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.

Clearing the Decks Project: The Second Ten

Let’s recap!

I have more books than house-room. A bigger house would be one solution, but we like it here and so clearing out a few books seemed a more practical alternative.

So I’ve 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.

And now it’s time to introduce the second batch of ten. Do let me know if I have a book that you’ve loved and I’ll try to make it a priority. Or a book that you’ve hated and I should think twice about.

Here, with the usual apology for my camera-phone, are the books:

The Bullet Trick by Louise Welsh

“William Wilson’s stage magic career has tanked, girls sneer at him and he hits the bottle too often for someone whose livelihood depends on steady hands. Out of desperation, he makes two ruinous mistakes: he picks a policeman’s pocket and then picks up Sylvie, an American burlesque dancer in Berlin with dangerously intimate connections to the criminal underworld. The seriousness of these errors becomes slowly, agonizingly clear through a series of suspense-building flashbacks—set in contemporary Berlin, London and Glasgow—that show just how low a mostly decent man can sink, especially when a pretty woman is dragging him down and the glimmer of redemption always dances just ahead.”

I’ve read a couple of very good books by Louise Welsh from the library, but this one I bought on an impulse because the cover was so striking instead of waiting for a library copy to turn up.

The Window of the South by Robert Hicks

“Tennessee, 1864. On a late autumn day, near a little town called Franklin, 10,000 men will soon lie dead or dying in a battle that will change many lives for ever. None will be more changed than Carrie McGavock, who finds her home taken over by the Confederate army and turned into a field hospital. Taking charge, she finds the courage to face up to the horrors around her and, in doing so, finds a cause. Out on the battlefield, a tired young Southern soldier drops his guns and charges forward into Yankee territory, holding only the flag of his company’s colours. He survives and is brought to the hospital. Carrie recognizes something in him – a willingness to die – and decides on that day, in her house, she will not let him. In the pain-filled days and weeks that follow, both find a form of mutual healing that neither thinks possible.”

I really don’t remember where this one came from. All I can say is that it’s here and that as there are other period of history that interest me more it’s most likely a read and pass on book,

The Petty Details of So and So’s Life by Camilla Gibb

“Camilla Gibb tells the unusual story of two siblings, Emma and Blue, who, despite an almost telepathic connection, respond to the disruptions of their childhood and the sudden disappearance of their explosive father in remarkably different ways. In her father’s absence, Emma travels vast distances, both internal and external, in pursuit of a new family, and discovers a sense of belonging in the most unexpected of places. While Blue, her burly, tattoo-stamped brother, haunted by the brutal, criticizing voice of their father, sets off on a cross-country search for their elusive parent. In the novel’s powerful conclusion, brother and sister find value in each other’s quest, reconciled to the fact that one can love without ever truly understanding the other.”

Another bargain bin book that’s been hanging around for a while now.

The Horrific Sufferings of Hercules Barefooot by Carl-Johan Vallgren

“On a stormy night in 1813, a doctor is called to the aid of two prostitutes in childbirth. To one is born a healthy girl, Henriette, to the other, what can only be described as a monster: a boy, Hercules, deaf-mute and hideously deformed, and with the power to read minds. This is a picaresque fable of the love that grows between Hercules and Henriette during their childhood, and which will entwine their fates for ever. Vallgren paints a cast of grotesques in a magical and atmospheric tour of nineteenth-century Europe: the swags and tails of the bordello, where Hercules is born; the phantasmagoria of the freak show, with which he travels; the sinister grandeur of the Jesuit monasteries, in which he finds both shelter and peril; the squalor of the asylum, where he finds only pain.”

I spotted this in the Oxfam Bookshop on a day trip to Falmouth not so long ago. I picked it up because that title intrigued me, I read the first few pages and I was captivated.

Small g: a Summer Idyll by Patricia Highsmith

“This novel, set in Zurich, is centred around a group of characters who frequent a gay bar. It opens with the violent murder of a young man and follows the life of his middle-aged lover as he tries to continue his design business, cope with his grief and reconstruct his life.”

I really liked the Ripley books and so when a Patricia Highsmith title that I’d never seen before appeared in a bargain box I picked it up.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

“A lost child . . . On the eve of the First World War, a little girl is found abandoned on a ship to Australia. A mysterious woman called the Authoress had promised to look after her –but has disappeared without a trace.

A terrible secret . . . On the night of her twenty-first birthday, Nell Andrews learns a secret that will change her life forever. Decades later, she embarks upon a search for the truth that leads her to the windswept Cornish coast and the strange and beautiful Blackhurst Manor, once owned by the aristocratic Mountrachet family.

A mysterious inheritance . . . On Nell’s death, her granddaughter, Cassandra, comes into an unexpected inheritance. Cliff Cottage and its forgotten garden are notorious amongst the Cornish locals for the secrets they hold – secrets about the doomed Mountrachet family and their ward Eliza Makepeace, a writer of dark Victorian fairytales. It is here that Cassandra will finally uncover the truth about the family, and solve the century-old mystery of a little girl lost.”

I bought this home from the library but it wasn’t the right moment and so I bought a copy of my own so I could read it when the moment was right rather than waiting for it to turn up in the library again. So when that right moment does come I’ll be ready!

The Last Time They Met by Anita Shreve

“When Linda Fallon and Thomas Janes meet at a writers’ festival in Toronto, it is the first time they have seen each other for twenty-six years. Theirs is a story bound by the irresistible pull of true passion – a love which begins in Massachusetts in the early 1960s, is rekindled in Kenya in the mid 1970s and which is about to play out its astonishing final episode…”

I discovered Anita Shreve around the time of Fortune’s Rocks. I loved it and since then I’ve read most of the books that came before and after from the library, but this one never turned up on the shelves and so I bought a copy. It came home with me from London six years ago and it really shouldn’t have been hanging around for so long, but it was pushed into the far corner of a bookcase and for a long time I’m afraid I forgot it was there.

Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

“Faceless Killers is the first of the acclaimed Wallander novels. Set in January 1990, in a frozen landscape and against the backdrop of a rapidly changing Europe, this is a bleak novel that deals with the thorny issues of immigration and racial hatred. Wallander investigates a brutal double murder at a remote farmhouse in which the only possible clues are the whispered words of a dying woman and a freshly fed horse. When this limited evidence and its implications leak to the press it stirs right wing activists into action. At times Wallander seems too much like the traditional hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-boiled detective of old, but he is more than that. He is a truth seeker, trying to make sense of his rapidly changing world, his method happens to be detective work, and it is this search that lies at the philosophical heart of the novel.”

I’ve read a fair bit of Scandinavian crime over the years, but the Wallander books were always a gap. Then I saw a book of novellas, written after the novels but set before, in the library and it seemed like a good place to start. This, the first novel in the series, seemed to be the next logical step and I planned to order it from the library when the mood struck. But then a copy turned up in a charity shop at exactly the same cost as a library reservation, and so it seemed to make sense to buy it.

Firmin by Sam Savage

“This is a novel told through the voice of a rat. Firmin is born in the basement of a ramshackle old bookstore but because he is the runt of the litter, he is forced to compete for food and ends up chewing on the books that surround him. Firmin soon realizes his source of nourishment has endowed him with the ability to read and this discovery fills him with an insatiable hunger for literature and a very unratlike sense of the world and his place in it. As Firmin navigates the shadowy streets of his decaying area, looking for understanding, his excitement, loneliness, fear, and self-consciousness become remarkably human and undeniably touching. But the days of the bookshop and of the close community around it are numbered. The area has been marked out for ‘urban regeneration’ and soon the faded glory of the bookshop, the small local theatre, the unique shops and small cafes will face the bulldozers and urban planners.”

I remember being in Waterstones in Truro and finding two books I really wated to read in a three for two offer. Looking for a third I spotted this, remembered a couple of very positive reviews, and so home it came. I do like the look of it, but it’s not necessarily a keeper.

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver

“American children’s book illustrator Irina McGovern enjoys a secure, settled life in London with her smart, loyal, disciplined partner, Lawrence—until the night she finds herself inexplicably drawn to kissing another man, a passionate, extravagant, top-ranked snooker player. Two competing alternate futures hinge on this single kiss, as Irina’s decision—to surrender to temptation or to preserve her seemingly safe partnership with Lawrence—will have momentous consequences for her career, her friendships and familial relationships, and the texture of her daily life.”

I was stunned by We Need to Talk About Kevin, and so I picked this one up pretty automatically. But I’m less called to big, issue-driven, contemporary books than i used to be – the London me would have loved it and polished it off on a few daily commutes, but the Cornish me isn’t so sure. And that’s why this book has been hanging around for a while.


That’s the senond ten, and the next batch will be along soon. 

Any thoughts?