September 2, 2014

Holiday Reading 2014

I didn’t read as much this year as last, perhaps because the MIL’s house in France now features a very pleasant swimming pool. What I did read was largely mystical, magical or historical in nature:

The Book of Life – Deborah Harkness

I have been waiting for this third book in the All Souls Trilogy and was very happy to see it come out a few weeks ago, just in time for my holiday. This is certainly light reading, some might call it trashy. It falls somewhere on the spectrum between True Blood and Twilight, although it consciously disassociates itself from the Stephenie Meyer comparison when the undead hero informs a class of PhD students that “I do not, nor have I ever, sparkled.”

This is your usual cliched vampire-as-troubled-soul, but his consort the witch is far more feisty and feminist than the drippy Bella Swan, and could quite probably kick Sookie Stackhouse’s fairy arse.

The historical context is interesting, particularly in book two of the series, even though we all know that time travellers to medieval England would almost certainly succumb to plague or something within days of arrival. I enjoyed this trilogy, the characters are fun and the plot moves quickly; I don’t need no stinkin’ literature.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

The premise of this novel is a magical competition, which reminded me very much of the 2006 film The Prestige. It took a few chapters for it to get off the ground, but gradually became more entertaining and intriguing. I am sure there is some device in the construction of the book that echoes the rings of the circus, but I was reading this alongside a regular supply of local wine and may not have caught all the nuances. I particularly enjoyed the charmingly vintage concept of a group of fans keeping in touch all over the world, 100 years before the internet existed; but I was disappointed by the ending, which did not seem as neat as the rest of the novel.

The Amber Fury – Natalie Haynes

I heard Natalie Haynes talking about her book on the Little Atoms podcast, and it sounded like a great idea: teenagers, grief and the Classics all bundled into one novel set in a rainy Edinburgh. Disappointingly, I found that it was not all that well-written; the grief was never quite convincing, and the teenage diary was all too authentic, with a gratingly childlike tone. While the book does successfully showcase the Greek tragedies, the setting is contrived and artificial and the plot is completely predictable. I waited and waited for a twist that never came, and began to feel annoyed by the way the highbrow themes were painstakingly spelt out lest we miss a reference: “You do something bad and then you have to pay. Like Orestes and Elektra in your plays,” writes an angsty teen. Even the bookgroup questions at the back were fairly patronising, but we all know that bookgroups are about the booze, not the books.

The Drowning Guard – Linda Lafferty

I have no recollection of where I heard of this book or why I bought it, but it was one of the best novels of my summer. Ivan Postivich is a slave in the sultan’s army, who drowns the lovers of the sultan’s sister after she has taken her pleasure. He listens to her stories and their relationship develops as the fragile peace of Constantinople crumbles. I do enjoy fictionalised history, but wish this had ended with the escape and not tried to tidy things up afterwards.

Lady of Hay – Barbara Erskine

This was mentioned by Lisa Turquoise, though she adamantly did not recommend that I read it. I ignored her, of course. In this book, the heroine Jo regresses under hypnosis to a previous incarnation, and it turns out that all her friends were in love with her 800 years earlier. Her previous persona (a real historical figure) was a feminist of her time who offended Good King John enough to have him condemn her to a horrific death. In the modern parts of the novel, the evil older brother of her boyfriend goes around planting post-hypnotic suggestions that never quite come off. Some people live and some people die. It ends and then in a little reincarnation of its own, there is an epilogue set 25 years later. Interesting read.


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