Notes by Nectar

Your destiny lies in your own hands

20 books in 2013

For the last 2 years I’ve aimed to read 20 books a year. I almost made it in 2011 (I got to 19). I thought that once I moved to Dubai I’d have more time to read but in 2012 I read only 11.5 books (that’s not even one a month – pathetic).

This year, however, I’m pleased to say I’m well ahead of target – I’ve finished 13 books this year, six of those in June!

Fall Giants

I started Fall of Giants by Ken Follett late last year and finished it in January. I’ve been recommending it to anyone who wants book recommendations (along with Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End). This summer I’m going to read Winter of the World (once I finish my current book).

Brande

I then read Dorothea Brande’s Becoming a Writer. I read this many years ago, but thought it was time to re-read it. I’ve decided this will be the first book I read every year (so from now on I don’t think I’ll include it in my ’20 books a year’ goal).

Tan Twan Eng

I wanted to read The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng before going to the Emirates Literature Festival. He has become one of my favourite writers and I’m waiting for his next book! It was fantastic to meet him and I got him to sign my copy of the book along with The Gift of Rain.

Understudy

My cousin in London lent me her copy of The Understudy by David Nicholls while I was there earlier this year. I laughed out loud a lot – and a good laugh was just what I needed at that time.

Circus

In March/April, I read The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I enjoyed reading it at the time but when I look back at it a couple of months later, I don’t really remember much about it. Yes, the circus comes to town, it pops out of nowhere, people never age, there’s a weird challenge between magicians…

Monk

The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari by Robin Sharma was next. I’d heard about this book over the last few years and finally decided to read it. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed. I thought the message Sharma was trying to convey was great, but I felt it could have been presented in a different manner. As a writer (almost) I struggle with dialogue. The thought of writing an entire book based on a conversation between two people over one night would fill me with dread. I’m glad I read it, but it was a little disappointing.

Wonderland

I got several books for my birthday. One of them was Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. I started reading it, thinking it was set in the 2000s (if not later) and was surprised to find that it was originally published in 1985. The ideas in this man’s head astonish me. It’s a sci-fi mystery – with two stories being told at the same time in alternating chapters: a data processor recruited by a mad scientist who lives in a cave. The scientist and his granddaughter ask the man to help them avoid the end of the world. The other story is about a man arriving in a quiet village surrounded entirely by walls and fields where unicorns graze. This man is forced to leave his shadow outside the village walls where it will surely die on its own. Bizarre stuff but I loved reading it. I’m still not sure I get how the two stories are linked but I keep thinking about it.

And then came June. I’ve read a lot this month, partly because I’ve spent most of my weekends (and some weekdays!) by the pool with a book.

Gatsby

I was in two minds about seeing The Great Gatsby and knew I’d want to read it before I saw it. Can you imagine I’d never read it? After reading it I decided that I wouldn’t see the movie – some people have raved about it, some have said it has absolutely nothing to do with the book. Maybe I’ll watch it one day. ‘Gatsby’ fever has even hit my piano teacher – I’m learning ‘Young and Beautiful’ by Lana del Rey in my piano lessons!

Monkey Business

Another book I got for my birthday was Monkey Business by John Rolfe and Peter Troob. It’s not something I would have chosen to read but I think this friend wanted to introduce me to the world of finance (and then borrow the book!). I gave it a shot and was pleasantly surprised. I read the book in 5 days – I didn’t want to put it down. It did make me wonder why anyone would want to work in banking. I laughed out loud in parts. My favourite paragraph was this:

As the crowd continued to pour a river of liquor down its collective throat, the dance floor began to fill up. The spectacle that ensued was solid evidence that if there’s one thing that money can’t buy, it’s rhythm. When it comes to pure foolishness, a room full of drunk investment bankers prancing around a dance floor pushes the limits of the imagination. To this day I pray that it’s a sign the civilized world will never be forced to witness.

Hilarious!

Gone Girl

I did a short creative writing course in June, and in the first session the woman conducting the course said she had finished reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and couldn’t put it down. I’d bought it when I was in London in February and started reading it that weekend. She was right – it was a gripping story. Basically, a man’s wife goes missing on their 5th anniversary, there are signs of a struggle at their home, all the evidence points to him, but is he really a killer? I won’t ruin it for readers who haven’t read it, but I thought the end was a little disappointing but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

I read the next two books in the space of 3 days.

Headhunters

Headhunters by Jo Nesbo was an easy read. It’s about a man who’s Norway’s most successful headhunter but also an accomplished art thief. He’s introduced to a potential client who claims to own one of the most sought-after paintings in modern art history and he plans to steal it. I couldn’t put this down – I read it in 2 days. It’s very different from the Harry Hole series (The Snowman, The Leopard) but just as thrilling.

Dinner

I read The Dinner by Herman Koch in one afternoon by the pool. Two couples meet for dinner at a trendy Amsterdam restaurant to talk about their children. Each couple has a 15-year-old son – the two boys are united by a horrific act which was captured on camera, posted on YouTube, and has launched a police investigation. What starts out as a civilised evening soon disintegrates as each couple shows how far they’re willing to go to protect their children.

Hosseini

Two nights ago I finished reading And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. I bought it in Kinokuniya a few weeks ago (with two other books – I really should not be allowed in there!). It begins in a small village in Afghanistan in the early 1950s. Abdullah and his sister Pari are children from their father’s first marriage and they have a very close bond. One day their father takes them to Kabul – they have no idea that their lives will be torn apart, never to be the same. The novel takes the readers through generations and continents – Kabul, Paris, San Francisco, the Greek island of Tinos – up to the present day. Family bonds, sacrifices, choices – it’s all here. It’s a great read, but I didn’t think it was as good as A Thousand Splendid Suns.

So, that’s where I am! I’ve just started reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. I’m slowly working my way through my unread books…

I’m sure the website goodreads.com isn’t new to most of you – I’ve been using it for a few years. I recently downloaded their Android app though – and it’s fantastic. It has a barcode scanner so you can just scan the barcode of the book you’re reading (or want to read) and it brings up the details of the book. No more searching for authors/titles/editions!

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Review: The Other Hand

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I’d never heard of this book or its author, Chris Cleave. I was in the bookshop at Dubai Airport in April, waiting for my mum and grandmother to come out of Customs, and I saw this. I read the blurb on the back. It told me nothing

We don’t want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don’t want to spoil it. Nevertheless, you need to know enough to buy it so we will just say this: This is the story of two women. Their lives collide one fateful day, and one of them has to make a terrible choice. Two years later, they meet again – the story starts there… 

Intriguing. 

I don’t think knowing a little about what the book was about would have ruined it for me. It wouldn’t have stopped me from buying it. Anyway, it’s about two women: one is a Nigerian refugee in the UK, the other is an editor for a popular magazine. It’s about the day they met, and how their meeting changed their lives. 

I was hooked from the beginning. I started reading it by the pool and before I knew it, I’d read one-third of it. I read the whole book in four sittings. I didn’t want to put it down because I had no idea what was going to happen next. It has so far been the best book I’ve read in 2012 and it will haunt me for some time to come.

And that’s seven of 20 books I intend to read in 2012. And because I bought it this year it doesn’t count towards my Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

 

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Review: The Sandglass

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I’d mentioned in an earlier post that I went to a session at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and Romesh Gunesekera was on the panel of writers. I’d read Monkfish Moon back in 2004 and had thoroughly enjoyed it. The Sandglass sat on my bookshelf for 7 years, and seeing Gunesekera at the festival reminded me that I needed to read it. And it would count towards the 12 books in my Mount TBR Reading Challenge.

I have to say I was disappointed with the book. It tells the tale of two feuding (but yet intertwined) families in Sri Lanka from the 1930s to the 1950s, through the eyes of Chip, the narrator, when he visits Sri Lanka in the late 1990s. He reminisces about the year before, when he discussed past events with Prins, who had arrived in London for his mother’s funeral. Their conversations take place over 1 day.

The story moves between contemporary London and Sri Lanka of the past, reminding me of The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love by Oscar Hijuelos, where Cesar Castillo spends his last hours thinking about his life. 

Even though I found the constant jumping between periods of time confusing, the author uses words beautifully:

Outside, the silence of freshly fallen snow pressed against the window panes; there was no traffic to be heard on the roads. This was silence like the dream of heaven. I began to realise how wrong all those composers were who heaped scales upon scales in their vain attempts to capture the grandeur of heaven: what they really needed to do was to stop. To hold their breath and try to imagine a stilled heart and the peace that can only come from the absence of conflict, of abrasion, of friction, of sound itself. No wonder we never hear the angels on our shoulders: they do not speak. They melt at the prospect of sound, perhaps even prayer. Heaven is not music: heaven, if anything, must be silence. The stillness of the centre, the eye of a storm whirling across the universe. An unveiling mind.  

I could hear the author’s voice in my head when I read that paragraph.

Was I expecting too much from the book? Have my reading tastes changed over the last 7 years? I don’t know, but I’m thinking of re-reading Monkfish Moon and trying to figure it out.

And that’s number five in my 20 books in 2012 challenge!

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Review: The Hunger Games

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I downloaded this to my Kindle late last year (so it counts towards the Mount TBR Reading Challenge). I met someone at a wedding in December and we started talking about books – she said she couldn’t put this one down. I was in the middle of a couple of other books, and it took me about two months to get through the first book in the Game of Thrones series, so I didn’t pick this up until mid-March.

I started it on a Friday and finished it on Saturday. I couldn’t put it down. I took it down to the pool on the Saturday and read in peace. I came back upstairs, got into bed (at 5pm) and continued reading until I’d finished it. 

The book is set in a future where the United States no longer exists. Instead it is the nation of Panem, consisting of 12 districts, all governed by the Capitol (somewhere in the Rockies). Each year, one boy and one girl are chosen from each district and taken to the Capitol, where they have to participate in the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games is a live TV show where the contestants fight to the death. There can only be one winner. 

The story is told from the perspective of the main character, Katniss Everdeen, who is from poverty-stricken District 12. She volunteers for the Hunger Games when her 12-year-old sister’s name is called out during the Reaping (the process of selecting the boy and girl). She and Peeta (the male contestant from District 12) are taken to the Capitol and given make-overs and advice on how to survive this game (‘Don’t get killed’). And then they’re let loose in the arena. Carnage ensues, and it is a little predictable, but it’s a gripping, easy read. 

I usually never watch a movie if I’ve read the book. Film adaptations never live up to the book and I end up disappointed and irritated. But I had a feeling this would be a fantastic movie so I went to see it. Did it live up to the hype? And was it as good as the book? Well, the simple answers are ‘No’ and ‘No’. While the book is fast-paced, I thought the movie dragged in places. So much of the history and detail in the book is lost when transferred to film. I came out of that movie 2.5 hours later wishing I hadn’t bothered to see it.

 

So do yourself a favour: read the book, don’t see the movie!

 

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Review: Starter for Ten

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I read One Day by David Nicholls in the first half of 2011 and thoroughly enjoyed it (apart from the end). Before I left for Dubai a friend told me she was reading Starter for Ten by the same author and that it was hilarious. I’d already started reading Game of Thrones but needed to swap it for something light and easy so I could hit my 20 books in 2011 (which I missed by one book). I didn’t know it was published in 2003 and I didn’t know it was already a movie.

I was laughing from the very beginning of the book. It’s 1985 and Brian is a working-class Essex boy who starts his first term at university. He’s obsessed with Kate Bush, a student called Alice, and getting on University Challenge (which is where the title of the novel comes from). Brian is such a nerd and so socially awkward that he finds himself in the most ridiculous situations, saying the most cringe-worthy things. For example:

“‘Well…’ says Alice ‘…we had some friends round, like we always do on Boxing Day, and we were playing charades, and it was my turn, and I was trying to do ‘Last Year At Marienbad’ for Mummy, and she was getting so frantic and over-excited, and shouting so hard, that her cap popped out and landed right in our next-door neighbour’s glass of wine!’ 
And everyone’s laughing, even Mr Harbinson, and the atmosphere is so funny and adult and amusing and irreverent that I say, ‘You mean you weren’t wearing any underwear?!?’ 
Everyone is silent. 
‘I’m sorry?’ asks Rose. 
‘Your cap. When it popped out. How did it get past your… underpants?’ 
Mr Harbinson puts down his knife and fork, swallows his mouthful, turns to me and says, very slowly, ‘Actually, Brian, I think Alice was referring to her mother’s dental cap.'”

Mortifying, isn’t it? It’s one situation after the other and I laughed all the way through. Yes, Brian is annoying at times – but nobody’s perfect. Are they? 

I thought One Day was better written, more refined, but this was much funnier. The Understudy is definitely going to be on my list for 2012. And… I’ve just bought a ticket to see David Nicholls at the Emirates Festival of Literature in March, here in Dubai!

Anyway, that’s the first of my 20 books in 2012! I think my next review might be a few weeks away. I need to start reading more! At this rate I won’t even get to 10 books in 2012. I’ve gone back to reading Game of Thrones which is taking me forever (but then I do only read one chapter each night).  

 

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Review: Life and Laughing

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At the beginning of 2011, a friend introduced me to Michael McIntyre. Not to him personally, but to his comedy. Of course I’d heard of him but I’d never sat down and watched his shows. She lent me two DVDs which I’m ashamed to say I kept for ages. Not because I was watching them over and over again, but because I hadn’t got round to watching them at all!

Towards the end of my week off in February, I decided I was going to watch them. I was laughing out loud. At home. Alone. 

A few months later the same friend recommended his autobiography. I’m not a huge fan of autobiographies and usually give up one-third of the way through when reading them, if I get that far at all. I also had a long list of other books I wanted to get through first!

Later in the year, another friend said he had read Life and Laughing and said it was hilarious. This is someone who had never heard of Michael McIntyre until I‘d told him about him – on the same day I watched the DVD, in fact! Yes, I’ll get to it eventually, I thought.

I was at Heathrow on Christmas Eve, waiting for my flight to Dubai. My Kindle on my iPad was fully stocked, but I didn’t feel like reading anything on it. I went to WHSmith, found Michael McIntyre’s book, and started reading it on the plane.

I was laughing from page 1, when he describes choosing his writing space and whether he should get a swivel chair or not. I think all writers put off writing for as long as possible, waiting for those perfect conditions that never exist. I could relate. I kept reading. I read almost half the book on the plane (I stopped at the sad part when I could feel my eyes tearing up) and finished it in a couple of days after landing in Dubai.

If you like Michael McIntyre, and even if you don’t, this is a must-read. Apparently it’s suitable for all ages:

2012
2012

It was my 19th book in 2011, and the last. I didn’t make it to 20, but I hope to in 2012!

 

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Review: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost two years. I’d been meaning to read it but hadn’t got round to it yet. When I was sorting out my books for Dubai – what would be shipped or given away – I found this behind some other books and thought it might be better not to send it in the container with all the other stuff. I’d been told that any ‘inappropriate’ books would be confiscated by customs and I didn’t want to take a chance…

This Sunday was the first Sunday in about six months where I had nothing planned. No yoga, no parents in town to have lunch with, and I wasn’t sure what to do. Being one of three books in my bookcase (I’d read the other two), I picked it up and headed to Raoul’s. I ordered my eggs and coffee and started reading.

The main character Changez is telling his story to an American stranger in Lahore. The entire story is told from Changez’s point of view – a monologue. He tells the American how he gets to America, goes to Princeton, falls in love with an American woman, gets a competitive job as an analyst, and then 9/11 happens. His relationship falls apart, he’s disillusioned with the way he’s being treated in the US, his work suffers and he decides to quit, knowing that his work visa will expire and he’ll have to return to Pakistan.

The book was so good I was almost halfway through it by the time I was done at Raoul’s – it’s not a very long book and it’s easy to read. I found the second half disappointing, though, and I hated the end. It ends abruptly and ambiguously, leaving the reader to decide for him/herself what happens. Perhaps I’m a lazy reader who likes/needs to be told the whole story, rather than having to use my brain to imagine what happens next. But isn’t that the writer’s responsibility to his or her reader?

I’m glad I read the book. I’m glad it only took me one day to read. But I wish the end had been different.

And that’s 18 of my 20 books in 2011! There’s just over six weeks left of 2011 and I’m not sure I’m going to achieve my goal… 

 

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Review: Cut Short

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The day after I’d finished reading Interpreters, I was meeting a friend at the O2 centre on Finchley Road. I was a few minutes early so I thought I’d browse in Waterstones. ‘I’m not going to buy anything,’ I told myself. Sure. Even I didn’t believe that. Ooh, there’s a new Jo Nesbo book out! Walk away, I told myself. Just walk away.

So there I was, walking away, when this woman came up to me and quietly asked, ‘Excuse me? Can I interest you in some of my books?’ I said she could and followed her to a stand where her books were displayed. I love finding new authors to read, especially when I haven’t decided what to read next…

Leigh Russell is a crime writer – her main character in Cut Short is DI Geraldine Steel. The blurb on the back cover likens her writing to Ruth Rendell, Lynda La Plante, Frances Fyfield and Barbara Vine, but that didn’t really help me as I’ve never read any of their work. ‘I told myself I wasn’t going to buy anything today,’ I told her. ‘Yes, but it’s important to keep bookshops in business.’ Yes, that’s true. Although I’m not entirely sure Waterstones needed my £6.99. ‘And ‘I’ll sign your copy for you,’ she added. Sold! To the sucker in the leather jacket!

I started reading the book that night – and was hooked.

DI Geraldine Steel moves to a new home after the break-up of her six-year relationship – she expects her new town to be quiet. But of course it’s not, because what a dull book that would be. Instead, two women are killed in the park and DI Steel and her new team have to find the killer before he strikes again. The reader knows early on who the killer is, and what he’s thinking – which I found interesting (and a little creepy). There are some interesting peripheral characters who seem irrelevant to the main plot – but this becomes clearer towards the end of the novel.

The chapters are short, which make for easy reading. It’s not the best crime novel I’ve ever read but I would read the next one to see how Geraldine Steel’s character evolves.

And that’s 17 of my 20 books in 2011!

 

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Review: Interpreters

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I’ve met Sue Eckstein a few times as she’s the editor of one of our journals. I didn’t even know she was a writer until one of my colleagues mentioned that her first novel, The Cloths of Heaven, was being published (back in 2009). I was surprised that it was a dark comedy set in West Africa in the 1990s – having grown up in Nigeria I was intrigued and bought a copy (which Sue signed when she popped into the office)… 

When I heard her second book was out, I bought it expecting it to be similar to the first (well, you do, don’t you?) but it couldn’t be more different. If I didn’t know any better, I wouldn’t even think they were written by the same person. 

Interpreters is about the lives of two women: their secrets, lies, and all the things that go unspoken within families. It shows how you could be someone’s mother or daughter or grandmother and not really know the other person at all.

The chapters alternate between two characters. Julia is the main protagonist and is visiting her childhood home on an estate. While she’s there she starts remembering various events from her childhood. The second woman is a nameless character – her story is written as the transcript of an interview. She tells the story of a displaced family during World War II and her experiences during and after the war. It wasn’t until very close to the end that I realised what the link between the two characters was…

I loved the book. I didn’t want to put it down – I read it in four days. And I can’t wait for Sue’s next novel!

That’s 16 of my 20 books in 2011! Four to go…

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Review: The Help

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I’d been hearing about The Help by Kathryn Stockett for a while and intended to read it eventually, but when I saw a trailer for the movie at the cinema I thought I’d better get a move on. And I’m so glad I did.

It is the early 1960s, Skeeter is 22 years old and has returned home to racially conflicted Mississippi after graduating college. Her closest friends are married with children and her mother keeps urging (and by that I mean ‘nagging’) her to head in the same direction. But Skeeter wants to be a journalist – she’s the editor of the Women’s League newsletter and writes a housekeeping column for the local newspaper. Like many people of that time, she was brought up by a black maid called Constantine who she felt closer to than her real mother and even while she was at college, the two would exchange letters frequently. Then Constantine disappears without a word. Skeeter knows her mother has something to do with it, but when she broaches the subject her mother won’t talk about it. And none of the other maids will either.

Aibileen and Minny are friends and both are black maids. Aibileen is a wise woman, usually the voice of reason, raising her 17th white child. Minny is unpredictable and her hot temper has cost her several jobs.

These three extraordinary women come together and risk everything to write a book about black women working for white families. Because of the racial tension at the time, the three of them need to have clandestine meetings and constantly fear discovery. There are tales of hate, mistrust and abuse, but there are good ones too – about love, support, respect.

The author has been criticised for turning serious issues such as racism and the civil rights movement into light reading. But doesn’t this make the novel more accessible and make more people want to read it? Isn’t that the whole point of writing it?

It is surprising, funny, sad and engrossing – everything you could want from a book – and this one is going to stay with me for a long time… 

I need to read five more books this year if I’m going to achieve my goal of 20 books in 2011

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