Since the follow-up verdict on my Summer Holiday TBR List was so popular last year, I’m doing it again, including a couple of other books which have impressed me recently. I may start to do round-ups of this kind on a regular basis because I read far more good books than I can feature on the blog. I’ve already mentioned my reasons for choosing each of the original eight titles – if you want the blurbs, I’m sure you’ll find them somewhere.
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE – Anthony Doerr
Not hard to see why this won the Pulitzer for Fiction this year – in my opinion this novel deserves the success it has had in the USA and beyond. The writing is beautiful and poetic, great at conjuring up places (both Paris and St Mâlo), creating atmosphere and stirring emotion; as the protagaonists are very young, Doerr gets away with the occasional lapse into sentimentality and yet does not shy away from shocking brutality at times. There was one aspect of the dénouement that I found unsatisfying but cannot reveal without spoiling the plot – however, it didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of a really excellent book.
ONLY EVER YOURS – Louise O’Neill
I could instantly understand the buzz surrounding this novel, in which the author offers up an immersive and fascinating closed world dedicated to the creation of three categories of woman designed to fulfil the desires of men. Unlike some, I don’t think this ‘could happen’ – the set-up feels very dystopian – for me the point is rather that it is happening all around us in a more insidious way; for all the advances in gender equality, girls and women are increasingly judged, pressured and written off on appearance, age and sexual allure. A frightening and provocative book with an important message, albeit unsustained at certain key points. I’m keen to read O’Neill’s new release Asking for it.
LES QUATRE SAISONS DE L’ETE – Grégoire Delacourt
Briefly, as this isn’t likely to be available in English for quite some time: I loved this novel. Once again I’m impressed by Delacourt’s understanding of the inner lives of women. His depiction of a mother of adult sons (in her early 50s) was so beautiful and sensitive it made me well up. In a novel of intricately woven threads, that one was so perfectly realised that I was disappointed to see it reappear later in schmalzed-up mode.
SEA CREATURES – Susanna Daniel
As intended, I read this novel during my week by the Mediterranean. Like Susanna Daniel’s debut novel Stiltsville – one of my Summer Reads 2014 – Sea Creatures features the most transporting and evocative descriptions of South Florida, a joy for anyone who loves the sea. It pains me to say this because I’m completely against the idea that a character necessarily has to be likeable or empathetic to be interesting, but I had real problems empathising with protagonist Georgia. A combination of her outlook and the events of the story gave it a depressing feel but that won’t put me off reading this author again – her writing is just too good.
THE MIDDLESTEINS – Jami Attenberg
I was prompted to read this bestseller after rating the author’s new book Saint Mazie so highly that it made it onto Summer Reads 2015. It too has the warmth, humour and overall sense of springing from the pen of someone who loves and understands her fellow human beings with all their qualities, idiosyncracies and flaws. There is a lot of wisdom and resonance here for any reader but I happen to have a particular weakness for novels about Jewish families – no doubt that helped.
THE STORY OF A NEW NAME – Elena Ferrante
I enjoyed but wasn’t wowed by My Brilliant Friend, so thank you to everyone who told me that the subsequent ‘Neapolitan Novels’ come closer to the compelling ferocity of standalone Days of Abandonment (my first taste of Ferrante, last year) – you were right! The adult lives of Lenù and Lila are complex and fascinating, frank and fearless: on sex, marriage, motherhood, women in society*. I always find writing with this kind of ‘tell it like it is’ quality very refreshing – to the point that I wasted no time moving onto the third volume, my favourite so far, Those who leave and those who stay. Since I will soon have read all four this year, a separate post dedicated to the Neapolitan novels is called for.
* and salami. I doubt I will ever touch it again.
THE INCORRIGIBLE OPTIMISTS CLUB – Jean-Michel Guenassia (translated by Euan Cameron)
(LE CLUB DES INCORRIGIBLES OPTIMISTES)
I’m so pleased this has finally been published in English, after winning the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens way back in 2009. I read the French but took a look at the translation by Euan Cameron, which is excellent. This is a wonderful novel which shares some of the merits of Ferrante, actually: the exceptionally vivid setting and society (in this case, Paris – it’s a delight for anyone who knows it and I was there whilst reading it), the colourful and engaging characters with troubled pasts leading to exile in France, the redemptive power of friendship. But where Ferrante is often harsh, this is tender, although not cloying; through the eyes of the adolescent Michel over a number of years, the perspective is resolutely male, frequently funny and at times almost unbearably poignant. Consider this a strong recommendation.
GO SET A WATCHMAN – Harper Lee
If I were to review this as a finished novel, the verdict would not be very favourable but it isn’t, so I won’t. Many factors conspire to make this early draft challenging to evaluate alongside To Kill a Mockingbird, none more so than the fact that it is set later. Some of the debate about this text seems reductive – especially where Atticus is concerned – and fails to take sufficient account of the way in which characters evolve during the creative process, draft upon draft until the definitive version. I see the characters in GSAW as templates for those in TKAM. As a literary curiosity it was fascinating but I can understand why Harper Lee’s editor gave the advice that led to the creation of a classic.
TWO EXTRA TITLES WORTH RECOMMENDING…
THE LAST ACT OF LOVE – Cathy Rentzenbrink
For quite some time I put off reading this memoir about the aftermath of a terrible accident which left the author’s teenage brother in a coma. And when I came to it – in the space of a day, almost missing my Tube stop in both directions – it was of course desperately sad and upsetting. But what has stayed with me is Cathy’s bravery and generosity in her willingness to tell this tragic story which despite everything, is uplifting and full of hope. Being a passionate advocate for books and literacy doesn’t automatically make anyone a good writer, but Cathy really is.
Having greatly admired this author’s debut The Bellwether Revivals, one of the first books to be featured on the Literary Sofa, I had high hopes of his second novel and they were not disappointed. Ben Wood has a rich and boundless imagination and writes with enviable elegance and fluency. I absolutely love novels set in the art world and this is a real standout of its kind, and one which I had hoped would make the long list of the Man Booker Prize. My parting comment on the first title of this post (All the Light we cannot see) also applies to this novel, although the issue is different. (It’s maddening not to be able to say what I mean, but I do take my No Spoilers policy very seriously!)
Have you read any of these? I’d love to hear what you’ve been enjoying this summer…
Next week, to celebrate the Literary Sofa’s 4th birthday, I will be running the annual Literary Lunch competition, this time with an additional prize anyone interested can bid for in aid of the Help Calais refugee effort.
Isabel, I thought All the Light We Cannot See was brilliant. One of the best books I’ve read this year. I read Go Set a Watchman before rereading To Kill a Mocking Bird and I liked it, although I felt Harper Lee found her subject became difficult to handle, so her writing began to lose confidence. However, I fell in love with the older Scout immediately and enjoyed it for what it was. I am glad I read it, mainly because it made me reread TKAMB which I had entirely forgotten. I’ve cried during books before, but until now I’ve never cried just because I’ve finished one.
Haven’t read any of these yet, but fully intend to! I wonder if it helps to read GSAW as a writer rather than a reader, understanding how the characters and book develop from one draft to the next. As a reader, we assume the printed book is the final version the writer intended and analyse it as such. I think that’s why people were so upset about Atticus. It’s not the same person, it’s a different character with the same name.
I got a lot more out of it than I would have before I’d written novels of my own, not to suggest that that’s the only way one could hope to understand the process, obviously. However, GSAW does hold a particular interest for writers, who will identify with the gap between the final draft and the unrecognisable (and invariably lacking) first!
I read it as a writer, and was so interested in my immediate reaction to Scout. I wanted to know why I decided I loved her halfway down page two. Atticus in To Kill a Mocking Bird is about the coolest character I’ve ever come across on the page. From the way he speaks to the way he walks and tips his hat back, to the way he interacts with his children. He is quite simply wonderful. In GSAW, which I read first, I was much less aware of him. He certainly grew between books.
Hi Fleur, sorry for the delay responding to your interesting comments. My book group discussed GSAW on Thursday night and we thought your theory about the challenges of the later timeframe was very perceptive! Like you, I was charmed by the adult Jean Louise in the early pages, but for me it didn’t last. Scout is a hard act to follow/precede!
You read all the stuff I want to read. I don’t know if you’re aware of Louise O’Neill’s backstory, but from listening to interviews with her, that’s exactly the point she wanted to make, that this pressure to be thin is all around us.
Got a few of these on my wishlist: especially O’Neill & Rentzenbrink – will be adding Doers & Attenborough.
I’ve the first 3 of the Neopolitans but yet to start… I’m still ruminating over Ferrante’s novellas; all 3 blew me away. Will be interesting to compare.
I’m thrilled that I’m currently reading two of your summer reads: All the Light We Cannot See and Only Ever Yours. Currently I’m concentrating on All the Light and find the prose incredible masterful. The two points of view of Marie & Werner are so well done that you can’t help your heart breaking for both of them. I am excited to explore more of the titles here, especially Sea Creatures.
Oh good, we will be able to discuss when you come over! Only Ever Yours is certain to be interesting for you as someone who has regular contact with teens through your teaching.