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.


The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

I’ll hold my hands up and admit that I was sceptical about this book. I do like YA, but I’m a little cautious when it comes to YA dealing with serious topics. I think because I was disappointed by Brian Conaghan’s The Bombs That Brought Us Together, I got it into my head that I would rather read adult books about big issues and I would just be turning to YA for romance. I was so mistaken. I knew that this book was going to be capital-I Important, but I don’t think I was prepared for just how GOOD it is.

I’m sure you’ve probably heard what this book is about by now because it was absolutely everywhere when it first came out, so I’ll keep it brief. Starr lives in the rough, black part of town, but goes to school in the posh, white part. One night, her oldest friend, Khalil, is driving her home from a party when they’re pulled over by the police. Things escalate and a white police officer shoots the unarmed Khalil. Starr is then faced with the choice of whether to speak out or not.

Thomas gives depth to a huge range of characters in this book. The neighbourhood where Starr lives is layered and complex: life is hard there but there’s a lot of good too. Her dad is a former gang member who now runs a grocery store, her uncle has risen up in the police and left the neighbourhood, her mum is a nurse. We meet kids who have been caught up in the gang culture and kids who are desperately resisting it, as well as adults and elderly people who have spent their whole lives in the neighbourhood. Thoas deftly weaves together this community, showing the way in which Khalil’s death sends fractures throughout it.

We are also, through Starr’s school life, shown the other side of the coin, with the soft racism of her supposed friends and the reaction of this community of wealthy white kids, which is to jump on the bandwagon of the protests in order to get out of lessons. There are those white kids who try to understand, Starr’s boyfriend Chris among them, but an awful lot seem to think that Khalil probably got what was coming to him, and that there’s nothing wrong with their using his death as a way to skive off.

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Thomas’s characters are often insightful and intelligent, and she skilfully has them explain race relations, identity and philosophy to one another without it ever seeming clumsy. Whether it’s Khalil explaining Tupac Shakur’s philosophy of THUG LIFE to Starr in the early pages, Starr’s parents arguing over the pros and cons of leaving the neighbourhood, Starr explaining the way she code switches between school and home through the narration, or her dad giving Chris the opportunity to ask questions about race, these are super smart characters, and it’s impossible to close the book without feeling like they’ve taught you something, without this ever weighing down the plot.

This is a brilliant book, and it takes a complex, nuanced look at a black community in America today. Angie Thomas is a wonderfully talented writer and this is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time, YA or otherwise.

When In French by Lauren Collins

Lauren Collins’s look back at her experience of learning French skilfully moves out beyond her own life to look at what it means to speak a language, the history of French, attitudes to language and human relationships.

The subtitle is “Love in a Second Language”, and the novel does look at the relationship Collins has with her husband, Olivier, and at how that relationship changes as she begins to be able to communicate with him in his mother tongue. They met in London, and she didn’t actually begin to learn French until they were already married and living in Geneva. (By the way, the hilarious, disdainful way she talks about Geneva is brilliant. Read the book just for that.) She notes that, as Olivier also speaks fluent Spanish, she only knows him in what is actually his third language. There are things that he does, ways that he interacts and expresses himself, which she finds completely inexplicable, but as she begins to understand French, these things start to make more and more sense. She starts to find English inadequate herself, which is an experience I think anyone who has learnt a second language can relate to.

I think my favourite thing about the book is that Collins clearly loves French in much the same way as I do, in the way that I think anyone who has studied and adored the French language does. It is a beautiful, nuanced, complex language, the study of which has, without meaning to sound pretentious, enriched my life in more ways than I can express. However, it is also the stupidest fucking language on the planet, filled with irritating idiosyncrasies and frustrating exceptions to grammatical rules, which, for many Francophiles, is both the hardest part of learning French and the thing we love the most. Collins is incisive and witty as she looks at these tiny, funny details, which will be familiar to anyone who has learned French. She taps into exactly the mindset of exasperation and delight which, for me, has characterised my French learning experience, at least since I started my A level and started being able to really get into the nuances of French.

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For context, I really, really love French. I’ve been learning it since I was five or so, visiting France my whole life, and I lived in the suburbs of Paris for a while. I studied French and Russian at university, and the French half of my degree (although by final year, it was more than half) was pretty much entirely focused on literature. I love writers who use language as a playground, who use French purposefully. In September, I’ll be starting a Masters in French, again looking at literature, specifically at writers who are not native speakers of French but choose to use it for one reason or another, whether that is stylistic, political, whatever.

And that brings me to maybe my only critique of the book. If you don’t have at least some experience of learning French, and if you didn’t enjoy that experience, I don’t know what this book would be to you. This memoir tapped into something that is hugely important to me, that I have spent a lot of time engaging with and analysing. I don’t think you need to have the relationship with French that I do in order to take pleasure in this wonderful book, but I think you would have a hard time relating to it if you have never learnt French, or if you did it for GSCE because you had to and hated it.

That said, this is far from being purely an elegy to French. Collins takes her life as a jumping off point and uses it to bring together dozens of fascinating facts and tidbits about language, whether that is French, her native English or other languages around the world. I found myself highlighting parts that I wanted to be able to flick to quickly just to be able to remind myself of how fascinating language can be. She demonstrates a pretty thorough understanding of sociolinguistics and linguistic psychology, and these are the parts I think do have an appeal beyond those of us who are Francophiles.

I think it’s pretty clear that I have a massive personal connection to this book, and the next time someone asks why it is that I love French so much, I’m just going to thrust a copy of this book into their hands.

Mr Loverman by Bernadine Evaristo

This is a story about Barry, an Antiguan man in his eighties living in Stoke Newington in London. His wife, Carmel, suspects that he’s having an affair, but what she doesn’t realise is that for sixty years, he has been in a relationship with his lifelong best friend, Morris. It’s a look at prejudice, sexuality, immigration, race and family.


I loved how much the protagonist is shown as growing and changing and learning, even at this late stage in his life. He’s pretty self important, pretty convinced of his own rightness a lot of the time, but through the book he is forced to reexamine himself, his prejudices and the way he has treated his wife and daughters. He might be gay, but he’s kind of homophobic and pretty sexist a lot of the time, but he does realise his flaws as the novel goes on.

I also loved the nuance that Evaristo gave to the story. Most of it is narrated from Barry’s point of view, but every now and then a chapter from his wife’s point of view is inserted and you see all of the ways that he is kind of a shitty person, and realise that the way he sees her is so, so inaccurate and belittling. These are characters who could easily become stereotypes, but Evaristo never allows herself to slip into that – even when the characters pigeonhole one another into stereotypes, she forces them and the reader to reconsider those lazy, inaccurate categorisations. Barry thinks Carmel is a total harpy, while she thinks that he is a serial womaniser – neither turns out to be true.

The narrative also refuses to judge these characters for their flaws. Carmel holds some pretty awful homophobic opinions, and while other characters do voice their disagreement with her, she is not painted as evil for this. She is shown to be a result of the environment she was brought up in and the times she has lived through, as well as easily influenced by the faith she has turned to while her husband has neglected her for so many years.

This is a capital-I Important Book, looking at a group in society which is often ignored, but it is also charming, funny and warm-hearted.

Summer 2017 TBR

My spring TBR was surprisingly successful (I read 5 of the 6 books on my list), so here’s another one for Summer. I’m really hoping that I’ll get a crazy amount of reading done this summer, because I’m starting my Masters at the end of September and I feel like I have to make the most of not having assigned reading while I can.

Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett
The blurb on the back of this (at least the one on the UK paperback) doesn’t explicitly state that this is a novel about depression, and the impact that one man’s mental illness has on his wife and children, which I find pretty annoying. I’ve been wanting to read this for a really long time, and I think it’s about time I got around to it, because it sounds like it has some themes which are very close to my heart.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I love Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so, so much, and I can’t wait to get to her most widely lauded novel. I feel like I don’t have a super strong idea of what it’s actually about, but I’m pretty okay with that. I loved Purple Hibiscus so much that I almost picked this up immediately afterwards, but I’m always a little hesitant to read the same author back to back as I always feel like it reduces the impact of their writing if I’m too used to their style.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
I want to read this before the sequel comes out in paperback (the date of which hasn’t been announced yet so probably not until next year), and I’ve also just heard so many good things about this book. I’m hoping it’s going to be funny and fast-paced and brutal.

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
I requested this from the publisher through work, and I always feel like if they’ve been kind enough to send me a brand new hardback, for free, I should have the courtesy to read it and put a review on the website reasonably quickly. Embarrassingly, I actually haven’t read The Argonauts, but Maggie Nelson is one of those writers who I’ve decided is going to be a favourite author without ever having read one of her books.

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
I bought this forever ago, pretty much as soon as it came out in paperback, but somehow I didn’t get beyond of a couple of chapters. It’s literally moved house with me four times (and moved countries twice) since I’ve bought it without me ever having read it. Ridiculous. It feels like it’s going to be a fairly easy read, perfect for summer.

The Wizards of Once by Cressida Cowell
It’s been a while since I read a kids’ book, and I used to love the How to Train Your Dragon books when I was a kid, so I was super excited when this proof of her upcoming book turned up. It’s about an imagined version of England in the past, when there are wizards and werewolves and pixies roaming the forest which covers the British Isles. I’m so excited.

A Charity Shop Haul

I’ve fallen in love with second hand books recently. There’s only one dedicated second hand bookshop in my area, but most of the local charity shops boast at least a couple of shelves of paperbacks. While I’m still waiting for my staff discount to kick in, I’m hesitant to buy new, full price books, and I’ve been thinking a lot about sustainability and whether it is responsible, both financially and environmentally, of buying and collecting books. On top of this, I do tend to damage books when I read them, by cracking the spines and making notes in the margins, so I’m really not bothered about them being in pristine condition when they come into my possession. If anything, I kind of love it when you can see that someone has loved a book, battered it by carrying it around, dogeared pages and cracked the spines.

Mad Girl by Bryony Gordon
I listened to this on audiobook when it first came out, and loved it so much that I wanted to own a paper copy. I’m always a little hesitant to buy books that I’ve listened to on audiobook or read as ebooks at full price, given that I’ve already paid for them once, so whenever I spot a favourite second hand, I tend to nab them. It’s a funny, honest, informative memoir of Bryony Gordon’s experience of OCD and depression, and the eating disorder and alopecia and drug use that her mental illness led to. I would definitely recommend it, especially if you have people in your life who are dealing with mental health issues, as I found that it gave me a lot of insight into what they might be going through (although obviously everyone’s experience is different).

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
This is a hugely popular, beloved book which had somehow completely passed me by until a couple of months ago, but it sounds fun and interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel by a Spanish author before, so I’m looking forward to it.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
This is one of those books that was everywhere when it came out, and those are always easy to find in charity shops. It’s about a woman who keeps dying and being reborn – although presumably there is more plot going on than just that. I’m not necessarily planning on reading this in the immediate future, but I do want to read it eventually and for a pound, I could hardly say no.

Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Another one that I am the last person alive not to have read. That’s a theme of this haul to be honest. This is the American edition, which I actually prefer to the current British version. It also has a note in the front from someone giving it as a Christmas gift, which can be part of the fun of second hand books.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
People have been talking about Mohsin Hamid’s newest novel, Exit West, all over the place recently, which has reminded me that I have never read his Man Booker shortlisted novel. I believe that it’s written as a single sustained monologue from a young Pakistani man, telling his life story to an American tourist. The structure sounds a lot like Albert Camus’s The Fall, which I studied and loved in my final year of undergraduate.

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers by Xialou Guo
To be honest, this wouldn’t have been of any particular interest to me, but for one detail. It’s the story of a young Chinese woman who moves to England for a year with the aim of improving her English, and falls in love with an older, British man. The detail that piqued my interest was that it is written, to begin with, in stilted, broken English, which improves as the narrator spends more time in the UK and her English improves. I love those kinds of linguistic experiments, and I’m interested to see what the effect will be.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
I don’t actually know a huge amount about this book, just that it’s about a hostage situation in a South American country, that there is an opera singer involved somehow and that most of the hostages are international diplomats. This edition is the now out of print Harper Perennial edition, which had these lovely pastel foil spines and line drawings on the cover. Another thing that I love about charity shops is that sometimes you can just stumble across hard to find editions, and while I wanted this specific edition, I wasn’t going to go out of my way to find it.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
I think you can even see in the photo that this copy is super, super bent out of shape – the spine is basically at a 45 degree angle from where it should be. Whoever read this book before me absolutely tore it apart, but I’m already half way through it and it’s not affecting my reading experience, so who cares? It’s a retelling of the myth of Achilles, narrated by his companion and best friend, Patroclus, who I believe does appear in Homer’s Iliad (I think it’s the Iliad, but it could be the Odyssey – my knowledge of classics is appalling), but in a minor way. Until I bought it and read the blurb properly, I didn’t realise that it’s a love story between the two characters, and so far it’s beautifully written.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I’ll be honest, I haven’t really heard many people whose taste I would say is close to mine rave about this book, and I slightly suspect it might be a bit shit. But it sounds fun and easy, and I’d like to give it a try. I’m more willing to give books I’m not totally sure about a try if I can get them cheap in a charity shop, and sometimes those can turn out to be great reads.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is my last of Adichie’s novels, and in a way I don’t want to read it because then I’ll have nothing left. It’s set during the Biafran War of the 1960’s, and is about a group of characters living through this era. I assume that this, like her other novels, will bring together the personal and the political, and I’m fully expecting to love it.

When God Was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman
I know literally nothing about this book, other than that it’s about a brother and sister. Literally, that’s it, and the blurb is one of those vague, unhelpful ones. I’ve already heard good things about her upcoming novel, Tin Man, so I thought I would give her writing a try before that comes out.

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney
Last years Bailey’s Prize winner has been followed by a sequel in the last couple of months, which I read the blurb for without realising that it was a sequel. It sounded interesting, but I did realise that I was going to need to read The Glorious Heresies first. I’m glad I picked it up in a charity shop, because it’s been given a way less cool new cover recently, and I wanted this aggressively fluorescent orange one.

May Wrap Up 2017

When In French by Lauren Collins
This is a memoir about Lauren Collins’s experience of learning French, which she undertook because she was married to a French man and living in Geneva. She uses these experiences kind of as a jumping off point to talk about attitudes to language, the way language and personality intersect and to look at linguistics a little. I loved this, although I think you won’t necessarily get as much out of it if you don’t speak French, because so much of what I loved was to do with her observations on the little, irritating, stupid things which are the best and the worst part of learning French.

Trumpet by Jackie Kay
I’ve been meaning to read this forever, and I did really like it. Jackie Kay is primarily a poet, and that really shines through in the writing of this moving look at grief, gender, race and family. I will say, I thought this would be a book which would really stay with me and in all honesty it hasn’t, but I would still highly recommend it.

Dart by Alice Oswald
This is a single poem, made up of multiple voices, inspired by people who live and work on the river Dart. I really liked it, but I actually started it almost a year ago, put it down and only got around to picking it up again in May, which meant that a lot of the impact was lost.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This is my second of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels, and I was floored by it. I’m amazed by her consistency as a novelist – I can’t think of many others who can consistently put out work at this high a standard. It’s a coming of age story about Kambili, who lives in an awful, oppressive house with her abusive, yet deeply religious father. She and her brother, Jaja, go to stay with their Auntie and cousins, and are exposed to what family can mean. It’s wonderful and I absolutely recommend it to everyone.

Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I listened to the audiobook of this, read by Meryl Streep herself, because I was beginning to struggle with The Sport of KIngs and needed some light relief. I did enjoy it and found myself laughing out loud at this comedic story of a woman who discovers her husband is having an affair while she is nine months pregnant, but it’s not a particular favourite.

The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
I have a slightly complicated opinion on this book – on the one hand, I think it is brilliantly clever and wonderfully written, but on the other, it was hard, hard work. I would recommend it, but only if you’re up for a challenge.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
This is f a n t a s t i c. It’s a YA novel inspired by the events which led to the Black Lives Matter movement. I was concerned that it being for a teenage audience would mean it was toned down in some way, but Thomas absolutely doesn’t shy away from the grim reality of her subject matter, while providing insight into the sort of place where these shootings happen and the range of responses inside and outside the community. Read it read it read it.

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
This was a fun, light read about an elderly couple and their neighbour, and what happens when the wife decides to walk 2000 miles across Canada to the sea. I enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t say you need to go racing out to buy it.

The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami
By contrast, you actually should go racing out to buy this. It’s a collection of moments within normal lives, piecing together the story of the people who work at this funny little thrift shop in Tokyo. It’s understated but compelling, and is held together by a really heartwarming love story and a fun, interesting group of characters.