Book review: “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

This has been on my TBR list for years – it was a sensation when it was first published in 2001, went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and was adapted for film in 2012, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Ang Lee (though critical reception of the film was mixed). However, my life at that time was rather dominated by small children – these were what I call my ‘lean years’ of reading, of adult books anyway! I determined to read Life of Pi this summer because my elder daughter thought it was brilliant and has been harassing me to read it for months. I will put my cards on the table straight away – I thought it was extraordinary. The best thing I have read since The Overstory by Richard Powers, which I finished in January.

The Life of Pi imgThe story is well-known: a young Indian boy, Piscine “Pi” Patel (a name he adopts to get back at the school bullies who taunt him with the nickname ‘Pissing’) grows up in the territory of Pondicherry where his parents own a zoo. The first part of the story gives us a detailed account of the family’s life there, including enormous detail about life for the animals in a zoo setting (I was fascinated by this and it changed my perspective on zoos). We learn in particular about the fierce Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, who is the zoo’s prized possession. I love the use of ‘naming’ in this book – the story of how Richard Parker came to be given this name is brilliant and a sign of the author’s ingenuity and creativity. The other important feature of this part of the novel is that we learn of Pi’s deeply philosophical nature, his decision to adopt three religions (Hinduism, in which he has been brought up, Islam and Christianity), much to his family’s dismay, because he can see benefits in all of them.

Difficult political events in India lead his parents to make a decision to move to Canada, taking their most precious animals with them, in order that they can start a new zoo. Shortly after leaving port, however, the Japanese freighter in which the family is travelling sinks. All souls are lost, except Pi, who escapes in a lifeboat, with, as he will soon discover, four animals – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. The first part of the journey is gruesome and terrible; the zebra has broken its leg in the fall and is soon brutally and graphically finished off by the ravenous hyena. The hyena then attacks, kills and eats the orangutan. This is not for the squeamish! Pi believes he is going to be next on the hyena’s list until he discovers they are sharing the lifeboat with the tiger, who has been hiding under a tarpaulin for days, suffering with severe seasickness! When he does emerge, the hyena is no match for Richard Parker, who summarily kills him. This undoubtedly saves Pi’s life but it is out of the frying pan and into the fire as he wonders if he will be Richard Parker’s next meal.

What we are treated to next is many months of a precarious symbiotic existence on the lifeboat – boy and tiger trying to survive. It is a quite extraordinary feat that the author can make 227 days on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean such edge of the seat reading. First we have Pi’s incredible ingenuity, the powerful survival instinct which enables him to stretch the meagre rations in the lifeboat’s emergency pack, and utilise all the supplies available. Second, there is the way he manages Richard Parker to ensure that he, Pi, becomes the alpha animal – he uses all his zoo knowledge, plus his exceptional courage, to teach the tiger submissiveness and this enables them both to survive. Third, there is the incredible storytelling, the highs and lows of shipwreck (at one point they land on a lush island, only to discover that it is dominated by deadly carnivorous plants) plus Pi’s account of his own mental health.

We know that Pi will survive – the novel begins with the author meeting the older Pi in Canada, and Pi promising to tell him his story – but this makes the account no less tense, so close to peril do the pair exist. There is a brilliant twist at the end, which I will not disclose, but it kind of leaves you breathless. Untethered!

I found this a profoundly fascinating book that you can read on so many levels. It is a philosophical tract about the nature of the divine. It is a book about the triumph of the human spirit when faced with adversity. It is a book about the relationship between man and beast. It is also, quite simply, a brilliant yarn about that most traditional of stories, the shipwreck and the survivor.

Absolutely brilliant, loved every second of it, highly recommend it, can’t believe it took me so long to get around to it!

I’d love to hear about a book on your TBR list that you loved once you finally got around to reading it.

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Book review – “The Lido” by Libby Page

The theme for August for my Facebook Reading Challenge was a ‘beach novel’. It seemed an obvious theme to choose, with it being peak holiday season, and we’ve had some serious and challenging books over the last few months so I thought something light and easy was in order. I was on holiday myself, in Jersey, which I posted about last week and whilst there wasn’t much time spent on a beach (it was quite an active holiday, so actually there wasn’t even that much reading done!) it was a great book to dip in and out of on the flight, in the evening after dinner or in the occasional quieter moments.

The Lido imgThe book concerns two women, Rosemary, an 86 year-old widow, and Kate, a 26 year-old journalist, and how they are brought together by chance when the Brixton lido is threatened with closure. Their relationship evolves as together they mount a campaign to keep the pool open, drawing in other local people and reviving a community spirit that everyone involved thought had been lost. In some ways the two women could not be more different: Rosemary is nearing the end of her life, now alone having lost her beloved husband, and has lived in this area of South London all her life. Kate, on the other hand, is young and bright, and has moved to the city from Bristol to begin her journalistic career on the local paper. Kate too, though, is lonely; unlike Rosemary she has not lost anyone, but she has not found anyone either, and she grapples with panic attacks, anxiety and low self-esteem. She shares a house with a number of similarly isolated flatmates, none of whom she knows, and stays alive thanks to ready meals.

When Kate is asked by her editor to cover the planned sale of the Lido by the local council to a property developer who wants to build a tennis court over it for the private use of residents of its luxury flats, she meets Rosemary who begins to recount to her the special significance of the Lido in her life. Not only that, Rosemary, a former children’s librarian, places it in the context of the decline of the sense of community in the area and how local people are being denied opportunities to come together, to play a part and to be involved. Rosemary’s story captures Kate’s imagination and she enters into full-on campaigning mode, setting up a petition, social media groups, and the story becomes a regular feature in the local newspaper.

Kate and Rosemary also begin to develop a close friendship; Kate starts to swim regularly and take care of herself more and this gives her a new energy and new coping strategies to help her deal with her feelings of anxiety. It also initiates Kate into the community and she finds a new circle of friends. For Rosemary the campaign and the friendship help her come to terms with the loss of her husband and when both women at different points have particularly bleak moments, the other is there to pick them up.

This book does exactly what it promises: it’s a heart-warming story, with strong themes around community values, friendship and companionship. It also deals with the taboo issue of depression as it affects a young woman, who has her whole life ahead of her and “should” be living a great life, and an elderly woman, a group whose mental health is so often neglected.

This wasn’t the ‘finest’ novel I’ve read all year, but it was one of the most charming and fitted the bill perfectly for a straightforward and honest summertime read.

Recommended.

What sort of books do you like to read on holidays?

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#KeepKidsReading: Book review – “What not to do if you turn invisible” by Ross Welford

This is my third Ross Welford novel. I loved the two others that I have read – Time Travelling with a Hamster and The 1,000 Year Old Boy – and have recommended them widely. What not to do if you turn invisible explores some similar themes to the other books – a child who has lost a parent and who feels slightly set apart from their peers, childhood fears and worries, dealing with bullies, and choosing to be brave. It is also set in the same north east England neighbourhoods of Whitley Bay and Tynemouth (an area I know well as I lived there for a few years) and the made-up town on Culvercot (sounds rather like real-life Cullercoats to me!).

What not to do if you turn invisible imgThe main character in the book is a girl this time – 12 year-old Ethel Leatherhead; yes, it is an unusually old-fashioned name, but that is significant. Ethel lives with her ‘Gram’, a very conservative, very proper lady who has strong views about things that are ‘common’ or undesirable. We learn that Ethel’s mother died when she was young, and that she is not aware of her father. Ethel also has a great-grandmother, who turns 100 in the course of the novel. Great-gram lives in a nursing home and speaks very little until one day, after Ethel visits her, she grabs her by the arm and says to Ethel, rather mysteriously, “Tiger. Pussycat.”

Something else we learn about Ethel from the outset is that she suffers from severe acne. That fact is key to the story as it is her search for a cure that leads her to try a mysterious Chinese medicine she buys from the internet and an old sunbed. It is the combination of these two potent remedies that causes her to experience bouts of temporary invisibility. Once she discovers this, and comes to terms with it, she and her friend Elliot Boyd (another school outsider, who is teased because he is from the South and because he is overweight) seek to use the invisibility, firstly, to help Elliot in the school talent competition and, secondly, as a means of exposing the bad behaviour of school bullies Jarrow and Jesmond Knight, boy and girl twins who have been kidnapping local dogs and demanding ransoms for their return.

The scene is set for a number of interwoven plot threads – how will Ethel cope with her invisibility and will it have any long term physical effects? Will Ethel and Elliot succeed in getting the incriminating video evidence back from the Knight twins, who become aware of Ethel’s ‘power’? What did Great-gram mean when she said “Tiger. Pussycat.” to Ethel? And who is Great-gram’s mysterious visitor? Finally, what has the late pop-singer Felina, who apparently died from the pressures of fame, the paparazzi and alcohol problems, to do with Ethel?

There is a great deal going on in this novel, and some of it does not seem relevant at the beginning, but things start to come together towards the end, so it rewards patience. There are some brilliantly tense moments of adventure and peril, for example, when invisible Ethel breaks into the home of the Knight twins while they and their father are there, in order to wipe their computer hard drives and mobile phones (to destroy the video), but I found this book a much slower burn than the other two I have read. For that reason, I would recommend it more for the older end of the target age group (11-12 years) rather than say 9-10 year-olds. Also, the themes are quite mature – the problems of growing up, the loss of a parent (there is no miraculous ‘happy ending’ like in Hamster, but there is acceptance and reconciliation, and discovery of her Dad), the nature of true friendship and possible romance.

This is quite a long book, but a relatively quick read, thanks to the shortish chapters. A nice one for travelling with, I would say.

Recommended for 11-12 year olds.

I love having an excuse to read kids’ books – what about you?

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Book review – “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones

2019-06-14 10.49.53This book has been on my to-read list for some time now, ever since it caught my eye over a year ago when it was published. I recommended it as a hot new read for Spring last year, in fact! Following in my footsteps (he must have read my blog post!) Barack Obama recommended it as one of his Summer reads last year and he is quoted on the cover as saying this is “A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” Notably, it also won the Women’s Prize for Fiction in June.

Let me get my cards on the table straight away – I loved this book, and it completely lived up to the hype it has had. It is such an interesting topic for a novel and yet one in which very little actually ‘happens’. It is a tender account of a relationship and the effect that one single event has upon them. It does not once get sentimental, does not set out actively to campaign about the injustice of the one event, and does not take sides. It just lays everything bare for the reader to draw their own conclusions. It will break your heart and fill you with hope at the same time.

Roy and Celestial are a young African-American couple, living in Atlanta, Georgia and their lives are on the up. They come from rather different backgrounds: Celestial is the daughter of a teacher and an academic, and is hoping to forge a career as an artist. Roy is the only son of Olive and Big Roy (who is not his biological father), decidedly more blue-collar but with strong values, pride, and deep Christian faith. They met through a mutual friend, Andre, who has lived next door to Celestial’s parents since they were children. Roy and Celestial are very much in love, but it is still early days in their marriage and they have their ups and downs.

They visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend and decide to stay in a motel; Olive has a slight suspicion about her daughter-in-law’s commitment to her son and it is more comfortable for both women if the couple do not stay in the family home. Roy and Celestial have an argument and Roy storms out of their motel room. He meets with a white woman whilst fetching ice and the two get talking. He tells her about the argument with his wife. Later that night, the police storm Roy and Celestial’s room whilst they are sleeping and arrest Roy on suspicion of rape of the woman he had chatted with earlier in the evening. At the trial, the woman testifies with certainty against Roy and it is quite apparent that Roy has little chance of escaping a guilty verdict, even though his innocence is clear to all who know him. Roy is sentenced to twelve years in prison.

The early chapters set the scene, switching between first person accounts by Roy and Celestial of their backgrounds, how they met and their recollections of the fateful night. The following chapters are an exchange of letters between the couple whilst Roy is in jail. Although Celestial visits him every month from Atlanta, the letters are an important way for them to keep their love alive. Just a couple of years into Roy’s sentence, however (and only 80 pages into the book), Celestial tells Roy that she can no longer go on being his wife, that they have spent longer apart than they were together, and that the situation is intolerable for her. We learn that Celestial was pregnant at the time of Roy’s trial but that they decided she should have an abortion as neither wanted their child to grow up with its father in prison. It is a metaphor for the doomed future of their marriage. Their correspondence ceases, and the remaining letters in this section are between Roy and his lawyer, Robert Banks, a family friend of Celestial’s parents, both about Roy’s appeal, which seems futile at this stage, and the status of his marriage.

This might seem the like the end of the thing. What we know about the couple at this stage is that Celestial is a strong-willed, independent woman who knows her own mind, and that Roy is proud, stubborn and conservative. The situation seems hopeless.

Roy spends five years in jail altogether, during which time he learns things about the status of African-Americans in the penal system he had no concept of before. He also, by chance, meets and shares a cell with his biological father, Walter. Also, Roy’s mother, Olive dies of lung cancer, never to see her son walk free. Eventually, Roy’s appeal succeeds and he is released, but he is by now broken, alone, his career in ruins. The remainder of the book is about Roy’s reunion with his old life, his hometown, Big Roy, and most importantly, with Celestial. Can their relationship be salvaged?

I don’t want to give any spoilers here, but I would just suggest that if you are looking for a romantic ending this book, thankfully, chooses not go (entirely!) down that route. It is a fine and up-close examination of the real human impact of judicial complacency, institutional racism, social prejudice and how some sectors of American society just get fewer life chances. It is also about a clash of values, between the more conservative older generation and the younger, educated, more metropolitan groups who assume there is equality.

This book is fascinating, beautiful, gripping and challenging and I recommend it highly.

If you have already read this book I would love to know your thoughts.

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Book review – “The Reader” by Bernhard Schlink

This was a recent choice for my book club. It was not a title I was familiar with although I had a vague recollection about a film adaptation coming out a few years ago. It was adapted for the screen in 2008, starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Fiennes. I had high hopes for the book and was excited at the prospect of reading it, especially since the comments on the cover of my edition were extremely enthusiastic. I’m afraid we were all slightly disappointed. The following review contains some spoilers.

2019-06-26 20.31.04The story begins when 15 year-old Michael, off school for many months after contracting hepatitis, seeks out Hanna Schmitz, a woman who had been passing when he found himself being sick in the street and who had helped him. Once he is well again, Michael’s mother sends him off to find the mystery good Samaritan in order that he can thank her. Hanna is twenty years Michael’s senior and employed as a bus conductor, but despite the social and age gap between them, they begin a passionate affair, both parties equally consenting. One of the more intimate aspects of their relationship is that Michael reads aloud to Hanna, after sex and in the bath mainly, although never the other way around. Michael never questions Hanna’s desire to have him read to her, he just accepts it. This makes up the first part of the book and perhaps it is a testament to events that have occurred since the time of its writing that all of us (mothers of teenagers!) found the prose rather discomfiting, and not a little implausible. Hanna disappears mysteriously out of Michael’s life, leaving him heartbroken and perhaps also rather damaged.

In part two, Michael is older, now at law school, when, as part of his studies, he is sent off to observe the trials of a number of former female guards of a concentration camp who are being charged with allowing the deaths of dozens of Jews, locked in a church when it was hit by a bomb and destroyed by fire. Michael is horrified to discover that Hanna is one of those on trial. There is a detailed report of the events that Hanna is accused of writing, thereby implicating her as the main guard responsible for the atrocity, a charge she does not deny. Michael observes the trial in horror unable to come to terms with the back-story of the woman he once loved. Only at the end of the trial, does he realise Hanna’s secret, that she is illiterate (and therefore could not have written the report), and he finds himself with the dilemma of whether to intervene and tell the judge, with all the implications that would have. He elects not to, realising that Hanna confessed in order to conceal her illiteracy and for him to expose her would breach her autonomy, even if it means there has been a miscarriage of justice.

The final part of the book is about Michael’s life after the trial, his failed marriage, and his eventual decision to make contact with Hanna in prison. He sends her cassette tapes of himself reading aloud although he never includes any personal messages or letters. Eventually, he sees Hanna again, as she is about to be released at the end of her sentence, and helps to set her up with work and accommodation for when she is released. Hanna never gets out though as she hangs herself in her cell on the night before her release.

Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the novel is said to be about Germany coming to terms with its wartime past; there is Hanna’s trial, the account of the events in which she was involved, the opportunity for the survivors of the camps to give an account of their experiences, and for the German judiciary to rightfully punish those responsible and be seen to dispense justice. On the cover of the book, the late Sir Peter Hall is quoted as saying “[This] is the German novel I have been waiting for: it objectifies the Holocaust and legitimately makes all mankind responsible.” I’m afraid, I just don’t think it reaches these heights. Yes, it is quite well-written and is arguably an interesting story, though one which my fellow book club members and I found deeply uncomfortable since we saw the relationship between Michael and Hanna as borderline child sexual abuse. The fact that this is in no way acknowledged is a problem. The story for me, though, just didn’t go anywhere; I reached the end and had nothing to say, no great realisation or revelation, or even closure. I just don’t think the book really knew what it was about.

So, a disappointing read, I’m afraid and not one I can recommend. I’d quite like to see the film, to see what Director Stephen Daldry (of Billy Elliot fame) made of it.

I’d love to know what you thought, if you have read it – did something different come out for you? And how are we to view works of literature written at times when societal norms, or our understanding of them, are different?

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YA book review – “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am passionate about children’s literature and regularly review both kids and YA books. I haven’t done a kids book review post for a while, for reasons that have been rehearsed in recent blogs, so it was a joy to pick up a YA book again and to be able to start another ‘Kids Books Week’.

The Hate U Give imgThis book is Angie Thomas’s debut novel and it caused a sensation when it was first published in the United States in February 2017. It enjoyed both critical and popular acclaim, remaining at the top of the New York Times YA best seller list for almost a year. It was made into a film which was released last Autumn. The novel came out of a short story Thomas wrote in college following the police shooting of a young black man in 2009.

The narrator is Starr Carter, a 16 year-old who lives in a poor neighbourhood of an unnamed American city, but who attends an elite private school. Her parents are not wealthy (her mother works in the health sector, her father owns a shop and has spent time in jail) but they are ambitious for their three children and determined that they should have a good education and defy the expectations of their birth. Throughout the novel Starr tells us how this presents her with some complex challenges and how she effectively has to be two different people – school Starr and ‘Garden Starr’ (the family’s neighbourhood is called Garden Heights). She is constantly torn between these two identities at an age when she is still trying to work out who she really is, and doesn’t feel she truly belongs in either place. This puts her in conflict at times with her wealthy, white boyfriend, who cannot fully empathise with her and from whom Starr keeps many of her true feelings, and indeed her father, who is angered when he discovers Starr is going out with a white boy.

Starr’s life is turned upside down when one of her friends, Kahlil, a boy she has known since kindergarten, is shot and killed by a police officer while he is giving her a lift home in his car after a party. Starr and her older brother have been drilled by their father about how to behave with the police, but non-threatening, compliant behaviour does not save Kahlil when confronted by the police officer who carries assumptions about young black males. This is the second time in her short life that Starr has seen a friend killed. As the only witness to the killing, Starr is in an impossible situation – it is her word against that of the police officer. The police officer is also a colleague of her uncle’s, so the whole family is affected and divided by the events that follow the shooting. Furthermore, the shooting raises tensions in the neighbourhood between the police and the residents, in particular the two main gangs that effectively control the area, and whose actions are presented very much as part of the problem.

The reader is carried along with Starr’s pain at the loss of the her friend, fear for the position in which she has been placed as the only witness and what this means for her family, especially in the context of the gang elements in Garden Heights, and ongoing confusion at her place in the two worlds in which she moves.

This is a profoundly moving and fascinating novel; as a reader I really felt drawn into Starr’s dilemmas – she is such a powerful narrator. On one level, the novel left me feeling despair at how easy it clearly is for young black people to become the victims of violence for which they are not responsible and how, for young black men in particular, this presents a constant threat. The author’s note at the end of the book expands on this. On another level it is a novel full of hope as the strength of the community, family bonds and Starr’s maturity and dignity shine brighter than the injustices.

The novel pulls no punches and parts of it are a tough read, but the themes are important ones for all of us to be aware of, and it is an important contribution to the Black Lives Matter  movement. Young people will I think empathise with Starr’s agonies; even though most will never have to face the terrible ordeal that she has, they will understand her teenage outlook, her anxieties and her emotions, because these are universal.

There are drug and sexual references as well as some strong language, so I would recommend this for mature 14 year olds and over. I also recommend to all adults  – it’s a cracking read.

Have you seen the film of this novel? I’m keen to know if it does justice to the book.

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Book review – “Perfume” by Patrick Süskind

This book is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of the late twentieth century. It was first published in the original German in 1985, and published in English the following year. It has sold over twenty million copies worldwide and been translated into 49 different languages. It won numerous prizes, remained on the bestseller lists in Germany for many years and was universally acclaimed. Despite this, its author published only a handful of other works (Perfume was his second book) and virtually retired from literary life in the mid-1990s and now, in his seventies, lives as a recluse between Germany and France, shunning all publicity. None of this surprises me; this book has surely to be the product of a very unusual mind.

Photo 11-03-2019, 13 52 18The book begins in mid-eighteenth century Paris when the central character, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, is born beneath a fish stall, to an indigent mother. She pauses her work briefly in order to give birth to him but then, believing or perhaps wishing him to be yet another of the many stillbirths she is said to have had, she leaves him for dead amongst the discarded fish guts. When he is discovered alive, his mother is tried for infanticide and executed. He is left to the mercy of the church, but proves a demanding and difficult baby, who, despite his unpromising start, appears to enjoy rude health. So much so that the wet-nurse hired to take care of him, returns him as he is drinking too much of her milk, making it impossible for her to take on any other infants and therefore make a living. The sense of his insatiable appetite and how he sucks the life out of those around him is established. As he goes through life, we learn that those who come into contact with him invariably meet a tragic end.

Once old enough he is apprenticed to a tanner and lives a brutal existence. He also begins to learn that he has an exceptional sense of smell – it’s almost painterly in its precision. An unscrupulous perfumer in the city, whose best days are behind him, discovers the boy’s skills and buys him from the tanner, obviously without revealing Grenouille’s gifts. The vain Baldini uses him to copy the successful scents produced by others and to create remarkable new fragrances which restore Baldini’s fame and fortune.

It is whilst working for Baldini that Grenouille commits his first murder, spontaneously and without any particular malice. He follows an enchanting smell only to find that it belongs to a young nubile girl. In its purity and its goodness, the smell is like nothing Grenouille has ever come across and he wishes to possess it. He kills the girl and remains with her body until he has absorbed every atom of her odour into himself. The curious thing about Grenouille is that despite his acute sense of smell her has no odour of his own and can pass through society virtually unnoticed. With this first murder he realises that he will never be found out.

Years pass and Grenouille moves out of Paris, including spending a number of years as a hermit, living in a mountain. He is constantly searching, for some essence of life that he lacks in himself and covets in others, for some sort of olfactory peace. He has the capacity to deceive others and, although he is cruel and unfeeling, by doing so he exposes the foolishness, vanity and greed of others. It is inevitable that Grenouille will become a prolific serial killer. His final act is a kind of aromatic climax, following which he is both spent (there is nothing left for him to do) and satisfied.

The opening chapters of the novel are an assault on the senses – eighteenth century Paris, with all its filth, poverty and physical and moral dereliction, is right there beneath your nostrils. Grenouille’s journey is narrated in the most extraordinary prose that you will ever read. The final scenes, with the baying crowd of thousands that gathers to witness his execution but which then, utterly transfixed by the hypnotic odour he has doused on himself, stolen from the bodies of his young female victims, descends into a wild orgy. It’s like the author presents a Hogarth painting on the page! (Hogarth was working at around the same time and I wonder if the author had him in mind?) It is quite extraordinary.

Perfume was one of the first books I read after graduating. I had a reading holiday after I’d finished my degree in English and this novel reminded me of my love for literature (at the time I was feeling pretty spent myself!). The other memorable book I read around this time was Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and I count both among my favourite books of all time. I was nervous coming back to Perfume, concerned that I might not find it as good and therefore its memory may somehow be spoiled. I needn’t have worried – it was an even greater pleasure second time around. Parts of the book left me breathless they were so powerful.

Highly, highly recommended, whether as a first or subsequent read. Astonishing.

Have you read Perfume? If so, how do you rate it?

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