One of the joys of travel is finding things you’re never going to encounter at home. I spotted this book at a supermarket checkout while in Alaska, and I think it’s safe to say I wouldn’t have come across it anywhere else. I’ve read quite a few stories about the famous Alaskan gold rush, but this book offers a very unique perspective on the time and place, focusing, as the title suggests, on the women of the demimonde who flocked to the Far North’s gold camps in the late 1890s and early 20th century. It aims to shed light on the “off the record” history of the pioneers, and women who in their own ways influenced the frontier life.
Another book club read, this time a crime novel by an author with a perfect crime writer name (imagine if she wrote romance instead; Forbidden Love, a new luscious bodice-ripper from Karin Slaughter).
The book is about a family destroyed by the unsolved disappearance of the eldest daughter, Julia Carroll, who went missing near her University of Georgia dorm when she was 19. Her father Sam became obsessed with his own investigation, retreating from the rest of his family and ignoring his two remaining daughters, and eventually committed suicide. Sam’s anguished diary entries introduce the central mystery, and serve as one of the three points of view used to tell the story.
Neil Gaiman has become one of my favourite writers over the years and I was happy to get my hands on this latest third collection of short trips into the weird, shadowy country of Gaiman’s mind. It never really occurred to me to compare him to Ray Bradbury, but in fact Gaiman’s short stories have the same effect on me that I had while engrossed in Bradbury’s fiction when a teenager – a pleasantly uneasy sensation of looking at the world in a distorted mirror, or lifting the fabric of reality to find some dark, strange, disturbing things lurking underneath. Gaiman’s imagination is just as boundless, and his voice as a writer is just as distinctive (his books on the whole have a lot more graphic sex, though not in this particular collection).
I’ve read quite a few John Grisham legal thrillers over the years. At their best, they’re tightly constructed, entertaining, compulsive page-turners you can’t put down. At their worst, they’re… well like this dud of a book.
It starts off rather promisingly. Our protagonist is Samantha Kofer, a young associate working in commercial real estate who loses her job at New York’s massive law firm after the financial crash of 2008. With hundreds of lawyers left unemployable, even non-paying internship positions are hotly contested, but eventually Samantha finds a pro bono opportunity in small-town Appalachia, where she’s to provide free legal aid to the downtrodden. There she meets Donovan Gray, a fearless lawyer crusading against the Big Coal, companies whose strip mining practices defile the land and poison the local population. Oh and he’s young and handsome too, though an estranged wife and kid put a damper on a potential fling.
I haven’t read anything by Anita Shreve before, but she sure knows how to grab the reader’s attention in the opening chapter. A video tape is brought to the headmaster of a small exclusive New England boarding school, which shows three male students, aged 17 to 19, engaged in sexual acts with a girl. She doesn’t seem to be in any way unwilling, but she is clearly very young, fourteen as it turns out. There’s also a fourth person operating the camera whose identity is never revealed during the scandal that explodes soon after and destroys the lives of the people involved.
I’ve yet to meet a Maugham novel I haven’t liked; I probably enjoyed this one the least of the four I’ve read so far and I still found it overall excellent.
The Razor’s Edge is somewhat similar to The Moon and Sixpence, the previous novel on my Maugham reading list. It also features a first-person narrator – in this case, Maugham rather bizarrely inserts himself into the story – who observes the people drifting in and out of his life over the span of years. At the heart of the story, there’s yet another character who chooses an uncompromising and unorthodox life path. Here, it’s Larry Darrell, a young American who, at the start of the book, has returned a changed man after serving as an aviator in World War I. People around him, including his fiancée Isabel, are sympathetic, but they still expect him to engage in life and find a steady job that would support Isabel in a comfortable lifestyle she’s accustomed to. Larry however makes it clear that he has no interest in making money; his harrowing war experiences made him want to seek out the spiritual life and answers to the questions of God, life and death.
My history education back in Russia fell on the period where, in my primary school during the last years of the Soviet Union, we were fed the rosy idealised stories about “Grandfather Lenin”. There were school excursions to lay the flowers at the city’s Lenin monument, the red star-shaped pins with Lenin’s portrait in the middle that every kid had to wear at school, and so on. Once the USSR was no more, immediately after there came a weird transitional period where they couldn’t quite figure out what version of history to teach; as an example, my history book somehow managed to have one oblique mention of Stalin in the entire post-revolution part. My idea of Lenin therefore was always rather lopsided; I figured that the idealised version wasn’t true but had little to replace it with, especially after moving to Australia. I was then quite interested to read this biography by Hungarian-born, UK-raised Sebestyen; while complete objectivity is non-existent I thought that the book provided a fairly balanced view of Lenin’s undeniably remarkable life.