Books Read in 2021 – On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Genre: Black fiction, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Third person from a number of different viewpoints, chronological

Rating: 3.5/5

Published: 2006

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The Belseys and the Kipps don’t get on. They are both art scholars, both study Rembrandt and Monty Kipps got his book out first. When Jerome Belsey falls for Victoria (Vee) Kipps, the families are thrown together again and again. Howard Belsey has marriage trouble. His wife, Kiki, is also dissatisfied. Carlene Kipps is dying. The various offspring of the two families have various personal issues including finding an authentic identity (Levi) and championing the cause of academia (Zora). All of this is played out on the campus of Wellington University.

Time on shelf: I inherited this when my husband’s aunt died in 2014. In the meantime I read Swing Time which I didn’t really like and this put me off going back to Smith. (I had previously read White Teeth and The Autograph Man.)

I went back and forth on how to rate this one. It is well written (4 stars) and it covers issues of identity successfully (4 stars) but the characters didn’t grab me (3 stars) and the plot was slow and didn’t pull me in (3 stars). It was a bit of a slog at times. When I got to the end, all I felt was relief that it was over.

There can be no doubt that Smith can turn a phrase. This is very well written. It is also ambitious. It is based on Howard’s End by E. M. Forster which is not a book I’ve read. I have seen the film though and once I realised, it made sense. Very different families. A gift betrothed but not delivered. And, in fact, it made me feel a lot like when I have read Forster – a little like I must have missed a joke or maybe I’m just not quite clever enough to get it.

Part of the problem is that the characters weren’t very interesting to me – in fact, they were almost stereotypes. Howard Belsey is a white professor, married to a black woman who is not as thin as she used to be. He is floundering in his career and has recently had an affair with a fellow lecturer. He is terrible with technology. He ends up sleeping with Monty’s daughter. This seems a little like it could be a character arc in a John Updike novel. Kiki is little more than her race and her weight. Monty Kipps is a typical right wing, conservative Christian. And so on.

Similarly, the plot wasn’t particularly compelling. In fact, it often felt like the most interesting things happened off-page. I enjoyed the bequeathing of a painting by Carlene to Kiki which Monty tried to hide but even then, the court case that ensues happens elsewhere. Also, as I have previously mentioned. I’m not a massive fan of posh people or campus tales so this was on a loser from the start. I’m not sorry I read it but I’m not sure that I’ll read anymore Smith novels.

Books Read in 2021 – 32. Jews Don’t Count – David Baddiel

Genre: Politics, Non-Fiction, Race

Narrative Style: First person

Published: 2021

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: David Baddiel discusses the ways in which anti-Semitism is treated differently from other types of racism and prejudice using examples from the media, TV and social media.

Time on Shelf: Not very long. I read The Plot Against America at the start of the year and that sparked an interest in Jewish History. Earlier in the year, I watched Baddiel confronting Holocaust deniers for a TV program and that made me warm to him in a way I hadn’t previously so when this book came up on Kindle I bought it.

I have a mixed history with David Baddiel. When he first appeared on the comedy scene – or at least when I first became aware of him – he was with The Mary Whitehouse Experience and I loved that but then came the football years and his (and Frank Skinner’s) humour was too laddish and football based to appeal to me. Then I read Whatever Love Means which I really think is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. After that, I didn’t really take much notice of what he was up to. Then earlier this year, I watched Confronting Holocaust Denial with David Baddiel. If I hadn’t watched that, I certainly wouldn’t have read this book.

Baddiel begins by talking about a review of Charlie Kaufman’s first novel Antkind by Holly Williams. Williams complains that it has a ‘white-male-cis-het perspective’ and is, therefore, part of the patriarchal orthodoxy. However, the narrator – B. Rosenberger Rosenberg is described as having Jewish characteristics such as a Rabbinical beard and other characters behave anti-Semitically towards him. Baddiel feels, rightly I think, that this means the character is less privileged than Williams assumes.

Baddiel contends that unlike other forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism isn’t treated with any depth of seriousness. He gives examples of non-Jewish actors playing Jewish roles not meeting with any sort of outrage and whilst actors don’t have to black up to play a Jewish character, there are a number of characteristics that called be donned to show that you are playing Jewish. (He compared this to the outrage that greets a heterosexual actor playing a homosexual character which is probably a more apt comparison than blacking up.) I admit that I hadn’t really considered this before. Partly because I wouldn’t necessarily know whether an actor was Jewish or not but mostly because I wouldn’t have thought it was something I needed to think about. Baddiel suggests that this is one of the ways that Jews don’t count. He gives the example of Al Pacino in Hunters and Gary Oldman in Mank, accusing Oldman of not only being not Jewish but a supporter of Mel Gibson and his famously anti-Semitic rant. He asks how could this be allowed to happen?

He suggests it is because Jews occupy a unique position in society – that is as both high and low – privileged, famously running the world in many conspiracy theories and money hoarding on the one hand, low, rat-like and sly on the other. In this way, Baddiel discusses how Jews can be seen as both white and not white. He explains that while Jews might often look white, they don’t often feel white. That is they are not able to feel the sense of privilege that comes with being white. Their lives are not secure. They do not feel safe. As Baddiel rightly points out, we are not that many generations away from the Holocaust and its effects can still be felt. He talks about his own grandparents who fled to England in 1939 with his mother who was a baby. They had been rich but had been robbed of it all by the time they fled. When you know can lose everything simply because you are Jewish, you do not have privilege.

Baddiel discusses many instances of his interactions on Twitter and his experiences of being told not he is experiencing racism or not. He looks at the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn’s abject failure to deal with anti-Semitism. It’s hard to imagine people leaping to Corbyn’s defence if any other type of prejudice were being discussed. In fact, Corbyn comes in for a lot of criticism and rightly so. Other people, such as Roald Dahl, are outed as anti-Semites.

It is easy to follow Baddiel’s arguments and I found them affecting and could understand his anger. I do think that his determination to focus on Twitter made his prose somewhat disjointed at times. Also, it is hard to take someone 100% seriously when they say they don’t count via a book they have had published which many will read. (I felt similarly when I read Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.) But these are minor quibbles. Definitely worth a read.

Books Read in 2021 – 31. Strangers on a Train – Patricia Highsmith

Genre: Crime

Narrative Style: third person, chronological

Published: 1950

Rating: 3.5/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Guy Haines and Charles Bruno meet on the train. Bruno is immediately captivated by Haines and proposes that they sort out their respective problems by each murdering the person who is holding them back – Haines’ wife, Miriam, and Bruno’s father. There would be no link between them and neither would get into trouble. Haines is not keen and assumes that Bruno is talking hypothetically but when Miriam is murdered, he realises he may have to keep up his side of the bargain.

Time on Shelf: I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time but only recently purchased a copy.

This is starting to be a theme for this year’s reading but I didn’t enjoy this as much as I expected. Certainly, it was not as straightforwardly thrilling as The Talented Mr RIpley and I felt it lacked the tension of that novel. I did go back and forth between ratings as parts of it were very good but other parts left me feeling bored.

The novel starts strongly. The opening line – ‘The train tore along with an angry, irregular rhythm.’ – immediately gives the reader an impression of an unpleasant atmosphere. This is not the start of a happy story. Guy Haines is the impatient passenger, desperate to get where he is going so he can get a divorce from his wife. He is caught in his unhappy and hateful thoughts by Charles Bruno, rich and ridiculous, who joins his carriage. Bruno is full of wild ideas. The main one that he shares with Haines is the idea of two strangers, meeting briefly, carrying out a murder for each other, and then never meeting ever again. So far so good. I was hooked.

However, it then seemed to take ages for the first murder to happen. I didn’t feel the build up of tension. It felt stodgy and I wanted to get past it. This is partly due to the fact that I had an idea of what was going to happen. This isn’t a book one comes to blind. I knew there was to be action and I was impatient to get to it. This may be my problem not Highsmith’s.

There are moments of high tension after that but I didn’t feel that overall it lived up to the promise of the meeting on the train. Haines’ panic after he has killed Bruno’s father is well described and the way he falls apart even though he now has everything he wants is convincing but I expected that this would be impossible to put down and it just wasn’t.

One of the more interesting elements of the book is the way that it is a metaphor for the hidden nature of homosexuality at the time of writing. Two strangers meet on the train, they hook up and go on with their lives except Bruno keeps appearing in Haines’ life spoiling his marriage to his new wife, making Haines ashamed of the things he has done. Bruno equally knows the dangers of seeing Haines as they need to remain undiscovered but he cannot keep away. When he removes Miriam from the picture, he is making a space for himself in Haines’ life that he cannot possibly fill. Haines immediately marries again, pushing Bruno back out of his life. This was more interesting then the actual plot.

The ending was disappointing. Although I sensed that getting caught was actually a relief to Haines, it still felt anticlimactic. And I felt that Bruno deserved more punishment than falling from Haines’ boat. None of it felt very satisfying. Perhaps I’ll stick to reading the Ripley books.

Books Read in 2021 30. The Thursday Murder Club – Richard Osman

Genre: Cosy Detective

Narrative Style: First person from one point of view, third person from a lot of different perspectives

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2020

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Four septuagenarians meet every week to try and solve old police cases. Then a murder occurs that is linked to their care home. They can’t help but get involved.

Time on shelf: Not long. This was given to me by my father in law because he hadn’t really liked it and he wondered what I would think of it.

I’m always a bit sceptical of celebrities writing novels. Sales are based on the famous name rather than the quality of the prose so there is no need for it to be amazing. However, I did think that if anyone could do it well, Osman could. After all, he is clearly intelligent and witty so I had higher hopes for this then I would have had for any other celebrity effort.

This intelligence is clear throughout. The main reason that this book has two stars rather than one is that it is not badly written. Osman can string a sentence together and he has a good vocabulary. It is tightly plotted with plenty (perhaps too many) twists and turns. I can see why people might enjoy it. However, I found it irritating from almost the very first.

There are a number of problems. The first one to come to light, is the switching between characters. Osman has opted for one first person narrator and any number of third person perspectives. This isn’t a problem in itself but Osman’s chapters tend to be short and they jump around all over the place so you barely get to grips with one perspective before you have to deal with the next. It starts to feel a bit chaotic.

The next thing is the tone. This book is clever and it knows. There are lots of little jokes and asides. The prose really rubbed me up the wrong way. For example, ‘How peculiar to be in this room! He shivers. Probably just the cold.’ For a start, it is present tense which is annoying. Then it is supposed to suggest something about Father Mackie (the shiverer in question) and make the reader suspicious but it is so heavy handed and unsubtle that I couldn’t take it seriously.

The characters are a wacky crew. Elizabeth, the leader of the group, was formally a spy and her former exploits are dropped casually into the narrative. She has any number of useful contacts and is adept at being two steps ahead of everyone else. However, instead of seeming like a fully rounded character, she starts to seem slightly superhuman in her leaps of intuition. There really isn’t all that much more to her either. She’s a former spy and Osman never lets us forget it. Similarly, Ron Ritchie is a union man, through and through and, again, little more. Joyce and Ibrahim are even less interesting. Joyce is a bit drippy and Ibrahim was presumably included for diversity reasons rather than anything else.

Finally, there is not a single moment of this novel when I wasn’t aware I was reading a book. The events are unconvincing. The characters – particularly the police – are unconvincing. Then there are the number of twists and turns. A better name for this book might be A Plethora of Red Herrings. There are only so many times I can stand being lead up the garden path. This novel has you running up and down it constantly. Not satisfying. I will not be reading on. Not that it matters. No doubt, millions will.

Books Read in 2021 29. I am the Messenger – Markus Zusak

Genre: Australian fiction, young adult, bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2002

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ed Kennedy is a no hoper. He drives a cab and hangs around with his friends. He has a dog and is in love with Audrey, one of his friends even though she is not interested in him romantically. He has no prospects and no ambitions. Then playing cards start to appear in his mailbox and his life changes irrevocably.

Time on Shelf: About six months. After reading Bridge of Clay last year, I was keen to read more Zusak.

I enjoyed this. It was an easy read – I didn’t realise when I picked it up that it was aimed at the teen market – and the characters were interesting. Ed was an observant and funny narrator and the messages he has to deliver are weird and I was keen to know who was sending them. I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the other Zusak I’ve read. It’s sometimes a little weird when you read an earlier work by a writer and this felt like it just wasn’t quite there yet. It had a lot of Zusak’s quirks but they weren’t delivered quite as well as in the later books.

The opening chapter is one of the best I have read. Ed and his friend Marv are face down in a bank that is being robbed, rather incompetently. By the end of the chapter, Ed is a hero and his face is in all the newspapers. Not long after this, he receives the first playing card – the ace of clubs – which has three addresses on it. At each address, he has to do something to help the people who live there. This theme follows with the other playing cards. Some of the jobs are easy – pretending to be an elderly lady’s long lost husband, for example – and some are difficult – dealing with a man who comes home each night to rape his wife, for example. As the novel progresses, the messages Ed has to deliver become more personal and he starts to realise that there is more to him than just being a underage cab driver.

All the way through, I was curious about where the playing cards were coming from. I knew there was potential for it to completely spoil the story if I wasn’t convinced by it or if we didn’t get to find out. As it is, when Ed has delivered all the messages, a man appears who tells him he has arranged everything. He killed Ed’s father, made the bank robbery happen, forced the man to rape his wife and so on. He gives Ed all the notes he has made about it and sure enough all the events are in there. Clearly, this man represents the author who is controlling everything in order to make Ed a better person. I’m a sucker for fiction about fiction so that really appealed to me. (Obviously, you could see this as a religious metaphor if you wanted to but I prefer the idea of an overarching author to that of an overarching God.) It left me feeling happy and satisfied.

Books Read in 2021 – 28. The Fellowship of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkien

Genre: Adventure, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological.

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1954

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When Bilbo Baggins decides he is going to leave the Shire, he leaves his heir, Frodo with an immense task. One of the items passed on to Frodo is a ring with immense power. This means that Frodo has to leave his home and take on the hugely important task of destroying the ring.

Time on shelf: These books belong to my husband and have been on our shelves for the entirety of our time living together so 25 years. As he was allowed to help me put together this years reading list, this was at the top of it.

I read The Hobbit a long time ago and really enjoyed it but when I tried to read The Fellowship of the Ring, I just couldn’t get into it. I tried a couple of more times over the years but to no avail so I was expecting this to be a bit of a slog. And in fact, the prologue explaining all the history was hard going. (I remembered that one of the previous times I hadn’t even made it through this part.) However, once the story got started, I started to enjoy it more.

Of course, I have seen the films more than once so I had some idea of the story – as most people do – but I didn’t remember it well and the book is quite different anyway so I wasn’t bored by the unfurling of the story. (The only slight issue being that the casting for some of the roles in the movie was so good that they filled my mind when those characters came up – Frodo and Bilbo mainly but also Saruman and Gandalf as well.) The plot is straightforward. Frodo is the keeper of the ring and he gradually amasses the rest of the group who will make up the Fellowship and they start to make their way towards Mordor. This is not an issue as there are enough ups and downs to keep the reader’s interest. Tolkien’s style is easy to read without being simplistic.

The heart of the novel is the friendship between the Hobbits and particularly that between Sam and Frodo. Sam is absolutely devoted to Frodo and is devastated when he thinks that Frodo may have left to carry on his journey alone. When Frodo is hurt, Sam stays by his side. He sneaks into the Council of Elrond in order to be close to him. There is a definite homo-erotic element to this, making their friendship tender and intimate. It makes up for the general lack of sexuality and romance elsewhere in the novel.

However, there were a couple of things that stopped this from getting five stars. First of all, the insistence of having the story unfurl around Frodo meant that there was a good amount of talk so that the reader could learn what had happened to the others. This slowed the action. (This is remedied in the films by having the action move between Gandalf and Frodo, for example.) There is also a lot of history that Tolkien has to somehow get into the story and again, this slowed things down.

The characters in the novel don’t particularly develop. The Hobbits are Hobbits with their appetites and their singing, the Elves are Elves and so on. They don’t change unless they come into contact with the ring. The focus is on the adventure rather than the characters taking part in it. This is part of the reason that I don’t read a lot of straightforward fantasy or adventure. I much prefer a story of character development. It is also quite a boyish book with few significant women but given that it was written in the fifties, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Tolkien if he could only imagine a world where men were free to go off on quests and did the majority of fighting.

Ultimately, this is a story of good and evil and the unlikely heroes these times make. It is easy to sympathise with Frodo as he is clearly not made for this sort of behaviour. The story trots along nicely although I didn’t feel compelled to immediately pick up the next instalment. I will read it though and that is something I did not expect to say.

Books Read in 2021 – 27. I am Legend – Richard Matheson

Genre: Horror, Post-Apocolyptic

Narrative Style: Third person, Chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1954

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Robert Neville is the last living human. The whole planet has succumbed to a bacteria that has caused them to become vampires. By day, Neville hunts for sleeping vampires to kill and fortifies his house. By night, he hides from the vampires on his street when they attack his house, desperate for his blood. How long can he carry on with his fight for survival?

Time on Shelf: This is a reread. I last read it when I was 18 – some thirty years ago. It was loaned to me by a friend that knew I liked horror. My reading matter then tended to be Stephen King, Dean Koontz and James Herbert. When it came up on the Kindle Daily Deal recently, I thought it was worth another look.

I like a book that sets out its stall straightaway. The opening sentence of I Am Legend – ‘On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when the sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back’ – lets you know exactly where you and Robert Neville stand. This is a man in peril. The peril is vampires. The novel starts off running and doesn’t really stop.

It seems that Neville is the last man standing. For some reason – he suggests a prior infection caught from a vampire bat – he is immune to the disease that has turned everyone else into blood sucking vampires and now he has to try to survive. Although they are very different stories, Neville’s plight reminded me a little of The Road by Cormac McCarthy. We only see Neville’s point of view. Flashbacks let us see what became of his wife and daughter and the mistakes he feels he made early in the plague. He was no one to talk to or to help him make decisions about the future. He is paranoid and easy to anger.

Understandably, it is often quite unpleasant inside Neville’s head. He is tortured by the female vampires outside who try and use their bodies to lure him out. At the beginning of the novel, he is driven to distraction by this display. He is unsure exactly what he might be capable of, his lust is so great. As timepasses, his psyche changes and instead of fighting blindly, he starts to think about where the plague came from and whether there might be a cure.

Matheson plays with traditional vampire lore. In Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire can be seen as a metaphor for the syphilis which was ravaging Europe at the time that Stoker was writing. In I Am Legend, vampirism is the disease, caused by a bacteria spread first by dust storms and mosquitos and then by the vampires themselves. Neville’s ideas about the bacteria lead him to working out why vampires cannot abide sunlight and why they disintegrate when they are staked. He also offers psychological conclusions as to why the cross is effective, making use of other religious symbolism if the vampire had originally been Jewish, for example.

As readers, we are close to Neville. We experience his highs and lows, when he rescues a dog, for example. We have faith in him and hope for his survival. At the end of the novel, Matheson shifts our perspective. It turns out the Neville is literally the last of his kind. The bacteria has mutated. People are more easily able to live with being a vampire. They are developing medicine to help with it. Neville has no future. He will become a representation of the past – a literal legend.

Even though I had read this before, the ending was still hard. It was like having the ground pulled out from under you. Obviously, we hope that Neville will somehow make it into a brave new world. It is both sad and satisfying when Neville realises that he will become a part of their lore, that this has been his role and now it is over.

Books Read in 2021 – 26. Here We Are – Graham Swift (contains spoilers)

Genre: Historical fiction, Literary fiction

Narrative Style: Non-chronological, third person from multiple viewpoints.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2020

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Ronnie, Evie and Jack are all performers and in the summer of 1959, they are all in Brighton performing on the pier. Ronnie is a magician, Evie is his assistant and also his fiancee. Jack is the compere and an all round entertainer. That is, until, at the end of the season when Ronnie disappears after a spectacular trick, never to be seen again.

Time on Shelf: This was a special offer Kindle purchase, probably at the end of last year so not very long.

I liked the start of this book more than the end. It begins with Jack Robinson standing in the wings, wondering how he was ever going to make himself overcome his ‘panic, vertigo, revulsion’ and actually get on to the stage. It is an interesting opening, capturing Jack’s frame of mind as he is distracted by the thought of his mother who had pushed him onto the stage, his mind moving through memories before Swift returns us to the present, explaining how Jack came to be there, waiting in the wings. I was immediately taken.

It felt like the focus was to be on Jack and his life, with Ronnie and Evie as secondary characters but the narrative suddenly jumps to telling Ronnie’s story, particularly focusing on his time as a child. We learn that his father, a sailor, brings him back a parrot but when he goes back to sea, his mother sells it without regard for Ronnie’s feelings. She tells Ronnie’s father that it flew away. When the war starts Ronnie is evacuated to Oxford. This section was well written and successfully evoked the era. Ronnie is sent away from working class London to what he views as a grand house in Oxford to stay with a family who genuinely love him and look after him. His mother is distant and seemingly unemotional. His father is an intermittent presence but Eric and Penny have been unable to have children of their own and so are desperate for someone to love. Eric passes on to Ronnie his love of magic.

It is when the narrative switches to Evie and the present day that I found my attention starting to wane. Evie is seventy five in the present day, Jack having died the year before. They were married and he had found fame as an actor of some renown and Evie was the manager of his production company. At the heart of this was Ronnie’s disappearance. Evie had originally been engaged to Ronnie but, inevitably, Evie was drawn to Jack who was a bit of a ladies’ man. And it does seem inevitable. There is nothing unusual or exciting about this part of the narrative. Swift captures her grief at Jack’s death well but I didn’t find her narrative as interesting as either of the men.

The action switches now between Evie’s day in the present and action in the past as she remembers the last weeks with Ronnie, the death of his mother and the first time that she sleeps with Jack. It was fairly obvious what would happen when Ronnie went to see his mother. It was predictable especially given that we know about Ronnie’s disappearance from the beginning.

I felt sorry for Ronnie but we don’t get to know how he feels except at one remove. Evie hypothesises that he knew straight away what she had done and as he disappears not long after then it is may be true. As Evie is the only one left alive, she gets to give the definitive version of these final events.

The disappearance itself is quite dramatic. Swift makes us wait to see what the great new trick was that Ronnie had planned. It may be that he had already decided to disappear and it actually had nothing to do with Evie’s guilt for sleeping with Jack. He has been performing a trick where he makes a rainbow appear across the stage and then a white dove would fly out. On the last night, it is a parrot that appears from under the rainbow and then Ronnie himself disappears.

After that, the actual end of the book felt a little anti-climactic. Evie returns from having lunch with Jack’s agent. She is tired and she goes to bed, thinking that she felt the familiar warmth of Jack’s body beside her. There is something in Swift’s prose that suggests she may be about to die as well. Obviously, I suppose, we never discover the whereabouts of Ronnie who like his parrot, might be dead or alive. It wasn’t that that made the ending feel a little flat. It felt a little like Swift had run out of steam and he couldn’t imagine a life for Evie without either of the men. That was disappointing because she had seemed quite a independent character earlier on.

So a good start but a disappointing end. Swift’s prose meant that this was readable throughout but I felt the plot let it down.

Books Read in 2021 – 24. All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

Genre: War, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: Non-chronological, third person from a few different viewpoints.

Published: 2014

Rating: 4/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Marie-Laure lives in Paris. At a young age, she goes blind and her father, a locksmith, creates elaborate puzzles for her to solve. He creates a model of the Paris streets so she can find her way around. Werner lives in Germany in a mining village. He is an orphan with few prospects other than the mine until he discovers an old radio. Then the war begins.

Time on Shelf: About a year.

There is something magical about this book. It is written in an almost fairy tale style. There is the subplot of a diamond that may have magical properties. The description is vivid and atmospheric. The two main protagonists are children at the start of the novel. Both are abandoned by or have lost their parents. They are alone in a world they do not fully understand. This made it easy to read even though the subject matter was not always easy.

The novel is largely set in World War 2. When the war breaks out, we have already got to know Werner and Marie-Laure and we watch how their lives change. Marie-Laure and her father flee to Saint-Malo from Paris, her father carrying an impressive diamond from the museum with him.

Werner has already seen the beginnings of the Hitler Youth when he is accepted at the National Political Institute of Education – an organisation as interested in Werner’s heritage and physical features as it is his abilities. His sister, Jutta, warns him that he should not go but he doesn’t see the true purpose.

The plot moves between Werner and Marie-Laure’s stories and between different times frames. It becomes clear that their stories will come together towards the end of the war. Doerr drops hints as to how this might happen and it becomes very tense as Werner has to make a decision that directly threatens Marie-Laure.

The chapter’s are short and this adds to the fairy tale style of the story. It moves quickly between the two main characters whilst also taking in other minor characters such as the perfumer, Claude Levitte and Sergeant Major Reinhold von Rumpel who is chasing after the diamond that Marie-Laure’s father was tasked with looking after. The plot is well paced but does not sacrifice character or atmosphere in the protest.

Like The Book Thief, this novel looks at familiar themes in a new way and as it is largely from the points of view of children, it shows the absurdness of war. I found it affecting and compelling. Would definitely recommend.

Books Read in 2021 – 23. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy.

Genre: Romance, Classic

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1874

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Bathsheba Everdene is independent and determined to run the farm she has inherited from her uncle her way. She quickly comes to the attention of three very different suitors – Gabriel Oak, a kind and sensible man, whose circumstances are much reduced since he proposed to her originally, William Boldwood, a gentleman farmer who soon becomes completely obsessed with Bathsheba and a charming but shallow soldier, Sergeant Francis Troy. Each man would have an influence on Bathsheba’s, unsettling her life and destroying her independence.

Time on Shelf: This was a loan from my father in law. Hardy is his favourite author and he suggested that I read it after we watched the 2015 film and I didn’t take him up on it until now. My only other experience of Hardy was reading Tess when I was in sixth form and absolutely hating it. I vowed never to read another Hardy ever again.

I would like to start by saying that I enjoyed this more than I expected to. It isn’t such a doom fest as Tess of the D’urbervilles. Having said that, it is still a classic and a romance to boot, neither of which are genres I love. After I watched the film, I said that now I didn’t need to read it because the plot was the best part and I wouldn’t have to trudge through sludgy paragraphs of description. Well, it wasn’t as bad as that. Hardy’s prose was very readable although I did feel that sometimes the description slowed things down too much.

It is clear from the start that Gabriel Oak is Hardy’s chosen one. He is at one with the rural setting which Hardy felt was under threat. He is good and kind and patient. He is able to put his love for Bathsheba to one side and treat her like a human being. He helps her out, often puts her interests ahead of his own and the reader starts to hope that he will be given a second chance romantically. He has to wait, though, for Bathsheba to go through the horror of her relationship with Troy first.

Both Boldwood and Troy do not think of Bathsheba as a separate person who is capable of having needs and emotions that do not relate to them. They think only of their own longing. To be fair, Bathsheba was foolish to send the valentine to Boldwood and her surprise when he took it seriously was annoying but she couldn’t have envisioned the way his passion would drive him completely mad. Troy was even worse because at least Boldwood was a decent person who would have loved and looked after Bathsheba well. It is apparent from the start that he will be trouble.

Of course, Bathsheba doesn’t know about Troy and Fanny. The reader has that knowledge and worries for Bathsheba. It is obvious that Bathsheba will fall for him and equally obvious that it will not go well. Troy thinks of no one but himself and he all but destroys Bathsheba when they marry. I found it hard to sympathise with Bathsheba – perhaps if I hadn’t seen the film, I wouldn’t have been so against Troy right from the start – I felt she should have been able to see through his superficial charm. Of course, Bathsheba is her own woman and so if free to make bad decisions but even so it irritated me.

Overall, I enjoyed it as much as I ever enjoy a classic or a romance. I felt my usual impatience with the first suitor being the best suitor and sometimes I felt bogged down in the descriptions of rural life and scenery but I wouldn’t rule out reading another Hardy and that really is progress.