Tag Archives: Sceptre Books

Moonstone – Sjon

One of the things that I have always wanted to do with this blog, and I suppose my reading by default, is find some lesser known gems that I would love to get to more readers. Nothing against the big books that get a lot of buzz, as they can be irresistible, there is just something wonderful about finding a book that hasn’t had much buzz (or as much as I think it should) and getting it into the hands of eager readers. Moonstone by Sjon is one such book. This was a book that I discovered towards the end of last year and has become one of my favourite reads of the last several years. I loved it when I read it; the more time away from it I have had the more wonderful I think it is. Yes, one of those.

Sceptre, paperback, 2017, fiction, 156 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Moonstone is set in the Reykjavik in 1918. Iceland is a country that is on the cusp of huge changes. Some it is aware of like the decreasing amount of coal resources , along with the eruption of the Katla volcano. Some are happening along in the background, such as the Great War. Some it is yet to know will happen, like the craze for film and cinema or something much, much darker that will change the country and its people forever, the Spanish Flu. Yet aware or not, the people of Reykjavik carry on as normal and we follow one of those people, a young man named Mani.

Mani is unaware of all these things going on in the background because as Moonstone begins it is more the day to day dramas that are at the forefront of his mind. For Mani is a young gay man who is paid for sex, which on the whole he enjoys, both the act and the money. However this is a time in which homosexuality is not something that the people of Iceland believe in and so one of his biggest thrills, and of course income, is also one of his biggest dangers.

After the boy had crawled in through the window of his hotel room and they had begun to take off their clothes, the man unfastened the artificial leg made of hardwood that was attached with a leather harness to his right thigh.
The boy had never seen such a device before and examined the leg from every angle until the man took it away from him and hung it from the foot of the bed. He drew Mani Steinn under the covers to join him:
– Moonstone.

What I found so gripping about Moonstone is firstly the story of Mani, but also the story of Iceland itself and then how the two intertwine and almost shadow the other. In many ways Iceland, and really more specifically Reykjavik, is the second biggest character in the whole book, and we follow them both as Mani has his most personally tumultuous time yet and Iceland has its most historically tumultuous time yet.

 Although, as a rule, little in the papers captures his interests – anything that happens in Iceland seems too small, while overseas events only affect him if they are grand enough to be made into films – the news in the last few days about the “Spanish Flu” has held a lurid fascination for the boy:
He has a butterfly in his stomach, similar to those he experiences when he picks up a gentleman, only this time it is larger, its wingspan greater, its colour as black as the velvet ribbons on a hearse.

Throughout the book there are many heart breaking moments, something I do really love in a book which I am aware makes me sounds rather like a weirdo. There is firstly the fine line between Mani’s  There is a poignant element of the cinema craze story line, which we see as Mani becomes almost as addicted to the cinema as he does to sex with men. As more films come to the city the more the religious and traditional members worry that it is a sign of the devil, leading teenagers into sexual temptation, or worse, modern thinking. This belief of evil gains all the more traction when Spanish flu hits and it becomes one of the places that causes the most contagion without anyone knowing. Imagine then how homosexuality might be treated, if cinema can cause such outrage. This is an unwritten realisation that comes to Mani creating a danger in being caught but a potential financial opportunity in the need to keep everything all the more secret. Things take a darker turn but I don’t want to spoil that for any of you.

In the Irish Times review of Moonstone Ruth McKee describes it as “Opening with a graphic scene of oral sex and closing with penetrating philosophical questions, Moonstone is quite a ride.” And she is completely right. This is a mini epic that gives and gives to the reader. Every page thrums, hums and/or brims with feelings, atmospheres, tensions and emotions. Whether it be with the wonders of cinema that fascinates the villagers or the natural awe of a volcanic eruption. Whether it be with a sexual thrust (quite literally) or with the panic and horror as a plague takes over the country.

Reykjavik has undergone a transformation.
An ominous hush lies over the busiest, most bustling part of town. No hoof-beats, no rattling of cart wheels or rumble of automobiles, no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rasp of sawing from the carpenters’ workshops, or clanging from the forges, or slamming of the warehouse doors. No gossiping voices of washerwomen on their way to the hot springs, no shouts of dockworkers unloading the ships, or cries of newspaper hawkers on the main street. No smell of fresh bread from the bakeries, or waft of roasting meat from the restaurants.
The doors of the shops neither open nor close – no one goes in, no one comes out – no one hurries home from work or goes to work at all.
No one says good morning. No one says goodnight.

I could wax lyrical about Moonstone for much, much longer, however I feel that a succinct rave suits a succinct masterpiece. Yep, I said it, I think that this is genuinely a mini epic masterpiece. It is a book that brims with emotion, has an incredible momentum and shines a light on both a period of a (possibly grimly) fascinating period in history that I knew nothing about and also many voices that went unheard and even unseen. I wanted to go and read it all over again when I was choosing the quotes to include in this review. I also now want to read everything that Sjon has written so far and go back to Iceland and explore it all over again. Utterly fantastic, if you haven’t read it then please, please, please, please get your hands on it.

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Filed under Books of 2017, Review, Sceptre Publishing, Sjon

The Book Buying Ban… The Update (Part II)

Only earlier this week I mentioned that though it was in many ways painful and was taking some serious avoidance my month of no book buying hasn’t been quite as difficult as I thought it would. This is both thanks to ReadItSwapIt and the Library as I mentioned in the earlier post. I also said I had received some lovely parcels from some lovely publishers and would let you know what had arrived and so I thought as its a Saturday and book shopping is so tempting I would tease you with these delights that you could run out and buy; as none of you are doing anything as silly as a self imposed ban like I am hopefully!! First up some classics…

I have been making a concerted effort to read more classics and two publishers you cant go wrong with are Vintage Classics and Oxford University Press. When a rather large thud resounded through the building from the letterbox I came down and found ‘The Bronte Collection’ which includes Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Villette and Jane Eyre. I will admit I didnt love Wuthering Heights but after reading The Taste of Sorrow by Jude Morgan which is all about the sisters earlier this year I think a Bronte-Binge is on the way and the season after New Year seems perfect for this don’t you think? Might be a good Xmas pressie for relatives this Christmas maybe. (Hang on did I just mention the C word before December starts – I should be ashammed!) They also sent The Wapshot Chronicle by John Cheever and a huge collection of his letters. I havent read any Cheever but am thrilled about these two delights. Oxford University Press kindly sent the last of the Sensation Season novels (don’t cry they may be back again next year) in the form of Charles Dickens ‘Great Expectations’ along with George Moore’s ‘Esther Waters’ which hit my attention waves on BBC Radio 4’s Open Book show when they looked at neglected classics. Be warned – the neglected classics are dangerous list of books which could lead to a huge spree.

From the people at Harper arrived a very diverse collection of books in one big parcel, the postman is not a fan of this address – his arms certainly aren’t, quite an eclectic mix indeed. Two of the books are from thier new imprint Blue Door ‘The Ballad of Trench Mouth Taggart’ (great title) by M Glenn Taylor and Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames by Luis d’Antin Van Rooten the latter can only be described by a post on their new blog. Sounds bizarre but will give it a go. They also sent me Snow Hill a thriller by Mark Sanderson, who has written a memoir so heartbreaking I have owned it for years and never able to read, Mark will be doing a Savidge Reads Grills very soon. Last but not least by any means as actually this is one of the books I have been most excited about in weeks (as you know I am having an Agatha Christie binge) is ‘Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks’ compiled by John Curran, I had to stop myself reading it as soon as it arrived. It’s a treat for a very lazy Sunday.

Now in a few weeks I will be doing a piece on the books to look forward to over the next year, you can see the predictions I made for this year here should you wish. Already some are coming through the letter box and Sceptre have done some very clever marketing with a collection of three books and three characters “you simply must meet in 2010”. They are called Nevis Gow, Lindiwe Bishop and Jack Rosenblum and I shall tell you more about them in the forthcoming weeks. I just love how they have packaged it all, no titles or authors on the cover, intriguing.  Books already out arrived too and they are The Sorrows of an American by Siri Hustvedt, which I think has a stunning cover, and Incendiary by Chris Cleave and you all know how I loved The Other Hand.

Another massive parcel has arrived from Orion. I have succumbed to the latest in the Twilight Saga and it seems more Vampire delights await me with the first two of Charlaine Harris’ series about Sookie Stackhouse (great name) which have become the incredibly successful True Blood tv series. I haven’t heard much on the blogosphere on these but am very much intrigued by them as have seen tonnes on the tube.  The final tome that you can see is one thats not out until June next year but I have been priviledged enough to be asjed to take a very early look at. ‘The Passage’ by Justin Cronin is massive, comes with very little, though intriguing blurb and has already had the film rites bought by Ridley Scott, more on that soon too as I think this is going to be huge (and not just in size) next year. And finally…

It’s always nice when a publisher emails you be they big or small. I have to admit I hadn’t heard too much about Honno Press when they emailed me asking if they could send me a catalogue. Honno Press is an independent publisher of Welsh Women’s fiction (so a bit like a welsh version of Persephone if you are a fan) and they have a wonderful selection of books, they also go the extra mile as they went through my blog and picked three books they thought I would love. A welsh sensation novel ‘A Burglary’ by Amy Dillwyn, a book where “each generation looks back into the tragic past, loves, secrets and lies are hauled into the open with surprising consequences for all” in ‘Hector’s Talent for Miracles’ by Kitty Harri and finally a collection of witty, wry and sharply observed stories about women with ‘Stranger Within The Gates’ by Bertha Thomas. Sounds like they have got me spot on!!!

Blimey. Now over to you… are Bronte’s and other classics the perfect pressies for Christmas and reading as Spring… erm… springs up? Who has read the Charlaine Harris books, are they like Twilight? Who has tried Honno Press and what did you think?  What will you be curling up with this weekend? What books have you accumulated of late?

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The Other Hand – Chris Cleave

This definitely wasn’t in my bag of books to read on the train this weekend but after finishing ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ I didn’t fancy any of the three I had in my bag and as I didn’t do much reading over the weekend I came back on Sunday night and couldn’t decide what to read next. Now near in mind I am reading Ulysses along in the background, you might understand why big heavy tomes aren’t ideal to read along side that. So in the end I decided to follow the latest reading trend on the tubes, which thankfully seems to be less and less Twilight Saga novels, Chris Cleave’s ‘The Other Hand’. 

Now the blurb on this book has always puzzled me. “We don’t want to tell you what happens in this story. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again — the story starts there… Once you have read it, you’ll want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don’t tell them what happens either. The magic is in how it unfolds.” Which not only makes you puzzled when you pick it up (though is also quite clever PR), but now makes it a nightmare for me to review. But here goes… 

The story is told from the alternating aspects of two wonderfully written female characters. One is Little Bee, who I think is a brilliant creation and could read books and books told through her eyes, the book also has the title ‘Little Bee’ in other countries. The other woman is Sarah. Through their eyes we look at sometimes shocking, sometimes saddening and sometimes incredibly funny times whwre both their lives meet. Through both of them we watch humans doing what humans do best, making mistakes, enduring hardship and building and breaking relationships through two polar opposite opinions. That is all I can say about the plot. 

If you are thinking ‘well that sounds a little dull” I promise you that its not. There is a great plot in there I just don’t want to be one of the reviewers, I am sure there have been some out there in the ether, who give the story away as I don’t think it would work if you knew more. I will say that it’s rare a book can shock me, this one managed. It’s rare a book can move me to tears, this one managed. It’s also rare a book makes me laugh out loud on public transport, this one managed. Which all in all is incredibly well done I think if one book manages all of those in less than 400 pages. In fact I think I had moved through these emotions by page 80 and continued from there on afterwards. I won’t dumb it down I thought it was brilliant. 

I will agree with a few critics on one thing not that its prose is badly written or that it’s ‘just good’ as I don’t agree with either of those statements. I do agree that whoever thought that including a letter to the ‘Dear Reader’ from the Editor at the publishing house was a very bad move. It was so patronizing and cheesy it almost stopped me from reading the book. The fact that the editor compared it to ‘Schindlers Ark’ was ridiculous as you just can’t. Then the fact that she went on to compare it to ‘Cloud Atlas’ (which I hated) and therefore compare that with ‘Schindlers Ark’ was not only incorrect but very misleading and alienating if you didn’t like either of those books. That really, really bothered me. The blurb was mysterious enough and the hype has been just about enough without a saccharine lecture added for good measure. 

Other than that it was a great read, I would recommend everyone give it ago. Don’t expect a book that will change your life, it might make you look at things differently though. You’ll enjoy yourself either way. If you have read the book do let me know just don’t give the ending away in comments for anyone who hasn’t please, thank you.

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Filed under Books of 2009, Chris Cleave, Hodder & Stoughton, Review

December – Elizabeth H Winthrop

…And so onto the penultimate of the Richard and Judy Reads 2009. I knew very little about December or its author Elizabeth H Winthrop before this book was placed on the list and when the lovely people at Sceptre sent me a copy. I looked and saw that it has received slightly mediocre reviews on Amazon and in some ways I can see why and in others I can’t.

December tells the tale of a winter and in particular the lead up to Christmas Day for the Carter family. Husband and wife Wilson and Ruth are concerned with their daughter Isabelle who has not spoken for over nine months. There seems to be no reason as to why Isabelle has put herself under a self imposed silence that they can see. They have tried many different psychiatrists who have been unable to work out what is wrong and now Isabelle’s school are thinking of letting her go.

It is interesting for the reader to see this from all three parties’ sides. Winthrop looks into the minds of all three and how they each cope very differently with the situation and really gets into each of these peoples heads without melodrama which could have been quite easily done. The pressure put on the marriage and how it affects Wilson and Ruth is an interesting subject as they both have moments of denial, anger and unbound love about the whole situation. The voice I didn’t feel I quite got as much as I would have liked was Isabelle herself which was slightly frustrating as the story does in essence evolve around her.

I agree whole heartedly with two comments made by Farmlanebooks One was that it is a ‘gentle’ novel and that is an absolutely spot on word for this novel. This is a very delicately written novel that doesn’t pull out all the stops to dramatise or go over the top. The writing takes you a long without it ever being a page turner. That style leads me to another review that said it was in some ways very ‘like Anne Tyler’ and that is also spot on. In fact after reading Breathing Lessons and Anne’s writing about family issues earlier this year I was reminded of it again with this book. Winthrop looks at real life and writes about real people and situations and maybe that is why some people have found this a slightly underwhelming read.

I didn’t personally find it underwhelming, I actually quite enjoyed it without being blown away. In fact overall I would say it was an ‘enjoyable gentle’ read, even though really very little happens I still wanted to know more. For those who love a book with a punch and want to get lost in a great tale this is possibly not for you. Those of you who like books that looks into families and how they deal with things, observations of people and how they behave or just love Anne Tyler like I do then you will enjoy this I would imagine.

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Filed under Anne Tyler, Elizabeth H. Winthrop, Hodder & Stoughton, Review, Richard and Judy