Where do my books come from? AKA How many times can I say “Waterstones” in a single post?

So the challenge here is to look back at the last thirty books you’ve read and think about where you got them from. This probably isn’t that reflective of my reading in general, because a lot of it will have come through Waterstones, given I only stopped working there six weeks ago.

  1. Windfall – Jennifer E. Smith – proof through working at Waterstones
  2. Roller Girl – Victoria Jamieson – reader copy through working at Waterstones
  3. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen – audible audiobook
  4. Certainty – Madeleine Thien – Foyles
  5. Persuasion – Jane Austen – audible audiobook
  6. Station Eleven – Emily St John Mandel – Waterstones originally, but it had been on my TBR for about three years
  7. The Penelopiad – Margaret Atwood – Oxfam bookshop
  8. Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore – reader copy through working at Waterstones
  9. Often I Am Happy – Jens Christian Grøndahl – proof through working at Waterstones
  10. Northern Lights – Philip Pullman – bought with my Waterstones discount
  11. Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay – bought with my Waterstones discount
  12. The Subtle Knife – Philip Pullman – bought with my Waterstones discount
  13. The Gender Games – Juno Dawson – bought with my Waterstones discount
  14. Emma – Jane Austen – audible audiobook
  15. The Amber Spyglass – Philip Pullman – bought with my Waterstones discount
  16. Longbourn – Jo Baker – Helen and Douglas House charity shop
  17. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman – bought with my Waterstones discount
  18. Mansfield Park – Jane Austen – audible audiobook
  19. We That Are Young – Preti Taneja – proof through working at Waterstones
  20. The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides – on the 2 for £5 offer in Fopp, probably two or three years afo
  21. All My Friends Are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman – bought with my Waterstones discount
  22. Perfect Little World – Kevin Wilson – bought with my Waterstones discount
  23. How Not to Be a Boy – Robert Webb – audible audiobook
  24. House of Names – Colm Tóibín – proof through working at Waterstones
  25. Once Upon a Time in the North – Philip Pullman – bought with my Waterstones discount
  26. L’Empire des signes – Roland Barthes – Amazon
  27. Le Monolinguisme de l’autre – Jacques Derrida – Amazon
  28. Étrangers à nous-mêmes – Julia Kristeva – Abe Books
  29. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen – audible audiobook
  30. La Cantatrice chauve – Eugène Ionesco – this is in a bind up with La Leçon, which I’m fairly sure I bought in Blackwell’s when I studied the latter in my second year of undergraduate.
  31. La Belle Sauvage – Philip Pullman – Waterstones (tragically post discount, but on the half price pre-order so it amounts to the same thing)

As predicted, most of these were either bought with my discount or sent to the shop by publishers, whether that was for me personally or not. I’m pretty happy about how few of these are from Amazon – the two that I did buy from Amazon are French language texts, which are a pain to get hold of through any other means. My real takeaway from this is that I’m really reading far more of what’s coming in new to my bookshelves than getting to my pretty freaking extensive TBR, which is something that I would like to change, although honestly, it’s unlikely given that a) my TBR is at my parents’ house, and b) most of my reading now is for my Masters, and all of those are things I’m having to purchase. That said, other than course books, the rate at which I acquire books has gone down to almost nothing since I left Waterstones – in the past six weeks, I’ve only bought two books, both of which I was highly anticipating.

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August Wrap Up 2017

I seem to finally be catching up with my wrap ups, although I’ve failed to review anything in months and I’ve probably half forgotten most of the books I’ve read in that time. Oops!

August was a month dominated by His Dark Materials; I wanted to reread the original trilogy before the release of the first part of The Book of Dust (although during the process of rereading them, I was forced to conclude that I did not in fact get to the end the first time around) and was scheduled to chair the discussion group we were holding at work, so I raced through the three novels.

Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
I 100% get the hype with this. It absolutely delivers on both all the praise I’ve heard about it over the years and my own memory of what it was like over a decade ago when I first read it. It is a brilliant, innovative, magical adventure and I was as addicted to it this time as I was the first time.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Over the last year or so, I feel like my feminism has become a more passive thing. It’s just a constant in my life, and my only real engagement with it, intellectually speaking, is listening to The Guilty Feminist. I want to learn more about feminism and examine the way I think about gender and sexism properly. To that end, I finally bought a copy of Bad Feminist. While I didn’t necessarily agree with every point that she makes, I think it was really valuable to me to read about someone whose experience of being female is so entirely different from mine.

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
I have to admit that I didn’t love this as much as I loved Northern Lights, but there is still a lot of good in there. It just lacks structure, and it feels like our protagonists spend most of the book walking with no particular reason for them to be doing so. I do really like Will though, so I was glad to be reading about him again (although I am 100% sure that I stopped reading around two thirds of the way through because the end of the book was a complete surprise to me).

The Gender Games by Juno Dawson
I read this in advance of the Banging Book Club event in London, where they were talking to Juno about the book. My friend Laura and I both said after the event that we liked the book more having heard her talk about it. I think it just helped us understand her voice and the way specifically that she talks about gender: the book is very much written as she would speak. It’s informative and interesting, but I would maybe suggest listening to the audiobook because I found that the tone didn’t translate super well.

Emma by Jane Austen
This was yet another Jane Austen reread via audiobook, and as much as I love Emma and therefore had fun listening to it, I didn’t love Anna Bentinck’s narration – specifically the nasal, snooty voice she does for Mr Knightley. (That said, I’ve since listened to her narrating Mansfield Park, and she does the same voice for Edmund and it works pretty well for his uptight, lecturing priggishness.) (I don’t like Edmund.)

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
This book is a damn mess. I loved it, actually more than The Subtle Knife, but I have pretty much no idea what happened. Something I learnt at the discussion group is that apparently Philip Pullman doesn’t really plan, he writes like an investigation, uncovering how things work

Longbourn by Jo Baker
Because I am a snob, I had it in my head that this was going to be pretty lightweight, but it turned out to be really great, and very well written. I’m a massive Austen fan, particularly of Pride and Prejudice, so in some ways I’m hesitant to read different takes on that story (I was badly burned by Death Comes to Pemberley) because the characters just read as wrong to me. But because this comes from the point of view of the servants, the differences in the original protagonists are totally understandable, because they are different with the servants than they are with their equals.

Lyra’s Oxford by Philip Pullman
This is one of two short stories Pullman has published set in Lyra’s world, and it was a fun, quick read but I could not tell you what happened. It involved some kind of alchemist and a witch?

July Wrap Up 2017

July was a slightly odd reading month. Which I’ve read pretty much the same number of books I normally would, it wasn’t until I picked up Birdcage Walk in the last few days of the month that I was actually feeling compelled to read. I just didn’t seem to be motivated to read, and while it wasn’t a slump, it certainly felt like one. It also marked the point at which I hit a slump on blogging, hence this post going up at the beginning of September

Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson
This was our Waterstones Loves title for July and August, and Penguin very kindly sent the shop a copy along with a packet of Skittles. Having eaten the Skittles, I felt morally obliged to read the book. That said, I really enjoyed it. It’s a graphic novel for the 9-12 age group and centres around a young girl getting into roller derby. It’s about finding your friends, understanding other people, doing your own thing and persistence.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Next up in my Austen rereads/listens was the big one. This was maybe the tenth time I’ve read Pride and Prejudice, and my second go around listening to this Rosamund Pike narrated audiobook. I love her performance of it, and obviously I adore the book.

Certainty by Madeleine Thien
Having totally adored Do Not Say We Have Nothing, I had super high expectations for this, which of course weren’t met (are they ever?). I did really like it, but the characters weren’t as vivid and the story felt altogether less coherent. As many strands as Do Not Say We Have Nothing contains, they still feel like one story, albeit a huge, sweeping one, where this had a lot of strands that lacked that flow, maybe because it jumps around in time a lot more.

Persuasion by Jane Austen
This is maybe the Austen novel that I remember the least from my previous reading. It’s said to be her most mature work, and that definitely rings true for me: I took a lot more out of this book at 23 than I did at 17. It’s a love story, of course, but it stands apart from her others. I find the description more vivid – while Austen is never overly descriptive, she really knows how to put you into a scene and this is probably the best example of that – and has a strong sense of how precarious her characters situations are, in their financial state, in the love lives, in their relationships with their families. If you think you don’t like Austen, a) you’re wrong and b) read Persuasion.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
I bought this book in hardback when it came out, and I have carted it with me through multiple house moves, to France and back, and yet I had never read it. I think it just got over hyped and I always get put off when that happens. This is one of the few over hyped books I’ve ever read that I genuinely really enjoyed. It’s an unusual look at a potential apocalypse, more nuanced than you normally see in that genre and ultimately, I think, more hopeful. It also has the most realistic depiction of violence that I’ve ever seen in a dystopian novel. I blame the weird reading month I was having for the fact that I liked it rather than loved it.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood
I’m beginning to wonder whether I actually like Margaret Atwood all that much. I adore The Handmaid’s Tale, but of the other three of hers that I’ve read, I hated The Edible Woman and am pretty meh about Surfacing and now The Penelopiad. I got what she was doing, giving Penelope (wife of Odysseus) her own voice, but the problem was that it’s told very conversationally and casually, so she’ll just say X used to happen a lot rather than there being a scene in which X happens, which is just the absolute opposite of the show-don’t-tell rule. It’s just not very exciting, although it is quite funny in places.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
FINALLY. I raced through this book, I could not put it down. You know sometimes, you read a book that reminds you why it is that you read at all? This was one of those books for me. It’s kind of sold as a psychological thriller, which it is sort of, but it’s also intensely political, as many of the characters are deeply involved in the anti-monarchy movement in England at the time of the French Revolution. It revolves primarily around the marriage of the daughter of a radical writer to an abusive, terrifying man. Its only real flaw was that it does that thing where there is a character who discovers some piece of information in the present relevant to the historical story, which I always think is an outdated technique which serves basically no purpose most of the time.

Often I Am Happy by Jens Christian Grøndahl
This is pretty much an old woman, Ellinor, reflecting back on her life after the death of her partner, who used to be married to her best friend, Anna, until she died in a skiing accident which also killed Ellinor’s husband/Anna’s lover. That sounds very soapy, but honestly this is a fairly slow moving, quiet book which is more about forgiveness and what constitutes a happy life than high drama. The scandal is there, but it is decades in the past and I think the point of the novel is that events like that don’t define a whole life. It’s also translated from the Danish by the author himself, so fair play to him.

Coming full circle

In less than a month, I will be moving to Oxford to start a Masters degree in French at Merton College. Five years ago, I thought my world was coming apart because I didn’t get the A-level grades to get into Merton to study French.

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I’ve been thinking a lot about this, particularly as I got my final confirmation from Merton on A-level results day this year, which neatly tied up the whole circular nature of this story. A lot of people have told me that getting in now balances out how bad it was not getting in the first time was, but that doesn’t really ring true for me.

I didn’t apply to Merton the second time around to get closure on a five-year-old failure. I did it because it’s centrally located and the French lecturer based there has published on Samuel Beckett, and because it has a high proportion of post-graduate students. When I was choosing my college this time, I initially didn’t want to apply to Merton, because I didn’t want my postgrad to be about “making up for” my undergrad, but it just seemed to be a good fit.

My undergraduate degree doesn’t need to be made up for, and getting into Oxford now doesn’t balance out not getting in last time. Yeah, not getting in sucked, but that shitty day five years ago was more than made up for by the four years I spent as a student of French and Russian at the University of Nottingham. I am so glad I cocked up my Politics exam, because if I had done as well as I was supposed to, I would never have lived in Russia, never have met my best mates, never have whipped my top around my head on the Ocean dancefloor or  snuck a bottle of wine into the Savoy Cinema or eaten an Annie’s burger. I wouldn’t change those four years for the world.

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I’m excited for my Masters: I’m looking forward to studying a subject I love in further depth at the best languages faculty in the damn world, and to discovering a new city and getting to know new people, but I’m not sure I would be doing one at all if I hadn’t had teachers at Nottingham who made me love my subject and who pushed me to look into a postgraduate degree.

Still though – would my 18-year-old self, the one who was crying her eyes out and drinking far, far too much on results day, have felt better knowing that she would end up there eventually? Probably. But if I could do it all over again, Nottingham would be my first choice, not my back up. I’d probably still have too much to drink though.

A really, really late June wrap up

I’ve been working like a maniac for the last few months – I have two part time jobs, which in theory don’t even add up to full time but in reality add up to pretty frequently working for twelve days straight – and at the beginning of this month, I crashed HARD. The result of this was that I spent all of my time watching Ru Paul’s Drag Race and none of it writing blog posts, so my June wrap up is going up on the 24th of July.

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic
This was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017, having read about it back at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately, I ended up being disappointed. It’s a book about stalking and obsession, but it’s not as creepy as it should be, the narrator is supposed to be unreliable but the only steps taken towards actually making her unreliable are like two occasions when the timeline is off and at the end she says that most of it was probably lies, which is just not effective. It also comes to the conclusion SOCIAL MEDIA = BAD which is just not an interesting point of view.

The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy
I loved this as I read it, but because it was now over a month ago, I don’t remember it particularly strongly. I think that’s partly a result of how short it is – there are four or five story strands in under two hundred pages and while I like short novels, I just got so little time with each part that I’ve mostly forgotten them. There is some really memorable, awful description of an abusive relationship, which is done really effectively so that even before the abuse starts, you know the relationship isn’t healthy but couldn’t necessarily identify why. It’s very uncomfortable reading.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I’m super into Greek myth retellings at the moment and this is an LGBT twist on Achilles. I absolutely ADORED this book, it was one of those books I just couldn’t stop reading. It won the Women’s Prize a few years ago and it really just proved to me why it is that I follow that prize: they reward really enjoyable, readable books, even if they are “commercial” (whatever the fuck that means).

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell
This is the upcoming offering from the author of How to Train Your Dragon, which I loved as a kid, and it’s about a Britain where magic exists, set thousands of years ago. I really enjoyed it, but this is the first time I’ve had a proof of an illustrated book and a lot of the illustrations obviously aren’t ready yet so there were just empty spaces, which meant some of the effect was lost.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
This was my first Maggie Nelson, and I think I went about it the wrong way. Because it’s so short, and because the vignettes feel almost like poetry, I read it all in one go, but actually I think I should have read it in a lot of short bursts. It’s incredibly clever and made me think a lot, but I needed to give it some breathing room.

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
Having loved The Nakano Thrift Shop, I had to pick up Kawakami’s earlier novel (at least it was published in the UK earlier, I don’t actually know what the original publication order was in Japan). It’s about a woman in her late thirties who slowly, hesitantly falls in love and forms a relationship with her former teacher. Much like The Nakano Thrift Shop, it is deeply melancholic and moving, despite very little happening.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell 
This was a reread for me, and a first listen to the audiobook. It’s primarily narrated by Rebecca Lowman, who does a really fantastic job, particularly with Levi. I love this book, and when a migraine hit last month, it saved me from dying of boredom while I was lying in a darkened room unable to do anything.

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
As we know, I am a giant snob and I had somewhat dismissed this book for being popular (honestly Molly what is wrong with you), and it turned out to be fantastic. The thing that really made me read it is that I heard it described as like To Kill a Mockingbird set in Nottingham in the seventies (I love To Kill a Mockingbird, I love Nottingham, it was a no-brainer). It’s not really that, although I can see why you’d describe it that way. It switches narrators between a ten-year-old girl and the adults who live on her cul-de-sac, and I personally way preferred the various adults’ point of view.

The DUFF by Kody Keplinger
This was another audiobook reread, just because I was in the mood for YA romance. In all honesty, you should just watch the film, it’s better.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
I loved this book. It’s Sally Rooney’s first novel, and she just has an incredible insight into the way clever young people interact and form relationships. The central thread is an affair between Frances, a student, and Nick, an older, married actor, but the progression of their relationship, while compelling is a backdrop to Frances’s inner life and the way she relates to the world. I identified super strongly with Frances, and so many of the conversations she has reminded me so vividly of my friends (although her friends are more intelligent and less mean than we often are).

Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith
With my craving for YA romance, I thought I’d try a new one, and honestly it just reminded me why it is that I just return to tried and tested romances. Many of them are crap. This one is a bit crap, mostly because I just don’t know why the narrator would be so into the love interest, particularly when there is another, clearly nicer, guy interested in her.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

I’ve never read Japanese fiction at all, not even Murakami. The only thing translated from Japanese I’ve ever read is Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump, which is a non fiction account of autism, written when the author was around 13. (Side note – he’s just released another book which I am greatly looking forward to reading.) I’m bad with translated fiction – because I am able to read some foreign lit in the original, I have tended to think that reading in translation somehow doesn’t count, which is a) snobbery and b) just weird.

With the aim of correcting this gap in my reading, I requested The Nakano Thrift Shop from the publisher through work, in exchange for feedback or a review on the Waterstones website. It is set in a little thrift shop in a suburb of Tokyo, and the characters are the group of people who work there. There is Hitomi, the narrator, a young woman who has no real direction in life, Takeo, the abrupt, prickly delivery driver, Mr Nakano, the owner, an aging womaniser, and Masayo, his sister, an artist and hopeless romantic.

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I’ve heard it described as more like an interconnected collection of short stories, and while it definitely is episodic and you could argue that it is sort of presented like a collection of short stories, given that each chapter is titled with an object which comes into the shop, and appears to have a conclusion of sorts, I don’t think it is as vignette-y as that would imply. It is loosely chronological and there are plots which run throughout: Takeo and Hitomi’s relationship, Mr Nakano’s affair with an antiques dealer, Masayo falling in love with a man of whom her brother does not approve.

This is a look at relationships, love and sex, and the way that these things can falter and struggle, the awkwardness that we experience as we try to form relationships, with women given the primary voices and much of the power, both in the actual establishment of these relationships and in the discussion of them. This is not to say that these are all powerful, decisive women going after what they want from men; Hitomi in particular is hugely indecisive and often has no idea what she wants from Takeo, or struggles to voice it when she does know. But the power to begin or end this relationship often seems to be in her hands; even when Takeo appears to have decided against the relationship, it is within her power to change his mind.

This is a subtle, melancholic, hesitant book, which I believe is typical of Japanese fiction. It is slow, the characters aren’t enormously expressive, and I can see why, as I scroll through goodreads, there are a fair few two star reviews. But that is the beauty of this novel. It takes its time to tell a simple story, with an enormous amount of nuance. It is romantic and moving and emotional, but only if you’re willing to just sit with it and allow it to wash over you. It’s probably not for everyone, but honestly I don’t have a bad word to say about it, and I will absolutely be reading as much Kawakami as I can get my hands on.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Recently, I decided that it was finally time for me to put my money where my mouth is with my love and admiration of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and actually read another one of her novels. I have literally nothing of consequence to add to any discussion of her work, because all I can do is loudly affirm that she is brilliant and that I love everything she writes.

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Purple Hibiscus is narrated by Kambili, a fifteen-year-old girl living in a repressive, abusive household. To the outside world, her father is a pillar of the community, a deeply devout man who stands up to what is wrong in society. But behind closed doors, it’s a very different story. He beats his wife and sacrifices the happiness of his children to his maniacal religious belief. Kambili and her brother Jaja live in a constant state of terror, from which they are finally freed by a stay at their Aunty Ifeoma’s flat, where they begin to understand that the family they have known is not the only possibility.

This is in no small part a classic coming of age story. Kambili is timid and nervous when we meet her, and we gradually see her bloom as she escapes from her father’s influence and begins to form friendships with her cousins and even develop a tentative crush on a young priest (this crush is maybe my favourite thing about the novel, it’s wonderfully done). It’s a heartwarming look at the good it does young people to be truly loved and valued, alongside being treated as equals – both in that they are respected but also in that they are expected to pull their weight alongside everyone else at their Aunty’s home. The coming of age aspect of the novel means that it’s a perfect recommendation for teenagers who are just starting to read adult fiction, and I’ve already been recommending it to customers.

While it does have that heartwarming look at growing up, it is also filled with the oppressive presence of an abuser. Kambili’s every action is influenced by what her father would think, what he will do if he finds out, fear of his responses, even when she is in a different city. Every time she manages to take a step forward, he pulls her back. You can feel this uncomfortable, constant sensation through the entire boo, even though the way he controls her is not necessarily something she is aware of. Adichie suffuses the entire boo with his looming presence, so that the reader also begins to feel stifled by it.

While this would be a gripping story were it just to look at one family’s story, Adichie doesn’t leave it there. She uses the moving stories of these individuals to tell a wider story about post-colonial Nigeria. During the course of the novel, there is a military coup, which Kambili’s father uses the newspaper he owns to criticise, with horrific results for his employees. Ifeoma is a university lecturer while students are rioting and attacking faculty houses. The part which really hit home for me was the way that the country has been brutalised by colonialism, as represented through Kambili’s father, whose violence and abuse stem from his Catholicism, from a religion brought to him by white men.

This is a glorious novel, simultaneously shocking, brutal, heartwarming and moving. I’m literally the last person to this party, but Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is incredible, and you should read her.