My Month in Books: May 2021

Every Heart A Doorway by Seanan McGuire

There is an unanswered question the lurks in the shadows of most portal fantasy novels – what happens to the children who find magical worlds after they’ve returned to our world? And what if those children never wanted to return in the first place? Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children is the place for them, a school specially created to help reluctant returnees to the real world readjust to the mundane and learn to move on from the magical adventures they’ve had and the lives they built in other worlds. Our protagonists have wandered through fairylands and nonsense worlds filled with candy as well as the halls of the dead and dark worlds full of mad scientists and vampires but what they have in common is each is equally desperate to find a magical doorway which will take them back to where they feel they belong. Some among them might even be willing to kill their fellow students if it means getting back home. This book is bizarre, hilarious, creepy, incredibly creative and, above all, a beautiful meditation on what it means to belong. I adored this book and I cannot recommend it enough.

Animal by Lisa Taddeo

Thank you to Netgalley and Bloomsbury for sending me an ARC of this book. This is a book I’ve really been looking forward to as I enjoyed Lisa Taddeo’s non-fiction debut Three Women and I was keen to see how her talent translated into fiction writing. Unfortunately Animal left me feeling a little cold. It’s an incredibly raw story of a woman named Joan who, after her married lover shoots himself in front of her while she’s on a date with another man (yes, you read that right – it’s quite the opening), flees New York and moves to a remote canyon outside of Los Angeles and begins to ingratiate herself into the life of a young local women for reasons that only become clear as we move through the book. Joan is an incredibly messy protagonist who makes awful, dangerous choices but as we get to know her the depths of her trauma become apparent and you find yourself beginning to understand her behaviour and her outlook on life. But ultimately for me it all just felt like too much and I’m not usually one to shy away from gritty or upsetting stories. Taddeo is relentless in piling incredible levels pain and suffering onto Joan and the female characters in her immediate vicinity and after a certain point it felt more like cheap shock tactics than good writing. The book improves towards the end when some of the key plot points and mysteries of the novel pay off but I’d still be hesitant to recommend this book to friends. Would it have been too much to ask to have just one fewer brutal sexual assault?

In the Woods by Tana French

There is a huge amount of pleasure to be gained from a good detective novel and I’m always on the lookout for a new series. I’ve been seeing great reviews of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series for a while now and I’m delighted to say that it lives up to the hype. It pulls you in right from the first page with absolutely stunning writing that completely transports the reader to a hazy summer day in a 1980s suburb of Dublin. But the loveliness of the scene belies the grim events about to occur; three pre-teens wander innocently into the woods to play and only one returns, spattered with blood, covered in mysterious scratch marks and with no memory of what has happened to him or his missing friends. This child, Rob, grows up to become a detective working on the eponymous Dublin Murder Squad and he tells almost no one about his own traumatic past. But one day the past comes back for him, as he and his partner are assigned a case where a child has been mysteriously murdered in the very same woods where he lost his friends and there is evidence to suggest the two cases are linked. This book is an absolute rollercoaster and while I have seen some reviewers complaining about finding the ending either too predictable or frustrating, I think they’re missing the point. In a well-constructed mystery the reader should have a pretty good idea of whodunnit by the climax of the novel and in a great novel not everything needs to be wrapped up in a neat bow. French has created a portrait of a messy person dealing with a messy situation that defies the conventional tropes of the mystery genre and as a result, transcends it. I will definitely be putting the rest of the Dublin Murder Squad books on my TBR.

Earthlings by Sayaka Murata

I can always count on Sayaka Murata to completely surprise me. She has such an unconventional way of looking at the world that I can never tell where her stories are going to take me next. Her latest novel, Earthlings, is centred around a young girl named Natsuki, who uses her vivid imagination to escape the cruelty and abuse of her daily life and refashion herself as someone powerful and important. No one seems to understand her but her beloved cousin, Yuu, and when a terrible event pulls them apart, they vow to always survive no matter what. Years later, Natsuki is still living a life that perplexes those around her by maintaining a sexless marriage and refusing to consider becoming pregnant. When the pressure causes her to flee to the countryside and reunite with Yuu, a series of completely fucking bananas events are triggered that upends the lives of everyone around them. Wherever you think this book might be going, you are totally wrong. And yet in spite of the (I cannot stress this enough) bonkers ending, Murata has ultimately constructed a moving and psychologically realistic depiction of young people gripped by trauma and trapped in a box created for them by society, desperate to break out and yet desperate to belong. I devoured this in a day and would definitely recommend this to anyone who enjoyed Murata’s previous book Convenience Store Woman (though be warned, Earthlings is much darker!).

Bunny by Mona Awad

I was clearly in the mood for oddball books this month. Bunny is difficult to describe but if I were pressed I would say it’s like if The Secret History, Heathers and The Witches of Eastwick had a very strange, ironic but passionate threesome. Our protagonist is Sam, a post-grad student on an MFA programme at a highly prestigious university. Sam is an outsider amongst her creative writing cohort and in particular is appalled by ‘The Bunnies’, the group of unbearably girly, touchy-feely and privileged women who make up the rest of her writer’s seminar. Sam has no interest in joining their cult-like sorority but when she gets an invite to one of their ‘salons’ she can’t resist going along to see what they’re like behind closed doors. And boy is she in for a surprise! Bunny is a macabre and twisted parody of the conventional campus, coming of age novel that still manages to have something quite sincere to say about creativity, the creative process, friendship and discovering who you are. Just don’t expected to be conveyed in a straightforward way.

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

I’ve seen so much hype about this book that I thought it couldn’t possibly live up to it’s reviews, but I’m delighted to say I was wrong. Destransition, Baby is a fabulous, witty, insightful and devastating debut novel that centres around a complicated relationship between three women and their kind of shared baby. Amy and Reese had been together for years, living a life of domestic bliss and hoping to find a way for them to start a family together as two trans women. However, when their relationship is rocked by a traumatic event, Amy chooses to detransition and go back to living as a cisgender man, Ames, and loses his relationship with Reese in the process. Years later, Reese is numbing her pain by having ill-advised affairs with married men and Ames still feels uncomfortable in his masculine identity and longs to find a way to have Reese back in his life. When Ames accidentally impregnates his girlfriend and boss, Katrina, after believing he was sterile after being on hormones for so many years, he sees a way for he and Reese to build the family they always wanted and create an unconventional family unit that will allow him to be a parent without being a ‘father’. All Ames needs to do is convince Reese and Katrina to get onboard with his plan. I’ve never read a novel like this before. It smashes the taboos that surround sex, gender, relationships and family so thoroughly but it’s also a beautiful book, utterly compelling and utterly unique. It is absolutely my number one recommendation of the month.

Love and Fury: A Novel of Mary Wollstonecraft by Samantha Silva

Thank you Netgalley and Allison and Busby for this ARC. Love and Fury is an absorbing debut that focuses on the life of pioneering women’s rights campaigner and author, Mary Wollstonecraft, and it takes the reader from her early childhood, marred by an oppressive father, through her escape and founding of a school for girls, to her intellectual rise and eventually to her tragic death in childbirth. Many aren’t aware that Wollstonecraft is the mother of the famous author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley. It’s therefore a very effective device that the novel is framed around Wollstonecraft telling the story of her life to her infant daughter and passing on her feminist legacy to her before her death. But this novel is not just about Wollstonecraft as an intellectual and a firebrand, it paints a painfully human portrait of a woman who loved, lost, desired and suffered trying to live a life that was outside of the bounds of what society deemed acceptable for her. Ultimately Love and Fury is a heartfelt reminder of the trailblazing women who have come before us and the potential that they still have to inspire us even hundreds of years later.

Hey Ladies! by Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss

I’m incapable of shutting up about how funny this book is and every time I reread it I don’t want it to end. Hey Ladies! is a hilarious glimpse into a year in the life of one highly dysfunctional friend group as told through their email chains as they try to organise brunches, birthday parties, weddings and maybe a lecture on the Irish potato famine. These women are ridiculous parodies of all of your most annoying yet beloved friends and even though I have read this book before it still made me howl with laughter. The day I don’t lose it over a newly single Jen being ready to go out, dance and ‘murder someone for the coke under their fingernails’ while one of her friends blithely suggest they meet up for a pre-work coffee instead will be the day they put me in my grave.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

I love a book with a twist that I don’t see coming and Fingersmith has three! This is a difficult book to describe without ruining it, so all I shall say is that when Sue Trinder, a young woman raised by a family of thieves in Victorian London, is asked to pose as a ladies maid in order to persuade a gullible heiress to marry a villain and thus swindle her out of her fortune, she has no qualms about saying yes. But the more time she spends with Maud, the target of this wicked scheme, the more complicated things become. Waters is an absolute master story-teller, I was completely hooked on this story and needed to know what happened next like I needed to breathe. If you’re a historical fiction fan who hasn’t read this book yet, I don’t know what you’re waiting for.

One To Watch by Kate Stayman-London

This was another deliciously compelling book, though a much lighter read than most of the others on this list! It centres around Bea Schumacher, a plus-sized fashion blogger who goes viral for an epic takedown of a popular Bachelor-style dating show for having yet another season full of stick-thin women. So imagine her surprise when the show calls her up asking her to be their next contestant? Nursing a broken heart and dreading what the trolls on the internet might have to say about this, Bea nevertheless decides to throw caution to the wind and let 25 total strangers compete for her affections. This is pure, ridiculous escapism and it was so addictive it should probably come with a warning label. Perfect for anyone lucky enough to be going on holiday and looking for something to read by the pool.

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