Posted by: Sarah | May 31, 2006

Summer Reading

Having overcome my fear of Dunnetting, I’m currently engrossed in Pawn in Frankincense, the fourth novel in Dorothy Dunnett’s rich, complex and exciting Lymond series. Thanks to everyone who responded to my confession of this crippling fear, and thereby helped me conquer it.

I’m also reading, for The Historical Novels Review, an advance proof copy of Medicus and the Disappearing Dancing Girls by Ruth Downie, a crime mystery set in Roman Britain in the early 2nd century. Think Lindsey Davis, but (even) funnier. Downie’s sleuth is Gaius Petreius Ruso, a military surgeon with the Twentieth Legion at Deva (Chester), who would rather not be investigating the mysterious disappearances of two girls and the equally baffling appearance of a third. Ruso has a nice line in self-deprecating humour and a few family problems back home in Gaul which might be solved by a much-needed promotion, if only he could get his medical handbook written and the military red tape out of his hair. There’s a rather splendid joke on about page 117 which made me laugh out loud and will probably appeal to those, like Alex and Carla, who are familiar with Mary Beard’s dormouse test. The novel is published in August but my HNR review won’t be appearing until November. However, because that review will have to be brief, I’ll probably post a different, longer one here sometime soon.

Meanwhile, here are some recent and (I hope) imminent acquisitions which I plan to read this summer:

The Vanishing Point by Mary Sharratt. Mary took over from me as a reviews editor at HNR and is doing a super job, as well as being a gifted novelist and writing teacher. Here’s her website. And her blog, Sphinx Rising, which is dedicated to authors of historical fiction about women.

Sixty Lights
by Gail Jones. Recommended here by kimbofo over at Reading Matters, who also reviewed it here.

The Last Witchfinder by James Morrow. Reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver which I read a year or so ago and loved.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Someone (I forget who, sorry) recommended this as an antidote to clunky, po-faced conspiracy novels like The Da Vinci Code. It looks rather heavy-going but I enjoyed The Name of the Rose, so I’ll give this one a go when I’m feeling more lucid than usual.

Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel. An author’s memoir, recommended by my mother who doesn’t usually read authors’ memoirs.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. An impulse buy from the Oxfam shop. It was the subtitle that pulled me: “A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years”. I like reading popular science books, even if I don’t understand everything in them. (Your trusty blogger is pretty scientifically illiterate, I’m afraid, having failed all her science O-levels, and we’d best not mention maths, for shame.)

Wild Mary by Patrick Marnham. This is a biography of the novelist Mary Wesley who didn’t publish her first novel until she was 70, and then everyone was shocked at the sauciness of what issued from an old lady’s pen, such as The Camomile Lawn. Her life was pretty saucy too, what with all the torrid love affairs. But serious in parts – including a spell of code-breaking at Bletchley Park during World War II. I want to read this book on the strength of hearing an extract read on Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 last Bank Holiday Monday. I hope to listen to more extracts via Listen Again.

13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. Extracts are appearing each week in The Guardian Book Review Section. Smiley, author of the Pulitzer-winning novel A Thousand Acres, cured a spell of writer’s block by reading 100 novels, about each of which which she writes rather interestingly in the second half of this bricklike paperback. The first half consists of her thoughts on the novel, novelists and the writing process. So, something for everyone there.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. Well, rumour has it that it’s mentioned in an episode of Lost, and that’s good enough for me.

If this all sounds rather earnest and highbrow, well, I suppose it is. I’ve noticed that as I’ve grown older my reading tastes have changed. I used to enjoy real escapist, popular, light novels (must be careful with the terminology or some people will be offended), but now I only read them occasionally – and feel a bit guilty when I do. I guess this is because I’ve recently realized that I’m not going to live long enough to read all the books that take my fancy, so I’m settling for the best – those that challenge me and make me think and feel more deeply. And I’m way behind on the classics, though wiser heads than mine have opined that one shouldn’t read Trollope, for example (Anthony, that is), until one is middle-aged. So it looks as if it might be a Trollopian autumn in the Cuthbertson bookroom.

Speaking of popular, light novels (and yes, I did read The Da Vinci Code, unfortunately), I missed the opportunity at work last week of nipping down to the Gatwick terminals to purchase a copy of Jilly Cooper’s latest bonkbuster, Wicked! – and have it signed personally by the toothsome Jilly herself. Wicked! Or not.


  1. Thanks for all your recommendations, Sarah! I’ve been hearing a lot about the Downie novel and hope it will be published in the States. Of the novels you mentioned, I’ve read Mary S’s Vanishing Point, prior to doing an HNR interview with her for August, and it’s a wonderful book. And I thought James Morrow’s Last Witchfinder was brilliant, an intellectual feast but also very, very funny (if you have a sarcastic, dry sense of humor!). I wrote a review of it for Booklist (way down on the Amazon page) based on a proof I got late last year, and it was one of my favorites for 2005. Alas, I haven’t yet conquered my Dunnettphobia but will have to give her novels another go sometime.

  2. I want to grab The Last Witchfinder soon–looked well worth reading.

    Enjoy Our Mutual Friend. It and Bleak House are my favorite Dickens.

  3. Second that on Foucault’s Pendulum!

  4. Very much looking forward to reading the Downie book ๐Ÿ˜‰ Sounds a hoot.

    I *passed* my CSE maths – grade 5, the very lowest you could get without actually failing. Not worth the paper it’s written on. All the best people can’t do maths, eg. Paul Merton. We’re in good company, Sarah ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Looks like a busy summer ahead for you ๐Ÿ™‚ I also look forward to the Ruth Downie book, and The Vanishing Point also sounds interesting. So many books, so little time….

  6. More books for my TBR pile that already resembles the Pisa Tower, lol.

    BTW, I loved Foucault’s Pendulum.

  7. Catching up and late to the meet!
    I feel quite proprietorial about Ruth Downie because (she says smugly) I recognised her potential years ago when I was asked to judge a competition for the HNS and picked her story as the standout winner! I am so, so pleased for her that she’s finally made the breakthrough.
    Glad that you’ve overcome your Dunnett-itis too. Great writing!

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