Reading Log 2007-10

Note – the timeline of this log starts at the bottom of the page

– Alice Walker: The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart (2000) is a lovely collection of short stories, stylish, reflective and deeply emotional. If a book is really awful I will probably not mention it at all, out of civility, but I really must issue a warning about books written after Robert Ludlum’s death which feature his name on the cover, the real author being identified in small print. I read several of Robert Ludlum’s thrillers years ago but was seriously disappointed by one of these new ones. Happily, I have come across a superb thriller, Tom Rob Smith: Child 44 (2008), which portrays the icy brutality of a Stalinist Russian winter but hope and kindness and honesty win through. The writing is clear and sharp and sensitive.

William Trevor: Love and Summer (2009) is a quietly beautiful, softly shaded introspective and kindly observation of rural Irish social relationships. Kathy Reichs: Devil Bones (2008) – no this author is not for me despite her clevernesss and humour. The next two in the Kay Scarpetta series – Patricia Cornwell: Book of the Dead followed by Scarpetta (2008), which is perhaps one of her best. Anne Enright‘s short stories, Taking Pictures (2008) do not reach the expectations set up by her novels but her observation is always fresh and entertaining. Shirley Hazzard: The Great Fire (2003) is a simple story, beautifully told, with exquisite and resonant language, delicate observation, lights and shades, a book to delight in.

– I started but abandoned the latest in the Brighton detective series, Peter James: Dead Tomorrow (2009). Too seedy and the writing not good enough to redeem it. Then, a few dull pages into Robert Harris: The Ghost (2007), I happened upon William Boyd: Ordinary Thunderstorms (2009). This sharp and adventurous writer always entertains, and in this instance what could I like better than such a craftsman let loose on my favourite thriller genre. Very good indeed, but I always feel distanced from this author and this creates a mild disappointment. The luscious poetry of Carol Anne Duffy: Feminine Gospels (2002) raised my spirits. Karin Alvtegen: Shadow (2009) is a cleverly constructed Swedish psychological mystery which takes its reflective time to develop the depths in its characters. I appreciated McKinley Burnett’s smooth translation.

– Amy Tan: Saving Fish From Drowning (2005) and Ian McEwan: On Chesil Beach (2007), Booker Prize. These two very different books from two very different authors have much in common. Both authors engage with the reality of the daily struggle for ordinary people, embracing all of the detail, however mundane or even unattractive, but enriching it and endowing it with significance in the quest that we are all following, at varying levels of awareness. Both authors achieve perfection in language, structure and characterisation. Amy Tan’s subtle sense of the comic never detracts from her sympathy for the human condition. I could have wished that Ian McEwan might have gone deeper.

– I shall not need to read Craig Raine: Heartbreak (2010) because I have derived sufficient entertainment from Terry Eagleton’s review in the London Review of Books (24 June 2010), which begins by declaring that this is a novel in the sense that Eton is a school near Slough, and goes on to levy charges in pretty much every area. Mr Eagleton is this passionate reader’s favourite professor and although his usual dignified style is here more of an engaging romp, this review is one to cut out and keep. It reminds me that it is time for a re-reading of his mesmerising memoir, The Gatekeeper. Kazuo Ishiguro: Never Let Me Go (2005) exceeds all expectations from this author in terms of his craft, but I felt the subject matter wasn’t worth the treatment. I could not stop turning the pages but would have preferred not to have embarked upon this novel.

– Standing still in the British Library in London and simply breathing in the air that embraces all those books gives me an intense pleasure. An Amazon fiction forum thread recently had a number of readers confessing to the pleasure of sniffing newly purchased books.

– I have enjoyed the consistently high standard of Minette Walters: The Shape of Snakes (2000) and Acid Row (2001). Her books are so different from each other except for the overall darkness of the themes. I have taken a break from this writer and am refreshing my soul with the perfectly beautiful poetry of the passionate Welshman RS Thomas (1913-2000). Many of his poems are reproduced on the internet, for example Welsh Landscape.

– The first two novels written by Minette Walters: The Ice House (1992) and The Sculptress (1993) are very well written and constructed, and even the minor characters are fully realised. Andrew O’Hagan: Be Near Me (2007) is the best book I have read for some time, a sensitive and philosophical love story developed from an unusual angle. Rather unfashionably, I have always liked the poetry of Tennyson whence the title comes.  Patricia Cornwell: The Predator (2005) exceeds expectations again.

– In Alan Bennett’s recent play, The Habit of Art (2009), WH Auden wonders whether his poetry will still be read after his death. I believe that it will long endure, but perhaps this play will not. Its thoughtful observations on cultural and creative dissonances, and the sparkling language, struggle to survive the heavily underlined cheap laughs. Bennett’s earlier play, The History Boys (2004), is the kind of charming fable that may have a longer life. The enchanting Wiliam Fiennes writes a delicate memoir of his childhood in The Music Room (2009), casting a soft clear light on scene after scene, brave and sad and beautiful. My first Minette Walters: The Echo (2007) will certainly not be my last. An exceedingly well-written crime thriller set in London with generous characterisation and taut plotting that demands and repays full attention.

– Pondering on the disturbing constant theme of the cycles of nature in First World War poetry as I read Isaac RosenbergThomas Hardy (Jon Silkin’s 1979 anthology, The Penguin Book of First World Poetry) includes Hardy’s Boer War poem, Drummer Hodge) and Edward Thomas. Even Anna Akhmatova ‘s lines: “a warm red rain soaks the trampled fields”, with their honest regret, stir in me a resentment against all wars as I think of the families of the men whose coffins pass through the respectful streets of Wootton Bassett.

– Tried a new (to me) thriller-writer, Jeff Abbott: Trust Me (2009). Cool but gripping, and a good quality of writing for this genre. Patricia Cornwell: The Last Precinct (2000) is one of the best in this series.

– I have been in a non-fiction phase, keeping it serious, and stretching the mind and the vocabulary, now returning to the delights of fiction, and again to Amanda Prantera, whose Letter to Lorenzo (1999) charts a polished and perceptive journey through the pain of grief and betrayal. A superior read, as usual with this author.

– Today I saw a man reading a thick book as he walked to work and I silently offered thankful thoughts for our council’s care for its walkways that can give such confidence to a passionate reader.

– I have long been an admirer of the exquisite style and sophisticated plotting of Amanda Prantera’s novels and am hooked by her latest venture, Wolfsong. This is a tantalising electronic serial, a lively and fluent romp with dark hints of inevitable shadows to come.

– How curious that I picked up Amanda Prantera: Spoiler (2003) the day after finishing Brighton Rock and found her referring, within a few pages, to Epitaph for a Fallen Rider by William Camden: “Between the stirrup and the ground, I mercy sought and mercy found”, the quotation that is the leitmotif of Greene’s book and a pointer to his Catholic sensibility. Amanda Prantera’s reference to it contributes to the ambiguity that builds up during her fiercely intelligent, spare, and delicate mystery, in which there is a sense of something undefined always trying to break through the surface, producing a delicious edgy tension throughout, and yes, somehow that wistfulness of Greene’s infuses this book.

– I had mentioned the idea of a completist reading of Graham Greene, forgetting that I had recently learnt that he undertook the discipline of writing a minimum number of words every day, and that he lived to a grand old age, so his output is copious. I will settle for a few major works, and have started by re-reading Brighton Rock (1938). There is still a freshness to this story so many years since it was written, and Greene manages to express a wistful lyricism in his portrayal of bleakness, and a possibility of redemption emerges in the heart of the deprivation and violence. His understanding of human need is powerful.

– Last month’s serious list entitles me to dip into another thriller – Harlan Coben: Long Lost (2009). Investigator Myron Bolitar is now caught up in terrorism but the story is not quite as gripping as some of the earlier books in this series. Now I have read all 16 of Harlan Coben’s thrillers, such solace to escape to after a hard day at the economic coal-face in this recession.

– This passionate reader has started 2010 with some seriously good intentions, re-reading Stephen Covey: Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence, both fine examples of clarity of expression and well-ordered material.  I was stunned many years ago by Doris Lessing: The Golden Notebook (1962) and have revisited this fascinating depiction of the women in the 1950’s in Africa and London with great pleasure and a great deal more understanding. Doris Lessing claimed to have written what amounts to nearly 600 pages in a “white heat”. The resulting energy and passion combines with a freshness that has not dated.

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– Finished 2009 on a high note with Carol Shields: Unless (2002) The quality of the writing is a joy. Harlan Coben: The Innocent (2005) was reliably entertaining. Yann Martel: Life of Pi (2002) is a great story, well told and nicely challenging one’s assumptions about truth and invention. Some more easy but exciting reading – PJ Tracey: Dead Run (2005) and Harlan Coben: Just One Look (2005).

– The Times has published a list of the 100 best books of the decade. A bit of a mixture; some I must track down; nice to see poetry included.

– Here is another passionate reader who makes lists of books with publication dates and goes in for “completist reading”. http://lizzysiddal.wordpress.com/on-being-a-completist/. Nice reviews, too. Co-incidentally I had just decided to start reading all of Graham Greene’s fiction in chronological order after reading a stylish, delicate and graceful memoir about his time on Capri – Shirley Hazzard: Greene on Capri (2000).  I enjoyed many of his books a long time ago but missed some and would like to re-read the others. It is time to get down to some serious fiction after last month’s batch of comfort reading. There is only so long that you can spin out a convalescence from the common cold.

– Patricia Cornwell: Blow Fly (2003) and Trace (2004) were well up to her usual standard. Reading her books in chronological order provides an opportunity to observe this author’s creative use of a sustained inner rage. Three more cunningly-plotted page-turners by Harlan Coben: Gone For Good and No Second Chance and Hold Tight.  I was not surprised to find that I was tempted when I came across Peter James: Dead Man’s Footsteps (2008), the next in this detective series, but I am pleased to report that the writing is more disciplined and it provided 581 pages of good entertainment.

– Greatly entertained by the blokey charm and garrulous wit of Iain Banks: Dead Air (2002).  Peter James: Not Dead Enough (2007) is a clever and colourful crime thriller, set in the UK, in Brighton, but the quality of the writing is not quite up to scratch. I could be tempted by another one, however.

– Linda Grant: When I Lived In Modern Times (2000) – I seldom read a book a second time even though I know that whenever I do so I get much more out of it. This book is one which I can quite imagine reading a third time. Sensitive, humorous, skilful and intelligent writing at its best. When I start a book and realise I don’t like it I usually politely finish the first chapter, with half a thought that perhaps it will grow on me.  With Audrey Niffeneger: The Time Traveller’s Wife (2004) I managed three pages with difficulty. It has been spoken of with great admiration but if you are a person whose discovery at the age of 7 of the outrageousness of the spelling of the word “business” came very close to causing a crisis of faith in the English language then you might possible not be able to read a book that has such a wayward plot as  this does.

– PJ Tracy: Live Bait (2004), the second thriller by this clever mother and daughter team, did not have quite the same level of tension as their first one but in compensation there was more time to appreciate the dialogue and the observation. Harlan Coben: Darkest Fear (2000) is I think the best so far in this Myton Bolitar series.

– Holiday reading included a crime thriller author new to me: PJ Tracy: Want To Play? (2003). Excitement, skill, humour, and an unexpected quality of writing for this genre, an impressive first novel. Patricia Cornwell: Black Notice (1999) was reliably satisfying. Barack Obama: Dreams From My Father is a spellbinding account from a master storyteller whose sensitivity and wisdom fill me with hope. I was a little unsure about the first few pages of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society (2008) but it repaid persistence. A wise and moving experience.

– I like to take poetry with me on train journeys, and sip and savour the poems between the distractions of the changing views. RS Thomas: Selected Poems (2003) is a wonderful collection. Having borrowed and returned it I will buy my own copy to keep within constant reach. Polished off the next Harlan Coben: One False Move (1998), rather a good one in this uneven series.

– Having started Rachel Cusk: The Last Supper (2009) there fell into my hands quite felicitously Hilary Mantel: Giving Up the Ghost (2003). Unusually for me, I read these memoirs together, alternating appreciation of each author for her reflective observations and superior style.  For me, Mantel’s bosomy softness wins over Cusk’s sharp brightness, but both are very well worth lingering over. I like Cusk’s non-fiction style better than her fiction. Like Hilary Mantel and Clare Boylan I too paid, at the age of nine, for a Black Baby. My donation was half a crown, paid for in sixpenny instalments over five weeks, out of my pocket money. I named mine Hilary. Later, when I was thirteen, I was suddenly overcome with guilty horror at having inflicted this name on an innocent young person from another culture, the first stirrings of a social conscience that has been bothering me ever since.

– I was disappointed by the first few pages of Marianne Wiggins: The Shadow Catcher (2007) and won’t carry on with this one.  Simultaneously disappointed to find that Marks & Spencer’s Mountain Bar is not Toblerone. Enjoying the BBC’s Book Quiz where I note that a knowledge of dates of publication is a reliably useful clue!

– The next two in the Myron Bolitar series: Harlan Coben: Fade Away (1996) – an absorbing read at the end of a hard day’s work, and Back Spin (1997) which is not quite so good as the others. The next crime thriller in the Dr Scarpetta series: Patricia Cornwell: Point of Origin (1998) was a particularly good one.

– I enjoyed two more thrillers by Harlan Coben: Deal Breaker (1995) and Drop Shot (1996). These are the first two in the series featuring the character Myron Bolitar. Exciting enough to forgive the occasional implausibility, and diverse enough to read close together without confusion.

– Very impressed by Zadie Smith: On Beauty (2005). I read it a little at a time to appreciate to the full the intelligence of the observation and of the language, her warm sense of humour and comic timing, and her ability to create effective and believable dramatic scenes. An unusual book, Candida Clark: The Mariner’s Star (2002) was beautifully lyrical and held me riveted to the finish, slightly reluctantly in that I did not find in it the sense of the wider dimension I yearn for, but nevertheless an excellent piece of writing and I shall try this author again.

2008

– Christmas reading: Maeve Binchy: Nights of Rain and Stars (2004) which was enjoyable and very competent, but the plot not quite so good as some of her other books, almost forced at times; and Patricia Cornwell: Unnatural Exposure (1997) met all expectations in full, as always.

– Philip Hensher: The Northern Clemency (2008) was on this year’s Booker shortlist.  It is well written and nicely observed but after about 100 pages I lost interest. Alice Munro is a perfect short story writer. Reading a collection of her stories is like opening doors from a dark hall into warm lit rooms, and a serene illusion that at the end of the story the life seen in those rooms will be carrying on, unobserved.  After one chapter of Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner (2003) I could appreciate the effort that had gone into it but it was not for me and I left it there.

– Hiran Desai: The Inheritance of Loss (2006) is an excellent read, an admirable following on from Paul Scott and Vikram Seth, and I look forward to trying the new Man Booker Prize winner: Aravand Adiga: The White Tiger (2008) in the hope that it will continue this happy succession. Next in Patricia Cornwell’s Dr Scarpetta series: From Potter’s Field (1995), a good read, as ever, with no sense of formula.

– When I observe the usual Man Booker Prize discussion about “highbrow” versus “readable”  I think about baked beans. Children will happily eat Sainsburys Basics baked beans, but as we grow older and have consumed more beans we start to appreciate tarragon, dill, and peach-fed Virginia hams, and we start to look for Taste the Difference baked beans, perhaps reaching up to a higher shelf and stretching ourselves, perhaps we like it, perhaps not, but we can experience the rewards of trying when from time to time we find something we didn’t know we would like. Publishers inevitably have to look at the sales figures and these book prizes must maximise the public relations opportunity.  The sales figures rise as soon as a book is on the short list, as though the prize is the only way those purchasers can find out about the book. There must be another way.

– The estimable Lucy Kellaway in her Financial Times column on 29 September suggests that business managers would benefit from reading novels. I do so agree, and the benefits are there for everyone! Lucy Kellaway modestly omits to mention her hugely amusing comic spoof Martin Lukes (with Lucy Kellaway): Who Moved My Blackberry? (2005).  Our household recently responded to a request, in connection with some church activity, for a poem on the theme of love, and I thought straightaway of a poem I hadn’t looked at for years, about filial, paternal, and spousal love, as well as grief’s violence. Unable to recall title or author, it took me a pleasing while to riffle through all my anthologies to find this sentimental Victorian poem, Coventry Patmore: The Toys. It never fails to surprise me how the printed word can stir my emotions.  I parked a mental note that should I ever have the need to expel a foreign body from my eye following eg a bout of gardening I can use this poem to prompt the tear ducts into action.

– Engrossed by the very readable Lorna Sage: Bad Blood (2000), her clear-sighted eccentric memoir of an eccentric upbringing. Came back from the business trip with a mild (ie I still went to work) viral infection which gave me an excuse to tuck myself up with another Patricia Cornwell: The Body Farm (1994), continuing to read the Dr Scarpetta series in the order they were written (a friend who has read several in random order tells me she wishes she had been advised to read them in chronological order so as to avoid confusion over the heroine’s personal life).

– Graham Swift: The Light of Day (2005) is a well crafted and absorbing read, superb dialogue, drama and tension hooked me in, but ultimately for me there is nothing above. I miss the view from a higher plane.  Talking of planes, business travel was relieved by Harlan Coben: The Final Detail (1999), not his best but a good read. Joyce Carol Oates: The Tattooed Girl (2003) a dark story about love, totally engrossing as always with this excellent author.  Sue Gee: Reading in Bed (2007) held my attention for only a few pages, not my kind of book.

– Relaxing in holiday mode with the reliable Patricia Cornwell: Cruel and Unusual (1993) and couldn’t put down another crime thriller, Harlan Coben: Promise Me, but although I was impressed by the writing and by the inventiveness of Lionel Shriver: Double Fault (1997) I’m afraid I gave up half way through because it became monotonous and I couldn’t bring myself to care what happened to the characters.

– John McGahern: The Barracks (1963) is a an excellent read, a shade warmer than the other two books of his that I have read, and again a senstive and convincing portrayal of the central female character. Patricia Cornwell: All That Remains (1992) hits the spot again. Salman Rushdie wins the Booker of Booker Prizes for Midnight’s Children. Although I did not finish it I do agree that it is very good, and I might try it again but as you can see from my listings my favourite books are not on the Booker of Bookers shortlist.  Have finished Amy Tan: The Bonesetter’s Daughter (2001) which was an extremely good read.

– Relaxed with Patricia Cornwell: Body of Evidence (1991), her second Kay Scarpetta book, and Harlan Coben: Tell No-one (2001), possibly the most exciting book I have ever read, a very clever and well written thriller with great twists right up to the last paragraph. Sue Gee: Mysteries of Glass was very readable, luscious prose and sensitive characterisation, a good read.

– I am reassured to read that an Orange Prize judge has stated that the text is the important thing.

– Enjoyed a visit to the Oxford Literary Festival, in particular some remarkably fine carrot cake in the Literary Tent.

– Carol Birch: The Naming of Eliza Quinn (2005) has been a tremendous find, about which I will write more later. A younger member of the Passionate Reader household has stumbled upon Arthur Conan Doyle and is passionately reading the whole canon. I was persuaded to pick up one of the volumes of short stories, which I had not looked at since I was a teenager, and I simply could not put it down.  The freshness, delicacy and intelligence of the writing and the cunning plots are surprisingly undated, a true classic.

– Mildly interesting to learn of the plan to select a Booker of Bookers, supposedly the best winner of the Man Booker Prize over the past 40 years, but only mildly since this prize has always been a promotion involving personal taste and not an asssessment of literary merit, or even of enduring popularity – the first winner has been out of print for years.  A friend who sat on a minor committee of this sort (something like Best Book About Tea Towels 1998) was convinced that she was the only member who had actually read every book on the short list. I usually make a mental note about the winners of literary prizes, but am never in a hurry and have often been disappointed.

– I couldn’t put down Patricia Cornwell: Postmortem (1990), the first of her Kay Scarpetta series, and will follow the advice I have received to work my way through them in the order they were written. Extremely good writing and satisfying plot, though not if you are of a nervous disposition. Andrew Miller: Ingenious Pain (1997) is a wonderfully written, inventive adventure in the use of language to match an inventive and adventurous plot.  The writing occasionally goes into a kind of headspinning freefall that is outstandingly good. I stop and feel the way I feel in the space between movements of the best music.

– Captivated by Andrew O’Hagan: Personality (2003) – see my review.  I dipped into Cormac McCarthy: No Country for Old Men but although I admire the writing and was gripped it was too bleak and I didn’t want to finish it, and am unlikely to try the newly released film. David Malouf again had me completely enthralled, by Dream Stuff (2000), and Anita Shreve: Body Surfing (2007) provided a welcome opportunity to revisit this favourite writer, better than ever in this finely judged, exquisitely observed and beautifully haunting depiction of middle class America.

– I was completely absorbed by the highly engaging new publication, Nicholas Murray: So Spirited a Town.  A personal observation of Liverpool’s history and a literary exploration of the elements that have contributed to its culture, in the congenial company of a sensitive and amusing guide.

– Kazuo Ishiguro:  When We Were Orphans (2000) Booker shortlist, is an impressively successful rendering of nuances of character, place and plot, as was the case with his Remains of the Day. I was greatly entertained by another writer for young persons – Anthony Horowitz – his 1999 short story collection: More Horowitz Horror.  Julie Myerson: The Touch (1996) was quite a good read and I may try another of hers.  I am slightly hesitant about her only because her immense skill distracted me, which seems ungracious and carping of me.

– I enjoyed Roald Dahl’s Matilda (1988) for its lovely writing, its imagination, and its tributes to existing literature. I wish I’d read it when I was 10 but it hadn’t been written then. I appreciated Lionel Shriver’s style in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)(Orange Prize) very much, and the book is excellently and daringly constructed, but I am reluctant to recommend it on account of its harrowing plot.

– One of my favourite writers, Anne Enright, has won the Man Booker prize with The Gathering.

John Dickie’s Cosa Nostra (2004),  a history of the Sicilian mafia, was engrossing in parts. I finished the 1,400 pages of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993), a wonderful, absorbing, unforgettable, generous, panoramic yet intimate, picture of India in 1950.

– During this marathon I also polished off a far shorter book, Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993), having spotted it in our local library shortly after noticing an advertisement for the film version.  Poet Blake Morrison moves away from the poetic consolations of mourning and uses the detailed facts of his father’s terminal illness and death to peel off layers of emotions. An object of poetry can be to show us something in a new light.  This deliberately non-elegiac elegy account does just that, revealing filial resentments, embarrassments, anxieties, pride and love, as well as the grief.  I do enjoy descriptions of life in the 1950s and 1960s: I had a flippant vision of Mr Morrison, Mr Slater and Mr Hopkinson partaking of a repast together, perhaps a Rotary do at a Lancashire golf club and maybe the talk might turn to young Blake, Nigel and Simon, or maybe not.

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