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.

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.

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.

April Wrap Up

Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
I honestly thought this was a completely perfect book. I don’t have a single bad word to say about it. My review is here, but TL;DR the prose is stunning and it’s a really moving examination relationships, the extremities of war and what constitutes a family.

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter
I have some reservations with this one, but it’s fun and feisty. There are three plot strands and I only really loved one of them, so I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it. Worth a read though.

See What I Have Done – Sarah Schmidt
Super creepy and atmospheric, but it hasn’t necessarily stuck with me in the way I would have expected. It’s about a murder, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not a crime reader – I’m not – it’s much more of a disturbing character study than a thriller.

Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo
Currently, this is what I’m rooting for to win the Bailey’s Prize. It’s really pacy and full of twists, but packs an incredible emotional punch. I didn’t think that I would read anything as good as Days Without End any time soon, but this is on par with it.

The Bombs That Brought Us Together – Brian Conaghan
I think I had a bit of a book hangover when I read this, so I didn’t love it as much as a lot of people seem to. I just didn’t get on with the writing: it’s very accurately written in the voice of a 14-year-old boy, which is not my thing at all.

The Children of Jocasta – Natalie Haynes
Another great read this month, this is a retelling of the myths of Oedipus and Antigone, with two of the minor characters from the original myths as the protagonists. My classics knowledge is next to nothing, but I still loved this.

Closely Watched Trains – Bohumil Hrabal
I’m very much still mulling this one over. It’s a tiny little 80 pager, but it left me with a lot to think about. It’s about a young man in Czechoslovakia (I know that’s not what it’s called now but it was at the time) during World War II, dealing with his own emotional issues as well as with the realities of living in a Nazi-occupied state.

Mr Loverman – Bernadine Evaristo
This is about an elderly Antiguan man living in Hackney, who has been in a secret relationship with his male best friend for the last 60 years. It’s about prejudice and aging and the way you can keep learning and changing even at the end of your life. I really enjoyed this one.

Geekerella – Ashley Poston
I found myself really craving YA romance at the end of this month, so rather than just rereading Fangirl or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (the only YA romance books I would really recommend) I picked this one up, and I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not going to change your life, but it is an adorable retelling of Cinderella set around nerd culture.

March Wrap Up

I wasn’t working for most of March, which definitely had its downsides, but it meant I managed to get through 11 books. I would actually recommend most of these, I’ve had a really good reading month. The standouts, looking back, are The Gustav SonataThe Mothers, and Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

Berlin by Rory MacLean
This is a history of Berlin told through the stories of various individuals, some well-known, some not, who lived there. It’s missing from the pile because I’ve leant it to my boyfriend. I started it pretty shortly after my trip to Berlin last month, and found it somewhat inconsistent. It’s worth reading for the chapter on Bowie alone, but MacLean sometimes does experimental things with form which make it pretty frustrating to read. My primary complaint was the chapter on Brecht, which is written in the form of a letter from a young actor recently arrived in Berlin, who thinks that Brecht is shite. This means that there is virtually no actual information about Brecht’s life or his relationship with the city, which is just annoying.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain
I’ve already put up a review of this, so I’ll keep this brief – this is a moving look at frustrated ambition and desire, and I’m really rooting for it to be on the shortlist for the Bailey’s this year.

Dubliners by James Joyce
I’m half Irish, and I want to start reading more Irish fiction, so this was my hopeful way into Joyce’s work, as the shadow that looms over all Irish literature and a favourite writer and close friend of my personal fave, Samuel Beckett. Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I don’t really understand or enjoy short stories…

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
This seems to be E V E R Y W H E R E at the moment and I haven’t seen a single negative review. The absence of negativity is surprising to me because I thought it was bland and took the usual level of YA implausibility to a ridiculous level.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien
Bloody brilliant. This book moved me in an unexpected way, I was just going along with it, interested and engaged by this family’s story, and then suddenly I was absolutely wrecked.

Autumn by Ali Smith
I love Ali Smith’s writing, but I honestly don’t really remember what this is about, or what I thought Smith was trying to get her reader to take from it. I definitely liked it at the time but it hasn’t made a lasting impression on me.

The Unaccompanied by Simon Armitage
Simon Armitage’s response to economic difficulty and social division didn’t quite hit the mark for me, I think because I am not remotely well versed in classics, so the references he’s making fell flat for me.

Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I found this more effective than We Should All Be Feminists, I think because I have more to learn from these themes than I did those of the earlier book. This took about half an hour to read, and I would definitely recommend it.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
I feel like this is a book which I am very much still processing. It’s about secrets and motherhood and the relationships between three young people who are all connected to Upper Room, a black church in Southern California. I’m hoping to review this soon, once I can organise my thoughts a little.

The Nix by Nathan Hill
This is a tough book to summarise: it’s about family and protest and the choices we make. Again, I’m struggling to form a clear impression of this, which I think is in part due to the enormous scope of the story Hill is trying to tell.

They Can’t Kill Us All: The Story of Black Lives Matter by Wesley Lowery
Lowery is a Washington Post journalist who has been covering the Black Lives Matter movement since Ferguson, and this chronicles the events which happened in the following couple of years. It’s incredibly well researched and definitely helped me better understand the events, but it doesn’t give you a strong connection to any of the protesters he interviews. This is probably a result of the wide scope of a book which comes in at around 230 pages, so I would say this is a starting point on understanding the movement.

February Wrap Up

Honestly, February 2017 has been a disappointing month, reading-wise (life-wise it’s been pretty good). I haven’t read anything that I absolutely loved, which is a little disappointing after starting the year on such a good note.

  1. Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi
    This is absolutely the book of the moment, although the hype has somewhat died off now. It is an important book, and an interesting one, but it fell a little flat for me. The ending in particular is a bit meh, and when you’ve been following a story over centuries as you do here, you want the ending to be powerful. The sections on slavery are powerful and moving, but for me it lost its way a little. I have a lot of thoughts on this book, and I’ll hopefully get around to writing a review soon.
  2. The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
    I’m pretty sure this is the first Pulitzer Prize winning book I’ve ever read, and that combined with how much I loved The Secret History gave me high hopes for this book. Unfortunately, I was disappointed. It’s still a three-star book for me, but it went on for considerably too long and was honestly a bit of a struggle by the end.
  3. Nina Is Not Okay – Shappi Khorsandi
    This book was a lot harder to read than I thought. In terms of the length and the difficulty of the writing, I could probably have raced through it in an afternoon, but it took me a couple of days because of how uncomfortable and unpleasant some of the scenes were. It’s a lot to process. It’s a brilliant book, the best I read this month, but I can’t say I enjoyed reading it.
  4. Where Am I Now? – Mara Wilson
    An enjoyable look at growing up and insecurity, with the added stress of being a child actor whose career is waning. Funny and insightful, but I think I lost something of it by listening to the audiobook rather than reading.
  5. The Alchemist – Paolo Coelho
    People go on about how incredible this book is, but it’s absolute drivel. It’s patronising of the reader and of the Arabic characters, exoticist, sexist at times, and is full of “follow your heart” type advice that makes me want to bash my head in. Literally, zero stars.