February was a month of two halves, with a strong start and then an unfortunate bout of insomnia which rather slowed things down. Still, there were some good books in the mix at least one of which is sure to be on my end of year list.
The Gate of Angels, Penelope Fitzgerald
I’d had a couple of disappointments in January so started February with an absolutely sure thing. Fitzgerald always seems to be on form and this was no exception. It’s the delightful tale of a 1912 romance between a young don living in a college that bans all females (even kittens!) and a working class nurse that he has an accidental bicycle collision with.
Angels becomes an exploration of the tensions and reconciliations between faith and reason, chance and determination. It has a wonderful MR James spoof in the form of an elderly don who loves to read his ghost stories out loud (one, a hilarious pastiche, is included) and as ever the characters are lightly but superbly well drawn.
Highly, highly recommended.
At Mrs Lippincote’s, Elizabeth Taylor
From Fitzgerald to Taylor! Actually, this was an unintended reread. In what perhaps isn’t the greatest compliment to a book I forgot I’d already read this, thinking I’d previously just started it. At about 50 pages in it became apparent that couldn’t be right.
To be fair to Taylor this was her debut and it is a well written and enjoyable read. It’s a novel of a marriage – the spirited but rather thoughtless Julia finds herself increasingly estranged from her much more traditional RAF husband and his cousin who lives with them and has an unrequited crush on him. None of the characters are terribly likeable, but all are credible and interesting including the wider supporting cast.
If it weren’t for the fact that I forgot I’d previously read this I’d recommend it more highly. It is a good book and a very solid debut, but Taylor went on to write better. I may try her A View from the Harbour next, but suggestions gratefully accepted (I have read her Mrs Palfrey which is brilliant). In the meantime, there’s a great review of this by Jacqui here.
Small Things Like These, Claire Keegan
I imagine everyone’s pretty familiar with this one. If not, stop reading this and go get yourself a copy now. It’s brilliant and it’s hard to imagine it not being on my end of year list.
It’s a short novel/novella, but densely packed. It’s a story of rural Ireland in 1985 and a successful local businessman who becomes aware that the young women being looked after at the local convent may be effectively slaves.
Horrifyingly, this is based on real Irish history. Here it’s used in an exploration of moral courage and compromise. It sounds dark, and to be fair it is, but it’s so well written that it’s never a struggle to read despite the subject matter.
Jacqui wrote eloquently about this one, far more so than I could, here. It’s an extraordinary book and I really couldn’t recommend it any more highly.
The Feast, Margaret Kennedy
For a long time I thought this was a contemporary novel set in the post-war period. I’d completely missed that it was actually written and published around the time it’s set.
It’s been widely reviewed elsewhere, not least by Kaggsy in an excellent piece here, and it’s the story of the owners, staff and guests at a rundown seaside hotel. The opening tells us that some of them will die in a landslip which destroys the hotel, but it only gives the identity of one of the dead.
What follows is a mix of whodunnit with no killer (more of a whosurvivesit) and morality play, XXX. Plus, which of us doesn’t love a novel set in a crumbling hotel or boarding house?
It’s an easy and entertaining read, if not hugely demanding, and there’s some allegorical depth too. It would make a great read for a holiday or long train journey.
A Girl’s Story, Annie Ernaux, translated by Alison L. Strayer
Ernaux’s story of how as a young woman she became obsessed with a slightly older leader at a summer camp she volunteered at, subjugating everything about herself in the hope of pleasing him. As with her The Years she somehow uses the personal to tell a story with much wider resonance.
This isn’t always comfortable reading. It’s very honest about a very awkward time in one’s life, but that unsparing quality is partly why Ernaux is so good (though mostly it’s simply that she can write – Grant talks about the honesty of her craft here, which is well put). I plan to read her The Happening next.
Gods of Jade and Shadow, Silvia Moreno-Garcia
A misfire for me. This is a historical fantasy novel set in 1920s Mexico where a young woman living in poverty at the mercy of her much richer relatives unwittingly releases an Aztec god of death and goes on a quest with him.
The problem is, it’s basically young adult and our heroine turns out to be not just intelligent, strong willed and independent but also of course beautiful. Her only flaw is her family, which isn’t actually her flaw at all.
It’s a solid premise and would make a great read for an older teen. It wasn’t for me though and I bailed around page 100.
The Little Men, Megan Abbott
More of a long short story than a novella, this is a twisted little tale of golden age Hollywood obsession and madness. In that world, then and perhaps still now, it’s terrifyingly easy to waste your life pressing your nose against a window with fame just in view but ever out of reach
It wasn’t my favourite Abbot, but it’s still fun and who doesn’t love a bit of golden age Hollywood noir?
And that’s it! See you all for the March roundup.