Category Archives: Summer Reading

Review: Whispers Through a Megaphone by Rachael Elliott

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press.

My Review:
MegaphoneThe two main characters in this book have allowed other people to influence their lives to the point of misery.  When their stories finally intersect, they serve as a comfort for each other and form a kind of unconditional friendship that both of them have desperately needed.  Miriam hasn’t left her house in three years because of a traumatic incident for which she wrongly blames herself.  As we get to know Miriam we learn that her mental health issues have stemmed from a lifetime of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her mother.

It is very difficult to read about Miriam’s story and I usually avoid books that describe child or animal abuse because it is just too upsetting.  But Miriam’s resilient spirit and her drive to put the past behind her is uplifting.  She is told when she is a very young child that her father died when she was an infant and the only other family member that she has any contact with is her maternal grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother has not allowed her to see her grandmother and so her only source of comfort are letters from her grandmother.  But Miriam’s mother is so cruel and jealous that she puts a stop to the letters which causes Miriam additional mental anguish.  The cruelest punishment that is imposed on Miriam is that she is never allowed to talk above a whisper because her mother can’t stand any noise.  The punishment for speaking above a whisper in her mother’s presence is nothing short of torture.  As an adult Miriam continues to speak at a whisper and cannot break this abusive habit forced on her by her mother.

Ralph is also unhappy when we first meet him, but the source of his anxiety is his bizarre, demanding and overpowering wife.  Ralph and Sadie met while in college and if she didn’t become pregnant with twins then the relationship would never have lasted.  Sadie is bitter that she is forced to give up on her degree and the budding relationship with her roommate Allie.  Sadie’s questioning of her sexuality and her unhappiness in something that has always stood in the way of Ralph and Sadie’s marriage.  When Ralph accidentally uncovers this astounding secret, he flees his house and decides to live alone in the woods.  It is in this woods that Miriam comes upon him during what is her first day out of her house in three years.

I have to admit that I was reading their separate stories at the beginning of the book, I wasn’t convinced that these two people with such separate lives would meet in a way that was believable.  But Elliott masterfully weaves together the story so that Ralph and Miriam encounter each other under just the right circumstances.  They are both kindhearted people and their sincere compassion allows them to give each other honest and frank opinions.  Miriam slowly comes back to the world of the living and gains the courage to get a job and even go on a date.  Ralph finally decides to go home and face his teenage sons and the wreck of his marriage.

Whispers Through a Megaphone is an uplifting book that shows us it’s never too late in life to form a friendship that is meaningful and gratifying.  Great characters, an interesting plot and clever writing all make for a successful first book from Elliott.

About the Author:
R ElliottRachel Elliott is a writer and psychotherapist. She has worked in arts and technology journalism and her writing has featured in a variety of publications, from digital arts magazines to the French Literary Review. She has also been shortlisted for a number of short story and novel competitions in the UK and the US. Rachel was born in Suffolk, and now lives in Bath. Whispers Through a Megaphone is her first novel. It was longlisted for the 2016 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.

For more information about the book and to hear Rachel read an excerpt visit the Pushkin Press website:  http://pushkinpress.com/rachel-elliott-reads-from-whispers-through-a-megaphone/

7 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Pushkin Press, Summer Reading

Review: The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Scribner via Netgalley.

My Review:
Sheep and GoatsThis was the perfect book for me to take on my recent beach vacation to Maine.  The story is set in England during a sweltering heat wave in the summer of 1976.  This neighborhood in the English Midlands is so tight knit that when Mrs. Creasy goes missing, every one notices, even ten-year-old friends Tilly and Grace.  Since Tilly and Grace are on summer vacation, they decide to use their time to look for clues around The Avenue in order to find out what happened to Mrs. Creasy.  The first person they seek out for advice is the local pastor.

The pastor tries to reassure Tilly and Gracie who are worried about Mrs. Creasy.  The girls don’t want anyone else in their neighborhood to disappear so they look to the pastor for comfort and he tells them that God is everywhere and will protect them.  So in addition to finding Mrs. Creasy, the girls also set out to find where God is hiding himself on The Avenue.  As they visit each house, we are given a glimpse into the quirky and oddball characters that inhabit The Avenue.  Joanna Cannon has written a book that is chock full of likeable and sympathetic characters in whose lives we become emotionally invested.

Some might be hesitant to read a story from a child’s perspective, but the characters of Grace and Tilly are charming and funny.  The girls have some of the most droll and amusing lines in the book.  It is Grace who aptly describes the oppressive heat of the summer: “We had to share bathwater and half-fill the kettle, and we were only allowed to flush the toilet after what Mrs. Morton described as a special occasion.  The only problem was, it meant that everyone knew when you’d had a special occasion, which was a bit awkward.”

As the girls visit their neighbors on The Avenue we are introduced to an engaging cast of characters.  Mr. Creasy is plagued with an obsessive-compulsive disorder and is consumed with counting things.  His wife, Mrs. Creasy, was the only person who could keep his anxiety at bay and now that she is gone his neurosis is back in full force.  Mrs. Forbes is a nervous wreck most of the time as well and her tendency to forget things forces her to constantly make to-do lists.  Mr. Lamb is a widower whose pride and joy is his lush garden.  These are just a few of the interesting characters that we meet on The Avenue.

As much as I enjoyed the characters and the clever writing style of the book, the author’s greatest strength is her ability to create meaningful and compelling relationships between the characters.  Grace and Tilly are best friends and it is touching how Grace is worried for Tilly because of her fragile health.  Grace and Tilly have a touching relationship with Mrs. Morton, a widow who lives alone on The Avenue.  Mrs. Morton takes care of the girls while their parents are having a rest and they feel just as comfortable in her home as in their own.  Grace tells us, “My mother spent most of 1974 having a little lie-down, and so I was minded by Mrs. Morton quite a lot.”  And  Mrs. Creasy, who has a gift for listening and compassion, has a special relationship with many of her neighbors on The Avenue.  We understand throughout the course of the book why everyone is so eager to have this kind woman back in their lives.

The title cleverly points out an important lesson that Tilly, Grace and the rest of The Avenue learn through the mystery of Mrs. Creasy’s disappearance.  All of the neighbors are whispering about some secret that they have been keeping for quite a few years.  They suspect that Mrs. Creasy must have discovered this secret and fled The Avenue. The guilt and the shame of whatever it is that they have done starts to weigh on the neighbors and they start to point fingers at one another.  Tilly and Gracie attend church one Sunday and are fascinated when the pastor reads Matthew 25:31-46:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

What Grace and Tilly, and really the rest of The Avenue can’t figure out, is how do we tell who is a sheep and who is a goat?  The entire Avenue has decided that their eccentric neighbor Walter Bishop is a goat and as a result they been excluded him from their community.  When I was reading the sections about Walter and his mistreatment at the hands of his neighbors I kept thinking of the famous character of Boo Ridley in To Kill a Mockingbird. Walter Bishop lives alone, is very shy and quiet and has some interesting hobbies like photography.  But The Avenue sees him as a threat to their peaceful cul-de-sac and blame him when anything goes wrong.  But Gracie and Tilly are on a mission and they even visit Walter on their quest to find God and Mrs. Creasy.  These little girls give their neighbor the respect and kindness that no one else will show him and in the process they also learn that it is not always easy to separate the goats from the sheep.

This story was funny, charming and engaging.  I was surprised to find out that this is Joanna Cannon’s first novel because she has the talent of a mature and experienced author.  This has been one of my favorite reads so far this summer.

For more information about Joanna Cannon visit her website: https://joannacannon.com/

 

13 Comments

Filed under British Literature, Literary Fiction, Summer Reading

Review: Blitz by David Trueba

I received an advanced review copy of this title from Other Press.  The book was published in the original Spanish in 2014 and this English version has been translated by Mara Faye Lethem.  This is yet another contribution to Spanish Lit Month hosted by Stu and Richard.  A special thanks to the both of them for hosting this literary event.

My Review:
BlitzBeto is a landscape architect who, like many others, has been hit hard by the economic recession in Europe.  Building and maintaining elaborate gardens and parks is a luxury that businesses and municipalities can no longer afford.  In order to make some money to pay the bills, Beto enters a landscape architecture contest in Munich, where the first prize would be enough to keep him afloat for a while.  Beto and his girlfriend, Marta who is also his assistant and partner in his landscape business, both travel to Munich to attend the landscape conference where the prize winners will be announced.

Beto is having a good time in Munich speaking with other architects and listening to their ideas and proposals.  But one night at dinner Beto receives a text message from Marta that clearly wasn’t meant for him.  He says, “Life changes when the love messages aren’t for you. That love message arrived like a lightning bolt, unespected and electric, and changed my life.”  When he confronts Marta about the message, she admits it was meant for her ex-boyfriend with whom she has reconnected and she announces that she leaving Beto to go back to her ex.

Beto’s reaction to this awful news is one of denial and inertia;  he doesn’t want to face his life again in Barcelona where he lives and works with Marta.  He impulsively decides to stay behind in Munich even though he has no money and is about to be thrown out of his hotel room.  Helga, who was serving as a translator for Beto at the landscape conference, steps in and saves Beto in more ways than one.  Helga, at age sixty-two, is about thirty years older than Beto and her offer of help appears to be a natural,  maternal gesture.  Helga takes Beto back to her apartment in Munich and over a bottle of vodka Beto learns that Helga has been divorced for fifteen years and has lived alone ever since.  Throughout the course of their conversation Beto is surprised to discover that he has become very attracted to Helga and he wants to kiss her.

Beto and Helga spend the night together and do much more than kiss.  Trueba offers a brutally honest and at times graphic commentary on the realities of aging.  Helga has sagging skin and wrinkles and Beto is ashamed that he is attracted to this woman who is so different physically and emotionally from Marta.  As they spend time together after their night of passion, Beto feels that he should be embarrassed to be seen with an older woman in a romantic situation and he realizes that this reaction is hurtful to Helga.

Beto has to face reality and say goodbye to Helga and return to the shattered remains of his life in Barcelona.  Their farewell at the airport is awkward because they don’t expect to see each other again despite two nights of emotional and physical intimacy that they shared.  The last part of the book when Beto is back in Spain is narrated like a diary in months.  Beto moves to Madrid and takes a job in a  landscape firm where his career finally takes a positive turn.  But Beto is not successful in finding another woman with whom he wants to be in  a long-term relationship.  The memory and pull of Helga and their unexpected connection always lingers in the back of his mind.

This book is a brutally honest commentary on age and love.  I especially enjoyed the ending which was a bit of a surprise.  Another unique aspect of the book are the pictures that the author includes to illustrate different pieces of the text.  Beto’s idea for his garden that is entered in the Munich competition is illustrated as well as other important scenes from the story.  Trueba’s character-driven story line with it’s straightforward prose is a great read to bring to the beach when it is released this August.

About the Author and Translator:
David TruebaDavid Trueba was born in Madrid in 1969 and has been successful both as a novelist and as a scriptwriter. La buena vida was his widely acclaimed debut as a film director and was followed by Obra Maestra (2001), Soldados de Salamina (2003), Bienvenido a casa (2006), and La silla de Fernando (2007). He is also the author of two previous novels; his debut, Four Friends, sold over 100,000 copies with twenty reprints.  Learning to Lose won the Critics Award in 2009.

Mara Faye Lethem is the translator of Spanish and Catalan authors such as Albert Sánchez Piñol, Juan Marsé, Javier Calvo, Jorge Semprún, and Pablo DeSantis. Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, she has lived in Barcelona since 2003.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: The Plimsoll Line by Juan Gracia Armendariz

I received a review copy of this title from Hispabooks via Edelweiss.  This book was published in the original Spanish in 2015 and this English version has been translated by Jonathan Dunne.  Hispabooks specializes in publishing contemporary Spanish books into English translation.  For more information about their titles please visit their website: http://hispabooks.com/

My Review:
Plimsoll LineThe author explains to us in the introduction of the book that the Plimsoll Line is a mark on a ship’s hull that indicates the maximum depth a vessel can be immersed into the water when it is loaded with cargo without being sunk.  In the 18th century, British merchants would overload their cargo, knowing full well that the ships would sink and then they would collect the insurance money on them.  The Plimsoll Line was then marked on all ships to prevent shipwrecks and save lives.  The main character in this book bears so much cargo in the form of tragedy that he wonders if he has overstepped his personal Plimsoll Line and will sink into oblivion.

Gabriel Ariz is a university professor and an art critic who loves working and his job even though he doesn’t have to work for a living.  His wife’s inheritance would allow them to live quite comfortably with a nice custom-built home in the forest and luxury vacations.  Gabriel and his wife’s comfortable world is shattered by the death of their only child, their daughter, who dies at the tender age of twenty in a tragic car accident on Christmas Eve.  This event marks the beginning of a series of misfortunes that weigh heavily on Gabriel.

Before their daughter died, Gabriel and his wife seemed to be drifting further and further apart and this tragedy precipitated the end of their marriage.   When Gabriel’s wife, Ana,  announces that she is leaving he is neither surprised or terribly upset.  But the constant loneliness in his big house with no one but his cat Polanski for company starts to wear on him.  To top it all off, he doesn’t feel well and his doctor diagnoses him with kidney failure.  Because of his illness he is forced to quit his beloved job and go to dialysis three times a week for five hours at a time.  Is this what will sink him below his Plimsoll Line?

One of the hardest parts of the book to read are the very detailed descriptions of Gabriel’s dialysis treatments.  He talks about insertion of tubes and machines and the cleansing of his blood through this process.  I was so uncomfortable when I was reading these passages that I almost skipped over them to spare myself from these graphic scenes.  But then I realized that Armendariz is providing for us the a realistic view of what it means to lose one’s precious grasp on health.  Our health and our well-being is never something we should take for granted.

In addition to Gabriel, the author also gives us different points-of-view throughout the story.  For instance, in order to describe Gabriel and his home the author puts us in the place of an invisible observer whom only the cat can see.  We walk through Gabriel’s house as  if we are getting a private tour of it’s décor, pictures and personal touches.  We are also given the point-of-view of the cat who knows that there is something not-quite-right about his owner who sleeps at strange hours and wanders around the house in his tattered bathrobe.  Polanski’s favorite pastime is keeping Gabriel’s garden free of mole’s.

The most intriguing and the lengthiest point-of-view we are given is Gabriel’s daughter who has been deceased for three years when the story begins.  Gabriel finds a diary that was hidden in the garden and was dug up when there was a tangle between Polanski and a mole.  A large part of the second half of the book includes these diary entries written by Laura.  As Gabriel reads her entries, which were recorded during the last few years of her life, he realizes that he didn’t know his daughter very well at all.  She had struggles, worries and concerns that were typical of a young woman on the verge of adulthood but his relationship with her only existed on the surface.  Laura’s diary also reveals a very shocking detail about her life about which Gabriel and his wife were completely unaware.  I haven’t read a book in a long time with such a shocking twist or revelation in the plot.

Finally, I would like to make one  more comment about the author’s writing style.  I’ve already mentioned the details he gives about Gabriel’s medical treatments, but this style of providing information about minutiae pervades the book.  At times the details seem cumbersome and make the narrative feel as though the author has strayed too far from his plotline.  For example, towards the end of the book Gabriel makes a decision not to commit suicide because he enjoys light too much.  The author goes on for several paragraphs about different types of light we experience.  I think he could have made the same point with fewer examples.

Overall, this is a great book for Spanish Lit month and I would recommend it just for the plot twist revealed in the diary entries.  But the remarkable resilience and strength of character we encounter in Gabriel makes it well-worth the read.

How is everyone else doing with the Spanish Lit month reading?

About the Author:
ArmendarizJuan Gracia Armendáriz (Pamplona, 1965) is a Spanish fiction writer and contributor to many Spanish newspapers. He has also been part-time professor at the Universidad Complutense of Madrid, and has many works of literary and documentary research. As a writer, he has published a book of poems, short stories, nonfiction books—biographical sketches and a historical story—and several novels. The Plimsoll Line is part of the “Trilogy of Illness”, formed by three separate books that reflect his experience as a person with kidney trouble. The novel was awarded the X Premio Tiflos de Novela 2008.

6 Comments

Filed under Literature in Translation, Spain, Spanish Literature, Summer Reading

Review: Soft in the Head by Marine-Sabine Roger

I received a review copy of this title from Pushkin Press via Netgalley.  The book was first published in the original German in 2008 and this English version has been translated by Frank Wynne.

My Review:
Soft in the HeadThis story is told in the first person by a forty-five year old man named Germain who describes himself as being “soft in the head.”  Germain tells us about his current circumstances and his life as well as his childhood and early years.  He vividly describes his experiences in primary school with his teacher, “The strong get off on walking all over other people, and wiping their feet while they’re at it, like you would on a doormat. This is what I learned from my years at school.  It was a hell of a lesson.  All that because of some bastard who didn’t like kids.  Or at least he didn’t like me.  Maybe my life would have been different if I’d had a different teacher.  Who knows?  I’m not saying it’s his fault I’m a moron, I’m pretty sure I was one even before that.  But he made my life a misery.”  I don’t include very many quotes in my reviews, but when I read this part of the book I had tears in my eyes and I felt like someone punched me in the stomach.

Germain has been treated like he is a worthless moron his whole life, not only by his cruel teacher, but also by his mother and some of the other kids at school.  Germain tells us that his mother get pregnant when she had a one time tryst with a much older man at a summer carnival.  Germain’s mother was labeled a “slut” and an outcast; she takes out her unwanted pregnancy on her poor son, Germain.  She is never affectionate, kind or motherly to him and she hits him at the slightest provocation.  Although Germain is very forthright about his mother’s treatment of him, he never uses her as an excuse for not accomplishing what he wants to do in life.

Germain does, indeed, carve out for himself a rather happy path in life.  He moves out to the caravan in his mother’s backyard so he doesn’t have to deal with her and argue with her everyday.  He feels autonomous and quite content living in a caravan even though it is rather small.  He spends his days tending his large, bounteous garden, visiting with his friends at the local pub, and spending time with his girlfriend, Annette.  One of his favorite daily activities is spending time in the local park where he counts the pigeons.  It is a chance meeting on one of these outings that has a profound impact on Germain’s life.

While on his usual visit to the park one day Germain meets a small and kind elderly woman named Margueritte.  As they start talking they realize that they both enjoy feeding and counting the pigeons.  Margueritte always has a book with her and one day she decides to start reading it outloud to Germain.  His bad experiences at school have made him hate and dread anything to do with reading.  But Margueritte’s book, The Plague, by Camus captivates Germain and it plants the seed of learning in him like nothing else has before.  Margueritte never treats Germain like a moron so he starts to gain some confidence by asking questions and discussing and reading more books with her.  Germain says, “When people are always cutting you down, you don’t get a chance to grow.”  It is Margueritte who serves at the compassionate and encouraging teacher that Germain has been yearning for all of his life.

This is a great read for those who love books about books.  Germain and Margueritte read several books together as they explore the world of literature.  Margueritte also gives Germain a dictionary which becomes his prize possession.  A good part of the story further describes Germain’s growth in other areas of his life.  His experiences with Margueritte have made him a more compassionate and confident friend and boyfriend.  This book serves as a reminder that each and every day we all have the capacity and the choice  to either cut someone down or build someone up.  I absolutely loved this book and was smitten with Germains story and for this reason I think it should be on everyone’s “must-read” summer book list.

About the Author and Translator:
Roger-Marie-Sabine-NB-Libre-de-droits-Cécile-Roger-copy-e1467216344165-1024x1024Born in Bordeaux in 1957, Marie-Sabine Roger has been writing books for both adults and children since 1989. Soft in the Head was made into a 2010 film, My Afternoons with Margueritte, directed by Jean Becker, starring Gerard Depardieu. Get Well Soon won the Prix des lecteurs de l’Express in 2012 and will be published by Pushkin Press in 2017.

Frank Wynne is an award-winning translator from French and Spanish. He has won the IMPAC Award, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the Scott Moncrieff Prize. He has translated a number of Spanish and Latin American authors, including Tomás Eloy Martínez, Isabel Allende, Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Tomás Gonzalez, whose In the Beginning Was the Sea is published by Pushkin Press .

9 Comments

Filed under France, German Literature, Summer Reading