Recent Reading Round-Up

legacyI have read a handful of books recently that I haven’t written up properly here; I thought I would say at least a little bit about them before my impressions fade away.

I chose John Le Carré’s A Legacy of Spies for airplane reading on my trip to London. This was a good choice even though (or possibly because) it is the least good Le Carré novel I have read so far. By this I mean I basically enjoyed it, but it was less intense and intricate than the others and so it didn’t matter that much that I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions. Alternatively, it is a much better novel than I realized because I read most of it during a dreary 7-hour layover in Montreal under less than optimum conditions! In either case, I felt indifferent enough to it by the time I finished it that I left in my hotel room when I headed up to Leicester. (I hope it ended up with another reader and not in a recycling bin!)

lonely

The other book I packed in my travel bag was Dorothy B. Hughes’s In A Lonely Place, because I am teaching it for the first time in the fall and wanted to reread it before I reread it yet again specifically for class preparation. I wouldn’t necessarily warn you against reading this novel while alone in hotel rooms with creaky floors, but I will say that there are down sides to doing that! When I read this novel for the first time, I struggled with whether the novel was, as some critics claim, a feminist novel that critiques the misogynistic violence it depicts:

In A Lonely Place seemed like a book we could interpret in that way, but also as one that could reasonably be experienced very differently–not as a celebration of violent misogyny (because it doesn’t take long for us to be perfectly clear that Dix is a dreadful, terrifying specimen), but as entertainment based (in a fairly familiar way) on violent misogyny.

This time, primed by Megan Abbott’s introduction and also because I now know the basic elements of the story and so I could pay less attention to the crimes and more to their presentation, I felt more confident that we are positioned critically in relation to Dix from early on, that we are not just not voyeuristic if horrified spectators to his crimes (and in fact, one subtle and clever feature of the novel is precisely that we don’t witness his crimes, thus limiting the kind of prurience other crime novels and especially TV shows often show towards dead and violated women). The women’s roles too, this time, seemed artfully subversive rather than simply clever plot twists. Still, I think there’s a debate to be had about what exactly Hughes does with her noir elements, and I look forward to having that discussion with my class.

barley

One of the books I bought in London was Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. I follow Harrison on Twitter and typically find her observations interesting, so I paid attention when the book came out and thought it sounded interesting, plus it got rave reviews–a phenomenon I should surely be immune to by now but am not. And so when I spotted it in the London Review Book Shop, I decided to get it. I’m not sorry: I actually thought it was quite good–gripping, very atmospheric, and beautifully written. But I didn’t think it was “a masterpiece,” “astonishing,” or “startling” (as per the front cover). In fact, when I got to the end I felt uncertain what all the parts, individually successful as they were, added up to, which made me think I had missed or lost an important unifying idea along the way–maybe my fault, maybe the novel’s fault, or some of both perhaps. Here’s a sample of the scene setting that for me was the novel’s strongest aspect:

On a cornland farm, such as ours, the pause between haysel and harvest is like a held breath. The summer lanes are edged with dog-roses and wild clematis, the hedges thronged with young birds. At last the cuckoos leave, and you are glad of it, having heard their note for weeks; but the landrails creak on interminably, invisible among the corn. The nights are brief and warm, the Dog Star dazzles overhead; the moon draws a shadow from every blade of wheat. All day, dust rises from unmade roads and hangs in the air long after a cart or a motor-car passes. Everything waits.

Like Miss Boston and Miss HargreavesAll Among the Barley is a novel full of rich details of country life and especially of farming at a highly particularized moment in English history. While Malik’s characters work hard, their landscape is ultimately, and quite literally, a supportive one. Harrison’s characters, in contrast, though they too make their living from the land, seem menaced by it or in tension with it–the whole atmosphere of her book is of implicit threat, as both social and political changes make the certain routines of crops and harvests seem fraught and precarious.

warlightAt a block party recently I mentioned to a neighbor that I was curious about Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, so she kindly lent me her copy. I read it with interest at first but found my attention flagging. It too, in its own way, is a very atmospheric novel, but there didn’t seem to be much more to the novel than atmosphere: not much happens, even in the retrospective spy story that sounds as if it should be suspenseful and, if not action packed, at least eventful. There are events, but they always seemed strangely at a distance; I found Ondaatje’s style portentous, always promising but deferring some deeper meaning that I didn’t think was ever actually delivered. I read The English Patient years ago and I remember liking it, but that was in the dark days Before Blogging, so I can’t go back to an old post to see what I liked about it. A bit of Twitter discussion suggests Ondaatje is a divisive writer. I can see why, given how self-conscious his style is. I liked a lot of moments. One near the end suggested to me the principle the novel itself may be built on:

We order our lives with barely held stories. As if we have been lost in a confusing landscape, gathering what was invisible and unspoken–Rachel, the Wren, and I, a Stitch–sewing it all together in order to survive, incomplete, ignored like the sea pea on those mined beaches during the war.

I guess I wanted a story held more firmly together, with more visible shape and purpose.

obasanFinally, I just finished reading Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for my book club. This novel is, of course, a Canadian classic, and I think I must have read it before, though I did not have any specific memory of it. It is a very powerful novel, and a very artful one as well. It is also a depressingly timely one: so much of the racism and anger directed at Japanese Canadians, vilified and scapegoated in the 1940s, is echoed in current anti-immigrant rhetoric, especially but certainly not exclusively in the United States right now. “Which year should we choose for our healing?” Naomi asks, reading through her aunt’s archive of documents about “Canadians of Japanese origin who were expelled from British Columbia in 1941 and are still debarred from returning to their homes.” “Restrictions against us are removed on April Fool’s Day, 1949,” she notes,

But the “old sores” remain. In time the wounds will close and the scabs drop off the healing skin. Till then, I can read these newspaper clippings, I can tell myself the facts. I can remember since Aunt Emily insists that I must and release the flood gates one by one. I can cry for the flutes that have cracked in the dryness and cry for the people who no longer sing. I can cry for Obasan who has turned to stone. But what then? . . .

What’s is done, Aunt Emily, is done, is it not? And no doubt it will all happen again, over and over with different faces and names, variations on the same theme.

“Nothing but the lowest motives of greed, selfishness and hatred have been brought forward to defend these disgraceful Orders,” the Globe and Mail noted. Greed, selfishness, and hatred remain as constant as the human condition, do they not? Or are you thinking that through lobbying and legislation, speech-making and story-telling, we can extricate ourselves from our foolish ways? Is there evidence for optimism?

Reading this novel immediately after the terrible shooting in El Paso, which was motivated by racism, xenophobia, and hatred, it was hard to summon up much optimism, but Obasan itself surely stands as a testament to the power of story-telling: Kerri Sakamoto’s introduction notes that it “touched a nation’s conscience and gave a voice to a movement to redress the injustices perpetrated against Japanese Canadians during World War II.” There is at least some room for hope, Naomi concludes: “This body of grief is not fit for human habitation … the song of mourning is not a lifelong song.” Obasan provokes sorrow and anger and shame, but at least it closes with tenderness: “How gentle the colours of rain.”

Catching Up: Recent Reading and Rectify

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) The Reader 1877 Oil on canvasIt certainly is easy to fall out of the habit of blogging–and this in spite of the fact that the most fun I’ve had in the last little while was writing my two previous posts. I enjoyed doing them so much! I felt more engaged and productive than I had in a long time, not because I was fulfilling any external obligation but because I was sorting out my ideas and putting them into words. To be honest, though, in both cases I was also a bit disappointed that the posts didn’t spark more discussion in the comments, and that set me back a bit, as it made me wonder what exactly I thought I was doing here–not a new question, and one every blogger comes back to at intervals, I’m sure. I appreciate the comments I did get, of course, and there was some Twitter discussion around the Odyssey post, which as I know has been remarked before is a common pattern now–though I can’t help but notice that there are other blogs that routinely do still get a steady flow of comments. Anyway, for a while I felt somewhat deflated about blogging and that sapped my motivation for posting. I know, I know: it’s about the intrinsic value of the writing itself, which my experience of actually writing the Woolf and Homer posts more than proved–except it isn’t quite, because if that was all, we’d write offline, right?

hunting meet cuteIt hasn’t helped my blogging motivation that not much has been going on that seems very interesting. I certainly haven’t read anything since the Odyssey that was particularly memorable. I’ve puttered through some romance novels that proved entertaining enough but aren’t likely candidates for my “Frequent Rereads” club. Two were by Helena Hunting, a new-to-me author–Meet Cute and Lucky Charm, both of which were pretty good; one was Olivia Dade’s Teach Me, which had good ingredients but seemed just too careful to me, too self-consciously aware of hitting all the ‘right’ notes; and finally Christina Lauren’s Roomies, which was diverting enough until the heroine breaks out of her career funk by writing her first (ever!) feature essay, submitting it (not pitching it, submitting it) to the New Yorker, and learning in THREE WEEKS that it has been accepted. I’m not sure which struck me as more clearly a fantasy: the acceptance itself or the timeline.

peonyThe other book I finished recently is Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony, for my book club. I wanted to like this one more than I did. It certainly illuminates a lot about the Chinese community in Vancouver in the time it is set (the 1930s and 1940s): one thing our discussion made me appreciate more than I did at first is how deftly telling the story from the children’s perspectives lets Choy handle the historical and political contexts, as they often don’t quite understand what is happening and so our main focus is on the young characters’ emotional experiences in the midst of them. The book reads more like linked short stories than a novel, and for me it lacked both momentum and continuity as a result (that’s not my favorite genre), but many of the specific scenes have a lot of intensity and I think they will linger with me more than I initially thought.

obasanWe chose Joy Kogawa’s Obasan for our next read. I’ve been trying to sort out why I’m not entirely happy about this. It makes perfect sense given our policy of following threads from one book to the next, and also Obasan is widely considered a CanLit classic, so it’s not that I don’t expect it to be a good book. I was mildly frustrated, though, that one of the arguments made in its favor was that The Jade Peony was very educational (about a time and place and culture not well-known to the group members) and Obasan would be more of the same. It will be, I’m sure, and in some ways this is an excellent reason for us to read and discuss it. But at the same time this “literature as beneficent medicine for well-intentioned consumers” approach is what turns me off Canada Reads, and I’m not sure it’s the way I want my book club to play out.

I’m torn about this, though! It is undoubtedly good for us (all white middle-aged middle-class Canadian women) to unlearn some of the complacency of our upbringing. I mentioned at our meeting that when I visited Vancouver’s Chinatown as a child I thought about it wholly in terms of feel-good multiculturalism–it never occurred to me in those days that it housed a community that had experienced many hardships including persistent and ongoing racism. Reading Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers similarly made me reconsider my childhood trips to the Museum of Anthropology and what I once thought they meant. We chose The Jade Peony because our discussion of Katherena Vermette’s The Break contributed, as it should have, to a collective sense that we should be trying as hard as we can to understand experiences of Canada that aren’t our own. But at the same time I want us to choose and discuss our books for lots of different reasons–and also not to fall into approaching books as if they are valuable only for their representative and/or didactic potential, using them to check off boxes rather than giving them room to be idiosyncratic works of art, if that makes sense. I think, too, that if you go looking for a book whose lessons suit the demands of your conscience, you may not end up with a book that really surprises or challenges you. I’m not sure if these concerns are reasonable ones or if I’ve articulated them properly. I’d love to hear from other people who puzzle over things like this when choosing what to read next, whether for themselves or for a book group or for some other purpose.

rectifyMy recent viewing has actually been more engrossing than my recent reading: we just finished watching Rectify, which I thought was superb–it is intense, thoughtful, and full of turns that surprise without seeming like cheap twists. It is very much character- rather than plot-driven, and it works because every performance is entirely believable. I hadn’t even heard of Rectify before I noticed it on a list of ‘best TV dramas’ and decided we should give it a try. It is not at all what I expected from the premise (a man is released after 19 years on death row): it is much more about how he and his family and community deal with this unthinkable change in circumstances then about the case and his guilt or innocence–though what they do with that question is also very interesting. If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it; if you have, I’d be interested to know what you thought of it.

And that’s what I’ve been up to since I last posted! Well, that and reading Téa Obreht’s forthcoming novel Inland, which I am reviewing, so I won’t steal my own thunder by laying out what I think about it here. (I’m writing the review ‘on spec’ so if the magazine doesn’t want it, then I’ll come back and thunder away about it!)

 

Recent Reading: Novels In Pieces

whistle-darkOnce again the two novels I’ve read most recently have, quite coincidentally, something in common, but this time it’s a matter of form rather than content. Both Emma Healey’s Whistle in the Dark and Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer are composed of assembled pieces — too long to be fragments, too short (mostly) to be chapters, always with a suggestive or quirky ‘headline.’ This structure made me slightly irritable in both cases. Why is this a thing to do? What’s the point–aesthetic or thematic? It seems to me the novelist equivalent of those long essays (we’ve all read them) that have little rows of asterisks instead of actual transitions between their parts. It looks unfinished to me. Go on, write the whole novel! We can wait to read it until then. 🙂

whistle

serial-killer

I find I don’t have a great deal else to say about the novels themselves. I read them both fairly fast and with fairly rapt attention, which is something of an endorsement, though to some extent I think it’s also an acknowledgment that small brisk pieces are easier to consume than dense sustained narratives. (Could that be why … ?) Of the two of them, my strong favorite is Healey’s, which is a searching (literally and figuratively) story about a mother and her difficult teenage daughter, who goes missing for four days and then refuses to say where she was or what happened. Like Elizabeth Is MissingWhistle in the Dark effectively captures the stress of disorientation, of not knowing, of grasping at an elusive and also frightening truth. It also seems to me a very realistic portrayal of a mother’s frustration with being shut out and criticized precisely because she wants more than anything else in the world to help someone she loves. Even in situations less dire than that in the novel, that kind of emotional push and pull can be exhausting. Whistle in the Dark is grimmer than Elizabeth Is Missing: it has none of the whimsy and poignancy of Healey’s first novel and it takes us (again, both literally and figuratively) to darker places–even though in the end I suppose it tends in a happier direction, as there’s no escape, no epiphany, that can bring Maud back from her lost state, whereas we are left feeling hopeful about Jen and Lana.

My Sister, the Serial Killer seemed to me a deft piece of rather morbid and mordant entertainment: fast-paced, funny–in that “I can’t believe this is happening” way that isn’t really (IMHO) a particularly valuable form of wit, because it relies so much on shock–and superficially provocative. I think I would have liked and admired a novel that really grappled with the kind of conflict Braithwaite toys with: how far do you stand by someone committing unpardonable acts? What context, what background, what loyalty, what principle is worth more to you than holding someone accountable for murder? (This is a standard tool in the crime fiction kit, of course.) To me, however, Braithwaite’s treatment seemed glib and shallow and her protagonist’s choice morally indefensible without being interesting in any other way. Meh. YMMV.

Recent Reading: War Stories

Over the past week I read two books about World War II, but that’s as much as they have in common. In fact, they are about such different parts of the war, and they treat their subject so differently, that it makes almost no sense to consider them together, except that I read them one after the other!

The first was Lissa Evans’s Their Finest (which I learned from Dorian’s post was originally called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which makes much more sense!). I liked this novel a lot: it is brisk, wry, witty, and self-aware, especially about the will to create a heroic myth out of circumstances that in reality are an uneven mixture of banality, accident, and tragedy. The Blitz is pretty familiar fictional (and historical) territory–I think the best fictional treatment of it I’ve read is in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is so good in those parts that I wished she had given up on the novel’s big gimmick and just written the convincing and heartrending book about the Blitz that she is clearly capable of. On the other hand, a convincing and straightforward story (you know, the kind that gets called “old-fashioned”) is harder to pull off than it sounds, and one thing Life After Life and Their Finest have in common is breaking up that potential narrative into parts that diffuse the risk. If the ingenuity comes at a cost, it’s one that Evans at least is clearly paying deliberately as she resists the pull of the romanticizing and potentially dangerous nostalgia with which the Blitz is now so often treated.

Dorian describes Their Finest as “perfect light reading” and then goes on to explain with his usual astute clarity how it is also about the way “hard work underlies effortlessness.” His post is really good and thorough, so if you want more detail about Evans’s novel I recommend you pop over and read it. I think in the end he admires Their Finest more than I did, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot, and I appreciate that Dorian passed his copy on to me when we had the pleasure of meeting in person in Halifax last week! I will definitely look for Evans’s other books.

I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed Michael Kaan’s The Water Beetles, which follows a young Chinese boy’s experiences after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Much of the novel is dedicated to literal and often harrowing details of the dirt and pain and suffering and inhumanity Chung-Man endures, first as a refugee from and then as a prisoner of the Japanese forces. The worst of many horrors is the forced “evacuation” of a hospital to make way for Japanese soldiers who have been wounded:

They began shooting the patients. Despite all the gunfire we’d heard over the past several months, Leuk and I started at the first shot. On the top floor a window opened, and the shouting became much clearer as all the windows banged violently open. It was like the rising of a curtain at the theatre.

An old man with a bandaged head appeared suddenly in a window in a tall-backed wheelchair. One of his hands was raised and waving strangely. He lunged forward as the soldier behind him tipped his chair. The old man plummeted to the gravel below. . . . The soldiers disgorged the sick and mutilated into the air, as though unloading bags off a truck.

Kaan’s flat but relentless prose effectively matches the grim endurance necessary to persist and survive in the face of so much brutality.

The war story in The Water Beetles is interspersed with details about Chung-Man’s more recent life: the novel is as much about the lingering effects of his childhood trauma as it is about the war itself. Identity and continuity are recurrent themes: how is it possible to be the same person we once were when so much separates now and then, and what connects us to that former self? For Chung-Man, it’s memories, and family, and also relics such as the tarnished gold belt buckle that during the war is both a secret resource to be hoarded and a fraught link between his past and the future he hardly dares imagine. After the war, the buckle becomes symbolically suggestive: beneath its blackened surface the gold has endured, just as Chung-Man has survived and made something new of his life. Though the old pain and loss remain a part of him, they have not defined him, and this allows a note of hope to soften the novel’s impact.

In Brief: Recent Reading

chasing-christmas-eveWhen you don’t blog for a while, or at least when I don’t, one of the obstacles to getting back into a routine is the clutter of possible things to blog about, which becomes strangely unmotivating because it’s hard to pick one topic and just get started. This is an attempt to clear out some of that clutter!

I have been busy and kind of distracted lately, and I also am just getting over shingles (a relatively mild case, fortunately, but still an intrusion on my general well-being), so I have not been able to focus on much sustained reading beyond what I’ve had to do for my classes. Still, I have managed to putter through a few romances that I plucked more or less at random off the library shelves in search of undemanding distraction. (It’s not that I think romances are always or only undemanding distractions, but one good thing about adding romance to my reading repertoire has been knowing it can offer light diversion when needed.) Two of these were OK but nothing special: Jill Shalvis’s Chasing Christmas Eve, which I enjoyed for its interesting choice of careers for its protagonists, including the inevitably self-referential “successful author” role for the heroine (which, even more self-referentially, involves her ‘discovering’ that her new book is — gasp — a romance!), and Start Me Up by Nicole Michaels, which is blandly predictable but has a blogger heroine who at least raises some mildly interesting questions about online / off-line identities and boundaries. I started but didn’t get far in Sarah Morgan’s Holiday in the Hamptons: this is par for the course for me with Morgan, whose books always sound cute but feel very formulaic once I actually start reading them.

BestOfLuckThe one stand-out experience in my recent romance reading was Kate Clayborn’s Best of Luck, which I did not pick up haphazardly at the library but had pre-ordered on the strength of the first two books in the series, Beginner’s Luck and Luck of the Draw. I liked the first one just fine and then really liked the second one a lot; both have also stood up well to rereading. Best of Luck is a good finale for the trilogy. Like the first two, its biggest strength is its characters, who have both distinct and plausibly complicated personalities and histories and genuinely interesting work to do–something Clayborn gives a lot of attention to. I like that: I have a documented fondness for ‘neepery’ and each of her books offers it in spades. The books are not particularly funny or witty, but they are not ponderous, and they earn their angst rather than piling it on (which is what I thought happened in my one excursion into Alisha Rai). The pacing is good and the alternating points of view for each chapter keeps things interesting as the conflicts develop and then resolve. I realize these comments are sort of generic! But that’s because reading and liking Best of Luck after reading and either not liking or not caring much about a handful of other books in the same genre got me thinking about what makes a romance work for me. Voice has a lot to do with it, and so does freshness, and for me the ‘Chance of a Lifetime’ books get high marks for both.

hobbitThe other book I was reading for a while (inspired by my not entirely successful experience with N. K. Jemison’s The Fifth Season) was The Hobbit. It turns out that The Hobbit (like Little Women) is a book I know so well from my childhood that it is almost impossible for me to really see the words on the page. It isn’t so much that I read it often as that my brother had the marvelous Nicol Williamson audiobook and listened to it often with me within earshot. After the initial pleasure of revisiting the people and places wore off, I found myself easily distracted because I knew all too well what was coming next, and after a while I just stopped going back to it.

Much more promising, as far as engrossing me even amidst other distractions, is Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, which I have just started but am already thoroughly involved in. When I asked Dorian about it on Twitter, he described as “Dickens with fascism,” which is a marketing blurb that would probably always work for me! So far, that seems a fair description, and I am looking forward both to the rest of the book itself and to feeling myself back in a reading groove again.

Recent Reading: Mostly Unfinished

mirror-thiefI’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately, which has been reflected in the slow pace of my blogging. I’m not sure exactly what is behind it this time, but I think it happens to all of us occasionally, and it always passes eventually. Still, it’s a disheartening phase when it comes, to be picking up books and putting them down again without much caring!

One book I started that I will definitely try again when the evil spell lifts is Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief. I think I just took it from the shelf at the wrong time: it wasn’t quite the book I was expecting, or it wasn’t in its first 100 pages or so anyway, and the disappointment I felt about that was getting in the way of my reading it for the book it actually is, which might turn out be great. I was expecting it to feel more like cerebral but heartfelt historical fiction–if not Hilary Mantel, then maybe Rose Tremain–and instead its opening sections read to me more like The Goldfinch–slick, clever, even artful, but a bit coldly superficial. I will come back to it eventually and see it through. It does look really good, and so many enthusiastic critics can’t be wrong–can they? (I know, I know: a lot of them thought The Goldfinch was great.)

Killing_Floor_CoverI also started Lee Child’s Killing Floor, the first of his hugely popular Jack Reacher thrillers. I admit it had never occurred to me to try this series until Stig Abell, the editor of the TLS, sang its praises. I had no particular assumptions about Lee Child, good or bad, it’s just that the books had never stood out to me until Abell said how much he’d enjoyed reading through them all last year–so I picked up a couple at a book sale. I got about half way through Killing Floor before I lost interest. I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with this book any more than there is anything wrong with The Mirror Thief:  in fact, I thought Killing Floor seemed quite good of its kind. But for whatever reason I just wasn’t gripped–I wasn’t even slightly curious about how the knotty plot was going to turn out, and so I eventually stopped picking it up again after I put it down. When I started it, it reminded me of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser mysteries, which I love. It is much wordier, and it may be that I wouldn’t enjoy Parker’s books if it took a lot longer for things to happen in them–or if Parker spent as much more time on the really grim bits as Child does here. I also didn’t bond with Reacher. I was intrigued by Child’s introduction, in which he outlines his own motivations for the style of the series as a whole and for Reacher’s character in particular. Reacher is deliberately both arrogant and hard to like, which are not qualities I’m against in principle, in a main character–but again, I don’t imagine I would like Parker’s books if I didn’t find Spenser’s combination of strength and honor so appealing. Maybe I’ll appreciate Reacher more as a character if/when I get to know him better. For now, though, I’ve put him on hold.

lady-225It’s not as if I haven’t read any books all the way through since classes ended. One thing that works is coercion! I’ve read two books for reviews, one an interesting study of Agatha Christie, the other a new novel by Canadian writer Merilyn Simonds. (My review of the former has been filed; my review of the latter is underway.) I’m also making good progress on Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way, which I need to finish for next weekend’s meeting of my book club. Deadlines are useful things. In the interstices of my days I’ve also reread all three of Cecilia Grant’s Blackshear Family romances. They are all excellent–and each has its own distinct flavor, a display of versatility I admire in the author. I think the first, A Lady Awakened, remains my favorite.

I hope I do get my reading mojo back soon. My slump has even spilled over into my book shopping–a rare symptom indeed! I have yet to pick out any books with the lovely birthday gift card I was given, because I haven’t felt more than perfunctory interest in any books I’ve examined while browsing. Mind you, some of that reticence is also guilt about putting more unread books on my shelves when I have so many still unfinished, or not yet begun, on them already! But I think my moood is also part and parcel of the mental reorientation that goes on during the transition from the teaching term to the summer months. I’m going to try not to worry about it too much. I’ll just keep plugging away at the books I have to read, and keep trying to find the book that lights me up again, whatever it might be. If all else fails, there’s always Dickens, who has saved me from slumps before!

Recent Reading: Mostly Romance

I had been feeling unnecessarily guilty (because after all, it’s not as if I’m answerable to anybody about this!) that I haven’t done much reading–and thus much book blogging–for some time. But then it occurred to me that in fact I have been reading pretty steadily; it’s just that it has mostly been what I think of as “interstitial” reading–reading that fills in the time between other more demanding tasks, reading that distracts and amuses rather than demands much in its turn, either because it’s already familiar or because its prose is light rather than dense.

I don’t in any way mean to belittle the books I read in this way: they are a vital part of my reading ecosystem! They used to be mostly mysteries, and Dick Francis and Robert B. Parker still make regular appearances in this role–for instance, not long ago I finished a reread of Francis’s 10-Lb. Penalty, which I decided in retrospect got short shrift in my round-up of Francis’s “Top Ten.” Since I belatedly learned to stop worrying and love romance too, now I also have a pool of reliable favorites in that genre that I reread, and I’m also alert to suggestions for new ones to try. In fact, these days I’m more likely to search up new romances than new mysteries: for whatever reason, right now I find it harder to accept the necessary machinery of detective novels unless I’m already friends with the protagonists – and even then it doesn’t necessarily go well for us.

So while I have been starting and then putting aside other books that demand more concentration than I seem able to apply right now outside of work and deadlines (including Elizabeth Taylor’s A View from the Harbour and Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Fatigue Artist, both of which I fully intend to finish eventually), I have read and reread a bunch of other titles. Some quick comments on the new ones (or the ones that were new to me):

I really enjoyed Kate Clayborn’s Beginner’s Luck. Right away I liked that its leads had unusual jobs, meaning there was a fair amount of “neepery”: the heroine is a lab technician with the potential to be a research scientist of a different kind if she saw her life a bit differently, and the hero is a corporate recruiter but also hangs out in his family’s salvage yard, so on top of the science stuff there are also lots of details about things like old light fixtures. The title refers in part to the premise of what is presumably going to be a trilogy about three best friends who have won the lottery, but while Kit’s financial fortune is certainly part of the context for the story, I appreciated that it is a fraught part–it has not by any means solved all of her problems. The story is well told and the relationship (including its “big mis”) is believable.

I’ve also enjoyed the two I’ve read so far from Ruby Lang’s Practice Perfect series. I liked Hard Knocks better than Acute Reactions, and neither of them really delighted me; I think both of those reactions are about my own preferred angst-to-wit ratio–which is probably why I liked Jennifer Crusie’s Manhunting, which somehow I had missed before in my Crusie reading, better than either of them.

Not all of my romance reading has been very successful. I’ve DNF’ed three historicals in the past couple of weeks: two by Eloisa James, including Wilde in Love, and Loretta Chase’s newest, A Duke in Shining Armor. They all felt perfunctory to me, from their starting premises to their characters, and I just didn’t care enough about how we were going to get to the inevitable HEA to keep going. I was trying to put my finger on why Chase’s Carsington novels interest me so much more (they are among my most frequent rereads).  Part of it is because so much more is at stake in them than the feelings of the leads (the dispute over the planned canal in Miss Wonderful, for example), but there’s also something different in the quality of the characterization, and in the pace and wit of the dialogue–something that just seems to be missing in the new ones. As I set these three books aside (and remembered, too, how uninspired I was by recent books by Tessa Dare and Sarah MacLean, who have written other books that are among my favorites), I  found myself thinking with renewed appreciation also of Cecilia Grant‘s excellent historical romances, not one of which has given me that sense of just going through the motions.

At least I know better now than to assume that a bad run (for me, of course – YMMV etc.) is not a reflection on the genre, which like all kinds of books will have hits and misses for any individual reader. I think I am a bit quicker to abandon genre fiction (including mysteries) if I’m not really enjoying it, whereas I tend to persist to the end of “literary” novels in case the payoff there just takes longer to emerge. Is that snobbery, or a reflection of the different reasons I read, and the different expectations I bring to, different kinds of books? I also read mysteries and romances quite differently when I’m reading them for other purposes, such as teaching. But sometimes I want to read without thinking all that hard–maybe the way to put it is that sometimes I want the book to do all the work, and to carry me along. I’m pretty sure some people do all their reading that way! At any rate, for me the books that serve this purpose for me when I need it are among those I treasure the most.