Friday 29 January 2021

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For years I've planned to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides but just never got around to it. But having decided this year to vary my choice of books a bit more I thought it was time and  duly popped it onto my Kindle. This month 'at last' I read it.

From 1919 to 1922 Greece occupied a region of Turkey known as Smyrna. Brother and sister Eleutherios (known throughtout the book as 'Lefty') and Desdemona Stephanides live there and are Greek. In 1922 Turkey decide to take the city back and basically burnt it to the ground. Thousands die but Lefty and Desdemona somehow survive and get themselves onto a boat to America, where they are anonymous and no one knows they are related... and in love. Masquerading as strangers who have just met, they marry aboard ship and arrive in the US, a married couple.Their destination is Detroit, Michigan where they have a cousin already settled. 

Calliope, 'Cal' Stephenides is their grandchild. She always says she was born twice, first in 1960 and again in 1974. Something about her wasn't spotted when she was born and was somehow missed by her mother too. Cal knows she isn't like other girls, but not how or why, only that as puberty hits, her body is not doing what every other girl's seems to be doing. Why?

This book was 'hugely' popular when it was first published back in 2013 and I can see why. It's basically a family saga with a twist but the twist does not become centre-stage until at least halfway through the book. Until then we hear what happened to Lefty and Desdemona, their marriage, their son, Milton, and a host of other rather interesting characters. The history of Detroit is very central to the plot, the lot of immigrants such as the Greeks and where they live, also the black population and their lives and how they are generally treated.  The race riots of 1968 are very well covered, something I knew very little about.

The author takes a lot of time and effort to get the reader very close to the characters in Middlesex. Did it work? Sort of. It's 5 or 6 days since I finished it and the family is still in my head. But somehow I didn't feel a real bond between them and me, and I'm not sure why, possibly the writing style. I also felt the book lost its way in the final chapters. Cal behaves in a way that felt a bit cliched to me. I could see 'why' but it felt like yet another book descending into... well I won't say what but I rolled my eyes a bit. I 'did' however learn a lot about Cal's condition and for that this kind of book is incredibly useful and instructive... one of the reasons I read to be honest... I now know something I didn't know before. 

So I gave Middlesex four out of five stars on Goodreads. It's beautifully written, I learnt a lot about Detroit and living in America from the 1920s to the 1970s, and not once did I feel like giving up on it, it had me hooked from the start. I loved it but with one or two misgivings. One big question... why the heck was Cal's brother called 'Chapter Eleven'. Did I miss something? LOL! 

Anyway, recommended really, but might not be everyone's cup of tea. Middlesex is my first book for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2021 which is being hosted by Marg at the Intrepid Reader.


Tuesday 26 January 2021

Krakatoa (not east of Java)

Simon Winchester's book, Atlantic really wowed me last year. I was very smitten with his very accessible style of writing which didn't bore the pants off me when it so easily could have done. So I went searching for something else by him and chose this:

The first thing to get out of your head, and it's surprisingly difficult, is that the island is 'east of Java', as the film assured us in 1968, those of us who are that long in the tooth I mean. It's not. It is in fact 'west' of Java, in the Sunda Strait between Java and the island of Sumatra. And of course, as many of us are aware these days, it is only one of many volcanoes smack on top of the Pacific Ocean's 'Ring of Fire'.

The book begins with Simon Winchester describing how he visted the island group in the 1970s and when he went back 25 years later was shocked to discover that Krakatoa, or what was left of it, is now 500ft taller and is growing at the rate of 20 inches a month. I don't know about anyone else but I find that slightly concerning...

There's a long history of colonialisation in the area. It was under the Portuguese for a while until the Dutch snatched it from them and it became The Dutch East Indies. So it was under the Dutch when, on the 27th. August 1883, Krakatoa destroyed itself. It's said that it was and remains the loudest sound ever to be heard by mankind. Rodrigues Island, 2,968 miles to the west in the Indian ocean, was the farthest point at which the explosion was heard. Again, a record. 36,000 people perished, mostly killed by the following tsunamis. Tsunamis so powerful they were actually detected in the English Channel. Barographs recorded the shockwaves which travelled around the Earth 'seven' times and lasted for 15 days. 13% of the Earth's surface vibrated. And after all that, it was only the 5th. largest volcanic explosion - 'only' being a relative term - in known history. Although there seems to be some dispute about this, as in all things I suppose, Wiki lists it as the 2nd. biggest. 

I should say that this is not just a book about the eruption of Krakatoa. The author discusses everything and anything even vaguely to do with it. So there's much about the history of the area, the geology, the geography, and the flora and fauna. Because it was in that area that naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, discovered what came to be called The Wallace Line and the science of plate techtonics eventually came into being... but not until 1965, years after his death. Who would have thought that I would find the explanation for plate techtonics so rivetting. I vaguely knew about it of course but not that it was subduction zones where most volcanoes are and that that was what caused Krakatoa, and many other volcanoes, to go off so spectacularly.

I like this quote from Will Durrant:

'Civilisation exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice'. 

Well, quite. 

I risk being boring about this book so I'll stop and just say I thought it was brilliant. So many different subjects covered, not in a dry and boring manner, but in an accessible and interesting way. I'm very impressed with Simon Winchester's non-fiction. He has a lot of other books to choose from and choose I will. There's one about The Pacific Ocean, the San Fransisco earthquake, dictionaries, The USA, and a new one called, Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World.

I shall be reading it. 

And I'll leave you with this wonderful painting. It's by American artist, Frederic Church. It's said that he suspected Krakatoa would produce wonderful sunsets, (volcanic dust in the atmosphere) which indeed it did for years. So off he went to Canada and painted this in December 1883.

Sunset Over the Ice on Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario. Gorgeous.

Saturday 16 January 2021

Two non-fictions

My non-fiction reading has started well this year with two really good books.

First up, Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth.

Canadian, Jill Heinerth's fascination with water began at a really young age when she nearly drowned... twice. It was obvious she was a born explorer and so it turned out to be as she became a canoeist and hiker in her teenage years. A stable, prosperous life in Toronto called though and she became a successful Graphic Designer until, at the age of 27, she reached a cross-roads. A middle of the night violent break-in caused her to re-evaluate her life and she decided to learn how to survive no matter what life threw at her. A diving course showed her the way, she felt as though she had discovered what she had been born to do. I didn't realise when I bought this non-fiction book that I was buying a tale that was more exciting than fiction. That's rare but then it is cave-diving that we're talking about here, one of the most dangerous sports on the planet, I suppose mountaineering would compare but suspect the death rate is higher from cave-diving. Some of Jill's exploits are hair-raising as she goes deeper and further than any woman in history. She has to fight intolerance because of her sex and when the internet became a thing... jealousy and spite on online forums from other divers. Before I read this I was under the impression that The Bends was just a bit of under-water cramp. Er... no. I now know better. I had no idea how many cave divers lost their lives every year and the death toll of her friends as she becomes more experienced does get to the author. I found the whole thing utterly fascinating, not just the danger but the technical stuff about how to survive in incredibly deep caves using rebreathers. I could never do this kind of thing 'ever', but I do love reading about other people doing it and this book was an absolute cracker. 

Finally, Watery Ways by Valerie Poore.

Twitter can be a pretty nasty place sometimes but other times it comes up trumps. I saw author, Valerie Poore, on there talking about her books, went to investigate and ended up grabbing Watery Ways for my Kindle. At the start of this book she has moved from South Africa with her then husband to The Netherlands. They decided to live on a barge in one of the historic harbour areas of Rotterdam but when their marriage broke up Valerie found herself looking for a new home. She ended up renting and doing up another historic old barge and fending for herself when she had very little experience of barge living. One thing she therefore benefitted from was the friendliness and camaraderie of the other inhabitants of the water boats in the harbour. She soon made friends and even found romance, which helps when the owner of the barge you live on decides to sell... 

I absolutely loved this delightful book. Valerie's writing style is so accessible and friendly that you feel as though you're sitting with her enjoying a cup of tea and a cake while she's telling you about her life on a barge in Rotterdam. I'm in awe of her bravery because it's not something I could do on my own though it has to be said that she didn't have a lot of choice in the matter. All power to her elbow for just getting on with it! And what a lovely cast of characters she gets to know, quite eccentric some of them, but joyous to read about. I also loved reading about her excursions with Koos along various canals and waterways, sometimes a bit scary too. I shall be reading more of these 'watery' books by Valerie Poore, can't wait to read about trips to Belgium and France and then I might move on to previous books about South Africa!

Non-fiction seems to be working really well for me this month. I've just started this:

I read Simon Winchester's Atlantic last year and  enjoyed it so much that I checked to see what else he'd written - quite a list - and ended up buying this. So pleased I did as it's every bit as good as Atlantic and I'm absolutely loving it.

I hope everyone's enjoying their January 2021 reading. Any gems to recommend? (Because of course I need more books......)

Monday 11 January 2021

Playing Book Bingo!

At last I've found my second reading challenge for 2021. Lark put me onto it with her post but the challenge is being hosted by Unruly Reader.

 How to Play:

  • Read a book that fits the category. Each book can qualify for only one category.
  • Complete just one row or column, or go for blackout by reading a book in every category.
  • All books must be finished in 2021. Books started in 2020 but finished in 2021 count.
  • We’ve provided some definitions, but you can free-style it if you like—as long as you can make a case that the book fits the category. (This is one of my favorite sports)
  • All categories can be fiction or nonfiction (your choice), unless otherwise specified.

The sign-up post and more information can be found here.

I absolutely love the sound of this as the categories are a bit different and open to interpretation. In fact I've already read a book in 2021 that fits the challenge, this:

Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth. I just have to decide which category to put it under as it fits several. 'Survival' I fancy, given some of the things that happen.

I think the way I'll approach this is just to read normally, choosing what I fancy, and then see if any of the books fit a category.

Sunday 10 January 2021

Two books of short stories

So... from being someone who bought lots of books of short stories but hardly ever read any (I know) I've become someone who likes to have a volume on the go most of the time. They're fun, and fill a half hour of free time, and also you get to discover new authors, or possibly decide you don't like someone's writing after all...

My last book for 2020 was a book of tales from the British Library's collection, Weird Woods: Tales from the Haunted Forests of Britain edited by John Miller.

This collection is pretty much what it says in the title, macabre stories that involve trees, woods and forests. I had several favourites.

Man-size in Marble by Edith Nesbit (author of the 'Five Children and It' series for children) involves a couple buying a cottage near Romney Marsh in the SE of England. All is well until Halloween when their excellent housekeeper won't stay in the house because of a local story of something that 'walks' on that night. Very atmospheric.

Ancient Lights by Algernon Blackwood, one of my favourite ghost story authors, well known for setting stories in the northern forests of Canada. This one tells of a surveyor's clerk visiting a client in the South Downs in Sussex. Said client wants to do alterations to an ancient wood, so on the way the clerk decides to walk through the wood. Wrong choice.

A Neighbour's Landmark by M.R. James involves some woods on a hill that are no more but something has been left behind. Wonderfully creepy as you would expect from James. 

N by Arthur Machen. Three men are in an inn recalling all their walks around London. The subject of the area around Stoke Newington comes up, people who have been there but can't recall what they did or where they went, or even if they went at all. Does  Cannon's Park exist or doesn't it? Naturally someone has to go and look for himself. 

An Old Thorn Tree by W.H. Hudson was my favourite of the collection. It's set on the Wiltshire Downs, which is one of those mysterious areas of England, lot of standing stones, barrows, more crop circles and UFO sightings than anywhere else, that sort of thing. It's easy to sense a weirdness when you're there and this story of a solitary, ancient thorn tree on the top of a hill plays on that atmosphere. The narrator feels drawn to the tree and sits in a pub listening to stories about the tree and it's effect on local people's lives. Brilliant.

These collections vary a bit, some I like a lot, the 'sea' collection for instance, and some are a bit average. This 'trees' anthology was very good, terrific sense of place in most of the stories, and there were only a couple I thought were a bit daft or confusing. The rest were all excellent.

Next up, Death's Detective by Charlotte E. English, my first book for 2021 and one I saw reviewed here on Pat's blog, Here, There and Everywhere.

Konrad Savast is a wealthy 'man about town' in the city of Ekamet. But there's a lot about him that people don't know. He is in fact the Malykant, a servant of the God of death, Malykt. It's his job to find out the whys and the wherefores when there's a suspicious death and dish out punishment if required. He's aided and abetted in this by Irinanda, a sort of pharmacist, but she has secrets of her own that Konrad is not party to. Konrad also has the help of two ghosts who come in the form of snakes, they add a touch of comedy. This book consists of four long short stories, novellas you might call them, and each deals with a different investigation, one was based around a circus for instance, another has the theme of a missing diamond. From the first story to the end of the fourth I definitely became a lot more involved. Secrets are revealed, there's character progression, and I really liked the world building of this horror/fantasy crime based series. The names are all Russian but this is an invented world with a very Victorian bent. The mysterious Bone Forest outside the city intrigued me and the idea of people living underground there or building in the trees was fascinating. This is not heavy reading, it's a fun series, but the writing is very comptetent and nothing in it annoyed me (believe me that counts for a lot). I think I'll be reading more in this series as I suspect the author has already hit her stride and I want to know more.

I hope everyone else has had a good reading start to 2021? I see lots of people signing up for challenges and it's fun to see what they're doing. I've just signed up for one for now, Marg's Historical Fiction 2021. Whether I'll end up doing more I'm not sure at the moment. We'll see.  

Monday 4 January 2021

Mount TBR 2020 wrap-up

Doesn't seem like five minutes since I was doing my sign-up post for Mount TBR 2020. I probably did it well before Christmas 2019 and had no idea what was coming. Probably just as well.


1. Tell us how many miles you made it up the mountain:

I started off aiming for Pike's Peak, 12 books, with the aim of counting only books I'd had on my shelf for a long time and 'chunky' books over 400 pages. Not sure I quite kept to that but I don't think I did too badly.

By the beginning of August I was at the summit of Pike's Peak and aiming for Mont Blanc, 24 books. I reached the summit of that mountain in November. I kept reading after that even though I knew I probably would not make it to the top of Mount Vancouver, 36 books. And I didn't but I did read another 4 and ended with a total of 28 books... a third of the way up that mountain.

2. The Words to the Wise According to Mount TBR: Using the titles of the books you read this year, see how many of the familiar proverbs and sayings below you can complete with a book read on your journey up the Mountain. Feel free to add/subtract a word or two to help them make sense. 

A stitch in time...  [saves] The Morville Hours (Katherine Swift)

Don't count your chickens... [in order] To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis)

A penny saved is... [worth] Dashing for the Post (Patrick Leigh Fermor)

All good things must come... [on] The White Road Westwards ('BB')

When in Rome... [beware] Capital Crimes (ed. Martin Edwards)

All that glitters is not... Silver Bullets (ed. Mike Ashley)

A picture is worth... The Moonstone (Wilkie Collins)

When the going gets tough, the tough... [go] To War with Whitaker (Hermione Ranfurly)

Two wrongs don't make... [you an] Outsider (Frederick Forsyth)

The pen is mightier than... A Slip of the Keyboard (Terry Pratchett)

The Squeaky wheel gets... Travels with Tinkerbelle (Susie Kelly)

Hope for the best but prepare for... [the] Menace of the Monster (edited by Mike Ashley)

Birds of a feather flock... Pole to Pole (Michael Palin)

Some of those answers are a trifle tenuous but it was fun to do.

Thanks to Bev for hosting Mount TBR 2020.

Friday 1 January 2021

Reading plans for 2021

My first post of 2021. Happy New Year to everyone who stops to read my bookish musings, may 2021 be a better year for us all. I feel it will be but not just yet, we all have to hang in there a bit longer. And I'd like to add a big thank you to all of you who have blogs and who keep me sane and cheerful with your wonderful posts about books and other sundry subjects. 'Thank you'. 

So, I've done what I did last year that I felt worked so well. I created a shelf of books I want to read in 2021. I find this incredibly useful, mainly because I'm such a ditherer when it comes to choosing what I want to read next. If I have a selection of books I know I want to get through this year available immediately then I can consider those. I don't always choose one, sometimes I head off to another part of the house and other bookcases, or I peruse the black hole that is my Kindle Fire, but very often I do choose one off this shelf and last year I got through a lot - not all - of those books. 

So here's my main shelf for this year. (Click for a bigger view.)


Thirty books in all, fifteen fiction, fifteen non-fiction, although believe it or not I didn't plan it to be half and half. I like this selection better than I like last years. Last year I put too many hefty tomes in there and was slightly intimidated by them, this year I've mixed it up a bit and I feel the mix is a bit more eclectic. 

And here's a secondary selection:


There are five classics here, all of which I suspect I won't read but I would like to try read two or three. E.F. Benson's ghost stories is a reread, they are some of the best ever written in my opinion. Next are two lovely Christmas presents, both of these people knew exactly what I like. The Jojo Moyes was meant to be in with the other selection but was forgotten, and I added Nigel Slater's Kitchen Diaries at the last minute because I enjoyed his Christmas Chronicles so much. I will read that through the year and hope it will supply me with some nice seasonal recipes. 

Added to this, as I said before, is the selection on my Kindle Fire. This reading device has been a revelation this year, a bit too much perhaps as I've added books willy-nilly and with gay abandon. Over the Christmas period alone five books were added:

Watery Ways by Valerie Poore

The Death Detective by Charlotte English 

The Platform Edge edited by Mike Ashley 

The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James 

An Ivy Hill Christmas by Julie Klasson 

It is possibly a bit ridiculous but I can't help but think it's harmless enough while there's a pandemic raging and we're being asked to stay at home. When I have books like the ones featured in this post to read then I'm happy to do that. I wish everyone was as fortunate.

Take care, stay safe and happy reading in 2021.