Welcome to September's edition of A Blogging Good Read. Aren't we rattling through the year?!
Joining me this month are Gemma from Avise La Fin and Janet from Words That Can Only Be Your Own. What did we read?
Up first is Gemma's pick, Burial Ritesby Hannah Kent:
I have always been a fan of historical fiction and, because of that, I’ve been recommended this book many times! I bought it a little while ago so when I was asked for my BGR choice I thought it was the perfect excuse to get reading it. The story is set in Iceland in 1829 and follows Agnes, a woman who is sentenced to death for the murder of her lover. While she is awaiting execution she is sent to live with Jón Jónsson, his wife and their two daughters, who are understandably none too impressed at the prospect of living with a violent murderess…
Life is hard on the farm in rural Iceland and every day presents a challenge for survival. Jón’s wife is battling ill health and I began to feel like Agnes wasn’t the only character in this book awaiting death. Through the tough farm work she and Agnes form an unlikely bond and slowly Agnes starts to unravel the events of the night that led to the death of her lover.
I actually found this book quite slow, but I was intrigued by Agnes. She’s never really had a home, nor really felt or experienced love and I was waiting for these things to happen to her in the story. She is originally portrayed as a monster and it was interesting to see how my opinion of her would gradually change the more I read. I won’t give anything away, but what I will say is that this book is based on the real life events, which, to me, makes it a fascinating read.
Yet again, I'm very happy that I started BGR. This is another of those books that I'd never have gone near in the library or a bookshop, gloomy Icelandic historical fiction not being my preferred genre. But blimey, this book is really good. More fool me for being the sort of person who'd overlook it at first glance.
It's the most evocative thing I've read in a long time. I've never been to Iceland and I obviously wasn't alive during the 1800s but this absolutely catapults you back in place and time until you can virtually feel the damp of the farmer's cottage and the dirt encrusted on everyone. I managed to completely miss the fact that it was based on a true story though - good one, Alex!
Did Janet enjoy it?
I visited Iceland in July, so it was absolutely perfect timing to read Burial Rites while I was there. I loved the detail that Kent gives of what day-to-day life was like for peasant farmers in rural Iceland, and she evokes a sense of the landscape perfectly. I had an enormous amount of sympathy for the character of Agnes, and although I knew the outcome was inevitable – the novel is, after all, based on the true story of the last executions in Iceland – I still found myself desperately hoping that things would turn out differently.
Janet went for This is Not a Love Storyby Keren David:
I didn't know much about this book when I bought it, attracted by its cover and by the fact that it's set in Amsterdam (my partner lived in the Netherlands when we first met and we still visit there a lot). This Is Not A Love Story tells the tale, in dual first person narration, of two London teenagers - Theo and Kitty - who, for various reasons, end up at a college in Amsterdam for their A-Levels. The book begins the morning-after-the-night-before. There’s been a big party, Theo and Kitty have apparently argued, and Kitty is missing. From there, we’re told in flashback how the two of them ended up in Amsterdam and at the party, and the story continues beyond that once the ‘mystery’ (spoiler alert: it’s not much of one) is solved.
For me, the biggest problem with the book was that the third character, Ethan, (who befriends both Theo and Kitty, leading to all sorts of cliched romantic strife) is by far the most interesting of the bunch, yet we don't see anything from his point of view. Kitty, meanwhile, is introduced to the reader during Theo’s opening chapter as confident, vivacious, fascinating, a budding internet sensation... but turns out to be, in her own chapters, extremely dull and predictable, which is a fault of the writing not the character.
The plot was at its best when dealing with the unique pressures of being teenage and Jewish, and I found the musings on Jewish faith, identity and modern life fascinating; the sections when characters discuss the Holocaust - or the Shoah, to give it its Hebrew name - were the strongest in the book. However, the rest just didn't do it for me, with far too many issues crammed in and no time to really get to know or empathise with the characters. I also found it bizarre that a major plot point hinges on the reader being able to understand the phrase Ik hou van jou. Luckily, it's one of the few phrases in Dutch I do know, but I find it unlikely that the same could be said for most readers.
Did Gemma like it?
I’m not sure this is my kind of book. It’s not that it’s YA fiction (it is, isn’t it?), it’s that I found it… clichéd? I’m not sure that’s the right word. A teenage girl moves to Amsterdam with her mother, reinvents her image, posts pictures of her new amazing life on Instagram for all of her followers to see and be jealous of, meets two boys; the good boy and the bad boy (although both equally tormented by previous experiences). She also has a possible heart condition, so you know, could potentially drop dead at any second. At one point she compares herself to Anne Frank; I am sure there is some deeper meaning other than the fact that they are both Jewish and live in Amsterdam, but I didn’t get it. This one isn’t for me, but I can see teenage girls would probably relate to a lot of the issues raised in this book. But, sadly, I’m not a teenager anymore. Actually, I’m not that sad…
I feel a slight sense of guilt here as Janet had a shortlist of three when she was picking her BGR book and I steered her towards this as I thought it sounded interesting. Uh oh! There was a certain amount to like about it - I definitely enjoyed the perspectives into the Jewish faith and the expat lifestyle as they're not something I've read much about, and Ethan and Theo are interesting characters. However it was ultimately a rather disappointing read that promised a lot and never quite delivered on any of it.
I found the insertion of all the social media stuff a little forced too. Perhaps I'm just an old fogey but the way it was written didn't seem to ring at all true with a character of that age and it wasn't consistent - there were constant mentions of Kitty being this budding Instagram celeb at the start of the book and then it was basically forgotten about after that. It irked me more than it should have done but then again, if the book had been better written overall, I probably wouldn't have noticed it as much,
I picked The Storied Life of A.J. Fikryby Gabrielle Zevin:
(although my version is the cover below, when it was originally released as The Collected Works of A.J Fikry)
This is a slightly random choice but my BGR books are always books that entertained me and this did so. I found it on a shelf at my mum's house, started reading it for lack of anything better to do and really enjoyed myself. It's not an award-winning super work of literature but I was very pleasantly surprised by it at the time and I enjoyed my reread of it this time around as well.
Our title character runs a failing bookshop on an island. His wife dies, his most treasured possession, a first edition of Tamerlane by Edgar Allen Poe, is stolen and someone leaves a baby on the doorstep of the shop. This all happens fairly early on and the rest of the book is an entertaining whirl through a lot of books and the next 18 or so years. It's not as gloomy as the first couple of sentences of this paragraph make it sound - far from it - and there's a delightful amount of loving description of books and how important they are to people. I should add that I really don't like books featuring plot moppets but Maya is a character in her own right here and the relationships between her and the older characters are touching rather than cloying.
What did Janet think of it?
The Storied Life Of AJ Fikry isn’t a book I’d rush to read again, but I liked it nevertheless. I do think it lacked depth – there was a lot of reliance on telling the reader what kind of person protagonist A.J was, rather than taking the time to show us – and the plot was enormously predictable. I also felt it rushed through events quite quickly, taking us from Maya’s babyhood to her high school years in a breathless procession of chapters. However, any book that is so in thrall to the power of books and literature is ok by me.
Over to Gemma:
When I first started reading this book I thought it was going to be chick lit, I foresaw a romantic involvement and assumed there would be little else. I wasn’t terribly enthused after the first chapter, but, I’m pleased to say that I got it entirely wrong. What proceeded was actually quite a moving tale of a new (somewhat unexpected) father as he discovers how to live again after the death of his wife. It was a nice book, sad in places, funny in others. There was a slight mystery; a rare book of Poe poems goes missing at the start and if I’m honest I forgot all about it until it’s mentioned again towards the end! I guess since it takes place over, I think about 18 years, there is a lot to cram in! A nice story and one I’d thoroughly recommend.
Thanks so much to Gemma and Janet for their reviews this month.
The book choices for next month are an eclectic bunch! We've got The Martianby Andy Weir, H is for Hawkby Helen Macdonald and Carsickby John Waters.