My reading pace has slowed down a tiny bit this month, but given it was the shortest month of the year, 10 books read is not too bad. Not only am I making good progress toward my A Century of Books Challenge but I don’t feel even remotely tempted to read anything that is not already on my TBR shelves. Putting them all in one spot and in chron order is really paying off.
The titles read this month are not, however, in chron order, they are in order of how much I liked them, with my favorite at the top and so on.
The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
I bought this purely because of how great the British Library Crime Classics covers are. I’m not big on mysteries but I couldn’t resist. The nod on the cover to air travel gave this one an edge when determining which of the BLCCs to buy. The book did not disappoint on so many levels. It starts off with an elderly man dying on the 12:30 flight from Croydon to France. The action moves from the circumstances surrounding his death to following the relative who murdered him. I loved all of the detail surrounding the air travel itself, the business circumstances that led to the murder motive, the great pains the murderer took to go undetected, and then what happens as the net starts to gather around him. I have a feeling that others may not find all of that detail fascinating but I love it. Chapters and chapters about how the murderer’s business is failing. Like a cross between Trollope, Wilkie Collins, and Nevil Shute. Loved it.
Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
I fear I am becoming more and more of a nostalgia queen. If this 1976 spy thriller had been written in 2016, I’m not sure I would have cared about it. As it turns out I loved it. A Soviet/East German spy living in Washington, D.C., opens a tale of spy vs. spy that ends up in the French Riviera. It wasn’t all secret codes and eavesdropping, MacInnes writes very smart books that immerses one and explain things without being obvious. There’s nothing flashy about her writing or content. Imagine if Ward Just wrote spy novels. (I know, you haven’t read Ward Just so you have no idea what I mean–so maybe it is time you read some Ward Just. Probably easier to find than Helen MacInnes.)
Recovering by May Sarton
One of May Sarton’s calming, beautiful journals. This one written when she was about 67 and recovering both from a mastectomy and the poor reception of her novel A Reckoning. Like her other journals this one can be quite cozy with plenty about gardening, her pets, dinners with friends, her process, etc., but there is plenty that isn’t cozy including depression exacerbated by professional woes and loneliness. One of the saddest things ever comes in the early pages of the journal when Sarton describes what turned out to be a very unsuccessful Christmas. Her long term partner’s Christmas visit from the nursing home is cut short because her dementia has reached the point where she no longer seems to be aware of Sarton and Sarton finds it nearly impossible to take care of her. As I read about Sarton’s concerns over the viability of her being able to make enough money to live on, all I could think was “Hang in there, in about five years you are going to write one of my favorite books of all time.” (The Magnificent Spinster)
Marazan by Nevil Shute
This was Shute’s first published novel. And he wrote it while working full-time as an engineer on Britain’s airship program. True to Shute’s form, Marazan is not without its aeronautical and nautical scenarios, but this time the crisis has to do with a murder and illegal drug importation into England. A bit of racist language to be overlooked and a rather simple minded–very 1926–understanding of drug interdiction don’t diminish the storytelling. Having read all but three of Shute’s novels, what surprises me about Marazan (and his novel Most Secret), is that Shute seems to prize doing what his characters think is right over what is legal. I’m not sure I’ve picked that up in his other work. I guess I am such a rulesy kind of person that I generally prize what’s legal over what is right.
My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
I’ve now read all but O’Farrell’s latest novel. This one, from 2002 is O’Farrell’s second novel and one that I have never seen in the U.S. so kudos to Heywood Hill’s Year of Books subscription for finding me something I didn’t know I needed. It doesn’t live up to any of O’Farrell’s other novels but it is still a decent read. Lily has moved in with Marcus an architect she has quickly fallen in love with. He seems to be full of secrets including the fate of his previous girlfriend. He is a grade-A creep and many moments in this book had me thinking of all the nefarious male behavior being presented in recent days by the #MeToo phenomenon. It feels like a call out of how awful men can be and how much women have been socialized to put up with it–but I don’t think that was O’Farrell’s point, I think it more just a sign of the times. Or maybe it was the point and women have been purposely making that point for a hundred years, but I’ve just considered it to be part of the background. That’s depressing.
Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
Young woman sharing a flat with two people she knew from university. I wanted to like it and there many moments when I did like it, but overall I wasn’t a big fan. I really enjoyed Outline, I have even read it twice since it came out in 2014, so I was surprised this one didn’t work out better for me. I believe it was her first novel. It was published 21 years earlier than Outline so maybe I prefer late Cusk. In some ways it made me think it could have been an edgier Anita Brookner who was writing a novel a year at this time. I think her writing style comes close. It certainly has an old fashion feel to it. I should note that I started this one as an audio book but I was somewhat unreasonably annoyed by the narrator’s voice so I switched over to my print copy.
Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
I am beginning to think I may not like Spark as much I thought I did. From the 1972 New York Times review by Lawrence Graver “A group of servants in the Klopstock mansion near Geneva wait for the Baron to commit suicide after killing his wife and their mutual lover, so they can sell scabrous memoirs to the press.” I don’t mind Spark’s darker side (The Driver’s Seat), but this was all a little bit too whimsical for me.
Rex by E.F. Benson
Young Rex is an aspiring playwright who does not get along with his father and is a bit of an unfeeling user of people. At first I thought this was going to be charming but I ended up disliking Rex so much. I’m not entirely sure Benson was trying to portray him is quite that unsympathetic light, but it is hard to know. I kept hoping for failure/comeuppance and/or transformation. Neither seemed to be in the offing.
My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
Although I found more than a few things interesting in this “bio” of Ackerley’s dog Tulip, he spent way too much time on anatomical descriptions of the process of trying to get her impregnated. I wouldn’t have minded this if he hadn’t kept bringing those things up and writing about them in a way that was far too poetic to be scientific. The effect ways creepy. There were also moments that I completely identified with, so it was amusing and emotional on some levels. The other thing about this book is that the way we live with dogs today is so much different than it was in Ackerley’s time. From sterilization to picking up poo to calling female dogs bitches. I’m glad we’ve progressed.
Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
A successful, charismatic, Catholic priest in Chicago is sent off to a derelict retreat house in the wilds of Minnesota by his superior who seems to be jealous of, or threatened by, his presence. He is a priest in the order of St. Clement making him a Clementine. I don’t know if the small, easily peeled, citrus fruits of the same name were as popular in the 1960s as they are now, but it sure made me chuckle ever time I saw it in print. This was kind of charming and funny but I think I would have appreciated it more if there had been less of it.
1921 – Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim
1922 – A Son at the Front by Edith Wharton
1924 – The Unlit Lamp by Radclyffe Hall
1925 – Rex by E.F. Benson
1926 – Marazan by Nevil Shute
1929 – The Bride’s House by Dawn Powell
1930 – Journey’s End by R.C. Sherriff and Vernon Bartlett
1934 – The 12:30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
1939 – The Confidential Agent by Graham Greene
1954 – Slide Rule by Nevil Shute
1959 – Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler
1962 – Morte D’urban by J.F. Powers
1965 – My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley
1971 – Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark
1976 – Agent in Place by Helen MacInnes
1980 – Recovering by May Sarton
1986 – To the Land of Cattails by Aharon Appelfeld
1987 – In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
1990 – The Boss Dog by M.F.K. Fisher
1993 – Saving Agnes by Rachel Cusk
2002 – My Lover’s Lover by Maggie O’Farrell
Not To Disturb is insane. Whimsical is one of the last words I’d have given it, tbh, but it’s definitely one of my least favourite Spark novels.
Well done on how well you’re doing with your century!
I love all May Sargon books having reread them all many times. I find her writing very soothing.
You’re doing really well with ACOB – I’m on 19.
There was a great film made of my dog tulip with Christopher Plummer as Ackerley
That Heywood Hill subscription service is doing pretty well!
Great progress with your ACOB list! I’m woefully behind but I’m reading a book with four Edith Wharton novellas so I’m counting them all separately (also increasing my yearly reads for Goodreads, is that cheating?)
I also own The 12:30 From Croyden, I think I bought it at Foyle’s last year. Those covers are irresistable, aren’t they?
And I think we felt pretty much the same way about Ackerley. Not what I was expecting, too much information about the reproductive details of dogs.
I love those BLCCs – I’ve collected quite a few, but only read one to date (title escapes me at the moment, but I know I enjoyed it). I read my first ever Maggie O’Farrell title this month (This Must Be the Place), and I’m looking forward to reading more of hers. I first heard about her from Simon – I have a very distinct memory of his description of her book, Instructions for a Heatwave (we have been in a drought at the time he read it). I also read Jhumpa Lahiri for the first time and her Interpreter of Maladies made me think I might enjoy short stories more than I had previously thought. Kudos to you for sticking to your shelves and the COB reading – isn’t it amazing how effective rearranging the bookshelves can be for sparking new interest? Happy reading!
12.30 from Croydon is also one of my favourite BLCCs. I remember thinking how unusual and interesting it was to have a factory feature prominently in a book – most writers are from a literary background, and therefore set their novels in places like academia or public relations offices, which they know. I am also surprised when reading these old books how easy it was to obtain poison – tightened regulations must have prevented numerous murders!
Thanks for posting photos and reviews of your HH books. I’m really tempted to treat myself next year. I love seeing the packaging and bookmark, too. The only one of your February reads I’ve read is the Spark and agree that it’s not one of her best. I have quite a few old Bensons but not Rex.
Great round-up and reviews. My February take on ACOB was not very successful, I’m afraid. I was sick for the first two weeks and never got in a groove. I’ve started about ten books and keep bouncing around rather than finishing anything. Hopefully March will be better.