With almost a month behind us, it’s time for the first wrap up of the year. Throughout January, I finished a total of 9 books, and so without further ado, here are some thoughts on each of them, in the order I read them.
Sweetgirl by Travis Mulhauser
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A highly readable, page-turning read to kick off the year, Sweetgirl had a cinematic quality to it. The plot follows a teenage girl who inadvertently becomes embroiled in a dangerous cat-and-mouse chase when she rescues a baby from a drug den whilst searching for her mother before a big storm hits. The cold, bleak and isolated setting was painted very well, and though there were a few instances of coincidence and melodrama, I enjoyed the dark tone.
Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Though the catalyst of the book is a crime (two men who agree upon a chance meeting to each kill someone on behalf of the other), the focus is far more on the introspective look at madness and the effects of living a life ruled by secrets. Highsmith’s prose was very good, and I thought the homoerotic undertones between the two main characters added an interesting extra layer of depth to the themes of obsession and a desire to break free. Plot-wise, however, I felt it needed a bit more oomph; it follows a path you will no doubt expect, and personally, I think it would have benefitted from catching the reader off guard a little more.
A Slip Under the Microscope by H.G. Wells
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] These two short stories by Wells are very different plot-wise, but thematically they both urge us to go against the grain every now and then; to follow our hearts instead of our heads and revel in a little risk-taking. The title story very effectively poses a thought-provoking moral question; is honesty really always the best policy? It’s the companion story, The Door in the Wall that I adored, however. In gorgeous, vivid prose, Wells writes a poignant cautionary tale about not shutting yourself off from the wonder of the imagination, using a perfectly pitched hint of the fantastical. He discusses how, as we get older, we feel an increasing obligation to put our responsibilities over our heart’s desire, and in doing so, deprive ourselves of the joy and beauty that is a childlike lust for adventure, risk and creativity.
Stay with Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Literary fiction meets family drama, with a hint of an almost-thriller, Stay with Me centres around a Nigerian couple who have been unable to conceive a child, who are put under increasing pressure to welcome a second wife into their home to ensure to continuation of the male bloodline. From there, the plot takes many unexpected turns, and ultimately asks us to consider if love and hope are enough to overcome grief. It’s beautifully written, features brilliantly flawed and fleshed-out characters, and the themes of womanhood, and the pressures of societal norms and gender expectations are handled excellently.
Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art by Susan Aberth
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Leonora Carrington is a surrealist artist and writer. Though I was already a fan of her artwork, I was keen to learn more about her as a person. This analysis of her fascinating life and work is accompanied by high quality images of many of her pieces, and was exactly the sort of thing I was looking for. Known for being private, however, I would say there’s a degree of conjecture from Aberth involved, particularly where the inspiration and meaning behind certain works are concerned. I didn’t mind this, I just feel it’s worth pointing out in case a complete lack of bias is important to you in non-fiction.
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Kitchen is a great if slightly odd tale about the duality of life and death, and the finding of true family. The characters are wonderful and instantly endearing, and there’s an almost serene atmosphere throughout that lends it a somewhat calming, gentle and bittersweet quality. Though this is to its credit in some respects, I must say it left me wondering about how powerful the story could have been had the emotion of the narrative been brought into sharper focus. The companion story, Moonlight Shadow, has a similarly strange and almost ethereal tone, and deals with the same themes of life, death and loneliness. With a heavier dose of more overt magical realism, it is a meditation on the need to accept loss if you are to be able to move on.
The Hollow by Agatha Christie
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] In comparison to the other Christie novels I’ve read so far, The Hollow admittedly doesn’t feature the best plot or ‘twist’ per se. It is, however, the most contemplative when it comes to character and theme, with the author really allowing herself the time to explore the concept of truth; the need for it; the inability to cope with it; the responsibility of it; and, indeed, the potential danger of it. As ever, it was still a compelling whodunit, with a brilliantly playful use of foreshadowing and a delightfully complex web of secrets and lies entangling the characters.
A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A Pale View of Hills is a strangely hypnotic exploration of distorted memories, the power of a first-person narrative, and how manipulative the two can be. It’s a thought-provoking read that opens itself up to many possible interpretations and leaves you wondering about the true nature of the book’s supposed heroine long after you turn the final page.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] The Spinning Heart has a fascinating and unique structure, with every one of its chapters told from the perspective of a different character. One ongoing story is woven together through their various viewpoints, and this coupled with the way Ryan paints the atmosphere of an entire town decimated by the recession is a fantastic technical achievement. He’s also a master of imbuing his characters and scenes with emotion and gut-punch twists, making you feel instantly invested in them. The book had its flaws, however, and really would be best read in a single sitting, as subtleties and connections between the many characters are inevitably lost when read sporadically.
January was certainly a great start to my reading year overall, and I’m excited to see what books February will bring my way.
What was your favourite read in January?