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Archive for the ‘Fredrik Backman’ Category

It is indeed December but, operating as usual on the concept of better late than never, I wanted to share thoughts on some of the books I read in October.  October was dominated by my trip to Europe and my two weeks there hiking in the mountains, wandering through galleries, and eating absolutely delicious food left little time for reading, but I made up for it once I was home.  It was a great reading month and there are a few contenders here for my year-end top ten list:

The Star of Kazan by Eva Ibbotson (2004) – a comforting reread of one of Ibbotson’s best children’s books.

The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell (2022) – there is always excitement around a new release from O’Farrell and this is solid storytelling, but not to the excellent level O’Farrell is capable of.  It is the story of Lucrezia de’ Medici, who became the duchess of Ferrara and died at sixteen – of illness, or was it poison at the hands of her husband?  Lucrezia is a distant personality but the only fully-formed character in the book, which proved challenging for me to engage with the story.  The ending was very frustrating and felt cheap, making for an unsatisfying experience all round.

The Winners by Fredrik Backman, translated by Neil Smith (2022) – Powerfully concluding the trilogy which began with Beartown (one of my favourite a few years ago), I fell deep into this book, even dreaming about it, in part because the characters are so well known to me now but mostly because this hockey-mad northern community has always felt so real.  Backman told us in the first book the fates of several characters and it was immensely satisfying, if heartbreaking, to follow them on that journey.

Horizon by Helen MacInnes (1945) – MacInnes’ thriller focuses on a British PoW who, after escaping from his camp, finds himself living in the Dolomites and helping Tyrolean resistance fighters who, despite a common language, feel only hatred for the Germans.  It’s a flimsy plot with shallow characters and usually I wouldn’t have bothered finishing it but MacInnes does a good job of evoking the stunning setting and the fierce sense of a regional identify separate from either Austria or Italy.  Reading it while in the South Tyrol, only a short distance from the plateau where much of the story is set, also added to my enjoyment.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler (1982) – a typically excellent Tyler novel about a Baltimore family, told from the perspectives of various members and tracking them from the children’s youths to middle age.  And, as usual, bleak.  I feel like Tyler has relented a little as she’s aged but I’m not sure that she believed happy families existed when she was younger.

Shrines of Gaiety by Kate Atkinson (2022) – a new book from Atkinson is always a cause for rejoicing but this exceeded even my expectations.  Set in the 1920s, Atkinson focuses on missing girls, London nightclubs, and the people caught up on both sides of the law.  She turns phrases so easily and artfully that you can’t help but be delighted and knows how to manage a large cast amidst tangled plot threads better than any other modern writer I can think of.  I loved every word of this.

The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert (1928) – a comic joy.  Full review here.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson (1985) – what better to turn to while jetting home than an old familiar favourite?  For someone who hates airplanes, this was the perfect distraction and comfort.  Here’s a proper review from ten years ago.

The Golden Enclaves by Naomi Novik (2022) – I was so excited to see how Novik would conclude her “Scholomance” trilogy after loving the first two books, but had to force myself through this.  With graduation now behind her, our heroine El finds herself travelling the globe and Novik loses the world and constraints she built up so well in earlier books set within the school.  Without that tight focus, the story sprawls in every sense of the word, with new characters introduced every few pages as El journeys from one magical community to another.  There are altogether too many dramatic “twists” and, in a series that has always felt mislabelled as adult rather than YA, the entire approach felt geared towards juvenile readers with its neat and bloodless tidying up.  Disappointing.

The Belle of Belgrave Square by Mimi Matthews (2022)Matthews has been a relatively recent discovery for me (thanks to other book bloggers) and I’m loving her gentle historical romances.  This is the second in her “Belles of London” series, which started enjoyably earlier this year with The Siren of Sussex.  I liked that book but I loved this one about a marriage of convenience.  Our heroine Julia, the quiet daughter of demanding invalid parents, and hero Captain Blunt, a veteran of the Crimea who is scandalously raising his bastard children, were introduced in the earlier book and immediately intrigued me but this still managed to exceed my expectations.  The secrets are obvious from the start, so there’s no real Gothic tension (just as I like it), and the story is full of the tenderness Matthews does so well.  If you haven’t tried Matthews yet, her North and South-inspired novella, A Holiday by Gaslight, is perfect seasonal reading.

The Hero of This Book by Elizabeth McCracken (2022) – Nancy Pearl put me on to McCracken and I’ve read three of her books this year, impressed each time with her style and readability.  This is autofiction, which is strange to me at the best of times, but if anyone can convert me it is McCracken with her excellent and entertaining writing.  I especially loved this description of her grandmother:

My grandmother was a nonpracticing lawyer, not the first woman to graduate from Benjamin Harrison Law School in Indianapolis but the only one in the class of 1927.  She was president of her sisterhood, traveled as a public speaker, needlepointed, knit, took photographs and developed them, was a small-business consultant, silk-screened tablecloths, once built a table, and still had time to worry too much.  Somewhere there’s a picture of me in a sweater set of such burlappy awfulness, steel wool to the eye as well as the skin, so cunningly unflattering to every proportion of the short, plump 1980s teenager I was, you would have thought it had been designed as a specific punishment, not knit out of love, though she did love me, which is why the photo exists: She wanted me to pose engulfed in proof.

Ducks by Kate Beaton (2022) – a superb graphic memoir about Beaton’s time working in the oilsands of Northern Alberta.  She does a wonderful job of evoking the strangeness of the camps – where everyone is from somewhere else and no one particularly wants to be there – and how it alters people, rarely for the better.  It is a hard place to be a woman and this may be the best account of sexual assault I’ve read.

The Case Against the Sexual Revolution by Louise Perry (2022) – such an interesting book to read following Ducks – an unintentional pairing but a very appropriate one.  Perry, who has spent time working in rape crisis centers in the UK, lays out the ways in which women have been disadvantaged by the sexual revolution.  Well-researched, well-argued, and full of common sense, she’s not delivering a particularly new message but one that we clearly need to be reminded of over and over again.  There is an excellent review of it in the Guardian if you want further enticement.

Miss Bishop by Bess Streeter Aldrich (1933) – I don’t think Aldrich can be called neglected but would under-appreciated be the right word?  Her books aren’t very hard to find, A Lantern in Her Hand remains a standard in school libraries, and Miss Bishop was adapted fairly loyally into the film “Cheers for Miss Bishop”, and yet I don’t think she’s as popular as her excellent stories of Midwestern pioneers warrant.  Here, she gives readers a wonderful account of the life of Ella Bishop, from her entry into a brand new midwestern college at the age of sixteen until her retirement from that same school fifty years later.  Aldrich handles all the joy and sadness beautifully, as Ella’s life evolves very differently from what she had envisioned.  As always with Aldrich, the sense of community is excellent.

The Forbidden Valley by Essie Summers (1973) – what a very dramatic title for a quintessential Summers romance.  Our heroine Charlotte is shocked to hear her cousin Phyl has disappeared, leaving her two children without explanation as well as her new husband, who, unbeknownst to her, was injured the day she left and is lying unconscious in hospital.  Charlotte takes up the post of housekeeper to keep an eye on the children and figure out what is actually going on, though she hadn’t accounted for the immediate rapport with Edmund, Phyl’s brother-in-law who rushed home after his brother’s accident and is ill disposed towards the feckless Phyl, whom he has never met.   There are far, far too many secrets – when in doubt of how to create conflict, always add another secret! – but it was still a fun story to pass an afternoon with.

I’ve Got the One-More-Washload Blues by Lynn Johnston (1981) – I came back from vacation to discover the paper has entirely changed the comics section but one happy result is that they have brought back “For Better or For Worse”, which ran for almost thirty years from 1979 to 2008 and chronicled the lives of Elly, Anthony and their children.  This collection took me back to the comic’s early years when the children were young and their parents were losing their minds.

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2020 is a strange year to look back on.  In some ways it was the year that felt like a decade, with so much happening so quickly and headlines changing every minute.  But in other ways I look back to things that happened in January and February and they feel so recent, largely because there was so little to fill the time memorably since then.

Reading, as always, has been a saviour and with limited opportunities to socialise there was more time than ever for it this year.  I made it through a ridiculous number of books, which provided comfort, distraction, entertainment, education, and companionship through this odd year.  Here are my ten favourites:

10. Plot 29 (2017) – Allan Jenkins
Not the book I thought it was going to be when I picked it up, but instead far more powerful and memorable.  Jenkins set out to write about gardening and his relationship with his foster family but instead undergoes a very emotional journey, unravelling the mysteries of his troubled birth family.

9. Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps (2019) – Ursula Buchan
I loved this biography of the ever-fascinating John Buchan.  He was a man of such purpose, energy and loyalty and his varied accomplishments and loving legacy are a testament to these increasingly rare virtues.  His biographer is his granddaughter and she paints a rounded portrait of him both at home and at work throughout his too-short and extraordinarily busy life.

8. The Eighth Life (2014) – Nino Haratischvili (translated by Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin)
A brilliant saga tracing the lives of the members of one Georgian family across almost one hundred tumultuous years, from the Russian Revolution to the early years of the 21st Century.  I loved every page.

7. Madensky Square (1988) – Eva Ibbotson
I think we all struggled with our reading at some point this year, a frustrating process when we know how helpful books can be in times of stress and uncertainty.  I read mindlessly for most of March and April but picked this up at the beginning of May and it broke the curse.  Ibbotson is always comforting but serious times called for serious measures and nothing but Madensky Square, the best of her novels, would do.  I wrote about it years ago and my love for its heroine Susanna and her friends and neighbours on Madensky Square in pre-war Vienna only grows with each rereading.

6. Love in the Blitz (2020) – Eileen Alexander
What a delight!  This collection of Second World War love letters written by a young Cambridge graduate to her future husband bubbles with humour, lust, and anxiety, tracking their romance from its infancy through declarations, separation, engagement and marriage.  I shared a few of the letters (here and here) and had to restrain myself from sharing dozens more.  Alexander is remarkably frank in her letters and they make for very refreshing reading.

5. Out of Istanbul (2001) – Bernard Ollivier (translated by Dan Golembeski)
This story of one man’s journey along the Silk Road was just what I needed in this travel-free year.  In the spring of 1999, the sixty-one-year-old Ollivier set off from Istanbul intending to hike several months each year in the quest to reach his ultimate destination: China.  This volume covers the first leg of that journey, when he made it almost to the Iranian border before being felled by illness.  It’s a fascinating journey and Ollivier is refreshingly free of the arrogance of so many male travel writers, who set out convinced of their invincibility.

4. Beartown (2017) – Fredrik Backman (translated by Neil Smith)
Set in a small hockey-obsessed town in Sweden, Beartown thoughtfully looks at how a horrible event splits the community.  When the town’s hockey star rapes a girl at a party, the majority of the town immediately rallies around him.  It’s an incredibly powerful story about the dangers of group identities, told simply and with great empathy, and deserves every bit of hype and praise that has been heaped upon it.

3. Pravda Ha Ha (2019) – Rory MacLean
A chillingly important journey through today’s Russia and other increasingly authoritarian Eastern European states.

2. Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry (1941) – Margaret Kennedy
Kennedy’s memoir of the first spring and summer of the Second World War is a wonderful record of a strange time and reading it through our own bizarre spring was perfect timing.  When everything felt uncertain, it was reassuring to be reminded that people had reacted the same way eighty years before (and ignored the same good advice that was being doled out both then and now).

1. Business as Usual (1933) – Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford
Business as Usual was the happiest discovery for me this year, and for many others, thanks to its spring reissue by Handheld Press.  And if ever there was a year where we needed happy books, 2020 was it. This epistolary novel about an optimistic young woman’s move to London and work at a large department store is enchanting and I delighted in Hilary’s determined progress.  It is that rare book that suits me in most moods, giving me something to laugh over when I am down, to comfort me in times of stress, and to inspire action when I am feeling daunted by the world.

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