The Year in Books So Far

It’s been a funny old year, reading-wise. I was pondering why this might be so when it suddenly occurred to me that my algorithm for purchasing books has changed. As audio books are pretty much all I use these days, I’m mostly on the lookout for cheap kindle books with cheap whisper-sync options. I used to  have the monthly audible credit and audible’s regular sales to add into the mix, but my library of unread books reached a figure Mr Litlove must never know about, and so I’ve cancelled my membership until the TBR pile is tamed.  But still I find myself searching the amazon deals, an occupation which has taken me into a demi-monde of publishing that I never knew about before. Basically I had no idea so much crap was published. In all fairness there are probably some great books out there, but the amount of nonsense you have to wade through to find them is a little overwhelming.

So I think this explains why I’ve read so few good new releases this year. Two exceptions, however, go straight into the top ten. Sally Rooney’s Normal People and Jessie Greengrass’s Sight. I haven’t got much to say about them except that they were absolutely brilliant and made me excited about what the novel can do. They were both so astutely observed and chose intelligence over sensation.

In the big book category, however, I had two notable disappointments. The first was Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights. Last summer I listened to Swallows and Amazons and loved it, so this year I decided I’d try another children’s classic that I never got around to with my son. I should point out that I generally don’t choose YA or children’s books. But I’d loved Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke and enjoyed The Shadow in the North (though I never approve of killing off main characters – I blame J K Rowling for this trend which to my mind breaks a sacred trust with the reader, but that’s just my feeling). Northern Lights is objectively a terrific book. The plot never slackens and not a sentence is out of place. But… I found myself listening to get it finished, not because it had truly engaged me. I’m tempted to say it lacks psychological depth, but honestly, Swallows and Amazons hardly owes a debt to Freud. I don’t know what the matter was. The other big disappointment was The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. On paper this sounded perfect – bookshops and mysterious authors with hidden pasts. In reality I lost the will to live less than a quarter of the way through. I don’t think the audio version did it any favours. Setterfield has the kind of style that I might classify as Goes On A Bit, and whilst some parts were beautifully written, others verged on the cringeworthy. Also, most characters had a tendency to be one-dimensionally mad, which I found tedious, and the gothic parts were just implausible. I expect lots of people loved this story: sorry.

On a cheerier note, I’ve done very well with memoirs, listening to three really good ones: Tara Westover’s Educated, Rebecca Stott’s In The Days of Rain and Claire Tomalin’s A Life of My Own. Westover pips Stott by a feather, but both were mesmerising. Religious fundamentalists make for wonderful batty parent stories, though I spent a great deal of time feeling furious on behalf of their children. It seemed to me that their behaviour had nothing really to do with religion; instead, what these books show is how dangerous people become when they decide they are unequivocally right and that all their conduct is uniquely blessed and sanctioned. The Claire Tomalin was a very different kettle of non-biblical fish. Tomalin’s life as an editor and biographer was a resounding success, but her private life was full of tragedy. Her journalist husband was killed in the Middle East crossfire, and of her four children, one died shortly after birth, another is severely disabled and one committed suicide at Oxford. Yet Tomalin’s account is remarkably low-key, sometimes to the point of sterility. I scoured the reviews afterwards, wondering what others made of this and the response in the mainstream papers was very positive. Other journalists applauded her absence of emotion. I didn’t need sob stories but for me one significant dimension of a memoir is an account of what life has taught its author about herself. Educated is fantastic in this regard. Maybe Tomalin couldn’t leave the biographer’s attitude behind, refusing to draw conclusions? Well, it was a fascinating book, if odd, and sometimes fascinating because of its oddness.

If there’s one category, though, that I’m doomed never to find a decent book in, it’s contemporary mass market. The curse of the sympathetic character has ruined most of them, and a strange contagious plot disease has weakened the rest. I was going to name and shame but I can’t be bothered. They’re not worth it and I should never have gone there. But what has really worked for me, and been perhaps the most bizarrely successful part of a generally bizarre year, has been a sentimental return to books I read and loved as a teenager. This all began right back at the start of the year when I noticed that Mary Stewart’s Merlin novels were going to be issued in audio book format. It’s tragic, I know, but this was my most anticipated event of the year. The Merlin novels always struck me in retrospect as a mirage. Mary Stewart’s other novels are okay, not great, and I wondered whether youth and enthusiasm had skewed my perspective. Not a bit of it. They are still outstanding – clever, powerful, vivid, stirring. I’m not sure how they would go down with younger readers these days, as there’s much more description and plot moves more slowly. But I appreciated the space this gave to the story to live and breathe in my imagination. They are not fantasy novels, though. They are much more about political power, and as such seemed to resonate for me with our 21st century plight in which power is used against the gullible and disadvantaged to get what the powerful want.

Thus encouraged I started poking about amazon’s bargain bins with my teenage years in mind. And I ended up listening to a lot of Joanna Trollope and Georgette Heyer. And they were fab! Really nice sentences, great plotting skills, credible characters. There were things going on at all points in the book which made me curious to see how the characters would react. No great middle-section wastelands where we must all tread water in anticipation of a twist. Honestly, when I was looking for an agent a couple of years ago – and a most depressing business it was – the vast majority were most keen to find a chilling psychological thriller with a truly original twist! I have read such books from the supermarket and they are laughably implausible. Why has this become the Ur-book of the new millennium? What does this say about our culture? Or, in all fairness the alternative must be considered, is this just what getting old looks like?

So currently, I am listening to Jill Dawson’s The Language of Birds and Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones, both of which I am enjoying. And I’m theoretically listening to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, when I feel strong enough. It fooled me by having an opening page of terrific humour, but by the end of the second chapter there had been three tragic, tear-jerking deaths. I’m about five chapters in now and have lost track of the body count, and am afraid we might run out of characters. Be warned, Cranford is obviously the former name of Midsomer but without the jolliness.

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Shiny 11 is out!

Yes, a new edition of Shiny is always a cause for celebration, so, pop your slippers on, get into a comfy chair with snacks to hand and turn your mobile off. The palace of bookish delights awaits you!

SNB-logoClearly, I am in a frivolous mood today.

Okay, so I wrote quite a few reviews for this edition, so let me give you a guiding hand towards a selection of them:

A novel about the sort of topic I might usually avoid as not being ‘my thing’, but which went straight onto my best of the year list.

A brand new heroine of cozy crime, the widow of an Archdeacon, who offers the utmost discretion to her clients in a wonderfully redolent Victorian setting.

The long-withheld novel by a properly famous American cookery writer that has now been published posthumously.

A debut author whose completely gripping novel is set in a Hopperish 60s America and is based on a true story.

A charming, thoughtful, clever novel translated from the German about the friendship between Charlie Chaplin and Winston Churchill.

A memoir that won the National Book Critics’ Circle award this year about a life spent as part of the black Chicago elite in the 1950s.

We had a lot of fun with our latest ‘Eds Discuss….’ piece, this time thinking about the books we’d read by European authors.

And finally, I put together a Brexit reading list, covering all sorts of fiction and non-fiction that sheds a little light on our current situation.

 

Hope very much you enjoy!

 

 

New Books and Rediscovered Old Ones

So, I have fallen off the wagon, and spectacularly too. You may recall that I was not meant to be buying books this year. Up until a couple of days ago, that was going pretty well. I had only bought three books in seven months. If you look at the pile on the left below, you’ll see Orient by Christopher Bollen, Vivien Gornick’s essays The End of the Novel of Love (which were excellent) and Suzanne O’Sullivan’s controversial book on psychosomatic illness, It’s All In Your Head. This last has really split the reviewers on amazon, half finding it a compassionate book, the other half decrying its lack of scientific testing. But I thought science hadn’t found ways of measuring emotions, their strength, and the damage they can do to the human body? If science has no measuring tools, then isn’t science failing here rather than the book? Ah well, I’ll let you know what I think about it when I’ve read it.

I’m not quite sure why I weakened, but a trip into town on Thursday found me seduced by the three-for-twos in Heffers. And before I knew what I’d done, I’d bought Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Peter Lovesey’s Down Among the Dead Men (I adore his crime fiction) and William Nicholson’s The Lovers of Amherst. I put them in a pile and got Mr Litlove to take a photo, vowing no more. And then somehow, looking at the cheap marketplace seller books on amazon, I ordered Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, one of the new Angela Thirkells rereleased by Virago, and one of the Ava Lee novels by Ian Hamilton because I’m interested in art theft at the moment (in theory, not in practice) and that’s central to the plot. And THEN, when I was in town today (I was going to have a haircut but there’d been a mix-up at the salon so I went shopping instead – honestly, they made me do it), I bought a book for Mr Litlove and, given it was buy-one-get-one-half-price, another novel for me. It would have been rude not to.  When I gave Mr Litlove his book, he said, ‘You think it makes it any better if you buy one for me?’ and I said, ‘Yes,’ confidently. Because you have to brazen these things out. He doesn’t know about the amazon order yet. Let’s not tell him.

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So now I really must get back on the straight and narrow. Not least because I really do have a lot of unread books on my shelves. Earlier in the year, when I wasn’t reading much, I took to poking around on my bookcases, seeing what I had there, and I found all sorts of things, good and bad.

The pile on the right in the above photo is just a selection of books by authors I have been meaning to read for so long it’s almost embarrassing. On the top is Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (I could have added John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids to the pile, too), E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (how can I have never read Calvino?), J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello and Joan Didion’s essays.

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I love non-fiction, and there have been several books over the past six or seven years that I just had to have as soon as I heard about them, that of course remain unread still. The above is a selection again: Stacy Schiff’s prize-winning biography of Cleopatra; O My America by Sara Wheeler (which tells the stories of six 19th century women who escaped trouble of one sort or another by travelling to America, including Trollope’s mother, Fanny Trollope and travel writer Isabella Bird); The Fish Ladder by Katharine Norbury (a mix of nature writing and memoir); Divided Lives by Lyndall Gordon (recounting her relationship to her emotionally troubled mother); Never Any End To Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (which I’ve seen recommended so many times in the blogworld) and The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte which mixes meteorology, notably fog in San Francisco, with memories of his brother who committed suicide.

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Now this pile might be termed books where I have bitten off more than I can chew. I’m not very good with chunksters, on the grounds that there is no good reason, ever, for a book to be longer than 500 pages. So you’d think I wouldn’t buy them, wouldn’t you? I even started a blog several years ago on the William Gaddis, as I thought it might encourage me through it. Several of us bloggers were going to read it together, though I think only one did in the end, that one not being me. I read the first twenty pages or so and it wasn’t that I didn’t like it, just that I didn’t have the necessary concentration over an extended period of time. I have a good friend who is a huge fan of this novel and I’d like to read it for his sake. I will get to it again one day.

Similarly, Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, which I began for Caroline’s German Literature Month, did the twenty pages thing, never picked it up again. Forever Amber I am sure is a favourite novel of blogging friends (though I can’t recall who loves it, and I’m not sure William Gaddis is too thrilled about having it sat next to him).

The book on top of the pile, Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy was one of those impulse buys on amazon that sounded interesting, only I never looked at the page count. Imagine my surprise when it arrived! It’s larded with quotes from reviewers who call it ‘ambitious’ and ‘unusual’, which if  you translate those phrases like estate agent speak, you get ‘over-blown’ or ‘pretentious’ and ‘strange’. I do wonder what I was thinking. Then the Rumi… well, I thought I’d like to know a bit more about Rumi. I am not at all sure I have the brain capacity to know that much about him.

So that’s just a few of the books I rediscovered. Any there you think I should hasten to read? Any I should send to the charity shop?

 

The American – Better Than Donna Leon?

the americanAs I mentioned, I’ve got a couple of reviews outstanding, and this is the first one for which I’m part of a blog tour. The American by Nadia Dalbuono comes with a sticker on the front promising you your money back if you don’t love it as much as a Donna Leon novel – perhaps the most famous crime writer currently working from Italy. Given that the novel is based in Italy, I guess Donna Leon becomes the most obvious point of reference, but stylistically, Dalbuono is so very different that other comparisons came to my mind. If you like John le Carre, or Charles Cumming or Sara Paretsky, then I think you’d like this. It’s a very sophisticated, intelligent piece of fiction writing, and one that functions on the intersection of crime and politics.

Detective Leone Scamarcio is a good guy in a bad world. He’s a cop with the flying squad in Rome, but his background is with the Mob – his late father used to be a prominent member (if that’s the right term). Scamarcio is trying to do everything by the book, but that isn’t easy in an Italy that’s fundamentally corrupt, and where the police are under pressure from both politicians and the church to keep secrets and turn a blind eye. In this, the second novel in the series, Scamarcio also has the added complication of a girlfriend he isn’t sure he wants, Aurelia, who works in the pathology department. You kind of fear for her from the start, and goodness knows she’s in for more trouble in the course of this novel than just a commitment-phobe for a boyfriend.

The catalyst for Scamarcio’s inquiry is an apparent suicide, hanging off the Ponte Sant’Angelo, close to the Vatican City. This John Doe seems to be a banker suffering from the economic hardships blighting much of southern Italy, but there’s something about the way the body has been presented that makes Scamarcio think of an older case, the 1982 murder of a man called Robert Calvi who was called ‘God’s Banker’ because of his dodgy links with the Vatican Bank. And then, when a senior priest is found stabbed in the Vatican City, it seems obvious that some sort of link must be forged between the bodies. But how that can happen, when the local police have no jurisdiction over the Vatican (which is steadfastly not seeking their help), and the original body is nicked from the mortuary by two American secret service agents who don’t seem quite the full ticket, is anybody’s guess. Scamarcio is asked, none too politely, by the Americans to let it go – it’s a simple suicide, nothing for the police in Rome to be bothered about. But his instincts tell him the case is far more complex and far more dangerous, and he keeps digging.

He will eventually embroil himself in a long-standing and deep-rooted conspiracy that stretches between America and Italy and involves the shocking manipulation of political power by both church and government. I don’t want to give too much away as the gradual uncovering of the extent of the situation is one of the best features of the novel. Suffice to say, my regular complaints that too much contemporary fiction boils down to a storm in a teacup are not about to be aired here. This is a novel that really goes for the jugular, and had me looking up bits and pieces of international history on the internet (Mr Litlove didn’t believe some of the events described in the novel had actually happened, and was forced to eat his words). I learned a lot, whilst admiring the way that Nadia Dalbuono handles the intricacies of her plot, and the way that she muddies the water before the conclusion. Trust me, she is one smart writer.

If I had a niggle, it would be with the paragraphs in italics which open some of the chapters and describe scenes that occurred way back in the past. They are meant to be enigmatic, but initially I was quite confused. I could have done with a better grounding in world politics too, in all honesty, but that didn’t matter so much; the novel will tell you all you need to know to understand it. On the plus side this is extremely well-written and very cleverly conceived. Scamarcio is a strong character, torn between his desires to act ethically, and his old contacts who could actually achieve some beyond-the-pale justice for him, the sort of justice it’s almost impossible to mete out legally in current day Italy. There’s violence in the novel, viewed unflinchingly, but nothing gratuitous. All in all, this is a properly first-rate, literary, fiercely contemporary and proudly intelligent thriller. I must say I’m really intrigued now to see how Dalbuono manages to save Scamarcio from the situation he’s in by the finale – I’m not sure he could survive a long series. We may have to savour his few cases while he holds out.