to solve, along with others like The Case of the Missing Miniature Horses (yes, you read that right).  But this isn’t so much about the murder as it is about Claire, who is just a little dysfunctional (she has quite a liking for drink, drugs, random sex, with a bit of random theft thrown in for good measure).

Paul’s death sends her into a destructive spiral, bringing back memories of her best friend Tracy, who went missing as a teenager, how she became a detective and a million other things in her life that aren’t quite right.  All these present in a complex character, one who works on instinct rather than a systematic search for clues and has a slightly new-age philosophy.  Threaded throughout is a strange and wonderfully off-the-wall cast of characters – most of whom are also often high, drunk and tattooed.

This all gives the book a great pace and a lot of humour (albeit dark).  It is well written and very clever.  There was so much in it I haven’t read before, so many characters that stuck in my mind, especially Claire.  I can’t wait to read more.  Loved it (if you haven’t already guessed).

Emma

The Detective’s Secret by Lesley Thomson

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When Stella Darnell is asked by William Frost to investigate the death of his brother, Richard, she wants to say no. Especially when it sounds like an open and shut case – by all eye witness accounts, including that of her colleague and friend, Jack, Richard threw himself under an underground train. William seems incapable of taking no for an answer though and Jack is keen to take on the case, so she says yes.

Given that Stella runs a cleaning agency, it might seem a bit of a leap, but she has a track record – she has already solved two cold cases, ones her father (a detective) couldn’t let go of. This is different, because it isn’t a cold case and it isn’t linked to her dad, or at least it doesn’t look like it is. Instead, it goes back to Richard’s childhood and that of two other boys, Simon and Justin. There are flashbacks to all three boys through the first half of the book that are key to what is happening in the now.

The flashbacks are important because they help a lot of seemingly separate parts of the story fall into place but I also found them confusing at first. Chapters were titled by date not the character and a couple of times I had to flick back a few pages to remind myself whose eyes I was seeing events through. This got easier as the book went on and the characters became more real for me – allowing me to tell the difference between their voices.

At one point, Stella talks about detecting as being like a puzzle with the pieces falling into place and this very much describes this book.  Only you aren’t given the pieces in the most obvious order, leaving gaps and questions that kept me reading.  This makes it my type of crime fiction. I like it when I’m kept guessing. Plus, it helps keeps building the tension, which Lesley Thomson maintained pretty much through to the end.

This is the third in The Detective’s Daughter series and, having read all three, probably my favourite. For me, the characters are a little bit more rounded than the previous books and it feels more confident. As such I really enjoyed it and would recommend it to others, the only thing I might say is to start at the beginning because there are references to Jack’s behaviour especially that aren’t too well explained and might confuse someone new to the series.  Other than that though, definitely worth reading.

Emma

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

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Maud has dementia, meaning she doesn’t always know where or when she is, what she is doing, has just done or is supposed to do. Her life is full of her carers and daughter telling her things she can’t remember, what not to eat, where not to go, what not to buy and who not to call. There are a lot of nots and they all seem to result in Maud being mainly at home, on her own.

To try and help her, she has notes stuck to walls, doors, shelves, reminders of how to take care of herself. Notes lie in stacks on the table and fill her pockets and handbag. They don’t seem to do much to help. They might, if she could remember when she had written them and if they were still relevant.

One note she knows is still relevant, is the one that tells her her best friend, Elizabeth, is missing. Elizabeth is the only person who makes her feel normal, despite her illness. Maud hasn’t seen her in a long time, although she isn’t sure how long, and is convinced Elizabeth’s no good son is most likely responsible. A fact confirmed when she finds Elizabeth’s house is empty. A house she can’t stop going back to.

The problem is no one believes her, worse they don’t listen to her when she tries to tell them. Instead, they brush her off or humour her, depending on who “they” are – her daughter, her carer, the son, the police. Maud refuses to let go of Elizabeth though, determined to discover the truth. It’s hard, though, when she doesn’t know when she last saw her best friend and only remembers she is missing or what she’s done about it when she finds a note. This means she does a lot of the same things, like visiting the police station to file a report, again and again.

Whilst Maud’s grasp of the present is fleeting, her past seems to be becoming clearer and clearer, especially memories of her sister Sukie who, like Elizabeth, went missing not long after the end of the war. She was never found but, now, Maud starts to unravel what might have happened to her.

Emma Healey does a great job of moving between past and present and of creating the two worlds Maud inhabits, the clarity of her youth and the muddle of her old age. For me, this mix of the then and the now, make Maud a really rounded character. I felt I got to know her a little better with each chapter and care for her more with each page.

I thought Emma Healey presented Maud and how her illness affected her and her family sympathetically without over sentimentalising. I liked, for example, that her daughter was caring but that she was obviously stressed by being the primary carer and sometimes snapped and that we got a glimpse of how frustrated Maud felt. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have dementia or be a carer but I do think I got a window into that world.

As well as good characters, I found the book to be well written and compelling and an excellent debut. It wasn’t the most difficult mystery to solve, there weren’t the red herrings and twists you would find in crime fiction, but I don’t think it was meant to be. For me, this was more about the people, and family, and loss and it didn’t take a step wrong. Really, really liked it and a recommended read.

Emma

Before We Met by Lucie Whitehouse

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Before We Met was one of those books that got me with the “blurb” on the back cover. It sounded intriguing, and like something I would enjoy reading.

A whirlwind romance. A perfect marriage. Hannah Reilly has seized her chance at happiness.Until the day her husband doesn’t come home…

I have to say it was both, although for the first chapter or two I was a bit worried it was going to be run of the mill thriller. I thought it was also seeming a bit too obvious. Thankfully I was wrong.

Hannah goes to the airport to pick up her husband, Nick, who doesn’t turn up. A frantic night of worrying is followed by a phone call saying he missed his flight and so decided to stay in New York. Hannah should feel relieved…if Nick’s Assistant hadn’t told her Nick was supposed to be in Rome, not New York. An attempt to find out the truth leads Hannah into a web of lies, leaving her to question everything she knows about her husband, her marriage and her life.

The great thing about the book for me was how many twists and turns there were. Every time Hannah thinks she’s found the truth, it turns out she’s wrong and every time I thought I had the ending sussed, it turns out I was wrong too. Meaning I kept reading, finishing the book in a day or so.

It also meant there was a great pace to the book, one that never let up. I really did feel as if I was being dragged along with Hannah herself, who I grew to like, although I would have liked her to be a bit more solid as a character. There were times when I thought Lucie Whitehouse relied on the twists and red herrings rather than developing Hannah. The same is true of Nick, who felt a little wooden and very much the stereotype of the perfect, gorgeous, successful husband.

This meant I couldn’t say I loved the book but I did like it a lot. I’ll be reading more Lucie Whitehouse and will recommend the book.

Emma

The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie

For the last month of the Play On! Challenge, you could pick any play you wanted, I decided on The Mousetrap because it’s the longest running play in the West End and I wanted to read why. Plus, I hoped it wouldn’t be too serious – something that couldn’t be said about last month’s choice of Uncle Vanya. I got exactly what I wanted, which was great.

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The play opens with a young couple nervous about receiving their first visitors at their new guesthouse. They have no real idea what they are doing and seem to have missed many of the formalities, like asking for references. Their guests are four strangers, five if you include the mystery man who arrives in the middle of the snow storm that eventually leaves them housebound. At the same time, the radio is reporting on a murder in London. A woman has been strangled.

The setting and story are very much what I expect when I think of Agatha Christie. A country house, a mix of characters – all with something to hide, a murder anyone could have committed and lots of red herrings. It was very “Colonel Mustard in the Library with a lead pipe” and I loved it. Plus there’s the twist in the tale you know is coming and are scratching your head trying to figure out (audience members are asked not to share this and I won’t either, all I’ll say is I didn’t figure out who was guilty).

The Mousetrap is fast paced, with lots of people coming and going, meaning you don’t know if they really going to the kitchen or up to something else, and easy to read. It didn’t take a lot of brainpower to read and I hadn’t expected that. I had expected to be entertained and I was. Really enjoyed it.

Emma

Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro

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The first thing that struck me about Lives of Girls and Women was that, despite being described as a novel, it is more a collection of short stories, each written from the perspective of one central character, Del Jordan. Each chapter is a story and each story a snapshot of Del’s life as she moves from child to teenager to young woman.

The second thing was that, despite having been written in 1971, this book felt very fresh and modern; the issues it touchs on – around what it’s like to grow up female and the perceptions of what women should and shouldn’t be – still seem as relevant now as they were in the 70’s when the book was written or the 40’s when it was set.

The book opens with Del as a child, living with her family on the their fox farm at the end of a long country road in rural Ontario, a road that is otherwise home to some less than salubrious types.  The first story isn’t so much about her, though, as it is her Uncle (who isn’t an uncle) and his sudden and unfortunate marriage to a young woman who already has a little girl.

Del see’s things from the perspective of a child and just how much she doesn’t understand is evident in her description of events.  As a child, she takes things at face value and accepts what adults tell her. With each story, as she gets a little older, she starts to see things more as they are and question those around her. She also continues to misunderstand a lot of things and make mistakes. That though, is growing up, and Del’s behaviour felt real to me and age appropriate – I liked that she wasn’t written as wiser than her years.

Told in the first person, you get to see how Del changes and becomes her own person and how she relates to and is shaped by the two most important people in her life, her mother and her best friend Naomi. Both are almost polar opposites of each other. Naomi is a traditional girl, growing up with local prejudices and wanting nothing more than to fill her hope chest and get married. Her mother wants more for herself and for Del than being a wife and mother. She goes to live in the town, leaving her husband on the farm, and earns her own money by travelling the country selling encyclopaedias.

All three women feature prominently in each story and this a very female centric book. The first story is the only one where men are at the centre of the narrative. In all the others they are there as caricatures almost, representing certain character traits or attitudes, none of which are particularly attractive. The men come across as weak, sneaky or controlling. Even Del’s father and brother, who appear in every story, are never front and centre but floating around in the background.

The mother is an interesting character. The result of an unhappy childhood she is now an unhappy adult who feels that life should be more than it is.  In each story, you see her trying to make more of herself, and her children, especially Del who she believes can achieve great things.  To me, she is a woman living in the wrong time and I had a lot of sympathy for her when her attempts to change her life didn’t always go to plan. I also admired her for standing up for her beliefs.

Del has a love / hate relationship with her mom. At times she seems to understand her but most times she is slightly embarassed. Yet, to me, she was her mother’s daughter in many ways, not quite fitting into the small town of Jubilee and wanting more from life. In many of the stories she is searching for answers – on friendships, love, sex, and religion. All things I think most people wonder and worry about at some point and I could see the teenage me in Del at times.

I like that Alice Munro doesn’t over sentimentalise any of the issues or the answers. In places, the book actually felt more like a memoir than a piece of fiction. The way it is written seems so straightforward but, when I sat and thought about what I’d read, it was much more complex and layered. This made it a book I really enjoyed reading, with characters I related too, and a book that I think will stay with me for a while yet. I will definitely be reading more Alice Munro.

Highly recommended!

Emma

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

Recently, I caught the tale end of a BBC Radio 4 serialisation of Alan Cumming’s book Not My Father’s Son and was intrigued. In it he talked about his abusive father and his search for his maternal grandfather, which was the subject of the TV show “Who Do You Think You Are?”. When I came across a copy of the audiobook, then, at my local library, it seemed like a good choice.

The book focuses on Alan’s relatioimagenship (or non relationship) with his father, who was abusive to him and his brother whilst they were growing up. As adults, they had little, if any, contact with their dad until he contacted Alan’s older brother and dropped a bombshell, a secret he’d been hiding for years, one that explained why he had been just so hard on Alan. Or at least that’s how it seems.

At the same time as the bombshell is being dropped Alan is discovering secrets about his maternal grandfather, an ex-army man who joined the Malaysian police force before dying in a shooting accident. Only now it’s not clear if it was an accident. But if not, how did he die? And why did he die so far away from home?

The book is written in a Then and Now style with tales of Alan Cumming’s childhood and later life alternating with the now of the secrets being revealed and the show being filmed. At times, I found this more than a bit confusing and – a downside of audiobooks – couldn’t flick back through the pages to reorientate myself. I also struggled with  the linking of the stories of Alan’s father and his maternal grandfather. 

Both of these stories are fascinating in and of themselves and both having endings I didn’t expect. The problem I had is that they didn’t fit together for me, even though Alan Cumming’s makes connections between the two stories and his own life throughout, comparing the shock he feels about his father’s revelations with his grandfather’s PTSD for example. The striking examples Cumming’s talks about just weren’t that striking to me, more a stretch.

Part of me wished these were two separate books, each more detailed because I think they could stand up in their own right. I also wished I had read rather than listened to the book because I found Alan Cumming’s voice too measured. Given how emotional he must have been, it just didn’t come across to me.  

A few months ago, I read (listened to) The Mistress’s Daughter by A. M. Homes, another book about family bombshells and, listening to Not My Father’s Son, I couldn’t help comparing the two. A. M. Homes definitely came out on top and made me appreciate how hard it probably is to write this type of book, one that is so personal and close to the bone, and write it well.  Of the two, it’s the one I think I’d recommend for people looking for a memoir. A shame but this one’s not for me.

Emma


Kiss River by Diane Chamberlain 

Title: Kiss River
Author: Diane Chamberlain
Genre: General Fiction, Romance
Source: Library
Rating: Liked it (3 out of 5)

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Set 10 years after the events of Keeper of the Light, Kiss River is the second of a trilogy of books by Diane Chamberlain that follows lives, losses, and loves of the residents of Kiss River, a small town in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

The first novel focused on Alec, Paul, and Olivia and how they dealt with the sudden death of Alec’s wife Annie. This time round it is Annie and Alec’s children – Clay and Lacey – who are front and centre. Plus Gina, a beautiful amateur lighthouse historian, who appears on Clay and Lacey’s doorstep – and also appears to know very little, if anything, about lighthouses.

That’s because Gina’s interest in the lighthouse (or what is left of it – it was party destroyed in a hurricane at the end of Keeper of the Light) is much more personal. Fuelled by secrets revealed in the diary of the former lighthouse keeper, Gina is determined to raise the lighthouse’s lens – lost for a decade – no matter what. It is the reason she has come to Kiss River and the only reason she stays, at least until she starts to get to know Clay.

Clay and Lacey, meanwhile, have secrets of their own, demons they aren’t doing too well fighting. Clay is struggling to cope with the death of his wife, Lacey with secrets revealed about her mother ten years previously. She is it seems, doomed to repeat the past, until Gina arrives and provides her and Clay with a catalyst for change.

All of this leads to a book high on emotion, most of it built on secrets and lies that are bound to come out eventually, and – as with Keeper of the Light – I was drawn along. I wanted to know the truth and what happened next. This time though, I was a little disappointed when the truths were revealed, mainly Gina’s. It took the focus away from what I think Diane Chamberlain does really well – looking at human behaviour, the how and why we do things and also the fact that everyone has a chance to fix mistakes. It just felt too big and too complicated. I like simple and this wasn’t. As a result, it didn’t sit well with me and I was left liking the book not loving it.

Emma x

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood

Title: Stone Mattress
Author: Margaret Atwood
Genre: General Fiction, Short Stories
Source: Library
Rating: Loved it (5 out of 5)

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Stone Mattress is a collection of nine short stories, or tales as Margaret Atwood prefers to call them. The first three, Alphinland, Revenat, and Dark Lady are linked, telling the tales of a girlfriend, a boyfriend and his mistress (though as they take place in bohemian Toronto in the ’60’s lovers is maybe a better description of their relationships). Now, it is many years later. They are all a lot older, a lot greyer, and all still living with the impact of one man’s infidelity.

The rest of the tales cover freaks of nature (Lucus Naturae), murder (The Freeze Dried Groom), misunderstandings (The Dead Hand Loves You), revenge (Stone Mattress), and the rage of youth and ineffectualness of age (Torching the Dusties). This is probably all too simple a rounding up as each tales has plenty of layers and complexity and many touch on anger, resentment, sexuality – and sexual violence.

My favourite tale was I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth because it revisits characters from one of my favourite Margaret Atwood novels, The Robber Bride. This time, Zenia might actually be doing the right thing and reading this tale felt like spending time with old (if slightly dysfunctional) friends. The tale is one of three that have been previously published- the rest, I believe, are new.

In her acknowledgments, Margaret Atwood says she has chosen to call these tales to remove them “from the realm of the mundane” and “evoke the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and long ago teller tales”. This idea fits perfectly with what I read because each story is outside the ordinary, sometimes fantasy, and a little bit twisted. All are pure Atwood – and so right up my street. Already a fan of the author, this book cemented that. Loved it!

Emma x