August Superlatives

Plainly, another terrible month for reviewing. I’m sure I will get back on the horse eventually. Writing reviews seems to take so much mental energy, though, and so much of my stock of that is being expended on other things right now. I didn’t read a whole lot of books, either—at least, not a whole lot for me—August’s total being eleven. Still, I had a holiday and I saw my folks and some dear friends, and that’s a pretty good trade.


easiest to analyse: Fiona Melrose’s second novel, Johannesburg, which I did actually manage to review. A reassessment of Mrs. Dalloway set in contemporary South Africa, it neatly captures the feeling of Woolf’s original while also intelligently updating several key aspects. A couple of unnecessary elements weren’t enough to mar the thing. (review)

weirdest: Bogmail, by Patrick McGinley, an Irish Gothic novel about murder and blackmail and mushrooms that came out in the early ’90s and is being reprinted. This was probably a wrong-book-wrong-reader problem; it just didn’t land with me, the blackness of the humour seemed jarring instead of cheeky, and I had a hard time differentiating, or indeed giving a damn about, any of the characters.

best romp: Frenchman’s Creek, Daphne Du Maurier’s novel of forbidden pirate love in seventeenth-century Cornwall. It’s romantic and silly, somewhat reminiscent of The Princess Bride, but quite charming in its own way. Dona St Columb is a marvelous heroine, and her goofy idiot husband Harry a well-drawn aristocrat, benign but totally entitled.

most nearly: Sarah Franklin’s WWII saga, Shelter, which follows a member of the Women’s Timber Corps and her growing friendship with an Italian prisoner of war. On a thematic level, Shelter is brave and bold, dealing with pre-marital sex, toxic masculinity, and a woman who isn’t a natural mother; on the more basic level of sentence and character, it’s a little overblown and relies too heavily on cliché. Fun, though. (review)


most HELL YEAH: This year’s airplane reading, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas. A 500+-page tome exploring the life of a promising young writer who has children and is thwarted from writing for about the next twenty-five years, it is all about ambition, expectations, art, family, and how these things interact and compete with each other. It’s brutally honest and also incredibly well written. The final hundred-odd pages, set in Dharamshala, didn’t quite convince me (can we stop sending Western women East to find their True Purpose, plz?), but they too were faultlessly composed. This is out in September and I highly recommend it.

most good clean fun: John Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island. It opens with the theft of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s original manuscripts of Gatsby and others from the Princeton University library, and a lot of it is set in the world of rare books and antiques dealers. It’s the first Grisham I’ve ever read; I conclude that he can’t write a three-dimensional character to save his life, but he can show you a good time. Worth it.

most nostalgic: Guess what I reached for when I was at home? That is correct: Tolkien. He soothes me; he’s what I read when I was ten or eleven and hungry for something meaningful and more important than real life seemed. The Two Towers will always be my favourite of the books, and of the films: the battle of Helm’s Deep is simply superb, though when you read it you realise how much Jackson compressed and altered in the film version. (Whisper it: his pacing is actually a lot better than Tolkien’s.) The Return of the King, meanwhile, is dramatically satisfying and proper scary, although again, the pacing is off. Still, I’m glad I went back to the books. They take themselves so seriously, and it feels like there’s a lesson in that somewhere.


breeziest: The Case of the Team Spirit, a collection of the strips that comprise John Allison’s first Bad Machinery story. Mystery-solving teens! Implausibly witty dialogue! Hilarious Yorkshire accents! A wall-eyed Russian lady! A character named Mad Terry! You gotta love it.

most parent-shocking: Saga, vol. 3, a continuation of Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love story. This time, Marko and Alana are hiding out with their illegal baby daughter Hazel and Marko’s irascible, recently widowed mother, at the home of romance novelist D. Oswald Heist. Things get weirder from there: bounty hunters are still on their trail, not to mention Marko’s ex Gwendolyn, who is severely pissed off. There’s enough explicit sex and violence in this one that my dad, leaning over my shoulder to look at one particularly unfortunate spread, recoiled. That’ll learn ‘im.

best rediscovery: White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, which I read years ago but had sort of forgotten about until my brother got me a signed and personalised copy ( and gave it to me on holiday. It is a bloody amazing book, so full of character and incident, knowing and mouthy but also quiet and wise. How does she ventriloquise all these characters, all their cultural baggage? How does she tie things in so neatly and also make it so clear that nothing can fully be tied in, or mopped up, that the past isn’t even past? And she was twenty-four. God.

up next: I’m about to finish Mark Twain’s Western travelogue, Roughing It, and have a couple of options for where to go next. Maybe Pajtim Statovci’s forthcoming book My Cat Yugoslavia, from Pushkin Press; maybe a book from my US purchases stack; or maybe something left over from a pre-holiday Waterstone’s binge—I’ll Sell You A Dog or China Mountain Zhang. Unless I get a lot of overwhelming feedback, I’ll probably leave it up to the random number generator…

12 thoughts on “August Superlatives

  1. You remind me that when I was lecturing in English Literature I almost always re-read Tolkien every year because there would inevitably be a student who wanted to do their dissertation on it. I haven’t really read it since I retired; I knew there was something missing from my life!

    1. Oh, man – nothing else even comes close. (Partly, I suppose, because Tolkien wasn’t really a novelist; he was a linguist, a cartographer, an inventor of worlds, but the pacing issues and some of his Very Serious Dialogue indicates his general weaknesses as a fiction writer. But that’s kind of beside the point when you look at the level of world-building.)

  2. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby sounds really intriguing, though I’m with you on the journeying to ‘exotic’ places to find oneself issue.

    I read Tolkien at a similar age; I remember putting the first book down in disgust after the ‘death’ of my favourite character, Gandalf, and refusing to read the next two for some time, which in retrospect was a bit of an error.

    1. Oh NO; the whole Gandalf thing is pretty dreadful but I can’t believe you put the book down!

      To be fair, I think the Dharamshala sections in Joan Ashby are pretty well handled, but it’s the fact that the book goes there at all that made me a little uneasy.

  3. The only Tolkien I’ve actually read is The Hobbit, when I was 15 or so. My husband has read all the LOTR books and we own a nice set, but he tells me they are not actually that well written…maybe I’m happy just sticking with the films?

    Just after I saw it appear on your feed, my mother recommended Camino Island to me, having read it with her book club. It’s so rare for recommendations to go that way round — usually I’m the one shoving books in her hand or telling her to go find X — that I thought I’d go ahead and put it on my TBR even though I usually wouldn’t consider Grisham.

    I’m eager to get hold of a copy of Joan Ashby. On a similar-ish topic of motherhood vs. artistic fulfillment, do read Forty Rooms by Olga Grushin, one of my top novels of last year.

    On Beauty is still my favourite from Smith, but I really admire White Teeth as well. And yeah, her wisdom at 24 is just amazing.

    1. The thing about LOTR is that it works best with a reader who is willing to be as earnest as the book is. I think that’s why it tends to go down so well with nerdy teenagers or pre-teens: that’s a group of readers that generally has a strong sense of conviction, or belief, or what you will. I loved LOTR so much because its whole tone and tenor reassured me that it was okay to take things seriously. Once a reader reaches adulthood, something has generally happened to them – the accession of cynicism, or just accumulated experience – that makes Tolkien’s earnestness a little harder to stomach.

      Camino Island is a lot of fun – it’ll hardly take you a day to read, but it’s a great palate-cleanser.

      I don’t think I’ve heard of Forty Rooms before, so thank you for the tip!

      1. Hmm, I worry I am too cynical in that way to take LOTR seriously.

        Forty Rooms was a kind of underground hit — you’ll see from Goodreads that loads of women loved it.

  4. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby does sound excellent and I have a copy on my shelf waiting. I’d love to re-read LOTR again (that would be the fifth time) – but it is a big time commitment and I’m re-reading Anna Karenina at the moment – which will probably take even longer to read due to the names being even more complicated than Tolkien’s.

  5. Ahhh I just heard about the Joan Ashby book on Book Riot’s podcast. I’m very tempted, though I sometimes get tired of litfic where the main character is also a novelist.

    1. It’s a bloody great book. Nicely, she’s a novelist in name only for a lot of the book, and you get a much greater insight into the way in which novelists are normal people who happen to write things (or don’t) than you normally do from that sort of book.

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