Tuesday, 4 August 2020

My Year in Books 2020: July

Continuing with my monthly round-up of the books I've read for pleasure, and I think I've definitely got out of the slump I've been in. I read more in July than I've been doing, and it's been a bit of a diverse mix as well.

In case you're curious, here are my reviews from the past few months: January, February, March, April, May, June

Dirty Little Secrets by Jo Spain (2019)

The last book I read in June was Jo Spain’s Six Wicked Reasons, and I decided just to go straight into another of her standalone novels. These posts make it look like there was a gap between me reading these two books, but actually I picked up Dirty Little Secrets immediately after finishing Six Wicked Reasons. The story takes place in a gated community – with the slightly unfortunate name of Withered Vale – where, as you can probably guess, affluent façades hide… well, dirty little secrets. Olive Collins, a middle-aged woman who lived in Withered Vale since before the other houses were even built, is dead. And, possibly worse, no one even noticed. Her body lay undisturbed in her cottage for months before she was found and a police investigation launched. Dirty Little Secrets is told from multiple perspectives, switching between the neighbours (who pretty much all have something to hide), the police officers investigating, and – somewhat unsettlingly – Olive herself, who offers a commentary on her neighbours from beyond the grave. I have to admit, I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as Six Wicked Reasons, though the two books have much in common. I’m not sure the minor subplots involving the police officers really added anything either, and I found those chapters to be a bit of a distraction. I struggled to engage with the characters here, except Olive, and I did find it quite hard to believe that everyone in Withered Vale had a devastating secret to hide!

A Room with a View by E.M. Forster (1908)

I fell in love with A Room with a View when I studied it for A-Level. I adored everything about it – and even ended up going for a short holiday to Florence with my mum just after I finished my A-Levels, so that I could visit some of the places in Forster’s novel (with a Baedeker, I’m afraid). I haven’t reread the book for many years, but this month I had an afternoon with some friends where we watched the film adaptation, and afterwards I just had to reread the book. To say that A Room with a View is the story of a young, naïve Englishwoman who is transformed by a trip to Florence (and by an unconventional young man she meets there) is to do the novel a massive disservice. A Room with a View is a book about beauty and the ability to perceive it. One of the things I love is that – ultimately – not very much happens, and nothing very serious occurs, and yet every single incident, every object and place that’s described, feels imbued with an incredible significance and profundity. Buying a set of touristy postcards of famous artworks becomes a transcendent and liberating moment; unfurling a square of waterproof fabric speaks volumes about how we relate to place. Such shallow, mundane things hint at incredible depth and meaning. (I reread my A-Level copy, by the way, so also got to enjoy 16-year-old me’s pencilled notes and remember my first experience of reading Forster’s novel.)

Magpie by Sophie Draper (2019)

The next book I read this month was one I gave my mum for Christmas, and which she lent me after she’d finished it. I read Sophie Draper’s novel Cuckoo at Christmas in 2018 and loved it. Magpie is a slightly different type of story, though it has much in common with Draper’s debut novel. Magpie is the story of Duncan and Claire, an unhappily married couple who have a teenage son called Joe and a dog called Arthur. The story moves back and forth between Duncan and Claire’s perspectives, and also shifts in time, with some chapters marked ‘Before’ and some ‘After’. From the beginning, it seems clear what ‘Before’ and ‘After’ refer to – Duncan and Claire’s marriage is falling apart, and Claire is about to take action to end the relationship – but as the story develops, it seems there is more to it than that. I have to say, I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Cuckoo. The story’s set in Derbyshire, near a reservoir (that was created by flooding a village) and an abandoned hall and estate. I enjoyed the glimpses of the reservoir and the dilapidated hall, but there just wasn’t the same sense of pervasive atmosphere as in Draper’s first novel. My favourite part of the book was Joe, Duncan and Claire’s son, and the bizarre, understated menace of something he finds while metal-detecting. However, the main story of Duncan and Claire moved slowly, and I was a bit frustrated with it at times.

Phoenix in Obsidian by Michael Moorcock (1970)

And now… a little bit of a change… The next few books on my list are a bit of a mixed-bag – and deliberately so. In May, when I was struggling a bit to enjoy reading during the lockdown, I ordered a book bundle from Lyall’s Bookshop in Todmorden, who were offering to put together genre bundles or selections based on readers’ preferences. I decided I wanted something a bit different, though, so I simply asked them to ‘Surprise me’ – I wanted to pay my money and take my chance. And they did not disappoint! What arrived was a selection of eight wildly different titles (only one of which I’d read before), and I’ve finally had chance to jump in and get started. The first book in the bundle was Phoenix in Obsidian, one of the stories in Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series/cycle. I’ve read at least one Moorcock story before (when I was a teenager), but this is the first story I’ve read set in his ‘multiverse’ (and Moorcock was the first author to use that word, by the way). Phoenix in Obsidian is very much early-70s SFF, made all the more disorienting by the fact I’ve not read the preceding book. It’s kinda trippy futuristic stuff with some almost-Arthurian heroics in the mix. I won’t say that it's converted me to the genre, but it was a fun read (if weird) and definitely not the sort of thing I usually choose. All-in-all, a good start to my random reading selection.

Moll Cutpurse: Her True History by Ellen Galford (1984)

This month is obviously a month for rereading books I loved when I was a teenager. The second book from my Lyall’s Bookshop bundle was one that I’d read before, and unbeknownst to Lyall’s (unless they’re doing some black magic over there) was one that swept me up in a wave of nostalgia. Moll Cutpurse – real name Mary Frith – was a seventeenth-century ‘character’. She was undoubtedly a thief and a fence, probably a drunk, possibly a madam, and almost definitely not (no matter what the legend says) a highway robber. She was also a pipe-smoker who was known for dressing in men’s clothing. I had a bit of an obsession with Moll Cutpurse when I was a teenager, and spent a lot of time reading historical records and contemporaneous stories of Moll’s notoriety (she was mentioned by Shakespeare, and was the eponymous character of Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl). I was, admittedly, a weird teenager. And of course, I read Galford’s novel about Moll. The book is a romanticized imagining of Moll’s career through the eyes of her (fictional) love Bridget, the apothecary. Galford’s Moll rampages through Elizabethan – and then, later (and less joyously) early Stuart – England, meeting with travelling actors, criminals and Romanies, and exercising her own dubious (but rigid) moral judgement on witch-hunters, plague-profiteers and bad men. I loved this book – and I loved Galford’s version of Moll – when I was younger, and it was an absolute joy to revisit as an adult. I’ve missed Moll Cutpurse.

The Other Passenger by Louise Candlish (2020)

Slight pause on my Lyall’s bundle now. The next book I read this month was by Louise Candlish. I’ve been meaning to read one of her books for a while, and apparently my mum’s friend has also recommended them to her, so we’re accidentally in sync! I got the eBook edition of The Other Passenger, because the blurb looked intriguing. It’s the story of two London couples – Gen X Jamie and Clare, and Millennial Kit and Melia – who become friends when Melia gets a job at the high-end estate agent where Clare works. Really, though, this is Jamie’s story. He and Kit make their daily commute together on the Thames riverbus. One morning, just after Christmas 2019, Jamie is intercepted by the police as he leaves the boat. They want to talk to him about Kit, who’s been missing for several days. The interrogation makes Jamie reflect on his relationship with the younger man, and the story flashes back to the beginning of their friendship. And there are secrets that will unfold… obviously. Candlish has been credited with creating the sub-subgenre of ‘property noir’, and that’s certainly an apt descriptor of The Other Passenger. Property – and jealousy about property – looms large throughout, but the book is also heavy on the noir. For all its modern concerns about property prices, income and the rat race, there’s something quite old-school about Candlish’s tale. Yes, it’s a bit larger-than-life at times, but I guess the best noir always is. I enjoyed this one.

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