Category Archives: Colm Toibin

Books of 2009

As the end of the year draws in I find that I become quite reflective. I have actually had a bit of an issue with reading this week and wonder if that is an end of year thing, more on that at some other point. 2009 has been a big year for this blog; it’s also been a big year for my reading. It seems a delightful coincidence that today as I wrap up my best reads of 2009 it is also my 500th post which I think deserves some fireworks…

My original idea of doing my ‘best of’ like I did last year with The Savidge Dozen just wasn’t working. I have read too many brilliant books and so I thought I would instead do two separate top ten’s. The first being my favourite books published or re-issued in 2009 itself which was hard and actually I got down to a final twelve but I had to cut the delightful books Notwithstanding and ‘The Earth Hums in B Flat’ and be tough to make the ten which are (click on each title for full review)…

10. Legend of a Suicide by David Vann – One of the most emotionally raw novels I have ever read. Fictional accounts of a father’s suicide, the events leading up to it and the effects of this tragedy on his son and others around him, based in parts on the authors own fathers suicide. Moving and masterfully written.  

9. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood – The first of two Atwood novels that truly made my year. This dark (and often darkly funny) tale of the future of humanity starts off sounding like something out of a sci-fi novel yet disturbingly slowly reads as a not too distant possibility.  

8. After The Fire, A Still Small Voice by Evie Wyld – Without question the debut novel of the year for me. A book many are labelling as being a ‘War book’, I wouldn’t 100% agree with that as its so much more. The author calls it a ‘romantic thriller about men who don’t speak’ I would call it ‘a book about the dark truths behind the faces of those we love’ a compelling and moving read.

7. Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill – Some loved it some hated it, I revelled in it. Susan Hill’s thoughts on some of her books and the people she met who wrote them. And she popped by and made a comment or two.

6. The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan – A fictional account of those famous Bronte Sisters which sadly didn’t get the Man Booker notice it should have. This brings the Bronte’s to life and you will think of them slightly differently. Made me want to read every Bronte book I could… as yet I haven’t started but a possible resolution for 2010, that or read all of Morgan’s prior works.

5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – The deserved winner from the Man Booker Shortlist and the one I guessed (though I was hoping a certain other book would win, see below). I thought that there had been Tudor fiction overload, I was wrong just as I was wrong that reading a book about Thomas Cromwell that was huge would bore me to death, I was enthralled and enwrapped.

4. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie – The only way I can think of to describe this book which skips such a huge expanse of time is ‘a war torn epic’. I thought this was marvellous and was thrilled I got to hear her speak about it and even ask her a question; I was a bit in awe.

3. Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks by John Curran – Definitely the non fiction book of 2009, well published in 2009. Getting a glimpse into the private world of such a marvellous author and how her criminal mastermind brain worked and plotted was utterly fascinating.

2. Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys – Technically not actually released originally in 2009, but thankfully brought back from the past thanks to the wonderful Bloomsbury Group. The tale of Henrietta and the villagers she lives with during the war had me laughing out loud all over the place.

1. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin – A book I fell wholly in love with from start to finish. It might not have the biggest plot or be brimming with a huge cast of characters but its simplicity is what makes it so stunning. An interesting look at the life of a woman who is sent to be saved from the poverty in Ireland by being shipped to America, only not everyone wants to be saved. Utterly stunning and quietly intense.

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Then I had the ridiculous task of finding the ten ‘best of the rest’ which in a year where I read such delights as The Secret Scripture (which lost a point or two for the ending I won’t lie) and the joy Miss Garnett’s Angel and had a Sensation Season was going to be tough. OK, so it’s not quite ten but it’s as close as I could get. The final ten (cough, eleven) are…

10. Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith – I wasn’t convinced that a thriller based on a child murderer in the time of Stalinist Russia would work for me. I was utterly wrong as I think for me it’s been the thriller of the year. Also thrilling was getting to go to Tom’s house for coffee and questions.

9. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – Proof that sometimes books can be hard work but all that hard work is definitely worth it. Opening with the suicide of the narrator’s sister, this becomes an epic novel of the lives of the Chase sisters and the effects of the Second World War. Also comes with an intriguing novel inside the novel and a sci-fi-ish novel inside that one, are you keeping up?

8. State of Happiness by Stella Duffy – I am a big admirer of Stella and her work and this to me is her best fiction yet (oh but wait for the next one in 2010) despite loving her latest book The Room of Lost Things in 2008. This is a tale about love and ultimately death and it broke my heart and made me cry quite a lot. If you are up for an emotional journey and wonderful writing you simply cannot miss this book.

7. Lady into Fox by David Garnett – Wonderful surreal and touching fable of a husband and how he deals with his wife randomly turning into a fox one day. This is may only be 96 pages long but each page is perfection.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – Most of the planet with have read this novel so I will simply say a modern classic masterpiece about a dystopian future where we are all under the watchful all seeing eye of Big Brother and should ever be fearful of Room 101.  

5. The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett – My first year of reading Persephone books and this one just took me on a journey that I wasn’t expecting. A sensational tale of rich American heiresses, one whom meekly marries an Englishman for a title and vanishes, the other a forthright woman who wishes to seek her sister out and solve the mystery of what has befallen her.

4. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes – A total surprise hit of 2009 for me. I never thought that a ‘sci-fi’ book about a mentally handicapped man and a genius mouse would grab me let alone move me to tears and yet this frankly marvellous book did exactly that.

3. Small Island by Andrea Levy – Really this is a modern masterpiece. A tale of two completely different women brought together through war and adversity. Also a tale of forbidden love, war, racism and hope, a remarkable book I was glad Granny Savidge Reads recommended so strongly and so often.

2. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – This book is what I may now consider the greatest nonfiction book I have ever read (so far – though unlikely to be beaten). A true tale of the ruthless killing of a family in America, and a thought provoking quite often disturbing study of their murderers. In parts bleak and horrific, it’s also emotional (I cried at this one too) and yet a darkly fascinating insight into the minds of killers.  

1. East Lynne by Ellen Wood/Armadale by Wilkie Collins – Technically I am cheating but I really couldn’t decide between these two. The epic scope, characters and thrilling plots of each of these was utterly remarkable. In a year where I rediscovered my loved of all things sensational I found these two new favourite books. Both of these are genuine gems of sensation novels and couldn’t have more mystery, twists, dramas or thrills if they tried.

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I have to say I don’t think that minimal short snappy reviews are my fortes so do visit the full reviews, they are much better. Should you be really tough and ask me which out of this final twenty one would be my favourite of the year I would have to go with… Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. I know some people will be surprised after my sensation fiction love in and some of you won’t agree and that’s fine, though don’t push your negative comments below this post (ha, ha, ha), for me it was just wonderful and a true surprise delight in this years Man Booker Longlist read-a-thon. There will be much more Toibin to come in 2010 I promise you. Now I must dash as I have a party to prepare for (attending not hosting) and some resolutions to make… What have been your best books of 2009?

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Levy, Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Daniel Keyes, David Garnett, David Vann, Ellen Wood, Evie Wyld, Frances Hodgson Burnett, George Orwell, Hilary Mantel, John Curran, Jude Morgan, Kamila Shamsie, Margaret Atwood, Stella Duffy, Susan Hill, Tom Rob Smith, Truman Capote, Wilkie Collins

Best Recent Read

Booking Through Thursday is again about ‘Recents’ this week. We have had ‘funny’, ‘serious’, ‘worst’ and now ‘best’. This week is genuinely going to be a quick blog post as my most recent best is easy.

Without a doubt the best read I have read of late, and in fact for a little while as got to be Brooklyn by Colm Toibin. It’s just wonderful and in fact I wrote about it yesterday and one of the things I said was that “this is just the book I have been craving to read, and haven’t quite been able to find for quite a while something I would rush to read the next bit of and get lost in all over again“. I would recommend absolutely everyone to read this and am now crossing everything that it makes it onto the Man Booker short list and possibly even go on to winning.

I actually enjoyed it so much I am wondering about adding it onto my ‘All Time Favourite Forty’ I don’t like to do that too rashly though so I may leave the book to linger with me for a while.

So what about you? Whats your most recent ‘best read’?

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Filed under Book Thoughts, Colm Toibin

Brooklyn – Colm Toibin

One thing that I particularly like about reading this year’s Man Booker long list is that it is giving me the opportunity to read for the first time some authors that I have always wanted to try but never quite managed, or possibly been slightly daunted by. A.S Byatt is one of them and that is still going slowly but surely (enjoyably so), Coetzee I will be starting today and is someone I have always been intrigued by. However its Colm Toibin who I pretty much own the back catalogue of works by but haven’t read a page… until I started ‘Brooklyn’ that was.

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I am not going to hold back I loved ‘Brooklyn’. I thought Toibin’s style of prose and narrative was simple and beautiful and throughout the whole book I was totally and utterly engaged. I liked and believed in all the characters and I loved the subtle simple plot. In fact ‘subtle and simple’ are possibly the perfect two words to sum this book up for me. Yet at the same time it’s quite an epic novel and one that covers a huge amount in fewer than 250 pages.

‘Brooklyn’ is a tale of Eilis, a young girl in Ireland after the Second World War where the economy is a disaster and jobs are scarce. Overjoyed simply to find a Sunday and occasional evening job when you can expect little more Eilis is suddenly offered a job and life in Brooklyn where work is easier to find and so is money and more importantly prospects. Eilis soon realises that this isn’t a sudden offer and in fact her mother, sister and brothers (in England) have been well meaningly plotting this for quite some time and really she has no choice.  After following her nightmare journey across the ocean we watch as Eilis settles into a new life with new people and new cultures in an unknown environment. We also watch as she grows from girl to woman and falls in love. It is eventually though a trip home that leads to the climax and a huge decision for Eilis… I wont say any more than that, I will say I bet the ending will either seal the deal for people or possibly put them off the book completely.

The plot brings us some wonderful, wonderful surroundings. I loved the Ireland we briefly got to see at the start and especially when Eilis ends up working in the local shop where supplies are low and people get special treatment, well bread that’s not off, if the owner likes them. When Eilie moves to Brooklyn you could vividly see the streets of shops and as Eilis works in one of these ‘Bartocci’s’ we get to see how everything runs and I could just envisage it so clearly. I will admit it; I ended up wanting to be there in Eilis’ house share in 1950’s Brooklyn!

The plot also brings up many subjects. The first is poverty and how the Second World War left countries like Ireland and all the people who survived the horrors of war behind. It looks at women’s roles and how they changed and strangely gained independence further during these times, they could go and work in other countries and start new lives even if the job opportunities were limited. It also discussed racism at the time as the colour of customers in Bartocci’s changes; this isn’t a subject at the heart of the book I did like its inclusion though as it would have happened at the time. In fact looking back with Eilis’ love interest being from an Italian family and Eilis not being an American in America different cultures is in a way a theme.

For me out of everything it was the prose and also the characters that really made the book the complete joy to read I found it. I liked Eilis though for me she was in a way a ‘nice and intrigued’ pair of eyes to watch a story through. It was characters like the scary domineering and gossiping Mrs Kelly who owned the corner shop and the fabulous Georgina, who I adored, and is Eilie’s partner in illness on one of the most horrendous boat crossings I have read… I did laugh though. With characters, plot and backdrops like this I would be amazed if you could fail to love this book.

In fact actually this is just the book I have been craving to read, and haven’t quite been able to find (not even in Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness but almost) for quite a while something I would rush to read the next bit of and get lost in all over again. I can’t wait to read more Toibin after the Man Booker long list, the only question is… where to start, what should I read of his next?

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Filed under Books of 2009, Colm Toibin, Man Booker, Penguin Books, Review, Viking Books

Incoming

So I thought what might be a good idea is if as publishers send me their lovely parcels I keep you up to date with what I am reading and then you can see what will be coming up on the blog in the future, what publishers have coming out or in their catalogues and the opportunity to get your mitts on some and read a long. Plus my TBR agenda changes all the time and if I mention the books here now they get a mention… er… now! You know what I mean. So the latest books to arrive are…

Mothers and Sons – Colm Toibin (Picador)
Colm Toibin’s new and challenging collection of stories paint rich and textured portraits of individuals at different pivotal moments in their lives. In each case, Toibin shows how their relationship with either a mother or a son, or their relationship to their own role as mother or son, reveals something unique and important about them. The stories feature Ireland or Irish narrators, but they are also truly universal. In “Famous Blue Raincoat”, unwelcome memories are stirred when a mother, once a singer in an Irish folk-rock band of some popular renown in the 60s, finds that her son has been listening to their old records – songs she hoped never to hear again. In “Water”, a son buries his mother and goes out to a drug-fuelled rave on a remote beach outside Dublin. In the course of this one night, his grief and desire for raw feeling combine with exquisite and devastating intensity. At once beautifully playful, psychologically intricate, emotionally incisive, finely-wrought and fearless these stories tease out the delicate and difficult strands which are woven between mothers and sons. Sometimes shocking and always powerful, this masterful new collection confirms Toibin as great prose stylist of our time.

The Story Of Night – Colm Toibin (Picador)
Richard Garay lives alone with his mother, hiding his sexuality from her and from those around him. Stifled by a job he despises, he finds himself willing to take considerable risks. Set in Argentina in a time of great change, “The Story of the Night” is a powerful and moving novel about a man who, as the Falklands War is fought and lost, finds his own way to emerge into the world.””The Story of the Night” is, in the end, a love story of the most serious and difficult kind.

Love In A Dark Time – Colm Toibin (Picador)
Colm Toibin looks at the life and work of some of the greatest and most influential artists and writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, figures in the main whose homosexuality remained hidden or oblique for much of their lives. Either by choice or necessity, being gay seemed to come second for many of these writers. Yet in their private lives, and also in the spirit of their work, the laws of desire changed everything for them and made all the difference. Ranging from figures such as Oscar Wilde, born in the 1850s, to Pedro Almodovar, born a hundred years later, this book examines how a changing world altered lives in ways both subtle and fundamental. Colm Toibin interweaves a close reading of the works with detailed analysis of the personalities behind them, to illuminating effect. This is an exceptional collection of essays on sexuality and creativity.

The Master – Colm Toibin (Picador)
It is January 1895 and Henry James’s play, Guy Domville, from which he hoped to make his fortune, has failed on the London stage. Opening with this disaster, The Master spans the next five years of James’s life, during which time he moves to Rye in Sussex, having found his dream retreat. There he writes his short masterpiece The Turn Of The Screw, a tale in which he incorporates many details from his own life, including his experiences as a member of one of the great eccentric American families and, later, an exile in England. Impelled by the need to work and haunted by his past – including his failure to fight in the American Civil War, and the golden summer of 1865, and the death of his sister Alice – James is watchful and witty, relishing the England in which he has come to live and regretting the New England he has left.

The Brutal Art – Jesse Kellerman (Sphere)
Ethan Muller is struggling to establish his reputation as a dealer in the cut-throat world of contemporary art when he is alerted to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: in a decaying New York slum, an elderly tenant has disappeared, leaving behind a staggeringly large trove of original drawings and paintings. Nobody can tell Ethan much about the old man, except that he came and went in solitude for nearly forty years, his genius hidden and unacknowledged. Despite the fact that, strictly speaking, the artwork doesn’t belong to him, Ethan takes the challenge and makes a name for the old man – and himself. Soon Ethan has to congratulate himself on his own genius: for storytelling and salesmanship. But suddenly the police are interested in talking to him. It seems that the missing artist had a nasty past, and the drawings hanging in the Muller Gallery have begun to look a lot less like art and a lot more like evidence. Sucked into an investigation four decades cold, Ethan will uncover a secret legacy of shame and death, one that will touch horrifyingly close to home – and leave him fearing for his own life.

The 19th Wife – David Ebershoff (Black Swan)
Jordan returns from California to Utah to visit his mother in jail. As a teenager he was expelled from his family and religious community, a secretive Mormon offshoot sect. Now his father has been found shot dead in front of his computer, and one of his many wives – Jordan’s mother – is accused of the crime. Over a century earlier, Ann Eliza Young, the nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, Prophet and Leader of the Mormon Church, tells the sensational story of how her own parents were drawn into plural marriage, and how she herself battled for her freedom and escaped her powerful husband, to lead a crusade to end polygamy in the United States. Bold, shocking and gripping, “The 19th Wife” expertly weaves together these two narratives: a page turning literary mystery and an enthralling epic of love and faith.

The Cellist Of Sarajevo – Stephen Galloway (Atlantic)
This is the top 10 bestseller, now in paperback. Snipers in the hills overlook the shattered streets of Sarajevo. Knowing that the next bullet could strike at any moment, the ordinary men and women below strive to go about their daily lives as best they can. Kenan faces the agonizing dilemma of crossing the city to get water for his family. Dragan, gripped by fear, does not know who among his friends he can trust. And Arrow, a young woman counter-sniper must push herself to the limits – of body and soul, fear and humanity.Told with immediacy, grace and harrowing emotional accuracy, “The Cellist of Sarajevo” shows how, when the everyday act of crossing the street can risk lives, the human spirit is revealed in all its fortitude – and frailty.

Pilcrow – Adam Mars-Jones (Faber & Faber)
Meet John Cromer, one of the most unusual heroes in modern fiction. If the minority is always right then John is practically infallible. Growing up disabled and gay in the 1950s, circumstances force John from an early age to develop an intense and vivid internal world. As his character develops, this ability to transcend external circumstance through his own strength of character proves invaluable. Extremely funny and incredibly poignant, this is a major new novel from a writer at the height of his powers.

The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite – Beatrice Colin (John Murray)
As the clock chimed the turn of the twentieth century, Lilly Nelly Aphrodite took her first breath. Born to a cabaret dancer and soon orphaned in a scandalous murder-suicide, Lilly finds refuge at a Catholic orphanage, coming under the wing of the, at times, severe Sister August, the first in a string of lost loves. There she meets Hanne Schmidt, a teen prostitute, and forms a bond that will last them through tumultuous love affairs, disastrous marriages, and destitution during the First World War and the subsequent economic collapse. As the century progresses, Lilly and Hanne move from the tawdry glamour of the tingle-tangle nightclubs to the shadow world of health films before Lilly finds success and stardom in the new medium of motion pictures and ultimately falls in love with a man whose fate could cost her everything she has worked for or help her discover her true self. Gripping and darkly seductive, The Luminous Life of Lilly Aphrodite showcases all the glitter and splendor of the brief heyday of the Weimar Republic, and the rise of Hollywood to its golden age.As it foreshadows the horrors of the Second World War, the novel asks what price is paid when identity becomes unfixed and the social order is upended.

Madresfield – Jane Mulvagh (Transworld)
Madresfield Court is an arrestingly romantic stately home surrounded by a perfect medieval moat, in the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire. It has been continuously owned and lived in by the same family, the Lygons, back to the time of the Domesday Book, and, unusually, remains in the family’s hands to this day. Inside, it is a very private, unmistakably English, manor house; a lived-in family home where the bejewelled sits next to the threadbare, the heraldic and feudal rest easily next to the prosaically domestic. The house and the family were the real inspiration for Brideshead Revisited: Evelyn Waugh was a regular visitor, and based his story of the doomed Marchmain family on the Lygons.Never before open to the public, the doors of “Madresfield” have now swung open to allow Jane Mulvagh to explore its treasures and secrets. And so the rich, dramatic history of one landed family unfolds in parallel with the history of England itself over a millennium, from the Lygon who conspired to overthrow Queen Mary in the Dudley plot; through the tale of the disputed legacy that inspired Dickens’ Bleak House; to the secret love behind Elgar’s Enigma Variations; and the story of the scandal of Lord Beauchamp, the disgraced 7th Earl.

So I have a fair amount to read you could say. Am really pleased though as can do the Richard and Judy Challenge… well almost!

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Filed under Adam Mars-Jones, Beatrice Colin, Colm Toibin, David Ebershoff, Jesse Kellerman, Steven Galloway