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My first-ever book set in Trinidad and one of the few from the Caribbeans. Right now can only think of Wide Sargasso Sea and (partially) Captain Blood.

wellDon’t be fooled by the covers, that indicate a lighter type of story than this really is!

Went into the book without knowing anything except it’s nominated for the Audies 2016. It turned out to be a great surprise and one of those reading experiences enhanced by the audiobook.

The story begins in the 40s and mostly follows Marcia Garcia (can still hear the narrator in my mind saying  Má-cia-a Gá-cia), that at sixteen meets Farouk Karam, a Trinidadian policeman of Indian background. They set of on a stormy relationship that we follow throughout many years.

There’s a lot of topics running through book – social and racial status, matriarchal families, immigration – but it doesn’t feel crowded or overwhelming. It’s easy to become emotionally invested in Marcia and her family, and the two narrators (Bahni Turpin and Ron Butler) play a huge role in that. Their colorful narration perfectly fits the story and adds something to it. For a while I was talking to myself in their accents.

The main reason why I didn’t give it a 5/5 was that the second part was mostly an illegal immigration story set in the USA. I wish the author had just focused on Trinidad. It’s learning about the island, it’s people, culture, food and history that makes the book so unusual and special. Strangely enough, the strong sense of place is lost when we jump to the much more familiar Manhattan.

If you know of any more good books set in the Caribbean please let me know!

 

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Other thoughts: BookNAround, (yours?)

armchairaudiesRead for Armchair Audies 2016
Literary Fiction & Classics category

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From Venice to Caffa, from Antwerp to the Gold Coast of Africa, merchants anchored their ships and unloaded their cannon and flipped open their ledgers as if in twenty years nothing had changed, and nothing was about to change now.

Last night I finally begun the last book of Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolò series. I’d ended my previous read two days ago and still hadn’t found the right time to pick up Gemini. But last night, at around 9:30PM, when David was finally asleep and the husband was out for a concert, I made myself comfortable with a rare after-dinner Coke, got the two Companions, put the BBC on mute for company, and finally was able to engaged my brain 100% – Dunnett never asks for (or deserves) anything less.

This means I’ll soon end my first-time reading of her historical series. I’ve been postponing this moment since I first begun The Lymond Chronicles (Niccolò‘s sequel in plot but prequel in publication date) back in 2009 and my reading life was changed for ever. From then on, every historical fiction (every fiction really!) will always be compared to these books.

Two chapters in and the Companions had already failed me in translating the Middle Scots opening quote, there was a line to be discussed with other fans in the yahoo group (“He had met other husbands like this. Men who could sail but not navigate.“) and I got the sudden urge to eat oysters. It’s going to be a ride.

I already know that for the rest of my life I’ll always be re-reading Dunnett and will always find something new to awe me, but first-time readings are special. The end of Gemini will be the end of an Era and I’m feeling rather emotional about it.

coroners-lunch1If you’re looking for your next mysteries series, you might want to give this one a trial. It’s more Alexander McCall Smith than Jo Nesbø, but I’m reluctant to call it cozy. Just as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, it’s main attraction is the different setting, this time Laos at the beginning of the communist rule, in 1976. I knew very little about this time and place and the book got me to cruise Wikipedia, which is a good sign in itself.

The “detective” is a 72 year-old doctor who’s reluctantly nominated as the county’s only coroner. He’s a “communist for convenience” and old enough not to care much about using his biting humor to point out the often comic surrealism of the system. He’s awesome!

The other characters and the plot are also interesting, but it’s definitely the setting that steals the show. Imagine the challenge of crime-solving in a bureaucratic dictatorship with very little resources.

There’s an element of the supernatural that I’m carefully apprehensive about, as I usually like my mysteries very much based on hard-core evidence and logic. I’d be able to accept it better if it didn’t actually contribute to solving the crime. It didn’t disturb me too much, I suspect because I was just focusing on the great setting-relate details, but I wonder what’ll happen in the next books once the novelty wears off.

I’m surprised this was first published in 2004 because it has everything to make it an instant favorite and I hadn’t hear about it until very recently.

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Other thoughts: Boston Bibliophile, Letters from a Hill Farm, Crime Scraps, Books and Quilts, Olduvai Reads, Book Lust, Crime Scraps Review (yours?)

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It took me way too long to read this. A bit over two months, to be exact, with others in between. For a moment there I was afraid it’d be a just-ok 900-page mammoth, but it got me hooked after the first fifth or so. It’s my first Sharon Kay Penman, but I actually had this and two others by her in the TBR, just because she sounded like something I’d really enjoy (do you also do this?).

The Sunne in Splendour is an epic novel about Richard III, that most controversial of Kings, the last Plantagenet, from his early childhood to his death. His life is one of those stories that feels to dramatic to be true, just like Henry VIII. Richard didn’t have six wives, but had the War of the Roses, the Princes in the Tower, and other such delights.

Sharon Kay Penman does it all this great justice, and writes a really extraordinary book. Huge, but no word wasted, and with the perfect pacing, which is not to be taken lightly in such a complex story. Kay Penman has a great instinct for how long to spend on a battle and when to add a private scene to let us get closer to the characters. I cannot even begin to imagine how many hours she must have spent preparing for this, deciding what to focus on each chapter, what to add and leave out, not to mention the research. Good historical fiction authors are the best! By the end of the book, I felt I really understood this extremely complicated bit of English history. I’m now looking forward a War of Roses round on pub quiz 🙂

If not for Dorothy Dunnett, The Sunne in Splendour might have become a top-of-the-tops favorite,  but Dunnett ruined all historical fiction for me. Despite the careful characterization (except that Richard might had been a teensy-weensy idealized?), I never felt too emotionally involved with any of the characters, even with Anne Neville, that had everything to win me over completely. I cannot clearly articulate why, only that if feels different with Dunnett – yes, I know, it’s unfair, but inescapable!

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Other thoughts: reading the end, Kristin King Author, Devourer of Books, Vulpes Libris, Semicolon, Pages of Julia (yours?)

brontessmCredit: Hark! A Vagrant

I have a dysfunctional relationship with the Brontës. I often find myself rolling my eyes at all the DRAMA! in their stories, which I usually go out of my way to avoid in other books. I rebel against Charlotte’s negative portrayal of my beloved Brussels and her snide remarks about Jane Austen. I cringe at Emily’s glorification of an abusive hero. I go a bit easier on Anne because I have a soft spot for her – she has her sanctimonious moments, but I’m anxiously waiting for the day when the world realizes she’s the true ground-breaking feminist in the family.

The truth is: I can’t get enough of them and can’t think of a more interesting family (maybe the Mitfords come close?). It’s almost like I’m also a Brontë sister, always bickering but loving them all the same, vigorously defending them from outside attacks.

I’m also a proud member of the Brontë Society, and its Brussels Bronte Group  branch (post about our weekend in London). I’ve read many books about the family and since Charlotte’s birthday is coming up, I’ve decided to start celebrating earlier with a list of my favorites. Have you read any of them?

51Hre4BoOvL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Brontës by Juliet Barker
(Previous reviews: Part I; Part II)

This is on my top-3 favorite biographies of all time. It’s huge, but it reads like a 300-page Sarah Addison Allen novel. It starts with Patrick Brontë’s youth and arrival in England and goes right through to the family’s growing popularity after everyone’s been long dead.

Juliet Barker’s approach is that a reliable biography of each Brontë cannot be done in isolation, since their lives were too connected and they constantly inspired each other’s work. She’s also in the business of myth-busting.

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41QR7VCP9HL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The Brontë Myth by Lucasta Miller

Like Start Trek, each new generation creates a new zeitgeist version of the Brontës. Miller examines the way these perceptions change over time by taking a comprehensive a look at all body of work produced about the family.

The impact of Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë was especially interesting to read, as well as the ripple effect of the cinema adaptations of their works and lives.

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The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell

This was the book that started the Brontë myth and crystallized it for many years. Gaskell was a friend of Charlotte Brontë and, for better or worst, it shows. Even if you know little about Charlotte, it’s obvious this is a very romanticized and sanitized version of her life. Gaskell was very keen to keep up Charlotte’s domestic-goddess image – fascinating stuff to read from a 21st century perspective.

I’ve had really geeky conversations with other Brontë aficionados on the best order to read the first three books on this list. The Brontës was the last to be written and it’s a great intro to the family. It talks about how both The Myth and The Life fit the narrative. The Myth describes in detail how The Life impacts how we perceive the Brontës even today. It’s really interesting to read The Life after The Brontës and The Myth, but it would probably be a very different experience if read first.

107973The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë by Daphne du Maurier

Oh Branwell, golden child, the unfulfilled promise, the most tragic element of a tragic family. This is Branwell’s biography and a great example of du Maurier’s non-fiction skills. From what I’ve gathered, she saw this book as an opportunity to prove herself beyond her “popular literature”.

Confession: I didn’t know this book even existed until I won it in a raffle at the last Brussels Brontë Society Xmas Lunch.

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The Brontës Went to Woolworths by Rachel Ferguson

A novel for a bit of change. The Brontës Went to Woolworths is about three sisters that share an imaginary world that threatens to become more real than reality. And it actually does, because after a table-turning session, the Brontë sisters come knocking on their door.

It’s such a witty and fun book and unlike The Eyre Affair (don’t get me started on that one, a pet hate of mine), the Brontës act as I’d expect them to. It’s one of those forgotten diamonds that deserve more limelight. How come it’s not a Persephone?

Any other recommendations?

longbourn-cover-1Longbourn is a behind-the-scenes look at Pride and Prejudice. As Baker explains, “when a meal is served in P&P, it has been prepared in Longbourn.

I’ve read a lot of Austen spins-offs and vowed never again many times, but I’m glad I kept at it, because this was probably the most rewarding of them, with maybe the exception of Bridget Jones.

Who knew that after all the hidden diaries, explicit retellings, male points of view and modern adaptations, it would be the story of Longbourn’s servants that would push all the right buttons?

Several readers compared it to Downton Abbey and Upstairs/Downstairs, but I don’t think they compare in realism. In Longbourn, it’s almost as if Baker was responding to all those criticisms about how Austen is only concern with the superficial and the lighthearted, what Charlotte Brontë described as “a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flower”. No poverty, no war, no messiness.

Austen avoided the less than pleasant side of day-to-day life? Baker gives us a hyper-realistic description of what the weekly washing day would look like for Longbourn’s maids. The cold sores, menstrual napkins and sweat stains. There’s also childbirth, dirty diapers and a Mrs Bennet just a little too dependent on laudanum.

Baker also imagines Bingley’s fortune comes from the sugar trade and there are vivid descriptions of the slavery and human traffic associated with it.

Austen never tackles the darker side of war? Baker follows the Bennett’s footman through the Napoleonic War in Portugal and Spain. There’s starvation, mutilation, lashings and desertion.

We even get a glimpse at Elizabeth’s life at Pemberley after her happy-ending, where she’s “being what she was required to be.”

Described like this it sounds like it’s a dark and heavy book, but it really isn’t. It’s definitely a candid look at life in the Regency Era, but it’s also a love story and about female friendship, dreams, ambitions and making your own way.

Highly recommended to all Austen fans.

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Other thoughts: Eve’s Alexandria, That’s What She Reads, bookshelves of doom, Vulpes Libris, a book a week, Literate Housewife, Leeswammes’s Blog, Beth Fish Reads, Quirky Bookworm, an adventure in reading, Book Girl of Mur-y-Castle, RA for All, Lizzy’s Literary Life, Smart Bitches Trashy Books, Dear Author (yours?)

ninetailorsThe Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #11) by Dorothy L. Sayers

One of my favorites books in the series so far AND there’s no Harriet or major insight into Wimsey’s character. What it did have was a great set of secondary characters and a perfect snap-shot of post-war village life. There was also extensive geeky conversations about bell ringing that were surprisingly fascinating. I didn’t understand most of it, but discovered a whole new world and found myself happily listening to bell concerts while reading the book.

The book blogsphere gave me really high expectation about the next in the series, Gaudy Night. It better be good, you guys!
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13481275Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

The latest by comfort writer extraordinaire Sarah Allen Addison, which half the world has read months ago, I’m sure. It’s likely that I’ll always have a good time with everything she writes, but within this, Lost Lake felt a bit watered down. It needed to be longer and more focused.

There are many main characters and even more back-stories, too many to go through effectively in only 8 hours of audiobook. A little bit more romance and magic realism wouldn’t hurt the book either – that’s why we pick up SAA in the first place, right?
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nicCaprice and Rondo (The House of Niccolo, #7) by Dorothy Dunnett

Very à propos, this book is mostly set in a Crimea on the verge of invasion. It’s exciting, complex, brilliant and everything else you’d expect from Dorothy Dunnett. I agree with Helen that the sense of place is more tamed this time around, but on the other hand there’s a satisfying focus on character development (Gelis managing the Bank, Julius reaction to the revelation) and a bunch of great action scenes (murder by bees!).

There was also The Letter. Actually, it was just a couple of sentences but I’ll put it up there on Captain Wentworth’s level.

My-Kid-Lies-Nurture-Shock-book-coverNurtureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

Together with Caprice and Rondo, this is the only 5-star of the year so far. A sort of Bad Science just about children. It’s written by two journalists in the child psychology field who specialize in reporting on studies that have gone unnoticed. In the different chapters they slowing and steadily dismantled my dogmas about kids and intelligence, lying, praising, race, sleep, only childs and, my favorite, language acquisition.

“Children key off their parents’ reaction more than the argument or physical discipline itself.”
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Abandon the Old in Tokyo by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Let’s just say that if you want something light for a sunny summer day at the beach you might want to skip this one. Don’t be fooled by the cartoon-ish artwork, there is nothing lighthearted about these short stories. It’s a look at the Japan of the 60s and 70s, full of lonely men trapped in bleak lives, self-hatred, family duty, perverse desires and social expectations.

Some stories are like nothing I’ve read before, and just for that I’m glad I’ve read it. Whatever this book may do, it will not leave you indifferent.

fictfact_logo_200_200I really didn’t need to be in yet another online platform, but couldn’t resist the idea of having my series organised. With FictFact I can track my progress and it warns me of new publications in all the series I follow.

I also like the quick overview of the books I have coming up in my profile page and to be able to nose around the series my friends are following (search sleeplessreader and feel free to add me).

Going through my stats is fun but it triggers the familiar “so many books, so little time” anxiety. I am currently following 61 series, but these include books on the TBR, so of those I haven’t even started 30. I’ve completed 50% or more of only 12 series and shamefully I’m only up to date on two (how is that possible?): the Wolf Hall Trilogy and Juliet Marillier’s Wildwood Dancing.

This is a list of the top 10 series I’m keener to start. Many have been on the shelf looking at me with big Puss in Boots eyes for a while. I’m thinking that the Long Awaited Reads might be a good opportunity to finally start a couple of them.

Go ahead and nudge me in the direction of your favorites 😉

series 1

  • Morland Dynasty by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
    The Founding
  • Jackson Brodie by Kate Atkinson
    Case Histories
  • Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson
    Quicksilver
  • Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch, Ben
    Rivers of London/Midnight Riot
  • New Crobuzon by China Miéville
    Perdido Street Station
  • Dune by Frank Herbert
    Dune
  • Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
    The Sparrow
  • Eleanor of Aquitaine by Sharon Kay Penman
    When Christ and His Saints Slept
  • Welsh Princes by  Sharon Kay Penman
    Here Be Dragons
  • Moosepath League by Van Reid
    Cordelia Underwood

series 2

One of my favorite moments as a reader is when a book out-wits me; when I think I know what’s going on and then a twist catches me off-guard. I’m usually pretty good at spotting a twist (my boyfriend makes fun – “wish we could make some money out of it!”) so it’s always a thrill to be surprised.

With Gillespie and I it helped that I went into it without knowing anything about the plot. It helped, but it also made me *this close* to giving up half-way. For a long time the pace felt slow and without direction, but I later realized that was just Harris preparing the ground very carefully.

So no summary from me – it’s up to you how much you’d like to know.

I didn’t completely love Gillespie and I as much as a lot of you out there did. I thought it was very clever and well done. I’m glad I read it and spent some happy hours discussing all the details with friends – it’s the kind of book that demands a post-reading deconstruction. But I wish Harris had been able to pull it off with 100 pages less.

It would also help if the Victorian-speak didn’t feel forced at times, as if the author applied Word’s “Replace All” tool to exchange “house” with “habitation” or “happiness” with “felicity“. Some expressions were really on the border of the ridiculous and I’m now sorry I didn’t write them down. One of then, however, stuck in my mind: someone asks the main character if she’d like something else to eat and she replies “no thank you, I’ve had ample sufficiency“…

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Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Reading Matters, Iris on Books, Reviews by Lola, nomadreader, BookNRound, Sam Still Reading,  She Reads Novels, BooksPlease, Vulpes Libris, Buried in PrintCapricious Reader, Secluded Charm, an adventure in reading, A Musing Reviews, The House of the Seven Tails, Cornflower Books, Wordsmithonia Yours?)

So I read War and Peace. It really felt like an accomplishment.

I think I’ve read more complex books and if not longer, not much shorter, but there seems to be a whole rite of passage associated with W&P. You feel you must prepare for it like you prepare a camping trip in the wilderness: you decide to do it and carefully plan a route and what to pack.

So from the height of my experience, let me give you some advice for a successful W&P reading:

1) Go to Wikipedia and read a bit on the Napoleonic Wars and the invasion of Russia.

2) Make it a read-along. At first my friend and I decided to make it a year-long project and read only 200 pages a month, but we were so surprised by how easily we were getting along that we sped it up to 400 pages/month. It was really good to have someone to discuss the book with every 15 days or so: it motivated me in the slow bits, made me notice things I’d missed and helped clear most doubts.

3) Read it in a digital format, not only because of the weight, it also helps if you’re able to quickly look-up names and places mentioned on page 43 and that you’ve forgotten by page 967.

W&P‘s story follows the events just before, during and just after the French invasion of Russia, as seen through the eyes of five Russian aristocratic families. We get to know them during the peaceful times and once war strikes the narrative splits into following the men at the front and the lives of those left behind.

For lack of better words: I really liked it. It surprised me how much, really, but I do admit to a prejudice against The Russians. In fact, if it wasn’t for that last third it could have been one of the best of year. Taken by themselves, those last chapters should have been called “Setting the Record Straight” or “How Historians Got it Wrong”.

It might have been Tolstoy’s agenda from the start, but at the end of W&P it became much more obvious that he wanted to myth-bust some of the accepted truths about the Napoleonic invasion. And he has no qualms blaming historians for the misconceptions:

“C’est grand!” say the historians, and there no longer exists either good or evil but only “grand” and “not grand.”

History (or what is called by that name) (…)

All that strange contradiction now difficult to understand between the facts and the historical accounts only arises because the historians dealing with the matter have written the history of the beautiful words and sentiments of various generals, and not the history of the events.

Yet Napoleon, that greatest of all geniuses, who the historians declare had control of the army, took none of these steps.

Tolstoy’s biggest qualm with the established History as it teaches us that all major changes happen because of  the will of great men like Napoleon of Czar Alexander II. He was a firm believer that at  what really mattered was the movement of the masses.

To study the laws of history we must completely change the subject of our observation, must leave aside kings, ministers, and generals, and study the common, infinitesimally small elements by which the masses are moved.

It’s a great argument, and he presented powerful arguments, but by the end of the book his wish to bring this point home (often in a repetitive way) is done at the cost of the characters he made us care about. At some point the parts about the families become very rare and most pages were filled with long essays on What Really Happened.

Credits: Theresa McCracken, CartoonStock

This being said, it was a great ride to accompany the fortunes and misfortunes of these characters. The balls, the intrigues, the romance, the innocent and the cunning, the hangers-on and the intellectual wanna-bes. It was very easy to imagine the St Petersburg’s salons illuminated by hundreds of candles, or the patriotic fever that possesses the young gentlemen at the front, still romanticizing the idea of fighting for their country and soon to have the reality-check of their lives.

As Claire (The Captive Reader) very well put it,

In Anna Reid’s history of the siege of Leningrad, she mentions that War and Peace was a popular reading choice during the first deadly winter of the siege, when half a million civilians died. I can completely understand why Leningraders, starving, freezing, and watching civilisation disintegrate around them, sought to escape their surroundings with this massive, enthralling novel.

I can also easily understand. There is some extraordinarily compelling about these characters and their lives. Every one of them is so layered that you can never easily tag him or her as the villain of the good guy. What you can’t help is immediately chose a favorite.

In my case (as it happens with almost everyone), Natasha got me at hello. She’s full of life and really stands out among the other, less spontaneous, characters. Natasha seems to live without great concern for what society might think so this is why,

*spoiler*

I felt a bit cheated about how we see her at the end, tamed by marriage. Her personality is diluted and she thinks and acts only as she thinks Pierre would wish her to. Am I being too harsh or did I miss Tolstoy’s real intention with this Married Natasha?

* end spoiler*

Another character that fascinated me (and this will probably only make sense to those who read the book) was Helene.

Do you believe there are characters that escape their creators? That become more than what the authors meant for them to be? I always did and Helene is a great example. Tolstoy keeps telling us how stupid she is, but look at her actions: she quickly becomes the leader of one of Moscow’s leading intellectual salons and it’s hard to believe that she did it being as dumb as Tolstoy wants us to believe. To me she’s a very smart social strategist, ambitious and cunning. A great example is,

*spoiler*

how she ensured that society would go along with her idea of divorce. She started carefully spreading the idea here and there and then planted it in the mind of her confessor. Brilliant!

* end spoiler*

My friend and I spent a long time discussing the book (and made a bet about who would marry Natasha… I now owe her a package of good tea) so I know there’s a LOT more that could be said, but I’ll stop here. I’m glad I read it and finally understand the fascination of generations with War & Peace. If any book has the right to be called an epic, this is it.

By the way, I read Project Gutenberg‘s edition and was really surprised at the quality of the translation. Highly recommended.