Five Disappointing Books

Every so often, I pick up a book which I have been so excited about, and find it doesn’t appeal to me as much as I expected. It’s always a disappointment when this happens, and a lot of the time, I will read the first fifty pages, and if it isn’t for me, I just move on to the next tome on my enormous to-read list. However, occasionally I pick up something by an author I have previously enjoyed a great deal, and read it through to the end, despite not enjoying it. This is a habit which I’m struggling to break, sadly.

I thought I would gather together five such disappointing books by authors whose other novels I have loved. These were not quite my style for various reasons, but on the whole, I found myself getting bored rather early on. I should have put them down far earlier, but I will hopefully live and learn for the future.

1 and 2. The Good Listener and A Bonfire by Pamela Hansford Johnson

I adored Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage, and also really enjoyed The Holiday Friend, novels which I read very close to one another. I thought I’d found an author whose thrillers I would love going forward, but these two proved real gems compared to the two duds which I followed them with.

The Good Listener, published in 1975, focuses on Toby Roberts. As he is about to leave Cambridge University, he forms a relationship with a girl named Maisie. She adores him; he appears largely indifferent to her. As time goes on, he runs away from her, and perpetuates cruelties with everyone he meets. He is horrid. I know that a lot of readers do not feel as though it’s pivotal to like a character, but Toby was something else. I could not bear to read about him, but I dutifully finished the novel, thinking it might get better. It did not.

Similarly, A Bonfire came nowhere close to meeting my expectations. It was Hansford Johnson’s final novel, published in 1981, the year of her death. The fact that this was a coming-of-age novel really appealed to me, but I was never pulled into the story. I did not find that the writing had the insight of An Impossible Marriage and The Holiday Friend, and for me, it also lacked much of the intrigue which I had come to expect from Hansford Johnson’s books. I remember very little about the plot or characters, I must admit, as this one just did not stick in my head at all.

3. Still Life by Sarah Winman

I was so impressed with each of Sarah Winman’s first three novels. When God Was a Rabbit, her 2011 debut, is a coming-of-age story set amongst a very interesting and flawed family. A Year of Marvellous Ways, published in 2015, is set in Cornwall, and focuses upon a wonderful elderly character named Marvellous Ways. 2017’s Tin Man is a beautiful meditation upon love and friendship, with two young boys at its centre.

I was, understandably, looking forward to reading her newest effort, Still Life, and was so excited when I received a galley of it. That it was set toward the end of the Second World War only piqued my interest further. However, as I started to read, I began to feel very disappointed. The writing felt rather lacklustre to me, and I did not feel as though I got to know any of the characters properly. To me, they felt rather like caricatures. I just could not engage my attention fully with Still Life; something was holding me back. I will pick up Winman’s books in future, and will hope that this is just a blip in an otherwise wonderful array of novels.

4. The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I liked Rebeca Mascull’s The Visitors when I read it quite a few years ago, but hadn’t picked up any of her other books. I received a galley of The Wild Air, and eventually picked it up months after its actual publication date – oops… Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and I was excited to read something a little different – about a female Edwardian pilot in the United States.

Sadly, The Wild Air was a disappointment. It sounded promising, but from the beginning, I did not find it engagging. The story was incredibly slow-going, and did not pick up. I must admit that I didn’t see this one through to the end, as it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Regardless, what could have been an exciting story completely failed to pull me in, and its heroine – supposed to be plucky and daring – I found dull.

5. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

I have read a few of Kennedy’s books to date, and have reviewed rather a lot of those on the blog, if you care to search for them. I have struggled somewhat with the fact that everyone else seems to love them, but I don’t. I was still, however, really excited to pick up The Feast, which I reviewed in full in July, as it seems to be her most loved book. I thought, that of all of Kennedy’s work, I really might love this one.

The story appealed to me greatly. The novel opens with the collapse of a cliffside hotel in Cornwall, before moving backwards in time to the week before, and allowing us insights into all of the characters. I generally really enjoy novels like this, which hold a tragedy which we know about, but link a lot of mysteries in too. However, something about The Feast did not quite come together for me, and the ending felt rushed.

Have you read any of these books, and did you like them more than I did? Which has been the most disappointing book which you have picked up of late?


Eight Author Discoveries of 2020

Throughout this strange year, I have tried, on and off, to read books by authors I hadn’t picked up before.  Sometimes these authors were on my radar but I had been unable to find their books through my usual channels; at other times, I chose to pick up one of their books on a whim, whilst browsing in the library or on Netgalley.  I have undoubtedly read work by more than eight new-to-me authors throughout this year, but this post is comprised of those who have really stood out to me for one reason or another.


1. Elly Griffiths 2541526
I had seen quite a few people reading Griffiths’ books on Netgalley, but I tend to be put off by enormous series, which stretch to over ten or so books.  I have started different series in the past, but have rarely continued to the end; normally I lose patience with the characters, become disinterested in their stories, or just notice how many similarities there are from one book to another.  Of course, this is almost inevitable in a character-based series, and with a couple of notable exceptions – Miss Marple and Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce series – I tend to stop reading series after the first two or three books.

I have got through three of Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway novels to date, all of which I listened to on audio through my library’s app.  I was initially drawn to the premise – that of a Norfolk-based forensic archaeologist aiding the police whenever they discover a new body – and found the first two books rather engaging.  However, I made a mistake by listening to the third book directly after the second.  I would ordinarily have left myself a few weeks between books, but my library reserve came in, and I only had a limited amount of time to finish it.  Whilst the Ruth Galloway series may not be one which I finish – there are a lot of similarities between the second and third books, and the characters do not become any better developed, I felt – I really do enjoy Griffiths’ writing.  I am going to be hunting out her standalone novels next.


elizabeth_berridge_1547558f2. Elizabeth Berridge
I could hardly create such a list without including Elizabeth Berridge.  She has been on my radar for a number of years now, but I have never been able to find copies of her books when I have searched for them.  Thankfully, a couple of publishers are beginning to reprint her work, and I was able to find three further copies of her novels on the wonderful AbeBooks after reading, and loving, Across the Common, which I received for my birthday.

Berridge has been a wonderful discovery this year, and I am pleased to see that she is gaining a lot of recognition on other blogs too.  She writes wonderfully, and has such an understanding of her protagonists, many of whom are women verging on middle age, who have something to overcome before they can move forward.  Her books are always a treat, and I am going to try my best to pick up the rest of her oeuvre next year if I can manage it.


3. Jean Sprackland sprackland
Sprackland is a non-fiction author and poet, whose topics of choice really interest me.  I have only read These Silent Mansions to date, a musing on the English graveyards which have, in a way, shaped Sprackland’s life.  I will have a review of this up next year.  Her other non-fiction book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach is high on my wishlist, obsessed as I am with the seaside.

I am also really interested in trying Sprackland’s poetry books in the near future.  Her prose in These Silent Mansions is gorgeous, and you can tell from the outset that she takes such care about her vocabulary, and the imagery which it shapes.


77793744. Robbie Arnott
Australian author Robbie Arnott is a real gem.  I had wanted to read his work for a year or so before I found a gorgeous hardback copy of Flames in my local library; it was every bit as wonderful as I imagined.  He uses magical realism to great effect, and his writing and characters feel so original.  I am so looking forward to picking up more of Arnott’s work in the near future, and hope that his other novel – The Rain Heron – and his short story collection will be published in the UK very soon.


5. Shirley Barrett 1024
Barrett is another Australian author, whose work I found out about on Savidge Reads’ YouTube channel.  Her work is strange and fantastical, but I was hooked throughout both The Bus on Thursday and Rush-Oh!, which I reviewed back in October.  The novels could not be more different on the face of it – the former is a contemporary novel which charts the journey of a schoolteacher to a remote part of Australia, and the latter is historical fiction which focuses on whale hunting – but both are so exciting.  I could not put either novel down, and can only hope that more of her work will be made easily available to me soon.


duncan20barrett20author20photo6. Duncan Barrett
Barrett is a non-fiction author, whose book, When the Germans Came, I found masterful.  I have always been so interested in the German Occupation of the Channel Islands during the Second World War, and this is by far the best book which I have ever read on the topic.  Barrett follows many different residents of the island throughout, revealing their hopes and dreams and, quite often, their bravery.  His prose is engaging, and never does the book feel too crowded with different people; rather, it is accessible, and really does the subject justice.

Thankfully, Barrett is rather a prolific author.  Whilst I probably won’t be picking up his ‘GI Brides’ series of novels any time soon (or ever…), he has written a few more non-fiction books which look fascinating, ranging from the post office workers throughout the Second World War, to true stories of the women who really made a difference during this period.


7. Jo Baker 3796
Baker is a writer of historical fiction and, being one of my favourite genres, I have always meant to pick up her books.  I requested her newest book, The Body Lies, from Netgalley, and settled down to read it in January.  Whilst it does not fit the genre of historical fiction, and is more of a contemporary literary thriller, I was invested in the main character from beginning to end.

Baker writes beautifully, particularly with regard to the landscape and physical settings, and she handled every element of the story in The Body Lies with grace and deftness.  I have my eye on her historical fiction next; of particular interest to me are A Country Road, A Tree which is set during the Second World War, and family saga The Undertow.


pamela_hansford_johnson_as_a_young_woman8. Pamela Hansford Johnson
Last but not least, Hansford Johnson has been a wonderful discovery this year.  I have settled down with a couple of her novels – An Impossible Marriage (1954) and The Holiday Friend (1972) – and posted full reviews for them both.  Hansford Johnson wrote wonderful literary thrillers, which are enthralling from beginning to end.  She has such insight, and her characters feel so realistic.  Both of these novels could be termed domestic noir, and I cannot wait to dive into the remainder of her oeuvre, which is thankfully quite extensive.


Which are your favourite new author discoveries of 2020?


‘The Holiday Friend’ by Pamela Hansford Johnson ****

Having read two of her novels now, I am almost certain that Pamela Hansford Johnson could fast become a favourite author of mine.  I adored An Impossible Marriage, which I found to be gripping and utterly believable, and keenly sought out The Holiday Friend, which my local library had a copy of.  This is sadly the only one of her novels available in my county library’s service, and I am trying to work out how I can read more of her oeuvre without purchasing them during my no-buy year.

I digress.  The Independent calls The Holiday Friend ‘a powerful tragedy’, and Kirkus writes that the novel ‘teases your curiosity and plays on your sympathy’.  It sounded rather different to An Impossible Marriage, but I was very much looking forward to reading it.  I am pleased to announce that I was gripped from the very first page. 41gtohholxl._sx324_bo1204203200_

The Holiday Friend takes place over a fortnight in late July and early August, and is set entirely in the fictional seaside resort of Les Roseaux (Het Riet) in Belgium.  Happily married couple Gavin and Hannah Eastwood have returned to the region for their summer holiday, with their eleven-year-old son Giles in tow.  They are staying in the same guesthouse as the previous summer, content in the knowledge that they know so many people in the small town.  Les Roseaux is a town entirely shaped by the holiday season; ‘after the peak months,’ Hansford Johnson explains, ‘trade drops off rapidly’.

However, this summer’s holiday is destined not to run anywhere near as smoothly.  One of lecturer Gavin’s students, Melissa Hirst, has steadily become obsessed with him, and has followed him to Belgium.  She then proceeds to go out of her way to ‘bump into the couple repeatedly – soon becoming inescapable.’

When she writes about characters, Hansford Johnson reminds me somewhat of the wonderful Dorothy Whipple.  Here, there is the same sharpness of eye, slightly acerbic humour and commentary, and a great understanding of just how complex humans are.  One gets a feel for each of the characters as soon as they are introduced.  In the first snapshots which she gives of her protagonists, Hansford Johnson describes Gavin as ‘tall and graceful, a dressy man with an inclination to identify with youth; but he went no further in this than to wear his hair rather long over his forehead, though short at back and side, and to indulge in a broad orange tie, bought specially for this holiday.’  Hannah is ‘humble and thought little of herself’, and young Giles ‘dreamy and bad at school’.

Melissa, the antagonist of the piece, is described as ‘a fairly tall girl’ of twenty-one, an English student who has attended Gavin’s History of Art lectures.  Hansford Johnson shows Melissa’s all-consuming love for Gavin immediately, writing: ‘She lived when she was near him and at other times she merely existed.’  Melissa bumps into the family almost as soon as she arrives, and passes it off as a huge coincidence.  Reflecting upon meeting Gavin’s wife and child, ‘it appeared to her, despite herself, that they were a very united family.  But the marriage had been a long one, and she felt that there were times when he might be tired of it.’

Hansford Johnson’s descriptions of scenery are evocative, and they certainly hold appeal.  She writes, for instance, of the way in which ‘… the sun flushed the sand and glittered on the sea.  To the left, the dunes were white as ivory, and the reeds, from which the town got its name, shivered and whistled.’  It was lovely to read something set in Belgium; it is a place which I love to visit, but rarely see in fiction.  Hansford Johnson really brought the quiet beauty of the country for life for me.

The Holiday Friend was first published in 1972, and reprinted by Hodder and Stoughton in 2019, along with several of her other novels.  There are elements of the novel which feel entirely modern, but it is also wonderfully steeped in an era of afternoon tea and supper, of very specific fashions, and of the middle classes now being able to expand their horizons with a yearly holiday abroad.  There are some cliches at play here; the young, bossy German boy named Hans, for example, who is never happier than when others are running around at his beck and call.

Fans of both Dorothy Whipple and Celia Fremlin will, I feel, wholeheartedly enjoy the work of Hansford Johnson.  There are a lot of similarities which one could draw between her work and that of Whipple’s and Fremlin’s, but there is also something entirely original at play here.  The mounting, unsettling feeling which she has built so well perfectly suits the elements of the story, and the touch of domestic noir at play only adds to this.  The chilling elements which are threaded throughout The Holiday Friend have been handled expertly.  There is something quite claustrophobic about Melissa’s obsession with Gavin, and disdain for his wife and son.

The Holiday Friend is a really thorough study of several quite different characters, and what motivates and moves them.  Whilst I did not find it quite as gripping as An Impossible Marriage, it is still an excellent novel, and one which will stay with me for a long time to come.


‘An Impossible Marriage’ by Pamela Hansford Johnson *****

I picked up my first Pamela Hansford Johnson novel, An Impossible Marriage, during a pre-Christmas trip to the Oxfam bookshop in St Albans.  The author has been on my radar for ages but, probably because this once incredibly popular author has unfairly been forgotten, I had never been able to find any of her books.  Thankfully, Hodder has begun to reprint her work in physical editions, and quite a few more are available for a small fee from the Kindle store.

41mj54eztcl._sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_ml2_Antiquated magazine Britannia and Eve: A Monthly Journal for Men & Women wrote that this novel, first published in 1954, contains ‘a story so vivid it might be the memoir of a real person.’  Set between the wars, An Impossible Marriage focuses upon young protagonist Christine, known as Christie.  She is ‘tired of London, her job in a travel agency, her friends, and the young men she’s being set up with.’  By chance, Christie meets an older man named Ned Skelton, who ‘seems sophisticated and experienced’, and she ‘quickly becomes besotted’.  ‘But,’ the question at the heart of this novel asks, ‘will marriage to a man she doesn’t know well truly offer this young woman an escape?  Or is she walking into another prison of her own making?’

We first meet the elusive Ned, fourteen years her senior, at a dance which Christie attends with her friends.  In retrospect, Christie writes: ‘But this love of my eighteenth year was heedless, irrational and storming.  I would not believe in it; it seemed not part of myself, like bone, flesh and fibre, but a hard and alien thing which had lodged itself within me.’  Their later engagement comes as an enormous shock to Christie, whose ‘inner critic’ warns her against this decision: ‘The critic within me had something to say; but I would not listen.  Not at that time.’  When Ned gives her an engagement ring, Christie is horrified: ‘But though the ring might be little, it seemed to weigh heavily upon my finger.  I was almost painfully aware of it.  And it seemed to me strange and alarming, the thought that I must wear it until I died.’

An Impossible Marriage is profound and considered from the outset.  In the first paragraph, for instance, Christie narrates: ‘I do not like looking back down the chasm of the past and seeing, in a moment of vertigo, some terror that looks like a joy, some joy crouched like a terror.  It is better to keep one’s eyes on the rock-face of the present, for that is real; what is under your nose is actual, but the past is full of lies, and the only accurate memories are those we refuse to admit to our consciousness.’ She is a wise character.  Later in the novel, she comments: ‘The most dangerous of all our plans are the ones we formulate right at the backs of our minds and leave to grow there, like water-cultures.  They are the plans we never examine until we put them into practice.  The moment they are exposed we realise our hideous recklessness.  We realise the damage we have done.’

I immediately connected with Hansford Johnson’s prose style.  Throughout, I found myself admiring Christie’s wry narrative and amusing asides, as well as the way in which the novel has been so skilfully crafted.  Christie’s interactions with others have been well considered, particularly in those instances where she is feeling anguished, or anxious.

I was completely entranced by this coming-of-age story.  I loved the tone of the book and its tight, taut writing.  Hansford Johnson is sharp and perceptive, with regard to both characters and scenes.  At one point in the book, she writes of winter in London: ‘Sunday was a day of snow.  It lay in a crusting of black and silver beads along the privets in the front garden, clung in lichen patches to the rooftops, and was stacked, hard as steel, in the gutters.  The sky looked white and hard; there was sun behind it, but it would remain invisible, would not break through.’  Christine feels entirely realistic throughout, and even the secondary characters hum with life.  Tension builds wonderfully under Hansford Johnson’s pen.  Had this novel been twice the length, I still would have delighted in it.

Upon her death in 1981, Hansford Johnson was described by the New York Times as ‘one of Britain’s best-known novelists’.  I can only hope that hundreds of other readers discover her, and soon.  Her writing is such a treat to read.  I for one am so excited that she has a vast oeuvre of twenty-seven novels, plus countless other publications; I imagine that there are a lot of gems in store for me to discover.