Tuesday, 29 June 2021

Book Review: Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson

Meet Me at the Museum Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a pick for my in personbook group. Probably one I would not have picked up, BUT.
I've read it describe in what could be construed to be saccharin terms - ' a gem of a novel' ' a charmer' and yes those do apply, BUT.
The book is written by a Brit in her 70s who had never written a book before , BUT. ( you can see there is a pattern here!)

It is an epistolary novel, a series of letters written between two grandparents with grown up children - Tina, a farmer's wife, best near Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk, who is mourning the loss of her best friend and Anders from Denmark who works as a curator in the Silkeborge Museum, who is recently widowed. Their correspondence is something of an accident. Tina and her friend had always talked about going to see the Tollund Man, immortalised in the poem by Seamus Heaney because according to this storyline been among the group of school girls to whom the Danish archeologist Prof Glob who excavated Tollund Man had dedicated his book on the subject entitled The Bog People. In her grief Tina writes to him, but he is long since dead and Anders replies instead. There begins a totally rivetting 18 month corrrespondence between the two.
Through their letters they unwind and take increasingly openly about their different lives, their loss, their marriages, their children. They philosophise about the choices which took them to where they find themselves in their lives and as they do so their letters move from the formal opener of 'Dear Mrs Hopgood' to 'My dear Tina', from the friendly but respectful closure of 'Best wishes' to 'All my love'.

Youngson creates to distinct voices - Anders is very matter of fact, analytical, his English style of writing echoing his hestitancy in life but as the correspondence continues his confidence with English reflects his rise in confidence in his life. Tina is concerened about decisions and choices she made which led to her marriage, to her living and working on a farm, and about what she has missed out on. The reader gets quite an insight into the life of a farmer's wife. Youngson's uses a great metaphor for second chances which she gives her characters provides a framwork for their discussion of whether the fruits of life have been overlooked as result of decisions, keeping the peace etc. Their correspondence helps them both, and they each provide encouragement and enthusiasm for the other's thoughts, feelings and dileemas. They way she tells the story and develops here characters through their written voice is excellent.

It is a delightful book. It is very well crafted. I did pick up on the ending a little before we got here, but that did not in any way detract from it. I loved the way she ended the book *****SPOILER ALERT ***** in a way that says to me she is a confident writer, secure in the strength of her story, the strength of her character development through their distinctive voices, and so not needing to supply prescribed Hollywood ending.

The book was shortlisted for the Costa Best First Novel in 2018 and won the Paul Torday Prize for Debut Fiction by writers over sixty ( I never knew this even existed!) and I would say deservedly so. Most definitely recomended.

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Book Review: The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

I read this for my in person book group. I must admit it would not have been my choice as I am never good at reading humour. However I listened to the audio of this and thoroughly enjoyed it. A very short and light read. Lots of culturally appropriate intertextual references from "Danger Will Robinson" to "When Harry met Sally" and "Casablanca" as Prof Don Tillman navigates his way through the world in search for a life partner. A lighthearted romcom with a man with Asperger's as he searches for "the one" to meet all his criteria only to find The One who doesn't but meets the most important one he didn't list in his "Wife Project" questionaire namely understanding and acceptance of him for who is is. One to read between two heavy weights to put a smile on your face and warmth in your heart.

Monday, 14 June 2021

Book Review: The Color Purple by Alica Walker

I listened to the author herself narrate this book, it was excellent. Very befitting what is probably one of the best book ever written in my opinion. I had not re-read it since it fist came out, but so so pleased I did. It still tugs hard at my heart, I love its structure, its voices, its characters and its storyline. Just perfection.

No wonder it won both the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction. I remind myself that at the time it was controversial, written in the 'folk speak' of Celie in her letters first to God and then to her 'lost' sister Nettie, it was the first time an African American woman had won the Pulitzer. It has been filmed by Steven Spielberg albeit without the essential relationship between Celie and Shug (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0088939/) , and made into a stage muscial ( https://www.theatricalrights.co.uk/sh...)

Back in 2007 for its 25th anniversary The Guardian wrote this review of book and author (https://www.theguardian.com/books/200...).

Although I have not read the book In Search of the Color Purple: The Story of Alice Walker’s Masterpiece by Salamishah Tillet, there is an interesting article by Tillet on the Legacy of The Color Purple (https://newrepublic.com/article/16116... ) who "offers up a history... on how sexism within the Black community - and the white establishment's preference to frame racial injustice in terms of concerns facing Black men - stood between The Color Purple and recognition as "an American Masterpiece"". In this reader's humble opinion, it always was and still is. A highly recommended reread.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Book Review: Leaving the Atocha Station by Adam Lerner

4* Probably the most compelling first person narrative I have read.

It is a rambling, uncertain, fictional (?) memoire of American student, Adam Gordon's time in Spain. He's drunk and /or drugged up for a lot of it, a poet supposedly writing but with no intention of completing the work required by his scholarship - his project is “a long, research-driven poem” exploring the legacy of the Spanish Civil War about which he knows nothing - instead he is hiding behind the supposed inadequacy of his Spanish as he negotiates friendships and lovers, translators of his poems, reading Tolstoy, Ashbery and Cerventes in a spaced out stupor. We are taken on a full-of-self-doubt, thoroughly engaging impressionistic drift through his time in Spain to the finale of a panel discussion on Literature Now and the launch of his poetry in translation pamphlet -

"was I in fact a conversationally fluent Spanish speaker and a real poet, whatever that meant? It was true that when I spoke to her (Teresa) in Spansh I was not translating, I was not thinking my thoughts in English first, but I was nevertheless outside the language I was speaking, building simple sentences with the blocks I had memorized, not communicating through a fluid medium. But why didn't I just suck it up, attend the panel and share my thoughts in my second lanagueg without irony? They wanted the input of a young American poet writing and reading abroad and wasn't that what I was, not just what I was pretending to be? Maybe only my fraudulence was fraudulent"

The writing is very engaging, oftimes funny. Clearly the author has a way with words and a little research showed me that he is in fact a published poet. The Audible audio version of this his first novel is well narrated by the author himself and I found it very good to listen to, helping me truly 'hear' the voice of his main character and get the book's humour.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Book Review: Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi

This is an ambitious novel, a well crafted story about lives shattered by drug addiction, by depression and by dealing with people suffering from both these illnesses. At the same time, it is an author's homage to a friend and her work which she uses as the basis for her central character Gifty's research.

The big things in the life of Ghanian - American Gifty have been religion, family and science. She looses her family - her father back to Ghana, her brother's life to opiods, her mothers to subsquent depression; she looses her faith along the way but finds it again; her science always seeming to be the questioner, the doubting Thomas, and yet the embodiment of all her hope.

The novel's structure is complex, lots of flashbacks, a hotchpotch or the past and the present, of reality and her internalisation of it, her constant quest for answers to questions which are often in themselves questions, all rendered in the first person. And therein lies my dilemna as a reader because I can see her achievements in this as a writer, but also its flaws for me as a reader.

For me, all the internalisation of her thoughts, the detail of the science and the education system in which the character grows up in the southern state of the US where evolution is not because of fundamentalist religious beliefs and the Pentacostal Ghanian church's repetivitive evangelicism made it an oppressive read. When she is describing the Ghanian pastor and all his shouts of "Amen?" to his loud and responsive Hallelujahs of his congregation, and having witnessed this myself in a Nigerian church, I am reminded of the United Free Church in Scotland where I once saw a vicar with equal fervour condem fire and brimstone from a pulpit to an equally deafing but totally silent congregation, likewise bowed in conformity. Perhaps readers of a more spiritual disposition will not be so impacted by this and see the novel very differently.

Whilst I felt the character of Gifty, but I also felt the book only came alive when she spoke about her brother, to a lesser extent her mother, with the other minor characters of Raymond, Anne, Katherine and Han only serving to fill out, round off her life story.

I would have loved to have given this book a 4 for ambition but alas for this reader some parts of it didn't come off 100%, so it is a 3 for a read.

Thursday, 15 April 2021

Book Review: The Inugami Curse (sometimes called the The Inugami Clan) by Seishi Yokomizo

I don't often read Detective Fiction, although I love a good Noir detective movie. I read this when I signed up to a coourse in Japanese Crime Fiction at City Lit in London. I have read a couple of the Pushkin Press Vertigo Imprint Crime series and enjoyed them before and had been meaning to combin my love of Japanese novels with this. So this was my first foray. 

I found it a quite dry, very analytical novel. The character of the detective is not well developed but then it is only the second in this series, but it is very clear to follow even thught it is a convoluted plot with multiple murders, and imposter characters, and the characters are linked by historical family events - the story set in post war Japan essentially begins by reading the complex will of the deceased Head of the successfull Inugami family. I suppose this is quite a traditional murder mystery in that the 'star' detective wrestle with people's manners, words and deeds, until the end when everyone left standing gathers for the reveal of the murderer. 

An quick and easy read, the main facts and times of the story line being summarised at various points and the detective has a sidekick of the policeman to play off as his internal thoughts are relaid to the reader partially through the interactions between these two people.

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Sunday, 4 April 2021

Book Review: March by Geraldine Brooks

March March by Geraldine Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm not in principle a lover of fiction which takes a minor character from a classic and works it up, but this book does that exceptionally well. The Rev March is the largely absent father in [author:Louisa May Alcott|1315]' s [book:Little Women|1934], a book I confess never enthralled me and hasn't been reread since my schooldays, with two movie versions likewise leaving me somewhat cool about the 'perfect' family. I will also confess that because of this I had been put off reading this book when it first came out, when CR read the two books in parallel some years ago, and only picked it up now when my in-person book group is reading Australian and New Zealand Novelists this year.


This book surpassed all my expectations. Brooks creates an engaging portrayal of Mr March, which according to her Afterword is based around Bronson Alcott, the writer's father. Brooks says her starting point for any writing is finding and hearing the voice of her main character. I can absolutely relate to that, as in this book she most definitely creates that voice and through it brings the unknown Mr March to life as a fully formed character, albeit with his faults and imperfections, but with a solid heart taken utilising much of Bronson Alcott's teenage peddling to wealthy southern planters, and his radicalism of later years, his vegetarianism, and his transcendalist and abolitionist convictions. I could hardly put the book down as I listened to its narration by Canadian actor Richard Easton, whose lower register, mature tone and range of intonation brought Brookes' first-person story telling Mr March very much alive.


A quite memorable 5* read.

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Monday, 29 March 2021

Book Review: The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

The Girl with the Louding Voice The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My in person book group decided not to read this one from a choice of two debut novels, reasons included the possibe difficulties with dialect! I was dissappointed by this and read it anyway. I had read reviews which said it preached down to readers, and asked why the author had invented a new broken English for the Yoruba speaking girl narrator of the story. Nigeria has a pidgeon which I suppose shecould have used but for me at least that always remained more unintelligible than trying to chat to the market seller in my broken Hausa.
I sped along with this book from the word go, I found its characters full of life and very real to me. The internal dialog its narrator is having with herself and her interactions with others is an age old story which sadly still happens - child marriage to pay of family debts, indentured labour/slavery, domestic violence, cruelty of power, class/tribe/language divisions in society, the (non)place of woman, lack of education, lack of opportunity, lack of empowerment etc. But Adunni has a dream. Yes the book has a happy ending, and I was glad it did, and it did not feel forced. Neither did her voice, perfectly narrated on the audiobook by the class voice over artist, Adjoa Andoh. Adunni's voice is engaging, funny, insightful, niave, hopeful - as a reader we feel her pain and jump with her in her moments of joy.
As a debut novel I think this is extremely good. What Abi Dare has succeeded in doing is to totally engage her reader, create good characters to tell a good story, and perhaps as importantly make her reader put her on their following list as they impatiently await her next novel. Very well done 'O!

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Friday, 19 February 2021

Book Review: The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith by Thomas Keneally

I read this for one of the book groups I attend which is this year (2021) reading Australian and New Zealand novels. I also watched the 1978 movie directed by Fred Schepsi which closely follows the book . The book is Keneally's fictionalised account of the true story of Austalian bushranger (outlaw) Jimmy Governor (1875-1901) , who is also the subject of a poem Poem "The Ballad of Jimmy Governor" by Australian poet Les Murray . 

It is a short book (178 pages) but challenging. Keannelly attempts to tell Jimmie's story from growing up a mixed race child, taken under the wing of Rev and Mrs Neville at the Mission station and brought up with European/white values to better himself through hard work. And although he is a good worker, competant, reliable, thorough others treat him badly, don't pay him. He doe snot get a reference from one farmer he works for because the farmer cannot write, Jimmie can. He marries a pregnant white girl in good faith believing he is the child's father. He sees this as another step up, but upon its birth the child is clearly not his. When farmers refuse to pay Jimmie and his family are running out of food his life turns on its head. After his massacre of the farmer's wife, daughters, and woman boarder school teacher, Jimmie, wife, and his brother go on the run. 

Keneally seeds this story with titits about the birth of the Australian Federation, the Boer War in South Africa and the life of the executioner. 

Reading this today this book raises questions about the fictionalisation of factual histories, the clash of cultures then and now, the role of the author in these. 

Not particularly a book I would recommend to snuggle down with during COVID lockdowns, but it is a provocative book club read, and it will I feel remain with me in years to come.

Thursday, 21 January 2021

Book Review: Voss by Patrick White

VossVoss by Patrick White
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have feelings about this book all across the spectrum from bad to great!
The first couple of chapters are difficult stylistically but this eases with perserverence. On the whole I am really glad I read this book, I loved the story line, the characters, the auor's use of language. It is a complex book, which thoroughly warrants a second close read if I was someone who did second reads. The story has two strands - on one side the author's deft comic rendering of polite Sidney society in colonial times, with its shades of Jane Austen and the like, its preoccupation with finding good matches for its women, with Laura Trevelyan the young woman living with aunt and uncle, she is on the edge of society, a contained rebel, an intelligent, education , beautiful woman in a society where the first two characteristics are not valued. On the other side another person at the periphery, Voss, the German explorer of the Australian outback. *****SPOILER ALERT *****There's is an unlikely meeting, catalysed by the fact that Laura's uncle is the expeditions's sponsor. To me they are soul mates who meet but briefly,start a correspondence which sadly never materialised into other than their letters most of which never reach their intended, and who dream and fantasize about the other. The book swings back and forward between the comforts of Sydney life and the perils for white men in the unknown outback. Their stories form a beautifully crafted, dreamlike, spiritual, intertwining, mixing the real and the unreal, often a little bit too fluidly for this reader to maintain a connection with on one reading or this slightly overlong book. But that did not distract from a feeling of satisfaction at completing the reading. A challenging read, very suitable for book group discussions who like to delve deep.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Book Review: Freshwater by Akweake Emezi

Freshwater Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A most intriguing read.

The author is on my list of Nigerian writers to read and I wanted to start with her first novel which this is. Akwaeke Emezi is Igbo/Tamil, raised in NIgeria, living in USA. She won the 2017 Commonwealth short story prize for Africa with her short story Igbo cultural cosmology. This book is the story of a young woman, abused to the point of self disintegration and the multiple personalities as they would be called in the North which materialise as she struggles through her youth, spiraling out of control through disastrous sexual encounteres and self mutilations. The author tells the young woman's story through her various voices, showing the reader how these difering daemons play out in her rollercoaster of a life. They are written as if they were spirits, gods in her body, trapped within the marble of her mind from which sometimes one, sometimes another and sometimes the girl herself are to the fore in her daily life.

A bit of context is useful to understanding this - The Igbo use the term ogbanje to denote an essentially evil spirit, the "children who come and go" which from birth to puberty cycle through death and return causing much grief to the family. Female circumcision is thought to get rid of them. The high female god Ala is the goddess of earth, fertility, mortality who holds the deceased in her womb, is the guardian of women and rules the underworld. Her messenger on earth to the living is the Python. Tributes to her are paid during the annual Yam Festival.

Ada has been named after the Python, and the spirits inside her, the personalities are obanje. This is a survival story, the story about coming to terms with the trauma of abuse and finding who you are after it.

It is an incredibly ambitious first novel. Does it work, does Emezi bring it off? To a certain extent yes. She clearly is an imaginative, highly creative writer or budding talent. For me the novel was a bit too long and I felt the story could have been improved by a compression. But yes she does give you an insight into the young women's mental state without it being bathed in the usual jargon and metaphors. The struggle for control is there, the despair, the need for escape, to blot out the unidentifiable trauma, the desperation. I most certainly will read more by her.