Six in Six 2020

I saw this on FictionFan’s blog, but it’s a meme started by Jo at The Book Jotter. It’s a pause for reflection at the half year mark:  you select select six categories from the selection Jo provides or create your own categories, and then find six books you’ve read between January and June to fit each category. A great way to procrastinate from either reading, reviewing, writing, translating or working!

 

Six books I have read but not reviewed

Although I loved each of the books below, I somehow didn’t get round to reviewing them – either because I was planning to write something longer and more elaborate, or else because I just lost my reviewing super-power during lockdown.

Francesca Wade: Square Haunting 

Debbie Harry: Face It

Rosamund Lupton: Three Hours

Julian Symons: The Colour of Murder

John Dickson Carr: Castle Skull

 

Six authors I am looking forward to reading more of

Graeme Macrae Burnet – after reading The Disappearance of Adele Bedeau, I want to read more of his books, whether set in France or in Scotland.

Ron Rash – although I had mixed feelings about Serena, I certainly want to read more by him and have bought another two of his books

Machado de Assis – a rediscovery

Maggie O’Farrell – I really enjoyed Hamnet but have been told there is much more and better from where that came from

Elizabeth von Arnim – I’ve read her two most famous books a while back, but this year I discovered The Caravaners (which could easily fit into at least two other categories) and I think there’s a lot more there to explore

Marghanita Laski – Little Boy Lost was so captivating and nuanced and sad that I certainly want to read more (I’ve read The Victorian Chaise Longue as well)

 

Six books that I had one or two problems with but am still glad I tried

Carlos Ruis Zafon: Shadow of the Wind – I got about halfway through and didn’t finish it, which makes me feel guilty, since I was reading this as a tribute to him following the news of his death. I think I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it in my teens, and I seem to remember quite liking Marina, the only other book of his that I’d read. But at least I know now that I haven’t missed anything by not reading more by this author.

Harriet Tyce: Blood Orange – I’d probably not have read it if it hadn’t been the May book for the Virtual Crime Book Club, as the subject matter was quite troubling and the descriptions a little too grotty for my taste. However, it was undeniably a powerful story and led to some good discussions at the book club.

Lily King: Writers and Lovers – I do like books about writers and about entitled male egos, so it was both fun and quite revealing, but just not quite as good as I wanted it to be

Nino Haratischwili: The Eighth Life – I struggled because of the sheer length of it and because family sagas are not really my thing, but it is undeniably ambitious, fascinating and entertaining

Kate Briggs: This Little Art – the only reservation I had about this is that it requires great concentration to read, you need to stop and reflect after every few pages, but I was completely captivated. Masterful!

Yokomizu Seishi: The Inugami Curse – very bizarre and somewhat crazy murders in this country manor mystery set in Japan – but lovely to see And Then There Were None transposed to a Japanese setting. Certainly enjoyed it much more than Shimada’s Murder in the Crooked House

 

Six books that took me on extraordinary journeys

Abir Mukherjee: A Rising Man – India (Calcutta) – and the start of a series I really want to explore

Shirley Hazzard: The Bay of Noon – Naples, Italy

Carol Carnac: Crossed Skis – my favourite sport and one of my favourite countries

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap – town nestled amidst the Carpathians in Maramures, Romania

Mary Stewart: Nine Coaches Waiting – the French Alps

Ueda Akinari: Ugetsu Monogatari – Japan (and ghosts of the past)

 

Six books to read to avoid politics

Nick Bradley: The Cat and the City

Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground

Philip Pullman: The Book of Dust

David Foenkinos: The Mystery of Henri Pick

Alan Melville: Weekend at Thrackley

Beth Ann Fennelly: Heating & Cooling

 

Six books purchased during lockdown but not yet started

All of the below have been purchased following tweets or reading reviews by fellow book bloggers:

Helon Habila: Travellers

Tshushima Yuko: The Shooting Gallery and other Stories (transl. Geraldine Harcourt)

Luke Brown: Theft

Sylvia Townsend Warner: The Corner That Held Them

Michele Roberts: Negative Capability

Antal Szerb: Journey by Moonlight (transl. Peter V. Czipott)

 

Jolly Escapism: Travel Mysteries of Mary Stewart

I cannot for the life of me remember who it was on Twitter who a week or so ago raved about the page-turning qualities of Mary Stewart’s novels while she was on holiday, reviving her passion for reading. It wasn’t one of my regular blogging friends, but I thought the novels sounded like my cup of tea: a bit of mystery, a bit of romance and a LOT of travel and local atmosphere. So I checked if my local library had any of her books. Of course, they had her Merlin and Arthur books (which I’d read in my childhood), but there were only two available in that dreaded reserve stock section in the basement (where good books go to die).

Nine Coaches Waiting

Set in Haute Savoie, in a remote castle above Thonon, a short car ride from Geneva, this novel was published in 1958 and I think reflects the passion for exotic locations that was growing in 1950s Britain and also gave birth to the James Bond series. In many ways, this is the feminine way to travel the world as a woman of mystery, with some mortal danger but without the gadgets.

A French orphan who has grown up in England, Linda Martin, is hired as a governess and English conversation partner for a little boy, heir to a great estate in the Haute Savoie region. She soon strikes up a friendship with her ward Philippe, but has reason to suspect someone is planning to kill him. Of course I loved the familiar landscapes – and the French language, which is sprinkled liberally throughout the text without any translation. But what I liked above all is that the heroine is no milksop, this is no bodice-ripper (although there are some… hmmm, rather stalkerish moments, shall we say?), the characters are intelligent and witty, full of literary allusions. It’s like travelling with a good friend, but one who is also acutely aware (and resentful) of class differences.

Of course it all ends happily ever after (I’m sure that’s not a spoiler – although I still think she ends up with the wrong man), but I enjoyed the non-saccharine escapism.

Airs Above the Ground

This time we are in Austria, in a complicated story of espionage, missing husbands, travelling circuses and Lipizzaner horses (the title refers to the complicated acrobatic leaps that these fantastic creatures do in dressage). This was published a little later, in 1965, and this time the heroine Vanessa March has a proper job (she is a trained vet) although she is married and prepared to give her career up to have children. As in the previous novel, she establishes a good relationship with a young boy who becomes her travel companion and we get a lot of the local atmosphere (less of the language, because Vanessa does not speak German).

So you might say that these books are written to formula. Looking at the blurbs on some of the others, they all involve an intrepid young woman going somewhere abroad, stumbling across a puzzling situation, solving it after hair-raising adventures, often helped by a younger brother-type figure. It might become a little stale if I were to read 5-6 books like this in quick succession, but with two set in different but equally familiar and beloved locations, I really enjoyed them.

There is a mix of old-fashioned machismo that her heroines seem content to put up with, and views which must have been quite progressive for her time. Let me give just one example of each. In the first passage, Vanessa is talking to her husband.

‘I love you very much, Lewis.’

He made the kind of noise a husband considers sufficient answer to that remark – a sort of comforting grunt – then reached across the pocket of his jacket where it hung over the chair, for cigarette and lighter…

Yet the author also expresses concern about the poisoned environment in England (compared to the Alpine meadows teeming with insects and life), or feels a burden of guilt when she encounters a secondary character who has dwarfism and she tries a little too hard to react ‘normally’. She is also spot-on about the Viennese ‘that warm, easy Viennese charm, which – as Vienna’s friends and enemies both agree – “sings the song you want to hear”‘. Some of her best observations in fact are throwaway remarks about secondary bit players and she makes them sound like online trolls:

… was one of those angry natures that feeds on grievance; nothing would madden her more than to know that what she complained of had been put right. There are such people, unfortunates who have to be angry before they can feel alive…’

Hodder & Stoughton have reissued many of Mary Stewart’s ‘modern’ fiction over the past few years under the Beloved Modern Classics label. They are set in Corfu, Crete, Madeira, Lebanon, Provence, the Pyrenees and various Scottish and English locations. They look eminently collectible, as you can see from the two covers above, although I believe most of them are only available on Kindle. I read them on a rainy, stormy weekend in bed and they proved to be great escapism. But I think they’d also be the perfect books to take along with you on a lazy summer holiday, to read in your deckchair on the terrace in the shade, while sipping your iced coffee or pastis.

Bastide de la Paix in Luberon