July 2020 Round Up

Another month, another list of books…It’s that time again where I look back at everything I’ve read (and watched) over the last 30 days. More in depth reviews of the books will be up over the next few weeks, so keep an eye out for those.

The Five People you meet in Heaven

  • Author: Mitch Albom
  • Publisher: 23rd September 2003, Hyperion
  • Summary: War veteran Eddie dies on his 83rd birthday in a tragic accident while trying a say a little girl. He wakes up in the afterlife to be individually greeted by five people who had an impact on his life and explain to him the meaning behind his life.
  • Rating: 4/5

Loveless

  • Author: Alice Oseman
  • Publisher: 20th July 2020, HarperCollins Children’s Books
  • Summary: Georgia starts university with her two best friends in a town on the other side of the country. She went looking for romance but instead finds questions of sexuality and identity.
  • Rating: 4/5

Exciting Times

  • Author: Naoise Dolan
  • Publisher: 2020, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Summary: Ava is a poorly paid Irish TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian. Julian is a wealthy English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her stay in his guest room. Then Julian goes back to London and Ava meets Edith who actually listens to her and openly cares. But what will happen when Julian announces he’ll be returning to Hong Kong?
  • Rating: 3/5

Before the Coffee gets Cold

  • Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  • Publisher: December, 2015, Pan Macmillan
  • Summary: There’s a small cafe in Tokyo that offers its customers the chance to travel to the past. However, they cannot leave their seat and they have to finish their coffee before it gets cold.
  • Rating: 4/5

Difficult Women

  • Author: Roxane Gay
  • Publisher: 2017, Corsair
  • Summary: A collection of short stories exploring the nuanced and varied experiences of being a woman.
  • Rating: 5/5

The Vanishing Half

  • Author: Brit Bennet
  • Publisher: 2020, Dialogue Books
  • Summary: Twin sisters who were once inseparable grow up and choose to live in two different worlds; one black, one white.
  • Rating: 5/5

Unorthodox (Netflix Original)

  • Network: Netflix
  • Based On: Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of my Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
  • Summary: An orthodox Jewish woman flees her aranged marriage in Brooklyn to start a new life in Berlin.
  • Rating: 5/5

Exciting Times

Naoise Dolan

I’d been seeing this book everywhere and the cover is so beautiful that I decided to read it as part of the 2020 reading rush and I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. Ava is a 22 year old TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian, a rich English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her move into his guest room. Then Julian goes to London and Ava meets Edith, who actually listens when she talks and openly cares about her. But when Julian announces he will be returning to the apartment in Hong Kong, Ava’s two worlds collide.

On the one hand, this novel captures what it is to be young and not know who you are or what you want with a healthy dash of social commentary thrown in, but on the other there were many instances where I was just deeply frustrated with Ava, the protagonist.

In this witty, debut novel, Ava views relationships as a power struggle, frequently proclaiming herself to be ‘good at men.’ In her mind, relationships are an emotionless transaction of other, often more material, goods (such as luxurious and deeply expensive apartments). She sees her relationship with Julian as a bizarre competition of who can seem the most disinterested in the other while they live together and have sex. Yet she also makes it her primary goal to get him to admit to having deeper feelings for her. In contrast, Ava relaxes around Edith and learns to trust in Edith’s feelings for her (even if she fails to understand the reason for them). It is Ava’s continued obsession with Julian after having met Edith that is so frustrating, because she is so clearly much happier with Edith (which she acknowledges multiple times).

However, Ava’s character is best summed up by a line in the book itself when Edith says to Ava ‘I don’t think you’re interested in having a nice life’ and this is often how Ava’s choices seem. She obsesses over what her thoughts and feelings say about her identity but never appears to question why she behaves in ways that she fundamentally disagrees with or stop her from being happy. She makes every action into a political statement but is never satisfied with the statements being made. My developing frustration with Ava as a result of this is likely why I felt a slight relief at Edith’s section of the book because someone finally calls Ava on her determination to be unhappy.

Overall, my enjoyment of the story but growing frustration at Ava’s character led to some mixed feelings about the novel. Although it is still a poignantly written assessment of class and sex and if you are fan of Sally Rooney then you will love Naoise Dolan and should absolutely read Exciting Times.

Reading Rush 2020

The End

So this year’s reading rush is over and read a total of 4 books in the space of a week, which is definitely more than I expected (even if it wasn’t quite a full 7). Below is a summary of what I read and what I thought of it, keep an eye out over the next couple of weeks for more thorough reviews of the books.

Exciting Times

  • Author: Naoise Dolan
  • Publisher: 2020, Weidenfeld and Nicolson
  • Summary: Ava is a poorly paid Irish TEFL teacher in Hong Kong when she meets Julian. Julian is a wealthy English banker who likes to spend money on her and lets her stay in his guest room. Then Julian goes back to London and Ava meets Edith who actually listens to her and openly cares. But what will happen when Julian announces he’ll be returning to Hong Kong?
  • Rating: 3/5

Before the Coffee gets Cold

  • Author: Toshikazu Kawaguchi
  • Publisher: December 2015, Pan Macmillan
  • Summary: There’s a small cafe in Tokyo that offers its customers the chance to travel back in time, but they must finish finish the coffee before it gets cold.
  • Rating: 4/5

Difficult Women

  • Author: Roxane Gay
  • Publisher: 2017, Corsair
  • Summary: A collection of short stories exploring the nianced and varied experiences of women.
  • Rating: 5/5

The Vanishing Half

  • Author: Brit Bennet
  • Publisher: 2020, Dialogue Books
  • Summary: Once inseparable twin sisters grow up and choose to live in two very different worlds; one black, one white.
  • Rating 4/5

Loveless

Alice Oseman

I recently read Loveless by Alice Oseman in order to review it for The Publishing Post, a fortnightly magazine I work on as a contributing writer, and I had a surprising amount of thoughts on the book and so decided to write a more lengthy review of it here.

Loveless is a YA novel told from the perspective of Georgia, a quiet 18 year old who is starting university having never been kissed. This book brilliantly captures what it means to be a nervous fresher who feels completely out of their depth. While on the surface this may sound like a fairly predictable teenage narrative (of which there are hundreds), this particular story explores topics surrrounding asexuality and aromanticism in a rarely seen instance of representation.

The novel intelligently explores what it is to grow up surrounded by other people experiencing romantic feelings and relationships and wonder hwy you aren’t experiencing the same things. However, perhaps the best part is how Georgia frequently doesn’t even realise the things she isn’t feeling. She understands so many romatic and sexual feelings as unrealistic and only happening in books of films that she doesn’t even realise she’s different.

I have to mention one chapter in particualr, entitled Ellis. When Georgia returns home for Christmas after her first term at university her whole family are staying for the holiday. While I won’t give away completely what happens, Georgia ends up having an extended conversation with her older cousin, Ellis, about sexuality. Ellis is in her thirties and so the reader is given an inter-generational conversation between two age groups where this is rarely seen. It is rarely discussed how different the world has been for the current generation of teenagers compared to the millenials who are now in their thirties and so it’s easy to forget that the two can have very different experiences and understandings of sexuality and gender.

Admittedly, I found the language slightly simplistic at times, but recognise that I am not the intended audience for the book and I know that when I was I would have devoured it because the representation is fantastic. Although revisiting YA did make me feel slightly older than I would like for only being 21, it was deeply refreshing to see how societal perceptions of what it means to be LGBTQ+ have evolved and how this has translated into the YA fiction that I was desperately looking for when I was a queer teenager.

The Five People you Meet in Heaven

Mitch Albom

I recently came across this novel on my parents’ bookcase and I am thrilled I picked it up. Eddie is a war veteran, who dies in a tragic accident on his 83rd birthday in an attempt to save a young girl.

This is perhaps one of the most thought-provoking books I have read recently, asking questions of why we live the lives we do and the meaning behind them. The book follows Eddie, after he dies and wakes up in the afterlife, continuing with his journey through heaven where he meets five people who each had an impact on the course of his life. Despite several of these people being unknown to Eddie himself, they all altered the course his life significantly and when he arrives in heaven they are there to explain the reasons for why his life turned out how it did.

This novel concept led to an intriguing story that I couldn’t put down, particularly since the simplicity of Albom’s writing results in a quick read that requires no effort on the part of the reader. The book addresses philosophical questions around the meaning of life and the afterlife in a remarkably concise manner that forces you to confront the impact you want your life to have on those around you.

Throughout the book we are also given snapshots of different points in Eddie’s life, spending brief chapters on earlier various birtrhdays of his. This allows us the opportunity to understand why Eddie feels the way he does about his life as well as giving us greater insight into his thoughts at the time when he encountered some of the people who are waiting for him in heaven.

This is an excellent book about forgiveness, acceptance and lost love that I would whole-heartedly recommend.

Mid-Year Reading Review

It’s currently the start of July so I thought it would be a good idea to look back on what I’ve been reading and think about what I want to the read during the rest of the year. So far I’ve read more this year than the previous few (as most people have) partly due to lockdown and partly due to a greater commitment to reading this year. I’ve not only had more time to read but also made more of an active effort to read.

January – June 2020 Stats:

  • Total Read: 18 Books.
  • Listened to 2 audio books.
  • Read 2 e-books.

Top 3 Books Read:

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

  • A novel which follows the lives of 12 people, most of whome a women of colour, spanning an entire century and provides a brilliant look at the varied experiences of women of colour.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

  • The novel depicts the everyday sexism experienced by Kim Jiyoung from being a young girl to becoming a housewife and stay-at-home mother.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

  • The Night Circus arrives without any warning and disappears as though it was never there to begin with. Visitors marvel at the wonders inside but they know little of the true secrets of the circus.

July – December 2020 Plans:

  • Want to Read: 21 Books.
  • Currently Read: 1 Book.

3 Most Anticipated Reads:

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

  • Ava leaves Dublin to live in Hong Kong and spends her days teaching English to the children in wealthy families. Then she meets Julian, an English banker who can offer her a shortcut to a far more lavish life. Upon Julian’s return to London, however, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong-born lawyer who Ava is immediately drawn to. After explaining away Julian as a mere roomate, everything comes crashing together for Ava when Julian announces his return.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet

  • This novel follows twin sisters who take vastly different paths in life and end up living in polar worlds where one is white and one is black. One sister lives in the town she grew up in with her black daughter, while the other passes for white and lives with a husband who knows nothing of where she grew up. What will happen when the next generation bring these two sisters back together?

Before the Coffee gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi

  • There’s a cafe in Tokyo that has been around for more than 100 years and offers the unique opportunity for its customers to travel back in time. If you could change one thing from the past, what would it be?

Frankissstein: A Love Story

Jeannette Winterson

Jeannette Winterson has written a fascinating reimagination of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ in her most recent novel, Frankissstein. Winterson successfuly brings together romanticism and science through her exploration of current technological advancements and developments in artificial intelligence juxtaposed with speculative chapters of how Mary Shelley came to write Frankenstein and her views, and the views of her peers, regarding life, death and the soul.

The novel begins with Shelley composing Frankenstein, before skipping to the present day and the life of Ry Shelley, a transgender doctor. We read how Ry meets Victor Stein, a mysterious professor who is working on ‘accelerating evolution’ to live forever as a consciousness in a machine, and Ron Lord who is on the road to launching a new generation of sex dolls for lonely men. The interaction between these three characters, all of whom have vastly different views on life, death, gender and sex allows any reader to maintain any opinion whilst insisting that they question their beliefs on all these issues. For instance, whilst I am thoroughly opposed to Ron Lord’s attitude, I found it enlightening to gain insight into how he perceived the world and why he chose to run a business producing sex dolls.

Winterson beautifully explores some of the problems we may face as a society if we continue on this quest to live forever through technology. For me this was the most interesting aspect of the book because it both highlighted different concerns that I had not previously considered and forced me to confront my instinctual resistence to certain forms of artificial intelligence. In particular, Victor Stein’s obsession with existing without a physical form fascinated me (likely because of my interest in Philosophy and consciousness). The concept of existing simply as a consciousness is an immediately unappealing one to me and so to read about a character whose life’s work centres around this goal was deeply intriguing.

Finally, I would like to praise Winterson’s ability to seamlessly switch between Ry’s 21st Century world and Mary Shelley’s 19th Century one. The way Winterson is able to create two vastly different worlds and successfully draw meaningful parallels between the two is truly incredible. I found myself thoroughly absorbed in each world without ever being thrown when switching from one to other.

This is a novel I would definitely recommend for anyone interested in the questions surrounding artificial intelligence and how it may intersect with issues of sex, gender and how we understand the difference between life and death.

Normal People

Sally Rooney

I’ll start this review by saying that I know I am very behind the times with this book, having not read it about a year or two ago when it first came to the forefront of the book world, but better later than never is a saying for a reason and it is definitely the case here. With the BBC adaptation coming out I decided to finally read Rooney’s normal people before watching it and I am thrilled that I did.

One of my favourite parts of this book was the interplay of the two perspectives. The shifts between Marianne and Connell are not balanced, alternating chapters, which is very interesting to read, primarily because it means we often get both their interpretations of the same events. I found this particularly interesting when Connell ends things with Marianne towards the end of sixth form and how we find out about it from Marianne’s perspective, adding to how abrupt it seems and how little clarity there is over why he chose to do it.

The way in which Rooney is able to convey the nuance and subtlety behind Connell and Marianne’s actions is truly impressive writing. The balance she strikes between concrete words and actions and what goes left unsaid is beautifully struck in a a way that gives just enough insight into the characters of Connell and Marianne but still leaves an air of mystery around their relationship that shows even their limited understanding of their feelings for one another.

This subtlety gave me an appreciation for the notion of love as something to desire and experience rather than something to achieve that runs throughout the novel. The love between Marianne and Connell is never addressed as being long term, it is very much just what they’re experiencing at the time.

I will say, however, that I’m unsure whether or not I like this book but that maybe that’s the point. I think this is a brilliant novel but I can’t claim to have loved it or that it is a favourite of mine. However, I think it is one of the most intelligently written novels I’ve come across that provides an intriguing perspective on love and relationships between young people.

Keep an eye out for my upcoming review of the BBC adaptation or click follow to receive email alerts.

Girl, Woman, Other

Bernardine Evaristo

I have finally read last year’s Booker prize winner and it might be one the best books I’ve read in a long time. The book follows the lives of twelve different characters, most of whom are women of colour, across several decades, giving insight into the varied experiences they have and how they shape the differing perspectives they have on the world.

Each of the characters are complex and flawed and yet Evaristo always manages to position the reader from a point of empathy when reading their chapter. Since the different characters are connected through various relationships, the reader often gets snippets of information about characters you have yet to read about which allows you to form a prior opinion of them which makes reading their chapters especially interesting. There is always more to a character and their life than expected which is eye-opening to read.

My favourite chapter was probably the first one about Amma’s life. Amma is a black lesbian living in London in the 1980’s fighting for her rights and trying to get into the theatre. Her life in the 80’s juxtaposed with her life in the present day is fascinating as it demonstrates how the world has changed and how her views and life have changed along with it, including her becoming a parent and transitioning into the mainstream theatre industry.

Evaristo also expertly demonstrates how systemically racist and sexist structures within society can unite women, particularly women of colour, whilst highlighting how different they all are and how so many other factors in life can determine where they end up. For instance, Carole’s journey through elite academia and the world of banking which required her to conform to society’s expectations in so many ways puts her in a wholly different position to Amma’s life as a black lesbian who refuses to meet any expectations that don’t match up to her own desires and combats systemic racism, sexism and homophobia through this rejection.

However, despite these differences, Evaristo successfully conveys the shared experiences that ultimately bring these women together and often drives them to help each other out, whether this means mentoring young women of colour to try and give them an extra step up in life or providing a safe space for women when they need it.

Finally, I enjoyed the style of Evaristo’s writing far more than I expected to. Evaristo’s writing lacks standard capitalisation, punctuation or sentence structure which allows the stories to flow far more naturally and creating a feeling of the characters naturally reflecting back on their lives rather than a more contrived and deliberate narrative being told. This stream of conscience style combined with the natural inclusion of key physical details and references to wider debates, such as who has the most privileged or trans exclusionary feminism, results in a deeply insightful and thoroughly enjoyable novel.

March 2020 Round Up

After a slightly slower February, I’m back on track and got through some great literary content this month.

An American Marriage

  • Author: Tayari Jones
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books, 6th January 2018
  • Synopsis: The novel follows the lives of newly-wed couple, Celestial and Roy, after Roy gets convicted for a crime Celestial knows he did not commit.
  • Rating: 4/5

The Chain

  • Author: Adrian McKinty
  • Publisher: 9th July 2019, Orion Fiction
  • Synopsis: Your child has been kidnapped and you won’t get them back unless you kidnap someone else’s. You are now part of the chain.
  • Rating: 4/5

The Trial

  • Author: Franz Kafka
  • Publisher (My Copy): 2009, Vintage
  • Synopsis: Joseph K. wakes up one day to find himself arrested and must find a way to defend his innocence despite being given almost no information about the charge he faces.
  • Rating: 3/5

His Dark Materials

  • Network: BBC One
  • Original Novel: His Dark Materials book series by Philip Pullman
  • Synopsis: In an alternative world, Lyra, a young orphan, goes on a mission to track down her missing friend and ends up discovering the dark secret behind a recent string of children going missing.
  • Rating: 5/5

Noughts and Crosses

  • Network: BBC One
  • Original Novel: Noughts and Crosses book series by Malorie Blackman
  • Synopsis: Star-crossed lovers Sephy and Callum develop a relationship in a dystopian world of racially charged prejudice and conflict where the black crosses rule over the white noughts.
  • Rating: 4/5