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 · WWW Wednesday

WWW Wednesdays: 28 July 2021

***

WWW Wednesdays’ home is at Sam’s blog Taking On A World of Words. Check it out!

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you will read next?

***

What am I currently reading?

No progress on The Masnavi by Rumi this week, but I am sure I will get back to it soon.

I am reading Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. That one is on my Summer TBR and it’s a bit of a modern classic. I am about halfway. I am enjoying it, but for some reason it takes quite a bit of effort to read. There is something weird about the writing style for me. I am not sure what I expected from this one, but I am liking it. It’s just a bit slower going than expected.

I have also not made that much progress with Life by Keith Richards on audio. I have just not taken much time listening to audio this past week.

What did I recently finish reading?

I only finished one book, which was The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho. That one was a recent charity shop buy. It was fine. Just not one I will remember.

What will I be reading next?

I will probably look at my Summer TBR and choose something from that. I’m still quite in the mood for historical fiction, so I may stick to that genre for now. Which one should I read?

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 · Poetry · Read in 2021 · Reviews

(Poetry) Book Thoughts: Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (Mahmoud Darwish)

Exquisite prose that touched my heart even if I did not quite understand

★★★★★★☆

Title: Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? (original title: لماذا تركت الحصان وحيدًا)
Author: Mahmoud Darwish (translator: Jeffrey Sacks)
Genre: Poetry
First published: 1995 (in Arabic) / first English translation: 1999
Edition: Paperback, published by Archipelago Books in 2006

At once an intimate autobiography and a collective memory of the Palestinian people, Darwish’s intertwined poems are collective cries, songs, and glimpses of the human condition. Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? is a poetry of myth and history, of exile and suspended time, of an identity bound to his displaced people and to the rich Arabic language. Darwish’s poems – specific and symbolic, simple and profound – are historical glimpses, existential queries, chants of pain and injustice of a people separated from their land.

***

There is something about Arabic poetry that touches me deeply. Maybe it is the words used, maybe the symbolism and metaphores, the imagery, the different emotions…. I am not entirely sure. All I know is that it touches my heart.

I will not pretend to understand what this poetry book is trying to say, but the imagery and the words are beautiful. At times they moved me to tears or made me smile. I got themes of displacement, the human effects of war, home, insecurity, transience and love in its many forms… Yes, I admit that much of it went over my head. I often did not understand the metaphores or symbolism. And you know what? I am ok with that. It only means that I will need to let it simmer and I will want to return to it at a later date, to drench myself in these exquisite words again. Maybe then I will gleam something different from them. Maybe then I will grasp some of the deeper meaning. Or I may just enjoy the beautiful prose.

Whatever the author is trying to say, it means something to me. Maybe it does not matter whether I got their meaning exactly, I felt something, and when a poetry book does that it makes me happy. I do not need to understand implicitly. I just need to feel it.

I definitely want to read more from this author.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · WWW Wednesday

WWW Wednesdays: 24 February 2021

***

WWW Wednesdays’ home is at Sam’s blog Taking On A World of Words. Check it out!

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you will read next?

***

What are you currently reading?

I am reading an actual bookie book, an e-book and I am listening to an audio book at the moment.

The paperback is The City of Brass by S A Chakraborty. I bought this one on a whim last week. I am still in the mood for Middle Eastern inspired books, but I fancied something a bit different. This one has glowing reviews and I have heard good things, so despite the fact I should not be starting a new series (oops), I started this one. I am only a few pages in, so not much to tell yet.

My Kindle book is Your Song Changed My Life by Bob Boilen. I am reading this one for my music book club. I am a few chapters in and it is kind of eclectic and interesting. I hope I will end up liking it.

Finally, I am listening to Listening to the Animals by Noel Fitzpatrick, the Supervet. I love nature and animals and I have not been reading these types of books enough lately. My mother-in-law bought the hardback copy of this for me a couple of Christmasses ago, but I did not get round to reading it. It’s a memoir, so I thought the audio book read by the author would be the way to go. He is a bit dramatic reading it, but I I am liking it so far.

What did I recently finish reading?

I finished Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, which I enjoyed plenty enough, but did not quite love (5 out of 7 stars). I finished an audio book, which was Chronicles by Bob Dylan. That one was kind of interesting, but simply did not excite me (4 out of 7 stars). Finally, I read Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, which I absolutely fell in love with (7 big stars!). I am pretty sure that one will end up on my end of year list.

What will I be reading next?

I am not entirely sure yet. There are several books I want to pick up soon, but I have no definite reading plans.

Books · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Blood and Bone (Paula Dombrowiak)

A rockstar romance with more serious undertones

★★★★★☆☆

Title: Blood and Bone
Author: Paula Dombrowiak
Genre: Fiction / Contemporary Fiction / Adult Romance
First published: 2020
Edition: e-book, kindly provided by the author

Jack O’Donnell’s life was teetering on the edge. Forced, as a teenager, to make a decision that would change his life forever, he left his hometown to pursue a music career with collaborator Mia Stone. Living in a van by the beach was not the glamorous Los Angeles lifestyle they had envisioned but sparked the most creative time of their lives. Making it big was all they ever wanted but when it happened, friendships were tested, hearts were broken, and lives were changed forever.
Erin Langford is a seasoned journalist tasked with writing a feature on Jack O’Donnell. Being at the right place at the right moment puts Erin in a unique position to get the story, but at what cost? Having preconceived notions about Jack’s rock star image, she learns there is more to a story than just the headlines. 

🎸🎹🎸

I agreed to read and review this book because there are two things I love most of all: books and music. This is a fiction book about music. Nuff said.

Now, I always find adult romance very hit and miss, particularly when it comes to rockstar romances. They just make me cringe far too often. Yet, the synopsis of this one sounded good, so I wanted to give this one a try. I am glad I did, because I actually felt the story portrayed within these pages is really well told.

The (anti)hero’s story was very well developed and his messed-up character completely made sense in the arc of his story. His complicated relationships with his ex-wife and his bandmate Mia were well told. I definitely cared about his story.

I think Erin’s character felt a little flat in comparison. I really did not get much of a feel for her at all, which was ashame. Whereas the attraction between Jack and Mia was very well written indeed, I just did not feel that the tentative relationship between Jack and Erin had much depth.

The author did a great job in large parts of the book in writing tension and connection in particular, but the intimate scenes were less successful. There was one scene with dubious consent that was glossed over a bit too quickly, which I was a little uncomfortable with. However, I will say that this book focuses far more on the backstory than on the actual sexy times, which is something I did really appreciate.

Overall, I did enjoy this romance and I would recommend it if you enjoy a rockstar romance. It is a good one.

5 out of 7 stars

Books · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Palace Walk (Naguib Mahfouz)

Simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic

★★★★★★☆

Title: Palace Walk (original Arabic title: Bayn al-Qastayn)
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translator: William Maynard Hutchins
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction / Classic / Middle East
First published: 1956 (in Arabic)
Edition: Paperback, published by Black Swan in 1994

Set against the backdrop of Britain’s occupation of Egypt immediately after World War I, Palace Walk introduces us to the Al Jawad family. Ahmad, a middle-class shopkeeper runs his household strictly according to the Qur’an while at night he explores the pleasures of Cairo. A tyrant at home, Ahmad forces his gentle, oppressed wife and two daughters to live cloistered lives behind the house’s latticed windows, while his three very different sons live in fear of his harsh will. 

***

When I went in search of Middle Eastern classics this was one that came up time and time again. Now I have finished it, I can see why.

I thoroughly enjoyed this often claustrophobic tale of a family living in Cairo around 1919. It starts out sketching the family situation. The father, who is strict with his family, but fun-loving and outgoing at nighttime with his friends and lady lovers. The mother and two daughter, who do not leave the house without his permission, and his sons, each struggling to find a place under his tyranic roof.

Most of the book concentrates on the domestic situation, but as tensions rise in Cairo in 1919, politics starts to penetrate even this most closed-off of households.

This is a beautifully written saga set in a place and time very different from what I am used to. The characters felt very human, with strengths and flaws. My ignorance of this period of history in Egypt and its customs did not inhibit my enjoyment of this book. In fact it was fascinating.

The translator must have done a great job, because it flowed really well. This was not quick read and I did not expect it to be, but it was one I thoroughly enjoyed. There were only a few places where my attention wavered, but I was always pulled back in quite soon.

There are two more books in the Cairo Trilogy and I will definitely read those, because I want to know how the story of this family continues.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · WWW Wednesday

WWW Wednesdays: 27 January 2021

It is the last WWW of January 2021 already. I can see the bulbs are already starting to grow in the garden in a first glimpse that spring will be here in not too long. I can’t wait. It’s been a long wet winter already.

***

WWW Wednesdays’ home is at Sam’s blog Taking On A World of Words. Check it out!

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you will read next?

***

What am I currently reading?

I am only reading one book at the moment, which is Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz. It’s a Middle Eastern classic and the first book in the Cairo Trilogy. I am halfway through Palace Walk and I am enjoying it a lot. It feels quite sweeping and quite claustrophobic at the same time. It’s really well written and the translator seems to have done a very good job! The book was published in Arabic in the 1950s, but it is set in 1910s Cairo and centres around one family. So far, so good! I definitely want to pick up the other two books in this series.

What have I finished reading?

It has been a very productive week, readingwise!

First of all, I finished all three of last week’s reads. Things The Grandchildren Should Know, by Eels frontman E (Mark Oliver Everett), was a book about a tragic life with a good outcome, but I never warmed to the author. He came across a little bit aloof and not that likable. It is a good memoir though (5*).

I finished listening to Greenlights, another memoir of sorts, this time by actor Matthew McConaughey. This was a joy to listen to. It as a very dynamic memoir with lots of life advice and bumper sticker wisdom. (6*)

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke was a novel I picked up on my Kindle at random and I absolutely loved it! It was strange and mysterious and just absolutely lovely! (7*)

I also read a little book called How To Write One Song by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. It was an excellent guide on how to motivate yourself to be creative. This was specifically about songwriting, but really it could apply to any creative craft. It was really well written and thought out and it was a joy to read. (6*)

Finally, I read John Cooper Clarke’s poetry collection Ten Years in an Open Necked Shirt, which I really loved as well. I just really enjoy his poetry and its gritty wisdoms. His use of words is second to none.

What will I read next?

I have a single NetGalley book I should get to, which is Off The Charts by Kat Goldman. I hardly ever request books from NetGalley these days, but this one sounded right up my street!

I have been reading so many music books recently and I have been enjoying it a lot.

Books · TBR Review

20 for 2020 TBR: Review

I am so glad I have managed to read al 20 books that were on my 2020 TBR. The list included fifteen works of fiction and five non-fiction books. I will likely have a similar ratio for my 2021 TBR. I do think that having this yearly TBR focused my reading and actually made me read the books I wanted to read. That may not make sense, but it really did help me. I will be setting my 2021 TBR shortly.

These were all books I really wanted to read, but there were quite a few I ended up not loving. Of the 20 books three were 7-star reads, ie new favourites, which were How To Stop Time by Matt Haig, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart by Holly Ringland and Wilding by Isabella Tree. Both will appear in my ‘favourite books I read this year’-list, I am sure. To my surprise beside that I only had five 6-star reads. The rest of the books i rated 5 stars or lower (seven 5-star reads, four 4-star reads and one 3-star read). I had definitely expected to lover more of these books.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett was the first book I read off this TBR and the last one was The Book of Lost Things, which I finished last week. Both of these were disappointing reads at only 4 stars.

I will be taking nine of these books off my shelf to find new homes for.

2021

I have a feeling my 2021 TBR will be looking a bit different, I should be completing and posting that one before the end of the year. Again, all the books on this TBR will be books I actually already have on my shelves.

I am still deciding whether to set a 2021 series TBR or not. I really did not read that many series in 2020. I managed to complete a few, so I am not complaining, but I definitely did not read/complete as many as I had hoped. Still, I would love to get back into reading more fantasy. I may start with reading some standalone fantasy books and completing the ones I am already books into.

What books are likely to be on your 2021 TBR?