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.

Recent Reading: the Good, the Bad, and the OK

Image result for the walworth beautyOver the past week I read three novels. Only one, Michele Roberts’s The Walworth Beauty, was for a review! The short version: it’s fine. Some things about it are very good, but overall I wasn’t that excited about it. I’m starting to feel I’ve read enough neo-Victorian novels. This has never been my favorite genre in any case, but it is (for obvious reasons) a reasonable one for me to pitch or be assigned for reviewing. As a result, over the past year or so, I’ve read (and reviewed) Steven Price’s By Gaslight, Dan Vyleta’s Smoke, Graeme Macrea Burnet’s His Bloody Project, Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and now The Walworth Beauty. I’m never 100% sure what makes a novel ‘ne0-Victorian’ instead of just ‘set in the 19th century’; if I use the broader category, Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder would also count, as would Dinitia Smith’s The Honeymoon and Diana Souhami’s Gwendolen. Some of these have been really good, but there’s a certain sameness to a lot of them–a palpable restraint in the prose, for instance, a lot of short sentences, an artful absence of sentimentality, or indeed any extremes of overt emotion. Sometimes this style works beautifully, but often it leaves me hungry for the qualities I love in novels from, rather than about, the Victorian period. I think this feeling that modern incarnations of the period are somewhat stifled artistically is starting to affect my judgment of individual examples–which is one reason I’m happy that my next couple of writing projects take me in completely different directions.

Image result for we have always lived in the castleFor my book club, I read Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. What a treat that was. It’s like a perverse inside-out fairy tale. In our discussion of it, we got particularly interested in the way it destabilizes our sympathies. There’s the initial instinct to side with the narrator, which of course quickly turns out to be a mistake, except that she is being persecuted–though not unfairly, since after all, she is a murderer.  Jackson evokes the horror of mob violence as well here as she does in “The Lottery”: the scene that begins with the fire chief throwing the first stone unfolds in an equally horrifying way–except that at least one of the targets is in no way an innocent victim, and later on, some of the villagers seem to be horrified, in their turn, at what they’ve done. We puzzled over Merricat’s motivation, or rather, over whether she has one, for killing her family. The suggestion seems to be that she didn’t much like being sent to her room without dinner, or in any way being thwarted or crossed. So the murders may be the act of a vengeful narcissist, a spoiled brat gone rogue. On the other hand, maybe there is no reason, which in its own way is even scarier. It’s a brilliantly written little book. I was hooked from the first paragraph, which is a perfect combination of whimsy and menace:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

There’s so much else going on, from the intimations of magic to Constance’s cloistered virtue to the predatory character of Cousin Charles — it’s a lot of twisted fun, and followed even better than expected on our last book, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, especially the story “Torching the Dusties.” Our next pick is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes, which carries on the theme of women acting in uncanny ways.

I expected Sarah MacLean’s The Day of the Duchess to be a lot of fun too, but I really didn’t enjoy it and ended up skimming the last third or so of it just to get to the end. I have liked some of MacLean’s romances a lot, including The Rogue Not Taken, the first one in this series, but this book tilted too far towards the “feels” for me: it’s all angst and yearning, without any frolicking. I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t well done. It’s just that my own taste in romance tilts instead towards comedy. Also, more than I remember noticing in MacLean’s books before, The Day of the Duchess is full of the kind of writing that seems meant to force feelings on you, rather than allow you to arrive at your own reactions–lots of fragments, and lots of single line paragraphs, devices which to me almost always backfire: rather than increasing the impact of the line, they make it seem artificial, especially if the trick is used over and over again. I’ve been trying to think if there are any consistently serious romances that I really like. Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm is the only one I can come up with. Blame my inner cynic, which, as I’ve said before, makes me accept an HEA only if it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

I’ve picked Arnaldur Indridason’s Arctic Chill to read next. It suits the weather we’ve had this holiday weekend: two days of dark clouds and heavy rain, and cold and damp enough that I’m in slippers with the heat on, down in my basement office.

Recent Reading Roundup

Once again, you wouldn’t know it from this blog but I have been reading a lot! Quite a bit of it, though, has been for writing projects — including both reviews I know will be published elsewhere and essays I hope will find good homes. It’s not so much that I don’t want to “scoop” myself; it’s that I have some concerns about repeating myself, particularly if I say something here that I then wish I could put the exact same way somewhere else. Would it matter if I did? Probably not if it was just a phrase here and there, but it is still an inhibiting factor. If there’s just a bit of overlap, surely nobody would care, but it’s something that I do try to keep in mind.

Anyway, I can at least report on some of what I’ve been reading, and why, and (more minimally) with what results. Last week, for instance, I read Gillian Best’s The Last Wave, which is coming out from House of Anansi in August. My review will be in the fall issue of Canadian Notes and Queries (my review of Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard is in the current issue). Spoiler: I really liked this novel a lot! It’s not formally adventurous, but it is a smart, well-written, and touching story about families and ambition and identity.

Today I finished reading Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I will be writing up for the July issue of Open Letters Monthly. My initial impression is that it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, or to the hype, but I thought it had a lot of good ingredients — both stylistically and thematically — so my task over the next few days is to articulate what I think they added up to. Sometimes during this process my estimation of a book rises: it can take a little time to discover or understand the kind of whole the parts make. This was certainly my experience with Sarah Moss’s Signs for Lost Children, which I wrote about for Numero Cinq: I grew more interested as I thought more about it (and its ‘prequel,’ Bodies of Light).

I just reread Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, a book that meant a great deal to me years ago when I was an undergraduate just discovering some of the questions it explores about women and history. Today some of the ideas Marlatt plays with seem much more commonplace than they did then, and there are other ways in which the book struck me as very much a product of its time (it was originally published in 1988), but it is still sharp and provocative and intensely evocative of B.C. I wrote a little bit about it at the very end of my monograph on 19th-century historical writing (1998), but I have never written about it since, and I would like to, with a bit of a personal angle about my own “awakening” as someone interested in feminism and historiography: this is one of the summer projects I have set myself, just because I want to do it.

Another rereading project is the complete Lymond Chronicles, which I have arranged to write about for the TLS on the occasion of the new editions being released this fall. I am both very excited and rather nervous about this project. For one thing, it is very odd reading books I have loved so passionately for so long with pencil in hand — one of my ambitions is not to let the reviewer get in the way of the lover too much, not to let the critic crush or even crowd out the fan. Of course, I also don’t want to just gush! I don’t have a lot of space, considering there are six long books in which a lot happens, so one of my biggest challenges will be choosing, from all the things I could say, which few things I will say. Although I do feel somewhat daunted at the prospect, I am absolutely loving having an excuse to reread the books.

Finally, last night, for no reason besides personal interest, I started reading Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton. I’m about two-thirds through and actually finding it a bit of a disappointment. It’s certainly lucid and, on its own terms, persuasive, but those terms are basically “here’s what the 2016 election looked like to a Hillary supporter.” Though of course I did not follow the election as closely as Bordo and also don’t have the background she does in following U.S. politics or Hillary’s career, what she describes is pretty much how it looked to me too; though the book goes over a lot of ground, it doesn’t seem to me to offer any particular revelations or any deep analysis. I think that’s deliberate (sometimes there’s more detail in footnotes, for instance, as if the aim was to keep the main narrative brisk and easy to go along with, which it is). It’s political commentary, which is fine, of course: I’m not really sure what else I expected.

I have been rereading Dunnett in the intervals I would usually be reading “just” for myself, to make sure I get through them in time and also because it’s such a treat! I do have a lot of books around that I want to get to, though. My book club will be meeting in a couple of weeks to discuss Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived In the Castle, for one. I brought N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms back from the library yesterday on a whim: fantasy has never been my genre, but I was wondering if I might have learned something from watching Buffy about playing by different rules. And there’s my Vancouver book haul, most of which is still unread. Good thing it’s summer!

Recent Reading Roundup: Reviews and Romances

You’d think from my recent blog posts that I wasn’t doing anything but teaching these days! That’s not quite true, but like a lot of people I know, I’m finding myself too distracted to get a lot of “quality” reading done in my leisure time – what ability I have to concentrate hard I’m expending on work, and on books I am reading for off-blog reviews that have deadlines. The rest of the time my reading alternates between anxiety-inducing news stories and pleasantly diverting romance novels.

The most recent book I finished for a review is Simon Tolkien’s No Man’s Land: my review will be up in the March issue of Open Letters. It has actually been a difficult review to write because I neither loved nor hated the book: I’m afraid that even with whatever revisions I come up with after my colleagues’ useful input, the piece is going to sound fairly perfunctory. Now I’m reading Lesley Krueger’s Mad Richard, which I’m reviewing for Canadian Notes & Queries. So far, it seems pretty interesting, so I’m hopeful that it will be more fun to write about. And next up after that will be Sarah Moss’s Bodies of Light, which is backround reading for the review of Signs for Lost Children I’ve promised to Numero Cinq. Moss looks like a writer I should have been reading already, which is one reason I proposed this particular title — my ideal reviewing “assignment” converges with my existing reading intentions!

I have some completed reviews that should see the light of day in the near future. One of those is my TLS review of Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First (which I loved); another is my Quill & Quire review of Jean McNeil’s The Dhow House (which is strange and uncomfortable and gripping); and the last is my review of Yasmine El Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which I wrote last summer and is expected to show up, at long last, in The Kenyon Review Online in early March. Though there are some down sides to all this reviewing, one definite up side is that it has made me a bit more sure-footed as a critic, including with books that are not obvious “fits.” I can’t really say if I am developing my critical voice or style: I’m not deliberately trying to do anything other than what I’ve always done here and at OLM, which is find the best way to express whatever I think about the book. I don’t focus on answering “should I buy this book or not?” — because that’s the kind of review I find the least interesting to read — but instead I try to figure out what kind of book it is and what’s the most interesting conversation for me to have with it or about it. Academics (myself included) often hesitate to get into conversations outside their official area of expertise: this is an anxiety I have largely overcome when it comes to fiction, partly because blogging loosened me up so much as a reader and a writer, and partly because the more I teach, the more I’m aware that my expertise is as a reader — it’s my skill and experience at reading, as much as or more than my body of scholarly knowledge, that equips me to do this kind of criticism.

As for my romance reading, I’ve been rereading some favorites, just for the good cheer (Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub, for instance, and Tessa Dare’s Any Duchess Will Do), but I’ve also read a scattering of new ones. I have all of Courtney Milan’s Brothers Sinister novels but hadn’t gotten to Talk Sweetly To Me before: it’s charming. (The Countess Conspiracy is still my favorite in this series, though.) I read Alyssa Cole’s Let It Shine and found the love story well done, but while I appreciated her evocation of the historical context, I thought the novella (sexy bits aside) read too much like YA fiction for me to find it really engaging: it seemed to assume readers who had very little idea about either the civil rights movement or the Holocaust. Everything about it was very pat and predictable. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t about important things, or that it didn’t include details that make very clear, how devastatingly this history affected people’s lives.

I read Eloisa James’s Seven Minutes in Heaven and thought it was fine — as I mentioned on Twitter, I especially appreciated the heroine’s competence, which is a quality not often portrayed as attractive, and I enjoyed following the character through to their HEA. I also read Fool for Love, which I chose somewhat at random from the ebooks the library had available: I liked the set up but was a bit let down by the conclusion, for reasons I won’t give in case they are spoilers! I have yet to really fall in love with one of James’s novels. They seem very competent and usually keep me interested to the end, but they don’t make me laugh the way Loretta Chase’s do, and I don’t find them as entertaining as Tessa Dare’s (which seem more sprightly, somehow) or as touching as my favorite among Mary Balogh’s. Maybe I haven’t found the right one for me (not all of Dare’s work well for me either, after all).

Now I’m rereading Ruthie Knox’s Truly: I liked it the first time, partly for the beekeeping ‘neepery,’ and it’s holding up well on a reread. I am starting to feel a bit restless, though, as if it’s almost time for me to read something  else again. I picked up Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk on a recent trip to the bookstore: it looks like it might be a good intermediate step between light and really serious reading.

Recent Reading Roundup

The-Life-Writer-207x325It has been a while since I’ve posted, and also a while since I posted a reading roundup! The two things are related: because I haven’t been posting often, it might seem as if I haven’t been reading much, but I have — it’s just that much of my recent reading has been for reviews, which means it feels redundant to post about it, or else it has been light reading I don’t have much to say about. Or, in a couple of cases, it has been books that deserve more to say than I’ve got in me, or that I hoped to have a lot to say about but that came up short. These are the rare converging conditions that are just right for a roundup post!

Books that I’ve read for reviews include: David Constantine’s The Life-Writer and In Another Country, both exceptionally good (my review will be in The Quarterly Conversation in the fall); Ami McKay’s The Witches of New York, which I thought was just okay (my review will be in Quill & Quire in November); Yasmine el Rashidi’s Chronicle of a Last Summer, which is understated and thought-provoking (my review will be in The Kenyon Review Online at some future date); and Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words, which I found fascinating, evocative, and just a bit odd (my review will be in the September issue of Open Letters). Today I’m settling in with Maurizio de Giovanni’s The Bastards of Pizzofalcone, which, along with its sequel, Darkness for the Bastards of Pizzofalcone, I’ll be writing about for 3:AM Magazine. (I also recently read an academic book with an eye to reviewing it for 3:AM but I decided in the end not to review it, because although it is almost certainly a good book of its kind, it turned out to be of a kind I have little tolerance for these days, and I didn’t want to take that somewhat personal frustration out on its author.)

knox-trulyMy light reading has included some good contemporary romances: Ruthie Knox’s Truly, which I really enjoyed, and two of Molly O’Keefe’s ‘Boys of Bishop’ novels — Between the Sheets and Never Been Kissed. O’Keefe’s are just a tiny bit too angst-ridden to become real favorites of mine: I like my romance with a bit more comedy and a lot less suffering. But both of these authors write well and create convincing characters, and Truly had some really excellent “neepery” about urban bee-keeping. I’ve started several historical romances but tired of them all before the half-way point — including Julia Quinn’s Because of Miss Bridgerton and a forthcoming Mary Balogh, Someone to Love. Not too long ago I read Sarah MacLean’s The Rogue Not Taken, and I did really like that; I think it’s just that for me right now, I’ve had enough of that particular flavor and none of the ones I tried seemed novel enough. I also just finished Sue Grafton’s X, which some of you may have seen me griping about on Twitter. When I say “finished” I mean that once I realized it wasn’t going to pick up, I skipped along hastily until I finally reached its big climactic scene, about 5 pages before the last of its nearly 500. Grafton assembles her pieces competently, and Kinsey’s still a pretty good character, but that book was way too long to be so completely lacking in interest or suspense.

mementoA book that deserves better than I can give it is Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, which I finished without ever quite being converted to it. Another read, another time, and probably my experience of it will be different. It was interesting to me, though, that I began it with much higher expectations than I began Moby-Dick, but it was Moby-Dick I found thrilling. Maybe I’m not quite the reader (or the person) that I thought I was. And a book I hoped to love and have a lot to say about was Christy Ann Conlin’s The Memento. It looked perfect for me, and individual moments or sentences often struck me as really good, but as a whole the book never quite grabbed me — not the way a ghost story, especially, really ought to.

I think that about catches me up, on my reading at least. Usually another regular feature here is more discussion of teaching-related business, but of course classes aren’t in session right now, and the work-related business I’ve been preoccupied with is my promotion application, which I can’t really talk about in any detail. Last week I did, however, finish what is almost certainly the very last written submission I will make about it (and that’s another 6000 words I’ve labored over in the last little while!). My fall course outlines are drafted, though, and it won’t be long now before “This Week In My Classes” begins its exciting 10th season. 🙂

P.S. If that David Constantine cover looks familiar, it’s because its design is basically the same as the cover for Rebecca Mead’s My Life in Middlemarch.