These are my favorite books of the year so far. I’ve also read some downright silly, some forgettable, and some dreadful books which will get a mention at the end.
Think you could never feel heartache for a robot? Surrender to the magic of Ishiguro’s writing. Klara is an AF, a solar-powered Artificial Friend, purchased as a companion for Josie, a teenage girl who suffers from a mysterious illness. Klara is programmed to recognize and respond to human emotions and to always place the needs of her human first. She narrates the story, so we see the human world through her eyes, a disorienting combination of astute observation and naivety. As in Ishiguro’s most famous novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, the disturbing truth about Josie’s society and her illness are gradually revealed. When Klara decides she needs help to complete her mission she turns to the higher power who gives her life, the Sun. Once again Ishiguro’s hypnotic prose holds the reader in a spell.
Boyd is a prolific English novelist but I admit I’ve only read a couple of his books before. This became a must read for me when I saw that it is set in Brighton in 1968. Well I lived in Brighton from 1966 to 1970 when I was a student at the University of Sussex. Brighton had a shady reputation (see Brighton Rock by Graham Greene), a place for extra-marital trysts in seedy B&Bs. But it’s also a town that boasts beautiful Regency architecture including the famous Royal Pavilion where my graduation was held. Trio turned out to offer much more than a nostalgic visit to my student days. It is hugely entertaining, comic and bittersweet. The trio are all in Brighton to shoot a film. Talbot Kydd is the film producer, Elfrida Wing an alcoholic novelist married to the director, and Anny Viklund a young American movie star. The plot is a farcical romp reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse, with startling revelations and twists of fate for each of the trio. And no, nothing like my own life in Brighton!
What lifts this account of a woman haunted by a poltergeist in 1930’s London above a mere sensational story, is how historian Summerscale places it in the social context of the times. It was an age of intense interest in spiritualism driven by the many grieving people who had lost family members during the Great War. And for generations who had seen amazing scientific inventions like electricity and the wireless, was it so unimaginable that a means could be found of communicating with the dead? Meanwhile the ghosts who had once confined themselves to the country mansions of the aristocracy were suddenly wreaking havoc in working class homes. Why? Enter Nando Fodor, a Hungarian who worked for the International Institute of Psychical Research. He had a reputation for exposing charlatans but was determined to find a genuine case for study. Alma Fielding seemed promising. The investigation led in surprising directions and Fodor became one of the first psychic researchers to suspect that human psychology lies behind the mysterious happenings.
Set in India between the wars, this is a story of the End of Empire seen through the eyes of two Englishmen and a group of Indian intellectuals. Both Englishmen were the elder brothers of famous poets. John Auden was a geologist studying the Himalaya and Michael Spender an engineer and surveyor. They shared the dream of joining an expedition to Everest and were also romantic rivals, falling in love with the same woman, the artist Nancy Sharp. Sudhin Datta was a Bengali poet who led a salon for Indian and English intellectuals in Calcutta. Moving from the slopes of Everest to the drawing rooms of the Raj, from clandestine meetings of Indian Nationalists and Communist spies to the London flats of poets and artists, this panoramic narrative is also an intimate portrait of how individuals experienced the drive for Indian independence and the threat of an oncoming world war.
The silliest book I read this year has to be The Maidens, Alex Michaelides’ follow-up to his spectacular debut The Silent Patient. I thought it must be an earlier manuscript published now on the strength of his newfound fame. But no, in the afterword he says he wrote it during the pandemic. Set in a Cambridge college where student devotees of a popular classics professor are turning up dead, the mystery again features a therapist. Mariana, a grieving widow, rushes to Cambridge to support her niece and becomes convinced of the professor’s guilt. The plot is unbelievable, the characters paper thin, and there’s a lot of pretentious classics quoting. Despite all its faults I admit it was harmless fun to read. Not so The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, a truly sickening foray into cloning about a man who has an affair with a clone of his wife and then she creates a clone of him, or was it the other way around? I must get over the compulsion to finish every book I start.
My favorite escapist reading is psychological suspense and I’ve read quite a few this year. But looking through the list I can’t remember anything about most of them. Oh Ruth Rendell how I miss you!
If you have opinions on any of these books or have favorites of your own to share please do so in the comments. Wishing you Happy Reading for the rest of the year.