Burial Rites

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Read 18/09/2016-22/09/2016

Rating: 4 stars

This is my second book from the Willoughby Book Club subscription I won earlier this year. It’s another good choice. I’ve had Burial Rites on my wishlist since it was published three years ago.

Before I even started reading, I loved the book. It’s a book to fetishise. I have the hardback edition, with its black tipped pages, its black book cloth, its deep purple end papers, and its raven feather illustrated book jacket. It says dark Icelandic nights. It says murder. It says misery.

The scene setting quote from the Laxdæla Saga before the prologue is delicious.

I was worst to the one I loved best.

The book is based on historical murders that happened in Iceland in 1828. The author includes letters written by officials involved in the case and court records to provide context and moves between third person observation of the key players in the story and first person testimony from the murderer Agnes Magnúsdóttir.

It was a strange book to read. I enjoyed it and wanted to read it quickly, but I found the intensity hard going at times. I had to have frequent rests from it. It was quite tiring. The reading equivalent of being stuck in a remote farmhouse in the wilds of Iceland in 1828, I suppose. Continue reading

Shrinking Violets

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Read 11/09/2016-18/09/2016

Rating: 4 stars

LibraryThing review

Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness is what it says: a guide to what makes people shy and why shyness causes certain behaviours. It’s part sociology, part social history, part psychology.

I came to this book via a review on The Guardian, which name checks a whole bunch of people whose work I admire. Continue reading

The Glass Kingdom

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Read 12/09/2016

Rating: 4 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge

I bought this book because I wanted to read something by someone I’d never heard of. It sounded like it might be grimly funny, in the mould of Chuck Pahlaniuk or Irvine Welsh. It also sounded very, very male, and very, very male books both fascinate and confuse me.

The two main characters run a sideshow stall in a travelling carnival. Ben is ex-army and trying to make money dealing meth. Mikey is a wannabe rapper, inclined to fight and supremely interested in women. He’s a bit of a caricature, but engagingly so. Ben is the more sober of the pair, the man with an actual game plan. Continue reading

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept

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Read 10/09/2016-11/09/2016

Rating: 4 stars

I bought this recently after looking for poems set in Grand Central Station. It came up as a prose poem and its subject matter intrigued me.

This, from Yann Martel’s foreword, encapsulates the book:

This is a book about one creature’s obdurate desire to love and be loved, no matter what. Smart was lucid, resilient, hardworking, and responsible in her love-madness.

Elizabeth Smart was in London and picked up a book of George Barker’s poems. She fell in love with his words, so the story goes, but more than that. She decided she was in love with him and needed to meet him. Smart felt awakened by Barker’s poems. It took her three years to engineer a meeting with him. Her memoir of their love, a mix of long form poetry and sanguine reflection, begins with that meeting.

I was expecting gushing romance, a whirlwind of passion, something that would wrench my heart and take my breath away. Instead I found a still small voice of calm. Continue reading

Wild

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Read 06/09/2016-09/09/2106

Rating: 4 stars

LibraryThing review

Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge

I watched the film adaptation of Wild on a plane. All but the final five minutes, which were interrupted first by turbulence, then by landing. I bought the book because I wanted to know the ending. I thought I would know most of it from the film. I didn’t count on Cheryl Strayed’s voice being clearer in the book than Reece Witherspoon’s portrayal of her was in the film. It was as though she was sitting next to me, talking to me.

I loved this book, even though it has caused me some pain. It has been a deeply personal reading experience for me. This isn’t a standard book review. I can’t detach myself enough to review it objectively. If you’re after a review, go elsewhere. What’s written below will lead you somewhere that’s more about me than the book. But that’s what this blog is about: me in relation to books. Continue reading

The Shogun’s Queen

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Read 03/09/2016-05/09/2016

Rating: 4 stars

I received a proof copy of the book from the author in return for an honest review.

I am a fan of historical fiction. I love the marrying of documented fact with the creativity of an author’s imagination. In a tiny way, what we write as narrative for museum exhibitions is a similar thing. We’re not allowed to go on full flights of fancy, but if there are gaps in the evidence, we use our broader knowledge to fill the story in. It’s our job to interpret history for visitors.

An historical novel is a different thing, of course. If an author is going to do a good job, they need to immerse themselves in the past that forms the basis to their story. They need to understand the politics, the social mores, the zeitgeist of the time. They might not tell us every little detail, but if their characters are to be more than modern people acting out scenes against the backdrop of an earlier era, if they are to truly convince us as people who lived in a different world to us, the author needs to have that well of context to draw from.

Lesley Downer is a journalist as well as a novelist. She has lived in Japan. She has written a book about Geisha life and history and a book about Japan’s first female actress, Madame Sadayakko. I read the latter and loved it, because Downer got under the skin of her subject and really brought her to life. Aside from a short story about Townsend Harris and the geisha who briefly lived with him, The Shogun’s Queen is the first of Downer’s fiction that I’ve read. It’s also the first in a series of books called The Shogun Quartet. Continue reading