My Month in Books: November 2020

Dear NHS: 100 Stories to Say Thank You edited by Adam Kay

As England was preparing to enter its second lockdown, this felt like the right book to be reading. It’s a collection of short thank you letters to the NHS, collated by Adam Kay who wrote the fabulous yet devastating This is Going to Hurt. The letters are written by a wide range of celebrities, including Emma Watson, Louis Theroux, Paul McCartney, Malala Yousafzai and Dawn French. Some of the stories they tell are heartbreaking, some are hilarious and each captures the depth of love and gratitude the people of the U.K. feel for the NHS. Proceeds from the sale of this book go to NHS Charities Together and the Lullaby Trust but even if it wasn’t supporting two incredibly worthy causes and still be encouraging you to pick up a copy of this brilliant little book.

Party of Two by Jasmine Guillory

I picked up this book when I desperately needed something fluffy and nice to distract me from the stress of the US presidential election. This was a fun, romantic comedy that centred on cautious lawyer Olivia and charming junior senator Max and how they handle building a relationship that can last in spite of public scrutiny and their own innate differences. The love story was nice and all, but, honestly, what struck me most about this book was the sheer amount of food they ate. Literally every scene in this book seemed to feature an obscene amount of food. I hope these two get to enjoy whatever years they have left together before they both die of heart attacks at a tragically young age. However, it did prove a nice distraction from constantly refreshing the New York Times election map.

Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism by Anne Applebaum

Dear reader, you’ll get no points for guessing at what point despair at the American electoral system and it’s electorate more widely set in. Applebaum, who identifies politically with right wing figures such as John McCain and Margaret Thatcher, looks back at the shift towards authoritarian populism that has taken place in right wing politics over the last few years. She pays particular attention to the role that ‘clercs’ (essentially public intellectuals who use their talents and intelligence to defend and promote populist authoritarianism) play in the rise of authoritarianism. Applebaum is a particularly striking observer of this phenomenon as many people who she would have counted as dear friends have, in recent years, become clercs for authoritarian regimes and she would now ‘cross the street to avoid them’ if she ran into them. In spite of the somewhat terrifying title, I actually found this book to be oddly uplifting. Applebaum’s observation that periods of stability for long-lasting liberal democracies are the exception, not the norm and that the attraction of authoritarianism being always present for those who are pre-disposed to it, actually felt quite hopeful. While there is a global rise in populist authoritarianism, it can be defeated, as it has been defeated before. Highly recommend this one.

The Secret Countess by Eva Ibbotson

I picked up this book due to a combination of feely poorly and listening to Sentimental Garbage, a podcast that discusses various chick-lit classics. They were talking about The Secret Countess, a book which I had read years and years ago, and I enjoyed their conversation so much that I promptly picked it up for a sickbed re-read. The plot centres around Anna Grazinsky, a teenaged Russian countess whose family flees Russia following the Bolshevik revolution and winds up in London utterly penniless. Anna is determined to support her family and so takes a job as a maid in the home of the Earl of Westerholme. The newly minted Earl is about to bring his fiancée home to plan their wedding, but once the Earl and Anna meet things rapidly stop going to plan. Honestly this book is as close to perfect as it gets. It has the most enormous and absolutely ridiculous cast of characters, all of whom I love (or at least love to hate) and the humour moves rapidly between pantomime and Austen. It has everything; daschunds who’ve swallowed priceless jewels, literal Nazis, dramatic costume parties, curtsies being used as a weapon and elderly wet nurses who practice voodoo and wear mummified saint’s fingers around their necks. I’m generally pretty tolerant of differences of opinion when it comes to literature, but if you don’t love this book I pity you and we can’t be friends. I’m incapable of being rational about this.

The Viscount Who Loved Me by Julia Quinn

After being told the books in the series got better after the first one I decided to give them another chance. Alas, I’m still disappointed. I’ve never been a massive fan of ‘two people are absolutely horrible to each other but it’s fine because they’re secretly in love’ trope and coupled with the ridiculous and overblown melodramatics from the main characters, I nearly abandoned this book halfway through. I shan’t spoil anything but suffice to say the incident with the bee that occurs halfway through the book was so completely and utterly stupid that I think I lost a few brain cells reading it. Hopefully the Netflix version is better!

If I Had Your Face by Frances Cha

If I Had Your Face is a debut novel by Frances Cha which focuses on the lives of four young women living in Seoul, South Korea and the way that extremely rigid gender role, punishing standards of beauty and strict class structures rules their lives and restrict their opportunities. This book was a fascinating look at an entirely different culture, in particular I found the insight into attitudes towards plastic surgery in South Korea to be riveting (if slightly terrifying). I did feel that this book suffered though for not really having a plot – it seemed more like a series of events that happened rather than a story. At times it felt like a list of issues the author wanted to highlight rather than a novel. But in spite of this I found it a highly compelling read.

The Runaways by Fatima Bhutto

I’ve had this book sitting on my Kindle for sometime but when I finally got around to reading it I found it quite disappointing. It’s centres around three young people, impoverished but clever Anita, privileged Monty and lost and angry Sunny who all find themselves running away from home and abandoning those they love to join ISIS. While one might expect this to make an exciting read, I actually found it to be quite dull. The split narrative means that the book felt quite disjointed to me, even as the threads of the story began to come together towards the end. Sunny and Monty’s seemingly endless walk through the desert was so mind numbingly boring I nearly didn’t finish this book and I never don’t finish books. The twists also felt quite predictable and not very satisfying. I think the problem is that the author is dealing with hugely complicated and controversial issues through a character driven narrative but her characters just didn’t feel like they were strong enough to carry that narrative.

The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer

I love Meg Wolitzer and I love ancient Greek drama so a book that combines both was always going to be a treat for me. The Uncoupling centres around a suburban town in New Jersey whose local high school has elected to stage a production of Lysistrata, an ancient Greek comedy in which the women of Athens go on a sex strike to stop an interminable war. However, as the play approaches its opening night, the women of the town find themselves bereft of the desire they once felt for their lovers and go on an unwitting sex strike of their own. Wolitzer does a fabulous job of exploring desire in all its many forms in this book and the role that sex plays in a wide range of relationships. I think without Wolitzer’s signature warmth and wit this book actually could have been quite depressing but she handles the subject matter so deftly that the experience of reading it is a total pleasure. Some may have found the magical elements of this book to be a bit strange and while I would have liked to see them be developed a little bit more, I think it was right to keep the focus on the results of the magic rather than spending pages explaining how precisely it came about. Overall, another great read from one of my favourite authors.

Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

This one was a book club pick and I broadly enjoyed reading it. Hobb is fabulous at world-building and didn’t fall into the trap of making the early chapters of a fantasy novel overly heavy with exposition. The world of the Six Duchies is beautifully realised. However, I must confess to finding the book on the whole a little dull. Which is surprising given that it features assassin training, magic, poison, talking to animals, political intrigue and the mysterious zombification of numerous local peasants. I think my issue was that I found the protagonist and narrator, Fitz, to be a bit of a blank canvas without much of a personality. He is narrating these events from what appears to be many years in the future and so his feelings and reactions to the explosive events going on around him feels muted and dulled. I may eventually persist with this series, but it hasn’t really captured my interest or imagination.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

At this point in the month, I felt in need of something lighter and so I turned to this collection of essays by the American humorist, David Sedaris. The topics of the essays range from his eccentric family, particularly his father, his time in art school, his struggles with addiction, his life in New York City and, in the latter half of the book, his time spent living in France with his partner and his attempts to learn French. This book had me laughing out loud multiple times. I particularly enjoyed ‘City of Angels’ in which a friend of Sedaris’ brings a new acquaintance to visit New York City and experiences quite the culture shock, ‘Jesus Shaves’ in which Sedaris and his fellow French students struggle to explain the concept of Easter in very broken French and ‘Picka Pocketoni’ in which Sedaris is mistaken for a French pickpocket by a loud and obnoxious American on the Paris Metro. If you’re looking for something a bit different but still light, this is a great read.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

I finally surrendered to the inevitable and read an Agatha Christie book and it is safe to say I am a total convert. I now understand why she’s the absolute queen of mystery writing. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is one of Christie’s novels that centre around her famous detective character, Hercule Poirot and many consider it to be the greatest crime novel ever written. The famous twist ending has been a huge influence on modern crime and mystery fiction and I hold my hands up and say I did not see it coming at all. I shan’t say any more to avoid spoiling anything, but suffice to say that this was a hugely satisfying and enjoyable read. Thankfully I now have many more Christie mysteries to choose from!

Notes to Self: Essays by Emilie Pine

I loved this short collection of personal essays written by academic Emilie Pine. When I say ‘personal essays’, I mean personal. Pine covers a range of topics in her essays that would normally be considered private or taboo to speak about, such as caring for a dying parent, loving someone with an addiction, struggling with fertility, adolescent trauma and her struggles with mental health and perfectionism. It was incredibly refreshing to see someone tackle these topics with such openness, candour and vulnerability. Notes To Self is so beautifully written and so intensely personal that it held me emotionally hostage. I couldn’t put it down and was compelled to keep reading until I had finished the whole thing. I recommend this to absolutely anyone, in particular if you’re looking for a read that might induce a cathartic cry.

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