I’m coming towards the close of my 20 Books of Summer challenge. Now, I’ve done plenty of substituting – some of my choices from early in the summer will have to spill over into the autumn (for instance, I’m reading the May Sarton biography slowly and carefully so am unlikely to finish it before early September) or simply wait for another time – but in the end I will have read 20+ books I own in print by women authors. (Ongoing/still to come are a few buddy reads: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Anna Caig; Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay with Naomi of Consumed by Ink and Penny of Literary Hoarders; and West with the Night by Beryl Markham with Laila of Big Reading Life.)
The two #20Booksof Summer I finished most recently have been the best so far. I’d heard great things about these debut novels but let years go by before getting hold of them, and then months more before picking them up. Though one is more than twice the length of the other, they are both examples of large-scale storytelling at its best: we as readers are privy to the sweep of a whole life, and get to know the protagonists so well that we ache for their sorrow. What might have helped the authors tap into the emotional power of their stories is that both drew on family history, to different extents, when creating the characters and incidents.
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr (2013)
Lena Gaunt: early theremin player, grande dame of electronic music, and opium addict. When we meet our 81-year-old narrator, she’s just performed at the 1991 Transformer Festival and has caught the attention of a younger acolyte who wants to come interview her at home near Perth, Australia for a documentary film – a setup that reminded me a bit of May Sarton’s Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing. It’s pretty jolting the first time we see Lena smoke, but as her life story unfolds it becomes clear that it’s been full of major losses, some nearly unbearable in their cruelty, so it’s no surprise that she would wish to forget.
Though Lena bridles at Mo’s many probing questions, she realizes this may be her last chance to have her say and starts typing up a record of her later years to add to a sheaf of autobiographical stories she wrote earlier in life. These are interspersed with the present action to create a vivid collage of Lena’s life: growing up with a pet monkey in Singapore, moving to New Zealand with her lover, frequenting jazz clubs in Paris, and splitting her time between teaching music in England and performing in New York City.
With perfect pitch and recall, young Lena moved easily from the piano to the cello to the theremin. I loved how Farr evokes the strangeness and energy of theremin music, and how sound waves find a metaphorical echo in the ocean’s waves – swimming is Lena’s other great passion. Life has been an overwhelming force from which she’s only wrested fleeting happiness, and there’s a quiet, melancholic dignity to her voice. This was nominated for several prizes in Australia, where Farr is from, but has been unfairly overlooked elsewhere.
“I once again wring magic from the wires by simply plucking and stroking my fingers in the aether.”
“I felt the rush of the electrical field through my body. I felt like a god. I felt like a queen. I felt like a conqueror. And I wanted to play it forever.”
“All of the stories of my life have begun and ended with the ocean.”
The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt was published in the UK by Aardvark Bureau in 2016. My thanks to the publisher for a free copy for review.
The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (2010)
It’s all too easy to burn out on World War II narratives these days, but this is among the very best I’ve read. It bears similarities to other war sagas such as Birdsong and All the Light We Cannot See, but the focus on the Hungarian Jewish experience was new for me. Although there are brief glimpses backwards and forwards, most of the 750-page book is set during the years 1937–45, as Andras Lévi travels from Budapest to Paris to study architecture, falls in love with an older woman who runs a ballet school, and – along with his parents, brothers, and friends – has to adjust to the increasingly strict constraints on Jews across Europe.
A story of survival against all the odds, this doesn’t get especially dark until the last sixth or so, and doesn’t stay really dark for long. So if you think you can’t handle another Holocaust story, I’d encourage you to make an exception for Orringer’s impeccably researched and plotted novel. Even in labor camps, there are flashes of levity, like the satirical newspapers that Andras and a friend distribute among their fellow conscripts, while the knowledge that the family line continues into the present day provides a hopeful ending.
This is a flawless blend of family legend, wider history, and a good old-fashioned love story. I read the first 70 pages on the plane back from America but would have liked to find more excuses to read great big chunks of it at once. Sinking deep into an armchair with a doorstopper is a perfect summer activity (though also winter … any time, really). [First recommended to me by Andrea Borod (aka the Book Dumpling) over five years ago.]
“He felt the stirring of a new ache, something like homesickness but located deeper in his mind; it was an ache for the time when his heart had been a simple and satisfied thing, small as the green apples that grew in his father’s orchard.”
“[It] seemed to be one of the central truths of his life: that in any moment of happiness there was a reminder of bitterness or tragedy, like the ten plague drops spilled from the Passover cup, or the taste of wormwood in absinthe that no amount of sugar could disguise.”
“For years now, he understood at last, he’d had to cultivate the habit of blind hope. It had become as natural to him as breathing.”
I’ve only been reviewing on Goodreads for a couple years, but in that time I’ve noticed some contradictory trends. The most-liked reviews can be thousands of words long or two sentences; disjointed ramblings or concise analysis; gif after gif (screen captures of moving or still images from TV or film) or pure text; strewn with typos or perfectly honed; personal or detached; gimmicky or straightforward; gushing praise or forthright dismissal. In other words, I’m somewhat puzzled as to what makes a review popular.
To some extent it’s down to the popularity of a reviewer: the more friends and followers they have, the more likely people are to ‘like’ their review (if you’re not familiar with Goodreads, it has a ‘like’ button just like on Facebook, and reviews of a certain book then arrange themselves in order with the ones with the highest likes on the top). But this isn’t a sure thing. Although top reviewers probably account for a good percentage of the most popular reviews, there are always those sneaky book reviews that come out of nowhere and go viral.
Here are my thoughts on what is likely to make a review popular, thinking not just of Goodreads but of other sites I’ve worked with:
The book has buzz already, and/or has won a major prize.
By far, my most popular review ever is of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries [458 likes]. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2013.
My second most popular review ever is of Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry [264 likes]. It was a New York Times bestseller and especially successful with the bookish types on Goodreads.
To my knowledge, our most popular article ever published on Bookkaholic was a book debate we did about Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. I rated it 3 stars, while my opponent, an Australian blogger, gave it 5.
There’s thousands of 5-star ratings for Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, the 2015 Pulitzer winner, so while mine is not one of the top reviews by any means, it’s still my fifth most popular one at 62 likes.
You get in there early.
Mine was one of the first reviews of The Luminaries to hit Goodreads, thanks to an advanced reader’s copy sent to me by We Love This Book. I also managed to review A.J. Fikry a few weeks before the publication date thanks to an Edelweiss download. With an early review, you can sometimes set the trend.
Helen Macdonald’s superb memoir, H is for Hawk, was released in the UK about a year before it finally arrived in the States, so that allowed my review time to gain some momentum (though not as much as a review that contained lots of photographs, something I still haven’t figured out how to do in html). It’s my sixth most popular review at 48 likes.
You epitomize the positive (or dissenting) response.
My third most popular review is of Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being [138 likes], one of my favorite books from 2013 or any year. That was an unreserved 5-star rating. My 5-star review of Jo Baker’s Longbourn, my fourth most popular at 64 likes, went up the week of publication and started off strong before being overtaken by some other positive reviews.
By contrast, my reviews of The Luminaries and A.J. Fikry are lukewarm and critical, respectively. For the latter, I seem to represent the negative response: people who were disappointed by how clichéd and sappy a promising bibliophile’s novel turned out to be.
[Note: The above numbers were correct as of October 12, 2015; I will now stop updating them as it was taking up too much of my time and memory! My Goodreads teaser for A Little Life has now overtaken H is for Hawk as my sixth most popular review.]
Do you have any theories as to what makes a review popular? If you’re a blogger and/or reviewer, what have been some of your most popular pieces?
All comments welcome!
Like the Roberto Benigni film Life Is Beautiful, Virginia Baily’s second novel* shows how the Holocaust affected Italy’s Jews. It’s not a Holocaust novel, though; it’s a before-and-after story that’s more about adoption, coming of age when you don’t know who you are, and adapting to motherhood. It’s about choices, inevitabilities, regrets and a love that endures.
October 1943: Chiara Ravello is walking near Rome’s Jewish ghetto when she spots a large group of people being herded into trucks. A Jewish woman catches her eye and directs her seven-year-old son to go with Chiara. Pretending the boy is her nephew, Chiara saves him from certain death. The war years have been a hard time for the Ravello family: Chiara’s father and her fiancé both died about five years ago, and her mother perished in a bombing a few months ago. Now she and her epileptic sister Cecilia are preparing to flee the occupation by taking refuge in their grandmother’s home in the hills above Rome. Chiara never expected to be a mother after Carlo’s death, but now she has the chance to raise Daniele Levi as her own.
That’s where many novels would have ended it: with a hopeful conclusion after a time of hardship; with a new beginning spooling out in the future. Instead, this is where Baily starts her bittersweet tale. It’s no happily ever after for Chiara and Daniele; indeed, over the years that Daniele is a silent, sullen boy, then a rebellious teenager, and finally a drug addict, Chiara will frequently question the impulsive choice she made that morning in 1943. She seems doomed, in Daniele’s eyes at least, to be “the wicked stepmother, half-provider, half-tyrant.” This gives the novel something of the flavor of Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, another rare instance of fictional ambivalence about motherhood.
There’s an extra layer to the novel, however. In 1973, Chiara learns that Daniele has a daughter he never knew: Maria, now 16, lives with her mother in Wales. Angry and unsure of her new identity, Maria has boycotted her school leaving exams and asks to live with Chiara for the summer instead. Baily describes these two very different characters equally well, and does a great job of capturing the feel of Rome and its surroundings, especially through Maria’s viewpoint. She also moves deftly between the events of 1943–44 and those of 1973 in alternating chapters, giving subtle clues as to the time period through her interesting choice of tense: right up to the last chapter, she uses the present tense to describe past action, and the past tense for current action.
Through the flashbacks, we learn surprising truths about how Chiara abandoned a family member and gained a best friend. She made dubious choices during the war, but also showed great bravery and generosity. Baily gives just enough away, and so gradually that the novel’s nearly 400 pages pass quickly. In touching on World War II and the Holocaust only peripherally, the novel avoids well-worn, clichéd narratives and does something new.
The writing does not draw attention to itself; there are no long-winded descriptions or ornate sentences. Baily relies more on food (as in “[Maria’s] insides were lubricated with olive oil”) and period fashion to add detail and local color. Still, where there is metaphorical language it usually refers to animals and seems both appropriate and evocative. I also love the warm, earthy tones of the book’s cover, which reminds me of my time spent in Tuscany last year. However, I’m not sure the novel’s title works; it doesn’t say enough about the book.
Still, I admire how Baily takes what seems like a familiar Holocaust rescue story and turns it on its head. A late passage in which Chiara watches over Daniele as he sleeps off a hangover hints at the emotional ambiguities she conveys here:
Funny how sometimes she used to think that because he had this horseshoe birthmark, a talisman of good fortune imprinted in his skin, he carried his luck with him. How she persisted in thinking it was luck that had saved him when the rest of his family had perished, and not, as he seems to want to demonstrate to her, its opposite.
‘I don’t blame you, Ma,’ he has told her more than once.
‘So why are you so intent on throwing your life away?’ she has asked him, but he doesn’t seem to have an answer.
I would particularly recommend this novel to fans of Maggie O’Farrell and Anthony Doerr. Read this alongside Julia Blackburn’s Thin Paths or another choice from my Italian summer reading list – it’s the next best thing to being there.
*At first I presumed this was a debut, but it turns out she wrote one novel previously, under the name Ginny Baily, Africa Junction (2011).
Many thanks to Virago for my free copy, received through a newsletter giveaway.
You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me.
~ C. S. Lewis
Here’s to doorstoppers! Books of 500 pages or more [the page count is in brackets for each of the major books listed below] can keep you occupied for entire weeks of a summer – or for just a few days if they’re gripping enough. There’s something delicious about getting wrapped up in an epic story and having no idea where the plot will take you. Doorstoppers are the perfect vacation companions, for instance. I have particularly fond memories of getting lost in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke  on a week’s boating holiday in Norfolk with my in-laws, and of devouring The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber  on a long, queasy ferry ride to France.
I have an MA in Victorian Literature, so I was used to picking up novels that ranged between 600 and 900 pages. Of course, one could argue that the Victorians were wordier than necessary due to weekly deadlines, the space requirements of serialized stories, and the popularity of subsequent “triple-decker” three-volume publication. Still, I think Charles Dickens’s works, certainly, stand the test of time. His David Copperfield [~900] is still my favorite book. I adore his sprawling stories crammed full of major and minor characters. Especially in a book like David Copperfield that spans decades of a character’s life, the sheer length allows you time to get to know the protagonist intimately and feel all his or her struggles and triumphs as if they were your own.
I felt the same about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara , which I recently reviewed for Shiny New Books. Jude St. Francis is a somewhat Dickensian character anyway, for his orphan origins at least, and even though the novel is told in the third person, it is as close a character study as you will find in contemporary literature. I distinctly remember two moments in my reading, one around page 300 and one at 500, when I looked up and thought, “where in the world will this go?!” Even as I approached the end, I couldn’t imagine how Yanagihara would leave things. That, I think, is one mark of a truly masterful storyteller.
Speaking of Dickensian novels, in recent years I’ve read two Victorian pastiches that have an authentically Victorian page count, too: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton  and Death and Mr. Pickwick by Stephen Jarvis . The Luminaries, which won the 2013 Booker Prize, has an intricate structure (based on astrological charts) that involves looping back through the same events – making it at least 200 pages too long.
It was somewhat disappointing to read Jarvis’s debut novel in electronic format; without the physical signs of progress – a bookmark advancing through a huge text block – it’s more difficult to feel a sense of achievement. Once again one might argue that the book’s digressive nature makes it longer than necessary. But with such an accomplished debut that addresses pretty much everything ever written or thought about The Pickwick Papers, who could quibble?
John Irving’s novels are Dickensian in their scope as well as their delight in characters’ eccentricities, but fully modern in terms of themes – and sexual explicitness. Along with Dickens, he’s a mutual favorite author for my husband and me, and his A Prayer for Owen Meany  numbers among our collective favorite novels. Most representative of his style are The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.
Here are a handful of other long novels I’ve read and reviewed within the last few years (the rating is below each description):
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr  – The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner; set in France and Germany during World War II.
In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman  – Digressive intellectualizing about race, class and war as they pertain to British immigrants.
The Son by Philipp Meyer  – An old-fashioned Western with hints of Cormac McCarthy.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach  – Baseball is a window onto modern life in this debut novel about homosocial relationships at a small liberal arts college.
“A Discovery of Witches” fantasy trilogy by Deborah Harkness: A Discovery of Witches , Shadow of Night , and The Book of Life  – Thinking girl’s vampire novels, with medieval history and Oxford libraries thrown in.
And here’s the next set of doorstoppers on the docket:
Of Human Bondage by W. Somerset Maugham  – A Dickensian bildungsroman about a boy with a clubfoot who pursues art, medicine and love.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt  – I have little idea of what this is actually about. A boy named Theo, art, loss, drugs and 9/11? Or just call it life in general. I’ve read Tartt’s other two books and was enough of a fan to snatch up a secondhand paperback for £1.
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James  (as with A Little Life, the adjective in the title surely must be tongue-in-cheek!) – The starting point is an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in the late 1970s, but this is a decades-sweeping look at Jamaican history. I won a copy in a Goodreads giveaway.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth [1,474!] – A sprawling Indian family saga. Apparently he’s at work on a sequel entitled A Suitable Girl.
This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson  – A novel about Charles Darwin and his relationship with Robert FitzRoy, captain of the Beagle.
The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope  – As the title suggests, this is the final novel in Trollope’s six-book “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series. Alas, reading this one requires reading the five previous books, so this is more like a 5,000-page commitment…
Now, a confession: sometimes I avoid long books because they just seem like too much work. It’s sad but true that a Dickens novel takes me infinitely longer to read than a modern novel of similar length. The prose is simply more demanding, there’s no question about it. So if I’m faced with a choice between one 800-page novel that I know could take me months of off-and-on reading and three or four 200–300-page contemporary novels, I’ll opt for the latter every time. Part of this also has to do with meeting my reading goals for the year: when you’re aiming for 250 titles, it makes more sense to read a bunch of short books than a few long ones. I need to get better about balancing quality and quantity.
How do you feel about long books? Do you seek them out or shy away? Comments welcome!
They say there are only two basic plots: a stranger comes to town, or the hero sets off on a journey. So far this summer I’ve enjoyed two novels that exemplify one or the other model.
First is The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows, co-author of the endearing The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. This atmospheric historical novel is set in the sweltering summer of 1938. Layla Beck, a spoiled senator’s daughter, has been sent to Macedonia, West Virginia by the WPA to document the town’s story in advance of its sesquicentennial. Her uncle pulls strings to get her the job even though he thinks his flighty niece is “exactly as fit to work on the project as a chicken is to drive a Buick.”
From a lunatic Civil War general onwards, Macedonia has certainly had a colorful history. The problem is that all the local lights want to skew history to present themselves in the most favorable light. This applies to the family Layla boards with as well, the Romeyns. Felix and Jottie’s father ran the American Everlasting Hosiery Company until a devastating fire some 20 years ago – blamed on Jottie’s old sweetheart, Vause Hamilton.
Now Felix’s twelve-year-old daughter Willa, who narrates much of the novel, wants to get to the bottom of things. What really happened during that factory fire? Why are the Romeyns snubbed around town? Has her divorcé father turned to bootlegging, and can she stop Miss Beck from bewitching him? Like Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird or Flavia de Luce in Alan Bradley’s mysteries, Willa is a spunky heroine whose curiosity carries the plot.
Once again Barrows makes good use of the epistolary format by inserting the letters Layla sends and receives during her time in Macedonia. Third person narration also gets us into the mind of Jottie, one of the strongest characters. However, later sections of the novel get a little bogged down in Jottie’s romantic history, and overall it is too long by at least a quarter. Barrows is better at capturing everyday speech and routines than momentous activities like a factory strike, but she certainly evokes the oppressive heat of a long American summer.
As Willa concludes, “The truth of other people is a ceaseless business. You try to fix your ideas about them, and you choke on the clot you’ve made.” This novel reminds us that others – whether strangers or family – are always a mystery, and history is a matter of interpretation.
Next up is Safekeeping, the debut novel from Jessamyn Hope. A bit like All the Light We Cannot See, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from Anthony Doerr, the plot revolves around a priceless jewel. In this case it’s a medieval sapphire brooch that has been passed down through Adam’s family for centuries. In 1994, after the death of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, Adam undertakes a quest to return the brooch to the woman he fell in love with on an Israeli kibbutz and never forgot. Adam has his own problems – he’s a recovering junkie and alcoholic – but he feel he owes this to his grandfather’s memory.
A kibbutz undergoing the bitter transition from communalism to salaried work provides a vivid contrast to Adam’s native New York City. Hope populates her novel with a wonderful cast of eccentric characters. There’s Ulya, a Belarussian prima donna with a shoplifting habit; Claudette, a French Canadian Catholic crippled by mental health issues; Ziva, a kibbutz veteran who fights the changes tooth and nail despite advancing infirmity; and Ofir, a young man who endeavors to finish his military service early so he can return to his beloved piano.
I loved the way that Hope links the disparate characters in a constellation of connections. Acts of generosity, small or large, make a huge difference, even though betrayals past and present still linger. Close third person narration shifts easily between all the characters’ viewpoints, while two surprising historical interludes add depth. Hope handles flashbacks as elegantly as I’ve ever seen: you follow characters into their thoughts and suddenly snap back to the present right along with them.
I’ll confess I was slightly disappointed with the inconclusive ending. We follow the brooch rather than the characters, which means that in two cases we are left wondering about a person’s fate. Still, I was so impressed with the writing, especially the interweaving of past and present, that I will be eager to watch Hope’s career. Safekeeping is published by Fig Tree Books, a champion of modern Jewish literature, and has one of the most terrific book covers I’ve seen in a while.