Top Ten Tuesday | Books with summer vibes

Out of respect for yesterday’s #BlackoutTuesday, I am posting this a day late. I will be reading, donating, and continuously learning about how I can give my support, and I encourage everyone to do the same: https://blacklivesmatter.com/ 


On a roll from participating in Top 10 Tuesday last week, I’m back at it again with ‘books with summer vibes.’ Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018.

1. The Girls by Emma Cline

The Girls is set during the restless Californian summer of 1969, when our painfully awkward protagonist, Evie, is drawn into a cult living on the breadline in the Californian hills and led the charismatic egomaniac, Russell.

2. Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman

It’s the hot, languid days of a mid-1980s June on the Italian Riviera – and for Elio, a restless, precocious seventeen-year-old, it’s a summer that he’ll never forget, when Italian-American university professor Oliver comes to stay.

3. Lie With Me by Sabine Durrant

In Lie With Me, an escape to Pyros, Greece soon becomes a claustrophobic nightmare for Paul Morris, a place haunted by the ghosts of the past.

4. Atonement by Ian McEwan

The catalyst for this story happens on a hot summer’s day in 1935, where thirteen-year-old Briony Tallis witnesses an exchange between her sister and a young gentleman. The way she acts subsequently changes all their lives forever.

5. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

‘Little Dog’ is the son of a Vietnamese refugee, and one summer, when he is fourteen, Little Dog begins working in the tobacco fields. There he meets Trevor, and the two begin an intense relationship. Poetic, elegiac and a window into the immigrant experience.

6. One Day by David Nicholls

St Swithin’s Day, on July 15th, is the anchor in this wildly popular story of Emma and Dexter, who meet at university and who we revisit on July 15th over the course of the years to come. Charming and nostalgic, this is a perfect summer read.

7. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

The sweltering heat of New Orleans is the stage for Tennessee’s William’s phenomenal play that examines madness, sexuality, class, the layers of the past, and – of course – desire.

8. The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

Our young protagonist Leo has his life changed during a summer stay at an estate in the English countryside in the year 1900. The writing is beautifully evocative of a very different time.

9. Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth

The only one on the list I’ve not yet read, Heat Stroke looks set to be a dark and gripping literary thriller when a young girl goes missing in the middle of summer.

10. A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Shakespeare

Finally, for some light relief, one of my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays – fairies, donkeys, a play within a play – what’s not to love?

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What kind of books are quintessentially ‘summer’ for you?

Book Review | The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

Has there ever been a more famous or sublime opening line in literature than the first line of The Go-Between? ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ It’s a surprise discovery of an old diary in the present day – the 1950s – that transports our narrator, Leo, back to the sultry summer of 1900, spent at his friend Marcus’s Norfolk estate. It’s a fateful summer that set the course for the rest of Leo’s life. What is so accomplished in this novel is the way it draws us into that ‘foreign country,’ painting an intricate and evocative picture of a late Victorian world that seemed far gone in the 1950s – and couldn’t seem more foreign to readers today.

Twelve years old at the time, Leo is haplessly naive and tentatively inquisitive about the world. Educated at a boy’s boarding school, he nonetheless feels conscious of his social inferiority in the midst of the Maudsley’s grandeur. Swept up into the pomp and circumstance of life at the manor, Leo is desperate to make a good impression – and none more so than on Marcus’s sister, Marian Maudsley. So infatuated is he that he agrees to become messenger boy for her and Ted Burgess, a farmer in the village. Sworn to total secrecy, of course. And Leon revels in his secret mission; ‘my place was here,’ he reflects, ‘here I was a planet, albeit a small one, and carried messages for other planets.’

As guileless as he is, he has no reason to suspect anything untoward in the communication between the two parties. Marian is to be engaged to the Viscount Trimingham, an injured soldier just returned from the Boer war. The thought of the stately Marian entering into a union with a lowly farmer is unthinkable to Leo, who has yet to understand the dynamics of adulthood desire.

The turn-of-the-century concerns of class, Englishness and social propriety are never far from our protagonist’s mind, distilled into the afternoon that the family up at the Hall meet with the commoners down in the village for a game of cricket. Leo observes –

‘Dimly I felt that the contrast represented something more than the conflict between Hall and village. It was that, but it was also a struggle between order and lawlessness, between obedience to tradition and defiance of it, between social stability and revolution, between one attitude to life and another.’

The narrative is richly multi-layered, aided in part by the way in which it is refracted through the lens of memory, as the older Leo looks back on the events that came to pass: ‘Those early days were a time of floating impressions… Scenes linger with me – generally in tones of light and dark, but sometimes tinged with colour.’ Immersed into Leo’s inner thoughts and feelings, we feel it all – his nervous yet unshakable devotion to Marian, his painfully self-conscious donning of his new green suit, his incomprehension at that which he cannot understand.

But we all know that the novel will reach a cataclysmic conclusion; that the climbing heat of the languid summer will reach boiling point.

‘I was now dizzily whirling round in a tiny flaming nucleus like a naptha flare in a street-market, impenetrable darkness all around me, my sole prospect my own imminent destruction.’

It is an utterly absorbing read, and a fascinating portrait of a bygone era. It examines psychological conflict, loss of innocence, the nature of memory and the ripple effects of a single event – and much more than I could ever do justice to here. After I finished my degree in English Literature, I took a long break from the classics. This served as a good reminder, six years on, that so much of what I read and love today is inextricable from what came before.

****.5

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Read if you enjoyed: Atonement by Ian McEwan, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro 

Top Ten Tuesday | Bookish Resolutions

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly featured hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. This week I’m looking ahead to 2018 and my book-related goals (I’m a big one for making resolutions, and even if I don’t manage to stick to them I find the reflective process of making them pretty interesting).

1. Read more books in translation.

Translation is a fascinating discipline and I have utmost respect for translators of fiction. I want to move away from mostly reading books with a focus on the English-speaking world and instead branch out to more books written in a different language and translated, such as the disturbing/beautiful The Vegetarian, translated from Korean.

2.  Continue to read lots of books by women.

I’m really pleased/surprised that the vast majority of books I read in 2017 (bar two: the excellent Grist Mill Road & Black Chalk) were all by female authors. I want to continue supporting women’s writing in 2018 as much as possible.

3. Continue to support our public library.

I live a few miles away from a fantastic local library that frequently stocks all of the NYT bestsellers and is a wonderful place to read and work.

4. Find the energy to read for fun, after a whole day of reading for work.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that I get to read for work. But I shouldn’t let this be an excuse for not getting around to reading the books that have been languishing on the bookshelf for months.

5. Read more poetry.

I read Rupi Kaur’s debut collection, ‘Milk and Honey’ earlier this year, and whilst I wasn’t totally in love with it, it did make me remember how much I adore poetry and I will make a conscious effort to seek out new voices.

6. Join a bookclub.

I resolved that as soon as I found a good local bookclub, I would join. I have unfortunately had clashes every time they’ve met in recent months, but it is something I will prioritise this year!

7. Read more nonfiction.

…Particularly on the current state of the world, how we got to be in this situation and what we can do about it. Yesterday I bought Naomi Klein’s ‘No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics’ and am excited to read it.

8. Quit if the going gets tough.

Whilst not a mantra for other areas in life, if I am reading a book that I’m not really into and have given it a fair chance, I’ll stop reading. Life is too short to read books you aren’t enjoying!


That concludes my top (eight) bookish resolutions for 2018. I look forward to seeing what other readers have set for their goals!

Book Review | The Secret History by Donna Tartt

How many times has pop culture told us that university is the best time of your life; years of re-invention, of finding your kindred spirits, of losing yourself in new pursuits – intellectual or otherwise. For Richard Papen, beginning his Bachelor’s at an elite college in New England means an escape from his stifling upbringings in small-town nowhere in Northern California. For here lies freedom:

“I was happy in those first days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleep-walker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of apples rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower; ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”

He soon finds himself swept up in an enigmatic group of fellow Classics scholars; Henry, Bunny, Charles, Camilla and Francis. Eccentric, wealthy and gifted, Richard becomes obsessed with fitting in; reinventing his own lacklustre childhood for their benefit and hanging onto their every word. At the centre of their academic life is idiosyncratic professor Julian, in whose classes they explore ideas of morality;

“‘Do you remember what we were speaking of earlier, of how bloody, terrible things and sometimes the most beautiful?’ he said. ‘It’s a very Greek idea, and a very profound one. Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it. And what could be more terrifying and beautiful, to souls like the Greeks or our own, than to lose control completely? To throw off the chains of being for an instant?'”

To this group, intent on freeing themselves from the burden of the mundane, the idea of a total loss of control has inexorable pull. Not content with exploring the notion in the abstract realm of scholarship, they become intent on taking it to the next level; to enact a Dionysiac ritual in which they supposedly are able to leave their human forms and yield themselves to a higher power.

So whilst their contemporaries are enjoying cheap beer, one-night-stands and other traditional student pursuits, this group resolve to inspire such a state of mania and frenzy that they become out of control of their actions, à la the Ancient Greeks. But it is when things turn horribly wrong that they are led down a path to even greater evil, a point from which there can be no returning.

There’s something about Donna Tartt’s writing that is so deliciously mesmerising. I can’t help thinking that she could write used car adverts and make it enticing. The way I feel about The Secret History is similar to the way I felt after finishing The Goldfinch – the plot could have been tighter, especially towards the end – but the prose was so relentlessly erudite that I still come away feeling like it has had a unique impact, a novel that will stay with me for a long time.

One of the strengths of this novel is the way Tartt implicates the reader along with the crime; you become so ensconced in this world that you start to be taken in, the horror of the act is diminished when reasoned away with such precision. A terrifying power in itself, forcing you to step outside the world of the novel, for the sake of your sanity.

The Secret History explores the perils of being swept along in the headiness of youth, the desire to transcend the mundane and the ripple effects of a single act of evil.

Perfect Prose #6: A Little Life

I will rave about this sublime book to anyone and everyone. I do add in a health warning – it’s absolutely soul-destroying – but it is undoubtedly one of the best books I have ever read. At the moment, the eBook is only £1.19 on Amazon UK – so if you haven’t yet read it, now is your chance.

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“It is also then that I wish I believed in some sort of life after life, that in another universe, maybe on a small red planet where we have not legs but tails, where we paddle through the atmosphere like seals, where the air itself is sustenance, composed of trillions of molecules of protein and sugar and all one has to do is open one’s mouth and inhale in order to remain alive and healthy, maybe you two are there together, floating through the climate. Or maybe he is closer still: maybe he is that grey cat that has begun to sit outside our neighbour’s house, purring when I reach out my hand to it; maybe he is that new puppy I see tugging at the end of my other neighbour’s leash; maybe he is that toddler I saw running through the square a few months ago, shrieking with joy, his parents huffing after him; maybe he is that flower that suddenly bloomed on the rhododendron bush I thought had died long ago; maybe he is that cloud, that wave, that rain, that mist. It isn’t only that he died, or how he died; it is what he died believing. And so I try to be kind to everything I see, and in everything I see, I see him.”

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From ‘A Little Life’ by Hanya Yanagihara, published by Picador.

Perfect Prose #5: The God of Small Things

Yesterday, I was approved on NetGalley for Arundhati Roy’s much anticipated latest offering, ‘The Ministry of Upmost Happiness.’ Almost immediately upon reading, it made me think of her Man Booker Prize winning novel ‘The God of Small Things’, that I read about 6 years ago. This is one of the quotes from that novel that has always stayed with me.

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But what was there to say?

Only that there were tears. Only that Quietness and Emptiness fitted together like stacked spoons. Only that there was a snuffling in the hollows at the base of a lovely throat. Only that a hard honey-coloured shoulder had a semicircle of teethmarks on it. Only that they held each other close, long after it was over. Only that what they shared that night was not happiness, but hideous grief.

Only that once again they broke the Love Laws. That lay down who should be loved. And how. And how much.

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An extract from The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.

Perfect Prose #4: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

I’ve spent quite a lot of time recently looking for appropriate readings for our wedding this summer. I do, of course, want to draw on lovely passages from literature, and this is one that I really like – it gets to the heart of what I think relationships are all about – perhaps it isn’t a terribly romantic view, but in another sense it is totally romantic.

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“Love is a temporary madness, it erupts like volcanoes and then subsides. And when it subsides, you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion, it is not the desire to mate every second minute of the day, it is not lying awake at night imagining that he is kissing every cranny of your body. No, don’t blush, I am telling you some truths. That is just being ‘in love’, which any fool can do. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

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An extract from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres, published by Vintage.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

“I thought we together, we will spend time together and our lifes will never be separated. I thought I don’t needing go these double-bill screenings to kill raining nights. I thought I will not scared to live in this country alone, because now I having you, and you my family, my home. But I wrong. You doesn’t promise anything solid.”

23 year old Zhuang (Z for short) moves from China to London at the turn of the millennium to learn English, armed with nothing but a wad of cash and a Chinese-English dictionary.

England is an assault on her senses; the cold, the dirt, the food, the impenetrable language with all of its tenses and constructions she cannot wrap her tongue around.

Brave yet naive, on a trip to the ciné-lumière Z encounters an older English man, twice her age – a delivery driver-cum-sculptor with whom Z becomes immediately infatuated. Before long, they’re living together. What follows is a clash of youth and middle age, China and “The West,” female and male as the two lovers struggle to find a way to co-exist in harmony, despite their clear affection for each other. Their life together is a catalogue of love-making and fighting, stuck on repeat.

The novel is written in broken English, with the reader stumbling through the text as Z struggles to navigate the new terrain of England, its language, and her first encounter with love. Whilst others may find it off-putting, I felt it added an authentic dimension to the experience of a non-native speaker getting by in a foreign country. As we progress through the narrative, Z’s English improves, and with it does her own maturity and understanding of the world around her.

‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers’ upends and subverts expectations. It may not be a wild or dramatic tale – in fact, not a huge amount really happens in terms of action over the year’s course of the book. It is, however, a touching and poignant look at the dynamics of relationships, cross-cultural exchange, and youth.

‘When I was in the primary school, the mathematics teacher taught us to count until we were too tired to count anymore. The teacher said that the last number is ‘infinity’. It is a number but numberless.  One can count and count until the numbers become uncountable. Infinity, it is an uncountable future. Here, in our kitchen and bedroom, our battle is an infinity.’

A quirky, melancholy story which is nevertheless peppered with gentle humour, Xiaolu Guo’s novel is a fresh take on the coming-of-age novel, set against a backdrop of linguistic and romantic minefields.

Perfect Prose #3: When God Was A Rabbit

I read this book five years ago and loved it. I wasn’t sure about the title, but I’m so pleased I gave it a go and it surpassed my expectations. This evening I stumbled upon this quote that I had copied down in an old notebook, and decided I had to share it here.

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The following day, the partial eclipse began just before ten. The sky was overcast, which was a shame, because the lessening of light became a subtle phenomenon rather than the dramatic occurrence of ancient times. We were out in the bay with other boats, surrounded by cliff tops dotted with hundreds of observers, their faces looking towards the cloudmasked sun, protective mirrored viewers held up like 3D glasses. Gulls were singing, and land birds too from the island haven, but there was chaos in their voices, melody gone. They were sensing the unusual, I was sensing the cold. The diminishing light felt like the approach of a storm, like something harmful, inexplicable. And then just before eleven fifteen, the last of the sun disappeared, and the darkness and silence were total, and the cold descended upon the water, and us, and the whole bay locked down into this ravenous silence; the birds quiet, confused into sleep.

I thought this is how it would be if the sun died; the gentle shutting down of an organ, sleepy, no longer working. No explosion at the end of life, just this slow disintegration into darkness, where life as we know it never wakes up, because nothing reminds us that we have to.

The sun started to reappear a couple of minutes later, slowly, of course, until colour once again saturated the sea and our faces, and birdsong filled the air, songs this time of joy, of relief. Cheers rang out from the cliff tops and the ra ta ta ta of applause. Yet we were all quiet for so long after, touched by the magnitude, the beautiful unfathomable magnitude of it all. This is what we are connected to. What we are all connected to. When the lights go out, so do we.

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When God Was  A Rabbit by Sarah Winman, published by Tinder Press, an imprint of Headline.