Summer Reads Which Didn’t Work for Me

I’ve recently read three books (or rather, read two of them and half-read the third) which didn’t fulfill my expectations. At the risk of sounding overly grumpy, I wasn’t expecting them to set my world on fire, but I thought they would be pleasant summer reads, a welcome break from a very busy time at work and more challenging reads for #WITMonth. In other words, I fully intended them to be what Emma from BookAround calls ‘beach and transportation’ books, but they failed me even in this regard.

Robert Webb: Come Again 

I heard Robert Webb talking about this book at the virtual Hay Festival and thought it had an interesting premise. If you were to go back in time, older and wiser, how would you behave with your first or great love? What if you find them a bit of a plonker this time round (because we were all a little insufferable in our youth)? And the ‘going back in time’ is set in 1992, which is the year I first came (for a brief year) to study in the UK, so I thought I’d be able to relate to a lot of that. But, as so often with books that start off in a really fascinating way, the execution was rather disappointing, chatty in a slightly exasperating way, and I abandoned it.

Sarah Waters: The Paying Guests 

I discovered Sarah Waters very recently, was bowled over by Fingersmith, and so was eager to read more. However, this novel set in post-WW1 London, didn’t quite do it for me. It was an interesting character study (and a great study of guilt and suspicion), but it was too slow in the build-up, it really felt like a slog. While I enjoyed the recreation of the atmosphere of the time and place (a dilapidated house, a family coming to terms with financial difficulties, forced to take in lodgers whom they consider their social inferiors), there was too much ‘sinister foreshadowing’ without anything happening for a long, long time. By the time something happened, the book had very nearly lost me. I did read it to the end, but it was not as fun and entertaining as I expected. Will I dare to continue with The Little Stranger? I am not entirely sure.

Polly Samson: A Theatre for Dreamers

I was depressed after watching the documentary about Leonard Cohen and Marianne on Hydra, but thought this book (which promised that they would only be peripheral characters) might be more cheery. While I enjoyed the immersion into the Greek island atmosphere in those early days when international tourism was just taking off, and while I understood what the author was trying to do, I felt the framing of the story by the young, naive observer of these real-life bohemian couples was far less interesting. I can’t even remember the name of the narrator, finding both her and her back story rather bland (what with everything else going on there.) The author was at such pains to reproduce Cohen’s exact words (quotes from his works), that he sounded like a cardboard cut-out spouting an audio recording, which really jarred. The hero-worship for golden girl Marianne was slightly exaggerated. But I did enjoy the battles between men feted as geniuses and the women who work so hard to enable them to function as geniuses, a battle which was certainly more bitter and inescapable in 1960, but which is by no means resolved even now.

I don’t know what it is about ‘summer reads’ or ‘beach and transportation reads’, what makes some of them work and others not so much. They have to provide an immersive experience, really captivate you with the sights, sounds, smells, feel of a certain place (which, to be fair, both Samson and Waters did achieve). I suppose they have to be page-turners,which none of these were, or at least provide you with a really intriguing series of ‘what ifs’ handled with confidence.

In conclusion, I don’t know if I’m having a bit of reading slump, or if it’s hard for even ‘easy reading’ books to compete with Olga Tokarczuk and Marlen Haushofer, but in a couple of days we’ll see how I feel about my current reads (Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami and Negative Capability by Michele Roberts).

 

 

 

Summary of November Reading

It’s a dark, dank month and we’ve been plagued by fog and migraines. Thank goodness the reading has made up for it! I’ve read a total of 14 books this month, of which 5 crime fiction, 6 foreign books, 6 by women authors (plus a collection of short stories which contains both men and women authors, of course). Three short story collections this month, which is quite out of character – I’m developing a love for the form. Quite a lot of memorable reads and only one turkey – rather appropriately, in a month in which American Thanksgiving is celebrated.

GermanLitThe best idea was participating in the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I’ve discovered so many new authors by reading the reviews of the other participants, remembered old favourites that I hadn’t touched since childhood and had the opportunity to explore some books of my own. I didn’t quite get to read everything I intended (Dürrenmatt will have to wait until another month), but I did reasonably well:

Alois Hotschnig: Maybe This Time – collection of surreal short stories

Bernhard Schlink: Liebesfluchten – another short story collection, but more rooted in reality

Vienna Tales – the third short story collection, all with Vienna as a setting, although I only discuss the Joseph Roth stories in this review

Hester Vaizey: Born in the GDR – fantastic set of interviews with the Unification Generation in Germany

I also read some French authors to balance this out:

A young Modiano, in the 1970s.
A young Modiano, in the 1970s.

Jean-Philippe Toussaint: Fuir – jetlagged escapade in China

Patrick Modiano: Un Pedigree – memoirs of the Nobel prize-winner’s childhood: born into a highly unconventional family, his parents separated quite early on and he was sent away to boarding-school and generally ignored/forgotten about until he published his first novel at the age of 22. Not a masterpiece of style, but a sad story which explains perhaps his literary search for identity and meaning.

TrucOlivier Truc: Forty Days without Shadow – intriguing debut crime novel about the Reindeer Police in Lapland

There were some memorable reads about women feeling out of place, trapped in their marriage… and about so much more:

Jill Alexander Essbaum: Hausfrau

Celeste Ng: Everything I Never Told You

There were quite a few fun, quick reads, which I heartily recommend in the run-up to Christmas:

SilkwormMarian Keyes: Angels – another woman running away from her marriage,but with Keyes’ humorous take on the subject and sly observations about Hollywood

Robert Galbraith: The Silkworm – she knows how to spin a good yarn, even if it’s somewhat wordy, and I love her sharp digs at writers’ egos and the publishing industry

Philip Kerr: Research – a break from the Bernie Gunther series, this is a helter-skelter of a funny thriller, again needling writers and publishers – are we discovering a new trend here?

Janet O’Kane: No Stranger to Death – shall we call this ‘tartan cosy’ – a new genre which mixes amateur detection and village gossip with some dark subject matter

Finally, the promised turkey, which I dutifully read to the end because it was a Book Club choice for November (although I felt like abandoning it many, many times):

C. J. Sansom: Dominion – it felt too bulky, repetitive, unedited, although I enjoyed the premise of an alternative past in which England was occupied by the Nazis. However, it’s been done so much more successfully and thrillingly in Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’, without the rather intrusive explanations and political discussions. And this one’s about 700 pages long to Harris’ 400. Shame, as I enjoy Sansom’s other books.

 

 

 

 

 

A Few Easy Reads

I’ve been reading some rather lengthy and serious books lately, so I thought I would unwind with a few lighter reads. Here are three I read in about a couple of hours each, something for every taste.

WRitingGert Loveday: Writing Is Easy

Delightful and frothy like a French dessert, this is a book for and about writers. There are a couple of deaths within its pages, but it’s not crime fiction. Instead, writers’ workshops and retreats are given the satirical treatment. The lively characterisation  really makes the story here: washed-out novelist Marcus Goddard, who is afraid he will never live up to the success of his first novel; impenetrable modernist writer and performance poet Lilian Bracegirdle; the wannabe writer of hardboiled detective fiction who gets stuck with too many dames; the fitness fanatic who firmly believes it can’t be that hard to write a book in a week; the downtrodden housewife turning to the world of fantasy fiction for comfort; the serial award-winner who still hasn’t managed to find her own voice. Not forgetting resourceful or greedy assistants, a temperamental chef, tremendous egos and past secrets resurfacing to haunt people. A romp of a novel, just the thing to make you laugh out loud at human absurdity.

InawordMargot Kinberg & Martin Edwards (eds.): In a Word, Murder

This is a labour of love: an anthology to commemorate indomitable blogger and crime fiction specialist Maxine Clarke, aka Petrona. All proceeds from the sale of this anthology go to one of Maxine’s favourite charities, the Princess Alice Hospice. It’s a fun collection of murderous short stories in diverse styles, reflecting the diversity of authors included. There is a lot of humour, as well as darker deeds, in this collection, and quite a few of the stories have a literary bent as well: self-publishing becomes a life-saver (literally), book blogging becomes deadly, changing publishers is a dangerous game… and so on.

 

Stella Rimington: The Geneva Trap

GenevaOK, I’ll admit it: I read this one purely for the location, as I live in the Geneva area and thought it would be fun to see if the author had captured the local flavour well. Needless to say, as with any spy thriller, the locations change and also include Marseille, London, plus some godforsaken rural areas in France and England. Stella Rimington was famously the Director General of MI5 for many years, so she knows her stuff and perhaps her work is more authentic than John Le Carre or the recently read ‘I Am Pilgrim’. But oh, how much more boring authenticity is! A lot of surveillance, meetings on park benches, computer analyses… This is the 7th book in the Liz Carlyle series, so perhaps I missed something by not starting with the first, but it just felt like run-of-the-mill spy fiction  to me. There was nothing to lift it above the average. Still, this would work well as a quick airport/airplane read.