What I read on my holiday … and what you might read on yours

A New England Affair

by Steven Carroll

Just before I left for the airport (back in late September), I closed the pages on this fabulous novel, which probes the long-term relationship that the poet TS Eliot had with Emily Hale. Hale was Tom Eliot’s friend, confidante and muse to his poetry—but their relationship foundered. Emily and Tom met in 1913, and Emily is 72 when Tom dies. Soon after his death, Emily is on a fishing boat and about to surrender to the sea all the letters the great poet had written to her over the years. As the boat negotiates the rocks of the Dry Salvages off Cape Ann, Massachusetts, Emily slips backwards and forwards in time—recalling the twists and turns her love for Eliot had demanded of her over many years.

Steven Carroll is a wonderful writer and keen observer of human nature. As a special treat over summer I highly recommend you read this heartbreaking and beautiful book, and the other two novels in Carroll’s Eliot Quartet series—The Lost Life and A World of Other People.

Here’s a quote …

You handed over your life, you little fool. Was that how it happened? See only what you want. Is that how these things unfold? You reach a point, without realising it, when going back and going forward are the same; when you no longer control events, events control you. That’s what hope does. Feeds you the story you want to believe. Except it’s not a story, it’s your life. You should have seen it in those first visits: the picture postcard town, not quite real; Tom not quite real; and you, Emily, the secret he rushed to meet.

The Dry

by Jane Harper

I wanted to take a little bit of Australia and our heat with me for the flight—so The Dry was the perfect choice as I winged my way into London. Harper might be a newbie novelist but this Aussie-based crime tale has the hallmarks of the best in the genre. Pacey, atmospheric, gripping, and well-written—pop it on your Christmas list to read on those hot days at the beach. The plot is intriguing and Aaron Falk is a great character: a smart cop to be reckoned with.

Here’s a quote …

Gerry ran a hand over his face.

‘I loved Luke. I would defend him to the end. But I loved Karen and Billy as well. And Charlotte. I would have gone to my grave saying my son was incapable of something like this. But this voice keeps whispering, Is that true? Are you sure? So I’m asking you. Here. Now. Did Luke give you that alibi to protect you, Aaron? Or was he lying to protect himself?’

Remarkable Creatures

by Tracy Chevalier

I knew I’d be spending loads of time walking the coast of the UK and Wales so Chevalier’s book, set in the 1800s and in the dramatic landscape of the English coastal town of Lyme-Regis, was a winner. It set me up beautifully to pay attention to the geology and geography of the places I was visiting, and to ponder the people and creatures that that had inhabited these areas in the past.

True stories in novel form can be irritating. Happily, I found this one, based on the true story of the 19th century fossil hunter Mary Anning, captivating. Chevalier reveals how the male-dominated scientific fraternity of the era failed to acknowledge Anning’s work—but how the solidarity of her friend and fellow specimen collector, Elizabeth Philpot, finally got through to them.

‘It’s about fossils but it’s also about friendship,’ Chevalier says. (And I enjoyed both!)

Here’s a quote:

‘How beautiful this is,’ she murmured, her tone softer and less sensible than before. ‘I am still amazed at its size, and its strangeness.’

I agreed with her. The croc made me feel funny. While working on it I’d begun going to Chapel more regularly, for there were times sitting alone in the workshop with it that I got that hollowed out feeling of the world holding things I didn’t understand, and I needed comfort.

Cold Earth

by Ann Cleeves

Still wanting to tap into the wild and woolly atmosphere of the UK, I moved my reading from Lyme Regis to the Shetlands and to Cold Earth, where a landslide swept down a hill and flattened a house. A murdered woman was found inside the dwelling’s debris … but who was she? I’d previously watched some of BBC TV’s Shetland series, based on Ann Cleeves books, and thought it was terrific. Cold Earth is the seventh in her bestselling series and has a cast of colourful characters. Detective Jimmy Perez is complex, vulnerable and intriguing.

Here’s a quote:

Now she wondered if that was the truth. When the hill had slipped, fracturing their land and cutting it in two, it seemed that her image of herself as wife and mother had shattered too. She began to consider a parallel life away from the islands. How would she have ended up if she hadn’t met Kevin, if he hadn’t fallen wildly in love with a lass from Perth with soil under her thumbnail? She’d known from the beginning that there was no question of him staying in the Scottish mainland with her. He might love her, but not enough to give up the family croft. Would she have become an alcoholic if things had been different? She pushed that thought away quickly. There was nobody to blame for her drinking, not even her father, who’d been as much a victim of the illness as she had been. As she frequently told Rachel, alcoholism was a disease and not a lifestyle choice.

The Ice Palace

by Tarjei Vesaas

Entering Norway, I wanted my reading to give me icy landscapes and an insight into Norwegian people and their ways—so Ice Palace sounded promising. I dropped it part way, through, which is rare for me. The story, which begins with the fledgling friendship of two young girls, was pretty weird, and seemed somewhat laboured. My niece made it further through—but also thought the book was unnecessarily quirky and hard going.

Others say Tarjei Vesaas is ranked among the greatest Scandinavian writers of all time and that ‘The Ice Palace is one of the most memorable achievements in modern literature thanks in large part to Vesaas’ unique command of a sparse, figurative, and fragmentary style, the beauty and effect of which is not lost in translation.’

This high praise makes me feel I should persist with the novel at a point when I’m not travelling, and have more patience to tackle a difficult read.

Here’s a quote:

Siss was on tenterhooks now. It was unsafe here. What might not Unn say? But to be with Unn? For ever. She would say before they parted: You can tell me more another time. Whenever you like, another time. We couldn’t have gone further this evening. It had been a great deal as it was. But if they were to go further it would make things impossible. Home as quickly again as she could.

Otherwise they might get involved in something that would shatter it all for them. Instead they had shone into each other’s eyes.

Out Stealing Horses

by Per Petterson

Forget stealing horses—this one will steal your heart!

Trond is 67 and has moved to an isolated part of Norway to live in solitude after the death of his wife. A meeting with a neighbour sparks old memories—including those from the summer of 1948, when Trond was an adolescent. The death of a child, Trond’s father’s decision to leave the family, and the loss of a close friend are significant incidents. For me the grief in the narrative melded with the harsh weather of Norway (that I was experiencing and imagining) to make its impact more dramatic and vital.

Out Stealing Horses has been published in 49 languages so far and won myriad prizes. For me Pettersen’s writing is up there with James Salter, Richard Ford and Dennis Johnson for atmosphere and eloquence. Yes. This is a great story, beautifully told.

Here’s a quote:

In the course of one month they both died, and after they were gone I lost interest in talking to people. I really do not know what to talk to them about. That is one reason for living here. Another reason is being close to the forest. It was a part of my life many years ago in a way that nothing later has been, and then it was absent for a long, long time, and when everything around me suddenly turned silent, I realised how much I missed it.

Where My Heart Used to Beat

by Sebastian Faulks

I started reading this on the flight back to Australia and it helped me to face re-entry and endure some harsh jetlag in the days after landing. Faulks writes about war and love with unfaltering precision, incomparable perceptiveness, and marvelously constructed sentences. Contrary to some critics, I found the mild-mannered Robert Hendricks (an English doctor looking back on his 20th century life) far from boring. For most of the novel, Faulks cleverly kept me wondering where Hendricks and his lover Louisa would end up.

Here’s a quote:

The thought that she would spend the rest of her days in a place where I could not be with her seemed to me a sin against nature. I resented the absence of the closeness that was the opposite of solitude to know and be known so well … it had seemed an answer, a solution to the grief of living, to the rolling nightmare of our century.


by various Welsh and Norwegian writers

In the last few months I’ve blogged about the poetry from Wales and Norway that helped me to appreciate my travels in those beautiful, lyrical places. Read my posts Literature from the land of the leek and the lyre and So much to think about: Norwegian poetry of place and contemplation to find out more.

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