Having spent many months moaning about feeling pretty underwhelmed by my reading experiences; this month, perhaps aided by the fact that I was on holiday and just wanting to avoid the disaster of the ~real world~ I am finally back on track with my Goodreads goal and really ploughed through the following (and really enjoyed most of them).
The Guest Cat by Takashi Hiraide (trans. Eric Selland, 2014, Picador)
The Guest Cat is a quiet novella which explores the lives of a middle-aged couple living in a quiet corner of a Japanese town. They live next door to a young family and their ageing landlords, and one day the family’s cat enters their garden and soon their home. The presence of the cat brings a new routine to the couple’s lives, bringing them closer together and closer to their neighbours.
This isn’t a book in which anything particularly happens. At all. Hiraide’s descriptions, as translated by Eric Selland, are lovely and the sense of place throughout the novel was really great. As a cat lover, I did also obviously like the way in which the relationship between the characters and the cat was written. However, I wouldn’t say it was anything particularly revelatory and unless you are a real cat lover (or really enjoy Japanese fiction), I wouldn’t necessarily rush out and read it.
David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits & the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell (2011, Penguin)
I really enjoy Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, and his new podcast is just as good. He is great at bringing to life case studies and teasing out an overall message. If Outliers (my personal favourite by him) was slightly depressing in its acknowledgement of how many people succeed due to a very unique set of experiences, then David & Goliath explores how normal, ‘little’ people can really stick up to power.
Gladwell’s writing is as good as always, but I will admit that David & Goliath hasn’t really stuck with me as much as his previous works. Without a quick Google, the only studies that I really remembered were the well-known historical ones (the civil rights movement in Birmingham, Alabama; the popular movement against the curfew in Northern Ireland during The Troubles). However, a brief Google did remind of the amazing story of Emil J. Freireich and his incredible work on attempting to find a cure for leukaemia, and whether that was linked to childhood trauma.
I did find the theme links in this work a little less effective as they have been in previous books, but it’s definitely worth a read if you’re new to Gladwell or an existing fan.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier (1951, Virago)
Daphne du Maurier is one of my all-time favourite writers, but the last book I read by her (Hungry Hill) was not in any way a favourite of mine so I was definitely slightly apprehensive going into this. However, I needn’t have worried as My Cousin Rachel is really good.
Philip has lived in rural Cornwall with his committed bachelor uncle Ambrose since the death of his parents. One winter, Ambrose travels to Italy for his health and suddenly appears to fall in love and marries his distant cousin Rachel. Philip is overcome with jealousy, which is compounded when Ambrose suddenly dies and Rachel has disappeared. However, when she appears in Cornwall, all of Philip’s previous ideas of her are thrown upside down.
The novel is told from Philip’s perspective, who is a tough character to really like, and who is an incredibly unreliable narrator as he ignores advice from practically everyone else in his life.
Du Maurier’s writing is excellent, with the opening sentence just setting the scene almost as well as the famous one from Rebecca. Her sense of place is, as always, excellent. Du Maurier is always wonderful at evoking her beloved Cornwall, but the parts of the novel set in Italy also felt excellently stifling.
My Cousin Rachel is almost like a 20th century Gone Girl, where you’re constantly torn between seeing Rachel as a grief-stricken woman desperate to win over the beloved relative of her dead husband, or as a manipulative gold-digger who may well have had a hand in Ambrose’s death. I really recommend this.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (2015, Chatto & Windus)
Despite Anne Tyler being quite a prolific author, and this being one of her last books (apparently), I’d never actually heard of her until this novel was nominated for the Man Booker last year. A Spool of Blue Thread is the sprawling story of the Whiteshanks over many different generations (which is basically one of my favourite things to read).
It’s summer and Red & Abby Whiteshank, the current patriarch and matriarch of the family, are aging and their family is trying to get them to accept more help than they perhaps think they need. This means that their children; brusque Amanda, often-overlooked Jeanie, prodigal son Stem and somewhat flaky Denny, all descend on the house and the family’s history is unpicked.A Spool of Blue Thread is at times moving, at times funny and at certain points pretty shocking. The overall feel is like a lovely meander through a family history on a hot summer’s day and if you’re looking for a book to compliment your summer this is a really great one. I’m definitely going to be checking Anne Tyler’s backlist.
The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild (2015, Bloomsbury)
I really, really enjoyed this. The Improbability of Love came to my attention as a fairly improbable (lol) inclusion on the Bailey’s Prize shortlist.
The title comes from the name of a painting which is at the centre of the story, which opens with its auction to a variety of wealthy and ridiculous people. However, the narrative really kicks off some six months earlier when the broke and heart-broken Annie finds it in a junk shop as a gift for a potential love interest. This sends her suddenly into the art world as it begins to appear that this painting may well have a rich and dark history.
Rothschild just brilliantly draws sympathetic, and not so sympathetic characters, from Annie and her alcoholic mother, to the truly ridiculous movers and shakers in the art world. The plot also moves really well between crazy goings-on in London to exploring some of the truly dark periods of history, and the lengths that people can go to protect themselves. A particularly great technique that Rothschild uses is having the painting itself narrate certain passages, giving a really great insight into the historical importance of art.
The Improbability of Love is a really fun read, which has made me want to visit an art gallery like tomorrow, and I’m so hoping it gets some kind of BBC mini-series adaptation because the novel is just crying out for it.
I picked up Sweet Caress after running out of things to read on holiday and my Brexit-blues making me not too keen to read Owen Jones' The Establishment. It's the fictional autobiography of Amory Clay, a woman who becomes a photographer against the backdrop of the major events of the 20th century. Her work, and her love affairs, take her through London, Germany & New York in the 1930s & 1940s; Paris in the post-war years, back to England and (in my favourite part of the novel) to Vietnam.
Boyd is excellent at weaving history into his novels, and I really liked the insights into the seedy world of pre-Nazi Germany, the Blackshirt riots in the UK and as mentioned previously, the madness of the Vietnam War.
Against this, Amory deals with more 'normal' life events; strife with family and lovers. Whilst I did find her relationships with her parents, uncle and siblings really interesting and nuanced, I never really found myself caring too much about her romantic relationships. This may well be the point, as Amory's life really shines outside of her private world, but as much of the novel is devoted to her feelings towards various men it did detract a tad from this. I did also find a couple of the plot points a tad convenient or unnecessary; but Boyd is a really solid writer and this is a really interesting insight into being a news photographer (and sent me down a wormhole of looking up the photographers mentioned in the novel who are real).