Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: In Praise of Shadows (Junichiro Tanizaki)

An absolute joy to read

★★★★★★★

Title: In Praise of Shadows
Author: Junichiro Tanizaki
Translators:
Thomas J Harper / Edward G Seidensticker (from Japanese)
Genre:
 Non-Fiction / Essay
First published: 1934
Edition: Paperback, published by Vintage in 2001

This is an enchanting essay on aesthetics by one of the greatest Japanese novelists. Tanizaki’s eye ranges over architecture, jade, food, toilets, and combines an acute sense of the use of space in buildings, as well as perfect descriptions of lacquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure. The result is a classic description of the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors and the dazzling light of the modern age.

***

This was such a nice surprise. This is an essay, only 60-something pages long, pretty much solely about Japanese aesthetics and the author’s views relating this to Japanese and Western cultures when it was written in the 1930s.

Of course some views are dated, but overall this read very easily and it was just beautiful. Really beautiful and sometimes funny as well. You could definitely call this aesthetic writing. I loved the descriptions and the clear longing the author gets across as he longs for some the old ways, for example when shadows were still appreciated.

I will definitely seek out one or more of this author’s novels, because this was simple and beautiful. It did not need to do anymore.

7 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Music & Silence (Rose Tremain)

Greed and desire in 17th century Europe

★★★★★☆☆

Title: Music & Silence
Author: Rose Tremain
Genre:
 Fiction / Historical Fiction
First published: 1999
Edition: Paperback, published by Vintage in 2020

Peter Claire is an English lutenist summoned to Denmark to join King Christian IV’s royal orchestra. Designated the king’s “Angel” because of the purity of his physical beauty, Peter falls helplessly in love with the lovely companion of Queen Kirsten, the king’s adulterous wife. The young musician finds himself dangerously torn between loyalties, ensnared in the deep-seated unrest of a royal court where the forces of good and evil, of harmony and dissonance, are ensconced in a battle to the death.

***

I had meant to read this one for a while, but did not pick it up until this month. As I closed the book after the last page I searched my brain how I felt about and I think it is one of those novels that will take a little while to truly form an opinion on.

For now I will say I enjoyed it, even if part of it left unsavoury taste in my mouth. Not because the content is shocking or unsavoury, more that there are quite a few characters in this book that are either unlikable, have mental health issues, or are simply not the most pleasant characters to follow. Now, I don’t mind this generally, but here it felt both at times very clever and sometimes just not quite necessary.

I enjoyed the setting in 17th century Europe and the writing really is very good. If you asked me what this book was about, I would say it was about greed and desire and a little about love. Just a little.

I would recommend this one for sure and I would read more by this author. I am just not quite sure whether I truly loved it yet. Come back to me in a few weeks.

5 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: Revelation (Russell Brand)

A frank and casual look at how spirituality and the sacred can change a life

★★★★★★☆

Title: Revelation: Connecting with the Sacred in Everyday Life
Author/Narrator: Russell Brand
Genre: Non-Fiction / Memoir / Spirituality
First published: 2021
Edition: Audible Original audio book

Unsparing of himself, and with insights that are sure to resonate with any listener, Revelation sets a context for our need for the sacred – especially now, given current societal fragmentation and the dearth of mitigating social and political ideas. 

***

I picked this up from on Audible quite randomly. It must have been on offer, maybe a buy one get one free job. I wouldn’t have spent a credit on it. That sounds rude, but let me explain. I have a kind of odd ‘relationship’ with Russell Brand. I have been familiar with him for a long time, from back when he was that leather clad comedian with the crazy hair, like Essex’s answer to Jack Sparrow. I have no doubt he is very smart and I think he can be very funnyindeed. However, he can also be pretty obnoxious and pretentious. I am pretty sure he knows that as well!

I am actually glad I listened to this. I picked it up in the end because the subject matter appealed to me. I do not come from a religious background and I would describe myself as agnostic. I think the angle Russell takes on this subject suits my own sensibilities and therefore it worked for me.

It’s a bit of a memoir, but it also talks spirituality and philosophy. It was an interesting five hours for me and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Russell’s voice is good to listen to and though the narrative is a bit all over the place, I just enjoyed the ride.

This is an Audible Original and there is no physical version of this, but I think there should be. Although this may have been done a bit ad hoc during Covid times, many of the ideas sound well thought out. Not necessarily for this book, but just in his own everyday life. It made it feel very honest and very real.

I would definitely pick up more from Russell in the future. I enjoyed this.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: We Are All Made of Stars (Rowan Coleman)

Soppy books are normally not my thing, but….

★★★★★★★

Title: We Are All Made of Stars
Author: Rowan Coleman
Genre:
 Fiction / Contemporary
First published: 2015
Edition: Paperback, published by Ebury Press in 2016

Stella Carey has good reason to only work nights at the hospice where she is a nurse. Married to a war veteran who has returned from Afghanistan brutally injured, Stella leaves the house each night as her husband Vincent, locks himself away, unable to sleep due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. During her nights at the hospice, Stella writes letters for her patients containing their final wishes, thoughts and feelings – from how to use a washing machine, to advice on how to be a good parent – and usually she delivers each letter to the recipient after he or she has died.

***

No, indeed, earjerker is not my genre and yet, there is something about the way this author writes that just works for me. It never feels like drama for drama’s sake. The stories told in this book (there are several interlinked) feel like they need to be told, like they are important.

There are a few stories that intertwine throughout the book and they all deal with death in one way or another. With dying, death of a loved one, mourning and moving on. Now, this is not a subject I tend to seek out and neither am I a sucker for books that make me cry. However, this one did make me cry, quite a bit, out of sadness, compassion, but most of all hope and love.

I am aware all of that sounds very soppy indeed, but I honestly feel like this book was so heartwarming, so honest, but also raw sometimes. It did not shy away from really heavy subjects, but the author has such a lovely touch, that I could still enjoy the read. And I did enjoy it, a lot. In fact, I think this was a fantastic read.

This was my second novel by this author. The first one I read, The Summer of Impossible Things, was magical realism and had time travel! This one was firmly rooted in the real world. I loved both a lot.

I am very happy to know that there are plenty more books by this author to read, so I am sure I will be reading more in time.

7 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons (Kate Khavari)

Thoroughly enjoyable and just mysterious enough

★★★★★★☆

Title: A Botanist’s Guide to Parties and Poisons
Author: Kate Khavari
Genre:
 Fiction / Historical Mystery
First published: 7 June 2022 by Crooked Lane Books
Edition: e-Arc, courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher

London, 1923. Newly minted research assistant Saffron Everleigh attends a dinner party for the University College of London. While she expects to engage in conversations about the university’s large expedition to the Amazon, she doesn’t expect Mrs. Henry, one of the professors’ wives to drop to the floor, poisoned by an unknown toxin.

***

This was a pretty effective and fun mystery set in the aftermath of WW I. It took me a little while to read, but that is by no means down to the novel.

This was an enjoyable read for me. I like the characters quite a bit and I was very happy with the way the romance was not taking over from the mystery elements, but was just right. I felt for Saffron as she had to navigate a male-dominated environment, but liked how she was able to hold her own most of the time.

The mystery itself was interesting, even if Saffron and Alexander’s way of investigating was a bit gung ho at times.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable historical mystery set at a botany department at a 1920s London University.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Children's Books · Poetry · Reviews · Short Ones

May Short Ones: some Rumi poetry & a Walter Farley children’s book

May was a tricky month for me reading wise and I chose to read a few shorter reads under 100 pages. They don’t quite merit full reviews, so I will just talk about them in this short post.

Open Secret: Versions of Rumi by John Moyne and Coleman Barks (1984)

★★★★☆☆☆

This is a selection of Rumi’s work chosen and translated/interpreted by Moyne and Barks. I enjoyed the poetry, but it did feel a bit disjointed and did not quite work for me as a whole. I have read the first two books of The Masnavi and want to read more of Rumi’s more accessible poetry, but I am struggling to find a collection that works for me. I will keep this and dip in and out of it again, but on first reading I was not that impressed.

***

The Horse That Swam Away by Walter Farley (1965)

★★★★★☆☆

This is a children’s book by the author of The Black Stallion series and that is exactly why I read this one; sentimental reasons, comfort. It is a lovely story about a boy living in Florida with his family and his horse Tena. Tim loses Tena when she is playing with a porpoise in the sea. I enjoyed the story. I’d say it’s for 7-10 year olds. Is it the best thing I have ever read? No, but it was cute and does talk about the beauty of nature, even if a loggerhead turtle does het wacked across the head!
Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: The Island of Missing Trees (Elif Shafak)

How human a tree can be…

★★★★★★★

Title: The Island of Missing Trees
Author: Elif Shafak
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction
First published: 2021
Edition: Hardback, published by Viking in 2021

Two teenagers, a Greek Cypriot and a Turkish Cypriot, meet at a taverna on the island they both call home. In the taverna, hidden beneath garlands of garlic, chili peppers and creeping honeysuckle, Kostas and Defne grow in their forbidden love for each other. A fig tree stretches through a cavity in the roof, and this tree bears witness to their hushed, happy meetings and eventually, to their silent, surreptitious departures. The tree is there when war breaks out, when the capital is reduced to ashes and rubble, and when the teenagers vanish. Decades later, Kostas returns. He is a botanist looking for native species, but really, he’s searching for lost love.

***

I have not read a book by Elif Shafak yet that I did not love. There is something so human about her writing, something so easy to connect and related to, even I have never gone through the things her characters have been through. I have never been to Cyprus. I have never lived through civil war, but she made me feel the anguish, the torn hearts of its inhabitants. That is what I love about Shafak’s writing – the life she breathes into the people populating her novels.

This novel is set in two main timelines, one in Cyprus in the 1970s and one in the 2010s in England. It explores how the past still resonates in the present and future generations. Events are also part told through a fig tree, which I enjoyed a lot. It gave an angle to the story, which was both apart and very much interwoven. It just added an extra layer.

I knew that there had been conflict in Cyprus of course and that it was split in two halves, but I had not really read anything about it before. Novels like these both educate and humanize. They are so important. This felt like a novel that has something to say whilst being immensely enjoyable. I loved it.

I will be reading more novels by this author in the near future, that’s for sure!

7 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: The Life of Olaudah Equiano

Definitely interesting, but did I love it?

★★★★★☆☆

Title: The Life of Olaudah Equiano
Author: Olaudah Equiano
Audio Narrator: Ben Bailey Smith
Genre: Non-Fiction / Classic
First published: 1789
Edition: Audible audio book & paperback, published by Dover Thrift Editions in 1999

A compelling account that has gripped and fascinated readers since its original London publication in 1789, the narrative describes Equiano’s formidable journey from captivity to freedom and literacy.

***

I am not entirely sure what I expected from this 18th century memoir and having read it I am still not sure whether it lived up to whatever subconscious expectations I may have had. I was not disappointed exactly, but I felt a bit surprised with where it lay the emphasis at times.

I listened to the audio book of this one and David Olusoga’s foreword was a compelling introduction to the actual narrative and definitely added something interesting. As for the narrative itself, it was definitely fascinating, but I am not sure it quite grabbed me. Maybe it is the 18th century language. Maybe it’s the narrative itself, but it had a bit of trouble at times holding my attention.

I definitely enjoyed the listen, but I had expected a little bit more maybe. There was an emphasis on religion that, although clearly important to the author, I was not that interested in. Surprising, as I am generally quite interested in the what, why and how of religion.

The author used to be slave and set himself free, but even as a freed slave, he explains you were never equal and life was not necessarily better. The bits of the memoir that spoke about the political and social aspects of slavery were the bits I found most interesting. Maybe because those were the bits I knew least about and I wanted to find out more. I felt it did not explore those quite enough. But then, this is one man’s memoir, and he wrote about what was important to him, what had an impact on him at a time when slavery was still relatively common.

Is it worth the read/listen? As an account of history, it’s definitely interesting and fascinating. Did I absolutely love it? No, for me the emphasis lay in the wrong places at times.

5 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Exit West (Mohsin Hamid)

An intriguing novel that I wish had done a bit more

★★★★★☆☆

Title: Exit West
Author: Mohsin Hamid
Genre: Fiction / magical realism
First published: 2017
Edition: Kindle e-book

In a country teetering on the brink of civil war, two young people meet—sensual, fiercely independent Nadia and gentle, restrained Saeed. They embark on a furtive love affair, thrust into premature intimacy by the unrest roiling their city. When it explodes, turning familiar streets into a patchwork of checkpoints and bomb blasts, they begin to hear whispers about doors—doors that can whisk people far away, if perilously and for a price. As violence and the threat of violence escalate, Nadia and Saeed decide that they no longer have a choice. Leaving their homeland and their old lives behind, they find a door and step through  . . .

***

I have been meaning to read this one for a good while. The idea of the story just sounded intriguing to me. I enjoyed this one, but the execution left me a little frustrated at times.

The commentary on migrants and using the doors to move people between countries and continents was so interesting. I really liked that angle. The writing however, though I respected it and found it easy to read, just felt a little distant. It felt rather clinical and it is not a style I prefer. That is not to say that I did not like the book. I definitely did. I just felt like I wanted to go a little deeper into the relationship between Nadia and Saeed and this version of our world they live in.

The world and society changed a lot in the background of this novel, but you never quite get an idea of how it changed or how it works. On one hand I kind of like that, because it focuses on two specific people and their very limited focus. However, there are other points of view sprinkled throughout that give a bit more information and I found it frustrating that they were not explored a bit more.

I did enjoy this one and I would definitely read more by this author, but I did find I may have wanted a bit more from a storyline I really liked.

5 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2022 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Gold Dust (Ibrahim al-Koni)

You have to in a certain frame of mind for this one

★★★★★☆☆

Title: Gold Dust
Author: Ibrahim al-Koni (Libya)
Translator:
Elliot Colla (from Arabic)
Genre: Literary Fiction
First published: 1990
Edition: Paperback, published by Hoopoe in 2020

Rejected by his tribe and hunted by the kin of the man he killed, Ukhayyad and his thoroughbred camel flee across the desolate Tuareg deserts of the Libyan Sahara. Between bloody wars against the Italians in the north and famine raging in the south, Ukhayyad rides for the remote rock caves of Jebel Hasawna. There, he says farewell to the mount who has been his companion through thirst, disease, lust, and loneliness. Alone in the desert, haunted by the prophetic cave paintings of ancient hunting scenes and the cries of jinn in the night, Ukhayyad awaits the arrival of his pursuers and their insatiable hunger for blood and gold.

🐪🐫🐪

This is exactly the kind of oddball book I expect to like, being about a man and his camel. And yes, I did like it, but I did not love it. I am not sure whether it was the book or just my current mood.

What I did love about this book was how natural the way the main character cared about his piebald camel came across. It felt authentic and I believed it. However, every now and then the story itself lost me and it would take a page or two to be pulled back into the narrative. I found myself a little too easily distracted, but that could well be due to me being a bit scatterbrained at the moment.

I do think this is a novel I will re-read at another time and that will grow on me on said future re-read.

I am not quite sure who to recommend this book to, but if you like the sound of a novel about a man hanging out in the desert with his camel and making bad decisions, this may well be for you!

5 out of 7 stars