Friday, December 30, 2011

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

This is the latest offering by Brisbane based novelist Kate Morton.  It is the first of hers I have read and I do regret that I did not like it more.  The reason I regret not liking it more than I did, is because she is a best selling novelist from the city I grew up in, and when I see her interviewed she seems so thoughtful and likeable.  Basically, I think I should have read one of her earlier books, and now, alas, after having waded through the more than 550 pages of The Distant Hours, I can't see myself picking up another any time soon.

From the book jacket:

It starts with a letter, lost for half a century and unexpectedly delivered to Edie's mother on a Sunday afternoon.  The letter leads Edie to Milderhurst Castle, where the eccentric Blythe sisters live and where, she discovers, her mother was billeted during WWII.  The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives caring for their younger sister, Juniper, who hasn't been the same since her fiance jilted her in 1941.

You know,  Morton does write well, there is plenty of lovely original descriptive prose throughout the novel.  She creates a good sense of place in the woods surrounding the castle.  More so than in the castle itself, where the idea of the whispering walls struck me as a bit silly, or at least overly romantic.  The story also contains some really good elements.  It has interesting ingredients, a modern and WWII setting.  To be honest, I think I have read too many books lately using the sort of narrative device where the reader is jumping from the modern era back to an earlier mystery.  At least I didn't enjoy how it was executed in this novel.  There were too many jumps and I just felt exhausted with it.   In the end it was just too long in my view.  The characters did not engage me to the degree that I needed to sustain my interest for that many pages.  I think the idea might have been that the castle itself is one of the main characters.  It just didn't hang together that well for me, and parts of the plotting were overblown or predictable.

I could see why some readers would really enjoy this novel.  If you like expansive, languid and descriptive prose, with some intriguing historically romantic themes, then you may enjoy this.

Also, don't forget to enter my  New Year Book Giveaway and a very happy New Year to you!

New Year Book Giveaway (International)

Happy New Year!!

Win a new book for the new year.

As another reading year winds down, I wanted to share some of my favourite reads this year with you, kind followers of The Book Nook.  And I would also like to know which of the books you have read this year  most moved, or excited, or amused you.

You have a chance to win one of the following three books.  There will be two winners randomly selected, and if both winners have chosen the same title that is fine.  I have selected three very different titles for you to choose from,  so I hope there is something amongst these that appeals to everyone.

The Books

My absolute favourite book this year was Bereft by Australian novelist Chris Womersley.  So good for so many reasons: the writing, the eerie atmosphere, characters, plot - this one is a standout. 

My second pick is The Scar by British "new weird" writer China Mieville.  The first half of the year saw me reading quite a bit of sci-fi, not my usual purview at all, but I loved this book.  Okay, it is a bit of a chunkster, and normally I complain about the huge book, but the pages fly by in this incredible swashbuckling, almost Dickensian world Mieville creates.  The guy is a bit of a genius if you ask me.

I did read a couple of Victorian classics this year, and the one that impressed me most was Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy.  I would go so far as to say that, of all the so called classics I have read, this one left the greatest impression.

Conditions of the competition:
  • In a comment, please leave: a contact email address, the title of the book you would like to win, AND a link to the post of one of your own favourite reads this year. Or just tell me the title of a book you enjoyed.
  • The two winners will be randomly selected on Sunday 15th January 2012, and contacted by email.  If I don't hear from you after 10 days another winner will be selected.
  • The books will be coming from The Book Depository, so naturally enough, you need to live in a country they deliver to.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

Occasionally I succumb to those lists that tell us what to read.  The Good Soldier (1915) by English author Ford Madox Ford appears in most of those "Best novels.."  or  "100 best English-language novels of the twentieth century" type lists, and I was curious to see what all the fuss was about, because apart from seeing the novel in those lists, I had not heard of it.

The novel is set at the beginning of the twentieth century, before WWI.  It focuses on the friendship between two upper class couples, John and Florence Dowell from the US and Eward and Leonora Ashburnham who are landed gentry in England.  The couples meet in a German health spa.  The novel is told in the first person by the American, John Dowell, and centres around his explanation of the downfall of his friend Edward, the good soldier of the title.

I have mixed feelings about this book, that I think are partially influenced by my high expectations going in that were not fully realised.  The subject matter of the book reminds me alot of Somerset Maugham novels, which I love, all of the, behind the acceptable social veneer of "happy couples."  Maugham goes in for alot of the transatlantic comparisons of social mores in the first part of twentieth century too.  Maybe reminiscent of F Scott Fitzgerald also.

Structurally the book is very unusual and I would say ground breaking for its time.  The narrator is unreliable (trust me, this is not much of a spoiler, because it is very subtle compared to the unreliable narrators that have been used since), and the story is told in out of sequence flashbacks.  It is all very clever, and I found myself engaged and eager to arrive at the end, as there is a growing tension in the narration; from the outset the reader is made aware that there is something inconsistent in the storytelling.

The novel is packed with clever symbolism. A motif of the heart is used repeatedly to good effect.  The story begins at the German health spa because two of the partners have "heart" difficulties.  There is lots of talk of weak hearts etc, and that is what this story is really all about.  The characters all lack personal insight into their own hearts and for this reader at least, seemed quite heartless.

But you know, clever and "stylistically perfect" as I have heard the novel lauded, does not necessarily equal an enjoyable or "I love it" reading experience does it?  I did not love it.  Mostly because all of the characters are so unlikeable and joyless.  And I am sure that is the point.  I am sure Madox Ford is writing about some sort of self-absorption of the upper classes in England leading up to WWI.  As a study in relationships, or relationships between married couples, I would much rather read Somerset Maugham.  The Dowells and the Ashburnhams are equally awful and his depiction of the women in the story seems unusually harsh. But that is part of the plotting cleverness as it is all tied up in the narration and form of the story.  Even so, the female characters are either painted as domineering and cold, or soulless and wanton.  And again I think this is the point, our narrator is very sympathetic to Edward, the good soldier, and perhaps is speaking to the sadness of his plight.  Well this female reader was left fairly unmoved by the male characters feeling sorry for themselves, and behaving badly none the less.

I would love to know if others have read this and what they think.  It is a classic book, I was just left a bit disappointed. It is however the sort of book I would consider rereading, because there is so much to the structure, I am sure some of the subtleties were missed by me, the first time round.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Teaser Tuesday 13 December

Teaser Tuesday is hosted by MizB over at Should Be Reading.  It is a chance to share a non spoiling sample of your current read.  I am reading a gothic romance mystery, The Distant Hours, by Kate Morton:

"Quite." Percy Blythe straightened and I became aware suddenly that she didn't like Mrs Bird.  'Now if you will both excuse me." She bowed her head towards the open door, through which the outside world  seemed a brighter, noisier, faster place than when I'd left it.  p.88

I am really enjoying this novel so far, about a big creepy house and secrets of long ago.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Audio Book Heaven: My Two Favourite Listens This Year

Readers of this blog may know that I regularly listen to audio books. Let's not debate if such listening qualifies as reading, or any of that sort of nonsense.  There are differences between listening to a story being read and reading it yourself, of course, and I am always clear which I am talking about. Listening to an unabridged audio book is simply another way to absorb a story.  And frankly, the experience can be heavenly, depending on the beauty of the language and the skill of the narrator.  Audio books bring the magic of fiction, or non-fiction if you prefer, to those times when holding a book or e-reader would not be practical.  More stories, more of the time, who can lose?  The two that follow are pure bliss.

Prodigal Summer written and narrated by Barbara Kingsolver  was my introduction to this author.  I know a number of you love her work.  The plot comprises three, gently overlapping, stories set in the Appalachian area of the US.  Kingsolver's language and voice are hypnotic.  I found her storytelling, and gift for entwining nature metaphors in her prose, like nothing I have ever heard (or read) before.  I remember listening to this one mostly as I walked around my neighbourhood or was doing the dishes.  I can still hear her languid and lilting Appalachian drawl when I think about this story.  I remember just floating in the beauty of her prose.  The stories depict the natural flow and ebb of human relations, to each other and the environment; I loved the whole experience.

My second pick for a real audible standout, is Geraldine Brooks Caleb's Crossing.  This one is narrated by Jennifer Ehle who you may remember played Elizabeth Bennett in the 1995 miniseries of Pride and Prejudice.  I read Brooks first novel Year of Wonders earlier this year and loved it, so was keen to experience something else by her.  Brooks is a brilliant storyteller of historically themed fiction.  In Caleb's Crossing she incorporates the history of Martha's Vineyard, where she has made her own home with her family, with the story of Caleb, the first Native American to attend Harvard back in 1665.  Or at least, it is the fictionalised version of what might have been his story.  What is so intriguing with Brooks novels is that she always starts with one piece of historical fact, here the first Native American student at Harvard in 1665, and spins her magical tales from there.

The story is told from the point of view of Bethia, a young girl living on the island with her pioneering family, who secretly befriends the young boy Caleb.  This story was not what I expected or predicted.  It is tragic and soulful and I am in awe of what Brooks has achieved. 

Ehle's narration is equally impressive as she produces the Puritan English and Native American speech effortlessly.  This is the perfect example of where I know I have taken more from listening to the story being read by an expert, than I would have if I had struggled to imagine the unfamiliar language myself.

On average I have listened to one audio book per month for the last four years, and these two are as good as any I have heard.  I would recommend them to everyone.  Especially to those that have not yet been converted to the audio book or may be wondering where to start.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

When the going gets tough, I seem to read crime fiction.

I don't know about you, but the end of year usually sees a bit of an energy decline and emotional overload for me.  I am not sure the precise reason, but my reading did slow down over the last few weeks.  Fortunately that little dip has passed, and my reading enthusiasm has been fully restored.  During the slump I did read a couple of fairly decent crime novels.  To be honest, I think that is what I love about crime fiction: yes it is formulaic and predictable at times, but who cares?  Sometimes there is nothing nicer than to plunge into the world of unlikely murder and body disposal, to make one's own life seem positively bliss. 

Firstly I read Skin and Bone by Australian MD and author Kathryn Fox.  It is a very competent police procedural.  Detective Kate Farrer has returned to the homicide squad after three months off.  I liked the character of Kate because she is a bit controlling and irritating.  I guess I liked that she was in some ways unlikeable. Makes for a change from the irascible male detectives and super stylish female pathologists who generally populate the genre.

As to the plot of Skin and Bone, there is nothing especially remarkable about it; we have Kate and co discovering the remains of a burned female corpse, without an immediate identity, and the presence of a nappy bag suggesting that there is a missing baby.  The hunt begins, and of course leads to some very seedy and unlikely connections between the ensuing cast of suspects. 

I think what I enjoyed most about Fox's writing is the interesting medical procedural aspects.  She writes well about the forensic side of things, no doubt her background as a doctor contributes to this, and there is some heart to the story and characters.  For those that like the medium speed police procedural, Fox is worth checking out.

Now to the high speed, sleep depriving , and my current crime writing favourite, Jo Nesbo.  Yes, I couldn't resist going one more round with Detective Harry Hole (pronounced Hula) this year.  The Devil's Star is the fourth Hole novel I have read since discovering this series earlier this year.  Honestly, these books are so "unputdownable" (and yes, I know that is the most irritating and cringy word know to reviewing, but if ever I was going to use it, it will be here) that they should come with a health warning. 

I have tried to think about what makes these books so compelling.  And I can only conclude it is the character of Harry himself.  I mean, it is like Nesbo has taken what we have come to know and love in our irascible detectives and taken it to warp speed.  Harry is not just a little maudlin, brooding, hard drinking and smoking, sparse living, unlucky in love, but irresistible to woman type.  He is much worse than that.  Harry is a full blown alcoholic, a focus of ridicule in the Oslo police force, whose working life reads a bit like a psychedelic drunken binge, lurching from oblivion to self imposed periods of abstinence, where Harry appears only one crumpled cigarette drag from his whole world crashing down around his ears.  Needless to say, at over 190cm tall, this haunted and time ravaged detective is still irresistible to women, and utterly unlucky in love.

Like all of the Hole novels I have read, the plotting of The Devil's Star is complicated but faultless.  By the time the killer is revealed, the reader has been lead through so many turns and culverts, without stopping to draw breath, that the denouement always feels like a gasping relief.  This novel was different for me too, because Oslo is experiencing a heatwave, which completely changes the atmosphere of what I have come to love about the usual ice-packed Scandinavian crime novels.  The heat works, because Harry's alcoholic haze seems even more depressing, everyone is sweating all of the time, and the author has had to be even more creative and macabre in finding ways to hide his murdered corpses. 

In The Devil's Star, Nesbo has delivered another tightly written, high body count, espresso paced crime thriller.  If you like your crime to feel like a surge of adrenaline that won't release you until the last page, you must try these books.