Right, remember the way I’m listing my favourites reads as the year goes on..? Every three months I’ll post a Top Ten for that quarter – and then at the end of the year I’ll pick an ultimate Top Ten for 2015. That’s the plan, anyhow!
Summer has been a strange time for reading. I feel like I’ve spent much less time reading than usual, and more time rereading old things than new. But at the same time I’ve still made some lovely new discoveries… I think it’s fair to say I’ve been choosing more carefully, perhaps, and having a higher hit rate of finding books I love.
MURDER IN MIDWINTER by Lesley Cookman. I’m so far behind with the Libby Sarjeant series but, as with any murdery series, that’s a good thing – because they’re always still there waiting for me, and it’s like taking a little holiday with friends when I go back. I love her gaggle of characters – and it’s always best when they’re altogether and chewing over a new and improbable mystery. This one has some surprising and vivid flashbacks to an Edwardian-era theatrical mystery, and is all the richer for it. As with any whodunnits, it’s not so much the solving and the resolution that keeps me enthralled – it’s watching the somewhat larger-than-life characters jostle along, bickering and sleuthing as they go. This time I almost guessed the solution, which amazed me.
THE HOUSE IN NORHAM GARDENS by Penelope Lively. It was a rainy summer day when I picked up one of the P. Lively’s that last year’s marathon somehow left out. This was a darker one, a spookier and more adult one. There’s more ambiguity and oddness in this tale of the old house, the old ladies and their oddments and bric-a-brac, lodgers and secrets. It reminded me very strongly of Angela Carter’s 1960s novels, ‘Several Perceptions’ especially – and also of the stories Shena Mackay published in the 1960s. The atmosphere is so thick and mysterious. I know this is one I’ll have to return to. I wish kids’ books were still as open-ended and strange and disturbing as I found this.
THE SUMMER OF SECRETS by Sarah Jasmon. An ex-student of mine from several years ago at MMU – I remember Sarah’s evocative, nostalgic writing very strongly from the time. I was chuffed to be sent a copy of her first novel, and found it very strong and atmospheric. It had the not-always-comfortable hot and humid vibe of long-ago summers. I liked the clash of cultures and the peeling away of mythology and memories as our lead character gradually comes to realise the secret of what went on back in the early Eighties. We slip back into the past along with her, and the revelations are worth waiting for.
Oh, I’m writing too much about all of these! It’s meant to be a list..!
CINNAMON TOAST AND THE END OF THE WORLD by Janet E Cameron. There’s been lots of stuff written and said this year about Gay and Lesbian YA lit (a lot of it – ridiculously – as if the category had just been recently invented…) This novel is worthy of everyone’s attention. It’s a wonderful romance in which the writer just absolutely gets her main character and his feelings about the boy he has fallen for. It’s a great book. It reads like a dream. I believed in absolutely everybody in it.
THE MURDSTONE TRILOGY by Mal Peet. This was my holiday book. I took many on holiday with me, and spent the whole week reading this one alone. It is a brilliantly savage satire on not only Children’s and Fantasy publishing today, but also the whole genre of Epic Fantasy. Our hero makes a pact with the devil (his agent) and a hideous transdimensional implike creature in order to win fame and colossal success in writing a trilogy of novels in a genre he personally can’t stand. Riches beyond his dreams soon arrive and he’s reluctantly tied into writing books two and three… and pretty soon realizes that the whole thing isn’t as made-up and improbable as it first seemed. Oh, I won’t explain anymore. It’s scabrous, nasty, hilarious. What a film it will make. Another novel – along with two or three others from this quarter – destined for my Treasured Re-Reads Shelf.
MYSTERY IN WHITE by J. Jefferson Farjeon. My pal Wayne is a bookseller on Deansgate and he reckons it was him putting this out on a special display by itself prior to Christmas that got everyone interested in this obscure crime reprint. It’s a book that certainly deserved its belated success. It’s exactly my kind of thing – trains and snowed-in houses. Ruffians who seem guilty as soon as you look at them. Mysterious and brilliant older gentlemen. Sexy and slightly daft young hero. Sassy young ladies. Murders and secrets and, again, the resolutions and reasons seem almost beside the point what with all the Christmassy carryings on.
WILD STRAWBERRIES by Angela Thirkell. Lured in by the painted covers of the Virago reissues, I read a couple of Thirkells this summer and this was my favourite. It’s camp, silly old nonsense from a long-distant age and it’s really lovely. Unlike many of the books that people go on about being hilarious, I actually found the warm wit of these characters and Thirkell’s voice much more entertaining. They’re wry, I suppose, and they all benefit for that much under-appreciated virtue of characters continuing, seemingly with no effort, to stay in character and behave exactly like themselves. I’ll be reading more of Thirkell, I can tell. Plus, I found a slim bunch of them in orange Penguin livery, hidden away at the back of my favourite bookshop in Paris (the San Francisco Bookshop, off Saint Germain…)
MY LIFE IN FRANCE by Julia Child. And, speaking of France – here she comes. Six foot eight with hands the size of pie plates and an accent that would strip the skin off a clove of garlic. I adored this memoir. I took two whole weeks to read it, loving it even more – I think – than the Nora Ephron movie. Julie was a force of nature – vibrant and slightly dotty and whipping up a storm wherever she went during her heyday. I actually find French cooking a bit heavy and cloying and heartburny, but when she talks about it here she can make you drool. It’s also a portrait of a seemingly wonderful partnership between Julia and her husband. They racketed about the continents for decades, always determined to whoop it up. What a lovely record to have left behind.
MAYBE THE MOON by Armistead Maupin. I reread it maybe every five years. This time it was even more wonderful, for being read slowly on long, lazy days. It’s a book about the entertainment industry, prejudice, so-called disability, race and gender and sexuality and all of that. But it’s mostly about friendship and those people who value friendship and loyalty more than others. That’s what came out of this book this time. That, and a clearer sense than ever that this is still my favourite novel I’ve ever read. Cadence Roth is just a fucking scream. The beloved gang from the same author’s Tales of the City seem like a bunch of uptight bourgeois ninnies next to her.
WONDERSTRUCK by Brian Selznick. Something I’d never have read without book blogs and libraries. Elizabeth Lefebrve wrote very enticingly about Selznick’s illustrated novels just last week and then, wandering into Manchester Central Library on Friday, I found this huge volume – his previous novel. It’s a lavish book, half drawn in dark crosshatching and charcoal and half text – the two different levels of narration set fifty years apart pulling pleasingly in the same direction, running on parallels, crossing over and eventually converging in a flurry of revelations and happy endings. Beautiful imagery: wolves in snow, dinosaurs and meteorites in a museum at night, the facts of our lives assembled like curios in a cabinet of wonders. At six-hundred odd pages it seemed a little long at first – but of course it’s judged extremely nicely to fit inside a long Sunday spent reading. Which is what I did yesterday, on what must be one of the loveliest, warmest Sundays of the year.
So, that’s the lot. Two Cosy Mysteries, Two Young Adults, one memoir, one reread, seven writers new to me, one fantasy, three comic novels… Quite a good mixture.
I’ve gone on much too long.
I’m planning my reading for the second half of October. I want to do the Hallowe’en reading thing properly this year. I’m making plans and I’ll tell you about them soon.