Summer Reading List

I’m going to stop pretending I’ll find make time to catch up on my blogging and try to reboot for fall instead. Here’s a bunch of stuff I read and listened to this summer, which I’d be happy to chat about in the comments.

I finally finished Dorothy Dunnett’s Game of Kings, the first of the Lymond chronicles. I think I would have loved it if I’d read it earlier. Instead, I really liked it but felt Lymond was a little too designed to be fallen in love with. Many other characters were more interesting, including lots of women. My tweet about trying to make it through this vacation–this was my third try–got picked up by the Dunnett society and I got advice from several strangers on how I “just had to make it to X point.” This made me laugh, because I had previously passed all those points (except the guy who told me it really takes off in Book 2!) and still didn’t finish. What I decided is that a) print helped because I could easily flip back and forth if I got confused/to look at the character list, and b) my problem in the past was not finishing while I was on vacation. It’s a dense book that I needed time to get immersed in, not one you can pick up and read for 15 minute stretches; when I got home, I stalled out until I consciously set aside longer chunks of reading time. 

Airplane reading: page-turners that held my attention and lighter romance that didn’t demand too much of it worked well for me on planes. I enjoyed Rachel Grant’s Body of Evidencewith a riveting opening in North Korea, a forensic archaeologist heroine, and a political conspiracy and corruption plot. On the way home, it was Jill Sorenson’s Aftershock, with a group of survivors trapped with some dangerous men after an earthquake. I loved the heroine, a smart and competent EMT (the hero was good, too, but it’s great to read romantic suspense where the heroine brings skills to the table). I also read the charming Mr. (Not Quite) Perfect by one of my favorite category romance authors, Jessica Hart. This is one of those books with a ridiculous premise that still manages to tap real emotions. Less successful for me was Geoffrey Household’s The Watcher in the Shadowsan early 60s thriller that was kind of a slower version of The Thirty-Nine Steps.

While on vacation I also read Nicola Cornick’s historical romance Whisper of Scandalwhich features a trip to Spitsbergen. I liked that part a lot, but the first half in London was less interesting and the plot was a bit of a mess.

A serendipitous library find was Lisa Bird-Wilson’s The Red Filesa collection of poems about the residential school experience and its aftermath, weaving together family and archival history, naming and reclaiming people and stories. In “The Apology” (which quotes Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s public apology for the government’s role), Bird-Wilson writes “an ending doesn’t follow / a beginning / the story endures.” The examination of enduring effects on survivors, families and communities can make these poems painful to read, but there is also hope for reconciliation. I’m grateful this caught my eye.

I enjoyed Alain Mabanckou’s The Lights of Pointe-Noire (translated by Helen Stevenson), a memoir weaving together stories of his childhood in the Republic of the Congo with an account of his return after two decades in France and the US. I liked the insider-outsider perspective, loving, critical, estranged, melancholy, joyous, all blended together. I think I might check out one of his novels.

I listened to a huge number of Agatha Christie audiobooks. I mean, they’re short, but I still am not sure how I managed so many. Fourteen? FOURTEEN?! Think what I could have done with that time! The upshot is that I prefer Miss Marple to Poirot (the Poirot-Hastings dynamic reminds me too much of Holmes-Watson, and Miss Marple seems more human), and I enjoyed some of the stand-alones too. One thing that struck me, especially in the Miss Marple books, was how often Christie avoided “formula” despite so many books–the points of view vary so much, and sometimes Miss Marple appears as quite a minor character, perhaps reflecting how people overlook and discount this fluffy little old lady who is in fact so sharp. I have finally had my fill and my mystery listening has dropped off sharply, though I do have two on the go right now (Margery Allingham’s Sweet Danger and Andrea Camilleri’s The Shape of Water, because I decided to revisit the Montalbano series).

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14 Responses to Summer Reading List

  1. lawless says:

    I should try the Montalbano series. I’ve read all the Commissario Ricciardi novels and the Commissario Brunetti novels are too cynical for me to enjoy. They make the process of solving crimes seem pointless.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Huh–I like Brunetti and have never experienced it that way. But I do see what you mean. The Montalbano ones are Sicilian-set and also, perhaps unsurprising, fairly cynical. But it’s more complex than that, I think (for instance when the cop and the criminal went to nursery school together….). There are compromises but it’s not hopeless. I love the food. But I’m also finding some things that trip me up, in terms of the character’s attitudes. Not just another culture but an older book. (Well, you know, early 90s older). I am enjoying revisiting them, though. I was inspired to do so because my library got a ton of them on audio and I like Grover Gardner as a narrator).

  2. Janine Ballard says:

    I had a similar reaction to The Game of Kings. It never caught fire for me. Lymond was too clever. He didn’t come across as a real person (I think Eugenides in the Megan Whalen Turner series is a better example of this type of character), and all the allusions and foreign language stuff annoyed me (whereas in Possession, I love the allusions).

    The book suffered from my having heard so much about the series before reading it, too. I knew going in that Lymond was the hero, but I think readers are meant to view him as a villain when the book begins.

    With that said, I have heard from multiple people that book two is stronger, and book three is the one they couldn’t put down. And I think if I ever go back to this series, I may just start with the second book, even though by now I need a refresher on the first.

    I had mixed feelings about Aftershock, too. Like you, I really liked the heroine! But the villains didn’t add to the story, and I wished it had just been a survival in the aftermath of a big quake story, because that element was so much more compelling.

    Also, the secondary romance was discomfiting rather than romantic. The secondary hero was a faux racist, and only joined the gang to survive in prison unmolested, but he still had swastika tattoos. To me that symbol means something and I take it seriously. And when he ends up delivering the Mexican-American secondary heroine’s child, I was uncomfortable with way she had to accept his help despite her fear and distrust of him.

    Maybe I should try Body of Evidence. I keep hearing good things about it.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      In Possession, I *got* almost all the allusions–they were right in my expertise–and that was a very different experience. I did do better when I decided to just roll with not understanding everything. It didn’t matter to my enjoyment, or was just a different kind of enjoyment than “getting it” (in a way, like reading “over my head” books as a kid). I can imagine 20-something me loving Lymond, but 40-something me is not as interested in that kind of character; I don’t mean to suggests that people who love him are immature, just that my own tastes have changed. But I agree that it’s hard to say how you’d feel coming to the book cold, which I certainly didn’t.

      I thought maybe the secondary story in Aftershock was meant to be discomfiting. It certainly was in some ways. And I was glad it wasn’t really wrapped up, because it couldn’t be in that space of time. It wasn’t really a romance as much as a crush. I understand why romance authors want to take on characters like Owen and I am certainly not opposed to a redemption storyline in romance. (And also, I am sure my response to the symbol of the swastika isn’t going to be the same as yours). But I wonder sometimes if romance is not really up to the task. It’s not that the genre can’t be serious but, I don’t know, the assured happy ending and the readers’ desire to see the characters as “heroic” in some way can mean that the seriousness of the crime is minimized to some extent to fit genre needs, even when that is not the author’s conscious intent. That is a risk I thought Sorenson mostly avoided with the hero’s backstory [avoiding spoilers], actually, but it’s hard to pull off.

      • Janine Ballard says:

        I’m sure many of the allusions in Possession went over my head, but I got a fair number of them — many of the fairy tale / children’s stories allusions, some of the Shakespeare ones, and even some of the poetry allusions. And the character names (including the secondary ones) absolutely. I positively reveled in names like Fergus Wolff and Mortimer Cropper.

        There was also a meta quality to some of the allusions in Possession because the Roland / Maude plotline mirrored and contrasted with the Randolph / LaMotte plotline, and both mirrored the Melusine tale. It was easy to pick up on those allusions.

        So yeah, absolutely, your point is well taken. I got fewer of them in Lymond. But I also felt that they stuck out like sore thumbs more in Lymond. Part of that is surely because I didn’t pick up on most of them, but part of it was also because so many were in foreign languages, or (am I remembering this correctly?) in dialogue. I may be misremembering, since I read the book in 2004, but I think that some of the dialogue in Lymond didn’t seem natural because of that.

        I found some old comments I made about The Game of Kings and I see that I said that I was annoyed by how good Lymond was at everything, and how he always beat everyone at their own game. I wanted to see him at a disadvantage. I think it’s going too far to call him a Marty Stu, but I found him hard to relate to.

        Owen and Penny from Aftershock do get a HEA as the main characters in one of the later books in the series. I haven’t read that book, though, so I can’t comment on how well-handled the wrapping up of their story is.

        Sorenson is very good with teenage characters; The Eric / Megan storyline in The Edge of Night was the best part of that book. But what discomfited me with Owen and Penny’s storyline in Aftershock was the way Penny was forced (by the author, not by Owen) to accept his hands on her and on her baby at a time when she was at her most vulnerable. That was part of Owen’s redemption arc, and there to prove to her that he was trustworthy, of course. But I still hated that Penny was put in such a position.

        I’m sure many people feel similarly about a redemption arc such as the one in To Have and to Hold, and I don’t begrudge the readers who like Owen’s redemption their enjoyment of his and Penny’s journey, including that scene. But personally, I found it too disturbing and, coming on top of the other villains and their actions, the book just pushed too many discomfort buttons for me to be what I expect or look for in a romance.

        Even though Aftershock is far, far better executed something like the Breslin book, the childbirth scene felt like something that I would prefer not to read, at least, not in the context of a romance novel.

      • That’s interesting about Aftershock, and will probably make me try a different Sorenson book rather than this one. I think that romance novels can deal with complex issues, just as other genres can (though within its own genre constraints), but I also think that romance writing and publishing have both been historically very VERY white. Given how many books I’ve seen where white romance authors have written redemption narratives for Nazis and slave-owners, I’ve gotten gun-shy about giving romance the benefit of the doubt where racial issues are concerned.

        As I’m typing that, I think actually I’ve become gun-shy of giving any genre/book the benefit of the doubt where racial issues are concerned. It’s only so recently that readers and writers have had a platform and visibility to demand representation and diversity in literature, and there’s just a lot of really shitty, unexamined prejudices that have made it into books over the years, and continue to. I love redemption but I think it’s very, very, very hard to do well, particularly when the author belongs to the same, like, kyriarchal tier as the person they’re trying to redeem. I tend to suspect their motives. It’s not Jews writing romance novels set in concentration camps, is all I’m saying.

  3. Sunita says:

    Congratulations on finishing Lymond #1! It’s a daunting task in many ways, and I agree with you that it’s hard to do unless you immerse yourself in it. I read all six books one summer, which was way too fast, and then I went back a couple of years later and reread the first one. But if I were to undertake a full reread now I’d have to purge myself of all the online discussions about Lymond and how wonderful he is, not to mention all the faux-Lymonds running around out there (Captive Prince I’m looking at you). It’s like reading Neuromancer; there are so many derivative and original-but-influenced-strongly books out there now that you have to tell yourself that no, this is where it started. And try to get yourself to pay attention to the text, not filter the book through the meta-textual stuff that’s all around you. Obviously some readers love doing the latter, but sometimes it’s nice to read without the Online Greek Chorus, which wasn’t ringing in my ears the first time I read the books.

    I enjoy Dunnett’s novels very much, but I have two big beefs with her about her characters. First, both Lymond and Nicholas are so OTT fabulous. Nicholas started out a bit less flashily, but after two installments he’s every bit as brilliant and superhuman as Lymond, just less exhausting in his personality. Second, she kills off so many interesting women. The ones we’re left with are good, sure, but the ones we lose are the ones I’d rather spend 6-8 books with. It’s frustrating.

    On the quotations/allusions: Those didn’t bother me that much, perhaps because I just mentally categorized Dunnett as coming from a context where you signalled character/setting erudition that way. It’s also the case, of course, that people would have grown up hearing (not just reading) poems and songs and tales, so they would be more familiar with them. What I liked about the overload, though, was that the mixture of languages felt fairly authentic. Elite Europeans then (including Scots) were much more likely to know and speak multiple languages, and working that into conversation reflects the way I have experienced conversations with people who move freely among languages. If you have access to the perfect word or phrase in a language other than the one you started the sentence in, and you believe your audience does too, why wouldn’t you use it?

    TheH read that Camilleri years ago and enjoyed it, and it’s still on our shelves. I should give it a try.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      That’s a great point about how when you’ve seen/heard about things influenced by a particular book or author, the original can seem derivative or less exciting when you encounter it.

      I agree about the mix of languages (a Polyphonic Spree!) reflecting reality. I did a smattering of French, Latin and Italian so I could make some sense of those passages, and I just didn’t worry when I couldn’t. I wonder if it is also imagining an audience more familiar with more languages and literatures too, the way that Dorothy Sayers seems to, as well as reflecting the erudition of her characters. I wonder if allusions will disappear now that memorizing reams of poetry and reading the canon isn’t part of most people’s education.

  4. KeiraSoleore says:

    I loved the Game of Kings very much though it took dogged perseverance the fall I read it. I ended up reading the book twice, listening to it once, and reading the companion to the book. I then felt I had a good grasp of the story. Like Sunita, I loved the use of different languages, and it was great to hear it on audio. My library’s version had a great performer. Do listen to it (or the next Lymond) if you get a chance.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I’ve got the audiobook; I think I picked it up in a sale, or maybe just to try if I got stuck reading. So one day I’ll listen as well.

  5. Janine Ballard says:

    Just to clarify about the use of multiple languages, because it seems to have become an ongoing theme of this thread, and I don’t think I communicated clearly before. Characters using multiple languages in conversation, sometimes in even in one chunk of dialogue, doesn’t bother me; I have family members who do it too. Nor does quoting from the classics; heck, my husband and I quote from books and movies in conversation. What bothered me was the use of both together. Lots of people are proficient enough in multiple languages to switch between them, and many can quote verbatim from texts they are very familiar with, but how many can do both at the same time?

  6. victoriajanssen says:

    Somehow I missed this post when it went up! Congrats on finishing THE GAME OF KINGS. Are you done with the series, or do you plan to give the second volume a try?

    Its OTT-ness, to me, is one of the main appeals. I find Lymond hilarious in his Drama.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I do think I will read on. I have the whole series as ebooks, after all!

      When I began to realize that Lymond was younger than I first imagined, despite all his experiences, I found his drama easier to understand and sympathize with. And maybe I was hooked in at the end partly because he did finally lose control.

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