The cynical, whiskey drinking, mac-wearing sleuth Philip Marlow is one of crime literature’s most enduring characters. Written in 1936, The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler has stood the test of time despite a dash of homophobia and sexism which, today, seem so outlandish it just makes you laugh. The story involves the wealthy General Sternwood, his spoilt, unruly daughters Carmen and Vivian, and blackmail. Chandler was in a league of his own when it came to astute observations of people and places and it’s this that sets The Big Sleep apart from so many others in the genre.
... something 'light'
As I’ve just found out, I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron can always be pulled out of the bookshelf and re-read. It’s the American screenwriter’s (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) laugh-out-loud collection of essays about divorces, moustaches, the power of hair-dye, losing your eye-sight, why it’s pointless to bring a book to the hairdresser, and, yes, neck skin. Comic genius Ephron (the only woman in the White House JF Kennedy never made a pass on) knew a thing or two about turning tragedy into comedy and in her mid-sixties wrote a blisteringly honest book about ageing. She didn’t believe in upbeat books about old age. ‘Why do people write books that say it’s better to be older than to be younger? It’s not better.’ It might not sound like it but believe me when I say you’ll feel better after laughing your way through this book.
I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron is published by Doubleday, 228 pages.
Truly original novels are few and far between. All the more reason to hail the wonderfully quirky Summer Light and Then Comes the Night by Jon Kalman Stefansson. It’s the portrait of a remote Icelandic town set in the 1990s and if that fails to excite you, I promise that this unexpected, humorous, warm story is worth reading. Stefansson describes dreams and aspirations, crushed or fulfilled; love and desire, unrequited or reciprocated. Life, basically. His tone in playful, conversational and above all, funny. A breath of literary fresh air.
Adelmo Farandola lives by himself as far up a rocky Alpine valley as possible. He hasn’t showered or changed clothes for as long as he can remember and he’ll do anything to avoid people. When a stray dog starts following him, Adelmo reluctantly takes it in and a strange relationship develops as they struggle to survive the brutal winter. Anyone with a soft spot for books set in wild mountains will love Snow, Dog, Foot by Claudio Morandini. A bestseller in Italy, this quirky, darkly comic book about a grumpy loner losing his mind is a surreal little gem.
Laughter is the best medicine and for those of you who can’t stand Boris Johnson or Brexit, The Cockroach by Ian McEwan should make you feel a tiny bit better, at least for a fleeting moment. The rest of you might as well stop reading now. The premise is genius: a Kafkaesque metamorphosis in reverse. A cockroach wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister and fellow cabinet members, many of whom also used to live under the floorboards of the Houses of Parliament, are seeking to get an absurd economic plan called reversalism, a reversal of all money flows, through the House of Commons. It won’t change your life – or political point of view – McEwan’s political satire, but it will make you snigger. Predictably, The Guardian loved this novella, The Telegraph didn’t. I found it quite funny.
Disaffected teenager Charlie Lewis is finessed into joining a summer holiday drama camp by a girl he meets by chance. She is beautiful, clever and well-read; he can’t act, has zero ambition and is only there because he fancies her. Sweet Sorrow by David Nicholls is a pitch-perfect, delicately choreographed love story that will make you laugh and cry and wish you were young again – and then be glad you’re not.
Russia is divided and trouble is brewing. Revolution is bubbling angrily beneath the surface. The poor are starving and desperate, yet in the Imperial court of Tsar Nicolas II the aristocracy live a life of senseless decadence and wanton excess. Two mysterious sisters burst into the Romanov Court. Princesses Anastasia and Militza arrive from the tiny impoverished backwater of Montenegro and, thanks to their socially aspirational father the ‘Goat King’, are married off to wealthy Russian aristocrats. The Witches of St. Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones is ideal beach reading: gripping, entertaining and gossipy.
In a faraway country torn apart by civil war, two men are paving a new road that will reunite the north and south. The job is dangerous, employees of large international companies are attractive targets for kidnappers, so the men are known by their code names Four and Nine. They are polar opposites as far as personality goes. Four is a risk-averse pedant, Nine a careless hedonist. The stage is set for chaos. I’ve always enjoyed the way Eggers throws characters into unchartered territories, a fertile ground for comedy, and here he does it again. The Parade by Dave Eggers is not his best book, but as a light, funny read it’s very enjoyable nonetheless. (The Parade will be published in the UK on 21st March.)
Now, a book about a mermaid might sound a bit ridiculous, but suspend belief and dive into the sumptuous, sexy and exuberant historical novel The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar and enjoy! Despite its 486 pages and tome-like appearance, I raced through this light, entertaining read and loved every second of it.
I was inspired to pick up The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard after hearing snatches of the Radio 4 a while ago, and reading reviews of Artemis Cooper’s biography of the author – about whom I knew little apart from the fact that she was unlucky enough to have been married to the old devil himself, Kingsley Amis. How glad I am that I did, particularly in the dying days of this particularly dismal year. The experience of reading the Cazalet series (The Light Years, Marking Time, Confusion, Casting Off and All Change) is like stepping into a warm bath. Comforting, life-affirming, immersive – and you absolutely don’t want to pull the plug.