Category Archives: Book reviews

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky – Simon Mawer

Picking up The Girl Who Fell From the Sky last week – I had one of those ‘library love’ moments. Another reminder of the wonderfulness of libraries – I had been looking out for this novel since it was published in May and there it was – in a similar place to where I found Julia last week. For anybody in London who has access to an Ideas Store library – I can recommend taking a look.

This is the third of Mawer’s books I’ve read since discovering him this year; The Glass Room (loved it), Swimming to Ithaca (liked it quite a bit) and now The Girl Who Fell From the Sky which I loved. That is a simple summary but it is actually easy to do as the stories are all quite different. The are all set against a background of war or conflict but the style of each is unique – and all enjoyable to read.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky is Marian, also known as Alice or Anne-Marie or Laurent. British and a fluent French speaker, this is the story of her recruitment,training and eventual mission in France as a Special Operations Executive during World War II. It is such a fun story to read with a straightforward narrative style. Marian is a likeable, gutsy character and by keeping control of the scope of the story, the author creates time to spend on the little details making Marian seem all the more authentic. I won’t write too much about her mission, Operation Trapeze, except to say it has all the danger and multi layered intrigue you might expect. This is a mission of such importance that nothing is off limits, including family bonds and personal relationships.

This is the simplest telling of the books I have read so far by Simon Mawer. The Glass Room was arty and haunting and there was a dual narrative in Swimming to Ithaca. Apart from the title which I didn’t especially like (fairly or not, it reminded me of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium series), The Girl Who Fell From The Sky was my favourite of the books to read – if things like sleep and work hadn’t got in the way, I would have read it in one sitting.

Julia – Otto de Kat

I have a soft spot for translated books, slim books and books with a wartime setting. At 168 pages, Dutch author Otto de Kat’s Julia, ticked plenty of boxes. The copy I read was a brand new one from my library which was an added treat.

Julia is a story that is as elegant and sparse as its simple title suggests. Throughout there is a sense of regret and melancholy and by the end, real sadness.

In 1938, Chris Dudock is living and working in Lübeck Germany. He is Dutch, has a girlfriend and family business waiting for him back home. The rise of Nazi power is evident, beginning to infiltrate the daily life of the German people. Chris meets and falls in love with Julia, a vibrant and free spirited German engineer who isn’t afraid of speaking out against the regime. When her brother is arrested, she pleads with Chris to leave Germany, claiming he is putting her at risk by remaining. Chris makes the biggest mistake of his life and returns to Holland.

Fast forward many years and the mature Chris Dudok has done what was expected of him. He married and took over his father’s business. On the outside he has lived a reserved yet fairly ordinary life. On the inside, there has been real emptiness – he left part of himself behind in Lübeck all those years ago.

Light on detail, Julia is a book about living with loss and the impact that one decision had on Chris Dudock’s life. The narrative (always in the third person) flicks between 1938 and the present time (1980s) with snippets of the years in between. The mood of the book reminded me of Sandor Marai’s Embers and Stefan Zweig’s The Post Office Girl – both intense stories on the subject of loss.

This story won’t be for everyone as it has a slow, reflective style rather than one with a lot of plot. I thought it was dignified and quite beautifully written. I read it as part of Iris on Books Dutch Literature Month. It looks as if it has been a popular choice.

Translated from the Dutch by Ina Rilke

2011, 168 pages

Therapy – Sebastian Fitzek

Head down and totally engrossed, I missed my train stop this week. Getting off the train at the end of the day is a bit of a priority so that is a real endorsement for this book. Therapy (A slim, page turning crime mystery/psychological thriller – clever and entertaining.

It doesn’t seem that easy to get hold of but I was lucky enough to pick up a copy in the library after discovering it at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy’s Literary Life.

As well as being an excellent thriller, Therapy allows us to step into a mentally unwell mind – a combination that makes for a genuine page turner.

The story is about Viktor Larenz, a world renowned psychiatrist who suffers a breakdown after the mysterious disappearance of his 12 year old daughter Josy. Four years on,with his life in tatters, he retreats to an isolated North Sea Island to deal with his grief. Here he encounters a woman suffering from schizophrenia, begging Viktor to take her on as his patient. Her case is unusual. A novelist, she claims her characters come to life. One of her characters is a 12 year old girl who has disappeared – the details make it impossible for Viktor to turn her away. As inconceivable as it seems, could this woman know something about the disappearance of his daughter?

There are two major plot twists in Therapy. One of these is hinted at fairly early on and to really enjoy the story, requires acceptance of this twist. Not everything is as it seems though and the other excellent twist occurs right at the end.

A very enjoyable read.

Translated from German by Sally-Ann Spencer

352 pages, 2008

The Other – David Guterson

With all the books many of us are fortunate enough to have access to, I’m always interested in how we come to choose our next book to read. Up until a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of David Guterson, I was aware of the acclaimed Snow Falling on Cedars but not who had written it or what it was about and I’d never really felt the need to find out. Now it’s right at the top of my wish list and I’m hoping to read it soon. It’s amazing how one little thing can lead to another and all of a sudden a whole new literary path is opened up. That’s one of the things I love about books – exploring and learning new things.

I’ve been attracted lately to the idea of reading books set in nature and the idea of simplifying life. I’m also keen to read some US authors and learn a bit about the different US states. The Other fits the brief perfectly as well as being set in the Washington/Portland area where my husband is likely to travel to for work in the future.

So that’s how I came to choose The Other and despite it being a month since I last posted, it hasn’t taken quite that long to read it! 272 pages sounds small but it felt more like 500 reading it. The pace is slow, totally appropriate for the theme of the story but about 20% too long I thought. I didn’t find it a labour to read but I can imagine some people might. This is a story that needs to strike a certain chord, if it does it’s very good. If not, it could seem too much like hard work.

Starting in 1972, two college boys meet as competitors in a track race. They strike up a friendship, based on a love of the outdoors, mutual respect and several coming of age type experiences. Narrated by Neil Countryman, one of the boys, the face of the story is his retelling of his friendship with John William Barry. Both boys are drawn to the idea of rejecting consumerism and living in the woods – following the teachings of Henry Walden. Neil Countryman remains interested but carries on to live a fairly conventional life. He begins his narration as a married man with a son and working as a high school teacher. John William Barry’s interest becomes a staunch commitment as he withdraws further from society but maintaining contact with his closest friend throughout.

I knew I was reading a book set in America in a different time. David Guterson is a descriptive writer, he explores deeply the physical environment and actions of his characters. I especially liked the feeling of expanse, the wide open spaces he uses as his setting and it seems nature also features prominently in his other novels – I like the idea of this.

272 pages, 2009

Swimming to Ithaca – Simon Mawer

The concept of a dual timeline or narrative in fiction fascinates me. I often write about it not being my favourite way of reading a story but it seems every second book I pick up does exactly that! Either it’s a very common choice for an author or on some level I am attracted to books that delve into the past – a message of sorts in that no doubt but I think I’ll leave that be for now.

The main part of Swimming to Ithaca is set in Cyprus during the 1950’s. Dee is an army wife, stationed with her husband and small daughter Paula while her son Thomas has remained in England at boarding school. Thomas is a central character in the story, the current day story focuses on his life and his attempts to uncover his mother’s past. In the 1950’s he visits from boarding school and picks up on subtle shifts in his mother’s behaviour. Dee’s husband is almost a non character in the novel, away a lot, leaving Dee alone to find her feet and to develop a relationship of sorts with three different men. These men are all involved in the rising tensions between the Greek Cypriots and the British army.

The 1950’s was a time when Cyprus was under British rule, and saw the emergence of EOKA – a Greek Cypriot nationalist movement – fighting for independance. Dee finds herself reluctantly becoming involved in this fight. As he did in The Glass Room, Simon Mawer uses an aggressive setting for his story which contrasts beautifully with the gentle way he allows his characters and their relationships to evolve. I liked this aspect of Swimming to Ithaca very much and would have been happy if the whole book had been set in this time frame. The soldier, the freedom fighter and the spy’s relationship with one woman made for intriguing reading.

By contrast I found the present day story of Dee’s son Thomas quite ordinary and uninspiring. Years later and shortly after his mother’s death, Thomas comes across some papers and tries to make sense of what happened to his mother all those years ago in Cyprus. He is able to speak to those who are still alive, and also analyses the reliability of his own memories. Running parallel to this is his blossoming relationship with one of his students and her daughter. I should say though that there wasn’t anything really wrong with this story, it just didn’t appeal to me. There was also a twist at the end of the book which was a bit of a shock – it seemed to come out of nowhere and didn’t quite fit in somehow.

Putting aside the part of Swimming to Ithaca that I wasn’t so keen on, I’m really pleased to have discovered Simon Mawer. There is something about his style I really like. He is not afraid to take risks with his characters and throw in the odd unorthodox scene or opinion. The settings of his books are important and affect the actions of his characters but don’t overshadow them – clever writing, and I look forward to reading more of his books.

What do you think of a book cover that has a fairly clear picture of the characters? My imagination and the cover of the version I read definitely didn’t match!

2006, 352 pages

Twelve Minutes of Love – A Tango Story by Kapka Kassabova

March is New Zealand book month. I was looking for something authentically kiwi to read and failed miserably! I’m not sure that Kapka Kassabova would even describe herself as a New Zealand author or an author from anywhere specific at all. That sense of not belonging anywhere, and of searching for that metaphoric place that feels like home is really what Twelve Minutes of Love is about – that, and of course, Tango.

Kassabova is a Bulgarian who immigrated to New Zealand as a teenager with her family in the 1990’s. Despite escaping turbulent times in Eastern Europe and describing New Zealand as the most beautiful country in the world, it wasn’t home. Neither sadly was Sofia when she returned there years later. I found this aspect of her story especially powerful and I really understand how someone in this situation could find themselves constantly looking for something that feels right.

Twelve Minutes of Love is a non-fiction, memoir/travel journal of a decade of Kassabova’s life as she travelled the world writing and searching for the next tango fix. Her travels took her from New Zealand to Buenos Aires several times, to Berlin, Paris, New York and eventually Scotland. Personal, honest, funny and fascinating – a story that will appeal to all the restless souls amongst us.

The twelve minutes referred to is the average amount of time spent dancing a set of tango dances (a tanda) with the same person. Kassabova tells us early on that twelve minutes of sheer bliss on the dance floor does not usually translate to much bliss off the dance floor – leading to inevitable heartache for those fooled into thinking it could be otherwise.

The first thing to say is that Kassabova is a very good writer and the second is that it is not essential (I don’t think) to know much about Tango to enjoy her story. For anyone who does love Tango, or is even a touch interested, I would think this book is a must read. There is a plenty of tango talk, history, music and passion. A great reference and I’m tempted to re read it slowly, a lot of knowledge to soak up.

For me as a New Zealander living away from home I found it especially poignant that the things about New Zealand that seem so boring and unappealing when living there and to Kassabova as an immigrant, are exactly the things that I would choose to return for. It’s all about the concept of home. The ending of the book and that chapter of Kapka Kassabova’s life leave the reader with the hope that she is on her way to finding a place to call home as well. I sincerely hope she finds it.

A great read, not easy to put down!

2011, 324 pages

The Glass Room – Simon Mawer

I have just loved reading The Glass Room this week. It’s a book to be read slowly if possible although it’s tempting to rush ahead, the chapters are short, the writing elegant and understated as well as sensual, gripping and tragic.

Simon Mawer’s eighth novel was short listed for the Booker prize in 2009 – the winner being Hilary Mantel with Wolf Hall. My thoughts after finishing The Glass Room are that Wolf Hall must be absolutely fantastic to have taken the prize. Not that I have any book judging credentials and of course it’s all subjective but I’m going to make the effort to read Wolf Hall to satisfy my curiosity. I have it on kindle but have been a bit intimidated by the size of it.

I first heard of The Glass Room with this excellent review by Tom at A Common Reader. I thought then that it sounded wonderful and it really is. So much so that I knew after the first couple of pages I would love it and so much so that I gave up trying to remember things to write about it later and just fell into reading it.

Set mostly in 1930’s Czechoslovakia, the Glass Room is the name of a house and the term is used loosely and is open to interpretation depending on the language used (Czech or German). There is nothing loose about the actual house and it is in fact the anchor for all that happens to its various inhabitants throughout the following years. It is the one constant in a time of upheaval and devastation in Czechoslovakia and throughout Europe, reflecting the changing times and attitudes of the people that pass through it.

Viktor and Liesel Landauer are honeymooning in Venice in 1929 when a chance meeting with a German architect results in a commission. He will build them their dream home, a forward thinking functionalist style building, without conventional walls, filled with glass and a stunning onyx wall. A house for the future; minimalist, free of ornament and association with the past. This house whilst ridiculed at first is soon claimed a masterpiece, the Glass Room becomes host to gatherings and recitals – the Launder’s are a wealthy family and for a time life seems good although times are changing.

Viktor is Jewish and eventually the Landauer’s are forced to flee their home, friends and family to seek exile abroad. They must leave their precious home to its fate and await their own. The fate of the characters, of their home, is such that by the end of the book it really does seem like many years have passed and much has changed.

Just a beautiful book on so many levels. There is a lot I have left out including some factual details about Mawer’s inspiration for The Glass Room and other crucial characters and details. Plenty to discover. As the saying goes ‘read it and weep’ – it had that effect on me.

2009, 404 pages

The Sentamentalists – Johanna Skibsrud

I’ve been thinking for a while that it would be good to try some Canadian authors. I’m not 100% sure but I think I may have read only one book so far and that was Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay, winner of the Giller Prize in 2007, which although a little slow in places, was beautifully written and I enjoyed it.

With her debut novel The Sentamentalists, Johanna Skibsrud also won the Giller prize – in 2010. I had heard of it and was attracted by the tranquility of the cover, the slimness of the book and my expectations of a gentle and emotional read.

The book is written in a heart felt way about a daughter’s attempt to care for and understand her father as his health declines in his later years, an attempt to make sense of his time in Vietnam and how that experience affected his life and his ability to fully engage as a husband and father. It is obvious early on that her father has experienced post traumatic stress, has been an alcoholic and had deserted his family at one time. Towards the end of his life, his daughters move him to the home of an old friend, a place that had been like a second home to the family years earlier. As the narrator looks back on her childhood, she tries to fill in the gaps of her life and that of her father, mother and sister and that of Henry, whose house they share.

I’ve read a few books about older men trying to find peace in remote settings and for the most part I’ve enjoyed them. I can relate to the concept of nature and time as healers. Two books that spring to mind are Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, a Still Small Voice (also about the effects of the Vietnam War on a man and his family) and J.M Coetzee’s Disgrace,. I found both of these to be excellent.

I really wanted to like The Sentamentalists. Johanna Skibsrud has written a sensitive story on a topic she has personal experience of and I could feel where she was coming from but unfortunately the pace was way too slow and the narrative disjointed. It just didn’t work for me. I persevered hoping it would click into place but on the whole it didn’t. I’m pleased I read it all though – it would have seemed almost disrespectful not to and there are two passages which made it worthwhile to keep going. They both related to the father Napoleon’s time in Vietnam, his sense of disorientation in particular and the horrors that he, as little more than a boy, experienced, were written very well.

Luckily not everyone agrees with my view of this book. One of the Guardian’s reviewers was ‘moved to tears’ and the Giller panel obviously found plenty about it to like.

Winner of the Giller Prize 2010

2009, 210 pages

Russian Winter – Daphne Kalotay

1930’s Moscow – a warm summer’s day in June will prove to be a significant one for nine year old Nina Revskaya. Along with her childhood friend Vera, this is the day she first auditions for the Bolshoi Ballet School. It is the era of Stalin and sadly by days end Vera’s parents will have mysteriously disappeared. It will be many years before Nina sees Vera again.

By stark contrast it is also the day Nina glimpses what life outside the Soviet Union could be like. A glamorous American woman in beautiful clothes exits an expensive hotel as the girls and Nina’s mother walk by. Nina is mesmerised by the delicate diamond ear rings the woman wears – she has never seen such beautiful jewels, never known such a life existed.

Boston – seventy years later, Nina, the world famous prima ballerina, has decided to auction off some of her formidable jewellery collection. Of particular interest is an amber bracelet and ear rings – along with the matching necklace annonymously donated to the auction house. Nina is a woman with secrets, secrets she intends to keep to herself. As the story flashes back to Nina’s life in Soviet Russia, it becomes obvious why. From the sacrifices required to remain a top ballerina, the oppression and suspicion of life under Stalin and the love Nina has for her artist friends and her beloved husband the poet Viktor Elsin – runs a common thread of betrayal and tragedy.

Charged with tracing the provenance of the jewellery is Drew Brooks, the young auctioneer organising the sale, who herself has Russian ancestory. Assisting her is Grigori Solodin, a Professor of Russian studies and a man with questions about his own past.

I liked this book. I liked the main story, the part that took place in Russia – I found the current day story set in Boston less engrossing but it did grow on me. I’m not usually the biggest fan of dual time periods in a book for that reason, so I’m not suprised to have found one story stronger.

Daphne Kalotay spent six years researching and writing Russian Winter. She makes clever use of her research to provide an intriguing historical setting, enough detail to enhance but not engulf the story. I came away entertained rather than overwhelmed. For readers looking to delve further into the world of ballet, jewellery and life behind the Iron Curtain, there is an excellent list in the authors notes and sources at the end of the book. I would like to read all of them!

2010, 459 pages

Thank you to Arrow Books and to tour host Trish for sending me a copy of Russian Winter which I read as part of this TLC Book blog tour.

To check out other stops on the tour, pop over to the readers below:

Monday, February 6th: She Reads Novels
Wednesday, February 8th: Reading With Tea
Thursday, February 9th: Fleur Fisher in her World
Tuesday, February 14th: DizzyC’s Little Book Blog
Wednesday, February 15th: Pining for the West
Thursday, February 16th: Chuck’s Miscellany
Monday, February 20th: one more page
Tuesday, February 21th: I hug my books
Wednesday, February 22th: The Sweet Bookshelf

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is an author I feel more familiar with than I probably should. I have watched Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go on film and am aware of his other books, but actually, An Artist of the Floating World is the first of his books I have properly read.

I am very taken with his direct, understated, elegant writing.

The year is 1948 and the artist of this story is Masuji Ono, a man trying to reconcile his past and present. His story is narrated in the first person and he tells it as if he is walking the reader around his city and his home – like a leisurely guided tour of his life. A tour that gradually develops a certain level of tension and discomfort. He speaks at the beginning of a bridge he needs to cross to get to his home, one of the grandest houses in the area, nestled up in the hills. This ‘Bridge of Hesitation’ is symbolic; there are other crossings he is trying to make; he has one foot, fond memories and his heart in the past, but a life and responsibilities, including a forward thinking daughter and grandson, in the present.

The past is pre war Japan, a time when he enjoyed an esteemed reputation as a painter and patriot; held in high regard by his students and community. A man with a good reputation and despite consistent claims that he was unconcerned about people’s opinions of him, it becomes obvious that this is not true. Masuji Ono is a man desperate to hold onto his version of the past. In trying to do this, a few inconsistencies start to creep into his recollections, a task for the reader is to decipher these – is he lying, is his memory failing, is he fooling himself? And if so, why. Does this dignified man have something to hide?

The present is Japan after ‘the surrender’ as he refers to it. His daily life is taken up with his two daughters and his highly entertaining and very Americanised eight year old grandson. The family are in the crucial phase of marriage negotiations for Ono’s youngest daughter, a time when it is customary to look into the background of the prospective bride and her family. There is unacknowledged anxiety around this process. Ono’s eldest daughter is indirect, polite and traditional in her communication style whilst his younger daughter is openly rude and dismissive.

Ono flicks back and forth in his narrative and cuts both an admirable and sad figure, there is a sense of loss on many levels and it is not easy to completely rely on him as a narrator.

He refers frequently to lighting – candles, lanterns, shadows, darkness, reflections – usually in describing a room or a place he is remembering from the past. While he is sensitive to that as a painter, it is also I think a way of linking his memories, of keeping them alive. He reminded me in this way of W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz who did the same thing with buildings and architecture. In both books the men also have the same sense of displacement and terrible loss – different countries, different circumstances – but the same war.

The Observer newspaper described An Artist of the Floating World as an exquisite novel – I thought so too.

1986, 206 pages