Sunday, 1 June 2014

Reading round-up: May

May 2014 books

33. Writers by Antoine Volodine - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
34. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xiaolu Guo - 5/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
35. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey - 6/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
36. Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
37. Law of Desire: Stories by Andrej Blatnik - 7/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the book
38. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson - 8/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
39. The Secret Place by Tana French - 8/10. Read my full review / Pre-order the ebook
40. Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield - 7/10. Read my full review / Buy the ebook
41. In the Cut by Susanna Moore - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
42. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto - 6/10. Read my full review / Buy the book
43. The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton - 6/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
44. My Salinger Year by Joanna Rakoff - 7/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
45. Landline by Rainbow Rowell - 4/10. Review to come / Pre-order the ebook
46. Black Snow by Mikhail Bulgakov - 6/10. Review to come / Buy the ebook

There's obviously something about May. Last year, I read almost 20 books in the month of May (although I was on holiday at the time). This year, although I didn't quite reach those heights, it was still a prolific month.

At the end of April, I said that in May I wanted my reading to include 'older books, translated fiction and at least one classic', and I actually managed to fulfil those aims - the fourteen books I read in May included six pre-21st century books, five originally published in a language other than English, and three (maybe four) that could be deemed 'classics'.

For some reason, I've found a lot of the books I've read this month difficult to rate, and have gone back and forth changing ratings because they didn't seem to fit properly with how I felt about the book. This might be a consequence of having ready a greater variety of book types this month. It doesn't seem right to give a challenging, strange collection of stories the same rating as a straightforwardly enjoyable thriller, even if I thought they were both equally good in the context of those genres. Anyway...

Favourites of the month. The Secret Place - fifth in Tana French's Dublin Murder Squad series, out late August - is at the top of the list. It's a truly entertaining and gripping murder mystery which puts teenage friendships in the spotlight in a clever and really quite beautiful way. I also very much enjoyed Carmilla, a classic vampire tale that's fabulously melodramatic.

Also recommended. The Summer Book is a soothing balm of a book, perfect for summer but, I'm sure, equally charming and delightful whenever you choose to read it (it even manages to make a child protagonist appealing). My Salinger Year, a memoir about a young writer working at a New York publishing agency in the late 1990s, is a little frothy but incredibly readable and likeable.

Debut novels that didn't live up to the hype. Elizabeth is Missing and The Miniaturist could both be described thus. I did enjoy both books, and they have original and interesting premises: the former is a dual mystery narrated by an elderly woman with Alzheimer's, while the latter follows a young newlywed in 17th-century Amsterdam, whose wedding gift of an intricate dolls' house may have magical properties. I just felt that both were overhyped, and neither were the groundbreaking literary debuts I'd been hoping to read. I am - so far - in a very small minority with these opinions, though...

Experimental adventures in fiction. Writers and Law of Desire, both published by Dalkey Archive Press and translated from French and Slovenian respectively, are both surreal and difficult works, which require a certain level of concentration and understanding to be properly appreciated. I liked Writers but felt my lack of knowledge about Volodine's other work was detrimental to my enjoyment. Law of Desire was more successful, once I'd got past some difficulties with the opening story. It's an eclectic mix of tales about relationships and communication in which more themes and meanings emerge the longer you think about it.

The 'classics'. Something Childish But Very Natural is a collection of Katherine Mansfield stories loosely themed around the subject of love. Some included here, such as the excellent 'Bliss', are fantastic; others are too short to have a proper impact, and overall it's just alright. Black Snow is Bulgakov's satire on the theatre and Russian censorship, and although funny and insightful, it was unfinished when the author died and really feels like it - the ending cuts the story off very abruptly.

A resounding 'meh'. A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers was okay, but unmemorable, and I didn't care about the characters. The same could be said about Landline, which was disappointing after I enjoyed Rowell's cute YA novel Fangirl.

And the rest. Kitchen - a modern classic in Japan - is a slight but interesting book which explores ideas about grief and love. While I liked it, I felt much more could have been done with the idea, and the quality of the translation also seemed poor, especially when it came to the dialogue. I preferred the short story that accompanied the main novella. In the Cut is a weird thriller from the mid-90s which is, perhaps, very much of its time. I found it extremely well-written but got sick of the constant prejudice faced by the main character, and also thought the actual plot was really weak.

So all in all, May was a mixture, but I feel better for having expanded my reading horizons. I also bought a lot of books in May, and I'm going to try and stick to reading classics and modern classics in amongst all the new books... But that might be difficult in June since SO MANY new novels come out in July, so I want to get through quite a few advance copies as well. Look out for a post soon about what to look forward to in June and July.

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