The books I read in November
Hello, book chums; it’s time for another wrap up. Throughout November I finished 11 books, taking my total for the year up to 119. Here are some thoughts on each of them, with links to my full reviews over on Goodreads in case you’d like to know more.
Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] This dystopian novel is all the more unsettling for how plausible and familiar its concept feels. Teenage girls are trained in schools to reach peak physical ‘perfection’, before being assigned rigid roles within society, based on how well they conform to the desired standards. O’Neill handles the world building with aplomb, showing rather than telling. Though I felt its pacing wasn’t perfect, its intersectional look at gender roles, flawed heroine, and bold story made for a very memorable read that I can easily see as a future staple of feminist lit.
The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree by Paola Peretti
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A simple but charmingly bittersweet story about a young girl coming to terms with the fact that she is losing her sight. The narrative voice is believably youthful and naïve, and the representation of disability is both honest and sensitive; enhanced, no doubt, by the fact that the author has the same condition as the heroine. It didn’t delve as deep emotionally as I wanted, but it has a nice message about self-acceptance and the importance of friendship, with the translation from Italian smooth and effective.
Sleep No More by P.D. James
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] The six murderous tales in this collection are surprisingly subtle in delivery, focussing on the how or why more than the whodunnit. With most written from the perspective of the criminal, and a general tone of cool detachment, they do well to expose the surprising normalcy of our capacity for cruelty, and our thirst for revenge. Harking back to the golden era of crime, the stories are well structured, delivering satisfying twists; but the kind more likely to elicit wry smiles than dropped jaws.
Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I went into this pretty much blind, other than knowing it’s considered something of a modern classic within the fantasy genre. I found the story surprisingly domestic, and not as exciting or adventurous as I would have liked. However, I thought the world itself was vivid and enticing, and I loved its many playful references to fairy tales and classic works of fiction.
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A quiet yet powerful book, McEwan manages to say so much with so little. Focussing on a pair of young newlyweds, and their ill-informed attempt to consummate their marriage, it explores the surprisingly poignant themes of miscommunication, crippling societal pressures, class differences, and asexuality. McEwan is also successful in capturing a very specific moment in time, reflecting the mood of a society in flux between the formality of the past, and the social and sexual freedoms we now consider the norm.
Survivor by Harry Borden
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Photographer Harry Borden spent five years travelling the world, photographing survivors of the Holocaust in their own homes. Each sitter was also asked to write a brief message to accompany their portrait. Learning their names, seeing their faces, and reading their words is a simple but powerful way to make their unparalleled suffering feel somehow more relatable. It stops them from becoming mere statistics, and preserves their individual humanity for future generations to learn from.
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton
[ ⭐ ⭐ ] I concede, with hindsight, that I probably read this at the wrong time, as I wasn’t in the mood for something as flowery in prose as this quickly proved to be. Undeniably beautiful at times, however, I liked that it introduced a new generation to a woman who boldly went against the grain. But that said, I thought its use of perspective (shifting from first to third, and attempting to weave in extracts from the work of the real Margaret Cavendish) was jarring, and served to remind the reader how much Dutton was extrapolating. Having finished the book, I wanted to feel like I had a much better understanding of the woman she really was, but sadly I didn’t.
The Gifts of Reading by Robert Macfarlane
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] A simple but resonant anecdotal essay about the joy of books both given and received, and the power they have to inspire, transform, and perhaps even sustain lives.
By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] I can recognise that this isn’t one of Christie’s best, with a couple of tropes that haven’t aged all that well, but it was still a thoroughly enjoyable read. I like that she went dark with the subject matter, and I was impressed once again by her unwavering ability to bring seemingly disparate plot threads together to deliver a satisfying twist.
The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Strange, understated, and somewhat thin in plot, this quiet dystopian won’t be for everyone, but I was drawn in by its singular charm, and its intelligent delivery of some prescient home truths. Tawada has a unique narrative voice, using direct language combined with unusual imagery to create a tone of pathos, tinged with hope. Timely themes soon emerge, including the rise of nationalism; the concept of gender fluidity; the use of language to incite fear of the Other; and how the pursuit of self-gain is dooming the planet – and those who must inhabit it after us.
Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman
[ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ] Starfish is about a biracial 17-year-old girl, and her desperate ambition to get into art school so that she can leave behind her emotionally abusive mother, and overcome the crippling social anxiety she has lived with since she was sexually assaulted as a child. Life with anxiety is captured excellently, and the themes of internalised racism, self-acceptance, and recovery through art are all brilliant. For me, however, the romantic subplot fell back on too many clichés, and the supporting characters could have been better developed. Still, this is a book with many merits that I highly recommend. It’s the kind of read that will hit home for a lot of readers.
There we have it. My favourite reads of the month were probably On Chesil Beach and Only Ever Yours. What were your favourites?