Best of the Year: Sheer Entertainment

I have read quite a lot of escapist fiction this year – escapist in my case means crime fiction that keeps you turning page after page, or a book that immerses you in a particular time and place. A sense of humour also helps – I do like black, absurdist comedy; it must be my ‘living under a dictatorship’ heritage.

The problem with escapist literature is that you have to choose it well: some things sound far better in theory than in practice, or the blurb is misleading, and even the same author is no guarantee of success. See below which ones did not work for me and which I recommend in their stead.

  1. Instead of Sarah Pearse: The Sanatorium – try Allie Reynolds: Shiver

I am a sucker for books featuring winter in the mountains, especially when the setting is France or Switzerland, where the skiing terrain is familiar to me. Although The Sanatorium is atmospheric, the whole story feels implausible and the characters are stilted. I enjoyed Shiver, the tale of snowboarding rivalry, far more and read it in a single sitting. And you don’t need to be a snowboarding fanatic to cope with the terminology.

2. Instead of Catherine Cooper: The Chateau – try Stella Benson: The Swiss Summer

I read a previous book by Catherine Cooper, The Chalet, last year and thought this might be equally fun, especially since it was about an expat couple trying to renovate a dilapidated chateau in France (you all know how obsessed I am with chateaux). However, the plot was so preposterous and the people so awful (and flatly awful at that), that I struggled to finish this. I appreciated Benson’s far more nuanced approach to different types of expats and the relationship between then and the locals in her admittedly not thrillerish at all but enchanting Swiss Summer.

3. Instead of Valerie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers – try Margaret Kennedy: The Feast

The French author’s story of loss, grief and unspoken love touched many hearts, I know, so you will be cross with me for admitting that to me it felt kitsch, like wading through treacle. I much preferred the allegorical tale by Margaret Kennedy, which was full of witty social observations, as well as some really entertaining characters.

4. Instead of John Leake: The Vienna Woods Killer – try Catherine Ryan Howard: The Nothing Man

It’s perhaps a little unfair to compare a true crime account with a work of fiction that only purports to include true crime elements, but I really wanted to like the book about the Vienna Woods Killer, because it features one of those hard-to-believe cases about a serial killer who was a darling of the Viennese literary society. It is meticulously researched, but oddly lacking in any Viennese atmosphere (or proper interpretation of Austrian society) unfortunately. The Nothing Man did a much better job at bringing to the fore the trauma suffered by the victims as well as the narcisstic personality of the serial killer.

5. Instead of Tahmima Anam: The Startup Wife – try Nickolas Butler: Godspeed

A novel about a female co-founder of a tech start-up being manipulated and tricked out of her rightful place and a novel about a bunch of construction workers being bullied into delivering on an impossible deadline might not seem to have much in common at first glance, but they both skewer the American dream and its materialistic ambitions. I wanted to like the Start-Up Wife more, but it felt both predictable and lower in stakes, as well as more clunky writing, compared to the downward spiral story of the three male friends building a house – perhaps because a house feels like the solid kind of legacy that we all can understand (and it feels even more of a waste when it fails).

Further recommended reads:

All of these are perfect escapist reads, for whatever mood you might be in:

  • If you’re going on a train journey soon, then Kōtarō Isaka’s Bullet Train is a very entertaining, quite un-Japanese type of thriller, with echoes of Fargo.
  • If you miss theme parks (or adventure parks, rather), then Antti Tuomainen’s The Rabbit Factor, with its unique, darkly humorous take on the Finnish mafia, is perfect.
  • If you like the Brontës or historical crime fiction more generally, then the series by Bella Ellis, starting with The Vanished Bride, featuring the siblings as detectives will warm the cockles of your heart (and also bring a little chill).
  • If you enjoy historical crime fiction set outside England, then Maryla SzymiczkowaKarolina or the Torn Curtain set in late 19th century Krakow was both educational and entertaining.
  • If you enjoy satire about writers and literary festivals, and think the publishing world needs a good hard look at itself, then Dan Rhodes’ Sour Grapes will deliver in spades, although at times the farce is a little too puerile.
  • If you like stories about friendships going off the rails and how one bad choice in your youth can have serious consequences years later, but without the artificial construction of dual timelines and ‘that day that I will not divulge to you until the very end of this thriller’, then I really recommend Sharon Bolton’s The Pact.

Entertainment: Sour Grapes by Dan Rhodes

Like many bookish people, I cannot resist books about writers, publishers, literary critics and book festivals. Especially if they don’t take themselves too seriously. So imagine my delight when I heard that Dan Rhodes (a former literary editor himself, I gather) had written a novel ruthlessly satirising the whole literary world and industry – it felt like birthday and Christmas and Easter had all come at once!

The quaint English villages of Green Bottom and Broad Bottom (and a few other Bottoms) are going to be hosting their first literary festival, organised by the indefatigable Mrs Angelica Bruschini, who has recently moved to the area and has a craving for presiding over a committee. Mayhem ensues, with pretentious authors, insufferable publicists and journalists, good-natured and bemused villagers all trying to muddle through.

For sheer entertainment value, the book does not disappoint, although it does get rather too heavy-handed in its humour at times. There is no sacred cow here that the author won’t poke fun at: JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Alexander Armstrong, Will Self (under the guise of Wilberforce Selfram, who keeps pronouncing the death of the novel), the diversity schemes and nepotism of the big publishers, literary festivals that are more about celebrities rather than authors, conspiracy theorists, social media scandals, millenials vs. Gen Z influencers, even Brexit tangentially, and so much more.

‘Well yes, there are a good amount of names there… but none of them are really, you know… authors. We’ve got actors with books out, and rugby players with booka out, and cooks with books, and pop stars, and game-show hosts, and alternative comedians, and people from Radio 2, and people from Radio 4, but no real authors. I mean the ones who just do books. As this is a literary festival, I thought it might be an idea to fill the last few slosts whith people who aren’t so much celebrities-with-books-out, as just, well, writers.’

The idea was not met with great enthusiasm. Everybody on the committee was very much looking forward to meeting all the famous people, and the thought of having to accommodate some obscure and serious writer types didn’t interest them at all.

I am picking those passages where the satire is more biting, rather than descending into farce, for instance:

Every few years a light from outside would be shone on the industry’s lack of social diversity. Articles would be written about how publishing was overbearingly upper-class, and whenever this happened they found themselves launching a scheme to get people from other backgrounds into the field. These would run for a while before quietly fizzling out, but while they lasted, they gave publishers the opportunity to point at this junior publicist, or that marketing trainee, and declare that their workforce was inclusive, conveying the impression that the grandees of the business were indeed committed to social modernisation.

The passage where I burst out laughing was with the Salman Rushdie appearance at the festival, the over-conscientious interviewer who never lets him get a word in edgeways, and the complete and utter mess of audience questions at the end.

At times, however, I have to admit it did all get a bit too hectic and far-fetched for my taste, a veritable slugfest, with some gratuitous murder and blood sacrifice thrown in. I think if the author had exercised a bit more restraint, the satire would have been all the more powerful. I suspect this will appeal most to an audience who knows the publishing world and to whom those sly digs apply. Will Self witheringly pronounces himself unbothered by the satire, but we have no reports as yet of the reaction of others featured in the story. A great way to relax and laugh over the weekend!