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.
... something 'light'
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.
I find audio books only work for me if they are not too taxing. I want something I don’t need to flick back and forward, something that doesn’t require reading a paragraph over a few times to absorb the point, check one character’s relationship to another, or admire the imagery. So when I’m gardening slash driving slash ironing, literary fiction or challenging non-fiction is not on the menu. Instead it’s got to be an audio book that is suspenseful and absorbing enough to make whatever I’m doing pass quickly but nothing so deep that I have to concentrate too much – and of course narrated brilliantly. All hail, therefore, the fabulous detective novels in the Comoran Strike Series by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling) and read by Robert Glenister.
Feeling the winter blues creeping in and in need of an escape? The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak, a gorgeous little gem of a book, will immerse you in an exotic world of heat, colour, love and friendship. ‘Every true love and friendship is a story of unexpected transformation. If we are the same person before and after we loved, that means we haven’t loved enough.’