It’s June 1 and time for Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer reading challenge, one that I never manage to finish but enjoy putting together and working on. Despite giving up all reading challenges, and despite having read far fewer books at this point in the year than usual, I’m making a list.
I consulted my list from last year’s challenge, which I failed dismally, but one of the nice things about this challenge is Cathy’s emphasis that it doesn’t matter how you do it or whether you succeed, just have fun with it. I did manage to read 10 of the 20 from last year, but as Barb remarked, it was an ambitious list, and it turned out to be too ambitious. But here we go again. I’m picking a bunch of books that are half-finished (or less), some of which I’ll probably have to start over because it’s been so long; different books by authors whose books I didn’t finish last summer; and entirely new books.
Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. I read half of this a couple of summers ago and loved it but somehow didn’t manage to finish this and am not really sure why.
Street of Thieves by Mathias Énard. I failed to read Compass last year, so I’m picking a shorter, less demanding book of his from the TBR.
In the Night of Time by Antonio Muñoz Molina. Yep, this was on the list last year. Let’s give it another go.
Occupied City by David Peace. A different Peace book than last year. This is #2 in his series of postwar Tokyo crime novels. I read the first one and thought it was brilliant (like all his books) and this has been staring at me from the bookshelf. I picked GB84 last year and failed to read it, but I can’t face that one this summer.
I’m still woefully behind on my 20 Books of Summer reading, but I managed another Harlequin TBR review which counted, as well as a mystery from the library which didn’t. They were a nice break from the Booker longlist, which while rewarding can get kind of grim.
A Regency Invitation to the House Party of the Season by Nicola Cornick, Joanna Mailand, and Elizabeth Rolls
I was in the mood for another Regency trad and I pulled this anthology out of the virtual stack. I have at least one Rolls full-length novel there as well, but while I’ve always meant to read her I haven’t done so yet. An anthology with one sure bet (Cornick) and two new authors seemed like a good strategy. Unlike the old holiday anthologies, these stories are all intertwined. The setting is, as the title tells you, a house party at an estate, and each story focuses on a different couple with all the other characters recurring across their individual storylines. Cornick’s opening story features a couple whose marriage is being arranged because the hero needs a fortune and the heroine has one. They don’t expect to like each other but of course they do. I preferred the hero to the heroine (she was a bit ditzy and overly naive at times), but Cornick does a very good job of setting the stage and introducing the cast.
The second story, by Maitland, features a young woman who has disguised herself as an abigail in order to look for her missing brother. She meets the hero, who is himself hiding out to avoid being arrested (for something he didn’t do, naturally). Their story deepens the larger story arc. They’re an enjoyable couple, although the maid-masquerade required massive suspensions of disbelief. We also get more of the great-aunt-Gorgon who was announced in the first story, and she’s the real star of this anthology. She plays a major role in the third installment, by Rolls, which uncovers the mystery of the host’s missing wife. She ran away as a newlywed, right before Waterloo, and society generally believes her husband had a hand in his disappearance. Needless to say, they’re wrong and he’s a more than upstanding hero. All three storylines are wrapped up neatly; I could see the wife coming in Maitland’s novella but that was OK, it was a mystery not a romance. I thoroughly enjoyed all three parts and look forward to the full-length Rolls I have (I don’t think I have any by Maitland in the TBR, but the library may be able to help me out). This counted as Harlequin TBR #466.
Malice by Keigo Higashino
And now for something completely different. I really liked the mystery by Higashino that I read a couple of months ago, so when Liz’s read of this popped up in my GR feed I borrowed it. It features the same detective, Kaga, as Newcomer, but it was written earlier. Luckily you don’t really have to read Kigashino’s series in order. This is more of a whydunit than a whodunit, although there were points at which I wasn’t sure if the murderer was really the murderer. An author is killed in his house and discovered by his wife and his good friend. Kaga quickly deduces who the killer is, but the motive is unclear, and the more Kaga investigates the reasons behind the murder the more confusing the case becomes. At various times it’s difficult to decide who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.
I enjoyed all the twists and turns, although Liz’s comment that she had trouble caring much for the characters is completely understandable to me. It’s not that they are just vehicles for ideas or plot twists, but everything seems to happen at a remove, probably because the story is told in flashback or dialogue, rather than the reader being able to watch the events unfold. It’s an interesting approach, and it creates the distance and suppressed emotional tone that I often find in Japanese novels (both genre and non-genre). The way the story and characters were finally wrapped up wasn’t what I was expecting, and I can see why Higashino is such a bestselling author in Japan. I definitely want to read more of his work.
I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.
I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.
The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.
It’s almost July and I’ve only finished three of my 20 books. Ack! Oh well, better than zero I suppose. One was for the Romance TBR Challenge and two others were on my list.
A Month in the Country by JL Carr.
So many people have raved about this book, including Barb and Liz, that I was sure I’d love it, and when I found a gently used copy in my local used bookstore I snapped it up. It has sat on my shelf for quite a while, though, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity to dive it. It is a short book, more of a novella, and it was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1980.
I don’t know why I expected this to be a relatively spare, unemotional book because it’s quite the opposite. The language is lush and the reader is immediately enmeshed in the atmosphere of a Yorkshire village just after WW1. The narrator, Tom Birkin, is a veteran who has come to this village to uncover a mural buried under coats of whitewash in a village church. He is separated from his wife, suffering the aftereffects of battle, and generally at a not-great place. As he works on the mural he slowly makes connections with villagers and with another veteran who is working there and comes to a more peaceful place. The novel has been described as elegant and poetic, and it is that.
It took me a while for the book to work its magic on me, perhaps because I was (for no good reason) expecting a different style. I didn’t warm immediately to Tom himself, but when he started to interact with the villagers and become part of the community, it came to life. There are some sad scenes and some quite funny scenes (e.g. when Tom substitutes for Mr. Ellerbeck at a church meeting). Overall, though, it felt like a book written in mid-century, not the late 1970s. Reading Carr’s biography it is clear he was an unusual person, so that might account for the tone. Anyway, it was excellent, even if I appreciated it more than was captivated by it. I imagine if I read it a second time I will start raving about it too, though.
Things are starting to heat up, what with getting ready to go on vacation, doing California house stuff, and herding cats I mean colleagues for work.
I could just cut and paste from last week: admin, advising, etc.
I did get a book chapter sent off, though, so I can add something to the “my own damn work” side of the ledger.
The biggest Reading/Watching event was the Champions League final between Tottenham and Liverpool, which Liverpool won comfortably. The score was 2-0 and Tottenham did press them, but a penalty to Liverpool 22 seconds in (inadvertent handball, but still a handball) meant the game took on a set cast very early. It wasn’t a pretty or exciting game, but I’ll take it, thank you very much. The team was fantastic this year and they deserved to come out with a major trophy at the end of it. Somewhere between 250k and 500k people jammed the streets of Liverpool for the victory parade, which is pretty impressive given the city population is 550k, and I’m pretty sure there are some Everton fans living there.
What does this have to do with reading, you might ask? Well, I’ve been reading David Peace’s wonderful novel about legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, Red or Dead, since it was published in 2013. I start it, get 100-300 pages in, put it down, come back to it, rinse and repeat. It’s a book for literary footie fans, which can’t be a huge demographic. But I find it wonderful and fascinating and I don’t want it to end. I picked it up again this spring and I’m more than halfway through (it’s over 700 pages of minute details about Shankly and the football seasons). The repetition makes it hypnotic and almost zen-like, and Shankly is the hero we wish we had these days. Far from perfect but utterly admirable. I think I’ve been unable to finish because I don’t want it to end, but now that we’ve won a trophy again and look like the team Shankly created, it might be time to finally read the whole thing. And I can always start over when I’m done, right?