Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
I was so excited when I saw the new Ishiguro on the bookshelf. His previous: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are wonderful books, full of insight and character that leave you thinking deep philosophical thoughts and spark great conversations.
Sadly, I found Klara and the Sun — seems almost sacrilegious to say so — boring.
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The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn
They’re not old. Early fifties is not old. But after sleeping rough on the trail for a few weeks they are often mistaken for a pair of old tramps. True, they have lost their house and are living hand to mouth, sleeping in a tent on waste land and often going without meals. Ray talks of her birds-nest hair and filthy clothes and Moth’s illness makes him frail and tentative. They kind of are tramps. Don’t judge the homeless, is a refrain throughout the story.
This is the journey of a couple who find themselves homeless. It’s a six hundred and thirty mile journey. Unable to secure a flat and with no income (their home-stay business lost with the house), they pick up a copy of Paddy Dillon’s guide to the South West Coast Path and decide to walk through the summer, freedom camping, a burden on no one. They have £115 topped up with a small weekly benefit, a cheap tent and thin sleeping bags, a copy of Beowolf. Not much else. Oh, and the complication that Moth has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and been told to get lots of rest, take occasional gentle walks, not too far, and be careful on the stairs.
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Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Dellarobia is a woman in small town hillbilly USA, pregnant at seventeen, now ten years a wife and mother who is bored and disappointed in her life, heavy with the burden of being judged and found wanting. Her husband Cub matches his name; I can hear his slow drawl in my head. He’s gentle, a two-hundred pound child and dumb as a cow and Dellarobia has the smarts but not the provocation to take her beyond small town life. “Her anger collapsed into a familiar bottomless sorrow,” is a good description of her state.
The book opens with Dellarobia walking up into the hills to a tryst, but what she finds instead is a small movement, a fleck of orange wobbling, a butterfly on the wing. It changes everything, as we all know a butterfly beating its wings can do.
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All our Shimmering Skies, by Trent Dalton
Like the gorgeously lush cover, this book is almost too sumptuously overgrown with luxuriant succulents to be true. If that sounds a mouthful, you should read Dalton’s descriptions of the Australian outback.
Molly, our spunky but naive child heroine, walks away from the bombing of Darwin and I was expecting Australian desert. But she walks through many variations of the cover picture. “… a stand of black wattles and soap trees with flat round black fruits and then down an avenue of trees with mottled cream-grey bark and stiff leaves exploding with small ripe red fruits. These tree clusters are all canopied by a dense climbing vine with orange-yellow flowers shaped like starfish …” I’m wondering what to make of this dreamy psychedelic landscape and the vividness of the descriptions, which are offered in stark contrast to the city in the background. The voice is often passive: “Seen from the orange-red sky above and looking down and closer in and closer in, they are three wanderers crossing a vivid floodplain cut by sinuous rivers and wide freshwater channels dotted with lily-fringed waterholes. The sun low and honeyed.” (Love that repetition and the honeyed sun.)
It seems a strange response to trauma. Unexpected, perhaps intriguing.
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The Mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
I was given this book for Christmas and was so excited. Right up my street. Historical—1600s—a sea journey, Norway, an island setting, a storm, a bunch of women surviving remote and desolate lives. What’s not to like?
I was well into this story before I read the blurb a bit more carefully and discovered what’s not to like. The witch trials. They’re based on fact.
What is it with these blokes in power who see strong women as such a threat that they have to burn them at the stake? A woman has poppets in her house. She wears trousers. Burn her!
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Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A brilliant story teller on the birth of Biafra and the war, the war, the starving millions. This is a hard book.
I was a child in Wellington during the Nigerian civil war. We learned about the starving children of Biafra and I am still haunted by those first images of black children with distended bellies, held by women with arms so thin they seemed to contain no flesh at all. I didn’t then know the reason for the big bellies but I do after reading Half of a Yellow Sun. The systematic malnutrition of babies and children by the Nigerian generals, aided by British weapons and ammunition was causing acute protein deficiency, leading to the condition known as kwashiorkor.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s story is centred around five linked people, who lose all control over their lives as Nigeria erupts into civil war and they become “Biafran” for the three long years of the secessionist state’s existence. All are interesting and fully engaging characters and we walk with them as their stable and happy world disappears fast into chaos and brutality.
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The book of two ways, by Jodi Picoult
There are a whole lot of things to unpack in this book; I feel like I’ve come home from holiday and the case has exploded open on the bed. Books and memories and clothes falling out and there’s Egyptian sand through everything. Here is a great novel for chatty book clubs — but perhaps not recommended if you have judgemental grumps (like me).
The Egypt thing first — it’s magnificent. A great setting for a book, we see writing on the walls and dip in and out of caves and uncover stories thousands of years old. Picoult’s son is an Egyptologist and I bet the pair of them had some great mother/son talks on the original, ancient “Book of Two Ways”. Feels compellingly authentic and pretty wonderful. A simple story in situ would have been perfect.
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The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig
Matt Haig is an extremely popular modern writer and I can see why. He writes about the idiosyncrasies of being human and what makes us tick. What is normal, what are other people’s lives like, what are we here for, what’s the point? And he covers these big, existentialist questions in a blithe, chatty way to disguise where he is taking you. I’ll be slammed for suggesting that he diminishes important ideas to the level of pop culture, but there we are. If you want to spark a deep conversation when you’re sitting with your mates on sofas and pouring out the chardonnay (and that’s a yes from me), this book might start you off.
Actually, I have moved this review into my books that don’t make the cut section because, while Haig is a popular author and The Midnight Library an interesting read, I did have a few qualms about the subject matter treated in such a way. SPOILERS FOLLOW. Continue reading…
The Dictionary of Lost Words, by Pip Williams
Not a light-hearted book, this one. It’s a long, slow burn, perhaps a bit over-written, a 300 page story stuffed into a 400 page one. I did get into it, but at the start the writing felt contrived — quirkiness which missed authenticity by a beat.
At heart it’s the story of women coming of age through the 1900s and the long slow finding of their seat at the table. This much I loved. The men are kindly old academics but blind to their blindness and the women have an unspoken hunch that equality would be nice. They work as hard as the men with the brains of the men but get no credit for any of it and pretty much everyone accepts that. Rebellion is very much on the fringe which is spot on.
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The Bright Side of My Condition, by Charlotte Randall
I’ve just spent a year writing a book about castaways on a remote, southern New Zealand island in the early 1860s and sent it off for consideration, when a friend told me about Charlotte Randall’s The Bright Side of My Condition, set about 50 years earlier on the Snares, with seals and storms and miserable conditions. I almost died. She’s already written my story – I wailed.
But of course, she hadn’t. There is more than one story set in the frozen southern oceans and many ways to tell ’em.
Randall’s is based on a true story of four convict men who have escaped Norfolk penal colony, without much planning or foresight, stowing away on a sealing ship. The captain drops them on a desolate island with a trypot and some basic necessities and tells them to collect a payment of seal skins. He’ll pick them up in a year. The felons are so pleased to be free of the jail that this seems a reasonable exchange. A decade passes.
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