What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this October.
Old Goriot by Honore De Balzac, Penguin Classic, 1951
This old Penguin classic has an inscription in looping copperplate on the inside cover; For Bunty, On a Special day, Love from Verna 14.2.75
I started reading this and was loving the greasy old boarding house and its residents but then our local library started to allow Click and Collect reserves and alas poor Balzac didn’t stand a chance. However, once I’ve finished gorging myself on my new library loans, I hope to get back to the gang at Rue Neuve-Saint-Marcel. I’ve been enjoying reading classics so much during lockdown that I think I’ll aim for one a month, thus not completely desert my unread bookshelf books.
Afterparties by Anthony Veasna So, Ecco, 2021
I’ll admit, I only read this because of an obituary I read about the author and the hype of its posthumous release. He was American Cambodian, gay and only 28 when he died. His identity and youth inform all of the stories in this collection. They’re about migrant parents, kids sick of hearing about the genocide, growing up in the wrong end of town, escaping but needing your ‘Cambo’ identity and distilling how a queer lifestyle might sit with all of that.
The cover quotes describe it as ‘raw’. The stories definitely crackle and fizz with a restless energy and disdain and of course you wonder, if he hadn’t died, what could’ve come next?
From where you fell by Susan Johnson, Allen & Unwin 2021
Chris and Pamela live on opposite sides of the globe and start a correspondence because of an incorrect email address. I was sceptical about how a whole novel could carry the email structure but I’d never read Susan Johnson before. Actually, the epistolatory format works perfectly because you get the drama of people’s lives delivered via their own analytical take on it. Then you get the other person’s opinion of how it stands and, in this case, Chris doesn’t hold back in telling it how it is.
They joking refer to themselves and Socrates and Plato and their philosophical dialogue on life, love, grief, divorce, being and a parent and being a child got me right in the heart. It and they are going to be with me for a while.
New Animal by Ella Baxter, Allen & Unwin 2021
Amelia works at her family’s mortuary but when her mum dies suddenly, she can’t be there anymore. She flees to the father she barely grew up with and starts back at the beginning to make sense of how it can all end.
When I started reading this my heart sank a little and I thought it would be another story of a damaged young woman using sex as a punishment. Reader, it is not. There’s definitely sex as distraction, destruction and denial but there is also grief and love and life and an attempt to sit with mortality in the middle of it all. If you’re looking for the obliteration and visceral sucker punch that is unexpected loss, you will find a very real version of it here.
Hold your fire by Chloe Wilson, Scribner, 2021
You know I love my short story collections and this is another one that feels more solid and established somehow, than a debut. Maybe it’s that we move seamlessly from weapons engineers, to divers and entrepreneurs, perfumers and wellness gurus. Each one is a natural fit for the story and each story is a perfect offering of that world, with no trace of the research needed to render it so realistically.
The stories are all first-person and there’s a chill to the tone, of our darker instincts at play, so my suggestion is to read these on slow release, dipping in and out rather than back-to-back.
Luster by Raven Leilani, Picador, 2020
Where to start and what to say about this one? It’s about race, sex and power in modern America and it’s brutal. Edie, whose name is only used maybe twice in the whole book, is alone. Her mum and dad are both dead and no one’s been in her corner for years. Nothing is comfortable or a given in her life and as a reader, you’re never comfortable either. She starts a relationship with an older, married white guy, and you can feel the train wreck coming.
As a narrator, Edie is whip-smart, honest and doesn’t skimp on any of the details, no matter how compromising or abject.
The cover quotes say it’s a funny book. It’s clever and Edie is funny but I initially found it a tough read. I nearly left it a few times. Sex as self-punishment is too heartbreaking for lockdown reading.
But Raven Leilani is so good at what she does and I’m glad I stayed with it though, because the second half covered the more interesting territory for me, her relationship with her lover’s wife and adopted Black daughter. Worth sticking around because this time you have no idea where it’s headed.
“If I’m honest, all my relationships have been like this, parsing the intent of the jaws that lock around my head. Like, is he kidding, or is he hungry? In other words, all of it, even the love, is a violence.”
You had me at hello by Mhairi McFarlane, Avon, 2021
This is a tale of Mr Right at the wrong time. Rachel and Rhys were best mates back at uni when she had a boyfriend. Ten years later, they meet by chance. He’s married and she’s just broken off her engagement. There’s unfinished business but the reality of their situation gets in the way…again.
You know what you’re going to get with Mhairi McFarlane; a likeable and funny protagonist who underrates the possibility of things working out for them, good friends, plenty of booze, and just enough complicators to keep things moving at a nice clip. She writes realist romcoms that are a pleasure to read and if you like this one, give Last Night a go.
Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, Heinemann London, 1991
You know when you’re supposed to love a book but after reading it, you’re still a little mystified about why. I always feel like I’m at fault, having missed the depths or point perhaps. That’s me and this book. People rave about it. I only know it exists because of an essay which described it as a revelatory reading experience.
The quote on the back ends with ‘reading time four hours, remembering time, as for its author; the rest of one’s life.’ Not for this reader.
This is an OK read. It’s a first-person reminiscence of time spent in a Swiss boarding school and the intense but fleeting friendships that were formed. It’s well written. It takes you into the internal and psychological preoccupations of adolescence but I didn’t experience the epiphany of other readers.
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