My Month in Books: January 2021

The Topeka School by Ben Lerner

I loved this book. On the surface, Ben Lerner’s latest novel is about a small family who live in Kansas in the late nineties. The parents, Jane and Jonathan, are both psychiatrists who work at a renowned local clinic and their son, Adam, is a high school senior with a talent for debate and poetry. However, once you get a few pages in you realise that the actual plot of the novel isn’t that important and what you’re here for is to enjoy a masterclass in brilliant writing. The novel jumps around in space, time and perspective and this can mean the novel can come across as fragmented but I was so utterly spellbound by the words on the page that I didn’t care. I have never had scenes or characters feel more real to me than the ones in this book did. I talk about this book in a lot more detail here and I cannot recommend it enough.

Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I was really disappointed by this book. Normally I love Curtis Sittenfeld and I’d had this book recommended to me by so many people but I just couldn’t get into it. Prep tells the story of Lee Fiora, a thirteen year old girl who wins a scholarship to an ultra-elite boarding school. It covers her entire high school experience and is pitched as a coming of age narrative. The problem is that with these kind of coming of age stories, I usually expect the main character to mature or at the very least change in some way but this just didn’t happen with Lee. She remains passive, insecure and thoughtless from start to finish. There’s a chance that Sittenfeld is trying to make a point that this is how most teens really are but it was borderline unbearable to read for over 500 pages and there was very little actual plot to distract from it. Also, I couldn’t tell if Sittenfeld was messing with me by giving nearly all of the characters comically ridiculous names and having no one comment on them.

An Offer From A Gentleman by Julia Quinn

So I, like the rest of the planet, got really into Netflix’s Bridgerton over Christmas and I didn’t want to wait until they released the next series to find out what happens. An Offer from a Gentlemen is essentially a re-telling of Cinderella in which Benedict Bridgerton falls madly in love with a mysterious woman who attends the annual Bridgerton masquerade ball. Little does he know that his mystery lady is Sophie Beckett, the illegitimate daughter of an earl. Sophie lives with her cruel stepmother and stepsisters, working as their maid in exchange for room and board, and has snuck out of the house looking for just one night of fun. I broadly enjoyed this book, much more than the other Bridgerton books that I had read. I think it’s because this book focuses much more on Sophie. A lot of attention is given to fleshing out her character and her choices seem much more rational and explicable than other characters’ in this series have been. This book was a lot of fun and I would recommend it to anyone who had either enjoyed the Netflix series or was looking for something enjoyable to break up a series of heavier reads.

Pachinko by Min Jee Lee

Those who know me know that I’m a sucker for a family saga that spans generations and countries, so I unsurprisingly utterly adored Pachinko. The novel begins in Korea in the early 1900s with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of a disabled fisherman and his much younger wife. As a teenager, she falls in love with a wealthy gangster and becomes pregnant with his child. But when he reveals that he is already married and offers to set her up in Japan as his mistress, Sunja refuses him and instead accepts an offer of marriage from a sickly minister who is passing through her village on the way to take a position at a Christian church in Osaka. Sunja’s decision will echo through her extended family for generations as they struggle to succeed in a country that wants Koreans immigrants like them to fail. The reader is taken through decades of Japanese and Korean shared history through the lens of one family and the result is a beautiful story perseverance, hope and survival, even when all of the odds are stacked against you.

Sabotage: The Business of Finance by Anastasia Nesvetailova and Ronen Palan

This book was an interesting read for me because I know very little about financial services. However, I saw this book described as ‘required reading for every civil servant, regulator and politician in the UK and elsewhere‘ and decided it was high time I educated my self. The book starts with a simple enough premise; since perfectly competitive markets don’t allow large profits and the finance industry enjoys large profits, the finance industry must not be a perfectly competitive market. Nesvetailova and Palan believe that the reason for this is that in finance, the biggest profits come from taking advantage of or sabotaging someone else, be they a customer, a fellow financial institution or a government. This book was very heavy on anecdote (the point that some people who worked in banks did very bad things indeed had been made sufficiently emphatically by chapter 3). However, I found the section on the future of regulation very interesting. They posit that in order to prevent large-scale economic crises going forward, the prevention of sabotage must be at the heart of the future regulatory agenda and present the recommendations of the 1932 Precora Commission as a starting point. While I definitely wouldn’t say this is a light read, I did find it very interesting and reasonably straightforward to understand even for someone who didn’t know much about this area prior to starting the book.

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

I had really enjoyed Alderton’s earlier memoir Everything I Know About Love and so was excited to pick up her debut novel. Ghosts tells the story of one year in the life of Nina Dean, a successful food writer in her early thirties who has been purposely single for the last two years. Over the course of the novel she struggles with being ghosted by a man who said he loved her, changing relationships with friends as they marry and have children and, most poignantly, slowly losing her beloved father to dementia. Ultimately, I found Ghosts to be very readable and difficult to put down. In the acknowledgements section, she thanks a number of her friends, saying that conversations with them helped to inspire this book and I think this comes across strongly. The dialogue between characters feels realistic and fresh and will definitely keep you turning the pages. I really like Alderton’s voice as an author, she has a great way of putting difficult to express emotions into words and making them feel relatable to her readers. She’s also very very funny and a sharp observer of the relationships between men and women.

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

It’s hardly a revelation to say that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes really good books, but in case anyone was still in doubt, allow me to reiterate that Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie writes really good books. Purple Hibiscus is the coming of age story of Kambili, a fifteen year old girl Nigerian girl whose life is ruled by her authoritarian father, who uses religion to justify his abuse of his wife and children. However, when a coup brings instability to Nigeria, Kambili and her brother are sent to spend time with their Aunt Ifeoma and her children and begin to discover what life outside of their father’s control might look like. I think what is most brilliant about this book is how viscerally you’re made to feel Kambili’s fear and anxiety as the rigid strictures of her childhood begin to crumble away and she is faced with growing into an independent and capable young woman. You feel as though you’re on the journey alongside her and that’s what makes this such a compelling read.

The Honey-Don’t List by Christina Lauren

After the intense, emotional experience of reading Purple Hibiscus I needed something a little lighter. The Honey-Don’t List is a romantic comedy about Carey and James, two overworked and stressed out personal assistants to a celebrity couple on the brink of divorce. As they struggle to keep the relationship between their bosses from publicly imploding, the two find themselves bonding and romance naturally ensues. Honestly, the bits of this I found most compelling were the tirades about being overworked and burned out rather than any of the romance. If, like me, working remotely is getting to you and you need some light reading that won’t make your exhausted brain think too hard then this might be a good book for you to pick up.

A Company of Swans by Eva Ibbotson

Eva Ibbotson is always the author I turn to when I want to comfort read. She has the most incredible talent for transporting her readers to far off locations and writing wonderful characters that you want to spend forever reading about. A Company of Swans is no exception. It tells the story of Harriet Morton, the nineteen year old daughter of a stuffy Cambridge professor, who lives a life devoid of love and excitement. Her only outlet is her weekly ballet lessons, where she is able to express herself freely and creatively. When a Russian dancing master offers her a role in the corps of a ballet company that plans to tour South America, she runs away from home and finds herself dancing in the grand opera house of Manaus and finding love and friendship on the banks of the Amazon. Ibbotson’s descriptions of the natural beauty of Brazil are stunning, the story is lovely and it is filled with her signature brand of humour that never fails to absolutely delight me. In the absence of being able to travel anywhere, Ibbotson’s novels remain the next best means of escape.

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