Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell)

Well written, but very unsettling

★★★★★☆☆

Title: My Dark Vanessa
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Fiction / Contemporary / Hard-hitting
First published: 2020
Edition: Kindle e-book

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017.  Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

***

I am not sure I have ever felt this uncomfortable whilstr reading a book. This whole read for me was a decidedly unpleasant experience, but I also feel like it is an important read and one that could mean a lot to people.

The author is clearly a very smart writer. The way she paints a picture of this illicit relationship between a teenage girl and a teacher almost 30 years her senior is very well done. You feel the wrongness of it and yet you can also understand why fifteen-year-old Vanessa is drawn into this intimate relationship. I was especially impressed by the way the author never makes the teacher in any way alluring. Instead she makes it clear that he appeals to Vanessa’s need for being understood and being special rather than any sexual attraction from her side.

That does not change that I did not enjoy reading this much at all. It as a good novel, but the subject matter made me feel icky and disgusted. I also had difficulty understanding Vanessa’s actions as she gets older. I guess I am not meant to understand them as such, but still. I just found I wanted to give her a good shake. Maybe that was the whole point of the book. Besides, every person is different and I did not go through the experiences Vanessa did, so how could I understand?

I find it really hard to come up with a conclusion of how I feel about this book. The quality of the writing is up there. It’s just that it is not the kind of book I like to read. I am glad I read it, but I would not go out of my way to read similar books. It is simply not the kind of reading I enjoy and since I read for escape I need to get at least some enjoyment out of it.

Still, this is a good book and I would recommend this book, but I would warn that it is an uncomfortable read.

5 out of 7 stars

(Also see my reading diary of 2 August for some of my thoughts whilst I was reading this one. )

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Corelli’s Mandolin (Louis de Bernières)

Just chopping onions, really

★★★★★★☆

Title: Corelli’s Mandolin
Author: Louis de Bernières
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction
First published: 1994 (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)
Edition: Hardback, published by Pantheon

In the early days of the second world war, before Benito Mussolini invaded Greece, Dr Iannis practices medicine on the island of Cephalonia, accompanied by his daughter, Pelagia, to whom he imparts much of his healing art. Even when the Italians do invade, life isn’t so bad—at first anyway. The officer in command of the Italian garrison is the cultured Captain Antonio Corelli, who responds to a Nazi greeting of “Heil Hitler” with his own “Heil Puccini”, and whose most precious possession is his mandolin. Love is complicated enough in wartime, even when the lovers are on the same side. And for Corelli and Pelagia, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate the minefield of allegiances, both personal and political, as all around them atrocities mount, former friends become enemies and the ugliness of war infects everyone it touches.

***

When I started reading this one I was not sure what to expect. It is a modern classic, but I hardly knew anything about it. It took me a while to get into, but in the end I loved it.

I struggled to get into this book. It took me half the book to get into the writing and the story, but I flew through the second half. The writing style felt rather odd at the beginning, but once I got used to it, I actually really enjoyed it. It’s quite witty and dry and not without a touch of silliness. Yet, the book deals with heartbreaking events. Though the author admits that the book is not accurate when it comes to what happened on this particular Greek island, there is no doubt that the most grotesque atrocities were committed during WW II in Greece. Parts of this novel were harrowing to read. My heart broke several times over.

The story at its heart, about love that grows despite everything, is bittersweet, but made my heart glow. Maybe a part of me wishes that the ending had been a bit different, but maybe this ending was just right.

In the end I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would after the first quarter, especially since novels set in wars are not normally my bag. I would highly recommend this novel, but is not for the faint of heart. I do feel it is very much worth reading and the unusual tone of the writing only enhanced its story in the end.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: The Devil and Miss Prym (Paulo Coelho)

Engaging enough, but forgettable

★★★★☆☆☆

Title: The Devil and Miss Prym (original Spanish title: O Demônio e a Srta. Prym)
Author: Paulo Coelho
Translator: Amanda Hopkinson & Nick Caistor
Genre: Fiction / Magical realism
First published: 2000
Edition: Paperback, published by Harper Collins in 2002

A stranger arrives at the remote village of Viscos, carrying with him a backpack containing a notebook and eleven gold bars. He comes searching for the answer to a question that torments him: Are human beings, in essence, good or evil? In welcoming the mysterious foreigner, the whole village becomes an accomplice to his sophisticated plot, which will forever mark their lives.

***

I picked this book up for next to nothing in a charity shop earlier this month. I am not sure why I bought, as the only other book I had read by this author was The Alchemist and I did not like that very much. But I did, and when I was a looking for my next read I just picked up the top book from the pile. This book has a lot of bad reviews, which I have to say is always intriguing!

Yes, this book very much appears to be a morality tale, with the battle of good and evil at its centre. It talks about God rather a lot. However, I also feel it is a social commentary on the way we are as people and I did not see it as overly preachy. The fact is, people are fickle, and really, the world is not so black and white. Good and evil are not so easily defined and I think that is partly what the author is trying to say.

I found this book very easy to read and the story did keep me engaged, even if it did not quite excite me. In the end I found it quite forgettable, but I do not think it is a bad book at all. It’s an okay book and I really did not mind reading it. Will I read it again? No, probably not, but neither will I shy away from reading another book by this author if it crosses my path. I still have one hiding on my shelves somewhere. I found it engaging enough. I just don’t think it is one I will remember years from now.

4 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)

My heart, people, my heart!

★★★★★★★

Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction / Mythology
First published: 2011
Edition: Kindle e-book

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

***

So yes, I will admit that I finished this book in floods of tears, a hallmark of a very good book in my humble opinion.

I had read Circe by this author and loved it, so I had been meaning to read this one for ages. I heard so many people raving about it! I do not know why it took me so long to finally read it.

As soon as I read the first page I knew I would love it. The writing is beautiful and the connection and relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is touchingly written. I admired Patroclus’ love and loyalty, even if Achilles annoyed quite a bit sometimes. What that boy needed was a really good slap. However, his flaws and the way Patroclus deals with them (or does not deal with them as the case may be), is what makes this story so compelling.

I loved how this story took well-known myths and shaped them into something fresh and beautiful to read. The ending broke and healed my heart at the same time – it was so perfect. The author has a great touch with words and weaves an incredible emotional story that will hold a bit of my heart for quite a while.

If you have not read this one yet, read it! It’s a thing of beauty.

7 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

Still an absolute masterpiece on re-reading/listening

★★★★★★★

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author: Oscar Wilde  
Narrator: Stephen Fry
Genre: Fiction / Classic
First published: 1890
Edition: Audio

Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence.

***

When someone asks me what my favourite book is I always mention this one, but I had not actually reread it for years. I figured it was time and what better way to revisit a favourite than by audio book, especially when it’s read by Stephen Fry. I am pleased to say I love it just as much as I always did.

Oscar Wilde’s prose is exquisite. There is something in the way he writes, the way he constructs his sentences that speaks to me. And I think the story, which centres around beauty and corruption and the way they influence each other, is endlessly fascinating. What exactly is beauty? Why do we crave it if it corrupts so easily? I think Wilde really touches a heartstring for many there. It was undoubtedly a subject that occupied his own thoughts more than was good for him.

I have never read a novel so full of quotable lines. It just makes so much sense. There is passion in this book, and disappointment. Tragedy, and admiration. It has the perfect beginning and the perfect ending.

Stephen Fry does a great job narrating this, which is no great surprise. He sets the perfect tone and made me believe the story and the characters.

Yes, if you ask me what my favourite book of all time is, I will still respond “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Now I need to finally get on and read the rest of his work. If you have not yet read this classic, I urge you to read it as soon as you can. It’s a masterpiece.

7 out of 7 stars.

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Sugar Street (Naguib Mahfouz)

Of course there had to be some tragedy in this concluding novel

★★★★★★☆

Title: Sugar Street (original Arabic title: Al-Sukkariyya)
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translator: William Maynard Hutchins
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction / Classic / Middle East
First published: 1957 (in Arabic)
Edition: Paperback, published by Black Swan in 1994

The novels of the Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the aging patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humor, and remarkable insight, Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.

***

The conclusion to the Cairo Trilogy takes place amongst a changing political climate. The characters from the first book are now in the thralls of old age whilst their grand children try to find their feet in the world. The youngsters from the first book now have children and have had their own share of tragedies and disappointments to deal with.

There is a lot of politically charged philosophy in this final instalment and not everyone in the family share the same views. As changes are afoot marriage remains a topic of utmost importance, but marriage does not always mean happpiness. Some things, like homosexuality, are hinted at rather than explicitly told, but considering the time in which this novel was written it is to be applauded for sure that the subject was broached, and it is handled in a delicate manner.

There is something about the way this author writes. Sometimes the prose is beautiful and at other times there is a simplicity to it that makes it all feel very real. By now, as a reader you have followed these characters through what feels like a lifetime and you have shared their disappointments and their tragedies and they almost feel like old friends.

In a way I am sad that this trilogy has come to an end, and although the ending was a little ambiguous, I am satisfied. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. There is something very human about this series. Through these novels I have also learned a lot about Egypt’s history in the first half of the twentieth century.

If you’re interested in reading some Arabic literature, this trilogy is a good place to start.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Perfect Tunes (Emily Gould)

Let me know when you find the passion this book is missing!

★★★☆☆☆☆

Title: Perfect Tunes
Author: Emily Gould
Genre: Fiction /Contemporary
First published: 2020
Edition: Kindle e-book

It’s the early days of the new millennium, and Laura has arrived in New York City’s East Village in the hopes of recording her first album. A songwriter with a one-of-a-kind talent, she’s just beginning to book gigs with her beautiful best friend when she falls hard for a troubled but magnetic musician whose star is on the rise. Their time together is stormy and short-lived—but will reverberate for the rest of Laura’s life.

***

I love music and I love a good contemporary every now and then. This should have been right up my street, but unfortunately it did not quite work for me.

We start off with main character Laura meeting Dylan, a guitarist in a local band. The romance, if you can call it that, between the two characters was passionless and flat. I never quite felt the attraction between the two characters. They just happened.

The second half the book deals with Laura’s relationship with her daughter. Even here there was a distinct lack of emotion and that was exactly what this story needed, a good dose of emotion and passion. Not just romantically, but also for life in general. Both were sorely lacking. The main character is supposed to be someone who loves music, but I did not feel like she really cared about anything. This is a shame as the story could have actually been good. The author is not technically a bad writer, but the connection between her characters fell completely flat.

I was disappointed with this novel and though I did not hate it , it just needed so much more than it gave me.

3 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: A Sweet, Wild Note (Richard Smyth)

A celebration and a warning, written with love

★★★★★★☆

Title: A Sweet, Wild Note: What we hear when birds sing
Author: Richard Smyth
Genre: Non-Fiction / Natural World
First published: 2017
Edition: Hardback, published in 2017

Birdsong is woven into our culture, our emotions, our landscape; it is the soundtrack to our world. We have tried to capture this fleeting, ephemeral beauty, and the feelings it inspires, for millennia.
In this fascinating account, Richard Smyth asks what it is about birdsong that we so love. Exploring the myriad ways in which it has influenced literature, music, science and our very ideas of what it means to be British, Smyth’s nuanced investigation shows that what we hear says as much about us, our dreams and desires, as it does about the birds and their songs.

🎵🎶🎵🎶🎵

This book had been lingering on my shelf since I bought it back in the year it came out. The subject matter sounded interesting to me, but I just never picked it up to read. Of course, now I have and I am glad I did.

This was a both a joyous read and a sad one. Joyous, because it pulled my attention to the birdsong that sounds all the time where I live, deep in the Dutch countryside. But sad, as birdsong is not as prevalent as it once was.

The author explores birdsong through tidbits of science, literature, and his own musings and experiences. Because of that, it never felt too heavy or serious and it felt like a work of love instead. There was an philosophical element to this book and I actually really enjoyed that. It did make me smile in places too, which is always a bonus!

At under 200 pages this is not a long book, but what those pages hold was enough to keep me interested without getting bored at any point.

If you enjoy nature and are not expecting a scientific textbook, but rather a celebration of that most nostalgic of sounds that nature provides us with, I have no doubt you would enjoy this.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Mr Loverman (Bernardine Evaristo)

I felt I understood and felt for each and every character

★★★★★★☆

Title: Mr Loverman
Author: Bernardine Evaristo
Genre: Fiction /Contemporary
First published: 2013
Edition: Paperback, published by Penguin in 2019

Seventy-four years old, Antiguan born and bred, flamboyant Hackney personality Barry is known for his dapper taste and fondness for retro suits. He is a husband, father and grandfather. And for the past sixty years, he has been in a relationship with his childhood friend and soulmate, Morris.

Wife Carmel knows Barry has been cheating on her, but little does she know what is really going on. When their marriage goes into meltdown, Barrington has big choices to make.

***

This book was such a joy to read. It said so much, but it did in such a lovely way.

I found it so easy to picture the characters that the author created in this book. I could see Barry and Morris parading through the street. I could imagine Carmel and her wasted life. I have known people like Donna and Maxine. Donna especially made me smile, as she reminded me of a lady I used to work with, who was determined to give her son a better life. I understood all sides. I could feel the sadness, the longing and the misunderstandings, but also the love and connection between people.

But the highlight of this novel surely was the longstanding relationship between Barry and Morris, two elderly Caribbean gentlemen who have loved each other in secret for most of their lives. Society made them be a secret for so many years, but the love between is them is so clear. However, we also see the pain their choices cause others.

I loved this novel a lot. Barry was a great character to get into the head of, but I also loved how over the course of the novel we got occasional glimpses into dowdy Carmel’s not-so-dowdy side. I think it is an achievement to write a novel in which the reader feels sympathy for all parties involved.

I think this is one of those novels that anyone with a heart would enjoy and I highly recommend it!

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: The Mystery of the Blue Train (Agatha Christie)

Strong story, but ending did not grab me

★★★★★☆☆

Title: The Mystery of the Blue Train (Poirot)
Author: Agatha Christie Narrator: Hugh Fraser
Genre: Fiction / Mystery
First published: 1928
Edition: Audio book / Paperback

A mysterious woman, a legendary cursed jewel, and a night train to the French riviera — ingredients for the perfect romance or the perfect crime? When the train stops, the jewel is missing, and the woman is found dead in her compartment. It’s the perfect mystery, filled with passion, greed, deceit. And Hercule Poirot is the perfect detective to solve it…

***

Having recently discovered the joys of Agatha Christie books on audio, I decided to do another one. Let me tell you that these books read by Hugh Fraser are an absolute joy.

This particular one started off really well. I was introduced to a whole host of characters and for a good few chapters we got to know these people before Poirot was even introduced. Of course there is a murder on a train, which needs to be solved, and who better to do so than Hercule Poirot?

For most of the book I did not even try and guess who committed the murder. I just enjoyed the interactions between the characters and how all the puzzle pieces slowly slid into place.

The ultimate reveal let me down a little bit. I had an inkling who did it and I was half right, but the ending just did not excite me at all, which was a bit disappointing after such a strong story overall.

5 out of 7 stars