Sunday, 9 September 2012

Showcase Sunday #10

Showcase Sunday is a weekly series hosted by Vicky at Books, Biscuits and Tea, allowing bloggers to share any books they've acquired recently.

I already posted about these two books in TTT this week, but here they are:

Fatherland by Robert Harris

Fatherland is set in an alternative world where Hitler has won the Second World War. It is April 1964 and one week before Hitler's 75th birthday. Xavier March, a detective of the Kriminalpolizei, is called out to investigate the discovery of a dead body in a lake near Berlin's most prestigious suburb.

As March discovers the identity of the body, he uncovers signs of a conspiracy that could go to the very top of the German Reich. And, with the Gestapo just one step behind, March, together with an American journalist, is caught up in a race to discover and reveal the truth -- a truth that has already killed, a truth that could topple governments, a truth that will change history.

Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

The year is 1803, and Darcy and Elizabeth have been married for six years. There are now two handsome and healthy sons in the nursery, Elizabeth's beloved sister Jane and her husband Bingley live nearby and the orderly world of Pemberley seems unassailable. But all this is threatened when, on the eve of the annual autumn ball, the guests are preparing to retire for the night when a chaise appears, rocking down the path from Pemberley's wild woodland. As it pulls up, Lydia Wickham - Elizabeth's younger, unreliable sister - stumbles out screaming that her husband has been murdered. Inspired by a lifelong passion for the work of Jane Austen, PD James masterfully recreates the world of Pride and Prejudice, and combines it with the excitement and suspense of a brilliantly-crafted crime story. Death Comes to Pemberley is a distinguished work of fiction, from one of the best-loved, most- read writers of our time.

Reviews posted this week:

The Group by Mary McCarthy (9/10)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (8.5/10)

Thanks for stopping by!

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Review: The Group, Mary McCarthy

The Group

Mary McCarthy

Virago, 2010 (1963)


The Group follows eight graduates from exclusive Vassar College as they find love and heartbreak, and choose careers and husbands against the backdrop of 1930s New York.

The Group follows the lives of a small group of college women in New York during the 1930s, beginning with the wedding of Kay Strong to a playwright, Harald Petersen, in a small impromptu ceremony that defies the traditions the other girls are used to. The book goes on to chart weddings, engagements, affairs, jobs and deaths as the decade progresses, dropping in on different members of the group at different points in time. In this way, the reader keeps up with the lives on the other women, which can be pieced together through peripheral appearances or the conversations of other characters. While Kay's story loosely structures the novel, each woman has her own thread, which is dropped and picked up again as the book progresses, as the group grows apart and come back together again, friendships changing and altering over time.

I thought The Group was excellent from start to finish. The gossiping and snide comments that go on at Kay's wedding is a great introduction to the women and the world they have been living in - social traditions, college customs (Kay, as the first girl in her class to announce her engagement, must run around the dining table at dinner), subtle class hierarchies between the women - and hints at the tone to come. The characters are well drawn, some more likable than others, but likability is not the issue here. These are often contradictory, sometimes confused women caught between tradition and modernity, expectations and reality, their own desires and the desires of others, whether husbands, lovers or parents.

The backdrop of the Depression and the emerging socialist and Communist political factions signals upheaval and change on a broader scale, but it is largely the personal upheaval and private decisions that make up the novel. It is change that Kay, Dottie, Lakey, Libby, Priss, Polly and the others are navigating as they try and forge their lives away from the halls of Vassar.

There is a definite theme of reality versus expectation, with joyous engagements leading to adultery, domestic violence and emotional abuse, grand jobs leading to drudgery and disappointment, 'nice' men who turn out to be monsters, and the men who just don't call. Motherhood is confusing and lonely rather than joyful. Though the book is rooted in the 1930s (and written in the 1960s), a lot of the issues remain recognisable. Is seeking out birth control sensible, or shameful? One of the women earns more than her husband - is she, then, emasculating him? Should new mothers be breast feeding or bottle feeding, and how should children be disciplined?

Throughout, the women remain central. Each takes a different path, and must deal with the good and the bad, often alone. This is a book about a group of friends, but not so much about friendship, other than as something that endures over time, even in absence (the final scenes are particularly touching in this regard, I thought). There are few day to day interactions between the women after they leave college, as each becomes isolated by her different circumstances and the men or careers they have chosen, away from their friends. The women gossip about each other, judging and disapproving in equal measure to the help and advice they offer, and in the end each is left to their own decisions and the consequences (or not) of their individual choices. I found The Group to be wonderfully written, sobering at times and quite melancholy in places, blackly funny in other places, and not without scenes that make you a little bit angry (to single one instance out, the scenes in the psychiatric hospital had me quite riled...). There is a certain warmth that cuts through the disillusion, and I was left wanting to know more about what happened to all the characters. Highly recommended!

Overall rating: 9/10

Book source: Borrowed from the library.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Top Ten Autumn Reads!

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's topic is: Top Ten Books on your Autumn TBR list.

Seeing as I bought new books yesterday, I thought I would join in. The problem with buying new books is then finding time to read the new books. For the last few weeks I have been picking things up off the pile of borrowed and charity-shop-bought books in my room, hence the lack of 'book haul' posts lately! But this week I have been in Brighton for a couple of days visiting The Boy, and not only do they have perhaps the best branch of Waterstones I know of (huge choice, lots of recommendations, and lots of floors!), but I found a neglected birthday gift card in my purse. Not only that, but a friend of mine recently wrote and published a short story, which is Kindle-only. I don't have a Kindle, but I got the Kindle app for my computer so I could read it, and that came with some free e-books. Now I just have to find the time to read them!

1. Pride & Prejudice - Jane Austen
This came free with the Kindle app and (SHOCK HORROR I KNOW) I have never read Pride & Prejudice, so I have dipped into the first few chapters and I am enjoying it so far. I don't like reading off my computer screen, so it might take me a while, but hopefully once I am finished it will make book #3 on this list more enjoyable!

2. Fatherland - Robert Harris
One of two new books I purchased yesterday. This is 20th anniversary edition, envisaging a world in which Hitler wasn't defeated in WWII. I like alternative history books (Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is one of my favourite ever books), and the bookseller who served me highly recommended it, so I'm excited to start this one!

3. Death Comes to Pemberley - P.D. James
Murder mystery involving the characters and setting of Pride & Prejudice. I have had my eye on this for a while, but having never read P&P wasn't sure if the novelty of it would be lost on me, much as I enjoy a good mystery.

4. Lola and the Boy Next Door - Stephanie Perkins
Because although I loved Anna, I still haven't read this. My city library doesn't hold any of Perkins' books, and I have been waiting for the paperback to be released. I might just have to re-read Anna in the meantime!

5. The Wee Free Men - Terry Pratchett
A book I borrowed a while ago from my friend's dad, which I really need to get round to reading! One of the Discworld series.

6. The Treasure Map of Boys - E. Lockhart
Ruby Oliver #3. If you've been reading for a while you may be aware of my love of the first two Ruby books, and this is the third in the series. I am eager to find out what happens with Ruby and the many, many boys she seems to have been accumulating. ;) (And yes, I totally have a favourite.)

7. Transparent - Natalie Whipple
I have been following Natalie's blog (and Twitter) for a couple of years now, ever since (I think) she posted on the Nanowrimo YA boards the same year that I was writing an MG/YA novel. She is also part of the Friday the Thirteeners blog, which I have been following since early this year. This is her first novel, and I'm super excited to read it!

8. Turn of Mind - Alice LaPlante
Another mystery, this time featuring a protagonist dealing with the onset of Alzheimer's who is suspected of murdering her best friend.

9. Down Under - Bill Bryson
I read Bryson's book documenting his travels in small town America earlier this year, and I really want to read some of his other books now. He's written more on America, and on the UK, but I like reading about places I've never been, and I'd really like to read his book about his travels in Australia.

10. Guitar Highway Rose - Brigid Lowry
I really enjoyed Follow the Blue earlier this year, and I've heard some great things about this book. I've had it on request from the library for a while now, so I'm hoping it makes an appearance soon!

What's on your list this week? Have you read any of these?

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Review: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding

Chad Harbach

Fourth Estate, 2012 (2011)

At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

Henry's fight against self-doubt threatens to ruin his future. College president Guert Affenlight, a longtime bachelor, has fallen unexpectedly and helplessly in love. Owen Dunne, Henry's gay roommate and teammate, becomes caught up in a dangerous affair. Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners' team captain and Henry's best friend, realizes he has guided Henry's career at the expense of his own. And Pella Affenlight, Guert's daughter, returns to Westish after escaping an ill-fated marriage, determined to start a new life.

As the season counts down to its climactic final game, these five are forced to confront their deepest hopes, anxieties, and secrets.

The Art of Fielding begins with a chance meeting between Mike Schwartz and Henry Skrimshander on a baseball field in Chicago. Henry plays for the losing side, a mediocre team from South Dakota, but Mike spots his unusual and brilliant talent as a shortstop, and engineers for Henry to enrol at Westish College, where Mike is a student, determined to nurture Henry's talent. The book begins with Henry's lonely first term, and gradually expands to include Mike, Owen (Henry's roommate), the college president, Guert Affenlight, and Guert's daughter Pella, all of whom are struggling with their own problems and trying to make sense of their lives in this tiny Wisconsin college town.

The Art of Fielding is primarily a college book, and stories of American college life rarely fail to pull me in. The mixture of small-town college life and baseball gives the book an almost mythic feel, isolating the characters from the rest of the world, both on and off the baseball field. The characters have all decamped from elsewhere - Henry from South Dakota, Mike from Chicago, Pella from a disastrous marriage in California - and settled in Westish, a place which appears to shelter them from the outside world. The inevitability of President Affenlight's secret being discovered late in the book is tempered by some degree of surprise that real life, with all its regulations and codes, has managed to intrude at all.

At the centre of the book in Henry and his rise as a major baseball talent, which later becomes marred by a near-crippling sense of self doubt. As a main character, Henry is something of an enigma. The reader rarely gets to see inside his head, and is left to read much of Henry through Mike. Furthermore, Henry is single-minded in his appreciation of baseball and his striving towards being the best shortstop he can possibly be. His whole life is structured around training and playing. Henry is difficult to fathom, and this distance becomes more pronounced as he begins to unravel, as his thought processes remain largely hidden. There is a sense of impending disaster, and yet nothing in the form of reassurance to counteract it.

The other characters offer more insight, particularly Mike and Pella. While Mike's life is gradually beginning to fall apart, Pella's is starting to be put back together. Pella's relationship with her father underpins much of the book, as the two learn to live with each other, or not, again. Though romantic relationships do develop in the book, the relationship between Pella and Guert, and more so Henry and Mike, form the nucleus of the novel, and it was interesting to see these dynamics played out.

While I have always had a fascination with baseball, and have seen a handful of live games when living in the U.S., I was a little bit concerned that the book would be heavy on games and terms that I couldn't understand. I found it reasonably easy to follow what was going on, however, and though there are a lot of games played in the book, I didn't find that it dominated to an irritating degree.

Though it was difficult to get a handle on Henry, I liked him as a character and was willing him to succeed the whole way through the book. I oscillated in the second half of the book between two likely endings, and which one I would prefer, but in the end it turned out a little differently to my expectations. Overall the book has quite a melancholy tone, and is reflective rather than action-packed, but I enjoyed the tone and the pace, and it fit well with the themes of discovery and recovery that are woven through the text. The unlikely band of characters at the centre of The Art of Fielding were all engaging and felt genuine enough that I cared what happened to them at the end. Highly recommended.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

Book source: Received as a gift from my dad.