The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath

I had had this book in my Audible library for a long time. I knew of Sylvia Plath, of course, but had never read any of her work. It became time that I did.

And I had no preconceptions, no idea what The Bell Jar is about.

Well, it is said to be semi-autobiographical. I think the ‘semi’ may be an understatement. As a student, Plath had a serious breakdown, and attempted to take her own life. This is a book about the events leading up to that episode, and the way she was treated. I found parts of it deeply disturbing, I came close to giving up when it came to the description of suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

I was struck by how much attitudes have changed in the last 60 or 70 years to so much: race, sex and sexuality, mental health.

The Audible version, read so very well by Maggie Gyllenhall, ended with a biographical note about Sylvia Plath. That was an excellent addition, for which I was grateful.

7 out of 10.

Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

Set in London, in about 2007, Hearts and Minds follows a number of diverse characters whose lives slowly become connected.

It is a novel about life in London, and about Britain. It is written from something of a Guardian reading liberal viewpoint, and may therefore not be for everybody. I listened imagining how these characters would react to the shock of Brexit.

I understand that the author has written a number of other novels in which some of the minor characters here are the lead characters. Comparisons have been made to Balzac and La Comedie Humaine. I shall read more.

I enjoyed this book. I was drawn into the world and lives of these characters, and wanted to see how things panned out for them. 9 out of 10.

4 January 2020 – one year of this blog

That’s it. A year of writing notes about the books I have read or listened to.

35 books in all. Not bad – at the start of the year I estimated that the number would probably be about 20. Beloved slowed the pace down in November and December, but I never once thought of giving up on it.

I will carry on in 2020 and beyond, but will not be numbering the posts.

And if you have read this, thank you.

35. Beloved, by Toni Morrison

What a powerful book! I really do not know how to do it justice.

Toni Morrison died a few months ago, and all the tributes made me realise that I had to read Beloved. I have found it hard work: while some sections read more easily, others required care and perseverance. At times I wondered if not having black slave ancestry was making it harder for me to relate to this book.

I won’t attempt to describe Beloved. You can look elsewhere for that. I can see why it is rated as an American classic, and why Toni Morrison won a Nobel Prize.

But I cannot quite give it 10 out of 10, not yet, anyway. I suspect that it is a book that I will be thinking about for a long time to come, so it may yet earn that extra mark in my mind. 9 out of 10.

34. The Bastard of Istanbul, by Elif Shafak

I have a private Amazon wish list for books that have been recommended to me or that I have read about somewhere. It is a kind of list of books I ought to read. And so The Bastard of Istanbul found its way into that list a couple of years ago, and I cannot remember why.

Recently I bought this title as an audiobook. I am so glad I did.

The story is set in Istanbul. It starts in about 1985, when Zeliha, aged 19, goes to an abortion clinic. Except the termination does not take place. At the same time, in Arizona, Rose, who is divorced from an Armenian American husband by whom she has a daughter Armanoush (who Rose calls Amy), meets a young Turkish student.

Move forward to 2005. Zeliha has a daughter, Asya. Armanoush visits Istanbul and stays with her stepfather’s family – yes you guessed it. And so the story becomes about the intertwined stories of these families, going back to the time of the Ottoman genocide against the Armenians. And all the history comes to a climax in the present.

This novel is very well written. I have just checked, and it seems Shafak wrote this novel in English (I had been going to compliment the translator!). The narration by Alix Dunmore is excellent.

I recommend The Bastard of Istanbul very highly. 10 out of 10.

33. The Blood Strand, by Chris Ould

Here’s a variation on the Nordic Noir theme: British cop helps solve a murder in the Faroes.

Jan Reyna’s mother took him away from the Faroe Islands when he was 3. Now in his forties, he returns to visit his estranged father, who is seriously ill. as I said, he is a policeman in the UK: by fortunate coincidence, a Detective Inspector specialising in homicide cases.

And, guess what – there’s a murder. It’s sort of all tied up with what happened to his father. It’s sort of got connections to why his mother (now dead) left all those years ago. And so Jan gets involved as a kind of consultant to the detectives in Torshavn.

This novel has what appear to be the classic ingredients of a good Nordic Noir. The bleak setting. The taciturn locals. The years old unsolved mystery.

I really enjoyed listening to this audiobook. I got the impression that the author, Chris Ould, speaks Faroese. Also the narrator, Matt Addis, prononounced Faroese words and the occasional snippet of Faroese speech fluently: definite plus points for this audiobook.

This novel is the first of three. I understand that in the next two Reyna digs deeper into his family’s past, and the story of why is mother left is revealed.

I shall be back for more of this series. 8 out of 10.

32. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Hmmm. I just don’t know.

This book has been a great success. A best seller, a book club choice.

It comes across as a gothic-type novel set in Barcelona in some parallel universe. A sort of detective story about the writer of a mysterious book.

I enjoyed. I wanted to know how the story would pan out.

But …

There wasn’t quite the spark that made this book magical for me.

And I do wish that about 3/4 of the way through the author had not resorted to the device of a long letter from a deceased character (“If you are reading this it’s because something has happened to me”, that kind of thing). That trickery was not necessary, and frankly I had worked out most of what the author found it necessary to say by that means.

But a fairly gripping story. I shall probably come back to the next one – apparently there are 4 in the ‘Cemetery of Forgotten Books’ series.

Now for my mark. As I said, I just don’t know. 8/10. And (because of that letter) 6/10. You decide.