My Month in Books: June 2021

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

When you pick up a book that ostensibly centres around a young man who brutally kills several of his high school classmates with a crossbow, you expect that to be the most unsettling thing that happens in the story. But We Need To Talk About Kevin is ultimately focused not on Kevin and his crimes, but his mother, Eva, and her fraught experience of motherhood. Almost from the moment he is born, Eva finds Kevin to be manipulative, calculating and difficult to love and the central question of the novel is whether Eva is repulsed by the infant Kevin because of his latent evil tendencies or if Kevin only becomes evil because his mother was repulsed by him. Reading the story from Eva’s perspective feels like watching a car crash in slow motion, as she is tormented by Kevin in seemingly innocuous ways and gaslit by the people around her into feeling as if she is the monster for recognising the enormous capacity for harm that lurks within him. The true horror of this novel comes not from Kevin or his massacre but the dozens of ordinary deaths that Eva dies over the years as she slowly but surely loses her identity and sanity to her son’s machinations and her husband’s wilful ignorance.

The Hounds of Mórrígan by Pat O’Shea

The Hounds of the Mórrígan is a children’s book which tells the story of Pidge and his younger sister Brigit as they journey through a fantasy version of the West of Ireland on a quest to defeat the Mórrígan. They are assisted by a range of characters from Irish mythology as well as a few highly original animal companions and the overall effect is one of comfort, wonder and general loveliness. This isn’t one of those children’s books I’d say could be read by readers of all ages, I would definitely say it would only be fully enjoyed by kids under the age of twelve. But if you’re looking for something for a child about that age to read, I’ve no doubt they’ll thoroughly enjoy this.

The Devil You Know: Stories of Human Cruelty and Compassion by Gwen Adshead and Eileen Horne

This is an absolutely remarkable book that shines a light on the psyche of those who have committed acts of unimaginable violence and cruelty. Dr Gwen Adshead is a forensic psychiatrist and psychotherapist who has spent her career working with people who have committed serious crimes such as murder, stalking, arson and child sexual abuse. Working with dramatist Eileen Horne, she has crafted eleven narratives that are representative of her experiences of working within the criminal justice systems and allow her to explore a range of issues including female violence, PTSD and the long-lasting impacts of child abuse. In spite of the fact that each of these narratives centres around someone who has committed a terrible crime, I found myself feeling empathy and compassion for each and every one of them. This book invites you to do the challenging work of seeing those who we would usually write off as ‘monsters’ for what the really are, people. Damaged people who have done huge amounts of harm to those around them yes, but also people who are deserving of our compassion. Some of these narratives end in progress and hope, others end in in regression but each of them expands the readers understanding of violence, trauma and what it means to show empathy to our fellow human beings. I hope more people working in criminal justice read this book, it’s an incredibly important and invaluable resource.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is the second book in Seanan McGuire’s excellent Wayward Children series, which focuses on children who have visited other worlds and then returned to their old lives. This instalment focuses on Jack and Jill, twin sisters who are forced into restrictive gender roles by their parents. While Jill is encouraged to play soccer and roughhouse with the boys, Jack is made to stay indoors, sit still and look pretty. But when the two girls find a mysterious set of stairs in their grandmother’s old trunk that leads them to an ancient door with a sign above it, warning them to ‘be sure’, they are thrust into a whole new way of life. The Moors is a magical land filled with vampires, werewolves and mad scientists who resurrect the dead and while Jack jumps at the chance to finally do something by becoming a scientist’s apprentice, Jill is seduced by the pampered, cloistered life of a vampire princess. The different choices the two sisters make will split apart their already fragile relationship, putting them on a collision course with each other that will have terrible consequences, not only for them, but for both their old and new worlds. McGuire has once again crafted an immersive, unputdownable fantasy in just over a hundred pages and I’m having to sit on my hands to stop me from immediately picking up the next book in the series and devouring that as well.

Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Mexican Gothic does precisely what it says on the tin. It’s a gripping gothic novel set in turn of the century Mexico, in which glamorous debutante Noemí must go an investigate her beloved cousin’s mysterious mental illness, which descended shortly after her marriage to an enigmatic Englishman. On the one hand I found this book slightly disappointing. On some levels it felt slightly like a ‘paint by numbers’ gothic novel, with not a huge amount of depth coming out of the secondary characters and heavy use of trope in certain elements of the plot. But on the other hand I really appreciate how Moreno-Garcia used these tried and tested plot and character devices to address colonialist narratives and reclaim these kinds of stories for those who have been historically shut out from them. The fact that so much feels the same makes the elements that are different stand out all the more, meaning that the audacious and creative ending really shines.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

This book was absolutely bonkers and I loved it so much. Our unnamed protagonist is internet famous for having once tweeted ‘Can a dog be twins?’ and No One Is Talking About This is a stream of consciousness trip through her life lived online. She is utterly preoccupied with ‘the portal’, as she calls it, until her outside life makes itself impossible to ignore when her sister discovers that she is pregnant with a child with Proteus syndrome. Patricia Lockwood has written the most perfectly ‘online’ book I’ve ever read while still managing to craft something incredibly, heartbreakingly human. It lures you in with witty and wry observations about a life lived on the internet before gut-punching you with agonising reality. It’s a beautiful portrait of the way that we think, live and love today, seamlessly blending the virtual and the ‘real’.

The Likeness by Tana French

One of my only problems with the first book in the Dublin Murder Squad series was that I wanted more of Cassie Maddox, but the second instalment, The Likeness, grants my wish in a way I never expected. The novel begins with the discovery of a body in an abandoned cottage on the outskirts of Dublin. The dead girl is the exact doppelganger of Cassie Maddox, a former Murder Squad detective who is still reckoning with the trauma caused by her last homicide investigation. What makes things even stranger than they already are is that the dead girl’s I.D. says she’s Lexie Maddison. But Lexie doesn’t exist, she’s a pseudonym that Cassie used years ago while undercover trying to bust a student drug ring. The cherry on top of this already very bizarre sundae is that Cassie agrees to go undercover as Lexie Maddison one more time, slotting into the dead girl’s life in the hopes that she can uncover where this mysterious girl came from and who murdered her. But as Cassie finds herself becoming more and more integrated into Lexie’s life, the line between the two becomes increasingly blurry. Once again French has crafted a fantastic thriller with an incredibly creative premise. The Likeness has firmly cemented Dublin Murder Squad as one of my favourite crime series and I can’t wait to pick up the next one.

Ariadne Unraveled: A Mythic Retelling by Zenobia Neil

Thank you to Victory Editing and NetGalley for this ARC. I’m a huge fan of any sort of Greek myth retelling and Ariadne is not a figure I’ve seen get a a huge amount of attention in the recent spate of novels that have been seeking to reframe various ancient stories from a female perspective. Dionysus is also a very neglected god in modern retellings, with few authors knowing how to handle an Olympian who embodies drunkenness, ecstasy, insanity and performance. So a novel that seeks to flesh out the relationship between these two characters and give Ariadne some agency back? Sign me up! However, I was ultimately a little disappointed. While I ultimately liked the portrayal of Dionysus and thought it captured the tension between his mortality and his godhead really well, the whole novel just felt a bit…bodice ripper-y to me (though the author was at pains to emphasise that Ariadne is not wearing anything that could be described as a bodice for 90% of this book). I know Dionysus is the god of orgies, so maybe I should have expected this, but it just felt like sex was being shoe-horned in at every possible opportunity and I felt like it really distracted from the wider plot, which I actually found to be a really interesting take on the Ariadne myth. I’m conscious that this is really a matter of personal taste, so if you’ve already read books like The Silence of the Girls and A Thousand Ships but you thought ‘Hmmm, I like this but it needs more vine-themed bondage’ then Ariadne Unravelled is definitely the book for you.

The Silence by Don DeLillo

I have mixed feelings about The Silence and I think it’s because it was very different to what I was expecting. This novel is set at a point in the near future where there is a complete blackout of all technology, for reasons that are unclear. Without phones, television and the internet to fall back on, a small party finds themselves stranded and confused, with no idea what to do in the face of such an upending of the way they live their lives. I think I was expecting this to be a little more action-packed and plot-driven but The Silence, fittingly, is more of a quiet meditation that examines our reliance on the constant buzz and conversation that we can plug into via our digital devices as well as the tremendous destructive power of technology that the human race isn’t responsible enough to wield. The prose here is lovely though at times I found it quite dense and inscrutable. Don’t be fooled by its size, this is definitely not a light, easy read. It’s a challenging novella and part of me thinks DeLillo has challenged his reader more than he necessarily had to in order to make the points he was seeking to. While obviously that’s his choice, I’m afraid that this book will feel quite inaccessible to even avid readers.

The Maidens by Alex Michaelides

I didn’t like this book and it’s entirely my own fault. I should have known better. I was already seemingly the only person on planet earth who did not enjoy The Silent Patient at all but I picked up The Maidens anyway because I was seduced by promises of a murder mystery set around the University of Cambridge Classics Faculty. I spent four years of my life there and honestly I wanted to see how someone could pull off a murder in that building without being caught because every room is constantly occupied by someone looking for space to hold a supervision. Imagine my disappointment when all of the students who were studying Greek tragedy, in the original Ancient Greek, were described as English students. Outrageous. Leaving my pettier grievances aside, I disliked The Maidens for the exact same reason I disliked The Silent Patient; the reason you’ll never see the ‘big twist’ coming is because it comes out of nowhere and is completely nonsensical. I’ve now learned my lesson and won’t be lured in by future books by this author.

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