RSS Feed

Why I like “one building” novels.

A little arrogantly, I am always surprised when someone recommends a book to me, and it turns out it is famous, but I have never heard of it.  Such was the case with the Yacoubian Building, which I am currently reading.  The novel is set in a building in 90’s Egypt and follows the sometimes interwoven stories of the various inhabitants. I was hooked from the start. As, it turns out were literally millions of others.  The book was the best-selling Arabic novel of 2002 and 2003, has been made into a TV show and a film and translated into 23 languages (thanks Wikipedia).


My friend recommended me this novel, based on my recommendation to her: The Book of Unknown Americans – a new novel about Latin immigrants who all live in a building in Delware.  Again, the novel tells the semi-interwoven stories of the families that live in the building. Again, I was hooked from the start, fascinated by the characters, their histories, the challenges they face and the choices they are forced to make in this new country.

This got me thinking that I think I have a certain penchant for books set in one building.  Among my favourites are The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (set over 70 years, in a house in Czechoslovakia) and The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Lloyd (set in an apartment block in New York).  Although, I must admit, this love isn’t universal.  I could never get into The Elegance of the Hedgehog, although I know others loved it.

I think I like these “one building” novels like others become obsessed with books about journeys, or novels set in a certain country.  They just play to something within me.  On further thought, I think it comes down to three things.

  1. A sense of place.  I don’t have much of an imagination, and struggle to get a strong sense of the place where some novels are set, particularly if they move around a lot.  One continuous location means there is a far greater chance it will more fully envelope my imagination.
  2. People-driven novels.  Novels set in one place tend to really focus on characterisation, telling the stories of the people who live there.  I think character, rather than journey-driven or more action-driven novels are probably my favourites, as again, I find them the most all-encompassing.
  3. History.  I am something of a history buff.  And novels set in one place tend to tell the story of that time and place with a great deal of detail, through the eyes of the characters which I love.  I find I always get interesting titbits of information from this kind of novel that I wouldn’t ever have found otherwise.



The problem with paper books (and other stories)

So folks, it’s been a while since I have blogged.  And I mostly put that down to the simplest and most retro of reasons: I have been reading paper books. And, well, the problem with paper books is that they are much harder to mark up by theme and then follow up than kindle books.  And also, when I am doing it I feel guilty.  So… well…. I don’t.  At the same time, as discussed before, you have to be in the right mental mode to blog, and for boring day-to-day life reasons I haven’t been….

Which means I am not in a position to delve into as much detail this time as usual, but still wanted to let you know about some of my interesting recent reads.

By far my favourite was A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks.  This was signed by the man himself (and, embarrassingly I blushed when I met him *no he’s not hot – I just respect-love him).  Anyway, I have pretty much enjoyed his previous books.  But as with so many novels which everybody raves about (see ref. The Goldfinch) I found Birdsong long and over-rated.  But this book was…wow.  Really it is a novel of long-ish, short stories with a slightly Ian McEwan bent, as they focus on what might have been.  That’s what ties them together, rather than actually knitting together as one narrative.  But they are just unbelievably beautifully written, you live the lives of each unique character right alongside them, whether in the 17th Century or the future.  I read it in a weekend, in the sun, and wish I could read it again.


Unexploded by Alison Macleod had moments of genius.  At times, I was completely engrossed in Second World War Brighton.  But overall the book just felt a little facile, trying to elevate conventional middle class concerns and challenges by setting them in a more dramatic time.  The most interesting elements (for instance the internment camp) were not sufficiently developed, and the principal protagonist didn’t have a very strong voice.  I know this because I struggled to decide what she looked like, which you can always do if someone has a well-developed voice (although you may not agree with others, which one of the many reasons on-screen adaptations can be problematic).unexploded


I am still not sure how I feel about The Hive by Gill Hornby (sister of the more famous Nick).  In some ways it is quite similar to his novels, entertaining yet accessible.  But at the same time it just didn’t hit the mark.  Firstly, I think it over-sold itself.  The quotes on the front cover make you think it is a work of great new thinking and genius, which it is not.  Secondly, it plays on “the hive” concept too much, which gets repetitive. And finally, it is just too “social commentary lite” for me.  It tried to tell the story of maternal competition in a way which ‘makes you think’ and yet it doesn’t really.  Or it didn’t for me.  Instead it just made me hate most of the mothers, and fear the day I am one day a mother myself, waiting at the school gates.


Now I’m back to the kindle, so more to follow soon.

What I think about when I am blogging

As with all things, the blog and I go in waves.  Sometimes I love doing it, sometimes it feels like a chore, and sometimes (well, like recently) I just don’t bother at all.  At the start, I used to force myself to blog, but then I did some thinking and I realised two things:

thinking man

  1. This is a hobby.  I do it for fun.  There are enough things in life I have to do (e.g. work) or feel super guilty if I don’t do (e.g. run) – I should allow myself to be a little more lackadaisical.  I won’t lie, as a structured overachiever, I still struggle with this, but I am trying to allow myself to be a little lazy, from time to time
  2. I need to be inspired.  If a book doesn’t inspire me to blog, it probably isn’t that good.  And I do mean ‘good’ in a somewhat literary sense.  I recently read Catching the Sun by Tony Parsons.  I read it in my cosy chair, on a wet weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed it.  I have verbally recommended it to others.  But did I have anything to say about it?  Did it stir any deep emotions or make me reconsider pertinent issues?  No it did not.

The latter point, more than my new acceptance of occasional laziness, has led me to reconsider my blog.  Instead of blogging about everything I read (because how much do you really want to read about books I hated, or more frequently, about books I think are just a bit meh?) I am only going to blog about books I would recommend, for one reason or another (NB. no, pedants, this doesn’t apply to reading projects.  If I try and blog the whole Man Booker List again this year, you will get my opinions on all of it warts n’ all.  But please judges, I beg: no. Will. Self.)

Having thought a bit about it, a book must be one of three things to be worth a recommendation:

  1. It must make me think.  The best marker of this is that I usually want to chat to others about it
  2. It must be beautiful, and / or (usually and) evoke emotion in me (this doesn’t mean actual tears, we have covered this earlier) but I must care about the characters
  3. I must lose myself in it.  If hours pass, and I don’t answer my own name being called, I am onto a winner

Some books have all three of these things, but must don’t.  I think one is probably enough.

Almost English and my Postmodernist Self

I don’t know whether anyone else gets this, but sometimes I feel like I really love a book, but for all the wrong reasons.  I blame English lessons in school.  In their modernist way, they taught us that there was only one way to read, understand or appreciate a book: as the author intended.  Even having studied, and learned to value, postmodernism, I found it hard to counteract the ‘lesson’ that there is a right or wrong reason to engage with a book.  It’s a funny thing, education.

Almost English, by Charlotte Mendelson is a wonderful example of a book I loved for all the wrong reasons.  The protagonist is a complex teenager, with issues including a tendency toward self-flagellation.  Her parents have a deeply confused relationship, which plays out through the course of the novel.  This all happens while she goes to Boarding School, forming attachments to a seemingly suitable boy and his seemingly suitable family.  The plot twists towards the end of the novel.  This is an interesting story, beautifully written about a teenager trying to fit in.  These things, I would have recognised and liked about the novel, in any case.



However, what made me love the novel, was the protaganist’s relationship with her Hungarian Grandmother and Great Aunts, who she lives with.  This is where the Postmodern comes in.  Because, you see, I grew up with an Eastern European Grandmother, and associated friends, neighbours and hangers on.  And, just like the protagonist, it took me a long time to understand that some of the characters and characteristics I had grown up surrounded by were not normal (although I was never ashamed of them, as she is, and probably would have nothing in common with her, were we to ‘meet’, face to face).

For me, much of the wonder of this book, particularly the opening and much of the first half, was how recognisable it was to me.

These Hungarians, who address everyone as ‘dar-link’ and worry they haven’t made enough sesame beigels, and who have more dramatic eyebrows, hairsweeps and invasive questions than their neighbours… they were part of my childhood too.  It is the quotes about them, and their relationship with the teenage protagonist, that I found myself underlining.

“They seem both more formal and more exuberant than you might expect, as if you had wandered into a theatre dressing room of the 1950s, not a cramped west London basement flat.”

“Their bags contain poppy-seed pastries as long as your forearm; velvet-packaged pralines, smuggled by fur-wrapped pensioners on the overnight from Berne.  Their perfume smells like the air in a hundred department stores.”

“A distorted English, full of dactyls which dust familiar words – ‘Pee-codilly’ or ‘vosh-ingmachine’… with snow and fir and darkness.”

“The air stinks of tuberose, caraway and garlic: the universal scent of Eastern European hospitality.”

Just as the drama of the novel really gets under way, so these descriptors end.  So I am sure that, for most people, the remainder of the book will hold more appeal.  I am sure I have it wrong.  But for me, it is the first 20%, where I can close my eyes, and feel my cheeks pinched, smell the face powder mixed with frying onions and listen for the mispronounced ‘ths’ all around me, that make this a book I truly love.

The Bear: If only it had been published before Room

Sometimes, an author is just a little unlucky.  Okay, it seems weird to say that about a Women’s Prize listed author, but I still believe this to be the case.  Because, you see I think Claire Cameron (author of The Bear) had a great idea and a fairly original voice… and then got pipped to the post by Room.


The Bear is written in the voice of a six year old girl who ends up looking after her small brother, after their parents get eaten by a bear.  So far, so different to Room.  But in reality, the story of the girl’s attempts to understand the world and make sense of the difficult things and emotions happening around her are very reminiscent of Room.  As is the end part of the book, where the girl tries to unwind the trauma she has experienced.

The problem with a second book of this nature is, I think, not that it is not as a good as Room (though maybe it’s not) but that the second time, it’s just not quite as powerful.  The reader comes to terms with the child’s voice and approach more quickly, and finds it easier to assimilate her way of thinking, despite her challenging situation.

If you haven’t read Room, give this novel a go first and let me see if my theory works in reverse.  And if you have, by all means give it a read, it’s a well-written interesting novel.  But prepare to be a little blasé about it.

Not the best start: reading the Women’s Prize 2014

I was so excited about reading the Women’s Prize Longlist I jumped right in, and, well, sadly, it hasn’t been the most auspicious start for three reasons.

1. I began with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.



It was the book everyone was talking about, so it seemed like a good idea.  But I should have known better.  As so frequently happens with books that everyone’s talking about, I just don’t get it.  And the weird hybrid thought/speech writing style was so annoying (I kept waiting for it to stop) that it made me give up after having read 20%, given up three hours of my life I won’t get back and having reminded myself “this is a hobby – something you do for fun – if you’re not enjoying it, stop”.

2. I tried to follow this up with a safe bet: Still Life with Breadcrumbs.

still life


I love Anna Quindlen so was sure this book wouldn’t annoy me.  And it didn’t.  But it was at the other end of the scale: it was too safe.  Even the cover is safe. It felt like every well-written ‘pink book’ I have ever read.  It’s the kind of book you would neither recommend to a friend, nor dissuade them from reading.  It is full of aphorisms that you feel you may have read somewhere else before, but just aren’t sure. It’s no prize winner.

3. I dropped my kindle in the bath.  Ok, I realise this isn’t the judge’s fault, but it’s frustrating.  So now I am reading The Bear on my phone.  At the moment (about 30% of the way in) I am enjoying it, but not loving it.  Similarly to how I felt about Still Life with Breadcrumbs…

But I am going to power on and not get too despondent.  I have always found wonders through the Women’s Prize and am sure this year will be no different.  It’s just been a run of bad luck.  Now, time to order another damn kindle….

Oooh how I love a good LongList: Baileys Women’s Prize

I’m always excited about the publication of the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.


Despite my ambivalence (and occasional vocal opposition) about women-specific activities, I can’t help but like this one because, well, they always do such a damn good job.  Some of my favourite books of all time have won the prize:

  • When we Lived in Modern Times (2000)
  • Bel Canto (2002)
  • Small Island (2004)
  • Half of a Yellow Sun (2007)
  • The Road Home (2008)
  • May we be Forgiven (2013)

In my opinion, the judges always seem to strike the perfect balance between interesting and accessible.  They are always books that I want to read, learn from, and actually enjoy – a surprisingly rare mix (and not something I can say of the Man Booker).

This year’s longlist seems hugely promising, so I am as a excited as ever.

I have read a few of the books on the list: The Goldfinch (good, but overhyped) and Americanah (in my opinion, a potential winner), The Lowland (sometimes slow, sometimes amazing, well worth a read).

But had a couple more ‘on my reading list’ (downloaded on my kindle) already: All the Birds Singing, Almost English, The Luminaries, The Signature of all Things (though I remain entertained that Elizabeth Gilbert has become a ‘respectable’ writer, post Eat, Pray, Love *which I secretly loved).

One of the things I love about reading these lists is that they always introduced me to amazing new authors and novels I may not have heard about.  And there is not one book on the list that I am not looking forward to reading.  Of the ones not already on my list, the summaries give me particular hope I will love:  Still Life with Breadcrumbs, A Girl is  a Half-Formed Thing, Reasons she Goes to the Woods and The Strangler Vine.

There are, however a few books I am sad didn’t make it onto this year’s list:

  • Instructions for a Heatwave (Maggie O’Farrell)
  • A Tale for the Time Being (Ruth Ozeki)
  • Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi) – which I am currently reading and completely obsessed with

(Though I am secretly quite please Life after Life didn’t make it – I’m not sure what all the fuss was about)

Anyway, no time to look backward, time to look forward and get my reading cap on.  I’m unlikely to make it through all of these in the month before the shortlist is announced, but you don’t know if you don’t try….