Monday, 4 May 2015

April Wrap Up

As my last post might have suggested, April has been a bit of a difficult month reading-wise. I had two 600-page mammoths to read for book club this month, both of which were challenging in their own way and, after finishing the second, I hit a bit of a reading wall. So I took a few days off, caught up on some TV and played some Xbox before re-introducing myself to books via the medium of audio. As a result, I've got my reading mojo back and enjoyed two thoroughly good audio books which made my drives to and from work a good deal more pleasant. So, without further ado, here's my April reading wrap up!

The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Mammoth 600-page novel number one. This was actually my suggestion for book group because a) I've never read a Murakami before, b) I keep hearing reviewers and podcasters rave about his writing and c) his work is one of the reasons - along with the film 'Lost in Translation' - that my cousin (and very good friend) Jay became fascinated with Japanese culture to the extent of moving over there, meeting the girl of his dreams and settling down to life surrounded by it. So I wanted to see if the hype surrounding this writer was deserved. My conclusion? It probably is, although I would add the caveat that I feel Murakami's writing might be an acquired taste. By all accounts I might have started with one of his most difficult and surrealist novels but, from reading 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle', I get the sense that Murakami is a marmite writer. There's no doubt that there's a lot about the book which is genius - it is by turns surreal, whimsical, engaging and mesmerising - but I can completely see why a lot of people just don't get it. For example, I would usually endeavor to summarise the novel's plot about now but I'm just not sure that I could summarise this book. Let's just say that it starts with cat going missing and ends with an existential battle between good and evil moving via a morbid 16-year old girl, a prostitute of the mind and an aging war veteran's testimony of a forgotten campaign. Sounds odd? It is. I'm not entirely sure how much I understood of the message of the book - sometimes it made my head hurt to try and follow the plot - but I did enjoy Murakami's writing and his characterisation. In summary, I am glad to have read this. It took me three weeks and it made me feel as if my brain was about to explode more than once but I did enjoy reading it and I would read another Murakami in the future, albeit one of his less surreal novels next time maybe. So, if you're a fan of magical realism or surrealist fiction and you haven't yet tried Haruki Murakami, I'd definitely recommend you give this one a go.

Flight Behaviour
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Mammoth 600 page novel number two! hindsight, it might have been an idea to give myself a bit of break between these two. Still, having finished the Murakami, I plunged straight into Barbara Kingsolver's environmentalist novel 'Flight Behaviour' which is May's choice for my book group. Although of similar length,this is a very different kettle of fish to the Murakami and it was a much 'easier' read for me in that the narrative followed a linear path and the language, whilst beautiful, never left me struggling to understand what was going on. The novel follows Dellarobia, a young mother who is increasingly discontented with her life of rural poverty on a farm in southern Appalachia. On her way to an impulsive tryst with the telecoms guy, she instead stumbles upon a flock of monarch butterflies who, confused by a series of changes to the climate, have headed to Appalachia to roost for the winter. So starts a series of events that will have not only have a profound effect on Dellarobia's life but may also have consequences for the world at large. I've been a fan of Kingsolver's writing since my best friend lent me 'The Poisonwood Bible' a few years ago. The writing style is dense, luscious and richly descriptive and, as a result, the passages in 'Flight Behaviour' which focus on the beautiful, rugged harshness of the Appalachian mountains are amongst the best in the novel. That said, I don't feel this is as rounded a novel as 'The Poisonwood Bible'. I struggled to empathise with Dellarobia who blames everyone around her for her situation in life as opposed to taking a measure of personal responsibility. Her journey of self-discovery is interesting but I sometimes got the sense that Kingsolver was using Dellarobia to write about climate change and environmental responsibility, rather than to tell a story. Whilst climate change is certainly an important issue - and one that deserves to be tackled in fiction - I do like a book to tell me a story rather than give me a manifesto. As a result, I was a little disappointed by the ending to this novel, which felt unresolved and rushed - as if, having got across the message about caring for the environment, Kingsolver just wanted to finish the book. So, for me personally, this was a bit of a disappointment, although it was definitely worth reading and I'm sure we'll have a great discussion about it at book group this coming month.

The Daughter of Time | [Josephine Tey]The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (read by Derek Jacobi)

To break the reading slump that descended after finishing 'Flight Behaviour', I turned to audiobooks and found this - an old favourite - on Audible. My mum lent me 'The Daughter of Time' many moons ago and it has remained one of my favourite mystery novels so I was delighted to discover that one of my favourite actors - Derek Jacobi - has narrated this audio version. This slim novel (the audio comes in at just under 5 and a half hours) follows Inspector Alan Grant, laid up in a hospital bed after an incident on the job, as he tries to solve the infamous disappearance of the Princes in the Tower and to discover whether Richard the Third was the villainous monster that history, and Shakespeare, has led us to believe. This was an easy listen - Derek Jacobi's voice is perfectly suited to the grumpy detective and he distinguishes between the other characters well - but the plot does pack more of a punch that it lets on at first. Hidden behind the pseudo-criminal capers is a clever examination of how much we should believe about what we read in books, however factual they purport to be. With the recent renewal of interest in Richard the Third, I very much hope that Tey's novel gets the recognition and praise it deserves and I would thoroughly recommend this to fans of 'golden-age' crime fiction, historical mysteries and Richard the Third alike! 

All the Light We Cannot See | [Anthony Doerr]All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (narrated by Julie Teal)

Maybe this should be mammoth novel of the month number three? Coming in at just over 17 hours worth of listening, Doerr's Pulitzer Prize winning novel is a hefty listen but one that is well worth it. I've been listening to this in chunks for a few weeks- taking time off to listen to 'The Daughter of Time' in the middle - but finally finished it in April, shortly after the Pulitzer award was announced. A beautifully told and lyrical novel, 'All The Light We Cannot See' tells the parallel stories of blind French girl Marie-Laure, who flees with her father to the Brittany town of Saint-Malo when the Germans occupy Paris, and young German orphan Werner, whose talent for building and fixing radios lands him a place at an elite Nazi military academy. As the novel progresses, the lives of these two young people begin to intersect, converging amidst the horrors and tumult of the Second World War. Doerr's writing is beautiful and he has real gift for conveying the senses - the taste of tinned peaches, the sound of the sea, the feel of a mollusk underneath the fingers - and for bringing a sense of magical to the everyday. His characters are also fascinating, each of them complicated and difficult human beings with their own strengths and failings and each trying to make the best of the situation that life has placed them in. I especially enjoyed the fact that, despite the grand scale of the narrative, the book never lost sight of small details of life for each of the characters, allowing the reader to pause and soak up the atmosphere of each scene. I enjoyed listening to this as an audiobook but I have now picked it up as a paperback to read and savour at my own pace - sometimes Julie Teal's narration felt a little too slow for the tone of the story at times and there was the very occasional mispronunciation of French or German word in Teal's narration which jarred slightly. Beyond those very minor nitpicks however, I really enjoyed this novel and the experience of listening to it and would highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good story, expertly told. 

So, that was April. Saved by audiobooks! 'Reading' in a different register - and via a different method - has broken my reading slump nicely so I've got a nice pile of things to get me through May. Next week I'll be posting a review of the latest novel by Rowan Coleman - you may recognise her as the author of 'The Memory Book' which was Richard & Judy Book Club choice from last year - which is due out later this month, and I'm currently reading Holly Black's YA fantasy 'The Darkest Part of the Forest' which promises a unique take on traditional fairy tale tropes. After that I'm looking forward to reading a proof of debut novel 'The Versions of Us', which examines different versions of the same couple and the choices they have made, settling into Sarah Hall's latest novel 'The Wolf Border' and maybe, just maybe, getting change to read a random pick or two from my ever-expanding TBR. 

So, until next time folks, Happy Reading! 


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