Six Degrees of Separation: Shirley Jackson to Lisa Taddeo

Six Degrees of Separation is hosted by Kate. Each month, everyone starts with the same book and we see where our links take us. Links can be anything that comes to your mind and need not have rhyme or reason…

The starting book for this month is The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. I’d never heard of this short, frightening story – which caused an absolute uproar when published the 1940s in the New Yorker. So of course I had to see what all the fuss was about – and it’s a terrifying little tale which much to say about mob mentality, tradition and conformity in insular communities. You can read the whole story at this link – it won’t take you very long – and is perfectly timed for Halloween…

I don’t often seek out scary books, but I kept seeing Mona Awad’s Bunny everywhere last year and decided to give it a go. It’s set at an exclusive MFA program in New England, where a group of girls start doing some very strange sh*t and the boundary between the real and the imaginary totally collapses in a bizarre, genre-bending way. It wasn’t for me, but to each their own…

I just re-read this one for book club, so it’s at the front of my mind – hello to another very well-known literary milieu, the prestigious Vermont liberal arts college where the characters of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History find themselves – an elite group of students studying ancient Greek who get similarly wrapped up in their claustrophobic, perverse world…

Tartt is the recipient of the Andrew Carnegie Medal (as well as the Pulitzer – show off…) just as is Colson Whitehead for his 2017 book The Underground Railroad, an unflinching story set on a slave plantation in Georgia as the protagonists search for freedom via the underground railroad, in this imagining a very real network of train tracks to help enslaved people escape hell.

More than a century on, the protagonists of Tayari Jones’ An American Marriage are a modern-day married couple also living in Georgia and also dealing with the pernicious effects of institutional racism as the husband, Roy, is wrongfully imprisoned.

And for modern-day relationships put under the microscope, no-one has done it better in recent years than Lisa Taddeo with Three Women, a journalistic tour-de-force charting the sex and love lives of three real American women in all their realness.

Thanks for reading my October Six Degrees! Have you read any of these? If you participate in the tag, where did your links take you?

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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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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Book Review | The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Amir is a young Afghan boy, born to a wealthy merchant father in 1960’s Kabul. And Afghanistan of the 60s and 70s has a haze of nostalgia to it – Amir lives a charmed childhood, flying kites, watching Hollywood Westerns, reading adventure stories to his best friend Hassan.

Of course, there’s a darkness simmering under the surface, as Afghanistan teeters on the brink of catastrophe – the monarchy falls, the Soviets invade – and, eventually, the tyrannical Taliban seize power. Within a few decades, nothing will be left; ‘the Afghanistan of our youth is long dead.’

But before all of this tragedy unfurls, Amir and Hassan are just kids. Hassan is the son of their household servant, and can’t attend school. Despite their close friendship and Amir’s objectively much better lot in life, Amir finds himself prickling with jealousy at his Baba’s fondness for Hassan. A complex figure, in equal parts imposing and charming, Amir longs for his father’s attention and approval. Since his mother died in childbirth, his father is the axis around which his life spins.   

Hassan is Amir’s unwavering loyal and devoted friend, forever his companion in the kite competitions that are a popular pastime for children in the city. But as a Hazara, a member of a persecuted minority, Hassan has a target on his head – and it’s not long before a shocking act of violence will change all their lives forever.

Decades later, Amir and Baba are thousands of miles away from the country of their birth. Refugees in California, they struggle to rebuild a life. For Amir, the guilt, grief, and cowardice he feels over what took place that fateful summer in Kabul will plague him forever.

‘Long before the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan, long before villages were burned and schools destroyed… Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of harelipped ghosts.

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins.’

It’s not very often that a novel makes me weep, but this did it. Hosseini is an incredibly gifted storyteller, weaving together a novel that not only encompasses swathes of political and social history, but tells an incredibly moving and intimate story of a life. He doesn’t spare us from horror – life under the Taliban is gut-wrenchingly terrible – but this is also not a book without joy, hope, and redemption.

Something that will stay with me for a long, long time is the contrast between the old Afghanistan of Amir and Hassan’s youth, and the war-torn failed state that it has been for many decades – longer than I’ve been alive. The way in which a country can cease to exist – the obliteration of a culture, way of life, societal structure – committing current and future generations to a life of poverty, desperation, and torment, is horrifying and powerfully rendered in this book. I think back to more recent parallels with what’s happened in countries like Syria – once thriving, developed centres of culture, history, and commerce – reduced to physical and psychological ruins.

The last thing I’ll say about this extraordinary and explosive book is that it is not an intimidating read. Hosseini’s prose is sparing, controlled – and even though he weaves Farsi words throughout, it’s not at all alienating to the reader. It took me a decade of having this sat on the shelf – it’s made it through several transatlantic trips with an unbroken spine – before I picked it up last week, and it might be the best book so far this year.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Read if you enjoyed: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr - book review

Book Review | The Prophets by Robert Jones, Jr

It’s hard to know where to start with a book like this; a book so unflinching and devastating that it’s definitely not one I would recommend to everybody. So I better start with a warning: this isn’t for the fainthearted, and content warnings abound in this book and, subsequently, in what I’ll discuss in this review.

Samuel and Isaiah are two enslaved young men on an antebellum plantation in Mississippi, a place that the enslaved characters refer to as ‘empty.’ In the most unimaginable set of circumstances, the two find solace within each other – friendship, companionship, and eventually, love.

‘Sometimes, in Mississippi, maybe in the whole world, except one other place lost to memory, the sky was heavy. It was thick with something unseen but surely felt.’

Jones doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of plantation life; the ritual rape, torture, back-breaking labour and degradation. But in his lyricism, and careful attention to the interior worlds of his characters, he makes it more than just that. He also shows us the small moments of communion, of peace, friendship, gossip, and love. In doing so, it feels like a reclamation of history – a voice given back to the voiceless.

‘Tiny resistances were a kind of healing in a weeping place.’

I couldn’t help but be reminded of a fateful trip to a Tennessee plantation I made in 2017. Newly arrived in the US, I was naïve – I thought that the point of going to a plantation was to open your eyes to the brutal history of enslavement and the lives of those who had been forced to toil to enrich the enslavers. How wrong I was. The guided tour spent the first hour walking the plantation house and learning about the ‘master’s’ love of horses. The last 5 minutes we were led into the grounds and shown some reconstructed shacks, with a footnote that they were trying to learn more about the history of the enslaved on the plantation, but there weren’t many records so not much they could do *shrug*.

This novel is so powerful because we haven’t heard these voices, and Jones brings them so vividly to life. A powerful and effecting theme running through the novel is that of a severed connection to history. The enslaved characters in the novel cannot ever know their history – most don’t know their parents or the names that were given to them at birth.

‘The sound… made Amos long for the old place – Virginia. The longing was misplaced. That wasn’t home and neither was this: not these shores, certainly, but which ones, exactly, he knew he would never know, and that was where the pain was.’

Jones effortlessly slips in and out of different consciousnesses, both of the enslaved people on Empty and of the enslavers themselves. He develops complex male and female characters and gives us both a sweeping and intimate picture of life on the plantation.

There are times he does too much. There are interludes from a matriarchal African society who have fluid definitions of gender identity and sexuality, and we follow them as they are cruelly ripped from their homeland and forced on slave ships to the Americas. As important as this origin story is, it felt a little clunky slotted into the narrative. The writing throughout is also beautifully lyrical, but sometimes to the point of being inaccessible – when a slightly pared down style would be less alienating to a wider group of readers.

But these are small flaws in a hugely moving and accomplished novel. This is vitally important reading for anyone who wants to better understand the long-lasting legacy of slavery and institutional racism in the U.S., and I also encourage readers to seek out voices of colour on this book and these topics.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Book blog - 2021 new releases

4 upcoming releases I’m excited for

It’s a funny old time. Not much is known for certain – I’m finding it hard to think much beyond the next 2 months! But in this great age of uncertainty, I find it comforting to know that there are new book releases on the horizon that I have to look forward to.

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

Expected publication: September 2021

The heroes of Cloud Cuckoo Land are trying to figure out the world around them: Anna and Omeir, on opposite sides of the formidable city walls during the 1453 siege of Constantinople; teenage idealist Seymour in an attack on a public library in present day Idaho; and Konstance, on an interstellar ship bound for an exoplanet, decades from now. Like Marie-Laure and Werner in All the Light We Cannot See, Anna, Omeir, Seymour, and Konstance are dreamers and outsiders who find resourcefulness and hope in the midst of peril. Doerr has created a tapestry of times and places that reflects our vast interconnectedness—with other species, with each other, with those who lived before us and those who will be here after we’re gone.

Why I’m excited: I loved All The Light We Cannot See, and while the plot of this one looks quite quirky, I will read anything Anthony Doerr writes. His writing is just phenomenal.

A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins

Expected publication: August 2021

Laura has spent most of her life being judged. She’s seen as hot-tempered, troubled, a loner. Some even call her dangerous.

Miriam knows that just because Laura is witnessed leaving the scene of a horrific murder with blood on her clothes, that doesn’t mean she’s a killer. Bitter experience has taught her how easy it is to get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Carla is reeling from the brutal murder of her nephew. She trusts no one: good people are capable of terrible deeds. But how far will she go to find peace?

Why I’m excited: I’m a sucker for a good psychological thriler, and The Girl On The Train was one of the psych thrillers that really kickstarted a wave of new psych thrillers. So you can bet I’ll be reading this one come August.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Expected publication: September 2021

Alice, a novelist, meets Felix, who works in a warehouse, and asks him if he’d like to travel to Rome with her. In Dublin, her best friend, Eileen, is getting over a break-up and slips back into flirting with Simon, a man she has known since childhood. Alice, Felix, Eileen, and Simon are still young—but life is catching up with them. They desire each other, they delude each other, they get together, they break apart. They have sex, they worry about sex, they worry about their friendships and the world they live in. Are they standing in the last lighted room before the darkness, bearing witness to something? Will they find a way to believe in a beautiful world?

Why I’m excited: Sally Rooney really has been captapaulted into stratospheric heights, and although Normal People and Conversations with Friends were enjoyable but didn’t knock my socks off, I can’t resist getting on board a hype train once in a while.

Pub date is so far off there’s not even a final cover!

To Paradise by Hanya Yanagihara

Expected publication: January 2022

In an alternate version of 1893 America, New York is part of the Free States, where people may live and love whomever they please (or so it seems). The fragile young scion of a distinguished family resists betrothal to a worthy suitor, drawn to a charming music teacher of no means. In a 1993 Manhattan besieged by the AIDS epidemic, a young Hawaiian man lives with his much older, wealthier partner, hiding his troubled childhood and the fate of his father. And in 2093, in a world riven by plagues and governed by totalitarian rule, a powerful scientist’s damaged granddaughter tries to navigate life without him—and solve the mystery of her husband’s disappearances.

Why I’m excited: Oddly, this structure sounds like Anthony Doerr’s – three timelines; long-ago past, near-present, and distant-future. That aside, it’s no secret that A Little Life is one of my favourite books of all time, and yes I have pre-ordered a signed copy even though I’ll have to wait all the way until January 2022!!

What are you looking forward to?

All images and descriptions taken from Goodreads.

Book Review Acts of Desperation

Book Review | Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan

It’s 2012, and a directionless young girl falls head over heels in love with a troubled boy. If this feels like a familiar set up to me, surely it’s my own fault for gravitating to the same millennial relationship stories of woe. But here we are; directionless young girl – unnamed – is our narrator, and she meets Ciaran, Irish-Danish heartthrob at an art gallery in Dublin.

‘Love was the great consolation, would set ablaze the fields of my life in one go, leaving nothing behind.’

She’s been living a life that seems hedonistic – relentless partying, excessive drinking, irresponsible sex – but we never quite believe that it is very much fun. Ciaran disapproves of her drinking, dislikes her friends, and in her desperation to make him the only planet around which she orbits, she tries to change for him. She hinges all of her self worth on his validation, obsessed with his attention despite his aloof, emotionally manipulative behaviour. This is a dark and highly toxic domestic set-up from the start – it’s hard to imagine that these two could ever be happy.

‘Some part of me had already decided to live for him and let him take over the great weight of myself.’

Nolan examines the way in which sexuality can be used as a currency, particularly for young women who are otherwise disenfranchised – our narrator is a university drop-out working dead-end admin jobs. ‘Being young and beautiful felt like a lot sometimes,’ she muses, ‘felt like it translated to real-world power,’. ‘But,’ she continues, ‘money shat all over it every time.’

She’s a character who is simultaneously indulging in all of her ‘excesses’ – the drink, the partying, the sex – and yet desperately fighting to contain them, the ‘reservoirs of need that existed in me and would never stop spilling out, ruining all they touched’. In a world where she has so little power, she self-harms and restricts her eating to punish herself and others. Ciaran is devastatingly oblivious – or perhaps he just doesn’t care.

It’s a relentlessly claustrophobic existence, where almost nothing happens outside of the confines of the relationship – hardly any friends, limited contact with family, even details as mundane as the weather are almost never disclosed. It’s excruciating at times, the intensity with which she pours herself into Ciaran and grapples with her identity, worth, and inner contradictions.

When their relationship begins to crumble, she remarks that ‘Every moment of my day was saturated by his absence, each second made damp and collapsing and airless beneath it.’ And that’s not an inaccurate description of what it’s like to read this book. It’s not easy to read, but equally hard to look away.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

CW: sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders

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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chimimanda ngozi adichie - purple hibiscus book review

Book Review | Purple Hibiscus by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Kambili and her brother, Jaja, live in the beautiful but stifling confines of their family home in Enugu, Nigeria. On the surface a life of privilege – they have a driver, a housekeeper and attend a prestigious school – their life at home is anything but easy. Their father Eugene, a respected man in the community, is tyrannical behind closed doors.

Eugene is a religious zealot, devoted to his Catholic faith and unaccepting of anyone who he deems a ‘heathen’ who follows ancestral religions – including his own father. There’s an unspoken web of wrongs and rights, and Kambili, Jaja, and their mother carefully try to walk the tightrope, never knowing what will incite fury. Content warnings abound at this point for serious, unforgivable acts of domestic violence, some of which amount to torture.

Yet Adichie draws Eugene as a complex character. We loathe him, but our protagonist loves him. It’s one of the remarkable feats of this novel that paints him as three-dimensional. And now seems like a good time to talk about the expertly-controlled narration, the psychological insight into the emotional turmoil of our fifteen-year-old narrator. Kambili is a quiet presence, but she holds her own – a powerfully vulnerable girl trying to make sense of the world.

There comes an opportunity for Kambili and Jaja to see another side of life. They’ve never spent a night away from their parents, but when their exuberant Aunt Ifeoma turns up, she manages to convince Eugene to let the siblings stay with her and her children for a few days. Kambili and Jaja arrive to a house much poorer than their own, but rich in ways theirs could never be; full of games, music, television and laughter.

‘It was what Aunty Ifeoma did to my cousins, I realized then, setting higher and higher jumps for them in the way she talked to them, in what she expected of them. She did it all the time believing they would scale the rod. And they did. It was different for Jaja and me. We did not scale the rod because we believed we could, we scaled it because we were terrified that we couldn’t.’

Outside the confines of this family drama, Nigeria is also brought to life; Adichie weaves the Igbo language throughout, the smells and tastes of traditional stews and soups, the seasonal harmattan winds which blow over from the Sahara. And humming in the background is the political and social postcolonial landscape of deep unrest, corruption and instability. There are things which no amount of money can shield you from.

‘There was something hanging over all of us. Sometimes I wanted it all to be a dream – the missal flung at the étagère, the shattered figurines, the brittle air. It was too new, too foreign, and I did not know what to be or how to be.’

This is a startling, expressive, and compulsive coming-of-age story, and I can’t believe it took me this long to get to read it.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

P.S. I also feel compelled to say that endorsement of this novel is in no way endorsement of Adichie’s transphobic views. Trans lives matter, we must affirm and protect them – end of story.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss - book review

Book Review | Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Families at a remote Scottish cabin park are stuck inside on the longest day of the summer, while the rain hammers down. You haven’t experienced a proper British childhood if you didn’t spend at least one summer holiday in a perpetual rain-soaked, chilled-to-the-bone state. And Moss conveys this atmosphere so effectively that you almost feel the cold and the rain seeping through the pages.

‘There are waterways through the soil, aren’t there, trickles and seeping, and the branching streams within her body, the aortic river and the tributaries flowing from fingers and toes, keeping her going. Faster, then. Faster. The wind is lifting the mist, making a space for her between the rocky trail and the low sky.’

We feel the oppressive weight to the story right from the beginning; the atmosphere feels smothering, dense, thickening, the ‘grey pallor seeping through the trees.’ Cut off from contact with the outside world – there’s no phone service up there – holidaying families must turn inwards, forced into spending time together.

Through vignettes, we get a peek into the lives of those inside the cabins. There are married couples with nothing in common except their children; a boyfriend and girlfriend in their twenties in the heady stages of new love, angry and misunderstood teenagers pissed off at spending their holiday stuck in a cabin with their parents, of all people. The second thing that Moss excels at is shifting into these different voices in a way that feels authentic and empathetic – whether it’s the bored teen or woman with early stages of dementia or young girl, her astute observation of human interaction is really something to behold.

‘You can’t wait for the fucking weather, not here, you’ll be dead before it stops raining.’

But you can’t forget the building tension as the day wears on, and the humming undercurrent of racism and xenophobia. A British-Ukrainian family staying in one of the cabins, the Shevchenkos, are assumed to be illegal immigrants and referred to variously and carelessly as Romanian, Polish and Bulgarian. Whilst some holidaymakers continue to scapegoat the ‘foreigners’, others lament the idiocy of the Brexit vote, the English ‘stupid… not [to] see the ring of yellow stars on every new road and hospital and upgraded railway and city centre regeneration of the last 30 years.’ The renegotiation of national identity is such a key preoccupation that Moss can’t ignore it.

Nothing much happens in this slender book – if you like plot-driven narratives, this isn’t for you – but the masterful way the tension and sense of unease is built, in both the depiction of the natural and interior worlds, is absolutely worth reading – and the ending will leave you with chills.