Tag Archives: Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins – Jess Walter

Each and every summer the press always give us lists of the books that will be the perfect beach read. One which kept coming up time and time again, and had the most striking cover, was Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, deemed as this summer’s ‘literary’ beach read. This put it on my list of books I must read along with all the acclaim it had received in America. It was however ABC’s The Book Club over in Australia that finally gave me the push to read it when they announced it as one of their titles for October and so I decided I would read it whilst having some delusions of grandeur that I was technically reading along with Jason Steger, Jennifer Byrne and Marieke Hardy.

Penguin Books, 2013, paperback, fiction, 337 pages, kindly sent by publisher

It is initially another quiet summer in the life of Pasquale Tursi, the owner of a floundering Italian coastal hotel with big dreams called The Hotel Adequate View, until the arrival of an actress as his latest guest. This actress Dee Moray has been sent away from the set of Cleopatra, which is filming over the waters, by one of its producers and is under the impression she is terminally ill. Her arrival changes things for Pasquale who has been too long stuck with his widowed mother and batty battle axe of an aunt.

We then switch to the (roughly) present day and Hollywood, where life is fast, furious and pretty materialistic and forgetful. Claire Silver is assistant to one of LA’s biggest producers, Michael Dean, having always wanted to produce her own shows this should be a dream but she is bored and stuck in a rut both work wise and personally. However on what looks to be another dull day of dreadful pitches, with the likes of struggling writer Shane, when an Italian elderly man called Pasquale turns up looking for her boss. As we find out why, Walter strings all the stories together and unfinished events unfold.

Beautiful Ruins is an interesting book in part because it has so much to say, almost too much. If the setting of filming Cleopatra and all the gossip and commotion from the set, possible love story at the hotel and how it all links into modern day, we also end up following many, many, many sub characters and plots that take us as far as a community theatre in Idaho to Edinburgh festival.

Unfortunately this subsequently stretches the book and its main story to capacity and the tale of Pasquale and Dee is the heart of the book and yet I didn’t feel the book concentrated them enough. For example I could easily have done away with the link to modern Hollywood where Michael Deane might initially create a few laughs (his amazing show ‘Hookbook’ for one) but soon a much darker side appears that I really disliked, and not in a good way. Also any laughter from/at Michael is swiftly killed every time Claire appears. Her misery with her pretty fantastic job and gorgeous boyfriend mixed with her one dimensional character make her feel like a part of the set used just for the sake of adding an occasional twist (Shane is also equally one dimensional) which is a shame as Walter’s can write characters brilliantly.

The first impression one gets of Michael Deane is of a man constructed of wax, or perhaps prematurely embalmed. After all these years, it may be impossible to trace the sequence of facials, spa treatments, mud baths, cosmetic procedures, lifts and staples, collagen implants, outpatient touch ups, tannings, Botox injections, cyst and growth removals, and stem-cell injections that have caused a seventy-two-year-old man to have the face of a nine-year-old Filipino girl.

It is in Italy where the book really comes alive with all the heady atmosphere of a summer on the coast, the almost deserted villages wonderful quirky inhabitants and the glamour and fascination of everything on the set of Cleopatra, I adored all of it. This sadly meant that when we switched to the modern section I would find myself inwardly groaning and looking at how many pages I had to read through before I got to the good bit again. If we had stayed in Italy for most of the book and switched to America in the final quarter (or maybe less) for the purposes of the storyline I would have been so much happier and enjoyed the book so much more.

“Leave before this place kills you like it killed your father.”
“I would never leave you.”
“Don’t worry about me. I will die soon enough and go to your father and poor brothers.”
“You’re not dying,” Pasquale said.
“I am already dead inside,” she said. “You should push me out into the sea and drown me like that old sick cat of yours.”
Pasquale straightened. “You said my cat ran away. While I was at University.”
She shot him a glance from the corner of her eye. “It is a saying.”
“No. It’s not a saying. There is no such saying such as that. Did you and Papa drown my cat while I was in Florence?.”
“I’m sick, Pasqo! Why do you torment me?”

There are some fabulous set pieces in Beautiful Ruins along with some truly wonderful characters. Walter does some very interesting things in terms of the text too. We have the two stories in the different times coming together yet we also get snippets of Shanes film pitch, an unpublished chapter of Michael’s autobiography and the first chapter of a book written by a guest whilst at Pasquale’s hotel. Sadly, for me, these additional ‘forms of media’, whilst interesting like all the additional storylines, detracted from the main heart and soul of the book. I also didn’t really like how everything finished up, though I will say the last chapter of the book is one of the best, and most clever, pieces of writing and executed stunningly. Which made it all the more frustrating because when Walter is good he is amazing. I just wish all the book had been like that, oh and that it had all been about the Italy storyline really, that could have been one of my reads of the year.

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Filed under Jess Walter, Penguin Books, Review

Savidge Reads of the Summer Part Two…

At the weekend I was a little vocal on Twitter about how disappointed I was in The Guardian’s Holiday Reading Guide for the summer. Here I do want to preface that a) I know that I am probably not the person that this guide is aimed at… but b) I normally like these guides because they introduce me to some books I would never have heard of. To my mind this was not the case with the produced list of books which frankly look like they have gone through all the prize long lists, the best seller lists and then popped them into a very long guide. There seemed to be no diversity, nothing particularly new to liven the bookish blood on a break away over the summer. Post rant several people said I should have a go and so I thought ‘sod it, I will’. However to be a bit different I decided that I’d compile two lists. The first, a list of books I have read and would recommend I shared with you yesterday. The second, books I haven’t read but I have on my list of summertime reading material (if the sun ever bloody turns up) as I thought that might make it less predictable, appear below…

Fiction… Which might not be to everyone’s taste as each one of them has quite a punch not normally associated with ‘a good beach read’ but I like a bit of depth on a holiday read like I do anytime of the year.

The Gamal – Ciaran Collins (Bloomsbury, £12.99, out now)

Meet Charlie. People think he’s crazy. But he’s not. People think he’s stupid. But he’s not. People think he’s innocent…He’s the Gamal. Charlie has a story to tell, about his best friends Sinead and James and the bad things that happened. But he can’t tell it yet, at least not till he’s worked out where the beginning is. Because is the beginning long ago when Sinead first spoke up for him after Charlie got in trouble at school for the millionth time? Or was it later, when Sinead and James followed the music and found each other? Or was it later still on that terrible night when something unspeakable happened after closing time and someone chose to turn a blind eye? Charlie has promised Dr Quinn he’ll write 1,000 words a day, but it’s hard to know which words to write. And which secrets to tell…This is the story of the dark heart of an Irish village, of how daring to be different can be dangerous and how there is nothing a person will not do for love. Exhilarating, bitingly funny and unforgettably poignant, this is a story like no other. This is the story of the Gamal.
I have been recommended this book by, and this is no exaggeration, five people whose opinions on fiction I really trust, so really how can I not read this one?

Bitter Greens – Kate Forsyth (Allison & Busby, £7.99, out in paperback on 29th of July)

Charlotte-Rose de la Force, exiled from the court of the Sun King Louis XIV, has always been a great teller of tales. Selena Leonelli, once the exquisite muse of the great Venetian artist Titian, is terrified of time. Margherita, trapped in a doorless tower and burdened by tangles of her red-gold hair, must find a way to escape. Three women, three lives, three stories, braided together in a compelling tale of desire, obsession and the redemptive power of love.
I fancy a really big historical book over the summer season and this sounds perfect. I don’t know very much, if anything about the court of the Sun King and the fact that this story relates to my favourite fairytale, Rapunzel – who I named my pet duck after as a kid, and intertwines with it makes it a perfect choice.

The Newlyweds – Nell Freudenberger (Penguin Books, £8.99, out now)

Amina met George online. Within months she has left her home in Bangladesh and is living in George’s house in the American suburbs. Theirs is a very twenty-first century union, forged from afar yet echoing the traditions of the arranged marriage. But as Amina struggles to find her place in America, it becomes clear that neither she nor George have been entirely honest with each other. Both have brought to the marriage a secret – a vital, hidden part of themselves, which will reveal who they are and whether their future is together or an ocean apart.
It was a real toss up between choosing this and ‘Beautiful Ruins’ by Jess Walter, which are both from Penguin and will be on my reading periphery over the summer. I thought I would highlight this one though as ‘Beautiful Ruins’ seems to be getting some buzz elsewhere and I want to be different. Ha! I also think it sounds really intriguing and quite a ‘now’ book.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent (Picador, £12.99, out 29th of August)

In northern Iceland, 1829, Agnes Magnusdottir is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Agnes is sent to wait out her final months on the farm of district officer Jon Jonsson, his wife and their two daughters. Horrified to have a convicted murderer in their midst, the family avoid contact with Agnes. Only Toti, the young assistant priest appointed Agnes’s spiritual guardian, is compelled to try to understand her. As the year progresses and the hardships of rural life force the household to work side by side, Agnes’s story begins to emerge and with it the family’s terrible realization that all is not as they had assumed. Based on actual events, Burial Rites is an astonishing and moving novel about the truths we claim to know and the ways in which we interpret what we’re told. In beautiful, cut-glass prose, Hannah Kent portrays Iceland’s formidable landscape, in which every day is a battle for survival, and asks, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others.
I am so excited about this book it almost hurts. I love Iceland as a country, so as a setting its perfect and very other worldly and spooky, throw in the fact this was based on a true historical murder case (which could make it fall into crime too) make me think it might be something quite special, and dark too.

A Wolf in Hindelheim – Jenny Mayhew (Hutchinson, £14.99, out now)

A remote German village, 1926. Something is happening in this place where nothing happens. A baby has gone missing. A police constable has been called. A doctor suspects a storekeeper. A son wants to prove himself a man. A love affair unfolds. Then the rumours begin to spread. Once suspicion has taken hold, is anything beyond belief? Fear spreads faster than reason.
This sounds like it is going to be a real mix of genres and be quite creepy and dark, whilst I admit this might not be very ‘summery’, you always want a good gripping read whilst on your hols don’t you?

Crime… Where I go all translated on you.

Alex – Pierre Lemaitre (MacLehose Press, £7.99, out in paperback 1st of August)

In kidnapping cases, the first few hours are crucial. After that, the chances of being found alive go from slim to nearly none. Alex Prevost – beautiful, resourceful, tough – may be no ordinary victim, but her time is running out. Commandant Camille Verhoeven and his detectives have nothing to go on: no suspect, no lead, rapidly diminishing hope. All they know is that a girl was snatched off the streets of Paris and bundled into a white van. The enigma that is the fate of Alex will keep Verhoeven guessing until the bitter, bitter end. And before long, saving her life will be the least of his worries.
I hate it when people say a book is ‘the new…’ but apparently this is the new ‘Gone Girl’ not meaning that it is the same by any means but that it has that nasty edge and more jaw dropping twists than you could hope for. Brilliant!

The Hanging – Soren & Lotte Hammer (Bloomsbury, £12.99, out now)

On a cold Monday morning before school begins, two children make a gruesome discovery. Hanging from the roof of the school gymnasium are the bodies of five naked and heavily disfigured men. Detective Chief Superintendent Konrad Simonsen and his team from the Murder Squad in Copenhagen are called in to investigate this horrific case – the men hanging in a geometric pattern; the scene so closely resembling a public execution. When the identities of the five victims and the disturbing link between them is leaked to the press, the sinister motivation behind the killings quickly becomes apparent to the police. Up against a building internet campaign and even members of his own team, Simonsen finds that he must battle public opinion and vigilante groups in his mission to catch the killers.
The first time I read the blurb of this book, when I was at Bloomsbury HQ and stupidly didn’t grab a copy, my initial reaction was ‘ewwww’ which frankly is a good one. I like my crime fiction to be dark and have depths and this sounds like it will deliver the goods on both fronts.

Classics… Where I choose two titles that might not be the best known classics, I think would make a delightful read over the summer months.

The Watch Tower – Elizabeth Harrower (Text Classics, £8.99, out now)

Set in the leafy northern suburbs of Sydney during the 1940s, The Watch Tower is a novel of relentless and acute psychological power. Following their father?s death, Laura and Clare are withdrawn from their elite private boarding school by their mother. As their mother slowly withdraws from them, the two are left to fend for themselves. Laura?s boss Felix is there to help, even offering to marry Laura if she will have him. However Felix is not all that he seems and little by little the two sisters grow complicit with his obsessions, his cruelty and his need to control.
I first heard about Text Classics on The First Tuesday Book Club, then Kimbofo mentioned them being available in the UK and Mariella Frostrup raved about this one on Open Book. All those three things combined mean I will definitely be reading this in the next month or so and looking up more of their titles too.

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor (Virago, £9.99, out now)

Here I am!” Flora called to Richard as she went downstairs. For a second, Meg felt disloyalty. It occurred to her of a sudden that Flora was always saying that, and that it was in the tone of one giving a lovely present. She was bestowing herself.’ The soul of kindness is what Flora believes herself to be. Tall, blonde and beautiful, she appears to have everything under control — her home, her baby, her husband Richard, her friend Meg, Kit, Meg’s brother, who has always adored Flora, and Patrick the novelist and domestic pet. Only the bohemian painter Liz refuses to become a worshipper at the shrine. Flora entrances them all, dangling visions of happiness and success before their spellbound eyes. All are bewitched by this golden tyrant, all conspire to protect her from what she really is. All, that is, except the clear-eyed Liz: it is left to her to show them that Flora’s kindness is the sweetest poison of them all.
This sounds glamourous and wicked and like the perfect book to take down to the beach (if you get to one) over the summer months and simply revel in.

Non-Fiction… One book I think I should read, and have heard great things about, another that was a no brainer!

Behind The Beautiful Forever – Katherine Boo (Portobello Books, £9.99, out now)

Annawadi is a slum at the edge of Mumbai Airport, in the shadow of shining new luxury hotels. Its residents are garbage recyclers, construction workers and economic migrants, all of them living in the hope that a small part of India’s booming future will eventually be theirs. But when a crime rocks the slum community and global recession and terrorism shocks the city, tensions over religion, caste, sex, power, and economic envy begin to turn brutal. As Boo gets to know those who dwell at Mumbai’s margins, she evokes an extraordinarily vivid and vigorous group of individuals flourishing against the odds amid the complications, corruptions and gross inequalities of the new India.
This is another book that has been recommended to me by so many people I have lost count, so it has been on my periphery anyway, it is also one those books that has people raving about it yet seems to have gone under the radar.

Daphne Du Maurier & Her Sisters; The Hidden Lives of Piffy, Bird and Ping – Jane Dunn (Harper Press, £25, out now)

Celebrated novelist Daphne Du Maurier and her sisters, eclipsed by her fame, are revealed in all their surprising complexity in this riveting new biography. The middle sister in a famous artistic dynasty, Daphne du Maurier is one of the master storytellers of our time, author of ‘Rebecca’, ‘Jamaica Inn’ and ‘My Cousin Rachel’, and short stories, ‘Don’t Look Now’ and the terrifying ‘The Birds’ among many. Her stories were made memorable by the iconic films they inspired, three of them classic Hitchcock chillers. But her sisters Angela and Jeanne, a writer and an artist of talent, had creative and romantic lives even more bold and unconventional than Daphne’s own. In this group biography they are considered side by side, as they were in life, three sisters who grew up during the 20th century in the glamorous hothouse of a theatrical family dominated by a charismatic and powerful father. This family dynamic reveals the hidden lives of Piffy, Bird & Bing, full of social non-conformity, love, rivalry and compulsive make-believe, their lives as psychologically complex as a Daphne du Maurier novel.
As you will undoubtedly know if you follow this blog, I love Daphne Du Maurier yet little is known about her as a person, she is such a enigma. I had no idea that she had sisters or that they would sound so Mitford like. It is a tad expensive, but a well worth it treat.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Magical/Other… A section which I tried so hard to make simply a sci-fi section but showed that I clearly barely read any and that to even try and sound au fait with the sci-fi genre would have diehard fans chastising me, but I honestly did try!

The Goddess Chronicle – Natsuo Kirino (Canongate, £11.99, out now)

In a place like no other, on an island in the shape of a tear drop, two sisters are born into a family of the oracle. Kamikuu, with creamy skin and almond eyes, is admired far and wide; Namima, small but headstrong, learns to live in her sister’s shadow. On her sixth birthday, Kamikuu is presented with a feast of sea-serpent egg soup, sashimi and salted fish, and a string of pure pearls. Kamikuu has been chosen as the next Oracle, while Namima is shocked to discover she must serve the goddess of darkness. So begins an adventure that will take Namima from her first experience of love to the darkness of the underworld. But what happens when she returns to the island for revenge? Natsuo Kirino, the queen of Japanese crime fiction, turns her hand to an exquisitely dark tale based on the Japanese myth of Izanami and Izanagi.
This just sounds really up my street. Both from the aspect of the fact it is a Japanese myth retold by an author who I have much admired in her crime novels (really gritty and dark, can you see a theme) sounds like a real adventure.

The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon (Bloomsbury, £12.99, out 28th of August)

The year is 2059. Nineteen-year-old Paige Mahoney is working in the criminal underworld of Scion London, based at Seven Dials, employed by a man named Jaxon Hall. Her job: to scout for information by breaking into people’s minds. For Paige is a dreamwalker, a clairvoyant and, in the world of Scion, she commits treason simply by breathing. It is raining the day her life changes for ever. Attacked, drugged and kidnapped, Paige is transported to Oxford – a city kept secret for two hundred years, controlled by a powerful, otherworldly race. Paige is assigned to Warden, a Rephaite with mysterious motives. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy. But if Paige wants to regain her freedom she must allow herself to be nurtured in this prison where she is meant to die.
This sounds like it could really be a way into more fantasy/sci-fi novels for me .I do think this book is going to get a lot of mentions over the next few months, so I might have to dust my proof off pronto and prepare for the escape and adventure.

The Year of the Ladybird – Graham Joyce (Gollancz, £12.99, out now)

It is the summer of 1976, the hottest since records began and a young man leaves behind his student days and learns how to grow up. A first job in a holiday camp beckons. But with political and racial tensions simmering under the cloudless summer skies there is not much fun to be had. And soon there is a terrible price to be paid for his new-found freedom and independence. A price that will come back to haunt him, even in the bright sunlight of summer.
Really, really excited about this as I had the delight of discussing this book with Graham post recording the Readers Book Club last year and I said I wasn’t sure ghost stories could work in the summer/sunshine and he said he hoped this would prove me wrong. The gauntlet has been thrown.

So there you are, if you managed to stay with me for the long haul then well done. Don’t forget to pop and see the recommendations I have read from yesterday. Also you can hear me talk about all the books I am excited about in the fall here as they might take your fancy.  Let me know what you think about the selection above, which have you read or been meaning to read? Which books will be making it into your luggage bags over the coming months you would like to share?

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