Dear readers and friends, it’s been ages. What can I say? Work, obligation, and plain old fatigue. I’ve read a lot, but haven’t felt inspired to write about any of it. I haven’t read much romance, though a recent read, Mimi Matthews’s “A Holiday By Gaslight,” by no means stellar, but comforting in that finely-written-lovely-protags-way Matthews has, will see me mix romance into the reading pool again. I’m glad: I’ve missed its hope in life and love.
I read mediocre books, great books, and forgettable books: it’s been a good reading year, not a terribly good blogging one. I’ve read fiction and non-fiction, in English and French, novels, histories, and memoirs. You won’t see a best rom of the year because I needed a break from the genre, but hope to offer some romance reviews in 2023. Here are some of the books you might want, with holiday reading time hopefully at a maximum, to try. If you follow me on Goodreads (my sole SM indulgence these days, with the rom-fun Twitter days ne’er to return) some might sound familiar.
Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, a reread that was even better this third time ’round. As wonderful and perfect a novel as I remembered reading for the first time in grad school. Margaret and John are perfectly-matched in ethos and demeanor as two romance novel leads ought to be, fraught, attracted, and confused: his taciturn stoicism to her dignified virtue, his hidden virtues to her pride, and their palpable attraction in the middle of it. Gaskell’s secondary characters are as perfect (especially the union organizer, Nicholas Higgins) as her conflict, immersed as it is in questions of what kind of society we want to live in, how to serve justice and mercy, how to act for the collective good and express the self’s aspirations and desires. Rewatched the series too: didn’t do much for me, Armitage is marvelous, but Denby-Ashe is wooden (more “chin”, less gawping). I’m presently reading Wives and Daughters and loving it (I’m also a fan-girl of Mary Barton and Ruth.)
Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow My GR reviews says it all and if you’d like to read further, the title links to the blog-post: “An absolutely wonderful book about a man who is both clever and kind, who navigates heartache with good cheer and happiness with élan. He is unflappable, adaptable, living by a code of conviviality and human goodness. When evil enters his life, as it does inevitably in everyone’s, he outwits it, not without price, one he pays willingly and without self-deception.” In retrospect, Towles’s novel is the only one to give me the feeling I get from great romance: hope in humanity and trust in love’s possibilities.
Tana French’s The Likeness I’m grateful to have discovered French’s sophistication and originality in crime fiction. The disorienting brilliance of The Likeness brings into question what we think we know about the self. Read it. Again, the title links to the blog-post.
Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast A caustic novel of genius: what crime fiction does best, throw light on the innocent and bring justice to evil. It’s clever, engrossing, and deeply moral. My GR gushes: “Utterly superb, deceptively simple, incredibly complex…a true morality tale, on the scale of medieval morality plays; the good are rewarded; evil; punished. Yet the characters are not allegorically flat as in A=Pride. They’re fully-fleshed and worthy of our attention and care. There is a fascinating Christian-message undercurrent, a metaphor of the wedding guest answering the Master’s call to come to the wedding feast. But Kennedy is too good a writer to write in a “master”: there’s a call, there’s innocence, purity, and love and, for some, there isn’t. There are goats and sheep, but the meek do inherit the earth; there is even a redemption arc. Kennedy leaves just enough doubt that the ending isn’t as neat as at first appears. Don’t dawdle, read it now.“
Laurent Binet’s HHhH and Eric Vuillard’s L’ordre du jour I didn’t lump these two titles together because they’re derivative, but because they represent something new: the perfect melding of history and novel. I absolutely loved them: one of my problems with lit-fic is its inability to express a discernible theme. Binet and Vuillard do this very thing, fearlessly, brilliantly, and in a hugely entertaining fashion. Binet also manages a self-deprecating humour, which places him, IMHO, a cut above Vuillard. My GR review of Binet: “A remarkable “novel”, though the narrator grapples with what makes a novel? What is history? My initial thought: best novel of banked anger I’ve ever read. Still processing, will write more on my blog eventually.” Never managed that blog-post, but the novel resonates. My GR review of Vuillard: “A remarkable narrative account (not a novel, not a history, something hybrid and original); Vuillard’s voice is suppressed anger over the machinations of the powerful over the ignorant and weak. Collusion between money and power was and is a historical scourge. To say I couldn’t put this down may be puzzling, but Vuillard’s voice carried me through.” I read Binet and Vuillard in French, but English translations are available. The HHhH title links to the blog-post, which includes a Tortoise and Hare review.
Elizabeth Jenkins’s The Tortoise and the Hare Though I was enthralled with this at the time of reading, it hasn’t stayed with me as much as Kennedy’s Feast. Jenkins’s novel is more character study, though brilliant and definitely worthy to be on this list. My GR review is brief and not terribly helpful, but here it is: “As remarkable and enigmatic a novel as you’re ever likely to read.” I suggest reading the link to HHhH.
Jo Baker’s Longbourn Not as good in retrospect as my initial reading, but still a fine companion to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Thankfully, it doesn’t retell, but adds a narrative layer, putting P&P‘s aristocratic characters in the background and bringing its downstairs’ denizens into sharp and loving focus. Nevertheless, it is that final not-so-happy-glimpse of Lizzie and Darcy that haunts me. The title links to the blog-post.
William Golding’s The Inheritors Reading Golding’s novel was sheer torture and I slogged through it over several summer weeks. I may have even cheated and read some crime fiction to break up his relentless convoluted attempt to represent the Neanderthals’ pre-conscious state. Did he succeed? Could he have? I’m not sure. What I do know: his attempt is either laughably ludicrous, or brilliantly perceptive and important. I hated every second of it, yet can’t shake it off. My GR review: “Truly a remarkable book: I loved and hated it. The first half was dense and slow-moving, near-incomprehensible, at least for me, who has trouble visualizing descriptions, impenetrable. But I saw what Golding tried to do, attempt to put into words a people without language and what I guess we would call a pre-consciousness state. He succeeded and made Finnegans Wake look “easy”…not really, but I can see where they strangely intersect. I made it to the end of The Inheritors, however, which I can’t say for old Finnegan. My strategy was to get into the rhythm of the language as opposed to trying to understand what was happening. However, when the Neanderthal encounter Homo sapiens, things fell into place and, by the end, Golding’s familiar “lord of the flies” themes emerged: our sinful nature, our fallen-ness, our need to propitiate an evil that actually lies within, our inability to achieve redemption. The novel’s second half was compelling because things as they are NAMED appeared, albeit, in “riddle form”, as the Neanderthal perceive them (example, the Neanderthal see a “snake” disciplining a sailboat crew, which, one realizes, is a whip). The novel has twelve chapters, the first eleven of which we spend in the non-individuated, non-verbal Neanderthal “mind” (the final ironically twisted chapter, with echoes of Flies, we are, finally, in familiar territory: sticks are sharpened and our re-enactment of the Cain-Abel curse of murder and hatred is, sadly, all too close). Things click for the reader in this final chapter, because, ironically, “it’s just us” (as Simon says to the boys in Flies), jealousies, resentments, the evils of property and power, there they are, laid out in this strange encounter with innocence. Oh, this is not the Blakean “little lamb” business (which I love, btw, but it’s the bright tiger which makes for vibrant poetry). The Neanderthal are “innocent” because they are without norms because they are without the necessity of circumscribing behaviour, property-less, non-individuated, and non-verbal. It’ll be interesting to consider Golding’s novel when I read Rebecca Wragg Sykes’ Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.”
Rosemary Sutcliff’s Blue Remembered Hills: A Recollection As lovely and “easy” a read (because of my wallowing enjoyment) as Golding’s Inheritors wasn’t. Sutcliff’s memoir is warm and happy, despite her incredible challenges, full of life and possibility and enjoyment of the best things: beauty in nature, sensibility in reading, comfort, friendship, and purpose. I’m going to unashamedly “plug” the Slightly Foxed edition I read. My GR’s thoughts: “One of the loveliest books I’ve ever read in, except for my ancient pocket-hardback Oxford edition of Jane Eyre (bought, with great love and excitement, from a used book shop in St. Andrews), one of the loveliest editions I’ve ever possessed. Rosemary Sutcliff made me a reader. When my 6th grade teacher handed me The Eagle of the Ninth, I read it, obsessively and repeatedly, for the rest of the school year. I still yearn for that tiny hardback edition with its black-and-white illustrations. It moved and excited me; it was, simply, alive: Marcus, his wolf-dog, the budding romance, the quest, the reconciliation with the past, the living with diminishment. It taught me what life was: accomplishments and losses. I went on, to read many more books. Now, 50 years later, I read Blue Remembered Hills and was transported by Sutcliff’s remarkable sensibility. In her firm, quiet way, she tells us the story of her childhood and family, education, friendships, very few, therefore also of loneliness, a first and only love. If this was all, it would have been a beautifully written account indeed. It is more: Sutcliff confronted pain (physical and spiritual, of heart and mind) and then, moved it aside, ever present, not ever dominant. Sutcliff teaches us: if pain is a Gordian knot, purpose, joy, beauty, and integrity are the sword. How she defines herself, through childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood is a measured, subtle journey leading to her writing. Sutcliff’s memoir is about how a precocious child, with a loving, not always-easy family, becomes a woman of deep aesthetic wisdom, a great writer, and steers the lives of many, including me.”
Enjoyable Genre Titles (Crime/Romance Fiction)
Agatha Christie’s Murder At the Vicarage (My first Christie! Not my last. Never knew how witty, how caustic she could be.)
Allison Montclair’s The Unkept Woman (Thanks to St. Martin’s Press’ Minotaur Books for an e-galley, via Netgalley) (A favourite series and this may be the best one yet.)
Mick Herron’s Slow Horses (First Herron, so clever. Have the rest of the series piled on the night-table.)
C. S. Harris’s When Blood Lies (Another favourite, one of the best of the series; glad to see some questions answered. Hero and Seb remain one of my favourite couples.)
Jennifer Ashley’s The Secret of Bow Lane (Thanks to Berkley Publishing for an e-galley, via Netgalley) (Another fave; also, best one of series.)
Jen Devon’s Bend Toward the Sun (Thanks to Macmillan Audio for an advance listening copy, via Netgalley) (An overlong, but surprisingly good romance.)
Betty Neels’s Britannia All At Sea (Can’t go wrong with Betty.)
Elly Griffiths’s The Locked Room (Many questions answered…who cares about the mystery. More Nelson, Ruth, and Kate, please. Sadly, this is the penultimate of the series. Loved the lockdown setting.)
Andrea Penrose’s Murder At the Royal Botanic Gardens (Thanks to Kensington Books for an e-galley, via Netgalley) (Enfin, happiness for this great couple in another favourite series.)
K. J. Charles’s Slippery Creatures (New-to-me author, other two of trilogy on the night-table. LOVED Kim.)
Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness At the Bottom of the Pie (Flavia forever, #2 wending its way to me.)
Mimi Matthews’s “A Holiday by Gaslight” (Matthews’s fine sensibility shines through, but I wanted more than a novella.)
Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club (Bit of a narrative mess, but I loved the characters; #2 is on the night-table.)
Deanna Raybourn’s An Impossible Imposter (Stoker and Veronica FOREVAH.)
Dorothy L. Sayers’s Five Red Herrings (Gosh, I love Peter Wimsey, also Scotland!)
Lesser Titles, Not Quite Mediocre, Not Quite Stellar, Definitely Flawed, Still-Worth-Reading
David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity (Bloated and implausible, but fascinating in places.)
Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley (So much material, such great nature writing, may we have a theme, please?)
Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House (A bloated snoozer, until the Katrina account and then, wowza.)
Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously (Great books commentary, too much uxoriousness and too many punk music references.)
Josephine Tey’s The Man in the Queue (Bit of a snoozer, slow plotting, but great detective and writing.)
Benjamin Labatut’s When We Cease to Understand the World (Great opening chapter; thought I found another Binet and Vuillard, then it all went to hell in a hand-basket.)
Audrey Magee’s The Colony (Technically great, but cold, detached. Here I am: writing an important novel.)
Sarah Moss’s The Fell (Slight, but a great voice.)
Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I (Gave up to chuckles what could have been deeper.)
Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune (I hated everyone.)
Ruth Klüger’s Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (Relentlessly honest and brilliant.)
Andrew Sean Greer’s Less (Gave up to humor where this could have had some depth.)
Clare Hunter’s Threads of Life: A History of the World Through the Eye of a Needle (Singular conceit, becomes repetitive, but fascinating in places.)
Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (See Magee comment.)
Books I Had to Grimace-and-Bear-It
Judy Batalion’s Light of Days
Deanna Raybourn’s Killers Of a Certain Age (Thanks to Berkley Publishing for an e-galley, via Netgalley)
Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders
Winifred Holtby’s South Riding
M. F. K. Fisher’s Serve It Forth
Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent
Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven
Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Katherine May’s The Electricity of Every Living Thing: A Woman’s Walk in the Wild to Find Her Way Home
Books I Downright Hated
Julian Barnes’s Elizabeth Finch (Thanks to Knopf Doubleday Publishing for an e-galley, via Netgalley)
Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s The Corner That Held Them
MY BOOK OF THE YEAR: Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast
Why? Because it has everything a novel should: memorable characters and scenes, love and hate, suspense and reflection; it’s clever, funny, entertaining, and horrific all at once, possesses an ethic, and resonates.