Maurice by EM Forster

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He would not deceive himself so much. He would not – and this was the test – pretend to care about women when the only sex that attracted him was his own. He loved men and always had loved them. He longed to embrace them and mingle his being with theirs. (pg 51) 

Another recommendation! I tend to read at a pretty quick pace so I’m constantly pestering my friends for suggestions on what to read next. I haven’t read a lot of Forster (only A Room With a View) so I was happy to give him another go.

Maurice was published posthumously in 1971, nearly 60 years after it was written. This is perhaps unsurprising when you find out this was Forster’s ode to homosexual love. Forster explains in his afterword that “A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn’t have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows.” A gay love story with a happy ending – delightfully ahead of its time. It was also a Hugh Grant movie if thats your thing.

Although its ahead of its time in its sexual politics it can be a bit conservative in its social politics. Maurice is a snob. A dull, misogynistic snob. So the worst kind of snob really. It was hard to care about characters who didn’t seem to care about anyone else. I know you don’t have to like the characters to enjoy the novel but if you’re not rooting for the romance what’s the point?

I’ll try Forster again. A Passage to India probably. But he’s not my fav really.

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

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Summary from Goodreads:

Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet. He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl. Now Julia, married and the mother of a small child, unexpectedly reenters his life and the romance flares up once more.

I’ve had my eye on Seth’s modern classic A Suitable Boy for a while now but a friend recommended that I give this one a go first. My reaction could best be described as… mixed. Although apparently I gave this one 4/5 stars on Goodreads so leaning towards the positive end of the mixed spectrum… Let’s call it positively mixed. Yeah, let’s do that.

My first concern was the glut of classical music references in the novel – an aspect that has turned me off other books in the past. But the writing is so fantastic and engaging that I couldn’t help but reading on. Seth’s writing was positively cinematic at points – when Michael first catches sight of his long lost love and tries to chase down her bus on Oxford St, I was actually on the edge of my seat.

Now for the bad: I couldn’t care less about the characters or the plot. How could anyone be expected to enjoy reading about a character who un-ironically says things like: “Well, ’tis better to have loved and lost, though, isn’t it, Mrs. Formby, than never to have loved at all?”  The best way to describe Julia and Michael? Dull, dull, dull, trite, and dull.

Anyone else have an example of a book they loved for the writing but couldn’t stand the characters or the plot?

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

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Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humour, pathos, and grace.

There are enough reviews floating around the blogosphere on this one that you’ve probably read every opinion possible on this one. The good, the bad and the ugly. I’ll let you know now: this one is alllllll goooood.

I’m a big George Saunders fan but I was concerned that his first foray into long form fiction wouldn’t stand up to his amazing short stories but this is right up my alley. Avant-garde, hilarious, touching, and intellectually engaging.

Saunders is the quintessential American writer for me and you can’t get more American than writing about Lincoln. As Goodreads so helpfully points out above, the book follows the immediate aftermath of Willie Lincoln’s death but in a delightfully strange way. The chapters alternate between pieced together historical primary resources and a strange cacophony of dead voices who populate the “bardo” (Buddhist purgatory?).

Told with Saunders’ trademark humour the novel is also terribly moving. While you can’t ignore the historical, or dismiss the darkly comical, Lincoln in the Bardo primarily operates as a meditation on grief and moving on.

Perhaps a bit strange to be to everyone’s taste I will continue to devour anything and everything that this man writes. 5/5 stars.

 

Queen Bees: Six Brilliant and Extraordinary Society Hostesses Between the Wars by Sian Evans

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Summary from Goodreads:

In the aftermath of the First World War, the previously strict hierarchies of the British class system were weakened. For a number of ambitious, spirited women, this was the chance they needed to slip through the cracks and take their place at the top of society as the great hostesses of the time. In an age when the place of women was uncertain, becoming a hostess was not a chore, but a career choice, and though some of the hostesses’ backgrounds were surprisingly humble, their aspirations were anything but. During the inter-war years these extraordinary women ruled over London society from their dining tables – entertaining everyone from the Mosleys to the Mitfords, from millionaires to maharajahs, from film stars to royalty – and their influence can still be felt today. Great Hostesses looks at the lives of six of these remarkable women, including Lady Astor, who went on to become the first female MP, and Mrs Greville, who cultivated relationships with Edward VII, as well as Lady Londonderry, Lady Cunard, Laura Corrigan and Lady Colefax.

You can probably tell from some of my previous reviews that I’m a big fan of social history so I was crazy excited to read this one. I couldn’t help but be fascinated  – especially as Evans name drops every famous Brit from the first half of the 20th century: royalty, Churchill, Kipling, JM Barrie, Woolf, Yeats, GB Shaw and others all make cameo appearances. But unfortunately, the good news stops there.

I found Evans’ narrative style more than a little off-putting. She jumps from one woman to another in the space of a couple of paragraphs. It’s messy and difficult to follow. Honestly, each of these women deserved their own book – or at the very least their own chapters. I mean one of these women was the first female MP!

Evans also has a bad habit of repeating her descriptions – an editor with a heavier hand would have been appreciated.

All-in-all, I’m not sure I can take away a lot from this one except for some juicy tabloid-y anecdotes about certain interwar celebrities. I’ll leave you with one of these anecdotes about Mrs. Greville saving her pennies during the Great Depression:

Nevertheless Mrs. Greville economised in a way that only the truly rich would; she owned very valuable emeralds… and magnificent ropes of pearls, but had to pay considerable insurance premiums whenever they were worn . So she had replicas made and often wore those instead, especially when she was travelling. Only an expert could have told them apart, and her insurance premiums were much reduced as a result. (pg 164) 

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

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Spanning 50 years and several continents, there is so much going on in this one that I’ll look to Goodreads for help with a description:

A love affair between movie stars and a short stay in a remote fishing village in Italy set in motion a train of events “that effect the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters: the starstruck Italian innkeeper and his long-lost love; the heroically preserved producer who once brought them together and his idealistic young assistant; the army veteran turned fledgling novelist and the rakish Richard Burton himself.”

Drawn in by its oh-so-hip cover, my friend Alex and I picked this one out to read together. She read it first and told me it was terrible so I was reluctant to start. My thoughts: a masterpiece? Certainly not. Terrible? I beg to differ.

This is what I would (complementarily) call the quintessential beach read: easy, engaging, a definite page turner. I can already imagine the film version (Emma Stone as the lead of course).

At times, the narrative does feel a little jam-packed – lots of characters, timelines, and locations. But I never felt lost or bogged down in too much detail. On the contrary, the multiple intersecting storylines kept me interested – if you get bored with one character don’t worry because you’re soon on to the next!

My biggest criticism would have to be the fictionalisation of Richard Burton – I feel like its a bit unfair to turn a real person into a character to be used and abused by the story. Couldn’t Walter have given us a fake movie star who the reader understands is Richard Burton-esque? Am I being too picky here?

Although this won’t go down as one of my top reads of 2017 it was a fun ride and should be appreciated as such. A good go-to when your reading brain needs light and easy.

 

The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale

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The Western seems to be making a bit of a comeback these days so, after relishing every blood-soaked minute of Hell or High Water and HBO’s Westworld, I jumped at the chance to read an early copy of Davina Langdale’s The Brittle Star.

Coming of age story, Western, American Civil War story and courtroom drama all wrapped into one, The Brittle Star follows John Evert Burn from adolescence into manhood as he searches for his mother, who was abducted in a raid on their Californian ranch.

I was intrigued by the idea of a Western, usually the province of white, middle-aged, American males, written by a young British woman but, for better or for worse, Langdale holds true to the genre. She conjures up an evocative depiction of 19th century California and an especially effective picture of Los Angeles as a Wild West town. She also provides all the requisite pieces that we’ve come to expect: outlaw with a heart of gold, brothel-visiting, bar-room brawling, gun battles, etc. Though at times Langdale is guilty of falling into clichés, the story’s engaging cast of characters and evocative settings save the novel from becoming too formulaic.

Langdale’s most noteworthy accomplishment seems to be in her ability to draw together genres. Like Westworld’s marriage of western and sci-fi, The Brittle Star brings together disparate (although slightly more traditional) genres, transitioning from Western to Civil-War story to courtroom drama. My harshest criticism of Langdale’s novel would be that she takes on too much at times and, therefore, some of her character and story-building suffer. Langdale is occasionally forced to deliver information with little to no set up – btw: he’s now an alcoholic; btw: they just happen to know where some gold is buried nearby.

Spanning the continental states and several genres, The Brittle Star is an entertaining and impressive first novel. It is a fun and fast story and the 350-plus pages seem to fly by. A solid choice for your summer reading list.

Guest Review: The Night Manager by John Le Carre

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Another brilliant review by Sarah H.! She’s been pushing Le Carré on me for years and now she’s going to do the same to you. Enjoy! 

Ever since Trump was elected, I’ve been longing to read John Le Carré. I put it down to the constant hints of Russian subterfuge on the news. It all seems so quaint (in the moments when you can forget it’s horrifying): Russian operatives in my mind are too closely connected with go-go dancers and bad hair.

Mr. Le Carré, for those not in the know, is the premier thriller novelist of the Cold War. He can plot but the man can also write. The well-read Hugh Laurie has admitted to fan-girling over Mr. Le Carré in his youth and that tells you a lot about the kind of novelist Mr. Le Carré is. High quality spy thrillers are the name of the game, but with an eye for character.

Of his many novels, I ended up reading the Night Manager which isn’t about the Cold War as it happens but is excellent anyway. It concerns a British ex-army turned luxury hotelier who comes face to face with the worst man in the world and decides to do something about it. It’s a story about what happens when ruthless evil is pursued by a morally minded bureaucracy. It was thought-provoking. It was also a blast.

My one complaint is that the Night Manager fails the Bechdel test hard. Every woman in the book is either the subject of a sexual conquest or somebody’s loving and supportive wife. Everyone interesting is male. I wish I thought Le Carré was doing this ironically to point out the gender biases of this world of high espionage, but I suspect he isn’t. That caveat aside, I enjoyed the book enormously. And because I think reading imperfect books is still a good thing, I would encourage others to do the same.

The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

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Alexandra was not only very tired, but also young, in both years and experience… In other words, nothing in her previous experience had prepared her for the feeling of being suddenly locked in a monastic room with a stranger five thousand miles from the Blue Ridge Mountains, holding an urn containing the ashes of another stranger. (page 61) 

Elizabeth Kostova’s The Shadow Land follows a young American woman, Alexandra Boyd, as she travels to Bulgaria in memory of her lost brother. On her first day there, she accidentally takes the bag of an elderly couple, finding in it the boxed ashes of Stoyan Lazarov, talented musician and beloved father, friend, and husband. Setting out to return the box, alongside a taxi driver with a mysterious past, Alexandra becomes entangled in a far larger conspiracy that encapsulates Bulgaria’s past and will determine its future.

It is also a novel that deals sensitively with loss and tragedy. Alexandra struggles to cope with the loss of her brother ten years before and many of the Bulgarian characters struggle with the legacy of the brutal Communist regime in their nation.

Two confessions: I know nothing about Elizabeth Kostova and even less about Bulgaria. I vaguely remember attempting to read The Historian, but giving up early on. As for Bulgaria, my partner was briefly obsessed with moving there for a while so I know that the housing market is fairly cheap. After reading this one I’ll definitely be on the hunt for more Kostova and more Bulgaria.

I was quickly sucked into the narrative and the 500 pages seemed to fly by. Taking readers across Bulgaria and the twentieth century, The Shadow Land would appeal to lovers of literary fiction, historical fiction, and mystery and adventure novels.

The Word Detective by John Simpson

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Can we just get something out of the way? Isn’t that the most terrible book cover you’ve ever seen? It looks like something an eight year old obsessed with clip art on Microsoft Word would’ve made.

But despite its horrific cover it was quite a pleasant read. The Word Detective acts as a memoir covering the four decades Simpson spent editing the Oxford English Dictionary. Sprinkled throughout his reminisces are frequent asides about the history of different words. As a book/English language lover, obviously this is just my cup of tea. For example, why are English people called Pommies in Australia? The short version: immigrant -> Jimmy Grant -> jimmygrant -> pomegranate -> Pom/Pommie. Simpson answers other pertinent questions such as where does the burpee come from and how does one properly define a salad?

In case you’re not as fascinated by linguistic gobbledygook as I am, you should know that Simpson gets quite personal as well. Some of the most interesting and moving passages in the book concern Simpson’s experiences raising a non-verbal child.

Recommended.

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

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My poor, poor blog. You’ve been terribly neglected haven’t you? Well, gentle readers, expect a slew of reviews coming your way as I try to get through my back log of books.

First up: Barbarian Days. Recommended by a few people at work (not to mention the Pulitzer committee). I was pretty eager to get stuck into this one. My limited knowledge of surfing (and surfing culture) comes exclusively from the Disney channel movie Johnny Tsunami which is technically more about snowboarding and fish-out-of-water storytelling so there you go.

Spanning the 1960s to the present day and locations as varied as Hawaii, California, the South Pacific, Australia, and South Africa, Finnegan’s life is definitely book-worthy.

Because of my limited surfing knowledge, I went into Barbarian Days expecting to hear of the exploits of world-famous surfer Bill Finnegan. Well turns out Finnegan isn’t a professional surfer just a life-long devotee. After a lifetime of chasing waves, Finnegan offers up an intensely personal biography-cum-social history of those who put their passion for surfing above all else. Told with humour, reverence, and a refreshing amount of self-deprecation, I have a hard time imagining who this story wouldn’t appeal to. Goodreads describes it as “an old-school adventure story, an intellectual autobiography, a social history, a literary road movie, and an extraordinary exploration of the gradual mastering of an exacting, little understood art.” Well put.

Now, time for some complaints. At 400 pages, Barbarian Days is perhaps a mite too long. I felt my interest flag for the last hundred pages or so. Another (minor) complaint: even though you don’t have to be well-versed in surfing it does pay to know a bit about wave mechanics as Finnegan isn’t above devoting pages at a time to the different ways in which waves operate. I can’t be the only one who feels completely ignorant when tidal mechanics are casually dropped into a narrative.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these are small issues. Finnegan is engaging and his life story is fascinating. This one will appeal to those with wanderlust or anyone who has ever felt compelled to chase a wave or their passion. For Finnegan, those two just happen to be one and the same.