My Month in Books: March and April 2023

Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo

When a novel ends with a character proposing quite literally going to hell and back again to rescue a friend, it’s more than a little cruel to keep your readers waiting nearly four years for a follow-up. However, I am willing to forgive Leigh Bardugo because Hell Bent is worth the wait. Building on the delightfully creepy world-building from the first book in this series, Alex Stern is back and in even more trouble than ever as she and her allies must race against time to rescue Darlington from the pits of hell, wrangle the (literal) ghosts that haunt them, solve a mysterious string of murders and face up to the darkest secrets of their past. I love how this book fleshed out many of the characters who surround Alex and gave them fuller backstories while also giving her the space to develop into a richer character in her own right. I look forward to seeing where the series goes from here but I imagine I’ll have a few more years to wait to find out.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King

Thank you to NetGalley and PanMacmillan for providing me with an ARC of this short story collection. This is a collection of stories that centre on characters across the spectrum of genders, ages and socioeconomic status but are united by a shared focus on heartache, longing and loss. The experience of reading this collection feels oddly nostalgic, with almost all of the stories feeling as if you’re looking back on a different time through the forgiving haze of memory. The stand-out stories for me were definitely the eponymous Five Tuesdays in Winter, in which a gruff bookstore owner slowly falls in love with his employee and works up the courage to make his move, and North Sea, in which a recently widowed woman takes her daughter on holiday for the first time since her husband’s passing. Although both stories seem very different, they both have a strong, hopeful undercurrent running through them as the protagonists begin to move forward from their past disappointments and losses. This is an uplifting, beautifully written collection and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for a serotonin boost that will still challenge them.

Other People’s Clothes by Calla Henkel

I hate when the blurb of a book promises a complex, gritty psychological thriller and what you get instead is a plodding and confused tale of sad millennials numbing their pain in an artsy way before everything goes absolutely batshit in the last 150 pages. This book was trying very very hard to be ‘twisty’ but instead just felt incoherent and unsure of where it wanted to go. It was an absolute mishmash of buzzy tropes, including ‘intense/homoerotic female friendship’, ‘extravagant partying to cope with pain’, ‘weird relationship with older woman the protagonist works for’ and ‘making the most self-destructive choice possible at any given moment.’ After pages and pages, of artsy angst we finally get to the juicy/murder-y parts and I nearly get whiplash from how often the story flips itself around and not in a good way. I wish the author had condensed the ‘depressed white girl in her early twenties’ section into a some sort of literary montage and actually spent time fleshing out the more thrilling parts of the book. Definitely do not recommend.

So Lucky by Dawn O’Porter

This book was a bit of a weird one and not really in a good way. Centring around three women who seemingly have it all together, O’Porter dives beneath the surface to illustrate how even the people who look the most perfect can be falling apart inside. Part of me however feels that her purpose might have been better served by having her characters have slightly less bizarre problems (though I will admit, having one of the big dramatic reveals being that one character just had lots of body hair was truly surprising, though not really in a good way). The ‘big twist’ could be seen coming from space and while all of the characters coming together to support each other at the end was interesting, I can’t say that their actions were particularly coherent. For a novel that purports to be about looking below the surface, all of the characters felt too shallowly drawn to really care about.

See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism and Commentary by Lorrie Moore

I love getting to read books that make me feel as if I’m getting smarter as I’m reading them and See What Can Be Done is absolutely one of those books. Lorrie Moore is best known for her short fiction but is also a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, writing essays on literature, film, television and current events. Although I wasn’t familiar with every topic that Moore was writing on, it was still a treat to read her thoughts as she has a wonderful way of talking about culture. It was a real pleasure to spend some time wandering around in her brain and I feel I now have plenty of new things to add to my read and watch list as a result of her reviews!

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

I was initially a little bit nervous picking up this book as I’m not a fan of reading narratives of slavery that veer too far into ‘misery porn’ and focus only on the relentless suffering of their protagonists rather than portraying them as fully-realised human beings. Imagine my delight when I found that The Confessions of Frannie Langton seems to be a direct rebuke to precisely those kinds of narratives, with Frannie expressing disgust at the white abolitionist cliques in London who salivate over hearing tales of the horrors of slavery and deny her any agency and ownership over her own life. The novel opens with Frannie, a mixed race ex-slave, imprisoned and accused of the murder of her employers and her odds of avoiding the hangman’s rope look pretty dire. Her lawyer pleads with her to give him something, anything, that he can turn into a defence to save her neck and so Frannie begins to tell him the story of her life. It is full of tragedies and joys, love and loathing and underpinned throughout by a thirst for knowledge and frustration at her circumstances. Ultimately this story is a furious scream at a world that would try to erase and ignore the lives of women like Frannie and I would highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction.

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

I’m Glad My Mom Died is a memoir of a childhood lost to fame and abuse and a slow journey towards recovery and self-love. In the hands of most storytellers, this story would be hard to get through but it is a testament not only to McCurdy’s talent as a writer but also her resilience and sense of humor that she somehow makes a harrowing tale into a darkly funny page-turner. Jennette McCurdy was a child actress on the popular Nickelodeon show, iCarly, and to the outside world it looked as if she had everything going for her. But what no one realised (or cared about) was that this was not a life she had chosen for herself. Dragged to her first audition at six years old by her abusive and overbearing mother, McCurdy’s childhood is a blur of acting classes, home makeovers, forced calorie restriction and a huge amount of emotional manipulation whenever she tries to resist. For years she is trapped in a cycle of addiction, unhealthy relationships and disordered eating, until her mother dies of cancer and she finally is able to examine their relationship and her mother’s impact on her life at a healthy distance. I’m not usually much of a fan of memoir, but McCurdy’s is compulsively readable and captivating, I hope she goes on to write more.

Fix the System, Not the Women by Laura Bates

In a world where it feels as if we’re constantly being bombarded with news stories about women being harassed, attacked and killed, I’m so grateful that we have Laura Bates on hand to highlight the systemic problems that lurk unseen behind every incident. Drawing heavily on her work with the Everyday Sexism Project, Bates exposes the prejudices and biases that lie at the core of five key institutions; Education, politics, media, policing and criminal justice. She rails against the lack of creativity or urgency behind previous attempts to address systemic misogyny and demands a society in which the safety of women is considered to be of equal importance to the comfort of men. An excellent and succinct primer on institutional sexism and a powerful rallying cry for change.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking is a beautifully written and heartrending account of the strangeness and trickery of grief. When Didion’s husband dies suddenly of a massive coronary episode while their only child is in a medically induced coma, she is thrust into the chaotic and subjective land of the grieving. Her memory is fuzzy, she cannot write and she finds herself keeping her husband’s shoes in case he needs them when he gets back. On top of all of this, while her daughter initially recovers, a mere two months later she suffers from a massive subdural hematoma, requiring extensive brain surgery and weeks of slow recovery. Being Joan Didion, of course she manages to turn experiences that would have broken anybody else into an insightful and empathetic walk through the process of grief, blending her prose with excerpts from psychological studies, great works of literature, poetry and music. This is a deeply human and personal story about how it feels to lose a someone and reading it will prompt you to hold all of your loved ones a little bit closer.

My Monticello by Jocelyn Nicole Johnson

My Monticello is a novella centring around Da’Naisha, a young descendent of Thomas Jefferson and his slave, Sally Hemmings. When her neighbourhood is attacked by violent white supremacists, Da’Naisha, her family and her neighbours take shelter in Monticello, Jefferson’s historic home. Here, as she and her companions try to come together to survive a much wider white supremacist uprising than they initially anticipated, Da’Naisha must also grapple with the burdens of her inheritance and the future of her family. With Monticello standing in for a country that is Da’Naisha’s by right but that many are desperate to shut her out of, this brief but powerful story makes a worthy contribution to the war currently being waged over who owns America’s history.

The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories edited by Jay Rubin

While I was lucky enough to be travelling through Japan, I decided that it was the perfect time to expand my knowledge of Japanese literature. This is the perfect book with which to do that. Jay Rubin has collected a series of stories that span genres and centuries to create a captivating and varied collection that gives the reader a glimpse into the spirit of the country. Unusually rather than being ordered alphabetically or chronologically, the stories are arranged by themes such as ‘Nature and Memory’, ‘Modern Life and Other Nonsense’ and ‘Dread’. My personal highlights were The Story of Tomoda and Matsunaga by Jun’ichiro Tanazaki, which provides a surreal but engrossing gateway into the collection, Patriotism by Yukio Mishima, which is a stunningly beautiful story about two heartbreakingly futile deaths, The Tale of the House of Physics by Yoko Ogawa, a tale of memory, longing and nostalgia and Hell Screen by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a slow-burning horror story of artistic obsession. A special mention has to also go to Hiroshima, City of Doom by Yoko Ota, which I read on the bullet train to Hiroshima itself and provided a timely reminder of the enormous human cost of the the Hiroshima bombing and the terror of those who experienced it firsthand. If you’re not lucky enough to be visiting Japan soon, I recommend this collection as a way of transporting yourself there much more quickly and cheaply!

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

Another novel I read while in Japan and my first time reading Banana Yoshimoto. I was completely swept up into the emotional and warm world of love, found family and grief that Yoshimoto created in both Kitchen and its companion story Moonlight Shadow. Both stories are written in spare, simple prose and feature young female protagonists grieving a loss but eventually finding closure and reading them truly felt healing. Although the stories are short, you feel as if you are on a journey and by the end of the novel you are left with an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and wholeness. Because they are both so short, the whole book can easily be consumed in one afternoon and so there is no excuse not to treat yourself to reading this next time you’re feeling down.

Fairy Tale by Stephen King

While I acknowledge that Stephen King is a master, I normally don’t read his work because I’m the biggest wuss of all time when it comes to scary stories. So imagine my delight when I saw his latest book was less horror and more epic fantasy. The first third or so of the book introduces us to our young protagonist Charlie Reade, a star athlete and all-around good guy with a tough home life. When he intervenes to save his reclusive, elderly neighbour after he falls off a ladder, Charlie strikes up a friendship with the old man and falls in love with his ancient but spirited dog. But when his neighbour dies, Charlie finds himself not just the guardian of the dog and the old house, but also a mysterious portal to another world hidden in the back garden. Left with a dangerous mission and armed with nothing but a good heart, strong legs and a loyal dog, Charlie must rescue this new world and his own from the evil forces that seek to choke the life from it. King has captured all of the strange magic of a classic fairy tale while creating something entirely original and this is a must read for fantasy fans.

Well Traveled by Jen DeLuca

For me, the fantasy in this romantic comedy revolves less around love and more around the idea of quitting my job to run away with a Renaissance Fair. Our protagonist is overworked and under-appreciated lawyer, Lulu, who opens the novel having a mental break down at a Renaissance Fair and throwing her work phone in a bucket of water. While she figures out her next move, she opts to travel along with the fair and finds herself falling for local ladies’ man, Dex. What I did enjoy particularly about this book was that the central conflict between the two lovers was less about improbable feats of miscommunication and more about the fundamental incompatibility of their two lifestyles. What I liked even more was that neither of them sacrificed their passions for the other, but rather communicated and worked together to find a compromise that would require some sacrifices but ultimately make both of them happy. It felt more grounded and realistic than similar novels I read, which I wasn’t expecting from a novel in which the administrative needs of travelling psychics are a major plot point but hey, I love to be surprised!

Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap

A very good friend of mine has headed off to travel the world (If you’re reading this, hi Sam!) and in lieu of going with her, my book club has decided to read along with her travels. Her first stop was Thailand and so we cracked into this collection of short stories which are in equal parts insightful, amusing, devastating and triumphant as they paint a picture of a country struggling to define itself against the backdrop of an encroaching tourist industry. The absolute highlight of this collection for me was Cockfighter, a novella which tells the story of one man’s desperate fight for fairness and dignity against a local gangster as told through the eyes of his daughter. The reader is caught between rooting for his victory but fearing for his life and the life of his family if he doesn’t cut his losses and surrender to the inevitable victory of the local gang. I was completely engrossed in this story, anxiously flipping pages to find out what happened next. This story is worth buying the collection for on its own but the other stories that sit along side it are also an excellent read.

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