When I was younger, I would spend hours absorbed in a good (or, occasionally, bad) book. For as many summers as I can remember, I would plough through books at a rate of knots to complete the local library’s Summer Reading Challenge; I still remember the elated feeling when I finished first one summer. And then, somewhere between Holes and Lord of the Flies, books became a means to an end: passing exams. Along came university, with its mile-long bibliographies and modules with a mélange of interesting and not-so-interesting set texts. (Sorry Boris Vian.) In the holidays, I dipped in and out of my well-thumbed paperbacks; a welcome respite from inventing dozens of meanings for a sentence that, in all probability, only held one for the author. I spent much of last term trying to find my feet and make friends (little headway made on the latter); this term, when I’m not dashing across campus from one class to another, I’m usually scouring the library shelves for another promising read (or reading said promising read in the staffroom). As such, I’ve decided to start a quarterly feature celebrating my favourite reads.
The Cold Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty
Ireland, 1981. Detective Sergeant Duffy is tasked with getting to the bottom of a homophobic serial killer’s crimes – no easy feat, considering he’s a Catholic copper in the predominantly Protestant RUC. As the plot unravels and the killer’s cryptic codes are deciphered, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more to this case than meets the eye – though with so many twists and turns it’s unlikely you’ll figure it out before Duffy. Belfast is a political bloodbath – IRA explosives, snipers and mercury tilts form part of the quotidien – and Ireland is depicted as a nation on the brink of an all-out civil war. Power shortages, paraffin heaters and paramilitaries paint a bleak picture of life in Ulster, but smatterings of normality run through the narrative: 60s records, newspaper clippings from the Yorkshire Ripper’s trial and television programmes about Charles and Diana’s wedding. Had I read this book sooner, I would have integrated sections into my classes this term on Irish history and culture.
Sweet Tooth – Ian McEwan
Fifty pages in, I almost put this book down for good. I had anticipated a riveting Cold War thriller and, initially, this simply wasn’t delivering the goods. Inevitably, a niggling thought in the back of my mind encouraged me to persevere – and I’m so glad I did. During her final months at Cambridge, Serena Frome (“rhymes with plume”) is groomed for MI5. Not wholly satisfied by her low-level desk job, her penchant for paperbacks soon sees her drawn into Operation “Sweet Tooth”: a government-backed project, seeking to use up-and-coming writers as a means to counter communism. When a romantic liaison ensues between Serena and her target, Tom Haley, she finds herself torn between loving him and maintaining her professional cover. McEwan consistently blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, resulting in a narrative which perfectly encapsulates the essence of espionage. It wasn’t until I reached the final chapter that I realised just how much of a narrative genius McEwan was.
Safe Haven – Nicholas Sparks
Despite having seen several adaptations of Sparks’ literary creations – namely, The Notebook, Dear John and The Lucky One – this was the first time I actually laid fingers on one of his books. Upon finishing Safe Haven, I felt more than a little bummed that the library doesn’t stock any of his other books! Katie is on the run from her past – but even she knows that, sooner or later, her past will catch up with her. Slowly but surely, Katie settles into her new life in Southport, befriending Jo, who moves into the dilapidated cottage adjacent to Katie’s, and Alex, a widower with two young children who owns the local store. As the weeks and months pass, Katie gradually opens up to those around her and confides in Alex. Yet, as their futures entwine, the present unravels. (This is a real tearjerker – so if you’re anything like me, have tissues at the ready.)
L’infra-ordinaire – Georges Perec
This isn’t my typical read – far from it, in fact. Originally published in a selection of newspapers and journals, L’infra-ordinaire is a selection of short texts about the ordinary – or rather, the extraordinariness of the ordinary. It’s almost impossible to describe exactly what it is that I like about this volume. At first glance, it is a decidedly strange collection of texts: a chronicle of an unremarkable Parisian street; postcards from his travels; a recollection of everything he consumed in 1974. Dipping in and out of the book over the course of a day, I realised it was the strangeness of the text that made it so compelling. Seemingly banal aspects of our existence offer a playful snapshot of Perec’s own life: “Nous parcourons le Lake District. Very romantic, mais on ne risque pas d’attraper des coups de soleil. On rentre le 19.” (p. 60) (“We’re travelling through the Lake District. Very romantic, but there’s no risk of sunburn. We return on the 19th.”) I couldn’t help but find his portraits of countries, especially my own, hilariously accurate. Perec also touches on the linguistic nuances of both English and French, the impossibility of ever truly knowing London (or, for that matter, of describing its charm) and the quirks one encounters when abroad.
Titles | January – March 2017
Mr Nice (Howard Marks) / The Parisian Christmas Bake Off (Jenny Oliver) / The Little Shop of Hopes and Dreams (Fiona Harper) / Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee) / Goat Mountain (David Vann) / A Pale View of Hills (Kazuo Ishiguro) / La Place de l’Étoile (Patrick Modiano) / The Children Act (Ian McEwan) / The Cold Cold Ground (Adrian McKinty) / Sweet Tooth (Ian McEwan) / The Engagement (Chloe Hooper) / Freedom’s Child (Jax Miller) / Safe Haven (Nicholas Sparks) / The Danish Girl (David Ebershoff) / The Shadow of the Crescent Moon (Fatima Bhutto) / L’infra-ordinaire (Georges Perec) / The Train to Warsaw (Gwen Edelman) / Dog Eats Dog (Iain Levison) / The Fate of Katherine Carr (Thomas H. Cook) / C (Tom McCarthy) / I Saw a Man (Owen Sheers) / Baking Cakes in Kigali (Gaile Parkin)