Thursday, 28 August 2014

August reads

Brace yourselves, this is a long one!  I've been off work for most of August, and away on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I was able to read an incredible amount.  My monthly average is nine books, which I appreciate is already higher than many people can manage, but this month I read nineteen books.  I'm not sure if it's because I was really able to focus on the books - and in many cases had the time to read from cover-to-cover, which I enjoy doing - but I really liked a high percentage of this month's reads too.

1. I actually started reading Penny Red a couple of months ago - it's been the book I carry around in my bag and dip into whenever I'm waiting somewhere - but finished it in August so decided to list it here.  It's a collection of Laurie Penny's published pieces, some from her blog, some from newspapers, written between 2010 and 2011 and mainly covering the uprisings, occupations and protest of those years but also touching on feminism, the media and pop culture.  I'm a massive fan of Penny's writing; she is unashamedly biased in her reporting, writing from a radical left, queer, feminist perspective, and she writes with a passion and an urgency that are infectious.  Not always easy reading, these pieces are nevertheless essential and exciting reading for anyone interested in leftist or feminist politics.

2. Completing my trio of Laurie Penny books was Discordia, a short book by her and artist Molly Crabapple, telling the story of their visit to crisis-stricken Athens.

3. Unspeakable Things is Laurie Penny's recently published polemic on sex, feminism, austerity and revolution.  As with Penny Red it can be an uncomfortable and depressing read at times, but voices like Penny's are essential.  I'm very glad she's out there, battling the internet trolls, checking her privilege, reminding us all that another world, a better and more equal world, is possible and worth fighting for.

4. Cold Earth, about a group of PhD students on an archaeological dig in Greenland, was an engaging and well written thriller.  Told in the form of letters home, each character is given a chance to tell their story and each is told with a distinctive and convincing voice.  As one student, Nina, is increasingly affected by what she insists is the presence of malevolent spirits, the rest of the group worry about a pandemic taking hold back in the 'real world', and wonder whether they will ever make it home at all.

5. After enjoying Cold Earth so much, I thought I'd finally give Sarah Moss's second novel, Night Waking (which had been lurking on my Kindle for a couple of years) a go.  I was glad I did as, although Night Waking is an often uncomfortable read, I enjoyed it very much.

6. The Tellingby the author of my much-loved recent favourite Longbourn, was an enjoyable read.  It follows grief-stricken Rachel as she travels to her parents' cottage in rural Lancashire to empty it following the death of her mother but also, more engagingly, tells the story of teenager Elizabeth, a domestic servant living with her family in the same cottage over a century earlier.  I found the ghost story aspects of the modern strand of the book unconvincing, but the characters of Elizabeth and her family give a fascinating glimpse into the lives of the rural poor in the 19th Century, and into the Chartist movement, about which I knew very little until reading the book.

7. When 14 year old June's beloved uncle Finn dies of AIDS, she is distraught. A loner at school and with a fractious relationship with her older sister, Greta, June turns to the only person who loved Finn as much as she did: his partner Toby, the man June and Greta have been told 'killed' their uncle.  My mum told me I really must read Tell The Wolves I'm Home. Then Hannah (whose tastes in books generally tallies with my own) wrote a glowing review of it.  I think perhaps all this positive stuff worked against the book because I expected to love it and I didn't, I just kind of liked it.  I loved certain moments and lines, particularly June's ruminations on the nature of love and the way it feels to be close to someone you adore, but I never truly empathised with or felt connected to any of the characters.

8. The Most Beautiful Rot was another Hannah recommendation!  Her summary of the book - "it shows us a world rarely seen in fiction, with characters living lives outside of the norm" - led me to believe it would be right up my street. And I did enjoy it, very much.  The story follows four disparate housemates - Jasmine,  Xandria, Lydia and Tabitha - with each character having their own POV section of the book.  Reading it reminded me just how little is published that reflects the experiences of weird women, poor women, queer women, women surviving on the edges of society.  I loved how it portrayed mental health and physical illness in a way that didn't glamourise the issues.  My only criticism of the book would be that it finished too soon; I felt there was still so much of their stories to tell and I'd have happily read twice as much.

9. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves has just been longlisted for the Man Booker prize, quite an achievement by the author of the undoubtedly populist - but still very good - The Jane Austen Book Club.  It's hard to give a summary of We Are All... without giving away a very important plot point, so all I'll say is that I liked it (although it's perhaps one of those books that I admired more once I'd finished than while I was reading it, if you know what I mean?).

10. & 11. Looking back through my last few months of reads posts, it's been a long while since I read anything as uncomplicatedly trashy as Fear Nothing and Touch & Go.  I really love crime fiction, with an especial fondness for gory American murder mystery/police procedural novels, and Lisa Gardner fits both categories.  I've read most of her novels, and these two are the most recent of her series featuring Boston detective D.D. Warren.  Delivering thrills and tension, I enjoyed both in an uncomplicated way (although I'm starting to really dislike the way in which most Gardner - and, for that matter, other US crime writers' - books often end in the police shooting dead the murderer. There's no such thing as due process in these novels), with Fear Nothing just edging it on engagement.

12. The premise of The Fever is a strong one: one by one, the girls in Deenie's class begin to be afflicted by a terrible sickness.  As one of her best friends lies in the hospital in a coma, and the other undergoes intrusive tests after collapsing, Deenie - together with the rest of the community - wonders what, or who, to blame.  Is it the HPV vaccine?  The 'toxic' lake on the edge of town?  Or does Deenie herself hold the key to what's happening?  I found myself reading The Fever with an urgency to find out the truth, although when it came it was, perhaps inevitably, slightly anticlimactic.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed the way in which author Abbott explored the various elements of being a teen girl, from hysteria and peer influence to sexual experimentation.

13. A Single Breath, the story of a young woman, Eva, coming to terms with her husband's death by visiting Tasmania, the place he'd grown up and always told her stories about, was both predictable and ridiculous. The descriptions of the Tasmanian coast and countryside were vivid and rather lovely, but otherwise it was a waste of time, with each 'twist' being so easy to see coming it was a joke.  I also found the narrative, written in third person present tense, awkward; even my Year 7s can write more engaging sentences than, "Eva is feeling tired.  She rubs her eyes as she walks onto the porch."

14. The Story Of England is an essential read for anyone interested in the history of the England as it affected those not in the aristocracy.  Based on the BBC TV series of the same name, which was filmed in a Leicestershire village, Kibworth, which lies just a few miles from where I live, it undoubtedly held extra interest for me because I know the places mentioned.  That's not to say that you wouldn't enjoy it if you're not local, though; Michael Wood has put together an incredibly engaging narrative spanning thousands of years and ably demonstrating just how much fascinating history there is all around us.  I was especially interested to learn that Leicester, and Kibworth especially, were renowned for hundreds of years as hotbeds of anti-establishment feeling and activism, from 15th-century Lollards, to the anti-enclosure protests of the 17th & 18th centuries, to major Victorian-era movements such as the Luddites and the Suffragettes.

15. Are You My Mother? was at times heavy going; it may be a graphic memour but this isn't any lightweight comic, but instead a thoughtful examination of Bechdel's relationship with her mother as understood through her years of psychoanalysis and reading.  I loved the touches of humour and the beautiful drawings, and although it requires a lot of the reader, I felt rewarded by the end of it.

17. Narrated by five year old Pea, living in Southern France and left to her own devices by her grieving mother, I wish I had more to say about The Night Rainbow but... I just don't.  I liked it for a while, and then I didn't.  The quality of the writing is undoubtedly superb, with stunning childs-eye-view descriptions of a hot, sodden summer, but I found myself getting a little bored with the repetition, not to mention frustrated with the adult characters.

18. The Secret Hen House Theatre.  For the first twenty or so pages I found the writing a bit clunky but I soon grew enchanted by this book and particularly by plucky eleven year old heroine Hannah. In the tradition of the best children's literature, Hannah and best friend Lottie have largely absent parents, and they use this freedom to (again, in classic "Let's put on a show!" children's story style) build their own theatre in - you guessed it - an abandoned hen house on Hannah's family farm.

19. I've come to the conclusion that David Levithan is at his best when he's working with another writer, someone who can temper his tendencies towards twee.  His novel with John Green, Will Grayson Will Grayson, and two with Rachel Cohn, Dash & Lily's Book Of Dares and Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, are all wonderful books.  How They Met & Other Stories is an enjoyable collection of short stories but "enjoyable" is damning with faint praise, and the majority of these tales aren't his best work. I did really love a couple of them, but overall it's not essential reading.


  1. I will come back to this post, but for now I'll just say that I have started We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and I'm finding it hard to keep going. I will, because it is supposed to be good, but I keep slipping out and then finding it hard to remember what was happening when I dip back in. I want to read more. I have the time, but not the motivation. Any tips for how to go about reading more, fitting it into life or spare moments? (I know this is a weird question, because if you want to read, you just do it and you don't need to make yourself, but I just need to find momentum!!)

    1. I actually found myself doing exactly the same when reading it. Like, I could tell it was a good book but it just wouldn't hold my attention for longer than a few pages at a time. The thing that usually gets me back into a reading mood when I'm lacking motivation is reading something like a crime thriller, something pacey and tense enough to make me want to read non-stop, or YA fiction, because it's usually an easy read, well-plotted and again, makes me want to continue reading.

    2. Thanks. I've started Will Grayson Will Grayson, I had it on kindle and I whizzed through other John Green books (Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, and of course, The Fault In Our Stars), so maybe this will get me back on track.

    3. Oh I LOVE Will Grayson, Will Grayson! Hope you enjoy it.

    4. I read it within 24 hours, so I guess that is a good sign? Some good lines, but I feel when I read too many of those kind of books they merge a bit. I'm on a Sunday reading streak, so I will bury myself in We Were All Completely Beside Ourselves (I have yet to have the plot spoiled) and see how I go!

    5. I finished it! I didn't really get it until half-way through and from then it was easier to keep on and less confusing, but I still ended up feeling a bit...dissatisfied, I suppose. I don't know what I was expecting and parts were interesting enough to see it out to the end, partly to try and piece it all together. I'm not that great at book reviews myself, but I found myself agreeing with some of the three-star reviews from readers. Next up: We Were Liars.

  2. I just read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and, for some reason, thought that you had recommended it. Perhaps not? Anyway, I loved it! But, no, I can't think how to talk about it without explaining that vital plot point.

  3. Nope, not me! I had the vital plot point spoilt for me by a book review just before I started reading, so I'm not sure how much that coloured the experience for me.

  4. I love your book review posts! Thank you for name-checking me (several times :D) here - I'm glad you enjoy my blog so much & find it useful in terms of recommendations. The world needs more blogs for alternative-type women, IMHO. One of the books my friend-mentioned-in-the-email-I-just-sent-you gave me was We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I was going to read it, then I wasn't because I heard a lot of mixed things about it, but said friend said she loved it, so I think I'll try to read it soon, before I get the plot spoiled for me!