Monday, 29 February 2016

February Reads

1. Willowdean, known as Dumplin' to her mom, is sixteen years old, living in small-town Texas and grieving the loss of her beloved aunt when she meets Bo - tall, dark, handsome Bo - while working at local fast food joint Harpy's. She's not surprised to find herself attracted to him, but she is surprised that he seems to like her back. I adored Dumplin'loved it with the fire of a thousand suns. Willowdean's relationship with best friend Ellen, her conflicted relationship with her beauty pageant obsessed-mother, her confidence in herself and love for her fat body, and her reactions when that confidence suddenly seems eroded, are finely and tenderly drawn. What I liked most of all was the time the author gives her story to develop. I'm so used to YA novels which race breathlessly through events, whereas Dumplin gave time for the reader to get to know - and love - Willowdean. And my gosh, there are passages that if I were 16 I'd be underlining furiously in pencil, scribbling "so true!" in the margins*, My read of 2016 so far.

* I can neither confirm nor deny the rumour that my copy of Catcher In The Rye is similarly marked by banal teenage scribblings

2. I wanted to love The Art Of Being Normal, I really, truly did. After all, it's one of the first YA novels about transgender kids that's been genuinely best-selling (albeit that it's written by a cis gender author). And for the first 150 pages or so, I did love it: I loved the relationship between David and his two best friends; I loved the pitch perfect scenes in the school. I honestly, truly was on this book's side. And then it went to shit. You see, one of the main characters, Leo (who I thought was a great character in himself) lives on an estate. Or should that be An Estate, one full of broken glass, hooded gangs, smashed windows and - horror of horrors - messy gardens. The ludicrous middle class stereotyping of a council estate and its inhabitants would have been funny if it hadn't been so horribly offensive, and it made me take against the rest of the book. It's almost more frustrating when a book comes so close to being great than when it never gets anywhere near.

3. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is just great, everything I wanted and expected from Carrie Brownstein's (of Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia fame) memoirs.  Brownstein isn't afraid to expose her shortcomings to the reader whilst also holding back personal details which she, quite reasonably, doesn't want to share (for example, anyone hoping for salacious gossip about her various celebrity romances - with Corin Tucker and St Vincent, amongst others - will be disappointed). She's best when reflecting on the nature of music fandom or, like another great musical memoir - Beth Ditto's Coals To Diamonds - the weird insularity of the Olympia music scene in the 90s.

4. Claire has quit her marketing job in order to discover her true vocation, only to find herself spending her days aimlessly surfing the internet and her nights drinking too much wine. I've seen Not Working* compared to Bridget Jones' Diary, and they do have in common an incisive wit which gets to the heart of modern life. But it manages to be so much more than that: I felt genuinely involved and invested in Claire's 'journey' (for want of a better and less wanky word). Highly recommended.

5. Hesketh Locke is a behavioural expert employed to trouble-shoot in cases of industrial sabotage. Investigating the sabotage and then suicide of a timber worker from Taiwan, Hesketh doesn't at first connect it - and subsequent similar events in Sweden and Dubai - with a series of bizarre and violent attacks by children around the globe. The Uninvited  is part-sci-fi dystopia, part-thriller and - apart from a weird quirk of the author's by which we are meant to see Venn diagrams as a) bizarre and b) worthy of explanation - extremely readable. 

6. I was intrigued by the premise of Your Heart Is A Muscle The Size Of Your Fist. Billed as a 'heart-stopping debut about protest and riot', it's set during the 1999 World Trade Organisation protests in Seattle. Full disclosure - at the time of writing I haven't finished it, and have struggled to engage with the central character of Victor. However, the quality of the writing is superb and it's definitely a book I'll persevere with or return to when I'm in the mood for something with narrative meat.

7. I just love the cartoons of Sarah Andersen, so jumped at the chance to read her new book, Adulthood Is A Myth*. There wasn't a page in this that didn't either make me laugh like a drain or wince in recognition, usually both. It's one of the rare titles I've had from Netgalley that I will also definitely buy a 'real' book of, too.

8. The Big Feminist Butt: Comics About Women, Men & The Ifs, Ands & Buts of Feminism did what it said on the tin: a good collection to dip in and out of. Often funny, frequently thought-provoking, occasionally infuriating.

9. How To Be Free  is somewhere between humour, political philosophy, history and memoir and deals with the knotty question of how we can be, well, free: from debt, from work, from suffering. It was an inspiration to me when I first read it in 2011 but returning to it now - after 4 years of learning a great deal more about radical and anarchist politics from Thomas - I found it all a bit eye rollingly middle class. For example, during the chapter about freeing yourself from the oppression of mortgages, Hodgkinson suggests (seemingly straight-faced) that instead the reader buy a small piece of land and build a house.

10. A Dark-Adapted Eye is touted as one of the crime novels you have to read but, sadly, I found it all a bit of a let-down. There was a wonderfully gloomy and sinister atmosphere, however the supposed twist was ludicrously easy to guess and upon finishing I was only left with a sense of wishing I hadn't bothered.

11. I felt conflicted about, but ultimately pleased that I'd read, David Mitchell's Bone Clocks, but Slade House (which shares some characters with Bone Clocks) wasn't nearly as interesting. A schlocky gothic ghost story about a house - and its two inhabitants - that appears every 14 years to claim a victim, the one positive I can say is it was a quick read.

12. I think Find Her* might mark the final Lisa Gardner thriller I bother reading. While Gardner knows just how to ratchet up the tension, her books are becoming formulaic to the point of parody - young female victim is subjected to graphic sexual  violence, lead detective does some victim-blaming, suspect ends up shot dead by lead detective because 'Murica - I find my taste for the formula has soured.

Overall, I think February's reading experiences can be best summed up by this cartoon. Pesky feminist politics, ruining books for me:

Note: I do not use affiliate links in this post, I just like to provide a non-Amazon source for all your book-buying needs!

* These books were kindly provided by the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.