Friday, May 11, 2018

Three Titles in Search of a (Belated) Blogpost. . .

An entire month has slipped away since I last posted here -- although I did write about my friend Carol Matthews' book Minerva's Owl: The Bereavement Phase of My Marriage over on my main blog. In case you missed that, I will say that this book is near and dear to me, and I think you'd all find it worth reading.

I did, during that month, begin a post on George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo and Ali Smith's Winter. That is, I uploaded a photo and I drafted a title.  Four weeks ago, that was, however, so today I was determined to write that post, and I got four paragraphs written. Progress, right? But four paragraphs does not, sadly, a post make, and I can see it will take me a few more days to say anything meaningful about these two brilliantly imaginative novels.

As I fiercely wish to catch up here before I'm off travelling in two weeks (when I started writing this post, the travel was two weeks away; now it's only one!), I'm going to take another tack for now and list some titles. Here goes:

Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere. The trouble with being able to borrow books from the library and then not writing anything about them until weeks and weeks later is that the details begin to fade and I can't go back to check the source. However, I will say that this novel engages the reader from the outset, that it presents some strong, likeable, characters, that it captures many aspects of setting (bourgeois suburbia, very comfortable, very settled) well. I also thought Ng caught aspects of teenage exuberance and angst together very well, and offered some solid perspectives on the challenges facing the creative individual living in a conventional community.  What I didn't enjoy, what actively irritated me, in fact, was the tendency to caricature certain characters -- the bourgeois suburban mother, in particular. I found it tough to reconcile the mother's intelligence and sometime generosity, her ability to juggle family and career (however much the narrator might sneer at the safety of the kind of small-town journalism the woman settled for in deference to family life) with the appalling attitude -- and actions -- she displays and takes toward her younger daughter. Still, I'd be happy enough to pass on a copy if I had my own, knowing another reader would pass a few hours caught up in the story -- and then we might grumble about it together . . . Have you read it? Agree or disagree with me?

Sara Baume's A Line Made By Walking. You know I loved Baume's Spill Simmer Falter Wither, so you'll know I came to her latest book with high expectations. And at the level of style, of imagery, and of engaging and thoughtful content, an exposure to new ideas, new knowledge, the novel doesn't disappoint. But this is a bleaker novel, no question. The protagonist is a young woman who has retreated to her deceased grandmother's very rural cottage. Besides mourning her grandmother, she's experienced some kind of breakdown -- there are hints throughout of some kind of trauma, perhaps a romantic disappointment, perhaps something more sinister.

As an experiment in rendering the prolonged depression of a young woman, the novel is very effective, but it's tough to keep reading although there's so much spare beauty in Baume's lyrical descriptions of the countryside, even through her depressed character's eyes. The protagonist has always thought she'd be an artist, went to art school, but has become paralysed by the fear that she won't be able to transcend mediocrity. Throughout, she rouses herself from her depression through a project she's set herself, with her camera (but oh, it's a morbid project), and also by regularly -- rhythmically, even -- setting herself the task of recalling contemporary works dealing with a particular topic or theme. Conceptual art. I found this part of the novel both fascinating and, ultimately, a bit tedious, I have to admit. And yet . . . something about it hooked me, and again, if I had my own copy of the novel (I read it as an e-book, borrowed from the library, so there was a time limitation as well), I think I'd have lingered, and probably would go back to reread sections.

This one might read well with Eimear MacBride's A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, another novel about a troubled young woman, also by a female Irish novelist. Also difficult to read but worth the challenge.

And while we're in Ireland, I'll tell you quickly about Bernard McLaverty's award-winning A Midwinter Break. . . A long-married retired couple whose only son has moved with wife and child to Canada embark on a short trip to Amsterdam -- with very different goals in mind, although the husband doesn't realize this. His quiet, contained, but undeniable alcoholism has his wife mulling her options.

The writing is so precise, and the observation so apt, exquisitely so. The novel is rich in setting, in the careful pacing, the unrolling of this couple's backstory, in their respective private ruminations and expectations and assumptions. The way a couple can be so much more than either of them know, individually. . . The way that a crisis can threaten even at a stage when it might look as if a couple is in a last, settled, copacetic state. In some ways, the novel reminds me of the Roger Michell/Hanif Kureishi film Le Week-end, but its palette is more muted and arguably more effective for that.

Here, two pages that give an idea of the unexpected range the novel claims (accurately, in my experience with longterm marriage) a couple might experience. Note that we only go from page 158 to 161 to see this shift -- Not only do they "ma[k]e love again," but they talk about it, about how she "take[s] the notion more often when [they]'re away" not having to think of dinners, the "bane of [her] life." And she says, "sometimes I wonder if that [lovemaking] was the last time," and her husband teases "Wonder or hope?"  . . and he says, "I would have loved to have known you when you were younger. . . . you and me at the same primary school. . . . I feel I've missed a lot of you." Such tenderness.
 Then a scant day or so later, merely two pages for the reader, he's mocking her belief in the power of a hair product, making fun of the "girls in white coats wearing lip gloss" who advise her at "the chemist's." And there's no doubting the bitterness in the words she flings back: "Sometimes I think you're the worst misogynist I've ever met."

Marriage is complicated, says McLaverty, or his narrator, longterm ones not excepted. . . And the novel poses complicated questions about what loyalties we owe, to our partners or to ourselves. . . especially in the dwindling numbers of our last decades. Highly recommended, this one, but only if you want a book that will make you think and feel.

Not sure when I'll post again, but I have those four paragraphs on Saunders' and Smith's books, so I might surprise us. . .  Meanwhile, as always, I'd love your comments about any of these books, if you've read them, and I'm always interested in hearing what you're reading these days.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

The Patrick Melrose Novels, So Painful, So Funny. . .

I haven't only been reading mysteries recently, although I've been lucky enough to have borrowed a number of good ones from the library these past several weeks.

I've also read the first four Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, pointed towards them by a friend whose recommendations I always trust, and perhaps especially motivated by her telling me that BernardBenedict Cumberbatch will be playing the protagonist in the upcoming Sky Atlantic/Showtime series. I read these four -- Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother's Milk -- in a special edition that bound them together; I have yet to read the final volume in the series, At Last.  I wonder what it might have been like to have read each novel as it was published,  what the effect might have been to close that rather slim (just over 200 pages) first book with its arch, aphoristic, stylish wit which shockingly manages to describe too precisely the details of a young boy's rape by his father. Then to learn, through the various interviews surrounding the novel's publication, that the fiction was disturbingly autobiographical.

As it was, reading the four bound together, I went from that strange mix of the dense and the dark and stylish and the aphoristic directly into the next book, jumping forward to see the young boy, not so shockingly, I suppose, become a heroin addict. A heroin addict with enough funds to cushion himself from the full depredations of that addiction. Again, the stylishness of the writing mesmerizes, gruesome details of needles and veins and dangers ignored in desperation for the next fix, the out-of-control behaviour of an addict who imagines himself to be in control.

And it's not that the writing is merely stylish in its prosody, its word choice, its rhythms. It's stylish also in its content, in the knowingness, the aptitude of its observations about this privileged class of 1960s England, for a start. If it merely sneered, that might be entertaining enough, but there's something so disarming about the blend of intimacy and distancing that the writing effects. It shares the intimacy of such close observation, but even as the writer lets us see Patrick Melrose seeing, there's something of that young boy we met at the beginning that sticks. There's something about looking and mirrors and cloaking that is wound right into the aphoristic style. The gleeful grabbing for a pen to copy down yet another amusingly worded skewering is arrested often by the reader's awareness of the trauma that has saturated Patrick's life.

I know that some of you will not want to read any book that includes such a traumatic event, and I can understand that. And yet there are so many delightful moments, so much sheer fun, in the novels. Hard to believe if you haven't read them, and hard to explain even though I have, but wait until you meet Patrick's precocious children -- their brilliant and delightful laying-out of the terrain between innocence and experience.  Or until you read of Princess Margaret as an honoured guest at a dinner party, the table full of sycophants -- she does not come off as any more appealing than the sycophants, and if you were inclined to admire her or pity her after watching The Crown, you might feel less so after this depiction.

This, of course, is an absolutely inadequate response to St. Aubyn's work in this series, and I can only excuse myself by saying that I'd rather read than write, and that there are so many clever, professional reviews of the books out there already. I will mention, before closing, that I haven't seen this series compared yet to Elena Ferrante's or Karl Knausgaard's series, but all three blur the lines between fiction and autobiography, all three draw long narrative arcs of a protagonist in a family context against while revealing something about the social and/or political national culture (Whoops! I did a bit of Googling after I wrote that last sentence, and I found this article on Serial Storytelling in the 21st Century, by NYU's Karen Hornick.)

If you're at all intrigued, you might want to read Mick Brown's review of the series and interview with St. Aubyn in this 2014 Telegraph article. I hope some of you may have read the books already and/or that some of you will read them now, so that we might chat about them a bit. I've requested At Last from the library, but I think I'll end up buying my own copies of at least some of the volumes,  simply because there are so many sentences, paragraphs, whole sections that I want to read aloud to others (my poor family! the travails of living with a passionate reader ;-)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Three More Mysteries

First, the three mystery novels whose titles I promised you last post. I haven't only been reading from this genre, recently, but it makes sense to group them this way, before moving on to books from other sections of the library. . .

1. Val McDermid's Insidious Intent, the latest in her Carol Jordan/Tony Hill series, borrowed in hardcover from the library. Such a treat to read it this way for free; as much as I find e-reading convenient, I do love the additional sensory pleasures of reading a paper copy, especially in nearly-new, hard-cover format. The smell, the feel of the pages, and the growing tension of gauging how many plot twists might be contained in the dwindling number of pages beneath my right hand. . . .

Someone recently commented on a post here that they were finding this series a bit tedious, and I would agree that the last few might have benefited from tighter editing.  The plots are interesting enough, but there's a certain rhythm in "serial-killer" mysteries that can feel a bit protracted. I've got such a fondness for Tony Hill, though, and for his fondness for Carol Jordan. She's not as easy to like, but she's bright and interesting and principled, and she's gathered a solid crew of loyal colleagues around her. In this novel, some chickens are coming home to roost for Jordan, and while she's working hard to maintain her hard-won sobriety, she and her colleagues are being hounded by a journalist determined to expose both Jordan's earlier transgressions and the way her superiors brushed these away for strategic/political reasons.

This pressure builds to a shocking conclusion, and McDermid makes a special plea in an Afterword, asking readers not to spoil the ending's surprise for others. So I won't -- you'll have to read it for yourself. And after you do, perhaps you'll speculate with me on which of the other characters in this series might deserve either her/his own volume or at least a much larger role: Computer whiz Stacey Chen, for example, or DS Paula McIntyre who, with her physician partner Elinor, has taken on the guardianship of a teen-aged boy.

2. Peter May's Extraordinary People is the first in a series of mysteries featuring the half-Scottish, half-Italian forensic expert Enzo MacLeod who teaches university in France.  When we were together in Palm Springs last month, my sister recommended the "the Enzo files," each volume of which has our protagonist betting he can solve yet another cold-case. I enjoyed May's Lewis trilogy last year, and I'm an unabashed France-lover, so I put the title on hold at the library as soon as we got back. The mystery is well-plotted, although in the end you'll have to decide if you think the motive is credible enough. The puzzle aspect of the novel is perhaps its most satisfying element -- you'll be well rewarded if you have an esoteric knowledge of French history, or even if your coverage is just Jeopardy-level solid.

As well, there's a promising entourage of credible and entertaining characters, although I suspect I'm not the only female reader who is slightly annoyed, at times, by a sexism which might be Enzo's but might also be May's. I'll definitely read more of the series, but if the sexism becomes more evident, I'll probably not continue. Another minor complaint is that in this first book in the series, the author is grappling with how to be sure his readers will follow the use of the Internet. Perhaps that was necessary in 2006, when the book was first published, but it's tedious if not laughable now.

3. In my last post, I commented that it had been a long time since I'd "been thrilled by a particularly elegant and satisfying plot in a mystery novel." At the time, I'd just begun Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X, Higashino's mysteries having been recommended to me by Frances of Sydney in a recent comment. The title is the first in Higashino's Detective Galileo series, and at 320 pages, it's as elegant as you could want for a novel that also deftly sketches its setting--both physical and cultural--in urban Japan. The best mysteries, to me, are ones that reveal something about our humanity while also offering us a puzzle to solve or distracting us from the everyday with their tightly-wound plots. This is one of those in the way it describes the "devotion" of the middle-aged math teacher to the single mother he admires from a respectful distance. The man's lonely existence is brightened by the presence of this mother and her teenaged daughter in his building, and when her ex-husband comes to threaten her and is killed, the neighbour offers to help dispose of the body and to deflect police suspicion. And the final twists of the novel -- the last fifty pages or so -- are truly surprising and are heart-rending as well. Read this one. Tell me what you think.

If you'll remember, I fretted about book-blogging math last post, calculating that while I reported on two books in that post, I had read another nine I needed to tell you about. Today, I've crossed three of those nine of the list, but, of course, I've picked up new books since then. Still, I'm making headway. Next post, I expect to offer a brief survey of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, for a four-with-one-blow effect. I'll probably throw in a quick summary of my response to Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere and mention the dazzling concatenation of following George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo with Ali Smith's Winter.  Or not. It may be that this is all the mention those books get here, which would be a shame. They deserve so much more disciplined a blogger. . . .

Ah well, back to the books now. Over to you. . .


Monday, March 12, 2018

Two Juicy Big Mysteries

Not bad, not bad at all. . . only three weeks have elapsed since my last post, the one which I closed by promising to name the two fat mysteries I borrowed from the library's Fast Reads shelf to bring to Palm Springs with me earlier last month. Not quite enough time to have forgotten the plots completely, but already, I must admit, they've become hazy, partially erased by the books I've gobbled since then.

Both mysteries are the latest volumes in series by dependable writers featuring characters whose detective exploits I've been following for years and years. Peter Robinson's Alan Banks, for example, I've "known" since he was married, watched the hurtful breakup, the divorce, Banks' efforts to maintain his relationships with his teens (now adults). I've watched him date a colleague, befriend and date an expert witness (have I remembered that correctly? I think so), and I've kept track of the exploits, challenges, and relationships of his co-workers, particularly DS Winsome and DI Annie Cabbot. Not to mention the considerable pleasure, with each new entry in the series, of keeping track of its Playlist -- Banks is an eclectic lover of music, across a variety of genres and styles.

The fat new novel I snatched from the library's Fast Reads shelf last month was his Sleeping in the Ground, and it was the perfect book for airplane and poolside, although I could also have enjoyed savouring it a bit more slowly. Unusually, the mystery focusses on finding the person responsible for a mass killing, so there's considerable urgency moving the plot along. Robinson manages to fold in some melancholy on Banks' part related to memory and aging, some thinking many of us can relate to, and he also engages with moral and social questions regarding class, the military, individual conscience and honour. In the end, I found the book engaging enough, but the ending/solution a bit flaccid. If I'm honest, I'd have to say, though, that I don't read mystery novels for the puzzle anymore, if I ever did. I read them more -- especially in series -- because they allow me to immerse myself in a setting to which I can return every year or so, in which I can follow fictional lives that I have somehow invested myself in. It's a long, long time since I've been thrilled by a particularly elegant and satisfying plot in a mystery novel.

And most of those reservations would also hold for Lee Child's latest in his Jack Reacher series, The Midnight Line. These mysteries, I know, have become a bit too formulaic for many, but I'm fascinated to see how, if at all, Child can continue to develop Reacher's character, whether or not Reacher can sustain his idiosyncratic lifestyle of continual, random movement, a life with No Fixed Address. As well, part of Child's formula is an indictment of some aspect of contemporary social life, particularly one in which past or present political/military policies or actions have widespread deleterious results. In this book, it's the terrifying spread of opioids that comes under his lens, and the part of Reacher's character that interests me here is his grappling with the Lone-liness he's choosing by refusing (or being unable) to settle in one spot. I'm using that peculiar hyphenation of lone-liness, because Reacher doesn't wallow in isolation, he's not holed up and unhappy. But there's clearly a pull toward someone he'd hoped might stay on the road with him. . .

Do any of you read either of these series? Or did you and you've abandoned them (and if so, why)? As mystery readers, how much does plot matter? And if you'd like to recommend a mystery with a truly elegant plot, please, go ahead!

Can you believe I have nine other recently finished novels to tell you about? So I hope I don't let another three weeks elapse before I post again -- the math just isn't working in my favour (instead of the one step forward, two steps back, I'm at Two Books Blogged, Nine More Read? -- yikes!!). Indeed, I should be able to give you three more mystery titles in the next short while, and let you know whether they're ones with a satisfying ending or simply ones with satisfying characters and settings.

And in case you're interested in what else I've been reading (given the distinct possibility I may never manage to stay much more about those titles!) I've finished four of the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn, in anticipation of the upcoming BBC series featuring Bernard Cumberbatch (thanks, Brenda, for the recommendation). I've also read Cynthia Ng's Little Fires Everywhere and George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo. . . plus the three mysteries I just mentioned and will name very soon.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Spoiled for Choice, An Embarrassment of Riches, Too Many Books? -- Never!

First of all, let me say what a difference my membership at the Vancouver Public Library has made to my reading patterns this past year. The ability to download e-books, even from different countries while travelling, and to read them through an app on my iPad Mini is such a boon. I've also been taking advantage of the For Later virtual shelf the VPL website offers online, in my account -- When I hear of a book that sounds worth tracking down, my first step these days is generally to go to the library catalogue, and if they have a copy of the title, I pop it on my For Later shelf so that I don't forget about it. As well, if I'm really keen on the book, I'll generally place a Hold Request on it, especially if there's already a queue forming.

Currently, I have nine books on hold, which might sound like too many except that for some of the more popular titles I'm 55th in line -- even 98th, albeit that's on 20 copies.  Still, there is a danger that too many will come available at once or that the book might become available just as I suddenly find myself too busy to read (you're right; that almost never happens -- not that I'm never too busy, just never too busy for reading, which is virtually indispensable to my well-being).  And for precisely that reason, the VPL's software has a nifty little feature that allows the borrower to Pause a Hold request, so that you maintain priority in line, but allow others to go ahead until you're ready to take advantage.

However, if you've got a few too many books on Hold, and you get a bit too distracted with travel and broken teeth and other sundries, well. . . .

Let's just say that at the moment I have two e-books downloaded, their 21-day expiry period shrinking as I type, I'm currently racing my way through a paperback that holds four novels in one book, and the library emailed that a print copy of a mystery novel recommended by my sister is waiting for me now, and just as I was groaning over that, I checked my account and saw that the latest Val McDermid mystery has just been added to the Holds shelf, in my name.

Embarrassment of riches, definitely.

So at the moment, I'm a reading fool, and I'm really not complaining as the weather is chilly enough to make curling up with a book very pleasant. . .

But the reading doesn't leave much time for writing about reading, I must say. Still, I'll try to catch you up quickly.

When it seemed everyone and her dog had a copy of Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins tucked in her beach bag a few summers ago,  I held the book's popularity against it. Silly snob, right? With a few flights scheduled recently, though, I clicked Hold when it was featured again on the library website, and the e-copy was ready for me to download in time for the flight to Palm Springs.

Enough has already been written about this novel to convince you to read it now if, like me, you foolishly held yourself above the crowd first time 'round (please take my self-scourging with a big grain of salt -- you'll see from my past reading lists that I am happy to be quite promiscuous in my reading patterns and that I am regularly content to lose myself in popular fiction, as long as it's well-written). This NY Times review by Helen Schulman, for example, lauds Walter's engaging storytelling but also his clever skewering of Hollywood, the way he can move us and amuse us both.

But I do want to show you the passage that moved me most. It takes place in the one chapter an American veteran of WWII manages to write in the book he claims to be writing for years and years of post-war disillusion and dissolution. In the book, a character like himself recounts an incident in which, near the end of the war, walking in ragged, stretched-out formation with fellow soldiers, he sees a beautiful young Italian woman, is smitten, and insists on walking her home to her village. She turns out to speak English very well, having learned it at school and obviously having a facility for language.

They're speaking, as they walk, of where the soldier/writer/protagonist is from, and he's impressed by how much she knows of the state. It's a beautiful and devastating tale told in two deft pages. Read it, and see what I mean? Although I warn you, it's difficult, and even more pertinent these #MeToo days, perhaps, than when it was written a few years ago.

Have you read this book already? Did you enjoy it? Do you ever hesitate to read a book because you're suspicious of the buzz surrounding it?

Next up: I'll tell you which two fat new hardcovers I found in the Fast Reads section of the library, just before our long weekend in Palm Springs. The latest mysteries in two separate detective series I'm always keen to keep up with, but whoa! Each one weighed in at over 400 pages. . . Perfect for poolside but good thing no one weighed my carry-on! 

Friday, February 9, 2018

Books to Get the Year Launched

With January already over, time to record a few titles.

For train and plane travel at the beginning of the year, I downloaded Sara Blaedel's Only One Life from the Vancouver Public Library. It's the second in the Danish author's Louise Rick series, which I began, out of sequence, with the copy of The Forgotten Girls my husband had grabbed at an airport bookstore last year. Rick makes a good protagonist, especially with her journalist friend Camille Lund to amplify and broaden the female perspective. The two I've read in the series are solid police procedurals with interesting Scandinavian settings (landscape and social/cultural climate), and both treated "social justice" issues (care and institutionalization of special-needs children and adults in The Forgotten Girls and immigration/anti-Muslim sentiment in Only One Life) thoughtfully, educating while entertaining rather than preaching.

Also downloaded from the VPL was Jacqueline Park's The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi. I'd read about this historical fiction a year or so ago when a sequel was released.  Park was 72 when she finished The Secret Book, an international success when published by Simon and Schuster fifteen years ago (although it had to be edited substantially to bring it down to a readable/commercial length).  Then in 2014, when Park was 89 years old, Anansi published the sequel, The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi.  (More about Jacqueline Park's interesting life and how she came to writing a best-seller so late in life here.)

I don't often read historical fiction, but I enjoyed the character Park has drawn in Grazia dei Rossi, a spirited, educated (despite the regular objections from her community to women's education), Jewish woman living in Renaissance Italy -- as well as the characters surrounding and supporting and acting as foils to Rossi. Her powerful sometime-employer, the historical, real-life Isabelle d'Este, for example, not always a likeable woman but admirable in her own way. And interesting; challenging assumptions. . .

The book is obviously very well researched, so that what a reader absorbs about Renaissance Italy feels credible, convincing: its culture, its knowledge, its aesthetic preferences, its social problems, its problematic politics and vying for power through military might or religious influence, and particularly its treatment of the Jews, the way that community adapted and suffered. . . . Only one quibble I have with credibility of research. At one point, Grazia is talking to her lover and they use hummingbirds as a reference point in making an analogy. They speak of hummingbirds as if they existed in Italy, as if they had seen them in a garden. Given that hummingbirds only exist in "the New World, I wish Park's editor had done some fact-checking. But it's a relatively minor quibble, and if you enjoy historical fiction with strong female characters -- and strong, likeable male ones as well -- with lashings of danger and intrigue and romance and passion, I think you'd enjoy reading The Secret Book that Grazia is purportedly writing to/for her son.

The page-turning "airport" books continued to be my preference even after I got back home, especially since I took so long recovering from a hard-hitting cold. I'd begun Madeleine l'Engle's A Circle of Quiet, and enjoyed the more thoughtful pace, the many observations and musings that invited contemplative pauses -- but I own the e-copy of that book so I can take my time finishing it.
Not so with two books that I'd had on Hold at the library, which had to be picked up, read, and returned (for the hard copy; the e-copy simply expires) within a set time period.

Donato Carrisi's The Whisperer I read in a hard copy borrowed from the library after I heard about it from another blogger. I'll admit that it kept me turning pages, and that it's well written, but I'll also admit I'd partly chosen it because the author is an Italian and I'd been hoping to travel back to Italy in its pages. Instead, the book's setting is -- probably intentionally, for the purpose of drawing a broad readership -- blandly international or non-committal. And while there are two characters who intrigued me -- a female detective and a male psychologist -- the serial-killer plot had one too many twists to be satisfying, never mind convincing. Plus because it involved child victims, it was disturbingly gruesome, even for this reader who can read, say, any of Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries and not have nightmares.  Still, I did read to the end and was entertained by some of the subplots and, as I say, by some of the characters and by some of the puzzle-solving and guessing.

Elly Griffiths' The House at Sea's End  was the e-book with the expiry period that hurried me along. I'm so glad that Sue pointed me in the direction of this great series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway. I love the landscape Griffiths draws for us here, and I also enjoy watching the developing relationships from novel to novel between characters we've come to know. The academic atmosphere is another setting Griffiths sketches convincingly, and now that Galloway has embarked on single motherhood, I'm also engaged by her sometimes anguished division, recognizable to many of us, between the calls of maternity and those of career.  The complicated (potential?) romance between Galloway and a certain Detective Inspector also intrigues. Highly recommend this series.

I've also just finished Aurélie Valognes' delightful Mémé dans les Orties (pictured above, with the popcorn which sent me to the dentist!) which I picked up in the train station at Chambéry last month. If you can read French, you might enjoy this story about a grumpy old fellow who reluctantly makes friends in his apartment building, mainly out of stubborn resistance to end up in the maison de retraite (old age home) to which he fears his daughter plans to send him. Some charming characters, some not so charming, but entertaining -- several might have stepped across a few streets from Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog (although the concierge in the latter book only pretended to be unfriendly, unlike the grumpy old fellow's nemesis).
This book was fun for teaching me some French idioms -- each chapter was titled for a different idiom, most of which were new to me. The book's title, for example, Mémé dans les orties (roughly, Granny in the nettles) comes from an expression that means "Don't (go so far as to) push Granny in the nettles" -- i.e. That's going too far!
If you can't read French, you can find this translated into English (and available for you as e-book or paperback) as Out of Sorts.

Now I've got to go sort out my airplane reading and poolside books for a long weekend in the sunshine. Of course I'll be checking in here from my chaise longue, so feel free to share any reading you've been enjoying (or not!) in these first weeks of the year. . .  Or ask any questions about the books I mention here or add your impressions of any I've mentioned that you've also read.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

2017 Reading List

Three weeks into 2018, it's past time to publish my 2017 Reading List, incomplete and unsatisfactory as it may be. As you've surely noticed, I grumble regularly about my poor performance in these posts, frustrated that I don't manage to write enough here, that I'm always trying to catch up with my reading. But I'm patting myself on the back as I post this Annual Reading List, incomplete as it is, because it marks a full ten years that I've kept track of my reading publicly, online.  And scanty though my responses may be, at the very least I have a record of what I've read (and these days, as memory weakens, it's good to be able to check whether I've read a title already or not).

The other benefit of this blog, of course, is the small but treasured readership of readers that have coalesced around my posts. I thank you again for stopping by from time to time, joining in the conversation, making recommendations. I offer up this list of books I read last year with a deep hope that the conversation may continue. I've linked titles to the posts where I discussed (or even just mentioned) them earlier, and of the rest, I've tried to add a brief comment here and there or at least a link to an Instagram post that showed a worthy quotation from the book.

Ask me questions about any of the books I've only listed, and I'll try to fill you in a bit more, depending what I can remember these months later. . .

1. Michael Connelly, The Wrong Side of Goodbye
2. Dionne Brand, Love Enough
3. Hape Kerkelling, I'm Off then: Losing and Finding Myself on the Camino de Santiago.  Trans. Shelley Frisch
4. Ben Abramovich, Rivers of London
5. André Alexis, The Hidden Keys
5. Elaine Sciolino,  The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs
6. Patricia Cornwell, Chaos
7. Ian Rankin, Rather Be the Devil
8. Lawrence Hill, The Illegal
9. Karl Ove Knausgaard, Some Rain Must Fall
10. Jean-Christophe Rufin, L'Immortelle Randonnée: Compostelle Malgré Moi
11. Peter May, The Blackhouse
12. Ulrikka S. Gernes, Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments, trans. Patrick Fresen and Per Brask
13. Donna Leon, Willful Behavior
14. Peter May, The Lewis Man
15. Donna Leon, My Venice and Other Essays.
16. Patrick Modiano, Paris Nocturne
17. Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Beautiful Struggle: A Memoir
18. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts
19. Ann Granger, Mud, Muck, and Dead Things
20. Donna Leon, Uniform Justice
21. Donna Leon, Doctored Evidence
22. Kyo Maclear, Birds Art Life
23. Michael Christie, If I Fall, If I Die
24. Peter May, The Chess Men
25. Roberta Rich, A Trial in Venice
26. Emma Donoghue, The Wonder
27. Lee Child, Night School
28. Tessa Hadley, The Past
29. Lauren Collins, When in French: Love in a Second Language **** Really liked this!
30. Ann Patchett, Commonwealth
31. Rose Tremain, The Gustav Sonata  *** Highly recommend!
32. Robert Moor, On Trails
33. Patrick Modiano, Les Boulevards de Ceinture 
34. J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy
Honestly, while I thought that Vance's memoir was enlightening about the geography and demography he came out of, I found his analysis of the current political climate and his recommendations for socio-economic policy to be facile and tendentious (the latter is fair enough, I guess, considering it's his book, but the former just gets boring).
35. Diana Athill, A Florence Diary
36. Lauren Elkin, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London (IG post)
37. Fred Vargas, Quand Sort La Recluse (IG post)
38. Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster 
If you've already read and love Monkey Beach as much as I do, you need to get your hands on a copy of this coming-of-age novel that mixes up First Nations indigenous beliefs and story-telling with the challenging and often hilarious realities of contemporary teen life. Robinson is such a powerful storyteller rooted in her Haisla/Heitsulk heritage and influenced by Stephen King. Really.
39. Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light: A Memoir
40. Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (link is to IG post; here's another
41. Donna Leon, Blood from a Stone
42. Val McDermid, Out of Bounds (A Karen Pirie mystery)
43. John Farrow, Perish the Day
44. Tracy K. Smith, Duende: Poems
45. Arundhati Roy, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
 I left this comment, late in 2017, on a post at Mardel's Resting Motion:

"I see you read Arundhati Roy's latest novel but didn't mention it in your post. I get that. I read it, soldiered through to the end, and yes, found interesting characters but all in such devastating and difficult circumstances and such a disheartening image of geographies ruined by politics and greed, environmental horrors. All undoubtedly needs to be witnessed, and Roy surely writes brilliantly about it, but I couldn't easily recommend it to anyone that I didn't wish hours and hours and hours of trouble upon. And troubled as I've been by it, it's hard to see what positive action might come from my new knowledge and limited understanding. There are good reasons we turn to the lighter books from time to time..."

46. Hélène Gestern, Eux, Sur la Photo
A very sweet romance develops in this epistolary novel in which a woman tries to solve a mystery about her parents, about her mother's disappearance. I read it in French, but it's also available in English as The People in the Photo. I'd be curious to peek at the English translation just to see how the translator managed the subtle oddity of the continued use of the polite, respectful, but undeniably distancing "vous" even as the two correspondents become closer and closer and. . . well, no spoilers here. . .
47. Deirdre Kelly, Paris Times Eight: Finding Myself in the City of Dreams.
Francophiles and fans of the city of light will enjoy this book, but also those fascinated by the world of dance, of theatre, of journalism. Kelly was a journalist who covered dance, style, theatre, celebrities, etc., for a Canadian newspaper, travelling often to Paris, seeing it through different lenses as she built her career, developed romances and dalliances and grand passions, and especially as she worked through a relationship with her mother.
48. Sara Blaedel, The Forgotten Girls (a Louise Rick mystery)
49. Sara Baume, Spill Simmer Falter Wither
50. Michael Finkel, The Strange and Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit
51. Julia Keller, Last Ragged Breath (a Bell Elkins mystery)
52. Steve Burrows, A Cast of Falcons (a Birder Murder mystery)
53. Steve Burrows, A Shimmer of Hummingbirds.
54. Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being. (link is to IG post, not blog post)
55. Christopher Brookmyre, When the Devil Drives
56. Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places (A Ruth Galloway mystery)
57. Georges Simenon, Le Chien Jaune (a Commissaire Maigret mystery)
58. Tracy K. Smith. Life on Mars: Poems
59. Ann Mah, Mastering the Art of French Eating
Haven't quite finished reading this to Paul as he cooks dinner for me, but we're both enjoying it very much. An American ex-pat living in Paris, cooking and eating. . .
60. Chris Bookmyre, Flesh Wounds.
61. Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, The Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter
62. Sarah Manguso, Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
63. Victor LaValle, The Changeling
an odd, but very readable fantasy, a sort-of Fairy Tale for/of the Modern Day -- set in contemporary New York. . .
64. Nicci French, Saturday Requiem
64. Georges Simenon, Maigret à New York
Loved this especially for the imagery of 50s New York, of the arrival by ship, the mid-century communication technology, the way hotels used to operate. . . and of course M. Maigret....
65. Sherman Alexie, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, 
I admire this work so much, and wish I'd found time to write about it -- a memoir of loss and love and alienation and troubled cultural connections that structure a writer's life. Alexie writes in beautiful and playful and moving prose, often rhythmic, almost singable, about his relationship with his difficult mother. He acknowledges her strength, mourns his loss of her, as mother, to death, as well as earlier, in life, because of their alienation -- but also mourns her loss as speaker of a dying language, a language that linked human to salmon to water to word . . .
66. Chris Brookmyre, Where the Bodies Are Buried
67. Elly Griffiths, The Janus Stone
68. Alison Watt. Dazzle Patterns
69. Cynthea Masson, The Flaw in the Stone
70. Christopher Brookmyre, Country of the Blind
71. Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies
I haven't seen the TV show, nor have I read any of Moriarty's other books, but I will now. Thoroughly enjoyed this for airplane reading!
72. Sara Nović, Girl at War
A fictional account of effects of the civil war in Yugoslavia on a young girl living with her family in Zagreb. The story is told by the woman the girl becomes, moved to the U.S. after trauma ended her childhood. I found the novel engaging and moving and credible enough for someone who doesn't know much about Zagreb or that particular war, but would like to be better informed. Anthony Marra agrees with me, but Ooooh, this reviewer in the Irish Times cuts no slack at all. Just nasty.
73. Christopher Brookmyre, Quite Ugly One Morning
74. Donna Leon, Through a Glass Darkly
75. Gillian Flynn, Dark Places
76. Lisa Ko, The Leavers
A Reader recommended this, and I'm grateful -- a sad and gentle and loving look at immigration and adoption and cultural integration. A young Chinese-American boy whose mother seems to have abandoned him in New York City adjusts to a supposedly life in a small college town with his adoptive parents but . . .
77. Ali Smith, Autumn **** 
A friend recommended this, and what a book to end the year on. Set in a just-post-Brexit Britain, a clever and engaging tale about the relationship between a young girl (and the woman she becomes) and a much older neighbour. Stellar -- do read this one! Here's a link to my Instagram post of a quotation from the book.