February Reading


Will this infernal winter never end? The first signs of Spring are beginning to show (I spotted lots of gorgeous Crocuses in Norwich last weekend, and my daffodils have bloomed, the sun has made an appearance) but it’s still so painfully cold. I feel like I’m reading my way through the rest of winter, mainly to keep myself distracted until Spring arrives for real.

My reading has been quite sporadic of late, there is no pattern or logic to its order – it is mainly dictated by the ever-burgeoning TBR pile, which largely consists of a selection of brand new or forthcoming titles I have received from kindly publishers and the selection available at my local Oxfam bookshop. However, on reflection I realise that since Christmas (and as this picture shows) I have read mostly books by women, with only one exception (Shotgun Lovesongs by Nikolas Butler). Regular readers will know that this is not unusual – I tend to favour modern female writers over the male.

I’m not going to write in depth reviews of the titles pictured – instead, here is my brief summary.

Single, Carefree, Mellow is the best book I have read in the past 6 months – it is the debut short story collection from US writer Katherine Heiny, published by 4th Estate this February. If you enjoyed Friendship by Emily Gould (which, incidentally, is just about to come out in PB) or if you love Lorrie Moore but wish she would write less about middle-aged women and more about your twenty-something life, give this a go. You won’t be disappointed! (for select quotes and my full review, click here) The cover is a delight, a robust paperback with beautiful french folds (the best kind!)

The Ladies of the House, the debut novel from literary critic and former editor at the Paris Review Molly McGrann, is being published by Picador at the end of March. The first thing you will notice about this book is it’s stunning, almost tactile, cover featuring a glamorous pair of stockinged feet on an opulent, wallpapered background (see bottom of post for full effect). It is the story of a group of ageing former prostitutes living in modern-day Primrose Hill and the legacy/story of their late ‘procurer’ and business owner Arthur Gillies. The blurb promises that it is a book for ‘fans of Kate Atkinson, Sarah Waters and Muriel Spark.’ It is very Sarah Waters, particularly in the way that McGrann is able to conjure up the grimy atmosphere of fifties London so that it is almost palpable – you can smell the dank streets of Soho, the smokey fug of those brothel rooms. I enjoyed the novel, it is brimming with interesting and intriguing characters however I don’t think they were explored to their full potential – the book ends with several threads hanging loose which I found ultimately dissatisfying. It’s rare that I want a book to be longer but I think this could have benefitted from further 100 pages or so – I was left wanting to know more.

Now I know I am very late to the party with Her by Harriet Lane but it’s worth a mention nonetheless. I devoured this book in just two days, I was drawn into it’s sinister and carefully constructed plot, it’s seemingly simple mastery of language. This is the first novel I’ve read by Harriet Lane but it won’t be the last – she is obviously an expert thriller writer, layering it on carefully, cranking up the tension and anticipation by the slightest degrees until you are literally squirming, desperate to reach the conclusion. I won’t ruin the plot for you but it consists of two women who knew each other in their youth but whose paths have taken very different directions. It reminded me of Robin Black’s brilliantly black Life Drawing and Deborah Levy’s similarly sinister Swimming Home.

Now on to the not so good….

I was left utterly disappointed by Emma Jane Unsworth’s Animals, perhaps because I had built it up too much – on paper this sounds like my kind of novel – two best friends in their late twenties/early thirties trying to make their way in the world, coping with day-to-day issues such as paying rent or having enough money for another bottle of vino, while searching for meaning in their working lives and relationships. I found it very heavy-handed, the two female characters are utterly incorrigible and remorseless, and not even in an amusing way. They spend most of in a drunken stupor, or hungover in yesterday’s clothes. For me this is feminism gone bad – men are treated with a sneering disdain, and the women behave terribly but expect respect in return. I also can’t stand this often-repeated misconception that feminists don’t wear make-up, have no interest in fashion,  don’t really care what they look like and direct venom towards those who do take care in such matters. Change the record! I couldn’t connect with either of the main characters, in fact, I actively disliked them and wished bad things upon them, which makes it hard to enjoy a novel.

The Folio Prize shortlisted All My Puny Sorrows  by Miriam Toews is undoubtedly a great novel, the style is strikingly original, funny, the characters are well-rounded and very tender. However I found it relentlessly depressing (as a novel primarily about the effects of suicide and attempted suicide, both on the individual and those around them, I know that this is partly the intention). Much of the novel is set in dimly-lit hospital rooms and corridors, many of the conversations are those held immediately after the tragic event has occured. I after this pattern has been repeated several times, you feel that you cannot take anymore – I was racing to the end of the novel just to put myself out of my misery. The novel really dragged down my mood, and not even in an introspective, thought-provoking philopsophical way – in a ‘I need to put this down and do happy things’ kind of way. Having read a number of reviews for this book, it seems that many readers found it to be life-affirming – I thought it quite the opposite.

Finally, as a massive Curtis Sittenfeld fan I was expecting great things from The Man of My Dreams. I was left utterly cold. We follow the stoic, over-analysing protagonist Hannah through her teenage years, through her twenties and into her early thirties and the story is told largely through her relationships with men. She has the usual tropes of a Sittenfeld woman – very self-aware, sensible and level-headed, disapproving of her more adventurous friends and family, over-analysing every situation to the point of being neurotic – but unlike her other female characters (namely those in Sisterland and American Wife), I just felt she wasn’t interesting enough to be the subject of an entire novel. Still, it hasn’t put me off trying Prep, which I have wanted to read for ages now.

For now I’m racing through the brilliant Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum, a novel coming from Pan Macmillian in late March. Watch this space for a review!

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