Category Archives: 5 shoes

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

At the end of 2014 I was obliged to read The Bone Clocks for a book group, and despite essentially enjoying it in the end, found it full of frustrating, over-complicated, belief-stretching annoyingness. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, on the other hand, was like an expansion of all the good bits of Bone Clocks, and elimination of all the annoying parts, with a pleasant addition of a Life After Life component. If you’ve liked either of these books, I suspect you’ll love this one.

The premise is a group of people who are born over and over again into the same life, with varyingly retained memories of their last lives, and the various ways in which they use this predicament/gift. The characters are engaging, and the plot is utterly compelling. I particularly enjoyed all the practical aspects (how many times can you go to school without getting incredibly bored, for instance, and how to get out of it), and seeing the different approaches to having a life destined to infinitely repeat. Sure, as with all this sort of thing, a bit of suspension of belief is called for. But it was absolutely worth it. The best book I’ve read in this genre and an excellent, you-can’t-make-me-put-it-down start to my 2015 reading.

Rating: 5 shoes

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A batch of holiday reading: We Are Water, His Dark Materials trilogy, TransAtlantic, and The Dispossessed

I recently returned from a delightful trip to Costa Rica. In between all the hiking and rafting and tubing and cocktail drinking, I was of course reading. And now I return, faced with an intimidating prospect of six book reviews. So, dear reader, I shall cheat. Behold, some short reviews of  the books I read during my 11 day vacation!

We Are Water by Wally Lamb

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One sentence plot: Told from the perspective of several characters, this is a study of families, abuse, marriage, and how to be happy – plus art, gay and race subplots.

One sentence review: This took me inexplicably long to get through, considering it was compelling, funny, interesting, distressing, intriguing, engaging, and clever – all the good stuff I’ve grown to expect from Wally Lamb, and it was indeed good.

The verdict: 4/5

His Dark Materials Trilogy – The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights), The Subtle Knife and the Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

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One sentence plot: An epic coming of age/fight of good against evil where the boundaries blur as young Lyra moves between parallel universes in a race to save the world.

One sentence review: This is a suspenseful, complex and intelligent adventure, with compelling, multidimensional characters, and lots to say about the institution of religion, in a beautifully, imaginatively, believably drawn set of worlds, full of their own customs, joys and terrors.

The verdict: The Golden Compass gets 5/5, The Subtle Knife gets 4/5 and the Amber Spyglass gets 3/5. If this is your sort of thing, beware of finishing the first book without ensuring the next one is close at hand…

TransAtlantic by Colum McCann

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One sentence plot: A series of intergenerational, interlinked stories spanning from the first TransAtlantic flight, between the US and Ireland, that depict various personal and sociopolitical elements of the US-Ireland relationship over 150 years.

One sentence review: McCann is trying to recreate the luminous Let The Great World Spin but the same device that worked so well for that book is awkward and self-conscious here, sometimes giving moments of beauty and delight, but often feeling labored and a bit irritating – though I really liked the history of the first TransAtlantic flight…

The verdict: 3/5

The Dispossessed by Ursula K Le Guin

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One sentence plot: A utopia/dystopia sci fi book set between the two societies of a capitalist world and its anarchist/feminist/communist moon, through the eyes of a brilliant scientist who loves his own world, but faces disillusionment when he looks for science to rise above politics.

One sentence review: This is a rather clever and thought provoking story of two beautifully drawn societies, embodying some really interesting ideas about politics and power, while providing intricate, fascinating detail of life in each society, with an interesting, suspenseful plot and a main character who provides a good lens through which to view it all.

The verdict: 4/5 stars

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

One sentence plot
In early 19th century Charleston, Sarah Grimke is given a slave for her 11th birthday and along with her sister, becomes one of America’s first and most renowned female abolitionists.

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The review
I was inspired to read this book after hearing Sue Monk Kidd speak at an author event recently. Sometimes author events focusing on books I haven’t read can make me feel disconnected and frustrated, but Sue Monk Kidd was a fantastic speaker. I loved that she had come across the names of Sarah and Angelina Grimke in a museum, looked into the story of these incendiary South Carolina-born abolitionist sisters, and got inspired to write The Invention of Wings. I love that she took a small historical detail (Sarah had apparently been punished for teaching her slave to read) and turned that slave into an imagined, fully fledged character, Hetty/Handful, who provides a second strong narrative voice. Together they depict different perspectives of both slave ownership in the South, and a woman’s place in America in the 19th century.

The book follows these two compelling and quite charming women from age 11 into adulthood, along with a lovely cast of supporting characters painting a very vivid, claustrophobic world of societal pressures, expectations and norms. The key quote that I think sums up the angle taken in this book is from the slave Hetty/Handful: “My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way round”. That’s stayed with me ever since.

I’ve read and watched a lot of slavery-themed stories recently (The Good Lord Bird, 12 Years A Slave), and this one is very much my favorite. In some ways it has more impact because it is more subtle, more everyday, and more nuanced. I’ve also not read much previously on the links between the abolition movement and feminism: fascinating. The story skips along, and the horrors and sorrows of slavery are well depicted and very memorable, yet the book is also deft, funny and uplifting. The two voices are excellent. The message is that there are different kinds of bondage – and courage and morality and a willingness to act are needed to create and deliver hope. I loved the people in this book. I loved the narration. I loved the messages. And I love that Sarah Grimke really existed. An important read, and also a treat.

The verdict: 5/5

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

One sentence plot
The Queen happens upon a mobile library and becomes an avid reader, much to the consternation of her family, staff, and the public.

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The review
I can’t believe I have only just read this delight of a novella which has been around since 2007 and lurking unassumingly in a quiet corner of my Kindle for literally months. This book is a happy combination of so many excellent features. It is a charming fantasy tale in the tradition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day. It has a strong, dispassionate, chronological reporting-style narrative voice in the manner of John Wyndham. It has a sparkling female character at its centre. It offers an insight (albeit speculative) into a closed and quite fascinating world. It is a bit subversive. It is technically speculative fiction. It is clever. It is witty. And above all, it is a love letter to books, a fond embrace of libraries, a glorious celebration of the transformative power of literature.

The Uncommon Reader is a story of the present-day Queen who, in a walk around the Buckingham Palace grounds with her corgis one Wednesday afternoon, stumbles upon a mobile library in the Palace grounds and, wanting to be polite, borrows a book. In doing so, she slowly but vigorously becomes a joyful, prolific reader, preferring reading over her other activities, much to the consternation of her household and advisors who want her to return to enacting her age-old duties and do nothing more, want nothing more, think nothing more, be nothing more… But literature changes the Queen, and possibly changes history. This book pokes fun at a lot of institutions. It depicts her family and advisors in a believable way. It captures the Queen’s tone, background and motivations delightfully. It draws a life that made me feel sympathy for the Queen. And it gets subversive in all sorts of ways that a few hundred years ago would surely have left the author executed for treason.

For all these weighty qualities, the book is light and fun, with characters that dance off the page and make their reader chuckle. It’s very well done. It is truly a little treat of a book. My best read of the year so far.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

One sentence plot
Young New York boy’s mother is killed by an explosion at the Met; he survives, complete with a priceless piece of art, and tries, rudderless, to navigate the rest of his life, which becomes a bit of a thriller.

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The review
I’m not one of these hugely devoted Donna Tartt fans. I enjoyed The Secret History. I didn’t bother with The Little Friend as I didn’t like the sound of it. But almost everyone I know’s been talking about The Goldfinch over the past month or two, so I decided to dig in, and was duly rewarded. The Goldfinch is a real tour de force. The characters are wonderful, the plot is engaging and filled with suspense, and the writing is beautiful. I read this over Christmas and barely spoke to my poor friend til it was done. It was a “Just five more minutes!” scenario. (Though it’s a thick book so that was of course a lie.)

The book follows young Theo, who begins by living a cheery New York life with his beloved mother, united against his feckless and recently absent father, until he and his mother are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art when there is an explosion which kills his mother. Theo makes it out alive, after a short and meaningful discussion with a dying old man, whose words set up much of the rest of the book. Theo finds himself very alone when his mother dies and social services try diligently to find out who might take responsibility for him, valuing official lines of responsibility above suitability. As Theo moves between homes, and the adults responsible for him live out their own issues, the first part of the book is a fascinating study in a child’s agency and lack of agency over their own lives, how people have the potential to be many different things, and what makes a child (or anyone) turn out ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – and what the difference might be. It examines different types of fate. The question of what is good enough parenting is prominent – when Theo’s feckless father is granted custody and transplants him to a desolate Las Vegas suburb, I had such a sinking feeling it was as though I knew them personally. There was a complex, multi-dimensional, perfectly drawn cast of supporting characters whose personal dramas permeate the book. Amidst all this, there were all sorts of interesting details about fine art and furniture restoring. And Theo just tries to make good, motivated throughout by the possession of the eponymous piece of art that acts like an emotional talisman, though also perhaps a curse.

The second half of the book was less to my personal taste as it morphs from coming of age tale to more of an art theft/seedy underworld type thriller. I found this quite stressful, though entirely congruent with the rest of the book. I couldn’t stop reading it though, because by that time, I was more than hooked. Some revelations came as such surprises that I shrieked at one point. The last couple of hundred pages sped by as I grasped beyond the crime thriller to desperately see what would become of Theo and his band of friends. Though I must say the final 5% of the book took on an annoyingly sanctimonious, pseudo-philosophical preachy tone, this book was an absolute must-read. I read a review suggesting it is Dickensian, and I certainly see an Oliver Twist parallel. I think Tartt is extremely talented and I’ll be reading her next book, regardless of the subject.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes

The Maddaddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

One sentence plot

In a dystopic but disturbingly possible speculative future, our compelling protagonists take polar opposite approaches in their attempts to halt Earth’s destruction by the human race, and make the world a better place.

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The review

I very nearly was unable to review Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, by not finishing it. The first time I picked up Oryx and Crake, I admit I was prejudiced. I had just finished Atwood’s brilliant A Handmaid’s Tale, and was very much bewitched by that particular vision of the future. I just couldn’t get my head around a brand new dystopia by the same author, and I so struggled to get into the world of Oryx and Crake when it was first published. I resented it. I wanted Handmaid’s Tale 2. Then, when The Year of the Flood came out, I decided to try again, but it was so long since I’d read Oryx and Crake by then that I had forgotten lots of details, and found it confusing. So when Maddaddam came out, I had pretty much resolved that it wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to buy it at all. But then my friends kept going on about how much they loved the books, and then I heard Atwood talking about it at the National Book Festival in September, and I decided to bite the bullet. That meant reading the whole trilogy, back to back, from scratch. And thank goodness I did because this time I loved it.

The trilogy paints a world that’s initially split into those working for big corporations and living on compounds, and those living in polluted, crime-ridden slums. The rich compound dwellers, living literally in a bubble, are mostly valued for their science skills, producing profit for the companies based on ways to ‘improve’ humans’ lifestyle, while their bored, science-widow spouses buy expensive spa treatments and ogle the gardener. Life outside the compounds are very much the sordid badlands, where nobody from inside wishes to go – or is allowed to go. Everyone seeks longer life and guzzles vitamins which, while lucrative for companies, may not be quite what they seem.

While most people accept the status quo, Atwood builds a compelling cast of characters who seek to change it. For some, the answer is science and innovation. For others, an eco-warrior religion, God’s Gardeners. For others, they’ve just fallen in for the ride and get involved. Since the first book starts after the almost end of the world, it’s no spoiler that some of these characters succeed in their ambition to change the world, in a dramatic way that transforms life on the planet. What is compelling is why, who and how.

The books flit backwards and forwards in time, introducing characters briefly, then later delving into their backstory, their complex motivations, relationships, and affiliations. You think you know a character, then a whole new facet is revealed. At times you need to really use your memory (eg pay attention to a brief character called Brenda in the first book) but Atwood impressively creates not just a new and believable world (complete with many new species) that stands up to scrutiny, but a web of disparate characters that are all linked in impressively and pleasingly complex ways.  People who seem minor later recur as stars. The characters I cared about in one book were not the ones I loved in the next book. Everything is shifting, but somehow, read back to back, it all makes sense. It works.

There are important ethical questions in the book, and Atwood does not take a position; she presents the circumstances, and opens the space wide for thought and debate. Of the three books, I preferred the middle one, The Year of the Flood. But Oryx and Crake is an essential scene setter. And the final book, Maddaddam, pulls things together in just the right way. It’s not a happily-ever-after cut-and-dry ending – rather it explores the meaning of the concept ‘ending’. A fascinating piece of speculative fiction. Atwood’s writing skill is spectacular. I’m sad there won’t be a fourth book in the series, according to its author. Because I really want to know what happens next!

The verdict: 5/5 stars (if you read them one after the other)

The Marrying of Chani Kaufmann by Eve Harris

One sentence plot

A young man and woman wend their way to the altar Orthodox Jewish-style, while their parents and friends navigate their own history and romantic dilemmas in a modern-day London of religious and cultural traditions and taboos.

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The review

Oh it is such a treat when a book has so many delightful qualities: beautifully written, excellent characters, interesting and evocative (and even educational) setting, and compelling, charming, page-turning plot. Bravo, Eve Harris. The only problem is I suspect that since it’s such an enjoyable read, it’s being passed over for the big prizes this year. It made it to the Booker longlist but then it was chopped in favour of some less readable tomes. But I’d hate to think those working their way through the shortlist might miss this lovely piece of writing.

I am always a sucker for a setting that is so integral to the plot that it feels a bit like a character. This book’s setting in Orthodox Jewish London paints a picture of a world far from my own experience (and yet just a few miles from where I lived in London). And most importantly, it paints a picture of what it’s like to live there, maintaining old traditions in today’s London. I got a glimpse of this interesting world through the lovely Disobedience by Naomi Alderman (recommended!), but Alderman’s Orthodox Jewish setting of restrictive rules and cultural taboos feels like just an introduction compared to this one. This complicated, claustrophobic world and those who are part of it is depicted in glorious, fascinating, detail.

And yet, it doesn’t take long before we realize that following the Orthodox Jewish traditions is, like any other, a culture that is simultaneously revered and resented, with all the emotions in between. The delight of Harris’s characters is that their approach to life feels real. Okay, there may be an occasional caricature here and there. But her technique of jumping from Chani’s voice as she braces herself to become a modern but traditional Orthodox Jewish wife to others who are struggling with the expectations and evolution of their own lives is insightful and intriguing and highlights different aspects of life in this setting.

Chani is a charming main character with the right amount of wit and spirit, ambition and obedience that made me love her. And her fiancé is a sweetheart who makes me smile. But they were born and bred in this world of matchmakers and shaven headed women. Their job is to make it work for them in modern day London. Almost more interesting to me is the rabbi’s wife, a woman who started off as a very secular Jew, became seduced by a boy in Israel, and by Israel itself, and slowly tumbles into a world where cultural expectations and restrictions and traditions creep in until they run almost impossibly high. As I read, I could almost imagine it happening to me. When she sneaks out to watch television in a café as her husband has recently declared it insufficiently Orthodox, I could feel her trepidation and delight like it was my own – and when it goes wrong, as it inevitably would, I felt as crushed as she did. Another great character is the university student grappling with the conflicting cultural expectations of Orthodox Jewry and the undergraduate lifestyle.

I love hearing about people who live in cultures that feel foreign to my own – but it feels like an extra treat to read about how they ended up there, and how they reconcile it with the world around them. And Harris does this sympathetically, delicately, and in a way that feels very true.

This book has its flaws, in the form of an occasional cliché, but for those who enjoy character-driven narrative, I think it is a triumph. I was quite horrified when I realized it had ended. I desperately looked for the next chapter, but at the same time, I had to grudgingly concede it ended in the right place.

The verdict: 5/5 shoes