Top Ten Tuesday: The Books I Need To Get To

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is meant to be about the 2016 releases we didn’t get to. I read a crazy amount of new releases last year, neglecting some of the books that had been on my shelves for ages, and I’m determined to rectify that this year. So these are the long-neglected books on my TBR in 2017.

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I’ve been saving this because I’ve read all her other books and I am scared of running out.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
Bought because of its beautiful cover but abandoned 100 pages in because the plot wasn’t doing anything for me, I’m going to return to this soon.

Middlemarch by George Eliot
Let’s pretend that I will finally read this book in 2017, having said I was going to for the last two years.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Another book I’ve had for a while, I really want to read this soon; I read The Muse just after it came out and enjoyed it, so there’s no reason for me to neglect this one any longer.

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
I received for Christmas in 2015, so it is disgraceful that I haven’t read it yet. I am going to. Really.

The Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse
This arrived with my copy of The Raven King, so I know it’s been staring at me resentfully since May.

Darkthaw by Kate Boorman
I read and loved Winterkill last year but have probably forgotten everything about it (were the people in it speaking French? And there were monsters or something?) so, perversely, I’ve been putting off reading the follow-up. This makes no sense as a strategy.

Darkness Follows by L.A. Weatherly
I have only had this for a few months but, as with Darkthaw, I need to read it before I forget my own name.

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Another Christmas gift from over a year ago, I have no excuse for not having read this yet.

Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
Here is a story of book-buying logic: I bought this at the airport on my way to Portugal in October 2015, struggled to fit it into my hand luggage, ignored it all week and haven’t picked it up since. Because I am terrible. I have a grand plan to reread my favourite Rushdies (The Ground Beneath Her Feet and Midnight’s Children, since yo u asked) but I have resolved to read this first.

Review: We Come Apart by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

we come apart.pngThe Premise: Jess is a teen shoplifter, tormented by her mum’s horrible boyfriend and seeing no hope for the future. Nicu is a Romanian migrant, struggling for acceptance in Britain while his parents plan his marriage. The two meet in community service and a tentative friendship ensues.

Thoughts: I requested a review copy of this book because I was such a fan of Crossan’s One that I didn’t think it was humanly possible to wait till February for it to come out. We Come Apart, like One, is written in verse, which I still think is a brave and admirable choice when writing YA. The style here is less delicate than that of Crossan’s previous work, particularly to begin with as Jess spends her sections trying to convince us of how tough she is. Nicu, on the other hand, also demonstrates a different style, with his broken English simultaneously representing the torment of the outsider and providing occasional comic relief.
I think it would have been very easy for this book to be completely miserable, and it’s a testament to the writing of both Crossan and Conaghan that this isn’t the case; the bond between Jess and Nicu is so beautifully realised that the bleakness of the story can almost be forgotten at times. I found their stories very enlightening; while a very different story, I was reminded of Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow, in which a refugee boy befriended a lonely girl, which has obvious parallels with We Come Apart in both subject matter and overall message. It seems to me that stories such as these could play a really important role in educating privileged teens (like the ones I teach) about a world they know very little about. We Come Apart will be high up on my list of options for teaching next year.
Although there’s a slight Romeo and Juliet vibe here, romance doesn’t play as important a role as friendship. The last act certainly borrows some of the tragic urgency of Shakespeare’s play, and it’s very effectively done.

In Conclusion: I’m glad I read this; although it’s not a very uplifting read, it’s certainly an important one, with timely messages about tolerance and acceptance, as well as a reasonably terrifying lesson about not being able to escape your fate, no matter how hard you try.

6 Degrees of Separation: from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to The Madwoman Upstairs

I’ve been stalking this meme for the last two months and finally remembered to write my own list of links in time for January’s round. 6 Degrees is hosted by Kate at booksaremyfavouriteandbest, who is very encouraging of new participants! So here I am.

This month’s starter book is The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, which I am pleased to say I have read for the purposes of this link-up, but less happy to recall as it contains some horrific scenes which are pretty grim to read. It is, however, better than the sequels, which are very boring and, as I recall, all about Swedish politics and computers. Anyway, tattoos feature heavily here, as they do in Ryan Graudin’s frankly marvellous YA alternate history, Wolf by Wolf (and its even better follow-up, Blood for Blood), in which concentration camp escapee and tattoo fan Yael is part of the resistance against Hitler in a world in which he won WWII.

Wolf by Wolf takes me to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, another counter-historical tale in which the Nazis came out on top. Graudin, incidentally, described Wolf by Wolf as ‘The Man in the High Castle meets X-Men,’ which basically should make all humans want to read it.

At the centre of Dick’s novel is a fictional novelist, who some of the other characters make it their mission to track down. The metanarrative leads me to David Means’ Hystopia, a wild reimagining (technically another alternate history – my links don’t seem to be taking me very far!) of the Vietnam war, in which one veteran returns home to write the story of a bizarre mind-bending treatment being forced on his fellow soldiers.

Vietnam leads me to Hannah Kohler’s excellent The Outside Lands, in which siblings Jeannie and Kip experience different aspects of the conflict; like the characters of Hystopia, Kip’s mental health isn’t affected in a particularly beneficial way by his experiences of warfare. For link reasons, and to move this list away from American conflicts of the 1960s, Jeannie also has a very annoying and patronising husband.

On the subject of annoying and patronising men, I present Mr Rochester from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: a man so prone to condescension that I was quite pleased at the end when he nearly got burned alive.

Taking the Brontë link for my final book, I’ve read a weird amount of books about the sisters or based on their works in the past year, one of which was Catherine Lowell’s The Madwoman Upstairs, which imagines a descendant of Charlotte, Anne and Emily trying to cope with that legacy while studying literature at Cambridge. One imagine that, had she really wanted to get away from it, she might have opted for a different degree subject.


Review: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

homegoingThe Premise: Effia and Esi are half-sisters (not that they know it) in eighteenth century Ghana, whose lives take very different turns. Effia is married off to an English soldier and living in relative comfort, while Esi is a prisoner in the dungeons beneath, soon to be sold into slavery. Homegoing begins with these women, then alternates between descendants of each until reaching the present day.

Thoughts: I was absorbed in Homegoing from the very beginning. Gyasi creates such a strong image of Effia’s life, cursed with a beautiful face and a cruel mother, and the reader is able to get to know her well, as she escapes one traumatic home for one that is more luxurious but still dangerous. When Esi’s story begins, dovetailing with Effia’s, Gyasi neatly accomplishes the trick of securing the reader’s interest in two linked but contrasting narratives. Other novels have sought to perform the same trick and failed, only serving to confuse the reader; while I will admit to keeping a constantly updated family tree next to me while reading Homegoing, my occasional confusion was more than compensated by my immense enjoyment. My fear in novel which encompasses so many different individual stories is always that I will fail to engage with some of them and find myself longing for the ones that got me hooked at the outset; there was no risk of this whatsoever when reading Homegoing, because every aspect of the narrative is enthralling.
When Esi is sold into slavery, it means her descendants’ stories take place in America, which allows Gyasi to expand into the impact of slavery, as well as more modern aspects of race relations. Some of this reminded me of the equally excellent The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, and both novels provide a visceral and harrowing account of life on the plantations. Meanwhile, the descendants of Effia witness war between competing factions in Ghana, also dealing with the impact of the slave trade. Gyasi’s writing is so wonderful that Homegoing never seems like an “issues” novel; rather, the real-life backdrop to the lives of her creations serves to add greater tension and interest. Although completely different in style, reading Homegoing gave me some of the pleasant feelings I experienced when reading Edward  Rutherfurd’s historical novels, like New York and London, both of which give a comprehensive account of a city’s history through generations of connected families. My only complaint about Homegoing is that, unlike Rutherfurd’s wrist-endangering epics, it is relatively short: only about 300 pages. But what excellent pages they are.

In Conclusion: Homegoing is a really extraordinary novel. Its scale is vast and sweeping, spanning from Africa to the USA, over more than 200 years; in taking on such a huge swathe of history, Gyasi has produced something that feels genuinely important. I already want to read it again and can see it becoming a true favourite in the future.