Happy New Year folks. Here’s hoping 2022 will be the year that we can look forward to brighter days ahead. I think we are all craving some small sense of normality, a need to do something spontaneous just because. I’m dreaming of meet ups and events where there are no rules attached, where we can breeze into a coffee shop, grab a cuppa and a seat and just immerse ourselves in the hubbub of everyday living again. How easily we took it all for granted…
I took a wee break from my blog over the last couple of weeks as I felt really shattered and just had completely lost my reviewing mojo. I think I finally ran out of superlatives! I decided to randomly select books from my own personal collection and I have to admit I really enjoyed the experience. I also made a decision that I wasn’t going to write my usual length reviews for these books but I do want to highlight them in this post and acknowledge, with a few words, how I felt about them. We’ll call them very mini book reviews!
I read a total of eight books which I know is not a huge number by any means but I also decided to throw my feet up over the holidays, when the opportunity arose, and watch a few movies. From Casablanca to Don’t Look Up and many more, including a re-watch of the iconic Chocolat with Juliet Binoche and Johnny Depp, it was a complete blog break and I relished every moment.
So what did I read….
Snowflake by Louise Nealon
Snowflake by Louise Nealon was published by Manilla Press in May 2021 and is described as ‘a startling, honest, laugh and cry novel about growing up and leaving home, only to find that you’ve taken it with you…a novel for a generation, and for everyone who’s taken those first, terrifying steps towards adulthood.’
On holidays earlier in June this year, I wandered into the gorgeous Tertulia Bookshop in Westport, Co. Mayo and picked up a copy of Snowflake. It was a book that was receiving high praise but for some reason, even though I did buy it, I was slow to pick it up. I think the tagline, ‘A Novel for a Generation’ put me off. In my fifties I thought I was too old and wouldn’t get it…but I was very wrong.
Snowflake was an unexpectedly emotional book about a young woman, Debbie White, who has lived a rural and slightly alternative life on a dairy farm in Co. Kildare and is now embarking on a degree course in Trinity College Dublin. The world as she knows it is changing but Debbie is caught between the new and the old and struggles to find balance. A very affecting tale. A beautiful debut.
Eighteen-year-old Debbie White lives on a dairy farm with her mother, Maeve, and her uncle, Billy. Billy sleeps out in a caravan in the garden with a bottle of whiskey and the stars overhead for company. Maeve spends her days recording her dreams, which she believes to be prophecies.
This world is Debbie’s normal, but she is about to step into life as a student at Trinity College in Dublin. As she navigates between sophisticated new friends and the family bubble, things begin to unravel. Maeve’s eccentricity tilts into something darker, while Billy’s drinking gets worse. Debbie struggles to cope with the weirdest, most difficult parts of herself, her family and her small life. But the fierce love of the White family is never in doubt, and Debbie discovers that even the oddest of families are places of safety.
Montpelier Parade by Karl Geary
Montpelier Parade by Karl Geary was published by Vintage in September 2017 and is described as a book ‘about how deeply we can connect with one another, and the choices we must make alone.‘
A book I picked up second-hand, Montpelier Parade was one that I had been meaning to read for quite some time. It pulled on every heartstring, as I turned the pages, with writing that was extremely sensitive to the characters, bringing Vera and Sonny very much to life.
There is a great tenderness throughout this debut as Sonny steps out of his working class life into the arms of the more affluent and older, Vera. Her story is trapped within the lines but eventually the truth does out and it is quite shattering.
A very poignant and beautiful story, Montpelier Parade, is a tragic love story, a coming-of-age novel that will remain in the heart of every reader for some time.
Her house is on Montpelier Parade – just across town, but it might as well be a different world. Sonny is fixing a crumbling wall in the garden when he sees her for the first time, coming down the path towards him. Vera.
Vera is older, wealthier, sophisticated, but chance meetings quickly become shy arrangements, and soon Sonny is in love for the first time. But there is something unsettling that Vera is keeping from him. Unfolding in the sea-bright Dublin of early spring, Montpelier Parade is an indelible novel about the things that remain unspoken between lovers. It is about how deeply we can connect with one another, and the choices we must make alone.
The City of Tears by Kate Mosse
The City of Tears by Kate Mosse was published with Mantle January 2021(the second book in a series following on from the incredible The Burning Chambers) and is described as ‘a breathtaking historical novel of revenge, persecution and loss’.
I am a huge fan of Kate Mosse and I really have no explanation for not picking this one up sooner, bar the fact that I just did not have the space or time to devote properly to a book of it’s size. But then Christmas arrived and with it the time to relax and finally lose myself in the imagination of this most impressive of writers. As a huge fan of historical fiction, The City of Tears was everything I love about this genre and more. I was taken on an extraordinary journey back in time and into the lives of Minou Joubert and her family. The level of factual detail is quite mind-blowing but never over-powering, providing the reader with an exceptional insight into the religious wars of the time and the fear that overshadowed the lives of all who dared to dream of a more equal society.
A Kate Mosse book is always an epic read and The City of Tears is no exception. An outstanding and quite simply excellent novel, I highly recommend you pick up a Kate Mosse book and discover for yourself the remarkable stories that she weaves.
May & June 1572: for ten violent years the Wars of Religion have raged across France. Neighbours have become enemies, countless lives have been lost, and the country has been torn apart over matters of religion, citizenship and sovereignty. But now a precarious peace is in the balance and a royal wedding has been negotiated. It is a marriage that could see France reunited at last.
An invitation has arrived for to attend this historic wedding in Paris in August. But what Minou does not know is that the Joubert family’s oldest enemy, Vidal, will also be there. Nor that, within days of the marriage, on the eve of the Feast Day of St Bartholomew, her family will be scattered to the four winds and one of her beloved children will have disappeared without trace . . .
Sweeping from Paris and Chartres to the City of Tears itself – the great refugee city of Amsterdam – this is a story of one family’s fight to stay together and survive against the devastating tides of history . . .
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga was first published by Atlantic Books in 2008 and is described as ‘an unforgettable novel of corruption, murder and twisted morality in contemporary India‘.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2008 and now a major Netflix production I purchased a copy of The White Tiger in a St Vincent de Paul Shop some time back and decided to read it over Christmas before I watch the screen production. I absolutely loved the movie Parasite so when I saw Standard describe The White Tiger ‘as angry, smart and dark as Parasite‘ I was sold. But here’s the thing, when I looked at Goodreads I apparently read it in 2015 and I have no memory of it, so I was a little concerned. To be honest I think there was a gremlin somewhere in my Goodreads listings because this award winning novel is a remarkable and very memorable debut.
Quirky and extraordinary are two words I would use to best describe The White Tiger. The main character, Balram Halwai, narrates his bizarre life through letters to the Chinese Premier, His Excellency Wen Jiabao, in advance of his visit to India. Balram feels it imperative that he give him an insight into his country and in particular into his life.
Simultaneously funny and gut-wrenching, The White Tiger is a completely immersive and engaging tale, one that informs and fascinates, one that disconcerts and unsettles, a castigating look at a society in flux.
Here’s a strange fact: murder a man, and you feel responsible for his life – possessive, even. You know more about him than his father and mother; they knew his foetus, but you know his corpse.
Meet Balram Halwai, the ‘White Tiger’: servant, philosopher, entrepreneur… murderer. Balram was born in a backwater village on the River Ganges, the son of a rickshaw-puller. He works in a teashop, crushing coal and wiping tables, but nurses a dream of escape. When he learns that a rich village landlord needs a chauffeur, he takes his opportunity, and is soon on his way to Delhi at the wheel of a Honda. Amid cockroaches, call-centres, thirty-six-million gods, slums, shopping malls, and crippling traffic jams, Balram comes to see how the Tiger might slip the bars of his cage.
Passing by Nella Larsen
Passing by Nella Larsen was originally published in 1929 and is described as an ‘electrifying classic of the Harlem Renaissance….intense, taut and psychologically nuanced portrayal of lives and identities dangerously colliding‘
I first heard about Passing while listening to the radio one day where the movie adaptation for Netflix was being discussed. I was immediately fascinated by Rebecca Hall, and her determination to film it as she felt necessary in order for the story to have full impact. Thirteen years later and this stunningly captured movie is a feast for the eyes and for the mind. We watched it as a family and were all so very much caught up in it’s message but we hadn’t read the book, so I was thrilled on Christmas morning when my daughters gave me this beautiful edition from the Penguin English Library.
I was very saddened to read that Nella Larsen, after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship to write a third novel in 1930, was unable to find a publisher and disappeared from the literary scene. She worked as a nurse in New York City. I wonder did anyone ever get to read that third novel.
At just over 100 pages, Passing is a compact book, but it contains a very powerful message about society, racism and the need to belong. A beautiful and tragic tale Passing is a classic for a reason with many of its themes sadly still relevant today in many parts of the globe.
Clare Kendry is living on the edge. Light-skinned, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a racist white man unaware of her African American heritage, and has severed all ties to her past after deciding to “pass” as a white woman. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African American community, and is simultaneously allured and repelled by Clare’s risky decision to engage in racial masquerade for personal and societal gain. After frequenting African American-centric gatherings together in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns into a homoerotic longing for Irene’s black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again, and she is forced to grapple with her decision to pass for white in a way that is both tragic and telling.
La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini
La Bella Figura, An Insiders Guide to The Italian Mind, by Beppe Severgnini was published in 2007 by Hodder & Stoughton and translated by Giles Watson.
‘Beppe Severgnini is a columnist and an editor at Corriere della Sera, which he joined in 1995. He was the editor-in-chief of its weekly magazine 7, from 2017 to 2019 and he created Italians in 1998 – the longest-running blog in the Italian media. He recently launched Fotosintesi, a video-column for Corriere TV. He became a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times in 2013. His writing has appeared in The Financial Times and The Economist, where he was the Italy correspondent from 1996 to 2003. In 2001, Mr. Severgnini was made an Officer of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II, and in 2011 the president of Italy conferred on him the title of commendatore in the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic. He lives near Milan with his wife and son.‘ – http://www.beppesevergnini.com/
Another second-hand purchase, I dived into La Bella Figura over Christmas as a complete distraction, an escape from the daily depressing Covid-related news. Our last holiday that we should have been on in June 2020 was cancelled due to the Pandemic and was supposed to be to Sardinia, an island I have visited in the past and one we wanted to bring our two teenage daughters to. I have a passion for Italy, having travelled there over the years to many places, including driving through the cypress hills and sunflower littered lanes of Tuscany, the striking island of Sicily, the flamboyant streets of Rome and along the beautiful Amalfi coast. Everything about Italy appeals to me so last week I needed a light read, one that would bring me back to Siena in Tuscany and along the scintillating coast of Sardinia. La Bella Figura fitted the bill. As it was published in 2007, many of the references are outdated but I still was thoroughly entertained by the satirical nature and wit of the writing. ‘Our picture of Italy is a party. What we aspire to is gratifying chaos.’ Covering politics, transport, school, food, the beaches and everything else in between we journey over a ten-day trip from north to south and feel, albeit temporarily, part of something quite unique.
I was able to picture myself walking the streets of an Italian town/city, stopping for a coffee and people-watching as the locals entertained me with their continuous chatter, their fashionable style and their wonderful attitude to living.
La Bella Figura is a fun read, not to be taken too seriously and one that I happily immersed myself in with a nice chilled glass of Prosecco in hand!
‘First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Your Italy and out Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, white wine and raven haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring but complicated. In Italia you can go round and round in circles for years.
Which of course, is great fun.’
Beppe Severgnini was The Economist’s Italian correspondent for ten years. A huge Anglophile as well as an astute observer of his countrymen, he’s the perfect companion for this hilarious tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors – la bella figura – and uncovers the far more complex, paradoxical true self. Alongside the historic cities and glorious countryside, there’ll be stops at the places where the Italians reveal themselves in all their authentic, maddening glory: the airport, the motorway and the living room.
Ten days, thirty places. From north to south, from food to politics, from saintliness to sexuality. This witty and beguiling examination will help you understand why Italy, as Beppe says, ‘can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred metres or ten minutes.’
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens (a wildlife scientist) was published with Corsair in 2019 (originally published in the US in 2018) and is a book that took the reading world by storm. The New York Times Book Review described it as ‘a painfully beautiful first novel that is at once a murder mystery, a coming-of-age narrative and a celebration of nature . . . Owens here surveys the desolate marshlands of the North Carolina coast through the eyes of an abandoned child. And in her isolation that child makes us open our own eyes to the secret wonders-and dangers-of her private world ‘
Another book in my collection that I hadn’t read, I finally picked it up last week and was immediately spellbound with the very vivid imagery portrayed by Delia Owens. Kya Clark’s character develops throughout the novel as her tragic story unfolds. A young girl left in the wilds of the North Carolina marshes to fend for herself, Kya became one with her surroundings, but the locals were uneasy, unable to accept this wild child, the ‘Marsh Girl’. Kya was very unfairly treated over the years but she still managed to keep her head held high when society repeatedly knocked her down. When Kya matured, her need for a soulmate, a companion, was strong but the community was not ready for her. This is her story.
Where The Crawdads Sing is set to hit the cinemas next summer with Daisy Edgar Jones playing the leading role and is a movie that I have no doubt will hit the box office running. Every reader made room for Kya Clark in their hearts and now we will get the opportunity to see her brought to life later in the year, a very exciting prospect.
Another heartbreaker, Where The Crawdads Sing is a haunting and very atmospheric tale about society’s fear of the unfamiliar, a murder-mystery and a love-story all inter-woven into a very engaging and impressive debut.
For years, rumors of the “Marsh Girl” haunted Barkley Cove, a quiet fishing village. Kya Clark is barefoot and wild; unfit for polite society. So in late 1969, when the popular Chase Andrews is found dead, locals immediately suspect her.
But Kya is not what they say. A born naturalist with just one day of school, she takes life’s lessons from the land, learning the real ways of the world from the dishonest signals of fireflies. But while she has the skills to live in solitude forever, the time comes when she yearns to be touched and loved. Drawn to two young men from town, who are each intrigued by her wild beauty, Kya opens herself to a new and startling world–until the unthinkable happens.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart was published with Picador in February 2020 and is The 2020 Booker Prize Winner. A novel that will shatter the soul, Shuggie Bain is described as a book that ‘lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride…a heartbreaking novel by a brilliant writer with a powerful and important story to tell.‘
A buddy loaned me a copy of Shuggie Bain months back but I kept deferring reading it afraid of where it’s contents would take me but knowing I had to make a dent in my 2022 ARC tbr very soon, I decided it was now or never. I tentatively picked up the book and began reading about a young boy born on the wrong side of the tracks. Shuggie Bain was different than all the other boys, bullied from the get-go for his la-di-da ways that were much out of sorts in a community that understood the rules of poverty. You had to be tough, you had to be strong and you had to have your wits about you at all times. Shuggie saw life through a unique lens and suffered for it. His mother Agnes was a struggling alcoholic who refused to admit to her addiction. With his father gone, his siblings leaving as soon as possible, Shuggie is left with a mother he wants to save, a mother he dearly loves. A memorable story with outstanding characters that are depicted with such clarity, Shuggie Bain is semi-autobiographical. After reading a little about Douglas Stuart’s personal story, I am in awe of his achievements and his pure determination to succeed.
Shuggie Bain truly is an outstanding and spectacular read. Deserving of all the accolades, this is a book not to be missed. It is gritty, it is raw and, be prepared, it will break you. This is a powerfully executed novel, a tragic tale, an incredibly vulnerable and evocative tale.
It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life, dreaming of greater things. But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and as she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest. Shuggie is different, he is clearly no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.