Thursday, 27 November 2014

November reads

Nine books this month: nine or ten seems to be the number I can comfortably read during school terms. It also takes my total for 2014 to 114 books so far, smashing my target of 100 books this year, with a month still to go. And there were some great reads this month too...

1. I thoroughly enjoyed Clothes Clothes Clothes, Music Music Music, Boys Boy Boys*, the autobiography of 70s punk and guitarist in The Slits, Viv Albertine. She pulls absolutely no punches, launching into a treatise on masturbation on the first page and from there on discussing everything from yes, clothes music and boys, to abortion and her failed marriage. Each chapter take the form of a short vignette, which makes it ideal to dip in and out of. There is a tendency to name-drop, but when your mates included Sid Vicious and your teenage boyfriend was Mick Jones, there's not really a way to avoid it.

2. With reproductive rights constantly under threat, Every Third Woman in America* is a timely reminder of the enormous benefits of legal and accessible abortion: benefits to women, yes, but also to children, families, employers... all of society, essentially. The author is a doctor and abortion provider, and he writes persuasively that America has "lost its collective memory of the 'bad old days' of illegal abortion," leading to increasingly stringent restrictions on women's reproductive rights. Author Grimes makes no pretence at being unpartisan, and why should he when opponents of legal abortion make no such effort? Instead, he forcefully lays out the scientific, social and cultural arguments for keeping abortion access open and easy for women. Scattered amongst the statistics and science (which was nevertheless easy enough for a layperson to read) are the words of the women and families themselves. The details of the illegal procedures are stomach-churning, leaving the reader in little doubt that those "bad old days" truly were terrible.

3. I read Sarah's thoughts on This Is The Story Of A Happy Marriage and immediately put it onto my library request list. A collection of essays from novelist Ann Patchett's long history of writing for periodicals such as Vogue and Granta, ranging across subjects as diverse as her writing process, her failed first marriage, her attempts to join the LAPD training programme, and her friendship with the nun who taught her to read at primary school, this was never less than well written and engaging.

4. The Miniaturist was beautifully written and I was quickly captivated by the story of teenage bride Nella, arriving in Amsterdam to take up her position as wife of leading Dutch East India Company trader Johannes Brandt. There is so much that's great about this novel: the sense of secrets bubbling under the surface, the tension in the household as Nella attempts to assert her authority as head of the house, and especially the vivid descriptions of 17th Century Amsterdam and the way in which Burton precisely pins down the Dutch national character. However, I was left with a sense that the book - so close to perfection - hadn't quite attained it. Some narrative elements felt forced and the reader was sometimes told rather than shown. I am holding it to a very high standard here: The Miniaturist is better than the majority of what I've read in 2014. I just believe it could have been even better.

5. A Song For Issy Bradley was also one of my favourite books of 2014. Written by an ex-member of the Mormon Church, it tells the story of a family: mum Claire, a convert to the religion, dad Ian, a Mormon bishop, and their children, Zippy, Al, Jacob and Issy, who dies suddenly within the first few chapters. The rest of the book is taken up with looking at how the remaining members of the Bradley family come to terms - or fail to - with her death. Each character comes alive on the page, each has a distinct voice in their point-of-view chapters, from teenage Al, constantly needling Ian about his Mormon teachings, to seven year old Jacob, who believes in miracles and is just waiting for one to happen. The mundane details of grief are vividly and movingly described: the hollow in Issy's beanbag taunting them when they return from the hospital; the stench of Claire's skin as she retreats to bed with her sorrow. Fascinating, too, are the insights into the Mormon religion, and the ways in which their faith both helps and hinders them as they struggle to recover from Issy's death.

6. I usually love Jennifer Weiner's novels, and I think what stopped me enjoying All Fall Down as much is that it very much focuses on an unhappy marriage and the struggles of motherhood, which I just can't begin to imagine myself. As a result, I found myself getting a bit frustrated, rather than empathising, with heroine Allison, who takes to painkillers to help her through the stress of a demanding job, a cold husband and a highly-strung child. As always with Weiner's novels, each character feels fully rounded and believable, and at time of writing I haven't quite finished the book, but it's one I'd recommend to mothers rather than those, like me, who are childfree.

7. I've enjoyed each one of Susan Hill's crime novels featuring DC Simon Serrailler and this was no exception. In many crime thriller series, the reader can relax, rest assured that their favourite long-term characters will be safe no matter what carnage goes on around them. I quite like the fact that Hill provides no such reassurances, lending a tension to the reading of each book: who might be harmed next? What I also enjoy is the fact she gives equal billing she gives to Serrailler's family: his sister Cat, a GP, and their cold, unpleasant father Richard (who becomes even more repellent this time around), lending the books an extra human dimension that many thrillers lack. The Soul Of Discretion is not for the faint hearted, containing a disturbing rape scene and a stomach-churning plot based around a child abuse ring, which Simon must go undercover to try and infiltrate. But it's brilliantly written, as always, and well worth a read.

8. The End Of Everything was the third book by Megan Abbott that I've read in as many  months, and I think in retrospect I would have left a longer gap between them. She evokes girlhood brilliantly and all three novels are tensely plotted, however they are all similar in terms of their themes, and this made The End Of Everything a tad predictable and repetitive for me.

9. I had read rave reviews of David Almond's new YA novel, A Song For Ella Grey, so when a free copy arrived in our department at school I leapt at the chance to take it home. It is undeniably accomplished, with a poetic, lyrical quality to much of the prose. However, I sometimes suspect that Almond is an author who adults 'get' more than his target audience. With frequent classical allusions and Blakean references in his previous novels, A Song For Ella Grey continues the theme, being based on the Orpheus myth. As an English teacher, I'm not convinced that kids appreciate these elements, and as an adult familiar with the story, it makes the plot entirely predictable. That said, he perfectly conjures the madness and beauty of being 17 years old and in a gang of friends.

* These books were kindly provided for review by the publishers via Net Galley, but all opinions are entirely my own.


  1. I love the sound of The Miniaturist and also ...Boys Boys Boys.. May have to download some plane reading onto my Kindle!

    1. The Miniaturist would be perfect plane reading as its absorbing but not too challenging.

  2. Ooh, Clothes Clothes Clothes... is in my To Read - I'm really looking forward to it.

    And thank you for the reminder about Net Galley - I've got an account I haven't used in about two years! *slaps forehead* Now if I can just remember my log in details...

    1. I only found out about it recently. I know I said I'd limit the amount of free stuff I get cos of blogging, but free books surely don't count?!

  3. I love reading your recaps - I really hope to re-find my reading mojo over Christmas.