This page links to all the Talk about books posts for 2023. Earlier posts can be found on the archive pages for 2022 and 2020/1. The most recent posts (about a year’s worth) are on the main archive page.
Emma Healey, Elizabeth Is Missing and Whistle in the Dark
Emma Healey’s two novels (to date) are quite different from each other but share some ideas and themes. Both focus on the relationship between sisters, and both gain a lot of their force from the idea of being buried or trapped underground in the dark and cold.
Stranger still: Sylvia Townsend Warner, A Stranger with a Bag and Other Stories
Sylvia Townsend Warner’s collection of thirteen stories includes several which feature “strangers”, people who are in some sense out of place. Many of the stories have serious themes, some are more lighthearted but most have an element of often ironic humour.
Land and marriage: Three novels by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s irony includes a kind of “double vision” which enables her to consider simultaneously “The economic basis of society” (W H Auden) and the wretched, wicked inadvisability of entering into a marriage “without affection”.
The last word or the first claim: Notes on some of Seamus Heaney’s poetry
I don’t know the poetry of Seamus Heaney (the tenth anniversary of whose death was earlier this year) as well as I ought to, and in this post I manage to prove that I don’t, though that wasn’t what I set out to do.
Daphne du Maurier, Don’t Look Now and other stories
This collection of 5 “long” short stories displays du Maurier’s versatility but without giving the impression that it’s a deliberate showcase or sampler. One story is spooky, one SF-spooky, one naturalistic adventure, one moralistic social satire and one mythological/mysterious.
Shifting ground: Salman Rushdie, The Ground beneath Her Feet
Salman Rushdie’s 1999 novel marks a change of direction in his fiction, though I’m not yet sure which way it leaves him pointing. He jokes about “disorientation” meaning “loss of the East”. It’s a novel about migration, earthquakes and rock music, and a love story.
Becoming Amazons: Lisa Lutz, The Swallows
Lisa Lutz’s novel, The Swallows (2019) successfully performs a difficult balancing act. The theme is deadly serious — sexual exploitation and abuse — while the tone and style are often comic. That’s a mixture you might find in a savage satire — but this isn’t satire, exactly.
Out of series: Liz Nugent, Unravelling Oliver (2014) and Lying in Wait (2016)
Liz Nugent’s first two novels combine familiar, naturalistically described settings with melodramatic action and motivations that are shockingly twisted. The result is crime fiction like nobody else’s.
A double standard: Wilkie Collins, The Law and the Lady
Valeria Woodville is advised by many wise and well-meaning people that to investigate her new husband’s hidden past can result only in misery and despair. Her husband is of the same view.
Poetic imagery: William Empson and the visual imagination in the criticism of poetry
William Empson said that he never formed visual mental images while he read or thought. I’ve no doubt that aphantasia affects the ways one reads and reacts to poetry, but it’s not easy to say exactly what the effect is.
“What, not one hit?” Salman Rushdie, The Moor’s Last Sigh
Rushdie’s fifth novel for adults, his next after The Satanic Verses, features one character who is a brutally unflattering caricature of a real-life Hindu nationalist leader, culminates in an apocalyptic series of explosions in Bombay and tells us what happened to the son of Saleem/Shiva Sinai, from Midnight’s Children. And a lot more besides.
“I never call it a memoir”: Mind and body in Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self
Emilie Pine’s extraordinary collection of personal essays deals with having an alcoholic parent, childlessness and miscarriage, the body, perceived failure, being a workaholic, silence and memory.
Andrew Marvell’s objects
A look at Andrew Marvell’s use of an unusual grammatical device in which a single verb has two objects, one abstract, one concrete (or in one case, one human, the other divine).
Cutting losses: Caoilinn Hughes’s novels
Caoilinn Hughes’s two novels are quite different from each other and from her short stories. But both feature strained sibling and parental relations and show several different ways of dealing with the financial crash of 2008 and its devastating impact on Ireland.
Anatomy of a series: Scott Turow’s Kindle County novels
Although Scott Turow’s novels have a number of common themes and tropes, each of them starts from a noticeably different place. The author goes to unusual lengths to avoid writing the same book twice.
Floating upwards from history: Salman Rushdie, Shame (1983)
In Shame, Salman Rushdie’s next novel after Midnight’s Children, the author attempts to fictionalize a Pakistan that he views as already partly made up. The effect is a distancing, a flattening of emotion, which creates a considerable contrast to the earlier novel.
Short stories by Kevin Barry: Dark Lies the Island and That Old Country Music
There’s a narrowing of range, and not just geographically, between Kevin Barry’s second and third collections of stories, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Two short novels by Ian McEwan: Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach
Two very short novels, about the same length, published 9 years apart, are starkly dissimilar — one has been described as “brilliantly acid”, the other as a “beguiling” story of how love can easily go very wrong — but music is central to both.
“This persistent universe game”: The conclusion of Michael Dibdin’s Aurelio Zen series
A look at the last three books in Michael Dibdin’s series (of 11) featuring the Venetian detective, Aurelio Zen. Eighteen months ago, I wrote about Zen’s declining moral trajectory in the first 8 books. In these ones he’s (broadly speaking) on his way back up.
“Fools will serve to father wise men’s children”: Thomas Middleton, Women Beware Women (c. 1621)
Women Beware Women, by Thomas Middleton alone though he often collaborated, has two tragic plots which are tightly integrated. As is true of his earlier play, The Revenger’s Tragedy, the apparent subplot may hold more interest than the main plot.
Paris in the springtime: Sylvia Townsend Warner, Summer Will Show (1936)
Following the death of her two children from smallpox, a conservative landowning Englishwoman travels to Paris where she takes part in the revolution of 1848, and falls in love with a bohemian artist, her estranged husband’s sometime mistress.
“Just a way that she has found to manage her life”: Alice Munro, Runaway (2004)
A look at Alice Munro’s 2004 collection of short stories, Runaway, which includes the three stories that Pedro Almodóvar adapted for his film, Julieta (2016). It’s my first sustained attempt to engage with Munro’s stories.
“Not human to feel safely placed”: Further reflections on the poetry of William Empson
William Empson’s poetry changed after 1930. Between then and 1940, his main subject was the approach of war. And then he stopped almost completely.
Two falls and a Submission: Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses (1988)
Salman Rushdie’s fourth novel is stuffed with themes which don’t always seem reconcilable yet don’t exactly clash. We get the migrant’s-eye-view, and enquiries as to where evil comes from and “how newness enters the world” — and much more besides.
Social distance: Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021)
Each of Sally Rooney’s novels and several of her short stories feature a friendship or relationship across the class divide. One party is poor, the other well off. Her third novel is no different, except that there’s been a reversal of fortune.
Death in Florence: Daphne du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel and Michael Dibdin’s A Rich Full Death
In these two novels, Florence has a paradoxical quality: dry, sunny and beautiful, relatively inexpensive and with a rich cultural history, and yet home to a disproportionately high number of dying and (therefore) unhappy people.