The Monthly Round-Up: May

Another month of reading is over and yet, somehow, I still have a million books to read. This could have something to do with how many I keep buying. I don’t know: there must be some logical explanation. Here’s what I read in May.

  1. Narcissism for Beginners by Martine McDonagh
    Catcher in the Rye– esque trip to the UK for privileged man-child with dubious background. It grew on me.
  2. The Circus by Olivia Levez
    I went a bit berserk requesting new YA titles on NetGalley a few weeks ago and reading this made me wish my past self had been a bit more discerning. Review here.
  3. The Lightning Dreamer by Margarita Engle
    Continuing my recent obsession with verse novels, this is a YA read about a girl who campaigned against slavery in Cuba. It was rather beautiful.
  4. The Ice by Laline Paull
    I loved The Bees by Paull so I was all over requesting this on NetGalley but it was surprisingly boring. It is a testament to my unwillingness to abandon books that I actually finished it.
  5. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
    One of my favourite books of 2017 so far; my review’s here and you can buy the book now and make it a massive and gorgeous bestseller which should absolutely happen.
  6. Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste
    Continuing my African literary odyssey, this is set Ethiopia in 1974, as revolution begins to tear apart society. It’s a really enthralling and traumatic book: well worth reading.
  7. The Breaking of a Wave by Fabio Genovesi
    Something a little gentler, this is set in a small Tuscan town and follows the town’s inhabitants as they deal with tragedy. Weirdly, it’s also sweet and funny.
  8. Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
    I’ve had this on my shelf for over a year and finally got to it in May. It was interesting enough, although all the Courtney Love shade was completely not needed.
  9. Augustown by Kei Miller
    This is brilliant: set in a Jamaican town and veering between odd past events and politically charged violence in the present, it’s an extraordinarily good book.
  10. Reaching for the Stars: Poems About Extraordinary Women by Jan Dean, Liz Brownlee and Michaela Morgan
    This was lovely; a collection of poems, aimed at younger readers, about the achievements of women and girls throughout history. It made me smile a lot and I immediately started buying copies for other people’s daughters. Here’s my review.
  11. The Road Through the Wall by Shirley Jackson
    My least favourite of Jackson’s novels, this plodding story of a bunch of interchangeable and annoying neighbours took a really long time to go anywhere, by which time I’d already lost interest.
  12. Mr Either/Or by Aaron Poochigan
    Not actually out until October, but look out for it then: this wildly entertaining verse novel follows an undercover agent hunting down an ancient and supernatural object and getting shot at a lot along the way. One of the most original things I’ve read this year.
  13. Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou
    My love of Mabanckou continues with this Man Booker International Prize longlisted story of an orphan whose life becomes more complicated when he escapes his orphanage and falls in with some ‘interesting’ crowds.
  14. Above Sugar Hill by Linda Mannheim
    Short stories set in a specific part of New York: I didn’t love this but it was okay.
  15. Release by Patrick Ness
    Predictably beautiful YA novel from the king of beautiful YA novels.
  16. Do What You Want edited by Ruby Tandoh and Leah Pritchard
    This is a zine focused on mental health. It looks gorgeous and is a fascinating read too; the approach is on highlighting mental illness and the ways in which people suffering from it can be supported.
  17. White Fur by Jardine Libaire
    I wasn’t sure about this to start with but I quickly fell in love with the Romeo and Juliet-influenced plot and class issues between the central couple. A really excellent read.
  18. Shopgirl by Steve Martin
    I read this because it’s the starter book for next month’s Six Degrees of Separation and really wish I hadn’t bothered. It was mercifully brief but just so annoyingly stereotypical with female and male characters alike that I couldn’t really enjoy it.
  19. A Tragic Kind of Wonderful by Eric Lindstrom
    A decent YA read about a teenage girl struggling with her mental health. It took a really long time to grab my attention; I was hoping it would match up to Lindstrom’s Not If I See You First but my dreams were sadly shattered.
  20. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Tennessee Williams
    I read this for some wider knowledge of Williams’ work, as I’m teaching A Streetcar Named Desire for approximately the millionth time. This is another excellent play, although I’ve now watched the film too and the plot was so different that it annoyed me a lot.
  21. Plum by Hollie McNish
    McNish’s new collection of poetry is just as affecting and relatable as Nobody Told Me, but covers a wider range of experience, from young childhood to motherhood. McNish rules.
  22. Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfar
    I loved this. It’s about a man who quite randomly becomes an astronaut, forced to leave behind his wife as well as the difficult legacy of his politically poisonuos father. It’s a brilliant mix of sci-fi and domestic drama.
  23. Mirror in the Sky by Aditi Khorana
    I have mixed feelings about this. The stuff about the discovery of a new, Earth-like planet is really cool, but the adolescent drama is, oddly, a bit less convincing.
  24. Worth Dying For by Tim Marshall
    I loved Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography and, while this wasn’t quite as enthralling, it was extremely interesting and quite witty. Using flags and their origins as his starting point, Marshall provides a primer on many of the geopolitical issues that still rumble on. It’s really fascinating.
  25. Solo by Kwame Alexander with Mary Rand Ness
    A YA verse novel about the son of an alcoholic rock star, this had some good moments but, overall, the verse was a little too straightforward for me.
  26. Rat Queens by Kurtis J. Wiebe and Roc Upchurch
    I really enjoyed this graphic novel; the characters of the Rat Queens are all so cool and badass. I’m looking forward to picking up the next book.
  27. Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky
    A ridiculously beautiful book about the women who’ve made amazing scientific discoveries, I bought this to read with my daughter but the science was a little too complicated for me to explain to a pathologically curious 4 year old. Lovely for an older reader or someone less prone to showing up their mother’s scientific knowledge by asking “why?” every ten seconds though,
  28. The Bureau of Second Chances by Sheena Kalayil
    To begin with, I thought this wasn’t going to be my kind of thing at all; it’s about a widower who moves back to India from London after 30 years away, and the ways in which he establishes a new life there. It’s very, very gentle, but I found myself enjoying reading something nice for a change.
  29. Here I Stand, edited by Amnesty International UK
    An excellent collection of hard-hitting short stories on the subject of human rights: I really recommend this and I’ll be using it at school next year.
  30. Captain Marvel Volume 1 by Kelly Sue DeConnick
    This is a fun and fast-moving graphic novel. I’d never encountered Captain Marvel before but I now love her.
  31. When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
    Such a cute and lovely YA romance – not a genre I usually enjoy – and one which was exactly what I needed to read. Worthy of all the hype.
  32. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
    This is an intriguing thriller-type book about a dad with a very shady past and a whole host of bullet wounds to show for it, and his daughter as they try to start a new, law-abiding life.
  33. Delusions of Gender: The Read Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine
    I was fascinated by this study of myths about male and female brains, boys being better at maths and why children opt for gendered toys. It’s quite complex at times but largely accessible and often very witty.
  34. Godblind by Anna Stephens
    I wanted to read some grown-up fantasy and that’s what this is. The massive number of narrative viewpoints threw me a bit, but this is definitely a book for people who generally enjoy the fantasy genre.
  35. City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson
    Some hardcore political YA with a backdrop of civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, this is quite a challenging read but a really worthwhile one.
  36. Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag
    Short but sweet: this India-set novel about a reasonably dysfunctional family is entertaining and interesting.

Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think?

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Reads for the rest of 2017

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is all about our most anticipated books being released in the rest of 2017. Here are mine:

Our Dark Duet by V.E. Schwab
I really liked This Savage Song, so I’m looking forward to this sequel, which comes out in June. I am hoping for more of the creepy monsters and Kate beating people up.

Because You Love to Hate Me: 13 Tales of Villainy, edited by Ameriie
An anthology of short stories by YA authors and booktubers (I think), this sounds pretty cool.

Mr Either/Or by Aaron Poochigian
This is a bit of a cheat as I’ve already read this delightfully bonkers verse novel about a secret agent pursuing a mysterious ancient Chinese relic. It comes out in October and I hope it sells a bazillion copies.

Things a Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls
YA about suffragettes? Yes please.

A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe
I have an e-ARC of this and am so excited to read it. Apparently it moves from people trafficking to African folklore, following a girl who was the only survivor of an attempt by refugees to make it across the ocean. It sounds incredible.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
I really enjoyed Ward’s Salvage the Bones, and I’m eager to read this, which is described as “a searing, urgent read for anyone who thinks the shadows of slavery and Jim Crow laws have passed.”

Indigo by about a million authors
Somehow, this seems to have been written by a whole handful of different authors, and is, I think, a kind of mystery-thriller-superhero type thing. It sounds cool and Seanan Maguire is one of the authors, which excites me.

Godblind by Anna Stephens
I have an e-ARC of this and it sounds cool. It’s a grown-up fantasy and the plot sounds really complicated and weird. Woohoo.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
I really liked Ng’s Everything You Never Told Me, so I’ve got high hopes for this, described as “the intertwined stories of the picture-perfect Richardson family and the mother and daughter who upend their lives.”

City of Spies by Sorayya Khan
This is set in 1970s Pakistan, focusing on the personal traumas of an eleven year old girl, set against a backdrop of political upheaval. This ticks several of my “must read” boxes so I want it.

What are you anticipating for the rest of the year?

Thoughts on The Handmaid’s Tale, Episode 1: Offred

handmaidI have been eagerly anticipating the TV series of The Handmaid’s Tale; as I’ve mentioned about a bazillion times here, Atwood’s novel is one of my favourites of all time and an incredibly important book to me. I’ve also been nervous about it; I’m a notorious nitpicker when it comes to pointing out and being offended by changes to source material (case in point: “this is an outrage; Bridget Jones is only meant to weigh 11 stone!”). Here’s what I thought about episode 1. Warning: this will contain episode 1 spoilers, but I’ll try very hard not to mention what happens later in the book, in case anyone reading this hasn’t read the novel.

So, the opening scene of Offred’s daughter being taken was obviously incredibly traumatic; it’s a moment that’s only mentioned later on in the novel, so I was surprised to see it appear so early in the series. I understand it though; it’s a good way of humanising the narrator and giving some backstory, whereas Atwood throws the reader straight into Gilead without any initial background. I can see why this way works better for TV.

I was pleased to hear some of Atwood’s original text used verbatim in this episode; although the novel’s opening line has been elided, the infamous “a chair, a table, a lamp” (which, I think, anyone who’s read the novel would remember) was included. It certainly makes the series a better revision resource for my sixth form class than many other adaptations have been in the past.

Since the announcement of the cast, I’ve had some reservations about Joseph Fiennes as the Commander and Yvonne Strahovsky as Serena Joy, mainly because they’re far younger than those characters in the book. The Commander’s grey hair and the reference to him being like a shoemaker have obviously been rejected in favour of a different approach, and, having seen the two actors in the roles, I actually kind of get it. The more I read The Handmaid’s Tale, the more sympathy I have for Serena and casting a younger actress to play her is clever in terms of adding pathos to her childlessness. The part where she was shut out of a meeting of the Commanders was, I think, an intriguing addition. I thought Fiennes was actually very good in this first episode; the Ceremony (again, something which comes much later in the novel) was more chilling than I’ve ever imagined it when reading. It’s always seemed just horribly awkward and uncomfortable to me before, but the dispassionate thrusting and bored expression on his face made it even worse to me.

Some other thoughts on the cast: I really like Elisabeth Moss as Offred. She’s an actress I like anyway and I think she did so much just with her facial expressions in this episode. Max Minghella is certainly very easy on the eye, and this, combined with the various interactions Nick and Offred shared in episode 1, added a frisson which you don’t get in the early part of the novel. My favourite is Samira Wiley as Moira; she was always my favourite in Orange is the New Black and I was thrilled to see her cast here. I enjoyed the additional scenes between Offred and Moira, which is in no small part due to Wiley.

As someone who’s basically committed The Handmaid’s Tale to memory over the last 17 years, I did pull a face at some of the dialogue. I’m fine with additions to the novel; so much of Atwood’s text is Offred’s inner monologue, which wouldn’t work for a TV series, but some of the more colloquial, non-regulated exchanges jarred a teeny, tiny bit. Ofglen’s revelation that a certain flavour of ice cream was “better than sex,” in particular, had me hurumphing at the screen. The regimented greetings are so important in the book – “under His eye,” “may the Lord open,” etc – that some of these parts just felt weird to me.

On the subject of Ofglen, did anyone else think the makers of the show have thrown away a colossal amount of material in the first episode? Between the Ceremony, the Particicution, the revelation of Ofglen as a rebel, the backstory of Offred’s family and all the Janine stuff (the eye! Where did that come from?), I wonder if nothing at all is going to happen for the next three episodes. This first one was very pacy and action-packed, where the novel is tense and quiet in its opening chapters, so I’m interested to see how this pans out. And what about the reveal that Offred’s name is June? For me as a reader and, indeed, every time, I’ve taught the novel, the mystery of her name is quite a big thing, so I was surprised that it was used so early, or even at all. Perhaps a way of making clear the character’s resistance to the regime and connection to the past?

A few other things: Aunt Lydia is terrifying. A bit like the Trunchbull, I thought? I liked how Atwood pulled a Stan Lee and popped up in one scene. I loved the use of You Don’t Own Me over the end credits; that was genius.

Did you watch The Handmaid’s Tale? Are you a fan of the book? I have a tremendous urge to discuss it, so please get involved in the comments. I’ll be forcing more of my opinions on the world next week after episode 2 is aired.

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done: A Discussion

see-what-i-have-doneI was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of Sarah Schmidt’s excellent See What I Have Done, a fictionalised account of the Borden murders, released in the UK in April, although readers in the US (those who don’t have a handy friend in the UK with a spare copy, anyway), will have to wait until August. My review is here, should you be interested.

Having received an extra copy in a pleasing administrative error, I sent it whizzing to Ohio, to be read by David Nilsen, my former editor at Fourth and Sycamore. We recently chatted about the book, among other subjects which include pears. It will make sense, I promise.

Katy: Firstly, the Lizzie Borden story isn’t, I think, very well-known here in the UK. I vaguely recall it being mentioned a lot in a YA book I read a long time ago, although I can’t remember what it was, which is very annoying. What was your level of familiarity with the background to the book before reading? Is it really well-known over there?

David: Yes and no. It’s a name people have an awareness of, and a story most people have heard at some point, but it’s not a part of popular mythology or anything. That’s basically where I was. I had read about it at some point, but didn’t have any clear impression of what had happened. I had heard the name, and I remembered the rhyme once I heard it. Let’s discuss the obvious Shirley Jackson parallel. The first word I wrote down, just a few pages into the novel, was “Merrikat,” and then when i read your review, I saw you noticed the same thing.

Katy: Absolutely. There are so many parallels; the sisters, the did-she-didn’t-she murders, the gothic setting and even the rhymes about the protagonists. It’s not even just We Have Always Lived in the Castle; I’ve read a lot of Jackson this year and See What I Have Done reminded me a lot of The Bird’s Nest as well, with its shifts in narrative perspective. Usually when I compare a book to something else it’s damning it with faint praise; I generally mean the book I’m discussing is a less-good version of what I’m comparing it to, but I didn’t feel that way here. I was thrilled to read a new novel in that style; it’s not like Shirley’s going to be writing any more, after all.
So you made the association too; was this a positive for you?

David: Mostly. It was very well done, and she more or less hit the same notes as Jackson did in We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The only downside of it was that it was almost too close of a match. I felt like I was reading a book that actually starred Merrikat in a new setting. It’s a meticulous match, which is admirable on one hand, but I think I would have preferred an homage that allowed for some differentiation.

Katy: The general grossness of See What I Have Done made me think of Ottessa Moshfegh too; all the vomit and odours drew a direct line in my brain to that woman in Homesick for Another World who has deoderant fluff in her armpits. Did you find any of the language here off-putting? Did you think it could have gone further? I liked how visceral it was. I also like using the word visceral.

David: I saw you made that connection in your review, and while I see where it comes from, I didn’t feel quite the same way. There’s definitely some gore, and some unpleasantness, but I felt like it was significantly more stylized than Moshfegh’s writing, in which that stuff is intentionally unvarnished to make it even harder to deal with. Schmidt didn’t spare any details, but she also put a gloss over it that kept it from feeling so…icky.

Katy: I forgot I said that in my review.

David: Am I making that up?

Katy: No, I’ve just looked at my notes. I forget my own thoughts very quickly. I am basically a fish in a Pixar movie.

David: One place I did feel like the book got really uncomfortable was when we were Ben’s head. When he’s describing attacking his father’s new wife, and talking about the maid, etc.

Katy: I enjoyed 3 of the 4 voices. Not Benjamin.

David: I thought he was well handled, but uncomfortable to read. Was your lack of enjoyment on that level, or did you feel those portions were poorly written?

Katy: I just didn’t really understand why he was there. He wasn’t bringing much to the party and being in Lizzie’s head was far more fun. Although fun is perhaps not quite the right word…

David: Well, one part where his role is clear, and where I felt like the book dropped off into obvious exposition, was in the late chapter that takes place in 1905. He describes the trial and all the aftermath, and it’s just an obvious device for the author to tell us what happened. I get that there wasn’t probably another way for her to do that, but it felt inferior to the rest of the book. Lacked interiority, for one thing, but also was just a transparent exposition device.

Katy: I’ve just reread some bits of the book and Benjamin’s sections just jarred with me. I think it was because Lizzie, Emma and Bridget were all actually involved and on the inside of events, but he wasn’t, which made things seem a bit unbalanced. Uncle John could have served a similar purpose as a narrator, no? It was a while ago that I read it so perhaps I’m not remembering it correctly. I have also just skimmed through the last chapter and now I am going to think about the final sentence all night.

David: Yes and no. I think he’s there specifically to be an outsider. I think she shied away from using John because she wanted him to be somewhat opaque and creepy.
You just made me look at the book. Yes, that’s a great final line.

Katy: For me, it’s a real ‘what the fuck’ ending and I like those.

David: Totally. For me, my favorite character, and my favorite to be inside her head, was Bridget. I thought she was fantastic. She was the bridge between insider/outsider, and in some ways had the most to lose. When she talked about her family in Ireland, or when she lost her money, or had to leave without it, etc, it had real empathy. She’s the only one of these characters I think I would like to talk to over coffee or a drink. She and Emma were the only really sympathetic characters.
Lizzie was something of a brat. I guess that’s one way she was different from Merrikat. The latter was likable and sympathetic. Lizzie was a selfish pain in the ass with her sister.

Katy: I do enjoy a proper unsympathetic character though. It’s Lizzie that stood out to me from the start; her freezing reaction to her father’s death right at the beginning was brilliant. And it made the central mystery so compelling to me.

David: Oh, she’s well done, for sure. But I do want Someone I can rest with, someone I can feel like my proxy in the book who I can sympathize with. Bridget filled that role.

Katy: Probably this makes you a more well-balanced person than me. I just like psychopaths, apparently.

David: Did you not like Bridget?

Katy: I did, and Emma too. But, as with all books that flit between different narrators, I found myself yearning to get back to one of them and it was Lizzie. Maybe because hers was the first voice we hear in the book so it’s what settled me into the narrative. Settled, again, is the wrong word. She was just the most interesting to me. But I did empathise with Bridget’s predicament; as you point out, the other women are relatively insulated by wealth and status, while she’s vulnerable in lots of ways.

David: That makes sense. I think one of my hang-ups with Lizzie—and I should say that I did like her, just not as much as Bridget and Emma—is that I don’t generally like unreliable narrators, and she was the only one.

Katy: See, there’s where we differ. We English teachers LOVE unreliable narrators. They are our lifeblood. Our reason for living.

David: That’s just so you get to explain unreliable narrators to awed high schoolers though. I jest.

Katy: It is kind of true. Kids hate them though. “Miss, why can’t books just be true?” Umm, because that’s not how fiction works. My last question is about genre. I don’t read much crime fiction, if any. Do you? I am guessing the ambiguous resolution makes this less than representative of the genre, but having read this I feel like I’d be interested in more historical crime, true or otherwise.

David: I don’t read much crime fiction. What I do read is this sort of literary crime fiction. I would say they run the gamut, but often do leave some ambiguity or lack of resolution.
Did you ever read Daphne du Maurier? She was one of my first literary loves as a teenager, and fit this kind of literary thriller genre.

Katy: I love Du Maurier. She’s one of those writers all female English teachers like, in my experience, along with Atwood and Plath. Let’s discuss Du Maurier some time.

David: Let’s. Two other quick notes on the book: Emma’s lost engagement was heartbreaking. And early on, Schmidt kept doing this word repetition thing that she ended up largely abandoning later. Did you notice that?

Katy: I do not recall making this observation. Like what?

David: Just within the first few pages, she uses “ticked ticked” multiple times, and also “gallop gallop,” “tacky tacky,” “sip sip,” “turn it turn it.” There might be more. But it’s not a device that continues on for most of the novel.

Katy: Oh wait, I remember this now. I saw it as an indicator of Lizzie’s weirdly childish sensibility but then didn’t notice it disappear. Part of some kind of psychotic break in the aftermath of the murders? I love diagnosing fictional entities with terms I don’t entirely understand.

David: Yeah, that’s probably it, but it’s not like she becomes more mature or stable or rational later on, so why doesn’t it continue?

Katy: True. I do not have an answer for this.

David: I don’t accept that.

Katy: Well this is awkward.

David: We should talk briefly about pears.

Katy: I don’t like them.

David: They’re used and referenced waaaaayyy too much to not mean something.
And there’s one on the cover. I like pear sauce with a bit of ginger, served hot. But they’re not my favorite fruit, no.

Katy: Pears take a million years to be ready to eat and then 15 minutes later they’re all soggy and gross. Perhaps this is relevant?

David: Honestly, it might be. The only thing I know about pears is how long they take to grow and mature. Perhaps it’s to show this is an old family, that these problems have been going on a long time, etc?

Katy: Apparently pears are mentioned 49 times. That does seem like a lot. I like your analysis.

David: They were mentioned at points where it seemed excessive, even. Too often to just be establishing scene or setting.

Katy: Maybe Sarah Schmidt just really likes pears.

And on that moment of rare literary insight, our discussion concluded. If you’ve read the book, what did you think? And if you haven’t, do you have strong feelings about pears, axe-murderers or seemingly random repetition? Why not let me know in the comments?
Thanks very much to Georgina Moore at Tinder Press for the review copies.