Top of the Pile #34, #35, #36: Wild, Dark Places, The Angel’s Game

Remember when I used to publish a Top of the Pile post every week? I’d take my time covering just one book, then moan about not knowing what to read next for another couple hundred words or so.

Oh how times have changed, my friends. These days, though I read more than ever, or perhaps because I read more than ever, and jump from one book to the next straight away, I don’t even get a chance to gather my thoughts on the one I’ve just finished, never mind put everything in writing.

So here I am again, two weeks and three books after my last Top of the Pile entry, trying to compile my recent, tangled reading adventures into something that makes a little bit of sense.

The LuminariesI know I’d originally predicted The Luminaries would be my last 2014 read, but clearly I haven’t got a clue about anything.

I finished it in less than a week (800+ pages, humanity!) and it was so gripping throughout that I actually took it with me in the bathtub once, which I don’t remember ever doing with another book in the 25 years I’ve been reading on this planet. Oh, and I was almost run over a couple of times on my way home. Reading while attempting to illegally cross the A4, not my brightest moment really.

So yes, I couldn’t put it down.

It’s an adventure/detective story set in the last days of the New Zealand gold rush, following thirteen men working together to unravel a tangled mystery affecting all their lives. The book is so superbly plotted, the cast so diverse and animated, that it was intoxicating.

At first I was really intimidated by thirteen different characters jumping at me all at once from the first hundred or so pages, worried I’d not remember their names and I’d have to plod through another 600 pages not knowing who’s who (this has happened to me before, and I’ve scribbled my share of cast lists and family trees on dust jackets through the years). But although I was right, and I probably never remembered all of their names, their voices were all quite distinct in my mind and I never had any problem following each and everyone’s evolution.

Catton is a wonderful storyteller. The Luminaries got her a Booker Prize last year, and I really can see why. It’s just a gripping, exquisitely told story. You won’t identify in it a glorious theme, or hidden, life changing meanings. It’s not philosophical and will probably not make it onto the list of “important”, literary-world-changing books. But I found it absolutely marvelous, and I think it has changed the way I look at everything I thought I knew about stories and how to properly tell one.

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WildNext on my list was Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

I’d seen the “based on the famous bestseller” Wild film preview before a screening of Nightcrawler (great, if very disturbing movie by the way!) V and I went to a few weeks back, and thought I’d give the book a try. I often do this, get reading inspiration from cinema previews, and after I’ve read the book I either go and see the film as well (Gone Girl, Into The Wild), or for no reason I can think of, even if I’ve really liked the book, forget about it or decide not to bother (The Railway Man, The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Now, I don’t know if I’ll be watching Wild – the movie anytime soon or at all, though I hear there’s quite the Oscar buzz around Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Cheryl, but as far as the book goes, I loved it!

It’s the autobiographical story of a twenty-something troubled woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail on her own for three months. It’s not a Long Distance Hiking Guide by any means, on the contrary. If you ask me, this girl is completely unprepared, both physically and mentally, and more than a little bit insane. But her story is extraordinary and her voice is very poignant, even when she touches on things I can’t really relate to or I don’t particularly agree with.

It probably helped that I was once a very troubled twenty something woman myself, and though I didn’t have a Pacific Trail of my own to embark on, I attempted and hopefully somewhat succeeded to fix myself in a similar way.

As I was reading Wild, I actually dug through my shoe closet (Can’t believe I haven’t blogged about this yet, I’ve actually got a walk in shoe closet now. Living the dream!) and got my hiking boots out to make sure they’re in good shape, just in case I feel like taking off on short notice. (They’re great, I can’t possibly imagine them turning my feet shapeless like Cheryl’s did hers, but I’ve never hiked for 3 months weeks days in a row!)

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Dark PlacesAnd my final read this November was Dark Places, my second Gillian Flynn novel in less than six months, after Gone Girl this August.

I’m new to her writing, and she doesn’t deal with themes I normally enjoy too much (except for my all time favourite, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, I’m not much into murderous lit), but I kind of like her style, and the fact that it’s rarely obvious (to me, at least) where the story is going.

Dark Places was no exception. It follows thirty something Libby Day as she is trying to come to terms with her family’s massacre 24 years prior, for which her then 15 year old brother is serving life in prison. The plot develops into a full on mystery/detective story (I seem to have had a taste for them this month), as it alternates from present times to the day of the crime, and across different characters’ perspectives.

It’s a story about imperfect, horrible characters doing horrible things to each other. I didn’t particularly liked Libby, but I understood her, she seemed like a real, fully formed human being, and that’s what I always expect from a properly built character. The writing as well was really good and the mystery prevailed until the very last pages, which I count as a big plus in works of this type.

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The Angel's GameNow I’m reading The Angel’s Game, my second Zafon book after The Shadow of the Wind a while back.

The reason behind this pick is the same bookpile cleaning craziness I’ve been mentioning in these posts before. My new commute has helped in making a tiny dent into the mountain of books piling up by my nightstand since we moved in, but only barely.

So I’m just picking whatever’s next at the top of the pile, and I’m rarely discriminating. The Angel’s Game it is then. I’ve read about 50 pages and I’m discovering the same magical atmosphere from The Shadow of the Wind, but that’s as much as I can say for now.

Wishing you an amazing, book-filled start of December, everyone!

Top of the Pile #19: The Snow Queen

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours was recommended to me by my best friend C, back when we were just on the verge of leaving high school, and each other, for what would be, we just knew it!, our real, extraordinarily adventurous, grown up lives.

Following the release of the movie, my paperback edition of The Hours had Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and an indecently red “Now a Major Motion Picture” label on the cover. I read it in a day and when C and I were talking about it afterwards, all I could come up with was something in the range of “It was sad. But in a good way.”. What can I say, I’ve never been much of a book critiquing pro. But hey, I bet you pretty much figured that out after one or two of these Top of the Pile posts.

Years later, I bought Cunningham’s Specimen Days at an open air book fair outside my faculty building in Romania. I knew nothing about it and pretty much got it because it was cheap and he wasn’t a stranger. As it happens, it soon became one of my favourite books ever. (Hey, I’ve even titled a blog post after it, that’s got to mean something!)

So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that when I didn’t have anything to read for my flight back from Portugal this Sunday (I’d pretty much devoured Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant that morning, but more on that later), stumbling upon a glittery, aquamarine blue Michael Cunningham paperback among hundreds of brick sized Stephen King scary tomes in the Faro airport was infinitely comforting. €13.35 later (I know!!!), I was an immensely happier bookworm, and was already leafing through the double spaced, story book fonted first chapter.

I ended up only reading fifty or so pages on the flight back to London, as V wanted to watch a couple of episodes of The Killing together instead, but I’ve been making my way through it at a steady pace for the last couple of days, so it won’t be long before I spill the beans on it here.

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I finished Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant on our last day in Portugal, chilling by the pool as V was sleeping on a recliner nearby mummified head to toe in colourful beach towels. He’d been up all night with a nasty stomach bug the night before, and I hadn’t had much sleep either, what with all the tea making and ever supportive You’re-not-going-to-die-I-promise. But I ditched the much needed snooze in the sun, determined to finish the book before we left for the  airport in the afternoon.

Anne Tyler writes about the dynamics of families. Far from extraordinary, imperfect families, and as I read along I always get this feeling of familiarity, and more so, of belonging to a group I didn’t know existed. It’s strange how we grow up thinking we’re different than anybody else. Or at least I did. I was the one who thought the deepest thoughts. The one with the most daring dreams. The one part of the most deranged family, the one having to fight the hardest fights. Of course I’m none of that, I know it know (it’s only taken me 30 years to figure that out, but who’s counting), of course most of my problems are just as terrifying, if not significantly less so, than those of other people, and my hapinesses taste exactly the same as theirs. And yes, at the back of my mind I’m sometimes still convinced I’m special. Until I get my hands on another Anne Tyler book and can’t help but agree: everybody resembles everybody.

The fact that I identify myself, my friends and relatives with her characters is probably why I like her books so much. Oh, and also paragraphs like the below.

Early this morning… I went out behind the house to weed. Was kneeling in the dirt by the stable with my pinafore a mess and the perspiration rolling down my back, wiped my face on my sleeve, reached for the trowel and all at once thought, Why, I believe that at just this moment I am absolutely happy.  […]

The Bedloe girls’ piano scales were floating out her window, […] and a bottle fly was buzzing in the grass, and I saw that I was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet. I don’t care what else might come about. I have had this moment. It belongs to me.

I haven’t got any Anne Tyler on my reading agenda for the months to come, simply because I’ve got such a huge backlog of books to go through (your reading recommendations being just the tip of the iceberg) and so little time these days (flat hunting is in season again!), but I’ll definitely be keeping her in mind for those times when a book I feel has been written precisely for and about me is just what I need to keep going. In the meantime, my plan is to read some more stuff in French, perhaps even attempt something in German (a reread maybe? I’ve got a German edition of The Old Man and the Sea gathering dust somewhere), as I’ve very much neglected all my other foreign language affairs, what with all this obsessing over my less then perfect British accent.

Back to work now, or I won’t be able to keep the €13-a-book madness much longer. Happy reading, everyone!

Top of the Pile #17: Strangers

I’d never heard of Taichi Yamada. In fact, had I come across the paperback edition of Strangers in my local bookshop, I’m sure I would have taken it for a lovey-dovey Young Adult novel I’m way too cool to openly like. I mean, this cocktail dressed, pearl necklaced, shoes in hand girl walking away from the lens on the cover makes me think of prom nights gone bitter and, you know, feelings.

So yes, I doubt I’d have picked Strangers if it hadn’t been for one of my workmates (the only other person who reads around here, and more than me, go figure!) praising it as one of his absolute favorites. It being what looks like double spaced and less than 300 pages long anyway, I thought I’d give it a try, especially after what felt like a century long, The Book of Disquiet themed reading adventure.

I’ve read about 15 pages on my way to work this morning, and though I can’t quite form an opinion (at least it doesn’t seem like Young Adult material so far), the writing style does remind me of Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a book and writer I’ve always had mixed feelings about.

So anyway, Strangers will be my read for the rest of the week. I’ll squeeze it in between evening runs, back to back laundry sessions and yet another bank holiday weekend (no kidding, it feels like we’ve had one every week this month) which I’m sure will leave me moderately exhausted, hungover and very much aware of my almost-30-so-I-need-my-beauty-sleep status.

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I finally finished The Book of Disquiet the other day, and I’d have definitely drowned my own Pessoa generated disquiet in significant amounts of alcohol, had I not finally accepted that getting tipsy on a week night doesn’t suit my soon to be three decades themed age. So I settled for shutting the book with a bang and shoving it onto the top most shelf, in between other tomes I won’t be rereading any time soon.

It’s not that I didn’t like Pessoa’s poetry like prose, it’s just that it was so very dreary, I’m actually quite proud I’ve managed to survive it without falling into a hopeless, more-serious-than-usual bout of depression.

You know and I know, grownup life tends to suck sometimes. And then sometimes it’s pretty good. Hear that, Pessoa?

The funniest thing I’ve come across while struggling with reading The Book of Disquiet is this little nugget of invaluable information: there’s apparently a bookshop in Norway where they sell this book and only this, which the owner considers the best piece of literature in the world. Here’s a lovely link just in case you don’t trust my disquiet overdosed little brain.

But enough with all this crazy talk. What are you reading these days?

Oh and I know I haven’t been taking your book recommendations too seriously lately, with all this disquiet in the air (see what I did there?), but don’t think I’ve forgotten about them, and please, if you haven’t recommended me anything to read yet, do it here.

Top of the Pile #14: The Magic Mountain

I’ve been a lousy lousy reader these past couple of weeks, so not only did I manage to finish just one book (Clive Cussler’s Cyclops), but I’m also way behind on my National Geographic reading, with three (THREE!!!) hardly-brand-new-anymore magazines I’ve yet to take out of their plastic sleeves. I guess I could conveniently blame it all on my crazy house hunting habits and the ever growing pile of Ideal Home magazines I’ve been devouring instead, but that really wouldn’t help making me feel any less guilty about it.

So I’ve decided that the best way to tackle this sense of guilt is to take on a substantial, everybody’s-read-it-but-me classic, and finish it in like, half a day. Hence, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I’ve been meaning to read it in a long long time but somehow it always lost the race in favour of other, more I don’t know… fashionable?… short?… accessible?… books.

But these weeks, I’ve been hearing a lot about The Magic Mountain. My mother and one of my closest friends are reading it and raving about it every time they get a chance, then there have been references to it in other books I’ve been reading recently (Dear Life comes to mind), and I’m definitely not one to ignore all these miraculous signs and go on with my Ideal Home dominated reading life like nothing’s happened.

So it’s The Magic Mountain time these days! I already know what it’s about and of course I’ve got a million billion unrealistic expectations, which is always fun and games. My Kindle says I’ve managed the incredible performance of reading 3% of it in two days, which really is absolutely shameful, I know, so please send your encouraging, hopeful energies my way if I’m to finish it before I’m forty.

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It’s not that I didn’t like Cyclops, but more like I didn’t like reading, breathing, eating and all other life supporting activities these last couple of weeks. I know, this psycho house hunting madness will very likely end up killing me. Oh well.

It’s taken me a long long time to finish this book (recommended to me via the Recommend Me a Book page by lovely blo), perhaps because I’ve been doing it in two pages a day sessions, in between house hunting centered hysteria episodes. In fact, it’s been an easy, captivating read, and under normal circumstances I definitely would have very much welcomed the change from my recent historical literature pattern. And since I’ve been such a reader from hell throughout my Cyclops experience, I got a couple more books from Cussler’s Dirk Pitt series and am planning to redeem myself in the coming months.

That’s it for now from the geeky reading front. Back to work and a Magic Mountain themed lunch break! Oh and in the meantime, if you haven’t recommended me anything to read yet, you can do it here.

Top of the Pile #13: Cyclops

 

This will be my first read from the list of books you lovely people have recommended me here. I ordered a bunch of them last night, and Cyclops was the first one to arrive to my Kindle so here it is now, at the top of my reading pile for the week.

I know absolutely nothing about Clive Cussler or his writing, and I’ve been super duper strong and managed to not look him up. It was Blo who recommended me Cyclops (which she is actually re-reading these days), and since our tastes in books seem to be similar, I’m thinking it might be really good. From the cover, it looks like a sci-fi-dystopian-adventure affair, which I think I might just be in a mood for these days, after 500 pages of Carlos Ruiz Zafon.

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I finished The Shadow of the Wind on my way back from work yesterday. In fact, I’d just reached the door to our flat and stood there like a weirdo for half a minute, my Kindle lighting up the dim, curry smelling hallway, putting off looking for my keys and unlocking the door, just so I’d finish the last page.

I don’t know whether I really liked it, or at one point I just wanted to be done with it as soon as possible. When I started reading it, I was a bit disappointed. It may have been the translation (I was reluctant to spend more money on the Spanish original), but the writing style felt like it was addressed to the (significantly) younger generation. Then I came across the first sex scene and decided it wasn’t, and that it was, really, simply not my kind of writing.

I sort of grew accustomed to it as the events evolved, and as I became more interested in the storyline and the characters’ development. I really liked Zafon’s Barcelona, a mysterious, crumbling city much different than what I imagine it today (I haven’t been yet. Crazy, I know!). At times the atmosphere was terrifying and at times I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next, but then there were times when characters would fall head over heels in love with each other all of a sudden, with no build up whatsoever and no real connection apart the author stating that they were in love, and relevant characters would just tell all their darkest secrets to strangers in the street, or someone would turn out to be the main character’s evil twin (This doesn’t actually happen in the book, but similar soap-operish stuff does happen. A LOT.), and it all felt just a little bit forced. Towards the end, I was quite able to predict the outcome of the story and I just wanted to finish it already.

I’ve still got a couple of Carlos Ruiz Zafon books on my Kindle, but I don’t think I’ll be attempting another one in the near future. Perhaps I’ll try one as a holiday read later in the year, or once I finish with all your awesome book recommendations.

Meanwhile, I’ve got Cyclops to start on, a bunch of impossible evil deadlines at work, and back to back flat viewings every weekend until the end of time, so who knows when I’ll be posting my next Top of the Pile article. I’ll try my best to have at least another one ready before the end of the month, and in the meantime, if you haven’t recommended me anything yet, you can do it here.