Two Months in Books|November & December


Whilst I haven’t been writing very much at all lately, I have been reading a fair bit. I managed to smash my goal of 40 books, and at the time I’m writing this I’ve hit 49 books which is the most books I’ve read since 2015 (!). Here are the reviews for the past couple of months.

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss (2018, Granta Books)
I picked up Ghost Wall after hearing Jen Campbell talk about it and figured it could be a good Halloween-time read. It follows teenage Silvie and her family who spend a couple of weeks living as Ancient Britons, following her Dad’s obsession, alongside some university students, and soon beginning to feel a spiritual link to these ancestors. Moss is excellent at writing teenagers, as evidenced in The Tidal Zone and this novel really focuses in on Silvie’s mind. It touches also on an experience of growing up in a volatile household, sexuality, class divides and the dangers of romanticising a past that never really existed. Moss does all of this without being heavy-handed in a heady, immersive little book that I would definitely recommend.

The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato (2011, Penguin)
The Entrepreneurial State argues that many of our current technological advances are thanks not purely to an innovative private sector, but a public sector that supports key industries and takes on a lot of the risk for them. Mazzucato unpacks the pharmaceutical industry, Apple and Green technologies and shows how public investment has enabled these companies to flourish; and forgetting this enables stereotypes about the public/private sectors to potentially dangerously embed. I found Mazzucato’s arguments compelling, but this isn’t exactly the most readable/approachable book so I’d only recommend this if this is a topic you are particularly interested. Mazzucato was on Desert Island Discs earlier this month; which is worth a listen.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (2017, Penguin)
I’ve really liked everything I’ve read by Hamid, and Exit West is no exception. This novel is his take on the refugee crisis; following two young people living in an unnamed country being torn apart by civil war. As they begin their relationship; they hear stories of mysterious doors that are appearing that can transport you to safer countries elsewhere and decide to flee together. Hamid tackles the refugee crisis through this novel in a really creative way; the slight disconnect from ‘now’ meant that Hamid could walk through potential scenarios that sound awful, whilst also making you reflect how easily they could become reality. Hamid also excellently draws a very realistic relationship between Saaed and Nadia, which definitely doesn’t play second fiddle to the broader themes.

The Labyrinth of the Spirits by Carlos Ruiz Zafon trans. Lucia Graves (2018, W&N)
I was so excited to get my hands on this book, and I’m so happy/sad that I’ve read it. The Labyrinth of the Spirits is the final installment of the quartet which began with Zafon’s massively successful novel The Shadow of the Wind. This final novel pulls together all the strands that have been explored in the previous three, and is the finishing touch to the histories of the characters we’ve come to know so well. I’ve previously been slightly disappointed in Zafon’s female characters but Alicia Gris is an excellent character, a sort-of 1950s Lisbeth Salander, reluctantly working for the government to solve the mysterious disappearance of a politician which leads her to the Sempere family, Firmin and a web of intrigue at the heart of the Spanish government. This is a chunky book but I stormed through it; I adore Zafon’s writing as translated by Lucia Graves; and I especially love how brilliantly he establishes Spain itself as a character and so well draws the experience of living under fascist rules. If you haven’t started this quartet yet, and are a fan of Gothic fiction, I really recommend it.

Skipping Christmas by John Grisham (2001, Dell)
I’m not someone who really reads festive books, but my housemate & I had an intention to attend a book club which had picked this novel as its latest read. The novel is the story of the Kranks, who decide to…skip Christmas and encounter the rage of their suburban neighbourhood. I was expecting it to become a thriller at some point which it doesn’t. I probably wouldn’t recommend reading this; the theme is done better in this year’s Christmas edition of Bad Move.

Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern (2015, WH Allen)
David Halpern is the Chief Executive of the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team, or Nudge Unit, a group of people who are focused on ensuring behaviour change is embedded into policy where necessary; and that these changes are actually likely to work. This book focuses primarily on various policy trials and changes that the team worked on; and discusses the techniques the Unit uses to make these happen; as well as charting the rise of the Nudge Unit from the edge of the civil service to its heart. I did find that Halpern’s writing got a little less engaging towards the end; but if you’re interested in behavioural science and its application you should check this out.

Milkman by Anna Burns (2017, Faber & Faber)
I hadn’t heard much at all about Milkman, and so wasn’t that interested in picking it up even when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker. However, when it won I decided to give it a go, and I’m so glad I did. Milkman follows an unnamed teenage girl, who is growing apparently during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Burns places you very much inside the girls head, and the writing is a stream-of-consciousness which bounces around in theme and time; but so worth the attention you need to give it. Burns reflects on so much to do with living in conflict; of how women’s roles can define them; of the close surveillance that happens when trust breaks down and of situations that are too difficult to describe. The fact that Burns never directly gives the characters or places names gives the novel a sense of surrealism that just heightens the very real tension the novel depicts. If you have the time to really fall into Burns’ prose, this is really worth a read.

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