The Golden Notebook – Doris Lessing

Set amongst Communists in 1950s London, The Golden Notebook is a feminist novel, exploring how Anna navigates her life, lovers, motherhood, party loyalties and career. I did wish she had more friends, rather than being so dependent on Molly and her lovers though.

The structure is interesting, with different notebooks for each of her themes. Despite the book broadly being a set of diaries, Lessing manages to avoid the trap of making the novel too introspective of that one character, with all main characters developing on their own arcs.

This is not a fast read, and the discovery that I couldn’t renew it 4 days before it was due back at the library made finishing it on time to return challenging. However it is rewarding: well-written and a fascinating point on mid 20th century feminism.

Patience – Toby Litt

Having seen the difficult time Galley Beggar Press were going through, I flicked through their selection and picked out this as the most interesting. This order was placed less than 10 days before Christmas, and arrived very quickly. Amusingly, it arrived in a hand-addressed jiffy bag, which I had my other half check inside. He found such a nicely wrapped book (in tissue paper and ribbon) that we assumed it must be a Christmas present and it went under the tree to open on Christmas Day!

Of course, a book from me for me at Christmas was a brilliant move (maybe I’ll do that on purpose next year) and gave me something to curl up with as the week wore on.

Elliot is a thoughtful character who observes the world around him in great detail. He spends a lot of time considering how he would like to act and communicate. But his world is limited to where the sisters who staff his orphanage park his wheelchair that day.

Patience is about how Elliot identifies a potential ally within the orphanage and works out a way that they can communicate. The highs as successes are reached are followed by internal dialogue working through the lows as things go wrong. Those sisters which are supportive are identified, along with those stricter sisters who punish the (universally disabled or troubled) children when rules are breached. But Elliot listens to all this and considers that the Jesus in whose name punishments are melted out does not align with the Jesus of the Bible stories he has been told. Of course, he is unable to relate this to anyone within this book, instead just enduring his examination of the white wall he is parked in front of when he is judged to need to calm down.

Despite the setting, this is a soothing and uplifting book, and a very good read.

Folk – Zoe Gilbert

The videdness of the cover drew me to this book. The blood red contrasting starkly with the yellow and black, and the tangle of thorns behind the birds and roses.

There is a loose overarching plot through the life of the village folk, but the book is not driven by plot. Instead we twist between different characters as their mythical beliefs take form.

It is a bloody story. Myths are not safe places, but a retrlling of horror. But there is magic and human kindness to offset this horror.

Inferior – Angela Saini

Saini has written Inferior looking at the research behind differences between men and women. Women – the inferior sex? Biological differences or differences from societal pressures? Weaker…or with a different set of strengths?

She examines how different species interact, and the differences between historical societies, and different modern societies to now. Finally she looks at the differences between babies, before social pressures have had full effect.

She examines how men are physically stronger, but women have longer lifespans. How raising a child as a human is more of a community effort than for most animals. How the effort expending in getting food by men vs women in prehistory may not have matched the quantity of food collected.

Then there is the modern situation. How girls and boys are socialised differently. How most medical research, and even crash-test research assumes that what is safe and useful for men, is identical for women. But even here there is some good news. More medical tests involve women than they have done. There is even a ” pregnant” crash test dummy.

A good read for anyone wanting to understand why we still need modern feminism

Bones of the Moon – Jonathan Carroll

Stumbling across a Twitter thread in which several writers were enthusing about Carroll, I requested Bones of the Moon from the library.

It is a difficult book to describe. A grieving woman creates a dream world that she can escape to, but then that world starts bleeding into ours. To try and resolve her grief, she and her son have to go on a quest together, and all the while little details from the dream world are creeping into reality.

What is astounding is how real it all feels, which is from Carroll’s skill, at building both a realistic home life, and then bringing the fantasy world into that.

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.