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Unusual books

Over the last two years, I've been rapidly increasing the range and variety and books I read - mainly because I've had to in order to properly research the pieces I've produced for the MA. I'm now on a husband/self-imposed book buying ban until I've read all (or at least most!) of the books that have been sitting on my kindle/shelves for years.

As a result of both these things, I've read some very different books of late. Anne O'Brien's The Scandalous Duchess was in line with one of my usual genres of choice (historical fiction), telling the story of the love affair between Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt, so I'm not sure why it took me 6 years to get round to reading it! However, well written and moving as it was and as much as I enjoyed it, it wasn't a challenge - this kind of book is very much in my comfort zone.

More challenging was Ray Bradbury's Farenheit 451, which I read for my book group. But although the dystopian setting would not have been my usual choice of genre, again, the content wasn't a challenge. The book was structured in the usual way - a straightforward narrative. Even narratives that jump between two different timelines don't trouble me. In fact, most of my favourites are structured in this exact way. However, some writers have taken that split narrative a little further and have experimented with different ways of structuring their work.

It's two books whose authors have done exactly this that I want to talk about and these were books whose structures presented me with something of a challenge. However, it was more my reaction to these books that intrigued me and prompted this post. The first one is Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. This is the better known of the two and confused me terribly to begin with. I had heard of it when I picked it up to study its use of polyphony (multiple narrative voices) but beyond knowing that there was more than one narrator, I knew nothing about it. Hence, when I got to the end of the first section to discover that it ended literally mid sentence, I was somewhat confused. Initially I wondered if it was a misprint (anyone who saw my wonderful copy of The Great Gatsby which jumped from p96 to p120, then returned to p96 before continuing to the end, will understand why!) , but flicking through the remainder of the book however, it became obvious that it was a deliberate structural choice. At first, I couldn't handle this and found the corresponding section so I could finish reading the paragraph at least! Nevertheless, I persevered with the book and gradually got my head around its unusual layout and began to appreciate the artistry and the thought that had gone into the links between each section. Whilst it will never be amongst my favourite books, I have a huge amount of respect for the undoubted talent of David Mitchell and can appreciate the quality of the book. If you haven't read it, then I would certainly recommend having a look at it - it was a satisfying read.

One of the things I've learned over the years is that if a book doesn't grip me within a few pages, it's likely that it never will and I've started giving books a maximum of 100 pages to get me interested. If I don't care by that point I'll put it to one side and start reading something else. If I'm captivated by a book, I'm also a very quick reader and will often get through a book a day (if not more when I'm left undisturbed) and even very thick books don't usually take me more than three days to read. So when a book takes longer, I'm frustrated and intrigued in equal measure. I've just finished Sarum by Edward Rutherford, having been reading it for about a week and felt the need to record my thoughts on it. The honest truth is that it confused me. It's not a difficult book to understand by any means, I'm just not sure whether or not I enjoyed it. I feel a sense of satisfaction at having read it and there were elements within it that interested me and certain characters I felt more strongly about. However, even at 70% read, I was still unsure if I was actually enjoying it. I took to Goodreads at about 50% to see if I was alone in not understanding my reaction to the story. It turned out that I wasn't. One of the first reviews I read essentially said that it was strangely compelling, but at no point had they felt truly engaged with it and they weren't sure if it was a good book or not. This pretty much summed up my reaction to it. It IS a good book - it's well written, well constructed, well researched and an interesting premise. But did it enjoy it? I don't know. It basically takes the reader from prehistoric times up to the 1980s and is as much a history of Salisbury and its environs as it is a story about the various families who appear in it. At times I found it quite hard to remember which family was which and there were some characters who were thoroughly dislikable, but importantly, they were all real - not in the sense of being living breathing humans, but in being three dimensional characters who could plausibly have existed in the real world. It's basically a series of short stories disguised as a novel and each story is linked by the families within it - descendants of the original people in Sarum appear in each story to give a sense of continuity. I think one of the reasons I found it hard was because I'm not a huge fan of short stories on the whole. I like to really get into a narrative and with short stories, just as you're getting to grips with the characters, the story ends. The continuation of the family lines mitigates this effect somewhat in Sarum but I think I found it easier to read once I started thinking of it as separate stories rather than one continuous one.

That said - would I recommend the book? Probably, yes. It's interesting and worth persevering with, if only for the insight into the area around Salisbury. Again, it's unlikely to be a book I'll come back to over and over again, but I'm glad that after having it sitting on my kindle for almost 3 years I've finally got round to reading it.

As for the reading in my near future, I'm allowed to borrow books from the library, so next on my list is Rhys Bowen's Her Royal Spyness for some light relief before I attempt to tackle Dawkins and The God Delusion. That book was bought a mere two years ago! However, as another book is slowly taking shape in my head, the research list for that is also beginning to grow ever larger, so undoubtedly the kindle books will be put on hold once again as the writing begins to take over once more. Whatever happens though, I WILL get through them all... eventually!

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