A Month in Books: August

Books in August

August definitely saw me getting my book reading mojo back, and I’m hoping this will carry me through to the end of the year (only 6 books behind my Goodreads challenge…so do-able hopefully?).

Unbecoming by Jenny Downham (2015, David Fickling Books)
Jenny Downham wrote one of my favourite young adult novels, Before I Die, and so I was excited to finally read another one of her novels.

Unbecoming follows Katie, a teenager who is attempting to deal with both her parents divorce and her new living situation, and figuring out her sexuality. Added to the mix is her estranged grandmother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s and comes to live with Katie, her Mum and her brother after the death of her partner. This event triggers all three generations to explore their pasts and their futures.

Downham is great at crafting the complex relationships that exist between Katie, her Mum (Caroline) and grandmother (Mary); in addition to the other dynamics, such as the one between the younger Mary and her older sister, and Katie and her varying relationships with her schoolmates. They all just felt incredibly ‘real’, and so did the characters themselves. The way Downham drilled into the complex relationship between Mary and Caroline was so effective, and very unusual for a novel which is generally aimed at teenagers.

I will say that with the exception of Katie’s plotline, Unbecoming isn’t necessarily the most original novel. It reminded me very strongly of Elizabeth Is Missing and The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox; indeed if you’ve read any book that deals with unwanted pregnancies back in the day, you will probably easily guess certain plot turns.
However, Downham’s writing and characterization does make this a good read, and if you are yet to read Elizabeth is Missing this is one to check out, particularly for younger readers.

That Girl from Nowhere by Dorothy Koomson (2015, Century)
That Girl from Nowhere is a novel which I think suffers a little bit from identity confusion. From its blurb, the novel is about Clemency who is fleeing a broken relationship and moves to Brighton, with her adoptive mother, in an attempt to find out more about her birth parents. However, that particular plot is dealt with very early in the novel, and then it becomes a weird crime/thriller.

Clemency is an engaging protagonist, dealing with a lack of identity and struggling to start again whilst reflecting on her past. She is at times surprisingly immature, however, and I frequently forgot that I was reading about a woman in her late 30s. There are good supporting characters; I found the exploration of Clemency’s relationship with her adoptive parents and her cousin really interesting and complex. I also loved Tyler, and was hugely frustrated with that particular story arc.

The neatness as to how Clemency meets her birth family is pretty unrealistic and weirdly smooth. Koomson does really well bring to life the mixed feelings that emerge on both sides from the meeting, but I did feel as though Unbecoming actually dealt with the issues of estranged family members better and perhaps this novel suffered from me reading these two novels so close together. I also found the introduction of another plot pretty unnecessary, and I lacked the attachment to the characters involved to really care too much about the outcome which, considering the issue is not a good thing.

Koomson’s novels are really easy, light reads and I do really like how diverse they are in comparison to a lot of other novels of this type; but this is maybe one to skip.

Take Courage: Anne Bronte & The Art of Life by Samantha Ellis (2017, Chatto & Windus)
This is a weird one for me to review, as Samantha Ellis is basically preaching to the converted when it comes to Anne Bronte. I LOVE The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which I feel like combines aspects of her sisters work and makes them a million times better, and am perhaps one of the only people not particularly wowed by Charlotte Bronte.

Ellis does a deep dive into the Bronte’s childhoods and early adult lives, which I found completely fascinating as I’ll admit to not knowing that much about them, beyond the comparisons to Lockwood School in Jane Eyre. Whilst she does have to make a lot of suggestions as to what Anne may have been like (thanks Charlotte), it is a really interesting look into her life. Ellis also does some really interesting close reading of Anne’s work (I would possibly not read this book unless you’ve read the majority of the Bronte bibliography), including her poetry which I was unfamiliar with and was really wowed by.

Anne Bronte is definitely a writer who deserves more credit, and whose work has unfortunately been overshadowed by her bossier (Charlotte) and more dramatic sisters. Take Courage is a great argument for her to be well-known in her own right, rather than as the other Bronte sister.

The final pages of this memoir made me cry on the train, and I’m excited to read How To Be a Heroine, to get more of Ellis’ perspectives on some of my favourite authors.

A Woman’s Work by Harriet Harman (2017, Allen Lane)
Harriet Harman is an MP who a lot of people have a lot of feelings about; she’s variously considered a one-issue MP who only cares about women, named ‘Harriet Harperson’ by some on the right, deemed patronising by some for her Woman to Woman campaign during 2015’s election and is currently considered by some in the Labour Party to be an evil Blairite. A Woman’s Work is her memoir, following her from a law undergraduate to briefly becoming Leader of the Opposition. And it’s an eye-opening read to say the least.

I had always been aware of Harman as a member of the Labour Party for what seemed like forever, but I had no idea about her history prior her to becoming an MP and the countless, important legislation she had a hand in delivering. Harman was monitored by the Conservative government’s Home Office during her work for the National Council for Civil Liberties, an outcome was her nearly losing her legal certification. On entering the Commons, she has had a hand in childcare, the minimum wage, domestic violence legislation and just so much more.

Harman’s writing style isn’t necessarily the most engaging, this memoir is not one which is focused on a romp through her time in office, throwing colleagues under the bus; but one that carefully shows the legacy of her time in office on women. She does set some records straight and attempt to defend her record on issues that have become controversial since (universal credit reform and the Iraq war in particular); and it is is interesting to see her discuss relationships with politicians such as Blair and Brown.
If you’re interested in the history of British politics or women’s rights in the UK, I would really recommend reading this.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena (2016, Batam Press)
The Couple Next Door has an excellent premise. Anne & Marco have recently had a baby, Cora, and are invited around to their friends and neighbours Cynthia & Graham’s house for a dinner party to celebrate Graham’s birthday. Cynthia asks that they don’t bring Cora with them, so that Anne can have fun, which doesn’t seem to be a problem. When the babysitter cancels, Anne & Marco decide that they can simply leave Cora in the house and pop back occasionally to check on her and have the baby monitor with them. Only, when Anne returns to the house towards the end of the dinner party, Cora is no longer there.

Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really hold up. Lapena has given the novel good pacing; I read this in two sittings and I did want to see how the mystery would resolve. But other than the writing is pretty basic.

The characters are also pretty one-dimensional. Anne is possibly the most interesting character, dealing with postpartum depression and adjusting to her new role as a mother. However, the others are pretty bland; Marco, her husband, failing to impress his in-laws; her wealthy and over-bearing parents; the tired and cool police detective and the flirty neighbour. Lapena does throw some character curve-balls into the novel, but none of the characters really feel properly developed. 

If you want a speedy thriller read if your chasing some winter sun, this is a good choice, but otherwise I wouldn’t rush to check it out.

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