monthly round-up

February Reading Round-Up

So arguably in order to be a Book Blogger, as obviously is my aspiration, you need to blog more than once a month. I unfortunately have not reached those lofty heights lately, so instead here is a round-up of the books I read in February. Some I loved and others I was decidedly ‘meh’ about. Here we go!

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BRING ME BACK by BA Paris – Last month I read The Breakdown, which I didn’t enjoy as much as Behind Closed Doors, and again I didn’t enjoy Bring Me Back as much as either. The plot felt a little laboured and the writing was clunky and the characterisation was too light, and I was essentially just reading to find out what the twist at the end was. I think that both Bring Me Back and The Breakdown were both examples of a writer with a good first book being pushed to produce a second and third book too quickly. This could have been better. Disappointing. (PS: This book was a proof from work.)

SURPRISE ME by Sophie Kinsella – So I love Sophie Kinsella’s standalone novels and this one was not a disappointment. I feel as though her heroines are growing up, which I really appreciate, and although this heroine, Sylvie, is as always a little too dense in order to let the plot work its magic, this was an extremely charming book and I liked the way that the plot came together. Fluffy with some moments of sincere emotion – a great thing to read in the February gloom. (This book was kindly sent to me at work.)

THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF OKAY – So, this book was odd. It wasn’t bad, for many reasons: the friendship between Izzy and Ajita was lovely and well-written, it was funny (although not as funny as advertised), it was feminist af. But for SOME REASON it was set in an American high school despite the fact that it was written in an incredibly British voice. This was more British than almost all the novels set in British schools that I’ve read. It was so, so effing British that it confused me and threw me off a few times. Why did that happen?! Why wasn’t it just set in the UK? Puzzling. But I enjoyed it a lot. (This book was a proof from work.)

WE ARE THE ANTS – For some reason I ended up reading a lot of lgbtq YA this month and this was one of my favourites. I loved the alien story that was interwoven into it and I thought that generally the characterisation was great. It was witty and intelligent and entirely enjoyable – and actually, I think the fact that I liked it so much was the reason I read the other YA books this month. CHASING THAT HIGH and on one occasion I totally exceeded it.

THE GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO VICE AND VIRTUE – I was expecting this book to be a lot better than I actually thought it was. The characterisation was weak and tbh so was the plot. It was amusing  and good on race but otherwise I didn’t really have an emotional connection to any of the characters. I’m not big on historical romance so maybe there was a lot of cute tropey stuff that I missed, but in general it left me pretty cold and felt like a slog. Disappointing, because I was expecting to love it.

THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES – Now. THIS book, I loved. The story of Cyril Avery, his growing up, his adulthood, his loves, his losses. It was absolutely beautiful and made me cry on numerous occasions. Cyril is a perfect example of an intensely flawed narrator who you are entirely interested in anyway. All the characters were beautifully drawn – I loved Charles and Maude especially, and sweet Bastiaan, and Alice, and Catherine, although there was nobody in it who didn’t ring true. I thought this was a truly beautiful book. I don’t think a novel has made me so emotional since I read Tin Man last year – this will definitely be in my top five at the end of the year.

BEFORE THE FALL – This was our book club novel this week and I’m excited about finding out what my pals thought of it. Personally, I liked it, although I didn’t love it. Scott was a good character and JJ was sweet, although in all I wasn’t emotionally hooked. The ending wasn’t entirely satisfying, but the writing was good enough to make it an enjoyable read anyway. (This book was a proof at work.)

AUTOBOYOGRAPHY – This is the book that was just as good as We Are The Ants – and possibly even better. These characters were just wonderful – I found myself deeply caring about them. It was sweet and realistic and I thought the way that the authors wrote about religion and its restrictions was sad and beautiful. The whole way through, I intensely enjoyed this book and looked forward to getting back to it. A really wonderful YA novel.

A LIST OF CAGES – This was well-written and Adam was a super engaging character, but there was something that was too heavy about it. Obviously the plot – child abuse! – was dark and terrible but there was something that was almost not enjoyable about reading it. Obviously reading about abuse was never going to be a laugh a minute, but it feels important to like reading a book and I’m not sure that I liked this one – it was well written but sometimes felt bogged down. Adam’s character definitely provided some levity, and I thought that the kindness in this book was much needed.

THIS IS HOW IT ENDS – Not a bad book, but a disappointing one. Another one that I thought I was going to like more than I actually did. The two timelines confused me a little (this is umm probably my own issue) and I felt as though the twist at the end kind of came out of nowhere. It just sort of landed and I felt as though there perhaps weren’t enough clues beforehand. However, I liked the setting a lot – I haven’t really read any fiction about activists before and it’s a really interesting and current subject. Molly was also very engaging and so was Callum. (This book was kindly sent to me at work.)

OPENLY STRAIGHT – Reading too much Enid Blyton as a child definitely made me an absolute sucker for boarding school stories, so naturally I really enjoyed this one. It was a super easy read and I don’t know if it was exactly super deep but I also don’t think that it needed to be. Rafe was a great character to live with for three hundred pages and the central romantic relationship was pretty secondary to his other friendships and his selfhood, which I enjoyed a lot. I truly enjoyed this book – it made me smile a lot.

 

SO. Very excited about March’s reading – I started The Haunting Of Henry Twist last night and also want to read some non fiction – maybe the Tara Westover one because I have read SUCH good things about it. I kind of want to reread Eleanor Oliphant (I am SO pleased it’s doing so well) and I’m also planning to read Sara Bernard’s next book. I also think that I may attempt to do individual reviews, along with a post at the end of the month containing all the books that I’ve bought. EXCITING. HERE WE GO.

reviews

REVIEW: The Dark Circle by Linda Grant

First and foremost: I liked this book. When I heard about its subject matter I immediately knew that it’d be the first book that I’d be reading from the Baileys Prize shortlist (so far it’s also the only one, oops). I’ve always been fascinated by illness and medicine, because I am a creep like that – and I’ve also always been interested in old hospitals. I live near Princess Park, which was for a long time a mental asylum called alternatively Friern Hospital and the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. For a while it also held patients suffering from TB.  These days it’s a load of luxury flats which quite frankly I would rather die than live in (unless I got one of the ones that a member of One Direction lived in, in which case I will cut out little squares of the carpet to glue into my stalkers’ scrapbook). Otherwise I don’t think I could do it. The walls of a place like that would hold appalling memories. There’s something so terribly bleak about these places where people went to die. The image of Miriam and Valerie heaped in blankets on balconies in the fresh air is something that has really remained with me. The treatments that these characters – and that real people – were oppressive and terrible. Valerie propped up in bed alone after her operation is something that I have remembered a couple of times after this book was finished.

Actually, this book had a lot of images that stayed with me. The way people were described through each other’s eyes, particularly Miriam and Lenny. I thought they were great characters and brightened up what would otherwise have been a pretty dry at times novel – the physical descriptions of them were glorious, particularly of Miriam, her hair and curves and colours. As a London girl, I love any characters who are London as fuck, and that was exactly what I got with Miriam and Lenny. One thing that I loved about this book was how fully formed the characters felt – although some of them were peripheral and drifting in and out, I felt as though they had rich lives away from the information on these pages – or poor lives, but lives nonetheless. I also liked the fact that London felt like a character – crater-scarred, being rebuilt by people like Uncle Manny. There was a completely delicious contrast between that and the Gwendo. One character that I didn’t connect well with was Arthur Persky – I felt that he was more of an idea than a person, although maybe in hindsight that works perfectly because that was how the other people at the hospital saw him.

I will add that sometimes there were too many different POVs for me. Sometimes it was hard to connect to the character whose eyes we were seeing through simply because on occasion it was hard to remember who was who. However: I am perfectly willing to accept that that was user error and my appalling memory and attention span as opposed to any fault of the author’s. I liked the detail about the medical procedures, although sometimes there was a bit of a ‘Look how much research I’ve done’ vibe. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the class divide in the book and the subtle ways that it was drawn. It’s a truly fascinating time in history – as the NHS is brought in, meaning that the lives of people like Miriam and Lenny could be saved – and the contrast of the new NHS patients to the older private patients was really fascinating. I thought the minutiae of all the different stories was great, and would be interested to learn which ones were specifically inspired by the history of real TB patients.

The ending was something that I didn’t adore. It felt a little Return of the King-esque in that it had quite a few ending scenes, meaning that each of them was a little diluted. I think that one leap forward into the future would have been enough for me. I felt as though there could have been a bigger emotional punch, somehow, although part of me worries that I missed some of the subtleties and delicacies of the novel. I think that is probably my fault and not the author’s. The atmosphere was wonderful, and the characters as well – and of course the language was precisely evocative of the time that she wanted to convey. The small observations of humans and their odd behaviours were perfect, and there were huge swathes of this book that I really enjoyed. I felt as though there was a bigger point being dangled in front of me that I didn’t quite manage to grasp, but this book will stay with me, and has inspired me to look for more works on similar themes.

events

EVENT: Sarah Perry at Waterstones

If you like books, you’ll have heard of Sarah Perry’s second novel, The Essex Serpent. It was released in May 2016 and promptly became an absolute sensation across the whole of the UK. It has sold a phenomenally huge amount of copies considering that a) it’s literary fiction and b) it only just came out in paperback. It was Book of the Year in Waterstones last year and with good reason – I started work in my local branch of Waterstones in the beginning of December and let me tell you, we got through a LOT of copies of that book. Naturally, I bought one for myself, for a number of reasons:

  1. It sounded interesting.
  2. If there’s that much hype, then let’s face it: there’s no smoke without fire.
  3. I have followed Sarah Perry for a while on Twitter, and she is excellent on there.
  4. Okay, fine: the cover. Good god, the cover is beautiful.

Have I read it yet? Um, actually, no. I have been somewhat reticent to do so, for a few reasons:

  1. Hardback books, man. I do a lot of my reading on the tube and not only are hardback books heavy, but the sheer beauty of this one made me feel particularly strongly about not wanting to let it get battered in my bag.
  2. Despite all the hype, I wasn’t actually entirely certain if it was my kind of book. (Yes: this is idiotic of me.) What’s that I hear you say? ‘BUT LUCY. YOU ARE FREAKING OBSESSED WITH SARAH WATERS.’ Yes, yes, that’s true. But- ‘AND CODE NAME VERITY IS STRAIGHT UP YOUR FAVOURITE YA BOOK OF ALL TIME.’ Valid point. However- ‘AND EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN HAS BEEN PRETTY MUCH YOUR FAVOURITE BOOK OF THIS WHOLE YEAR SO FAR.’ Yes!! Fine!! I just need to spread my wings a little more. Broaden my horizons. Read books that have complex, beautiful prose ase well as more cleanly written YA. The fact that this book looked a little dense and that it is also historical fiction put me off a little. I am trash. Forgive me.
  3. I have had a lot of books to read this year. It turned into a book wall. The Essex Serpent has been at the bottom and I feared that if I tugged at it too hard, I would cause a book avalanche. It’s happened before. Blood was drawn.

Let’s face it: none of those reasons are remotely good enough. Now that I have a paperback copy of The Essex Serpent, it has shot right to the top of my to-read list (and also the actual literal top of my book wall). But more so than the paperback, Sarah Perry’s talk at the Piccadilly branch of Waterstones really swung it for me. She is fab. She is so, so fabbity fab fab. She is one of those people where you keep thinking ‘I wish we could be best friends’ and then a moment later you’re like ‘Actually, she’s way too clever to be my best friend’ and then a moment after THAT you’re like ‘Although I think she’s nice enough to pretend I’m cleverer than I am, so maybe I have a chance’. Here is a picture (her back is to me because let us face it: I chose the wrong place to sit).

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Reader, we are not, as of yet, best friends. But her talk was so good. There is a real joy in listening to people who know things, and who are enthusiastic about things, and who have all this interesting information stored in their minds and who can whip out facts and interesting snippets whenever the occasion calls for it. I wish I was one of those people. The only facts I have in my brain are things like ‘Did you know that Harry Styles is an Aquarius?’, which is frankly not as interesting as any of the things that Sarah Perry said at her talk. I had a little notebook with me and I tried so hard to take notes but unfortunately it was so interesting that I was forced to slap my notebook shut and listen instead. But here are a few little snippets from the talk:

  • She attributes her success to ‘having a relatively short attention span and a thirst for knowledge’. Honestly, this sounds like an excellent way to be. She also attributes it to the cover, which I would normally deny, but guys: it is a great cover.
  • She describes her writing process as ‘like being in a basement and striking a match and seeing the pictures that are painted on the walls’. She phrased it much more elegantly than that, but I can only write so quickly. I love that idea: as though she discovers her stories rather than slogging them out.
  • The story came to her on a car journey with her husband through the Essex countryside. JK Rowling came up with Harry Potter on the train from Edinburgh and I remember Adele Parks talking at the Rooftop Book Club about how she comes up with a lot of her plots while she’s driving. There’s something about travelling and movement that sparks imagination, tbh.
  • The book is partly about the conflict between faith and reason, about friendship, and about the modernity of the Victorian age. I didn’t write this part down because I am not the best of note takers, but she mentioned about how a lot of literature supposedly set in the Victorian age is a little inaccurate and more prudish and old fashioned than it should be.
  • Perry talked about how she was brought up in a very religious environment – her father is both a sixth age creationist and a scientist, which means she never thought there was a conflict between the pursuit of science and a person who is very religious – they’re not irreconcilable opposites. The novel asks the question: is it possible to live as a creature of faith and as reason? She thinks there’s a sort of nobility in the pursuit of truth and science – a moral virtue. (I loved this part of the discussion. It made me consider my own views of religion and how I tend to dismiss religious people too easily. Is there ANYTHING better than having your views challenged?)
  • Perry enjoys the sameness of the past – the ways in which it’s the same as the way we live now, and not different. (Does human nature ever really change?) She wanted to un-silence Victorian women. (PS: she phrased it much more nicely than that.)
  • QUOTE OF THE EVENING: “Victorian women did not spend their days on chaise longues hemming handkerchiefs until their husbands came home and impregnated them with their nineteenth child.” VERY GOOD.
  • Perry mentioned the working classes, and how they have historically been the engines of change. She mentioned the 1888 East End Matchgirls’ Strike which ha ha, I, a genius, knew absolutely nothing about and am now very glad that I do. She talked about how working class women and illiterate women in the 19th century were full of intellectual inquiry, and proto-feminists.
  • Those are all the notes I have because I accidentally closed my notebook and listened hard instead, although now I am regretting not writing more down. I remember that she talked a lot about friendship and its important and essential roles in our lives and how it isn’t necessarily lesser than romantic love, which really struck a chord with me and made me extremely excited to read this book.

As a final note, Sarah Perry has nice hair and lovely shoes and a great dress. It may be odd to point these things out, but frankly I would be happy if someone told me about those things at any time. More than the dress and shoes, she was interesting and passionate and brilliant and I loved listening to her, and if I get a chance to go to another one of her events I definitely will. And I cannot wait to read The Essex Serpent.