The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

I had heard of Angela Carter a couple of times while reading various things and was keen to give her a try. She is something of a legendary figure among modern feminist writers, I think.

She is very talented and creates lovely images and events. I just felt in this book she wasn’t quite sure what to do with all the marvellous things she had created, plot-wise. It is a very intriguing, slightly unsettling book, dealing with some familiar (nowadays, anyway) themes like a young girl becoming a woman and some much less familiar, slightly weird things like personal hygiene.

Definitely worth a read, but more to enjoy each page as it turns than the story as a whole.

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The Closed Circle by Jonathan Coe

A well-written and cogent book but it felt slightly formulaic at times. It is the sequel to the excellent The Rotters Club and concerns the same group of people. There are various real events built into the story. The plot relies on some spectacular coincidences but, I suppose, most plots do.

I sound a bit downbeat but I did enjoy it, very much. It is funny on the nature of Britain in the 1990s. I think it might be a bit obscure for non-Brits – quite a lot of fairly recondite ironies – but a good book and well written.

Look at the Harlequins! by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is a tricksy sort of writer, flamboyant and complex. I needed to look up a few words in a dictionary. Perhaps it comes from his bilingualism, between Russian and English. I think he spoke other languages, too.

The plot is semi-autobiographical and slightly wandering, as it narrates a writer’s life and his psychology. Quite a deep book, in some ways, as it delves into some of this in detail.

Overall, I was not captivated by it and wondered if he was going through the motions, a bit, which is what the writer in the story does. Which would be typical Nabokovian irony, I suppose.

The Italian Girl by Iris Murdoch

I enjoyed this a lot more than the The Flight from the Enchanter, though, like all of the Iris Murdoch novels I have read, the characters are all artistic, highly intellectual and seem to think and speak in paragraphs, as the cliche has it.

The plot concerns a mixed up family and the effects of the mother’s death on the various characters, including the Italian girl of the title. I know her books are philosophical, and that she was a great philosopher. But what I like about them is much more prosaic – they are pellucid and they seem simple if, like me, the philosophical detail goes over your head. And the pre-internet detail is strangely comforting, like a reminder of a truer kind of daily reality.

Under the 82nd Airborne by Deborah Eisenberg

Excellent collection of short stories. I was at first a bit uncertain but came to realise that they are poignant commentaries on how families work – how they really work. There are dark themes lying beneath, about how Americans perceive themselves in other countries, and how bad parenting can affect children. And something enigmatic in the prose. But very good.

In Siberia by Colin Thubron

I was a bit doubtful about this book as I feared it might be dated, given that it was written in 1999. But it is a brilliant read, and a reminder of how much the collapse of the Soviet Union did not change, in the vastness east of Russia. It is full of vivid and interesting vignettes, and Thubron is a great travel writer.

I suppose all travel books are a pretty severe editing of time and place, in order to create a structure and a narrative. Complaining about that is like complaining that films don’t contain enough sequences of people using the toilet. Compression and synecdoche are part of the art.

Ring for Jeeves by P G Wodehouse

An enjoyable piece of comedy, and apparently the only Wodehouse book written in the third person. I rather missed the company of Bertie Wooster’s oddball intelligence. The plot concerns Lord Rowcester (pronounced ‘roaster’, currently a term of mild abuse in Scotland) and his attempts to sell his run-down old house. The characters are comic and the plot is silly but entertaining. Jeeves has been lent to Rowcester while Bertie is away at a school that teaches aristocrats how to live in the modern world, from which, we learn, he gets expelled. Jeeves returns to be by his side.

The Balkan Trilogy (Great Fortune, Spoilt City and Friends and Heroes) by Olivia Manning

I read this  on the recommendation of the great Clive James, who writes about in ‘Latest Readings’. I enjoyed it but it is a bit pedestrian at times and, when you read the trilogy in one go, there is a bit of repetition as each novel is expected to stand on its own.

It concerns a couple, Guy and Harriet Manning, who go to Rumania just as the Second World War is about to begin. They are both from unhappy family backgrounds and they marry in great haste. The story is told from the point of view of Harriet and she is in many ways the most complex and fully developed character.

The author lived through similar experiences so some degree of autobiography is involved. Guy is working for what appears to be the British Council, the UK’s cultural diplomacy agency, but is called in the book ‘the Organisation’. The Council gets mentioned a few times but as a separate entity. Having worked a bit with the Council, it is indeed the outfit that would send people to far-flung places to teach English literature or stage Shakespeare plays.

The story moves along at a good pace, although some of the action feels a bit soap opera-ish. People are constantly bumping into other people in hotels and cafes. But maybe that is what life was like for transient emigrant communities in European cities in the 1930s.

One small point about the blurb on the Penguin paperback edition I have – it includes a quote from some Daily Mail critic that says ‘Guy Manning is destined to become one of the great characters of 20th century literature’. But he isn’t, because he is actually portrayed as a superficial idealist with the emotions of a plank. The interesting character is Harriet. I don’t know whether the critic was just being sexist. Perhaps.

A good read, though I am not sure I will get round to the follow-up, the Levant Trilogy.