2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

 

Genre: Magic Realism, South American Literature

Narrative Style: A series of stories told by Eva to her lover

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1989

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Eva’s lover demands that she tell him a story that she has never told anyone before. The stories mix the real and the fantastic and cover revenge, love, obsession and much more. 

Reading Challenges: Alphabet Soup 2020 – Author Edition

It’s been a long time since I read Eva Luna – about 25 years as I was at university – but I remember that I really enjoyed it. I’m not sure why this book has languished on the shelf got quite so long. Possibly because I’m not a huge fan of short stories.

As you might expect, these stories slip easily between reality and fantasy. Ghosts and miracles happen in the same way that ordinary every day things happen. Allende’s prose is rich and poetic and the stories are not reigned in by the constraints of prose. They are poetic in their nature.

There are many themes touched on here but the main thing I came away with was the power of love in the face of the worst situations. There is something hopeful and encouraging about these stories even when they are talking about the worst atrocities committed by man.

My favourite stories are’ Two Words’ and ‘Our Secret.’ ‘Two Words’ which tells of Belisa Crepusculario who learns that she has power over words and uses this power to sell words to people. When she is kidnapped by the Colonel, he tells her he wants to be president. She sells him the words to say but also gives him a bonus ‘Two Words’ for his exclusive use. With these words, she binds the Colonel to her and he becomes unable to think of anyone else. ‘Our Secret’ tells the story of  the story of a couple who cannot truly know each other until they have shared the secret traumas of their lives under the Chilean dictatorship.

Some of the stories are erotic like ‘Toad’s Mouth’ which tells of a  Hermelinda and her erotic games or ‘Wicked Girl’ which tells of a young girl’s sexual awakening and the effect it has on her mother’s lover. Others, like the final story ‘And of Clay we are Created’ are tragic and sad. All are unusual and exciting.

My only problem is one with short story collections in general and that is I like to get my teeth into stories, get to know characters. Here, whenever I felt like I was interested in a character, the story changed.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

Genre: Fantasy, Magic

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1968

Synopsis: Sparrowhawk is set to become one of the most powerful wizards in Earthsea. He has natural talent and it isn’t long before he comes to the attention of the other wizards. Taken away as an apprentice to Ogion, he is impatient for power and accidentally evokes a shadow creature that will haunt him forever. The rest of the novel covers his quest to rid the world of this evil. 

Reading challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition.

This really wasn’t for me. I gave it three out of five because it really isn’t badly written but it didn’t grab me at all. I think I was expecting it to be more science fiction and less magic based fantasy – not a genre I particularly like. It’s also a bit boy’s own for my taste – boy does quest at expense of everything else in his life is not something that is interesting to me.

To be fair, at first I thought it might be okay. Sparrowhawk (or Duny as he is originally called) has a natural talent for magic and is taught as much as he can be by his aunt. When his village is threatened by a neighbouring tribe, he manages to save them by conjuring a magical fog. This was quite exciting and well written. Even Sparrowhawk’s school days were quite exciting with rivalries with other wizards, one of which nearly leads to his death.

It is really the second half of the novel – which focuses on the chase after the evil shadow that Sparrowhawk has accidentally unleashed on the world. A lot of the time Sparrowhawk is alone and at sea – not very exciting to be honest. After all the chasing and running, you might hope that the final confrontation between man and shadow would be exciting but even that was anti-climatic.

I know that this is children’s literature and maybe I am too old to appreciate the innocence of this tale. I did find the ideas of good and evil simplistic as was the final solution to merge with the  shadow. It could be considered a bildungsroman with Sparrowhawk learning what it means to be a man in his world but because I found the story so unexciting, I didn’t really feel like Sparrowhawk developed all that much.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Death Comes to Pemberley – P.D. James

Genre: British Detective

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 2/5 

Format: Paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Six years after Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth and Darcy are preparing for their annual ball when Captain Denny’s body is found in the woods at Pemberley. The ball is cancelled and the Darcys and Bingleys are plunged into a murder mystery.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge 

Well, this was disappointing. I thought that it was an interesting idea and I like P. D. James so it seemed like a good idea. But I didn’t realise that it was going to be written in a similar style to Austen’s – not something I’m massively fond of at the best of times. Well, this book was not the best of times.

While I wouldn’t say that I was a massive fan of Austen, reading this made me realise exactly how good she actually was. James’ prose has none of the refinement of Austen’s. In fact, it was leaden and had no sparkle. It was tedious to read and I felt little compulsion to finish this book. It also had none of the excitement of James’ usual storytelling and style. It was like the worst of both worlds.

Even worse, the characters of Darcy and Elizabeth were thin and underdeveloped. James completely sucked the life out of them. Even Wickham, who should be the most interesting character in this little tale, seems flat and lifeless. None of the characters were what they were in Pride and Prejudice.

Finally, the plot, for a large part of this novel, is just not very exciting. The hints that are dropped are obvious and so the big reveal is not surprising. I wasn’t all that interested in what the results were anyway. I was just glad that it was over.

 

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge – Boy21 – Matthew Quick

Genre: Young adult, Mental Illness, Family

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2012

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: For Finley and his girlfriend, Erin, basketball is everything. It is their ticket out of their downbeat neighbourhood and they spend long hours training together. When Finley’s coach asks him to look after Russ, a much sought after basketball player who has suffered such a severe trauma he has retreated into the persona Boy21, things change for him completely. Both boys are forced to face up to the tragedy in their lives. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Challenge

I admit I bought this specially for this challenge, having no Q authors on my shelves – either physical or kindle. I’d seen the film of Silver Linings Playbook so I’m not sure why I didn’t pick that. This sounded interesting but unfortunately didn’t live up to its potential.

Finley is an interesting narrator and his family relations were convincing in their detail. Life was difficult for Finley, living in a rough neighbourhood, having to look after his disabled, alcoholic Grandfather while his father worked night shift and getting picked on for being the only white person on the school basketball team but as long as he was able to play and spend time with Erin, he was fine. So far so good, I thought. The scene was successfully set.

However, when Russ – Boy21 – is introduced into the story, things become less convincing. His persona didn’t really ring true. Although, undoubtedly, people do retreat into fantasy – in this case, believing they are from outer space – in order to avoid very real tragedy, I just couldn’t quite believe in Russ. Similarly when he recovers after starting to play basketball again, it just feels too easy.

One of the most interesting aspects of this story was the friendship between Finley and Russ, both of whom have suffered from tragedy. However, it is suddenly cut off as Finley is given a chance to escape but he will never be able to return to Belmont. I felt this was a shame and made the novel seem a bit pointless.

At the beginning of the novel, we are told that Finley’s mother is dead and that no one talks about it. Hints are made about the Irish mafia throughout the novel, particularly after Erin is involved in a hit and run accident that stops her from playing basketball. When the full story is revealed it is little wonder that Finley never wanted to talk about it but it does come quite late in the story and with little to really prepare the reader for what was to come. After Finley and Russ reveal the details of the violent acts in their lives, their usefulness to each other is clearly over as Quick then allows Finley the escape he was always wanted. Again, it felt too easy and unrealistic.

Overall, I did feel compelled to read on and it was an interesting story and I suppose for a younger audience, it was perhaps more important to have an optimistic ending rather than a realistic one but ultimately, I fell it didn’t quite ring true.

2020 Alphabet Soup Challenge Author Edition – The Heart’s Invisible Furies – John Boyne

Genre: Irish Fiction, LGBT, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: First person, Chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2017

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Cyril Avery’s  adoptive parents never miss an opportunity to tell him that he is adopted and so not a real Avery. Cyril feels like he doesn’t really fit in anywhere and he soon realises that being adopted isn’t the only thing that is different about him. Being gay in Ireland in the 1950s isn’t easy and Cyril struggles with his sexuality. The novel recounts events from Cyril’s life at seven year intervals, taking the reader from the 1950s to the present day. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This was a very enjoyable read – as might be expected from John Boyne. It was different from the other two books that I’ve read by him as it seemed a much more personal project than The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or The Absolutist. Being gay and Irish clearly had a big influence on the subject matter of this book.

The novel starts with the story of Catherine Goggin, hounded out of her home town by the priest for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She travels to Dublin to have the baby, planning to have it adopted as she will not be able to keep it as a single woman in the 1940s. On the bus, she meets Sean MacIntryre who is also running away from home because he is gay and he offers her a place to stay until the baby is born.

The story of Catherine’s child, Cyril Avery starts when he is seven years old and continues at seven year intervals until he is seventy seven. The novel covers a lot of ground in both Irish and LGBT history, taking in the power of the clergy, bombs, kidnapping, prostitution, AIDS, violence against gay people to name but a few. For the most part, this is fine. Boyne is a sensitive writer and covers issues in a very human way but it does sometimes make it obvious that this is fiction and not actually someone’s life.

I found the beginning of the novel very readable. I couldn’t put it down. Cyril becomes friends with Julian Woodbead at age seven and their friendship lasts for a long time. Cyril quickly realises that he is in love with Julian which is unfortunate as Julian is enthusiastically heterosexual. Some of the funniest parts of the novel came with Julian’s boasting about his sexual conquests and also the scrapes that he gets Cyril into.

Cyril hides his sexuality, reluctant to even admit it to himself which leads to furtive encounters and lots of loneliness. Early on, he acquires a girlfriend, Mary Margaret, who luckily for him, does not want a sexual relationship. Boyne manages to find the humour in this situation but he also stresses how difficult it is for Cyril to put forward a version of himself that society would find acceptable.

As the novel progresses  – and Cyril grows older – the story becomes less interesting. Without spoiling the story, there is only one romance in Cyril’s life and that does not last into old age. As is the way in life, I suppose, things start happening to other, younger characters which Cyril mainly observes. Even at the beginning, Cyril is never the life and soul so when life slows down for him, he becomes a bit boring.

This is the main reason that I didn’t give it five stars. That, and the fact that sometimes the plotting is a little clumsy. In the section set in New York when Cyril is volunteering at an AIDS hospital, the irony of the situation he finds himself in is heavy handed to say the least. There are also lots of coincidences and chance meetings (between Cyril and his mother, for example)  which I found a little annoying. Cyril shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about his mother and it is another chance meeting that eventually means they realise they are mother and son.

Overall, though this was a great read and it certainly opened my eyes as to how horrible things were in Ireland because of the power of the Catholic church. The novel ends on a positive note with Cyril’s grandson, George, and his boyfriend, Marcus representing a new and more open generation which gives some hope for the future.

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.