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).