Sometimes, for whatever reason, a book just falls completely flat. It doesn’t outrage or even entertain, it just drifts in and out of your life and leaves absolutely no trace whatsoever. Generally, I let these books drift off without a fight and they leave no mark on this blog. However, because there have been so many of them in my reading this year, I thought I’d take a moment to catalogue a handful of them:
Nightingale Wood by Stella Gibbons – this was to have been my book for the 1938 Club. It’s been on my shelf for five or six years now and I’ve tried starting it more times than I can count, which should have probably clued me in that I wasn’t going to love it. I laboured through the first half, more out of interest in participating in the 1938 Club than interest in the book, before finally giving up. There is a reason Gibbons is only remembered for Cold Comfort Farm.
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld – a retelling of Pride and Prejudice by an author I usually enjoy should have been a sure thing. It was not. There is something doomed about “The Austen Project”, which challenges popular authors to write contemporary updates of Austen’s novels (see previous duds from Joanna Trollope, Alexander McCall Smith, and Val McDermid) and this was no exception. Set in modern-day Cincinnati, anything you might once have liked about the Bennets has been stripped away. Lizzie, who is judgemental and gossipy in the original but young and charming enough to pull it off, is in her late thirties here and really not even remotely charming. But there are so many other characters vying to be the most irritating that Lizzie fades into the background. Jane, perfect Jane!, has never learned to function as self-supporting adult, which is most distressing, and Darcy is turned into a surgeon, surely the most obvious cliché in a novel full of them. I have nothing good to say about this one except good luck to whatever doomed souls attempt the remaining books in “The Austen Project”.
The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson – probably the least offensive of the duds I’m talking about here and one I might even be convinced to revisit eventually. Simonson is trading on the current interest in WWI-era stories, which I would usually view as a good thing. However, I have clearly over-indulged in the era and had no stomach left for this rather slight and predictable tale. If you’re looking for good WWI home front drama, get your fill with the BBC’s ambitious and absorbing radio program.
A Winter Away by Elizabeth Fair – Scott at Furrowed Middlebrow loved this and hooked me with a comparison to Angela Thirkell. Unfortunately, I did not see the resemblance. It’s a simple story of a young woman who comes to stay with a relative and her companion while working as a secretary for a crotchety older gentleman. As you do in books published in 1957. There are two eligible young men floating around and a very pale secondary romance. Told without humour or any literary competence, it is utterly and completely forgettable.
Not Working by Lisa Owens – After leaving her job with no plans except the vague idea that there must be something better out there but with no real inclination to determine what that is, Claire Flannery does absolutely nothing. For the length of the entire book.
Where is Emma Butler’s Life Plan? by Julia Wilmot – Harriet was charmed by this simply told story of guardian angels trying to sort out the mess they’ve made of a woman’s life. I found it a little too simple (even for poolside reading while I was on holiday), though it did bring back pleasant memories of other novels that use the same concept of heavenly or at least otherworldly observers but with more fleshed out characters (Marian Keyes’ The Brightest Star in the Sky being a prime example).
The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth – I really wanted to like this novel about Dortchen Wild, who grew up next door to the Grimm brothers, shared stories with them for their collection, and eventually married Wilhelm Grimm. Instead, it felt like bad young adult fiction. I found it full of awkward dialogue that tried to shoehorn political discussions into unnatural situations (do you want to hear about Napoleon on every other page? No? Tough luck), an abuse storyline that felt manufactured solely to add darkness and the illusion of depth, and very flat characters. There is a lot of telling and not a lot of showing when it comes to the storytelling, which is never enjoyable. And really just so much about Napoleon, which usually I would view as a good thing but not this time. I still like the concept but found the execution lacking.
The good news is there have been lots of wonderful books to make up for these duds and hopefully I’ll find the time to talk about them soon. There have been fascinating memoirs about growing up in Russia before the revolution, finding love in Italy, and walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and absorbing novels about a fun loving woman trying (and largely failing) to be respectable for her daughter’s sake, a family trying to keep their home intact by opening it to the public in post-war England, and a young woman navigating the world following her mother’s sudden death, assisted by her impractical aunt and a host of retired admirals.