Another in my popular series of mini reviews in which I grumble about books on a scale from furious bitterness to indifference. You can read more of these, and find links to others, here. Today I clear out the books on the meh end.
Susan Schwartz, Byzantium’s Crown
I enjoyed the premise for this fantasy novel – an alternative history in which Antony and Cleopatra beat Octavian and thus created an Egyptian Empire rather than a Roman one. But the world-building isn’t sustained: it begins very well, but dwindles into the personal struggle of an enslaved Prince continually threatened with being thrown to the crocodiles. We don’t need Antony and Cleopatra’s imprimatur for that. I would much rather have explored that Empire than had to wait around for Marric to stop his agonising and get over himself. There are two sequels, and the very obvious unconfirmed death of a leading character early on in this novel signals who will be their focus. The most interesting aspect of reading this was observing how the ancient Egyptian practice of marrying brothers and sisters as co-rulers produces genuine uncertainty and frisson in this plot. Incest is such a powerful taboo for Western civilisation, it has a lot of potential for driving emotional responses, and Schwartz tapped into it as a strong source of emotional engagement.
Barbara Deming, A Humming Under My Feet
Barbara Deming was an American lesbian activist and feminist, and died in 1984. This was her last book, from 1985, a reconstructed annotated memoir about following someone she was in love with around Europe in the 1950s. It’s an odd read if you’re not particularly interested or invested in US lesbian culture, because the significance of the author is thus beside the point, and the quality of the writing has to make the book worth it. Which it doesn’t. It’s at once too closeted and too revealing, and did not increase my interest in Deming’s experiences one jot. My impression was that I was expected to read this because Deming had written it; I picked it up hoping for an account of 1950s Europe as seen by an American woman writer, perhaps another Elaine Dundy. But it’s too self-absorbed.
A J Pearce, Dear Mrs Bird
A recent, very effectively hyped ‘summer beach read’ novel about a magazine agony aunt in the Second World War. I plunged into this hoping for a combination of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and wartime print history, but no. It’s a superficial plot of best friends, boy-friends and workplace panics, overlaying a Second World War setting but missing most of the atmosphere. I threw the book down at the continual anachronisms, and social and cultural expectations of the 2010s applied to the 1940s. It’s not as bad as Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which remains my low-water mark for exasperating anachronism in historical fiction, but how can a novel about the war, featuring many scenes of eating and shopping, not mention points or ration cards even once? Why are Clarence and Mr Collins not in uniform? Publishing women’s magazines was not a restricted trade. Where does Emmy get the stamp money from for her illicit letters? Why was she not called up herself? Could have been so much better.
Jill Paton Walsh, The Attenbury Emeralds
I enjoyed, more or less, Thrones, Dominations, in which Walsh finished off the novel that Dorothy L Sayers left uncompleted on her death. She’s gone on to write more Wimsey novels on her own, and I was hopeful that this would be good. But exasperation triumphed again. It’s hard to abandon the recollection of how DLS wrote her characters when they are performing under another writer’s direction, and in Thrones, Dominations JPW worked to DLS’s direction, more or less. In this novel, the characters are played by different actors, if you follow me: same names and faces, entirely different interpretations. JPW forces the characters into extrapolated relationships with each other. She’s careful to signal the period – Peter asks Harriet about the butter ration to indicate a moment during the war; the songs of Irving Berlin are placed before us as a placard shouting ‘1920S BIT HERE’. The clumsiness with historicity is amazing for such an experienced novelist, especially in language. Harriet speaks of flashbacks, Bunter says that he’s going to be challenged by something. Peter is embarrassed at the treatment of the Indian visitor by an English nobleman. The storytelling is often incoherent, as the narration is shared by Peter and Bunter telling Harriet episodes from their past, and they have the same narrative voice. It’s all just too annoying.
These I Gave Up On
Far too often I lose patience with novels now. I’m too busy to waste my evenings ploughing through stories that leave me cold or dissatisfied.
Penelope Fitzgerald, Offshore: I loved The Bookshop, but this was so grim, impending and queasily odd I didn’t have the emotional fortitude to get through it.
Edith O’Shaughnessy: Viennese Medley: 1920s saga in which an Austrian matriarch of good family struggles to survive in Vienna. No indignity is spared her, and she suffers it all with tragic patience. If this had been written by an Austrian I would have liked it more, but it’s by an American diplomatic spouse, no doubt written with sympathy but also from the security of the Embassy.
Robert Nathan: So Love Returns: Drippy, and relentlessly pure. Annoying 1950s fantasy about a widower writing to support his two small children who play on the beach alone all day (don’t they have school?) until rescued by a mermaid. The outcome is as trite as you can imagine.
Harold Nicolson, Public Faces: his pre-WW2 science fiction novel in which he invented the atomic bomb, but the politics dominate, rather than the human fallout. Just boring.
Compton Mackenzie, Thin Ice: tried on the recommendations of several people, but could not be doing with it. A novel about a gay man’s life from the 1890s to WW2, in which almost no-one is sympathetic or interesting. We are intended to find the characters alluring and fascinating. The fashion for arrogant Balliol golden boys has passed.
6 thoughts on “To the recycling!”
Thank goodness, someone who felt the same way I did about Dear Mrs Bird! I was surprised that it got so much praise. The only other book you mention which I’ve read is the Jill Paton Walsh. I felt Lord Peter didn’t fit in the post-war world. I hated all the pointers; is this the one where Peter says something will have to be done about London smog (shortly before the Clean Air Act was passed)? Grr. Yet I fall for the latest instalment every time, against my better judgement.
This is such a useful corrective to the conventional enthusing and makes me feel less guilty. Especial plaudit for the Paton Walsh which was freeloading carried to an extreme.
A useful side-effect is that I can now continue not to read An Unsuitable Boy with a clear conscience
I love hearing about the bad books as well as the good ones. I’m impressed that you made it all the way through Dear Mrs Bird. I gave up early on in disgust. The anachronisms and generally formulaic writing had me wanting to throw it across the room so many times in only a few dozen pages that it seemed best to just abandon it altogether. The premise was so good and the result so disappointing (much like Paton Walsh’s solo Wimsey efforts).
It’s a testament to the power of uncritical mass-marketing staff who don’t have the sense or reading knowledge to see poor writing. Or, it was forced on them by publishers further up the food chain.