Friday 3 February 2017

January 2017- Books of the Month and General Round-Up

I spent half of this month on my annual skiing holiday, so my reading had something of a holiday theme. While I am away I always manage to get a fair few books under my belt, but this time I didn't seem to be in much of a 'steam on through' mood. I think a lot of this was down to the large numbers of rather plump Russians who seemed to want to use the hotel's spa at the exact same time as my husband and I headed on down there. It is a little difficult to get comfortable chilling out in the hotel's hot tub or sauna with a book if you are being squeezed up against lots of stranger flesh.... not the most relaxing of atmospheres. In the end we decided to cede the victory to the Russians and stopped using the spa at all. Our aching post-ski muscles had to make do with a hot shower and wee lie down instead. So I did manage to get some reading in, just also found myself slipping off to sleep quite a bit, thus cutting down on my reading time.
We were skiing in the South Tyrol/Alto Adige region; a contested area that has swapped between Italian and Austrian control for centuries. I had failed in tracking down any novels set in the region, although since I have read one and acquired a couple more. (See my Feb. update I am sure) I did take one book set in the mountains, The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain. This was the book of the month for work, and I wanted to like it. I am afraid that the setting did not save it though. I HATED it! Firstly it is a bloody depressing book; hateful parenting, mismatched marriages, unrequited (and largely unacknowledged) love, personal failure, childhood abuse (sexual and emotional), tb, parental death, cancer, mental illness oh and a wee dash of holocaust related issues make for a cheering mix. So probably not best to sell this to anyone wanting a charming Swiss idyll. Despite the high levels of depression I still found the writing to be rather twee at times, like Heidi with added misery (if that is possible) perhaps. Much of the dialogue seems slightly ridiculous tbh, I can't believe that people anywhere have every spoken to each other like this. Occasionally there is a burst of believable dialogue but this is rare. Secondly the characters themselves; highly unsympathetic in the main would be my polite way of putting it. Gustav, following his quite appalling upbringing, is stilted and uptight beyond every possible stereotype of an uptight Swiss hotelier; the love of his life, Anton is a mildly hysterical and rather irritating little twerp who speaks and acts without any thought for the feelings of anyone around him. Among the other characters you can expect stilted conversation interspersed with the odd rather graphic incident of enemas being given to old women in sheds, old ladies making inappropriate advances on the children of their former lovers and a fair bit of discussion of masturbation (mainly among the older cast members of this little tale.) The setting is firmly in provincial Switzerland, with just a brief interlude in Paris which came as something of a relief but also led to some awkward sexual propositions.
So who should read it? Well it is possible to link it to A Whole Life, they overlap slightly historically, and the rural Tyrol isn't a million miles away from provincial Switzerland, however the writing and the story do not have the beauty or the delicacy of Seethaler, Imo. The theme of maintaining neutrality, literally being like Switzerland, is hammered home and I found it rather repellent if I am honest. Edna O'Brien readers might appreciate the small town setting, the graphic (rather pointless sexual scenes), and the general high levels of depression. So there it is.... not sure if you can tell but I am not a big fan of this book, certainly not up to the previous standard of earlier novels by Tremain imo.
Certainly it was not for me. 

So Gustav was by reading low for the month... and wow was it a big ol'low, the reading equivalent of falling off a chairlift and getting your skis in a tangle. ;)
That was my low, what was my high? I finally finished the Cormoran Strike books by Galbraith/Rowling. I had held off reading these for so long, refusing to be drawn into adult Rowling novels. Then in January I was looking for a new audio book for my long commute to and from work and bit the bullet, downloading Cuckoo's Calling. I loved it. It's not high literature, some of the descriptive passages are a little too long and I can see that it may not date terribly well, but it was a very enjoyable book to listen to and had some great characters. Cuckoo was certainly good enough for me to download books two and three for my holiday. Robert Glenister is a brilliant narrator for the stories and they make wonderful travel listening. 
My main highlights for January were The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley and At Home by Bill Bryson.
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is simply delightful. It took a wee while for me to get going with it, but once I did it was just a delight. For me the start had a little too much 'timey-wimey' stuff going on; I was genuinely confused about why we kept flipping into the past and to Japan of the Shogunate. There is a genuinely strong female character, in the form of Grace Carrow although I was a little disappointed and in fact confused by her character arc if I am honest.The whole thing is delightfully quirky and beautifully put together. If nothing else it is worth reading just to meet Katsu the Octopus. The relationship between Thaniel and Mori is lovely and beautifully portrayed, and the story also contains one of the most horrible moments of passive aggressive petty vindictiveness I have come across in a good while. It isn't often that you come across a same-sex, inter-racial Victorian romance in a novel, much less in a novel that also contains a gorgeous robotic cephalopod. Oh and did I mention that the book is a thing of steam punk beauty? Because it really is! 
At Home by Bill Bryson is a look at domestic history of the past two hundred years or so. As usual Bryson takes an unusual approach to his fact filled history. Using his Norfolk parsonage home as a launch pad, he examines the history of domestic life room by room. Everything from the condiments  our tables to the pipes that remove our waste is looked at in glorious and highly entertaining detail. It is no secret that I am a big Bryson fan and I found this book to be as inexhaustibly entertaining, funny and informative as ever. I think I only have one of his books left to read now, as I read his brilliantly amusing history of Shakespeare in January as well. Part of me wants to keep America 1927 until I know Bryson has something else coming up.... we will see.
As I was away for half the month I didn't buy many new books, a thing for which my groaning bookshelves are probably grateful for. I did pick up a very cute little cookbook La Cucina nelle Dolomiti by Anneliese Kompatscher brilliantly this cookbook is written in both Italian and German, so if nothing else it will be great for language practise. There are some great recipes for soups and puddings and it should prove interesting to try some of them out.