I have been so good for the last month whilst on a book-buying ban, but ended up being sucked in with cheaper prices on AwesomeBooks, as well as a 20% off discount code on Monday. I could have been far more restrained – as is evident from the fifteen books which I ordered – but whilst looking at my to-read list, I found that I had hardly any books which seemed like summer-appropriate reading.
I tend to read on whims, picking up what I want to as and when, but have had some rigidity in my reading life this year, what with my Around the World in 80 Books Challenge. I have a few holidays and trips away planned over the next few months, so thought it might be a nice idea to make a list of those books which I am planning to read over the summer, and my reasoning for them.
Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington is yet another gorgeous Persephone book which my parents bought for me last year, and which I’ve not yet read. It is set in Italy – one of my favourite holiday destinations – in 1906, and looks like the perfect immersive read for summertime. Likewise, Margaret Forster‘s Diary of an Ordinary Woman has been on my to-read shelf for quite a while now, and I so adored her novel Have the Men Had Enough? that I want to pick it up soon. Treveryan by Angela du Maurier is set in Cornwall, one of my favourite reading locations. I am so intrigued by the lesser-known du Maurier’s writing, and how it may compare to Daphne’s. Eden’s Garden by Juliet Greenwood is set in Cornwall too, as well as in Wales, and I am waiting for the perfect sunny day in which to devour it in one sitting, as I pretty much did with her novel We That Are Left.
The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart is a novel which I’ve had my eye on for such a long time, and I was finally able to find a heavily discounted secondhand copy a couple of months ago. Her books are amusing and intelligently written, and perfect to race through on holiday. I have a review copy of Non Pratt‘s Truth or Dare to read, which tells the same story from two different perspectives, and looks wonderfully intriguing. Fenny by Lettice Cooper is about a schoolteacher who , but I was so eager to pick up a copy after reading Ali‘s review; it’s only taken me six years to do so!
I like to read crime and thrillers over the summer particularly, and have a few to choose from: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie, Singing in the Shrouds by Ngaio Marsh, My Brother Michael by Mary Stewart, and The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena.
Other novels I really want to get to during the summer are Ursula, Under by Ingrid Hill, about a young girl who becomes trapped in a well; The Big House by Helena McEwen, This House of Grief by Helen Garner, and Devotion by Nell Leyshon, all of which are about loss; The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud, as I have so enjoyed her short stories in the past; Panic by Lauren Oliver, as I feel that she does thoughtful thrillers rather well; The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud, as I loved her latest novel, The Burning Girl; Maria Semple‘s Where’d You Go Bernadette, which many fellow readers have loved; and Louise O’Neill‘s Asking for It, which seems to have been all over my Goodreads and Booktube feeds of late.
I am aware that there is no non-fiction on my list thus far, so I am including Eudora Welty‘s One Writer’s Beginnings, which I hope will give me a much-needed kick to focus on my own creative writing (well, once my thesis is out of the way, that is!). I also have a copy of the much-anticipated Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennys, which many reviewers whom I admire have raved about. Memories of Anne Frank: Reflections of a Girlhood Friend by Hannah Goslar and Alison Leslie Gold is also highly anticipated.
I have focused on rather easy reads, it seems, but whilst in the midst of University work, it is nice to know that I’ll be able to pick something a little easier up than dense theoretical books.
Have you read any of these? Which books are on your summer wishlist?
I am beginning this particular instalment of The Book Trail with a fantastic biography of one of my favourite children’s authors. As ever, I am using the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool on Goodreads in order to generate this list.
1. Storyteller: The Life of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock
‘A single-minded adventurer and an eternal child who gave us the iconic Willy Wonka and Matilda Wormwood, Roald Dahl lived a life filled with incident, drama and adventure: from his harrowing experiences as an RAF fighter pilot and his work in British intelligence, to his many romances and turbulent marriage to the actress Patricia Neal, to the mental anguish caused by the death of his young daughter Olivia. In “Storyteller, “the first authorized biography of Dahl, Donald Sturrock–granted unprecedented access to the Dahl estate’s archives–draws on personal correspondence, journals and interviews with family members and famous friends to deliver a masterful, witty and incisive look at one of the greatest authors and eccentric characters of the modern age, whose work still delights millions around the world today.‘
2. Eudora Welty by Suzanne Marrs
‘Eudora Welty’s works are treasures of American literature. When her first short-story collection was published in 1941, it heralded the arrival of a genuinely original writer who over the decades wrote hugely popular novels, novellas, essays, and a memoir, One Writer’s Beginnings, that became a national bestseller. By the end of her life, Welty (who died in 2001) had been given nearly every literary award there was and was all but shrouded in admiration. In this definitive and authoritative account, Suzanne Marrs restores Welty’s story to human proportions, tracing Welty’s life from her roots in Jackson, Mississippi, to her rise to international stature. Making generous use of Welty’s correspondence-particularly with contemporaries and admirers, including Katherine Anne Porter, E. M. Forster, and Elizabeth Bowen-Marrs has provided a fitting and fascinating tribute to one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. ‘
3. Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor by Brad Gooch
‘The landscape of American literature was fundamentally changed when Flannery O’Connor stepped onto the scene with her first published book, Wise Blood, in 1952. Her fierce, sometimes comic novels and stories reflected the darkly funny, vibrant, and theologically sophisticated woman who wrote them. Brad Gooch brings to life O’Connor’s significant friendships–with Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Walker Percy, and James Dickey among others–and her deeply felt convictions, as expressed in her communications with Thomas Merton, Elizabeth Bishop, and Betty Hester. Hester was famously known as “A” in O’Connor’s collected letters, The Habit of Being, and a large cache of correspondence to her from O’Connor was made available to scholars, including Brad Gooch, in 2006. O’Connor’s capacity to live fully–despite the chronic disease that eventually confined her to her mother’s farm in Georgia–is illuminated in this engaging and authoritative biography.‘
4. Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World by Claudia Roth Pierpont
‘With a masterful ability to connect their social contexts to well-chosen and telling details of their personal lives, Claudia Roth Pierpont gives us portraits of twelve amazingly diverse and influential literary women of the twentieth century, women who remade themselves and the world through their art. Gertrude Stein, Mae West, Margaret Mitchell, Eudora Welty, Ayn Rand, Doris Lessing, Anais Nin, Zora Neale Hurston, Marina Tsvetaeva, Hannah Arendt and Mary Mccarthy, and Olive Schreiner: Pierpont is clear-eyed in her examination of each member of this varied group, connectng her subjects firmly to the issues of sexual freedom, race, and politics that bound them to their times, even as she exposes the roots of their uniqueness.‘
5. Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard
‘Born in 1918 into a working-class Edinburgh family, Muriel Spark became the epitome of literary chic and one of the great writers of the twentieth century. Her autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, recorded her early years but politely blurred her darker moments: troubled relations with her family, a terrifying period of hallucinations, and disastrous affairs with the men she loved. At the age of nineteen, Spark left Scotland to get married in southern Rhodesia, only to divorce and escape back to Britain in 1944. Her son returned in 1945 and was brought up by Spark’s parents while she established herself as a poet and critic in London. After converting to Catholicism in 1954, she began writing novels that propelled her into the literary stratosphere. These came to include Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means, and A Far Cry from Kensington. With The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), later adapted into a successful play and film, Spark became an international celebrity and began to live half her life in New York City. John Updike, Tennessee Williams, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene applauded her work. She had an office at The New Yorker and became friends with Shirley Hazzard and W. H. Auden. Spark ultimately settled in Italy, where for more than thirty years—until her death in 2006—she shared a house with the artist Penelope Jardine. Spark gave Martin Stannard full access to her papers. He interviewed her many times as well as her colleagues, friends, and family members. The result is an indelible portrait of one of the most significant and emotionally complicated writers of the twentieth century. Stannard presents Spark as a woman of strong feeling, sharp wit, and unabashed ambition, determined to devote her life to her art. Muriel Spark promises to become the definitive biography of a literary icon. 16 pages of b/w photographs.‘
6. John Keats: A New Life by Nicholas Roe
‘This landmark biography of celebrated Romantic poet John Keats explodes entrenched conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure. Instead, Nicholas Roe reveals the real flesh-and-blood poet: a passionate man driven by ambition but prey to doubt, suspicion, and jealousy; sure of his vocation while bitterly resentful of the obstacles that blighted his career; devoured by sexual desire and frustration; and in thrall to alcohol and opium. Through unparalleled original research, Roe arrives at a fascinating reassessment of Keats’s entire life, from his early years at Keats’s Livery Stables through his harrowing battle with tuberculosis and death at age 25. Zeroing in on crucial turning points, Roe finds in the locations of Keats’s poems new keys to the nature of his imaginative quest. Roe is the first biographer to provide a full and fresh account of Keats’s childhood in the City of London and how it shaped the would-be poet. The mysterious early death of Keats’s father, his mother’s too-swift remarriage, living in the shadow of the notorious madhouse Bedlam—all these affected Keats far more than has been previously understood. The author also sheds light on Keats’s doomed passion for Fanny Brawne, his circle of brilliant friends, hitherto unknown City relatives, and much more. Filled with revelations and daring to ask new questions, this book now stands as the definitive volume on one of the most beloved poets of the English language.‘
7. George Eliot by Jenny Uglow
‘Best known for her masterpieces Middlemarch and Silas Marner, George Eliot (1819–1880) was both one of the most brilliant writers of her day, and one of the most talked about. Intellectual and independent, she had the strength to defy polite society with her highly unorthodox private life which included various romances and regular encounters with the primarily male intelligentsia. This insightful and provocative biography investigates Eliot’s life, from her rural and religious upbringing through her tumultuous relationship with the philosopher George Henry Lewes to her quiet death from kidney failure. As each of her major works are also investigated, Jenny Uglow attempts to explain why her characters were never able to escape the bounds of social expectation as readily as Eliot did herself.‘
8. A Great Unrecorded History: A New Life of E.M. Forster by Wendy Moffat
‘With the posthumous publication of his long-suppressed novel Maurice in 1970, E. M. Forster came out as a homosexual— though that revelation made barely a ripple in his literary reputation. As Wendy Moffat persuasively argues in A Great Unrecorded History, Forster’s homosexuality was the central fact of his life. Between Wilde’s imprisonment and the Stonewall riots, Forster led a long, strange, and imaginative life as a gay man. He preserved a vast archive of his private life—a history of gay experience he believed would find its audience in a happier time. A Great Unrecorded History is a biography of the heart. Moffat’s decade of detective work—including first-time interviews with Forster’s friends—has resulted in the first book to integrate Forster’s public and private lives. Seeing his life through the lens of his sexuality offers us a radically new view—revealing his astuteness as a social critic, his political bravery, and his prophetic vision of gay intimacy. A Great Unrecorded History invites us to see Forster— and modern gay history—from a completely new angle.‘
Have you read any of these? Which, if any, will you be adding to your to-read list?
I very much enjoyed Elisabeth Russell Taylor’s short story collection, Belated (review here), when I received a review copy upon its publication, and have been trying to seek out her work ever since. It has unfortunately proved difficult to find any of her titles, but thankfully, Daunt Books have recently reissued her 1991 novella, Tomorrow.
Shena Mackay writes that Tomorrow is ‘a memorable and poignant novel made all the more heartbreaking by the quiet dignity of its central character and the restraint of its telling.’ Elaine Feinstein points out that Russell Taylor ‘writes brilliantly of emptiness, and the need for love’, and Publishers Weekly highlights, rather fantastically, that ‘Russell Taylor mingles the elegant with the grotesque, as if seating Flaubert next to William S. Burroughs at dinner.’
Tomorrow takes place in 1960, on the Danish island of Mon, where ‘a number of ill-assorted guests have gathered’ to spend their summer holidays. The protagonist is Elisabeth Danzinger, ‘plain, middle-aged… a woman so utterly predictable in her habits that she has come to the island every summer for the last fifteen years.’ Elisabeth grew up holidaying on Mon, where her parents owned a holiday home. The pilgrimage which she makes for seven days each summer gives her the opportunity to remember her tumultuous past. Her itinerary never changes, and she expects that every holiday will be exactly the same as the one before; she revels in, and takes comfort from, this certainty.
At the outset of the novella, which runs to just 136 pages, the current employer of Elisabeth in England writes in a letter: ‘Despite living under the same roof as Miss Danzinger for fifteen years, I can tell you little about her. You must have noticed for yourself: she was hardly prepossessing. As for her character, I would describe it as secretive, verging on the smug. I do not know anything about her background, she never mentioned it, but I did observe she spent her afternoons off differently from my English servants. She was a great aficionado of the museums and once a month, I believe, she attended a theatre.’ This is the first description which we as readers receive of Elisabeth, who proves to be rather a complex character.
Russell Taylor continues with this level of depth and attention to detail throughout. When Elisabeth arrives at the hotel, Russell Taylor describes the way in which ‘She could hear the sea breathing through the twittering of the sparrows that nested in the wisteria. She consulted her watch; she rose, put a cotton kimono over her petticoat, threw a salt-white bath towel over her arm, picked up her sponge bag, opened the bedroom door quietly, looked right and left along the corridor and, satisfied that no one was about, crossed quickly to the bathroom.’ Mon has been made a presence in itself, with Russell Taylor’s vivid descriptions and sketches of island life building to make it feel as though one is there, alongside Elisabeth at all times. A wonderful focus has been given to sight and colour; for instance, when ‘Far our at sea, when ultramarine turned to Prussian, three fishing boats floated motionless’, and later, ‘Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue.’
The loneliness which Elaine Feinstein picks out in her review has been given such attention, and is written about with emotion and understanding: ‘She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wandered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself refused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world. Life conducted itself independently of her. The scents from the sodden earth filled her with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past.’
Tomorrow is a beautifully written novella, filled with depth. Mon comes to life beneath Russell Taylor’s pen, as do the characters she constructs. From time to time, the secondary characters do not feel entirely realistic or plausible, but the very depth of Elisabeth’s character more than makes up for this. Tomorrow is so well informed, and feels timeless; the issues which it tackles – in part, grief, solitude, and the legacy of the Holocaust – are written about with such gravity and compassion that one cannot help but be moved as the work reaches its conclusion.
I adore what I have read so far of American author Ramona Ausubel’s work, and was so excited to read her short story collection, A Guide to Being Born. I have been continually impressed and startled with her writing, and my experience with these tales, which I read whilst in France over Easter, was no different.
Another author whom I admire, Aimee Bender, writes ‘These stories reminded me of branches full of cherry blossoms: fresh, delicate, beautiful, expressive, otherworldly.’ The Boston Globe calls the collection ‘Galvanising and almost uplifting… To call these stories ambitious is wholly accurate; Ausubel is constantly pushing for her characters to be more, to feel more, to experience more.’ A Guide to Being Born is a New York Times notable book by an author who has won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award.
A Guide to Being Born collects together eleven stories, all of which have been published in various magazines. I am in agreement with the volume’s blurb, which says that Ausubel ‘uses her inimitable style, her fantastical ambition, and her gift for the imaginative to expose the fundamentals of the human condition as she charts the cycle of love from conception to gestation to birth… As we read A Guide to Being Born, we travel through the stages of life and all the transformations that occur. These stories about the moments when we pass from one part of life into another, about the love that finds us in the dark, and pulls us, finally, through.’
Ausubel is such an exciting writer, with a fresh and dynamic voice and imagination. Every single one of her stories here, which are separated into four sections – ‘Birth’, Gestation’, ‘Conception’, and ‘Love’ – feel energised, and electrically charged. Her prose throughout is beautiful, and has such a strength to it. As a conceptual work, A Guide to Being Born shocks and astonishes. Every single tale here is a miniature masterpiece; all are vivid, unusual, and memorable, and for the most part, they throw up a lot of surprises. A Guide to Being Born is such a polished collection, which feels nothing less than sumptuous to read.
I shall end my review with an extract from ‘Safe Passage’, as it perfectly illustrates the beauty and depth of Ausubel’s prose: ‘The grandmothers have wet eyes. They are all picturing themselves lying there with many pairs of hands covering them, more hands than possible, their bodies hidden. It is just the backs of hands, familiar and radiating and with very faint pulses. In their minds, the grandmothers dissolve under those palms. They go gaseous. It is no longer necessary to maintain any particular shapes.’
I have seen it said on many an occasion that authors suffer from the curse of the second novel, in which they try their best to write something as good as their first, but invariably fail. I have come several examples where this is true (Diane Setterfield unfortunately springs to mind, as I absolutely adored The Thirteenth Tale, and very much disliked her second novel, Bellman and Black), but actually, have often found myself enjoying an author’s second novel even more than their first. I felt that it might make a nice post to group together some thoughts on – and in the case that I have not written reviews and read the book some years ago, the blurb of – five second novels which I have very much admired, or been pleasantly surprised by. I have tried to choose a diverse range of novels from different time periods to vary the post a little.
1. Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey (2018)
I really enjoyed Emma Healey’s debut novel, Elizabeth is Missing, and was thus rather keen to begin her second, Whistle in the Dark. What I found within its pages was an intriguing mystery, a cast of multilayered characters, and a very tight and controlled plot. Healey explores a fascinating family dynamic, which is threatened by various factors – namely the disappearance of teenage daughter Lana, which is the focus of the plot. I enjoyed the way in which Healey builds the novel, with longer chapters and smaller fragments, all of which reveal something. Whistle in the Dark is so well pieced together, and I found it incredibly absorbing; it kept me up reading when I really should have been sleeping. I can’t wait to see what Healey comes up with next.
2. Uncle Paul by Celia Fremlin (1959)
Uncle Paul was the last remaining novel by Celia Fremlin which I had on my Kindle. I decided to start reading it on the way to Munich, and was gripped all the way through. I loved the opening of this, Fremlin’s second novel, and found the plot intriguing. The humour here worked well, and I found the dialogue to be both sharp and wonderfully controlled. I guessed the denouement from quite a way off, although it did not seem as though it had been well hidden. A great novel which certainly kept me guessing.
3. The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (2015)
Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways is an urgent, momentous novel about the experience of three young men who immigrate from India to the United Kingdom in hope of finding work. From the very beginning, Sahota’s study of his characters is incredibly detailed. I loved the inclusion of so much cultural minutiae, and found that the use of words in different Indian dialects without their translations being given adds yet another layer to the whole. The story is incredibly evocative of place and space, and every single strand of story has been well pulled together. The way in which the different characters’ stories intertwined was clever. The Year of the Runaways is a relatively slow novel, in the very best way. The backstories of each of Sahota’s characters are eminently believable, as are their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The novel is so immersive that it becomes difficult to put down. The Year of the Runaways is an eye-opening book, and I felt so empathetic toward all of the protagonists, as well as their wider families. I read this important book with rapt attention, and cannot recommend it enough.
4. The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1922)
‘The heir to his grandfather’s considerable fortune, Anthony Patch is led astray from the path to gainful employment by the temptations and distractions of the 1920s Jazz Age. His descent into dissolution and profligacy is accelerated by his marriage to the attractive but turbulent Gloria, and the couple soon discover the dangerous flip side of a life of glamour and debauchery. Containing obvious parallels with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s own lives, the novel is a tragic examination of the pitfalls of greed and materialism and the transience of youth and beauty.‘
5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)
I very much enjoyed Celeste Ng’s thoughtful and thought-provoking debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, and looked forward to her newest publication, Little Fires Everywhere. Firstly, I very much liked Ng’s dedication, which reads: ‘To those who are on their own paths, setting little fires.’ With regard to the novel itself, the characters in their entirety have such depth to them, and interact so realistically. Ng held my interest throughout, dropping small clues and questions in as she went, and tying up the loose ends masterfully. She demonstrates a wonderful grasp of history and society, and her writing is always controlled. Little Fires Everywhere tackles a whole host of important themes, and I could barely put it down.
Of course, there are so many more great novels which I could have included here! Which are your favourite – and least favourite – second novels? Have you read any of these, or the debut books by the authors mentioned?
Purchase from The Book Depository