Eclectic Reader Challenge – Finished at last.

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I decided to play it differently this year. I spread the challenge books out instead of reading them one after the other. The net result of which was a slight panic that I wouldn’t get the last one read in time. It took me a month to read Travels in the Congo, my final book so I’m glad I didn’t leave it any later.

It was a more difficult challenge this year. Largely, I think because the genres were further removed from what I normally read. I don’t particularly like romantic comedies, I never read travel writing and also a couple of the books I chose, I didn’t love. Patricia Cornwell springs to mind here as well as Dorothy L. Sayer.

Nevertheless, I think it is a good thing to read in different genres and I did also read some excellent books – Travels in the Congo by Andre Gide was very good, as was John Boyne’s The Absolutist.

Overall, I enjoyed it and I certainly will be doing it again next year.

Books Read in 2014 – 61. Travels in the Congo – Andre Gide

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Genre: Travel

Narrative Style: First person recollection2036108

Rating 4/5

Published: 1927

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre travel.

Synopsis: Gide wishes to discover Africa, to go to places that have barely been discovered, to witness new landscapes and people. He travels through the Belgian Congo as it then was and makes observations about the colonial system that prove to be politically important. 

There were a couple of reasons for picking this book. At first, I was going to read one of Michael Palin’s travelogues, a couple of which have been bought for us. I don’t do much in the way of reading travel writing so there wasn’t much to choose from on my shelves. I could have picked a Bill Bryson up, sure in the knowledge that I would like it but that would seem to defeat the point of this being an Eclectic challenge. All the same, I wasn’t really looking forward to reading the Palin, enjoyable as the accompanying tv series were. Then I inherited a lot of books and this Gide was among them. I’ve wanted to read Gide for a while and I was also curious as to what it would be like for him travelling through Africa at the point in history. Even then, this remained till the very last. I kept putting off picking it up.

I don’t know why. It was exquisitely written. Gide has a novelists eye for detail and his descriptions of the landscape are often quite poetical. He describes their hardships and delights unsparingly and doesn’t flinch from his own stupidity or embarrassment. He is clearly knowledgable about plants and insects which he also describes in detail.

This isn’t the main interest though. Seeing Africa through the eyes of a white, privileged man gave a strange image of the times. Gide is clearly a reasonable and intelligent man and he treats the natives he meets with respect and even though he is prone to calling them simple, he allows them a dignity that I imagine was lacking in a most of the dealings between colonialist and colonised. He spends long hours teaching Adoum, one of their entourage to read and is genuinely bereft when he has to leave their company. He disapproves of the way the blacks are ripped off by the colonists and is always fair, sometimes paying a higher rate than they would normally get. He suggests that the exploitation of those working to produce rubber was akin to slavery. Indeed, on publication, the book influenced anti-colonist movements and inspired reform.

Alongside this, is Gide the hunter and Gide the butterfly collector. It seems strange to our sensibilities that whenever a new animal is spotted, the first recourse is to the gun. Indeed, they succeed in shooting a hippopotamus which they then skin and cut up, parts of which turn the whale boats they are in into abattoirs with blood running over the boards. Gide has a curious mind and is clearly excited by each new butterfly or insect that he sees. Unfortunately for the creature, that usually meant that its fate was sealed as it is then killed and preserved.

Overall, this was interesting as a historical document as well as a travelogue. The map at the front of the book is now completely different and you can’t help but wonder exactly how different the landscape and the people would be, if you visited today.

 

Books read in 2014 – 51. Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

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Genre: cosy mystery fiction 

Narrative style: third person, chronological

Rating: 2/5

five red herringsPublished: 1931

Format: paperback

Reading challenges: Eclectic reader challenge 2014 genre cosy mystery 

Synopsis: Campbell was not popular among his fellow artists so when his body is discovered in suspicious circumstances, there is no shortage of suspects. Lord Peter Wimsey has his work cut out working out truth from lies as all of the suspects seem to have something to hide. 

I bought this quite a while ago when I first started to read detective fiction and then just didn’t get round to it. I knew that it was going to a little old fashioned and safe and I like a fair bit of blood and gore in my detective fiction so it languished on the shelf until this year’s eclectic reader challenge. I’d never even heard of the genre of cosy mystery and had to look it up. I was pleased though that it would mean I would read Five Red Herrings at long last.

I did bring quite high expectations to the book. After all, Sayers is considered a master of the detective art. And in fact, I would have to say that was true. There was nothing wrong with the tightness of the plot. If anything it was too tight.

The first thing that irritated me was Lord Peter Wimsey himself. Of course, I knew he was going to be posh but he was just too jolly hockey sticks for me. If I’d been a character in this book, I’d have been tempted to off him the minute he called me “Old Horse”. Still that was a minor quibble and one that was down to my prejudices rather than Sayers’ writing. At the beginning, I was still enjoying the story and wondering who was the guilty one.

However, the plot soon became bogged down in train schedules and timetables of the murderers actions which were tedious to read. I also found it difficult to separate the artists from each other and couldn’t remember which alibi belonged to which artist.

At the beginning of the novel, Wimsey spots something that lets him know it’s murder. Instead of telling the reader, Sayers says in an aside that she won’t say what it is because the intelligent reader will know what it is. This annoyed me as I consider myself an intelligent reader but I couldn’t figure out what it could be. I felt that she was suggesting I was too stupid to work it out. When it was finally revealed, I felt better as it was not at all obvious.

In fact, I really had no clue about who did it. The various possibilities are outlined in the final chapters by various policemen and all are plausible enough. Unlike, the actual solution. maybe, I’m just peeved because I didn’t work it out but this was so ridiculously convoluted, I’m really not sure how Wimsey could have spotted it. In the end, it seemed like a detective novel solution rather than a real life solution.

This isn’t to say that the novel isn’t well written and it does all hang together, it’s just that the solution wasn’t satisfying for me and I can’t see me reading anymore of the Wimsey mysteries.

Books Read in 2014 – 45 The Good Girl – Mary Kubica (contains spoliers)

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Genre: Thriller, Romantic Suspense

Narrative Style: Different first person viewpoints, non-chronologicalgood girl

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2014

Format: Kindle

Reading challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge

Published in 2014

Synopsis: Mia Dennett has disappeared. Her mother is convinced that she has been kidnapped although her husband thinks it is just Mia being Mia. Gabe Hoffman is the cop determined to find Mia and bring her home. However, the case will prove to be less simple than anyone could have imagined.

This was a very disappointing read. This book has been compared to Gone Girl and I now realise exactly how well put together that book was. Compared to this one anyway. I was expecting a thriller and for all Gone Girl’s faults, it certainly was that. This fizzled out pretty quickly. I have problems with romance at the best of times and this was not one of those.

The first problem was the different narratives. They all just seemed the same. Little attempt was made to differentiate the voices or give the characters any sorts of quirks. They were differentiated by their actions not by their voices. I didn’t believe in Colin the kidnapper from the very first and he grew more and more unconvincing as the book went on. Mia was similarly one-dimensional.

The second problem was that the twists and turns were too clearly signposted. Mia is rescued quite early on with severe amnesia and her mother’s description of her daughter’s behaviour and Colin’s narrative intertwine with non too subtle hints being given as to what the next big thing would be. The ending was no surprise and even a little disappointing.

Finally, I think that the balance could have been better between romance and suspense. It was apparent from the first that there was the possibility of romance between Gabe and Mia’s mother. This was just distracting. Furthermore, the romance that blossoms between Colin and Mia doesn’t ring true. There is little in the way of development, just straight from hate to love.

It was pleasing that Mia’s father gets his comeuppance as he was truly unpleasant and one of the few characters who didn’t seem wooden. That this was at the hands of the daughter that he despised was a neat form of justice but unfortunately just too obvious.

 

Books read in 2014 – 40. If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work by Irvine Welsh

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Genre: short stories, Scottish fiction

Narrative Style: varies – five stories in collection

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Rattlesnakes – three friends drive out into the desert to take drugs and end up stranded with unexpected results. If you liked school, you’ll love work – an expat struggles to juggle all of the women in his life. The DOGS of Lincoln Park – a trendy young woman who loves her dog more than her friends is disturbed by the arrival of a Korean chef in her apartment block. Miss Arizona – a struggling screenwriter meets his match in lonely Miss Arizona. Kingdom of Fife – Jason King and Jenni Cahill struggle with the boredom of living in a small Scottish town.

Book Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Anthology genre

This collection was a mixed bag. I’m not a massive fan of short stories but Welsh’s previous collections (The Acid House and Ecstasy) were both excellent so I thought I’d give it a go for the anthology genre in this year’s Eclectic Reader Challenge. I’m not sure why they didn’t quite grab me this was fairly typical Welsh fare. All the usual ingredients. But then maybe that was the problem.

Rattlesnakes started well. You know you’re in a Welsh story when someone gets bitten on the penis by a rattlesnake and the only way to avoid death is for his best mate to suck the poison out. However, this story was spoiled by the borderline racist depiction of a psychotic Mexican. When he finds the pair in their tent, the story becomes pointlessly seedy and the main aim seems to be to make the reader as uncomfortable as possible. So far, so Welsh, you may say but there was nothing underneath the shock, no subtext or cleverness, just smut.

If you liked school, you’ll love work seemed like a case of masculine wishful thinking. The narrator takes great pains to say that he isn’t particularly attractive or slim, yet woman love him and despite some close calls, he never does get caught out. Nothing about this character or any of the women rang true. A series of stereotypes in a series of false set pieces.

The DOGS of Lincoln Park. This is where the collection started to pick up. Welsh carefully plays with racial stereotypes as he forces the reader to make certain assumptions about his Korean chef’s eating habits. You are then left with uncomfortable feeling that you believed the racist hype and assumed that the dog had become dinner.

Miss Arizona. This was a little bit Tales of the Unexpected but very enjoyable. The narrator is clearly trapped somewhere when he starts to tell his tale of making a documentary about his favourite director and interviewing his ex-wife who is heavily into taxidermy. It isn’t too hard to work out what has happened but is a good read nonetheless.

Kingdom of Fife. This is the only story set in Scotland and as such rings the most true. Welsh really does have an ear for his native tongue and captures Jason’s voice well. However, his depiction of Jenni Cahill was less successful and I wasn’t really convinced by her or her sudden change of heart about Jason either.

Books Read in 2014 – 33. The Inheritance of Loss – Kiran Desai

eclecticchallenge2014_3002014tbrbuttonGenre: Indian Literature, Family95186

Narrative Style – Third person, non-chronological

Rating: 3/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2005

Synopsis: In an old, isolated house a retired judge lives his life in solitude despite those around him, his granddaughter, Sai is in love with her Gurkha tutor and their cook can think only of his son in New York. The son is desperately moving from one dead end kitchen job to another. Around them all hell breaks loose and they are all forced to reconsider their emotions. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge (Award Winning), TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: I rescued this book about two years ago from my father in law when he was having a rare sort out of books for the charity shop. He hadn’t read it but decided he never would (this seems like sacrilege to me but he does have a lot of books).  

I’m still not really sure how I feel about this book. It did make me think. And it opened my eyes to some of the issues that have plagued India in recent years and I realised that I had no idea of the history and the politics and it may be something that I read more about in the future. So for that it was certainly good.

The prose was beautiful; poetic and haunting. It even made the desolation seem magnificent. It was easy to see how this had won the Booker Prize. However, sometimes it seemed like the frosting over not very much and left me feeling a bit empty.

I think my main problem was identifying with some of the characters. The judge was a very difficult character to empathise with and I didn’t really enjoy all the time given to his back story. More interesting was Sai’s relationship with her Ghurka tutor, Gyan, which falls apart when the Ghurka’s start to demand independence. Also, some of the minor characters were more interesting (in my mind) than the Judge and I would have liked to hear more about some of them.

Ultimately, I can see why this book won The Booker Prize and I can appreciate its beauty but in the end, it wasn’t really to my taste.

 

 

 

Books Read in 2014 – 24. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Genre: Gothic, Suspenseeclecticchallenge2014_300

Narrative style:  First person narration, told from a point in the future. 

Rating: 3/5

Format: Hardback

Published: 1938

Synopsis: An unnamed narrator relates her dream of Manderley and describes how she and her husband Max de Winter can never return to Mandeley. She then relates her story, beginning with her first meeting with her future husband and then their subsequent marriage and return to Manderley where she is haunted by the presence of de Winter’s first wife, Rebecca.

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014: Gothic genre.

Sometimes it is good to have no knowledge of a book. I was keen to rebecca11read this as I am a big fan of the film version which is tense and suspenseful. But I felt the knowledge of the film hampered me when I was reading this and made me impatient.

The nameless narrator – called only Mrs de Winter or the second Mrs de Winter – was an odd character who I could feel very little sympathy for. It was not apparent why Max de Winter might have found her attractive. She was insipid, childish and often lost inside her own head, unable to control her jealous imaginings. I know that some of my impatience with her was to do with my knowledge of the narrative and I felt she should have spotted more signs of future events. When she eventually discovers the truth about Rebecca’s demise, all she can think is that Max had never loved Rebecca and she immediately forgives him.

I often struggle with classics perhaps because I am more used to reading modern fiction. I felt that this took too long to get truly started. Perhaps if the narrator had been more interesting to me I would have found it easier to get to grips with.The pace did eventually pick up and the ending was suspenseful and packed with action. The ending was satisfying and I wished the rest of the book had been as tense.

The one success was the character of Mrs Danvers who is just as sinister in the novel as she was in the film. She was easy to picture in her black uniform, with her skull like appearance, ruling Manderley and yearning for the first Mrs de Winter. However, a lot of the other characters seemed more like types than real people.

Part of me wishes I could have removed the knowledge of the film from my mind and read this fresh. It’s hard to know how much more I might have liked it. I’m not sure that I could ever have taken to the second Mrs de Winter though.

Books read in 2014 – 19. The Absolutist by John Boyne

Genre: Historical Fiction, War

Narrative Style: First person narration, Moves between 1919 and Tristan’s memories of the war

Rating: 5/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Tristan Sadler has decided to deliver letters written by Will eclecticchallenge2014_300Bancroft to his sister in Norwich. Will was shot as a coward but Tristan knows the truth of what happened and hopes to be able to tell Will’s sister his deepest secrets. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge: War. 

Having previously read The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, I should have been more prepared for the onslaught on the emotions that this book provided. At the end, I was devastated. My mind kept playing over the details of the ending as if I could somehow change the narrative and give Will and Tristan a better ending.

The narrative begins with Tristan’s arrival in Norwich to give the letters to Will’s sister Marian. He had trained and fought with Will and it soon became apparent that he had loved him very much. Marian wants answers as to why Will died and proof that he was not a coward for laying down his arms and refusing to fight. the absolutist

At first it seems that Tristan’s great secret is his homosexuality and the physical acts that he and Will shared. Understandably at this moment in history, and in the army, this was something that both men found difficult to deal with. However, the truth of the matter was much more painful and dark. And although I had worked out exactly what Tristan had done, that didn’t lessen the trauma of actually reading about it.

The themes of this book run through many war novels – the nature of bravery, what makes a man, the effect of brutality on the psyche – but I don’t think I have ever read a novel that tackles them so directly. Before Will lays down his arms, another character, Wolf, is murdered by the other soldiers when he finally hears that he will not have to fight. The treatment of those who wished not to fight and those who could not was appalling – much worse than I’d realised. The treatment of Marian and Will’s parents is equally deplorable.

In the end, although Tristan’s behaviour was also deplorable, I had a lot of empathy for him. Boyne’s characterisation and use of historical detail is so good that it is possible to see past the terrible act he commits and see the man and the reasons behind it. Easily the best book I’ve read in an age.

 

Books read in 2014 – 9. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde


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Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014The TBR Challenge

Genre: Alternate History, Fantasy, Humour

Narrative Style: First person narrative, Straightforward chronological timeline

Rating 3/5
Format: Paperback
Published: 2001

Synopsis: Thursday Next is a literary detective. Her life suddenly becomes more exciting when Arch Villain Acheron Hades starts kidnapping literary characters. Never mind the fact that her personal life is in tatters as the man she loves is about to marry someone else. When Jane Eyre is kidnapped, Thursday must see if she can return her to the book without causing to much damage. 

Time on shelf: About four years. This series has been recommended to me by a couple of people whose views I trust but I’ve always been a little hesitant. 

Part of me thinks I should have loved this book. After all, it’s literary, it’s clever and in places it is very funny. But at the end I just felt like it could have been so much better. There are an awful lot of ideas in this book but not really enough plot and character to sustain them. Perhaps if Fforde had held some of them back, it would have been a bit more satisfying.

Part of the problem is the characters are little more than hangers for various jokes and stereotypes and I didn’t really relate to any of them. Acheron was quite good fun as a villain but even he was a little flat. And by then end of the novel, I was completely fed up with comedy names such as Paige Turner or Millon De Floss. Maybe it’s just me but I’ve always thought that this sort of thing is okay in moderation but very quickly grows tired. It certainly did here.

The best parts of the novel occur when Thursday is stuck in the book of Jane Eyre and she and Rochester conspire with the servants to ensure that Jane’s narrative is undisturbed. In this world, Jane does not end up with Rochester, at least not until there is an almighty fight between Thursday and Acheron and a fire ensues. I think you can see where this is going. Of course, everyone preferred this ending. And understandably so as the alternate ending was quite dreary.

After this, the narrative returns to Thursday’s love life. Despite being hostile to Landen Parke-Laine (Groan!) for a lot of the novel, she suddenly decides to stop him from marrying the wrong woman only to lose her nerve at the last minute. But it’s okay – the lawyers from Jane Eyre step in to accuse his bride of bigamy. I must admit, I found this part of the novel a bit tedious and not as funny or clever as Fforde probably hoped

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t a terrible book. It definitely had its moments, just not as many as I might have expected.

Books read in 2014 – 7. Postmortem – Patricia Cornwell

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014eclecticchallenge2014_300

Genre: Medical Thriller

Narrative Style: First person narrative, Straightforward chronological timeline

Rating 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1990

Synopsis: Someone is strangling and binding women in Virginia, America. Kay Scarpetta is the chief medical examiner assigned to the case. The novel starts with the fourth murder and shows the way the murders are making everyone from single women to city hall officials to reporters jumpy. postmortem

I was excited to read Cornwell for the first time so I was pleased when her name came up on a search for medical thrillers. She was one of the major crime writers that I had yet to sample. I decided to start at the beginning of the Kay Scarpetta series, instead of diving in in the middle which is my usual habit. I wish I hadn’t.

This novel was published in 1990. I found I kept saying that to myself while I was reading it as if it was an excuse. Kay Scarpetta seemed the absolute product of 80s feminism; all bitter and distant from having to climb the corporate ladder in a man’s world. Okay, maybe that is how you would be but it made her difficult to like and even harder to identify with. She seemed to dislike men on principle regardless of whether they were sympathetic to her or not. That started to be a little wearing as the novel progressed and I found myself getting annoyed with her.

It was a bit of a distraction from what was a good thriller. It kept you guessing until the end. It was interesting to note the differences from modern crime stories which rely so heavily on technology. DNA profiling was still in it’s infancy and Cornwell seems a little unsure at times exactly what to do with her evidence. That said, the novel is full of close detail and medical information that is interesting. The process of working from evidence through research and finally to a solution was impeccably described.

In the end, the story was compelling enough to keep me reading despite my reservations about the characters. However, I doubt I’ll read on.