Summertime, and the living is easy…

My Girl

My Girl – how the summer was supposed to be, somehow

Summer comes in stages. June is warm, embracing and inviting, opening her arms and patting her lap. July has the opulent indolence of Sophie Dahl in the Opium advert. August has the air of one who has woken up too late, stretching luxuriantly for a while before realising what the time is. All too soon she is in a hurry, twirling her skirts of golden wheat and galloping away to visit older, wider, cooler September. And that’s summer, over and done with. I’m getting my “summer’s halfway done” pangs already. Perhaps it’s because I’m a July baby, but summer for me marks another year over before we’ve reached autumn. Another year of reckoning.

When I was younger, each summer I thought something would happen. What Something was, I couldn’t quite define. I’d been drip-fed “that was the summer that changed my life” from My Girl to The Growing Summer and every year I thought Something was going to mark the transition from girl to woman (I’m still waiting for that). I even wrote my own “coming of age” book when I was 15 and bored of revising for my exams (and it probably is still the best thing I’ve written to date). The summer holidays seemed endless when I was a child : days stretching out of sun, dried grass and blue skies. As I grew up I was more concerned with putting lemon juice in my mousey hair to bleach it, and sunning my troubled skin into submission behind the guinea pig run. Now my weeks turn into months in a matter of breath; I live for my next pay packet, not my next tomorrow.

Some of the characters I’ve met recently haven’t had many tomorrows. (They don’t have any links either, because Bookmail’s site is down but those I could find I’ve linked to on Abebooks)

Thursday’s Child, the latest Nicci French. While I enjoy these books, I’d rather the husband-wife writing pair did another stand-alone book rather than continuing the Frieda Klein series, as I don’t really like her very much – plus I thought the title trite and lazy (I read Helen Forrester when I was 7 and a quick search reveals at least 4 other books witht the same title). It’s rare to find a literary partnership which actually works as well as Nicci Gerrard and David French though and I look forward to their next collaboration.

Lamentation by CJ Sansom was an excellent detective story set in the time of Henry VIII and Catherine Parr. Catherine is in grave peril after a book she wrote – a lamentation, which could see her charged with heresy – disappears from her chamber. The hero, Shardlake, appears in several of Sansom’s books and I’ve got them all on my library list.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans is a quite wonderful wartime story about Noel, an intelligent but lonely evacuee, coming to live with Vee, a woman looking after her invalid mother and her wayward son. The relationship between them grows awkwardly but beautifully. The market is obviously flooded by wartime stories as there are so many -versaries coming up, but this one stands out so I hope it doesn’t get swamped. This author is a breath of fresh air – perceptive without being cruel, empathetic without being sentimental, and able to get into the heads of both children and adults alike. Do not miss this book – I really cannot recommend it highly enough.

I knew I’d enjoy The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood, as I’d very much liked The Killer Next Door which I blogged about previously. Disturbing, immensely readable and thought-provoking, it’s the story of two young girls who were charged with murdering a toddler and how the ensuing events affected their lives until unexpectedly they meet again. Readers will find parallels with the killing of James Bulger and I’d suggest further reading of As If by Blake Morrison, if, like me, you put down the book and feel very, very uncomfortable.

The Past by Tessa Hadley promised more than it delivered. It was a rather slow and uninteresting story about a family returning to their grandparents’ home for the summer and I found I was turning over the pages without having digested every word in an attempt to finish it early. So, not a recommendation!

Likewise with The Discreet Hero by  Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s the story of a middle-aged man who finds himself being blackmailed by a ‘protection racket’ and refuses to give in. It won the Nobel prize but I wouldn’t rush to read another by the author.

The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob was brighter and more engrossing. Amina returns to her family home when her father starts talking to his dead mother and a painful family history is unravelled. This captivating story has several threads woven together like a bracelet: Amina’s life, that of her parents, her cousin, her old schoolfriend, her career. It’s rare to find such rounded characters in a book.

Into The Fire by Manda Scott was another enjoyable read, set in both contemporary and 15th century France during the time of Joan of Arc. I learned a lot from it as well as enjoying the plot and the characters.

The Unquiet House by Alison Littlewood was a delicate, chilling horror story and I didn’t see the ending coming at all. Though I felt it lost its way in the last few pages, I galloped through this story about Emma inheriting a house from an unexpected source, and falling under its spell without realising she may not awaken. I’m adding Littlewood to my list of “enjoyable spooky authors”, a list which always needs adding to.

I must prepare for summer a bit more. Enjoy it a bit more than rush through it. Nowadays my summer thoughts are mainly “I could line-dry my washing today” and “I must get to the gym before it gets too hot”. That and fake-tanning – I have orange shins from applying it in front of a documentary about Srebrenica and getting distracted. I’m distracted from writing, too. I’m scared of it. I know I’m capable but I’m frightened. I had the same fear of doing back-flips in gymnastics class; the fear of something going wrong. In this case, I’m not going to do myself any damage, but losing my ability to do what I love most could hurt me a good deal.

My trainer eventually removed her hands when I was practising, and I flipped backwards on my own, feet over hands and down, snapping back onto the mat. She knew that removing her support without telling me was the only way to prove to me I could do it. In writing, nobody has ever supported me or held me up. It doesn’t work like that.

I did 3 more back flips that day and then never again. My confidence had gone for good (not helped, admittedly, by landing on my head while performing the third). I hope the same isn’t true of writing. My back is not as supple as it used to be, but like my pen, maybe it’s just out of practice.