Well, there you have it! Another month, another wrap-up. Quite a good reading month for me this - four contenders for the top of 2021 list (that list is going to be so hard to whittle down...); only a couple of books that didn't quite live up to the mental billing I'd given them; but no out and out stonkers. I didn't read the 33 I wanted to (only managed the 23, but honestly, that's never going to change), and most of them I did thoroughly enjoy.
Read on for my full wrap up.
TL;DR (forgot to do this last wrap-up... sorry!):
Best book of the month: We've got a four-way tie! And all four are in contention for best of 2021. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead/Harlem Shuffle/The Fortune Men/Les Mémoires d'un chat. Please read them all.
Most enjoyable book of the month: Portrait of a Scotsman. The Evie Dunmore books just get better and better. More, Evie. PLEASE. Worst book of the month: I'm gonna stick Nemesis on here - just really not Miss Marple's best outing at all.
Most disappointing book of the month: L'Œuvre au Noir. I expect a lot better from Marguerite Yourcenar.
Most 'pleasant surprise' book of the month: Rogue choice this, but I'm going with Beautiful World, Where Are You. The early reviews had really spooked me but I ended up loving it.
L'été tous les chats s'ennuient (3.5★/5), by Philippe Georget: A better example of modern, easy detective fare with decent writing, good storybuilding, good detective work, and good characters. Reviewed in full and recommended here.
La Chambre des dupes (3.6★/5), by Camille Pascal: A very lighthearted, very scathing look at the reign of Marie-Anne de Tournelle as favourite of Louis XV, and how the Court reacted to her being sent away when the king almost died at Metz in 1743. I think I would have found it funnier if I had been able to pick up on the in-jokes in the text about French politics under Sarkozy, but I still enjoyed it a lot. Pascal's prose is absolutely sparkling and he does not pull his punches.
A Town Called Solace (4.5★/5), by Mary Lawson: A lovely, peaceful book that (maybe?) doesn't quite deserve to be a Booker nominee. Loved it anyway though. Reviewed here.
Brideshead Revisited (4.3★/5), by Evelyn Waugh: Rich people being horrible to each other, which is my favourite subgenre! No, but seriously - this book is basically one long critique of both the aristocracy and (I think) the extraness of the Catholic Church and how dangerous repression of sexuality within the confines of the Church can be. I think it's also a portrait of how difficult relationships can be when there's a disagreement on something as fundamental as depth of religious feeling (my ex and I had our bitterest rows over religion, so I don't entirely disagree with this point, Evelyn). The language was also very interesting, and I appreciated the structure, even though the pacing did feel very off in the final third of the novel. Still an enjoyable read though, and I think I want to read more of Evelyn Waugh's books now.
At Bertram's Hotel (3.4★/5), by Agatha Christie: Not the best Miss Marple, again - felt like a bit of a stretch to make it about a massive crime syndicate, and there were too many subplots to really do the main plot justice. I also don't really like sprawling conspiracy stories, I just find them way too implausible. Plus not enough Miss Marple being scathing.
The Hidden Palace (3.2★/5), by Helene Wecker: A very beautiful, but also vaguely pointless follow-up to a book that really did not need a follow-up (in my humble but also infallible opinion). Reviewed here.
Beautiful World, Where Are You (4.5★/5), by Sally Rooney: A book that looks better in the rearview mirror than while I was actively reading it; but I very much enjoyed it and Sally Rooney does it again! Reviewed here.
Portrait of a Scotsman (5★/5), by Evie Dunmore: These books just get better and better with each novel! Bring me the fourth one FORTHWITH, Evie! I can't wait to read more of your books! I gush about it here.
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (5★/5), by Olga Tokarczuk: An absolutely beautiful, chilling read that I raced through because I could not put it down but at the same time wanted to savour every single sentence (which makes me think this was a wonderful translation, but truly, I wish I could read all the books I want to read in their original language). This is the story of a woman in a rural, remote Polish village in which the members of a local hunting club start dying mysteriously. Stunning, stunning, stunning. In contention for top of 2021 list. Highly recommend. One of my all-time favourites as well now. Cannot wait to reread and discover all the new things in it that I missed the first time round. It's just so complex.
Second Place (3.3★/5), by Rachel Cusk: I can recognise the literary merit, but I was left cold. Reviewed here.
Nemesis (2★/5), by Agatha Christie: Another poorer entry in the Miss Marple canon as far as I am concerned - a really weird, loosely connected story that never quite came together as a cohesive whole. Also the premise I felt was deeply flawed, and did not fit in with the character of Miss Marple as established over the past eleven books. A somewhat unsatisfying mystery, which is not what Agatha has led me to expect at all.
Harlem Shuffle (5★/5), by Colson Whitehead: An excellent book - a story that's fun and an author that is in full control of his craft. Reviewed (gushingly) here.
The Man Who Died Twice (4.2★/5), by Richard Osman: A fun, easy mystery that I enjoyed way more than I did the first one. I am glad I gambled on picking this one up. Reviewed here.
L'Œuvre au Noir (3★/5), by Marguerite Yourcenar: Didn't quite live up to expectations. This is the story of Zénon, an alchemist and philosopher in Bruges during the Dutch War of Independence from Spain in the 16th century - but there was very little actual historical fiction content; it was mostly Zénon reflecting back on his life from weird places in his chronology. Maybe I should have read this book when I wasn't ill, and could have concentrated on it properly; but it felt very slippery, I couldn't quite make sense of the theme; and there was no plot to speak of. I also couldn't keep track of any of the non-narrator characters. I can recognise the literary quality of Yourcenar's writing in this, I just didn't love the story or the main character.
The Fortune Men (5★/5), by Nadifa Mohamed: A very grim, very dark book about Mahmood Mattan, a black immigrant wrongfully charged in 1952 Cardiff for the murder of a shopkeeper. This book does a lot of things with theme and structure and there's a lot of authorial craft involved that is very subtle and so extra fun when you do pick up on it (what Nadifa Mohamed does with Mahmood's use of English, and how it changes as the story progresses, is particularly clever I thought). It's a dark, hard book to read about a topic that I, shamefully, knew nothing about, it's very well-written, and I highly recommend. Booker shortlist, as well.
Celestial Bodies (3.6★/5), by Jokha Alharthi: An interesting, if slightly weird novel that did a lot in a short space of pages. It's the story of a group of loosely-connected relatives in an Omani village at (I think?) the early end of the 21st century, and how they are adapting to the changes in the country and the culture in the 'new world'. The constantly shifting narrators didn't work for me that well, since I felt like I never got properly stuck in with the story and was always coming at it with a bird's eye, too-far removed viewpoint - but I think this translation was strong and this will appeal to more sophisticated readers than I.
The Jane Austen Society (4.6★/5), by Natalie Jenner: An easy, fluffy, light historical fiction that is basically just Jane Austen fanfic. Which was exactly what I needed this week. I recommend it if you want something easy and light and quick to get through that doesn't require much thought, and also doesn't have much narrative or writerly heft (and if you don't mind a lot of deus ex machina happy endings and a slightly weird pacing shift).
The Right to Sex (4.1★/5), by Amia Srinivasan: A collection of essays on the sexual politics of today and the relationship that men and women have to each other and sex itself in the 21st century. It covers a lot of nuance and grey areas that tend to get left out of the discussion, like whether or not carceralism and 'law & order' rhetoric should and can apply to gendered violence; pornography; consensual but power-imbalanced relationships, like those between professors and students; and the complex discussion that exists when discussing the decriminalisation or not of prostitution. An interesting, nuanced collection of essays that I enjoyed reading, even if it did tend to stick very closely to the theoretical rather than suggesting any practical solutions or thought processes. Although what do you expect from a doctor of philosophy (I mean, she actually has a PhD in philosophy).
Matrix (4.9★/5), by Lauren Groff: An introspective, meandering novel with some period touches. I enjoyed it, but it didn't quite come together for me. Reviewed here.
Sleeping Murder (4.5★/5), by Agatha Christie: A strong ending to the Miss Marple series, with all of the things that Agatha Christie does best - the power of memory, a mystery twenty years in the making, a murderer at the heart of a family with a complex psychological motive, a clever, multi-layered puzzle. A bit sad that I've wrapped up everything except the short stories now.
Les Mémoires d'un chat (5★/5), by Hiro Arikawa: A beautiful book. I have no notes. Read it immediately. Reviewed here.
The Bell in the Lake (3★/5), by Lars Mytting: A very weird book. It ended up being more supernatural than I thought it would be, and being a musing on faith, loss, found family, community, and who has a right to hold and keep onto art - the people and cultures that made it, or the people who want to preserve it? It was supposed to be sad but I felt more of an academic interest in the characters, which meant that the emotional climaxes left me a bit colder than the author wanted. Also, it was a profoundly weird translation - some words and lines of dialogue stayed in the original Norwegian or German, which meant that some of the emotional conversations left me a bit cold because half of them were in a language I don't speak. Come on, Deborah. If I spoke Norwegian I would have just read the whole book in Norwegian.