2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge: Author Challenge – Bridge of Clay – Marcus Zuzak

Genre: Australian Fiction, Family

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published:2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: The five Dunbar brothers are left without adult supervision after their mother dies and their father abandons them. They live by their own rules. When their father returns to ask them to help build a bridge, only Clay is able to respond.

Reading Challenge: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Challenge

After reading – and loving – The Book Thief a few years ago, I avoided reading any other books by Zuzak. I’m not really sure why. The Book Thief was such a great book and seemed like such a one off, I wasn’t sure that any other book by the author would be able to live up to it. I’m happy to report that Bridge of Clay is easily as good.

There are similarities with The Book Thief. Bridge of Clay is narrated by the oldest Dunbar brother, Matthew but he is not at the centre of the story. As with Death in The Book Thief, he is often narrating other people’s stories so that he becomes an omniscient narrator of others’ lives. This gives the novel a curious tone, caught between the detachment of Matthew’s position and the emotional resonance of the stories that he tells.

At the beginning of the novel, the boys’ father returns for the first time since the death of their mother, asking for help to build a bridge. Only Clay is able to respond and he leaves with their father, despite risking the wrath of Matthew who tells him he will beat him if he ever returns. The story of the parents, Penny and Michael is intertwined with current events, leading up to two devastating events for Clay in particular but the rest of the Dunbar boys as well.

The building of the bridge is literal and metaphoric as it allows the boys to rebuild their relationship with their father and Matthew comes to realise why he could no longer stay and why Clay was the only one who could rescue him.

This is an incredibly powerful novel. If I’d been reading this at home, and not on the tram, I’d probably have had a good cry at the end. This a story about death and grief but also about redemption and recovery. It’s also about the ties of family and the love that brothers have for each other. Zuzak took a long time to write this book, admitting that if he hadn’t finished it this time, he might have had to abandon it. I’m certainly glad that he persevered.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – The Line of Beauty – Alan Hollinghurst.

Genre: LGBT, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from the point of view of one character

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2004

Format: Hardback

Synopsis: Nick Guest has just finished university and is lodging in the attic room of his friend, Toby Fedden’s family. Nick is in love with Toby but it is unrequited and likely to stay that way. Nick embarks on a love affair with a young black man, Leo. The novel is set in the eighties and describes the highs and lows of that decade through Nick’s various relationships. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge. 

I had mixed feelings about this book. In fact, I knew I probably would, having read Hollinghurt before. It was beautifully written. There is no doubt that Hollinghurst can turn a phrase or that he loves language but I felt it was an empty beauty. For a long time, nothing seemed to happen and Nick wasn’t really interesting enough to hang the entire narrative on his thoughts and feelings.

The other problem for me is that posh people are not that exciting. And Hollinghurst describes the luxuries of the age in great detail. Everybody is connected to somebody important, if they are not important themselves. There is a lot of description of antiques. There is a grotesqueness to all the money being lavished around and some of the characters do seem satirical e.g. Sir Maurice Tipper  and Badger. They were very cleverly written but as a result fo the satirical intent seemed more like stereotypes.

Nick doesn’t really fit in the circles his attachment to the Feddens allow him to move in. He isn’t poor, by any stretch but he isn’t super rich either. In this respect, his observations are helpful to the reader, sometimes cynical, sometimes awestruck, he is always an outsider. He is portrayed as somewhat innocent even later on in the novel when he is procuring cocaine for his Lebanese millionaire lover. When everything comes crashing down around his head due to a particularly vicious tabloid story, he is thrown out of the Fedden’s home. He has naively believed that the family cared for him when their feelings for him were based on a version of himself that was not real. It was easy to feel  sorry for him and to see the pain that such secrets cause.

There is also no denying that this is a clever novel. So much is hinted at or omitted from the narrative. Nick meets the parents of both his lovers although not as a lover but as a friend and Hollinghurst describes the agony of this successfully. At the end of the novel, we are left with Nick wondering  what the results of his latest HIV test will be. He imagines the world carrying on without him in an incredibly poignant piece of writing Unfortunately, for me, these sorts of moments were few and far between.

Overall, I’m glad I read it and I enjoyed it more than The Folding Star. The prose was beautiful and it was clever and funny but ultimately fell short of the mark. It seemed like a triumph of style over substance. I understand that the many things that are unsaid are a metaphor for the secret keeping Nick has to perform on a daily basis but it made for an unsatisfying read.

 

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Middle England – Jonathan Coe

Genre: Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2018  

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Coe returns to the Trotter family to examine the state of the nation in the run up to and following the vote to leave the EU. 

Having read the previous two books in this series, I was fairly sure that I would enjoy this. Also, I thought it would be interesting to see what novelists might be making of Brexit and the way that it seems to have torn the country apart.

Middle England is a funny and clever read andCoe has an easy to read style. Going back over such recent political history reminded me of exactly what the run up to the referendum was like. Coe shows both the casual racism of the leave voters and the stark horror and naivety of remainers. He isn’t particularly judgemental about either side, preferring to focus on the conflict caused in families and between friends.

My favourite part of the novel was the various descriptions of the characters watching the opening ceremony to the 2012 olympics. Coe carefully showcases their differing attitudes and how they are variously sucked into the ceremony almost against their better interest. There is only Benjamin who genuinely has no interest in what is happening. Indeed, he wanders through the novel in a sort of self-absorbed fog, missing the fact that the woman he has been dating is in love with him completely.

This is a very middle class book. Benjamin, who no longer needs to work, finally has the leisure to write his masterpiece. Sophie his niece is a lecturer, as is her best friend, Sohan. Doug, an old school friend, is a journalist. At the end of the novel, Benjamin and his sister, Lois, escape from England into the countryside of France before the Brexit deadline. They have the money to escape the worst of what Brexit has to offer. I must admit I found this a little irritating. As a solution to the Brexit problem, it is extremely limited.

Another irritant was the story arc of Sophie. When she marries Ian, who she met after being caught speeding and taking his course instead of a fine, it seems doomed to fail as we have already been given hints of his right wing views. This finally comes to a head after the referendum and they separate. I thought that this was good for Sophie but by the end of the novel, she is back with Ian and also pregnant (despite not wanting children earlier in the novel. This was a little disappointing and it felt as if Coe couldn’t imagine what to do with her or a better way to end a female story.

All in all though, this was an enjoyable read which cleverly describes the way the country is split at the moment.

 

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies

Genre: British Detective, Scottish Fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from multiple viewpoints.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2018

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet soup Author Challenge.

I always enjoy a Rebus story. This one was a Christmas present and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in. On the whole, I wasn’t disappointed – as you can see from my rating – but it has to be said, I’m not sure how long Rankin can keep this up for.

When a body turns up in the boot of a car and it turns out to be the body of Stuart Bloom, Rebus knows that he could be in a lot of trouble. He was part of the original inquiry when Stuart disappeared. To say it hadn’t gone well would be an understatement. On top of that, Siobhan Clarke is receiving anonymous phone calls and has had graffiti sprayed on her front door.

This is a tale of the ways policing has changed. Although the original inquiry was in 2006, it feels much older. Stuart Bloom was gay and that had a huge effect on the original enquiry with homophobia being just one of the many problems. There are cops taking backhanders, working for shady businessmen in their spare time as well as cops like Rebus, trying desperately to hide everyone else’s lies. Interviews and meetings were fabricated. All of which is now being looked at very closely by Malcolm Fox, a man who Rebus has had run ins with before.

As ever, there is a lot of moral ambiguity in Rankin’s writing. We want the good guys to win obviously but Rebus does not always follow the rule book. For me, that is his main charm. Siobhan, so long under his wing, is similarly likely to follow her own tune. So the question is whether you allow for their breaking of the rules because it is in the name of justice or believe that they are tainted by their actions. Certainly the right people get their comeuppance but whether Rebus should get into more trouble than he does is another question entirely.

My one complaint would be that as Rebus gets older, it gets harder and harder for Rankin to find a place for him within the police force. He is very much a civilian and, at times, he feels shoe horned into the narrative. I’m not sure how many more times Rankin will be able to manage it. Which is a shame but both Clarke is an interesting character. It may be time to give her the lead.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Challenge

Okay so I have decided to do an alphabetical reading challenge this year. It took a little while to find this one – a lot of A-Z challenges seem to be by title which I didn’t want. I have settled on the 2020 Alphabet Soup challenge which is hosted by Escape With Dollycas. It’s rules are quite simple. Pick a book written by someone whose first, middle or last name starts with each letter of the alphabet and keep a record of each one.

It isn’t obligatory to decide in advance what books to read but I love a list and also need a reason to stick to a challenge. I’ve tried to make it by surname as much as I can and am yet to find anyone for Q or X. Any recommendations for either of those would be gratefully received.

Allende, Isabelle – The Stories of Eva Luna

Boyne, John – The Hearts Invisible Furies

Coe, Jonathan – Middle England

Doyle, Arthur Conan – The Return of Sherlock Holmes

Ellison, Ralph – Invisible Man

Faulks, Sebastian – Paris Echo

Gray, Alasdair – Lanark

Hollinghurst, Alan – The Line of Beauty

Ishiguro, Kazuo – The Remains of the Day

James, P.D. Death Comes to Pemberley

Kramer, Larry – Faggots

Le Guin, Ursula – A Wizard of Earthsea

Maud, Constance – No Surrender

Nabakov, Vladimir – Lolita

O’Farrell, Maggie – The Hand that Once Held Mine

Palahniuk, Chuck – Survivor

Q

Rankin, Ian – In the House of Lies

Sagan, Carl – Contact

Tremain, Rose – Music and Silence

Updike, John – Rabbit Run

Vera Brittain – Testament of Youth

Williams, John – Stoner

X

Young, Neil – Shakey

Zusaz, Marcus – Bridge of Clay – Currently reading

 

My Reading Year incl. TBR Challenge Round Up

It’s been a strange reading year. I only just managed to make my Goodreads Challenge of reading 40 books this year, finishing a biography of Emmeline Pankhurst on New Year’s Eve. I found some books a real slog, even giving up on The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older but I find it harder to continue with something if I’m not absolutely loving it. I absolutely hate not finishing things – there’s always the possibility that it will get better – but when you are ignoring a book and getting out of bed and working instead of lying in and reading then you know that you need to have rethink. I also seem to have less reading opportunities. Partly because I’m writing more, partly because I’m doing more examining work. So I don’t get as many books read as I used to.

To be honest, the year started badly. I was still struggling through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow which I started the year before for a reading challenge. It was hard work and seems to have set the tone for the year. I’m all for reading books that are considered challenging and there is kudos to be had from having finished it but it was not a fun reading experience.

The best books this year were The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith which was a thrilling read, Choke by Chuck Palahnuik which I enjoyed even more than Fight Club, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes which was a great piece of science fiction and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx which was an absolute revelation. A great read that I would definitely recommend.

That brings me nicely onto the TBR challenge, hosted by Roof Beam Reader (sadly for the last time).  I managed to read 12 books – although as I abandoned Tristan Smith, I had to read one of my alternates – ending with Emmeline Pankhurst on New Year’s Eve. I read one a month and I probably could have made it less difficult by reading them more quickly. As ever, they were a mixed bunch. Sometimes books have stayed on your shelf for a reason. The highlights were The Shipping News, The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht, Thank Your For the Days by Mark Radcliffe and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Less enjoyable was A Room with a View by E. M. Forster, The Beetle by Richard Marsh and The Virgin’s Lover by Philippa Gregory which was my only one star read this year.

I also read a couple of books that have been popular and I’m always curious to know why. I don’t know why I do this as inevitably I don’t like them must. This year’s were Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher which seemed like just another version of the girl needs to die so the boy can have a revelation about himself and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman which I just found annoying. It was easy to see why both these books struck a chord with people though and were probably justly popular.

As for next year, I’m not sure what to do. I’ve set the Goodreads challenge to 40 books again but I’m undecided as to whether to do a reading challenge or not. Ideally, it would need to be something like the TBR Challenge which focuses on the books on my shelf. Challenges with categories often require me to buy books and I’m trying not to do that at the minute. Also, there always seems to be some category that I know I’m going to hate before I even start and that seems pointless. The two books I’m currently reading (In the House of Lies by Ian Rankin and Middle England by Jonathan Coe) are both very good so I hope I have got this year off to a better start.

TBR Challenge: Emmeline Pankhurst by Paula Bartley

Genre: Biography, History, Women’s Rights

Narrative Style: Third person, academic

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2002

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Bartley’s biography takes us from Emmeline’s childhood, through her early years in Manchester, her move into militancy and her work on sexual health after the fight for suffrage was won.

Reading Challenges – TBR Challenge 

Time on shelf: Not entirely sure but my mam bought it for me and she died six years ago so at least that long.

I guess I suspected that this might be hard going as I left it until last to read for this challenge. While I am interested in the fight for the vote and Emmeline herself seemed to be quite a character, this was a bit of a drag to read. I don’t read much in the way of political biographies (or even biographies at all, if truth be told) so I don’t know if the style is typical but I did find it a bit dry.

Obviously, the most interesting part was Pankhurst’s years of militancy in the run up to the first world war and that is undoubtedly her main legacy. The rest of her story paled in comparison to those years. The main thing that kept the interest through the rest of the biography was the sheer force of Pankhurst’s personality and her inability to deal with people who did not completely agree with her. This let to many splits with members of the WSPU, not to mention her father and her daughter, Sylvia. Emmeline expected total and utter loyalty to her and her ideas and if that couldn’t be managed then she had no problem with cutting all ties.

I’m glad to have read the biography and have a little more knowledge of a very important woman but I’d be lying if I said I’d 100% enjoyed it. If you have a more academic interest than no doubt this would be a useful resource but for the more causal reader, not so much.