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Books reviewed for January 2023
Yes, it was homework set for the Agbrigg Writers Christmas/New Year break: review a favourite book. The reviews appear here anonymously as they are due to be discussed at our first session of 2023.
1. All The Light We Cannot See Anthony Doerr
‘ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE’ by ANTHONY DOERR is a breath-taking read. It’s beautifully written, poignant, sensitive and well researched . This is an intriguing and complex story set against the backdrop of the 2nd world war . There are two main protagonists……Werner an orphaned German boy and. Marie- Laure a French blind girl. She allows the reader to view the world in a different way. Doerr’s insight into her world is poetic and convincing. All the characters are adroitly and powerfully drawn. Doerr sheds a light on complex relationships and ultimately there is an emphasis on love in the most unusual and challenging of circumstances. This is a beautiful book that left me in awe of Doerr's ability to tell an emotional and impactive story. He engages the reader and points us towards ‘All the light we cannot see’.
2. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
A debut novel for Douglas Stuart and winner of The Booker Prize 2022, I expected a high brow, perhaps pretentious read. Not so. Set against a background of poverty in 1980’s Glasgow, it is the story of Shuggie, growing up with an alcoholic mother. A dismal read you might think, but not so. The characterisation is excellent, you walk in the shoes of Shuggie and his companions. The description of a dismal Glasgow is peppered with unusual metaphors that bring the scenes to life. There is some black humour and the narrative, in parts, in the local dialect is challenging, but you get used to it and adds to the authenticity. The novel is not for the faint hearted, however the engaging writing transcends the bleak story line. I couldn’t put it down.
3. The Plot by Madeleine Bunting
‘The Plot’ is grounded in historical fact but novelistic in style. The polysemic title refers primarily to an acre on Sutton Bank, on the North York Moors, which provided space for Joseph’s (Madeleine’s father’s) life’s dream. The subtext is a religious conspiracy involving Joseph. He built a chapel on the remotely placed ‘Scotch Corner’, part of his goal shared by others to restore Pre-Reformation Catholic faith to England. This was linked with his yearning for a return to the pre-Industrial Revolution era. Scotch Corner’s way of life remained pre-war. He was educated at the nearby Roman Catholic Public School, later learning stonemasonry from the ‘’Kilburn Mouseman’. Life-long acquaintances developed his outlook. In the process he cut himself off from his family in pursuit of his dream. This story is of someone who set out to realise a tragically foreseeable dream and makes the book hard to resist. Madeleine Bunting is a journalist, and her prose reflects her working style.
4. TYGER by S. F Said
Set in an imaginary London, where all foreigners are made to live in ghettos under a repressive regime, the story is told from the perspective of a young foreigner called Adam. The themes of this book powerfully echo some of the issues of modern times. When Adam tries to hide from a racial attack, he discovers a mythical beast called Tyger, living in a rubbish dump. Despite being injured, Tyger helps to save Adam, but their conversations reveal that their world is on the verge of destruction. Tyger holds the key to salvation but needs Adam’s help. Adam needs to learn about the different kinds of power he never knew he had. The spiritual element is deep and thought provoking. Written in a simple yet effective style, Tyger has all the makings of a classic tale of our times and I highly recommend it.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
This is a story of a family in the Deep South, that is told from the perspective of six year’s old Scout Finch. She lives with her father Atticus and her brother Jem. They are looked after by the housekeeper Calpurnia. One summer Dill comes to stay with his Aunt and Scout tells of the scrapes and games they play. Behind these tales of childhood adventures the story also covers more serious issues of drug addiction, racism, a trial, and living in a neighbourhood that is full of characters that are very real. I have read this book more than once and I like how it is written chronologically (doesn’t flit between past and present) and the descriptions of both scenery and atmosphere have you there. This book made me laugh and cry and be angry with society. I think it has everything you want in a story.
6. The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
This beautifully written novel demonstrates that the problem of slavery continued to dog the U.S. well after the ending of the American Civil War. Isabelle Walker inherits a Texas farm from her husband and is immediately faced with the problem s of running such an estate. In a time, fraught with violence and ever-present tragedy, she confronts bigotry and prejudice by employing freed slaves and offering them dignity and hope. Always on a knife edge, but trust and union can blossom; a message which resonates to the present day. Read this book, be moved by this book, and care.
7. Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier William Pinkney Inman, a wounded Confederate soldier in the American Civil War struggles to reach home. His story runs parallel with that of Ada, his wife, both experience brutality, hunger and threat during their enforced separation. The title Cold Mountain, is symbolic of their need to have a place to rest and belong. Both in separate journeys find comfort and friendship in the most derelict of places. The descriptions are extraordinarily, brilliant and worthy of all awards the author received. William’s encounter with the old Hill-billy woman who contentedly survived her rough existence living off goats was illuminating. Especially how she tenderly nursed a kid on her knee then gently slit its throat. I found the pace exhilarating; this has been a cracking good read.
8. Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkein
Tolkein to my mind is the ultimate master of fantasy; the world of Middle Earth which he created is so complete and complex, but utterly believable because of his extraordinary descriptive writing. His characters are fully rounded; they may be brave and have good intentions, but they also have all the faults and flaws of real individuals, making many costly mistakes along the way. The epic tale follows Frodo Baggins and his friends all the way from the Shire to the dreaded Mordor, following Gandalf the Grey and Strider as guides; meeting along the way elves, ents and dwarves who help them as they battle hideous orcs, evil magicians and kings who have been driven mad by the malignant Sauron and his vile servants. The story is basically a tale of good versus evil but it is rich in plot and subplot, indeed there are many subplots, but they are all carefully brought together in the breathtaking finale. For me this is the best fantasy novel of all time.
Useful Books As you know, for the last eighteen months or so I have been working towards an MA in Creative Writing. During the course, there are frequent references to books one might read to improve technique or grasp of particular ways of looking at the creation of written word. There is a small handful of those that I go to time after time for guidance and encouragement. You might find they strike a chord with you too. The Art of Voice by Tony Hoagland. W W Norton and co. Inc, New York. 2019 Just helpful – and blessedly short . together with exercises that relate to each chapter – He introduces his book he talks about ‘binding the reader and the speaker into a conversation compelling enough to be called a ‘relationship’ His simple encouragement and clarity of expression is so important on a day when the words do not come. How to be a poet, by Jo Bell and Jane Commane Nine Arches Press 2017 She – together with others – explores what it is to write poetry and how to do it well, without fear. She never patronises and exposes her own difficulties time and again. For example, she explores the many drafts she went through to get her poem Mallaig page 64 in a form that she wanted. Also see A year of poetry writing prompts. Write a poem a week. Start now. Keep Going. Nine Arches Press 2015 Every prompt comes with a really good poem and loads of ideas for handling yourself – and a basic reluctance to get stuck into writing. You Can’t Make this stuff up. The Complete Guide to writing creative nonfiction from Memoir to literary journalism and everything in between by Lee Gutkind. Da Capo Press Books, 2012 Writing a memoir of some kind? Well, I find this very helpful in guiding the difference between various types of writing. Lee is recognised as a champion of non-fiction and good writing in this context. Still with me? If you want to read a novel that made me weep with its brilliance. Try Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Virago, 2004 Viv
The Giver of Stars, Jojo Moyes
This book is based on the true life story of the Pack-Horse Library in rural America. There are strong women who drive this story along and we learn of their lives, loves and the adversity that each of them faces. The bond between Alice and Margery grows throughout the story which is set in 1930's Kentucky. Baileyville provides the backdrop and we experience tragedy, humour, love, friendship, racism, family feuds and, most of all, strength and fortitude in the face of many obstacles.
As with all of Jo Jo Moyes books, the research is thorough and is woven into a compelling read. I would recommend this book and if you haven't read any of her books before and like this, there are many more in her back catalogue. Lesley
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf
Addie Moore has a simple plan to offset the loneliness of widowhood. Together, she and Louis Waters can achieve some companionship and happiness as they progress through their late-seventies. However, the plan will not be achieved without difficulties as they will be faced with small-town and small-mind attitudes. Family members too, will voice their opposition. Addie and Louis plot their course with grace and dignity in this beautifully written book full of profound wisdom. It is an inspirational book and I have no hesitation in giving it the highest recommendation.