Thursday, 17 March 2016

What I read on holiday: the Riga edition

Riga, Latvia
Books I read in Riga

Reading on holiday is weird. So much reading time, so many books crammed into the space of a week - they all start to overlap in my mind, complementing each other in strange, unexpected ways, getting into my head (two separate books making a mention of French onion soup ended up making me feel like I really wanted some, even though I don't actually know what it's like). I managed to work through seven books during my time in Riga (including the flights there and back), all of them at least good, and a few of them excellent.

Not Working (21 April 2016) by Lisa Owens
Another paean to being young(ish) and not knowing what you want to do with your life, this debut is less acerbic than other recent novels of millennial ennui - such as Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere - but no less entertaining. A bit like Bridget Jones for the 2010s, Not Working's heroine Claire stumbles through a comedy of errors after quitting her job without another to go to, with family spats, relationship woes and soul-crushing office interludes along the way. It's very funny and very sharp; incredibly readable and bound to be super-popular.

The 6:41 to Paris (2013, translated 2015) by Jean-Philippe Blondel, translated by Alison Anderson
Two former lovers end up sat next to one another on a train - the 6:41 to Paris. Twenty years earlier, their affair ended badly, but they are now both much changed. The narrative switches between their points of view as, without speaking to one another, both relive their short relationship and the disastrous events of the night they broke up. The publisher's blurb for this describes it in an odd way - 'a psychological thriller about past romance' - which isn't, in my opinion, accurate; it's more like a smart, subtle romantic comedy, though it's just as compelling as a thriller.

Night Train (1997) by Martin Amis
I finally finished a Martin Amis book - though it's hardly typical of his work, so perhaps it doesn't really count. In Night Train (bought while I was in Riga), he adopts the voice of a tough American female cop, Mike Hoolihan, who's investigating her friend's supposed suicide. It's a pastiche of a particular sort of police procedural, edging into erotic thriller territory - it reminded me a lot of In the Cut by Susanna Moore, published in the same late-90s period. Riddled with deliberate cliches interspersed by passages of clever wordplay, it's an effective and really quite easy read, but there's something haunting about it, too.

Riga, Latvia

Foxlowe (2 June 2016) by Eleanor Wasserberg
I completely breezed through this debut novel - one of those stay-up-late-to-finish-it books. It's about a girl who's raised in a small commune at Foxlowe, the ancestral home of one of the group's founders. As is often the case in books like this (see: The First Book of Calamity Leek, to which this bears more than a passing resemblance), the protagonist is the one who is fiercely protective of 'the Family' and refuses to rebel when the the other children start to reject its practices. The story is addictive; it's easy to get swept up in the atmosphere. One to watch out for.

The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty (2015) by Vendela Vida
This may not have been my favourite, but of all the books I read on holiday, I think it was the most memorable. Set in Morocco, it's the slippery story of a character whose identity is always shifting - we never learn her real name, just a series of false ones she adopts as she repeatedly reinvents herself in order to stay afloat and escape her demons. Suspension of disbelief is essential, but if you can go with it, it's unputdownable; imagine a cross between Rachel Cusk's Outline and The Talented Mr. Ripley. An intriguing, taut novella that's infuriating in the best possible way. 

Animals (2014) by Emma Jane Unsworth
Well, it's been on my to-read list/pile for two years, but I am pleased to announce I have actually read Animals, and it was just as good as I expected and hoped. It might be an acquired taste - if you don't like reading about people drinking, doing drugs and fucking things up, don't even bother - but I found it hilarious, profound, maddening, warm, and relatable (an overused term, but one I genuinely feel to be intimately accurate in the case of this book). I also cried when I reached the end. Simply brilliant; an instant favourite.

Lover (10 March 2016) by Anna Raverat
This second novel from the author of the sublime Signs of Life tackles similar themes, chiefly infidelity, from a different perspective. We follow the narrator, Kate, as her family life unravels after the discovery of some suspicious emails on her husband's computer. At the same time, she's floundering in her job, an executive position at a hotel company - whose increasingly hapless attempts to understand what 'the guest' wants were perhaps my favourite parts of the story. For me, this wasn't a patch on Signs of Life, but it's nevertheless an elegant and moving examination of relationships, filled with quietly astute observations.

I received review copies of Not Working and Foxlowe from the publishers through NetGalley.

Riga, Latvia

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1 comment:

  1. So true about reading on holiday. "They all start to overlap in my mind, complementing each other in strange, unexpected ways," I actually crave that sensation when I am not reading enough to keep my addiction satisfied. I have meant to read The Diver's Clothes Lie Empty since it was released. Thanks for your thoughts on that.