July has been a very enjoyable month overall. Not only did I have a lovely holiday in Copenhagen, but I managed to read 10 books, bringing my total for the year so far up to 72. Without further ado, here are some thoughts on each of them.
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is such a cleverly constructed novel that is at once an intriguing page-turner and a nuanced character study. The use of structure and perspective is very effective in creating the idea of different characters’ viewpoints coming together to create the story of one family. O’Farrell’s prose flows very well, and she deftly weaves together different timelines to form a single coherent story about social taboos and suppressed desires; about not following your heart for fear of stigma, and the notion of stolen lives; both literally and figuratively speaking. The book is, in essence, a vindication of women who were maltreated for no other reason than they were born in the wrong era.
My Purple Scented Novel by Ian McEwan
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Short, but oh, so clever. To create such a vivid sense of the kind of person our narrator is in such a short space of time, whilst also unspooling the perfect case of literary crime, is no mean feat. But it is achieved here with style. It’s hard to be completely blown away by a quiet, standalone short story, but I did thoroughly enjoy this little tale of deception. Had it been nestled within a collection of stories that had a similar tone and impact, I’d be rating it higher, for sure. It certainly fuelled my desire to pick up more McEwan.
The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I’ve wanted to try Wyndham’s work for ages, and am relieved to say that I loved this. I found the setting vivid and transporting, and the story itself utterly engrossing. It is, at its heart, a story of survival, with a wonderful emphasis on the fragility of mankind’s ‘rule’ over nature, and our over reliance on the structure and convenience of modern living. The prose was very readable, with flashes of evocative beauty that really clicked for me, and I enjoyed its musings on gender roles and moral dilemmas. It was also very interesting to see how much it has directly influenced contemporary apocalyptic stories, with noticeable parallels with the likes of Bird Box, 28 Days Later, and The Walking Dead.
Useless Magic by Florence Welch
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I’ve long said that Welch (of Florence + the Machine fame) is a great writer, and so it’s nice to see her lyrics and poetry packaged in such a gorgeous way, alongside her original sketches and jottings; as well as artwork and photographs that have inspired her work. The design of the book itself is phenomenal; it really is a visual feast that is immensely aesthetically pleasing.
Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector
[ ⭐ ] Whether it was a poor translation or simply a case of not gelling with Lispector’s narrative voice, I found these stories wildly incoherent, and sadly took absolutely nothing from them. It’s a shame, but we can’t like ‘em all.
99 Red Balloons by Elisabeth Carpenter
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] I found this very lacklustre, sadly. The character dynamic felt over complicated, and it was very melodramatic, with virtually every chapter trying to end on a twist or revelation of some kind. I saw the crucial big reveal coming, and it happened with so much of the book still to go that I was left anticipating a follow-up shock that never came. The dialogue was also very cheesy (one of my pet peeves is when characters regularly state that they’re speaking in clichés. It’s like the author recognised a flaw in their own writing, and just pointed it out rather than try to fix it. That happened quite a bit here.) In fairness though, it was a swift moving, easy read with a decent enough amount of intrigue; ideal for passing the time during the flights to and from my holiday.
The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] The first half of this great little novel is an almost humorous satire, whilst the second half takes a more sinister turn, building tension in that brilliantly subtle and unnerving way that Levin does so well. He gives us enough to satisfy, whilst leaving the true horror to our imagination, which is really effective. As with his other heroines, Joanna is great; smart, proactive, believable, and instantly likable. I love that the book is both a creepy read from a low sci-fi/horror perspective, whilst also being a commentary on the social pressure of female ‘perfection’, and a scathing criticism of man’s resistance to the growing independence of women.
The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is my book of the year so far. We follow a nature photographer who secures a residency on a small cluster of remote, untouched islands, where the only other inhabitants are a group of scientists studying the indigenous animal species. Geni’s prose is utterly breath-taking, and she captures the raw beauty, daunting power, and savage menace of the natural world like no other I’ve encountered. When violence disrupts the group dynamic, the story becomes a fantastic meditation on the nature of storytelling as a means of coping with trauma. Rich, complex, and beautifully handled, I was completely swept away by it.
Celtic Tales by Kate Forrester
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is a collection of fairy tales from Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, and Wales. For me, it was a real mixed bag of stories I recognised from my childhood, and stories that were new to me; stories I loved, and stories I didn’t love so much. But all-in-all, it’s a charming, beautifully put-together book, complete with stunning illustrations.
This is Going to Hurt by Adam Kay
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This is an eye-opening, first-hand account of what it’s really like to be a doctor in the NHS. It’s brutally honest, and Kay uses a lot of sarcasm and black humour to process the daily hardships he and his colleagues were put through. It shines a light on the criminal underfunding, terrible mismanagement, and systematic political dismantling that are making it so hard for the frontline staff to do their job, but also on the sheer determination and unflinching passion with which they continue to keep us all safe regardless. As the NHS limps into its 70th year, it’s a diagnosis of much that is currently wrong with it, and a timely reminder of precisely why it’s so worth saving.
Here’s to some more great books next month. My stand out reads this time round were easily The Lightkeepers and The Day of the Triffids; what was your favourite read in July?