April reading round up

April, month of chocolate and rain and that moment when I realise the tree outside my window has finally sent out its new leaves. The reading has been a mixed bag.

The Nail House – Gregory Baines

Another of the Fairlight Modern Series, this was a bit of a mixed read for me. The Nail House refers to an old house that is in the middle of a construction site, where the owners are refusing to leave (a bit like in Up, for our younger readers or their parents). This is the case for Zhen whose parents are old revolutionaries in China and refusing to leave their old home, which is under threat from construction and attacks of vandalism from people paid by the construction company. Zhen is about to leave to get married but their lives are complicated by the arrival of Lindon, an Australian man brought in to project manage the construction. Lindon finds sense and love where he wasn’t expecting either and everyone needs to find a way to move on – physically and emotionally. It started well enough, but I felt was a bit hit and miss and the ending was silly.

Mrs Porter Calling – AJ Pearce

This is the third book in the Emmy Lake Chronicles, which readers of this blog will know is one of my favourites of recent years. It’s published in May so I’ll have a longer review posted then – suffice to say, I loved this.

Five Tuesdays in Winter – Lily King

King wrote Writers and Lovers which I enjoyed very much, and this is a collection of short stories. There are so many clever short stories out there, where you feel that the author is showing off in how smart they are, and what a great twist they can write, that sometimes I find them quite irritating. How refreshing, then, to find this, which simply tells a good story. Many of them have dark sides to them but no huge twists and actually some happy endings. These are well written and absorbing and capture all sorts. I really enjoyed this.

Why Women Walk – Annabel Abbs

Abbs is the author of The Language of Food, a novel I reviewed last year. This is non-fiction, a biography-autobiography mix about women walking in nature and how this act has been a revolutionary step. It features women including Simone de Beauvoir, Georgia O’Keeffe and Nan Shepherd, among others, and is interspersed with Abbs following in their footsteps as she tries to recover from a fall. Among the themes of the book is a discussion about women walking in isolation and the dangers of this versus the perceived dangers of it, but also the freedom that this and how this has shaped the lives of women. Abbs finds the exhilarating freedom of walking, sometimes alone and sometimes with her family, and the book is as much about her recovery and liberation as it is about the women featured. I learned a lot about all of the women featured, and although I’m more of an urban walker I really enjoyed this.

Sweet Bean Paste – Durian Sukegawa

This was the reading group choice this month and it’s another of the Japanese novels in that quirky sweet profound genre that they have made their own. It is about Sentaro, an convict who is working off his debt by running a small confectionary shop selling dorayaki, a pancake filled with sweet bean paste. When Tokue, an elderly woman, comes to ask for a job and brings with her a superior sweet bean paste of her own, Sentaro’s fortunes change. But Tokue has a sad past that means she is unable to stay at the shop and the book looks at the relationship between these unlikely friends and what they can offer each other. This is based on true events in Japan that I was unaware of, to do with treatment of people with Hansen’s disease, but it’s a lovely little fable. More like this please.

Middlemarch – George Eliot

This month’s reread. I first read this back in the 1990s just before the BBC adaptation and I’d always meant to reread it but felt intimidated by the size, despite memories of enjoying it. It is long – 900 pages or so – but for a Victorian classic, it’s much more readable and lighter in tone than a Dickens novel, for example. Eliot was a sharp observer and Middlemarch contains more life and non-convention than you think, hardly surprising when you look at Eliot’s own life. If you’ve not read it, Middlemarch is the story of a provincial town at the time of the 1832 Reform Act, and how this and general innovations start to impact on the town and its people, with their ideas about class and work and society. Heroine Dorothea Brooke is so terribly irritating in her pious self-effacing nonsense, it’s such a relief when the scales begin to fall from her eyes – though by then she’s shackled herself to the dullest man in England – and my favourite character was and remains Mary Garth. There are some nuggets in here – who can remember the Dr Lydgate’s backstory features him falling in love with an actress who killed her husband on stage and got away with it? And the closing sentence is one of the best in English literature. It really is worth spending time in Middlemarch – a brilliant book.

Biscuits – Jennie Robins

This is a graphic novel that got quite a lot of acclaim on publication. Actually, it’s less a novel than a series of vignettes about women living and loving in London. Like a city life, there’s lots of faces and interactions and small moments captured and it’s well done, though I think, ultimately not as emotionally engaging for me.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry/ The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy/ Maureen Fry and the Angel of the North – Rachel Joyce

I have enjoyed Joyce’s later books and although I’d read Harold Fry before, I couldn’t remember it so this was another reread (the film is out and the trailer is everywhere.) The story is another that takes a repressed Englishman and makes him do something silly instead of talking about his feelings. Although this genre is sometimes sweet and funny, I do wish we had another national trait. Repressed or drunk and yobbish – I dislike both. Anyway, I picked up the trilogy in a second hand bookshop and made my bank holiday way through them. The Queenie book should have been a short story or, at most, a novella. There is very little to it in terms of plot and I wanted more for her than to have wasted away much of her life on unrequited love. I think the third book, about Harold’s wife Maureen, was actually my favourite. It’s also the shortest and has the most plot and punch.

Moments of Pleasure

Having dutifully sacrificed Sundays to shepherding small back and forth to Gang Show rehearsals since October, it has been a pleasure to have the proper arrival of spring combined with being able to go places on a Sunday for a walk and some open air eating.

I’ve had a week off work and I’ve also been home alone for a week during the Easter holidays, which in some ways feels like an extension of holiday – either you have no work or you have no family and for the bank holiday weekend I had neither which was my own revolutionary act (though mainly a result of train engineering works).

I saved Middlemarch for this time alone, and also had a number of films lined up to watch to make the most of the time. Among these was Everything Everywhere All At Once which I thought was 20 minutes too long, was a little indulgent in actively trying to be bewildering but did ultimately make me a bit emotional. I really enjoyed Ali and Ava – a British film about relationships and racial tensions in Bradford (it features a scene in Britain’s most beautiful bookshop, Waterstone’s Bradford Wool Exchange.) I also saw Prima Facie, Jodi Comer’s one woman play streamed on National Theatre’s home app – which I thought was excellent, though obviously upsetting, and she was brilliant in it. All the acclaim is well deserved in this case.

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