My Month in Books: December 2021

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

After spending the guts of November getting lost in the absolute vastness of Shogun, I wanted something short and totally bonkers to bring me out of that world. The third instalment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series was just what I needed and this book is even stranger than the first two books in the series (something I didn’t think was possible). Beneath the Sugar Sky centres around the daughter of Sumi, one of the central characters from the first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway. However, the sharper minds among you will recall that Sumi was brutally murdered in that book and that she had no daughter…so what’s going on? That’s precisely what Rini would like to know. Rini has somehow travelled through time and space to crash land at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children to resurrect her mother, save the nonsense world of Confection from being taken over by the cruel Queen of Cakes and stop herself from slowly disappearing Back to the Future-style. Still with me? Good, cause it’s going to get so much weirder! With the help of Kade the rejected Goblin Prince, Chris the skeleton charmer and Cora the ex-mermaid, Rini thoroughly smashes Eleanor West’s infamous ‘No Quests’ rule into a million pieces. As bonkers as it is though, Beneath the Sugar Sky has all the thoroughly magical charm of the previous books in this series and I’ll be continuing to savour reading each and every one of them.

Idol by Louise O’Neill

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for this ARC. I audibly squealed when I saw I had been given access to Louise O’Neill’s latest book early and lucky for me Idol lived up to my high expectations. Part of what makes a O’Neill’s books so brilliant is that she seems to relish making the reader feel deeply uncomfortable and I honestly can’t think of another novel that has made me feel as uncomfortable as this one. The more I read the more I felt sick to my stomach at what I was watching unfold before me and yet I was physically incapable of putting it down. The book centres around Samantha, a lifestyle guru and influencer at the top of her game. Sam has thriving wellness brand, a cult-like following of female fans and a brand new book out that has rocketed to the top of the bestsellers list. Determined to ‘speak her truth’ and be vulnerable with her followers, Samantha writes an essay in which she recounts a sexual experience with her teenage best friend Lisa. Sam hasn’t spoken to Lisa in years but once the essay goes viral, Lisa reaches out to say that she doesn’t remember that night as a sexual awakening. She remembers it as a sexual assault. Thrown into damage control mode, Sam rushes back to her hometown to convince Lisa not to go public with her false accusation. But is the accusation false? Who gets to tell this story? And whose ‘truth’ is really the truth of what happened that night? O’Neill doesn’t offer any black and white resolutions to these questions but instead embraces all of the shades of grey. This is a timely and challenging book that I will be recommending to all of my friends because I am desperate for other people to read it so they can talk about it with me!

Writers & Lovers by Lily King

This book was an absolutely gorgeous read about a young woman determined to live a creative life against all of the odds. Casey is a thirty-one year old former golf prodigy who is still reeling from the death of her mother, recovering from a brutal break-up and drowning in student debt. She makes ends meet by renting a dilapidated garden shed to live in and taking as many shifts as she can waiting tables at an upmarket restaurant in Harvard Square while she writes her novel, an homage to her mother’s early life. As two very different men enter her life, offering visions of different kinds of futures, we follow Casey as she fights to balance her creative ambitions with the demands of living in the world. Writers and Lovers is an absolute pleasure to read. King’s writing is the kind that can slip from hilarious to emotionally devastating and back again in just a few paragraphs. If you’re into witty Bildungsromans about smart women making bad romantic choices and feeling all of their feelings, this is definitely one for your to-read list.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

I’ve seen this book recommended everywhere and on the surface it seems to tick a lot of my boxes. Whimsical fantasy? Check. A found family of magical misfits? Check. It even had things I didn’t know I needed (I am referring specifically to Chauncey, I know he’s fictional but I would die to protect that little guy and his bellhop dreams). However, in spite of all this something about it just didn’t click for me. Something about the story just rang a little bit false, it didn’t feel true in the way that I need fantasy to feel even when the main characters are wyverns and gnomes. I think the problem for me was that it felt a bit too fantastically happy and as a result the plot felt very predictable. There was no real jeopardy or suspense because I knew with absolute certainty that everyone was going to wind up learning to see the world through new eyes and living happily ever after. So if you’re in the mood for something uncomplicated and lovely, this is a solid pick definitely don’t pick this up expecting something that will challenge you or keep you on the edge of your seat.

The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

The Tiffany Aching books from the Discworld series are a such a significant part of my psyche that sometimes I can’t tell where my actual personality ends and my inner kelda begins. The novel centres around a young witch named Tiffany, whose younger brother is stolen away by the Queen of the Fairies. Determined to take back what is hers, Tiffany enlists the help of a local colony of hard-drinking, criminal, potty-mouthed pictsies, known as the Nac Mac Feegles, who were kicked out of Fairyland for causing too much chaos. While the fantasy elements are brilliant (the Feegles are genuinely my favourite fictional creatures of all time), at it’s heart this is a novel about growing up and coming into your power. Tiffany is such an incredible and fully realised protagonist and every time I read these books I fall in love with her a little more. She may only be nine years old, but when I grow up I want to be her.

Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Is the premise of this book even remotely feasible? No. Do I care? Also no. I’m not choosing my romance novels for their gritty realism. Marcus is the star of a hugely popular fantasy TV series whose final season has gone to the dogs after lazy writers threw away hard-earned character development in favour of shock tactics and misogynistic tropes (the author’s bitterness at Game of Thrones‘ final season is scarcely concealed and I love this). While appearing to be an air-headed actor to the press and his fans, in his free time Marcus works out his frustration with the show’s writing through his secret fanfiction account and by venting to his online best buddy, a fellow fanfiction writer named April. Through a series of increasingly improbable coincidences, Marcus and April end up going on a highly publicised date with neither knowing that the other is their online fanfiction buddy and romantic chaos ensues. Like I said, if you like your romance gritty and realistic, this is not the book for you, but if you’re looking for some nerdy, very online, fluff, you can’t go wrong with Spoiler Alert.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

This book was simultaneously bonkers and beautiful, everything I’ve come to expect from Susanna Clarke and yet completely unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is almost impossible to summarise this book without ruining the story but suffice to say that it centres around a strange individual named Piranesi who lives in a mysterious, magical house. Who precisely he is, how he came to be there and what precisely the house will all be revealed over the course of the novel but I shan’t say any more lest I spoil a single second of this absolute dream of a book for you. Just go and read it. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.

Beartown by Fredrick Backman

This book came out of nowhere and whacked me over the head. If you had told me for a few days I’d become completely obsessed with the inhabitants of a fictional Swedish town, I’d have said you were crazy. Yet here I am. Beartown tells the story of a tiny community whose hopes for the future all rest on the incredibly young shoulders of their junior ice hockey team, who have just made the national semi-finals. However, when a terrible crime leaves a member of their community shattered and puts the prospects of the team in jeopardy, the people of Beartown must take a long hard look at the the culture they have built before their secrets tear them apart. Every character in this book was so compelling and richly realised, I was completely captivated by the tiny but vivid world that Backman created. This is a great book to lose yourself in.

Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe

Once known largely for their philanthropic donations to museums, in recent years the Sackler family has become more known for their creation and marketing of oxycontin, a highly addictive painkiller which is credited as the fuel behind the American opiod crisis. Radden Keefe has chronicled, in excruciating detail, the history of the family and the personal role that they played in causing the deaths of thousands. From their aggressive sales tactics to their silencing of critics to their manipulation of the institutions that should have held them to account, this is a compelling and rage-inducing story of a family who was willing to let the world burn out of simple greed. Warning: Do not read this book if you are already depressed about the state of the world.

Death on the Nile by Agatha Christie

You can’t beat a good mystery novel over Christmas and no one does it better than Christie. Death of the Nile is set on an Egyptian river cruise and concerns the murder of a beautiful and fabulously wealthy heiress, Linnet Doyle. In spite of her gregarious nature and carefree attitude, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s plenty of people on the boat with a motive for murdering the seemingly-lovely Mrs Doyle. However, Poirot is on the case and is determined that her killer will be brought to justice. This book is full of the twists, turns and red herrings that Christie is so beloved for and Death of the Nile would be a great entry point for anyone who is looking to get into her work.

In An Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

I know, I know – two Seanan McGuire books in one month, I really have spoiled myself but screw it it’s Christmas! In this prequel, McGuire has crafted one of her most compelling fantasy worlds yet. The Goblin Market is a world in which giving fair value, paying your debts and playing by the rules is paramount. For the quiet and serious Lundy, it’s the home she has always dreamed of but in spite of the fact that she’s sure she wants to stay at the Goblin Market forever, she can’t help but feel obligated to the family she is leaving behind. With the time to choose running out, Lundy feels forced to resort to drastic action and tries to cheat the Market out of what it is owed. This was a stunning novella and I want to live in Seanan McGuire’s brain.

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev by Dawnie Walton

The Final Revival of Opal and Nev is a pseudo-nonfiction oral history of a 1970s rock and roll duo. Opal is a flamboyant, proto-Afro-Punk performer from Detroit and Nev is a dorky British singer/songwriter. They shouldn’t go together but when they’re on stage performing it’s nothing short of magic. The novel deals with their origin story, an infamous concert that turns violent and leads to the death of one of their band mates, their meteoric rise to fame and their eventual break-up. But as Opal contemplates a reunion tour with Nev in 2016, a chilling accusation about what really happened on the night their band mate was murdered forces her to look at their story in an entirely new light. This book deals with weighty and serious topics but does it with a lightness of touch that makes it eminently readable and perfect for book clubs looking for something to really sink their teeth into.

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