June in books

June 2015 books part 1Us by David Nicholls. This was a lot more fun than I’d expected. A couple with a grown up son look set to separate, but first all three of them have to get through a Grand Tour of Europe. Will it make or break them? Nicholls manages to evoke sympathy in characters that aren’t, when you think about it, particularly likeable, and also to surprise me with the ending which was something of a relief.

How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis*. A rare foray for me into non-fiction, in this book Ellis goes back to some of childhood heroines from literature to see if they still stand up to scrutiny. While I found this most interesting when she talked about books that I knew, I wasn’t sorry – on the evidence presented – not to have read the What Katy Did books, but am (slightly) inspired to read Gone with the Wind or at the very least watch the film (though I don’t really like watching adaptations before reading the original book). It had also never occurred to me before that people tend to have strong preferences for Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights – I’m definitely in the Jane camp). The sort of book that makes you want to re-read books that you haven’t thought of in years.

Longbourn by Jo Baker. A sort of retelling of Pride and Prejudice but from the perspective of the Bennett family’s servants, I thought this made good use of the familiarity of that story (I think it is a reasonable assumption that most people reading Longbourn will have read, or seen a TV of film version of, the Austen novel) allowing her to avoid unnecessary exposition and focus on her characters and the less familiar situation. I found I really cared for the fates of all the characters, as well as re-evaluating my thoughts on some of Austen’s characters (not very dramatically, just as a result of this new perspective). Recommended, especially for Austen fans with an interest in social history.

 A Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller*. I’m a bit conflicted about this book, a retelling of some of  Epic poetry, which focuses on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. I really enjoyed the first half, but once it got to the Trojan war, I found myself struggling to integrate it with poorly-remembered school lessons. I think if I had either remembered the story well or not at all I would have enjoyed it lot more.  Having said that, I think a lot of the aspects of Achilles’ heroism sit awkwardly with modern sensibilities and I think that also impinged on my empathy with the characters (despite Miller’s best efforts). Much more readable than my experience of epic poetry in translation though!

I was told there’d be cake by Sloane Crosley*. There’s an air of disappointment in the title that I found with the book.  A collection of anecdotes/essays/short stories (I’m not sure how best to describe them), I was expecting to be laughing out loud and this raised the odd smile.

June 2015 books part 2

The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle. This is very much a book of its time, and a real Boys Own adventure. A fun read, so long as you don’t think about it too deeply, and I could have done with a lot less anthropology and a lot more zoology and botany.

Hotel World by Ali Smith. I like Ali Smith’s short stories but have had mixed responses to her novels; as I’ve generally preferred her later novels I wasn’t sure what to expect of this one, which is somewhat earlier, but as a £1 charity shop purchase when I needed a light (as in mass) book while travelling it seemed a good opportunity to try it out. The novel takes a snapshot of 5 people connected to a freak accident in a hotel and makes effective use of different narrative styles (though I have to say I really missed punctuation in one of those). For me it also had echoes – in a good way – of How to be Both (though it’s probably more accurate to say the other way round). Work reading if you liked that book.

A Woman Unknown by Frances Brody*. The fourth in the Kate Shackleton series, like them this was a very readable period murder mystery  I’m just waiting for the (surely inevitable) TV adaptations.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simison*.  Much like Us, I enjoyed this much more than I expected. It was incredibly readable, and also succeeded in making hard-to-like characters very likeable (though the copy I read had the first chapter of the sequel, and I’m not sure Simison has manged to sustain this to the next book). Yes, its plot is faintly ridiculous and there are lots of aspects that stretch the bounds of credulity, but there was a lot of charm and general good feeling that enchanted this reader (I wil be giving the sequel a miss, however)

The Martian by Andy Weir*. What would happen if you were an astronaut who got stuck on Mars? The best summary I’ve seen is this xkcd comic: https://xkcd.com/1536/ which is also where I first heard about it (shortly afterwards I found a friend was also reading it, so I sought out a copy from my local library). To begin with I didn’t think I’d get into it, and throughout I found the log entries rather awkwardly written – though this may well be deliberate – and only really got interested when Weir started to integrate other narratives, from other characters on Earth and in space. The international collaboration was touching, if somewhat idealistic, and this novel does raise some interesting and disconcerting questions around the value of human life, and our place in the universe.

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall*.  This was a speculative choice from my library. It wasn’t until I was almost half way through that I realised that this was, in part, an updated version of Persuasion by Jane Austen (it only hit me when some of the characters use the same words as characters in the Austen novel).  Compared to the recent updated version of Sense & Sensibility that I read in May (and of Emma that I started in June but abandoned as being too awful), this was much more successful, largely because it wasn’t slavishly tied to the original Austen, and also only used aspects of the Persuasion storyline and wove it with others. Still I’d rather read Austen.

Footsteps in the Dark by Georgette Heyer. I’d never read any Georgette Heyer before and picked one of her crime novels as it’s my favourite genre for relaxing reading, especially early 20th century books. I really enjoyed this. Yes, it’s dated, but it was bags of fun.  It would make a fabulous TV drama too, probably on ITV with fabulous costumes and cut-glass accents. I’m on the lookout for more of her crime novels for relaxing weekend (Sunday evening) reading.

Death on the Cherwell by Mavis Doriel Hay. A crime novel set in Oxford in the 1920s (I think; it’s definitely set in Oxford, but I’m not sure about the date), I can’t imagine this would hold much interest for people unfamiliar with Oxford. For those that do, it passes the time pleasurably, but cannot compare to the Heyer.

* Denotes a book I borrowed from my local library.

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