20 Books of Summer 2022: Planning is the Fun Part
This will by my third year of participating in 20 Books of Summer, a challenge organised by the redoubtable Cathy of 746Books. The idea is that you choose twenty, or fifteen, or ten (Cathy's very accommodating!) books from your shelves - no buying new ones - and both read and review each one between 1st June and 31st August.
In my first year I did pretty well with my target, last year was less successful and I think at least part of the reason was that I chose some long and complicated books. I'm glad I did in some ways, as I got through a few things that I'd probably never otherwise have started, and I enjoyed them very much - but it meant that others fell by the wayside. So this year I'm still going to attempt 20, but I've deliberately picked what I hope will be easier reads.
And here, in no particular order, they are:
From the Heart of Covington by Joan Medlicott
I've already read At Home in Covington and The Gardens of Covington (I wrote a bit about Grace Singleton in my post about 'good role models' here) and this is the third in the series about three older ladies who have set up home together in a small town in North Carolina. Cosy in some ways, yes, but the books also address real issues around loneliness, aging, relationships, friendships, and what we really need to make our later lives fulfilling.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty
I first heard about this book when the author himself read excerpts from it on Radio 4. Since then Dara, an autistic teenager from Northern Ireland, has gone on to great things; he was the youngest ever recipient of the RSPB medal for his campaigns against raptor persecution and biodiveristy loss, he writes for the Irish Times, and has also written for The Guardian and The Big Issue. He has appeared on television, presented on Radio Ulster and worked with Chris Packham. Diary of a Young Naturalist, which chronicles Dara's 14th year, made him the youngest ever winner of the Wainwright Prize, and the book has been shortlisted for many other awards. I was so lucky to find an almost new copy of the hardback in a charity shop (who on earth didn't want it?)
Edward Kane and the Parlour Maid Murderer by Ross Macfarlane QC
This book was kindly sent to me by Scotland Street Press for review. It's set in Victorian Edinburgh and follows a young advocate and his servant as they search for information to clear their client - a client who refuses to tell them anything about the night on which the murder of which they are accused took place.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Down the Bones was published way back in 1986 and remains a classic. I first came across it when I took a creative writing class in Newfoundland in 1991. The wonderful tutor, whose name I do so wish I could remember, recommended it (her other great recommendation was Alice Munro's short stories), and although I now can't remember much about it, I do know that I loved it at the time. Goldberg approaches writing from the perspective of the Zen Buddhism she has studied and practised for over 30 years. Writing Down the Bones has sold over a million copies and is widely acclaimed. I keep saying I am going to start writing again, so I am hoping Natalie will give me a kick start.
The Book of Forgotten Authors by Christopher Fowler
This was recommended to me by Jeff Myers, a fellow contributor to a weekly book chat on my friend Lesa Holstine's excellent blog. I can never resist a book about authors - especially one with a chapter on my beloved Barbara Pym. I think I recognise the names of about a third of the 99 names listed, but of those I have only actually read seven - seven! (Hangs head in shame...) The book also has intriguing intermittent chapters on (eg) The Forgotten Rivals of Holmes, Bond and Miss Marple, The Forgotten Queens of Suspense, The Forgotten Booker Authors (most of them should be, in my not very humble opinion), Forgotten for Writing Too Little - and Too Much, and even The Justly Forgotten Authors. I'm looking forward to dipping into this, though I can see it will add even more titles to my groaning TBR lists.
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
I've seen Strout's books recommended so many times, but as yet have never read any of them. Olive Kitteridge seems to be a good place to start. This was another pristine charity book find. It looks great.
Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart
I have read many of Mary Stewart's novels over the past few years. With only one exception (Thunder on the Right) I have enjoyed all of them so far. I love her feisty, independent heroines and her wonderful settings (Provence, Skye, the Pyrenees...) Nine Coaches Waiting (published in 1958) is said to be one of her best, and was described by The Boston Herald as 'a Mona Lisa tale that beckons you on while suspense builds up.' Can't wait.
The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
The Shape of Water is the first in a series of no less than twenty seven books about Inspector Montalbano, who is described as a 'listless, dejected, nonconformist protagonist who somehow always accomplishes his duty in spite of himself.' This sounds a little bit different - and a Sicilian setting might be just what I need if our fickle Scottish summer decides to disappoint.
Sally on the Rocks by Winifred Boggs
This is one of the books republished in the British Library's Women Writers series, for which the inimitable Simon Thomas of Stuck in a Book and Tea or Books? fame is the consultant. Simon's was one of the first book blogs I ever read, and Tea or Books? was one of my first podcasts; I know I can rely on anything he recommends.
Sally on the Rocks was published in 1915 and is about a young woman who, owing to the war and an unsuccssful love affair, returns from France to her home village in England and sets about finding a reliable husband. Sounds just my kind of thing - and I even bought a full price copy of this book (almost unheard of for me) from the excellent Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh. I had a voucher of course - though it was so old that the very nice lady on the desk had never seen its like. I bought one other book but I still have money left on it; at the time Golden Hare didn't have any other books in the BL series. I'll be back.
The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line by Ruth Thomas
This is the other book I bought with my Golden Hare voucher. Ruth Thomas is an Edinburgh author, so it was especially pleasing to buy The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line in that very city.
I first heard this wonderful novel read by Ell Potter on BBC Sounds. It's about Sybil, who is happily working at the Institute of Prehistorical Studies and living with her boyfriend Simon until along comes a glamorous adversary from her past. How gentle, quiet Sybil deals with the situation forms the backbone of the story, but Thomas is also adapt at bringing minor characters to life. The title enough would make me want to read this book - it's so evocative of the realities of London life.
Gilead by Marilynn Robinson
I've never read anything by Marilynn Robinson, and again it was Simon Thomas who brought her to my attention; he and Rachel, the co-host of Tea or Books?, lavish her fiction with praise, so (although I'm slightly nervous as Robinson has a bit of a reputation for being a very 'clever' writer) I'm going to give her a try. Ali Smith (who seems to have liked it) called Gilead 'not the most immediately prepossessing of novels' (The Guardian 16 April 2005). So we shall see.
His Bloody Project: Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae by Graeme Macrae Burnett
I've read a couple of Macrae Burnett's other books and loved them, so why I haven't got round to his most famous, Booker-shortlisted, novel is indeed a mystery in its own right. Now my husband is nagging me to read it as he (who has) wants to watch a TV programme we recorded ages ago about it. So that's more than enough reason. Plus, I saw Graeme at an Edinburgh International Book Festival event a few years ago and he was such an engaging, funny speaker, and - unlike so many I could mention - so self-deprecating and good-natured, that I want to read all of his books anyway. It's about time.
Aboard the Bulger by Ann Scott-Moncreiff
This is another book from Scotland Street Press for review. It's a children's book first published in 1935, about five children who run away from an orphanage, steal a magic steamship and have adventures sailing aroung the Hebrides. The book originally had a massive print run, but most copies were lost when the publisher's warehouses were bombed in the war. Scotland Street Press reissued Aboard the Bulger in 2020.
Artistic Licence by Katie Fforde
I have to be in the right mood to read one of Katie Fforde's romances - but when I am, they are so enjoyable. This one is apparently about Thea Orville, who gets 'fed up with looking after a houseful of students, throws caution to the winds and takes off to Ireland with Rory, a charming but feckless artist.' Well who wouldn't? And of course it's not long before the 'maddingly attractive', enigmatic Ben is also on the scene. You mean this sort of thing doesn't happen to you?
Escapism at its best.
The Feast by Margaret Kennedy
I saw a copy of this book on the shelves in the Shelter shop. I picked it up then put it back. I knew nothing about it, and as I was about to go shopping I decided I could do without the weight in my bag.
That very evening I saw a review of The Feast on the blog of the brilliant JacquiWine. She loved it. Damn.
Owing to various public holidays I could not get back to the Shelter shop for over a week. How lucky and thrilled I was to find that book still sitting on the shelf.
First published in 1950, The Feast explores the (fictional, I should add) mystery of a hotel in Cornwall that has just been buried by a cliff collapse. Seven people have been killed, but who were they and why were they there in the first place? The story then returns to the week before the disaster, and readers meet the people and learn about their lives.
Jaqui calls it 'a wonderfully clever, engaging novel with some serious messages at its heart.' And I'm certainly happy to trust her judgement.
The End of Summer by Rosamunde Pilcher
I am a little bit shocked to realise that I have never actually read a Rosamunde Pilcher novel, because of course I thought I had - and that assumption must have been based on seeing both adaptations of her most famous work The Shell Seekers, and also a dreadful film 'based on Rosamunde Pilcher's romance novels' Shades of Love (available on Prime for anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours cringing. Why actors like Charles Dance and Eileen Atkins got mixed up in it I cannot imagine.) I don't know anything about The End of Summer, but it's set in Scotland - and it's short - so I thought I'd read it and see.
The Garrick Year by Margaret Drabble
As teenagers we devoured Margaret Drabble's The Millstone. An unmarried pregnant woman! How immensely exciting we thought, as we toiled away at our O-levels in an extremely straight-laced all girls school in the London suburbs. I don't think I ever read The Garrick Year though, and again it has the essential (for this purpose) quality of brevity, so I have added it to my list and will be interested to see what the 1960s look like from this distance.
Village Affairs by Miss Read
I am always happy to spend a few hours with the residents of Thrush Green or Fairacre. I know Miss Read's books are often written off as cosy and nostalgic, but the ones I have read so far have also addressed real issues. In Village Affairs Fairacre school is threatened with closure - something that does indeed happen quite often where I live in Aberdeenshire.
The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer
I recently read Saturday Lunch with the Brownings, a collection of short stories by Penelope Mortimer recommended by another of my favourite book bloggers HeavenAli. Mortimer's depictions of women (and children) suffering the misery of unhappy marriages and unrewarding motherhood are so sharply and accurately observed that every one of these stories is a gem. The author was the first wife of John Mortimer, and I'm sure she had plenty to complain about. The Pumpkin Eater is perhaps her most famous book, described as a surreal black comedy and with its opening scene set in a psychiatrist's office. I haven't even opened it yet but I'm already thinking along the lines of Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar (which was published in 1961, just one year before The Pumpkin Eater), so it will be interesting to see if I am even slightly on the right track.
Honest Doubt by Amanda Cross (Carolyn Heilbrun)
I couldn't read all these books without including at least one of my beloved Amanda Cross Kate Fansler mysteries. In this one a professor is poisoned with his own medication. Enter Kate, feminist, professor of English Literature, wife of the divine Reed, rebellious scion of the uber-wealthy and equally uber-conservative Fansler family, amateur sleuth. It doesn't really matter too much to me who killed whom or why, I just like listening to Kate's pontifications on life, literature and everything else. She's not everyone's cup of tea but for me she is an abiding joy. I know I'll get through this one.
So that's my list. How will I do? Watch this space - but please be kind when I almost inevitably fall short. Choosing the books is such a pleasure for me that I can't resist going for twenty, whatever my failings may end up being in the actual meeting of the challenge.