August was a quiet month for me. I found myself getting pulled into a bit of a reading slump which means I didn’t end up getting through nearly as many books as I usually do. The silver lining of this is that all of you have a much shorter blog post to read than usual!
King of Scars by Leigh Bardugo
Another foray into the Grishaverse but unfortunately now I’m left with no more books in this series (until the next one comes out that is). This duology is set after Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows and focuses on Nikolai, the young king of Ravka who is trying to hold his fragile country together as he himself is falling apart due to the residual effects of the Darkling’s curse. He’s accompanied by many familiar faces from the previous books, including Zoya (intimidating as ever) and Nina (causing as much havoc for the nation of Fjerda as ever). It was interesting to have a novel from the perspective of Nikolai, a character who spends so much time trying to appear charming that the reader often has very little idea what actually lies beneath the surface. Finally getting insight into what’s going on in his head is a real selling point of this book but what I loved most about it is how incredibly clear Leigh Bardugo made it that the Darkling is a giant asshole who does not deserve the slightest shred of a redemption arc or a sympathetic reading. Darkling stans continue to perplex me and I was very amused by Bardugo not so subtly pointing out how deranged it is to idolise a manipulative, genocidal maniac via The Cult of the Starless Saint.
The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
I found it really hard to get into this book. Normally I’m a sucker for a multigenerational novel with complicated female relationships but I think there was almost too much going on here for me to get fully invested in any one character or storyline. The novel centre around the Marilyn and David Sorensen and their four adult daughters, Wendy, Violet, Liza and Grace. Wendy is recently widowed and deploying a range of unhealthy coping mechanisms to cope with her grief. Violet is a picture perfect stay at home mum until the son she gave up fifteen years ago suddenly re-enters her life. Liza is doing everything she can to keep her struggling partner (and relationship) afloat while juggling a demanding job when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. Grace is stumbling around trying to find herself while pretending to her family that she’s attending law school. At the centre of all of this is the love story of Marilyn and David, whose daughters accuse them of loving each other more than they loved their children and insist that their ‘perfect’ relationship gave them all psychological complexes. I personally feel this book was way longer than it had to be and that you could have easily cut out at least one of the sisters and the book would have felt much less busy and had more of a focused plot. There wasn’t anything technically ‘wrong’ with this book but it just felt a bit forgettable to me unfortunately.
I picked up this book because 1) I wanted something easy and breezy to read after trudging through The Most Fun We Ever Had 2) This series apparently widely beloved and has legions of fans and 3) Netflix are adapting it and Julie Andrews is involved so that’s me sold. The plot was a bit ridiculous (which to be fair I expected and was braced for) but Quinn totally, 100% lost me around three quarters of the way through the book with an out of nowhere sexual assault with a side of reproductive coercion that really killed the whole romantic vibe she was going for. It didn’t help that the whole thing was swept under the carpet and minimised for the rest of the book. Yeah, not for me thanks.
This is the part of the month where I began to despair. I was so disappointed not to have liked this because I loved Robert Webb’s autobiography How Not To Be A Boy and the blurb of this sounded so intriguing. Come Again centres around Kate Mardsen, who has just lost Luke, her partner of 28 years, to an undetected brain tumour and is wracked with guilt over not spotting his health issues sooner. She’s on the verge of taking her own life when she is suddenly (and inexplicably) transported back in time to the day they met, Freshers Week 1992 at the University of York. She knows that the brain tumour is already growing in Luke’s head so the question is whether Kate can manage to relive falling in love with her dead husband for the first time and save him from death in the future. Honestly, if this had just been a sentimental rumination on nostalgia, innocence and the nature of fate, like I was expecting, I think it would have been a perfectly fine first novel. It was funny and bits of it were genuinely quite heartfelt and moving. I would have even been able to look the other way about the rather heavy handed and preachy monologues about the state of modern politics (which I didn’t even disagree with, they just felt a bit clumsy and shoehorned in). But I cannot forgive the total and utter bollocks that was the whole spy caper that ended up taking up a good half of the book. The blurb promised a bittersweet rumination on loss and first love, not karate chopping Russian mobsters and evading them with the help of taxi drivers who secretly work for MI6 (I wish I was making this up). It almost felt like Webb was afraid to write something too overly sappy and so felt the need to stick a bonkers car chase in. And if that wasn’t enough, I could have really done without the little plot twist in the epilogue. In the interest of not spoiling anything, all I’ll say is that if you’re going to drop a bomb like that you need a narratively consistent explanation for it.
Dear reader you’ll appreciate that at this point I needed to pull out the big guns to get me out of what has been a fairly dismal reading month for me. Nothing gets me going like chunky historical fiction and that goes double for anything that has any connection to the Tudors. Wolf Hall has therefore been on my TBR list for some time but I’ve been waiting for just the right occasion to bust it out. I was not disappointed. Mantel brings the brutal world of Tudor England to life, from the slums of Putney to the glittering Hampton Court. The novel centres around Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son who pulled himself up from nothing to become Principal Secretary to Henry VIII and his closest confidant. He is credited as the man who pulled off one of the most famous divorces in history and was one of the most powerful voices in favour of the reformation of the church in England. But Mantel shows us the complicated man who exists alongside the historical figure, giving the reader a flawed but sympathetic protagonist whose story you will be utterly consumed by. She also accomplishes this feat with many other famous historical figures such as Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey, rendering them in all of their human complexity. No one in this book is all hero or all villain. Unfortunately, the reader knows the gruesome end Cromwell meets but I couldn’t help but be swept up in the first act of this tragedy, in which the protagonist rises to great heights before being struck down. I’ll certainly be picking up Bring Up The Bodies and The Mirror and the Light in due time to see his story through to the bitter end.