My Month in Books: April 2021

Rachel’s Holiday by Marion Keyes

If you’re looking for a nice, straightforward book about a woman who goes on holiday, this is not the book for you – the title is very deceptive! Rachel’s Holiday centres around Rachel Walsh, a young Irish woman living it up in New York City. There’s only one tiny issue; everyone in her life seems to think she’s a drug addict. I mean sure, she takes coke in the morning before she goes to work, she’s ditched her friends multiple times to go and score drugs and she recently (maybe not entirely by accident) overdosed and ended up in hospital but what can she say? She just loves having a good time! She eventually gives in to her well-meaning family’s nagging agrees to go to The Cloisters, a rehab centre that’s Ireland’s answer to the Betty Ford Clinic. She reckons it’ll be a spa-like experience filled with glamorous celebrities but what she finds is something very different. The longer she spends in group therapy with her fellow patients, the more she realises that maybe, just maybe, she might actually have a problem and that she needs to act quickly to stop herself ruining her life any more than she already has. The depth of Rachel’s denial about her addiction is agonising and hilarious at the same time and Keyes handles her slowly realising the extent to which she has been dependent on drugs and the impact that they’ve had on her intimate relationships with the lightest of touches. This book could have been a very heavy read in the hands of a different author but Keyes injects a huge amount of heart, humour and goodwill into this novel and the story feels no less real or emotionally poignant for it. I’m definitely keen to pick up more of her books after reading this one.

Emma by Jane Austen

I’m sure all my readers are delighted that I managed to unearth this virtually unknown novel by an obscure author to review it [insert heavy sarcasm here]. But in all seriousness, just in case you haven’t already been tempted to read one of Austen’s best novels, let me assure you that it is well worth your time. Emma herself is a fantastic heroine, who manages to simultaneously drive the reader demented as she dives headlong into another ill-advised scheme while never losing their good will. I feel like Mr Knightley and Mrs Weston are perpetually arguing in my brain whenever I read this but ultimately I can’t help but love her. As with much of Austen, the side characters are what make this story for me (shout out to Mr Woodhouse, Mrs Elton and Miss Bates for being exactly the sort of people I love reading about and would run a mile from if I met them in real life). But what makes Emma particularly special to me is the secondary story of Jane Fairfax that is playing out behind the scenes, with the full details being kept tantalisingly out of reach of the reader. Every time I read it I feel like I spot something new and feel differently about the ending and I cannot recommend picking it up enough, whether it’s for the first time or the fiftieth. Or just watch Clueless again, up to you.

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I enjoyed this book a lot and the fact that I’m saying that despite it including a fair amount of graphic sex featuring a character based on George W. Bush is a testament to Curtis Sittenfeld’s talent as a writer. American Wife is the story of Alice Blackwell, an unassuming, quiet woman who finds herself married to Charlie, a charismatic, complicated man who, over the course of their marriage, becomes the president of the United States. As Charlie’s political star rises, Alice finds herself caught between a number of contradictions – how can she love her husband and yet disagree with him so profoundly on politics? How complicit is she in the decisions of his administration? Is she morally obligated to speak publicly when she disagrees with him? Significant elements of Alice’s backstory and her life with Charlie are based on Laura Bush, former first lady and wife of George W. Bush, however, it would be a mistake to read this only as a vehicle for salacious biographical details. Ultimately this novel is interested in exploring where the line between the personal and the political, the private and the public, the heart and the head, truly lies. Sittenfeld doesn’t offer any easy answers to these questions, instead she gives the reader the space to explore and ponder them over the course of the book and, like most good writing, for them to come to very different conclusions by the end.

Snowflake by Louise Nealon

Thanks to NetGalley and Bonnier Books UK for providing me with an ARC of this book. Snowflake centres around Debbie White, who lives on a dairy farm in rural Ireland with her mother and her uncle. As Debbie steps out into the next stage of her life as a student at Trinity College in Dublin, the behaviour of her family, which she once viewed as a mundane fact of life, begins to spin out of control and stands in sharp contrast to the seemingly ordered and untroubled lives of her new university friends. I really don’t know what I was expecting when I launched into reading Snowflake and that is likely because it is a very difficult novel to pin down. It seems to be constantly shifting, even as you read it, between being a wry coming of age story, a dark examination of mental illness and trauma and something quite magical and poetic that is difficult to capture in a review. Ultimately this novel feels like a cathartic journey, as Debbie comes to accept herself and her family and finds a kind of balance between the person she has always been and the person she’s becoming. It’s a strange, special read and at the end you’ll (fittingly) feel as if you’ve just awoken from a very vivid dream that you can’t fully capture when you try to describe it to others.

Shakespeare in a Divided America by James Shapiro

I love reading about how certain pieces of culture have been received over time and Shakespeare provides incredibly rich material for books of this nature. Because his works are so universally considered to be worthy of attention and study, figures throughout history have been influenced by his writing and have used his plays as tools of influence. James Shapiro, a leading Shakespeare scholar, traces the history of Shakespeare’s reception in America and how Americans across the political spectrum have turned to Shakespeare for inspiration in how to address the key issues of their day. From John Quincy Adams railing against Desdemona’s character because she dared to fall in love with a black man, to John Wilkes Booth’s and Lincoln’s shared fasciation with Shakespeare, to the fierce debate between writers and producers on how to end Shakespeare in Love all the way up to a controversial performance of Julius Caesar in 2017, in which a Trump-like Caesar is assassinated, that sparked a right wing firestorm. What makes this book fascinating is how it shines a light on the myriad of people from across the political spectrum who have invoked Shakespeare throughout history, sometimes reading the very same plays in completely different ways depending on their personal beliefs. However, this makes Shapiro’s conclusion all the more concerning. He fears that those on the right may have abandoned Shakespeare, finding him to be too representative of the ‘liberal cultural elite’ that they oppose and without common culture to act as a ‘canary in the coal mine’, Shapiro suspects that American will only grow more divided. This book, while it is dense in parts, would be much enjoyed by lovers of Shakespeare or politics (and absolutely ideal for people like me, who love both).

To Sir Phillip, With Love by Julia Quinn

My quest to read all of the Bridgerton books before Season 2 of the Netflix series comes out continues. Unfortunately this one was a bit of a disappointment, even though it focused on Eloise, my favourite of the Bridgerton siblings. It just felt like the central love story wasn’t very compelling, largely because Phillip was totally useless and for most of the book only wanted to marry Eloise because he wanted someone to run his house and raise his kids. The best parts were the ones that featured the wider Bridgerton family and the relationships between them, rather than focusing on the lacklustre romantic relationship.

Milk Fed by Melissa Broder

This book was absolutely bonkers and I loved it. It centres around Rachel, a young women in the grip of an eating disorder who obsessively restricts her calorie intake. With the encouragement of her therapist, she goes on a 90-day communication detox from her mother, who is the source of her anxiety about food. Shortly after, she meets Miriram, a young orthodox Jewish woman who works in her favourite frozen yoghurt shop and has a voracious appetite, as well as a passionate desire to feed Rachel. Rachel falls head over heels for Miriam and all that she represents and she embarks on a quest to satisfy her hunger, not just for food, but for love, family, security, acceptance, sex and faith. Melissa Broder has such an incredible gift for describing a situation with all of her senses in hyper-realistic detail, so you feel as if you’re experiencing things along with her characters no matter how completely bizarre the situation is. This stood out in her first novel The Pisces but even more so in Milk Fed, where the descriptions of food are so lovingly and sensually written that they cross the line into the erotic on multiple occasions. This book will have you laughing, crying and saying ‘what the fuck did I just read?’.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is a book I’ve been meaning to read for ages and I’m so glad I finally got around to it. Ishiguro has crafted a dystopian horror novel that doesn’t feel like one at all, because of his beautiful, sparse and perceptive writing about the interior lives of his protagonists. Never Let Me Go takes place in a world where almost all diseases are now curable because of the creation of an underclass of clones who are raised to be living organ donors. The clones typically die young after two or three donations and society wilfully ignores their humanity in order to justify their slaughter. Our protagonist is Kathy, a young clone who is about to begin making her donations and is looking back on her life at Hailsham, a special boarding school where clone children are raised humanely, where she spent her time with her two friends, Ruth and Tommy. Kathy tells the story of her life in a detached way, seemingly bleakly accepting of her fate and those of her loved ones, but the contrast between her clinical tone and her emotional, devastating story only makes the novel more poignant. It is at once a passionate, tragic love story, a bitter critique of society’s exploitation of the vulnerable and a profound meditation of the fragility of life and what it means to be human.

Beach Read by Emily Henry

As much as I did enjoy Never Let Me Go, it was a pretty heavy read that resulted in me needing something lighthearted and fluffy to follow it. So I reached for Beach Read, a romantic comedy in which two authors, one a successful writer of romance and happily ever afters and the other a critically acclaimed novelist who deals in the dark, gritty and depressing, move in next door to each other. Both are suffering from a wicked case of writer’s block and so they challenge each other to write in the other’s style for a change and over the course of book clubs, research trips and late night writing sessions, the two of them naturally fall in love. This was a delightful interlude that definitely brightened my spirits in between two quite heavy reads.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

This is another book I’ve been meaning to get around to for absolute ages and once again it was worth the wait. A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of two women, practical, jaded Mariam and passionate, idealistic Laila, who are united by their marriage to an odious man. Their story is told against the backdrop of thirty years of Afghani history, chronicling their lives as the Soviets invade, the Taliban rises and Afganistan begins to rebuild in the aftermath of war with the United States. Ultimately these two women find strength in their love for each other even as bombs crash around them and they are faced with inhuman levels of oppression both inside and outside the home. Even when faced with circumstances in which most would find it impossible to live, Mariam and Laila endure in this beautiful novel about the resilience of the human spirit and the ability of love to imbue us with tremendous amounts of courage.

Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Plain Bad Heroines is a dual narrative, with one strand of the story recounting series of mysterious and unfortunate deaths that took place at the Brookhants School for Girls in 1902 and the other strand picking up in the present day where a horror film is being made at the school telling the story of the infamous Brookhants curse. Both narratives have strong queer, gothic themes running through them so imagine how excited I was to get stuck in. Unfortunately I was severely disappointed. I’d like to state for the record that I’m an absolute wuss when it comes to all things horror and I didn’t find anything that happened in this book remotely scary, thrilling or even compelling to be honest. The author is clearly talented and I really enjoyed her style of writing but the plot just felt unnecessarily convoluted and not able to stand on it’s own as separate from the major gimmicks of the book. While it had a lot of potential, I think this book ultimately fell into the trap of style over substance.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Ok, now this was scary. I know it’s a book aimed at children but still! Our protagonist, Coraline Jones, wanders through a mysterious door in her new home and finds a warped, mirror image of her world on the other side. Here her parents have endless time to play with her, her new neighbours are fun and interesting and everything seems designed to keep her happy and entertained. But something seems a little off about her ‘other mother’ who has buttons where her eyes should be and seems determined to keep Coraline on this side of the door with her forever. In order to save herself, the souls of the other children that the other mother has claimed and her own parents, Coraline has to call on all of her courage and smarts to find her way home. What’s really compelling about Coraline as a heroine is that she isn’t written in the same way that other child protagonists usually are. She’s not unusually brave or precocious or mature for her age, she is an ordinary little girl who uses entirely ordinary levels of common sense, courage and brains to defeat an extraordinary monster. It’s a fabulously creepy read that I would recommend to readers of all ages.

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