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
Jennifer Weiner has let me down of late, and liane moriarty as well….but I tend to read new releases
LikeLiked by 1 person
I read books well after the hoopla has calmed down. I wonder if this comes from having been an English it major in college? Nothing I read back then was ever current. Beowulf anyone? 😉
LikeLiked by 2 people
Fifty two books a year is amazing! Good on you, seriously. I’ve alway been late to the crowd on getting to popular books, usually when they’ve been out five years or more. This year, however, I read two that were brand new and one just two years old (“She Said,” “Me” by Elton John, and “Pachinko”). So I obviously have more time on my hands. – Marty
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you Marty, I’ve only tracked my reading for the past 4 years and the numbers are actually sliding somewhat. Probably as I’m spinning so many more plates these days (transitioning from old pays the bills job to new career as a coach, writing – fiction as well as the blogging, photography as well as grandparent duties!) Just taken a look at “Pachinko” and it sounds a most unusual book, I might just nudge it onto the TBR pile. What did you think of Elton John’s autobiog? I was a huge fan of his in my younger days.
Beowulf Ally? Love it! I’ll admit to contemporary literary fiction being my thing, but means I suffer from the never ending stream of pretty things tempting me to find more time to read 🙂
I don’t know Jennifer Weiner LA, but if she’s letting you down recently, maybe I should be grateful not to be adding yet more to my impossible to finish TBR list. I’ve heard such mixed reviews on Liane Moriarty that I’ve not taken that particular plunge. Yet 😀
H is for Hawk was on a book club list I think? One of those that I think I want to read but not sure about putting it ahead of everything else unless there is a good reason. I’m catching up with ‘reading’ thanks to audiobooks, and the discovery that you can get audiobooks from the library via an app. So I listen to stuff that I wouldn’t have otherwise on my phone on my walk to and from work and whilst I’m doing the washining up etc. I think we might share a 2* from a bookclub read. I don’t know about you, but the most frustrating books are the ones where the premise is excellent, you want to like the characters, but the writing itself is just shockingly bad.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Perhaps that’s why it’s been lurking away in the unread depths of my Kindle for so long, it was one I ran out of time to read! You may be surprised by one of my 2-star reads – I certainly was. I couldn’t agree with you more about the combination of excellent ideas and poor execution – such a crushing disappointment – especially with reading time such a commodity.