Brushstrokes in Time – Sylvia Vetta

Brushstrokes in Time – Sylvia Vetta

“I come into this world

Bringing only paper, rope, a shadow.”

My Bank Holiday Monday has not quite gone the way I expected it to. I had planned a Spring clean, preparations for the coming week at work, perhaps a walk. None of this has yet happened. I have instead read, from start to finish, Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta.

The story, based (heart-wrenchingly) on real-life events, is set in China and spans decades, through the 1950s to the 1990s. Prior to reading this book, I had not considered life in this period as particularly difficult in China. I was born in 1988, and this struggle has been invisible to me before now. Of course, I have seen the image of the solitary man in Tiananmen Square holding up the tanks, but I didn’t know the reasons for this, nor had I considered the human stories behind it.

As with all my reviews, I do not wish to give the plot away here (the joy of reading a story is discovery, surely?) but to briefly overview – we follow a young woman who just wants to experience the joy and beauty in the world. Perhaps unwittingly, she becomes a scapegoat for a regime which is violently and embarrassingly lacking in self-confidence by this time.

By the time I finished reading, I (normally stone-hearted, as anyone who knows me will tell you) was wiping tears from my face. Perhaps the most beautiful part of the story is that our main character was relaying her life story to her daughter, born in America and unaware of the struggles her immigrant mother had faced.

A truly human story, in equal measures enlightening and disheartening. I read this story as an ebook but will be purchasing a physical copy for my bookcase so I don’t forget it.

8.5/10

Brushstrokes in Time

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

I have always adored Norse Mythology. I love the way that the Gods are, despite being all-powerful, as flawed as humans. Thor is reckless. Odin is self-centred. Loki – well, Loki is the most amazing character I have ever come across. Greedy, cunning and always scheming.

I’ve read many depictions of Norse mythology, from many well respected authors. None of them were quite like this re-telling by Neil Gaiman.

Prior to this book, I had, to my shame, only ever read Coraline by Neil Gaiman. I had enjoyed the creepiness of that story, and could see how his style would be well suited to Norse mythology.

Gaiman is true to the original myths, but uses his unique talent to bring the Gods to life as I have never experienced them before. I flew through the book, greedily absorbing the tales of Loki’s terrifying children, Odin’s missing eye, Thor’s unusual wedding day. This may be the only re-telling I ever read again.

A must read for any fan of Norse mythology.

8.5/10

Norse Mythology

Quicksand – Malin Persson Giolito

Quicksand – Malin Persson Giolito

 

You are innocent until the courts have ruled that you are guilty. What kind of weird statement is that? Either you’re innocent all along, or else you did it, right from the start.”

I’d never heard of Malin Persson Giolito before I picked up this book, drawn in by its cover and a description of it as ‘The Secret History meets We Need To Talk About Kevin’. I was not disappointed- more than that, I was astounded.

I couldn’t put the book down. It’s one of those which hooks you in; I ended up cooking dinner one handed, the other grasping this book. Luckily, I avoided any serious burns.

The story starts with a high school shooting. The main perpetrator, Sebastian, is dead. His girlfriend, Maja, survives and we follow her trial as we try to establish whether or not she was complicit in the murder of her classmates.

Malin Persson Giolito has struck the perfect balance with her main character. She is not overly likeable, but I didn’t hate her either. She seemed naive, but as convinced about the definition of ‘true love’ as we all were at eighteen. From the outside looking in, we can see the huge flaws in her relationship, but it is impossible to say we would have acted differently when overwhelmed with the attentions of an older, richer and more popular man.

I won’t say any more about the story because the main enjoyment I got from it was never knowing what would happen next. Suffice to say, the description I had read prior to the book is an apt one and I immensely enjoyed the process of reading it. The accolade of ‘best Swedish crime novel of 2016’ is worthy and I’m looking forward to Malin’s next book already.

8.5/10

Quicksand

Top 10 Non-Fiction Books To Expand Your Mind

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“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
― Charles William Eliot

The value of non-fiction books is so often overlooked in favour of other, more instant sources of knowledge (cough…internet…cough), but sometimes there is nothing so beautiful and thought provoking as a non-fiction book. In no particular order, here are my top ten non-fiction books for expanding your mind. Get learning!

1. A History of the World in 100 Objects – Neil MacGregor

A history of the world in 100 objects neil macgregor

Beautifully presented, easy to read, and we learn about the civilisations of the world, from ancient history to modern day. The objects are intimate, strange and tell such wonderful stories about our predecessors.

A History of the World in 100 Objects

2. Freakonomics – Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

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Explains statistics in laymans terms and somehow, amazingly, makes them exciting, interesting and endlessly entertaining. An excellent way to learn about how statistics are used both correctly and incorrectly.

Freakonomics

3. Silent Spring – Rachel Carson

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Although outdated now, this book should be read by all- it led to the understanding most of us have about the effect we as a species has on our planet. Particularly pertinent due to high profile climate change deniers!

Silent Spring (Penguin Modern Classics)

4. A Brief History of Time – Stephen Hawking

Stephen hawking a brief history of time

After I had read this, I felt like my brain had doubled in size. I just understood so much more. Incredible facts and theories about the universe we live in.

A Brief History Of Time: From Big Bang To Black Holes

5. The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt

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In our modern society, we often look back on Nazi Germany and wonder how it happened, because we wouldn’t vote for that. This important book, written just after WW2 highlights some disquieting similarities to our world now.

The Origins of Totalitarianism

6. The Story of Art – E. H. Gombrich

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A beautiful book which will give you a background to the most admired works of art in the world. Make sure you get a recent edition which will include some modern art too.

The Story of Art

7. A Room of One’s Own – Virginia Woolf

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‘Feminism’ is so often seen, ridiculously, as a dirty word. Read A Room of One’s Own to see why it is necessary. A quick read, but an important one.

A Room of One’s Own (Penguin Modern Classics)

8. In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

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Widely dubbed as the first ever true-crime book, Truman Capote meticulously picks apart and examines the lives of a murdered family, and looks into the motivation behind the horrific crime.

In Cold Blood : A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences (Penguin Modern Classics)

9. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – Oliver Sacks

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Oliver Sacks recounts the tales of patients with neurological disorders. Endlessly fascinating and desperately human stories.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

10. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen – Christopher McDougall

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An amazing eye opener about the capabilities of the human body! If you want to learn what your body can do, this book is a brilliant place to start. Truly inspiring.

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen

Enjoyed this? Why not have a look at 30 books to read before you’re 30.

Engleby – Sebastian Faulks

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“Lonely’s like any other organism; competitive and resourceful in the struggle to perpetuate itself.”

Everyone knows Sebastian Faulks; Birdsong is an immensely popular novel (with good reason, it was impeccably researched and written with precision). I’m not sure if Engleby is as well known. I have no idea if people like it. I’ve never heard anyone talking about it.

But, to me, Engleby is one of Faulks’ best novels. There is less of a cinematic quality to it, and I prefer that – it is instead a story of a killer, written from his point of view.

We are taken on a journey into the mind of Engleby, a strange character. At first, he seems perhaps shy and anti-social; as the story moves on, his way of thinking becomes more and more disturbing and we start to realise that all is not as it seems.

Whether or not Engleby actually committed these crimes, I’ll let you decide. And as to the question of whether Engleby is ill or – more chillingly – evil and taking the reader for a ride too, well, I have drawn my own conclusions and you’ll have to draw yours.

An entertaining and readable book from beginning to end.

8/10

Engleby

The Sense Of An Ending – Julian Barnes

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“History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

This book’s synopsis immediately drew me to it. It is a study of human memory, and whether the past as we recall it is actually what happened – and if it’s not, whether anyone can say what happened with any accuracy.

The first part of the novel is a recount of a friendship the main character, Tony, had with a childhood friend called Adrian who killed himself. The second part of the novel, following receipt of a bequest, leads Tony to reconsider all he had previously recounted. Evidence comes to light revealing the frailty of Tony’s memories of his past – but his friends’ memories prove corrigible too.

On this level, the story was interesting to me and led me to reflect on my own memories and whether those involved would tell those stories differently.

However, the novel also made me deeply sad. Tony’s desperate delving into his past made it seem as though he had nothing in his future. Tony is not near death, but his lack of close friendships (the vulnerability of even secure friendships is another theme running through the novel) or loving family relationships made it seem, to me, as though he considered his life was practically over.

I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the study of memory. I finished the book desperately hoping that I do not end up with a similarly unfulfilling life as Tony has when I reach his age.

8/10

 The Sense of an Ending

Dark Places – Gillian Flynn

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“I assumed everything bad in the world could happen, because everything bad in the world already did happen.”

I bought this book for two reasons. Firstly, when I’d mentioned that I enjoyed American Psycho to a friend, they recommended this to me and secondly, the big red sticker on the front which says ‘from the author of Gone Girl’.

I have not actually read Gone Girl yet (is it good? Let me know!) but I have seen the film and thought it was entertaining.

This book was actually a real slog to read. I was reading a few pages  every evening and not really enjoying it. Whereas American Psycho is a clever slasher novel where you are constantly left questioning what has come before, Dark Places is very different in style. There is plenty of slashing, don’t get me wrong, but the plot is nowhere near as clever. The twists and red herrings were not placed gently, they were shoe horned in with a heavy touch.

I was disappointed. I had such high hopes, but I couldn’t warm to the main character (although I don’t think you are supposed to) and although the story feels real, it also feels grimy in a way.

I realised what the issue was. I had enjoyed the glamour of American Psycho. There is no glamour in Dark Places. Quite the opposite.

Perhaps if you begin the novel with different expectations to the ones I had, you may enjoy it more.

5.5/10

 Dark Places