Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings – Louis de Bernieres

“Man is a bird without wings and a bird is a man without sorrow.”

I adore Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. The first time I read it was on holiday, sitting in the sun listening to the birds and the crickets, the scents of oranges and lemons filling the air. I am taken back every time I reread it.

However, this is not a review about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. This is a review about a less well known book by the same author- Birds Without Wings. I didn’t read this on holiday, because I have none of the nostalgia when I reread it. Instead, it is unsettling.

Louis de Bernieres weaves intensely real stories about incredibly believable people. His settings (this one is set in Anatolia) are compelling and I was left with the impression that I had physically been there. But, Louis de Bernieres takes these people, who you come to love, and these settings, where you can see yourself living, and smashes them up, leaving you heartbroken.

Of course, the smashing is done artfully and poetically. He is mimicking the destruction that occurred during World War I. He turns it into many intimate and devastating personal stories,    reflecting the huge loss of life during that conflict. He manages this, in my opinion, better than that other master of war stories, Sebastian Faulks.

At its heart, this is a love story, as Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is. It is as raw and desperate and bittersweet as love can be.

7.9/10

Birds Without Wings

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

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

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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.

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

Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

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“It never occurred to me that our lives, until then so closely interwoven, could unravel and separate over a thing like that. But the fact was, I suppose, there were powerful tides tugging us apart by then, and it only needed something like that to finish the task. If we’d understood that back then-who knows?-maybe we’d have kept a tighter hold of one another.”

There are surely not many now who haven’t read this book or seen the film with Keira Knightly. Regardless, I won’t give away the plot because one of the key moments when I truly understood the power of literature was reading this book and discovering the horrific twist.

The film is heartbreaking too, but if you haven’t read the book or seen the film yet, do read the book first – you’ll form a much closer bond with the characters.

The characters are what makes this book. They are straightforward, real; we follow them from childhood, grow up with them, discover the shocking truth with them. They feel like people you know, and that is the power of this book.

We are left with questions about the value of life, the value of love and our own humanity. We are, at heart, selfish beings, but I’m sure we’d all like to believe nothing like the plot in Never Let Me Go could ever happen. I’m not so sure. It is easy to distance ourselves from the things which sicken us.

10/10

 Never Let Me Go

Sputnik Sweetheart – Haruki Murakami

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“We’re both looking at the same moon, in the same world. We’re connected to reality by the same line. All I have to do is quietly draw it towards me.”

I had never heard of Murakami until my leaving party at my first ever proper job. I was moving away, and it was a sad goodbye to a group of people I loved. One man who worked from home (so I had not got to know very well) gave me this book as a gift. I was very touched and began to read with interest.

This is truly one of the most curious books I have ever read. I finished with a multitude of questions which I know will never be answered.

We follow K, a simple man evocative of many other Murakami characters (particularly from Norwegian Wood), who is hopelessly in love with Sumire. The love seems to be unrequited- or certainly, if it is returned, it is not sexual – and the novel perfectly evokes this yearning.

When Sumire disappears under mysterious circumstances, the yearning grows stronger. Of course, it all seems to be a metaphor – perhaps Sumire had just distanced herself from K’s life – but still, I am in love with the way Murakami so effortlessly picks you up and places you in the head of his heros.

A beautiful book.

8.5/10

Sputnik Sweetheart

30 Books To Read Before You’re 30 (part two)

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This is part two of my list of 30 books to read before you’re 30 (the big day is coming around all too quickly for me…). If you haven’t read part one, you can find it here. So, without further delay, here are numbers 16 – 30:

16. The Old Man and The Sea – Ernest Hemingway

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This is a beautiful, calming story which really put my life and petty worries into perspective. A joy of a book.

The Old Man and the Sea

17. Animal Farm – George Orwell

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“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” – need I say any more? Everyone has heard of this novel, and everyone should read it.

Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Penguin Modern Classics)

18. Dracula – Bram Stoker

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What a story! This book chilled me to the bone and showed me the true power of horror writing.

Dracula: The Original Edition

19. Jane Eyre -Charlotte Bronte

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This book is here – not only because I love everything by the Brontes – but also because it taught me how I didn’t want to behave in a relationship. I saw Jane as a pushover, and knew I could never act that way – though even so the ending makes my knees weak!

Jane Eyre (Wordsworth Classics)

20. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

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I couldn’t include Jane Eyre without the antithesis Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth taught me to be brave and speak my mind, regardless of what friends and family might be saying.

Pride and Prejudice (Wordsworth Classics)

21. The Book Thief – Marcus Zusac

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A stunning but absolutely heartbreaking story. I read it when the book came out and it has stayed with me ever since – although I haven’t been able to bring myself to read it again.

The Book Thief (Definitions Young Adult)

22. Ulysses – James Joyce

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This looks daunting because of its length, but the stream of consciousness made me feel for the first time ever as though I was in someone else’s head. Disquieting!

Ulysses

23. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

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Beautiful and moving, this book made me think deeply about love, the futility of war, parenthood and numerous other themes.

Birdsong

24. MacBeth – William Shakespeare

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My favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, this is rife with action, exciting characters (who doesn’t know about Lade Macbeth or the witches?) and plenty of memorable quotes. Everyone should read at least one Shakespeare play, and this is the best.

Macbeth (Wordsworth Classics)

25. American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis American Psycho

Oh, what a book. This taught me that a book can be far more entertaining than a horror movie. Review here.

American Psycho

26. The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank

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This book should be part of the National Curriculum. As it’s not, read it before you’re 30.

The Diary of a Young Girl: Definitive Edition

27. The Last Lecture – Randy Pausch

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The last lecture Randy Pausch gave before he died, this will make you rethink everything and realise what you truly value in life.

The Last Lecture

28. Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

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An honest depiction of mental illnesses and their effect on everyone. Review here.

Norwegian Wood

29. Les Liaisons Dangereuses- Choderlos de Laclos

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This book is not just here for the story – it’s also for the political and social outrage and change words can cause. Banned in many countries, it eventually led the way to a societal shift on how sex and adultery were understood.

Les Liaisons dangereuses (Oxford World’s Classics)

30. The Harry Potter series – J. K. Rowling

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I couldn’t write this list without including Harry Potter, and I couldn’t choose between those books either. They all have to be here. I grew up with these, and they have shaped the person I am today.

Harry Potter Box Set: The Complete Collection (Children’s Paperback)

I hope you’ve enjoyed the list. Let me know if you think there are any I’ve missed!