The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruin Zafón — New Review, Bookclub Edition

Cover: bookshop.org

The Shadow of the Wind is one of those books that seems to always be featured in book shops. I must have picked it up a dozen times to read the blurb or the first page but never quite got around to actually buying it. It’s a book about books, and while those appeal to me as a reader in theory, they are often slightly disappointing in practice.

Such was the case with The Shadow of the Wind. While the cemetery of forgotten books is a fascinating concept, Carlos Ruiz Zafón spends hardly any time there. The Shadow of the Wind isn’t so much a book about books as a book about one author and his mysterious backstory. Except, some of the mystery, specifically Lain Coubert’s identity, could be guessed hundreds of pages before it was officially revealed.

Women have an infallible instinct for knowing when a man has fallen madly in love with them, especially when the male in question is both young and a complete dunce.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruin Zafón

Daniel and Julián simply aren’t that interesting as characters, unless you find adolescent male romances particularly compelling. Sadly, the women they fall in love with aren’t very well fleshed out, they exist mostly as aloof and unattainable examples of femininity, which is tiresome. Carlos Ruin Zafón does much better with the minor characters: Daniel’s father is sympathetic, Fermin’s story is unexpected, Bernada is sweet, and I could go on. In terms of building a large and interconnected cast of characters, Carlos Ruin Zafón has succeeded, but the story he chooses to tell with them isn’t all that inspired.

I looked again at the portrait of that couple and knew for sure that the young man was Julián Carax, smiling at me from the past, unable to see the flames that were closing in on him.

The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruin Zafón

The Shadow of the Wind‘s prose is very nice, there were several poetic descriptions of Barcelona, usually at the beginnings of chapters, as well as some lovely atmospheric moments throughout. It does veer towards pretension at times, but not enough to ruin the reading experience.

Overall, The Shadow of the Wind is solidly written, and has good moments especially in Carlos Ruin Zafón’s minor characters, but the main story wasn’t something I’d especially recommend.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5.

The Lamplighters by Emma Stonex — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org
Cover: thestorygraph.com

When book club nominated a book with a lighthouse on the cover, obviously I had to vote for it! The Lamplighters actually has two covers, both with lighthouses, but which give wildly different ideas of what the book is going to be like, so I was curious to see which one would prove more accurate.

A fifty-metre column of heroic Victorian engineering, the Maiden looms palely magnificent against the horizon, a stoic bastion of seafarers’ safety.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Like most of the lighthouse books on this blog, The Lamplighters is historical fiction, set when lighthouses were still manned rather than automatic, but it’s more recent than most, only going back to the 1970s. What also sets it apart is that it’s about a tower lighthouse, jutting directly out of the sea, where there isn’t space for keepers to bring their wives and families with them. Perhaps that was why it was difficult to keep the threads of the marriages straight. Arthur-and-Helen and Bill-and-Jenny merged into such a shapeless muddle that I had to make a note in my reading notebook which I referred back to every time there was a chapter from one of the wives’ perspectives.

Even after finishing The Lamplighters, it’s not entirely clear what happened in a couple of of the plots. Emma Stonex was clearly keeping information back from her readers, raising questions which you’d hope would be answered by the conclusion to the story. Except, several of them weren’t. Maybe it was intentional, because real life rarely offers neatly-wrapped solutions to every question, but in a novel billing itself as a mystery, it was more frustrating than thought-provoking.

The truth is that women are important to each other. More important than the men, and that isn’t what you’ll want to hear because this book, like all your others, is about the men, isn’t it? Men are interested in men.

The Lamplighters, Emma Stonex

Those plots which did feel complete were enjoyable, particularly the stories of those left behind: Jenny, Helen and the novelist Dan Sharp. (Michelle, despite being the most distinct of the female characters, sadly got a bit abandoned.) Bill’s storyline could have been more effectively handled, because the bare bones of it were interesting.

There was certainly a lot going on in The Lamplighters, arguably too much because no single plot or detail really got the attention and weight that it deserved. Maybe a less complex structure would’ve delivered the story with more impact. While I’ll be keeping this for lighthouse reasons, I won’t necessarily be running out to buy more books by Emma Stonex, unless one catches my interest or comes highly recommended.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James — New Review

Cover: bookshop.org

At some point, I must have read a review of A Brief History of Seven Killings which intrigued me enough to buy the book, but I no longer remember it. A brief look online didn’t provide much in the way of clues as to why I thought this would be enjoyable. The historical context of an assassination attempt on Bob Marley was completely unfamiliar, and the phrase ‘crack wars in New York City’ not exactly promising for an entertaining read.

When a father turn away from him son, he can’t act shock when the son don’t know him no more.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

Marlon James’ style feels intentional; each character has a different voice, using ‘the Singer’ instead of Bob Marley’s name elevates him to a mythic figure and the stream-of-consciousness changes to reflect the emotional and mental states of his characters. Unfortunately, going in with no prior knowledge of events combined with vast array of narrators and the overload of detail made it difficult to pick out which people and events would prove to be important. The narrative is hard work for an uninformed reader, especially the middle section where the chapters are long enough to feel exhausting.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is also, as is to be expected, incredibly violent. As well as the advertised assassination and drug wars, there’s a lot of background violence, both sexual and otherwise, which certainly didn’t lighten the emotional load any. The Gallows Pole was similarly violent, but A Brief History of Seven Killings had none of that poetic prose to ease the relentlessly miserable experience almost all of the characters were having.

He’ll talk about it all the time but sideways like an Aesop fable, or a riddle and rhyme. He can shape and mold it and make it Greek, his word, not mine. I don’t know what the fuck he’s talking about with that Greek shit. But that don’t mean he want anybody to say it back to him. Something happen when somebody tell you something about yourself even if you already know.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, Marlon James

What Marlon James did well was ratchet up the tension, especially just prior to the assassination attempt, but also before other explosive events. Even with no knowledge of what was coming, it was obvious that something was about to go down, which was emotionally engaging.

A reader who picked up A Brief History of Seven Killings because the blurb or real-life history sounded intriguing would probably enjoy it, this book just wasn’t for me, and I blame that more on whatever I read that interested me in it more than I blame it on the book itself.

Rating: 1 out of 5.

The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

I picked up The Thorn Birds four years ago because it was mentioned in The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club. I devoured it over the course of a week in a holiday cottage, and it packed an enormous emotional punch. I’ve been looking forward to rereading it ever since, which might seem odd because almost nothing nice happens in the entire 54-year span of the novel’s plot.

She knew her son well enough to be convinced that one word from her would bring him back, so she must not utter that word, ever. If the days were long and bitter with a sense of failure, she must bear it in silence.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

The Thorn Birds appeals to the part of me that signed up to take a module on Settler Identity: Fictions of Oz/Nz at university; it starts out as a story about coming to a new place and trying to make a life there. All the characters’ lives are limited in some way – by class, by money, by gender. It’s not even as if the characters band together to overcome these problems, because most of the relationships in the book are strained to some degree.

Away from Fee, her brothers, Luke, the unsparing, unthinking domination of her whole life, Meggie discovered pure leisure; a whole kaleidoscope of thought patterns wove and unwove novel designs in her mind. For the first time in her life she wasn’t keeping her conscious self absorbed in work thoughts of one description or another. Surprised, she realised that keeping physically busy is the most effective blockade against totally mental activity human beings can erect.

The Thorn Birds, Colleen McCullough

Colleen McCullough makes these tragedies cathartic, rather than depressing. The characters and their emotions feel incredibly well-observed and realistic. The prose has just the right balance between descriptions, interior thoughts, action and dialogue. Specific scenes linger in the memory so that, on rereading, I found myself recalling them just before they happened and was able to see the foreshadowing which I missed when I didn’t know what was coming. Even though these events no longer came as a surprise, they were still able to bring on a storm of tears.

Reading this so close after Brideshead Revisited, it struck me that Colleen McCullough does a better job at making Catholicism understandable to someone who wasn’t brought up with it than Evelyn Waugh does, as well as offering a more sympathetic portrayal.

Though I’m not a reader who loves or goes looking for tragedy, The Thorn Birds is such an incredibly satisfying novel that I know I’ll return to it again and again.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Skylarking by Kate Mildenhall — Reread Review

Cover: bookshop.org

Skylarking is my second-favourite of my lighthouse books, and I’ve been looking forward to rereading it. I remember enjoying the atmosphere, and being pleased that the plot wasn’t about falsifying the identity of a child, since that was what The Lightkeeper’s Daughters and The Light Between Oceans had in common.

Unfortunately, reading Skylarking a second time, the one thing I vividly remembered from my previous read was the climax of the story. Knowing what was coming robbed the novel of some of its power and I found the whole plot somewhat underwhelming.

Knowing that he wanted nothing from me, no outburst or tears or thanks, I could just sit and let the humiliation find its place amongst all the rest of me.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

At just over 200 pages, Sklyarking doesn’t deeply explore any of its themes, character or setting. Kate Mildenhall tells the story from Kate’s perspective; she and Albert are the characters who most vividly come to life, but even so, I didn’t feel any of Kate’s emotions had particular impact. The lighthouse and the life of a lighthouse keeper is mentioned, but not delved into. There are a few very shallow mentions of Australian Aboriginal people, which left me wondering what the point of including them was.

I still see it sometimes, in my dreams, my mind’s eye. I see it but not quite as it was, and I wonder what other imaginings I have mixed up with the truth of the past.

Skylarking, Kate Mildenhall

The prose is fine, but without the mystery of wondering what happened to carry me forward through it, it wasn’t more than that. I don’t mean to be harsh: this is an enjoyable read the first time, but it doesn’t hold up to repeated readings as well as some other books.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Gallows Pole by Benjamin Myers — New Review, Bookclub Too

Cover: bookshop.org

I didn’t go looking for a second book club, but a Discord community I’m in started one up, and The Gallows Pole looked interesting enough to be worth manipulating my timetable a little to be able to fit it in. From the blurb, it sounded like a fast-paced historical crime novel which might suit my tastes for all things heist. The Gallows Pole wasn’t like that at all, but I still had a very good time with it and I’m glad B2 introduced me to it, as I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.

King David Hartley is the man’s name, said Jack Bentley. And if you don’t know it then you can’t run the woods like you say you do because everyone knows Bell Hole belongs to the Hartleys, and the moor above it and the sheep and the cows that graze them moors and the Hartleys own the sky above it too, and the kestrel and the hawk that hunt there and the hares that box there, and the clouds and the moon and the sun and everything that passes overhead.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

Some of the things that happen in The Gallows Pole are extremely nasty (seriously, check out the content warnings before you read if you are at all squeamish!), but Benjamin Myers’ prose is always rhythmic and enthralling. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what kept drawing me in, but The Gallows Pole was written not quite like anything else I’ve read before. Deighton’s final scene is the perfect example of the juxtaposition of beautiful and horrible. Granted, it might be more difficult for readers with vivid visual imaginations or who feel the pain a character feels to get lost in the play of words next to each other, but for those of us who don’t, it really works.

Benjamin Myers makes unsympathetic characters sympathetic. Despite David Hartley’s violence, arrogance, homophobia, the reader wants to spend more time with him. Whether its the sections told from his perspective or the third-person narrative, he maintains and rewards that interest. Even lesser characters with serious flaws are still given their fair share of story. Actually sympathetic characters (like Grace) are rarely in the foreground, but Benjamin Myers uses them to good effect to keep The Gallows Pole from becoming an entirely bleak narrative.

Without you I’m certain this valley will fall fallow. The coining will die off and the men will lose their will to fight because no man will go back to the loom after having the taste of gold on his tongue.

The Gallows Pole, Benjamin Myers

It’s not surprising that The Gallows Pole won a literary award. This is a book with definite themes, of class struggle, social mobility, history. If I were going to write an essay, I’d probably begin with something about inevitability and the enduring of myth. I also appreciated the structure, how the end mirrored the beginning.

The Gallows Pole was beautifully written and cleverly constructed, but those content warnings I mention would make me hesitate to recommend it to anyone who might not know what they were getting into.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Iris & Ruby by Rosie Thomas — Reread Review

Memory is not a recipe of a shopping list. Memory is the scent of clear water at an oasis, the brush of lips on naked skin, a plangent chord. I cannot capture these things and dictate them to another person. I am a doctor, not a poet.

Iris & Ruby, Rosie Thomas

Iris & Ruby has been on my bookshelf for over a decade. I’ve read it once before, at a time in my life when I had a lot more space for books, and so didn’t need to worry about whether they deserved a place on my ‘keeper’ shelf of not. To be honest, I reread Iris & Ruby thinking that, after this, I would donate it and make space for a new book. Except… then I enjoyed it a lot more than I remember enjoying it.

I told him about growing up as a diplomat’s daughter, shuttled between embassies around the world with loving but distant parents who insisted, when the time came, that boarding school back home was best for me and that homesickness — for a home I couldn’t quite locate — was to be overcome by people like us, never yielded to.

Iris & Ruby, Rosie Thomas

The premise of Iris & Ruby is nothing particularly special. It starts out very much in the same way as The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, and other multi-generational twining narratives, to the extent that Ruby’s entrance to the narrative reminded me immediately of Morgan’s. The plot is fairly predictable, though it’s still satisfying to see Ruby’s relationships with various family members develop. As the daughter of a ‘travelling family’, it was recognise Iris as a fellow daughter-of-diplomats. It’s a character type I haven’t encountered too often in fiction. That, alone, might be reason enough to earn Iris & Ruby a place on my keeper shelf.

I enjoyed Rosie Thomas’s descriptions of Egypt, and how she varied them depending on the character’s state of mind and progress through the plot. I even added Khan el-Khalili bazaar as a ‘place to visit’ on my new list of described places to see in real life.

Both the beginning and the ending of Iris & Ruby could have been stronger, but the middle was solidly enjoyable. I don’t think I’ll need to return to it anytime soon, but I’ll keep it on my shelf for at least a little while longer.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn — Reread Review

In the four years since I last read The Alice Network, I’d managed to forget almost everything. I remembered Eve spying in German-occupied Lille, but I’d completely wiped Charlie, her quest to find her cousin and her romance with Finn from my memory. That’s not a reflection of their relative merits, because both the 1915 and 1947 plots have incredibly compelling moments. It might simply be that the title reminds me of the WWI timeline, making it easier to call to mind.

Facing a pistol-wielding murderer does tend to put parents further down the list of things to be intimidated by.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn

It’s surprising that I’d forgotten Charlie, as she definitely undergoes the most positive character development over the course of The Alice Network, and that’s usually something I enjoy! Her evolution from obedient daughter to defiant bookkeeper certainly feels earned, though I did notice a bit more telling than showing at times, particularly towards the end.

Eve’s heart slowed in a shaft of diamond-bright excitement.

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn handles the plot excellently: there are moments of creeping horror, triumph and shock, and she does an excellent job of balancing the two timelines, keeping both interesting and engaging to the last. The ending is lovely, wrapping everything up and giving a sense of hope for the characters we’ve invested so much time in. Kate Quinn’s prose is consistently effective, with some really lovely moments, especially describing the flower fields in Grasse.

I don’t know if The Alice Network is something I’ll want to revisit again, but I’d definitely read more by Kate Quinn.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Go-Between by L P Hartley — Reread Review

I first encountered The Go-Between on a list of great first lines given to my English class as writing prompts. From then on, I always kept it vaguely on my massive list of books I wanted to read some day, despite having no real idea what it was about or even what kind of book it was. (Interestingly, I made no such resolution about The Trial or 1984, nor can I even remember what the other books might have been.) I didn’t actually get around to reading The Go-Between until years later, which is probably for the best, as I don’t think I’d have understood it.

When I finally did read it, it was because I was on holiday in Norfolk and wanted to read something set in the surrounding area. The Go-Between certainly delivered on a sense of place and time, both during that read and this. There’s a slight metafictional flair in Leo looking back on his memories, which I always enjoy. It was interesting that Leo’s obsession with the soaring mercury matched so well with my own increasing temperatures as I suffered through a nasty febrile cold. Just one of the many ways that books seem to be reflecting my own life back at me this year!

What did we talk about that has left me with an impression of wings and flashes, as of air displaced by the flight of a bird? Of swooping and soaring, of a faint iridescence subdued to the enfolding brightness of the day?

The Go-Between, L P Hartley

Though the story wasn’t as compelling this time around, the prose is beautiful. The Go-Between is the kind of book that I think Rebecca would like because she appreciates a really stunning sentence. That’s not really something that I read for, but I do my best to notice them when I stumble across them.

Leo and the rest of the characters are very well-drawn, to the point that Leo is uncomfortably embarrassing at times. L P Hartley does a very good job of conveying adult characters through the perspective of a child who doesn’t really understand them, which is quite a tricky feat of writing.

I mounted the black scaffold, which was almost too hot to touch, and looked down into the mirror which had been shattered by the farmer’s dive. How flawless it was now; a darker picture of the sky.

The Go-Between, L P Hartley

The first time I finished The Go-Between, I was eager to read it again, feeling that there were many more layers which would offer up their secrets now that I knew the whole story. This time, I don’t feel quite that same drive — perhaps because I didn’t get as much additional understanding out of it as I had hoped. Still, I’ll keep it on my shelf. It’ll be interesting to revisit it again and see what I make of it a third time.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Smoke Hunter by Jacquelyn Benson — New Review

My copy of The Smoke Hunter came via Lindsey, who described it as ‘a bit silly really but def enjoyable’. I took it home on the strength, mostly, of its opening paragraph, and I was not disappointed. Judging a book on its cover may be questionable (certainly it would have failed me in this case), but I find the first paragraph test to be pretty reliable.

It was a river of story without a source, something that haunted the jungles of New Spain like the ghost of one had never lived.

The Smoke Hunter, Jacquelyn Benson

I was impressed by how much was going on, not just in terms of plot and action, but in terms of genre. I’d assumed The Smoke Hunter would be a historical adventure, but I quickly reprised my opinion — it’s genuinely hard to call whether the romance is the plot and the adventure is the subplot or vice versa. Not that it really matters, as both are equally fast-paced and fun. By the end of the novel, I’d also decided (with the help of fantasy book club) to also include The Smoke Hunter under fantasy. I wasn’t sure at first, because the magic only crops up in one object and nobody knows how to replicate it or explain it, but the final pages hint towards more magic existing in the world of the book, so I’ve decided that it counts!

He pulled his shirt off over his head and Ellie forgot to be annoyed. The sight of his bare torso did seem to have that rather inconvenient effect on her.

The Smoke Hunter, Jacquelyn Benson

The romance tropes aren’t anything ground-breaking, but I still had a nice time reading them, especially as they’re wrapped up in prose far superior to some romance novels I’ve read. The same could be said for the adventure and historical elements. The details of the Mayan/Aztec civilisation had a surprising amount in common with The Road to El Dorado, which is hardly what I’d call a rigorous historical source.

Ellie’s appreciation for organising things endeared her to me immediately and the fact she’d learned at least one cypher by heart makes her a pretty good puzzles protagonist — not a category I realised I needed in my life, but I was bemoaning the lack of crossword compilers in fantasy fiction just a few weeks ago, so this is timely. Ellie reminded me of Lady Trent in Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons; if you enjoyed that, I’d say there’s a good chance you’d enjoy The Smoke Hunter.

I wouldn’t want to read only books by Jacquelyn Benson, because I think I’d get bored of the romance tropes if they weren’t well spaced-out, but I’d definitely read another one in a few months, or when I get to the end of my TBR, assuming that ever happens.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.