Summer Reading Highlights

Back to school time seems like a good time to try to get back to more regular blogging.

The achievement of my summer was (mostly) completing the slow process of swapping my office with my daughter’s bedroom; she wanted to move downstairs and have more privacy get away from her parents. I had a lovely office, but gradually over the last decade it was given over to children and then junk, while I worked from the kitchen or dining room table while supervising the dog, homework, dinner making, etc. I am surprised by how happy I am to have my own space in the house again, and how much I am looking forward to not eating dinner with a pile of ungraded papers staring me down from the end of the table.

I did a big book purge and you can see I still have to drop a lot of boxes off for Friends of the Library. I told my therapist that “My space filled up with junk and now I’m trying to reclaim it and make it nice” seemed like the perfect metaphor for all I’ve been up to this summer.

I did some satisfying reading and even more audiobook listening. Part of the return to audio was being in recovery mode and not having a lot of extra mental energy, and part was seeking comfort and distraction. Here are some highlights of my summer reading and listening:

I had three different audio mystery binges: June was P. D. James, July was Andrea Camilleri (both from the library), and August saw the start of a Dick Francis run which is still going strong at 7 books and counting. I used up my backlog of Audible credits, bought extra, and am probably going to need more extra, because I’m out of Francis. As always, I have been guided in my choices by Rohan’s old post on her top ten Dick Francis novels and the lively discussion in the comments. I am more grateful to her than I can say for the introduction to Francis, which has been invaluable during a rather insomniac month. Although possibly contributing to the insomnia at times. . . .

My choices so far (* I had previously read and enjoyed):

  • Odds Against
  • Whip-Hand
  • Come to Grief (these three all feature former jockey Sid Halley)
  • Straight*
  • Banker
  • Reflex (this, along with Straight, was probably my favorite of the binge–a touch of romance and fascinating puzzles to do with photography and different development and printing methods)
  • To the Hilt*

All of these were read by Tony Britton, who has a classic British actor voice but doesn’t sound too plummy. I finished To the Hilt this morning and am trying to decide what’s next. (I also started the summer by reading a Francis book, The Danger, on my trip East for my college reunion).

I think what I’m finding so comforting about Francis is the decency of his heroes. They aren’t supermen and typically have to confront physical fear, but despite their vulnerability they don’t give up and you can trust them to do the right thing.

The other books that stood out were a trio of début novels by and about young black women that I read in July, all of which play with popular genres in interesting ways:

American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find this to be paced like a typical spy novel, though that’s in part what it is. It cuts between three timelines–the novel’s present in 1992, when Marie Mitchell kills an intruder in her home and flees to her mother in Martinique with her two young sons, and flashbacks to Marie’s 60s childhood and to the period in the late 80s when Marie, an FBI agent, is recruited for an operation involving the (real life) president of Burkina Faso. The spy part is twisty and intriguing, and Wilkinson’s connections between spying and passing (as Marie’s mother did in her youth), and on the difficult position of a black woman in the FBI, are fascinating. The operation she’s recruited to forces Marie to examine her beliefs and allegiances, and the political and ethical questions the novel raises are quite different from those of a standard Cold War spy story.

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite  Kind of a thriller, kind of a family saga, a bit chick lit, this zippy, satirical Nigerian novel made the Booker longlist, and that plus Sunita’s positive review made me get over my prejudice against the title/concept and pick it up. Ayoola, the beautiful younger sister, is no Biblical Mary (after all, she’s a serial killer), but narrator Korede definitely made me think of Martha, the older sister always doing the clean-up, resenting the younger sibling who seems to sail through life and get everything Korede wants. The sometimes far-fetched plot is thoroughly grounded in realistic depictions of sibling relationships, of life in a patriarchal culture–and with a patriarchal father–and in a modern urban Africa that is both familiar and strange to a North American city-dweller. I’m not sure I’d tip this to win the Booker (I’ve only read a handful of the list this year), but it’s a smart and enjoyable book.

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams (audio read by Shvarte Markes was excellent) This is billed as Bridget Jones meets Americanah (which I own but still haven’t read–after my book purge at least I can see it on the shelf!), and the Bridget reference led me to expect something much lighter than Carty-Williams offers. This novel does tread the territory of chick lit–the professional and romantic woes of a young British woman, the gang of friends–but the fact that it’s Queenie’s best friend who is named Darcy, not a man, is the first tip-off that Queenie’s story won’t have a romance-plot resolution (it’s a hopeful ending though!). Bridget is middle-class white woman whose parents, while embarrassing, are loving and supportive; Daniel is a jerk who uses her, but he isn’t acting out a racist fantasy at her expense; Mark Darcy thinks she’s perfect just the way she is. Queenie’s troubles are far more serious and real than this. Race, class and culture all shape Carty-Williams’ characters and their relationships; Queenie faces both micro- and macro-aggressions, and her immigrant family’s resistance to seeking help makes it harder for her to change her situation. But change she does, and one of the things I liked about this novel was its realistic depiction of a therapeutic relationship.

All three of these novels put black women at the center of the kind of story that usually features people of color as sidekicks or villains, and in doing so stretch the boundaries of what this kind of story can do.

Here’s hoping that I’ll keep finding time to read in my comfy new chair as the semester ramps up, and time to write about that reading too. I just ordered a copy of Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellman’s Booker-longlisted doorstopper. That might keep me going until December! What’s on your autumn reading agenda?

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10 Responses to Summer Reading Highlights

  1. Rohan Maitzen says:

    A blog post from you seems like a propitious start to the new school year indeed! I am so glad that Dick Francis has worked out for you. He is such a reliable comfort read for me: in times of stress I can always pluck one off the shelf and enjoy just that decency. Right now, decency in the face of villainy seems an even more precious virtue than it did back when I wrote that post.

    I hope you do find time to read and to write about it. Your new space looks both cheerful and calming. Good luck with the start of term!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Cheerful, calm, and decent in the face of villainy—my goals for the year! 😉 I enjoyed writing this and am really hoping to keep it going.

  2. A room of your own, complete with comfy chair! It looks lovely. (As Rohan said, ‘cheerful and calming’). May working there make the new school year flow more smoothly for you.
    I’ve enjoyed your brief write-ups over at GR. My go-to for comfort read mysteries are Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books. They give me a dose of history, a touch of romance, a solid puzzle and the calm assurance delivered by the good Cadfael. I always feel calmer and more at peace after I read one.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I have absolutely been going around saying that I feel very Virginia Woolf with a room of my own. I have to fight one of the cats who has claimed the chair (and of course leaves black hair all over it) but it’s a great reading spot.

      A couple of years ago I had a little Cadfael binge. They are definitely good for comfort as well. I think the reason I found James less satisfying, despite listening to several, is that they emphasize Dalgliesh’s cerebral cleverness rather than decency. Montalbano, Cadfael, Francis’ heroes, they all try to do the right thing in a broken world.

      • I never enjoyed reading PD James. However, I was glued to the TV every week watching the very good dramatizations starring Roy Marsden. Dalgleish seemed much more human on the screen; he was not just a clever brain, but a real person.

  3. Sunita says:

    Yay, you blogged! So happy to have this pop up in my RSS feed reader. And your new study looks lovely. I’m sure it will provide an excellent transition to the new academic year.

    I’ve been reading mysteries for comfort as well. I reread/listened to an old Dick Francis this summer (In the Frame), and I agree that there is something about the decency of his heroes that is very appealing. The novels are just what genre should be: predictable in an intelligent way, with characters you want to spend time with. My narrator was Ralph Cosham, whose work I like a lot (I think he did some of the Inspector Gamache books too?).

    I’m so glad you enjoyed the Braithwaite! It was a very pleasant surprise for me; how often does a hugely hyped and praised book live up to its advance billing?

    • Sunita says:

      And of course I didn’t close the italics. Grrr.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      This was our original (shared) study when we first moved in, before we renovated and had a second child, so returning there—as that second child starts her last year of high school—has me in a very sunrise/sunset, circle of life mood! Also my teen never opened the blinds and I’d forgotten how bright it is.

      I’m not very excited about reading anything on the Booker shortlist except Ducks, Newburyport (what a book to take on at the start of a semester!). But I enjoyed the Braithwaite a lot and yes, I was surprised by how well it lived up to the hype.

  4. I really thought the marketing on Queenie was deceptive! I saw references to Bridget Jones everywhere in reference to that book, and like, I can see the similarities, but Queenie focuses so much more closely on the character’s sadness and pain. I was glad to have been warned in advance about it — it would have been really jarring to go into that book expecting it to be generally lighthearted.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I almost gave up on it when I started to guess what was in Queenie’s background, because I’d picked it as a light palate-cleanser book and it was . . . not that. I’m really glad I stuck with it. But her sadness and pain much more serious than Bridget’s. It’s not the kind of self-doubt most readers can identify with, or not only that.

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