Clearing The Decks: Quarter 1 Report

I have selected a hundred books from the ridiculous number that I have unread. Those books are now my home library, to be chosen from when I need a book but don’t have one in hand. And, like library books, passed along once I’ve finished with them.

No deadlines, I just want to read and clear from time to time, and to have somewhere to turn when I wasn’t sure what to read.

The first quarter started well, but tailed off. I was distracted by Virago Reading Week, Persephone Reading Week, the Orange Prize longlist ….

But six books are leaving and a couple more will be on their way very soon.

First there was A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo. It had been hanging around for ages. It wasn’t that it didn’t look interesting, it was just that its moment never seemed to come. At the beginning of January I read it, wrote about it, and it is now in a stack of things waiting for the car-boot sale we plan to go to after Easter. I liked it very much, but I’m happy to let it go.

And then there was Sister by Rosamund Lupton. A very successful book, I should have waited in the library queue but a copy appeared in a charity shop …. Again I read it, wrote about it, and added it to the car-boot sale stack. The verdict was interesting but flawed. The human story was excellent, but the crime story wasn’t of the same quality. But the good was more than good enough for me to put Rosamund Lupton’s forthcoming second novel on my wishlist.

I picked up Firmin by Sam Savage next. I’ve read some great reviews, but I’ve also read a number that said that the book just didn’t work for them. After a few chapters I decided that I was going to fall into the latter camp, and so I dropped it. Not a bad book, just not the book for me. This one was traded on ReadItSwapIt for a travel book for my fiance.

I did finish The Truth About Melody Browne by Lisa Jewell but I wasn’t inspired to write about it. She does light as air contemporary romances very well, but this one touched on many serious issues and subject matter and style didn’t quite work together. Readable, but not her best. this one is in the car boot sale stack too.

Lorelei’s Secret by Carolyn Parkhurst was another book I finished but wasn’t inspired to write about. A woman dies and her husband recalled their past while trying to find out what happened from the only witness to her death – the dog. There were so lovely moments but I couldn’t quite believe in the couple’s relationship, or in the quest to communicate with the dog. I know a lot of people loved this one, but it just didn’t work for me. But I did manage to trade it on ReadItSwapIt for a biography of Vera Brittain.

The last book I finished this quarter was Only Say The Word by Niall Williams. A lovely book and I will write about it, but I misplaced the book while I was still formulating my thoughts and it has only just reappeared. It’s another one for the car boot stack once I’ve pulled out a few quotations and written about it a little.

And that’s it for quarter one.

I’ll report back again in three months time, and if you see any books on my Clearing The Decks page that you would recommend or you would like to hear more about, do let me know.

Sister by Rosamund Lupton

Imagine that you’re in New York, with a successful career and a brand new engagement ring on your finger.

You miss your family, back in England, but that isn’t something you dwell on. Life is good!

And then imagine receiving a telephone call from your mother, telling you that your sister has gone missing.

What do you do?

Beatrice comes home.

And although her mother and her sister’s friends are able to accept what the police tell them has happened to Tess, Beatrice cannot. And so she begins to investigate her sister’s life, searching answers to explain what has happened, and why.

This story unfolds in a series of letters that Beatrice writes in her head to Tess. Wonderful letters. She talks of the past, of what she is doing, of what she is feeling.

The letters are such an effective device. They paint complex, vivid and utterly real pictures of the relationship between the two sister. They provide a moving account of a mother and her only surviving child realigning their relationship.They speak painfully clearly of the many stages of grief, of how it changes you, and of how difficult it is to put a life back together after a shattering loss.

Two sisters, and their mother. Real, complex, believable people to care about.

Emotionally, this novel is pitch perfect.

I’m afraid that the crime story rather lets it down. It was compelling and it raised some interesting questions, but the science didn’t ring true for me, and the complexity of the investigation just didn’t sit well with the emotional story.

If only the story of what happened to Tess had been a little simpler, had reached a different conclusion, this could have been a far finer novel.

As it was, the conclusion was striking – not so much a twist as a revelation that makes you rethink things you have read – was striking, but it didn’t feel quite right. I’m afraid I felt that maybe I had been cheated.

I’m holding on to the emotional story, but letting go of the crime story.

And I’m hoping that Rosamund Lupton can get the balance just a little bit better next time. Because then she really could write something very, very special.

Still Clearing The Decks

This is a much-needed project.

I have rounded up one hundred books that I think I will be happy into pass on, once I’ve read them and written about them. They are now my home library, stacked in a corner that I will turn to whenever I think I have nothing to read.

Some will be read, some I will accept just aren’t calling me any more and ditch.

I’m posting the books in batches of ten to bring them to the front of my mind, to remind myself why I bought them, why I wanted to read them.

And also to ask for help.

Can you see a book that you enjoyed ? Or a book that you didn’t?

Can you see a book that you’d like to know more about?

The Way Things Look To Me by Roopa Farooki

“At 23, Asif is less than he wanted to be. His mother’s sudden death forced him back home to look after his youngest sister, Yasmin, and he leads a frustrating life, ruled by her exacting need for routine. Everyone tells Asif that he’s a good boy, but he isn’t so sure. Lila has escaped from home, abandoning Asif to be the sole carer of their difficult sister. Damaged by a childhood of uneven treatment, as Yasmin’s needs always came first, she leads a wayward existence, drifting between jobs and men, obsessed with her looks and certain that her value is only skin deep. And then there is Yasmin, who has no idea of the resentment she has caused. Who sees music in colour and remembers so much that sometimes her head hurts. Who doesn’t feel happy, but who knows that she is special. Who has a devastating plan.”

I spotted this on the Orange Prize longlist earlier in the year. I really wanted to read it, the library didn’t have it, and so I ordered a shiny new copy. I’m afraid it fell by the wayside, but now I have it in mind for Orange January.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima

“By conventional Japanese standards, Koko Mizuno is an abysmal failure as woman, wife, and mother–and she couldn’t care less. She has succeeded in remaining true to herself in a stubborn struggle against powerful conformist pressures. Yet her resistance is largely passive. Self-absorbed, indecisive, she makes her own uncharted way through life, letting her husband, lovers, even her only daughter, gradually slip away. Signs that she is pregnant after a casual affair rouse her to make decisions. Then a deeply ironic turn of events thrusts her into the cold light of a reluctant self-knowledge. Through layer upon layer of dreams, memories, defenses, and delusions, she emerges finally to take a conscious step toward the independence she cannot yet define, certain only that she herself has changed.”

I picked this one up in a charity shop when I spotted the distinctive black and white striped spine that told me it had been published by The Women’s Press. A wonderful publisher. I wasn’t sure that it was my sort of book, but the cover had a glowing recommendation from Angela Carter, and once I saw that I knew that the book would have to come home.

Another Kind of Life by Catherine Dunne

“Hannah, May and Eleanor are sisters whose early life in Dublin with their middle class parents, has prepared them for a comfortable future of marriage, children and servants. Further north, Mary and Cecilia are also sisters, struggling to make a living in the linen mills of Belfast amid rising political tension. The lives of all the sisters are destined to unfold in ways that none of them could have imagined and ANOTHER KIND OF LIFE is the intricately crafted tale of how their lives entwine, against the backdrop of the rapidly changing Ireland of the late 19th century.”

I borrowed another book by Catherine Dunne – The Walled Garden – from Harrow library years ago and loved it. I kept an eye out for her other books but nothing ever appeared. Until, some years later, I spotted this one.

Ireland by Frank Delaney

“One evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller arrives unannounced and mysterious at a house in the Irish countryside. By the November fireside, he begins to tell the story of this extraordinary land. One of his listeners, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the storytelling that, when the old man leaves, he devotes his life to finding him again. It is a search that uncovers both passions and mysteries, in his own life as well as the old man’s, and their solving becomes the thrilling climax to this tale. But the life of this boy is more than just his story: it is also the telling of a people, the narrative of a nation, and the history of Ireland in all its drama, intrigue and heroism. “Ireland” travels through the centuries by way of story after story, from the savage grip of the Ice Age to the green and troubled land of tourist brochures and news headlines. Along the way, we meet foolish kings and innocent monks, god-heroes and great works of art, shrewd Norman raiders and envoys from Rome, leaders, poets and lovers. Each illuminates the magic of Ireland, the power of England and the eternal connection to the land.”

I was keeping an eye on this one in the library, but the moment never seemed quite right. So when I spotted a battered copy in a book sale I bought it home so I’d have it to hand when that right moment came.

The Messenger of Athens by Anne Zouroudi

“When the battered body of a young woman is discovered on a remote Greek island, the local police are quick to dismiss her death as an accident. Then a stranger arrives, uninvited, from Athens, announcing his intention to investigate further. His methods are unorthodox, and he brings his own mystery into the web of dark secrets and lies. Who has sent him, on whose authority is he acting, and how does he know of dramas played out decades ago?”

I bought this towards the end of last year with my Orbis Terrarum Challenge in mind, but I discovered that the author was English and not Greek, so that didn’t work. But I now have the letter Z covered for my A to Z of Crime Fiction!

Sister by Rosamond Lupton

“Nothing can break the bond between sisters …When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first flight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding her sister’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face. The police, Beatrice’s fiance and even their mother accept they have lost Tess but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.”
I liked the look of this when it appeared as a Richard & Judy Book Club selection last summer and so I placed an order at the library. I found myself twenty-eighth in the queue for just one copy, and so when I spotted a copy in a charity shop I bought it. Not entirely rational, because it probably would have turned up in the library long before I pick up my own copy, but I’m afraid I’m not entirely rational when I spot a good book.


The Black Dahlia by James Ellroy

“On January 15, 1947, the torture-ravished body of a beautiful young woman is found in a Los Angeles vacant lot. The victim makes headlines as the Black Dahlia-and so begins the greatest manhunt in California history. Caught up in the investigation are Bucky Bleichert and Lee Blanchard: Warrants Squad cops, friends, and rivals in love with the same woman. But both are obsessed with the Dahlia-driven by dark needs to know everything about her past, to capture her killer, to possess the woman even in death. Their quest will take them on a hellish journey through the underbelly of postwar Hollywood, to the core of the dead girl’s twisted life, past the extremes of their own psyches-into a region of total madness.”

This one came home from the library book sale a couple of years ago.

Last Rituals by Yrsa Sigurdardottir

“A young man is found brutally murdered, his eyes gouged out. A student of Icelandic history in Reykjavik, he came from a wealthy German family who do not share the police’s belief that his drug dealer murdered him. Attorney Thora Gudmundsdottir is commissioned by his family to find out the truth, with the help – and hindrance – of boorish ex-policeman Matthew Reich. Their investigations into his research take them deep into a grisly world of torture and witchcraft both past and present, as they draw ever closer to a killer gripped by a dangerous obsession…”

I spotted this in the 50p box, remembered reading a fair bit of praise, and so home it came. So that’s letter Y covered for my A to Z of Crime Fiction too!

The Book of Loss by Judith Jedamus

“Set in the perfectly realized world of imperial tenth-century Japan, The Book of Loss is a gripping novel of sexual jealousy at court. A renowned storyteller and lady-in-waiting to the Empress, the narrator is locked in a bitter rivalry with another woman for the love of a banished nobleman. Forced to observe the complex rules and social hierarchies of court life, she finds herself caught in a trap of her own making. Her machinations reach such a pitch that they threaten to undermine the rule of the Emperor himself. She records her plight, and her acidulous observations of courtly life, in her diary. Her voice is unforgettable–both foreign and utterly modern. Her sense of loss is unbearable, her love is all-consuming, and it will push her to the extremes of rivalry.”

This was an impulse purchase on a trip to Waterstones in Truro.

Someone Else by Tonino Benacquista

“Who hasn’t wanted to become ‘someone else’? The person you’ve always wanted to be…the person who hadn’t given up half way to your dreams and desires? One evening at a bar two men who have just met at their tennis club in Paris conclude that it is time to change their lives and decide to meet again in three years time to see whose transformation is the more radical. Thierry is a picture framer with a steady clientele, but he has always wanted to be a private investigator. Nicolas is a shy teetotal executive trying not to fall off the corporate ladder. But becoming another is not without risk; at the very least the risk of finding yourself.”

I read about this one in the back of another book (The Dinner Party by Saskia Noort) from the same publisher (Bitter Lemon Press) last summer. I was in interested, and so I checked the library catalogue. There wasn’t a copy to be had in Cornwall, and so when I came across a copy in a secondhand bookshop on holiday I picked it up.

… and that’s the end of this batch … Any thoughts?