The two awesome ladies joining me for A Blogging Good Read this month are Becks from Just Me and Sally from Queenie and the Dew. We all managed to select rather weighty tomes so bravo to us for getting through them! Want to know what they are and whether we liked them? Read on...
I chose The Night Circusby Erin Morgenstern:
I first read this book a few years ago and it's remained in my brain ever since as an almost indefinable whirlwind of circus tents, magic and illusions. It's hard to explain the appeal of it - I think you either love it or it just won't work for you at all and either way is fine. My tolerance for magical realism and similar genres is quite low, courtesy of a dreadful A level experience with the similarly named Nights At The Circus(words cannot express my loathing of that book), yet this completely captivated me.
The Night Circus is, well... a circus that only appears by night. Not your typical clowns and performing animals sort of circus either. This is entirely more magical with a whole host of unusual and sometimes unbelievable sideshows. Celia and Marco are groomed by their magician mentors into a rather deadly competition with their rivalry being expressed via more and more complicated magical achievements at the circus. The plot spins and tumbles and weaves around on itself in the same way that the magic does. I find it an absolute delight.
What did Becks think of it?
The wheels came off for me with this book. I really wanted to like it, and at the beginning I did. I started it on the plane home from Barcelona where I had been away for work and I was absolutely eating it up. And then I just kind of stopped. That means I started this book on the 15th January and we're now in March and I still haven't finished it. That's not like me at all and I feel absolutely terrible that I haven't finished this book in time for the review. This is like not finishing your homework in time and I am mortified.
I can't explain why I haven't read it because it really did begin in such a promising way. I was drawn in, I was intrigued, who were these two people and what was this magical battle going to be about? And then The Night Circus was born and it began and I loved reading about the various tents created and then.....blah blah blah. It just ran out of steam for me. I kept waiting for something big to happen and so far nothing really has it's just gone completely off the boil.
Of course I could be in for a huge surprise because I'm still only three quarters of the way through the book but I'm genuinely at a point where I don't really care. Maybe it's because I'm anticipating what the ending is going to be and already feeling disappointed by it.
Sometimes not everything adds up when you're reading a book and for me, this book is just missing the X factor. It hasn't taken me at all and I might even do the (for me) inconceivable and leave it unfinished, putting it in very rare company indeed as I find it almost impossible to abandon a book. But given the time spent reading it and the enjoyment taken out of it I have to question if it's worth it.
How about Sally?
My penchant for all things magical, fairy-like and Victorian meant The Night Circus would be a sure hit for me. Sure enough, I was captivated from beginning to end. Erin Morgenstern has crafted one of those rare stories that truly captures your imagination, leaving you with the smell of popcorn in your nostrils, half expecting an acrobat to begin swinging from the lamppost on your journey home from work. The book lends itself to being transformed into a stunning screenplay, and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen (if it can at all do justice to the magic of the book). Erin paints a truly vibrant, enchanting and colourful picture in your mind – the mark of a talented writer and someone I can’t wait to read more of.
Sally picked Molly Fox's Birthdayby Deirdre Madden:
I’ve read so many books with dramatic storylines – the kind that have you squinting under the glow of a lamp long after bed time, your hands gripping the dog-eared pages and your eyes racing along the lines of text to see what happens next. Once finished, you’ll chat about it for weeks, even months after, before stowing it back on a shelf somewhere, never to be picked up again.
Then there are the books I tend to come back to time and time again, which have a far calmer ebb and flow; a poetic intricacy that needs several reads in order to unpick the many layers. I first read Molly Fox’s Birthday several years ago, and was drawn to the quiet strength of the book. There’s something about a deceptively simple novel that calls you back, and my second reading gave me so much more insight into both the characters, the power of memory and Madden’s perceptive take on relationships and acting. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.
One of the real joys of BGR for me is that it helps me discover authors and books that I'd never normally pick up. This is the sort of low-key book that's been out for long enough to pass straight under my radar and I doubt the front cover or the blurb on the back would necessarily have drawn me in either if I'd come across it in a bookshop or library. But it came my way courtesy of Sally's recommendation and I absolutely loved it.
It's quite a short, quiet, introspective sort of novel. Therein lies the beauty. It doesn't need a sweeping plot or grand cast of characters to be effective, it's just extremely well written and incredibly insightful into the workings of people's minds. I'll definitely be going back and rereading this and I'm very glad I've discovered Deirdre Madden as an author. I highly recommend picking up a copy.
Did Becks like it?
I'd never even heard of this badger so I was pretty keen to get stuck in and immediately downloaded it for my Kindle. And I really thoroughly enjoyed it - I enjoyed it even though it kept bringing up questions for me. Not questions about the story but big 'life' kind of questions. Normally I would shy away from books like this, I like to keep my reading more entertaining and less thought-provoking but this naturally brought up questions for me in a way that didn't feel forced, they just left me pondering.
One quote in particular stood out to me - "You won't let me know you".
I found that so enormously interesting. How well do we ever know other people? How well do we ever really know ourselves?
The main protagonist - it only dawned on me halfway through the book that you never get to find out what her name is - stops going to therapy when it becomes difficult, she doesn't actually want to get to know herself, despite all her bemoaning at how much Molly Fox keeps back from those around her. The fact that we don't know her name really resonated with me. We only know anything about her in relation to the other characters and that's something that I have particularly struggled with at the moment, separating who I am from who other people think I am, or want me to be.
It's not often that a book comes along that is a pleasure to read and also leaves you feeling like you've had a brain workout, without making you feel incredibly dumb for not 'getting' the theme that the book is driving at so I have to say well done to Deirdre Madden for that.
Becks chose Shantaramby Gregory David Roberts:
Despite the fact that I am generally curious about the world about me, I have never ever felt the urge to travel the world. The thought of backpacking just doesn't appeal to me at all and I've never really understand the allure that the East has for some people. Maybe it's for that reason that Shantaram has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for about six years. Or maybe it's because that weighing in at 944 pages it just looks too bloody daunting to pick up.
Well I am now kicking myself for not having read it sooner. I was completely swept away from the first chapter of Gregory David Roberts' book and the only thing that I found difficult about reading the book was how to physically hold it open whilst I was in bed and not risk breaking my nose if it fell on me.
'Shantaram' is the name given to our main character - a guy with a colourful past - he is an ex-heroin user and armed robber and has escaped from prison in Australia and found his way to Bombay, which is where we meet him at the beginning of the book. He has an almost other worldly experience - learning Marathi and going to stay at a remote village with his new friend Prabaker, going to live in a slum and setting up a health clinic, joining the local mafia, spending time in a Bombay jail, oh, and smuggling himself into Afghanistan to fight with the Mujahedeen against the Russians. Obviously.
About a fifth of the way into the book I thought to myself "I cannot believe how good this guy is, he's making it all come so alive, I don't know how he does it." It was only then that I realised I was being a thick idiot in not having read the back of the book properly and realising that it was based on his real experiences. So of course he was good at making it come alive.
There's a lot made of this element - just how true the story is that he is telling. Lots of people saying "This couldn't have happened like that." or "He's exaggerating this, that and the other." For his part, he has never claimed the book is a true story or a memoir, just that it is based on his experiences. And actually I think to get caught up in that whole debate is a mistake because it's really beside the point whether or not he actually did any of these things, the fact is he is a magnificent story teller. And I really do mean magnificent.
You could be forgiven for reading the back of the book, taking in all the things this one person is supposed to have done, partaking in a huge eyeroll and putting the book down to one side, never to be read again. But when you're reading it, none of it feels fantastical, the tale didn't feel ridiculous - you were aware of the ridiculousness of the situation, but you were so caught up in the story that you are just swept along with it.
The theme of trust is long running through the book, and is at times a little laboured, but I can forgive him that, in a book this long it would be easy to lose themes along the way. But his storytelling is vivid. At times it is a little brutal, the recounting of his time in a Bombay jail is particularly harrowing, but it all feels so real. I wanted to be there, among the hustle and bustle of the streets - smell the sea air, wander in the slums, meet the people.
I salute you Gregory David Roberts. You made this person who has never wanted to travel, go all the way to India.
What did Sally think of it?
Seeing Shantaram on the list had my heart doing a little skip. I knew nothing about the storyline, but I’d previously seen a couple of quotes from it that had left me nodding vociferously and balancing it right at the top of my (teetering) ‘to read’ pile:
“I don't know what frightens me more, the power that crushes us, or our endless ability to endure it.”
“Sometimes you break your heart in the right way, if you know what I mean.”
I just knew Shantaram would be one of those novels that would have me buying copies in bulk for every friend and family birthday. Needless to say, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a veritable tome: over 900 pages, but captured within those pages is a story of such magnitude, wit, suffering and strength that I clung to it in the hopes it wouldn’t end. The novel goes through moments of breathless, magnetic pace, interspersed with pockets of belly aching humour and soul-splitting sadness. It captures beauty, wretchedness, brutality, sorrow, absurdity and repugnance in one perfect package.
I'd like my review of this book to be as glowing as the other two but rather shamefacedly, I must admit that I didn't finish Shantaram and so I can't write a proper review of it. I'm entirely blaming it on the fact that I've totally lost my Kindle and that meant I had to try and read this on my phone during a very long train journey. At 900+ pages, that's far from ideal! I hate not finishing books that are due for review but this month has been tough and I just couldn't get back into it. Becks has described it beautifully above though and if her description of it has piqued your interest even a little, do yourself a favour and read the book.
What I did read, I enjoyed. If I'm being entirely honest, I wasn't expecting to because I have a bad tendency not to enjoy fiction that goes into raptures about foreign climes (note to self: stop being so parochial in your reading tastes!). There were certain elements of Shantaram that were a little bit irksome in that respect but it's a truly impressive achievement: vast in scope and brutal and beautiful in equal measure.
Thanks ladies! What a good month of books that was. Pat yourselves on the back for managing to read and review them! I will finish Shantaram, I promise...
Next month we'll be reading Guards! Guards!by Terry Pratchett, Notes on a Scandalby Zoe Heller and A Cup Of Teaby Amy Ephron.