“Everything Is Illuminated” by Jonathan Safran Foer

Goodness me, what an arduous read Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer was! The story of an American author who travels to the Ukraine to try to track down the people who helped save his grandfather during the second world war, it’s told in three formats. Firstly, there is the story of the journey told by Alex, the young Ukranian man who acts as guide and translator for the author, and these sections are written as if Alex had written them himself in his broken English translation. In addition, Alex also writes letters to the author that accompany his chapters as he sends them to America. Finally, we are also told the story of the authors ancestors are told from the eighteen century onwards.

I found the “translated” sections very hard going, and made slow progress as I was constantly trying to unravel the sentences and translate them into proper English myself. Having said that, at times they were in turns charming, funny and heartbreaking, but initially, I did have to force myself to keep reading as I waded through these chapters.

On the other hand, I loved reading the historical chapters. Full of beauty and melancholy, I was able to slow down and savour these chapter, all the time guessing that it was likely to build to some tragedy at the end.

Having said that, the final chapter is possibly my favourite of the book despite being another translated letter, and while sad to read, left me with a feeling of hope for the future of the characters, and felt like a fitting end to the book.

I’m glad I read it, as it’s one I’ve been meaning to read for a while, but I have to say, I read his second book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close a few years ago, and for me, it was a much more satisfying book to read, even though it had a similarly quirkiness to its style and language. Definitely an author I will look to read again in the future.

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“The Crimson Petal and the White” by Michel Faber

It’s taken me four months to finish The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber, but I have loved every single page. A tale of a prostitute, Sugar, one of her customers, William Rackham, the unwilling heir to a perfume factory, and his wife, Agnes, a young woman whose health has failed her of late, all set in Victorian London. Written with the flavour of a Dickensian style and elegance, this modern novel is able to delve in to the real depths of Victorian morals, lifestyle and sexual attitudes, in a way that Dickens never could.

Eminently readable, I felt instantly swept up in the story, but there is such a depth and detail to the lives of the characters on the page, that I couldn’t read more than a chapter at a time, in order to savour and envelope myself in this society that Faber has created. There is no getting away from the fact that there are some graphic descriptions of sexual scenes, but they feel that they fit within both the plot and period of the story.

But, for me, the overall glory of this epic book, is the wealth of characters. No character is too small or insignificant not to warrant a colourful description, from the larger secondary characters of, for example, William’s brother, Henry, with his tortured goodness, to his shallow, hedonistic friends, Bodley and Ashwell, to the calculating servant, Cheeseman. All come alive on the page and alongside the descriptions of the sights, sounds and smells of historic London, made the whole world of this book a completely immersive place to visit each time I picked up the book.

The end comes quite suddenly, and although you don’t really get a resolution for the characters, this felt right, as no-one’s life should be able to have all its loose ends tied up cleanly, and after spending so long with these people, I was actually quite glad to be able to think for myself where their lives would take them next.

I’m actually sad I’ve finished it, and won’t get to come back tomorrow for another installment, which must surely be the highest praise I can give any book.

“Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Well, I finished Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. There are a lot of factors that influenced my reading of this book, and I know it has affected my thoughts on the book. The background is that this was a chosen book for my reading group this month, so I didn’t have the luxury of choosing when to read it to a certain extent. I’d wanted to read the book soon anyway, but again this was also influenced by the film adaptation coming out shortly. Along side the timing issue, again due to the film, I had already associated characters with the actors portraying them and I had an idea of the theme of the book. Another issue I had was that I’d only read this author once before and had been distinctly underwhelmed by the short story collection I read last year, yet his early novels had been highly recommended, so I was intrigued to know how I would find this, one of his later novels.

So. Hmmm. While I was reading it, I thought the book was compelling. At the end of each session of reading, I was desperate to keep going to find out how the story would progress. But, here’s my problem. By the end, I didn’t feel that I knew the characters, I wasn’t convinced by the development of the plot, and the voice of the narrator seemed young and naive, while the character was actually reflecting back on life after the revelations of the story.

I’m still in two minds about the book, and I think I’ve realised why I found it so compelling, but ultimately so unsatisfying. I’m a story person, and what really grabs me is a great plot, but I knew before I started the book who the characters were, so I was waiting for the reveal rather than surprised by it.

My biggest disappointment though, was by the end, I wanted to see some sort of rebellion or outrage at the system from one of the characters instead of total acceptance. Even the moral stance of the guardians at Hailsham dwindled out, but what I was most disappointed by was the glossing over of the Morningdale scandal, which I felt was a key factor to how the story played out by the end and raises crucial issues in the debate, but was woefully underplayed.

Having said that, I think it will provoke a lively discussion at my reading group, so that’s something to look forward to!

“Over Sea Under Stone” by Susan Cooper

Although I normally insist on reading a series of books in order, I was promised that it wouldn’t matter if I read the second book in The Dark Is Rising series by Susan Cooper to start with. I did this over Christmas as it has a festive winter theme, but I’ve just gone back to the beginning and read Over Sea Under Stone, the first book in the series.

A family go to spend the summer with their great uncle in Cornwall, and while exploring their holiday home on a rainy day, Simon, Jane and Barney discover an ancient map that sets them on a quest to discover that which as been hidden. Assisted by Great Uncle Merry, the children start their search only to find they are not the only ones after their treasure.

This book was originally published in 1965, and I have to say, it completely transports me back to my own childhood (which wasn’t this far back I hasten to add), and has the feel and tone of the adventure books I would read when I was young. The trouble is, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about the writing that makes me feel that way. The story is exciting, and gradually builds to an exciting crescendo, but there’s an innocence and naivety about the children, and the idea of a family spending a whole summer away together, that just makes it feel of its time.

I absolutely loved it, as much for how it reminded me of being an eight year old engrossed in an thrilling adventure as for the actual story and the writing itself. It seems obvious to me why this series has stood the test of time, and is still published today, as well as being transferred to the digital format as well, although maybe that’s more for us older “kids” reliving the books of our childhood!

“Don’t Judge A Girl By Her Cover” by Ally Carter

I started reading the Gallagher Girls series by Ally Carter last year while on holiday, and devoured the first two books in a single day! The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women to the outside world is a private girls school for the gifted girls, but behind the facade, it prepares the next generation of skilled intelligence operatives. It’s not just a secret within the school, it’s one of the country’s closely guarded secrets with not even the majority of the CIA knowing about its existence. After the death of her father, Cameron Morgan moves to The Gallagher Academy with her mother, who has removed herself from the intelligence world – to become the school headmistress.

The books follow Cammie and her friends not only through their extraordinary classes but also through the pitfalls of being teenage girls! They’re great fun, and quick reads, and there’s something about a female spy story that I find glamorous and thrilling, despite the dangerous risks, and added with my current penchant for YA books, these were always going to be a winner with me.

Don’t Judge A Girl By Her Cover which was a great Sunday afternoon, lazy, and purely entertaining read. Can’t wait for the next book to be out later this year.