Full House Reading Challenge – The Noise of Time – Julian Barnes

Genre: Historical fiction

Narrative style: Detached third-person narrator

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published

Synopsis: Set in Soviet Russia, The Noise of Time looks at the life of the composer, Shostakovich. The novel focuses on three key points in the composer’s life, while also giving details of his relationship with the Soviet state, first under Stalin then under Khrushchev. This is not a straightforward fictional account and is as much about the relationship between art and power as it is about Shostakovich’s life. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – History

I have been a fan of Julian Barnes for a long time. Unlike Amis or McEwan, he writes rich and enticing prose without having to show off his vocabulary and cleverness all the time. I hadn’t read anything he had written for a while so when I got this for Christmas I was very excited. Not only was it by Barnes but it was about the Soviet regime, something that I am also quite interested in.

Barnes chooses three key moments in Shostakovich’s life to illustrate the way he suffered and the difficulties he faced. These moments represent changes in the way that he is viewed by the state and the way that he views his position in relation to it.

At first, he is so convinced that he will be taken to the ‘Big House’ that he stands outside his apartment by the life so as not to be taken from his bed. His music is banned and he is very much disapproved of. It is only by a stroke of luck that he survives this part of his life.

In the second part, he is on a plane, flying to America to take part in what is basically a propaganda exercise, Stalin having decided that actually his music wasn’t banned at all. Now he is faced with making speeches he hasn’t written and agreeing with the Party line on various composers even though his personal views are different.

Finally, he is in the back of his limousine, having to be made to join the party, hating himself but seeing no other possible route. Barnes uses these three events as jumping off points to add detail and to Shostakovich’s life, his many wifes, his relationships with other composers and of course, with Power.

The portrait he paints of Shostakovich is easy to empathize with. Faced with survival as the only real consideration, it is hard to know how any of us would react. It is easy to imagine that we will stand up and protest but more likely, we would do what was needed and say what needed to be said. Shostakovich views himself as a coward but this sort of Power would make cowards of us all.

Barnes paints a clear picture of the changing Soviet state and calls the difference the new power under Khrushchev vegetarian by comparison to Stalin. It is, however, still Power and it is no easier for Shostakovich to produce music that the state approves of than it was before. (Having recently watched The Death of Stalin, I couldn’t help picture Steve Buscemi as Khrushchev as I don’t really know what the real Khrushchev looked like.) It seems that Shostakovich is destined to never be completely in favour or at least, in favour in a way that he could be comfortable with. It must be difficult when you can’t even appreciate your music being popular.

Finally, this is a novel about the role of art in society and how the Soviet regime – and others like it – warp the very idea of artistic creation. Not only do artists have to be free to create but audiences have to be free to listen and to hear what they want to hear.

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Full House Reading Challenge 2018 Sign up.

So I have decided that I will do the Full House Reading Challenge. Despite not finishing it last year, it did give me some focus and also it forced me to read some things from my bookshelf that I had been meaning to read. Hopefully I’ll get all books read this year.

I have some ideas for some of the categories but recommendations gratefully received for the rest of them.

  1. Mystery / Thriller – Six Four by Hideo Yokoyama
  2. Historical – The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
  3. Over 500 pages – Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
  4. Four Word Title – The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
  5. Added last year to TBR – The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver
  6. A Classic – Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne
  7. Fantasy – Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
  8. Adapted to a movie – Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
  9. Number in the title – Red Riding 1977 by David Pearce (currently reading)
  10. Under 250 pages – The Quiet American by Graham Greene
  11. New to you author from another country – The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
  12. Dual Time Line – Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
  13. Memoir / Autobiography = Americana by Ray Davies
  14. Reread – 1984 by George Orwell

 

New Year – Reading and Writing Plans

Hello there, blog. It’s been a while. Towards the end of last year, I was really not in the blog writing zone. I had a bad dose of writer’s block so everything was suffering. The whole year, really was a struggle writing wise. There were a number of reasons for this that I’m not going to go into, largely because they are too personal but also because they are not especially interesting or special.

Anyway, this year I am going to try harder. I am picking up a pen and putting it to paper. Choose Your Future is ready to be sent out to publishers. I am also investigating the new and exciting online places for self-publishing. I’m looking through the myriad odds and ends of writing I have done for the bones of a story, as well as some of the longer pieces I have previously abandoned.

Of course, now I am writing again, I feel better. Even if I never become particularly successful, I enjoy the escapism of creating another world. I enjoy blogging as well which brings me on to the topic of what to read this year.

One of the things that was affected by last year’s apathy was the reading challenge that I started and didn’t finish. I was four books from finishing the Full House Reading Challenge. It’s not as if I didn’t read more than 24 books last year, they just didn’t all fit in with the challenge. In fact, by the end of the year I was deliberately avoiding reading books that I had picked out for it because I wanted to be free to choose what I read. It may be that some of the books I picked to read for it – such as War and Peace and Catch 22 – were less enthralling than I might have hoped. This year, I am undecided as to whether to do any challenges or just read what I want to read. I’m currently enjoying researching the possibilities so I will probably end up doing something.

Anyway, I hope to be writing this blog a bit more frequently this year – and not just about books I have read either.

Full House Reading Challenge – Catch 22 – Joseph Heller

Narrative style: Detatched, third person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1961

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Yossarian doesn’t want to fly any more missions. He has done the required amount but the goalpost keeps moving. He doesn’t see why he should kill himself for the safety of others. However, whatever he tries, he is unable to escape his fate.

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre: Published pre 2000 

This has been on my reading list for a long time. I seem to be saying this a lot at the moment but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

First of all, there are bits of this book that are brilliant. The satire is generally spot on and Yossarian was easy to identify with. This was all as I expected. So why only give 3/5?

Well, this isn’t any easy book to read. The language isn’t difficult. In theory, you should be able to trot through it at an easy pace. But I certainly didn’t find this to be a page-turner. This is because there is no plot to speak of. Things happen. There are events. But there is no overarching storyline. I realise that this is likely a ploy on Heller’s part to represent the insanity of the situation but it meant that it wasn’t compelling to read.

Also, I found it hard to keep track of all the characters and spent a lot of  time flicking back through the book, trying to remember who did what. Obviously some characters stood out more than others such as Doc Daneeka and Milo Mindbender but some of others just blurred together.

Overall, I’m glad I read this. It’s another classic ticked off and the ideas behind it were worthwhile and interesting. I just wish they had been delivered in a slightly different way.

Full House Reading Challenge – No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

Genre: Western, Thriller

Narrative Style: First person and third person sections

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2005

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Llewellyn Moss’ life changes when he finds a pickup truck containing money, drugs and some dead gang members. He decides to take the money and immediately goes on the run. He has no idea how bad the chain of events he has set in motion will be. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – genre: Western.

I wasn’t really sure what to read for this genre. While I quite like a western movie, it is not a genre I have ever read – apart from Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. It seemed like a good idea to read another of his novels for this challenge. While No Country for Old Men is not a traditional cowboy story it is very much a modern day version. And I’d seen the film so I was sure that I would enjoy it.

This is a dark and brutal book. The violence is well written and (like in the film) it is not glamourised. It is bleak and empty like the landscape. Chigurh is a relentless killing machine who is unstoppable and unsympathetic. He dispatches people with the same dispassionate efficiency as a farmer slaughtering his cattle. He is the only character who is completely bad and amoral and as such he is the most frightening. You definitely would not want him on your trail.

By contrast, Moss is ambiguous in his morals. He is a veteran who is a loving husband to his very young wife. When he takes the drug dealer’s money, he sets off a tense chase across the country and the bodies very quickly start to pile up. Although Moss tries to protect his wife from the aftermath of his actions, it is inevitable that she will also come under the killer’s radar.

The sheriff, Bell, feels that his country has changed and he cannot understand this kind of cold, emotionless killing. He is part of a past that is disappearing and he feels that his morality does not quite match with the murders that he is seeing. Here is a man who loses money running the jail because he wants to make sure his prisoners are well fed. It is inevitable such intellectually cold killings as Chigurh’s would be impossible for him to understand.

McCarthy’s minimalist style seems the logical successor to writers such as Chandler and Hammett. This is a gangster story as much as it is a western. It is violent and cold in places but the contrast of Bell’s homespun philosophies and his quietly romantic relationship with his wife suggest that maybe the future isn’t totally bleak.

Full House Reading Challenge – Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome

Genre: Children’s, Classics

Narrative Style: Third Person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1930

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Walker children are given permission to camp on an island in the middle of a lake (somewhere in the Lake District.) They are looking forward to some adult-free adventure so when they spot another boat flying a pirate flag, they expect there will be war. And who is the grumpy grown up in the houseboat and why does he think the Walkers have broken into his boat? 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – Middle Grade

I was going to read a more modern book for this genre but my husband was so appalled that I hadn’t read this, that I had to read it in order to shut him up. I don’t remember having heard of it when I was younger and as I was obsessed with horses, my books tended to revolve around them.

This was a very old-fashioned book. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it had clear differences from modern children’s fiction. Like Little Women, it was less strong on plot and was more a series of events involving the same people. It was a set of adventures rather than one over-arching storyline. As such, it took a long time to get started and I could imagine young readers getting bored waiting for something to happen, being used to diving headlong into the action straightaway.

It is hard to imagine modern parents allowing their children to go off unsupervised onto a deserted island. There is one moment when the Walker mother visits to find Titty alone on the island and despite her worries, leaves her their alone. As a child reading, I know I would have appreciated the idea of an adult-free environment. As an adult, I found it a little harder to deal with.

Overall, I did enjoy it but I must admit, I wished for more to happen. I had thought it would be a little like the famous five, with a mystery to solve but although there was some intrigue involving the houseboat owner, it wasn’t really enough to satisfy me. The children – particularly the Walker family – were fairly well-drawn and I didn’t find them too annoying (unlike a lot of modern novels). I probably wont carry on and read the rest of the series though.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – The Bone Clocks – David Mitchell (contains spoilers)

Genre: Postmodern, Fantasy

Narrative Style: First person from different but interlinked points of view.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2014

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Holly Sykes sometimes hears voices and has strange visions she calls ‘daymares’. She appears to attract psychic phenomena. Little does she realise what she is doing when she offers an old woman called Esther Little sanctuary. As a result, she is drawn into a war between the Horologists and their enemies the Anchorites. 

Reading Challenge: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – Attractive Cover

This is a bit of a weird category for me. I don’t really take that much notice of a book’s cover. It’s not something that factors into the buying process particularly. I usually have a good idea of what I want when I go into a bookshop. And if I don’t then an attractive cover could easily be overridden by a dull synopsis. Or vice versa. The result of this was me searching through my books for what would pass as an attractive cover. There were less then you might expect.

This is my third David Mitchell so I knew what to expect: multiple narrators, spirtual nonsense about reincarnation, linking stories where you have to spot the connection. On all three counts, I wasn’t disappointed.

For the most part, I enjoyed this book. Mitchell writes different voices well – they are all distinctive and realistic. My favourite out of The Bone Clocks narrators was Crispin Hershey, author and artistic snob who is dealing with some of the worst reviews of his career. However, as I found with Ghostwritten, not all narrators are equally loveable and some sections of this book were easier to get on with than others.

I also found some of the spiritual details a little hard to take on board. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against all fantasy or anything like that. Just it was most enjoyable when the spiritual ideas were in the background. But when one of the narrators is a horologist and more details are revealed about what exactly is going on, I found it harder and harder to suspend my disbelief.

I was a little let down by the means by which Holly escaped the Second War. Although the reader is prepared for her survival by the knowledge that her little brother was really a horologist and had given her some of the means for her escape in the form of a labrynth necklace. The final detail of the golden apple just felt like a step too far.

Also, Hugo Lamb who until this point has been unbearably selfish and mean, psychopathic almost, suddenly has a complete change of heart. It is suggested that this is because he loved Holly but this did not feel convincing to me.

The ending was also disappointing. Holly’s final section shows a world that has destroyed itself. The Internet is all but gone, food rations are in place and there has been a nuclear reactor meltdown which is causing radiation problems. All of the details in this section were convincing and I was ready to give a higher rating. However, once again, a sudden piece of good luck allows survival to Holly’s children, if not Holly herself. As with the golden apple that saves Holly earlier, the sudden appearance of the Icelandic vessel is a bit of lazy plot device, a deus ex machina by any standard. Although the reappearance of Marinus, Holly’s saviour, was to be expected, this was heavy handed.

For all that, this is an interesting book which is largely well-written. The characters are rounded and their voices were unique. They all had well-developed personalities. Of course, the idea of reincarnation is fascinating and something that Mitchell is clearly interested in. However, it is not something I can really believe in, even in a fictional context and so that spoiled things a little for me.