read recently

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The Turn of the Key, by Ruth Ware: I finished this in a day; it is SO readable. A modern take on James’s Turn of the Screw, featuring all our faves (creepy kids, mysterious footsteps, an initially rational narrator with secrets of her own who is progressively broken down by fear), but with some modern twists (the house is old, with a terrible history, but has been renovated to make it a “smart house” which can be run – and also run remotely – via app. YES, horrifying.) I’m not so sure about the ending, which makes some leaps with regards to motive and capacity, but goodness me is it gripping.

 

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Seduction and Betrayal: Women and Literature, by Elizabeth Hardwick: I took this to Paris, because look at that title, how could I take anything else? Much of the criticism seemed outdated, at least in terms of its gender politics, but then, it was written in the ’70s, so it’d be sort of surprising if it wasn’t. The other thing I found tricky about it is that Hardwick’s particular brand of criticism doesn’t involve a lot of textual reference: she writes about the characterisation of Ibsen’s heroines – the terrifyingly empty and amoral Hedda Gabler, for instance, or the somehow untouchably free Nora in A Doll’s House – while rarely making reference to anything they say. The same is true, to a large extent, of the Bronte sisters, who are the subject of the first essay, and of the women both real and fictional whom she discusses in the title essay (including Anna Karenina and Richardson’s Clarissa). Still worth reading for the declarative power of her sentences, and for the essay on Sylvia Plath alone.

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Girl. Boy. Sea., by Chris Vick: A brave ten-year-old could handle this, but I’d suggest it for twelve and up, on the whole. Bill, a young English boy, is on a sailing summer course off Gran Canaria when a storm separates him from his shipmates. Drifting in the Atlantic, he comes across another shipwrecked adolescent: Aya, a Berber girl, who is keeping secrets of her own. Bill and Aya’s growing ability to communicate and trust one another is beautifully rendered, as are the stories Aya tells to keep them going (as not-so-subtle but still very moving symbols of the power of narrative to provide hope). Sort of like a junior Life of Pi without all of the clever-clever religiosity. Also a genuinely scary and thrilling survival/adventure story.

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The Truants, by Kate Weinberg: Whether you enjoy The Truants or not probably depends on how well you react to familiarity. When I read the proof blurb by Scarlett Thomas that claimed this was like a mashup of Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, and Liane Moriarty, I wasn’t prepared for how entirely accurate that was: it’s The Secret History set in Norwich with Agatha Christie texts occupying the place that classical Greek culture takes in the former. If you’re keen on genre riffs, and sexily unpredictable men, and the erotics of pedagogy, pick it up. I rather enjoyed it, but I doubt I’ll remember much in a month.

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Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather: Willa, my queen. Not much happens in Death Comes for the Archbishop, except for a whole life: that of the titular Archbishop, who’s mostly just a Bishop while we know him. He’s Jean Latour, the first Catholic bishop of New Mexico, and with him is Father Joseph Vaillant, his right-hand man. The friendship between the two men – Latour intellectual and kindly but aloof, Vaillant awkward and ungainly but easy to love – is the most beautiful part of Cather’s novel, although she’s also good on the shifting nineteenth-century politics of the West and Southwest, and describes Native American and Mexican customs with interest and respect. Her prose is like desert air: lucid, invigorating, vivid. *chef’s kiss*

21 thoughts on “read recently

  1. I’ve read only one Willa Cather but enjoyed it so much I’d love to read more by her. I have a copy of O Pioneers but not this Archibishop one. Will need to look out for this ideally in Virago green.

    • The Plath piece is exceptional. Really gave me a lot to think about in terms of the death impulse in her poetry. I mean, probably Plath criticism has moved on a lot since then – it’s heavily biographical – but the circumstances of her life and death still matter, I think.

  2. The Turn of the Key sounds great – I can’t wait till it’s out in paperback. I’m immune to creepy kids because I’ve written too much academic stuff about them, but smart houses terrify me – so much scarier than old creaky ones…

  3. I’m glad you’re enjoying this social media / review format 🙂 I’d heard that The Truants was super Secret History-esque. I’ve recently read another fairly similar book, though with a historical setting (The Hiding Game by Naomi Wood), so I don’t know that I need to read another soon, but we’ll see.

  4. Not much happens… except a full life – SIGN ME UP. I need to get into Hardwick! I took a “collected works” type thing out from the library, but it was too intimidating…

  5. It’s interesting to hear about your experiences with the Hardwick. I really liked her semi-autobiographical novel, Sleepless Nights, but I’ve yet to try any of her essays/literary criticism. Her prose is beautiful, a little like Renata Adler’s in terms of style.

  6. Yours is the second intriguing review of The Truants I’ve seen. Anything even vaguely academic is going to attract me so I shall probably get round to it sooner rather than later. I already have an order in for the Ruth Ware. I’m not normally a one off thriller reader but for Ware I make an exception.

    • Ware is pretty exceptional, I think. The Truants is good but if you like academia in fiction, try Jo Baker’s The Body Lies – quite brilliant, very scathing about university English department politics…!

  7. I didn’t realize Turn of the Key was a take on Turn of the Screw. Also, wasn’t there a Disney (or Disney-esque) movie from the 1990s about a smart house that goes wrong? For some reason I have an internalized fear about smart houses. I have an ARC of The Truants (with a very different cover) but I’m sort of tired of books being compared to The Secret History. Your review has me intrigued though!

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