I’ve done a lot of reading the last couple of months, mostly fiction but some nonfiction. As usual, many of them are rather forgettable so today I’ll just talk about five that I enjoyed and are definitely worth your time, and then four others that do exactly what they promise to do and so might prove useful for an unchallenging read on a flight or long commute.
Not discussed here: one novel that angered me so much that I’ve decided it requires its own post. Stay tuned.
The Air You Breathe, Frances de Pontes Peebles (August 2018)
It opens in northern Brazil on a sugar cane plantation in the 1920s. Young Dores, a gangly plain orphan brought up by the housekeeper, has the run of the Great House that is between owners and mostly closed up. Then new owners move in with their spoilt, pretty, daughter, Graça. What follows is a clash of wills that, despite their vast class difference, turns into the relationship that dictates the rest of their lives. Dores is smart but Graça is ambitious. They both fall under the spell of music and start to sing for the estate’s workers. Eventually they run away and, still teenagers, end up in Lapa, the heart and home of Samba in 1920s Rio. Dores writes songs for Graça, who sings her way to Hollywood where she becomes Sofia Salvador, the Brazilian Bombshell.
This is a sensual book: we smell, and hear, and feel the heat and jungle of north Brazil then Rio in the 20s, and Hollywood and Las Vegas after that. The living beat of the book, though, is samba. The rhythm and duende of samba winds through the prose–pitch perfect, except for the occasional over-the-top moment–and twines through the reader’s heart, pulling us in. Music drives a deep hunger in both women, but while Dores hungers for Graça, Graça hungers only for fame. (Imagine that the real Brazilian Bombshell, Carmen Miranda, had met Chavela Vargas…) Unlike most Hollywood stories, though, this time it’s the straight girl who dies young and the lesbian who lives well and long.
It is strongly written, well-structured, and steeped in longing. It is an adventure, a history, and a love song. One to reread on days when you need an excuse to feel too deeply and yearn for something larger and more vivd than life.
The Parting Glass, Gina Marie Guadagnino (March 2019)
Read The Parting Glass for its rich tapestry of 1830s lower Manhattan, where the stately drawing rooms of wealthy WASPs on Washington Square are sustained by the cheap labour drawn from the tenements nearby whose streets are lit by fires you have to pay to be put out, awash in the blood of slaughter houses, and drained by both the ‘protection’ demanded by the Irish mob and the constant pay-offs to Tammany Hall to stay in business.
Or read it as a fascinating study of immigration and social class, race and ethnicity, religion and sexuality in early New York. Or as the tale of Maire O’Farrell and her twin brother Seanin, fresh off the boat, who are everything to each other, who help each other lie and change their names to survive, to get work in a wealthy household—until they both fall in love with the daughter of the house. Or read it as a tragedy of lies and triumph of love, or a delicious subversion of the marriage plot. Is it perfect? No. I think we could have done with a lot less of Maire’s mooning over Charlotte, which I didn’t really believe, and a bit more of the frank and uncomplicated sex between Maire and Liddie. But it has a clear-eyed view of class and community that I admired, and it’s enormously satisfying. So, yep, read it how you like, but read it.
Transcription, Kate Atkinson (September 25, 2018)
I’ve enjoyed Atkinson’s work since 1995 when I found Behind the Scenes at the Museum, an unexpected novel from a perspective, era, and place I know: a Yorkshire family in the second half of the twentieth century. I liked everything of hers I’ve read, though never really warmed to some of it, such as Life After Life.
Transcription is told by Juliet Armstrong, who, in WWII London, was recruited by Britain’s domestic secret service, MI5, to transcribe the tapes of secretly recorded conversations between fifth columnists/fascist sympathisers and government spies. (I marvelled over the old-school spy tech.) The novel begins in 1950, after the war, with Juliet as a producer of children’s programming at the BBC. Naturally, the narrative doesn’t stay post-war long but loops back to the past. Equally naturally, nobody is exactly who they seem. Atkinson must have had a great time nesting identities inside identities, plot loops inside plot loops, disguises inside disguises. While the story reads cleanly and simply, it is anything but. Atkinson creates a sense of the mundane–the dreary deprivation of war-dimmed Britain with its ugly cardigans, rationing, and general dinginess–living in perfect harmony with the slick sophistication of upper-crust society. The thrill and tension of lives and nations in the balance is matched by a deliciously absurd sense of humour. This is a hopeful, thought-provoking, and absorbing read, both a gentle but beautifully wrought guide to the lessons of history that are applicable today and a reminder of how far we’ve come yet how so much never seems to change.
Broken Ground, Val McDermid (December 5, 2018)
Val McDermid is another writer with the gift of combining gritty realism, history, and a good read. Perhaps it’s a northern thing. Once again, we’re dealing with the fallout of decisions made in the second world war, only this time we’re in present-day Scotland with DCI Karen Pirie of the Historic Cases Unit. Artisan gins in Edinburgh, vintage American motorbikes buried under the turf by an upland croft, dead Highland Games athletes, and cold-eyed, well-dressed, yoga-and-flat-white-devotees who plan murders are all part of another satisfying, expertly-plotted narrative by a master.
The Green Man’s Heir, Juliet E McKenna (March, 2018)
The Green Man’s Heir is, like the two previous discussed novels, set in the UK, and, again, harks back to the past, though this time much, much further, to a world of British myth and folklore. And, like the two previous novels, it begins with a crime. However, unlike those city-based narratives, The Green Man’s Heir is firmly grounded in the English countryside, specifically the Peak District.
This novels is almost, but not quite, what I think of as an English landscape fantasy such as Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, and Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. A love of trees and wildlife shines from every page. Those books, though, concern (mostly) ordinary people stumbling upon the extraordinary otherworld that over- (or under-) lies our own. Daniel Mackmain, on the other hand, is a greenblood, the son of a dryad who can see naiads and dryads, shucks and boggarts. An ordinary human might hear the farm dog barking frantically but they can’t see the boggarts tormenting it. Dan knows that the recent murder of a woman in the woods is not the work of a serial killer but supernatural in origin. But it’s hard to solve murders when you don’t want to be tracked on CCTV because you can’t allow yourself to be in any national databases. After all, most people don’t age so slowly…
If you like woodworking, folklore and myth, trees, a good story, a bit of sex, and protecting the innocent, this book is for you. I enjoyed it thoroughly.
Books that do what it says on the tin
Firefly, Henry Porter (October 2018)
Workmanlike prose, great research, and a timely subject: a young Syrian immigrant codenamed Firefly is on the run in Central Europe as he tries to avoid organised criminals and the terrorist he has betrayed. Meanwhile Paul Samson (a character who reads like the lovechild of Le Carré and Alastair Maclean) scrambles over hostile mountains and slips across international borders to save him. This is absolutely as described by the publisher, a “timely thriller following the refugee trail from Syria to Europe…a sophisticated, breathtaking race against time from an author who brings a whole new level of urgency to the genre. A cut above most in the genre.
The Dream Daughter, Diane Chamberlain (October 2018)
Apparently Chamberlain is a prolific bestselling author of romance-flavoured fiction but I didn’t know any of that when I picked up The Dream Daughter. (That is both a positive and negative of the lucky dip that is NetGalley but I wouldn’t change it. It reminds me of being a young reader when every book was a new adventure and I had no idea what to expect.) The prose isn’t great, and there’s a gaping plot hole drive like a stake through its heart but I finished it anyway. This is a super straight family-oriented Christian-tinged fiction with time-travel. (Yes, it’s as odd as it sounds.) Carly, a young widow, discovers that her unborn child has a heart defect that, in 1970, is unfixable. But then her sister’s handsome, sensitive but mysterious physicist husband, Hunter, tells her there is a way. Hunter, it turns out, is a tie traveller from 2017 where they do things like fix foetal anomalies in utero. Of course, not everything goes smoothly because Hunter sort of forgets to include 9/11 in his calculations… Why did I finish it? I’m not sure. Probably because I wanted to see how Chamberlain would navigate Carly through the eras and plot obstacles. So maybe you will, too.
The Burglar, Thomas Perry (January 2019)
I loved Perry’s early Jane Whitefield novels about a member of the Seneca Wolf clan with extraordinary skills who helps those in danger disappear. (Start with Vanishing Act.) The protagonist of his latest, Elle Stowell, is also a young, fit woman with extraordinary skills. She’s a burglar, a very good one; to stay safe she never lets anyone into her personal life. But then on a job she stumbles over a triple homicide and suddenly none of her old rules apply. Perry’s prose is weirdly stiff in places, but if you’re after a niftily-plotted take-down-the-bad-guys read, this one’s for you.
Past Tense, Lee Child (November 2018)
Lee Child’s series about Major Jack Reacher, US Army (Ret.), follow the same pattern: Reacher, the 6’5″ ex-military cop, is hitching about the US. He gets dropped off in the middle of nowhere with only cash, cash card, and toothbrush, has assorted adventures, initiates serious mayhem in service of saving a bunch of locals from Black Hats, has some good and respectful sex, then hitches off alone into another sunset. A modern version of Shane, the famous film gunfighter. (Interestingly, Alan Ladd, who starred in Shane, was about the same height, 5’6″ or maybe 5’7″, as Tom Cruise who plays Reacher in Jack Reacher and Never Go Back.) Past Tense breaks no new ground, though Reacher does a bit less than usual in sorting out an illegal hunting operation (spoiler: they don’t hunt animals…). Also as usual, it pays not to look at the plot too closely because it doesn’t really make sense. In this one part of my active suspension of disbelief involves a young, untrained, unfit, unarmed woman who ends up killing two experienced hunters armed with bows and night-vision goggles. But who cares? Jack Reacher is doing what Jack Reacher does, and the status quo is restored.
These posts are not meant to function as in-depth assessments. It’s more a way to monitor what I’m reading and get a sense of where I’m being lazy. My reading can be variable, both in terms of taste and amount. It’s a combination of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and research (for essays on various topics, and for Menewood).
The fiction and narrative nonfiction is a mix of not-yet published (sometimes via using a kind of lucky dip system on NetGalley or Edelweiss, more usually being sent a galley to blurb), old favourites, and what are frankly bargain backlist that I get either because they’re already old favourites I’d like to have in digital format, or a book I’ve never read that promises to be a couple of hours of light reading that I can fall asleep over without worrying I’ve missed anything. (This is the kind of book I’d read with flu, or doped up on opiates: it does not require full attention but is a great distraction from discomfort.) The research is just as variable and in a variety of disciplines.
I start many books; I don’t finish most. When that happens, I usually don’t discuss them. In terms of living writers, punching down isn’t acceptable and punching up can be counterproductive. On occasion I’ll do both but I have to feel seriously provoked in terms of either narrative choices (cripples as narrative prostheses; women as victims of sexual violence) or a writing habit that has pissed me off once too often. Punching dead writers often feels tacky, but I’ll make exceptions if I believe my commentary might prove useful to a potential reader or a new writer.