Mountains of the Mind – Robert MacFarlane

The strangest part of reading this book was my seven-year-old coming home from school and telling me that they had read a poem in class by Robert MacFarlane when this was laid on the top of my tbr pile. Between that and that it is a library book so needed reading quite quickly, I picked it up that afternoon.

MacFarlane took me on a journey up mountains I have climbed before, and mountains that will always be beyond my capabilities. He captures beautifully what it is to climb a mountain, in terms of the element of exploration and the challenge both in terms of physical endurance and mental resources to achieve it.

View from the summit of Pike of Blisco: climbed during this read

He also delves into the costs, in terms of lives lost to the mountain. This ranges from the personal of lost friends and near-misses, to an exploration of the costs to the early Everest expeditions. Rather than focusing solely on the heroism here, he focuses partly on Mallory’s letters home to his wife, capturing emotional vulnerability, as well as the sheer pointlessness of the loss of his life.

A beautiful book for anyone who loves the mountains, or wonders why some of us do.

Booker Prize 2019 – The Verdict

Having read (nearly) all the Booker Prize shortlist for this year, a quick writeup of what I think overall.

The only unfinished book for me was Ducks, Newburyport. It reads like a panic attack. I had 3 tries at getting into it and gave up on page 65. Maybe its brilliant, but to me it is just unreadable.

My favourite of the books was The Testaments, but as a second book in a “series” benefiting from existing worldbuilding, it does not feel like a winner.

Instead, I would like to see win Ten Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. I would also put Girl, Woman, Other as having a good chance of winning.

The final couple of books I didn’t like enough to want to see win, but probably there is no reason why the central character in a book has to be likeable, or even moral, for a literary prize.

Quichotte – Salman Rushdie

This was the hardest read of the Booker Prize list that I managed to finish. Dealing with male entitlement, but this time with a heavy dose of surrealism. I appreciate that it is a critical look at challenging issues, both the male entitlement and the opiate epidemic, but it is still a look from the point of view of a predator, and the ending is not one I liked.

It is well-written, and Rushdie has constructed the story well. But I just can’t quite believe a story about an author whose life starts to mimic his novels. And that’s without the breaking of laws of physics in one of the stories. When it is only done lightly (rather than full-blown SF&F) I find these sorts of things a bit uncanny.

Glad to have read it, but not a read I enjoyed.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – Elif Shafak

I stepped back form this at first, expecting it to be far more focused on death than it is. Instead it is primarily a long flashback of Leila’s life, from her babyhood through to her murder (not a spoiler – it first happens on page 1. We see how her childhood formed her, her hopes and dreams, through to how she is murdered.

But this is primarily a celebration of friendship. Of friends who make sacrifices in the hard times and who maintain mutual friendships throughout their lives. Then the risks taken to bond this friendship group closer together.

There are challenging topics. This is inevitable in a book about a woman who worked as a prostitute and whose murder is the main theme of the book. But there is also a great deal of love and hope and determination.

An Orchestra of Minorities – Chigozie Ovioma

Spoilers ahead…

I found this a hard read. Throughout I kept going for Chinonso to redeem himself, but every red flag was sadly correctly raised by his ending behaviour. Yes, the world was bent on harming him, but I read fiction for optimism, not for the world endlessly dragging someone down until they are only capable of evil.

His narrative is one of someone doing things for love, but even early on he shows signs of brutal violence in how he treats his birds. But at the same time he shows great love, for his birds and his partner. And this story is one of how as harm against a person builds up, they learn to hate deeper until violence seems to be the only choice.

Not an enjoyable read, but a good compelling one.

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernardine Evaristo

This piece is a study on friendship and family relationships between women. From closer mother-daughter and best friends, though to abusive partners and estranged family members.

The concept of the book didn’t excite me, but as the individual stories wove together to build a sense of community and intergenerational tires, it drew me in. I loved the depth of relationships and seeing the characters in relation to one another. Each is flawed, but loving relationships exist between them all anyway.

The picture of racist Britain does not make easy reading, in spite of the progress and increasing acceptance that is noted within the dialogue. It is still clearly something that limits the characters, even in the current setting.

My only grumble is that I didn’t particularly like the punctuation. It may be designed to sound informal, but I find it harder to read. Of course with Ducks, Newburyport next on my list, I may wish for the punctuation this has soon.

The Testaments – Margaret Atwood

Keep steady, I told myself. Don’t share too much about yourself, it will be used against you. Listen carefully. Save all clues. Don’t show fear.

Knowing The Testaments was in the past, I reread The Handmaid’s Tale this week. I’m glad I did, because in the decade since I read it, I had forgotten a lot of the subtly of the story. And for that matter, even that it was a “historical record”

The Testaments is neither prequel nor sequel, with events taking place both before and after the main focus in The Handmaid’s Tale. It could probably be read alone, but done if the richness would be lost that way.

We learn about the secrets the powerful hold in Gilead. How they were forced into who they became, and who gains personally from it. But along the line of power and selfishness, we also see self-sacrifice and generosity to protect others.

Atwood has written a powerful story, and one that shows the signpost to where the UK and US might head as freedoms are restricted and leaders use power for personal gain. But she has woven in the solution, which is personal.

As for the book design, it is perfect. Each of the three narrators has their own motif, which are well used, and I love the graphic on the endpaper with the Canadian girl in light and the Gilead girl in shadow.

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

The Little Paris Bookshop is one of those lovely things, a light gentle love story in the setting of a bookshop. Perdu has been lingering with a broken heart for decades, but change is in the air and he finally starts to face his past. The bookshop itself is on a barge, and we set off on a journey in that, with the chance for friends to be met and changes to happen.

But really the joy of this book is how he uses his bookshop to “cure” people of what ails them, advising which books they most need to read. He tells us of gems, some real, some fictional, that are just what the reader needs.

At about the two-thirds points I was worried that George had lost her way and that the plot didn’t feel like it was resolving, but eventually the threads were pulled together, and the story brought to a satisfying conclusion.

The Testament of Loki – Joanne M. Harris

Following the fall of Asgard in The Gospel of Loki, this brings Loki into a present-day world, where computer games consume much time and energy, but the old forces are still locked in battle. Our narrator remains the dynamic but unreliable Loki, as the trickster who is struggling with Odin.

Loki is forced by circumstances to sympathise more with humans, which improves his likability a great deal, but does not change his general moral outlook. We therefore benefit from his increased humanity whilst he is prepared to do whatever it takes for him to win back the runes that have been lost. The most surprising thing was when he learnt to be kind to the host he was sharing a body with.

Thinking in Numbers – Daniel Tammet

Thinking in Numbers is a collection of standalone essays, each considering a different element of mathematics, and how it intersects with everyday life, or the arts. Each is interesting, although the lack of a strong thread makes this very much the sort of book that is designed to be picked up and put down at intervals.