Anyone who has lived with me knows I am often to be found in the company of a book. Even when I’m not reading, I seem to have a need to carry my current texts around with me and feel their assuring presence beside me on a sofa, side-table or desk while I do other things that I would rather forsake for reading. My shelves, and indeed every known surface in my living space is crammed with books. My bedside table is usually piled high with books. There even used to be books on top of my microwave before a friend kindly informed me that this was hazardous. I have a kindle, but the temptation of a glossy new release from Waterstones, or an endearingly threadbare novel in a book swap stop, or a hefty, lovingly illustrated hardback that I can’t stop sniffing like a crazy person…they are all too much to resist.
So, this year I have embraced my addiction to books and embarked on a reading challenge to read 50 books in 2021.
So far, I’m on track and have hit the 25 mark well before the end of June. I have started using Goodreads (if anyone wants to follow or friend me this is my profile), which is where I track my challenge and also take the opportunity to read and write reviews. How have I never engaged with book reviews before now?! It seems like a no-brainer that I would have since I am the sort of person who finds it very reassuring when other people think a book is as good, or bad, as I do (and equally understands the benefit of absorbing alternative viewpoints as well so that as not to become obnoxious and narrow-minded). Hence, Goodreads has become the other thing I am to be found staring at in 2021.
Since I’ve formed a lovely collection of reviews and opinions over the last six months, I thought I would give a little run-down here of my reading journey so far this year. It has been a particularly terrible six months, and I can’t overstate how important it has been for me to have reading as an escape and a comfort in this time. I’m going to start with my most recent reads first, as I think it’s always interesting to see things in reverse. I’ll try not to give spoilers in case any of you lovely readers actually follow my recommendations.
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk – 5/5 stars
For anyone who has not been blessed with the mind-blowing literary genius of Rachel Cusk…what are you even doing? Joking. She’s actually not for everyone. She’s the sort of author that gets either one star or five stars from her readers. But for me, it’s usually five stars. This particular book is set out as a combination of connected stories about the inhabitants of a London suburb, all focussing on themes of domesticity and motherhood. The style is very reflective, sometimes omnisciently, sometimes internally to the character, and sometimes within dialogue. If you’re looking for an uplifting, heartfelt read about how all domestic boredom is worth it in the end…do not look here. This novel strikes a highly cynical tone. But if you want to be really made to think and question the fundamentals of how we live, this will be more your cup of tea.
The Ivies by Alexa Donne – 3/5 stars
To get one thing straight: I rarely read thrillers, especially not Young Adult (YA) thrillers. I only read this one because the author, Alexa Donne, gives amazing writing advice on YouTube. To her credit, I got into the mystery of this elite-American-boarding-school-teens-fighting-over-college-applications story as in I desperately wanted to find out what happened at the end. But I found it difficult to connect with the characters and felt the story was more plot-driven so I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m glad I took a step away from the usual genres I read though, as it puts a lot of the marketing advice I have been trawling through while pursuing publication of my first novel into context.
How We Live Now: Making your space work hard for you by Rebecca Winward – 5/5 stars
A bit of a random one. Basically, I have just moved to Manchester and am settling into a new flat. I find it very difficult to get used to new places so have been flicking through pretty interior design books to soothe and inspire myself. I actually picked up some really good tips from this one. It gave accessible and affordable advice about sprucing up any space, even if you’re just renting and can’t make “deep” changes to your home.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig – 5/5 stars
You’ve probably seen this one if you’ve been anywhere near a book shop. I had been avoiding this title since it came out; as I tend to steer clear of books that are being ostentatiously marketed at me. I can be a bit contrary like that. But then this book was on sale for half-price and looked pretty in hardback, so I picked it up. And I would absolutely recommend this sweet little novel about overcoming regret. In a world where it feels impossible to be comfortable with your many options and choices, I think a lot of people need this.
The Binding by Bridget Collins – 3/5 stars
I have written a very long explanation about this on Goodreads if anyone is interested but I won’t go on too much here. Again, going outside my usual genre disappointed me. I think most of the problem was the genre confusion; the author was clearly trying to pose this novel as an adult historical fantasy but it read like YA historical fantasy. This would have been fine if they hadn’t tried so hard in both directions simultaneously. The concept of trapping people’s memories in books was interesting, and there was good world-building and mystery. However, the characters were poorly and inconsistently written, which was disappointing. So, I’ve been scared off both fantasy novels and thrillers now…
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing – 5/5 stars
Absolutely chilling. A horrifying story wrought with tension that I devoured within hours. Can’t say much more without spoiling it!
Mum & Dad by Joanna Trollope – 4/5 stars
A quaint little family drama that delivers exactly what it promises. Joanna Trollope writes family tensions and backstory well so if that’s your sort of thing, I would try this.
Double Blind by Edward St. Aubyn – 3/5 stars
I would characterise my feelings on this novel as mixed. It was a fast read with lots of interesting content about philosophy, psychology, biology and technology. But as a result of all these unnatural tangents in character speech and reflection it suffered from coming across as over-ambitious and lacked a significant structure or narrative. The moving parts didn’t quite come together for me but still an interesting read.
How We Are Translated by Jessica Gaitán Johannesson – 3/5 stars
This story was about language and denial, centring round a couple in Edinburgh with very unique communication habits. The boyfriend is trying to learn Swedish, seemingly for the benefit of his Swedish immigrant girlfriend (the main character), but it ends up creating untold tension between them. This was a very unique perspective, which I appreciated as someone with dual heritage. Learning a loved one’s native language can actually be quite an emotional, disruptive thing and I haven’t seen that acknowledged in a book before. The prose was beautiful, clever, poetic and heart-breaking, but unfortunately the story was let down by a lack of clarity. I normally love vague, plotless, emotionally driven books, but this went too far. If you can’t locate a character in their personal journey it takes a lot away from a book.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith – 4/5 stars
Zadie Smith is another literary master; though less divisive than Rachel Cusk. This was her expertly written debut, which I picked up after enjoying “On Beauty” earlier in the year. White Teeth is a challenging read, lengthy and thought-provoking, but definitely worth the concentration it demands. The characters are believable and interesting, the dialogue impeccable and the themes diverse and captivating; including obsession, religion, twins, science, race, sex, family and extremism (to name a few). These themes all sustain and develop throughout this epic novel, which is an achievement in itself. In terms of literary quality, I would have given five stars, but I just didn’t feel as engaged as I did with “On Beauty” and found the first half dragged a little.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro – 3/5 stars
The concept of a world where artificial robot friends are commonplace companions for children is interesting, and Klara (the robot), brought whimsy and tenderness to the narrative. But so much of the world was withheld that it became frustrating to read, and the themes that were alluded to about pollution felt both tired and under-developed. Worth a read but prepare to be a little unsatisfied.
Atomic Habits by James Clear – 5/5 stars
A genuinely helpful book about setting up your whole life to accommodate good habits. The advice is practical and concise and each element builds upon the previous. I have found this very useful for re-implementing my healthy pre-lockdown habits!
All the Harry Potters! By J. K. Rowling (obviously) – 5/5 stars
Every time I come back to Harry Potter I am stunned by the expert storytelling, the humour and the immersive world that Rowling has created for all of us to grow up in. I’ve tried to rank the books in order of preference based on my most recent read-through of the series and it’s so very close on all apart from The Deathly Hallows, which remains solidly in last place. This is the only 4-star Harry Potter for me. It’s not that it’s not still brilliant; and I can certainly appreciate it more now I am older. But the combination of hallows and horcruxes is just a bit much and the plot becomes too convoluted and contradictory. My ranking is as follows: The Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, The Goblet of Fire, The Prisoner of Azkaban, The Philosopher’s Stone, The Chamber of Secrets, The Deathly Hallows. This is a completely different order to my last read-through, and I attribute this to the fact that I now write stories of my own, and therefore the perfect structure of the longer reads just blows me away. I especially appreciated how the entire series flowed as a whole this time too.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) – 3/5 stars
A very unique book about a woman whose true calling is working in a convenience store. I especially liked the commentary on societal expectations in this book, even though some of it was a little obvious and repetitive. Sparse but effective, I would recommend this book for a quick, thought-provoking read.
This is Yesterday by Rose Ruane – 4/5 stars
Things are getting a bit hazy now, as this goes back to before the point when I started writing reviews. My mum had just passed away, so my memory was full of holes at the time of reading. I can remember that I really appreciated the style of this book, with the lyrically compelling prose, coming-of-age theme and the fact that the author was not afraid of exploring the dark edges of growing up. I expect I dropped a star because I wasn’t personally a fan of the main character, who was a little too selfish and cynical for me to truly love, though I did empathise with her struggles significantly – probably due to the mastery of the prose.
1Q84 series by Haruki Murakami – 3/5 stars
How to summarise a Murakami novel? It’s the same with all of them; there is a plot that will never completely take off, a solitary character (or in this case, two solitary characters) that is fundamentally lost and without direction, and a dynamic prose that somehow pulls you in with its unique take on reality (or unreality). This beast of a series was about 1200 pages, and I felt it could have been done in much less. There was a ton of intriguing set-up but not an excess of pay-off. Nevertheless, I did largely enjoy this slow burn, and since this was my third dive into the world of Murakami, I knew what I was getting into.
The Illustrated Child by Polly Crosby – 3/5 stars
What a ride this was. A beautiful debut about a child called Romilly who grows up in the care of her eccentric father, an artist who makes money by publishing illustrated books about a parallel “Romilly” who has many exciting adventures at the circus and other such fascinating places. Meanwhile, Romilly rambles around a lonely life in a tumble-down cottage. She doesn’t go to school and lives for the times her father comes out his studio and blesses her with his intense, but unreliable, affection. My feelings were very, very mixed about this book, because I almost didn’t know what I was getting into. It got really dark and desperate in unexpected places, and I don’t think I was ready for that at the time. I was also a bit confused by the surrealism that was being hinted at. I never knew what was real by the second half and it just didn’t quite fit with the tone the book started in. Read and you will see what I mean!
Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan – 3/5 stars
For lovers of Sally Rooney. I thought this book really effectively captured the experience of lonely young people in new cities. Despite some scathing reviews from others in the Goodreads community (“the times, in fact, were not exciting”), I found the story compelling. I cared about the main character and I felt her to be very real, and very sad. I think it’s a pity for the author that Sally Rooney came before her, because a lot of people will be directly comparing the stories, and how is one supposed to compete with Sally Rooney? I do think the story trailed a bit in the second half and, though I completely understood the character’s aloof behaviour, I can see why other readers might not. I’ll be interested to see what else Dolan comes up with, after such a strong debut.
Here is the Beehive by Sarah Crossan – 4/5 stars
This book was all written in verse, which made my heart sink when I first opened it, but I quickly realised it had been beautifully done and then flew through it. The story is about a lawyer who discovers the married client she was sleeping with has died and makes herself executor of his will in order to befriend his unknowing wife. The main character is dynamic in how she thinks and feels about her experience, and I kind of loved her despite her despicable actions and the fact she is cheating on her own husband. I thought the most interesting theme explored in this book was the right to grief; and what it can do to someone if that right is denied. However, I felt at times that there was some depth that was lost in the sparse verse, which negated a star for me. I can’t wait to see more from this author!
On Beauty by Zadie Smith – 5/5 stars
My first experience of Zadie Smith was a great one. This was a much more intimate family drama than White Teeth, and I appreciated the closeness to each character’s journey. Howard, the father-husband-scholar of the family, was another character who I found both despicable and fascinating (I seem to have read a few of these types this year!). It is refreshing to read stories that include the perspective of the wrong doer, with multiple voices of mistake and regret threaded through. You begin to wonder if any human can be remotely good. But Smith clearly demonstrates in this book that all human action, no matter how inevitable, forgivable or excusable, has consequences. And that’s one of the many reasons why she is such a genius with story and character development.
Well, there you have it. Kudos if you got through to the end – I went on a bit more than I thought I would with some of these! I would love to hear any of your thoughts; on the books above, what you’ve been reading yourself, or your experience of reading in general. So please do comment below.
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Happy reading, everyone!