I’ve been promising a big book review post for several months now and finally, here it is!
The only real resolution I made for myself in January was to read more, since I didn’t really have the headspace to read that much last year. I’m not going to lie, it’s still a bit of a struggle – not to carve out the time to read but being able to fully focus when I do – but I’m definitely getting much more into a groove with things now. I mused over on Instagram recently that I wanted to start pulling together a monthly-ish blog post with my thoughts and musings so I could keep track on things, but realistically a quarterly review post feels a bit more manageable going forward.. This round-up includes a couple that I read at the tail-end of last year (mainly during the in-between) and one which I’ve still yet to finish, so pretty much covers a six-month period of reading.
I’d also love any and all recommendations from you for books you’ve loved reading lately – let me know in the comments below..
The Secret History, Donna Tartt
Ok, so I’m going to start with the one I’m yet to finish. I began TSH at the start of the first lockdown last year and while I enjoyed it initially I think that with everything going on in the world, I found it really hard to focus and kept losing my momentum – putting it down, picking it up again – and ultimately not really taking in enough of the plot and crucial minute details to be able to follow along successfully. So many people have told me this is one of their favourite books, and I think that in order to fully do it justice I’m going to need to put it down completely and start afresh in a year or so with a renewed sense of purpose and concentration. Have you ever had that happen with a book? Sometimes you really have to be in the right mindset and/or place in your life to be able to truly appreciate it, don’t you think?
Where The Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens – 5/5
So along with nearly every other person on the planet it seems, I thoroughly enjoyed Where The Crawdads Sing and can wholeheartedly say it was the first 5-star read of the year for me; a relief after plodding along with several other popular novels that didn’t really set the world alight for me (detailed below). I think the biggest standout in this novel is the beautifully constructed prose and the intricate descriptions that read like poetry. The protagonist, Kya, is so carefully constructed through the years that she really does take root in your mind as someone who, despite existing in a world so different from my own, seems hugely relatable in her thoughts, feelings and – ultimately – her actions; full of wide-eyed wonder and an instinctual need to nurture and protect the natural world around her. I didn’t even need the murder/mystery element of the narrative to keep me hooked; the poignant and heart-wrenching tale of loneliness and abandonment pretty much had me hooked from page one and as the atmosphere grew, so did my enhantment with this novel. It’s definitely one that will live on in my mind for a long time to come.
Daisy Jones & The Six, Taylor Jenkins Reid – 3/5
I think this was actually my first read of 2021 and I’m not going to lie, the interview-style prose of this novel didn’t really help me engage fully with the narrative, although as I got deeper in it became a little more bearable. I think my biggest issue was the fact I didn’t find many of the characters all that likeable to begin with, and they tended to get more and more infuriating as time went on. A lot of people rave about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work but, having only read this and her short, Evidence of the Affair (which is written as a series of letters), I can’t really say she’s my cup of tea. The interview transcript format just felt so impersonal and devoid of genuine emotion, and I guess I missed feeling that I had insight into the characters’ thought-process. Although entertaining, the plot felt very predictable and the dialogue at often-times preposterous, because it seemed unlikely that people would share this type of intimate detail with an interviewer, no matter who they were. I’ve had a few people tell me that the audiobook is a better way to go with this and I can see how that might be the case. So if you’re tempted to read this, perhaps that’s the best way to go!
Such A Fun Age, Kiley Reid – 2.5/5
Another one that I’d heard great things about, but didn’t feel really delivered on the page. Again, I think I struggled with how dislikable and unrelatable many of the characters – particularly Alix – felt on the page, and I know in part that discomfort I feel as a white woman is the whole point, but it did make getting into the narrative fully quite a struggle. It’s definitely a thought-provoking read though, and one which prompts a lot of internal interogation. There’s certainly a lot of nuance, and I think in time it may well be worth a re-read to see if my initial takeaways hold true, but personally I struggled with the depiction of both victim-hood and self-cast saviours throughout the novel, a perpetuation of stereotypes, and the overall under-development of characters as the narrative progressed. If you’ve read this, let me know your thoughts? It’s always good to hear alternative takes!
My Dark Vanessa, Kate Elizabeth Russell – 5/5
Another five star read for me, but one which is far more likely to polarise opinion than Crawdads. Books about illicit sexual affairs between school girls and their teachers will always create controversy (rightly so), and with heavy Lolita-parallels this may well be a triggering read for many. Dark and disturbing, it is intentionally an incredibly uncomfortable read, as we see Vanessa teeter close to edge before being gently coerced over by her middle-aged teacher, who is himself painted as ‘conflicted’ in the most gas-lighting of ways. There is a very real sense of struggle portrayed in the two alternating timelines (2000 and 2017) as Vanessa wrestles with her emotions, sense of shame, and continuing devotion towards the man who groomed and abused her over a number of years. It’s an incredibly difficult book to sum up in any concrete way, as the subject matter feels so abhorrent that anything other than outright dismay seems to in some way justify it. But life is far more nuanced than that, and perspectives always coloured by our own experiences and the stories we tell ourselves. I will say that this book is incredibly well constructed, highly charged and encourages deep introspection. If that sounds like your type of thing, then I would whole-heartedly recommend.
Three Women, Lisa Taddeo – 2.5/5
I read this straight off the back of My Dark Vanessa which in hindsight was a mistake. It’s another one that has been very much hyped and for me, fell wildly short. I really struggled to get into the three different storylines and, having failed to read the author’s note at the start about this being a work of non-fiction, spent a lot of time feeling confused as to how these three stories – written in a fiction-like style – might ultimately intersect. Especially since two contain a central character named Aaron. It’s definitely one I need to revisit with a refreshed perspective but I can’t say I’m in too much of a hurry to do so. Even on reflection I found the interweaving structure of the three stories to be quite jarring, and feel the three women’s experiences would hold up far better told individually as three separate shorts. They also felt, despite having purportedly been chosen for their relatability, to be quite the opposite. Three white women depicting modern female desire – and two of them detailing what amounts to sexual abuse. I don’t see myself in these narratives at all, despite being a white women, so I struggle to see how anyone else might relate. Desire is such a subjective topic, and I doubt just three examples could fully capture the complexities at all. I’d love to hear your take if you’ve read this.
People Like Her, Ellery Lloyd – 3.5/5
I have to say, I didn’t expect much from this book (bought as a Kindle Daily Deal) but was pleasantly surprised. Having a good insight into the ‘influencer world’ (as much as I hate that term) myself, it certainly was an intriguing narrative with many twists and turns, centred on Emmy Jackson – an ‘insta-mum’ – raising two young children in the public eye, with a washed-up novelist for a husband. This psychological suspense is very much a page-turner and easy-to-read, told through the alternating perspectives of Emmy, husband Dan and a third, unknown character who is slowly revealed, with a vendetta against Emmy and a desire for revenge. The dangers of social media and the perpetuation of a ‘perfect life’ presented online are covered in an engaging and thought-provoking way I felt, and it’s certainly one I would recommend for a quick and enjoyable weekend or holiday read.
The Hungover Games: A True Story, Sophie Heawood – 2.5/5
To be honest, I only read this because it was offered as a Kindle Daily Deal and I felt I needed a light, humorous read over a dismal weekend. It certainly delivered on that front, and I read it all over the course of two sittings, but that hardly makes it worthy of a glowing recommendation. The basic premise is: What happens when you have an unplanned baby on your own in your mid-thirties before you’ve worked out how to look after yourself, let alone a child? The answer is pretty much what you’d expect. There’s a lot of self-deprecating humour, fart jokes (I’ve never once found a fart joke funny..), some poignant reflections but, ultimately, it’s a privileged white girl winging her way through life and weathering all storms because she has a parental safety net, and established connections in her chosen career path (journalism). I certainly can’t knock her position because I essentially hold the same privilege, but it didn’t make for a particularly life-affirming or riveting read. It did have moments of laugh-out-loud humour though, and was relatively pacy with bite-size chapters, so if you’re after a quick weekend or holiday read and it sounds up your street, then go right ahead.
Next up on my ‘must read, have been gathering dust too long’ pile:
- Intimations, Zadie Smith
- Just Kids, Patti Smith
- The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Dideon
- Recollections of my Non-Existence, Rebecca Solnit
Tell me, what’s on your TBR pile? And, if you’re interested, you can find all my latest reads and recommendations over on Bookshop.org.