Reading Diary: oh dear, part three (holiday reading)

I went to Brussels in the middle of this month. There was no real reason to do this, apart from the fact that I had the time to take a week-long holiday, and I fancied going somewhere Abroad, and Brussels happened to be the city to which I could most cheaply transport myself. (£50 each way on the Eurostar. Even Easyjet flights to places like Malta were more expensive.) It was also the first proper, avowed holiday which I have taken alone. As such, I didn’t really know how it was going to go, but I brought five books, the notebook containing the section of my novel that I’m working on right now, and my laptop, and prepared to spend some time figuring out how much tourism vs. relaxation I actually wanted to do.

In the event, I tourist-ed for three and a half days (Grand Place, the Mont des Arts, the cathedral, various chocolatiers, Parc Josaphat, and the Horta Museum) and spent the rest of the week reading in the sunshine on my Airbnb’s terrace, writing in a coffee shop near the Horta Museum and in my Airbnb, taking very long baths, being intimidated by the local butcher, and bingeing on Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Most importantly, I wrote over a thousand words a day, and finished all the books I brought with me (the last one on the Eurostar home, so my back-up book, Villette, was unnecessary).

61s2b5egxvtl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Frost in May, by Antonia White: The first book ever to be published as a Virago Classic, and (according to Elizabeth Bowen) “not the only school story to be a classic, but…the only one that is a work of art.” Its protagonist is Nanda Gray, whose father has recently converted to Catholicism and who is sent to a Catholic convent school, where she is permanently treated as a second-class citizen, albeit one who might (eventually) be redeemable. The story follows fairly closely the events of White’s own early life, and she captures with the extreme clarity of adolescence (and of trauma) the emotional terrorism visited upon the girls of the school by the nuns. Anyone who has been manipulated by an authority figure will find Frost in May both disturbing and familiar. Nanda’s eventual disgrace is also the mechanism of her freedom, although she may not realise it. This might, now that I think about it, have been very interesting to read alongside Villette, also a school story intensely concerned with surveillance, privacy, and autonomy.

91pgumjkzvlKintu, by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi: One of the most challenging, and therefore most instructive, aspects of reading fiction that was not originally designed with a Western market in mind is that there are things Western readers expect with regards to narrative structure and characterisation. When those expectations are swerved, as in Kintu they frequently are, it presents an opportunity to examine the lukewarm reaction this provokes in a reader and to consider how growing up in different cultures affects how we tell stories and what we demand from them. Kintu is the story of a curse placed upon a historic Ganda chief for failing to properly bury his adopted son, who is biologically from another tribe. This curse – or is it simply hereditary mental illness, exacerbated by guilt, poverty, and other factors? – is passed down through generations of Kintu’s descendants to the present day. What I found confusing and alienating about the novel – the interchangeability of characters’ names, the repetition of similar events with minor variations, the assumption of understanding surrounding Ganda social taboos – are clearly the very elements that comprise its strength in the context for which it was written (it was first published by Kenya’s Kwami Trust, sponsored by a leading Kenyan literary journal). This is the sort of thing that #WITMonth, for example, is for: asking you to perform a meta-analysis of the way you evaluate literary success.

9780571347018Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver: Kingsolver’s latest novel felt particularly apt reading in the week I was in Brussels. Half of it deals with a very contemporary woman whose family and house both appear to be crumbling around her, and who is required to care not only for her new grandson (whose mother has just killed herself) but also for her dying father-in-law. The politics of care – both in the sense of emotional faultlines and in the very real sense of legislation and regulation and the heartbreaking struggles of American people to access healthcare at this point in time – are at the fore here. In the other half of the book, politics and caring are also foregrounded in the story of Thatcher Greenwood, a young schoolteacher who wishes to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution and who is thwarted by Landis, the man who essentially runs the company town where he lives and works. There are, of course, parallels with the Trump administration: fear of science and experts, dissemination of lies presented as truths, the ability of the rich and powerful to (literally) get away with murder. There is so much going on in both strands of the novel that perhaps elements are short-changed, like Willa’s relationship with her daughter Tig and some parts of Thatcher’s relationship with Mary Treat, the brilliant woman scientist next door who corresponds with Darwin and Asa Gray. But Kingsolver’s central metaphor illustrates perfectly that famous quote about American conflict: that a house divided against itself cannot stand. And that, perhaps, the best thing we can do is bring it all down.

41li6jgb7il-_sy445_ql70_Jeeves and the King of Clubs, by Ben Schott: An homage to P.G. Wodehouse (as the subtitle says) has got a lot to live up to, and Ben Schott pretty admirably fills the shoes of the master here; without trying too slavishly to pastiche PGW, he manages those signature goofy similes with aplomb. (My only objection might be that his Wooster is actually not enough of an idiot.) In this outing, Wooster discovers that the Junior Ganymede Club, the organisation of gentlemen’s gentlemen to which Jeeves belongs, has in fact been functioning as an arm of British intelligence for decades, if not centuries: who, after all, is better positioned to acquire information about the great and the good (or not so good) than their butlers? (Though it is not just butlers; the Junior Ganymede, apparently, recruits from all ranks of domestic service. “Pigmen,” as Jeeves notes in one of those delightfully poker-faced asides that Wodehouse himself would be proud to have written, “have been particularly cooperative.”) The plot, such as it is, involves Jeeves and Wooster having to intercept some sort of code on its way to the carbuncular British fascist Roderick Spode, which requires a lot of careening all over the West End. There’s a particularly enjoyable chase scene through the interconnecting doors of Pall Mall’s private clubs: the Athenaeum, the Travellers, the Oxford and Cambridge, the RAC, all are name-checked. For my money, Wodehouse plotted better – he’s madcap but he’s as precise as clockwork, where Schott is a little scattergun – but it feels so churlish to complain when you’re having this much fun.

EDIT: I forgot The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K Dick! Perhaps this is because I’ve been reading it on and off for months, on my phone, in spare moments. As most of you will probably know, it is set in a United States that lost WWII, and is now divided into several zones, mostly governed by the Japanese, who were thrown North America after the war by their victorious Nazi allies. To be perfectly honest, this on-and-off reading technique was obviously bad for this particular book, because when I picked it up properly again, none of it really hung together and I couldn’t work out what the main thrust of the story was, and when the big reveal appeared, the fact that it was so unclear whether we were in a parallel universe or what the mechanism was, exactly, was just intensely irritating. Is there a better Dick? (…shut up.)

February Superlatives

February! I started working at Heywood Hill. I followed the Jhalak Prize long list. In a perhaps not shocking turn of events, my to-read list grew significantly. I am beginning to worry about bookshelf space again. Not as many books this month—only fourteen update: fifteen! I forgot one!—but in a month as short as February, that’s a book every two days, which isn’t bad at all.

most whimsical: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, the tale of a Danish woman’s travails in learning to drive as an adult, by Dorthe Nors. Poor Sonja; somehow her life has become something she never intended it to be, but she doesn’t know where she went wrong. It’s a fairly plotless book, but I think that suits its subject matter.

best short stories for people who don’t like short stories: Rick Bass’s beautiful, monumental collection from Pushkin Press, For A Little While. Bass writes stories the way Maxine Beneba Clarke does: they seem like miniature novels, tiny but perfectly formed and evocative, little jewels of description and characterisation. He writes like a dream on the sentence level, and his interest in the lost or confused people of the world is sincere and generous and kind. This collection is a marvel.

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THIS COVER. I DIE.

most thoroughly engrossing world: The Ghana/America splitscreen through the ages that you get in Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. Starting with two estranged sisters in eighteenth-century Asanteland, the novel follows each woman’s descendants through history. Comparing the lives of the Ghanaian branch of the family to the American branch over the centuries is fascinating—such a tiny difference to start with, but such a huge gulf in only a few years’ time—and the ending is crazy satisfying without being completely unrealistic.

so close! so close!: Irenosen Okojie’s short story collection Speak Gigantular, which has fantastic, surreal ideas rendered in a highly original way, but which is let down by a general failure on her publisher’s part to check for things like typos. It’s an amazing collection, and it could be even better with a little attention to detail.

most skillfully written: This is a tough one to award elsewhere while Rick Bass’s stories are on the list, but Kei Miller’s prose in Augustown is so controlled, so subtle, so confident in itself, that from the very first page you can feel yourself relaxing, knowing you’re in good hands. It’s a lovely feeling to have when you open a book, that total trust in the writer’s ability.

best book to give someone who “doesn’t read YA”: Patrice Lawrence’s novel Orangeboy, which is significantly better than many adult novels. Marlon’s teenaged attempts to protect his family are rendered with such sympathy and lack of judgmentalism, I think it’s a book a lot of young people (and those who work with them) should be reading.

most fascinating: Not a shadow of a doubt here: Black and British, David Olusoga’s overview of black British history. I guarantee that you will learn something new from it, and that this new thing will be, moreover, wildly intriguing and contradictory to the history you remember from school.

most accidentally forgotten: Do not make assumptions about the fact that, in the first version of this post, I forgot Shappi Khorsandi’s Nina Is Not OK! It’s about a teenager who slowly comes to terms with the fact that, like her beloved and now dead father, she is an alcoholic. Nina’s situation is complicated by a trauma that happens at the beginning of the book and which she must acknowledge before she can begin to handle her alcoholism. Khorsandi is bitingly funny, sad, spirited, and never sentimental. I loved it.

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most grudgingly liked: I do not want to like the work of Paul Kingsnorth. It subscribes to a philosophy of back-to-nature manhood, unfettered by things like infants or women, that I find at best eye-roll-worthy, at worst destructive and juvenile. But his writing is none of these things; it is evocative, assured, and bold. His second novel, Beast, is about a man slowly unravelling on what seems to be Dartmoor. It’s short and very impressive.

best comfort read: The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett’s charming fable about what might happen if the Queen took up reading for pleasure. It’s so tiny and cute that you can read it in an hour, then go about the rest of your day with a small smile on your face. I particularly like the way Bennett characterises the Duke of Edinburgh—so succinct, so efficient!—through his curmudgeonly dialogue.

best reread: So, guys… whisper it. I didn’t really get all the love for The Essex Serpent when it came out. I mean, I liked the book, I thought the landscape and food descriptions were gorgeous, Perry’s writing is lush. But I also thought her first book hung together better, was a more perfect object, and I didn’t feel the same adoration for Cora and Will that lots of people seemed to. They were fine. I just didn’t love them. Then I read it again, really really slowly, over the course of about six weeks—mostly on my phone during five-minute bathroom breaks at the restaurant—and finished it this weekend, and although I still don’t feel fanatical about it, I think I understand it better.

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most serviceable thriller: I read William Shaw’s Kent-set murder mystery, The Birdwatcher, because it’s gotten a lot of love from people at work and it seemed worth checking out. It was perfectly acceptable, but my benchmark for thrillers/mysteries is now Tana French. Not many people can meet that standard—certainly not on the qualities of dialogue, descriptive writing and psychological depth—so, while Shaw’s book was a pretty solid example of the genre, and gripping as hell, it won’t knock French from her pedestal.

most evocative: Days Without End, Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning novel about nineteenth-century Irish-American soldiers John Cole and Thomas McNulty: best friends, brothers-in-arms, lovers. The way that Barry allows their relationship its proper dignity, the way that he balances maternal feeling with military prowess in the character of McNulty, the way that he writes about the American West, is both roughly beautiful and incredibly elegant. It reminded me a lot of True History of the Kelly Gang.

best holiday reading: My dilemma about what to take on a four-day trip to France was solved by my friend Helen, who recommended Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. It’s a long and thoughtful novel but it never fails to be interesting – on dance and the body, on opportunity, on girls and friendship and hateship and growing up, on selfishness and revenge. I know it’s had mixed reviews, but me, I really liked it.

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most pleasant surprise: Anthony Horowitz’s reboot of the Sherlock Holmes universe, The House of Silk. I bought it on my phone mostly because it was 99p, and read it because I didn’t fancy anything too involved given my levels of sleep-deprivation at the time. It turned out to be a pretty gripping and not ill-written book; maybe a little mannered, but then so is Conan Doyle, and Horowitz always has a sense of humour about the project. The dénouement could conceivably lay the book open to charges of homophobia, but I think Horowitz is aiming less at closeted men and more at men who exploit the powerless. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

up next: Currently reading Sand, another crime novel (I think I’m becoming old) by a German author called Wolfgang Herrndorf. It’s set in Morocco circa 1972 and extremely diffuse; only now, at 100+ pages in, do I feel I have a sense of what’s going on. Review to follow.

August Superlatives

It feels like August has come and gone very quickly – my first month out of work, and it seems as though it’s only been a week or two, though we’ve crammed a lot in. We had a house party, went to a wedding, had a proper holiday, caught up with my old school friend Chelsea, who’s a professional flautist. This past weekend I went to my first ever festival, a micro-fest held by my lovely former colleague Tessa and her sister Freya in their parents’ back garden in Oxfordshire. Six bands over two nights, plus an abridged read-through of Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part One and the most delicious paellas, curries, and breakfast hashes made it an unforgettable experience. I’ve also reached and exceeded 26,000 words in the novel I’m writing, which is great news. Reading-wise, time was limited, but although I read fewer books in total this month than average, most of them were BIG.

best teenager: Velveteen Vargas in Mary Gaitskill’s new novel The Mare, of course. I read most of this hiding in a side chapel of Westminster Cathedral, waiting for the Chaos to finish cantoring at a wedding for which the bride was a full hour late, and it’s a testament to the power and presence of Velvet’s voice that I often forgot where I was. She’s bright but not precocious, streetwise but not a stereotype.

most realistic love story: The one between Meg and Jon in A.L. Kennedy’s Booker Prize-longlisted Serious Sweet. It’s long, and it’s flashback-y, but she dives into their heads with a dedication that reminds me curiously of Elizabeth Jane Howard (see below) and also a little bit of George Eliot. I like authors who take their characters so seriously that we spend pages and pages listening to them think. I know it’s not for everyone, but it really is for me.

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most utterly charming love story: The one between Harley Savage and Douglas Cheeseman, both of whom are just as ungainly and awkward as their names make them sound, in Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection. Harley is a textile artist from Sydney, in the tiny town of Karakarook to advise the locals on setting up a heritage museum. Douglas is an engineer, in Karakarook to supervise the demolition of a bridge that many regard as the centrepiece of the town’s “heritage” value. Their collision course is set from the beginning, but their genuine awkwardness—Harley tall and big-boned and blurty, Douglas shy and ugly and enthusiastic about cement—saves the book from being a tedious rom-com. It’s wonderful.

toughest: Waking Lions, an unflinching morality tale about immigration and privilege (if you’re one of those people who thinks the word is bandied about too frequently these days, this book’ll give you a better understanding of what is meant by it), by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen. I gave it a full review and said it’s not the sort of book you love, but you’re not meant to love it: you’re meant to get something out of it, and there are very few books these days that are willing to give up your love in exchange for your understanding.

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best fun: The final book of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy, The System of the World. He’s so good at being dryly funny, and his plotting is so intricate that I shudder to think of what his notes for this series must have looked like. This is also the most serious of the three books, which I liked: it makes you realize that this is where the modern world started, really, this span of seven or eight decades from the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 18th. It’s why I want to study the literature of that period in any subsequent postgraduate degrees I end up doing.

best holiday reading: The Tailor of Panama, John Le Carré’s novel about an intelligence fabricator leading up to the handover of the Canal to the Panamanians in 1999. If you think that makes it sound an awful lot like Our Man In Havana, you’d be right, but Le Carré really follows through on the consequences of lying. The ending is really quite sad, although not sad enough to make it un-fun for the beach. I think this might be the last good book he wrote, before he started becoming wild-eyed and moralistic sometime after 9/11.

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most engrossing world: That of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles. I read the first in the series, The Light Years, over eighteen months ago, and I’ve returned this month to the second, third, and fourth: Marking Time, Confusion, and Casting Off. They mostly follow the fortunes of the three girl cousins in the Cazalet family: elegant Polly, glamorous actress (and unhappily married) Louise, and awkward aspiring writer Clary. Howard’s ear for dialogue is just marvelous; the way she uses it for efficient characterization is aspirational. And to be honest, I don’t think any other books have helped me to understand my grandparents or their generation half as well as these ones have.

up next: I said I’d review Diary of an Oxygen Thief, which is making big waves in the publishing world, but I’m really scared to start it – the extract I’ve seen online makes me wonder if it’s going to be pretty triggering. I guess I can always stop if it’s too much…

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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We were in Cornwall all last week, Airbnb’ing in a studio flat above a gallery on Barnoon Hill in St. Ives. So this week’s Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is Cornwall-themed!

  1. First things first, Cornwall is utterly beautiful. We went for a long walk one day and by the time we came back into town, the Chaos was saying things like “I could get a gig at Truro Cathedral” and peering in the windows of estate agents.
  2. St. Ives is famous for two things, primarily: being an outstandingly good-looking coastal town, and artists. Barbara Hepworth was one of them, a sculptor who moved down to Cornwall in the 1940s with her children and husband to escape the Blitz. She was a total boss—had triplets unexpectedly in rural nowheresville, divorced husband #1 after a few years, lived scandalously with husband #2 before actually getting hitched, competed with Henry Moore for commissions, and became such a part of the St. Ives community that she threatened to take the town council to court when they wanted to make the beautiful hill area into a massive car park. She was made a Dame in 1965. She died after a fire in her studio that started because she insisted on smoking in bed. The pictures of her make her look like a boss biddy, and I would like to write a novel about her. Her sculptures are also beautiful, powerful forms that were way ahead of their time.
  3. Speaking of novels, I didn’t write every day on holiday, but the days I did write were great: over 1,000 words every time. I’m also well past the 20,000-word mark. In fact, I missed it when it happened. The next benchmark will be 25,000, for which I need some suitable way to celebrate. Ideas welcome.
  4. Reading on holiday was great, but also awkward. I started Neal Stephenson’s magisterial (= 912-page) The System of the World in the train on the way down, which was utterly brilliant and absorbing but which took me three days. By then, I only had two days left, and, because I’m a twit, five more books in my suitcase. I ploughed on, read The Tailor of Panama, which was a fun little relaxing number, and most of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second Cazalet book, Marking Time (which I’ve now finished). I am just going to read all of my planned holiday reading in the week after the actual holiday, I guess. (The others: Starship Troopers; Lolly Willowes; Hot Milk.)
  5. Cornwall has an unusually high proportion of Regionally Significant Foodstuffs: meat-and-potato pasties, Cornish clotted cream, “the cream tea” (scones + clotted cream + strawberry jam), ice cream, fudge. If you are in St. Ives, your range of options for pasties and fudge is immense—nearly every shop in the middle of town seems to sell one or the other, if not both. We can also personally attest to the deliciousness of bread from the St. Ives Bakery.
  6. The Chaos having the whole month of August off is great, in that he has a whole month off, and not great, in that he shares that month off with every wailing snot-nosed child in the United Kingdom. Most of these children had converged, with their drained and pinch-faced parents, on St. Ives. Having no children, we were able, mostly, to avoid them, except for going up and down Fore Street, where you just have to stare blankly into the middle distance until it’s all over.
  7. The St. Ives Bookseller is a gorgeous little independent bookshop at the very top of Fore Street. They’ve won best bookshop awards from The Bookseller in the last few years. We didn’t buy anything there, which was, as you can imagine, painful, but it’s a really nice place to browse, with well-selected content and interesting displays.

Summer Reading 101

Vulture did a feature on “beach reads” this week (which I stumbled upon by way of Vintage Books’s Twitter feed). Whoever wrote the piece identified three things a book needs to be a good beach read: “narrative momentum, a transporting sense of place, and ideally, a touch of the sordid.” Just so, I thought, applying these criteria in quick succession to the books I have mentally begun to select for the six-hour train journey to (and subsequent five days in) St. Ives next month. John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama passed the tests with flying colours, as anything by Le Carré would. Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Marking Time, the second of the Cazalet Chronicles? Sure – one out of three at least (a transporting sense of place), and the turmoil of family relationships in war provides, I think, a touch of the sordid, even if the book itself is tasteful in the extreme. Neal Stephenson’s The System of the World? Hell yes to all of the above.

I realized, at that point, that there were plenty of books, new and old, which I’ve already read this year that would be absolutely cracking beach reads – not silly or fluffy, nor harrowing and dark, but absorbing, well paced, atmospheric. Hence this: a list of books I truly think cannot be beaten for this year’s holiday reading.

NEW BOOKS

Clinch, by Martin Holmén (my review)

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A sexy retro-noir about a bisexual ex-boxer in 1930s Stockholm, searching for a murderer in order to clear his own name. It’s sharp and surprising, and the setting is perfectly rendered. I called this “the thinking person’s beach read, as long as you don’t mind a little blood and bonking”, an assessment which I stand by unreservedly. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Queen of the Night, by Alexander Chee (20 Books of Summer review forthcoming)

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If you know nothing about opera, this’ll convert you; if you do know about opera, you won’t be disappointed. (A very rare combination, that.) Lilliet Berne, former pioneer girl, equestrienne, and courtesan, now a soprano in the France of Napoléon III, retells the story of her life to determine which figure from her past now threatens her. Narrative momentum: A- (it’s long, though compelling). Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

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You know as well as I do that this was never NOT going to be on this list. Recently widowed Cora Seaborne, an amateur naturalist, moves to the remote Essex village of Aldwinter with her young son Francis, in search of a mythical creature that might provide a geological “missing link”. The friendship that ensues with Aldwinter’s vicar, William Ransome, and his family, will challenge everything that both Cora and Will thought they knew about faith, knowledge, and love. It’s beautiful historical fiction that takes its characters seriously as people, in the way of Wolf Hall and Possession (two other favourites). Narrative momentum: A+. Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A+.

OLD(er) BOOKS

The Gormenghast Trilogy, by Mervyn Peake

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My parents took me on holiday to the North York Moors after I graduated from university. I had no job prospects, had just broken up with my uni boyfriend, and was sinking into acute depression. I read this, and was miserable. That I still remember Gormenghast so vividly is a testament to how great it is: a Gothic fantasy about a seemingly endless castle, an evil kitchen boy, murder most foul and strange rituals beneath the moon… It’s one of the most original things I’ve ever read. Narrative momentum: A- (points deducted for length, but you won’t care, honestly.) Transporting sense of place: A++. Touch of the sordid: A++.

The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope

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I actually read this on a winter holiday, not a summer one, but it’s utterly absorbing: for the long train journey from Oxford to Manchester it was perfect, and it even kept me busy on the long flight from Manchester to America, too. (The chapters are short, which helps.) Trollope’s merciless (and epic) portrayal of venal capitalists ruining everyone else’s lives in Victorian England may feel a little too topical at the moment, or it may serve as reassuring proof that other times and places were not necessarily any better, and in some ways were a great deal worse. Narrative momentum: A-. Transporting sense of place: A. Touch of the sordid: A+.

The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (my 20 Books of Summer review)

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The “hook” is that it’s about Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky—art, adultery, politics, cooking—in Mexico during the 1930s; the perspective is that of the young man who becomes cook and secretary to their households, Harrison Shepherd. It also follows Shepherd’s later life in America, and the destructive effects of the Communist witch-hunts. I described it as “lush” and “vivid”, which it most certainly is. Narrative momentum: A. Transporting sense of place: A+. Touch of the sordid: A+.

Anyone else read any of these? How does your projected (or already-achieved) holiday reading stand up to the supposed criteria?