As I type, I’m still wearing jumpers and feeling a bit nippy. Where did the sun go? This month I did get to sit in the garden reading for, ooh, a couple of days? But it is still pretty grey out there at the moment – fingers crossed for next month.
Reading this month has been mostly positive with a couple of crashing disappointments. Let’s see:
Learning to Talk to Plants – Mata Orriols
Orriols is a Spanish author and this is set in Barcelona, translated from the original Spanish. I enjoyed it – it’s a low key story of a woman who is widowed young, but her feelings of her husband’s death are complicated by the fact that the day he died, he told her that he was leaving her for another woman. Only one or two of their friends are aware of this so she is treated as someone with very pure grief, when actually she is wrestling with a mix of emotions. Frankly I felt her to still be far too nice to her dead husband but there you go. The title is a reference to her husband’s plants on their flat balcony, which she neglects and then decides to tend.
Still Life – Sarah Winman
This is a beautiful book. I had been looking forward to its release, as I loved all her past novels, especially the most recent Tin Man. Still Life is a quiet meandering ensemble novel, with some low key plot and a wide cast of characters. Set mostly in Florence, with mostly English characters, it opens in the Second World War with the main character Ulysses, a gentle globe maker turned soldier, taking academic art historian Evelyn to try to save paintings from destruction in a German retreat. Following the war, they both go their separate ways but are destined to get back together at some point and the novel follows their lives and loves over the next two decades or so. It’s a lovely engrossing book, and one that definitely deserves to be read in a sunny garden. It does feel these days that there are a lot of books out there that have been asked by publishers to crowbar some major plotting into a story that doesn’t really need it (see below, also The Goldfinch) but this one has been allowed to stand with basic plotting. The characters drive the plot and thank goodness for that. If you are interested in people and how they interact, how they mix with each other and how they live their lives, then this is a great example of a book that lets you spy and listen in. The city of Florence also has a clear character part and it also tips a knowing hat to EM Forster, especially A Room With A View. I loved this, and it deserves to do incredibly well.
The Devil and the Dark Water – Stuart Turton
In a bit of a funk following some non-fiction and general book hangover from Still Life, I picked this up. It came as part of my book subscription from Bookish (indie booksellers) who send a paperback every month. I wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise. Turton wrote the incredibly complicated crime time travel hit The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle which I enjoyed as a bit of confusing fluff, but this hit me at just the right time and was just the thing. It’s an historical supernatural ghost-ish type story – although it makes a point that it is not meant to be an accurate historical novel, nor does it really have ghosts. However, it is a rollicking read – an absorbing fun read and absolutely plot driven. Essentially, if you’re going to do a plot-based novel then this is the way to do it.
Small Pleasures – Clare Chambers
Continuing the theme of plots hammered into character-based novels, this was my reading group choice this month and I started off enjoying it very much. The characterisation was excellent, and the writing is really good. In this light, it’s unsurprising that she was longlisted for The Women’s Prize. BUT, at some point she must have remembered she needed to tie up the storylines and sadly chose incredibly lazy solutions involving quite tired tropes about LGBT characters and also characters with mental illnesses. Not to mention the terrible terrible final chapter. Such a shame.
Mrs Narwhal’s Diary – SJ Norbury
Thank goodness, then for this! Published by tiny indie press Louise Walters Books, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an updated I Capture the Castle as told by a middle aged Woman and Home reader. And it’s none the worse for any of that. Mr Narwhal, burdened with an ancestral home to manage but no interest in managing it, leaves and the resulting burden shifts to his wife who has started writing a diary to keep track of her feelings. A ruined castle, financial woes and a character called Rose with love-interest issues, you see why I thought of the Dodie Smith book? But it’s charming and a light read. Do please buy it direct from Louise Walters who needs all the love.
These Towers Will One Day Slip Into the Sea – Gary Budden
I helped to crowdfund this, an odd but beautiful little book about Reculver in Kent. It’s an area, near Herne Bay, where I used to visit as a child for holidays and where we often go to the coast when we return to visit. Reculver is excellent for finding fossilised sharks teeth, and has plenty of rock pools and fun for the children. This is a fictionalised essay-treatise thing, hard to categorise, which looks at the history of the area from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon times to the present and of the people there. It has lovely illustrations by Maxim Griffin and has been a bit of a labour of love, judging by the crowdfunding emails I used to get from the author. We need more odd but lovely little books like this.
Everyone is Still Alive – Cathy Rentzenbrink
I received a review copy of this on Netgalley and wanted to like it so much. I like Cathy Rentzenbrink’s other books – non-fiction – of grief, bereavement and finding solace in books. This novel is very well written and will absolutely appeal to huge numbers of people but not me, sadly. If you like Motherland on the BBC this is right up your street – all about ghastly middle class parents and Rentzenbrink has good points to make about it all. But the modern attitude to competitive parenting makes me want to hack my hands off and I cannot bear it, even in comedy form. You may all love it. She is a good writer.
Square Haunting – Francesca Wade
When asked if I could time travel, where would I go, I usually reply 1950s New York but this book has made me add inter-war London to that list too. Square Haunting takes its title and inspiration from a Virginia Woolf essay. Woolf was very fond of walking the London streets, finding much to love and be inspired by, and the ghost of her runs throughout this study. Wade explores the lives and work of five women who all lived in Mecklenburgh Square in Bloomsbury in some of the inter-war years. They do not all know each other, they do not all meet or talk together – it is merely a coincidence that they were there at some point in those twenty years or so. But each used her time there to explore in both personal and professional lives, what women could do, what they could say and how they could influence or make changes. The result is a fascinating book of thoughts and boundary pushing, of love and destructive relationships and support and big ideas. Excellent.
Gaudy Night – Dorothy L Sayers
One of the women in Square Haunting was Dorothy L Sayers, who I knew very little about but who sounded so interesting. So I bought this, regarded as one of her best novels, featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, but rather centered on her female character from the series (and potentially more interesting than Lord Peter who I was nonplussed by tbh) Harriet Vane. As a crime novel today, Gaudy Night would be cut right down as it is padded by a hell of a lot of conversations and extra details – it’s a long slog. But the crimes themselves are of a period piece that actually do speak to modern day issues – a poison pen writer who trashes people’s reputations and belongings, and nearly drives one character to suicide through the vile nastiness in the letters that plays on mental ill health issues. Having read Square Haunting, it was also helpful to remember what Sayers was interested in as the extra parts cover some of her larger themes.
This is How We Come Back Stronger – various (ed: Feminist Book Society)
This is a book of essays created during the pandemic which asked prominent feminists about their lockdown, the impact of Covid on feminism and what we can do to help recover. It is very definitely intersectional and wide ranging and the strongest message that comes out is just that we have to listen to each other, leave that ladder up and be more humble and willing to be a community. There are a lot of experiences in here that speak to areas I know little about – and the book’s main selling point is how accessible it makes those experiences – so you learn a lot about what is like for black women, for LGBT women, for Muslim women and all the ways we intersect. It’s an important book to read to highlight our differences and to make sure that we are open to other people’s experiences.
Moments of Pleasure
I went to the cinema this month! For the first time since February 2020. Aren’t the seats nice and wide and comfy? Isn’t it great to be able to walk into my local indie cinema and have a cup of tea in their new refurbished bar before the film? It was an aspect of normality that was worth waiting for. We watched In The Heights, which I loved as a fresh piece of positive loveliness.
In a tribute to Eric Carle, we bought a set of caterpillars to grow – which was something we did a couple of times last year as part of our home schooling extra curricular activities. Today I will be releasing our butterflies but it’s been as much fun watching them develop from hungry little caterpillars into beautiful butterflies.
And finally, Mr Barsby has been bringing home bunches of peonies this month to have as cut flowers in the house. Blowsy, brassy flowers, peonies just don’t care. As showy and frilly as a bride in a badly-advised dress, I am rather fond of them. In your face, other cut flowers!