While I was at work August was always the one month when I could ‘legitimately’ read exactly what I wanted to without having to worry about reading what I needed for my teaching. With a new term not starting until the end of September, I could always justify, in my own mind, at least, postponing work related reading until the new month began. August was the month when I caught up with all those books that had been published during the previous year that I had had to reluctantly put to one side as not immediately relevant. Now, of course, August is Summer School month and so for the first part at least it is dominated not by new reads but by re-reads as I prepare for our annual get-together. This year that meant Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, Sheridan Hay’s The Secret of Lost Things and Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. I read the Fitzgerald alongside Hermione Lee’s biography of the author and I don’t think it did the novel any favours as I came away from the life history really rather exasperated with Fitzgerald as an individual. It definitely coloured my reading of the book and I think that showed through in the way I introduced it. Fortunately, almost everyone else loved it. I wasn’t certain about the Hay when I first read it but it fitted this year’s theme and I was open to being persuaded that it was better than I remembered. It wasn’t, and although it provided a good discussion, it was definitely the least popular of our reads. Mr Penumbra, however, proved to be far more popular than I had anticipated and I have finished the month by reading Sloan’s prequel, Ajax Penumbra 1969. Only a short story really, but fun if you enjoyed the earlier novel.
Other reads this month have included Shaun Bythell’s The Diary of a Bookseller, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, Too Close to Breathe by Olivia Kiernan and the latest novels by Anne Tyler, Peter Robinson and Madeline Miller. The last of these is the only one that I’ve reviewed. I am finding it quite hard to get back into reviewing and so am taking things slowly. I don’t want to spoil my appreciation of the books by forcing myself to write about them. I very much enjoyed both the Miller (Circe) and the Tyler (Clock Dance) but was less sure about Peter Robinson’s Careless Love. He is very clearly setting himself up for the next novel in the series and as a result too much of the narrative is given over to a story that doesn’t reach a conclusion. Stick to one book at a time.
The Olivia Kiernan is the first in a new police procedural series set in Dublin and if you like that genre and haven’t come across the author then I can strongly recommend this, as I can Dervla McTiernan’s The Ruin also Dublin based, which I read at the end of July. The month was rounded off with the first of several books about playing King Lear, Antony Sher’s Year of the Mad King. I will be teaching King Lear this Autumn and it is fascinating to read about an actor’s approach to the role. Sher has previously written about his performances of Richard III and Falstaff. As an analysis of the part, the Richard III is by far the best of the three, but I’ve picked up one or two interesting points to take through to our discussions, especially the comparison he makes between Lear and Richard II. It’s not that long since we focused on Richard II so we should be able to get some milage out of that.
So, what about September? I have two very early book club reads, or rather re-reads. On Monday I will be leading a discussion on Kamila Shamsie’s award winning Home Fire. I was one of the few people I came across who had major problems with this novel when it was first published, so returning to it has been an interesting experience. My main criticism was that I felt the central characters came over as, at best, stereotypes and at worst, caricatures. I really have tried to be more charitable this time round, but I’m afraid I haven’t succeeded. She mocks the right wing press, but I think she has been too influenced by left wing attitudes. Tomorrow’s discussion is going to fascinating, especially as it will be taking place in the constituency of a British Pakistani Conservative Home Secretary.
Next Sunday it will be our annual book of the film meeting when we discuss a novel in the morning, catch up on our summer doings over lunch and then see the cinematic adaptation in the afternoon, pulling it apart (usually) over tea. This year we’ve chosen JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, which I read and saw when it first came out but haven’t revisited since. More on that later in the month.
In other reading I really would like to get back to the pattern I set up for myself back at the beginning of the year only to have the whole thing shot out from under me three weeks later when a flat I wanted to buy came on the market. As well as reading for book groups this included (no more than) three crime novels, a piece of contemporary fiction, something from a favourite writer’s back catalogue and a candidate for my Years of My Life project. Where crime fiction is concerned I have the new novels by Val McDermid, Abir Mukherjee and Helen Fields sitting in the book shelf. There is the possibility that the new Sarah Ward and the new Robert Galbraith will turn up at the library before the month is out, but I’ll cross that bridge if I come to it. I also have Simon Mawer’s new novel, Prague Spring, waiting to be read. I love his work, so that is my contemporary fiction spoken for. I will do a separate post about the candidates for The Years of My Life because I am about to start 1950 and need to think about books for all three categories. Finally, from my backlists, having really enjoyed Clock Dance last month, I thought I would try another Anne Tyler and so have ordered Back When We Were Grown-Ups from the library. That little lot should keep me going.