Highlights from a summer of reading: fiction

Since I was last here, I’ve read a lot of books but haven’t said very much about them. It occurred to me that they represented most categories on the reading spectrum, so I thought I’d pick out a few highlights.

Some really good fiction:

Euphoria, Lily King – someone somewhere, and I have to apologise for not being able to credit where credit is due, said about this that it’s one of those really good pieces of writing that makes you want to go away and read more about the non-fictional inspiration for the fictional story. Having finished it, I wholeheartedly agree. Euphoria is based (loosely, I understand) on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead and given that truth is often too unbelievable for fiction, I’d love to know where the boundaries lie between Mead and her fictional counterpart, Nell Stone. The story centres on the events of a few months in the jungle of New Guinea, where Stone, her husband Fen and a third party, and fellow anthropologist, Andrew Bankson, become entangled in a complex web of professional and personal interactions, interwoven skillfully with the preoccupations of the indigenous people they are at once a part of and set apart from. There are actually boundaries all over this novel and King poses some lovely meaty questions about the lines between scholarly observation and true understanding, as well as the idea of how we change something by being a part of it, thereby potentially destroying forever our hopes of witnessing something as it truly is. I loved that King managed to be smart about both the intellectual ambitions of her characters and their emotional cores.

The Still Point, Amy Sackville – it’s interesting when you write about books together in an arbitrary way how often you discover links between them that you might not otherwise have noticed. As I set out to describe Sackville’s debut, it strikes me that it too explores the reconciliation of human ambition with human emotion, as well as the potential pitfalls of human nature. The setting couldn’t be more different though. Her beautifully crafted narrative jumps from a rambling Victorian house on a searing summer’s day to the splintering cruelty of an Arctic winter a hundred years earlier. It’s a story about Edward Mackley, charismatic polar explorer, Emily, the young wife he left behind, and his great-great-niece Julia, who is now living in his house with her husband Simon, while attempting to make sense of Mackley’s legacy: a legacy that includes not just dusty boxes of possessions to be itemised, but the meaning of his failed attempt at the pole, and the idealised love that kept Emily waiting until waiting turned into a life to be endured. I loved this book, for its evocative settings and descriptions as much as for the way it muses on the nature of relationships. But I think what most stood out was its narrative voice, which jumps out at you in the opening lines. Rather than listening to a distant omniscient voice, it’s a little like sitting in one of those observational rooms with a two-way mirror, watching over the people in the novel,  while the narrator sits next to you, arm around your shoulder, lots of friendly ‘we’s’ to draw you in. I wasn’t sure whether Sackville would manage to sustain it for the whole book but somehow it becomes like listening to a friend and the first book I picked up afterwards with a more conventional authorial voice seemed a little strange and distant in comparison.

And before I wrap up, I thought I’d give a quick shout-out to Martine Bailey’s An Appetite for Violets, a historical novel with a pleasing foodie slant. I probably won’t still be thinking about this one in a few months – as I more than likely will in the case of The Still Point – but this 18th-century tale of aspiring cook Biddy and her journey across Europe in the wake of a mistress who, from the off, is clearly embroiled in a ‘plot’ of some sort, is an absorbing read. I really want to use the word ‘rollicking’…you know what, I just will. It’s a touch rollicking. While some bits are very much  on the darker side, there’s a sense of adventure about the whole thing that keeps you turning the pages.

Hmmm. On the subject of unexpected links, it’s just occurred to me that all three of these books present their stories from the point of view of more than one of their main protagonists. Both Bailey and King use letters and diaries to present viewpoints. And both King and Sackville jump around in time (although only a little in the case of King). I do like unexpected links. Anyway, tomorrow night – non-fiction!

 

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There’s a bit more space in my local library

When questioned by my husband about the new book stalagmites on the living room floor, I’m going to claim they’re a kind of public service. After all, there’s no way the library would manage to fit in all the books if I didn’t help them out.

Sometimes it’s fun to see them all together as a snapshot of where my reading mind is currently at. This little formation represents the combined fruits of about three trips and indicates that I’m still fairly evenly split between fiction and non-fiction with a leaning towards books about books and writers, stories by people with quite different lives to mine, and a smattering of history.

I’ve also spotted this year that I tend to choose books (both fiction and non-fiction) with a largely unconscious bias towards women writers. I can’t say I’m that all that bothered, more interested. Most of the men on my ‘read’ list this year crop up in particular genres too (I re-read some Dahl and Morpurgo earlier in the year, and reached book 7 in Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mysteries). I might have a browse through my TBR list too. I’d quite like to see whether the bias comes through there as well… [Update: it sort of does. Oops.]

Anyway, on to the books.

Recent late-night adventures with Daddy Love aside, I’m not afraid to tackle darker topics and I’ve been meaning to read Primo Levi for just ages. Jennifer Teege’s book My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me was a recent find and is a good example of my preference for reading history via the perspective of individuals with a particular connection to the events in question (in this case, Teege is the granddaughter of Amon Goeth who needs, and perhaps deserves, little introduction).

There’s a Christie, because there’s always a Christie. I’d kind of like to have read them all one day.

Gods Behaving Badly sounds like fun and I can see how much I remember about my Greek myths. I’m looking forward to Euphoria because I’ve heard good things in the blogosphere. And Pym’s autobiography via letters and diary entries sounds like a perfect read.

 

David Lodge’s Lives in Writing [not pictured as accidentally pushed under the coffee table, sorry David] features Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis, Muriel Spark, Alan Bennett and H G Wells, amongst others.

And just to round it off, there’s Georgian England, witches and some fairly committed messing around in boats.

Now, which one first??

p.s. If, like me, you looked again at the pictures and noticed that Gods Behaving Badly is the wrong way round and is the ONLY ONE, and you were bothered by it, let’s be friends?