January reading round up

Before we start, I published December’s reading round up and then promptly finished reading another book that I hadn’t included. So in the interests of completion, here is one further book I read last year:

A Winter Away – Elizabeth Fair

This is a reissue of a book published originally in the 1950s and one of a number that are slowly coming to light which were written by women and then forgotten. In the same style as Dorothy Whipple, Barbara Pym and so on, Elizabeth Fair wrote light social comedies of manners, with a delightfully bitchy slant. A Winter Away is the story of Maud, who escapes her stepmother by moving to stay with a cousin in the country and takes a job as secretary to the local landowner who has fallen on hard times. The local area throws up all kinds of different people and the interactions between them are portrayed with a sharp eye. This was a highly enjoyable light read and the reissued version (by Dean Street Press) looks lovely.

OK, that’s done.

Happy New Year! Welcome to the first of 2022’s monthly reading round ups – where I chat about what I’ve got through each month. It’s been an incredibly long month and I’ve got through it by reading a lot – so it’s also a long round up.

Some of the books I read this month. Anything not pictured from the list I read on Kindle app.

Brown Girls

Hmm. This is published this month and there was a lot of interested buzz about it. It is written as a group collective point of view – from the point of view of all brown girls in New York, rather than from any one person. This makes for interesting reading to start with but I tired of it after a while, because it didn’t offer any depth and after a while I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what the characters thought, what their differences were and more. I don’t know if the author was purposefully trying to put forward the idea that posh white people regard all non-white people as ‘the same’ but I got that quickly and then wanted more. It’s an interesting experiment but perhaps better for a short story than a novel.

Pah – Orla Owen

Oh this is a strange book. Really well written and grabs you quickly, but my goodness it’s quite dark. Pah is the story of Susan, a nurse with a troubled background who, in a quest for cleanliness and a comfortable home, marries the first man she can find, a dreadful loser called Jeffrey. A parallel story concerns Cal whose parents die at the beginning of the book, and who has to try and make a go of life without very much guidance at all. The stories do intersect but I won’t give you any spoilers. It is a fascinating look into the darkness of human nature and full of characters who are not really very nice, but somehow she manages to make you sympathetic towards them throughout.

The Language of Food – Annabella Abbs

My review for this will be posted here on 3 February, publication day, so keep an eye out!

The Exhibitionist – Charlotte Mendelson

I do sometimes wonder if the characters I write are too nice. Perhaps, I think, I should find liberation in writing people utterly without merit. It might be fun. Perhaps Charlotte Mendelson has thought this too because this book is full of ghastly people. We have seen in recent years storylines where a toxic selfish man has demanded attention far above his worth (not just in fiction, tbh) – I’m thinking of Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife especially – and this idea drives The Exhibitionist. The man in question is Ray, screaming narcisisst, artist, impatient father, philandering husband and someone who makes such demands on his family that his wife feels she needs to sabotage her own successful art career for his sake. And his children. All fucked up. Good grief. I wanted to shake them all so hard. Except the youngest daughter Jess, who I only wanted to shake a little bit.
Having said all that, this is a very well written book and an exercise in having your mouth hang open at how awful some people are. As such, it’s quite entertaining. But I do wonder, do we like to have people so obviously black and white? Would there be more interest in having a more nuanced view of the characters? I think perhaps there would. A more realistic view of the people involved may also give us more idea of what would happen after the book ends, and there were several things left unresolved. Usually I don’t mind this, but in a well balanced character you can often guess which way they will go and in these, I’m not sure. This is published on 17 March this year. It may be the kind of thing you like.

Small Things – Hannah Sutherland

Oh, this is a lovely book. A novella in flash, I picked it up because I was reading two long books and needed a brief boost. It’s a short look at Jude, a young man dealing with the after effects of grief and love and told in a series of short vignettes. It manages to get emotion across very quickly and swiftly in each short chapter. I read it in one sitting and will need to re-read it to get a handle on how she managed to convey so much in such a short space. I love novellas in flash, it’s such a great format and, done well, can provide a really rewarding reading experience.

The Dig Street Festival – Chris Walsh

Wow. Another really odd book. This book is bonkers. The plot is wacky and the characters are wacky and it goes on just a little too long but it was quite the rush. Dig Street is about John, a man at the bottom of life’s heap, who lives in a shared house about to be demolished, and who collects trollies in a DIY store. John has dreams, lofty dreams, and genuinely cares about the motley crew he lives and works with, and their lives are about to be turned upside down in a completely chaotic way. It’s all a bit mad so I recommend if you read it, just to let go of any critical faculties and enjoy the ride.

East of Eden – John Steinbeck

This was my reading group’s choice this month – we start the year ambitiously with a 600-pager. Steinbeck is the master of endurance isn’t he? I don’t mean in terms of the book’s length but more his characters have to put up with so much, he really does show you the plodding nature of life and what you have to put up with just to get through it. I’d read several Steinbecks in the past but not this and we all enjoyed it, and had a good conversation about it. I’d said in my review of the year, that I’d read quite a few ‘meh’ books last year and that the Mr suggested I read more classics. I hadn’t really taken him seriously but you can really tell you’re in the hands of something that has lasted. So it looks like I’ll be trying more classics this year. Any recommendations welcome – I’d like a diverse range if possible.

Playtime’s Over – James Kinsley

Another short book, a novella this time, and this had a really interesting premise which made me more forgiving of its faults. It is the brief story of Will, who has decided to kill himself. In the short time before he dies, he is suddenly transported to meet Viktor, who talks to him about life, death, and everything in between. While I did feel some of the arguments in it were a little contrived, it was still a fascinating look at mental health issues and male friendship.

The Marsh House – Zoe Somerville

Watch out for my review of this on this very site in February!

One Last Time – Olga Flatland

I’d had this on the shelf for a few months and it’s another book put out by an indie publisher (Orenda Books). You start to notice a more honest dialogue with the indie publishers, like they realise we can read about more complicated things more than the mainstream publishers are willing to risk. Like in Pah, these characters are troubled people who have made mistakes in the past and are trying to sort out a mess. Anne has a cancer diagnosis, a husband in a care home who no longer speaks or recognises her after a terrible stroke and two children, one of whom Sigrid, is a doctor and incredibly resentful of how she was raised. Sigrid is a hard character to like to start with, and several other characters have to tell her everything is not all about her which is just what I was thinking too. The main focus of the book is mother-daughter relationships – Sigrid’s own daughter Mia is the most likeable person in the story and as such is the catalyst for much of the interplay between the characters. If you were looking for an example of a book’s plot being driven by characters, you could start here. The translation reads well from the original Norwegian and I found this a rewarding read.

Moments of Pleasure

The Guardian featured an article recommending a short film for every day of January and I’ve managed to watch most of them – some are just the loveliest pieces of filmmaking and storytelling and such a poke in the eye to the 3-hour long guff Hollywood wants us to sit through. If you wanted to have a look, the article with links to them all is here. I recommend The Man Without a Head, The Driver is Red, The Karman Line and The Tower but it’s well worth making time to watch as many as you can.

Phew! Quite a month of reading. Here’s to February!

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