January 2021 Book Review Roundup

What a month. I’ve not had a terrible start to 2021, but it has certainly been hectic! I was lucky enough to find new employment, and started my new job in the second week of January. I’ve spent so long in the same profession it has been a bit of an eye-opener to find myself at the bottom of the ladder and totally clueless in a new field, but hey, change is good!

As a result my reading has suffered a little this month. After working I’ve been so exhausted I’ve generally just watched a bit of television, ate dinner, then crashed out. It probably hasn’t helped that I’ve chosen to tackle the Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel – and so far, despite my best efforts, I’m just not getting the hype at all. Whenever I hit a wall with a book and feel like it’s negatively affecting my reading generally, I tend to pick up easy reads to get back on track. So this month? A bit of a mixed bag. Have some quick and dirty reviews….

Title: Hellstar Remina

Author/ Illustrator: Junji Ito

My Rating:

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Full disclosure- I am a huge Junji Ito fan, so may be a little biased here. Hellstar Remina is the first new graphic novel I’ve read in a looooong time. I’m not entirely sure why this should be- I used to read a lot of manga when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and then it just fell off my radar completely.

Hellstar Remina is a pretty depressing manga about the discovery of a brand new planet- hurrah! The scientist who discovers this planet names it after his beautiful teenaged daughter Remina, who quickly becomes a star when the media realizes how photogenic she is (really, that seems to be the only reason. Remina is not charismatic at all, but has those gorgeous doe eyes that Ito is so talented at illustrating), and she quickly amasses several extremely loyal/ stalkerish male fans. Things go awry when (the planet) Remina alters its course and quickly hurtles towards Earth, wiping out the rest of our solar system before hovering over Earth menacingly (and, it must be said, extremely patiently given that it is a killer planet). Naturally, this brings out the worst in humanity, and a vigilante group of citizens decide to kill (the girl) Remina and her father, believing them to be cursed and/or heralds of Earth’s impending doom.

How is that for a plot?! It’s pretty epic.

Howeverrrr…. I lost considerable interest in the later acts of the story. I was curious, of course, as to what (the planet) Remina wanted from Earth and humanity, and the images of (the planet) Remina’s surface were intriguing. But (the girl) Remina being carried around Earth’s atmosphere, swirling through the air as the mob somehow still manages to keep up with her? The pacing was off- this seemed to go on and on, and some of the illustrations were pretty confusing to decipher. The final couple of twists didn’t satisfy my curiosity, either. I had expected more and the conclusion felt very anticlimactic.

Title: The Selection

Author: Keira Cass

My Rating:

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This book is YA royalty- it has close to a million reviews on Goodreads and the series has been signed up by Netflix, so I’m hardly the first to offer my opinions on America Singer’s story. There’s a lot that’s schlocky and trope-y about The Selection, but honestly, I devoured this book in one afternoon and for that reason alone I simply can’t hate on it. It had me thoroughly entertained and engrossed, and despite the lack of character development and obvious similarities to The Hunger Games, it is difficult to write good YA fiction, so props to Keira Cass.

I’m definitely going to read the next few books in the series, because now I’m pretty damn hooked, despite any issues I might have. I’m just hoping some kind of twist occurs (Prince Maxon and Aspen can’t both be goodies forever, can they? Celeste can’t continue being a two dimensional bitch? America can’t keep getting away with things because she has red hair and a quippy attitude?!) or I’ll lose interest.

Title: The Marketplace

Author: Laura Antoniou

My Rating:

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Erotica alert! I don’t have good experiences reading erotica (I tend to find a lot of the writing cliché-ridden, sexist and extremely stereotypical) but had high hopes for this book, as I really enjoyed ‘The Killer Wore Leather’ by the same author last year. This didn’t disappoint. Given that this isn’t a particularly sexy blog, I won’t get into the details, but there’s a lot of kinky sex scenes if you enjoy that kind of thing. I love that Antoniou doesn’t rely on stereotypes- her characters are realistically written, flawed and often surprising. The scenarios and situations they find themselves in may be fantastical at times, yet Antoniou’s writing style is straightforward and concrete. Highly recommended, especially if you aren’t sure of erotica and have perhaps been burned by it before (50 Shades of Grey, I’m looking at you).

Title: Severance

Author: Ling Ma

My Rating:

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Oh, how appropriate- a novel about a deadly pandemic sweeping the globe, and how a band of unlikely survivors come together to try and make sense of it. This is the third pandemic-specific book I’ve read in about six months, and slots firmly into second place- behindThe Dreamers’ but ahead of ‘Station Eleven’ (which I know is much beloved, but I just found a bit of a slog to get through). My main issue with this book was it’s ending. I absolutely loved about 90% of the story, and thought for sure it would receive 5 stars. That is, until (SPOILER ALERT) the absolutely crushingly bad and inconclusive ending. Seriously, what a waste.

Title: The Thursday Murder Club

Author: Richard Osman

My Rating:

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Funny and farcical, this book gets major points for being unlike any other crime/mystery novel I’ve ever read before. It’s excellently written, with unique and interesting characters aplenty. Osman has a great talent for characterization, and I particularly loved Elizabeth and found the ridiculousness of the detestable Ian Ventham hilarious. I was pulled in from the get-go and couldn’t put this book down- until the rather sluggish final third. Although it ends strongly, ‘The Thursday Murder Club‘ is let down by too many characters and too many twists (quite a few of which aren’t particularly satisfying). However, I’d still recommend it and can see why it has become so popular- it’s very funny, and one of a kind.

xxx

Book Review: “His Only Wife”, by Peace Adzo Medie

Title: His Only Wife

Author: Peace Adzo Medie

My Rating:

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The first 5 star book of 2021! And although we are only a week into 2021, I was beginning to feel a little despondent – I had started a couple of other books before losing interest in them, which slowed down my reading pace considerably. Then I turned my attentions to His Only Wife, and managed to finish it in less than a day! So all’s well that ends well.

This novel centers around Afi- a young newlywed whose wedding ceremony is far from typical. Her husband (Eli) does not attend her wedding, and only visits her once in the two months after their wedding. The relationship is the result of manipulations by Eli’s incredibly wealthy, successful family who vehemently disapprove of his current girlfriend (with whom he has a young daughter), and hope that a traditional, blessed marriage to a young bride will bring him back into the family fold. Naturally, this does not exactly go to plan and Afi soon realizes how much of a pawn she is in someone else’s game.

Unsurprisingly (I’m a white Scottish woman), before reading this novel what I knew about Ghanaian polygamy you could fit on a postage stamp, but The Only Wife places this culture right at its heart. Afi desperately wants monogamy, and her attempt to claim her husband as her own throughout the novel is heartfelt and, at times, desperate. Afi is headstrong, and despite beginning the marriage as incredibly naïve she soon grows into her confidence and finds it difficult to pretend everything is fine when she is constantly worried and paranoid about her husband’s other relationship. Afi is willing to sacrifice her newly found wealth and status (and eventually, even her son’s lifestyle) due to her distaste of polygamy. At times, this makes her infuriating moralistic and some of her decisions are difficult to fathom, but her decision to follow her own heart and shake off those who wish to use her is certainly admirable.

The female characters in this book are exceptionally well-developed and well-written. There are shades of grey within each character- no cast iron villains here (although Aunty does come close at times), or good golden heroes. Afi’s paranoia and distrust of those around her is entirely justified (the society she finds herself in is exceptionally gossipy) and as a reader, the novel is permeated with this sense of disquiet. Even when things are seemingly going well for Afi, there always seems to be unhappiness waiting right around the next corner. I particularly loved the character of Evelyn- an independent career woman who is the current mistress of Afi’s brother-in-law- but even Evelyn comes across as untrustworthy for most of the novel. It’s so difficult to tell who has Afi’s best interests at heart, and really, it could be argued that nobody really does.

I read this book in one sitting. Other than to Google some of the Ghanaian terms (mostly of food and the beautiful clothing styles) I couldn’t put it down. This is such a tight, tense read. Don’t expect any shocking twists or turns, and certainly don’t expect a romance novel- despite the title and the beautiful, bright cover art. Also, on the cover it is described as ‘hilarious’- I didn’t find this comedic at all, so maybe I missed something! Reading this, I actually felt quite sad. I found Afi’s situation to be so challenging at times- I would have acted differently had I been in her shoes, but that didn’t at all from my enjoyment.

Highly recommended!

xxx

Book Review: “Boy, Snow, Bird” by Helen Oyeyemi

Title: Boy, Snow, Bird

Author: Helen Oyeyemi

My Rating:

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Well… that was certainly a ride. I left 2020 assured that I would be more critical with my ratings, and then the first novel I choose to finish happens to have completely bamboozled me. This was one of the most confusing stories I’ve read in quite some time- not necessarily the plot- although it is quite twisty- but my feelings towards the characters, Oyeyemi’s writing style, and simply whether I enjoyed it or not. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t have to abandon it halfway through but… I didn’t necessarily find this an engrossing read, either.

I came across this book initially because it was described as being inspired by/a retelling of Snow White & The Seven Dwarves. I love dark, witchy, fairy-tale-esque horror, especially with a contemporary spin, so this seemed right up my street (and that cover art is beautiful!). As it is, Boy, Snow, Bird is only very liberally inspired by the original fairy tale- in fact, if I hadn’t been introduced to the novel in such a manner I probably wouldn’t have picked up on the similarities. Instead, this is a story of three women in the 1950s. Boy Novak, escaping from New York and her abusive rat-catching father for a new life. Boy, after some hesitation, marries a fairly successful businessman named Arturo and becomes step-mother to Snow, a girl who manages to charm and entice everybody around her. Boy gives birth to a daughter of her own, Bird, a baby whose appearance comes as something of a surprise.

For me, this book only really picked up and became interesting around halfway through it- when Boy gives birth to Bird. This is (*SPOILER ALERT*) where the tone of the novel changes significantly. Bird is born looking distinctly different from her Hungarian mother and lily-white sister. Her darker skin and curly hair reveal that her father’s family have been ‘passing‘ as white for several decades with considerable success. Bird’s appearance instills a deep fear in Arturo’s extended family, particularly in his mother, Olivia, who all but casts her out. In retaliation, Boy has Snow sent away to live in Boston- and so the ‘evil stepmother’ aspect of the novel is realized.

This novel shines when it centers around Bird. Bird is intelligent, precocious, and confident. She is acutely aware of her skin colour and how it has changed her family dynamic. Oyeyemi addresses racial inequality and discrimination through Bird’s often humorous and curious perspective, and her matter-of-fact manner makes her grandmother’s fear and hysteria look even more ridiculous by contrast. I had issues relating to Boy or Snow, though. Boy is a bit of an enigma throughout the entire novel- she has admirable qualities (particularly as a mother to Bird, whom she clearly loves) but is almost too aloof to really enjoy reading about. And, of course, she sends away her step-daughter for over a decade, which is pretty horrible although her motivations were driven by concern for her own daughter.

Snow was even more confusing for me. She is beautiful, yes, but is she supernatural?! I wasn’t quite sure. Her hold over others, her manner of enchanting and charming, seems magical at times and has to be more than just a pleasant appearance. She is repeatedly described as seemingly perfect, but in an untouchable, almost cliché manner. At one point, a crowd of men are hovering around her in case she drops something, yet when she is initially leaves the town nobody seems to miss her in a genuine way. As I said- a rather confusing character. Speaking of which, the supernatural elements of this novel- the snake bracelet, the magician, the mirrors- are all very ambiguous in a manner that is just confusing, rather than mysterious.

I enjoyed about half of this book- the midpoint, where Bird is born and then consequently the chapters from Bird’s perspective. The discussions about race and passing were pretty good. The ending- which introduces the true identity of Boy’s father- was absolutely lost on me, and I didn’t enjoy reading about Snow and kept expecting her character to give me more (anything!). Three stars seems a reasonable rating – a decent read, yes, but I can’t imagine I’ll be re-reading or recommending this highly to anyone.

xxx

Reading – End of Year Review

Tips for buying used books during the coronavirus outbreak

So, we can all completely agree that 2020 was pretty crappy, right? And by ‘crappy’ I mean the worst, most depressing and hopeless year in living memory, correct? Okay. Good. But there was one silver lining- I actually kept up with a Reading Challenge! From an initial goal of 52 books, I managed to read 87. Not only that, I wrote and posted reviews for most of the books I read! (*there are some reviews missing- I honestly was too busy/overwhelmed at certain points, you know how it is, we’ve all been through the ringer, etc*).

The Goodreads site does offer a few interesting statistics on my reading, but I needed more (it’s not entirely surprising that both the longest and most popular books I read this year were part of the Harry Potter series, for instance). So I kept up a little spreadsheet of my reading habits. After I completed each book, I added it to my spreadsheet alongside some other details- what genre it was, what rating I gave it, what gender the author identifies as, and what ethnicity the author is. I also added whether I felt the ending was good or bad (i.e well written and satisfying) – I often feel that so many books leave me feeling disappointed at the conclusion, so wanted to track whether that really is the case or I’m just misremembering.

Anyway, onto the data!

Genre

Absolutely no shockers here- nonfiction, mystery and contemporary all rank highly (fantasy was bolstered considerably by the Harry Potter series). Whilst I think the term ‘contemporary’ is pretty broad, I’m using the Goodreads filing system here- and thus contemporary is taken to be any book that has been written recently and focuses on modern, realistic issues and problems (no fantasy or sci-fi detailing, for example, and nobody being killed or haunted). ‘Contemporary’ and ‘horror’ books were most likely to receive 5 stars from me, and I also rated a lot of thrillers quite highly. I can’t help myself- I love a good thriller.

‘Non-fiction’ was my catch-all term for all, well, non-fiction. Autobiographies, self-help guides, biographies and educational books. This isn’t accurate enough, so next year I’ll specify what type of non-fiction each book is far more clearly.

I’m quite surprised that science-fiction had such a poor show this year- sci-fi used to be my favourite genre but clearly this year I just wasn’t feeling in the mood. I guess just watching the news in 2020 provided me with enough sci-fi. When real life is like the Twilight zone, I just wasn’t craving more of the same in my reading.

Gender of the author

This doesn’t particularly surprise me- I tend to skew towards female writers and have done so for a decade or so. I made a concentrated effort to do this as a student in University (approximately 100 years ago) when I was studying feminist literature, and have subconsciously stuck to it. The only step I’ll take going forward is to try to read some publications written by those who don’t identify as one particular gender next year.

Ethnicity of the author

82% of the authors I read this year are white

Okay, this is a rather murky distinction as I didn’t want to mislabel anyone accidently. After reading each book I would do some basic research on the author and use what information I could find to ascertain what ethnicity they are, given the evidence. I know this isn’t an exact science, but it was the best I could think to do. I didn’t want to create a pie chart with a bunch of ethnicities that potentially mislabeled the writers, which is why I’ve inserted a statistic rather than a chart.

Regardless…the results are pretty shameful and embarrassing. That is a lot of whiteness. This was my first year completing a reading challenge, and so I was just grabbing what was popular, recommended to me, or available, rather than making a concentrated effort to find out about new (to me) authors or stories. I have a lot of progress to make. Next year, I’ll focus on ensuring I’m reading publications written by a much more diverse range of writers.

Good/Bad Endings & Ratings

The average rating I gave books this year was a 3.6. I gave 17 books 5 Stars, but only one book received 1 star- unsurprisingly it was one of the shortest books on the list this year. Generally, if I hate a book that much I will abandon it long before the end (some of them feature on this list), explaining why this seems so topsy-turvy. I read some amazing books this year, and a lot of page-turners, but honestly I think my average rating is too high. I was too generous. Next year, I’m going to try to be more critical and will have to adjust my rating system.

I was rather critical regarding book conclusions, though, considering 41% of the books I read to have a ‘bad ending’. By ‘bad’, I don’t necessarily mean atrocious. Just that I felt it lacked something, was confusing, or the book ran out of steam or lost focus. As stated, I read quite a lot of thrillers, and thrillers are filled with twisty twists and turny turns and whilst some of them work and blow your mind, some of them are pretty naff.

Conclusions

The conclusion is that, whilst I’m proud of completing my first challenge and finishing 87 books, I have to change things up next year. My average book this year was nonfiction with what I consider a good ending that was written by a white woman, and consisted of around 327 pages. On average, I rated it just below 4 stars.

Going into 2021, I’m making some changes:

Diversity. As I stated above, I’m fully ashamed at the lack of diversity within the authors I read and am taking steps to rectify this. I’m aiming to complete and review more books written by non-white authors next year- I’m giving myself a quota of at least 50%. I’m going to add a ‘Nationality’ tab, too- I want to ensure that not only are the writers I’m reading ethnically diverse but also from different countries around the world.

I need to explore more genres. We all have our preferences- of course we do- and I’m always going to love a biography or a thriller. But it’s time to push my boundaries a bit – more science fiction, more poetry, the addition of a graphic novel or two. Maybe even a romance and I absolutely loathe most romantic novels so any recommendations will be surely welcome. On a similar note, instead of labelling everything nonfiction as (imaginatively) ‘non-fiction’, I’m going to divide these books further for accuracy- self-help book, autobiography, etc. Not sure why I didn’t do that this year, honestly.

I think that I’m too generous with my ratings, and I’m going to work on being more critical. Looking back, I’ve given some books 4 stars and yet I can’t remember what the plot was two months later. I’m not going to become an absolute tyrant rating down perfectly good novels just for the sake of it, but I need to really engage more with what I read- what did I like about it, specifically? What didn’t I like, and why? ‘Enjoyable’ won’t necessarily mean 4 stars in 2021.

Do you have any good recommendations for me to read next year?

xxx

Book Review : “The Dreamers”, by Karen Thompson Walker

Title: The Dreamers

Author: Karen Thompson Walker

My Rating:

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How fortunate to have ended this terrible year with such a beautiful, tragic and affecting novel. This is the second pandemic-focused book I’ve read this year, and in my honest opinion ‘The Dreamers‘ far surpasses the much more popular ‘Station Eleven’.

‘The Dreamers’ focuses on a small college town in South California that finds itself the ground zero for a new virus. This virus spreads rapidly, and causes patients to fall into a deep sleep from which they do not awaken, although their brain activity is frenetic. We are introduced to several families in the town, and throughout the course of the novel we follow their progress as they attempt to deal with, or succumb to, the virus. There are also several chapters that give readers a window into what the wider world is supposing- conspiracy theories, political arguments, and media manipulation.

It is astounding that this book was published in 2019. Walker describes the effects of a modern pandemic so acutely I thought for sure that it had been hastily written in 2020 in the wake of COVID-19. It’s all there. The initial denial, the slow government response, the closing of borders, the lack of PPE and hospital beds. The characters instantly begin wearing masks and gloves, with some attempting to flee the town, which is quickly put under the control of the army. I suspect I would have enjoyed reading ‘The Dreamers’ regardless of whether we were currently experiencing similar measures- but having survived through quarantines and lock downs, it is certainly a more emotional read than it would have been otherwise.

This isn’t a particularly uplifting book- the ending, whilst incredibly satisfying, is bittersweet. No easy answers are given – instead, questions of spirituality, time and physics, and the meaning of our dreams and subconscious thoughts are presented. This book made me cry, several times in fact. I don’t want to spoil to any plot points (although this isn’t exactly a murder mystery, and there are no particularly shocking twists or turns), but you’ll grow to love the characters on the page and feel just as hopeless as they do at times.

Highly recommended- particularly during a pandemic! The only potential negative I could forsee is that whilst I loved Walker’s dreamy, mysterious, poetic prose, I could see this style of writing being off-putting for some readers who prefer a writer with more clarity. Each to their own- I feel lucky to have finished off my 2020 with a novel I consider to be 5 stars!

xxx

The Unread and Abandoned 2020

I’m proud of myself. I read 86 books this year, and wrote reviews for the majority of them (despite having a full time job and studying for my MA). I read genres I don’t usually explore, and authors I’d never previously heard of. I read extremely popular books, cult classics, and childhood favorites. 2020 was the first year I took part in the Goodreads Reading Challenge, and I loved it. I’ve always read before bed, but taking part in the challenge really helped me focus and appreciate the privilege of being able to set aside time.

I’ll get to my favorite reads of the year soon. The 5 stars. The books I’d happily re-read and recommend to absolutely everyone I know.

This post, though? Let’s discuss the books that lost me- either because I didn’t connect to the material, I found the prose dull and bland, or another book caught my eye and I promptly forgot about it. There wasn’t many- I challenged myself to try and finish the majority of the books I started even if I disliked them initially. But here they are, the outsiders- the books that I began in 2020, and yet they still remain in my ‘currently reading’ bookshelf….

“The Devil Problem: And other true stories”, David Remnick

The Devil Problem by David Remnick: 9780679777526 | PenguinRandomHouse.com:  Books

Great title, right?! This book is a collection of articles written by Remnick- a journalist famed for his in-depth profiles of celebrities and political figures. I first began this after finishing the New York Times Book of Wine, and had an urge to read more articles from esteemed publications (most of Remnick’s profiles appeared in the New Yorker). I dipped back into this book to figure out why I had left it languishing on my currently reading shelf- simply put, it’s because I don’t have the foggiest idea about whom half of the profiles are about. Of course, you could argue I should read about them to educate myself, but the fact is I’m just not interested in the vast majority of the individuals Remnick writes about (especially sportsmen and radio DJs). I do recall that the articles on Richard Nixon and Gerry Adams were excellent, though.

“Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl”, Andrea Lawlor

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Sigh. I just could not connect with this book at all, which surprised me, as I’m sure I was desperate to read it after a recommendation from a friend I trust, and it gets fantastic reviews on Goodreads. The blurb contains a description of all sorts of chaotic plots and the type of characters and topics that I usually have a fondness for- the 1990s, wild parties, riot grrl, queer struggles and shapeshifting (okay, I’m less a devout follower of the latter but it sounds interesting!). I read roughly half of this book before conceding defeat and moving on to something else. I’m struggling to put into words what I disliked about it, honestly. Suffice to say I just found this book perplexing and the chemistry just wasn’t there. I doubt I’ll return to it in 2021.

“Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe”, Bill Bryson

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I used to read Bryson when I was a teenager and I remember giggling my way through his books. He is, of course, a fabulous travel writer- unpretentious, fearless, and yes, still extremely funny to read. I think I gave up on this book around halfway through because of the sheer jealously and sickening envy it was inspiring within me. A travel book – even a funny, light-hearted one such as this- is not ideal reading during a pandemic when we are all trapped in lockdown with no hope of breezy international travel on the horizon anytime soon. Sorry, Bill. Maybe next year.

“Doreen Valiente: Witch”, Philip Heselton

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Doreen Valiente is an absolutely fascinating lady. Regarded as the “Founder of Modern Witchcraft”, she was a complete bad-ass who broke barriers within her community and espoused a more female-centric version of the practice. Reading about her life was enlightening, however… this biography is rather dense. It is clear the author highly respects Valiente and his research seems thorough and meticulous, but this is unfortunately just not much of a page-turner. Huge swathes of information are presented to the reader- full letters, full addresses, every detail of her life that could be accounted for (no matter how mundane) included. An extraordinary subject and a talented author, but I can’t help feel that this biography would benefit from a good editor, too.

Do you have any books languishing on your ‘Currently Reading’ shelf that you have given up on?

xxx

Book Review: “The Kindness of Enemies” by Leila Aboulela

Title: The Kindness of Enemies

Author: Leila Aboulela

My Rating:

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Historical fiction can be absolutely amazing. Before picking this book up from my local library (during that one, halcyon week where libraries were open to the public before shutting down again), I knew absolutely nothing about the Caucasus region and it’s turbulent past. Zero. Nada. Now? Well, I’m still only barely informed but I’m not a complete simpleton on this subject anymore. Hurrah!

I’ve kept spreadsheets on the books I have read this year, and will write a year-end review soon, but it is books like “The Kindness of Enemies” that I should be reading more of. If the library hadn’t been open and this book not propped up on display, I would never have thought to seek it out. I love Goodreads, but it is basically an echo chamber. I’m being recommended books so similar to what I usually read that I’m not being challenged or surprised nearly enough (it also can’t be said enough, but – god bless libraries!).

Anyway, the blurb of this book drew my attention given that it is (partially) set in my home country, Scotland, and deals with issues of radicalism and culture clash. As it turns out, the blurb is not exactly accurate. Whilst about a third of the story is set in present-day Scotland, the other two thirds are set in the 1850s, in the Caucasus region and in Russia. These chapters focus on the life of Imam Shamil, the leader of the Caucasus resistance and an extremely interesting historical figure, and his family members. Throughout the course of the novel questions of spirituality and religion are raised- with no easy answers provided.

Again, I admit to having no knowledge of this time period in history prior to reading the book, and this was such an education. Whilst some of the dialogue can be a little labored and dense (particularly the chapters set in the present day), reading it did help me come to a deeper understanding of (some) aspects of Islam. At the beginning of the book, for example, is a fiery discussion about the connotations of the word ‘jihad’ – a word used frequently on the news and in (mostly spy thriller) movies. I’ve heard it so frequently throughout my life, yet never bothered to question what the word actually means.

As an educational tool, then, this book was excellent. As an enjoyable read? Slightly less so. I enjoyed the chapters of the book set in the 1850s much more than those that focused on the 2010s. I just wasn’t invested in the present-day characters at all, and didn’t find their struggles especially captivating. And to be honest, even the historical chapters peaked early and started to drag a little close to the end of the novel. It felt like a bit of a slog to finish it, although I’d found earlier chapters really fantastically interesting. The chapter that focuses on Anna’s kidnap is incredible, and one of the best pieces of writing I’ve read all year.

So, three stars. It’s well-written, with some beautiful prose, and taught me a little bit about a subject I was previously clueless about. However… I did start to feel that it dragged on a bit near the end, and I wasn’t interested in the narrative that focused on the present day.

xxx

Book Review: “Lost at Sea” by Jon Ronson

Title: Lost at Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries

Author: Jon Ronson

My Rating:

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This weekend has been bliss. We are currently at Tier 3 for a while, so cafes and restaurants are open before 6pm to serve food and soft drinks, and non-essential shops are open and blaring Christmas tunes. I live in the center of a large British city, so it has been amazing to see my (in any other year completely busy and bustling) city finally burst to life again a week before Christmas. I don’t know if this is true for everybody’s hometown, but my city has a distinct personality and a life of its own and it has been horrible to see it crumble this year. Yet this has been a weekend of catching up with old friends over vegan food and coffees (socially distanced, of course), cheering as Bill Bailey won Strictly Come Dancing, and enjoying a good Malbec worth 20 pound that was reduced to half price in Tesco (after living in Asia seven years I still can’t get over how cheap good wine is in this country- and there’s so much variety!).

And I just got confirmation my working visa has been accepted and will go through, so I can leave for South Korea in late January! Perhaps. I mean, who knows at this time of year- Anything could change! But for now, I’m willing to be a glass-half-full kind of girl.

Anyway, during this jubilant and busy weekend pre-Christmas, I also managed to finish off perhaps my last non-fiction book of the year- ‘Lost At Sea’ by Jon Ronson (the full title is “Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries” but I don’t want to keep saying the authors name, jeez oh ego much). It has been the most surreal year of my life, so this book was an apt choice as it consists of choice articles by the journalist Jon Ronson (yes, he of the critically acclaimed ‘Psychopath Test’, which I have awarded 5 stars on Goodreads) all of which focus on oddities and supernatural events. Jon Ronson is basically the Louis Theroux of print- cynical and snarky, but mostly in a kind and understanding sort of way. I realize this is a contradiction. This is why Ronson (and Theroux) are so lauded- what a talent, being a cynic and yet fooling us all into thinking you are non-judgmental (full disclosure- I wish I had this talent).

‘Lost At Sea’ is a good read. There’s articles aplenty here – it’s over 400 pages- from cheating contestants on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to Robbie Williams believing in UFOs. Naturally, as is often the case with these sort of ‘compilation’ books, some articles did not interest me at all and I mostly skim read them (the chapter on the Alpha Christian group, for example, or the one focusing on Stanley Kubrick’s archives, which is odd as I’m usually fascinated with anything Kubrick-adjacent). Yet some articles I devoured quickly and absolutely loved (like the article on Insane Clown Posse, or the spirituality of Noel Edmonds).

If you love Malcolm Gladwell, or conspiracy podcasts, this is the book for you. It was published in 2012 and although some of the articles are dated (focusing on the 2008 financial collapse, for example) overall it’s a solid read. Jon Ronson is an excellent writer- his prose is easy to read and he comes across as an affable, awfully polite man forced into situations he doesn’t understand but desperately wants to. I’m unsure whether this is a shtick or not (see also: Louis Theroux), but it does make for an engaging style of journalism.

Recommended, but I won’t read it again. Appropriate for 2020, though!

xx


Book Review: “The Killer Wore Leather”, by Laura Antoniou

Title: The Killer Wore Leather: A Mystery

Author: Laura Antoniou

My Rating:

The Killer Wore Leather: A Mystery

Well, this was a treat. Amazingly, this is the second BDSM LGBT+ themed murder mystery I’ve read this year, although the two books could not be more different in tone. Despite the main plot focusing on the brutal murder of Mack Steel- Mr Global Leather and a well known asshole in the kink community – this novel is surprisingly humorous and fun. Whilst the murder and the ‘whodunit’ that follows drives the action along, I found myself greatly enjoying all the character interactions that didn’t directly refer to the killing.

This book has some of the most well-developed characterization I’ve ever read. The characters absolutely pop off the page- and not just the main characters (of which Detective Dominick turned out to be my favourite, surprisingly). Supporting characters like Slave Bitsy and the Boys Jack are also multi-dimensional and incredibly fun to read about (I loved Bitsy so much that I was constantly worried she would be killed!).

This book dives deep into the BDSM community as a whole, and focuses on some of the kink communities that reside within it. If you’ve any experience either reading about, or living, within this scene you’ll enjoy the descriptions of- and squabbles between- each sub-group. But if you haven’t the foggiest about ‘the lifestyle’, then don’t worry – a couple of characters such as reporter Nancy and Detective Rebecca act as reader proxies – asking questions about what is happening, and having things explained to them by the other, kinkier characters. These conversations are some of the most interesting parts of this book. I particularly liked the Detectives’ conversation with the bootblacks, for example, and the obvious disdain for the fictional ‘Zod’ community (based on the real-life Gor community, I assume) that is evident throughout the novel. Antoniou pokes fun at the seriousness and pretention of the kink community, but does so clearly from a place of love and affection.

I really loved reading this book, and have only a couple of minor quibbles. It’s perhaps a little too long for my liking, and I was rather disappointed by the ending. I love reading mysteries but I’m usually awful at guessing who the murderer is. In this instant, I guessed correctly. Still- the journey was a lot of fun and well worth taking. The author primarily writes erotic fiction – on the strength of this mystery I’d be tempted to read more of her work, although I’d love if she wrote another mystery! This is a very good read, and really does add something unique to the mystery/detective genre.

xxx

Book Review- “No Longer Human”, by Osamu Dazai

Title: No Longer Human

Author: Osamu Dazai

My Rating:

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Yikes. This gif is a pretty accurate representation of my inner thoughts when reading this novel:

6 Signs That Exam Season Is Upon Us - Beyond Blog

That’s not to say it’s not good, or that I don’t recommend reading it. This is a tough read, and while I can’t say I necessarily enjoyed it I did connect with it’s theme. This book made me feel things. Mostly, to be honest, it made me feel terrible. It drudged up memories of bad times, and compounded some of my self-doubts and insecurities. It’s rare that I feel so affected by a book- particularly a book written by a Japanese man seven decades ago, but there you go. This isn’t a fun one, guys.

The basic premise of “No Longer Human” is that we are privy to the narrators innermost thoughts. He is exhausted after a lifetime of ‘performing’ for others, for wearing a mask (both figuratively and literal) to hide his true feelings. He feels so disconnected and detached from reality that he is beginning to suspect he is no longer human- he is an observer, and he doesn’t understand what would be classified as (quote/unquote) normal human behaviors. He constantly questions his self worth and his place in society. Although outwardly this is a work of fiction, the autobiographical elements present are difficult to ignore – Dazai committed suicide after this book was published.

Basically, it’s pretty damn relatable – how depressing (although obviously I hope most people have not felt as absolutely helpless as Dazai did). I don’t think there’s an adult among us who hasn’t felt like they were performing to the back seats when they’ve inwardly felt miserable, who has deliberately and specifically acted in a certain way just to please others, who has smiled and laughed with friends then went home and felt empty. If you’ve never felt like this, congratulations! Like the author, I too am confused and jealous that you have lived such a relatively charmed existence and hope it continues. Perhaps this book is particularly for you, so you can empathize with those of us who don’t feel so hot most of the time. For the rest of us, this novel perfectly encapsulates how alienating and helpless depression can feel, without resorting to melodramatics or clichés – no easy feat.

There’s some gorgeous imagery present in this novel, despite all the doom and gloom- I particularly loved Dazai’s description of Van Gogh paintings (ghosts, like horses out of hell). There’s also plenty of witty observations that ring true- describing his first experience of college, Dazai writes “the classrooms and the dormitory seemed like the dumping grounds of distorted sexual desires, and even my virtually perfected antics were of no use there”, which is a line I intend to whip out at any post-COVID dinner parties. On the other hand, I did find Dazai’s descriptions of women- and particularly sex workers- pretty degrading and problematic.

I won’t be in a hurry to re-read “No Longer Human”, as reading it brought up too many murky feelings from the past that I’d rather suppress. But at the same time, I can’t deny that it is an excellent novel that I’ll remember for years to come. It’s also a helpful reminder that no matter how terrible and isolated we might feel at any given time, there are plenty of others who are going through the exact same thing, and wearing the exact same mask.

xxx