Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Music and Silence – Rose Tremain

Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Various third person and first person points of view.

Rating:3/5

Published: 1999

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: When Peter Clare is sent to be lutenist to King Christian of Denmark, he doesn’t realise exactly how much his life – and the lives of those around him are going to change.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition.

This book has been on my shelf for a long time. I’ve read one other Rose Tremain – Sacred Country – and I didn’t love it. I probably wouldn’t have bought any others but this was offered for a couple of pounds because I’d spent so much and I’m a sucker for those sorts of offers. As a result, it has sat on my shelf for 20 years. Not helped by the fact that it is a hardback and I can’t say I particularly enjoy reading those. It seemed a good idea to make myself read it by putting it on this challenge.

This isn’t a bad book. I wavered between three and four stars all the way through. There are a number of different storylines which gradually come closer and closer together. The relationship between King Christian and Peter Clare was interesting as was the story of the King’s childhood friendship with Bror Brorson. I was less interested in the King’s self interested wife, Kirsten Munk and her sexual exploits. Also, the love story between Emilia and Peter Clare was – in my opinion – unduly romantic and sentimental. I’d rather have learned more about the King and his problems.

Whilst there is a lot of historical detail in this novel and you get a good feel for the nature of the Danish Court, I feel Tremain is less successful when she has conjured characters – such as Emilia and Marcus Tilsen – from her own imagination. Often there is the tone of the fairy tale and there are elements of magical realism – in the characters of Marcus and his stepmother, Magdalena, particularly. While, in general, I do enjoy magical realism, I found that it didn’t fully fit with the other stories that were more like straight historical fiction.

The ending was based on out of character changes of heart and lucky deaths which I found a little lazy. When even the character is saying I don’t understand where this change of heart has come from, perhaps the writer should take a different path. Everything was wrapped up a bit too neatly for my tastes.

Top Ten Tuesday – Book quotes

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This week’s top ten is favourite literary quotes. No particular theme to these – just my favourite quotes.

  1. “Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some.” The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood.
  2. “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.” Flaubert’s Parrot – Julian Barnes
  3. “Would you be so kind as to give a little thought to the question of what your good would be doing if evil did not exist, and how the earth would look if the shadows were to disappear from it?” The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov
  4. “Out of the frying pan into the fire! What is marriage but prostitution to one man instead of many? No different!” Nights at the Circus – Angela Carter.
  5. “She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket” Farewell my Lovely – Raymond Chandler
  6. “They faced each other at opposite ends of an illusion” Dancer from the Dance – Andrew Holleran
  7. Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” 1984- George Orwell
  8. “The whole of life is just like watching a film. Only it’s as though you always get in ten minutes after the big picture has started, and no one will tell you the plot, so you have to work it out all yourself from the clues.” Moving Pictures – Terry Pratchett
  9. “Fuckin failures in a country of failures. Its nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant healthy society to be colonised by. No.. we are ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wis the shite thev got. Ah hate the Scots.” Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh
  10. “I’m telling you stories. Trust me.” – The Passion – Jeanette Winterson

Top Ten Tuesday – Books on my Autumn TBR

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together.

This weeks list is the top ten books on your autumn TBR.

Here are the next ten books that I intend to read this autumn.

  1. A Country Doctor’s Notebook – Mikhail Bulgakov
  2. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge
  3. FIve Quarters of the Orange – Joanne Harris
  4. Live by Night – Dennis Lehane
  5. The Grass is Singing – Doris Lessing
  6. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
  7. The Notebook – Nicholas Spark
  8. Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee – Meera Syal
  9. Rabbit Run – John Updike
  10. Shakey – Neil Young

I have five books to read for the Alphabet Soup Author Challenge including the book I’m reading at the minute which is Music and Silence by Rose Tremain. The others are Lolita, Shakey, and Rabbit Run. I’ve left myself a couple of fairly heavy books to read for the end of the year. I also still need an author for X so if anyone has any recommendations, I would be very grateful.

2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – Stoner by John Williams

Genre: Literary fiction, Classic, College

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1965

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stoner tells the life story of William Stoner from the moment he starts agricultural college to his death some fifty years later. It covers his marriage, the birth of his first child, his affair and his sometimes painful relationships with his fellow lecturers. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This was a reasonable read. It is certainly well-written. A lesser writer probably couldn’t have pulled off writing such an ordinary story. But for all that, I didn’t always find the life of William Stoner captivating. Like most lives, there were ups and downs, times of excitement and times of quiet, so the story wasn’t always that interesting.

Stoner wasn’t exactly captivating either. He was a hard character to love. He was reserved, finding little in the way of joy in anything other than his work as a teacher. His marriage is difficult and his wife outright unpleasant. Although he clearly loves his daughter, Grace, and spending time with her, he finds himself constantly out-maneuvered by his wife so much so that he gets to spend little quality time with Grace. He rarely fights back and I found myself wishing he would stand up for himself more.

There were a couple of moments when I found the novel more compelling. When Stoner fails a student with some physical disabilities because he has failed to do any of the work, he clashes with one of his fellow lecturers, Hollis Lomax, who also has physical disabilities. Stoner finds things he has said and done come back to bite him and make him seem like he wanted the student to fail because he was disabled when really Stoner was holding him to the same standards that he held all his students. This leads to lifelong hatred between the two professors which was never less than interesting to read about.

Also, some of the most beautiful prose comes about when Stoner has an affair with a younger teacher at the university. This feels like the one true moment of happiness for Stoner – perhaps the life he should have had if he hadn’t been so hasty in his marriage. Of course, this relationship does not last, largely due to Lomax and his need for revenge on Stoner. Even then, Stoner does not fight for the relationship but lets it slip from his grasp.

Ultimately, this is a novel about the fulfilment of work and literature. In fact, Stoner’s love of literature and of teaching would seem to be the things that lift his life beyond the ordinary. Everything else in his life ends up being a failure.

I can understand why this has had a resurgence in popularity recently. It is beautifully written and it really isn’t anything like a modern novel with its simple tale of one man’s journey through life but, in the end, it just didn’t quite thrill me enough.

 

2020 Alphabet Challenge – Author Edition – The Hand that First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell

Genre: Literary Fiction, Family

Narrative Style: Two third person linked narratives. 

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2009

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Lexie Sinclair feels suffocated by her parents simple lifestyle. When she meets magazine editor, Innes Kent, she stiffens her resolve to move to London and do something with her life. Ted and his wife, Elina have just had a baby. Elina is an artist and is struggling to recover from the birth which saw her nearly die. Ted is starting to be plagued by memories that he can’t place. How are the two stories – some thirty years apart – connected and will it help Ted sort out who he really is? 

Reading Challenges – 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition

I really enjoyed this book. I was intrigued from the first moment until the last. Even though I figured some things out, others were still a mystery to me. O’Farrell dropped clues subtly throughout so there was always some new bit of information to mull over.

I was immediately drawn to the character of Lexie. She was larger than life, held back by the social conventions of fifties England. At the beginning of the novel, she is at home in Devon, having been sent down from Oxford for going through a door marked men only. This could be solved with an apology which Lexie refuses to give. Her family only want to see her married. She knows she has to escape so when she meets Innes Kent, whose car has broken down outside Lexi’s house, she makes up her mind to move to London. He leaves her his card and soon the pair are involved in an unconventional relationship.

The other narrative strand is set in a more modern London and tells the story of Ted and his wife, Elina who are new parents. Elina nearly died during the birth and initially cannot even remember it. Ted is equally off kilter, unable to recover from the sight of his wife during the birth. When he starts to have odd episodes, it seems at first, that it relates to this traumatic event. However, it soon becomes clear that there is something strange about Ted’s childhood that his parents are not telling him about.

To say anything more about the plot would mean giving away spoilers but needless to say, I found it compelling. There are subtle clues as to what the link between the two storylines will be – such as the fact that Lexie will not live to be old – that intrigue the reader without giving too much away. Ted works as a film editor, moving scenes to fit into a narrative and that is what the reader must do here, try to form separate memories into a coherent narrative.

Both women were portrayed as being unconventional. Lexie, in particular was a vivid, colourful character who refused to compromise, in her personal and professional life. Elina was an artist, working through the night, refusing to even adapt to society’s ideas of when you should sleep and when you should work. Both women have children out of wedlock and Elina and Ted decide to give the baby Elina’s surname.

Towards the end of the novel, it grows more obvious what the link between the two storylines is and I started to really feel for Ted. He starts to have strange memories that he can’t place which culminate when they visit Lyme Regis and he has a panic attack that lands him in hospital. The revelations are heartbreaking for all concerned.

From about halfway through, when I started to have inklings about what the end result was going to be, I could not put this down. O’Farrell’s writing is poetic in its description but also managed to keep the tension going. No mean feat.

 

Top Ten Tuesday – Books I’d like to see adapted by Netflix

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Girl. This week’s topic is book you would like to see adapted by Netflix. I don’t have Netflix (I may be the last person in the world to be able to say this.) so I just thought about what I would like to see filmed. I do think that this is a more complicated topic than it might appear. Good books don’t always make good films (The Book Thief, for example) and bad books often make great films (The Bridges of Madison County, for example). Nonetheless, here is my top ten.

  1. Hag-Seed – Margaret Atwood
  2. Middle England – Jonathan Coe
  3. Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
  4. Different Class – Joanne Harris
  5. Black Swan Green – David Mitchell
  6. Survivor – Chuck Palahniuk
  7. Contact – Carl Sagan
  8. Cloudstreet – Tim Winton
  9. Six Four – Hideo Yokajama
  10. Bridge of Clay – Marcus Zusak

2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge – Author Edition – Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain

Genre: Autobiography / Memoir, War

Narrative Structure: Chronological, First Person

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1933

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Brittain was just about to go to Oxford when the first world war broke out and interrupted her and her friends lives. This memoir details her life before, during and after the war, describing the losses to her personally and to the country as a whole. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

I remember when the film of this memoir came out a few years ago and I saw the trailer and I decided there was no way I would watch it because they all just seemed so unbearably posh. I would have done well to remember this before I started to read this. All the way through this, Brittain’s sense of her own worth and the privileges she felt she was losing because of the war were incredibly annoying. Her tone of voice grated on me from the very first. I admit, I found this a real slog.

I was fairly keen to read it as I have read a lot of narratives of the first world war that focus on the soldiers but very little about the nurses experience. And if this memoir had focused solely on this, then I probably would have coped with the tone – and the long and twisting sentences that snaked away from me, causing me to have to start the sentence from the beginning again – but there is actually only about a third of this that focuses on her nursing. In fact, I was quite despairing of even making it to the outbreak of war because I didn’t find Brittain’s life beforehand all that interesting.

Brittain does suffer some terrible losses during the war – including her brother Edward , her fiance, Roland and two other close friends. However, I was so irritated with her style by then that I found sympathy hard to come by. She was very young, I suppose, and I found her way of dealing with her grief had to relate to.  I found it more touching when she visited the graves of Edward and Roland, particularly the Italian grave of her brother.

As for finding out about nursing during the war, about a third of the book was about her experiences. This was the most interesting part of the book although even then I would have preferred more close detail and less focus on Brittain’s emotions. What did come across was the physical and emotional cost of nursing on Brittain and other women of her generation.

The memoir finished five years after the war and details Brittain’s brewing romance with a man she names G and her early attempts at getting published. Again, the main thing that came across was the luck of her privileged position. She could afford to concentrate on her writing. She had helpful connections. I didn’t find it all that exciting. It was good to learn though that her scars did heal and she was able to find love with someone new.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison

Genre: African-American Literature, Experimental, Literary Fiction

Narrative  Style: First person, Main narrative told in flashback

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1952

Synopsis: The unnamed narrator lives underground in a strange cell with dozens of lightbulbs everywhere and stolen electricity. He relates to the reader all the ways in which he has become an invisible man and then tells the story of how he came to be there. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition.

I admit, I thought I’d enjoy this more than I did. It was a much harder read than I expected. I found the style stodgy and  the narrator irritating. The overall moral message and the relevance of the story today are what kept me reading rather than any interest in character development or exciting plot points.

The narrative describes the unnamed narrator’s progress towards invisibility. Everyone he encounters seems to have an opinion of him and his usefulness – no one is able to see him as merely a person. From fellow blacks like Dr Bledsoe who accuse him of bringing the race into disrepute, to the white men of The Brotherhood who use the discontent of Harlem’s blacks to their own end, to the white woman who requests he rape her when he seduces her, everyone has an opinion of what black men should be like. And with each encounter, the narrator loses a little more of his sense of self.

At the all black college he attends, the narrator is trusted to show around one of the white trustees, Mr Norton,  around the college. The idea, of course, is to show the best of the college but when Norton requests that he show him the old slave quarters behind the college, he feels he cannot say no because it would be worse to deny the request. The principal of the college, Dr Bledsoe was always deferential to the white trustees but the narrator had not realised that that was an act for the white men and did not represent what Bledsoe actually felt. At the old quarters, they encounter Jim Trueblood who has managed to impregnate both his wife and his daughter in his sleep. This shocked Norton who demands a drink. The only bar nearby is full of prostitutes and mental patients and shocks Norton even more. Bledsoe, expels him for bringing not only  the college into disrepute but the entire race. This is his first lesson. There are many to follow.

One of the things I like about this novel is it is unsparing in its criticism of all groups. The narrator falls in with The Brotherhood (a reference to the Communist Party, I guess) and at first he feels comfortable there. He extends the influence of The Brotherhood within the black community in Harlem. However, when a fellow Black member of The Brotherhood, Tod Clifton, is shot when resisting arrest, The Brotherhood refuse to support the idea of a funeral because Clifton was selling offensive sambo dolls on his arrest. This, they feel, is more important than a black man being shot by police. They tell the narrator that they know what is best for the black community. The narrator realises that they have been using him all along.

However, there is also criticism of Raz the Exhorter who represents Black Nationalism. He suggests that anyone who works with white people is a traitor and towards the end of the novel calls for the narrator to be lynched because of his work with the Brotherhood. The narrator suggests that both sides are as blind as each other.

The extended flashback ends when the narrator is being chased by two white men, he falls down a manhole and they pull the lid over him, trapping him. This is the true start of his life as an invisible man. However, he decides that he has to return to society to speak for the many people in a similar plight.

Overall, I’m glad I read this book because it made me think (and it also made me depressed at how little these themes have changed) but it wasn’t an easy read nor was it always enjoyable.

 

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Faggots – Larry Kramer

Genre: LGBT,  Modern Classic

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple points of view

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1978

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Fred Lemish is about to be forty. He is growing tired of the constant round of parties, clubs, dancing and fucking that occupies his life when he is not working. He is in love with Dinky Adams – as is most of New York, it transpires – and is desperate for his return so that he can cement their relationship. The novel describes the gay scene in New York and on Fire Island with no holds barred. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition.

On the front of my copy of Faggots by Larry Kramer, it proclaims that the book will be “disturbing, enlightening, compassionate, explicit, uninhibited, outrageous…” It then goes not to say that no one can be neutral about it. I admit, I thought this sounded a bit over the top. However, as I read I realised all these things were true. Especially that last bit. Faggots, it seems, is a book you either love or you hate.

The novel captures a moment in gay history when sodomy laws in the USA had been revoked in a lot of states and gay men were tasting more freedom than previous generations but before AIDS devastated the gay community. Sex is everywhere, male bodies are on display and I lost count of the different types of drugs that were mentioned. It describes unbridled hedonism. There is a lot of sex in this novel. Some of it is very funny and some of it is very kinky. Certainly, it is easy to appreciate the sense of freedom  – what else was there to do but have sex. There was no need to settle down or have a relationship. Why do that, when there are all these beautiful bodies?

Fred Lemish wants more. He is in love with Dinky Adams. At the beginning of the novel, he is out of town and Fred is waiting for his return as he hopes it will be the start of a proper relationship. However, the reader soon realises that Dinky is much in demand- every other character seems to be also waiting for his return. We quickly realise Fred is heading for a fall. Fred is definitely ready to settle down. He wants more than just sex and bodies. In some ways, he is like Gatsby – in love with love as much as the completely inappropriate object of his affections. Dinky does not want to settle down and Fred is left alone again at the end.

The novel this most reminds me of is Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance – another novel from 1978 with Gatsby overtones. Both novels critique the narrowness of the perceptions of what gay life could be within this scene. They also both show the interchangeability of bodies and the hollowness of relating only to the physical. Winnie Heinz – also known as The Winston Man, model for Winston Cigarettes takes a fall from a parapet while in a drug addled state and dies when he hits the dancefloor; his place is quickly taken by a younger, fitter version.

It may be for this reason that Kramer has so many characters in this novel. There are dozens and dozens of men, some given little more than a paragraph, some mentioned but not fleshed out and some returned to again and again. It was difficult to keep track of who was who, who’d had who and what everyone’s particular fetish was. Even Fred has trouble keeping track of who he has slept with. Even when he has noted that a man was hot and he would like to see them again, he can’t remember his name. He had spent a year with “a faceless group of sex objects.”

It is this endless list of characters and the overly convoluted state of Kramer’s sentences that stopped this from getting 5 out of 5. Nevertheless, an enjoyable, completely uninhibited read. Not for the faint hearted.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Contact – Carl Sagan

Genre: Science Fiction

Narrative Structure: Third person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1985

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ellie Arroway is a radio astronomer who has dedicated her life to the discovery of alien life. When radio-telescopes at the Project Argus pick up an unusual signal, she realises that this may be the message everyone has been waiting for.

Well, this was certainly an interesting read. Being written by an actual scientist made it quite different from any other science fiction I’ve read. (I’ve never been so glad to be reading something on my kindle. I had to keep looking up scientific terms.) It was also much less figurative than most novels. It was very focused and very unemotional. I don’t mean this in a bad way. It was very enjoyable but although there was some love interest for Ellie and somethings outside of the science were mentioned but they were not focused on and sometimes it felt like Sagan had forgotten about these elements. It was a little like reading a documentary about something that hadn’t happened yet. It was probably the most level headed novel I’ve ever read.

The story starts in Ellie’s childhood. She is an exceptionally gifted child, already curious about all things science. Sagan takes us through her school and university career as she becomes more and more interested in the possibility of a message from outer space. This leads her to the Argus Project and the unusual signal.

It becomes clear that the signal is the instructions for the building of a machine. Sagan takes the reader through the various arguments against building it – it could be a Trojan horse or it could be a doomsday machine. We get various religious arguments which are all given a respect I would have found it hard to give.

Indeed, this is not a novel about the divide between science and religion but is one in which the two are brought closely together. When the machine is built, the five top scientists from around the world are sent away in it and they are presented with a vision of the person they loved most in the world who explain to them about a universal message that is written in the physics of the universe. Ellie is told to look in pi but other scientists receive slightly different information. This final message brings together science and religion rather than driving them apart. God is given a scientific explanation.

I really enjoyed this novel. It was exciting. It showed what might happen if we received a message from intelligent aliens. (Although given the current governments in charge, I very much doubt such a calm response might occur these days.) Ellie was an engaging main character who neglected her family and lover due to her dedication to science. Sometimes it felt that Sagan neglected elements of the narrative for the same reasons but overall I would definitely recommend.