Category: Contemporary and Classic (page 1 of 3)

A Thousand Paper Birds

This was a Netgalley read – thanks to Netgalley, publisher and especially to the author. I put off reviewing this one for a little bit as I think it’s one that I needed to ruminate on. A truly beautiful and creative read, dealing with themes of love and loss in a tender and poignant way.

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Descent

I actually found the descent into this book the hardest part. It had lovely language and detail but there was a little bit of jarring with voice…the “I” used only twice, pedantic I know, took me out of the narrative. The rest is in the third person. Admittedly, once was when one of the characters was reading from his notebook so, fine, but the other wasn’t. It is, no doubt, for impact, but it felt jarring. However,  aside from that, the description was stunning throughout – opening with Jonah’s grief as he is mourning the passing of his wife. We fall into his loss and are displaced as surely as he is.

Depth

The depth comes from the all-consuming sense that the characters have of being lost. Early on there is a sense that there is always a distance between individuals, that we can never know what they are truly thinking or feeling, even when you love them. Four characters converge throughout the narrative – Jonah (musician and teacher), Harry (gardener at Kew), Chloe (an artist) and Milly (a young girl) – all connected by the fifth character, Audrey and her death. The themes are summed up beautifully in the artwork created throughout the novel. I adored the creativity running through the novel – linking music, art, writing and all against the backdrop and art of nature in the setting of Kew Gardens.

Ascent

This one does stay with you – I know I will be revisiting it to muse over some the beautiful passages.

The Well: Book Review

My first Netgalley request! I loved this one. The blurb pitches it as possibly a murder-mystery or paranormal thriller, and it is just that. All the way through you’re left guessing whether the events that pass are caused by people or by ghostly activity.

 

 

Descent

The whole story centres around the Gustafano House, a notoriously haunted house. At the beginning, a group of teenagers meet to hold a seance here. (This was right up my street as the house I grew up in was rather large, old and had an eerie air about it. Needless to say, seance were involved over the years and instigated my love of the unusual.)

Here’s something to whet your appetite: “The Gustafon house sat in the center of a small clearing, like some kind of silent queen on her throne. The powder blue paint was cracked and peeling, but she still seemed regal. Either Mother Nature seemed subservient to the house. No birds chirped. No squirrels chattered. The trees didn’t rustle their leaves in the breeze…”

Depth

The story alternates from narrating what happened at the house in the past with the group of teenagers and the ouija board to the present day, twelve years on when they are still trying to make sense of what happened that night. There is a lot of onus from the paranormal investigator, Pierce about finding scientific proof of ghostly activity, which is balanced by his twin brother’s strong belief that it exists. The play between the two and the other characters in the book mean that you are always left guessing whether to believe or not.

The characters are well crafted, with lots of buried emotions that are teased out as the narrative unfolds. Pierce and Haven’s feelings for one another were explored wonderfully, again retaining the mystery for so long as it was unclear for a while what had passed between them on the night of the seance and then later, how they had left off when they parted ways as teenagers.

Ascent

I was hooked the whole way and devoured this in one sitting, really not wanting it to end and yet keen to find out how it did.

Hekla’s Children: Book Review

A little bit different to my usual choice – a kind of Horror Sci-fi. Caught sight of this one when looking through Indie Presses and what was coming out. So glad I read this one – thoroughly immersive, well-written and blood-curdling. 

 

Descent

The story tells the tale of a teacher, Nathan Brookes who takes a group of teenagers on an orienteering field trip. However he is neglectful, and the children go missing. Only one is found and has suffered memory loss and fails to enlighten everyone of what happened to the others.We see how Nathan stagnates in his life due to the guilt he feels from that day onwards. When a body is unearthed in the same woods where the children went missing, it is at first believed to be one of their bodies. However, the body turns out to be the body of a Bronze Age mummy, preserved by the peat of the area, as with such other bog bodies discovered as Tollund Man.

Depth

We see how Nathan stagnates in his life due to the guilt he feels from that day onwards. When a body is unearthed in the same woods where the children went missing, it is at first believed to be one of the children’s bodies. However, this is where things diverge into fantastical realms and the real story begins. This is a fascinating book with elements of folklore and superstitions from the Dark Ages of Britain. I loved the anthropological nature of the story in the present with the character, Tara who delves into researching the Bronze Age mummy and how the logical line of inquiry by the police is swept away by her discoveries. Little by little, the past intrudes into the present in astounding and horrifying ways.

Ascent

I really didn’t see the twist coming in this and devoured the last section of it. The ending will haunt you long after you finish!

Proust: Swann’s Way

A thought-provoking, powerful and immersive read. 

Descent

There is a fluidity in descending into this book. As Proust describes falling asleep, you fall gently into his narrative, his words cushioning you. On the other hand, we’re moving through great junctures of time and space. One moment Proust is a man reading a book, his thoughts still cycling on the words of the page, the next he’s a child, dreaming of his childish terrors about his uncle pulling his curls. We dip in and out of these passages of time with him. As he states:

“When a man is asleep, he has a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly bodies. Instinctively he consults them when he awakes, and in an instant reads off his own position on the earth’s surface and the time that has elapsed during his slumbers; but this procession is apt to grow confused, and to break ranks.”

And we continue to travel time and distance through the cyclical nature of the narrator’s thoughts. I loved journeying on, his senses bridging one thought to the next, no matter the distance or time between each.

Saying this, there are times when you stumble over the long sentences and archaic language but if you’re ready for it, prepared to give yourself over to it, it’s brilliant.

Depth

There are so many parts to love in this book. I’m going to pick a few of my favourite quotes.

During his Combray days Legrandin says to Proust:

“Always try to keep a patch of sky above your life…You have a soul in you of rare quality, an artist’s nature; never let it starve for lack of what it needs.”

I loved the way Proust reflects on his boyhood and the way he tries to identify when and where a certain thought or feeling stemmed from. Here are some snippets:

“…our attempts to translate our innermost feelings do no more than believe us of them by drawing them out in a blurred form which does not help us identify them…”

“Meseglise way and the Guermantes way remain for me linked with many of the little incidents of…life…The flowers which played then among the grass, the water that rippled past in the sunshine…all these my exaltation of mind has borne along with it and kept alive through the succession of the years…Sometimes the fragment of landscape thus transported into the present will detach itself in such isolation from all associations that it floats uncertainly in my mind…”

“For often in one we find a day that has strayed from another, that makes us live in the other, evokes at once and makes us long for its particular pleasure, and interrupts the dreams that we were in the process of weaving by inserting out of its turn, too early or too late, this leaf torn from another chapter in the interpolated calendar of Happiness.”

Ascent

I did become very much immersed in Proust’s world – his boyhood, later his narrations of Swann’s life, his relationship with Odette and the society they moved in. There was precision and so much insight to perceive in all the characters interactions and so much to reflect on about human nature. Just take a scene – an afternoon’s music reception that Swann attends. We go from Swanns’s observation of the servants:

“Then he passed it to one of his satellites, a timid novice…” then to observing the attendees.”

Madame Cambremer among them listens to the music and we are told:

“She had learned in her girlhood to fondle and cherish these long sinuous phrases…But nowadays the old-fashioned beauty of this music seemed to have become a trifle stale…Mme de Cymbremer cast a furtive glance behind her.”

Throughout there is a vast array of cast and the interactions are examined minutely. All of it was fascinating, but when I did finish, I definitely needed to surface for some air!

The Gift Maker: Book Review

I started this one as well as Hekla’s Children in a conscious effort to read more books published by independent presses. I chose Urbane Press this month as The Gift Maker caught my eye. And I’m so glad it did! It proved to be a disturbing, and yet, beautiful story. It reminded me very much of Bulgakov’s, The Master and the Margarita, with its surreal nature, as well as  its Eastern European-esque setting (the characters venture to a town called Grenze, which translates to “Border”).

Descent

At the very beginning, one of the MCs, Thomas receives the mysterious box. I enjoyed gradually getting to know Thomas and his fellow philosophy students – their jokes and banter easing us into the story. It isn’t until we meet Liselotte, the other MC that the story starts to get surreal and magical, but it’s worth the wait. I loved following her on her quest to understand her gift and watching as the world around her becomes more warped and disturbing.

Depth

There is so much to contemplate in this book – there is a depth of soul in this book that is such a rarity. I think some of the quotes I marked will sum up the particular beauty of its pages and its writer:

“The gift will find the receiver, whether he wishes it or not, for it is part of him and cannot be denied.”

“We look for the pure, if hidden, desire. The love of the love for its own sake, not for gross gain. A rare thing in this and other worlds.”

I don’t want to give too much away, but there are layers upon layers of meaning and influence in this book. One moment you think of The Master and Margarita, especially with the theatre scenes and then there’s hints of Dr Faustus and questions about one’s ambitions in life and their impact on the soul.

Ascent

This book has stayed with me the last week – and I will definitely be buying a paperback copy so that I can revisit it again when the images and ideas fade.

The Thirteenth Tale: Book Review

A gem of a book. Loved it…a story that echoes other stories, reminding you of the books you love and making you want to visit them once again.

Descent

This was a wonderful bookish book. The MC, Margaret has been raised in a bookshop and spends her day working and reading there, having become something of an “amateur” biographer as she terms it. Books have been her school, her university, her life. Like I say it was just ooooh so bookish.

“…you leave the previous book with ideas and themes  - characters even - caught in the fibres of your clothes, and when you open the new book they are still with you.”

Depth

The storyline follows the biographer’s trip to interview Vida Winters, a prolific, famous and secretive author. The author has never given a truthful account of her life…until now. Margaret journeys to her house in Yorkshire, and you cannot help think (as the MC does) of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Through Miss Winter’s story we discover her tale (and there is a house) Angelfield House involved in the tale. But we are taken down the twists and turns of history, of literature, history echoing story or story echoing history, hungering to discover Miss Winter’s true tale, which, in turn, shares painful similarities with Margaret’s own.

Ascent

I devoured this in two sittings, and I didn’t want to come out of it. It felt like a homage  to other wonderful books as well. Just after reading it, I delved into Wuthering Heights again and I’m going to see Jane Eyre shortly at the theatre. So all in all, this is a book that you can luxuriate in and after leaving gets you in the mood to jump into lots of other stories that have inspired it. Also bought a copy of Rebecca recently on holiday, which has a lot to do with the ideas from this book still percolating in my head!

(The library in Dunster Castle, Somerset.)

Black Inked Pearl: Book Review

Finnegan’s Black Inked Pearl opens with our fifteen-year-old heroine, Kate. From the beginning, our surroundings are dreamlike, or rather, timeless. We are on “Donegal shore by wild Atlantic Sea. Today. Or long ago.” When is Kate? When are we? It doesn’t matter – from the beginning we are swept up in the narrative; one that has no beginning and no end.

We experience the themes of lost love and the quest for identity through Kate’s eyes, but there is a real sense that the reader, and indeed all of humanity, are on the same journey.
We feel for Kate as she realises and yearns for her true love who she didn’t recognise and acknowledge as such in her youth. Finnigan’s imagery and poetry edify that love to something ancient and universal: “For as convolvulus roots dig deep in the earthe’s heart, ne’er torn uproot, and in the world grow spiralling untwistable in th’ ether till burst out in morning’s glore So were they entwined.”

When we get to Africa, the tale of Adami and Yifa (Adam and Eve) is told. Kate seems to merge with Eve, the first woman to go against/lose her lover. It’s here that everything seems to blend further – as if Kate’s journey and Eve’s, and everyone’s, are one and the same. I loved the description of where St Columb showed Kate the mysteries of humankind in the heavenly archives: “…he carefully lifted down the…wrought chest/ Carved it was with friezes not of animals but of singers. Of Neanderthal women / pipers, children a-song, cave men with – somehow like lyres…”

I think, at times, there is a little difficulty with the dense imagery and descriptive language in travelling between scenes and transitions, which does add to the dreamlike quality of the book, but had me going back over what I was reading (at the train station scene and at the nursing home). I’m still digesting those parts and making sense of them, but even that is interesting as the story stays with you, transforming long afterwards.

I thoroughly recommend journeying on with Kate to hell, hear the temptations of the serpent and go to heaven’s gate. There’s also plenty of comic moments with God – his take on beetles reminded me of a sketch by the comedian Bill Bailey. So even with the epic nature of this narrative, there are moments of humour and levity to lighten your journey.

Black Inked Pearl can be purchased here on Amazon.

Wolf of the Tesseract

 

My leanings tend to be more Fantasy than Sci-fi, and Wolf of the Tesseract by Christopher D. Schmitz is firmly entrenched in the Sci-Fi camp. It has intergalactic travel, the characters have multiple-selves throughout the dimensions and the MCs’ nemesis is an alien warlock. That said, I’m thoroughly pleased I have broadened my reading range!

The story starts off with a fast-paced battle scene, with an introduction to one of the MCs, Zabe. I was really drawn into the world with the pace and vividness with which it was described – the writing is concise but descriptive.

The next chapter transports us from this world to Earth. The pace might be in danger of languishing here after the high-action scene, but I was instantly intrigued by what occurred and the plot thickens.

By chapter three, we meet the other MC, Claire and the book becomes firmly rooted in the real world too. The way the story swings between Earth and the other realm was brilliant. I think without the foundation in the real world, I would have struggled to be drawn into the story as much, but the balance is done perfectly.

Not to mention that the multiple dimensions also serve for some wonderfully comic moments. Some of the best quotes come from the play between the two worlds. One of my favourite lines was: “What’s in Wiltshire?” “Our exit to another world.”

In the book there is a vast array of characters and yet the story never becomes confusing, and even more impressively, all the characters are fleshed-out. Even the secondary character’s, for example Claire’s friend, Jackie are well- drawn and ended up being some of my favourites.

I was surprised that with so many characters, the quick pace and the narration being from multiple viewpoints that the story still possessed real depth. Early on, the MC Claire grapples with whether her feelings for her fiance are strong enough to marry him, there is a discussion between the characters about whether unexplained phenomena isn’t just Science that we don’t yet understand. In short, the world and characters are made real and the extraordinary only serves to enhance it.

A wonderful read – I will definitely be reading more by the author.

 

Image from https://pixabay.com/en/users/TheHilaryClark-1068778/

Book Review: An Artist of the Floating World

A beautiful book. A lot like ‘Remains of the Day’, but a beautiful story nonetheless.

In this story Ono, a retired artist looks back on his career and life. In a meandering (typical Ishiguro) narrative, he re-examines the patriotic and propagandist values he has endorsed. And we see how Ono is held by his family and in the wider society for this.

Through his memories, we experience a little of Japanese militarism, the Second World War, and see the rebuilding and reforming of Japan afterwards.

In amidst all the uncertainties, there is a particularly beautiful scene where Ono sits with his teacher. The teacher is reminiscing about what his and his friend’s beliefs and values in life have been:

“The best things, he used to say, are put together of a night and vanish with the morning. What people call the floating world, Ono, was a world that Gisaburo knew how to value.”

He goes on to say: “It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubts its very validity.”

I’ve heard Ishiguro described as preachy and moralistic lately, but who can dislike this kind of reflection when it’s so beautiful?

(The ‘Ukiyo’ – ‘the floating world’ used to describe the urban lifestyle, especially the pleasure-seeking aspects, of Edo-period Japan (1600–1867).

From https://data.ukiyo-e.org/mfa/images/sc206467.jpg)

Embers: Book Review

I read this beautiful book as I was looking for more Hungarian treasures – missing the likes of Szabo and Szerb. Unfortunately, I’ve read the two books of Szabo translated into English  (and not knowing Hungarian, the others are off limits.) Got a Szerb: the Pendragon Legend  waiting for me now too.

Embers by Sandor Marai was a lovely gem. It is a languid read, being more about an elderly General, Henrik reflecting on how he has spent the latter part of his life separated from his best friend, Konrad. It is forty years since some event drove them apart and now he is coming to see him.

It is through a long drawn out conversation, which is definitely more of a monologue (on Henrik’s part) that we come to see what happened to cause their estrangement.

It is a peculiar style for a whole novel, but I would say its strength lies in the time, settings and sentiments that are conjured through the conversation.

In the castle Henrik has lived in his whole life is described as: “The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth. it enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats, and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses…”

“The castle was a closed world, like a great granite mausoleum full of the moldering bones of generations of men and women from earlier times, in their shrouds of slowly disintegrating gray silk or black cloth. It enclosed silence itself as if it were a prisoner persecuted for his beliefs, wasting away numbly, unshaven and in rags on a pile of musty rotting straw in a dungeon. It also enclosed memories as if they were the dead, memories that lurked in damp corners the way mushrooms, bats, rats, and beetles lurk in the mildewed cellars of old houses.”

Everything Marai describes is painted with poignancy and vividness. I loved the way Konrad spoke about the tropics and how the wet seeps into everything or the way Chopin’s music seems to tear apart the world as Henrik listens to his mother and friend playing the piano.

A stunning read.

Bran Castle in the Carpathian Mountains

(Image from http://www.yoshay.com/when-literature-meets-history/)

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