Author: Anne Tyler
Next on the list for 2016 was A Spool of Blue Thread, the 20th novel by the long-standing American novelist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler. I’d never read anything by her before and this Booker Prize shortlisted effort (in only the second year of eligibility for American authors) seemed as good a place to start as any. She’s one of those authors I’ve seen around a lot (I work in a charity bookshop) without any standout classics to her name, yet I know she carries a good reputation among the reading public as well as the reviewing experts. Reading this also continues my happy trend so far of reading books by women this year, although the streak will end here (for now).
The plot revolves around the Whitshank family, with an emphasis on matriarch Abby and her husband Red. The Whitshanks, also comprising sons Denny and Stem, daughters Amanda and Jeannie, and their respective spouses and children, are a “typical” American family living in present-day Baltimore (though much of the narrative takes place in various recent pasts). The novel takes place in three parts. In part one (the bulk of the book) Abby and Red are aging and the time has come for the younger generation to figure out what to do with their increasingly and reluctantly dependent parents. Part two steps back in time to take a look at the earliest stages of Abby & Red’s courtship; part three chronicles the mysterious history of Red’s parents Junior and Linnie. Time weaves back and forth around these main subject lines, as the “spool of blue thread” gradually winds and unwinds itself through the lives of the Whitshank family.
I liked it a lot. I felt a little bit like an outsider at times, as the themes in the book are very reminiscent of Americana-like nostalgia in a way that didn’t entirely resonate with me, but in a way that actually heightened my curiosity in the strange-yet-normal setting and characters. I particularly enjoyed how the second and third parts gradually explained some of the intriguing goings-on in the first (often contradicting the accepted family version of events) and it makes me almost want to read it again with my new-found expert knowledge.
It’s a great relief sometimes to read a nice, normal novel without having to deal with highbrow writing styles, deep dramatic themes and the like. Tyler seems to be an honest and unpretentious author who doesn’t have to try too hard to write something eminently readable. And so I will definitely look out for her books in future (as if I needed to add another back catalogue to my to-read list). Overall I would highly recommend A Spool of Blue Thread – it’s not a ground-breaker, but it’s a page-turner, and sometimes that’s all you need from a book.
My rating: 8/10
“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious”
Author: Harper Lee
As I looked to pick my second book for 2016 I began to realise that, as appropriate as it seems, January might not have been the best choice of month for “published in 2015”. I have been asking my girlfriend to choose which books I read so far this year, and from a pool already reduced to three she selected Go Set a Watchman, the surprise sequel(ish) to 1960’s classic (in the truest sense of the word) To Kill a Mockingbird. (Readers may note that Watchman was originally finished in 1957 but fortunately my category is “published” and not “written” in 2015!) This was obviously a book near the top of many 2015 lists and in fact probably the most talked-about book of the year. I approached it with mixed feelings – surely it would never live up to the hype?
In 1950-something, Jean Louise Finch returns by train from New York (where she lives without making clear what she does) to her (fictional) hometown of Maycomb, Alabama. She is met at the station by “childhood sweetheart” Hank Clinton in lieu of her father, her usual chauffeur, who is growing arthritic in his old age and often unfit to drive. It soon becomes clear that Maycomb and Jean Louise are not totally suited to each other; things take a turn for the worse when Jean Louise finds out something about her father that shatters her opinion of the man who had been her moral and intellectual beacon since her earliest years. Between flashbacks from her childhood, Jean Louise picks up the pieces and tries to come to terms with developments she could never have imagined.
Now I’ve only read To Kill a Mockingbird once, and that was in 2011. So while I do remember thoroughly enjoying it I don’t really recall the finer points of the plot or even too much of the style and as such I can’t make any great comparisons here. In truth it’s probably not fair to compare anything to one of the best books I’ve ever read – I should consider Go Set a Watchman on its own merits. But that’s incredibly difficult when the latter is essentially an early draft of the former and such juxtaposition is thus inevitable. To be perfectly honest, I’m willing to forgive the shortcomings of a book that was shelved and forgotten about in favour of what the author herself considered to be a better story, and would probably never have been rushed to print without the hype around what had previously been Harper Lee’s single published novel.
So anyway, Go Set a Watchman was decent without being fantastic. It’s pretty slow to get going – it’s not until about a hundred pages into a 278-page novel that anything really happens. And a particular passage later on between Jean Louise and her uncle Jack is so unnecessarily confusing and convoluted that I abandoned it having read it three times without really deciphering what it was on about. The plot is interesting enough but the writing seems a bit bland. It’s a delicate line to tread – if you want to see how your favourite characters from Mockingbird develop as they age (although, again, this was written first) then read on. But if you want to preserve your memory of a perfect book and its pristine characters, it might be best to avoid. Your call.
My Rating: 6.5/10
“Nothing had prepared her for the shock of Ceylon’s scorching heat, nor its clashing colours, nor the contrast between the bright white light and the depth of the shade.”
Author: Dinah Jefferies
When I came to pick my first book to read in 2016 (confession: I started it at the end of December) my selection pool was relatively limited, January’s reading theme being books published in 2015. I had already decided on this theme late last year and informed my girlfriend so that she could pick out some books for me for Christmas. The results were pleasing – more to come later this month.
High on my list was The Tea Planter’s Wife. This novel was always going to attract me from the moment I discovered its existence because (white imperial bastard alert) I’m descended from Tea Planters. My great-great grandfather moved to Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in the late 19th Century while it was a British colony and his descendents lived there until roughly 1970 when increasing political turmoil following 1948’s independence proclamation made it difficult to remain. I visited with my dad (who was born there) ten years ago and it’s always been a place I have a lot of affection for.
It is 1925. Nineteen-year-old Gwen moves from her family home in England halfway across the world to live with her new husband, tea planter Laurence. In the beginning, all is not well – although Gwen and Laurence are deeply in love, he is withholding something; and not just the tragic death of his first wife twelve years earlier. Nevertheless, Gwen soon falls pregnant and everything seems to be heading in the right direction. But mysteries remain. What does Laurence have against Gwen’s friendship with native artist Savi Ravasinghe? Why won’t his sister leave them alone? And will Gwen and Laurence admit their darkest secrets to each other? All will be revealed over the next nine years or so against the changing social and political backdrop of an island tiring of colonial rule.
The book took me a short while to really get into, but when I got going I was impressed. I think that when I first approached the narrative I was a little sceptical as to whether it was actually going to be any good, and this probably clouded the first few chapters a little. The book is very much about the wife rather than tea planter and I enjoyed the strong, complex female protagonist. Jefferies has also done considerable research into the history of the country and even the tea-making process and it shows. It’s essentially a tragic novel, and I was particularly impressed by the ending and its refusal to take the easy, mushy way out. On an individual level I found it pleasing to read about places I’ve heard about from my dad and visited myself and although the story is by no means the typical life of a planter’s wife, I did feel a connection to my female ancestors while reading.
Without the personal connection, I might not have read The Tea Planter’s Wife in the first place. But I’m very glad I did. It was an excellent read and I would recommend it to white imperial bastards and innocent bystanders alike.
My rating: 8.5/10
So, looks like I’ve managed not to update my blog since October 2014. Whoops. Oh well, no point dwelling on that. I’m sure I’m not the only one picking up again at the start of the year as a resolution kind of thing – let’s see if it lasts longer than the traditional month or so.
Anyway, here’s my plan:
- Updates on Sundays. I used to blog at work, but I don’t think I can get away with that at my current job. Anyway, I want to be more productive at work this year (resolutions and all that).
- For the most part, books only. For now, at least, I really can’t be dealing with different media. I hardly watch films at the moment and frankly I listen to too much music to really pick anything out to review.
In an effort to broaden my reading I have (since the last time I blogged) begun observing “themed” reading months. Last year my months were as follows (with an example of a book I read that month in parentheses):
- January: Irish (Roddy Doyle, The Commitments)
- February: Biographies of women (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings)
- March: 21st Century (Hilary Mantel, Bring up the Bodies)
- April: Self-help (Dr Steve Peters, The Chimp Paradox)
- May: Crime (Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl)
- June: Kentucky (Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible)
- July: C0mmonwealth (Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin)
- August: Black/African (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun)
- September: Sci-fi/Fantasy (Isaac Asimov, Foundation)
- October: Spanish/Latin American (Isabel Allende, Portrait in Sepia)
- November: Free choice non-fiction (Jeremy Paxman, The English)
- December: Free choice fiction (Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex)
This year I’ll let you know what each month is as they happen, since they have a tendency to shift a little as the year goes on. See the end of this post for January’s theme.
I’ve also set myself a couple of extra rules – first, I’m only allowed to buy one book a week (averaged across the year). I work one day a week at a book shop, so this will be tough. I bought six books today. No more for a while! Second, at least 50% of books I buy must be authored by a woman. Less difficult, but totally necessary to begin to even up a male-heavy library built up over years of blind patriarchy-reinforcement.
I’m looking at taking part in a reading challenge or two. I’m probably being ambitious but I hope I can fit them into my themes without much of a stretch. Top of my list at the moment is #BustleReads.
Well, that’s all for today. Thanks for reading.
January’s theme: Published in 2015
Justification: In the past I’ve often found myself out of touch with the current literary scene. This seems a perfect opportunity to allow myself to keep on top of what’s going on.
Currently reading: Dinah Jefferies, The Tea Planter’s Wife. Review to follow next week. Perhaps.