Reading Log 2011-14

December 2014 – 

Revisited with great pleasure A E Houseman: A Shropshire Lad (1887) and have been dipping into some of his other poems, so direct and real and fiercely felt. Somehow I had missed the adolescent experience of reading Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar (1963) but now, later in life I can take a more reflective and balanced hold of the strength and clarity of the deep and painful feelings described so exquisitely. It feels as finely honed as a poem, every word weighed and considered. Two crime thrillers that were well constructed and readable but lacked the excitement and suspense that I prefer: Helen Fitzgerald: The Cry (2013) and Mari Jungstedt: The Double Silence (2009) translated from the Swedish by the excellent Tiina Nunally in 2013, but two that did hit the relaxed spot over the festive season were PJ Tracy: Snow Blind (2006) and Michael Connelly: The Gods of Guilt (2013), a well-paced, clever courtroom drama.

Earlier –

F Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Tycoon (1941) was unfinished at the author’s death but is nevertheless a completely satisfying feat of masterful expression and construction, the Penguin edition being enhanced by accompanying notes which reveal some unrealised intentions, and much about the author’s creative paths and processes. It purports to be a novel about the inner workings of film production but has ended up in fact as a novel about writing a novel. Penelope Fitzgerald: The Beginning of Spring (1988) is unutterably good, just too much to take in during one reading (not a criticism) so that as I read on I comforted myself with the pleasurable thought that I will read it again and again, to mine further the promising depths of perception, irony, lyricism, wit, reflection, and the fullness of the characters: even the bit parts have memorable traits. Linwood Barclay: Never Saw It Coming (2013) is a serviceable thriller, not too demanding. Nicci French: Tuesday’s Gone (2012) is the second of a psychological crime trilogy, just slightly too dark for me but it’s too late to get off this moving bus now, so I will need to read the third one.  The first line of John Keats: Endymion (1818) is: “A thing of beauty is a joy forever” and almost 200 years on this poem continues to be a thing of beauty. Karin Alvetegen: Betrayal (2003), excellently translated by Steven T Murray, is a cold and (maybe overly) dark Nordic psychological crime thriller. The crimes requiring to be solved in PJ Tracy: Snow Blind (2006) are not credible enough to be too uncomfortable but make a good story.

Lost again in great admiration for the expressive brilliance of Alice Munro: Dance of the Happy Shades (1965)  and intrigued by the author’s habile change of sociological venue in Anita Shreve: Rescue (2010) where she again excels in conveying the significance of a whole world in concentrated scenes.  A couple of very good thrillers – Karin Fossum: The Caller translated seamlessly by KE Samuel (2009) and Sophie Hannah: Hurting Distance (2007), this latter one a little too dark for me, but a crime thriller written by a poet should in theory be my perfect relaxation treat. Unaccountably my childhood reading did not include AA Milne: Winnie-The-Pooh (1926) but to an adult there is, as in Kenneth Grahame: The Wind in the Willows (same wonderful illustrator),  much to appreciate that is over the heads of the little ones. Eeyore must rank highly on any list of classic British comic creations. I have written a post about Sebastian Barry: The Temporary Gentleman. Very impressed with the craftsmanship of Rachel Joyce: Perfect (2013) which belongs to that superb category of novels which linger in the mind long after they are read.

– Robert Harris: Enigma (1995) kept me awake into the small hours, riveted to the page, very nicely done. Some time ago I had tried and abandoned another of his books but this motivates me to try again. I read Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2011) slowly, to better appreciate its observation and gently-paced reflectiveness, a satisfying read from an author I have not always liked. Complete and utter admiration for Graham Greene: The Comedians (1966), a vibrant depiction of an intensely real 1940s Haiti, uncovering human weaknesses in its intensely real characters.

– The astonishing translation (2013) by Clive James of Dante: Divine Comedy gives an immediate and enhanced access to the original spirituality and poetry, which will not suit the academics but is blissful for the rest of us and is a towering achievement. Marilynne Robinson: Gilead (2004) is a book to read slowly and reflectively. It is brimming with sensitive insights, perfectly expressed, and I know that I will re-read it. Much admiration also for Aminatta Forna: The Memory of Love (2010) which won the Commonwealth Writers’ Best Book Award. It explores the ripples and layers and consequences of love of many kinds amongst ordinary people, in a quiet undemonstrative prose. A fascinating retro tale, Julian Mitchell: Circle of Friends (1966) was unexpectedly moving. Relaxing thrillers recently enjoyed were Peter May: The Blackhouse (2011), Michael Connelly: Nine Dragons (2009), and James Patterson: The 12th of Never (2013). Clive James came to mind again while I was enjoying the new, neat and clever, satirical poem, Nicholas Murray: Trench Feet (2014).

– Happy to find a well-written, tense and sensitive, action thriller by a prolific author – Gerald Seymour: The Outsiders (2012).  Peter May: The Chess Men (2013) is an absorbing crime investigation in which the drama of the landscapes and seascapes plays a leading role, as does the unfolding of emotions. I will stock up for the summer with more by both of these authors.  Craig Lancaster: 600 Hours of Edward (2012) is a funny but sympathetic and moving story featuring Asperger’s Syndrome, enjoyable not least for the author’s confident revelling in his vocabulary. Part of the appeal to me of Gretchen Rubin: The Happiness Project (2009) (non-fiction) is her constantly implied assumption that reading is high up on the list of tools for happiness. Yes!  I tried a few pages of William Boyd: Restless (2006) but did not find the writing to be of the standard of his other works. Andrew Miller: One Morning Like a Bird (2008) is very much up to the standard of his other works, in its creative expression of emotion and mood, its remarkably depicted sense of place, and its imaginative scenes that continue to revisit me.  I should have read the short stories in Ian McEwan: In Between The Sheets (1997) one at a time rather than all at once. They are accomplished but dark.  Toni Morrison: Home (2012) is a story of quiet simplicity about a complicated man, and as with all her work, she makes it about all of humanity. Reading a compilation of the poems of Stevie Smith (died 1971) after having read only single poems occasionally, reveals her depth and breadth. More poetry – Nicholas Murray: Of Earth, Water, Air and Fire (2014) – his latest collection of exquisite miniatures beguiles and reverberates.

Anne Enright: The Forgotten Waltz (2011) is a sharply observed and beautifully rendered overlay of concentrated scene after concentrated scene. This author’s books are quite different from each other and she gets it right whatever she does. Jose Saramago: Raised From The Ground (1980, translated 2012) hints at the old poetic sagas of the medieval troubadours except that this is the story of the humblest people and their economic struggles in early 20th century Portugal. A lovely read; resonant, reflective, compassionate, wise and kind. Good to have had these two nuggets of gold because otherwise the first few weeks of 2014 have been a little drab as a consequence of following up recommendations from some different sources. I am listing the following as no-nos, without losing any more valuable reading time saying why: Joan Bakewell: She’s Leaving Home (2011), Francesca Key: The Translation of the Bones (2011), Cynthia Oziek: The Messiah of Stockholm (1987), Gwendoline Riley: Opposed Positions (2012), and Santa Montefiore: The Summer House (2012). Tess Gerritsen: In Their Footsteps (1994) fails completely although I have previously enjoyed her work in the crime genre. I returned after a long break to my chronological canter through Patricia Cornwell’s forensic crime series: The Scarpetta Factor (2009), but this is where I part company with this author. Her principal characters were growing less likeable and are now quite unpleasant, but the plotting and styling have taken a direction I do not enjoy. Thankfully, safely continuing with Michael Connelly‘s skilful and satisfying Los Angeles detective series: The Closers (2005), The Lincoln Lawyer (2005), Echo Park (2006), The Overlook (2007), and The Brass Verdict (2008) in which he happily exploits the full potential of bringing his two separate heroes together. This prompts some interesting reflections on his style. The very first Harry Hole thriller, Jo Nesbo: The Bat (1997, marvellously translated – some fine Australianisms – by Don Bartlett, in 2013) gives rise to an interesting reflection on what the author took forward  and what he left behind. One hopes that his comic talents will re-emerge in some form, but we can be grateful that he chose the darker and more challenging paths for his hero. Camilla Lackberg: The Lost Boy (2009) gives us more of the same as before from this competent author, who succeeds in keeping up her entertaining momentum despite repeating some plot elements.

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2013

– I picked up two excellent books together, by chance, which happened to be complementary reflections on a similar theme, and I read them, by chance, in the right order: Janet Davey: By Battersea Bridge (2012); and Agnes Desarthe: The Foundling (2010) (stylishly translated by Adriana Hunter). The former considers the evolution of family relationships and of grief. As detailed as an old photograph, and as timeless, it suggests more than it states. The latter book similarly distills pieces of reality through grief and family relationships. Neither book has a significant plot but each reaches a measured resolution, both lyrical and subtle. There is more of a plot to Hillel Hankin: Melisande! What Are Dreams (2012), a dreadful title, but worth  ignoring it. The relationships between three people are evoked in sensitive detail that draws you inside the author’s perspective. As a contrast to these three excellent reads I have been curled up on some of these lengthening autumn evenings with Michael Connelly: A Darkness More Than Night (2000), City of Bones (2002), Lost Light (2003) and The Narrows (2004), still working steadily through his Hollywood crime oeuvre in chronological order. He just gets better each time. Camilla Lackberg: The Drowning (2008) is another unputdownable opportunity for her engagingly normal detectives to eat cake frequently while sorting out one of her Swedish fishing-village psychological killing-sprees.  I particularly enjoyed this felicitous translation by Tiina Nunnally and discovered that she is married to Camilla Lackberg’s usual excellent translator, Steven T Murray.

– A beautiful English summer has come to its close and I am returning to the sofa to read. It wasn’t a totally bookless vacation: entertained by Michael Connelly: The Last Coyote (1995), Trunk Music (1997), Angels Flight (1999), Blood Work (1998), and the dramatic intensity of my latest find in the crime fiction department – Karen Rose: Have You Seen Her? (2004) and Silent Scream (2010). Took a dip into non-fiction: Michael Holroyd: A Book of Secrets (2010), an unusual work, in which this respected biographer allows us wistfully meditative glimpses into the art of biography. As a regular use of public libraries all my life I am thrilled to see the opening of the new Birmingham Library designed by Francine Houben.

– It does one good to try something different and Christopher Brookmyre: A Big Boy Did It and Ran Away (2001) was a rattling good creative piece of fun. A non-fiction work to mention is Daniel Tammet: Born on a Blue Day (2006), a touching account of a high functioning autistic coming to terms with the strangeness of the world. Michael Connelly: The Concrete Blonde (1994) provided an absorbing dose of crime fiction. I did not know if I would finish the prize-winning Francesca Kay: An Equal Stillness (2009) but I was glad I kept going to the end because the framing device of its construction, hinted at earlier, eventually gave the narrative more substance. The descriptions of artworks are masterful but the writing is uneven and the deeper dimensions are promised but not fulfilled.

– It has been a great pleasure to read Anita Brookner: The Latecomers (1998) with its gentle but deeply felt development of a story about survival against expectations and the joy of friendship, elegantly expressed and ironically observed. This is a publication in the Penguin Decades series which feature introductions by respected writers, although I felt a little let down by the rather rushed piece produced here by a writer I respect very much, Helen Dunmore.  Picking up some poetry again with John Fuller: Selected Poems, and losing myself happily in his world.

– I have been hibernating this winter with a store of excellent crime thrillers from Sweden and the USA. The challenging psychological motivations of Camilla Lackberg: The Ice Princess (2004), The Stonecutter (2005) and The Stranger (2006) combine with descriptions of rural Swedish domestic life and charmingly human detectives to great effect. The translator, Steven T Murray, succeeds in making me forget that I am reading a translation.  Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home (2008) and Fear the Worst (2009) hit the target too, as did Michael Connelly: The Black Echo (1992) and The Black Ice (1993). In more cerebral mode I loved every word of Don DeLillo: Point Omega (2010), a clever and moving book. John Banville: Ancient Light (2012) is a treasure chest of densely opulent and heady language (I learnt some wonderful new words) and an absorbing story that pulls me gently into Banville’s world.

2012

– Finishing 2012 with Colm Toibin: Brooklyn (2009), a sensitively observed and emotionally engaged study of how we become who we are, its quiet pace enabling waves of understanding and insight to develop and deliver. The joy of reading this perfect book made up for a short series of disappointments from authors I have enjoyed in the past: Peter Leonard: Voices of the Dead (2012); Justin Cartwright: The Promise of Happiness (2004); and Sebastian Faulks: A Week in December (2009). I was not able to get more than a few pages into these three. I managed a good stretch of John Le Carre: Our Kind of Traitor (2010), and appreciated the skill and imagination, but could not summon the enthusiasm to finish. Reliably pleased, however, with Michael Connelly: The Drop (2011), a crime thriller that does not thrill excessively.

– Justin Cartwright: Other People’s Money (2011) is engaging, compassionately observant, and a good story. Two excellent thrillers from Harlan Coben: Miracle Cure (1991) and Shelter (2011), the latter written for a new audience, the next generation of Coben’s usual cast of characters being put into action for a younger generation of readers, although remaining quite accessible to the rest of us. Cressida Connolly: My Former Heart (2011) carried me away with its layer upon layer of precisely nuanced emotion, capturing the needs and wants of women’s loves with an acuity that moves between sweetness and pain. Back to basics with some hearty but intelligent crime detection from Michael Connelly: The Reversal (2010). I was pleasantly surprised to find unexpected depths in Bethan Roberts: My Policeman (2012), its structure, setting and characters playing off each other as a sensitive tragedy unrolls. I could not get beyond the first few pages of Graham Swift: Wish You Were Here (2011), which has happened to me before with this author, but his Waterland was so good that I keep wanting to try him again.

 Rather too much professional reading of late but there is often something to appreciate in the business world when lucid communication can be elegant, or boldly revels in the choice of the exact word. Returning to the joy of reading fiction I have found two exquisite reading experiences in just one visit to the public library. Arthur Miller: Presence (2009) is a collection of perfect short stories. The selection of detail draws you further and further into a complete world which you know will last for moments only, and you hold on to every nuance, as in the final stages of a dream. There is so much that is not said, but emotion and drama arise from the focus to which the author leads us. I will read these stories again and again. It was almost a shock to discover the originality and beauty of Leonid Tsypkin: Summer in Baden-Baden (1980), a work which reverberates in the soul long after the final page is closed. Lowering the tone, back to the joy of crime fiction, with the excellently wrought Tess Gerritsen: Keeping The Dead (2008). Joyce Carol Oates: Mudwoman (2012) is a dark, strong, challenging and rewarding work more than meeting our expectations of this author’s high standards.

– David Miller: Today (2011) is a short novel covering a short period of time, its ambition bursting at the seams, so that it does not quite work, but I will try this author again. Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveller in London (1938) was an inspired find: travel writing in reverse by a writer with a distinct and charming personality, unexpectedly retaining the original freshness. This month’s self-indulgence consisted of two cracking thrillers – Jo Nesbo: Phantom (2011) and Headhunters (2008). Tove Jansson: Travelling Light (1987) was interesting and rewarding in some ways but I did not warm to it. I more than warmed to Will Eaves: This is Paradise (2012), an intelligent dissection of family life in a fertile prose that left me wanting more.

– Amanda Prantera: Zoe Trope (1996), a dizzy, fizzy, intelligent and spicy trawl through episodes in a younger life. Nicci French: Blue Monday (2011) is a captivating thriller, set in London, with some persuasive characterisation, rather nicely executed. Michael Connelly: The Poet (1996) delivers all the thrills I need. John Keats’ poetry restores the calm and delight.

– James Runcie: East Fortune (2009) is a novel that makes real life into something on a rather higher plane, a subtle and believable reflection on the inexorable cycle of life and death, renewals, choices, leaving and staying. This is a story of family relationships, wistful but unexpectedly funny in parts. Pleased to make a new discovery in the thriller zone – Michael Connelly: The Scarecrow (2009) is an excellently written page-turner and this author has a nice long list of titles for me to work through. Meg Wolitzer: The Uncoupling (2011) starts out as a light read, then promises a bit more, but ends as a light read, although I appreciated the skill of the writing, the construction and the observation. Irene Nemirovsky: Suite Francaise (2004), sensitively translated by Sandra Smith, is a treasure store of observation of the very best kind, a book that deserves slow reading to savour its effects to the full. Jo Nesbo: The Leopard (2009) is another tense thriller from this expert in the field.  

2011

– Finishing 2011 on a soft and gentle note, filling a childhood library gap, immersing myself in the sweetly joyous LM Montgomery: Anne of Green Gables(1908), but there is only so much sweetness I can digest, so one book in this series will satisfy all my needs. Helen Dunmore: Burning Bright (1994) – one of my favourite writers excels again in achieving a subtle and luminous execution of a page turning plot, in which her skill is all the more appreciable for being so quietly understated. Innate goodness intriguingly overcomes the weak and the unmotivated. Good construction and pace, too, in Karin Slaughter: Broken (2010), a well written crime thriller with a satisfying depth to some of the characterisations. Henning Mankell: The Man From Beijing (2008) is another exciting crime thriller from this imaginative author, but the writing disappoints in comparison with the high standard of prose set by this writer, and the same translator, in The Depths, which I have written about earlier.

– A few pages of Zadie Smith: The Autograph Man (2002) confirmed the joyous virtuosity of this writer, but this book wasn’t for me, despite my previously having rated her On Beauty very highly. Happened to pick up Andrea Levy: Small Island (2004) in which I found a similar technical virtuosity, but more captivating. Both writers excel at scene depiction but Levy’s observation is less detached. Jo Nesbo: The Snowman (2007) is the best of his thrillers that I have read so far but they all hit the spot for me. Best read in the order in which they were written, as is usual with a crime series centred on a developing character being shaped by his experiences.

– Howard Jacobson: The Finkler Question (2010), which won the Man Booker prize, is writing of a very high standard but I could not engage with it. I felt as though I was a guest at a party where I did not know anyone. No such problems with Jo Nesbo: The Devil’s Star and The Redeemer (2005), two crime blockbusters from this stunning writer, and again superbly translated by Don Bartlett, whose own sure-footed vocabulary must be a pertinent contribution to the success of this series featuring a maverick detective, if not an outright enhancement. He has translated other crime writers so I will look out for these. Avidmysteryreader.com has reviews of Norwegian crime fiction, and eurocrime.co.uk has some interesting suggestions. Philip Kerr: A Quiet Flame (2008) is intriguing and well crafted but I found the subject matter too disturbing.

– Very pleased to have taken up the recommendations I have been receiving for the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo: The Redbreast (2000) and Nemesis (2002) are each a good long read and I simply could not put them down. Alex Garland: The Beach (1996) was another tale that kept me up into the small hours, an unexpectedly gripping mixture of adventure and lyricism.

– Siri Hustvedt: The Sorrows of an American (2008) is technically a well structured and carefully written novel, with an interesting plot, but I could not connect with it. A great relief, then, to move on to the uplifting Helen Dunmore: The House of Orphans (2006) with which I was fully engaged on all levels. Helen Dunmore breathes such spirit into her words, and I love her indisputable primacy as the poet of food preparation. Then, indulging myself in the reliably taut thrills of Harlan Coben: Live Wire (2011).

– A moment of reflection for the outstanding writer Patrick Leigh Fermor who has died at the age of 96.

– An airport delay unexpectedly provided the ideal circumstance in which to read Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights (1847). To read this in one sitting maximised my appreciation of the author’s originality and skill, and minimised the potential for confusion between similarly-named characters and between the many scenes of fierce and passionate rage. Had this lady lived to write more I think I would have left it at this one. I have decided that my third reading (over a period of several years) of M.Scott Peck: The Road Less Travelled (1978) is going to be my last. This is a passionate account of a psychotherapist’s world view, dated and therefore accidentally sexist, informed by a religious affiliation, but an honest exploration and lucid explanation presented in a way which draws me in and on and up. The Passionate Reader household now possesses a Kindle, a most attractive-looking item but it doesn’t look like a book, feel like a book, or smell like a book. I passed a book on to a colleague recently and the first thing she did was to sniff it. David Guterson: Snow Falling on Cedars (1995) was another excellent book for a journey, a page turner of a very high standard in every aspect.

– How curious to have picked up Tim Winton: Dirt Music (2001) to find my third book in a row exploring male emotion so well. Tim Winton is confident about the female psyche too, and creates an unexpectedly strong but quiet romance, although the star of the show is Australia itself, portrayed with vibrant language.,  This is a great read. Having enjoyed the novels of Helen Dunmore I have turned to a collection of her poetry and I love her clarity, her joy and her playfulness. Another favourite author is Hilary Mantel, and I have just caught up with her sensitively written, atmospheric, and perfectly constructed early novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (1988).

– I spent some time away from fiction and my life deteriorated. Tranquillity, purpose, and effectiveness all now restored and I resolve not to let this happen again! F. Scott Fitzgerald: This Side of Paradise (1920) is a heady but careful account of a young man becoming a writer; a stylish, sensitive, and passionate portrait. Henning Mankell: The Depths (2004) is also a sensitive portrayal of a man looking inward, a hydrographic engineer searching for navigable routes through the Swedish ice floes at the same time as exploring his own fearful depths. It is a stunning and moving story. I almost immediately forgot that it was a translation, such was the skill of the translator, Laurie Thompson. I am something of the princess and the pea about translations. Mankell is known for the Wallander series, which I have not yet tried but will.

– 2011 has begun well. I was very impressed with the confident skill of Maggie O’Farrell: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox (2006), a thinking writer. I was entertained as reliably as ever by Minette Walters: The Chameleon’s Shadow (2007) and Harlan Coben: Caught (2010), whose excellence in the thriller field now shows a more mature thoughtfulness. The opening pages of Tom Rob Smith’s sequel to Child 44 promised more of the same snow and bleakness, so despite my respect for this author’s ability I did not persevere.

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