With classes done and dusted for the year, I’ve been eagerly devouring a multitude of fictional worlds in glorious library-stamped paperback over the past three months. (Lots of bookworms seem to go gaga for hardback, but I much prefer paperback.) Having skipped out on New Year’s Resolutions, I set myself a handful of more manageable goals instead: losing the viennoiserie-related weight (check); awakening my dormant inner bookworm and reading a wider range of books (check); and finding a new job (in progress). I’ve been loosely following one of POPSUGAR’s Reading Challenges and have found myself reading all sorts of books I – in all probability – wouldn’t otherwise have read. I almost went doolally with the number of typos in Jules Wake’s Escape to the Riviera, and Neil Cross’ Captured is, in my opinion, better suited to the small screen, but on the whole these tomes have gone down a treat.
Un Sac de Billes – Joseph Joffo
This was a book I could have studied for A2 French, had our class not chosen Bonjour Tristesse on the premise it was the shortest of the three options we were offered. A few months back, I had a long bus journey coming up and fancied buying a book to fill the time – and, lo and behold, the first book that caught my eye was Un Sac de Billes. Paris has already fallen under Nazi control and hundreds of people are fleeing the city, desperately hoping to reach the zone libre (“free zone”). Among them are Joseph and Maurice Joffo, aged just ten and twelve respectively. With their lives hanging in the balance every step of the way, their survival depends on them following their father’s instructions: « Vous êtes juifs, mais ne l’avouez jamais. Vous entendez : JAMAIS. » (“You are Jewish, but you must never admit it. Do you understand? NEVER.”) I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice it to say that Joffo’s autobiography is captivating, exhilarating and heart-wrenching – and since it’s been translated into eighteen languages, there’s really no excuse not to read it.
Brooklyn – Colm Tóibín
Until recently, I fell into the group of people who had seen the film Brooklyn, but hadn’t read the book. The film is captivating, enchanting even – but the book is truly magical. When I spotted it in the university library, I knew I had to borrow it. (Truth be told, I enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want to return it.) Brooklyn is a book of contrasts; a tale of two possible trajectories. When Eilis leaves rural Ireland for prosperous America, she is apprehensive and fearful of what awaits her across the Atlantic. As she finds her feet and settles into her new life, job and studies in Brooklyn, the pangs of homesickness slowly fade. Time passes, and soon Eilis meets – and falls for – a handsome Italian, Tony. Just as their love for one another is blossoming, tragedy strikes and Eilis must return to provincial Ireland, leaving Tony behind. Whilst there, Eilis is torn between her duty and her desires, between Ireland and the United States. Tóibín’s measured prose brings the bustling streets and stores of 1950s Brooklyn to life; his attention to detail is second to none, seamlessly interweaving Eilis’ own adjustment to life in the States with the social changes transforming the country at that time. Brooklyn is a carefully crafted novel, and one of understated elegance and charm.
The Colour of Magic – Terry Pratchett
Great A’Tuin the Turtle carries the weight of the (Disc)world, quite literally, upon his shoulders, and when Twoflower – the planet’s first tourist – arrives, the Disc descends into chaos. Charged with assuring his survival is Rincewind, a hapless wizard who knows only one spell. (A recipe for success, if ever there was one.) Also along for the ride is the Luggage, a sapient pearwood chest on legs with a tendency to eat would-be thieves tempted by the large quantity of rhinu it contains. Narrowly escaping Ankh-Morpork as it is razed to the ground, Rincewind and Twoflower, with the Luggage in tow, are propelled across the Disc by the little (and perhaps rather naïve) tourist’s desire to see the behemoths of the magical world. A voyage of discovery awaits the trio, crammed with comic misadventure, dryads and dragons, and occasional interventions from the Discworld’s deities. Pratchett’s creation is, quite simply, comic fantasy at its best. I’m just not sure how as a child of the 90s, when Pratchett was the UK’s best-selling author, I never (to my knowledge) read any of his books when I was younger . . .
The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton
At last, I thought, a book on the library shelves that I’ve actually been wanting to read. (This doesn’t happen all that often, given the eclectic verging on obscure collection of contemporary fiction in the university library.) Burton’s début puts a fresh spin on the age-old rags-to-riches storyline, transporting readers to seventeenth century Amsterdam, a city ruled by burgomasters and steeped in tradition. Having married wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt, Nella Oortman swaps the countryside for the Golden Bend, the most exclusive stretch of Herengracht. After a frosty reception from Johannes’ sister Marin, Johannes gifts Nella a cabinet house, a near-perfect replica of her own residence. Nella employs the services of a miniaturist to furnish it, and soon begins to receive unsolicited pieces which appear to foreshadow the unfortunate events that are beginning to unfold. Burton’s portrayal of the Dutch Golden Age is akin to that of a painter’s, her attention to detail incredible, though the feasibility of her narrative is questionable. That said, if you’re looking for a glimpse into a highly-strung society of the late sixteen hundreds, where guilders and God are worshipped in almost equal measure, you couldn’t do better than this.
Titles | April – June 2017
Un Sac de Billes (Joseph Joffo) / Nobody is Ever Missing (Catherine Lacey) / Number 5 (Glenn Patterson) / The Cement Garden (Ian McEwan) / Brooklyn (Colm Tóibín) / Escape to the Riviera (Jules Wake) / The Cutting Room (Louise Welsh) / Rosie’s Little Café on the Riviera (Jennifer Bohnet) / Boy, Snow, Bird (Helen Oyeyemi) / Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt) / War Horse (Michael Morpurgo) / Babyji (Abha Dawesar) / The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett) / The Thieves of Manhattan (Adam Langer) / La Nostalgie Heureuse (Amélie Nothomb) / Mind of Winter (Laura Kasischke) / Captured (Neil Cross) / Gun Street Girl (Adrian McKinty) / The Miniaturist (Jessie Burton) / Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It (Maile Meloy) / World Gone By (Dennis Lehane) / La Disparition (Georges Perec) / The Stars in the Bright Sky (Alan Warner)