Top 10 Tuesday | Books on my autumn 2021 TBR

I think by now I’ve come to accept that I don’t have the dedication to read all the books I optimistically put on a TBR. Shiny new books pop up on my radar and distract me; life gets in the way. But as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t resist a list, and it’s nice to have something to aspire to. If you’ve read and can recommend any of these, let me know!

An incandescent memoir from an astonishing new talent, Beautiful Country puts readers in the shoes of an undocumented child living in poverty in the richest country in the world.
When it comes to revenge, even good people might be capable of terrible deeds. How far might any one of them go to find peace? How long can secrets smolder before they explode into flame?’

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love.

(Yes, this is back on the TBR again and I’m determined to tackle it before the year is out!)

Wolf Hall meets The Favourite in this beguiling debut novel that brilliantly brings to life the residents of a small English town in the grip of the seventeenth-century witch trials and the young woman tasked with saving them all from themselves.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a breathtaking story set against the volatile events of Afghanistan’s last thirty years – from the Soviet invasion to the reign of the Taliban to post-Taliban rebuilding – that puts the violence, fear, hope, and faith of this country in intimate, human terms.’

Jennifer Egan’s cool, transcendent prose meets Karen Thompson Walker’s speculative eye in this luminous literary debut following two patients in recovery after an experimental memory drug warps their lives.

An incisive and exhilarating debut novel of female friendship following three Anglo-Nigerian best friends and the lethally glamorous fourth woman who infiltrates their group—the most unforgettable girls since Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda.

‘Mia Eliot has travelled from London to LA for pilot season. This is her big chance to make it as an actor in Hollywood, and she is ready to do whatever it takes. At an audition she meets Emily, and what starts as a simple favour takes a dark turn when Emily goes missing and Mia is the last person to see her.’
‘Lowen Ashleigh is a struggling writer on the brink of financial ruin when she accepts the job offer of a lifetime. Jeremy Crawford, husband of bestselling author Verity Crawford, has hired Lowen to complete the remaining books in a successful series his injured wife is unable to finish.’

Days of Distraction
‘Equal parts tender and humorous, and told in spare but powerful prose, Days of Distraction is an offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale, a touching family story, and a razor-sharp appraisal of our times.’

(Another one back on the TBR, but I am still very interested in giving this a go).

An exciting blend of thriller, literary, memoir, and historical fiction – I feel good about this TBR pile! What’s coming up on your fall/autumn lists?

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl.

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Book Review | The Road Trip by Beth O’Leary

There’s something just so delightful about Beth O’Leary. You never know exactly what you’re going to get, but you know that it will be equal doses of funny and heartfelt; intensely readable with genuine characters and a solid storyline.

The Road Trip doesn’t disappoint. Addie and her sister Deb are on a road trip up to Scotland for their friend Cherry’s wedding. As luck would have it, not long into their journey someone rams into the back of their mini. That someone happens to be Addie’s ex, Dylan, and his insufferable friend, Marcus. Dylan and Marcus’s car is wrecked, and in a moment of madness, Addie and Deb take pity on them. They all bundle into their mini – along with Rodney, who’s a fellow wedding attendee and stranger to them all.

In the narrative that ensues, we witness the comical scenes of five grown adults packed into a mini with a not inconsiderable amount of tension, not enough aircon, and Rodney who keeps whipping out a tub of flapjacks, as if that will solve everything. Much amusement ensues with the arrival of Kevin the truck driver, and an unfortunate pit stop that ends in a missing persons search.

‘I have a feeling that if this journey had been any longer, it would have become progressively more Lord of the Flies, and Marcus probably would have eaten somebody.’

Alongside the present-day journey to Scotland, we get alternating chapters in both Addie and Dylan’s point of view, charting the early beginnings – and eventual ending – of their relationship. This is where you need to be prepared for what is a messy, sad, complicated set of circumstances – where issues of class, privilege, education, parental pressure, alcoholism, sexual assault, etc. come to light. I can see why readers wanting a pure light and fluffy romance might find the inclusion of ‘grittier’ themes to be a disappointment, but I felt that O’Leary deftly explored these issues while also providing the reader with light relief. In another author’s hands it might have felt at best contrived and at worst totally distasteful and mismanaged, but here it worked perfectly in tandem.

‘I think he’s going to say it, and once he has, that’s it, like he’s putting a time stamp on our lives. Creating a before and after. I feel it coming like I’m speeding toward something, and for one panicked moment I think I ought to slam on the brakes.’

I wish that the author had cut Marcus less slack – he was truly insufferable and I didn’t entirely buy into his redemption arc – and there could have been more done to establish an emotional chemistry between Addie and Dylan in their early scenes to build a firmer foundation for a swept-off-your-feet romance. But these are small comments in a book that kept me up reading. This isn’t normally my genre of choice – but as long as it’s got Beth O’Leary’s name on it, I’ll be adding it to the TBR.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Related Reads…

Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Book Review | Anatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan

Our lives are inextricably shaped by the material facts of our birth. And for the young men living their gilded youths at Oxford University in the early 1990s, they’re pretty much untouchable. Our narrator describes the ‘smooth, smiling faces’ of ‘men who will sail through life: Eton, Oxford, parliament, government.’

And twenty-five years later,  these men have risen to seats of power, just as they always expected to. In close-enough to the present day (although 2016 seems like a lifetime ago now), our narrator Kate Woodcroft is a prosecutor, specialising in convicting perpetrators of sexual assault.

One day, the papers get their hands on a grubby new story: a junior Tory minister, James Whitehouse, has been caught with his trousers down as his affair with a much younger member of staff is exposed. The Prime Minister being a close friend from Oxford, James is reassured the whole nasty matter will quickly blow over – until his mistress, Olivia, comes forward with an accusation of rape. James’s wife, Sophie, determines to remain the doting and devoted wife, even as doubt begins to gnaw at her.

What follows is a nail-biting courtroom drama, where driven, successful Kate is convinced of James’s guilt – but has her work cut out in trying to ensure justice is served. The world of the court is one that she admits is ‘archaic, anachronistic, privileged, exclusive’. And these privileged, white, upper-class men truly believe them are impervious to the rules – of law, of morality, of common decency. (It was interesting to read this not long after the story broke of the UK Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, having an affair with a coworker in the midst of stringent lockdowns where you weren’t allowed to hug your mum, much less fornicate with a colleague…)  

‘“I sometimes wonder if we spoiled him. Let him believe that his opinion was always right? I suppose school inculcated that feeling—and Charles, of course, never brooking an argument. Perhaps it’s a male thing? That complete self-belief: the conviction that you never need doubt your opinion. The girls don’t have it and neither do I. He was like it as a little boy: always lying at Cluedo; always cheating at Monopoly, insisting he could change the rules. He was so sweet, so persuasive, he got away with it. I wonder if that’s why he thinks he still can?”’

Vaughan shifts timelines and perspectives, keeping the varied pace of the novel and giving us historical context that feeds into the present-day drama which is unfurling. Whilst there aren’t many twists and turns to be had, this is suspenseful and well-crafted book that lays bare the lives of the rich and powerful, puts consent and conviction under a microscope, and explores the ramifications of toxic masculinity – when combined with money and privilege, a lethal cocktail. A slow burn, but a recommended read nonetheless.

9 Titles That Made Want to Buy the Book

This is another Top Ten Tuesday, but since I am at the mercy of these WordPress layouts I’m resigned to just go with 9. Have you read any of these? What books have you bought on the basis of their title alone?

Books I’ve read with brilliant titles

Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory

The title was 100% the reason why I picked this otherwise slightly obscure short-story collection off the shelf – and boy am I glad I did. Equal parts tragic and funny, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – perhaps the best short story collection I’ve ever read.

Full review here

The Heart’s Invisible Furies

A stunning story that begins in 1940s Ireland and takes us through the decades of the life of Cyril Avery, a young man desperate to discover his identity.

Full review here.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

I could have equally picked Vuong’s poetry collection – Night Sky with Exit Wounds. This is his first novel, suffused with poetic detail, pain, pleasure and heartbreak.

Full review here.

And now on to the ones I’ve not read yet and what the critics have to say about them…

Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist

“A symphony of a novel. Sunil Yapa inhabits the skins of characters vastly different to himself: a riot cop in Seattle, a punk activist, a disillusioned world traveler and a high-level diplomat, among others. Through it all Yapa showcases a raw and rare talent. This is a protest novel which finds, at its core, a deep and abiding regard for the music of what happens. Yapa strives forward with a literary molotov cocktail to light up the dark.” — Colum McCann

An Artist of the Floating World

“In An Artist of the Floating World, Kazuo Ishiguro offers readers of the English language an authentic look at postwar Japan, “a floating world” of changing cultural behaviors, shifting societal patterns and troubling questions.” — Amazon

My Wild and Sleepless Nights

“The best evocation of the all-consuming, self-eroding reality of motherhood, while also being luminous with love.” — Sunday Times

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Okezi

“Ozeki weaves together Nao’s adolescent yearnings with Ruth’s contemplative digressions, adding bits of Zen wisdom, as well as questions about agency, creativity, life, death, and human connections along the way. A Tale for the Time Being is a dreamy, spiritual investigation of how to gracefully meet the waves of time, which, in the end, come for us all.”
—The Daily Beast

Cities I’ve Never Lived In

“Majka brings the reader to startling places. . . . From certain angles, it’s a kind of New England gothic, where the lost children and dead women and doppelgängers serve to add atmosphere and meaning to the narrator’s past peregrinations, her dalliances and uncertainties. It turns out in the end that this is in fact a book about an arty person with a complicated personal life. But it’s a lovely one, written in a moving and uncanny register.”―The New York Times Book Review

The Phone Booth at the Edge of the World

“A story about the dogged survival of hope when all else is lost . . . Messina shows us that even in the face of a terrible tragedy, such as an earthquake or a loss of a child, the small things – a cup of tea, a proffered hand – can offer a way ahead. Its meditative minimalism makes it a striking haiku of the human heart.” ― The Times (London)

P.S. Try Book of the Month for $5!

I’ve recently joined Book of the Month, where you get one new hardback release (of your choice) to your door each month. This was my ‘new job treat’, and a way to read new releases without paying the sticker price or having to wait 6 months to get it from the library! If you’re interested in checking it out, this referral link means that you get your first book for a bargain $5. After that, it’s $14.99 +tax each month and you can skip or cancel whenever.

Book Review | Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

Book Review | Yes, Daddy by Jonathan Parks-Ramage

It’s 2009, and Jonah is a broke and lost aspiring playwright who has recently moved to New York. He’s working for a predatory boss at an upscale restaurant and barely scraping by. Estranged from his deeply evangelical parents who believe being gay is an unforgivable sin, he is isolated, desperate, and friendless.

 So when he sees an opportunity to catapult himself into a life of wealth – and possibly success – he begins to scheme. Richard represents the kind of life Jonah can only dream of: a wildly successful playwright who has a penchant for (much) younger men. An engineered encounter at one of Richard’s events one evening, and Jonah is one step closer to escaping his miserable life. Soon they are inseparable.

‘I became giddy with the possibility that after months of hell, filled with the pain of inventing an identity in an unforgiving metropolis, I might have finally found hope.’

There’s a building sense of dread as Jonah is pulled into Richard’s orbit – the sheen of money and success a gloss over a much more frightening reality. And Jonah feel this too, deep down – ‘underneath the giddy euphoria of our early romance,’ he says, ‘I felt a nascent unease.’

It’s at an extended trip to Richard’s gated compound in the Hamptons that things take a turn for the worst: there’s a deeply unsettling but magnetic feel about these chapters; you can’t look away, even as things grow ever darker. Richard’s home is staffed by much younger men, there to cater to his every whim. And during the debaucherous parties with Richard’s circle of powerful friends, things get even more horrifying. Jonah reasons that it’s different for him – he and Richard are in love; it’s not the same.

‘Life was a horror movie on repeat, less shocking because we knew the twists by heart.’

This intense and propulsive coming-of-age novel doesn’t just explore this summer, but also what came before and what comes after. The idea of the ‘father’ features heavily – not only a queasy nod to Jonah’s relationship with Richard, but also his own fractured relationship with his father, and his struggles at a relationship with an evangelical God who he has been told despises him for what he is.

There’s a lot packed into this novel: class and power dynamics, the #MeToo moment for the gay community, religious fanaticism, the untouchable lives of the elite. It ended up being a lot more than what I thought it would be. Towards the end we realise that the novel is epistolary, and that the writing of it is in an attempt to heal.  

What didn’t work so well: the novel felt overwrought and bordering on sensationalist at times, and it also suffers from a failure to flesh out plot points or character development that would make for a more interesting and believable exploration of the key themes. I felt particularly than the central conceit – the recipient of the letters and his relationship with Jonah – was used as a plot device. At more than one point, it felt like a first draft.

Nevertheless, Yes, Daddy is compulsively readable, described as a ‘modern gothic’. Parks-Ramage writes in expressive prose and creates a nuanced, complex protagonist who is flawed but deeply sympathetic. I’ve heard it’s being adapted for TV, so it’ll be interesting to see if the producers can sensitively balance all the weighty topics at play.

TW: rape, suicide, assault, conversion therapy, drug use

Books on my summer TBR

Top 10 Tuesday | Books on my Summer 2021 TBR

Summer TBR? It feels like I just wrote my Spring TBR (and let’s not talk about the fact that I only finished 4 of the 10 and DNF’d 2…) but I can’t resist a list, so here goes…

Crying in H Mart
‘An unflinching, powerful memoir about growing up Korean American, losing her mother, and forging her own identity.
The Prophets
A novel about the forbidden union between two enslaved young men on a Deep South plantation, the refuge they find in each other, and a betrayal that threatens their existence.

Shuggie Bain
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love.
Sparks Like Stars
An Afghan American woman returns to Kabul to learn the truth about her family and the tragedy that destroyed their lives in this brilliant and compelling novel.’

Mr Loverman
Mr Loverman is a groundbreaking exploration of Britain’s older Caribbean community, which … shows how deep and far-reaching the consequences of prejudice and fear can be. It is also a warm-hearted, funny and life-affirming story about a character as mischievous, cheeky and downright lovable as any you’ll ever meet.

Leaving Atlanta
‘An award-winning author makes her fiction debut with this coming-of-age story of three young black children set against the backdrop of the Atlanta child murders of 1979.’

Acts of Desperation
‘A bitingly honest, darkly funny debut novel about a toxic relationship and secret female desire, from an emerging star of Irish literature.

The Road Trip
Two exes reach a new level of awkward when forced to take a road trip together in this endearing and humorous novel.’
Detransition, Baby
A whipsmart debut about three women—transgender and cisgender—whose lives collide after an unexpected pregnancy forces them to confront their deepest desires around gender, motherhood, and sex.

Days of Distraction
‘Equal parts tender and humorous, and told in spare but powerful prose, Days of Distraction is an offbeat coming-of-adulthood tale, a touching family story, and a razor-sharp appraisal of our times.’

I can’t even pick what I’m most looking forward to! But I adored Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other, and Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage, so those should be solid choices. I don’t usually read contemporary romance but there’s something so irresitstible about Beth O’Leary (reviews for The Flat Share and The Switch). I’m not sure how some of these got on my radar, like the Alexandra Chang and Megan Nolan, both of whom are new-to-me authors & I’m very excited to read.

What’s coming up on your summer TBR? Have you read any of these?

Descriptions taken from Goodreads. Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish in June of 2010 and was moved to That Artsy Reader Girl in January of 2018.

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The Midnight Library Book Review

Book Review | The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

TW: depression, suicide

Nora Seed is a thirty-something living in Bedford. A few days before she decides to end her life, she walks through the town centre, seeing a ‘conveyer belt of despair’. Feeling that nothing in her life has panned out the way she planned, she reflects that she ‘always had the sense that she came from a long line of regrets and crushed hopes that seemed to echo in every generation.’ There’s nothing, Nora feels, worth living for – her cat has died, she’s lost her job, and is estranged from everyone in her life she loves. In the fog of a deep depression, she takes an overdose.

And she wakes up in the midnight library. The library is the liminal space between life or death, a place where every choice we’ve made in our lives creates another path of possibility in the multiverse, represented as a book on the many shelves. Mrs Elm, Nora’s friendly librarian from school, runs this library, too. She explains to Nora that she can pick from an infinite number of lives she may have lived. She will return to the midnight library if that life isn’t for her, and has the opportunity to pick a different path. She is dropped into the life with no knowledge of how that version of herself lives, and has to improvise – and quickly.

Nora sees the world in which she never left her fiancé, moved to Australia with her best friend, became a glaciologist, an Olympic swimmer, tours the world as a famous musician… and a vast number of other lives that she never quite feels at home in. What was moving was the refrain of her often finding her antidepressants in whatever life she is living – no matter what conventional parameters of success she appears to have reached, the same demons plague her.

‘…And that sadness is intrinsically part of the fabric of happiness. You can’t have one without the other. Of course, they come in different degrees and quantities. But there is no life where you can be in a state of sheer happiness for ever. And imagining there is just breeds more unhappiness in the life you’re in.’

Matt Haig, who has been very open with his own mental health struggles, writes compassionately about depression and hope and survival. Nora is a likeable and compelling heroine that drives a plot that may have floundered under a flatter protagonist. Her degree in Philosophy and the light-touch quantum physics of the library adds more depth and context to the novel.

There are two things that stopped this book from being a 4* read for me. There is some frustration with Nora’s behaviour when she is dropped into lives and makes the same mistakes again and again, even when she becomes adept at trying out different books in the midnight library. And the second is the way that the narrative veers into the trite on occasion; the ‘lessons’ unsubtly smacking the reader in the face.

These are minor points in a piece of contemporary fiction that I know has captured readers’ hearts (a 2020 Goodreads Awards winner) and if this can be a life-affirming book for those who need it, I applaud it wholeheartedly.

Book Review | Just Like You by Nick Hornby

There is a nervousness that hums through the pages of Nick Hornby’s latest novel. Set in North London, against the backdrop of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the tension and divisions have never been more apparent. (You know it’s bad when you start to feel a certain nostalgia for the ‘simpler times’ of 2016.)

But amidst this tumult and uncertainty, Hornby presents us with two endearing and genuinely likeable characters; middle class Mum and English teacher Lucy, who is white, and Joseph, a twenty-two-year-old Black man who is working several jobs and not really sure what he wants to do with his life. They meet when Joseph is working at the local butchers, a place frequented by Lucy’s neighbours who drop more on a few steaks than Joseph makes in a day.

They’re not a likely pairing; setting aside obvious differences in age, class, and background, they don’t seem to really have anything in common. Joseph recoils when Lucy talks about books, Lucy taps her foot cluelessly when Joseph plays her some of his music. And yet, despite all their disconnects, they fall for each other. And there is common ground found; their easy domesticity, the way Joseph connects with Lucy’s sons, the quiet and comfortable intimacy they fall into.

‘The weird thing about being his age was that you spent half the time dreaming about what might happen to you, and the other half trying not to think about it.’

But both are acutely aware that their relationship exists only in the interior world, as ‘something between brackets.’ There is a reluctance to let anyone from the outside in, an unease about how their obvious disparities will land with their contemporaries. It’s painfully self-aware – painful in a way that is also funny. Hornby has such a skill for crafting wry, observant dialogue that feels fresh and real, and this is one of the novel’s greatest strengths.

This isn’t a novel about Brexit, although it’s folded into the narrative with the same arguments that are now exhausting to hear regurgitated. The complacency of Lucy and her friends as to the immutable state of the Union is, of course, agonising in hindsight. The identity politics and deep divisions are never too far away.

Hornby, himself a white man, may raise eyebrows writing from two perspectives very different from his own lived experience. And yet I felt that it was territory he navigated well, acknowledging and giving space to institutional racism and clueless white people microaggressions alike; being aware that he is not an authority while still bringing important issues to light.

There’s a real emotional intelligence to the characters and to their dynamic, although Hornby spends so much page time with conversations about how their relationship can’t possibly work, I sometimes wondered how it actually did. But it’s still an astute and warm and witty novel, making for compelling – and sometimes hopeful – reading.  

Happy Publication Day | Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Happy publication day to Ghosts by Dolly Alderton, a charming, funny and heartfelt piece of contemporary fiction. I read and reviewed this back in July, and my full review is here!

Nina Dean has arrived at her early thirties as a successful food writer with loving friends and family, plus a new home and neighbourhood. When she meets Max, a beguiling romantic hero who tells her on date one that he’s going to marry her, it feels like all is going to plan.

A new relationship couldn’t have come at a better time – her thirties have not been the liberating, uncomplicated experience she was sold. Everywhere she turns, she is reminded of time passing and opportunities dwindling. Friendships are fading, ex-boyfriends are moving on and, worse, everyone’s moving to the suburbs. There’s no solace to be found in her family, with a mum who’s caught in a baffling mid-life makeover and a beloved dad who is vanishing in slow-motion into dementia.

Dolly Alderton’s debut novel is funny and tender, filled with whip-smart observations about relationships, family, memory, and how we live now.

P.S.

Please buy from a bookshop who pays their taxes! Blackwells have free delivery in the UK and US, and Bookshop means you can shop online from your local bookshops – currently available in the US and coming soon to the UK! (Not to get on a soapbox, but please don’t buy books from Amazon. If you need any convincing, have a read of this).