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Sunday 13 March 2016

Recently Read: January & February

The first Recently Read of the year and mostly all book club reads. As I've mentioned previously, I joined the Rick O' Shea and the Richard and Judy book clubs on Facebook and combined with my real life book club, I'm heavily laden down with lots of different books, but in the best way possible! Book clubs are a great way of getting out of your comfort zone and reading literary tales you previously might have avoided. Three of these were actually on my kindle already, having picked them up on sale last year but it took book clubs to push me to finally read them!

The Versions Of Us by Laura Barnett
Described as One Day meets Sliding Doors, I had a feeling I was going to like The Versions Of Us, a Richard & Judy book club pick. I read this at the very start of January and it felt like a really great way to introduce the year reading-wise, as it was wonderfully well written, exploring different eras, lives and loves and at times veering precariously between romance and heartbreak. 
It starts with a couple happening to meet on a bicycle path in college in 1958. Eva and Jim immediately click and go for a drink together and the rest is history (not really, the rest is actually 1/3 of the book). But what if they'd passed each other but for some reason, never spoke to each other? Their lives without the other is Version no 2. 
What then if they had met, fell in love but couldn't stay together? That's version no 3. 
Some elements stay the same; in each version Jim is an artist and Eva a writer but with varying degrees of success, depending on which version it is. The influence of the other in both of their lives determined so much of their futures and that of their children, friends, extended family etc. I thought this in particular was a fascinating idea- we could all have completely different lives based on the people we meet and if that's the case, how do we know we're living the best version of ourselves?
I read the first 20% of this book with a huge smile on my face- I loved every word and decided I knew exactly what would happen and that I'd love every bit of it. Reality was that this is actually quite a long book and it was hard at times to recall which Eva & Jim and which version I was reading at the time. There are some bleak moments that left me a bit tearful, as well as some lovely uplifting parts but that somehow felt more realistic- life isn't all good or all bad, after all. 
In spite of a couple of misgivings, I would recommend this book. By the time I'd finished it I wasn't ready to put it down; I wanted to know more and like One Day, I felt a bit bereft without Jim and Eva to read about!

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Another long but beautifully written book. This one also follows a man and a woman over time but here it's two characters who are separate from each other; Marie-Laure, a blind French girl growing up in Paris with her father and Werner, an orphan boy, being raised in a home in Germany with his sister. Every second chapter we learn about the lives of one or the other and all goes well for a while; Werner becomes an engineering wunderkind, taking apart and putting back together radios and listening to and loving an obscure French radio station that discusses everything from how the universe was created to the smallest of molecules. He is so brilliant that he gets accepted to an exclusive German boarding school and so leaves his sister and the only life he has known behind. Marie-Laure, meanwhile unfortunately goes blind and has to gradually learn to be accustomed to her surroundings anew, something that is made easier by her father recreating their home and neighbourhood in the form of miniatures and by covering the same ground around her home over and over again until her other senses are heightened. Then, World War 2 hits and both of their lives are completely transformed. Although their situations differ completely they are both on a course that will somehow intertwine their lives several times over. 
This can be a slow mover and parts were upsetting to read (not a huge fan of reading about the Nazi's and their torture of the Jews) but it is skilfully and beautifully written and a joy to read. This is one of those books that reminds you that there is always something positive and good to be found amongst the bad. 

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Yet another book club read, I had bought this last year when it was all hyped up on first release. This is an unusual book; set in Amsterdam in 1686, Nella Oortman arrives at her new home, having been married off to a well-known merchant trader, Johannes Brandt. Johannes isn't there when she is let in, his foreboding sister Marin, a black man servant Otto and an overly-confident house maid greet her and she begins to settle into her new life. Her new husband eventually shows up and although he seems reluctant to be physically near her, he does give her an exact miniature of her new home as a wedding gift and advises her to fill it as she pleases. Before she knows it, a mysterious miniaturist begins to send her unasked for and worryingly prophetic figurines-replicas of the members of the house, some with blood on them, others revealing their real-life counterparts' misdeeds. The miniaturist shows Nella a mirror image of their lives, including all of their immoralities and before long their fragile world starts to collapse around them.
I thought this was an interesting look at a time in history that I have no grip on whatsoever, so it was very different to anything else I've read and I suppose the novelty of that made me enjoy it more than I probably would have otherwise. It took a somewhat melodramatic turn at one stage of the book, with story lines not far from the likes of Eastenders but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I guess I'm just a bit surprised by all the hype it received upon its release.

11/22/63 by Stephen King
I LOVED this book. I started it in December on audiobook and as it's over a thousand pages it took me until the end of January to finish it, and how sad I was to get to the end! This isn't actually a horror, more so a sic-fi/drama masterpiece. Like most of King's books, I spent the entire thing gasping, laughing, crying, being horrified, being shocked and experiencing goosebumps up and down my arms but mostly I was enthralled.
Deeply enthralled.
Jake Epping is a schoolteacher in 2011, happy with his life until a local older man and friend, Al, asks him to his diner. There, he reveals that he has a time travelling portal in his pantry and that he plans to change the world by returning to the date that JFK was assassinated (11/22/63) but as he is dying of cancer, he needs Jake to do it for him. The first quarter of the book is Jake testing out his disbelief and returning to the past to see if he can in fact change another incident before tackling the big one. This ends up being in itself an incredibly gripping story that could easily have been a stand-alone book and included some creepy references to Pennywise the clown, from It...damn do I hate that clown.
From there Jake travels back five years before the assassination and begins to stalk Lee Harvey Oswald (he can't just kill him because he's still not sure that he definitely shot the president). This part of the book is long but historically fascinating. Jake also lives a whole new life where he finds love and becomes a pretty impactful high school teacher. He's not too worried about the whole butterfly affect thing because Al has told him it's not an issue, but is it?
This being Stephen King, you'd best believe there's plenty to worry about. And, in a further twist, the past is obdurate- it doesn't want to be changed and it throws plenty of roadblocks in Jake's way.
I honestly think this is one of the best of Stephen King's books that I've ever read and probably one of the best full stop. They've turned this into a TV series starring James Franco so I'd get on to reading it before it comes out this year cause I can pretty much guarantee the book will be better!

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.
This was my real life book club pick for last month and was liked by everyone! It's a quirky little book, penned by one of the comedy writers for shows like Arrested Development. Probably not a huge shocker that I love it, considering that! This is an epistolary novel; i.e one that is written as a series of documents. In this case, that includes letters, e-mails, a Ted Talk, even a police report! The Bernadette in question is a mother of one, married to a Microsoft super star (think Steve Jobs level of tech nerdiness), while her daughter Bea is a survivor at birth of hyper plastic left heart syndrome and is now a child genius, attending a somewhat elite private school in Seattle, where her and her family live in a dilapidated old house, in spite of their wealth. A lot of the emails to start with are between Bernadette and an online personal assistant she's hired from India, to do all of the jobs that social-anxiety sufferer Bernadette can't do herself. The story is also built up via emails between two of the more obnoxious mothers in Bea's school, all of whom gossip wildly about Bernadette and her frankly, odd behaviour. As the book progresses, there are more and more bizarre but hilarious events and secrets are revealed until Bernadette just…disappears. This is a really entertaining novel that requires you to suspend disbelief more than once but is well worth it. 

Under The Duvet by Marian Keyes
This is the first in a series of Under the Duvet book from Keyes and is a collection of articles about her life that have previously been published in the likes of Tatler magazine and also unpublished essays about more personal aspects of her life, including her alcoholism. I felt that some of these read a bit slower than others but overall it was an enjoyable and easy read, anecdotal and humorous, as you would expect from Marian Keyes. This is a great option for reading in between two big, emotional books (like the first two above) because it gives a nice reprieve from the drama!

In A Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware.
I class this book in that kind of "throwaway thriller" that's been having a moment for...the last few years. These are great because they're all-consuming so they tend to be quick reads but are entertaining nonetheless. 
That's not to say this isn't well written- it is. It has some serious edge of your seat stuff and from about halfway through until the last page, I actually could not put it down. I made several precarious cups of tea whilst holding my kindle in one hand and the kettle in the other- don't try that one at home, kids! 

Anyway, this starts with Nora, a thriller writer herself, receiving a very unexpected e-mail inviting her to the hen of a woman she was friends with since childhood but lost touch with years ago. She can't understand why she's been invited and has serious misgivings about going until a mutual friend of her and the hen basically guilts her into it. Turns out the hen is taking place in a remote house in the country with six guests, including the bride-to-be, Claire. It's all very awkward, made worse by the fact that the house itself is surrounded on mostly all sides by large windows, creating a disturbing feeling of being watched from the surrounding woods at all times. 
Things take an even creepier turn when Nora discovers steps in the snow from the shed to the back door that no-one in the house has apparently made. It's from there that it gets into addictive reading territory! This is on the Richard & Judy book club list for the year, I would definitely recommend it and I think this would be a great holiday read actually.

Moving by Jenny Eclair.
Another recommendation from Richard & Judy. I just listened to this on Audible, which may well have been a mistake. Basically, all of the characters are unlikeable to some degree and listening to them made me hate them all the more. 
The first half of the book follows elderly illustrator Edwina Spinner as she escorts an estate agent around her large and now empty house with the intention to sell up. Each room causes her to reflect on the past, which starts out with mild reminders of her children's youths and gradually becomes a bit darker- clearly something very bad happened to destroy her family and cause her to be all alone in her retirement years. I found the character of Edwina to be a bit bleak- I was genuinely planning on giving up when I thought the entire book was going to be just her hazy recollections until Eclair did a complete flip, went back to the 80's and put us into the life and mind of a previously unmentioned character, Fern. She was a slight improvement but I mostly wanted to slap her and tell her to catch a hold of herself. Just as I was getting interested in her life, the book cuts again to yet another character, also unpleasant and not someone I had any interest in hearing more from. That said, by the time he had finished contributing to the story and in that, brought the book to a finish, I was pleased with the storyline; it had a realistic quality to it in that sometimes bad things can happen because of weird missed connections and poor communication. I will say though that the very final twist in the tale was a bit medically unrealistic. 
I was really pleased to read one of Jenny Eclair's novels, I've known of her for years as a comedian and was unacquainted with her books so it was great to see what her writing style was like and I definitely want to read more from her. I think I just found this one to be a bit too much of a downer. 

What have you read lately?
Have you tried and loved any of this lot?
To the comments!


  1. I really one to read that Stephen King one, though don't know if I'm in the mood right now to plough through something as epically long!

    I've read The Miniaturist and Where'd You Go Bernadette?, I liked them both. I love epistolary books. Last month I read Marian's new book, Making It Up As I Go Along, which is more articles and the such, I'll have to pick up the Under the Duvet books as well.

  2. I really, really want to read All the Light We Cannot See and The Versions of Us now! They both sound amazing. The Stephen King one sounds good too, but unfortunately me and him don't get on ever since I read Pet Sematary a few years ago. Disturbed for life!

    Great post :)

  3. Definitely going to try The Versions of Us!

  4. the versions of us and all the light we cannot see, definitely!

  5. I wasn't mad about The Versions of Us, I had to keep notes and I think it took me out of the story world when I had to keep checking! Liked The Miniaturist, but agree that it was overhyped. Loved In A Dark Dark Wood, brilliantly atmospheric setting! I've been meaning to read Where'd You Go, Bernadette and didn't actually know it was an epistolary novel so I may give that a go this weekend. Also want to tackle that Stephen King but not sure I have it in me right now! Great choices.