September Reading Summary

Once again, I am jumping the gun a little with my September reading summary, as I don’t think I’ll have time to squeeze anything more in that isn’t intended for next month.

My reading got a little aimless and desultory during September, after a few really good months with very high-quality books. I struggled to really immerse myself in these books, which might explain why I’ve judged them more harshly than usual. There were two that really stood out for me, however, and for very different reasons. Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year was stark, gripping and revelatory, while Alison Anderson’s The Summer Guest was wistful, dreamy and transported me to a better time and place.

On paper, I have read ten books, but two of those were very short indeed: a children’s book (Little Old Mrs Pepperpot, which I’m reading for the #1956Club) and a book of cartoons about the challenges of wearing a hijab in a Western country Yes, I’m Hot in This by Huda Fahmy. So, in reality, I have read eight books, of which two in translation. The Englightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar was interesting in its ‘stories within stories’ structure and truly beautifully written in parts, but rather hard reading in terms of subject matter. Also, I’ve never been a huge fan of magical realism, but I can certainly see the point of it to describe – and make bearable – the atrocities perpetuated here. Book burning, rape, torture, death and ghosts everywhere you look.

I was searching for comfort reads this month above all, but in truth found even the tried and tested categories of crime/suspense fiction a bit hard to click with. Stina Jackson’s The Silver Road seemed to howl with dreary loneliness and isolation. The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters had far too many pages about that boring English class system to make up for the few genuine moments of ghostly frisson. Even Doug Johnstone, who’s proved a reliable writer for me in the past, did not quite win me over with A Dark Matter – probably because I was expecting it to be black comedy in the style of Antti Tuomainen. While I enjoyed Amanda Craig’s The Lie of the Land probably far more than Jonathan Coe’s Middle England as a depiction of current English society (it was stuffed to the gills with sharp, witty observations of gender relations and family tensions), it did all go unnecessarily bonkers towards the end with the murder mystery part of it.

So that leaves Leonard and Hungry Paul by Ronan Hession, which so many assured me was the perfect sweet, gentle book for these troubled times. I have to admit I was reading it the weekend Barney died, and it was probably the only book I could possibly have read during that time. It was indeed a placid, even-tempered book with decent characters and touching interactions, people being kind and helpful, or at the very least apologising when they get things wrong. A little too sweet for my taste, perhaps, as I was constantly expecting someone to go amok, commit fraud or murder someone, but I liked its humour and the non-judgemental relationship between the two friends. It almost makes you believe in a nicer world – and don’t we all need a hope like that?

So I apologise for my general grumpiness this month. It’s been a very busy one at work, an emotionally gruelling one, an anxious one with the boys going back to school and no seeming respite from grim news worldwide. Next month, with Penelope Fitzgerald and Romain Gary to steady my ship, I hope to have a more pleasant tale to tell.



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).




Reading Summary for July 2020

Posting this a little early, because I haven’t got the mental capacity to write reviews today (and I owe at least three).

I’ve read 10 books this month, despite being very busy at work once again. I’m alternating my #SpanishLitMonth (and anticipating #WomeninTranslation Month as well) with comfort (i.e. holiday) reading. My reading took me all over the world, and most of the books (80%) were written by women, half of the women writers were in translation. I’ve also read quite a few books from my #20BooksofSummer list – 18, but only reviewed 15 of them.

I discovered a new to me author that people on Twitter seem to be raving about: Sarah Waters (I slung down Fingersmith within 24 hours and have already reserved some other books by her from the library). I also discovered the Abir Mukherjee crime series set in 1920s India, which I want to read more of.  I was very happy to be reunited with Eva Dolan, whose crime fiction I adore. I finally got to read Olga Tokarczuk again and she did not disappoint, she is rapidly becoming a firm favourite. I was moved and surprised by The Home-Maker, which still feels remarkably contemporary. I reread Barbellion with less of a giggle and more sympathy for his predicament than I did in my brash teens. I was fascinated by the passionate, experimental fiction of the South American women writers, but disappointed by the ‘society pages/lifestyle magazine’ style of Fleishman Is in Trouble, although it contained some clever observations about marriage and divorce.

Holiday reading:

A Rising Man – set in India

Between Two Evils – set in Peterborough

Fingersmith – London and Marlow (near Maidenhead – surprisingly)

Fleishman Is in Trouble – New York City

Journal of a Disappointed Man – largely London

The Home-Maker – small-town America

Spanish Lit Month:

Liliana Colanzi – Bolivia

Margarita Garcia Robayo – Colombia

Lina Meruane – Chile

Women in Translation Month (anticipating):

Olga Tokarczuk – Poland (and Czech border)

Plans for the month of August – what else but Women in Translation? I am continuing with my Latin Americans – Ariana Harwicz awaits, plus Teffi, Tove Jansson’s Letters, Marlen Haushofer, Svetlana Alexievich and more. I’ve also ordered a few more books from the library for easy reading, so that should keep me out of mischief. Only two more books and I am free of any #20BooksofSummer constraints! Plus, I plan to dedicate a lot more time to writing.