What We're Reading
Hidden gems, hot favourites, slow burners and the odd guest columnist.
Andrew: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry slid onto our shelves last August—an incredibly handsome hardback at only $30 with a beautiful dust jacket featuring a William Morris design. It gathered sales momentum over Christmas, particularly after it won the Waterstones 2016 Book of the Year. Waterstones is of course that British high street bookshop chain, a bit ‘literary’ but with nevertheless a very sharp eye for the commercial. The award treads into the territory that the Oprah Winfrey book club occupied in the USA a few years back; casting itself as an arbiter of intelligent entertainment. I can see now why it won the award. Sarah Perry’s second novel is a gothic page turner set in late Victorian London and Essex—with a cast of incredibly well-drawn characters: a widow adventurer and her companion, an acerbic surgeon, a formidable clergyman and the like. The nineteenth century meets the modern age; religion meets science, and superstition collides with reason in a rollicking spooky tale of a mysterious monster that may or may not be lurking in the Blackwater estuary. It is a clever novel with plenty of ideas, and a genuine knack to both entertain and engage; peopled with characters brimming with repressed thoughts and desires about to be shook awake. You can buy the smart hardcover now, or the paperback when it comes out in June—it’s the perfect book to curl up with in winter.
Viki: I love the Text Australian Classics series, and am often tempted to indulge in their offer of the whole set for a special price. I have a book lucky dip at Xmas—usually the popular penguins—but last Noel I stocked it with the Text Classics to much joy in those in receipt. My ‘read-aloud’ group of two has just finished Annie Proulx’s Barkskins which somehow led to the idea of an Australian book as palate cleanser. Christina Stead’s name was raised—but after the whopper of a read that Barkskins was we didn’t want to open a big commitment like The Man Who Loved Children. Happily Text has just re-issued a couple of her smaller (in page-count) books. With the first 80 pages of The Little Hotel read, I have to say I had no idea Stead could be so funny. The ‘Swiss-Touring Hotel’, a fourth rate rental for those needing a cheap roof over their heads whilst walking the lakes in a post WW2 Switzerland, has a clientele worthy of a Preston Sturges movie—there’s a role for every character actor from Hollywood’s golden age. Narrated by the young hotel proprietor in one long screwball breath worthy of Hildy Johnson the satire never lets up—I don’t know if it was helped by the fact of reading aloud, but the i forbici affair had tears running down my face I was laughing so much. A master class in comic timing! PS—if you have a friend (or friends) who like to read aloud, I’d highly recommend forming a weekly group.