"I confess, I’m a bit of an obsessive when it comes to reading. I read and read and read… mostly novels. I hoover up books. I’m not too fussed whether it’s high brow or low brow. Sometimes I want something fun and frothy, while on other occasions I’m up for something more challenging. I enjoy that mix: I feel rather the same about food. Like most people, when I’ve particularly enjoyed a book I’m keen to press copies into the hands of friends and family. On this section of the website I’m going to post really short reviews of books I’ve read recently that have stayed with me."
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction 2015 and I can see why. It shouldn’t spoil things to discover that the two main characters only meet at the end. For most of the book, we see their separate lives unfold. They are Marie-Laure, a French girl, blind since the age of six, who grows up in Paris where her father works at the Museum of National History; and Werner Pfennig, a German orphan, whose fascination and skill with radios sees him sent away to train with the Hitler Youth.
The pair finally meet during the siege of St Malo in August 1944. The book opens, in fact, with the bombing of St Malo. Marie Laure, now 16, is trapped in an attic, while Werner, 18, is buried alive in a cellar. The plot is all about how they came to be there – and what happens next.
It’s a huge, sweeping book in scope and scale. The characters are original and offer an unusual perspective on the horrors of living through the Second World War. Descriptions are meticulous and evocative, and the whole narrative is laced with images of natural history, the sea, shells, Jules Verne, and the radio. The research the author has undertaken is awe-inspiring. Where it is less than perfect is in the occasional cliché (the anti-Semitic and greedy German baddie, for example, with his limp) and the awkward unhistorical Americanisms. Having said all that… I loved this book. It may not be flawless, but it is hugely absorbing and profoundly moving.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
I wouldn’t have picked this up if it hadn’t been recommended by a very old friend. We met for supper recently having not seen each other for some years. Having exchanged family news it wasn’t long before I asked her what she was reading; and this was her recommendation.
I say I wouldn’t have picked it up because – as the members of my book group know – I’m not generally drawn to anything that smacks of “science fiction”. Mind you, that’s an odd and pretty outdated phrase. Which probably shows how outdated my prejudice is, too, but that’s another story. My problem, too often, is that I find myself sceptically responding “That’s just silly…”
Anyway, Station Eleven is set in a post-apocalyptic future where a virulent strain of flu has wiped out 99 per cent of humanity. Survivors hang on to life while the world collapses around them. They walk blasted roads in a desperate attempt to find fellow survivors. Cults spring up around crazy prophets.
Where Station Eleven appeals is that it flips between the pre flu world and Year Twenty, i.e. 20 years after the global collapse, when the worst is over. The two worlds are linked through a hand-drawn comic called ‘Station Eleven’, and a famous actor called Arthur Leander. As a result the story is less about apocalypse as it is about memory, loss and nostalgia. I won’t say too much more, for fear of giving too much away.
But the other really important point is the quality of the writing which is breath-taking. Emily St John Mandel’s prose is hypnotically good, and as a result the world she creates is utterly believable. I am in awe.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler is a superstar writer, as far as I’m concerned. I await her novels with the anticipation of a football fan awaiting the start of the season. Her talent is to turn very ordinary, homely things into utterly absorbing novels. A Spool of Blue Thread is her 20th novel, and no disappointment.
The book is a portrait of the Whitshank family across several generations. As the book opens, Abby, a social worker and mother with a tendency to collect lame ducks, is beginning to become a lame duck herself. She forgets things, goes wandering in the neighbourhood and muddles her words. The family – including the feckless Denny – rally round to try and help, bringing with them as they descend on the family home old habits and deep-seated rivalries.
Although the subject matter is sad – Abby, so long the heart and soul of her home is falling apart – one of Anne Tyler’s many talents is to ensure that humour is always bubbling just below the surface of the melancholy. She has a witty turn of phrase: characters are summed with a beautiful economy.
But there’s so much more to the book than Abby’s decline. The house where the family live – a whole character in itself – reveals its own story, as we spool backwards through history to discover how the family came to be living there. What Anne Tyler is so good at is writing about human imperfection. Life is a muddle, and people are flawed. Nonetheless, she manages to create characters who are loveable and a narrative that is entertaining to the end.
A Man called Ove by Fredrik Backman
I confess. I picked this up in Waterstones because it was in the “buy one, get one half price” pile. Clever marketing. I hadn’t heard of it, but thought the cover was entertaining. (Superficial, me?) And it was a delight. The story is all about Ove: a man who is a bit of a curmudgeon. (He’s only 59, but seems much older.) He’s a grumpy neighbour, a stickler for the rules and makes life pretty difficult for those around him. But underneath all that, he has a heart of gold. It turns out that Ove has had a huge amount of sadness in his life, but is capable of huge love and loyalty. Read it and you’ll see what I mean…