My Week in Books – 31st December ’17

MyWeekinBooks 

New arrivals

Someone has been tempted by Amazon’s 12 Days of Kindle sale….

The Heart's Invisible FuriesThe Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne (ebook)

Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?

Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamorous and dangerous Julian Woodbead. At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from – and over his three score years and ten, will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country and much more.

Any Human HeartAny Human Heart by William Boyd (ebook)

ANY HUMAN HEART is an ambitious, all-encompassing novel. Through the intimate journals of Logan Mounstuart we travel from Uruguay to Oxford, on to Paris, the Bahamas, New York and West Africa, and meet his three wives, his family, his friends and colleagues, his rivals, enemies and lovers, including notables such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Wool

Dangerous CrossingDangerous Crossing by Rachel Rhys (ebook)

England, September 1939. Lily Shepherd boards a cruise liner for a new life in Australia and is plunged into a world of cocktails, jazz and glamorous friends. But as the sun beats down, poisonous secrets begin to surface. Suddenly Lily finds herself trapped with nowhere to go…

Australia, six-weeks later. The world is at war, the cruise liner docks, and a beautiful young woman is escorted onto dry land in handcuffs. What has she done?

Rules of CivilityRules of Civility by Amor Towles (ebook)

In a jazz bar on the last night of 1937, watching a quartet because she couldn’t afford to see the whole ensemble, there were certain things Katey Kontent knew.

By the end of the year she’d learned – how to launch a paper airplane high over Park Avenue, how to live like a redhead, and how to insist upon the very best.


On What Cathy Read Next last week

Blog posts

Tuesday – I shared my Top Ten Books I’m Looking Forward To In 2018 which includes many new books from authors whose books I loved in 2017.

WednesdayWWW Wednesday is the opportunity to share what I’ve just finished reading, what I’m reading now and what I’ll be reading next.

Thursday –I shared my review of The Twelve-Mile Straight by Eleanor Henderson, a powerful drama about secrets, prejudice and the abuse of power. I also published my selections for the When Are You Reading? Challenge 2018.  Still time to sign-up if you fancy joining me…

Friday – Another day, another challenge sign-up for 2018! This time it was the What’s In A Name Reading Challenge with six books chosen to fit some interesting categories.

Saturday – I shared my review of The Biographies of Ordinary People, Vol. 1 by Nicole Dieker, a fascinating book following the everyday life of the fictional Gruber family. I’m really looking forward to the second volume, due to be published in 2018. I also put together my annual round-up post – My Year in Books. It included bookish statistics from my reading year as well as some hidden gems and books I read that were outside my normal genres.

Sunday – I published my review of The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, the book from my much-neglected Classics Club list that was drawn for me for the Classics Club spin.

Challenge updates

  • Goodreads 2017 Reading Challenge – 160 out of 156 books read, 4 more than last week.  Achieved!
  • Classics Club Challenge – 6 out of 50 books reviewed, 1 more than last week.  Hmm, some way to go in 2018.
  • NetGalley/Edelweiss Reading Challenge 2017 (Gold) – 46 ARCs reviewed out of 50, 1 more than last week.  I originally targeted Silver level (25 books) which I achieved.
  • From Page to Screen– 9 book/film comparisons out of 15, same as last week.  More work needed on this one as well.

On What Cathy Read Next this week

Currently reading

Planned posts

  • My Five Favourite December Reads
  • Extract: 355 – The Women of Washington’s Spy Ring by Kit Sergeant
  • Top Ten Tuesday: New-To-Me Authors I Read in 2017
  • Review: Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather
  • Throwback Thursday/Review: 1066 – What Fates Impose by G. K. Holloway
  • Review: Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon
  • Buchan of the Month: Introducing The Power House
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Book Review: The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

The Good EarthAbout the Book

This Pulitzer Prize-winning classic tells the poignant tale of a Chinese farmer and his family in old agrarian China. The humble Wang Lung glories in the soil he works, nurturing the land as it nurtures him and his family. Nearby, the nobles of the House of Hwang consider themselves above the land and its workers; but they will soon meet their own downfall. Hard times come upon Wang Lung and his family when flood and drought force them to seek work in the city. The working people riot, breaking into the homes of the rich and forcing them to flee. When Wang Lung shows mercy to one noble and is rewarded, he begins to rise in the world, even as the House of Hwang falls

Format: Hardcover (339 pp.)           Publisher: Methuen
Published: 1948 [1931]                     Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Classics

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

 

Find The Good Earth on Goodreads


My Review

The Good Earth is the book from my Classics Club list that I drew in the latest Classics Club spin. My edition was published by Methuen in 1948 and is a copy I picked up in a second-hand bookshop.

I’ve been reading the book over Christmas and initially I thought that the terrible struggles of Wang Lung and his family for food and a livelihood didn’t make for a very Christmassy read. But then I’m lucky enough to be in the situation (shared I hope by a lot of you) that the most agonising decisions I have to make this festive season are whether there are enough mince pies to go round or if I can really get away with offering turkey sandwiches again. Thinking about it some more, however, it struck me that of course there are people in the world – right now – having to make agonising decisions similar to those Wang Lung faces in the book. They also are wondering where their next meal will come from, worrying about how to keep a roof over their heads, trying to eke out a living from the land, battling disease, violence or environmental disaster. In fact, this was the perfect time to read The Good Earth and remind myself of all the people in the world less fortunate than me. If that isn’t a message suitable for Christmas, I don’t know what is.

Although The Good Earth contains many moments of tragedy and hardship, I found its theme of the importance of the land, the unchanging nature of the land and its capacity for nurturing life, quite hopeful and uplifting. For instance, this description of Wang Lung and O-Lan working together in their fields:

‘He had no articulate thought of anything; there was only this perfect sympathy of movement, of turning this earth of theirs over and over to the sun, this earth which formed their home and fed their bodies and made their gods. Sometimes they turned up a bit of brick, a splinter of wood. It was nothing. Some time, in some age, bodies of men and women had been buried there, houses had stood there, had fallen, and gone back into the earth. So would also their house sometime return into the earth, their bodies also. Each had his turn at this earth.’

Although when famine comes the family are forced to leave their farm and flee to the city to work, to beg, to steal even, the pull of the land remains strong for Wang Lung.

‘…Standing thus he felt upon his face the mildness of the evening wind and there arose within him a mighty longing for his fields.

“On such a day as this,” he said aloud to his father, “the fields should be turned and the wheat cultivated.”

“Ah,” said the old man tranquilly, “I know what is in your thought. Twice and twice again in my years I have had to do as we did this year and leave the fields and know that there was no seed in them for fresh harvests.”

“But you always went back, my father.”

“There was the land, my son,” said the old man simply.’

In pursuit of a return to their farm, Wang Lung and his wife, O-Lan, contemplate the most awful act imaginable. But surely no-one who reads this book can fail to pity O-Lan. Stolid and uncomplaining about the subservient role she is expected to adopt, she is mostly silent but when she utters they are usually words of immense wisdom. However she displays a pragmatism that is chilling at times but proves essential to the family’s survival.  For modern day readers, the treatment of women depicted in The Good Earth is difficult to accept. Sons are welcomed but daughters are considered ‘slaves’, a curse on a household not a blessing since ‘daughters […] do not belong to their parents, but are born and reared for other families’.

Wang Lung is a character it’s difficult to like because although he works hard and sacrifices a lot in order to build a sustainable livelihood for his family, he also acts with appalling selfishness at times, particularly towards the long-suffering O-Lan.  However, his belief that ownership of land is the key to the survival and prosperity of his family never leaves him.

Usually, once I’ve acquired a book I don’t read other’s reviews before I’ve written my own. I may well have read some before I purchased it but this is often months before I get around to reading the book and I’ve mostly forgotten the content of the reviews by then. In addition – thankfully – most of the reviewers I follow know better than to give too much away about a book and definitely avoid spoilers.   However, I made an exception in this case because there was a 1-star rating and review from the author Celeste Ng that really intrigued me.

Her review starts, “It’s difficult for me to explain how much I hate this book, and even harder to explain why.” Her main objections are that it perpetuates a lot of stereotypes about the Chinese and seems to have influenced a lot of people’s perceptions of China and the Chinese. I’m not sure the book deserves the criticism she heaps on it but I accept she has a point…to a point. I’m not such a naïve reader that I confuse a work of fiction with straight history and I think I’d need to read a lot more about Chinese history to make a plausible argument either for or against the views she expresses.  However, she does admit that ‘as a story of love, partnership, and sacrifice in a marriage and family, this book does well’ and I’d certainly agree with that sentiment.

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In three words: Powerful, dramatic, tragic

Try something similar…Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (because a connection to the land is a feature of this book also)


Pearl S BuckAbout the Author

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was a bestselling and Nobel Prize–winning author. Her classic novel The Good Earth (1931) was awarded a Pulitzer Prize and William Dean Howells Medal. Born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, Buck was the daughter of missionaries and spent much of the first half of her life in China, where many of her books are set. In 1934, civil unrest in China forced Buck back to the United States. Throughout her life she worked in support of civil and women’s rights, and established Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. In addition to her highly acclaimed novels, Buck wrote two memoirs and biographies of both of her parents. For her body of work, Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, the first American woman to have done so. She died in Vermont in 1973.

Website ǀ Goodreads

 

My Year in Books 2017

As this is only my second end of calendar year as a book blogger, I’m still finding it fun to look back over the year and review what I achieved. Last year at this time, I’d only been blogging for just over a month. In fact, it was interesting to look back at my reflections then and the bold plans I had for 2017.  Click here if you want to take a look too.

Bookish Statistics (courtesy of Goodreads)

Longest bookAnd The Birds Kept On Singing by Simon Bourke (642 pages)

Shortest bookTremarnock Summer by Emma Burstall (Goodreads insists this was 12 pages although it was actually 384 pages). Not sure what my actual shortest book was.

Most Popular BookLittle Women by Louisa M Alcott which another 1,422,028 have read. Published in 1862, this was also the oldest book I read.

Least Popular BookA Countess in Limbo: Diaries in War and Revolution by Olga Hendrikoff and Sue Carscallen which no-one else has read (see also Hidden Gems below)

Favourite Genre – Historical fiction (no surprise there)

Average rating – 4.2 (Hmm, I’m more generous than I thought or I’ve just read a ton of good books this year…)

Top rated books – I gave forty-three 5-star ratings although some of those would actually have been 4.5 star ratings rounded up.  My lowest rating was 3 stars (given to 19 books).

Hidden Gems

Here is a list of books to which I gave 5 stars on Goodreads but which fewer than 100 people have rated/reviewed on Goodreads. I’ve ignored books published after 1st October 2017 as they simply may not have had enough time to acquire many reviews. I am frankly astonished at some of them…. Click on the titles to read my review.

A Countess in Limbo: Diaries in War and Revolution by Olga Hendrikoff and Sue Carscallen
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik
Shelter by Sarah Franklin
Ares Road by James L Weaver
Crimson & Bone by Marina Fiorato
A Reluctant Warrior by Kelly Brooke Nicholls
The Watch House by Bernie McGill
Catherine Dickens: Outside the Magic Circle by Heera Datta
The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath
A Dangerous Woman From Nowhere by Kris Radish
And The Birds Kept On Singing by Simon Bourke
The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson
Fortune’s Wheel by Carolyn Hughes
The Last Train by Michael Pronko

Outside My Comfort Zone

Here are a few books I read – some for blog tours, some in response to review requests from authors – that were outside my usual genres but I still enjoyed. As always, click on the titles to read my review.

Zenka by Alison Brodie (humour)
The Summer Springsteen’s Songs Saved Me by Barbara Quinn (women’s fiction)
The Smallest Thing by Lisa Manterfield (YA)
The Thirteenth Gate by Kat Ross (fantasy element)
And The Birds Kept On Singing by Simon Bourke (long book!)

Reading Challenges

Goodreads – I read 160 books (including two I’ll finish before tomorrow not showing in my total currently) against a target of 156. More than double the 70 books I read in 2016 which goes to show what book blogging does for you!

From Page to Screen – I haven’t managed to read all the books on which the films I’ve seen are based. I need to apply myself to this more next year.

Classics Club – Talking of which, I’ve only managed to read 7 of the 50 books on my list. I’m really going to have to go some to get through the list by the end of 2018 but I’ve included as many as I can in other reading challenges I’m signed up for in 2018.

NetGalley & Edelweiss Challenge – I achieved the 25 books for Silver level that I originally set as my target but was aiming for Gold level – 50 books. I’m going to fall a few books short of that.

Blog

Top 5 Most Viewed Book Reviews

These Dividing Walls by Fran Cooper
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik
Vindolanda by Adrian Goldsworthy
Mussolini’s Island by Sarah Day
Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Top 5 Most Viewed Other Posts

What Does You Book Blog Say About You?
Temptations of a Book Blogger
Top Ten Tuesday: Ten Favourite Books of 2017
Should Bloggers Act as Proofreaders?
10 Book Blogs I Love

Reading & Blogging Goals for 2018

You can read about the challenges I’ve set myself next year here.

However, there is one thing I’d like to see less of in 2018 – the word ‘unputdownable’ (if it even is a word) when used to describe a book.  You mean you literally did not put it down during all the time you were reading it? Not even to make a cup of tea or coffee, go to the bathroom or make yourself a snack?   If you did indeed not put it down whilst doing any of those things, then hats off to you. If you didn’t actually, then please think up a new word to encapsulate your admiration for a book.  Rant over.

I don’t want to end the year on a grumpy note, so I’d like to thank everyone who has followed my blog this year and read, liked, commented on or shared my posts.  Thank you also to the publishers, tour organisers and authors I’ve worked with this year who have contributed to such a satisfying and rewarding Year In Books.

Happy New Year!    

Book Review: The Biographies of Ordinary People, Vol. 1 by Nicole Dieker

TheBiographiesofOrdinaryPeopleAbout the Book

The Biographies of Ordinary People is the story of the Gruber family: Rosemary and Jack, and their daughters Meredith, Natalie, and Jackie. The two-volume series begins in July 1989, on Rosemary’s thirty-fifth birthday; it ends in November 2016, on Meredith’s thirty-fifth birthday.

When the Grubers move to a small Midwestern town so Jack can teach music at a local college, each family member has an idea of who they might become. Jack wants to foster intellectual curiosity in his students. Rosemary wants to be “the most important person in her own life for the length of an afternoon.” Meredith wants to model herself after the girls she’s read about in books: Betsy Ray, Pauline Fossil, Jo March. Natalie wants to figure out how she’s different from her sisters – and Jackie, the youngest, wants to sing.

Set against the past thirty years of social and cultural changes, this story of family, friendship, and artistic ambition takes us into intimately familiar experiences: putting on a play, falling out with a best friend, getting dial-up internet for the first time. Drinking sparkling wine out of a paper cup on December 31, 1999 and wondering what will happen next.

Format: eBook, paperback (384 pp.)    Publisher:
Published: 23rd May 2017                       Genre: Literary Fiction

Purchase Links*
Amazon.co.uk ǀ Amazon.com ǀ Kobo
*links provided for convenience, not as part of any affiliate programme

Find The Biographies of Ordinary People, Vol .1 on Goodreads


My Review

In her guest post published on my blog a few months ago, Nicole talked about the  inspiration for her book and her reason for focussing on the lives of just one family. She illustrated this with a quote from volume two in which Meredith asks:

“There are all these biographies of famous people and how they lived their lives, but most of us aren’t going to be famous. It’s like we’ve gotten these models for life that aren’t applicable…We’ve learned about all of these well-known artists and how they did their work, but we don’t ever study how the rest of us do it. Where are the biographies of ordinary people?”

The Biographies of Ordinary People has been described as, ‘a millennial-era Little Women’ but don’t think that this means it’s at all sentimental, preachy or twee (not that I’m suggesting Little Women deserves those descriptions either). I saw a one-star review that said (summarising) “not much happens” and feel that the reviewer missed the point of this book really. Sure, there are no dramatic events like murders or violent deaths but then those things are not a feature of normal family life for most of us, unless you’re really unfortunate.

Things do happen in The Biographies of Ordinary People but they’re the things that make up everyday domestic life and reflect the experience of most of us growing up: making up games for entertainment on car journeys, starting school, making new friends, moving to a new town, going to the swimming pool, visiting the video store, attending your first prom. In the case of the Gruber girls, their experiences also reflect the period covered by the book so it’s videos not DVDs or streaming, video games not apps on your phone and the first glimpses of something called the Internet. There are also the sad events that unfortunately occur in any family over time.

Meredith is the character that resonated most strongly with me. She’s clever, thoughtful, bookish, protective towards her younger sisters, competitive but perhaps over-absorbed by the desire to get things right and, in this respect, can come across as mature beyond her years. At one point she muses, “I wonder if I am good at anything that I haven’t practiced”. Meredith seems absolutely real as a character with the good points and flaws that make up all humans and I think this is the author’s chief accomplishment that, in this book, she has created truly realistic characters that you feel you could meet in the street or the local shop.

I found the Gruber parents – Rosemary and Jack – really interesting although not altogether likeable. They seem so careful and controlled in their parenting and in bringing up their girls so that this carefulness becomes ingrained in Meredith, in particular. In fact, at the town’s annual Easter Egg Hunt, Rosemary does seem to recognise this: ‘Rosemary often didn’t know how to feel about her daughter; certainly there was a sense of pride and love and accomplishment in the idea that she had raised a child who would hold back, whose sharp, smart eyes would case the room for eggs and then help her younger sisters find them. But she also felt a little sad, watching this, because she saw her daughter growing up and doing exactly what she and Jack had taught her, think before you speak and before you act – and she worried that Meredith thought too much.’

I really liked the contrast made with the arrangements in the household of Meredith’s best friend, Alex.  [Meredith] had never known anyone like Alex, who walked down the sidewalks saying hello to everyone, who climbed up on a library stepstool without asking, who ran towards her father every evening shouting “Daddy, daddy, daddy!” Mike MacAllister was big and red-headed and he would lift Alex off the ground or tousle her tangled hair. When Meredith went back to her own home she said “Hello” and whichever parent was in the living room said “Hello” and asked how her visit had been…’

‘That was one of the reasons Meredith and Alex were best friends. They talked, in Alex’s bedroom, about the Gruber way and the MacAllister way.’

I received a review copy courtesy of the author in return for an honest and unbiased review.  I really enjoyed the first volume of The Biographies of Ordinary People and I’m looking forward to reading the second volume covering the years 2004 to 2016 and seeing what life has in store for Meredith, her siblings and friends. It’s due for publication some time in 2018.

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In three words: Intimate, realistic, engaging

NicoleDiekerAbout the Author

Nicole Dieker is a freelance writer, a senior editor at The Billfold, and a columnist at The Write Life. Her work has appeared in Boing Boing, Popular Science, Scratch, SparkLife, The Freelancer, The Toast, and numerous other publications. The Biographies of Ordinary People is her debut novel, if you don’t count the speculative fiction epic she wrote when she was in high school.

Connect with Nicole

Website ǀ Twitter ǀ Goodreads

 

What’s In A Name Reading Challenge 2018

 

What's In A Name 2018

This challenge (which is going to be my final challenge sign-up for 2018) is hosted by Charlie at The Worm Hole.

The challenge runs from January to December. During this time you choose a book to read from each of the six categories listed. I’ve had great fun making my selections and trying to source as many as possible from my TBR pile.  My final list is below and if you click on the title it will take you to the book’s entry on Goodreads. Once I’ve read each book, I’ll replace this with a link to my review.

The word ‘the’ used twice    The Honey Farm on the Hill by Jo Thomas

A fruit or vegetable               Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

A shape                                    Diamond Cut Diamond by Jane Jakeman

A title that begins with Z      Zoo Station by David Downing (can be after ‘The’ or ‘A’)

A nationality                          The German Messenger by David Malcolm

A season                                 The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson