Easy Reading for Dark Days

You know what I hate about winter?  Not the cold, not the snow, but the darkness! It makes me crave comfort food and comfort reading. And, while I agree with the need for difficult books and enjoy experimental reading by and large, with the anxiety-inducing news that seems to be lapping (or do I mean nipping?) at our feet constantly, we all need some soothing. So, for the past couple of week, I’ve gone with the undemanding stuff: favourite authors, lots of crime fiction and perhaps even something funny.

Prabda Yoon: Moving Parts, transl. Mui Poopoksakul

An unusual collection of surreal stories based around body parts, which I probably wouldn’t have come across without the help of the Asymptote Book Club. A finger shouting out ‘yuck’ at inappropriate times, a teenager who gets to keep the hand of the girl he fancies but makes a mess of it, a young woman who fears that her lack of a real human tail will damage her love prospects… You get the point: these are all such unlikely, borderline absurd scenarios that you cannot help but chuckle as you read them. This Thai author has previously been described as ‘virtually untranslatable’ because of the word games and puns, the way he likes to experiment with language. He certainly presents a picture of contemporary Thailand quite far removed from the tourist sights or even the more sleazy settings of crime fiction.

Louise Penny:Kingdom of the Blind

In the afterword to this latest novel set in the almost mythical community of Three Pines, I was very moved to read that the author had seriously thought she had nothing more to write about Armand Gamache, her much loved detective, head of the Sûreté du Québec, and staunch family man. The reason for that was the death of her husband, who had been a partial inspiration for Gamache. Much to the relief of her vast legions of fans, she did come up with a new story involving all of the colourful characters surrounding Gamache, as well as the extreme harshness of a Canadian winter. The storyline of political shenanigans to discredit Gamache is starting to wear a little thin, I thought, but otherwise it is a fun story of family rivalry, a feud about inheritance, and institutional and individual corruption.

Hanna Jameson: The Last

Such a promising premise for this one: what if nuclear war broke out while you were at a conference in a remote location in the Swiss Alps? What if you find a murder has been committed and that one of the survivors camping out with you in that hotel must have done it? Yet this novel, described inevitably as And Then There Were None meets The Road, really doesn’t live up to that promise. There is very little murder mystery in there, much more of an exploration of the psychology of survivors and the minutiae of their daily lives. There is some fun to be had about the differences of opinions between Europeans and Americans, and the ‘hazing’ of someone whom we might consider a Trump supporter, but every theme appears to be mentioned, gone into briefly, and then dropped. Besides, I just couldn’t get over the fact that the Swiss, with their abundance of obligatory bunkers fully equipped with food and other necessities, will be the ones most likely to survive the apocalypse in comfort. And the author doesn’t take this into account at all!

Tana French: The Witch Elm

Another difficult white cover – is there a trend right now that I hadn’t previously noticed? A standalone by one of the best crime authors currently at work – I could hardly wait to read this one. And yet, it was disappointing. Far too much background  – the story only gets going about halfway through, and even then there is too much dithering. While I normally enjoy French’s slow build-up to horrifying conclusions (Broken Harbour is the perfect example of that), in this case I didn’t feel that the build-up was warranted. And although I normally quite like unlikeable characters, I just couldn’t care about the narrator in this instance.

So in the end, easy reading doesn’t always make for the most satisfying reading. Out of the four, I would say the short story collection, i.e. The most unexpected and experimental one, was the one that pleased me most, even if I didn’t love every story and even though I feel it is disloyal to Louise Penny. Onwards and upwards!

23 thoughts on “Easy Reading for Dark Days”

  1. I’m reading Kingdom of the Blind at the moment – agree it’s a great comfort read, almost has the feel of a cosy with the main storyline and the kooky characters. And there’s something very appealing about reading about extreme weather while safely tucked up indoors!

    1. I’ve lived in countries with wintry conditions, but the sudden descent of blizzards in Canada is quite something else! I agree with you, more fun to read about than to experience.

  2. I know exactly what you mean about comfort reading, Marina Sofia. And both French and Penny are, for my money, excellent choices for that. I’m glad you enjoyed those novels. As for the Yoon and the Jameson, I admit I’m not familiar with them, but the premises sound really interesting. I respect authors who are innovative like that.

  3. Such a shame that the Jameson disappointed you — I love that graphic cover illustration in all its bright-red starkness. Sorry, too, that you didn’t find the French up to snuff: I found the last one of hers that I read a bit tedious, for very similar reasons, and was hoping the standalone might be a bit less plodding.

    1. It is a great cover, isn’t it? And shame about this particular Tana French. I can see how she wanted a change of pace from her usual police investigations, but it felt a little too self-indulgent.

  4. I didn’t look closely at Moving Parts when it dropped through the letter box so I had no idea it was a collection of stories. I don’t usually get on well with short stories. The Louise Penny is lined up for me to read soon – it’s real comfort reading for me

    1. I have to be in the right mood for short stories, as they can sometimes feel ‘cut off in the middle’ and leave me feeling unsatisfied. I thought these ones were intriguing little fragments which all jumbled together in a picturesque and ribald game, rather than fully developed distinct stories.

  5. Totally agree – it’s the lack of light that sees me struggle toward the end of winter and long for Spring, the cold is fine! Comfort reading is just the ticket. I also turn to crime (reading!) which for some reason just fits with the weather and need to be indoors and cosy.

  6. Yep, I’m with you on the darkness. It’s soul destroying. Reminds me a little of how Jean Rhys must have felt when she arrived in the UK as girl – the grey colour palette and lack of natural light must have been such a shock to the system.

    1. I’ve been wondering about that – pretty sure the tree is called Wych Elm, but that’s what it said on my ARC. Which of course is not the final proofread copy. But it seems like a big mistake to make!

  7. Oh, bummer about the French – I read it and really liked it, but could see where the slow pace might make some readers rather annoyed! (I think the title was intentionally changed in the US, presumably because “wych elm” would confuse little American brains. Annoying.)

  8. What an enormous shame Marina – I think we have all come across examples of previously sure hit authors being somewhat disappointing – I’m hoping I’ll enjoy the Wych Elm more than you did.

  9. Hi, Marina Sofia. This is belated; ran across it just after reading your post (and making an effort go get a couple of your books from my library). Donna Leon is a favorite author of mine, a go-to author when I want something both stimulating (her take on corruption in Italy comes to mind) but also human friendly ( such as her descriptions of yummy meals and the Brunetti family at the heart of all her books).
    But, looking for Venetian sun, I picked out “About Face”. Read this: “He walked home slowly, vaguely discomfited, as he was every winter, by the early arrival of the darkness and oppressed by the dampness and cold that had been increasing since the morning.” p.163. The snow the next day brings smiles to the Venetians, despite the inconvenience. But how I share his dismay about the darkness–here where I live now before 5.

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