On the cusp of a new year, it’s time to look at my favourite and not so favourite books from the year that’s about to end.
Let’s get the negative stuff out of the way first with a list of the books that never really hit the mark for me. Tomorrow I’ll post the list of the books that wowed me, so I can begin 2023 on a positive note.
The Magician by Colm Tóibín
The Magician is a fictionalised account of the life of the German Nobel author Thomas Mann. Though I have never read anything by Mann I knew he was a complex character who lived through a tumultuous period in history. So i had high expectations for this book. Sadly they were misplaced for this turned out to be a deathly dull book.
How could an author, faced with such rich material, turn in something so lacking in emotion and atmosphere? I don’t know why Tóibín didn’t opt to write a straight biography because so much of what I read just seemed to follow a pattern of ‘this happened – and then this happened.’ I was missing the spark of imagination and creativity.
It was so dull that, having limped along to about page 120 I decided I’d had enough, and not even the fact it was our book club choice could persuade me otherwise. Having enjoyed two previous novels by Tóibin, this was such a let down. I’m now hesitant to read the copy of The Master which I’ve owned since about 2006 because that too is about a literary great — Henry James — so I fear could be much the same.
Summerwater by Sarah Moss
The book blogging world was buzzing about Sarah Moss a few years ago when she was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction for her novel Ghost Wall. Her 2021 novella Summerwater was described as being similarly atmospheric. And to be fair it was full of a sense of foreboding that something awful would happen at a holiday camp somewhere in Scotland where the holidays of 12 people are ruined by persistent rain.
But I didn’t really get the point of the book. If it was meant to be a state of the nation book, a look at the UK through post-Brexit, pre-pandemic days, then it needed to be more a prominent theme. It felt like we were tip toeing around the topic and never reaching any point.
What I want from a Maigret novel is a whiff of Galois and the lively background of a bistro or a bar on a corner of a Parisian boulevard. I didn’t get any of those from Maigret Goes To School. Instead the Inspector spends all his time in a village in the Charente Maritime region, helping a man who is believed to have killed the former postmistress.
Maigret just isn’t the same when you take him outside of the city and split him from his trusted team members; Lucas, Janvier and Lapointe. As I remarked in my review, I’ll check more carefully before picking up my next Maigret tale. to make sure Georges Simenon has his detective firmly ensconced in his office in the Quai des Orfèvres with brief sojourns into the streets of Paris.
Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason
Meg Mason’s novel was praised for its sensitive handling of a woman’s mental health issues, injecting a degree of humour into an otherwise bleak story. It was a really well-observed book, showing the effect of mental illness on the sufferer as well as their family members.
One was that I found the humour irritating after a time. Often times what Martha, the main character, is given to say felt predictable when it was meant to sound ultra witty.
Second problem: at no time is the nature of Martha’s condition ever named. Every time it’s mentioned, the name is replaced by a series of dashes. That worked well for a large part of the narrative because Martha herself doesn’t know what is wrong with her. But when she does finally get a diagnosis, this isn’t shared with the reader.
I felt cheated.
A Time to Laugh by Rhys Davies
it’s hard to imagine a title more ill-suited to this novel of working class strife in the valleys of South Wales. A Time To Laugh is considered one of the classics of Welsh literature, published in the 1930s though depicting life in the 1890s when coal miners go on strike in protest against a new system for calculating their pay.
There is nothing to laugh at in this book. It’s unrelentingly bleak in his depiction of hardship and the lengths to which the workers will go to get a more just reward for their labours. Bleakness I can take having read Germinal in which Emile Zola covers the same ground. But what annoyed me about this book was the polemic.
Rhys Davies wants us to understand the situation completely he gets his characters to rehearse all the arguments against and for the cause of the miners and the need for social justice. Over and over and over we get the same points made. It robbed the book of the impact you would expect given the subject matter.
Those were the lows. By way of compensation there were plenty of reading highs. I’ll share my favourites tomorrow. In the meantime, what were your most disappointing reads?