Last week’s Writers on Location post was a heart-warming start to autumn on the Sofa with Jude Cook reliving the childhood memories of Paris which inspired his new novel Jacob’s Advice (Unbound). There will be more guest author posts in the months ahead, with Tyler Keevil (Your Still Beating Heart, Myriad Editions) and Cath Barton (In the Sweep of the Bay, Louise Walters Books) already confirmed. My enthusiasm for small independents continues and I hope yours does too – they need our support more than ever.
The rest of this year calls for something that’s manageable for me and interesting and easily digestible for everyone else. The obvious solution is round-ups of titles I can’t feature individually; as always, these are books I’ve read in full and think are worth recommending. As discussing books face-to-face is one of the things I miss most about normal life, the tone will be more ‘chat over coffee’ than serious review, and I’ll be posting them in fours mixing up genres, setting and subjects. But for it to feel like a conversation, I’d love to hear back from you, whether you’ve read my picks or have others you’d recommend.
I don’t include the blurbs but you know where to find them.
There are so many different ways you can appreciate a novel and it seems appropriate, given the title, that I really loved this one, possibly my favourite book of the summer. It has a vibrant unromanticised Trinidadian setting, owing a lot to the voices and use of dialect which is easy to tune into. On one hand it’s a sweetly poignant story of bonds between people who feel like family but aren’t necessarily blood relatives, told with warmth and humour. But it’s also an unforgiving portrait of homophobia, racism, domestic abuse and the hardships of leaving home only to find your pain follows you. These characters really came alive for me, and I felt their joys and sorrows acutely.
I was gripped by this intelligent and accomplished mystery set in Australia with two timelines thirty years apart. Although it draws on many standard tropes of crime and thrillers including missing person, tension between neighbours and troubled law enforcement officers, the result is distinctive: an eye-opening exposé of a shameful and inhumane aspect of Australian history in which the author’s sensitivity and respect for those concerned comes across strongly. Wide landscapes contract with the stifling atmosphere of suburbia to create a claustrophobic set-up where bad decisions accumulate with tragic consequences. Not the most relaxing read, but it takes you somewhere memorable.
I’m well aware of the controversy that My Dark Vanessa attracted on its release but I’m here to talk about the book on its own terms and having (unusually) read it twice, this story of the grooming of a fifteen-year-old girl by her English teacher is a bloody good read. When chosen by my book group this summer, it provoked some of the lengthiest and most impassioned discussions we’ve had in eighteen years – same with other friends. Russell’s approach to the disturbing and horribly familiar topic is measured and subtle, not sensational or manipulative. I thought the writing was superb. With her heartrending portrayal of Vanessa, she does an excellent job of showing the long-term effects of sexual abuse on minors, and the extent to which all parties – and society in general – are capable of mistaking criminal responsibility and abuse for consent and love when there should be no debate at all. The ending could have been stronger, but there are moments that still make my skin crawl, and strange as it may seem, that’s a recommendation.
I always thought I couldn’t get enough of family sagas until finding myself about to read my fifth in a row this summer – at that point I couldn’t take any more! On reflection, I think this one by the author dubbed the Norwegian Anne Tyler (and very smoothly translated) was the best, focusing on the different responses of three adult children to the shock of learning that their seventy-year-old parents have decided to divorce. The common notion – even in some areas of the publishing world – that nothing of interest happens to middle aged or older people would be funny if it weren’t so annoying and untrue, and this perceptive novel really is proof that having things unravel (and yes, starting again) is as complicated as building a life in the first place, only different. There isn’t a strong sense of Norway, but the characters and the emotional fallout felt intensely real and recognisable.
I hope you enjoyed this – do come back next week for the next four. And don’t forget to tell me about your own favourite finds.