Before I head off to Edinburgh for the next three weeks, here’s a round-up of summer reading. Not beach reads; who can read in the sunshine?, but some of the new books that kept me entertained while you were all out playing football and running around Glasgow.
You’ll notice it’s books by women writers, but that’s a quirk of what came to hand or was sent to me, not a meaningful decision on my part to seek them out. The list is random:
- **Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk (Jonathan Cape): the hype around this book made me cynical, but it’s true; she really has taken on the male bastion of nature writing, and moulded it into the female psyche. A goshawk called Mabel; superior descriptive writing, highly imaginative, compelling, raw emotion, thought-provoking, sad, funny: BRILLIANT!
- Laura McBride’s We are Called to Rise (Simon & Schuster), stirring debut based on a real incident due to the consequences of post-traumatic stress disorder, but fictionalised into an angry, uplifting look at American values, and how they relate to people who don’t quite fit in. Technically brilliant in handling the to-and fro between past and present and showing the impact of childhood on adulthood. I think it’s fair to say, this is the complete opposite of most American novels, and one I’d recommend if you’re into meaty, thought-provoking stories and strong female protagonists.
- **Linda Cracknell’s Call of the Undertow (Freight): atmospheric story about a cartographer’s move to the north of Scotland; the challenges she faces in a new environment is twisted in with the emotional baggage she packs with her, and the map work she’s undertaking as the story unfolds. The opening, with a mysterious snowman appearing in the garden, reminds of Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child – and it is and isn’t about motherhood and childlessness – but it’s a different book and sensibility. The title gives away the story, a bit, and a map or two would lift it for me, but I read the Kindle version so maybe the paperback has insets I didn’t see. Anyway, a good, satisfying, two-hour read.
- Sarah Maine’s debut, Bhalla Strand (Freight): another woman with emotional baggage moving north – this time it’s to take up her inheritance; a derelict house on an island, with secrets. I expected this book, from the woman with her back to us on the cover and the swirly title, to be a predictable romantic froth. It’s not! It’s technically assured, well written (apart from a couple of over-descriptive passages, which you forgive as it sweeps you along with the strong characterisation). The story moves smoothly between different time periods and different historical relationships, which kept it all moving forward, even when it was looking back. A really enjoyable story for a rainy afternoon.
- **Kamila Shamsie’s, A God in Every Stone (Bloomsbury): merges a story about colonial engagement in the First World War with a story about a female amateur archaeologist; the kind of book normally described as ‘ambitious’; ‘sweeping’. Let down by a fatal flaw at two-thirds in, which made me throw it on the floor. Before then, it’s a good, strong story about an aspect of war that is rarely covered by Western historians, twisted in with a story about early feminism and colonialism. I’m still not over it – but might be worth a re-read in a year or so.
- **Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing (Galley Beggar Press): fierce writing that haunts you when you’re reading it, and even now, thinking about it, I can see the young girl whose sad life we follow. Hard to get into its stuttering rhythm and narrative flow, but form and story combine to make a powerful story, and it’s well worth sticking to it until you’re hooked.
- Nancy Horan’s, Under the Wide and Starry Sky (Two Roads): I so wanted this book about Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny Osborne to be good: who doesn’t want to know the real reason he tracked a divorcee and her children to San Francisco? Sadly, it hit the floor three times, and I had to give it away as I couldn’t bear it to be in the house. Good fictional biographies bring the real people alive, lets you see into the rationale for their actions, makes you want to re-read their books. Horan is so keen to build up Fanny Osborne that I wanted to call her up and ask why she’d portrayed Stevenson as a soppy wimp; apparently, according to this reading, it was Fanny who came up with the psychological underpinning of Jekyll and Hyde?!
- Andrea Gillies’s, The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay (Short Books): woman with emotional baggage has an accident on holiday; bedridden, she recounts her past life and relationships to her doctor. Any other writer would make this into a beach read – after all it’s set in a holiday resort in Greece – but Gillies has a sharp ear for dialogue and an empathy for women and the decisions they have to make. Intelligent and astute writing.
- **Kate Tough’s, Head for the Edge, Keep Walking (Cargo): about real women with real problems and emotional issues that could be worthy and sentimental, but isn’t. It’s gutsy and laugh-out-loud funny in places, although, there’s a wee tip to sweetness in the middle: a Tunnock’s Tea Cake of a novel. Warm and angry at the same time; a strong debut novel.
- Cherry Smyth’s Hold Still (Holland Park Press): fascinating biographical fiction. Set in London and Paris in the 1860s, it’s about Joanna Hifferman, amateur artist and muse/model to both Whistler and Courbier. What lifts the book from other fictional biographies is in the unusual decision to construct a thesis around Courbier’s painting: L’Origine du monde – depicting female genitalia – yes, weird, I know, how to sell this to your friends? Strong female protagonist and fine historical detailing; sometimes it seems too modern in its sensibility. Dreadful cover image, especially, as it’s a book about the world of painting.
- Pippa Goldschmidt’s The Falling Sky (Freight): coming of age debut; female protagonist with friendship, life, work issues; good at depicting the infighting and back-biting in academia, and how women need to conform to society’s image. Cleverly threads astronomy and time into the storyline. Maybe I learned something about space, but perhaps that was another me, another time.
- Susan Sellers’ Given the Choice (Cillian Press): intelligent, thoughtful look at an unlikable character – an ambitious agent; a woman who doesn’t want children – and the consequences to her relationships and herself. Set in the self-deceptive world of London arts, the protagonist is the arch deceiver: she deceives herself and those she comes into contact with, while her husband, a gentle soul, deals with it in his own way. Highly post-modern in the multiple endings that leave it up to the reader to decide which ending she should have; throwing the creative construction of the self into the imagination.
- **Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway (Picador) is astonishing; excellent – the very best kind of fictional biography. I reviewed it for Fiction Uncovered
** indicates writer is at EIBF this year