My June and July in Books

It’s been a busy summer for me so far and I haven’t had a lot of time to write, so to make up for it I’m doing one massive reading round up covering the whole of June and July – enjoy!

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

This one was a hell of a ride. Spinning Silver is a fantasy novel telling the story of Miryem, a young moneylender’s daughter who enters the family business and is so good at it that she quickly gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold. However, when the Staryk, a magical race of ice creatures with a lust for gold, overhears these rumours, they set Miryem an impossible task. Caught between certain death if she fails and an undesirable future as queen of the Staryk if she succeeds, Miryem calls upon the help of friends old and new as well as the power of her family and faith to overcome her tasks, unleash her power and forge her own path. This was epic and so immersive you can nearly feel the snow falling around you as you read it. If you’re feeling overheated this summer, this is the perfect read to cool you down.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

This was a nice, light-hearted rom-com that is essentially a gender-flipped version of Pretty Woman. Stella is a socially awkward econometrician with autism whose family won’t stop hassling her to find a nice man to settle down with. Obviously the solution to this is to hire a male escort to pretend to be her boyfriend and teach her how to be in a relationship. That definitely won’t have any unintended consequences. Romance and chaos ensues. This is perfect for if you’re looking for something happy and not too challenging but having said that it was really refreshing to see an autistic rom-com heroine.

The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power

This was such an incredible and inspirational book to read and by far an away one of my favourite reads of the summer so far. Samantha Power has had a long and varied career working to improve the lives of others and advance the cause of human rights. In her memoir, Power takes us through her time as war reporter in Bosnia, as a Pulitzer Prize winning author, as a senior official in the Obama administration and finally as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. At each step along way, Power provides fascinating insight into the policy and humanitarian work that goes on behind the scenes of some of the the world’s biggest human rights crises of the past three decades while also empowering the reader to go forth and make change in their own lives, urging us to look for the small, concrete steps that we can take to change ‘many individual worlds.’ Equally impressive however is the personal narrative that she weaves into her memoir, from her childhood in Dublin, her move to America, her struggles with anxiety and the difficulties of being a working mother in a series of incredibly demanding, high pressure jobs, Power shows admirable levels of vulnerability to her readers. Honestly, as a young, Irish immigrant woman working in policy development, trying to make a difference and struggling with anxiety and my own ‘bat cave’, reading her story made me feel like I can do anything.

Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capó Crucet

 I first heard of this book in the newspaper. Not in the review pages like I normally would, but in a news article detailing how students at Georgia Southern University had burned copies of it after being incensed by frank discussions of the experience of first generation university attendees, white privilege and the strain of code switching. Burning books disgusts me to the very core of my soul and I was so horrified reading about this incident and the horrible threats that the author suffered after coming to speak at Georgia Southern, I felt compelled to buy the book and read it to find what exactly what got these students’ knickers in such a twist. The novel tells the story of Lizet, a young Cuban-American woman who leaves her home in Miami to attend a prestigious college in upstate New York. As she is leaving, her parents marriage breaks down, her sister is struggling with single motherhood, she is feeling pressure to commit to her long term high school boyfriend and the arrival a young Cuban refugee is sparking a wave of protests in her neighbourhood. Once she arrives in New York she faces unfamiliar challenges in her course work and racist microaggressions from her fellow students. Lizet feels torn between the worlds of Miami and New York, wanting to belong in both but feeling welcomed by neither and the reader feels her anguish viscerally. My heart absolutely broke for her each time she faced rejection from her old world and her new one. Anyone who reads this book and feels it’s ‘racist towards white people’ has missed the point so spectacularly that they may never be able to find it. Those who read it with an open mind and heart will find an engaging, intelligent and often heartbreaking coming of age story. 

Pretending by Holly Bourne

I absolutely loved this book. The protagonist, April, is smart, pretty, kind-hearted and utterly incapable of getting past the fifth date. Between her PTSD after being raped by an abusive ex and her triggering but rewarding day job at a relationships advice charity, she can’t seem to find a man who is willing to accept her as she is rather than running a mile at the first sign of trouble. So April decides to become someone else entirely: Gretel. Gretel is everything April thinks men want; she’s sexy, she’s cool, she’s easy going and she definitely doesn’t have any unresolved trauma or mental health issues. But when April goes on a date as Gretel and meets Joshua, she starts questioning whether or not he might be able to love her for herself, not for who she’s pretending to be. And, more importantly, maybe she’ll be able to do the same. Bourne pulled no punches about the reality of dealing with mental illness and the insecurity and fear that it can engender as you open yourself up to people. She also is incredibly raw about how hard it can be to continue to open yourself up and be vulnerable with people when you’ve been relentlessly and consistently hurt in the past. However, she’s also freaking hilarious about how utterly rubbish men can be and the outrageous, unrealistic expectations that are put in women who are trying to appear attractive to them. I frequently found myself reading sections of this book and being reminded of various ghosts of douchebags past. I suspect Bourne must have crowdsourced stories from her friends when writing some bits! The next time I have a single friend who is bemoaning her lot, I’m handing her this book to put a smile on her face

Resistance: A Songwriter’s Story of Hope Change and Courage by Tori Amos

I’ve been a massive fan of Tori Amos ever since I stumbled across a copy of Little Earthquakes when I was in my early teens. This book is such a gift for fans of hers – it’s a mixture of autobiography, song commentary, life advice and above all a guide for artists on how to continue to create and use your art and your gift to resist and rebel in these troubling political times. The chapter on Silent All These Years, my favourite song of hers, moved me nearly to tears. I recommend listening to the songs she’s discussing as you read, it really enhances the experience.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett is often a tonic on tricky times. Guards! Guards! tells the story of the beleaguered and incompetent city watch of Ankh-Morpok as they take a break from their usually busy schedule of bumming around and not upholding the law the rescue the city from a vicious dragon. It’s full of Pratchett’s trademark humour and fantastical imagination and will please fans old and new.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

After reading My Dark Vanessa a few months ago, I thought I’d revisit Nabokov’s masterpiece, Lolita, which I hadn’t read since I was a teenager. The more I reread this one, the more perplexed I become at the fact that anyone could possibly view it as a love story. Lolita is the story of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile who is sexually obsessed with twelve year old Dolores Haze, who he calls Lolita. He recounts how he marries her mother to become close to her and when her mother dies he spirits her away from her life as a normal child and makes her the object of his twisted affections. The reader is captured by the contrast between Nabokov’s beautiful prose and the sordid activity he’s describing. At no point do I sympathise with Humbert. If anything the flowery language makes it even clearer that he is attempting to pull the wool over the eyes of the reader and that what he is doing bears no resemblance to love whatsoever but is pure and disgusting selfishness. What continues to shock me about this book is how many people fall for his scam!

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

I enjoyed this book so much, it was so weirdly funny and inspiring! It tells the story of Keiko, a single, thirty six year old woman who has found her life’s purpose – working in a convenience store. However, her friends and family can’t understand how she can possibly be happy without a high-powered career or a husband or children. Keiko fights for her personal happiness in spite of the expectations that society places on her and the final few pages are so cathartically fantastic I had to stop myself from physically cheering for her. This book is so short you could read it in a day but it’s an absolute treat and perfect if you’re coming off a cycle of long or sad reads!

The Overstory by Richard Powers

This book absolutely blew me away. The Overstory is a stunning work of fiction and powerful a call to arms to save our planet from catastrophe. Told through a series of personal and interconnecting stories, like a forest, each part of this beautiful novel stands alone while working to create something greater than the some of its parts. I’m adding this to my list of books that would make the world a better place if everyone had read them.

Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan

Naoise Dolan’s debut novel is exciting times indeed. It centres around Ava, a sarcastic and spiky twenty something Irish expat in Hong Kong with a crippling fear of any level of intimacy, and her romantic entanglements with two very different partners. On the one hand there’s Julian, a self-satisfied and emotionally vacant Old Etonian with whom she lives rent free and has sex but who is emphatically not her boyfriend and on the other there’s Edith, a brilliant and beautiful lawyer who makes Ava feel all warm and fuzzy inside unironically (the horror). In the grand tradition of the protagonists of coming of age novels (and indeed twenty somethings in real life) making life way harder than it needs to be, choosing between the two proves difficult. This book is getting compared a lot to Sally Rooney’s debut novel, Conversations With Friends, seemingly stemming from the fact that both books are observant and emotionally intelligent first outings by young female authors about Irish bisexuals making questionable romantic decisions due to a combination of self-loathing, millennial ennui and fear of being truly known (fair enough to be honest). However, what the comparisons are missing is how bloody funny Naoise Dolan is – not only did I wince and empathise with her characters and the tangled webs they wove, but I full on belly laughed multiple times. I also love the way she writes about the British class system from an Irish perspective, she puts things into words that I’ve been feeling for a long time.

Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of Ancient Myths by Helen Morales

Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths by Helen Morales is an innovative and fresh look at a range of stories and cultural phenomena from classical antiquity and how they can be read subversively in line with modern feminist thought. I enjoyed the authors comparisons of modern female resistors such as Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai to Antigone and her chapter of transmythology and queering the classical canon took me straight back to my undergrad dissertation! With some of the other chapters, the connection to classics felt a bit tenuous so I would advise readers to consider this a series of accessible cultural essays rather than hardcore academia. If you’ve just read books like Circe, The Silence of The Girls or A Thousand Ships – this is a great follow up read!

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo is a brilliant starting point for anyone looking to get a clearer understanding of the ways in which racism has adapted to survive and thrive in a post-civil rights world. DiAngelo breaks down the ways in which white fragility allows white supremacy to continue through means such as the fallacy that if you’re a ‘good person’ you cannot possibly be racist, the belief that humans are capable of objectivity or refraining from judgement, the presumption of white racial innocence and the denial of a white racial identity. DiAngelo also provides a helpful model for how white people can do better – by accepting that because we have all been ‘swimming in the same water’ of a racist society that it is impossible for us to have not have picked up racist behaviours and habits. We should therefore treat feedback on our behaviour from others as the gift that it is and use it as an opportunity to challenge ourselves and do better.

The Disappearance of Stephanie Mailer

In the summer of 2014, a young journalist named Stephanie Mailer disappears from the sleepy seaside town of Orphea. Just days before her disappearance, she confronted retiring detective Jesse Rosenberg about a grisly quadruple homicide he solved in the 1994 at great personal cost. Stephanie is convinced he got the wrong man but Rosenberg dismisses her out of hand. When Mailer vanishes, Rosenberg can’t quell his worry that she was onto something big and so he links up with his old partner, Derek Scott, who has refused fieldwork since the 1994 case, and Deputy Police Chief Betsy Kanner, who is determined to prove herself to her misogynistic colleagues, to solve the mystery of what Stephanie Mailer knew, why she disappeared and what really happened in Orphea in the summer on 1994. I’ve been a fan of Dicker’s since The Truth About The Harry Quebert Affair and this book is a twisty mystery/thriller that will satisfy those who love his work. However, the translation in the English version can often feel clunky and unnatural which can somewhat spoil the reading experience. Guess I’ll have to learn French before his next one comes out!

The City We Became by N.K. Jemison

The City We Became by N.K. Jemison is a wildly creative fantasy/sci fi novel that asks the question: what if cities were actually alive? In the first instalment of the Great Cities Trilogy, Jemison introduces readers to New York City, but not as we know it. New York has become embodied in five human avatars representing each of its five boroughs – Manhattan, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens and Staten Island – as well as a primary avatar who represents the city as a whole. The city is under attack from interdimensional invaders and the avatars must find each other, learn to use their new powers and protect their city at all costs from those who would seek to rob it of what makes it unique. The premise of this book is so creative and the story is fast-paced, funny and like nothing I’ve read before. The characters are brilliantly written and perfectly embody their respective boroughs (side note: I would die for Queens). Ultimately Jemison has written a brilliant new sci fi/fantasy novel but a heartfelt love letter to New York, so this is perfect for fans of either.

Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit

I mean it’s hardly revelatory to say Rebecca Solnit is brilliant, but in case anyone was still in any doubt: Rebecca Solnit is brilliant. Men Explain Things To Me is an essay collection on feminism and the title essay is widely credited with inspiring the term ‘mansplaining’. Solnit is, as always, an incisive, intelligent and impactful writer across a seemingly impossibly wide range of subjects. Handily the book is also short enough that you could finish it in a day, so no one has any excuse not to read it.

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

I was a bit disappointed by this one to be honest, which is a shame because it seems the rest of of internet loves it! The Guest List centres around the wedding of Will and Jules, a seemingly perfect couple who are getting married on a remote island off the coast of Connemara. However, the illusion of their perfect day is shattered when a member of the wedding party is murdered during a power outage. The advice often given to writers is ‘show, don’t tell’ and I just felt like so much of this book was focused on the ‘tell’ that it was a bit patronising. I think this was a result of there being so many characters and so many of the key events of the novel having taken place prior to it starting, the exposition just felt a bit endless. It also made it a bit difficult to reasonably crack who the killer was, given that the victim was only revealed in the latter fifth of the novel. Trying to crack the case ahead of time is one of the great pleasures of a mystery novel, but in The Guest List the focus seemed to be in cramming in as many ‘shocking twists’ (that were actually fairly predictable) as possible at the expense of the actual mystery plot.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

After having this book on my TBR list for ages, I finally got around to reading it and I wasn’t disappointed. Over the course of only 180 pages, Reni Eddo-Lodge lays out the issues with the way we talk about race and racism in modern British society and the flawed discussions around history, class and gender that often accompany it. It was so illuminating to read a book like this that focused on the Black British experience. I’ve seen so many people claiming that they don’t understand why #blacklivesmatter has taken off in the U.K. because ‘that’s an American problem, we don’t have that here.’ This book is a thorough rebuke of that attitude. I found Eddo-Lodges’ section on history absolutely fascinating. I’m not native to Britain so much of the information about the Bristol bus boycott, the death of Stephen Lawrence and Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade was new to me (though in my defence, it was also new to a lot of native born Brits I later asked about it!). I also thought her section on white feminism was spot on – it feels so obvious when she says it but I had never spotted the cognitive dissonance between ‘feminists’ who are able to understand and argue against the pervasiveness of patriarchy, discriminatory pay and hiring practices, issues with all male panels etc. but when similar issues relating to race are brought up they seem to become selectively deaf or firm believers in the myth of meritocracy. I read this book as part of a social justice book club I started at my work and I was so happy that it sparked a really useful and productive discussion.

The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames

I’d been meaning to read this one for along time but unfortunately it left me a little cold. The Other’s Gold by Elizabeth Ames tells the story of four friends, Alice, Ji Sun, Margaret and Lainey, who meet in college and become lifelong friends. The novel follows them through college, early adulthood, marriage and motherhood. The narrative of the novel is centred around the worst mistakes that each of the women makes over the course of their lives. For Alice; an accident in her childhood, for Ji Sun; an accusation she makes while at university, for Margaret; a disturbing kiss and for Lainey; a bite from seemingly out of the blue. My main issue with this book is it raised a lot of very serious issues (childhood sexual abuse, postpartum mental illness and infidelity among others) but the author didn’t seem to know what to do with this issues once they’d been raised. I felt the novel stopped in a weird place and left a lot of unresolved issues and questions for the reader. Perhaps this was intentional on the author’s part, but I would have liked a bit more resolution and clarity to this story, particularly regarding Margaret’s ‘mistake’. And without spoiling anything, I would seriously contest the assertion that Ji Sun’s worst mistake was the accusation while she was in college!

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