Review-ish: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

‘His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.’

It feels like decades ago that I finished this, although it was just in March, I think, at the beginning of lock-down. Its one of those books that has kept popping up on my radar and I was really keen to use some of my extra reading time to read something less contemporary.

This is going to be a real snippet of a review, as I have such a back-log and I’m super keen to share everything else that I’ve been reading over the last few months. And to be completely transparent, the only notes I wrote for this were ‘tense’. That’s it.

That’s not to say it wasn’t good; it was well written, brilliantly paced and incredibly tense. But I spent much of the book thinking about the film, which is a real shame. This is one I really wish I had read first.

I have just discovered that this is the first in a series, which surprised me as it felt like a very complete piece. Reading through the Goodreads reviews to prompt my memory, I agree with many that Highsmith certainly takes you on a vivid and compelling journey through 1950’s Italy, and tests your moral compass as you find yourself willing Ripley to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but I wouldn’t say that its best thing I’ve read recently.

As I so often say, it can be as much about timing as it is about the actual book, and maybe this just wasn’t quite the escapism I needed. Also, the film is so well-known and has a style all of its own that eclipsed the writing for me a little. But as a psychological thriller it hits the mark.

Has anyone read any vintage classics that they would recommend? Please don’t mention Catcher in the Rye as I also tried that and found it very tedious!

Happy reading!

Kelly

Insole Book Club Notes – April

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

We have to thank our friends at NDCWales Book Club for this recommendation, it was great to share recommendations with another book club. In turn, we suggested My Sister the Serial Killer for them, which is a quick read that we’d pretty much all enjoyed.

It was great to get together again with the lovely Insole Court Book Clubbers, albeit digitally. It was interesting to talk about how our reading habits had changed over the past month, during lockdown.

Some found The Seven Deaths easier than others. It seemed to quite often hinge on whether you could give it a few hours of solid reading at a time. Reading or listening to it in short bursts made it quite difficult to follow.

We talked about the various different tropes that the author used, body swapping, etc, but how it may have gotten a little overly complicated. In particular, revelations about Anna felt a little tacked on. Especially as the twist had already been revealed at that point.

For some of us, the twist felt a little bit rushed and could have benefited from fleshing out for us to buy into it. But we also chatted about the fact that the reveal didn’t leaving us with too many questions, so the author achieved an entertaining murder mystery.

We all were intrigued by the descriptions of the various personalities and how they were cumulative, pushing in more and more as the book developed. This was cleverly done and unusual. We were interested in which of the physical behaviours ‘stuck’ from each character and how this helped with the plot. This reminded us of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; how much of who you are is made up of your memories?

We made comparisons to The Good Place, and Dante’s Hell – and the premise of a hell of your own making. The vividness of the world was captivating, and probably successful because of how you relive the world through so many different perspectives. The image of the ramshackle stately home is also well-known in mystery novels, so quite easy for us to grasp.

We spent some time discussing the title after discovering that it is published as The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle in America. It doesn’t appear that the number in the title relates to deaths in the novel, but is more about sensationalism.

Generally we would recommend this to our friends/family – reviews are good, and its been well received. We felt that the violence, although dark, wasn’t voyeuristic or gratuitous. And its a solid enough mystery to keep you going through, at least until the reveal.

I thought it might be interesting to share what we’ve been reading, as we normally finish our meetings with recommendations. So to continue the tradition, whilst quarantined, many of us are comfort-reading Bill Bryson, as well as:

  • Hillary Mantel
  • Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami
  • My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to comment along below!

Kelly

Review-ish: Women & Power by Mary Beard

‘It is not just that it is much more difficult for women to succeed; they get treated much more harshly if they ever mess up’

This pint-sized beauty was brought for me as a very well-considered gift. I’m a little obsessed with Mary Beard. She’s recently been named as a Trustee of the British Museum, to some controversy it seems, and currently has a tv programme on BBC called Mary Beards Shock of the Nude.

This is another slim, little one-sitting read. You can tell my attention span wasn’t great at this time, even pre-Covid19 lockdown.

These quick reads (The Myths series) and published interviews (I also read Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky recently) are enlightening and ideal for quarantine reading. Although maybe not Noam. He was pretty heavy.

In Women & Power, Beard explores the silencing of women through the ages, using her expert knowledge to bring stories and historical moments to life and make them relevant for today. She also addresses the Me Too movement from her own perspective.

Having been through the British schooling system, my historical knowledge includes such highlights as; Henry VIII (divorced, beheaded, died…) WWII (from Britains perspective obvs) and a dappling of Ancient Egyptians, so this really helped remind me of why history is worth further exploration in adult-hood, and that there are many lessons to be learnt.

Others have written much more eloquently than me about the intricacies of the book, so I will link to a great Guardian by Jacqueline Rose here.

I know I don’t offer much in the way of in-depth analysis (hence Review-ish) so I will always try to share interesting observations by others. I have a back-log of posts to do, due to lockdown, and am finding that I’m not always focused enough to get them done, so I’ll keep them short and snappy for now. And hope that this gals opinions are useful to you!

Women & Power wonderfully blends feminism with my current interest of Greek myths so it was always going to be a winner for me. But I would recommend it, especially if you’re looking for some non-fiction distraction, but like me, find anything too bulky a bit daunting. It’s certainly an easier read that Optimism Over Despair.

Kelly

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

I stumbled across this book quite by accident. I was training for my first marathon and I prefer not to think about running when I’m running, as I just stop. Audiobooks are my life saver. I’d already made my way through the Lord of the Rings and I was after another epic to keep me motivated. So, I turned to BorrowBox, a way of borrowing audiobooks from your local library. I basically scrolled through all the books until I found one that was of sufficient length, and quite importantly, available for loan.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands is based on Japanese mythology. It did not disappoint. Well actually, there was one huge disappointment, but I’ll come to later. The story starts off with a young boy losing his father and coming under the protection of his uncle. This does not bode well for our young hero. It soon transpires that the elderly Emperor is going to die and the sorcerer Prince Abbot wishes the Emperor’s second son to secede. Soon, our hero Shikonoko finds himself embroiled in magic and intrigue, as events beyond his control start to take over.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of different characters, and unlike certain other novels where the jumping of the story through time and space drives you crazy, in this book, each chapter succeeds in advancing the story in a logical manner.

What I like about this book is that it does not focus on the battles, the gore and the million and one ways of mutilating/causing pain to your your enemy. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments, but these are secondary and the author focuses on the characters, their motivations and their stories.

Some people have criticised Lian Hearn’s style of writing as being too simple, but from someone who has listened to the story rather than read it, I found it really soothing yet gripping.

As for my disappointment, this stemmed from me not knowing anything about the book. After some Googling, it transpired that I had in fact listened to books 1&2 of a 4-book series. My big disappointment had been the ending. No wonder I hadn’t enjoyed it, I was only halfway through! Now to find books 3&4 and to keep running.

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

This book is the first of a trilogy by up and coming author, Matthew Ward. The story encompasses two Kingdoms; the Tressian Republic and the Hadardi Empire, and follows a cast of heroes and heroines as they try and defend their home nations. 


Why do I like this book? Firstly, it is a chunk of a book. I love a good story that I can invest time into. Time to get to know my favourite character (I actually still haven’t figured out who that is), to watch them grow, and sometimes to surprise me. I like to watch the story unfold, through twists and turns, unable to put the book down when really I should be asleep. Shorter stories just don’t do that for me.


Obviously, it’s not the size of the book that matters if it is not a good story. Legacy of Ash has everything you can wish for from a fantasy novel; heroes & heroines, magic, intrigue, destiny, a pantheon of bickering Gods and Goddesses and dare I say it for fear of sounding like a preaching feminist, strong female characters. Hurr-flipping-ray. Not all of the strong female characters are sword-weilding valkyries (though some of them are), some are masters, I mean mistresses, of intrigue, some are homely and some are just dealing with the cards they’re dealt. I’d like to say that Matthew doesn’t make a sing and dance of this, but actually one of the plot arcs is specifically looking at women coming out of the shadow of their men-folk. That’s not my favourite plot-arc, but I am impressed that he did it.


Perhaps what I like most about Matthew’s work is that despite the genre, or perhaps that should be sub-genre, of his different works, there are elements that tie them all together. You can dip into his Coldharbour series, set in modern day London, or into some of his short stories and you can guarantee that there will be names or monsters you recognise that turn up unexpectedly. I am not familiar with any other author crossing worlds and ages like this, tying all the stories together.


I must admit I have a confession. I know the author. However, I genuinely enjoy reading his works and always look forward to reading the next installment.

Review-ish: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

‘Cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had’ 

I have to say, this fairly-new predilection for Greek myths has really led me to new authors (Miller) and introduced me to new sides to authors that I had previously read (Atwood and Barker). That’s why I love the Canongate Myth series. The books are small, I read this one easily in an evening, and utilise a core theme to introduce readers to new authors. And isn’t that what Offbeat Book Club is all about?

There seems to be some less-than-clear information online about who is writing for this series, but the books that have been published look very appealing. I have already gotten hold of Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeannette Winterson. And, as they were published some time ago, they are often available second hand.

The Penelopiad follows the tale of the Odyssey, but from Penelope’s perspective, not only examining her relationship to the mythical hero, but also to the women that made up her court. These are presented in typical Greek fashion as a chorus of maidens and their voices carry throughout the story beautiful in the form of poetry (but in various guises each time). As we would expect from Atwood, Penelope is no longer a bit part or a passive character in the tale, but one who takes her destiny into her own hands and have to live with the consequences of her decisions.

As Mary Beard points out in her novel, Women and Power (review coming soon-ish!) Penelope has never really had a voice. She is silenced by her son, despite having rule the kingdom in her husbands absence. Telemachus, by virtue of being a man, has the authority. In this novella, we can hear, in her own words, the nuances and complexities of her experiences. She is certainly no saint, but neither is she wholly to blame for the fates of the women closest to her. 

I’ll keep it short, much like this novella. Its a weird time, and I’m giving a lot of thought to how Offbeat Book Club might help people who are staying at home more. Any ideas, then please comment below or pop my an email at offbeatbookclub@gmail.com.

Stay safe and kind. Enjoy the extra reading time!

Kelly

Review-ish: The Liveship Traders Trilogy by Robin Hobb

‘Many will rant and rave against the garment fate has woven for them, but they pick it up and don it all the same, and most wear it to the end of their days. You… you would rather go naked into the storm.’

As my Robin Hobb reviews tend to be overly gushy, I thought I would review them as a trilogy, so any readers out there who aren’t fussed on fantasy can skip over this one! I really enjoyed one reviewers point that it only takes two readings for these books (that are huge by the way) to look battered. Me and the bloke mostly read these on holiday in Portugal so they really suffered from being stuffed in bags, and half buried in sand (and wine). I briefly wondered whether they could have been a quartet instead of a trilogy, but the stories work so well in the current format. So I will accept the size and the wrist-ache that came from reading them one after the other.

There was some googling required after finishing the Farseer series; it seems that some people crack straight on with the Tawny Man Series, which follows on from Farseer. But I was well-convinced that it was worth leaving Fitz behind for a while, to focus on Bingtown and its inhabitants. If anyone else is debating this, it seems a matter of preference. Some people enjoyed taking a break from the intensity of the Farseer storyline, and others were so into it they wanted to jump forward and then come back to Liveships. I’m a purist, so always want to read things in the way that the author intended.

There are wayyyy to many story-lines to begin to even touch on them (think Game of Thrones style, multiple plots that cross-over) but one of the significant plotlines is around the Liveships, a concept that I have never read about in fantasy books before. The Liveships are sentient ships, that are owned by trading families, and infused with the memories of their Captains. Its just fascinating, and develops in fantastic way over the trilogy.

I also loved that this trilogy was fantasy-at-sea. I always loved the sections of the Earthsea Quartet by Ursula Le Guin where Ged, the hero, travels around the islands of the archipelago. So this felt a little like coming home. It makes it quite low-level fantasy, particularly in the first book, but is handled deftly and with respect to an audience that is looking for some magic. 

Other themes include morality, seeking refuge, family, class, race, rule, gender roles and expectations, tradition and obligation. But Hobb doesn’t smash you over the head with any of these, and doesn’t present a black and white view of any of them. 

As with the Farseer series, this trilogy is heavily character driven, introducing us to some of the most wonderfully complex, frustratingly flawed characters. One reviewer points out Hobbs use of perspective, with the action being seen through one characters eyes at at time, you can find yourself constantly switching allegiance.  Its a classic example of there being numerous sides to every story, and is refreshing in this format, allowing the reader to empathise with all of the characters and the decisions that they make. I surprised myself by doing a full 180 degree turn on one character, and I am very stubborn. Althea is a wonderful main character; spirited, flawed, and rallying against a society that would have her playing a role she can’t bear the thought of. 

Hobb manages to retain enough mystery to keep you rapt until the last page, with many of the twists and turns coming out of the blue (for me at least). There was one reveal that I genuinely didn’t notice until another Hobbnobb pointed it out to me. Goddamn my skim-reading.  To me, it is faultless writing. Unlike the Farseer trilogy where I found the pacing a bit patchy between the first and second books, this trilogy I found to be more consistently paced. I’m just grateful that I was mostly reading them on holiday because I really couldn’t put them down. I also had some very epic serpent-related dreams!

The trilogy ends in a particularly satisfying way, which is no mean feat when you consider the intricate story-lines that have been woven. I found the ending less emotionally exhausting than the end of the Farseer trilogy, but this is perhaps to be expected when you are reading the fates so many characters from their own perspectives, rather than the main character narrative of Fitz. 

I really couldn’t recommend these highly enough, even if you’re not a huge fan of the genre. If you’re into escapism and strong narratives, then the Livership Traders trilogy is a great place to start that journey. 

You can read my previous reviews of Hobbs work here:

The Assassins Apprentice

The Royal Assassin

The Assassins Quest

Kelly x

Review-ish: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I picked up this beast with some trepidation, after it had been mentioned so many times on various podcasts that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I’m a massive fan of modern American fiction, including Truman Capote, so it made sense that a book that explores his downfall would peak my interest, but I was also worried that it might have been over-hyped. In all honesty, I think I got into writers like Capote and Kerouac because I thought they made me look terribly cool when I was in my early 20’s, but I still do really enjoy the style of the time.

I actually devoured this book and then immediately passed it onto a friend, which is very unusual for me as I’m such a book hoarder. The subject matter itself is fascinating; I found myself googling each individual Swan and gawping at the glamour of them, but its wonderfully composed. Greenberg-Jephcott is a magician at conjuring up these waspy scenes, but also at capturing Capotes voice perfectly.

It would be too easy to paint portraits of these women as awful, self-centred and vain (says the socialist in me) OR as innocent victims to Capotes machinations, but instead, the Swans are far more fascinating to me than the writer himself. Although, his re-telling of his own history is so deftly done.  

The chorus of the Swans throughout the narration is so clever, a modernised version of the choruses used in Greek drama (for those of you who had rubbish English teachers like me). I have just read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is part of Canongates ‘Myths’ series, and she utilises the same tool.

I have no criticisms of the book at all, and really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So please read this and tell me what you think! And tell me your favourite Swan. I”m obsessed with Lee Radziwill.

Review-ish: Kindred by Octavia E Butler

‘Slavery was a long slow process of dulling’.

I was really thrilled to have stumbled across this on one of my many charity shops jaunts around South Wales, as I had heard of it, but knew nothing of the plot. The copy I picked up, as you can see, is a contemporary edition, so I hadn’t really considered when it was written.

I read it whilst on holiday in Portugal, and whilst it wasn’t an easy beach read, it was still good to be able to be fully-absorbed in it. Kindred is a hugely popular book, written in 1979 and therefore there are many, many better musings and academic writings on this than I can ever provide, so rather than delving too deeply into themes etc, I’ll just share my thoughts.

The concept is clever, and allows the reader to consider the similarities between the African American experiences in LA, 1976 to the Maryland of 1815. The linking of fates, the brutal and disgusting treatment of human beings as property, the realities of life for mixed race couples and the exploration of ancestry were brilliantly executed and fascinating.

In recent years, I have discovered that I have an aversion to time-travel stories (I think this began with the trauma of The Time-Travellers Wife). I struggle to watch films about it. I can’t handle the sliding-doors of it all, or the missing-people-by-moments-ness. Very articulate, I know. But I actually found the time-travel nature of this worked really well and wasn’t too painful for me!

So yeah. There’s a reason why its considered a classic. Get to it. It would make a great book club read as there’s so much to talk about. And I can see why its used for educational discussions.

Well 2019 might have been a ominshambles of a year, but holy moly I read some good books. I have never bought so many copies of the same books, but have loved forcing them upon friends and family as gifts (top buys were All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, not reviewed on here due to Doerr being a British male, The Electric Michaelangelo by Sarah Hall and A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman).

What books did everyone get for Xmas? I got a beautiful illustrated Studio Ghibli book of Princess Mononoke and maybe my 5th version of the Wizard of Earthsea as part of a stunning omnibus. I’m very aware that the book hoarding might one day kill me.

On another note, the reason its taking me so long to get my reviews out is because my laptop is. just. so. slow and I really have to talk myself into even turning the bloody thing on. I’m having cold sweats thinking about doing my tax return on it.

Kelly

Review-ish: One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

‘What they were about to see was not something you hurry towards’.

This book is another beaut of a find from a charity shop book collecting mission, which has become a regular part of weekends for me and an obsession that I’m sure will one day kill me. I also do buy new, but there is a certain satisfaction that comes from finding a gem second hand. Last weekend, I found a John Irving that I had never heard of, in the same style of book covers that I have been collecting, lurking in the second hand book shop in the arcade in Cardiff. Reader, it is a compulsion. 

I have never really read anything about Israel before, in particular how the second World War effected events, so this was refreshing and informative. The experience of reading this has really confirmed to me how much I enjoy reading fictionalised history. 

I’ve been a fan of magical realism since falling in love with Louis de Bernieres and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but this time it was really interesting to read magical realism where the evocative background is Israel, rather than the South America or Europe. There is historical realism there, certainly, but it isn’t held to ransom by it. It provides some context rather than driving the narrative. And it did make me more aware of how Israel was formed and the effect that the second World War had on it and its people.

It is truly, bloody lovely. Even with my fairly rubbish imagination, I could see the homes in the kibbutz and had really vivid images in my mind of the characters. 

Although the main bulk of the story is about the eponymous Markovich, and that story is beguiling, it is the journey of Zeev Feinberg that really drew me in, and has stuck with me since. How the other characters respond to Zeev and his impulses are fascinating. The various other characters are just fantastic, in particular, the Deputy Commander of the Irgun. Little moments like how many children get named after him, are just wonderful.

The last third of the book, where the narrative focused on the children, felt a little less well-developed,  event though I enjoyed the more exciting parts of that narrative. The build-up was perhaps just a little too long. But the ending was beautiful wrought. I quite often HATE endings if I have loved the book, I never find them satisfying, but this ending felt right and did justice to the rest of the book. 

Reviewers on Goodreads have RAVED about her next two novels, some saying that this one is weaker in comparison so I will definitely be keeping an eye out for them.

Happy reading!

Kelly