Given that I’m currently drowning in a sea of MA reading, and laid low with a nasty bout of Fresher’s Flu (which is an absolute joy at the age of 32 I can tell you), my holiday seems but a distant memory. A mere month ago however and I was enjoying a wonderful, book-filled week on the Welsh coast with the long-suffering husband. I normally do a short post about what I’m intending to read on my hols before I go but, as September was quite busy on The Shelf with blog tours, I thought it might be nice to do a wrap-up and some mini-reviews of what I actually read instead.
I kicked off the week with a book about the Spanish Flu. Holiday reading! Yes, I know it might not seem like the most relaxing of topics but Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World by Laura Spinney had come highly recommended by a bookseller in my local Waterstones and is exactly the sort of narrative social history that I enjoy hoovering up every once in a while. Although slightly terrifying (it is amazing how much we still don’t understand about the flu virus and how incredibly vulnerable to new strains of flu we remain), Pale Rider was also a fascinating examination of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of a terrible threat. That such an incredibly destructive epidemic has become so little-known about in the modern world is something that Spinney attempts to unpick, as well as evaluating why certain countries and communities fared better than others during the outbreak. Whilst I’m sure anyone well versed on the Spanish Flu epidemic would probably struggle to find anything new here, for a lay reader like myself it was a fascinating introduction and a timely reminder of human vulnerability.
Seeking something a little more light-hearted than viral epidemics, I then turned to my book club’s October choice, Heartburn by Nora Ephron. This darkly acerbic tale of a pregnant woman who discovers her beloved husband is in love with a woman who has “a neck as long as an arm and a nose as long as a thumb” had me laughing out loud and regularly reading passages aloud to my (considerably less amused) husband. If I’m being completely honest, there is nothing essentially new in Ephron’s ‘comic’ tale of a marriage breakdown and the resulting mid-life crisis it brings about in her heroine. What sets the book apart however is Ephron’s strong voice, which grabs you on page one and doesn’t let up until it leaves you – red-cheeked and sides sore from laughing – on the final page. As a commentary on marriage and relationships, I have issues with Ephron’s conclusions but, as a short, sharp stab of wit and amusement, I think it’s a little slice of delight that would be perfect for fans of Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go Bernadette.
Returning to more sombre territory (my aching sides needed a chance to recover), and inspired by the desolate beauty of the surrounding Welsh landscape, I finally picked up Jon McGregor’s Costa award winning novel Reservoir 13. Unfolding over the course of thirteen years, the novel examines the impact of a tragedy on a small village community, starting with a teenage girl going missing in the hills just before New Year. McGregor writes beautifully about the small, everyday rhythms of country life, alternating between the natural cycle of the years and the unfolding dramas of the village and its citizens. A lyrical, elegiac read, this was definitely a case of right place, right time, right book for me – sitting looking out on the sparse beauty of the Cambrian Mountains, I felt utterly absorbed in McGregor’s slow-moving but vividly painted world. Definitely a novel that rewards considered reading and will leave you reflecting long after you turn the final page.
Throughout the holiday I was listening to The World of Lore: Wicked Mortals, written and read by Aaron Mahnke. If you’re into folklore, legends and superstition, Lore is a bi-weekly podcast that covers the strange and unexplained. Like a good fireside tale told on a dark night, it has an ability to send a shiver down your spine whilst keeping you listening. Wicked Mortals is the second in the World of Lore series; a compilation of some of the best tales from the podcast, this time focusing on some of the chilling individuals who have achieved enough notoriety to become part of folklore. Whilst I didn’t enjoy the tales in this as much as I did in the first volume (Monstrous Creatures), the production values remained high with some beautiful background music and Mahnke’s steady, eerily calm narrative perfectly capturing the chill in his sinister stories.
I finished off by settling into Claire Fuller’s latest novel Bitter Orange, a sinister tale centred on a dilapidated mansion in the English countryside and the events that take place there one hot summer in 1969. Prim narrator Frances is immediately captivated by handsome architect Peter and his wild, vivacious girlfriend Cara. Over the course of the summer they become friends, whiling away their days exploring the lost grandeur of Lyntons. As the three become closer however, secrets and lies abound and the novel gradually unpicks the fault lines in our relationships and the stories we tell about our lives. The pace of Bitter Orange was sedate – nothing much actually happens for a great deal of the novel – but the tension is gradually coiled like a spring page by page and, when it does snap, the payback is ever the greater for it. Not a novel of grand gestures or dramatic moments, Fuller’s writing instead focuses on the small, seemingly insignificant moments that hold the key to our interactions – a gesture, a word unsaid, an over the shoulder glance that could mean one thing, could mean another. It’s a style that won’t be to everyone’s taste but it’s masterfully done here, as Fuller takes a thread and gradually pulls at it until the whole intricate web she has woven comes tumbling down around her characters. A measured, sinister read with shades of Patricia Highsmith and Daphne Du Maurier. If we can also take a moment to appreciate that cover which is absolutely stunning.
So there you go, five mini-reviews for the price of one blog post – I do spoil you all sometimes! Please do let me know if you’ve read any of these books – or are intending to read them – as I’d love to hear your thoughts. You can drop me a line in the comments, or say hi over on Twitter @amyinstaffs. I’ll be back soon with more book chat but, until next time….
Happy Reading! x