These are the books I read while on my European Vacation.

Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love

I initially decided to read this because I’m teaching a course in Creative Non-Fiction come September, and obviously had heard about it and wondered if it would be suitable either to recommend to students or even to teach. Also the first part of it is set in Italy, so it appealed for that reason.

It relates the experiences and discoveries of a young-ish woman, recovering from a marriage break-up and near nervous breakdown, who decides to explore physical pleasure (eating) in Italy, spiritual enlightenment (praying) in an Ashram in India, and some kind of balance between the two in Bali. I found it enjoyable, if a little uneven. It’s impossible to avoid feeling that it’s incredibly self-absorbed and self-indulgent, that she needs to stop thinking about herself all the time and just get on with the job of living, and to be envious that she managed to get paid to lounge about eating, praying, and having sex and then writing about it, however engagingly (and where do I apply for a similar assignment?).

It is an easy read, perfect for travelling, as it’s written in short, two or three page bites rather than extended essays. Of the three sections, disappointingly I found the Italian bit the weakest and the least interesting – too much emotional angst and not enough about Italy or eating. The whole book is All About Her, which I suppose is only to be expected; the interest, I suppose, lies in reading about the experiences of someone not all that unlike oneself rather than finding any great insights about Life.

Georgette Heyer, Sylvester

Heyer is also perfect vacation reading, light as air, amusing and frothy. This, however, was far from the best of her books that I’ve ever read. I found the female protagonist rather tiresome rather than sympathetic, and the predictable romantic entanglement was mechanical rather than engaging or believable.

Margaret Drabble, The Seven Sisters

This was on the bookshelf on my Venice apartment, obviously left by a previous tenant. I took it with me (and donated it to my hotel in Bath), donating the two books above to the flat collection, so a fair exchange. Possibly the previous reader had chosen it because it in part involves a trip to Italy, but it has more to offer than vicarious travel pleasure.

The novel is written in the form of a diary of sorts in the voice of a middle-aged woman who is starting a new life in London after the break up of her marriage. She has led a dull, predictable life of marriage and children, and now finds herself exploring her own interests and identity away from her husband and suburban life-style. She takes an evening course, reading Vergil’s Aeneid in Latin, and an unexpected financial windfall makes her decide to arrange a trip to North Africa and Italy with her teacher, one of her classmates and a couple of longtime friends, to find places mentioned in the epic.

One of the pleasures for me in reading this novel was some identification with the “coming-of-middle-age” emotional arc. The narrative voice is distinctive and sympathetic, and the novel’s exploration of ideas about narrative and identity is intriguing. I found one or two of the deliberate metafictive “tricks” somewhat tiresome, however; to be honest, I couldn’t really see the point of a deliberate destabilization two-thirds of the way through, and it seemed to be something “authorly” rather than anything that developed naturally from the character of the narrator. It’s one that I’d like to discuss with someone else who has read it, though, just to explore some of the ideas and devices in it.

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth

And I’d LOVE to talk to someone about this one! Particularly the ending, which I can’t say anything about because of potential spoilage, except to say that I really, really want to know what others thought about it.

This novel involves a group of young academics, mostly archaeologists, in Greenland to do research on a Viking settlement, with the intention to discover what caused it to disappear. While they are there, news reaches them of a pandemic in the “real” world, and eventually communication breaks off and they are stranded.

It is written in the form of letters or journals from the various members of the dig. The first, last, and most interesting voice is Nina’s – she is the only non-archaeologist in the group, seems to have signed up more or less on a whim and brought because the group’s leader has a crush on her. She appears to be being haunted by the ghosts of the dead Vikings, and gradually her fears, and possibly her experiences, are passed on to the other members of the group.

The novel is ambitious in its ideas, but falls short in the execution of them. The parallel plot about the pandemic is intriguing. Moss creates real tension and atmosphere in the early build-up of the ghost story element. Apart from Nina’s, I didn’t find any of the voices particularly distinctive, and although each of the characters had some aspect that was interesting (one appears to be a closet lesbian, another is in mourning for a dead partner, another is a devout Christian who finds his certainty unsettled), they are never developed enough. There is enough here to fill out a book twice as long, and I felt that everything was rushed, particularly towards the end. And the ending … well. As I said, I’d very much like to hear what someone else thought about it, but discussion needs to be protected from spoilers.

Janice Hardy, The Pain Merchants

I got this free at the DWJ conference, as an ARC, and read it from start to finish on the train from Penzance to London. I’m ashamed to admit that I left it on the Heathrow Express because of luggage weight issues – I hope someone found it who will read it and enjoy it!

The setting is a world in which Healers take pain away from people and deposit it in a mineral called pynvium, where it can be stored, discharged, or used as a weapon. Nya has the powers of a Healer, but thinks she can’t heal because she can’t discharge the pain into pynvium; she can, however, transfer the pain to another person, a skill that is forbidden and which she thinks is useless. Of course, it turns out to be more useful than she had suspected. The pleasures here are not from the pretty predictable “useless person saves the day” plot arc, but from the very interesting world, revealed through showing, not telling, and very interesting complexity of politics. The characters are well-drawn and the writing is good. The voice is humorous without being tiresomely anachronistic. I’ll look forward to reading the inevitable sequel (once again I bemoan the fact that no one these days writes stand-alone fantasy novels).