Monthly Archives: July 2013

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, Alan Bradley

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I can’t remember how I stumbled across this one. It could’ve been one of those special offer thingies that appear in one’s inboxes. Anyway, I read this one blindly, having no idea whatsoever to expect and I read it while reading a few other books which seem to be taking me forever to finish – no idea what’s going on with that!

Anyway, I was so thrilled to find that this book was utterly quirky and engaging and so … quaint. I can’t quite think of another word to describe it. It reminded me a little of the The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, although I enjoyed this book far more. Both books are so neatly contextual that they are interesting to read for that alone.

Young Flavia de Luce is a delightful character and a great investigator. I found her voice absolutely engaging and I loved her fascination with chemistry – thought that just added to her quirkiness. I could almost envisage her and her bicycle called Gladys. I loved Dogger too, what an intriguing character and so perfectly obscure and mysterious. It was all very Sherlock Holmes in a way and that provided a very good reference point for all the action.

Overall, a really enjoyable read and a wonderful surprise of a book.

Transatlantic, Colum McCann

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Some of you might know that I am a huge Colum McCann fan. Huge as in really really really BIG! I love everything about McCann’s writing – his carefully crafted plot lines, his intricate characters and the wonderful way that he weaves seemingly incongruent elements together in a wonderful patchwork design. But, most of all, what I love about McCann is his writing.

McCann has a gift when is comes to words, a gift that simply defies description… “The sound of leaves falling. Quieter than rain.” McCann has a way of taking you with him, transporting you into the heart of his intensity in a way that few others can.

He looked at Isabel again. She was thin and ordinary, certainly not pretty…. He told her of the dead child he had seen on the road. He noticed the words move into her face, inhabit her: the road, the raft of twigs, the dropped coins, the roof of trees, the way the light had fallen around them as they drove away. The story weighed her down. She wrapped the fringed thread so tight that the top of her finger was swollen.

This is what McCann does to me with his words: he wraps me up tight until am ready to burst, a swollen finger entwined with a piece of thread, and then he slowly unravels the tale so that it becomes a kind of dance between him and the reader.

I related to so many of McCann’s characters in this book, particularly to the women that he brings to life in the latter part of the novel. Emily, a character with “a heaviness on her”, who feels as though she is on the brink of something “just out of reach … never quite sure what it could possibly be.” Emily, who is envious of “the young Woolf” who shows “command and promise” and a “profusion of voices (t)he ability to live in several different bodies.” Emily, who questions the value of life, “(a)n accumulation of small shelves of incident. Stacked at odd angles to each other.” She is the one who “could sense the skip in her life, almost like the jumping of a pen. The flick of ink across a page. The great surprise of the next stroke. The boundlessness of it all. There was something in it akin to a journey across the sky, she thought…”

McCann’s tale is stretched taut across the tragedy of Ireland and the potential of flight. The entire novel littered with incredible references to journeys which take place against the sky: “A pair of geese went across the sky, their long necks craned. They soared over the cottage and away. They looked as if they were pulling the colour out of the sky.”

I literally drowned in all the layers of the novel and I read it so slowly, a word at a time, savouring every moment. Eventually, I lost the thread of the story and became immersed in the pool of words that swirled around the characters, shafts of ice being pulled down river, a plane over head and a boat traversing seas. Mothers, daughters, mothers and sons and random strangers who become saviours because of their kindnesses.

I finished the novel: “We have to admire the world for not ending on us” and I couldn’t help myself, I went straight back to the beginning to drown in it all over again: “The cottage sat at the edge of the lough. She could hear the wind and rain whipping across the expanse of open water: it hit the trees and muscled its way into the grass …”

The Wolf and the Watchman: A CIA Childhood

ImageFor some reason, I was expecting greatness from this book. I think it must have been the subject matter that led me to want something confronting from this story… and I’m not sure that I was entirely disappointed. Certainly there were moments in this memoir which were fascinating – perhaps even intriguing. But there was something missing for me … I just couldn’t find this book captivating: it took me a month to read. And it’s not that long and I just found that I really didn’t care.

Scott Johnson’s life changes when at 14 his father confides in him, telling him that he is a spy. Naturally, this caused considerable trauma for Scott as he grew and developed and found himself constantly questioning his father’s integrity and the honesty of his ever changing identity. Scott spends his entire life trying to escape from his father’s espionage, only to find himself behaving exactly like his father, enacting his father’s behaviour through his work as a journalist in Iraq.

Scott is plagued by his complicity in his father’s espionage and by the way he becomes a part of his father’s shifting self. This is understandable, but Scott seems to blame his father excessively for this and rather than taking responsibility for his own life, he is incapable of moving beyond what he sees as his father’s betrayal. I think it was this that bothered me about this memoir – although, in truth, I understand how difficult it must be to write a memoir, let alone to confess what one perceives as the ‘sins of the father’. Nonetheless, I was frustrated by the way that the book unfolded as Scott’s repeated attempts to get his father to confess something that didn’t exist or hadn’t happened. This turned the book into a circular narrative, rather than an exposition, which is, I think, what I was looking for. I also wanted to hear more about the obscure places in which the family resided – Islamabad, Yugoslavia and so on. 

I commend Johnson for writing this book but I have to confess that I am glad it’s finished and I don’t have to plug away at reading it any longer.