My annual Goodreads challenge is now frozen at 52 books per year – a level I feel comfortable in achieving and one which means I don’t spend too much time eyeing up short books solely in order to catch up!
Before having a quick review of my progress, I instinctively felt I’d had a good year quality-wise, only to discover the stats don’t actually support this. Unusually for me, there’s three 2-star reviews already, on top of four entirely trashy offerings (which all received 3-stars for delivering what they promised at a trying time). But, rather than talk about the disappointments, let’s focus on the books which have given me joy.
First up is this year’s second 5-star read – Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End. I have absolutely no idea how this came to be lurking on my Kindle – if it was your recommendation, I owe you a massive thank you.
This tale of Thomas McNulty opens with the Irish potato famine and unfolds across America’s wide expanses where he meets his lifelong friend John Cole. It follows them as they fight together, first in the Indian wars, then the civil war on the Yankee side.
The writing is achingly beautiful, the descriptions of the violence and slaughter being matched only by of that the countryside in which they find themselves …
“At the end of the surgeon’s table the pile of arms and legs grows. Like the offered wares of some filthy butcher”
“The trees go silver before it like they was followers of the silver moon. Tennessee with all its critters and scattered souls sleeping, even the trees maybe sleeping. The moon is wide awake like a hunting owl.”
“That old Mississippi is a temperate girl most times and her skin is soft and even. Something so old is perpetual young. River never crinkles and creases or if she does it’s storms.”
An unusual tale of fighting men, friends & lovers too, who create a family with a young Indian girl taken during the Indian wars. Surprisingly moving and utterly gorgeous.
Jon McGregor’s first book If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things is a favourite and he’s on top form again with Reservoir 13.
Rebecca (Becky or Bex) disappears whilst staying in a holiday cottage in a rural community and, despite a massive manhunt and the case being kept open for year-upon-year, she is never found. This is a slow burning depiction of a village not able to and not allowed to forget. But it’s also about the daily lives – milking cows, lambing, relationships starting and stopping, births and deaths, carers caring, allotments being planted and harvested, and hedgerows providing their bounty to those who know and remember what to do with them.
I really wanted there to be a denouement, but that isn’t McGregor’s way. When I read that brief and passing mention of the navy bodywarmer, I suspected that would be it – and indeed it was. For this was never her story, rather it was their story and our spotlight simply fell upon them because of her disappearance.
As is always with McGregor, the beautifully observed details of life’s mundanities and drudgery are all there. He allows us to see how people cope, have to cope, and sometimes don’t cope with all that life – and their loved ones – throw at them. There are also unexpected heroes – Jones letting Irene know that he understands her burden and how she should seek to relieve it. Beautiful.
Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy was remarkable and The Silence of the Girls is another winner, with the siege of Troy told from the female perspective. War takes a massive toll on those who fight, but it also takes a massive toll on the civilian population. This tale focuses on the women – those who are taken into captivity as prizes to be shared out by the conquerors.
Not a classics scholar, I’ve read little of this particular war. Other than knowing the bare basics about Helen and recognising the names of the great Greek warriors, I was able to read this as a story on its own merits and not feel the need to compare it with another.
I dithered over whether to issue the fifth star as this really is an excellent read, but the chapters not written in Briseis’s voice simply didn’t work for me. Her voice was clear and true, while the narration of the other chapters felt awkward and uncomfortable to me.
I came late to this one for just about everyone else has already read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk. It also took a long time to read, most probably because I was moving home and there was simply too much to do to be putting my feet up with a book. Even more so and despite having always expressed a preference for first person narratives, I felt considerable discomfort from being so close to Macdonald as she struggled with depression and intense grief for, apart from those times when Macdonald writes of T H White, this is a very up-close-and-personal experience.
Some of her descriptive passages made me purr, while leaving me wondering if I’d ever be able to achieve the same in my own writing.
I wondered how she was going to finish and the device she uses is a well considered one, for I think this is the type of tale which could end up feeling trite with the wrong kind of ending.
Regardless of the stats, these wonderful offerings tell me that 2019 could prove to be a very good year’s reading.
Do you prefer reading a book while it’s a hot topic, or later when the hoopla has calmed down? Any favourite or go-to authors – and do they ever disappoint?
© Debra Carey, 2019