Full House Reading Challenge – Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

Genre: Family, Religion

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2004

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: John Ames is trying to write a memoir for his young son. Aware of the fact that he will die soon and will not have much time with his son, he tries to write down what he feels is important – about his family and about history. Ames is a preacher and there is a lot of ruminating about the nature of heaven and what happens when you die. 

Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – American / Canadian Writer

I inherited this book a few years ago from my husband’s aunt and it has sat on the shelf since then. I was aware of Robinson as an important female American writer but when I read the blurb on the back of Gilead, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it. I’m not a particularly religious person and I wondered if it would be too spiritual for my tastes.

It turned out that this was true to a certain extent – it was the reason I didn’t give it five stars. However, there is much to love about this book. Robinson’s prose captures Ames’ voice exactly and I could almost hear him talking in my ear. It was like having an intimate conversation with an older relative.

The historical details – the story dates back to the civil war – were interesting and vividly painted. I was particularly touched by the description of son and father setting out to find the grave of Ames’ grandfather who walks away from Gilead. Father and grandfather did not see eye to eye as the older man was a radical abolitionist and often preached in a blood soaked shirt.

Ames is particularly affected by the arrival of his namesake, the son of his neighbour and friend. John Ames Boughton had left town in disgrace many years ago and Ames finds he is worried by his reappearance and struggles to respond when the younger man reaches out to him. He has a number of theological struggles but the main one is to try to forgive Boughton his sins which he finds increasingly difficult.

It would be impossible not to feel for Ames who has been lonely for most of his life after losing his first wife in childbirth and his baby daughter not long after. He is now married to a much younger woman and has a child but is dying and cannot bear the thought that soon he will be nothing but a memory.

There isn’t a lot in the way of action in this story. It is mostly about the struggles of an old man who is about to die. The slow reveal of Boughton’s true situation offers some suspense but really the novel is about spiritual matters and how best to live your life according to your beliefs. In the end, Ames is able to respond kindly to Boughton, giving an example to his young son of how to live and be thankful for what you have.

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Top Ten Tuesday – Books I’ve Struggled With

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This weeks theme is Ten Books I Struggled to Get Into But Ended Up Loving or Ten Books That Were A Chore To Get Through or Ten Books I’ve Most Recently Put Down.

I don’t often finish a book because I really hate abandoning something that has already taken up some of my time but I do struggle sometimes especially when it comes to classics. This list is a mix of books that I have struggled with – some I thought I would love but didn’t, some I didn’t finish and some that I’m glad I persevered with.

  1. Lorna Doone – R. D. Blackmore. I thought this was going to be an exciting adventure. I’d seen an adaptation and that was very good. They must have just taken the best bits and avoided all the filler. Far too slow. I’d recommend the 2000 BBC adaptation with Richard Coyle and Aiden Gillen. Much more fun.
  2. Gateway to Fourline – Pam Brondos. The pace was too slow with this one. It is the start of a series so I think the author wanted to include a lot of background and information. The characters were a bit flat too. I won’t be reading on.
  3. The Mysterious Affair at Styles – Agatha Christie. I love a good detective story so I thought I’d give Christie a go. This wasn’t much fun though. The characters were unlikeable, the plot was cheesy and Poirot was so annoying I wanted to reach into the text and throttle him.
  4. The Short Drop – Matthew Fitzsimmons. This is a more modern text. It has a lot of five-star reviews on Goodreads but I have no idea why. It was obvious what was going to happen next and the plot was cliched. I finished it but it was not very satisfying.
  5. The Last Girl – Joe Hart. This was a struggle to finish. It was full of tortured metaphors and overblown language which distracted from the plot. Another series I won’t be continuing.
  6. The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne. I didn’t even get halfway through this one. I found the style impossible to get on with. A shame because it is an interesting idea.
  7. The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemmingway. It was a good job this was so short otherwise I’d never have finished it. I just didn’t see the point.
  8. The Thorn Birds – Colleen McCullough. There were a number of reasons that this was hard work. The plot was cliched and unrealistic. The conversations read as if written by someone who had never spoken to anyone before. It was melodramatic and Meggie was too much a martyr to inspire much empathy.
  9. Rob Roy – Sir Walter Scott. I did finish it and some of it was exciting and interesting but Scott’s habit of describing every single meal and conversation really made the pace drag.
  10. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy. This was quite a recent read. It took me five months and some days I could barely even look at it, never mind read it. However, I am glad that I finished it. Not just for the prestige of saying I’ve read it either. There are a lot of interesting characters and the relationships were well drawn. I was less keen on the war elements and the epic battles.

Full House Reading Challenge _ War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

Genre: Classic, Russian Fiction, War

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1869,

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: An epic tale of politics and private lives set during the Napoleonic Wars, War and Peace attempts to tell the history of Russia through looking at the progress of a group of citizens. The different perspectives and fortunes of the many characters are closely affected by the war. Balls and soirees are described in detail as well as councils of war and battles. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – more than 500 pages.

Well, that was a long haul. I can’t remember the last time it took me quite so long to read a book. I always knew that it was going to take some time but five months is a lot of reading time. It wasn’t just the length either. There were times when I felt that I didn’t want to carry on reading and I would leave it lying for days before I made myself pick it up again.

There were a number of reasons for this. I always struggle a bit with classics. It is not my favourite genre and it is a question of making myself read them because I feel I should. At times, I felt bogged down in Tolstoy’s philisophical ideas about history and free will. Not to mention the incredibly detailed battles.

I enjoyed the drawing room and ball room scenes much more and was interested in the fates of the main characters – particularly Pierre and Natasha, both of whom were very well drawn and convincing. But there were far too many small characters that were absolutely impossible to keep track of. I felt as though I ought to be taking a note of everybody just in case I should meet them again.

It was a relief to be finished it. Especially as the second epilogue is purely Tolstoy’s thoughts on man’s free will which seemed to go round in circles and I’m sure could have been considerably shorter. Overall, I’m glad to have read it though I’m not sure I’d wholeheartedly reccommend it to anyone else.

Top Ten Tuesday – Books that should be required reading

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme created by The Broke and the Bookish. Given the time of year, this weeks topic is Back To School Freebie: anything “back to school” related like 10 favorite books I read in school, books I think should be required reading, etc. I have decided to pick ten books that I think should be required reading.

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood – I know that everyone is saying this but given the current political climate, this really is the most apt dystopian novel. Not only that, it makes you think about reproduction and women’s body’s in a new way.
  2. The History of the World in 10 and a 1/2 Chapters – Julian Barnes – This really explores the idea of what the novel can be. There are stories, histories and discussions about art, as well as the story of Noah’s Ark from the point of view of a woodworm.
  3. Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle – Doyle successfully captures the thought process and speech of a young boy perfectly. A joy to read.
  4. If This is a Man – Primo Levi – Levi describes his time in the concentration camp in unflinching detail and without once ever showing any hatred or anger.
  5. The Life of Pi – Yann Martel – At the beginning of this text, Pi Patel claims that his story will make you believe in God. The following novel explores spirituality and psychology as he tells about his journey with the Bengal Tiger, Richard Parker.
  6. Like People in History – Felice Picano – A history of the gay movement from the 70s to the present day, told through the relationships of the narrator, Roger.
  7. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath – A feminist classic which shows the difficulties of depression.
  8. Jingo – Terry Pratchett. This is one of my favourite Pratchetts. A very clever satire about political assassinations and cleverly pointing the finger at who you would like to be to blame.
  9. His Dark Materials – Phillip Pullman – A much better series than Harry Potter. This explores spirituality and science as well as being a superb adventure story.
  10. The Book Thief – Markus Zusak – The narrator of this novel is death. He offers a different perspective on the second world war. It is about fascism and the difficulties ordinary citizens faced during that time. It might be aimed at children but it never once feels like it.

Full House Challenge – The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Genre: South Korean Literature, Madness, Family

Narrative Style: First and Third Person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2007

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Yeong-Hye decides to stop eating meat, much to the annoyance of her husband who makes no effort to understand her reasons. When questioned, she replies that she had a dream and after that, she had to stop eating meat. It is a dream of violence and blood and she finds it impossible to put into words exactly why she can no longer eat meat. After a disastrous visit to her parents’ home, her family life begins to fall apart and she ends up in the asylum.

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre: Diversity

 This was a very strange read. I must admit that I don’t know that much about South Korea’s culture. That was one of the reasons this book appealed to me. Having said that, if I had just a little more knowledge, it might have made more sense to me.

The novel is split into three sections. The first is narrated by Yeung-hye’s husband (with italicised sections that describe her bloody dreams) as she makes the decision to give up meat. He is not a very understanding man and comes across as harsh in his treatment of her. However, it is also apparent that the social mores in South Korea have no place for this woman who has decided to stop eating meat. No one can understand her position and her husband is no better or worse than any of her family. The section ends with a visit to her family which finishes with her father trying to force her to eat meat, an act of violence that seems akin to rape it is so cruel.

The next two sections are written in the third person. The second is from the point of view of Yeung-Hye’s brother in law who becomes obsessed with her birthmark which he calls a ‘Mongolian Mark’. He begins to create strange, pornographic art works which have her at the centre. Finally, in the third section, which is from the point of view of her sister, In-Hye, Yeung-Hye is in the hospital and is refusing to eat anything. She believes that she will transform into a tree and so no longer needs human nourishment.

There are many things that Yeung-Hye’s retreat into madness could represent. It transpires that their father was always a cruel man and that Yeung-Hye has always been attempting to escape. There are also the strict social rules of South Korea which leave little space for creativity. Finally, it could be seen an attempt to escape the violence of life and to live innocently.

I did enjoy this book. I’m not sure I fully understood it and I think it would definitely stand up to a re-reading. But it certainly sparked my curiosity and opened up a new reading area for me.

Full House Challenge – Room by Emma Donaghue (Contains spoilers)

Genre: Psychological thriller

Narrative Style: First Person from the point of view of a child.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2010

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: To Jack, Room is his whole world. He has never known anything else. The only human he knows is his ‘ma’ who also lives in Room. Ma tells Jack that nothing else exists apart from Room. Everything else is just TV and doesn’t really exist. The reader gathers that Ma has been kidnapped and Jack has been born in captivity. When Ma decides they need to escape from their prison, Jack has to learn all about the outside world really quickly.

Reading Challenges: Full House Challenge – Book on a list – Bestselling books of 2010. 

I didn’t read this at the time because I really didn’t want to read a book written from the point of view of a child. Some of my reservations were well founded. Although I did enjoy this book, it was hard going at times. If you can imagine a five-year-old constantly talking in your ear for hours at a time, then you can imagine what it is like to read this book. It was unrelenting.

The book is split into two parts. In the first half, we learn of Jack’s world and how his mother has tried to protect him from the truth of their captivity. Everything in Jack’s world is imbued with personality – from Rug to Wardrobe to Floor – and he doesn’t seem to ever feel bored or lonely.

There are a couple of problems with this. First of all, Jack is incredibly intelligent. He is precocious and his vocabulary is truly amazing. He knows things and songs that it seems unlikely he could have picked up even from all his hours of TV. Second of all, it seems unlikely that his mother could have managed to so successfully keep him away from their captor ‘Old Nick’. She makes demands of Old Nick that I feel stretch the reader’s disbelief. If she really had so much power, why was she still a captive?

This section also gives the reader a chance to get used to Jack’s narrative voice. Much has been made of how well Donaghue has captured a five-year-old’s voice. I’m not sure I agree. It certainly seems to fit with an adult’s idea of what it might be like inside a five-year-old’s head and that is probably why he seems so precocious and has such a good vocabulary. Also, it is too exact. Jack says the same things, the same way every time. I’m not sure that anyone’s thoughts are quite as exact as that.

I must admit that one of the things I found irritating about Jack’s voice was the lack of the definite article. I understand completely what Donaghue was trying to do and it was very clever but it made me cringe everytime it was missing.

The second half of the book documents the escape. This is another moment that does not ring true. Jack’s world is suddenly turned upside down when his mother explains her lies and persuades him to play dead. Old Nick happily drives off with him wrapped in a carpet – not even checking if the boy is dead or not.

However, once he has escaped and his mother is rescued, the book becomes interesting again as Jack and Ma adjust to life outside. Jack learns that there are more people in the world than he could have imagined He discovers stairs. Everything is too loud and too bright. His mother also has difficulty re-adjusting. This is definitely the most interesting part of the book.

While I did enjoy this book, I would probably recommend the film more. The main reason for this is we are able to see things from different perspectives and Jack’s voice wasn’t constantly in your ear. It would have been good to hear Ma’s voice for some of the book as I am sure her story would have been just as interesting as Jack’s.

Full House Reading Challenge – Love, Lies and Lemon Cake – Sue Watson

Genre: Romantic comedy

Narrative Style: First person chronological

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2014

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Faye Dobson’s marriage has grown stale. She no longer has anything in common with her husband and she is bored with her life. She had had dreams once but now they all seem dead. When a new deli opens with a hunky Australian behind the counter, she realises something has to change.

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre – Food in title.

Okay, so I knew this might not be for me from the start. I was struggling to find a book with food in the title. All the obvious ones like Chocolat, for example, I’ve already read. There are a lot of rom-com sounding books with food in the title so I thought I’d give one a go. It’s good to read outside of your norm once in a while anyway.

So, the narrator of Watson’s novel is Faye Dobson. She is a bored housewife whose husband is a stereotypical pig who only cares about his plumbing. Her daughter is away at university and no longer needs her. She works in a hairdresser with an assortment of stereotypes and this is not fulfilling her. So far so typical. Everything in Faye’s life is a cliché. Which would be okay if she broke out of the mould and did something exciting.

Unfortunately, the trope of Antipodean hunk rescuing middle-aged frump is just a different sort of cliché. Dan is everything you’d hope he would be. Perfect on the eye, understanding, just longing for an older woman to be his mother substitute.

As you may be able to tell, I found this book rather irritating. It isn’t particularly badly written. In fact, it was one of the more enjoyable of this genre that I have read. It just wasn’t for me. I’m not going to deny my intellectual snobbiness. The main character was a hairdresser and her husband was a plumber. I really don’t think I was the target audience.

I think the thing that I found the most irritating was the fact that this was pure escapism. Faye leaves her husband in the most easy way possible and then we barely hear from him again. She is allowed unlimited time away from work to have her Mediterranean adventure with Dan. And when history repeats itself with her daughter, everything turns out rosy in the way that it didn’t for Faye. Real life has no place here.

It made me think about why I read. I wouldn’t say that escapism is very high on my list. I like to read about other people’s lives to find out about different times and places. This told me nothing that I didn’t already know.