My Month in Books: March and April 2022

Open Water by Caleb Azumah Nelson

Open Water was my book club’s pick for March and, after nearly five years of meeting, it was one of the first books that we all enjoyed reading. It’s a beautiful, lyrical story of two young black artists who fall in love and are driven apart by the anxieties and pressures brought on by the racist world that they live in. Although it’s a short novel, it is impactful and creates visceral feelings of love, heartbreak, fear and longing in the reader. Azumah Nelson’s writing is absolutely gorgeous and effortlessly sensual. This is the kind of book that you can just let wash over you and sweep you away with the poetry of the writing. An absolute pleasure of a read.

Unequal Affections by Laura S. Ormiston

Just when you all thought I’d run out of new takes on Pride and Prejudice to review, my mum came through with a cracker of a recommendation. Unequal Affections is a Pride and Prejudice retelling starring all the original characters, with one key point of divergence. Instead of epically telling Mr. Darcy where to go after his first, unbelievably rude, proposal, Elizabeth is so shocked by his unexpected declaration of love that she chooses to accept him, although she is clear that she does not yet return his affection. And so we are left with a cast of beloved characters taking a different route to the same happy ending. It is a testament to Ormiston’s knowledge and love of the original text that this feels like a credible alternative to Austen’s story rather than a shoddy imitation. While, of course, this can be no substitute for the original, it is a delightful homage for those whose dog-eared copy of Pride and Prejudice needs a break so that it doesn’t fall to pieces.

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood

Patricia Lockwood is a hilarious, smart and deeply, deeply weird writer. She is also the daughter of a married, Catholic priest who wanders around their home in a perpetual state of semi-nudity playing electric guitar at ear-splitting volume. Priestdaddy is her memoir. Look, Lockwood’s writing isn’t for everyone but it is definitely for me. I spent this entire book laughing, cringing and generally feeling my feelings and by the end I wanted to take up permanent residence in Lockwood’s brain so I wouldn’t have to read anything not written by her ever again. The chapter in which she and her mother find semen on the sheets of their hotel bed is legitimately one of the best things I have ever read. If that last sentence confused and frightened you, do not read this book. It’s not for you. But if it intrigued you, you may be one of my people and you need to read this book urgently.

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley

Two years ago I read The Guest List by Lucy Foley and I did not enjoy it. At the time I said ‘In The Guest List the focus seemed to be in cramming in as many ‘shocking twists’ (that were actually fairly predictable) as possible at the expense of the actual mystery plot.However, because I’m an optimist at heart, I decided to give another one of Foley’s books a go. Guess what? In The Hunting Party the focus seemed to be in cramming in as many ‘shocking twists’ (that were actually fairly predictable) as possible at the expense of the actual mystery plot. I have now learned my lesson. I need to trust myself more when I think an author is not for me!

Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler

I’ve got a real soft spot for ‘extremely online’ books and the premise of this one was too intriguing for me to resist. Fake Accounts centres around a young woman who finds out that her long-time, seemingly normal boyfriend is an anonymous, hugely popular alt-right conspiracy theorist. As she mulls how best to end the relationship, a series of further twists in the tale cause her to flee to Berlin where she descends into her own pattern of ruthless but petty deception and manipulation via her own online personas. Ultimately this is one of those books where ‘nothing really happens’ but Oyler’s musings on how the casual cruelty and dishonesty of the internet makes psychopaths and narcissists of us all is still an entertaining and gripping read.

Go Tell the Bees That I Am Gone by Diana Gabaldon

Oh Diana, I love you so much but you’re starting to lose me. No one could ever accuse a book in the Outlander series of being tightly plotted but this was taking it to some serious extremes. Where the hell was the editor? It was only because I am so devoted to the character in this series that I didn’t give up around six hundred pages in when someone went on yet another very long, very boring journey to some distant town for very contrived reasons. Will I read the next Outlander book when it comes out? Absolutely, I am now now approximately 10,000 pages into this series and I don’t give up easy. But am I anticipating it in the same way I did with the earlier books in the series? Unfortunately not.

It’s In His Kiss by Julia Quinn

We have now reached the seventh Bridgerton child to be shipped off into marital bliss with an unlikely suitor! My quest to read all of these books is nearly at an end! This instalment focuses on Hyacinth, the youngest and sassiest of the Bridgertons as she finds her true love in Lady Danbury’s equally sassy nephew. It’s In His Kiss managed to skirt being unintentionally horrifying (see: the rape scene from The Duke and I, Eloise falling in love with a guy who neglected to mention he was in the market for a live in housekeeper/nanny rather than a wife in To Sir Philip, With Love) and being unintentionally hilarious (see: Anthony trying to suck the bee venom out of Kate’s boob in The Viscount Who Loved Me, Benedict spending a whole book not recognising the alleged love of his life in An Offer from A Gentleman). However, that meant it was generally pretty unremarkable compared to its more outrageous siblings. Rather a disappointing story for one of the more interesting Bridgertons but I’m sure it will satisfy long time fans of the series.

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Another book club pick, this time revisiting a book that some of us had read as children. Unfortunately I missed the Garth Nix hype train when I was a kid, but luckily Sabriel is definitely still engaging for fantasy-loving adults. It centres around Sabriel (shocker) a young necromancer in training who is next in line to take on the title of Abhorsen. For generations the Abhorsens have protected the Old Kingdom from evil by making sure that the dead stay dead but when Sabriel’s father is unexpectedly killed during her final term of school, Sabriel finds herself thrust into the role much earlier than she ever expected. Thus she embarks on an adventure to find out what killed him, save the Old Kingdom from a terrible evil and maybe, just maybe, find a way to resurrect her beloved father. This book is equal parts suspenseful and gripping high fantasy, complete with edge of your seat fight scenes and a wickedly cool magic system, and a coming of age novel about taking responsibility, striking out on your own and coming to terms with death. Highly recommended for readers of all ages.

Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

Thank you to Netgalley and Granta for giving me an ARC copy of this book. I’ve loved Murata’s previous novels, which combine a surrealist sense of humor with a fiercely individualistic streak. Her novels usually concern characters who have their own way of looking at the world and are rebelling against the arbitrary boundaries that society has placed around them. In Life Ceremony, Murata continues to ruminate on these themes and these short stories touch on controversial and taboo topics such as eating the bodies of the dead, choosing to have a platonic marriage and cultivating multiple contradictory personalities for different groups of friends. Murata is a very original thinker who handles all of these topics with a light touch, a keen eye for the bizarre and incredibly sensual writing (sometimes stomach-turningly so). if you’ve enjoyed her previous work, Life Stories should continue to satisfy you.

Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina

I’ve had this book sitting on my Kindle for a while but the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine made reading this memoir of rebellion against Russian state tyranny feel urgent. Maria Alyokhina is a member of Pussy Riot, a radical Russian activist collective known for its eye-catching protests against Vladimir Putin’s authoritariansim. Her memoir of her time spent in a Russian penal colony is a mix of stream of consciousness, poetry, political theory and ‘you have to laugh or you’ll cry’ insight into the relentless and petty cruelty and unfairness of the Russian penal system. Ultimately this is a story of a woman who endured the unendurable and not only emerged with her spirit intact, but also won rights for her fellow prisoners. A brutal and inspiring read for bleak times.

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Yes, I lived twenty seven years on this earth and hadn’t read anything by Patrick Rothfuss and yes, I now know myself to be a fool. We find our hero, Kvothe, long after his days as the most infamous and powerful wizard in the land are behind him. For reasons unknown he is now living as a humble innkeeper, keeping a low profile and seemingly showing no interest in returning to his old life of heroism and daring deeds. But when an enterprising young Chronicler tracks him down and pleads with Kvothe to give him the true story of his life before the lies and the half-truths that swirl about him become the accepted version of events, Kvothe finds himself agreeing to tell the Chronicler his story. And so our unreliable yet charismatic narrator takes us through the story of his early life, from his idyllic childhood wandering the land with his family’s theatrical troupe, to their brutal slaughter at the hands of mysterious, magical forces, to his years spent living as a feral orphan on the mean streets of Tarbean, to his eventual acceptance into the University where he learns the magical arts, becomes a bard of great renown, finds first love and makes friends and enemies for life. You will be utterly under Kvothe’s spell from start to finish and, as much as you know him to be a cocky little shit with entirely too high an opinion of himself and a penchant for chaos, you’ll be rooting for him every step of the way.

Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

Prior to publishing this book, Brodesser-Akner was best known for her brilliant celebrity profiles and that background is strikingly apparent in her writing. She has crafted a vivid, searing portrait of a man, Toby Fleishman, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, but this ‘profile’ actually serves as a Trojan Horse to write about the significantly more interesting women in Toby’s life. Toby is a recently divorced father of two and after years of feeling emasculated by his ambitious and high-earning wife Rachel, Toby is finally free to hop on the dating apps and live life on his own terms. But when Rachel mysteriously vanishes without a word, Toby is forced to juggle his children, his job, his dates and his increasingly fragile state of mind. As the reader gains more insight into Toby, the reasons for the breakdown of his marriage become clearer and they are not as simple as they initially appeared. This is a dense, layered but immensely readable novel filled with colourful characters. Perfect for reading on a holiday or if you’re looking for something to get you out of a reading slump.

Summerwater by Sarah Moss

Summerwater is a slender novel that packs a lot of punch. It’s effectively a group of short stories, each focusing on different families who are holidaying in a group of cabins by a remote Scottish lake. While this might sound pretty dull, Moss imbues a sense of impending doom from the very beginning, creating a sense of unease and danger through the wild and untamed landscape, the dramatic weather and the vulnerability of the characters to its dangers. As the stories progress, we gradually see the inhabitants of the cabins turn against a group of perceived outsiders and Moss gradually ratchets up the unease before an explosive finale. Moss is an author who is gifted at weaving tension into the seemingly mundane and while her books are always short, they leave me wanting more.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

For the end of April I thought I’d shake things up a little and read a graphic novel. Persepolis is the memoir of Marjane Satrapi, a young woman who grew up Tehran at the height of the Islamic Revolution. Marjane comes of age surrounded by a loving and supportive family who encourage her to think for herself and protest against injustice but they all live in the shadow of political upheaval and the arrest and executions of family and friends. As her parents grow increasingly concerned for her safety, they are forced to send Marjane away from home. The book deals with Marjane’s time living as a refugee in Austria, alone and fending for herself at just fourteen years old, and her eventual return to Iran as a young adult and her struggle to reintegrate after having been away for so long. The stark black and white panels add a grim humor and humanity to what is often a decidedly bleak story. Persepolis is an emotional and fascinating insight into the history of Iran, with a strong focus on the resilience and bravery of the Iranian people.

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