Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The Hand That First Held Mine

Title: The Hand That First Held Mine

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Number of pages: 341

Started: 24 November 2010

Finished: 30 November 2010

Opening words:

Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.

Read a longer excerpt here.

Watch a video by Maggie O’Farrell about the book here.

Plot summary:

When the bohemian, sophisticated Innes Kent turns up by chance on her doorstep, Lexie Sinclair realises she cannot wait any longer for her life to begin, and leaves for London. There, at the heart of the 1950s Soho art scene, she carves out a new life for herself, with Innes at her side. In the present day, Elina and Ted are reeling from the difficult birth of their first child. Elina, a painter, struggles to reconcile the demands of motherhood with sense of herself as an artist, and Ted is disturbed by memories of his own childhood, memories that don't tally with his parents' version of events. As Ted begins to search for answers, so an extraordinary portrait of two women is revealed, separated by fifty years, but connected in ways that neither could ever have expected.

What I thought:

I enjoyed this book. It was well written novel made up of two separate narratives that over the link between them became clear. It was a decent plot, although it is now not entirely original to have different narrators telling parts of the tale.

I thought the novel showed a maturity that seemed to show the author’s experience of writing, even though I have not read any of her other books. This was a good book, and I suspect it will be a real contender to win the Costa Prize.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Fair Play

Title: Fair Play

Author: Tove Jansson

Number of pages: 127

Started: 23 November 2010

Finished: 24 November 2010

Opening words:

Jonna had a happy habit of waking each morning as if to a new life. which stretched before her straight through to evening, clean, untouched, rarely shadowed by yesterday’s worries and mistakes.

Read more of the book here.

Plot summary:

What mattered most to Tove Jansson, she explained in her eighties, was work and love, a sentiment she echoes in this tender and original novel. Translated for the first time into English, Fair Play portrays a love between two older women, a writer and artist, as they work side-by-side in their Helsinki studios, travel together and share summers on a remote island. In the generosity and respect they show each other and the many small shifts they make to accommodate each other’s creativity we are shown a relationship both heartening and truly progressive. So what can happen when Tove Jansson turns her attention to her own favourite subjects, love and work, in the form of this novel about two women, lifelong partners and friends? Expect something philosophically calm and discreetly radical. At first sight it looks autobiographical.

What I thought:

I am a big fan of Tove Jansson. This book had her usual lightness of touch and told the tale of two women growing old together through a series of chapters highlighting different tales from their life together.

I thought this book was a nice read, but did not quite measure up to some of the others that I have read. It was a decent read nonetheless.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

The Blasphemer

Title: The Blasphemer

Author: Nigel Farndale

Number of pages: 425

Started: 17 November 2010

Finished: 23 November 2010

Opening words:

With a five-day beard and a crust of yellow mud woven into the fabric of his breeches, Peter Morris does not look like an officer. Instead of a peaked cap he wears a loose-knit trench hat. On his back is a sleeveless leather jerkin. His skin is grey with fatigue and his hooded eyes, as he raises he head and stares at the entrance of the dugout, are shot with blood.

Plot summary:

On its way to the Gal├ípagos Islands, a light aircraft ditches into the sea. As the water floods through the cabin, zoologist Daniel Kennedy faces an impossible choice — should he save himself, or Nancy, the woman he loves? In a parallel narrative, it is 1917 and Daniel’s great grandfather Andrew is preparing to go over the top at Passchendaele. He, too, will have his courage tested, and must live with the moral consequences of his actions. Back in London, the atheistic Daniel is wrestling with something his ‘cold philosophy’ cannot explain — something unearthly he thought he saw while swimming for help in the Pacific. But before he can make sense of it, the past must collapse into the present, and both he and Andrew must prove themselves capable of altruism, and deserving of forgiveness. The Blasphemer is a story about conditional love, cowardice and the possibility of redemption — and what happens to a man of science when forced to question his certainties. It is a novel of rare depth, empathy and ambition that sweeps from the trenches of the First World War to the terrorist-besieged streets of London today: a novel that will speak to the head as well as the heart of any reader.

What I thought:

This is the first of this year’s Costa shortlist that I have read. It was a very readable book, and in many ways it had an engaging plot. But there were some things about this book that did not sit well with me. It was a book that was made up of many interlinked stories that unfolded and the links between them became clearer as the book continued. But in some ways those plot developments seemed a touch contrived. It felt as though, at times, you were meant to see how history or characteristics repeat each other over the generations, but I wasn’t entirely sure that always worked.

I also wasn’t convinced that this book knew quite what it was about. The majority of the plot was set in the modern day, but at times is was difficult to tell if the book was about a family drama, a plane crash, a university novel, religion, philosophy, a reflection on modern attitudes to the past, or a supernatural story. Then add to that another major plot set in the First World War and all the different plot devices that went with that (and a plot twist towards then end that lacked so much credibility that I possibly outwardly groaned when the possibility of where that particularly aspect of the story was going was revealed) and you might then get the impression that I found it hard to identify what this book was trying to convey. Each of those plots, or a combination of a small number of them, would have sufficed, but the constant layering of new aspects to the novel made the book disjointed, even though it was a decent enough story.

As I say, it was very readable. But I think the author should have limited himself in how he developed the plot and that greater focus would have made the book more credible.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Mr Norris Changes Trains

Title: Mr Norris Changes Trains (known in the US as The Last of Mr Norris)

Author: Christopher Isherwood

Number of pages: 240

Started: 15 November 2010

Finished: 17 November 2010

Opening words:

My first impression was that the stranger's eyes were of an unusually light blue.
They met mine for several blank seconds, vacant, unmistakably scared. Startled and innocently naughty, they half reminded me of an incident I couldn't quite place; something which had happened a long time ago, to do with the upper fourth form classroom. They were the eyes of a schoolboy surprised in the act of breaking one of the rules. Not that I had caught him, apparently, at anything except his own thoughts; perhaps he imagined I could read them. At any rate, he seemed not to have heard or seen me cross the compartment from my corner to his own, for he started violently at the sound of my voice; so violently, indeed, that his nervous recoil hit me like repercussion. Instinctively I took a place backwards.

It was exactly as though we had collided with each other bodily in the street. We were both confused, both ready to be apologetic. Smiling, anxious to reassure him, I repeated my question:
'I wonder, sir, if you could let me have a match?'

Plot summary:

After a chance encounter on a train the English teacher William Bradshaw starts a close friendship with the mildly sinister Arthur Norris. Norris is a man of contradictions; lavish but heavily in debt, excessively polite but sexually deviant.

What I thought:

The copy of this book I read was actually The Berlin Stories, which includes this novel and the, perhaps better known, Goodbye to Berlin (which the musical Cabaret is based on), intending only to read the latter. However, as it turned out, I decided to read this book first as I thought it might set the scene better to then read Goodbye to Berlin.

Both books are set in Fascist Germany and Mr Norris Changes Trains was set in the early 1930s and showed the strange story that unfolded after the chance meeting of two men on a train. In many ways it was a light hearted read about serious and sinister events in Germany at that time, but the underlying message was one of the evil that was to come. It was an enjoyable read and I will look forward to reading Goodbye to Berlin, but now have the Costa shortlist to read in advance of that.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

Bonjour Tristesse

Title: Bonjour Tristesse

Author: Francoise Sagan

Number of pages: 108

Started: 13 November 2010

Finished: 14 November 2010

Opening words:

A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I had known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelopes me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.

Plot summary:

Cecile leads a hedonistic, frivolous life with her father and his young mistresses. On holiday in the South of France, she is seduced by the sun, the sand and her first lover. But when her father decides to remarry, their carefree existence becomes clouded by tragedy.

What I thought:

This was a rather brief book taking only two or three hours to read. The author was 19 when she wrote it but her writing was much more mature than her years. It was a well written book with an engaging plot of the havoc that a teenage girl can cause if she feels spurned – not by a lover, but by her father.

My only gripe about the book was that the introduction in the copy I read kept referring to the main character as Celine, when her name was Cecile. I am not sure if this was a typo or if the introduction writer was not quite the fan of the novella as she claimed to be.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Fate of Katherine Carr

Title: The Fate of Katherine Carr

Author: Thomas H Cook

Number of pages: 276

Started: 11 November 2010

Finished: 13 November 2010

Opening words:

They strike at heat, she said, and so there is no escape. What if evil were like that, too, a heat that rises from the worst of us, its correction like a hawk circling overhead; always present, but unseen in its dive? Perhaps in all such speculations, the question mark alone is relevant, the opening it offers to a strange dark hope.
But heat, at least, is real, and the one that shimmers around me now comes from the building light, the green, turgid river, the dense jungle and ...
"Always reading," Mr. Mayawati says as he strolls out onto the deck. He is large and slow-footed, his scent a blend of sweat and curry. "I have noticed that you are always reading."
I put down the book. "Yes."
Mr. Mayawati's face is the color of meat slow-roasted on a skewer. He wears a white linen shirt, already moist in the armpits, and baggy flannel pants. "I hope I do not disturb you," he says as he reaches the chair beside me.
"Not at all," I tell him.

Read the first chapter here.

Plot summary:

George Gates is a former travel writer. He used to specialize in writing about places where people disappeared, sometimes individuals, sometimes whole societies. Now, since the murder of his eight-year-old son, Gates has written gentler stories for the town paper about flower festivals and local celebrities. Enter Arlo MacBride, a retired missing-persons detective who, knowing Gates' past, mentions the case of Katherine Carr, a woman who vanished twenty years before, leaving nothing behind but a few poems and a strange little story. It is this story that spurs Gates to inquire into its missing author's brief life and dire fate, an exploration that leads him to discoveries about life and death, mystery and resolution

What I thought:

I started to read this book ages ago, but put it down after about the first fifty pages –in part distracted by reading the Booker Prize shortlist, and in part because I was slightly struggling to get into it. But I returned to it because I know that cook is a good author and that this book probably had potential that I had missed by being distracted by other things.

In Cook’s usual style, this was a dark tale that reflected on the more unsavoury side of people’s morality. As the tale unfolded it proved more rewarding than I had initially thought and was a dark and introspective tale that had an underlying sadness. I am glad that I returned to this. It was a well written sombre tale.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010


Title: Austerlitz

Author: W G Sebald

Number of pages: 432

Started: 5 November 2010

Finished: 10 November 2010

Opening words:

In the second half of the 1960s I travelled repeatedly from England to Belgium, partly for study purposes, partly for other reasons which were never entirely clear to me, staying sometimes for just one or two days, sometimes for several weeks. On one of these Belgian excursions which, as it seemed to me, always took me further and further abroad, I came on a glorious early summer’s day to the city of Antwerp, known to me previously only by name. Even on my arrival, as the train rolled slowly over the viaduct with its curious pointed turrets on both sides and into the dark station concourse, I had begun to feel unwell, and this sense of indisposition persisted for the whole of my visit to Belgium on that occasion. I still remember the uncertainty of my footsteps as I walked all round the inner city

Plot summary:

In 1967, the narrator bumps into a man in the salle de pas perdus of Antwerp's Central Station. Thus begins a long if intermittent acquaintance, during which he learns the life story of this stranger, retired architectural historian Jacques Austerlitz. Raised as Dafydd Elias by a strict Welsh Calvinist ministry family, it is only at school that Austerlitz learns his true name--and only years later, by a series of chance encounters, that he allows himself to discover the truth of his origins, as a Czech child spirited away from his mother and out of Nazi territory on the Kindertransport. He returns to confront the childhood traumas that have made him feel that "I must have made a mistake, and now I am living the wrong life."

What I thought:

This book consisted of three paragraphs. The first paragraph break was on about page 160. It therefore might not surprise you that this book seemed to be a long stream of thoughts, sometimes going off on tangents and then veering back on to the main thread.

Sebald’s book was interesting, and touching in places, but ultimately the rambling nature of the writing made it difficult to follow at times. I found that as the book went of on tangents and distractions, so did my mind, and I would drift back to following the text a while later. It was a book that had good moments but I felt these got lost in the overall narrative of the book.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Quarry

Title: The Quarry

Author: Damon Galgut

Number of pages: 169

Started: 3 November 2010

Finished: 3 November 2010

Opening words:

Then he came out of the grass at the side of the road and stood without moving. There were blisters on his feet that had come from walking and blisters in his mouth that had come from nothing, except his silence perhaps, and bristles like glass on his chin.

Plot summary:

On a lonely stretch of road a man picks up a hitchhiker. The driver is a minister on his way to a new congregation in an isolated village and the passenger is a nameless fugitive from justice. When the minister realizes this, and confronts his passenger as they are overlooking an empty quarry, the fugitive kills him and assumes his vestments and identity, only to discover that one of his first duties as the new minister is to bury the body of his victim. Despite hints that two local petty criminals may be responsible, the local police chief is watching the new minister, and as the two play a tense game of cat and mouse, culminating in a desperate pursuit across the veldt.

What I thought:

I decided to read this book because I had enjoyed Damon Galgut’s Book In a Strange Room, which was my favourite of the 2010 Booker Shortlist. This book was very readable, in fact I read it in one day, and it told the tale of a criminal who killed a minister and took on his identity. It was a nicely written but sad tale and I liked the way Galgut tells a story. Another good book by Galgut.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Life of Pi

Title: Life of Pi

Author: Yann Martel

Number of pages: 319

Started: 28 October 2010

Finished: 2 November 2010

Opening words:

This book was born as I was hungry. Let me explain. In the spring of 1996, my second book, a novel, came out in Canada. It didn’t fare well. Reviewers were puzzled, or damned it with faint praise. Then readers ignored it.
Despite my best efforts at playing the clown or the trapeze artist, the media circus made no difference. The book did not move. Books lined the shelves of bookstores like kids standing in a row to play baseball or soccer, and mine was the gangly, unathletic kid that no one wanted on their team. It vanished quickly and quietly.

The fiasco did not affect me too much. I had already moved on to another story, a novel set in Portugal in 1939. Only I was feeling restless. And I had a little money. So I flew to Bombay. This is not so illogical if you realize three things: that a stint in India will beat the restlessness out of any living creature; that a little money can go a long way there; and that a novel set in Portugal in 1939 may have very little to do with Portugal in 1939.

You seem to be able to read the whole book here or get a PDF here

Plot summary:

After the tragic sinking of a cargo ship, a solitary lifeboat remains bobbing on the wild, blue Pacific. The only survivors from the wreck are a sixteen year-old boy named Pi, a hyena, a zebra (with a broken leg), a female orangutan - and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger. The scene is set for one of the most extraordinary and best-loved works of fiction in recent years.

What I thought:

I took a few pages to warm to this book, but once I got going with it, I really enjoyed it. There were even a few parts of it where I wanted to laugh out loud (but due to being on the tube, I resisted the urge). It was a book in three parts and started in India, then moved on to a raft in the Indian Ocean and then land again. It was an interesting concept – being lost at sea with only a tiger for company – and it was a very readable book.