The bedside bookstack – Summer 2022/2023

What’s teetering on the bedside bookstack this summer.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell, Hachette, 2022

Florence. 1560s. Powerful political family. Lucrezia de Medici. Heard of her? Interested? It doesn’t matter because it’s Maggie O’Farrell who’s writing and she can turn any subject into something sublime. This story of marriage, duty, independence and betrayal is just as good as you imagine something by the author of Hamnet to be.

French Braid by Anne Tyler, Chatto & Windus, 2022

There are 23 books listed on the inside cover under By the same author and I haven’t read any of them, so I have no knowledge of Anne Tyler’s usual style and content but French Braid is my kinda read.

It starts with Serena Garrett and her boyfriend on the way home from a visit to introduce her to his parents. Each chapter tells the story of a different member of the Garrett family forwards and backwards in time so I read it more as a collection of linked short stories than a novel. It doesn’t matter what you call it, novel or collection, family dynamics are its heart. The loyalties, misunderstandings and distance within and across generations are always going to make interesting literature and that’s just what they do in this book. I loved it.

Dirt Town by Hayley Scrivenor, Pan Macmillan, 2022

On a hot December afternoon, 12-year-old Esther Bianchi disappears. She waves goodbye to her best friend on their usual walk home from school but never makes it home. Five days later her buried body is found.

Durton is a small country town where everyone knows just enough about everyone else but not enough to know what happened to Esther. 

Getting kids right in fiction is a challenge. Regardless of whether you choose first or third person, it’s hard to get the voice right without it sounding forced – the literary equivalent of adult actors who’ve just put their hair in pig tails and pulled their socks up to their knees. Hayley Scrivenor has done it though. She’s created a book which is as much coming-of-age as it is crime and in another clever coup she adds in chapters narrated by ‘we’. They are the children of Durton. As a collective they narrate and observe like a Greek chorus and create the kind of poetry I wasn’t expecting in a book about the disappearance of a schoolgirl. People who read in this genre will already have this on their radar but those who ‘don’t usually read crime’ should really give it a go.

Heatwave by Victor Jestin, Scribner 2021

(Trigger warning – suicide)

Oscar is dead because I watched him die and did nothing. This is how Leo begins his narration. He is 17 years-old, an outsider and it’s the last day of his summer holiday at a beachside camping ground.

This novella comes in at 100 pages and covers 48 hours in Leo’s life. The prose is unadorned, almost a fact file of impulsiveness, confusion, isolation, longing, anger and indecision. There’s nothing left to be sentimental about for adolescence after this compulsive read.

The Colony by Audrey Magee, Faber, 2022

It’s the late seventies andtwo outsiders spend summer on an isolated island off the coast of Ireland. Mr Lloyd is an English artist, there to paint the cliffs and reclaim his reputation. Mr Masson is a French linguist, recording the slow changes in the Irish language spoken by four generations of the same island family.

Their presence unsettles some of the islanders and opens opportunities for others. The summer passes, punctuated by the increasing death toll from ‘the Troubles’. The disappearance of language and culture and the ongoing effects of colonisation have never had such beautiful prose.

The Lovers by Yumna Kassab, Ultimo Press, 2022

Jamila and Amir are lovers. They come from different worlds and although they can’t see a future together, they still dream of it. This story sits in the in-between like their own dusk to dawn existence. It’s part fable, part dream sequence, part local hearsay and stories. They aren’t attached to a specific place or time and as characters they are more archetype/myth than individual. When you think of ‘lovers’, despite the height of their passion and desire, you’re always waiting for the end and so Jamila and Amir narrate themselves onward and we hope for something better for them. 

Happy go Lucky by David Sedaris, Little Brown, 2022

This was perfect post-Christmas reading. If you don’t know David Sedaris, he writes short very readable essays on his personal life. Though his partner and profession feature, his family are the stars of the show. I think there were 6 Sedaris siblings in total. One sister committed suicide, his mother has died and his dad is dying, so this collection has his musings on COVID, death, father-child relationships, book tours and groceries. He’s getting older, like everyone, and facing mortality, so no surprise that this is the least flippant book of his that I’ve read.

Warning- if you’re under rental or mortgage stress, maybe bypass this one as everyone seems to have multiple properties, some bought just so that noisy neighbours can’t move in to the flat above them.

The No-Show by Beth O’Leary, Quercus, 2022

I know I’m always on about this but really, why don’t they turn books like this into rom-coms?

Siobhan, Miranda and Jane are all stood up on Valentine’s Day. One at breakfast, one at lunch and the other at dinner. Very soon we realise that it’s the same man who stood them all up but he plays very different roles in each one of their lives. This is a fun tangle which is cleverly revealed. Definitely a great summer/beach/holiday read but you will want to know how everything works out, so allow for an afternoon or evening of being anti-social.

Carrie Soto is Back by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Hutchinson Heinemannn, 2022

Now that you’ve finished watching summer tennis, you can read about it instead. If you’re even slightly interested in tennis, you’ll love the detail of what it takes to get to the top. Carrie Soto holds the record for the greatest number of Grand Slams won by a female tennis player. Six years after she retired it looks like another player will break that record. Not used to losing, she stages a comeback to retain her record. To do so, she re-engages her father as her coach after splitting with him a long time ago.

Carrie isn’t very popular. Her ambition is seen as ruthlessness and she doesn’t have time to make friends with opponents. This is an interesting look at father -daughter relationships, professional sport, strong women and ambition. Great holiday read.

Moon tiger by Penelope Lively, Penguin, 1987

As Claudia Hampton lies dying, she is visited by the significant people in her life; Gordon – the brother she was too close to, Jasper -father of her child, a love and habit of many years, Sylvia – her suffering sister-in-law and Lisa – her distant daughter. Their visits bring back memories and she constructs a history of her life.

She’s not a very likeable character but she has loved and lost and it’s her recollections about Cairo during the second world war that are the real power in this book. This was an interesting read because it was a slow-burn and moved through such different phases, relative to her life. I don’t use this word often for books but it was a ‘satisfying’ read and incidentally, won the 1987 Booker Prize.

Pure Colour by Sheila Heti, Harville Secker, 2022

I gave it 30 pages. I don’t like to abandon a book but if it’s not doing it for you, then why the impulse to slog on? Probably because I feel like the deficit is mine when I don’t enjoy or ’get’ a book that comes laden with praise. Well, the satire or philosophising or whatever it was that happening in these pages just didn’t do it for me. Next.

To the North by Elizabeth Bowen, Penguin, 1933

I have a fat volume of Elizabeth Bowen’s collected short stories and I love it. This was my first go at one of her novels and I’d have to say, it’s been difficult. I’m out of practice with early 20th Century prose.

Set in 1920s London, the book follows young widow Cecilia and her sister-in-law Emmeline. Emmeline is independent and sparky but Cecilia is more mercurial and colder. There’s love interests, family obligations, societal expectations and some flitting around both the countryside and the continent. It demanded more concentration than I had before Christmas but I’m giving it another go now.

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