Books Read in 2015 46. The Autograph Man by Zadie Smith

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Genre: Literary Fiction, Religion

Narrative Style: Third person largely from Alex’s perspective

Rating 4/5

Published: 2002AutographMan

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Alex Li-Tandem collects autographs for a living and is obsessed with Kitty Alexander. He is so desperate for her autograph that he writes to her every day. When, after a drunken binge, he finds he has her autograph everyone thinks he has faked it but the truth is much much stranger. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge.

Time on Shelf: About ten years. I bought this and White Teeth at the same time. I read White Teeth straightaway and loved it. I meant to read this not long after but other books got in the way.

This is an interesting book. It is interesting in a number of ways. It is about fame from the point of view of non-celebrity autograph men who hunt for memorabilia like vultures. It shows the fickle nature of the market where what counts is not how famous you were but how many times you signed your name. Alex is obsessed with getting Kitty’s autograph for just this reason. She rarely signed anything and so it would be a tremendous coup to have one.

The second way it is interesting is the way it talks about religion and Jewishness. Alex himself is half Jewish and it would seem that this is the reason that he splits everything into two camps – Jewishness or Goyishness. One of his best friends is a rabbi, another has found transcendence through his dope smoking. He is fully immersed in Jewish culture without ever being an actual part of it. I must admit that I don’t know a lot about Judaism (or any religion really) but I could understand Alex’s wish to keep his distance from it all and the way it made him feel uncomfortable.

Finally, this is a novel about death. At the very beginning, Alex’s father dies, a loss which Alex is still recovering from as an adult. His death permeates the whole story. Alongside it, is the idea of fame as an avoidance of death – your image and your things live on after you. Those who leave nothing in the way of autographs and so on, might as well be dead even before the event occurs. When Kitty’s death is mistakenly announced , Alex takes the opportunity to sell all his autographs while the price is high. Even Kitty, although annoyed at first, soon sees the monetary value.

The novel was funny as you might expect given Smith’s reputation as a writer of humour. There are some great gags such as the running joke of Alex constantly being thwarted by a group of Rabbis trying to get an improbably large piece of furniture into an unfeasibly small car. But the real strength of this novel is the description of Alex’s grief and his arrested development because of it. The reader can empathise with Alex’s pain and his difficulties in moving forward. It was touching without being sentimental and funny without being cruel. A very enjoyable read.   

Books Read in 2015 43. A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

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Genre: War, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: Third Person from the point of view of two women

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2007

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Mariam is fifteen years old when she is married off by her father to the much older, Rasheed. Laila is born to a different generation but also finds herself  married to Rasheed, The women form a bond that helps them to survive not only the horrors of their marriage but the war and oppression all around them. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About five years. I suspected that this might be a bit of a bleak read and so put off reading it. 

This is a compelling book. The story of Afghanistan from the seventies until the present day told through the eyes of two women trapped by war and marriage. The history was something I was sort of familiar with – it became more familiar as it came closer to the present day – but nothing prepared me for reading about the horror of life for actual citizens.

Hosseini creates a vivid picture of the various stages of war and the various enemies. He shows how men like Rasheed used the rise of the Taliban and the oppression of women to commit their own personal atrocities. Rasheed was already determined to control the women he was married to – it must have seemed like a gift from heaven that women were not even allowed out without a male escort. He was a brutal man and the regime legitimised his brutality and meant that Mariam and Laila had no escape.

Both women as portrayed convincingly as they battle against the many hardships the war throws at them. I’m not sure I was 100% convinced by Mariam’s eventual self sacrifice but maybe it was only because I wanted it to be otherwise. I wanted her to be able to share in the future with Laila and Tariq.

This is a bleak story and it was such a relief at the end that things did start to pick up for Laila and her family.  I’m not sure I could have coped with much more heartache. As with the best of fiction, this gave me insight into a situation that I didn’t know much about and has encouraged me to read more about this subject.

 

 

 

Books Read in 2015 40. Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Genre: Romance, Classics

Narrative Style: Third Person, Mostly chronological

Rating: 4/5 

Published: 1933

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Set in the 1920s, Tender is the Night, is a doomed romance. When Rosemary Hoyt first meets Dick Diver, he is married to Nicole and their world seems perfect. However, Dick is not merely husband to Nicole but doctor too and the strain of such a relationship starts to take its toll on both of them. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: So long that I have lost track of where it came from. 

When I started to read this, I didn’t realise that it was considered semi-autobiographical. In fact, I knew nothing about Fitzgerald at all. The fact that this novel mirrors his own descent into alcoholism and his actual wife’s struggles with schizophrenia make the events in it even more poignant.

The sense of tragedy invades the pages of the novel from the very beginning when the reader does not know the reasons for it. For all Rosemary’s impression of the perfection of Dick and Nicole’s love, it seems there is something missing from the picture even though I couldn’t quite put me finger on what it was. Of course, Dick’s growing obsession with Rosemary shows that there must be something wrong with the relationship and there are hints at the strangeness of Nicole’s behaviour but nothing concrete.

All is revealed in the next part of the book when it is discovered that not only is Dick Nicole’s husband but her doctor also. Her madness and the reasons for it are revealed and also Dick’s part in bringing her back to health. When he meets her again, it seems inevitable they will fall in love and also inevitable that it will end badly. How could such a relationship possibly survive?

As the novel continues, the roles of Dick and Nicole slowly reverse themselves. As Dick begins to drink, he becomes the one who behaves erratically, the one who offends other people and by the end of the novel, he is unable to hold down a job or stay in one place. Nicole, when released from the need of being a patient, at last seems happy in her new marriage.

The novel is beautifully written and there is no doubt that Fitzgerald was one of the writers of his generation. He describes the French Riviera as one fascinated by something both monstrous and beautiful. The characters are products of this time and Fitzgerald is merciless in describing their flaws as well as their good points. Both Dick and Nicole are easy to empathise with as their decisions impact their lives and their marriage starts to crumble.

This was one of those novels where i wanted to go back to the beginning where things seemed happier and to have no knowledge of the tragedy that followed. I wanted to remember Dick as the successful young doctor, full of potential, rather than the drunken wreck he became. Dick is symbolic of wasted talent and has become so removed from his starting point that he is not even anchored to any one place anymore.

Books Read in 2015 – 36. Raven Black – Ann Cleeves

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Genre: Detective

Narrative style: third person, chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2006raven-black

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When the body of a teenaged girl is found, the suspicion immediately falls on Magnus Tait, a strange and lonely old man. But as Jimmy Perez investigates, he finds that many Shetlanders have secrets they would like to protect. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge.

Time on Shelf: About five years. I was going to start reading this series but then the TV series with Douglas Henshall started and I watched them instead. I wanted to put some space between myself and the TV program before I read them. 

I was looking forward to this after the slog that was June’s book (The Well of Loneliness) and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The story is sharp and the characters are well drawn and convincing. Unfortunately, I could remember who the killer was as it had been a surprise when I watched it on the TV. However, that is not Cleeves’ fault and I tried not to let it spoil my enjoyment.

The main thing that I found difficult was that I kept picturing Henshall when really, he didn’t fit the physical description in the book. (I’m sure it’s just a jarring for readers who see John Hannah play Rebus and then decide to read the books. It’s hard to shake off the TV image.) However, he did seem to capture the personality well. Perez was just what I like in a policeman, a little bit of an outsider, not an easy man to love but tenacious and determined to get to the bottom of the problem.

The death of Catherine Ross triggers a series of events that reminds Shetland residents of the death of an earlier child, Catriona. Magnus Tait was the main suspect then as well. Perez has to fight against the urge of other officers to simply accept the old man as suspect and close the case. Of course, nothing is ever simple in a detective novel and although there are a number of times when it seems it might have been Tait, the final answer is a lot more satisfying and complicated then that.

I was keen to read this and the pages turned fairly quickly. However, for all the quotes on the front and back cover claiming that this is a ground breaking detective novel, I didn’t think it did anything particularly different. However, this novel is almost 10 years old and it may be that it was more exceptional at the time. Certainly, it barely put a foot wrong in keeping its audience guessing and I will definitely read the next book in the series.

Books Read in 2015 – 25. A Long Way Down – Nick Hornby

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Genre: Humour, Drama, Mental Illness

Narrative Style: First person from four different points of view

Rating: 3/5

Published:2005Unknown

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: JJ, Martin, Jess and Maureen meet on the top of Topper House on New Year’s Eve. They all have the same intention. To jump. Instead, they decide to give it until Valentine’s to see if life is really worth living. 

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge 2015

Time on Shelf: About 6 years. I loved High Fidelity but since then, I’ve liked each Hornby novel a little less so I avoided reading this one. 

I suppose it’s inevitable that a novel with such a high concept storyline would seem a little unreal at times. Each story emphasised different aspects of depression and reasons why someone might try to kill themselves. However, all four of them together on one roof was a little much and was hard to swallow.

Of course, it was apparent that they wouldn’t jump – otherwise it would have been a very short story indeed – but the narrative tension was in whether they would actually make it back to life. This was where the problems started for me. I wasn’t really drawn in enough by the characters’ stories. They were all a bit too much like characters and not like real people.

Martin was the fallen celebrity who only had his own stupidity to blame, Jess had a missing sister and parents who didn’t seem to really see her, Maureen had a disabled son who she had to care for 24/7 and JJ’s band had split up and he had lost his girlfriend. When it came down to it, the solutions to all their problems were quite simple but of course, when you are depressed, nothing is simple and Hornby does capture that aspect quite well. What was more difficult was liking or empathising with them. I didn’t care enough about them because they didn’t seem real.

I also found the constant switching of viewpoints a little annoying. I’d have been happier if each narrator spoke for longer, I think but as it was, it was hard to get to grips with any of their voices. It was a little like being shouted at by four incredibly needy people. At times I just wanted them to shut up.

Although this is a book about depression, it is at times very funny and Hornby is very good at capturing his characters’ foibles. There are some very funny set pieces which, although they didn’t always ring true, did make me chuckle.

At least there was no pat ending. Hornby realises that there is no straightforward cure for what ails these characters and so although they seem better, they are not cured. But it does seem that they are moving in the right direction. That was satisfying.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 20. Brighton Rock – Graham Greene

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Genre: Classics, Crime

Narrative Style: Third person from various viewpoints

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1938Unknown-1

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Hale realises soon after he arrives in Brighton that his life is in danger. He is caught up in Brighton’s gang war. After he has killed Hale, Pinkie believes that he can escape earthly punishment but he didn’t expect the force for good that is Ida Arnold.

Reading challenges: TBR Pile Challenge

Time on Shelf: About 15 years. My husband read it almost straightaway when we bought it but it has taken me this long. 

 

When the opening line is ‘Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him’, you know that you are onto a winner. This book hooks you in immediately and does not let go. There is not a moment wasted as the plot is intense and taut.

The character of Pinkie was fascinating. He was both vulnerable and dangerous. His own background makes his path into violence seem almost inevitable. He is not much more than a child, trying desperately to mimic the methods of the men he sees around him. He is clever but untamed and has no moral code to speak of. He is the very model of a psychopath but Greene makes it possible for the reader to feel for him and the situation he has got himself into.

On the side of good is Ida Arnold, the woman who was with Hale just before he died. She barely knew him but is determined to discover the truth of his death. She is full of life and laughter, a strong character who will not give up. Thankfully, she is not a saint but an ordinary woman who decides that she must not let this one go. She is motherly and tries to look after Rose (who Pinkie marries to keep her from testifying against him) even when Rose does not want her help.

The character of Rose was the one weak link in the novel. I couldn’t see why she might fall for Pinkie so heavily that she would marry him immediately. She was dangerously naive and I wasn’t really convinced by her. I don’t think she was as well drawn a character as the others. It was hard to feel any sort of empathy with her about her bullheaded belief that Pinkie loved her.

This is very much a novel about earthly retribution versus that of the Catholic church. One of the only things that Pinkie believes in is the fiery depths of hell. He appears to believe that nothing on earth can touch him. I must admit that I do not know a lot about Catholicism or even religion as I have no beliefs and I think some of the finer points of this novel passed me by because of it.

Overall, though this was a fine thriller which kept me interested throughout and although Pinkie’s downfall seems inevitable, the exact nature of it was still a surprise and the ending of the novel is quite devastating. A very enjoyable read and certainly encouragement to read more of Greene’s work.

 

Books Read in 2015 – 15. My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin

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Genre: Australian Fiction, Classics, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1901miles-franklin-my-brilliant-career

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: TBR Challenge

Time on Shelf: About ten years. A relative was selling off some books and she thought I would like it so I bought it but then forgot about it. 

Synopsis: Sybylla Melvyn is headstrong and stubborn. She feels that she doesn’t belong in her community, knowing as she does about music and literature. She hates the monotony of the life in the farming community. She much prefers life at her grandmother’s where she stays for a while. It is here that she meets Harold Beecham who is quickly beguiled by her. Sybylla is not so sure that marriage is what she wants. 

Like many coming of age novels, this may have been more enjoyable to me at a younger age. I did find Sybylla a hard heroine to like. Despite what anyone said to her, she was determined to believe that she was ugly and unloveable and that started to grate after a while. Her behaviour was often odd and I couldn’t really figure her out.

When she meets Harold Beecham, it is immediately obvious that there will be some romance between the two. However, as the blurb on the back declares that Sybylla does not accept his proposal, any tension there might have been was destroyed. Strangely, I found myself wanting Sybylla to accept. Harold was lovely and would have supported her dreams of being a writer. While it is suggested that she refused in order to keep her independence, it seemed to me that she actually refused because of her own perceived unworthiness. Also, the blurb also mentioned that in the film, Harold was played by Sam Neill , one of my early crushes. I know this influenced me, after all, who could say no to Sam Neill?

What I did enjoy were the descriptions of the hardness of life in 1880s Australia. Sybil’s sojourn at her grandmothers is interrupted by the news that due to her father’s drinking, she has to go to work for a man that has loaned him money. When she gets there, she is faced with the horrors of life in poverty. The family are happy but filthy. They cannot afford to eat very much or very well. The children lead Sybylla such a merry dance and the circumstances are so horrible that she becomes ill and has to return to her parents’ home.

Still, it is a testament to Sybylla’s strength of character that she does not accept Harold’s proposal even though it would take her from the monotony of life on the farm. At the end of the novel, she is no further towards her ‘brilliant career’ as a writer and there seems little likelihood that she will escape from her life on the farm. It is a sad ending which did leave me feeling pity for Sybylla.