Wild – Cheryl Strayed

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wild

For me, one of the best things about going on holiday – indeed, one of the main reasons I like nothing more than spending a week in the sun – is the ample time it gives me to read. Often the bulk of my luggage comes from books, and when packing for eight days in the South of France with two of my best friends, I took no less than five books, hoping to get through at least four while away.

The first one I began was Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir of an eleven-hundred mile trek Strayed made across the Pacific Crest Trail following the death of her mother, and her consequential divorce. I very rarely read non-fiction, the only two in recent memory being books on running that resulting in my partaking in the London Marathon earlier this year; however the blurb of Wild sounded compelling – and so I began.

The book begins with Strayed witnessing her forty-five year old mother dying, as cancer takes hold of her body. Her two siblings are largely absent during her mother’s illness and so Strayed and her step-father Eddie keep watch over her mother in her dying days.

Stricken with grief after having missed her final chance to say goodbye, Strayed struggles to cope with her loss and her marriage soon breakdowns following a series of infidelities behind her wonderful husband’s back. She then begins a relationship with another man, with whom she experiments with heroin and it is during this period of self-destruction that Strayed decides to embark on a redemptive journey hiking the epic PCT trail which stretches from Mexico to Canada through California, Washington and Oregon.

A novice hiker, Strayed encountered a number of extremes during the three months it took to hike eleven-hundred miles of the trail; from searing temperatures, to record snow falls, rattlesnakes, mountain bears and a back pack aptly named ‘The Monster’ that weighed almost as much as she did. We witness the transformation of her body as it acclimatises to the varying conditions of her journey, sympathise with her loneliness as she goes days without hearing her own voice, and we share her joy as she reaches the hiking stops along the trail and can finally indulge in a shower and proper food – having gone without either for days.

Most importantly of all, we see the redemptive power of nature, as the scars from the harrowing death of her mother and her heartbreaking divorce slowly begin to heal.

Beautifully written and evocative, Wild is a poignant, awe-inspiring read that shows how one rather extraordinary woman dealt with very real and very raw grief. I will treasure this book, and the journey on which it took me, for a long time to come.

 

 

 

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

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Shantaram

Shantaram is one of those books that I’ve meant to read for years. I don’t remember when I first heard about it, simply that it’s been recommended to me a number of times, particularly since starting my blog. Yet, up until recently, it remained on my shelf, gathering dust like my hundred-or-so other unread novels, while I patiently waited for the perfect time to begin this novel of epic proportion

It was only when I was a hundred pages into a novel that I wasn’t really enjoying that I finally decided to begin Shantaram, a fact for which I will forever be thankful. At 944 pages, Shantaram is  by no means a quick read – certainly its size was the main factor for my reluctance to begin it. However, I needn’t have worried; from the first page in I was hooked.
There’s been much debate over where the boundaries lie between fact or fiction. Indeed it’s a matter of public record that, as depicted in the tale, its author, Gregory David Roberts escaped from Melbourne jail and then spent a number of years in India – many of which in a slum – before being caught smuggling heroin in Germany, and extradited to Australia, where he carried out the rest of his sentence. It was while in jail after the alleged events of Shantaram, that Roberts wrote this book, though twice the manuscript was destroyed by prison guards. Roberts has maintained that Shantaram is a work of fiction, though has certainly implied that much of the events that lie within the novel were heavily influenced by his experience in the Bombay underworld.
The tale follows Roberts from his escape from a high-security Melbourne jail to the slums of Bombay where he sets up a medical centre and befriends the locals, impressing them with his knowledge of their language. Perhaps the most memorable character Roberts meets during his time in India is Prabaktar, who is described with such love and such flair, that it’s almost impossible to believe that he wasn’t based on one of the many slum dwellers that Roberts would have come to know and cherish.
A fusion of both memoir and travel writing, much of Shantaram reads like a thriller as Roberts’ propensity for getting into numerous dangerous situations becomes apparent. The prose is poetic and vivid, and Roberts depicts the slums of Bombay and his time in India as a whole in wonderful juxtapositions as we witness the enormous highs and the all-consuming lows Roberts experiences on his Indian adventure.
Whether fact or fiction, truth or tale, Shantaram is a novel that will stay with its reader for many, many years after the final page is finished. Beautiful, heart-breaking and wild, it is epic in every sense of the word.

The Wrong Knickers – Bryony Gordon

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TWK

Readers of The Telegraph won’t need an introduction to Bryony Gordon, author of The Wrong Knickers: A Decade of Chaos. One of The Telegraph’s better-known journalists, Bryony is perhaps best known for her column in Stella – previously called Girl About Town, now that she’s happily married and mother to Edie, her column changed accordingly to Settled At Last.

A memoir of single life in London in her twenties, The Wrong Knickers is essentially a coming of age tale that dispels the often glamourised misconception of what life is like for the single girl about town.
 
We witness Gordon as she struggles with grotty flat-shares, experiments with drugs, and indulges in a number of flings with inappropriate men in her desperate search for a boyfriend. Such experiences are recalled in a delightfully honest account that has the reader rooting for the hugely sympathetic Gordon until the very last page.
 
Honest, humorous and at times horrific, The Wrong Knickers is a wonderfully refreshing read that I devoured with relish and have been pushing into friends hands ever since.

 

My Sallinger Year – Joanna Rakoff

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MSY
Many years ago, as a graduate fresh out of university, I had to make the tricky decision of choosing between doing a masters degree – for which I had won a scholarship – or interning at various publishing houses until I was offered a job. After much deliberation I chose the latter option, and thus begun several months of interning; for Bloomsbury, for Penguin and finally for Midas – an experience that certainly whet my appetite for an industry in which I now work.
 
Thus it was with great interest that I began My Sallinger Year – a memoir about literary New York in the 1990s by Joanna Rakoff, who after graduating from University worked as an assistant to the literary agent for JD Sallinger.
 
Much of the book resonated with my experience of working in publishing in my early twenties – the joy of being in an office surrounded by books; the esteem with which you hold your more learned colleagues, and the utter awe that washes over you when you meet an author for the first time.
 
Rakoff’s memoir is as much about the transition from student life to working life as it is about her time spent in publishing, and is a wonderfully charming tale that is both poignant and nostalgic.

Before We Met – Lucie Whitehouse

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Shortly after I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History – one of the more contemporary novels to make the BBC’s Big Read – I was recommended The House at Midnight by Lucie Whitehouse. Not too dissimilar to The Secret History, The House at Midnight told the tale of a group of graduates who spent a heady summer at a country pile in Oxford, and to this day it remains one of my very favourite books.

Shortly after, I read Whitehouse’s second novel – The Bed I Made, but it would be another four years before she was to publish her third – Before We Met. Much like her first two books, Before We Met immediately enthrals its readers as we meet newly-wed Hannah, waiting for her husband Mark at Heathrow as he fails to return from a business trip in New York.

When Mark attempts to explain his absence, a not-entirely convinced Hannah reluctantly starts digging into Mark’s hugely successful business only to discover numerous discrepancies which make her question his past and the secrets he may be hiding.

The pacing of the novel is taught throughout, and Whitehouse expertly keeps her reader in the midst of the action as the mystery of the tale begins to unfold. Well written and face-paced with an intriguing love story at its core, Before We Met is the perfect kind of thriller – and certainly the type to be devoured in one sitting.

The Lowland – Jhumpa Lahiri

The Lowland

Many years ago, when on a gap year before starting university, I travelled around India. My time there was something of a rollercoaster – extreme highs were followed by extreme lows – but almost a decade later the country still holds a very dear place in my heart.

Despite spending some time in India it’s a country that still fascinates me, and thus I adore reading books set in this foreign land. Until the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their shortlist, Jhumpa Lahiri is not an author I had previously come across and it was through deciding to read the six shortlisted books that I was to read The Lowland.

Also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, The Lowland tells the story of two brothers – Subhash and Udayan, who grew up on the suburban streets of Calcutta. Inseperable as children, as they reach adulthood the brothers’ lives take very different paths. Udayan becomes involved in the communist movement sweeping West bengal, while Subhash moves to Rhode Island to study for a PHD, never to return to live in his native country.

A melancholy tale, The Lowland is written beautifully and is an exquisite exploration of how decisions – both big and small – can ultimately change one’s life.

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

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BRAs a frustrated writer myself, I’m always hugely envious when I read debuts as accomplished as Hannah Kent’s – especially given we’re the same age. Set in northern Iceland in 1929, Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir who is condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of her lover. Ahead of her execution she is sent to a remote farm belonging to the Jonsson family where she is to spend her final days. While staying on the farm she is visited by Reverend Thorvardur Jonsonn (Toti), a young priest who has been appointed to help her to prepare to meet her maker. 

Initially both the priest and the Jonsson family have reservations about their involvement with the murderess, but Agnes soon gains their trust and through her meetings with Toti the reader learns the sequence of events that led to the alleged murder and it soon becomes clear that all is not as it first seemed.

Burial Rites is full of beautiful prose and Hannah’s writing is evocative of the remote Icelandic landscape in which the book is set. With a haunting plot and wonderfully written characters I don’t doubt that the judges of this year’s Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction have a tough job ahead of them in selecting their winner.

 

 

 

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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AmericanahI first came across Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie over a decade ago when I read her debut novel Purple Hibiscus. I soon went on to read the heart-breaking Half of a Yellow Sun a couple of years later. Adichie is a powerful, informative writer and when writing my dissertation on black women writers i reread both of these books in quick succession.

Thus it was a rather long eight years before Americanah was published, however, as is often the case, the wait was certainly worth it. Unlike both Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun – which were set in post-colonial Nigeria and during the Nigerian-Biafran war respectively, Americanah’s opening scene is a summer’s day in Princeton.

The central character of the tale is Ifemelu, and the story intersperses between her childhood and adolescence that was spent in Nigeria – much of it with her childhood sweetheart Obinze – and her time in America where she spent several years as an ex-pat studying, working and falling in love, before returning to her home town.

As teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze were inseparable – and when Ifemelu moves to America to study, Obinze vows to follow her. However, fate is not kind to Obinze and Americanah highlights a stark contrast between the haves and the have-nots as the story follows them both as they embark upon their new lives overseas.

Americanah is a beautifully written book. from an author who has brought something fresh to African fiction. For me, the most fascinating aspect of the novel was the political observation of race in America. From relaxing afro hair, to hostility against interracial relationships, to the huge impact Obama’s election had on black people across not only the US but the world at large, Americanah gives its readers an insight into a world where racial prejudice is still at large.

The perfect combination of poetic prose and politics with a love story at its core, Americanah is a truly brilliant book and has reinvigorated my love for African literature.

On Writing – Stephen King

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OW
As both an aspiring writer and an avid reader, I face constant battle over whether to dedicate the little spare time that I have to either reading or writing. That much of the past few months were spent training for the London Marathon has left precious little time for me to indulge in two of my favourite hobbies and consequently the writing of my own novel has, once more, been put on the back burner.

In a bid to get back on track with my own writing I borrowed On Writing by Stephen King – a book that has been praised by Caitlin Moran and recommended by a number of writers – both aspiring and published. Part memoir, part manual,  On Writing looks back on King’s experiences as a writer – both good and bad – as he attempts to advise his readers ways in which they can hone and perfect their own writing ability.

I’ve never read any of King’s novels, but On Writing certainly made for a compelling read – the memories of his early years offered a wonderful insight into what made one of the world’s most successful authors. He is honest without being patronising and creates a ‘writer’s toolkit’ for his readers – one that comprises of a reading list, writing assignments, and basic advice on plot, characterisation, the basic building block of the paragraph and literary models.

It’s easy to see why On Writing is often hailed as a bible for budding writers and it has certainly given me some food for thought on ways in which I can improve my own.

The Bear – Claire Cameron

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The Bear

As readers of my blog will know, I’m something of an avid reader. On the whole, I tend to read more novels written by women than men, though this is by no means a deliberate choice. Thus when the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction announced their longlist just over a month ago, I was surprised to discover I had read just one of the chosen titles – The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.

For me, the best thing about a new list of books is the opportunity to discover writers you otherwise wouldn’t have read. Much like my endeavour to read my way through the BBC’s Big Read – a challenge that has meant I’ve read a number of books previously not on my radar – the Baileys Prize longlist has brought a number of new authors into the limelight.

And while I don’t imagine I’ll be able to come even close to finishing the 20 longlisted books ahead of the winner’s announcement in June, I will certainly use the opportunity to discover some books I’m yet to read.

Since I’ve been training for the London Marathon, my reading time has been culled; consequently I decided to begin with The Bear by Claire Coleman, one of the shorter books on the list. Inspired by the death of a couple who were killed by a bear when camping at Algonquin Park in 1991, The Bear is narrated by five-year-old Anna who finds herself alone with her brother – two year old Stick – in the Canadian wilderness after a bear attacks her parents in the middle of the night.

As adult readers, the danger the children are in is immediately evident, and the childish narration of the tale adds a huge vulnerability to the story. Cameron cleverly uses Anna’s memory as a way of bringing the family to life and giving the tale a background and the palpable confusion of the narrator adds an element of sheer terror as the children make their way through the woods in search of safety.

Both unique and unsettling, The Bear is a compelling and uneasy read that keeps its reader turning until the very last page. If the quality of the writing and story-telling is consistent throughout the rest of the Baileys Prize, it will no doubt prove to be a twenty-strong long list well worth reading.

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