I cannot quite believe that we’re in October! September was another fairly good reading month for me, especially as I ticked off a few books that have been on my TBR for a while.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead (2014, Blue Door)
I picked up Astonish Me knowing nothing about it other than the blurb mentioned the Cold War (a favourite period of history) and ballet (a favourite thing in general). It tells the story of Joan, a dancer in the corps de ballet, wholly aware of the fact that she will never be a great dancer. A chance encounter with Russian dance star Arslan Rusakov leads to a love affair and to Joan helping him defect to the US. However, when their affair fades Joan turns her back on the world of dance and returns to the familiar arms of her childhood best friend Jacob and decides to raise a family. However, when their son Harry exhibits signs of being a dance prodigy himself all the characters converge again.
Shipstead writes a really compelling version of ballet which is not romanticised but still contains enough sparkle for the reader to understand why people would be drawn to it. However, the characters-whilst vivid and incredibly ‘real’-are almost universally unlikeable, to the point that a lot of the time I almost didn’t want to pick up the book as I didn’t really want to know what the characters were going to do to each other. Plus, the plot contains very few surprises.
Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (2014, Virago)
This was another totally cold purchase, I think I was attracted to a story being set at university. This is a purchase I definitely don’t regret. Upstairs at the Party follows Adele, who through sheer luck manages to escape her humdrum and tragedy-riddled youth in Liverpool, to get to university at the new University of York (never named, but it’s clear that it is that uni). Whilst there, she becomes fascinated by Evie, a fellow student, a fascination that becomes lifelong after the titular event takes place.
I loved Grant’s writing style and the way she really captures the self-assured nature of teenagers and students; especially at a time when uni was free and leftist ideas were brand new. As with Astonish Me none of the characters but are particularly likeable, but I was invested in finding out what happened with all of them. I especially liked how the novel follows the group of friends over the years; as they enter the workplace and how their lofty ideals fall apart or strengthen. I really recommend this.
The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer (2013, HarperCollins)
I expected to really, really like this. The Shock of the Fall received loads of buzz and awards upon its release. Filer has a background working as a mental health nurse and this novel follows the story of Matthew, a young man struggling with his declining mental state after the tragic death of his brother when they were children. As an insight into someone struggling with mental illness, and one that is not usually covered in literature, The Shock of the Fall is great. Matthew is an undeniably sympathetic character who you just wish someone could get through to. I did feel that the writing was a little clunky and the central ‘reveal’ wasn’t really that surprising. It is always good to see mental health tackled in writing, and I’m keen to see what Filer’s next works will be like.
Having ticked off both of Orwell’s most famous novels, I really wanted to read some of his non-fiction. Why I Write is part of the Penguin’s Great Ideas series and is a collection of four of Orwell’s essays. There’s the self-explanatory title essay, ‘The Lion & The Unicorn’ which is an exploration of socialism in England, ‘A Hanging’ based on Orwell’s travels in Burma and ‘Politics and the English Language’ which is again pretty self-explanatory. I found these really interesting, and it was different to see Orwell really weaving a biting humour through his pieces. I will say that unless you’re really interested in politics or language you probably won’t be that interested in this; but it is well worth a read if you do like those things.
The Female of the Species by Joyce Carol Oates (2005, Quercus)
This was a bit of a downer to end the month on. Joyce Carol Oates is a really prolific author and I was really intrigued by her work so picked up this collection of short stories a while back as I thought it could be a good place to start. The blurb claims that these stories show that women are just as capable of men of committing evil; but pretty much all these stories feature women being pushed into desperate situations…by men. Plus all the stories had pretty much the same narrative voice which got a bit repetitive. I did like the two longer stories-‘Hunger’ about a woman sucked into an affair with a handsome stranger; and ‘Tell Me You Forgive Me’ about a woman divulging a dark secret. But I can’t say this really sold Oates to me.