December reading round up

I hope this festive period is treating you well. This post is always an odd one to send out after the annual reading round up, and especially odd this year as I’ve really struggled getting through books this month. But here we are:

A Town Called Solace – Mary Lawson

A Town Called Solace! Ooh-ooh-ooh-yeah! (Apologies to Paul Weller.) Mary Lawson is one of those solid reliable writers, like Anne Tyler, who cover stories of people living their lives in small town America, and she doesn’t get a lot of press or excitement but she’s a good writer and her books are full of insight and perception. This one is slightly odd, I’ll admit, only because one of the three narrators, we’re told fairly early on in the book, dies, but there she is telling us about the days before she does. The rest of it is told in a straightforward way. I liked it.

Believe Me – Eddie Izzard

I borrowed this one from the Diversity and Inclusion library at work, having always been a fan of Izzard, and this is an autobiography that concentrates a lot on her childhood. In many ways, it’s quite a dull tale but that was one reason I liked it – it was so normal which I appreciated in this hectic month – but interspersed with the stories where she discusses her transgender status and her feelings about gender fluidity. (This book was written before Izzard changed her pronouns.) The thing that struck me the most was her saying that we often lose the humanity when we have conversations about this, and I think it’s doubly true these days. We talk about transgender people in terms of predators, of refugees ‘invading’, and so many other issues and we tend to forget that there’s a person under all of this. Anyway, there is a lot to admire about Izzard, having achieved a lot really just through sheer bloody minded determination. You go girl.

The Snow Ball – Brigid Brophy

This is a beautiful edition and I enjoyed adding it to my collection of Christmassy books. However, despite it being an intelligent, sardonic look at the upper classes and their funny ways in the 1950s, I found it rather hard to get on with. Not much happens in it, and it’s got a lot of references to Mozart in it which didn’t help. But I felt it was probably appreciated by people more clever than I.

Winter Air – Sylvia Townsend Warner

Back to the 1950s again and this is a collection of short stories. They are sharp and funny and sometimes quite dark. As such, again, I have needed to read them slowly and interspersed with other things so I didn’t start feeling bleak.

Foster – Claire Keegan

The reading group chose Keegan’s other book Small Things Like These to read this month (reviewed a couple of months ago as we were passing round the same copy of it) and I heard this discussed on Radio 4’s A Good Read programme so thought I’d pick it up. I think they’ve just made it into a film – The Quiet Girl – and it’s another novella set in Ireland. The quiet girl is the narrator who goes to stay a few weeks with a couple while her mother gives birth to another child. Her time at their farm is what the book is about and there are lots of clues about a secret the farm couple hold, and how they treat the girl so that she flourishes under their care. It’s another masterpiece of writing – she’s very good at conveying so much with very little.

Alison – Lizzie Stewart

I’ve said it before, but there are so many good things happening in the world of graphic novels right now. So much more than in regular fiction. Here’s another good one. Alison is written as a memoir by an artist, a girl who originally had small ambitions until her eyes are opened by her affair with an older male artist. She runs to London and starts afresh there. This is an honest look at love affairs, female friendship, quiet disappointments and more. What I especially loved is how she portrays the difficulties of being a timid inexperienced girl in thrall to an older exploitative man – where is the line between being exploited and allowing yourself to go along with bad things? It’s a difficult thing to get right but this manages it. It was so convincing I nearly googled all the artists mentioned to have a look at their work.

The Christie Affair – Nina De Gramont

This is the first choice of the new book group at work and I started off enjoying it. It has some odd stylistic quirks – it’s supposed to be narrated by one of the characters all the way through but there are several chapters where the author appears to have forgotten this. The narrator can’t possibly know the inner thoughts of other characters, so de Gramont has inserted some clunky explanation for this instead of just writing several chapters in third person which would have made more sense. Anyway, this is the fictionalised story of Agatha Christie’s famous eleven day disappearance and what may have happened. As I say, I started off enjoying it but halfway through it started getting silly and the ending was preposterous. A few years back, it felt like it was fashionable to have child abuse as a major plot point for novels and while that trend has passed, it seems to have been replaced by Magdalen Laundries. If we could get past this trend quickly too, please, that’d be great.

Moments of Pleasure

The best news this month has of course been the restoration of the song When Love is Gone to the Muppet Christmas Carol. The bitterness makes so much more sense when we see Scrooge get his heart broken, and especially the line: It was almost love, it was almost always… So good.

I wish you all a very Happy New Year – here’s to a 2023 filled with good books, meaningful words and less bullshit.

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