Lives closely examined: seven books to savour


"The Explorer" ~ Rebecca Campbell (
“The Explorer” ~ Rebecca Campbell (

“Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons

I have spent January reading only fiction.  Not deliberately – it just worked out like that.  Perhaps it is that time of year when hunkering down with a good story, while it is damp and chilly outside, is a cracking option.  Perhaps reality needs escaping from at the moment.

With the benefit of hindsight, I can see a common theme across these books:  the meticulous examination of lives where, in each case, we see how the extraordinary impacts on the ordinary.

There is also a sub-theme across three of the books: the consequences of, and involvement in, different aspects of the second world war.  Again, this is happenstance, but nevertheless engaging, particularly coming along so soon after my reading of Anne Frank’s diary.  Will we ever tire of learning about such events?  I hope not.

The Wonder, Emma Donoghue

I enjoyed immensely Donoghue’s book Room, so was keen to try something else by her.  The Wonder is the story of Lib, an English nurse returned from service with Florence Nightingale and sent to review the case of a young girl in 1850s rural Ireland who has stopped eating.  It is described as a thriller in many reviews and I can see why, even though it did not come across in this way to me.  The novel’s pace is very slow, giving the reader plenty of time to absorb the very strange unfolding tale.  As expected of Donoghue, the writing is careful and considered, with a beautifully concise tone which enhances the overall atmosphere of secrecy, isolation and fear.  The story is heavily steeped in the religious practices and beliefs of the time, so this might not be for everyone.  But this did not bother me, and I  was pleased to have read this unusual drama.

Read this if:  you enjoy historical intrigue, loosely based on real accounts.


My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout

I seem to be going through a phase of enjoying books where nothing much happens. This is another example, and one which I absolutely loved.  Beautiful and profound, the writing is so absorbing as to give the reader a sense that the book is not a work of fiction, but a real-life memoir.  As such, it very much reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful Gilead.  I felt as if I was in the hospital bed beside Lucy, listening to her talking and could happily have gone on reading for ever.

Read this if:  you love lyrical, touching and embracing writing.


The Gustav Sonata, Rose Tremain

“We can’t know..until the moment arrives what choice we are going to make”.

This is another stunningly beautiful story, about the difference between love and friendship.  It is also about nature and nurture.  We follow Gustav back and forth through different episodes in his life, gradually coming to understand their impact on him and his relationships with family and friends.  Set in the middle years of the 20th Century, the fear caused by and horrors of the second world war are at times distant and close up, creating a somewhat melancholic undertone, which frames perfectly the main storyline.  I was utterly hooked and did not want it to end.

Read this if:  you enjoy stories which examine meticulously the pain and joy of close relationships.


The Reader, Bernhard Schlink

This was my book club read for January.  I saw the film several years ago and can’t remember much about it, apart from the very strong performance by Kate Winslet.  Even so, I was surprised to find that, apart from one key aspect of the narrative, I had forgotten what ultimately happens to the characters.  Told by a grown-up Michael looking back on the events of his life, and in particular his relationship with Hanna, this story reminded me in many ways of The Go Between by L P Hartley.  Dealing with moral, behavioural ethical challenges arising from actions in and after the Second World War, it was a captivating read.

Read this if:  you like to engage with a thought-provoking read about a relatively unusual aspect of a difficult subject.


Everything I Never Told You, Celest Ng 

Another beautifully written, breathtaking read.  This is the story of an American-Chinese family in the 1970s struggling to cope with the death of Lydia, the eldest child (no spoilers here – this is known right from the start).  As the book progresses, it peels away layer by layer the different facets and back stories of the characters so that we gradually get to the tragic heart of the matter.  On the one hand it is a real page turner.  On the other, the writing is so thoughtful that I found myself actively having to slow down and, in some cases, flick back a page or two to take everything in.   Stunning.

Read this if:  detailed character exploration and inter-relationships is your thing.


The Tobacconist, Robert Seethaler

I was keen to read this, having enjoyed Seethaler’s previous novel, A Whole Life.  I was not disappointed.  We read about 17-year-old Franz, who finds himself taking up a job in a tobacconist shop in Vienna – a far cry from his rural Austrian upbringing.  It is 1939 and the German annexation of Austria is just around the corner.  The way in which Franz, his friends and fellow countrymen are affected by these events is skilfully portrayed.  The writing is cleverly understated, and all the more powerful for it.

Read this if: you enjoy stories about displacement and tests of character.


On The Other Side, Carrie Hope Fletcher

This is a much lighter read than the books I normally pick up.  But I can never resist a time-travel story.  One of my favourite books is Replay by Ken Grimwood (said to have been the inspiration behind the film Groundhog Day, although I have also heard this said about Nietzsche’s The Gay Science).  Anyway, Fletcher’s book is a charming story about Evie, who, upon her death, is presented with the necessity of facing the burdens she has acquired through life.  I enjoyed skipping through this one, with its engaging characters and unusual plot.

Read this if:  you fancy a nice romance to distract you from listening to the news.


There is nothing quite like a good book to provide a welcome distraction from life’s challenges.  Role on the next batch of reads! 🙂

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”
~ Jorge Luis Borges


12 thoughts on “Lives closely examined: seven books to savour

  1. I have joined a book club and am now in the midst of reading “Catcher in the Rye,” a book I read decades ago. It is interesting to look back and see if years of living changes the way I view the narrative. I so enjoy your “book” reviews.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Goodness me – that is indeed a blast from the past. I will be interested to learn what you think about it in due course. I am contemplating reading Cider With Rosie – an English classic which was rather spoilt for me by being a set text at school. I suspect I might enjoy it now – “education is wasted on the young”!! 🙂 x

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are such an excellent reviewer! I find it so difficult to say why I like a book – though I don’t have too much trouble saying what I don’t like! I love books (and films) where nothing much happens.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh dear me – all but one of these books have been floating around in my head for a while and are probably noted on a list somewhere and I’d like to read them all! So many books, so little time!

    (On another matter entirely, I have embarked on a reverse minimalism challenge – by which I mean I started with 28 items to go on day one and am working down to one item on day 28. Fascinating process – and harder than I expected. I’m glad I chose to go backwards!)

    And finally – Cider with Rosie: I read when very young and read it again more recently. Second time around it was a joy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love your version of the minimalism challenge – it sounds great and I look forward to hearing how you get on. And thanks for that nudge re Cider with Rosie – something else to add to my every growing pile, which sounds as if it is as high as yours!! 🙂


  4. I’ve only heard of one of these The Reader but as I own it, I am even more excited to read it now. A lot has been written about the second world war, I think it would be interesting if publishers could be more discerning, in what they print. I mean to have a little moan, it is disheartening to pick up a number of books and then all have the same story pattern. The obscure should be embraced, the stories told of those small nations and those people so often forgotten about.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is always such a delight when unexpected nuggets of gold fall out of well-trodden story-ways. I found this to be the case with The Reader and also The Tobacconist, both of which were such interesting reads. I am sure you would enjoy them both.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The Tobacconist is a new one on me but will keep an eye out for it, I do love a good challenge when it comes to a book so the more the merrier.

        Liked by 1 person

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