So part of the reason why it has been so long since I updated this blog is I was a bit busy getting married (woohoo!). Naturally one of the most stressful elements of this was choosing which book to be reading in the run up to the wedding and eventually I chose my favourite book of all time (yes, I know I’m basic). Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you already know that Pride and Prejudice is a much-loved novel about two very different people who make awful first impressions on each other. However, after a disastrous initial proposal, both of our protagonists are forced to reflect on their behaviour (their pride and their prejudice, if you will) and strive to make amends as they realise that perhaps they wouldn’t be as poorly matched as they initially thought. I felt like the themes of love, forgiveness, perseverance and giving others the benefit of the doubt were useful things to be reflecting on as my partner and I prepared to tie the knot and in the midst of all the chaos of organising, it was nice to come back to a familiar favourite. Whether you’re new to Austen or a dedicated Darcy lover, P&P can always be counted on to be the perfect read.
Naturally after the wedding comes the honeymoon and I had resolved to spend the entire holiday only reading nice, fluffy books with happy endings. So what better way could there be to kick off the holiday than with the final book in the Bridgerton series, in which youngest son, Gregory Bridgerton, is finally married off and the long-suffering Bridgerton matriarch can rest at last (presumably only for as long as it takes for her grandchildren to reach marriageable age). Even by the standards of Bridgerton books, On The Way to The Wedding was absolutely bonkers, from the kinda-sorta love triangle to the last minute wedding objection to absolutely everything about the last 15% of this novel (no spoilers but I would have previously comfortably bet a large sum of money that no one was ever going to pull out a goddamn gun in a Bridgerton book outside of a duel). Am I smarter for having read this series? Absolutely not. Am I happier? Maybe? Am I going to be insufferable to people who have only watched the Netflix series because I know what’s going to happen next? You bet your ass I will. And isn’t that what reading is all about?
I started the Walsh Family series slightly out of order with Rachel’s Holiday but I fell in love with Keyes’ light touch that brought the humour out of dark situations. So I was excited to go back to the first book in the series and continue getting to know the Walsh family through different eyes. Watermelon opens with our protagonist, Claire, on the edge of a breakdown. Having just given birth to her first child (literally, she is still in her hospital bed), her husband has informed her that he has been cheating on her and that he is leaving her for another woman. He promptly vanishes without any further information, leaving Claire to stumble through new motherhood alone and heartbroken. I know this doesn’t sound like a comedy, but I promise you, it does get there! Claire returns to her family home in Dublin, moving back in with her parents and sisters as they help her to raise her daughter and slowly but surely, surrounded by the loving support of her chaotic family, she starts to gain her confidence back and takes control of her life back from her insufferable ex. This is a perfect, light-hearted holiday read but you’ll be so invested in the characters that you’ll be flipping the pages like it’s a thriller to try and find out what happens at the end.
One thing that really makes Emily Henry’s romance novels stand out from the pack is her awareness of the genre in which she is writing and her subversion of tropes. In Book Lovers she plays with the archetype of the ‘cold-hearted, workaholic city person’ girlfriend that usually gets dumped for the heroine of romantic comedies. Our protagonist Nora fits this stereotype to a T and she has no interest in living out a cliche love story which is what makes this novel genuinely engaging. Because Henry is not overly-reliant on well-worn tropes, she pushes herself to create well-rounded characters whose attraction to each other makes sense, whose relationship is well-balanced and whose problems are grounded in reality. The result is a sweet romantic comedy that doesn’t talk down to its readers but will still leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside.
Next on my list romantic novels is a foray into historical fiction and the most recent instalment in Evie Dunmore’s A League of Extraordinary Women series. Set in the late 1800s, the series follows a group of female Oxford scholars and suffragists as they fight for women’s rights and occasionally find love along the way. Portrait of a Scotsman centres on Hattie, a wealthy, sheltered and artistic young lady with dreams of securing the vote for women and being swept off her feet by a gentleman (emphasis on the gentle). So when she finds herself thrust into a compromising position with the distinctly ungentlemanly Lucien, a financier with a mysterious past who half the wealthy lords of London seem to be in debt to. Seeing marriage to Hattie as a chance to start ingratiating himself with the aristocracy, Lucien seizes the opportunity with both hands. However, after an unplanned journey to Scotland, the unlikely couple both find that there is more to their new spouse than meets the eye. The love story itself was fine but what was more interesting was the way that Dunmore wove in facts about the history of British socialism, the labour rights movement and in particular the intersection between these two movements and that suffragist movement. It’s always nice to come away from a novel feeling like you’ve learned something and while picking up a history book would probably be more efficient, it wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining.
A ‘complete Aisling’ is a recently coined phrase amongst Irish women of a certain age, that refers to a young woman who has moved to Dublin (‘the big smoke’) from the countryside but still travels home every weekend to check in on her mammy and abhors anything that could be described as ‘notions’. This book is almost impossible to describe to anyone who is not Irish or at least Irish adjacent because the humor in it is so specific it will seem absolutely insane to anyone not familiar with our ways. However, if you’re Irish abroad like me and you find yourself missing the old country, this is almost as good as a trip home and is nearly as cheap as a Ryanair flight.
Look, if I’m reading a romance novel I know I’m going to have to suspend my disbelief. Our protagonist, Catalina, has lied to her whole family that she has a boyfriend so that they’ll stop pitying her for being single? Okay, sure, I’m with you so far. She has committed to bringing this imaginary boyfriend to her sister’s wedding on another continent. Uh-huh…a choice, but okay, still with you. Catalina is unable to come clean to her family because her sister is marrying the brother of Catalina’s shitty ex-boyfriend and the ex-boyfriend is going to be the best man at the wedding and has also just gotten engaged. Ooof okay, a lot going on there but I can see why that would be awkward. A man who Catalina works with and actively dislikes volunteers out of nowhere to travel with her to another continent to pretend to be her boyfriend at her sister’s wedding and save her from being humiliated in front of her ex. Fine, bizarre, but it’s a romance novel, I can guess where this is going. The bit that I cannot get my head around is that it took Catalina another few hundred pages to cop on to the fact that this man fancied her. We are expected to believe this protagonist is an intelligent and competent woman whereas only someone with the IQ of a boulder wouldn’t realise that maybe, just maybe, the person who is being incredibly nice to you and is visibly attracted to you fancies you. Also the fact that he didn’t just come out and say ‘Hey, by the way, I know I’ve been kind of a jerk but I really fancy you, can we start over?’ instead of engaging in a series of weird semi-dates pushed even my very elastic boundaries of belief. Definitely do not recommend this one.
Continuing on the romance train, I picked up the second instalment in Olivia Dade’s very online and fan-fiction conscious Spoiler Alert series. The series focuses on the love lives of the various stars of a hugely popular fantasy TV series whose final season has gone down the toilet after lazy writers threw away hard-earned character development and plot in favour of shock tactics and misogynistic tropes (Yes it’s a scarcely concealed Game of Thrones stand-in and I love that). All The Feels takes place at the same time as the first book and gives us insight into what happened after fed-up actor Alex publicly slated the final season of the show in front of hundreds fans. Accompanied by his long-suffering minder Lauren, who he happens to have an enormous crush on, Alex hits the road to figure out his next move and to see if he can convince Lauren to stick with him in a non-professional capacity. This book was funny, light-hearted and bursting with nerdy goodness. Perfect for those of us who grew up with fan-fiction and are looking for some easy reading.
Normally any book with witches in it is a win for me but I just couldn’t get into The Ex Hex. It opens with young witch Vivienne Jones jokingly cursing her shitty ex-boyfriend in the midst of a vodka-fuelled crying fit. Little does she know, that her curse is all too real and will have potent effects on the very source of her own magic. When aforementioned shitty ex-boyfriend returns to town years later, the power of the curse becomes apparent and Vivienne must work with her ex, who naturally she never got over and who is obviously not over her either, to save him, her hometown and her magic. I feel like this novel was trying to be too many things at once and both the magical world of the story and the central romance could have done with more building out and so ultimately the whole thing felt a bit paper thin. Definitely an inoffensive read but I won’t be pursuing this series any further.
The eagle-eyed among you will probably identify this as the moment I got back from my honeymoon, as Farenheit 451 could hardly be classified as nice or fluffy. But it was my book club read for October and so I leapt into it as soon as I got home. It is set in a future dystopia in which books have been outlawed and ‘firemen’ are responsible for burning any remaining books that are found. Instead of reading, people are encouraged to watch copious amounts of television, drive recklessly and self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. One fireman, Guy, finds himself questioning the order of things after he meets a precocious young woman on his walk to work and sets off a chain of events which brings his entire world crashing down. This is a short but powerful novel that contemplates our most fundamental freedoms of thought, painting a horrifying picture of a world so stuffed with outside distractions that no one can hear themselves think anymore and any kind of introspective thought is out of reach. Farenheit 451 is a dystopia that dances tantalisingly close to reality and will provide plenty of fodder for discussion at any book club.
Nothing quite hurts like when a series starts out so promising only to let you down at the final hurdle. I absolutely loved the detailed world-building of A Deadly Education, the first instalment in the Scholomance series, and couldn’t put it down. I found the second book, The Last Graduate, a bit meandering and less focused than the first but I had hopes that this was just ‘middle book syndrome’ and things would pick up in the final instalment. Imagine my disappointment when things continued to go down hill. Now that El and her friends are out of the Scholomance (for the most part), it felt like there was nothing driving the plot forward and El just lurched from place to place with no real objective. El’s goals seemed to change every five minutes and honestly I got whiplash trying to keep up with her. Unfortunately what The Golden Enclaves lacked in cohesive storytelling, it made up for hammering us all over the head with the message ‘ENCLAVES TERRIBLE, EVERYONE IN THEM TERRIBLE’ and painfully detailed world-building that felt like Novik was trying to ensure no single detail she had conceived for this world would be left out, no matter how irrelevant it was. This really bummed me out because I’ve loved Novik’s previous books, but no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t get into this one.
The Ministry for the Future tell the story of a UN agency founded to advocate for the world’s future generations in the efforts to fight climate change. Although this book is fiction, at times it felt scarily close to non-fiction, as Stanley Robinson presents a vision of what our extremely near future could look like through a series of eye witness accounts. The first chapter is absolutely harrowing, immediately setting the stakes for the rest of the novel, but Stanley Robinson doesn’t just focus on the devastation climate change has the potential to wreak. This novel is bursting with a range of radical ideas for tackling the climate crisis, from geo-engineering to economic incentive schemes, and the way Stanley Robinson blended policy development with story was fascinating (at least for a wonk like me). The Ministry for the Future is one of those books I just wish everyone would read, both for how it paints a brutal picture of the reality of climate change but also for the constructive and creative solutions it posits.
After being so deep in existential fear for the future, I just wanted something a bit more weird and wonderful and boy did this deliver. Shahrukh Husain has compiled a strange and enticing collection of stories from all over the world featuring various iterations of witches. The full spectrum of witchy behaviour is covered within these pages, whether it’s luring children to their doom, dispensing wisdom to heroes, stealing the virility of handsome princes or turning themselves or others into animals. These women are dark and powerful and their stories are thought-provoking. A must-read for any fellow aspiring witches.
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies is a short story collection exploring the lives of various of black women and girls as they follow their desires and reckon with the pressures and hypocrisies of their churches. Although the stories deal with complex themes of sexuality, trauma, family and, of course, religion, this is an immensely readable collection that will keep you hopping from story to story right until the last page. My particular favourites were How To Make Love To A Physicist which details one woman’s slow journey to self-love, as well as eventual romantic love and Peach Cobbler in which a young girl observes her mother’s ongoing affair with their married pastor and the impact this has on her attitudes towards love and her own sexuality.
I’m ashamed to say that the first time I heard of Biafra was when I picked up this book, but Ngozi Adichie paints a vivid picture of the brief life of this small republic in this masterful novel. Set in 1960s Nigeria, this novel brings together the lives of three very different people to bring to life the stark class, ethnic and racial divides that characterised life in this time and place. Ugwu is a young, eager to please house boy for an eccentric university professor, Olanna is the beautiful, wealthy and well-educated lover of the same professor and Richard is the white, British lover of Olanna’s fiercely independent twin sister. Although these three seem to have little in common, their lives become inextricably intertwined as Nigeria moves towards a civil war. This is a devastating but beautiful novel full of the bitterness of once-cherished but now broken ideals, the resilience of humanity and the horrors of war.
This was an extremely strange but fabulous little novel that is a cross between fantasy, mystery, fable and tragedy. It is set it the titular city of Lud-In-The-Mist which sits at the convergence of two rivers, the Dawl, which originates in the mortal world, and the Dapple, which originates in Fairyland. Although once the people of Lud-In-The-Mist had a close relationship with Fairies, now such things are forbidden and anything related to Fairyland is taboo, particularly the consumption of fairy fruit. However, when the Mayor of Lud-In-The-Mist himself, Nathaniel Chanticleer, begins to suspect that his only son may have consumed the forbidden fruit, he is forced to abandon his comfortable and unchallenging life to probe deeper into the mysteries that fester at the heart of his city. To say anything more would risk spoiling the fun but this is an absolute gem of a book which has proved to be hugely influential on fantasy as a genre. This is definitely a must-read for any fans of The Lord of the Rings, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or Stardust – without Lud-In-The-Mist I’m not sure those books would exist!
Usually when I read a book from the Dublin Murder Squad series, I find myself transported back to Dublin but honestly this time it felt a little bit too real. This isn’t because a teenage boy was ever mysteriously murdered at my school, but because Tana French absolutely nails the extremely specific experience of being a teenage girl in Dublin in the late-noughties/early-tens and all of the horrors that come with it. When the Murder Squad are called back to a posh South Dublin girls’ boarding school to re-investigate a murder after a new lead arises, they have to deal with not only a killer being on the loose but also the machinations, lies and manipulations of two warring gangs of female friends and the young men that surround them. Honestly this was so real I could nearly smell the fake tan and hear the hiss of the GHD. This book is as close as I ever want to be to being sixteen again but Tana French as always does a masterful job of dialling up the suspense and crafting a compelling and page-turning mystery with a great set of partners at the centre of it. I look forward to the next instalment, which I hope will be starring Antoinette!