I am varied reader, loving a combination of so-called literary fiction through to thrillers, detective novels and sci-fi. I am a great fan of good children’s literature too and here are a few of my favourite reads from this summer.
One of the most satisfying and thought-provoking novels that I read was the prize-winning ‘How to do Both’ by Ali Smith which was absolutely beautiful. There are two different narrators and the novel is sold in two versions: one begins with the voice of a painter; the other with the voice of a young girl. I got the painter voice first and although it took me a little while to accept the style of narration, once I was there I was hooked and found it incredibly moving.
I have been reading around the French Resistance a fair bit recently, including some terribly-written romantic novels set in wartime France. However, I came across a stunning memoir by an Anglo-French boy who was a teenager in the war and became involved in the Resistance Movement. The story feels so unlikely that it could be fiction, but it isn’t and every so often I needed to remember that I was reading a true story about the real experiences of French families in northern France in the 1940s. It was a page-turner and very beautifully written. ‘Gardens of Stone: My Boyhood in the French Resistance’ by Stephen Grady and Michael Wright.
The latest Kate Atkinson novel is high on my list of favourites: ‘A God in Ruins’. It is a companion novel to her previous work ‘Life after Life’ which I also loved. This can be read with or without having read the first novel, although the same characters appear in both. It follows the life and aspirations of a wartime pilot and the risks he is forced to take. Once again, Atkinson plays narrative tricks on the reader which work for me, but possibly not everyone. I never feel with Atkinson that the games she plays are pointless; rather she causes the reader to think carefully about the assumptions they make both in the process of reading and perhaps in life too.
Sarah Water’s novel ‘The Paying Guests’ was, for me, a novel of two halves. The first was one of the most moving love stories I have ever read; the second switched into an unexpected melodrama which – once I had accept the change in genre – I got into. But I am sorry she didn’t stay with the quieter, more moving simplicity of the first half which for me had absolutely enough in it to sustain it to the end.
I re-read ‘King of Shadows’ by Susan Cooper because I am using it as a text with two of my enrichment students (years 7 and 8). Susan Cooper is the author of the ‘Dark is Rising’ sequence. This is a much later novel and not as brilliant (how could such a thing be possible anyway) but is nevertheless a great introduction for the younger ones among you to Shakespearean life and to a ‘Midsummer’s Night Dream’. It involves time travel too so ticks loads of boxes. It is always worth mentioning ‘Skellig’ too, by David Almond. I have taught this novel so many times to year 6 and year 7 students and it has worked for different reasons each time. A magical novel which deals with some complicated issues and has me in tears every time I read it.
I finally read ‘Ender’s Game’ this week, by Orson Scott Card. I have heard so much about it and saw the film (which made little impression on me at the time). It appears that this novel has a cult status amongst many Sci-Fi readers. I enjoyed it, but I had reservations. Sci-Fi novels are sometimes formulaic and I felt this was one of them; the writing was a little one dimensional too. I carried on simply because I was intrigued by some of the issues being raised and where it would take me. There are apparently three more in the series but I will probably call it quits here. I have just started Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ which I am assured is infinitely better so let’s see how that goes. [Update: nope. Can't get into Asimov's novel. Have tried!]
Some nasty psychological thrillers that kept me up late include ‘In a Dark, Dark Wood’ by Ruth Ware which was occasionally improbable but generally well-constructed. The narrator is invited on a hen weekend in deepest snow-bound Northumbria, having lost touch with an old friend and lived a very private life since an event when she was 16. The weekend leads to the usual carnage one expects in such a situation. I liked the premise of S K Tremayne’s ‘The Ice Twins’ – once again improbable at moments where you just think an ordinary couple would go and get some psychological help for their daughter whose twin sister has died. I couldn’t put it down, however, and the writing was, in places, fairly decent. I was very uncomfortable and disappointed with the ending though which was unexpectedly nasty and rather misogynist. Similarly the latest by S J Watson the author of ‘Before I go to Sleep’, ‘Second Life’ required us to suspend our disbelief in the heroine’s actions: something I think all of these three thrillers have in common. In each case the central premise propelling the action is a little too far-fetched: if your sister has been killed, would you really put yourself in a situation where you try and date her killer? Once you let these problems go, though, they are all fast-moving, well-paced thrillers which I did read almost in one sitting.
‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver, set in the Arctic on an expedition where many things go spookily wrong, was a brilliant read. I love books set here where there is, like the desert, a sort of blank space where we impose our own imaginations. It is a compelling novel and has an element of the gothic about it but would interest anyone who enjoys paranormal stuff and travel narratives. I watched ‘Fortitude’ soon after reading this and found a few similarities, although I should have stopped watching the latter because I found it increasingly disturbing (in a bad way). If you are interested in Arctic narratives I highly recommend the brilliantly bizarre novel by Nevil Shute ‘An Old Captivity’ which I read last year. And Joanna Kavenna’s travel/memoir/adventure narrative called ‘The Ice Museum’ in which she sets out to understand the myth of ‘Thule’ in northern lands.
In the last few years I have also begun to read Family Sagas. I blame this entirely on the two amazing women who looked after my Mum when she was ill. They got me started. I have never turned back. The plots are always the same: woman inherits something, she is lost in love, this inheritance will change all, but somehow she discovers something about her family in the process (through letters, or treasure) and someone from her past turns up, and of course she falls in love. They are highly conventional in politics, structure and literary form, but as such the better ones (ie those which you don’t want to throw at the wall for abuse of clichés) are pure chocolate.