November reading catch-up

Because of my week in London on a social visit, and a work project this week, there’s been no time for book posts here lately. Here’s a (very) brief round-up of recent reading.

John Banville, The Blue Guitar (first published 2015). This was for me what Mrs TD used to call a damp squid. Although JB – as always – writes extremely well, the content of this novel failed to stir much interest in me. It’s a rather squalid (double) love triangle plot. The protagonist is a verbose kleptomaniac artist, a painter who calls himself a ‘painster’ (he likes this kind of rather annoying wordplay) because he portrays himself as an epicure of suffering. He’s short, fat and ugly, and frankly a bit of a pain himself. He’s self-regarding, duplicitous and judgemental. It’s a curiously lifeless, cerebral novel. Disappointing, because I’d enjoyed other JB novels in the past.

Dave Eggers, The Monk of Mokha (first published 2018). I didn’t know that coffee was first grown in Yemen, discovered and developed into the caffeine-rich drink by the titular medieval monk. He was based in the city of Mokha, anglicised as mocha. Coffee subsequently spread in popularity across the world, as the Yemeni market almost disappeared, supplanted by its imitators. This is the true story of a young Yemeni-American man who tries to restore his country’s pre-eminence as a producer of high-quality coffee. Unfortunately his project takes place as a vicious war breaks out in Yemen. Young Mokhtar learns the coffee trade and travels the country, sourcing the best beans and finding places to process and roast them. His quest to get his prestige product to international markets is a page-turning thriller as he blags his way through hostile militia checkpoints and dodges air-raids. This narrative eventually palled for me as it became a little repetitive. But it’s an entertaining and unusual story.

Rose Tremain, Islands of Mercy (first published 2020). RT is at her best when writing historical fiction like this. It’s set in Bath and London in 1865. A young woman called Jane is known as the Angel of the Baths because of her remarkably restorative powers of ministration to those taking the spa waters under the supervision of her doctor father. She’s forced to choose between bland marriage with the earnest young assistant doctor who isn’t perhaps as decent as he seems, and a passionate affair with a beautiful married woman. The most interesting character is Jane’s bohemian aunt, a London artist who sees Jane’s true spirit and advises her accordingly. There’s a strange, Gothic-inflected Heart of Darkness section in the middle in which this doctor’s botanist brother endures a torrid time in a tropical jungle. The narrative wobbles into melodrama at times, but it’s a spirited and highly enjoyable novel.

William Boyd Trio coverWilliam Boyd, Trio (first published 2020). Another disappointment from an author whose work I’ve found either very good or mediocre. This falls into the latter category. It’s a frenetic, farcical account of three lives (hence the title) involved in making a film that would surely never have been made, let alone in Brighton in 1968. The plot is too contrived to summarise, and the characters are mostly caricatures or types. Only Elfrida, the blocked, once-successful novelist, fuddled by booze, raised much interest. She decides, unwisely, to write a novel about the final day in the life of Virginia Woolf. I read today that Richmond council has been castigated for planning to place a statue of VW by the Thames at Richmond: it’s been suggested that it’s in poor taste to position the statue of her gazing over the river, given the manner of her suicide. But she drowned in a different river in a different county – doesn’t seem too problematic to me.

That’s enough for now.

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15 thoughts on “November reading catch-up

  1. I liked The Blue Guitar, I thought that it was a novel that could make the unforgiving reader empathise with a man behaving badly. But I guess that didn’t work for you! And we must disagree about Islands of Mercy too. I often like Tremain, but In seeking to elevate women of this era to an otherwise unacknowledged place in their society, I thought she had created an artificial gender divide where the men are too flawed, and the women are not flawed enough.

    • Good points, Lisa: Jane’s would-be husband’s transition into a monster is too contrived. And her ‘angelic’ nature, too. But I still enjoyed it as a melodrama. Her new one, ‘Lily’, sounds in a similar vein, from reviews I’ve read.

  2. An interesting selection of authors, Simon, though it’s a shame some of the books turned out to be underwhelming. I’ve had a few of those in recent months and although you can’t expect to be knocked out by every book, it’s disappointing when you think you could have been reading something else!

  3. I’ve never read John Banville. Which one would you recommend first?

    I couldn’t finish Brazzaville Beach by William Boyd earlier this year. I had no interest in the characters.

    • Good question about Banville: I checked, and it turns out I misremembered- I haven’t read any of his novels before. I think I must have been thinking of John McGahern! Must be my age. I liked Boyd’s ‘Any Human Heart’ and some of his earlier novels. It’s so long since I read B. Beach I recall nothing about it.

  4. I don’t like Boyd and Banville so not too upset about that. Dave Eggars seems an odd author for the coffee book, as he always seems to be terribly clever and innovative and that would maybe require more straightforward narrative. Anyway, thanks for catching us up!

  5. An interesting selection of books, mostly unknown to me. I remember reading a review of Trio, perhaps in The Guardian, and thought it sounded interesting, although I’m not a big fan of Boyd’s writing. Your reaction is a warning; with so much else to read I probably won’t rush in. The Tremain novel sounds fun. I want to read more work by Banville but I think I’ll skip this one!

    • As Lisa said, Banville attempts to depict a despicable man in a way that the reader can understand, if not empathise with him. Maybe I was too unforgiving. The Tremain was less hard work.

  6. Too bad about the surfeit of “duds” here, Simon.

    Hmmm. I think it might be best to avoid a river for poor Virginia W. Hopefully some corkers will turn about as we head into 2022 for you to read!

  7. I am not sure where “corker” came from. I think wherever it is, it is a bit archaic, but I like it. I also love the explanation “CRIKEY!” which I think deserves a comeback. : )

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