As May comes to a close, here are some thoughts on the books I read throughout this past month. There are 11 of them, which took my total for the year so far up to 52.
The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Adventure, espionage, political intrigue, twists galore, and great characters; this book was a pacy and hugely enjoyable read that completely swept me up. Enigmatic and instantly likable, lead heroine, Tuppence, is one of my favourite Christie characters thus far, being intelligent, resourceful, snarky and brave. It’s lighter in tone and has a more adventurous slant than, say, the whodunnits of Poirot fame, but it still has its fair share of dark and intriguing plot points, and the trademark web of deceit and mystery that Christie fans will no doubt adore.
I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] It was a treat to discover the wonderful imagery and great sense of flow that predominate O’Farrell’s writing style. Her evocative turn of phrase does incredibly well to heighten the visceral nature of the anecdotes she shares in this unique memoir, in which O’Farrell frames her life through her various experiences with death. This fantastic concept, ironically, also led to the somewhat lacking impact of the book for me, however. Some of the stories shared are haunting and emotionally charged; with others it’s a real stretch to consider them near death experiences. Personally, I would have favoured the omission of these ‘weaker’ anecdotes in favour of exploring the lasting impact of the others in greater depth.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] I wanted to love this but was sadly left feeling disappointed. I think the concept is great, and I love social commentary exploring feminist themes, but the word that kept coming to mind throughout the whole thing was ‘bland’. The parts of the narrative that felt in any way nuanced were glossed over, whilst other parts felt needlessly forced and heavy-handed. It was predictable and offered little in the way of a fresh perspective on gender discussion. I also found its appropriation of cultural norms and like-for-like gender reversals for too simplistic. Perhaps it was hurt by the hype, but I just couldn’t’ get emotionally invested in this one at all, unfortunately.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I put off reading this for years, because the main Harry Potter series is such an integral part of my childhood that I wanted to leave it alone. When this gorgeous illustrated edition came out, however, I knew I’d relent. Olivia Lomenech Gill’s artwork is brilliantly expressive and enchanting, really enhancing the immersive quality of this fun and imaginative jaunt through the Wizarding World.
The Gloaming by Kirsty Logan
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I was instantly swept up by The Gloaming’s tone of melancholy and quiet magic. It explores notions of family, sisterhood, loyalty, grief, and love, whilst also ruminating on the ideas of beauty, bodily difference, sexuality, and self-acceptance. Above all else, however, this is a beautiful tale about the power and vital importance of stories; from the way we lose ourselves in books, to the lies we tell to protect ourselves from pain. The use of setting and structure are great, and Logan’s prose is wonderful; suitably ornate and enchanting but in an understated way that avoids the trap of indulging in too much whimsy. The lifeblood of fairy tales and hints of magical realism work to haunting effect here, with fantastic imagery that enhances the story rather than distracting from or undermining it.
The Vigilante by John Steinbeck
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] The three stories in this little collection explore the themes of violence, racism, and female suppression. All are very readable and subtly handled, and though I thoroughly enjoyed the unsettling atmosphere that Steinbeck created, I felt they all fizzled out somewhat, and would have preferred punchier endings that hit home his point with greater power and emotion.
My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Set against the backdrop of racial prejudice and class tensions in 80s Britain, My Name is Leon is a story about getting lost in the care system, and the finding of family. Clearly written from an informed and compassionate perspective, it has a subtle power, and is at equal turns charming, poignant and bittersweet. My niggles included a climax that felt misjudged tonally, and a lack of exploration of Leon’s school experience, despite school being the nucleus of a child’s life in those formative years. However, I appreciated that de Waal avoided the obvious though unrealistic ‘happily ever after’ ending that many authors would have opted for, and found it an enjoyable and very readable novel overall, with a protagonist that many will take to heart.
An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Theresa Breslin
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Exactly what it says on the tin. This was a suitably charming and nostalgic read.
Tin Man by Sarah Winman
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A sense of quiet beauty and supressed melancholy hover over this moving tale of friendship, first love, lost time, and reflection on what could have been. The characters are engaging and nuanced, with the dynamic between the three main players being wonderfully bittersweet. It may not offer much that is new to the narrative of gay fiction set in the 60s-90s, but it is written with so much grace and heart, avoiding sensationalism, that it is more than worth the read.
Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is a book that I enjoyed well enough in terms of plot, but loved in themes, ideas and social commentary. As with the best sci-fi, it has elements of adventure, and can be read as a bit of an intergalactic romp, but it manages to say a lot about our own world at the same time. It is essentially a look at cultural identity, and the difficulties of integrating and growing as a person without letting go of your roots; as well as the power of empathy and communication to unite seemingly disparate races. Things wrapped up a little neatly, but there’s scope for the rest of the series to delve deeper.
When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Told from the viewpoint of a domestic abuse survivor, this book is an unflinching answer to the cruel though inevitable question: Why didn’t she leave him sooner? It explores with harrowing realism the ways that abusers, and a society that shames victims, trap those who would otherwise be able to seek freedom sooner. Along the way, it also debunks nigh on every stereotype of a ‘battered wife’ in Indian culture. Politically charged and beautifully written, this book should be placed in the hands of anyone who dares to suggest that walking away is ever easy.
Here’s to another month of great reading for us all in June.
My favourite reads this month were The Gloaming and When I Hit You – What were yours?