A Month in Books: February

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So…better late than never right?

Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard (2017, Profile Books)
Women & Power is a small book that raises lots of big ideas. This takes the form of two essays; one exploring women’s voices in the public space and the other looking more specifically about women in power. I really liked how Beard uses examples from classical thought and our contemporary world to examine the position of women in Western society. In particular, the exploration of how Greek & Roman perceptions of oration and who gets to speak can still be seen driving what we think of when we think about charismatic speakers, and who we listen to. It was also refreshing to read someone argue for a reorganisation of structures, rather than insisting women adapt to fit broken systems which so many argue.

Hamilton: The Revolution by Jeremy McCarter & Lin-Manuel Miranda (2016, Grand Central)
It may seem slightly excessive to write a book declaring your own musical to be a revolution, but the Hamiltome (as it’s known to fans) is an excellent look at the creation of a musical which has become a phenomenon.

Jeremy McCarter writes a variety of essays which explore both the creation of the show, the casting and its longer term impacts, whilst Miranda offers annotations to his lyrics explaining how he came to write them, and which are his favourites. A particular stand-out to me was the essay that came prior to ‘It’s Quiet Uptown’ which is incredibly moving.

The book is also a beautiful item, the paper is heavy which deckled edges and features photos of the original Broadway cast both on and off-stage. If you’re a fan of the show this is a great thing to own, or to gift to someone you know is a bit obsessed.

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013, Bloomsbury)
I didn’t really know what to expect going into The Lowland, having purchased it on my Kindle some time ago, and I was really pleasantly surprised.

It follows the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who during their childhood in Calcutta are inseparable. As they grow older, however, they drift apart, and Udayan becomes increasingly involved in a left-wing political movement and sets in motion a chain of events that will have lasting consequences for Subhash, his parents and his wife, Gauri.

The sense of place in this novel is excellent, and I really liked learning about a period of history that I knew literally nothing about. Lahiri also explores the experience of migrants in America, and their relationship with the people who stay behind, and the changing role of women in modern India.

Amy
Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads

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A Month in Books: January

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Us by David Nicholls (2014, Hodder & Stoughton)
Us is the story of Douglas Petersen. On the eve of a tour of Europe to mark his son Albie’s completion of school and start of college with his wife, Connie, she tells him she wants a divorce. But she still wants to go on the holiday. Douglas is convinced that if the trip goes amazingly well, he can win back his wife and his son’s affections. Of course, what happens is a comedy of errors across Europe’s cultural capital.

As in his hugely popular One Day, Nicholls is great at writing relationships. As Douglas wonders about the state of his relationship; we see his relationship with Connie from the night they met through the ups and downs of their marriage. It is easy to see what attracted them to each other; her artistic exuberance being a breath of fresh air for him, his steadiness being a breath of fresh air for her. Whilst I did sometimes query how they lasted quite so long, Nicholls’ exploration of their relationship just feels very true. The same is true of his unpicking of the complicated relationship between Douglas and Albie, a mess of miscommunication and misunderstanding. The characters are neither likeable nor unlikeable, they’re just very real.

Outside of this, I will say the ‘Grand Tour’ plot was just a lot of light relief; from accidentally being arrested to Albie hooking up with an anarchic accordion player. It was fun, but not really anything more than that.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017, David Fickling)

When Philip Pullman announced he was writing a new book, I was very excited, and to hear that he was returning to the world of His Dark Materials just made me anticipate it even more. Fortunately, La Belle Sauvage is so, so worth the wait.

It takes place prior to the events of Northern Lights, and follows Malcolm, a young boy who works in his parents pub, The Trout, who becomes fascinated by the baby Lyra who is sheltering at the nearby Abbey and who seems to be the centre of intrigue. When a great storm comes, Malcolm finds himself having the responsibility of keeping Lyra safe.

Reading La Belle Sauvage in someway reminded me of the feeling I got when I watched Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them; it was just a delight to be back in a world that I recognised so fondly. Pullman’s alternative Oxford, with its daemons and magical elements, remains so vivid, and retains so much depth. This novel also offers a real insight into how the world order that is recognisable from His Dark Materials was created; the way that the Magistrium’s religious fingers managed to enter all aspects of society. The League of St Alexander, which sees children reporting heresy on the part of teachers, parents & other adults, was particularly sinister and obviously has its roots in real world totalitarianism.

Another one of the delights of La Belle Sauvage is getting to see characters that play a central role in His Dark Materials in cameo (Lord Asriel, Coram van Texel etc); but the new characters are fun to discover too. Malcolm is an engaging protagonist; he’s smart without being ridiculous, and I liked that Pullman showed his vulnerability at times too. Alice, who works as a potwasher in The Trout and ends up being pulled into the mystery, is again an interesting character who is hiding a lot more vulnerability than first appears. I did wish that we could learn more about her, but as the story is really Malcolm’s we don’t spend as much time with her as I’d have liked. I also really liked Hannah Relf, the academic who serves as Malcolm’s entry to the mysteries around Lyra. It was nice to see a talented woman in academia play a central role, and I’d like to see her pop up again in the series. The antagonist is also horrendously evil, and I also hope we get to find out more about how he figures into the story later on.

I really loved La Belle Sauvage, I basically didn’t want it to end, and cannot wait for Pullman to release the second part.

The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck by Sarah Knight (2015, Quercus)

I was pretty excited to read this. As a chronic worrier and someone who definitely cares too much about what other people think, The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a Fuck seemed like a must-read.

However, whilst I appreciated some of Knight’s advice, and a Fuck Budget is definitely a thing that I will be bearing in mind; a lot of the advice just seemed…harsh to me. This is probably a sign that I missed the message of the book, but it occasionally felt a little too self-involved and almost too mean for me to really follow all of the messages in this book.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton (2014, Picador)
The Miniaturist attracted a mad amount of attention upon its release a couple of years ago, but for some reason I never actually picked it up. With the BBC adapting this for television over Christmas, I finally picked up the book so I can watch the adaptation.

The Miniaturist is the story of Nella, who is married off to an older, wealthy merchant, Johannes, and is propelled from her country life to Amsterdam. However, rather than a loving welcome from her husband, Nella instead is met by his formidable sister Marin, their servant Cornelia and Johannes’s African servant Otto. In an attempt to bridge the gap between them, Johannes purchases Nella a cabinet house which begins to take on a life of its own; potentially even predicting events.

I know next to nothing about 16th century Netherlands, and I did really like this insight into life for the wealthy, who were involved in the trade that made the country rich. I also found the importance of faith in many people’s lives to be really interesting; and Burton writes interestingly about people of minority genders, races and sexuality during a time that is allegedly enlightened.

In terms of characterisation, I did feel like The Miniaturist fell into a trap where the main character is incredibly bland and you just want to spend more time with the more interesting secondary characters. Nella is just a bit dull, and goes through a very speedy character transformation towards the end of the novel. I found Marin, Johannes and even Agnes Meermans, one half of a couple desperate to make money of the sugar trade, to be far more intriguing and I was slightly disappointed that Burton chose to use Nella as the protagonist.

The Miniaturist is very readable, and I’m excited to watch the series as it feels ripe for adaptation. Although it was page-turning, particularly toward the end, I did see pretty much all the major plot points coming a mile off which I think potentially detracted from how engaged I was in the story. I also found the magical realism of the miniaturist herself was just a bit…strange and was not really resolved. I felt that aside from being a good way into the story, that element was a bit unnecessary (and I love doll houses).  In all though, this is engaging read and I’m excited to read more of Burton’s work.

Amy
Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads

A Month in Books: December 2017

Another year and another year where I didn’t manage to hit my 50 book challenge. However, December was a pretty good reading month even if I did have far too high expectations for how much reading I’d get done in Vegas.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (2005, Vintage)
The only book that I managed to read whilst I was in the States, I was glad to finally read this as its been languishing on my Kindle for years. In case you also have never read it or seen either the Swedish or American adaptations, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo follows Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who is facing some time away from work after a minor scandal, and Lisbeth Salander, the eponymous girl, who is an excellent hacker. They are thrown together whilst investigating the disappearance of a Swedish business tycoon’s sister many years before. This is a slow-burn of a thriller but when it gets going, it really gets going. I also appreciated Larsson’s clear messaging about violence against women and girls in the country. I did have some problems with the descriptions of Lisbeth, and could have done without the age gap relationship, but I did find this to be very enjoyable.

The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (2016, Granta)
I’d heard so many good things about this book over the last year, and it is so worth the hype. Adam is a part-time academic and stay-at-home Dad, currently working on the tour guides to Coventry Cathedral. Then, one day, he is called to his eldest daughter Miriam’s school, as she has stopped breathing. The novel follows the fall-out from this day, flicking over Adam’s past and present, and the story of Coventry Cathedral. Whilst aspects of Adam’s character irritated me; I loved what Moss did with gender roles, how our pasts influence our present and the fear of loss. I also liked Miriam, who reminded me a little bit of myself when I was going through my embarrassing pretentious teen stage.

My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal (2016, Penguin)
This is another book that I’ve been meaning to read for ages. My Name is Leon is the story of Leon, who lives with his baby brother Jake and his Mum. However, when his Mum is unable to cope with raising her children Leon and Jake are taken into care. It’s 1981, Jake is white and Leon is not, and soon Leon is living alone with his foster carer. De Waal has experience of the care system, and she brings to life the struggle of Leon, Maureen (his carer) and his Mum so brilliantly and without judgement. The placement of this story against this tumultuous period of history also means that the novel is an interesting history lesson in race-relations in the UK (which isn’t often discussed). The trope of nature helping someone find themselves is used again in this, which is a tad overdone, but this is a really touching story which I really enjoyed and I really felt Leon’s happiness, sadness and anger at his position.  

The Big Year: 2016 by Royal Shakespeare Company (2017, RSC Enterprise Ltd)
I was bought this as a pretty excellent Secret Santa present. The book covers 2016 in the life of the Royal Shakespeare Company; a ‘big year’ as it was the centenary of his death. Including essays from directors, cast members and crew, it looks at the behind the scenes of the 2016 season of shows; particularly interesting was the behind the scenes of the organisation of the events on the 23rd April including Shakespeare Live; and the tour they took to China. 

Amy
Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads

A Month in Books: November

I hope you’re enjoying the festive period! Apologies for the slight radio silence, I’ve been on holiday (more on that) and then busy wrapping everything up for Christmas. Double apologies for the lack of photos in this post, curse of the early dark evenings.

The Confidence Code by Katty Kay & Claire Shipman (2014, Harper Business)
I’ve been keen to read The Confidence Code for quite a while, as confidence/self-belief is definitely the skill or personality trait that I probably struggle with the most in a professional setting. The premise of the book is how women can access the ‘code’ that men apparently access with ease within the working environment. Kay and Shipman explore the role of confidence in success through really interesting interviews with women (and men) in a variety of fields, and also include some things around genetic predictors of confidence that I had not encountered before. Whilst a lot of what Kay and Shipman’s conclusions and examples aren’t exactly brand new information; there is something comforting in seeing it written down, and also feeling not alone in tackling confidence issues in the workplace. My only real issue with The Confidence Code is that it suffers from the ‘Lean In’ problem; in that many of the problems are placed at the feet of women themselves for not being brave enough, rather than the wider system being prejudiced against them.

Not Working by Lisa Owens (2016, Picador)
Not Working is the story of Claire Flannery, a twenty-something who walks out of her job in order to find herself; but she just succeeds in losing herself further. I would say that this book is similar to Bridget Jones, but with considerably more angst. There are some very good and funny observations about living in London, and having had my own work crisis and friends who’ve experienced similar there were moments that I really recognised. I also loved Owens’ portrayal of Claire’s boyfriend Luke, who is incredibly supportive of her, despite her becoming increasing convinced that he’s being unfaithful. This does lead to a pretty major problem with the book, in that Claire becomes increasing unlikeable and self-destructive as it progresses, and it’s difficult to stay on her side. The novel is clearly dabbling with serious issues such as mental health and abuse, but Owens doesn’t really develop these properly, and they seem like bolt-ons to the plot as opposed to really important moments in Claire’s life.

Mad by Chloe Esposito (2017, Dutton Books)
Mad is, quite simply, a completely bonkers book. It follows Alvie, a deeply unlikeable protaganist who spends 90% of her time drunk or having sex and avoiding any kind of responsibility. Her much more together twin Beth is married to a gorgeous, wealthy, Italian man and is apparently living the dream in rural Italy. When Alvie gets sacked for watching porn at work, and thrown out of her home for not paying rent, she decides to finally visit her sister, his husband and their baby in their idyllic home in Italy. However, the holiday descends into murder, crime and lots (and lots) of sex. Mad won’t win any awards for writing, and Alvie is hardly a character that you root for but it was an endlessly page-turning experience (though I wouldn’t say any of the twists are surprising) and I’m actually pretty keen to pick up the second book in the trilogy to see what on earth Alvie gets up to next.

Autumn by Ali Smith (2016, Penguin)
Reading How to be Both helped me break my phobia of Ali Smith, and I’m glad, as Autumn is a beautiful book. The start of a quartet based in the contemporary UK, it’s set in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum and follows two individuals. There’s Emma, a university staff member currently returned to her childhood home staying with her Mum, and Daniel who is approaching 100, and who lived next door when she was growing up. Some of the writing in this is just beautiful, and often humorous, especially a passage featuring the unique comedy of the post office. The unconventional relationship between Emma and Daniel is also really well-explored,l his influence on her development and exploration of cultural ideas is great. However, this does feel like a book that is ‘smart’, and whilst I am here for authors not treating their readers like idiots, there were definitely passages where I felt completely lost and I did wonder a little who Smith was writing for. I will definitely be picking up Winter when that comes out in paperback though.

Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015, Spiegel & Grau)
I have been so excited to read Between the World & Me since I finally purchased a copy earlier this year. And boy, did it not disappoint in the slightest. This non-fiction piece is written as a letter to Coates’ son, explaining his experience and feelings on living in America as an African-American man. It’s a brilliantly written work which, rightly, often made me feel uncomfortable but mostly angry at the appalling events that Coates has lived through, and that black Americans continue to live through. Really recommended, and I’m very much looking forward to reading We Were Eight Years in Power when I can get my hands on a copy.

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry (2008, Faber & Faber)
Whilst Days Without End was not a favourite read, I did really like Sebastian Barry’s writing and so was keen to read more of his writing. The Secret Scripture jumped out as it was being made into a film starring my boyfriend  Aidan Turner. The film has been and gone in cinemas, but I’ve finally got around to reading this. It’s the story of Roseanne McNulty, who as an elderly woman has been in a mental hospital for many years, and whose doctor is finally unpicking the reason for her admission. Its a story that looks at class and the place of women in society.  I feel like the story of women being deemed crazy for acting outside of the norm is one that is well known, but Barry does a great job of telling Roseanne’s story. It feels very based in the rural towns of Ireland, and the characters who populate the area as well as the scenery itself does feel very real. At the same time, did feel a bit more distant than I would have liked from the story; although this may well have been an intentional move by Barry. I did also feel that the story was tied up a little too neatly, which felt a little unnecessary.

Feminist Fight Club by Jessica Bennett (2016, Harper Wave)
I was loaned Feminist Fight Club from a colleague after both she and another friend read it and both loved it. The aim of Bennett’s book is to equip women with the skills to tackle misogyny in the workplace, and instruction on how to lift other women up as opposed to dragging them down. It’s written in a pretty informal manner, which makes it very readable and approachable, but occasionally this can get in the way of the importance of the content. On the other hand, Bennett does show an awareness of the issues faced by women of colour (unlike a lot of feminist business books), and I liked how solution-focused the book is, with a scale of actions depending on how confident you feel in taking action.

Amy
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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.

Amy
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What I’ve Read Lately

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So long-time, no book reviews right? Unfortunately a combo of long days at work, lots of standing on my commute and being shattered in the evening and watching Love Island, my reading has somewhat suffered. However, I have read some books since my last post, and you can find out more about them below…

Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (trans. Edith Grossman, 1985, Penguin)
If, like me, you’re familiar with the title of this novel but not its content; Garcia Marquez’s famous novel tells the story of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza. As teenagers they fall in love, until Fermina decides that her feelings are just infatuation, and marries the well-connected and esteemed Dr Juvenal Urbino. Despite her marriage, Florentino dedicates his life to maintaining his love for Fermina.
This is a novel whose name is something of a misnomer. If you go into this novel expecting a love story, you will be probably disappointed. This is a story that explores the complicated relationships that exist between men and women, from contentment to sexual desire.
The three protagonists are all generally well-drawn. Dr Urbino is shown sympathetically despite being the ‘antagonist’ to the central relationship. Fermina is gloriously stubborn and free-willed. However, Florentino was the character that I did have a problem with. Whilst his youthful romantic infatuation with Fermina is quite sweet, the fact that he continues this obsession is pretty unsettling. As he gets older, his relationships with other women are similarly disconcerting, and a couple leave a very nasty taste in my mouth. I spent a lot of the novel unsure as to whether we were supposed to be rooting for someone I felt was pretty horrendous.
The novel is stunningly written; starting at the end, recounting the final day of Dr Urbino’s life and Florentino appearing to declare his love to Fermina; with Marquez then unpicking their history. His writing is beautifully descriptive, bringing to life the society they live in, the streets they walk down and the homes they sleep in.

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (2014, Faber & Faber)
TW: Suicide
This novel is the story of two sisters, Elfrieda and Yolandi, who grow up in a small Mennonite community in Canada. When the novel opens, Elf is a world-famous pianist, performing across the world and loved by everyone who knows her; Yoli is in the midst of a second divorce, messy affairs and attempting to write a book. And Elf has made yet another attempt to kill herself.
Told from Yoli’s perspective, this novel is an emotional and raw exploration of what it means to live, the different types of love and what happens when you try to force someone to fight. Toews uses a brilliant, almost stream-of-conciousness style; you truly feel like you are in Yoli’s head as she struggles between empathy, love and rage towards her sister.
All the characters are wonderfully drawn, Yoli and Elf as the central characters feel the most ‘real’, but their mother is also a wonderful character; their Aunt Tina whose own daughter committed suicide; Nic, Elf’s husband who is trying desperately to save her…the entire cast of characters are just brilliant; and their fight to defeat the sadness around them is very well done.
This book is, however, deeply, deeply sad. Whilst the writing keeps you engaged, I couldn’t help feeling like I was intruding on someone’s grief. This is perhaps due to the fact that the novel is semi-autobiographical, but I did just feel deflated every time I read this.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817, Wordsworth Editions)
This was the first novel that Austen wrote, but wasn’t published until after her death. It tells the story of Catherine Morland, a young woman who moves with family friends to spend a season in Bath where she experiences various social embarrassments until making a good match in marriage (of course).
There are some really acerbic moments in this novel ,I did enjoy the narrator’s scathing commentary on society’s norms, the traits which are attractive in women, and on society’s lack of appreciation of the novel. I also enjoyed how Catherine’s love of Gothic novels was played up, and how this lead to her understanding of reality becoming blurred.
I did, however, find that Catherine was just a bit of a wet blanket and impossibly dim. Her complete lack of awareness of other people’s motivations was infuriating for me. At every plot point I just wanted to give her a firm shake of the shoulders. My personal favourite character, Isabella Thorpe, was probably supposed to be the antagonist but she had some of the wittiest lines, and seemed to be the character that Austen had the most fun with.

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Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang (1991, Harper Perennial)
I’d owned Wild Swans for years before I finally picked it up to read; and I’m so glad that I have finally read this. Jung Chang explores the life of her grandmother, mother and reflects on her own childhood through some of the most tumultuous years in Chinese history.
This is an incredibly engaging way to essentially have a fascinating lesson in history. Despite it’s size and increasing importance in world politics, I knew embarrassingly little about China’s history. From her grandmother’s world of courtesans and and strict class lines; to the at first liberating and then terrifying rule of Chairman Mao, Chang is very good at bringing all these time periods to fascinating life. I was particularly interested in the way Chang captured how people (including her parents & herself) were genuinely bought into Mao’s way of seeing the world, and the dangers of what happens when people begin to challenge the world that they have been encouraged/forced to see.
I also appreciated Chang’s focus on the women in her family; whilst her father was a key figure in Chinese regional government, the role of women throughout history has often been glossed over, and Wild Swans really explores how often the women is Chang’s family have had their lives uprooted by men, and how they managed to be entirely flexible and responsive to the challenging circumstances they find themselves in.

Maurice by E.M. Forster (1971, Penguin)
Written in 1914, but published after Forster’s death, Maurice is a really beautiful book which explores being gay at a time where this was still illegal in the UK. The title character, Maurice, is a young man from a privileged background who is generally pretty unremarkable, aside from his increasing realisation that he is attracted to men. The novel focuses on two relationships; one with his Cambridge contemporary Clive, and one with Clive’s gamekeeper Alec.
This is a really beautifully written novel, which captures Maurice’s confusion and his ultimate acceptance of himself as a man who is attracted to other men. Its passages about romance also are great at capturing the pains of first love; with the added complication that Maurice is feeling.
I feel like few people have really heard of this novel, and it is really worth a read.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice & Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (2014, Scribe)
I always feel like a bit of a cliche when I describe books as important, but Just Mercy is an important read.
Bryan Stevenson is a lawyer, and director of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, Alabama. Just Mercy is a combination of memoir, exploring his career as a black man committed to avoiding miscarriages of justice, and an argument for a more just criminal justice system in the United States, particularly in the South.
Stevenson particularly focuses on the death penalty as an example of just how far gone the system is, and also on the issue of young people having their entire futures taken away; either through capital punishment or life-long prison sentences. Both of these tend to be punishments given more to those from non-white backgrounds and those who are poor. Stevenson illustrates his points with cases that he worked on; he doesn’t shy away from some of his clients having committed crimes, but that the system rarely recognises the individual circumstances of defendants. The main case study, of Walter McMillan, who is sentenced to death for a crime he is adamant he didn’t commit, is threaded throughout the book.
I cried tears of sadness, anger and happiness reading Just Mercy, and would really, really love it if you read it too. For a taster, you can listen to Bryan Stevenson’s Desert Island Discs interview here.

Love by Toni Morrison (2002, Vintage)
I was a little apprehensive picking up Love, as my last experience with Toni Morrison was Beloved, which I didn’t adore. However, I’m glad I did read this, as it has really made me want to try again with Morrison.
Love follows several women whose fates are tangled with that of Bill Cosey, the deceased owner of a once hugely popular hotel and resort. There’s May, his daughter-in-law who keeps the resort going until her decline into conspiracy theories; Christine, her wayward daughter; Heed, Christine’s childhood friend & Bill’s second wife;  Junior, a new arrival to town who is drawn towards the Cosey women; Vida, a former employee at the resort and L, the resort’s former chef.
The novel tumbles between the characters, as their past are revealed, and the desire for revenge that has simmered for years threatens to burst to the surface. Morrison is great at writing interesting if deeply unlikeable characters;  and creating an idea of place that feels very true. 

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015, Penguin)
When Our Endless Numbered Days was released, it was a lovely that just seemed to be inescapable, so I am a little late to this particular party. The novel follows Peggy who, aged eight, is taken by her survivalist father into a forest somewhere in Europe, where they will live in a hut; under the belief that the rest of the world has disappeared.
The book follows Peggy’s journey to the hut, the years she spends with her father in the hut and her ultimate escape from living with him, and her return to her Mum and England.
Peggy’s an engaging character, whose view of the world both in the hut and when she returns, is really interesting. The descriptions of the natural world are also really good; and Fuller is also great at depicting Peggy’s father as a combination of scared, loving and also increasingly sinister.
I did like this book, and I found the ending great, but I do feel like this was a book that was a victim of its hype.

The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood (1969, Virago)
The Edible Woman is Margaret Atwood’s debut novel, written when she was just in her mid-20s. The novel focuses on Marian, a young woman who is perfectly ordinary. She has a job working for a market research company and has a perfectly appropriate lawyer fiancee. However, as their marriage becomes more of an impending reality to Marian her body appears to fight back.
There are some really interesting ideas within this book; particularly that of identity and what happens to a woman when she gets married. The novel moves from first to third person; and there are plenty of musings of female identity compared to various forms of literature. There’s some commentary around men and women using each other, and the different outcomes this has for each gender.
The general atmosphere of the novel reminded me a lot of the section of The Bell Jar where Esther is doing her internship in New York; particularly the wooziness of the world of work and descriptions of food.
Whilst you can really see the potential that Atwood will really explore in later novels, this does feel like it’s trying to do too much in relatively few pages, and the ending is definitely in keeping with Atwood’s later style

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Amy
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A Month in Books: March & April

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I’ve had a much better reading month(s) in March and April, even if I am (still) falling behind my reading goals.  The past two months involved books about pop stars, dystopian realities and finally reading one of the most hyped-about novels of the last year.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith (2016, Hamish Hamilton)
I was very excited to finally read Swing Time, even if some of the reviews of it had been a bit lackluster. It’s the story of an unnamed narrator, who goes from growing up on a London estate where she’s obsessed with dancing and has a competitive relationship with the only other brown girl in her class, Tracey; to becoming the personal assistant to a Britney Spears-esque singer named Amy. Smith does pack a lot into this novel; from competitiveness in friendship to family relationships to ‘white saviours’ in Africa. However, I found Smith’s voice through the narrator to just be really engaging. I never found the book lagging and whilst it was perhaps over-ambitious in scope it is really worth reading.

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (2016, Hogarth Shakespeare)
The Hogarth Shakespeare series has been one that I’ve been keeping an eye on, but have yet to release an edition that I was interested in. Hag-Seed is an updating of The Tempest, only made extra-meta. It follows the theatre director Felix, who was ousted from his job following family tragedy and personal betrayal, who ends up directing a production of The Tempest in his new job running a theatre programme within a prison. The concept is really clever, and Atwood is so good at bringing all the various characters to life. However, large swathes of the novel just felt like mini-essays on The Tempest complete with character analysis which wasn’t really what I expected. It did just make it feel a little like Atwood was just showing off her knowledge of the play as opposed to making much sense in terms of the novel. I am very excited to keep an eye on the Othello and Hamlet updates which are coming.

Public Library & Other Stories by Ali Smith (2015, Hamish Hamilton)
Having enjoyed How to be Both, I was keen to pick up more by Ali Smith, and Public Library seemed like a good call as it appeared to be all about the importance of libraries and literature to society. If I’m honest, I was pretty underwhelmed. There are some really good stories within the collection, but a lot made me feel almost a bit stupid for not grasping the apparent symbolism within them; there were many times when a story ended and I could just see the question marks in my head. However, the best bit about this collection for me were the little interviews that Smith did with friends and other authors/arts-related people about their relationship with libraries, and what they see the role of these institutions playing. So this gets brownie points for its importance, but unless you’re a massive Smith fan, I perhaps would give this a miss.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill (2014, Quercus)
Louise O’Neill is a young adult author whose name has been flying around the internet for her work on this novel, and on her second novel Asking for It. She has gained a reputation for tackling difficult issues in her novels, so I was happy to finally read this book. Only Ever Yours focuses on Frieda, who lives in a world where women’s roles are heavily segregated: companions (or wives) to elite young men, courtesans or chastities (or teachers of the next generation). Frieda is at ‘school’, and is desperate to be a high-level companion, which is dependent on her looking and acting a certain way. However, when her friend Isabel begins to rebel against these expectations, Frieda’s world begins to unravel. I can’t say I was blown away by this. The characters all felt very two-dimensional; this may have been O’Neill’s point, but it didn’t make for a particularly engaging read. If the set-up sounds familiar, that’ll be because this novel basically feels like a sequel to the world that Margaret Atwood sets up (far better) in The Handmaid’s Tale, which did make me wonder why this novel has had so many ‘unique’ superlatives thrown at it. O’Neill is very good at creating a sense of unease throughout the novel, and it was possible to see some of society’s current issues being writ large through this (especially around food & weight, I wouldn’t recommend reading this if you have any issues with those topics). However, if you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, you probably don’t need to read this too.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (2016, Penguin)
I was uber excited to read Homegoing and it really didn’t disappoint. Gyasi debut (DEBUT) novel begins with two half sisters, Effia and Esi. One is sold into slavery, and one is married to a British slave-owner. The rest of the novel follows the ensuing generations, and their lives mainly in the United States and Ghana. The legacy of slavery and colonialism is unflinchingly dealt with. There are passages in this novel that are deeply uncomfortable, which only makes it all the more important to read in an era where some would have us believe that the colonial years were wonderful, and that issues of race no longer exist.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry (2016, Faber & Faber)
Sebastian Barry is a name that I’ve heard a lot, but have never read any of his work. However, after this novel won the Costa Book Award, and had a couple of rave reviews from people I trust, I thought I’d check it out. Days Without End follows Thomas McNulty and his lover John Cole who find themselves living a transient existence in the early years of the United States. Together they fight in wars of land against native Americans and in the civil war. Told in a stream-of-consciousness style from McNulty’s perspective, Barry is unflinching and pretty graphic in his descriptions of the war, death and hunger that McNulty and the other characters experience. This is a period of American history I know very little about, and Barry brings it to visceral life. He also very casually discusses his protagonist’s sexuality and relationship to gender, which was incredibly refreshing for a period novel. Whilst this novel is beautifully written, the subject matter just wasn’t really my thing, which meant that I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to. I will, however, definitely read more work by Barry, I’m aiming to pick up The Secret Scripture before its film adaptation comes out.

If You Go Away by Adele Parks (2015, Headline Review)
Adele Parks is a really popular contemporary fiction writer, but I hadn’t ever picked up any of her novels. My Mum lent me If You Go Away, which is Parks’ first foray into historical fiction. It follows two characters; Vivian, a debutante who is forced into a loveless marriage to cover up her ‘indiscretions’ during her season and Howard, a playwright who gains notoriety for refusing to enlist in the First World War for no…real reason. Their paths cross when Vivian finds herself  running her husband’s country home, and Howard returns to his home village. This isn’t a novel that does anything particularly new; once Vivian loses her snobbery and gets her hands dirty she discovers new things about herself she’s never known…once Howard views The Front with his own eyes he begins to reconsider his thoughts on the war. However, it’s a fairly light, easy read; and Parks does do a good job at evocative passages about the First World War.

I’m currently still making my way through Love in the Time of Cholera, but who knows, maybe May will get its own reading round-up!

Amy
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