The Monthly Round-Up: April

April was a good reading month for me, although I continue to feel slightly stressed by how many books I keep buying when I can realistically only read one a day, and that’s peak performance. One day I will literally be crushed by a pile of unread books falling on my head. But until then, I shall keep recapping what I’ve read each month, just because it’s fun.

  1. See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
    Excellent fictionalised account of the Borden murders; it’s suitably creepy and made me think of Shirley Jackson, which is obviously a good thing.
  2. Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
    It took me three attempts to get going on this but, once I did, I really enjoyed it. The creation of the lost city of Weep by Taylor is exquisite and beautiful.
  3. A Book for Her by Bridget Christie
    Christie is a comedian who’s made her name by talking about feminism on-stage. The book doesn’t contain anything particularly new or world-changing in terms of feminism, but it’s engaging, sometimes funny and often striking.
  4. Patchwork by Ellen Banda-Aaku
    A short but really compelling book set in Zambia, about a young girl and her difficult relationships with both her parents. I recommend it.
  5. Watchmen by Alan Moore
    Having bought the complete edition a year ago, I finally read it. I think it would have been nicer to read a year ago when a new Cold War didn’t seem quite so likely…
  6. The Sundial by Shirley Jackson
    My obsession with Jackson continues. I think this is my favourite of her lesser-known novels (by which I mean everything apart from We Have Always Lived in the Castle and The Haunting of Hill House). It’s about a weird family who believe the world’s going to end, and they’ll be safe as long as they stay in their massive house.
  7. Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
    Weirdly, Amazon sent me an email about this and described it as a ‘thriller’, which I think is a bit of a misnomer, but it is an excellent story of an autistic girl with a horrible childhood behind her. That made it sound really depressing but it isn’t.
  8. Spontaneous by Aaron Starmer
    The start of this YA about teens spontaneously combusting was brilliant. It tailed off a bit towards the end, but it’s very wrong and weird and what’s not to like about that?
  9. Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? by Katrine Marçal
    An interesting analysis of economics with an emphasis on how women are excluded from economic analysis.
  10. The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan
    This is now my pick for the Baileys Prize; it’s very long but really absorbing. It also isn’t as much about horse racing as the title and cover would lead you to believe.
  11. The Jungle by Pooja Puri
    This is a YA novel about the refugee camp in Calais. Some of it is very hard-hitting; there were parts of it that I didn’t find as convincing, but the author has presumably done a a lot more research into this than I have.
  12. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
    Surely the most talked-about book of the year so far, THUG is as good as I’d been led to believe. I’ll be reviewing it for Fourth and Sycamore and trying to invent new adjectives because I’m pretty sure they’ve all been used already.
  13. Saga Volume 7 by Brian K. Vaughan
    Reading Saga is all very well until your four year old daughter climbs onto your lap and says “can I read your book with you, Mummy?” It’s not exactly child-friendly (yes, robot penis on page 3, I’m talking about you) but it is brilliant.
  14. Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner
    Why does Jeff Zentner hate me so much? His first book, The Serpent King, made me cry a lot, but Goodbye Days had me choking up all the bloody way through. It’s really lovely and good grief, the dude can write. But be prepared: it’s really, really sad.
  15. No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal
    At times witty, at times touching, this is about Indian immigrants in Cleveland. It’s very much character-based rather than heavy on plot, but that’s no bad thing.
  16. Nobody Told Me: Poetry and Parenthood by Hollie McNish
    Brilliant mixture of journal entries and poems, I really wish I’d had this really honest depiction of motherhood when my daughter was a baby; it would have helped me a lot when I was feeling like I had no idea what I was doing. Not because it offers any advice, but because it makes it clear that noone knows what they’re doing.
  17. Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
    I really liked this collection of short stories, many of which were either very weird or very disturbing or both. The running theme is to satirise the concept of women being dismissed as “difficult,” and it works beautifully.
  18. Flight of a Starling by Lisa Heathfield
    Once again, Lisa Heathfield decides to make me cry with a beautiful but tragic YA. She is mean.
  19. Windfall by Jennifer E. Smith
    I received a lovely proof copy of this from My Kinda Book and was very pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. I haven’t been enjoying YA contemporary novels as much recently, but this story of a lottery win and how it affects the girl who buys the ticket and the boy she gives it to really grabbed me.
  20. The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
    Disappointingly short, but an interesting story of environmental disaster and its consequences.
  21. The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
    I felt like I had to read this because I’m using an extract from it with one of my classes for revision, and it really shames me when they ask me about a book and I haven’t read it. This went on a bit but was essentially a charming depiction of 1970s England. I mean, I assume it is; I feel it necessary to point out I wasn’t alive then, so it’s hard to know.
  22. The Beauty, Volume 1 by Jeremy Haun
    I liked this weird graphic novel about the consequences of pursuing beauty at all costs. It’s clever and reasonably disturbing.
  23. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
    A companion novel to the lovely My Name Is Lucy Barton, this is more like a collection of short stories, focusing on the residents of the town Lucy left behind. It’s a lovely read.
  24. The Women Who Shaped Politics by Sophy Ridge
    This was completely fascinating, taking in Queen Mary, Margaret Thatcher and the Suffragettes, as well as unfortunately giving me nightmares by ending with Theresa May. I learned a lot from reading this, particularly about the first female MPs and the discrimination faced (and still being faced) ever since.
  25. October is the Coldest Month by Christoffer Carlsson
    A bit of a letdown – I was intrigued by the idea of YA Scandi-noir, but this was a little too slight to fully engage me. It was also far more sexually explicit than I would think was okay in YA. I am basically a Victorian though.
  26. Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan
    Confusion reigned at the beginning of this as I was under the impression it’s YA and this is clearly not the case. That aside, there were things about this I really liked; the space-set sections and the creation of a futuristic utopian society were fascinating, but the romance didn’t really grab me.
  27. Relativity by Antonia Hayes
    I was surprised by how much I disliked this book, but I think the blurb is quite misleading and if I’d had an idea of what the secret at the heart of the story was, I wouldn’t have read it at all.
  28. Fall in One Day by Craig Terlson
    An intriguing YA, set in 1970s Canada, about the disappearance of a teenage boy and the lengths to which his friend goes to get him back.
  29. We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler
    Having adored The Basic Eight and hated Watch Your Mouth, I didn’t know how this would go. It was enjoyably quirky and strange, and I love Handler’s style.
  30. Flying Lessons and Other Stories edited by Ellen Oh
    This collection of stories was lovely and I’ll be trying to convince my boss to let me buy a load of copies for teaching next year. I really liked how the writers, representing a wide range of racial backgrounds, told stories that were relatable but unique. A really good collection.
  31. How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis
    Nice but not particularly ground-breaking look at literary heroines. I liked how the author intertwined her own life with her literary reflections though.
  32. Noteworthy by Riley Redgate
    I had mixed feelings about Redgate’s previous book, Seven Ways We Lie, but this YA about acapella, set in a performing arts school, was really fun and I raced through it.
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Review: The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan

the sport of kingsThe Premise: the Forges are a Kentucky dynasty, represented through the biggest part of the novel by Henry, a ruthless racehorse owner who defied his father’s wishes to pursue his ambition. Henry’s daughter Henrietta is his partner in breeding the perfect horse, but their lives are complicated by the arrival of Allmon, a black man just released from prison and eager to achieve his own equine goals.

Thoughts: I was put off The Sport of Kings initially, mainly due to its length; it’s over 500 pages and, additionally, it appears to be all about horse-racing, which is not a big interest of mine. It was only on the third attempt that I really got involved in the story, but I’m really pleased that I kept at it, because it’s a brilliant book. It opens with Henry’s childhood, harangued by a racist and cruel father, suffocated by the needs of his hearing-impaired mother; it’s not an auspicious opening, but it sets the foundations for Henry’s behaviour and attitudes in later life. The story really gets going with Henrietta, particularly when Allmon enters the scene; I found myself completely unwilling to put the book down as I was so absorbed in the epic narrative.

The Sport of Kings deals with some big issues. From Henry Forge’s father’s reprehensibly racist views, passed on in some part to his son, to Allmon’s troubled childhood and later incarceration, race plays a key part throughout the novel, which wasn’t what I expected when I started it. It creates immense tension, in the competitive horse-racing industry as well as in the personal relationships between the characters. It’s hard to read at times, such is the awfulness of the attitudes on show.

For a book to be so long and earn its keep, it has to be really epic in scale, and The Sport of Kings achieves this; sweeping through generations and two intertwining narrative strands, Morgan’s intentions and execution are really grand. The deeply held resentments, familial trauma and shock tragedies build up to something really Shakespearean; it would be easy to dismiss some of these events as overblown, but, as with a theatrical tragedy, the reader is swept up in the melodrama and the final effect is cathartic. There is some creepy and plain disturbing content, and the themes, while enthralling, aren’t always subtle; overall, though, these don’t detract from the impressive nature of Morgan’s writing.

In Conclusion: I read The Sport of Kings as part of my frantic attempt to read everything on the Baileys Prize longlist. Since embarking on this epic mission, it has been shortlisted too, and I think it needs to win. Although the prose is a little flowery at times (and there’s one character late on who talks like Thor which I didn’t really get), there’s so much gorgeous writing. I loved the sweeping scale and broad themes, as well as the intimacy of the character studies. It’s really quite an extraordinary novel.

YA Review: Goodbye Days by Jeff Zentner

goodbye daysThe Premise: Carver is waiting for his friends to pick him up from work, so he sends a text message to ask when they’ll be there. The car crashes and all his friends die. Goodbye Days follows Carver’s attempts to overcome his grief, guilt and possible criminal investigations.

Thoughts: obviously, Goodbye Days is incredibly, heartbreakingly sad. It’s sad on the first page, it’s sad on the last page and it’s sad on all the pages in between. Sometimes, I almost thought it was too sad; I wondered why I was reading something that was making me feel so profoundly upset. This is probably a question about literature as a whole, rather than this specific book.

In the case of Zentner, the reason you keep reading is that his writing is so beautiful that it would be criminal not to carry on. Carver is a writer too, so his first person narrative is full of delicate and devastating reflections on his feelings. Most upsetting are the flashbacks to the times he spent with Blake, Eli and Mars; the reader only gets to know them through these flashbacks, which makes us feel like we’re missing out, because they sound amazing. I can’t remember a fictional group of friends that sounded so authentic, warm and hilarious. Zentner achieved all of these things with The Serpent King too; tragic stories and touching friendships are clearly his thing. There are some beautiful family relationships here too; I particularly liked Carver’s sister and feel strongly that she needs her own book, please and thank you.

Weirdly, there’s plenty of humour in Goodbye Days too; the friendship of the Sauce Crew, as Carver and his friends referred to themselves, is based on the kind of banter that often doesn’t quite work on paper, but it’s brilliantly realised here. But then the funny bits just make the sad bits sadder, because they’re over; this book could be used as the dictionary definition of ‘bittersweet’.

In Conclusion: Goodbye Days is sad. Did I mention that? It’s really, really bloody sad. But it’s also warm and lovely and exquisitely written. I felt completely absorbed in Carver’s story; he’s an appealing character and it’s impossible not to feel for him. The book also makes you consider ideas about responsibility and blame, with Carver’s role in the death of his best friends under scrutiny throughout. I think everyone should read Goodbye Days, but be warned; you need to be feeling emotionally strong before you commit.

Top Ten Tuesday: Ultimate Bookish Turn-Offs

This week’s TTT, hosted as always by The Broke and The Bookish, is the opposite of last week’s, when we talked about the factors that make us want to read a book; this week is all about the things that put us off.

Mainstream snobbery
Look, I won’t lie; I’m a book snob. Generally speaking, I am not going to read something if a) people who don’t like reading like it, b) it’s being advertised at the train station or c) you can buy it in the supermarket. I’m not proud of these things; they’re just true. So, no, I haven’t read Before I Go to Sleep, or The Da Vinci Code.

Teenage melodrama
I still read a fair bit of YA, and a decent amount of that is contemporary, but if the synopsis sounds anything like “insert girl name never dreamed of finding a boyfriend and then UNBELIEVABLY two boys fancy her at once,” it’s just a “no” from me.

Early modern period
I’m not sure if this has been a conscious choice, but I just don’t read anything set in the early modern period, so The Other Boleyn Girl and Wolf Hall have not been on my shelves and probably never will be. It’s odd, because I studied that period at A-level and enjoyed it, but I just don’t want to read about it.

Jodi Picoult
I read two Picoult books a long time ago and hated them with such a violent passion that I scared the neighbours. I don’t mind emotive books, but I don’t want to be emotionally manipulated by one.

“For fans of John Green/Rainbow Rowell”
I have read John Green books and experienced mixed feelings. I love Rainbow Rowell. But it really annoys me when novels are compared to them; it smells of a cash-in to me, like all those dystopian books that were meant to be “for fans of The Hunger Games.

PDAs on covers
I cannot abide all those awful covers with couples intwined around each other, or that just show legs; like, with a girl doing an annoying Kelly Kapowski-style foot pop (if you were a teenager in the ’90s, I know you know what I mean). Or a topless man. This rules out, as far as I can see, all romance and New Adult novels, which is fine with me.

“First in an exciting new series!” 
I am already involved in too many series, particularly for a person who can never remember what happened in the previous book (not helped when they’re released so bloody far apart). So, until I can call time on An Ember in the Ashes, Throne of Glass, Red Queen and Illuminae, I’m just not looking to get involved. It’s not you, it’s me. Okay, it’s kind of you.

Misery Memoirs
No, no, no. I will not read any of those books about someone’s horrible childhood. I sympathise with people who had a horrible childhood – really, I do – but I have no desire to read about it.

500+ pages
I do read really long books (The Sport of Kings was over 500 pages and Les Miserables is 1200 and that’s one of my favourites) but I have developed a stupid mental barrier against reading anything more than 500 pages, because it will take me more than 2 days and, for some reason, I don’t find that acceptable. It is stupid.

Middlemarch
Well, I’ve been meaning to read it for two years now and it hasn’t happened.

Do you share any of my virulent objections? Please let me know and leave your links in the comments.