What I read this summer


1. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt.

the goldfinch

Were it not for a seven hour TGV train journey through France I doubt I would have got round to tackling this. Is there anyone in the world who doesn’t think it’s at least 300 pages too long ? My theory is that editors were clearly too scared to tell Ms Tartt that she needed to cut it and that bits of it don’t work, and that all those who had spent so many hours ploughing through the 900 pages were clearly reluctant to admit that it might not have been time well spent. I blame the TGV.

2. What a Carve Up! – Jonathan Coe

what a carve up

Having read, and enjoyed, all of Coe’s other novels I had been saving this one up ( for the first, and more enjoyable, leg of the TGV train journey). It didn’t disappoint – a magnificent, playful, intelligent satire of Thatcher’s England. That’s all of Jonathan Coe done now (apart from his BS Johnson biography, that is) and what a great body of work it is.

3. My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

my brilliant friend

This, the first of the Neapolitan novels, was  widely recommended by people whose judgement I respect, so I was surprised to find it curiously underwhelming. I was particularly surprised to find, and be irritated by, so many comma splices. What happened to all those full stops? Were they lost in translation? For an English teacher on holiday, there’s nothing more irritating than being reminded of the grammatical mistake you have spent large chunks of your working life correcting. An exchange with a colleague, though, alerted me to the following praise for Ferrante – ‘anyone who thinks innovation in prose is at an end should look at the use of the comma splice in Elena Ferrante’.  So, my mistake clearly, and as I face a pile of marking next term I’ll go into it with a more open mind.

4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – Truman Capote

breakfast at tiffany's

After the length, and disappointment of The Goldfinch, the brevity of Capote’s novel was hugely attractive. Having neither seen the film nor read the book, I decided to do both in quick succession. The book is, undoubtedly, much better than the film but I will remember it  mainly for the following passage –


Margaret Thatcher!  Breakfast at Tiffany’s was published in 1958 and here is the woman who had inspired Coe’s magnificent What a Carve Up!  I found this all very strange, and, although  failed to go viral on Twitter, I still think it’s an interesting, and up to now, unexplored, area. If I point out that the central character of What a Carve Up!’ (published 1994) is called Michael Owen (who made his footballing debut in 1997) you’ll see what I mean.

5. The Circle – Dave Eggers

the circle

I really enjoyed this – a timely exploration of the internet and social media. In its satirical warning and in the way it creates an imagined world in richly imagined and authentic detail it’s reminiscent of Swift. Book Three of ‘Gullivers Travels’ comes to mind.

6, Game of Mirrors and Angelica’s Smile – Andrea Camilleri

angelica's smile

Game of Mirrors

Summer wouldn’t be summer without a Montalbano and the 18th and 19th didn’t disappoint. I have no idea why I am so fond of them, but I suspect it may be the literary equivalent of comfort food – and food is very much at the heart of Inspector Montalbano’s daily routine. What will his maid Adelina have made for him today? Where will he eat? It’s a winning mixture –  the sun,  Sicily,  old- fashioned detection,  leftish social and political commentary. I can even forgive Camilleri ( 89 and still going strong) beginning every novel with Montalbano waking up.

7. The Transit of Venus – Shirley Hazzard

the transit of venus

This was the summer’s real surprise. I had not heard of Shirley Hazzard before but it came highly recommended ( I notice that Robert McCrum wrote that he regretted not including it in hsi 100 Greatest Novels). I struggled at first with some of the sentences – they could both dazzle and confuse –  but this novel about the life and loves of two Australian sisters who come to post-war England to seek their fortunes is hugely impressive novel, deserving of a wider readership.

8. The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith

cuckoo's calling

I have no idea why I read this. Maybe it was a strange feeling of guilt at never having read a Harry Potter novel (even when my kids were devouring them) or maybe it was a curiosity about how well Robert Galbraith would have done had he not been unmasked as J K Rowling. I found it disappointing. Too much needless description of characters , too many adverbs appended to ‘said’, an embarrassing attempt to render non-standard speech phonetically, and a final exposition that seemed to go on forever. But who am I to argue with 2,434 five star Amazon reviews?

9. The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides

the virgin suicides

The Marriage Plot was so good that I thought I should catch up with his first novel. A haunting portrayal of adolescence and desire.

10. Case Histories – Kate Atkinson

case histories

A little disappointing. Having heard such good things about Kate Atkinson I thought I’d  start with this one – if Stephen King calls it the ‘best mystery of the decade’ it must be good, right? The most interesting thing for me was Jackson Brodie’s fondness for Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch – whenever he put on one of their songs I was tempted to do the same and take a break from a book which needs much sharper plot twists and turns and which, although it handles the complex chronology skilfully, suffers from too many shifts in third person perspective, the attempt to give each character a distinctive ‘voice’ leading to some overdone interior monologue/free indirect thought.




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