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
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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
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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
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A Year in Review: 2017

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2017 was a bit of a whirlwind year. Looking back at it, I remember the early months and then everything post August seems to have been one massive blur.

It’s also been a year that has contained many ups and downs. I’ve had some fab holidays, eaten at some really nice places and had the best time with the friends that I’ve made. But there’s also been some pretty rubbish moments; both due to the ongoing garbage fire that has been the news, and some bad times at work, which have meant that I was quite glad to see the back of this year. However, I did want to look over the highlights of last year, to get me in the zone for taking 2018 by the horns.

A Year in London
In August I marked surviving my first year living in London. I had my worries about living here, mostly focused around how expensive rent is, whether I would find nice housemates and whether the pace would cause me to burn-out spectacularly. 

Fortunately, whilst it is a horrendously expensive place to live and warps your perceptions of the cost of everything (£500,000 for a 1-bed flat? Reasonable!), I have loved being here. I really landed on my feet finding housemates who have become actual, proper friends who have pushed me to say yes to more things than I would ever have before.

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Living here also means you have access to numerous places for food, and this year has been an absolute treat when it comes to eating out (highlights include Gaucho, The Oxo Tower Brasserie, Dalloway Terrace for afternoon tea and The Modern Pantry). I’ve also been lucky enough to see loads of brilliant theatre, and I managed to get tickets to see Arcade Fire at a tiny boxing venue and a great nice watching one of my favourite bands. 

Whilst I can understand that the cost of living here, and the perma-overdraft life can definitely take its toll, the idea of leaving feels pretty unbearable. 

A Trip to Paris
As I mentioned, this year featured two pretty great holidays. The first was a crazily spontaneous trip to Paris for my 24th birthday. Lounging on the sofa with my housemates, I mentioned that I’d never been to Disney or Paris. Somehow within about 45 minutes we had Eurostar tickets, hotel and Disney passes booked. 

Paris is a city I’ve had a bit of an obsession with since I was a teenager studying French at school; it just seemed the height of glamour; and watching numerous films and TV shows that featured it over the years didn’t do anything to dent that perception. 

So, despite the rain and the slightly dodgy food in the Eiffel Tower restaurant, I was beyond thrilled to see this city with my own eyes. Ticking off the Champs Elyees, the Louvre, the aforementioned Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, I had a fantastic 24th. I then thoroughly enjoyed embracing my inner child at Disney. You can read more about the trip here.

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A Trip to Las Vegas
I’m not going to go into too much details about this as I literally just wrote a post about it, but my trip to Las Vegas was a pretty late highlight of my year. Getting to travel ‘abroad abroad’ for the first time with friends and travelling to the US was pretty great. It also meant I could check off seeing the Grand Canyon from my bucket list.

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Having Great Friends
When the going gets tough, having good people to turn to is really important, and this has really showed over the past 12 months. From the above amazing holidays with my lovely housemates; somehow attending a ball in Oxford with my work friends; picnics in Battersea with my school friends; catch-ups with my former work friends that literally lead me to lose my own voice. I feel very lucky to have them.

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Work Work Work
Whilst work has been a little all over the place this year, and I’m currently a bit :internal screaming: about my future, there are definitely moments that I’m really proud of. Writing a document that has a real impact on shaping the future of my organisation; delivering a programme of music festivals over the summer; and finally discovering my backbone. I’m hoping 2018 will see some positive changes in this area.

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Top Books I Read in 2017:
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, an incredible debut novel which explores the history of slavery and colonialism, beginning with two sisters Effia & Esi; one who is sold into slavery, and one who marries a slave-owner.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, a brilliant part-memoir/part passionate argument for a remodelling of the US justice system is a very important book.
How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis, I fell head-over-heels for Ellis’ memoir of a life in reading and attempting to find herself in novels.
Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, Green’s latest work is unlikely to convert anyone who isn’t already a fan, but I loved this painfully honest look at mental illness
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a young adult novel will tackles issues that I’d never read about in fiction, The Hate U Give follows Starr as she grapples with the unlawful shooting of her friend by a police officer.
Between the World & Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blistering memoir of Coates experience of race-relations in the US
Special mentions also need to go to A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss and Wild Swans by Jung Chang

Top Films I Saw in 2017:
La La Land,
I unashamedly loved this film. Emma Stone & Ryan Gosling are wonderful as the central couple, the music is great and whenever I watch it I get an old-school musical high.
Hidden Figuresa film that I think deserved more attention. Following three African-American women in particular who were integral to the space mission at NASA.
DunkirkI have never been more on edge when watching a film than I was watching this. Fantastic ensemble of performances, incredible score and generally great film-making
Baby DriverAnother film that I feel kind of bad about loving (especially due to recent revelations about Kevin Spacey), but I do. Ansel Elgort is great as the reluctant getaway driver, and the sound design and score is great.
Girls Trip, the best ‘chick flick’ I saw this year. A group of friends has become estranged, and when one is invited to New Orleans to be part of the Essence conference she sees it as the perfect opportunity to get everyone together again.
Paddington 2, just a super adorable, feel-good film.

Top Things I Saw on Stage in 2017:
Hamlet @ Almeida Theatre,
a really beautiful production, led by a truly amazing performance by Andrew Scott
Angels in America @ National Theatre, a real event of theatre which I felt really honoured to see. A fantastic piece of theatrical history and its content remains important.
Jesus Christ Superstar @ Open Air Theatre,
JCS is one of my favourite scores and getting to see it performed (twice) in the magical surroundings of Regent’s Park and featuring an excellent performance by Tyrone Huntley made this something very special.
Network @ National Theatre,
one of the most unique stage productions I’ve ever seen, with a fantastic, timely plot.
Follies @ National Theatre, 
it was great to see a score that I’ve heard so many things about performed live. With stunning costumes and a painfully real plot, Follies was a very special night at the theatre

Amy
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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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Two Months in Books: September & October

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So September was a bit of a pass month for reading; but then October was a bit of a mad reading month; and I’m actually almost back on track for my reading goal! I hope you have a cup of tea with you, as this is a bit of a long one.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien (2016, Granta)
Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a sprawling historical epic which often feels like it was written decades, if not centuries, before the story takes place and reading it feels like falling into Thien’s lyrical text.

Serving as a really great companion to Jung Chang’s Wild Swans which I also read this year; Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins in the 1990s, when the quiet life lived by Marie and her mother in Canada in disturbed by the arrival of Ai-Ming from China, fleeing the Tiananmen Square protests. As she settles in to the life of the family, Ai-Ming begins to tell Marie the story of her family; focusing in on Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai, students at the Shanghai Conservatory during the rise of Mao.

I’ll admit to taking a while to get into this novel, especially in its earlier pages, where Ai-Ming’s story is pretty fantastical and I really wanted to just get back to the story of Marie and their life in Canada. However, when Sparrow, Zhuli and Kai take centre stage and the story shifts to the 1950s and 1960s, I was completely sucked in. Thien explores how people respond to circumstances beyond our imagination, how they live with these choices and captures the darkness in much of the historical events depicted in this novel.

I did have some other issues with this novel; Thien’s descriptions of suicide make me a little uncomfortable, I’m not sure how accessible it is if you’re not aware of Chinese history and when I put the book down I wasn’t necessarily compelled to pick it up. However, when I did, I did find the reading experience to be incredibly enjoyable.

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (2015, Corsair)
I went into The Sympathizer with pretty sky-high expectations. It won the Pulitzer, and it is set in the wake of the Vietnam War, a period of history I love. Also there are spies. What is not to love?!

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The Sympathizer follows an unnamed narrator, who flees Vietnam with a general in the Vietnamese army and his followers to set up a new life in the United States, whilst at the same time, feeding back information to the Viet Cong.

This narrator is the son of a Vietnamese mother and French father, whose upbringing is a painful representation of people in colonial societies, and he never quite loses the memory of his mother who he wishes had done more, but who he realises was trapped by her circumstances (being just a teenager when she found herself pregnant by the French pastor). He is witty, and (perhaps acting as a mouth piece for Thanh Nguyen) makes some excellent points about American culture and world politics.

Thanh Nguyen is great at writing the refugee/migrant experience in the United States, and it was really interesting to see a discussion of a part of the story of the Vietnam War which is rarely reflected on. There also scenes taken from the conflict in Vietnam that are vividly, painfully told; the take-off from the airport for the general, his followers and the narrator is particularly memorable, and still makes me sad thinking about it. There is also a plot thread which explores the movie industry, particularly the war movie industry, which is excellent.

However, whilst witty, the narrator is also not particularly likeable. Although he struggles with the guilt from his action, and the scene where he realises he has been replaced in one woman’s affections is incredibly well rendered, I found myself not really caring about him. His attitude to women is also pretty terrible, and I’m hoping that was a character choice rather than a sign of Thanh Nguyen’s weird writig about women. I also find the ‘reveal’ as to who the Commandent that the narrator was addressing to be kind of lazy and not as much of a shock as I think the author wanted it to be.

The Sympathizer does shine a much-needed light on an experience that is rarely reflected in popular culture, but I would recommend going in with potentially adjusted expectations to its critical reaction.

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins (2017, Transworld)
I went into Into the Water with some trepidation, having read some pretty poor reviews. I enjoyed The Girl on the Train, which I felt went a bit bonkers in the final pages but was a fun read. Fortunately, Into the Water also scratched my itch for a fast-paced read.

The novel opens with the news that Nel Abbott has been found dead in a river that runs through a small town, just a few weeks after a teenage girl Katie Whittaker committed suicide in the same place. Jules, Nel’s estranged sister, heads to the town where the girls spent summers as children, where she finds herself digging up old scars and also attempting to look after Nel’s daughter, Lena, reeling from the death of her best friend and her Mum.

Hawkins does give herself a sprawling cast of characters, most of whom have at least one chapter told from their perspective, which does occasionally get in the way of the narrative and other characters being developed. I could have happily done without the perspective of the kind of plain rude Detective Erin Morgan if it meant we got to find out more about Lena and Katie’s relationship.

However, for the most part, Into the Water is a really interesting unpicking of small town myths and also those that surround a certain type of woman. We soon find out that the river was previously used as a ‘drowning pool’ for witches, that Nel and Katie are not the first women to die in the river, and that Nel was working on a book about the women who have died there. Hawkins is really good at unpicking the lives of these complicated women, and the relationships they have with each other.

Much like The Girl on the Train, Into the Water does get a bit crazy in the final third, and pushes against the realms of realistic, but it is still a fun read and worth checking out if you want to curl up with a thriller this autumn.

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari (2011, Harvill Secker)
I’m going to keep this review pretty brief, as I don’t really have the expertise to critique Yuval Noah Harari’s ideas that he outlines in this book.

However, I will say that I found Sapiens to be really interesting reading. I found the story of how homo sapiens developed to be really interesting, especially as Harari moved on to discuss states, politics, religion and capitalism. His ideas are occasionally controversial, but always thought-provoking.  It’s also incredibly readable and I’m very excited to check out Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow soon.

How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis (2014, Vintage)
I just loved this book. After really enjoying her biography of Anne Bronte, I jumped at the chance to read this when my colleague offered to lend it to me. How to be Heroine begins with Ellis having an argument with a friend about the relative merits of Cathy Earnshaw and Jane Eyre; which results in Ellis re-examining her relationship with the heroines of all her favourite books.

How to be a Heroine is half a literary criticism, exploring numerous novels from Ballet Shoes and What Katy Did to Riders and Valley of the Dolls; and half memoir, with Ellis exploring why the women inhabiting inspired her so much as a young woman. Ellis’ experience as an Iraqi Jewish woman was one that I have never really heard much about, and the memoir aspects of this were just as effective and moving as the literary criticism.

It’s hard to explain why I connected so much to this book, but as someone who also grew up devouring books and relating hard to their heroines, this just felt like chatting to a really good, well-read friend.

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016, Penguin)
Reading The Power in the current context of #MeToo, and numerous powerful men becoming undone by women speaking out, was certainly an interesting experience. Alderman’s novel focuses on a near future, where one day teenage women are suddenly able to conduct electricity and wake this up in other women; upending the power dynamics in society.

Whilst the current climate has been driven by women using the power of their voices; Alderman envisions a future where women are given physical power to usurp the patriarchy. It’s a really interesting concept, and Alderman has a diverse cast of characters from across the world who are experiencing these changes.

As if often the case with multi-narrative novels, there definitely perspectives in here that I preferred to others. The older female senator and the lone male perspective were really interesting; whereas others felt a bit heavy-handed and marred in stereotyping (e.g. the lone British woman who was from East London and so her whole family spoke like a Guy Ritchie movie). However, it was continuously engaging and I was eager to see how this world was developing. I also really liked the very Handmaid’s Tale-esque framing device of emails between an author and editor, which felt very on-the-nose.

The messaging in this novel isn’t exactly subtle, and there are moments which are a little beyond belief (women grab power and cast off oppression around the world pretty easily), but it is a really interesting and increasingly important read.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green (2017, Penguin)
I was very excited to get my hands on the new John Green book; but was also nervous that in the years since The Fault in Our Stars I would have potentially moved away from enjoying his writing. Fortunately, however, I really loved Turtles All the Way Down which has easily become my favourite of Green’s novels.

Turtles All the Way Down follows Aza, a teenager living with severe OCD, who is convinced by her best friend Daisy to re-ignite her friendship with Davis Picketts, the son of a missing billionaire, in order for them to try and win the reward that the police is offering for information about his disappearance.

Whilst the novel does ostensibly have a mystery plot, it’s real focus is on Aza and how she navigates the world whilst dealing with often debilitating intrusive thoughts. Green makes Aza just feel so real; she’s not always easy to like but at the same time you just want her to be okay. The portrayal of mental illness in this novel is unflinching, which is great to see in young adult fiction. There is also a lot in this novel about parenthood, particularly fatherhood, and what it means to be a good father. This doesn’t take up loads of room, but is really interesting, and I do always like how Green pulls adults into his teenage characters lives.

If you’re not a fan of Green’s writing, Turtles All the Way Downis unlikely to win you over as there are many sections of the novel; particularly Aza and Davis’ conversations, which are very John Green, and almost feel like they were written for the quote function on Tumblr.

However, on the whole I really loved this. It made me laugh and cry, and the ending, with its message of optimism for any young person struggling with their own mental health, makes a must read.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017, Walker Books)
Young Adult Contemporary fiction is really on fire right now. The Hate U Give received tons of acclaim upon its release, but if you did miss the hype, it follows the story of Starr who is leaving a party with an old friend of hers, Khalid, when they are pulled over by the police. Khalid ends up being shot and killed by a white police officer, and Starr is the only witness.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give explores the experience of contemporary African-American life, and highlights both its positives and the (unfortunately) many negatives. Starr lives in a ‘rough’ neighbourhood, but attends a majority-white ‘posh’ school, and her struggle to navigate these two worlds in the aftermath of Khalid’s death is magnified.

Starr is a great lead character, Thomas makes her really engaging and whilst she does often make choices that confused me, I never once stopped wanting her to succeed. I loved the relationship she had with her parents, extended family, boyfriend and other friends. Thomas made all the secondary characters feel 100% real, and I loved how rooted The Hate U Give is in contemporary teenage life.

The novel also excellently discusses the issues around Black Lives Matter. The media obsession with ruining the character of the victim, whilst protecting the perpetrator; the apparent refusal from the justice system to act; the anger of the communities impacted by the violence; and the casual racism that helps create a society where police brutality is often shrugged about. There are some points where the messaging is a bit too obvious (e.g. history lessons on specific figures; an entire conversation about ‘black’ names), but for young readers it is no doubt useful.

I’d highly recommend reading The Hate U Give, especially before the (PERFECTLY CAST) film is released.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017, Harper Collins)
Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. She goes to work as an accounts assistant at a graphic design firm, where she has worked for many years. She eats the same lunch, buys the same things from Tesco, drinks the same bottles of vodka. However, her routine is rudely changed one day when she and the new IT guy Raymond, find themselves helping an old man who has fallen in the street. This even triggers Eleanor to begin exploring the bounds of the life she has made for herself.

Eleanor isn’t the most likeable character in the world; she judges people very critically and sees herself as above everyone. However, Honeyman does a great job in unpicking her prickly exterior and showing Eleanor’s unbearable loneliness and exploring the traumatic events in her past which she has kept hidden. The relationships that are tentatively formed by Eleanor are really excellently done by Honeyman; Raymond is perhaps not a traditional love interest but he is incredibly endearing, and I loved his Mum too.

Honeyman does an excellent job of exploring Eleanor’s mental health, and there is a specific moment involving a haircut which made me a bit teary. This book would likely make a great BBC mini-series, and I did like the strands that were explored throughout. 

So, that’s what I read in the last couple of months! Let me know if you’ve ready any of these.
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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