Everything I read in January 2021

The one lesson I took away from this month, was that quality matters more when it comes to reading.


Do you set a reading goal each year for how many books you want to read? When I set a Goodreads reading challenge this year, I realised it felt a bit strange. Setting out the number of books we want to read in a given time slot naturally prioritises quantity rather than quality. 

It made me think. Is it better to read more (and more widely) or to read less, but more deeply? There are benefits to doing both. Although I’ve set myself an arbitrary target for how many books I’d like to read this year — to me — it’s irrelevant if I surpass it or end up reading less. What matters more is what I get out of each book.

In this post — I will be outlining what I read throughout January. Although my Goodreads account tells me I am “behind schedule” to complete my yearly reading goal, I’m not really bothered. 

By reading at a slower pace, I can fully digest each book, pause to reflect on them, and think about what I want to read next. It’s a more leisurely process. So, this is what I read in January 2021. And you’ll notice, there is definitely more quality, rather than quantity.

(Please note that links mentioned in this article are affiliate links. If you are a UK or US resident, I will receive a small commission if you buy books via these links. All links are included in the book title. Bookshop.org is a website that supports independent bookshops.)


#1 Queenie, Candice Carty-Williams

Fiction, 4/5 stars 

Photo by Sam Lion from Pexels

I read this during bouts of insomnia that I was having at the beginning of the month. It was easy to read in those bleak and quiet hours when everyone else is fast asleep. 

This novel tells the story of Queenie Jenkins, a 25-year-old British Jamaican who has just decided to go on a “break” from her long term boyfriend, Tom. Whilst she has to live her life without him suddenly, she’s also struggling with motivation at work and with some of her friendships. 

Queenie finds herself attracting (sometimes warranted, sometimes unwarranted) attention from the opposite sex, which she continually strategies and discusses with her group of best friends over WhatsApp. All the while, she hears nothing from Tom and struggles to know where they stand. 

It’s an amusing book — and made me laugh out loud at times. But Queenie, as a narrator, can be frustrating. There’s always a tragedy, always something going wrong. She comes across as a very needy friend — someone I would struggle to deal with, quite frankly. 

But the book also deals with darker issues such as fetishization, black womanhood, and mental health. It’s breezy, chatty and brilliant, but also shines a delicate light on what it’s like to grow up and enter early adulthood as a black woman. This is well worth a read as it strikes a balance between maintaining a sense of contagious humour and talking about real and raw issues.

“Is this what growing into an adult woman is — having to predict and accordingly arrange for the avoidance of sexual harassment?”


#2 The Discomfort of Evening, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Fiction, 3/5 stars 

Forever intrigued by those novels that go on to win the Booker prize, I picked this up and had no real idea of what to expect. As the title tells us, even before our eyes grace the first page, it is a bizarre read. 

At times, the strangeness erodes what could have been a more harrowing, poignant novel. The reader can easily end up reading about incest and animal abuse and be taken aback, even put off from the novel, and may even abandon it altogether. I don’t blame people who have. There’s no forewarning for what is outlined in this novel in such a visceral style. I know that’s the point, but all the same, I can’t help but feel it didn’t work. 

The Discomfort of Eveningis the first novel from the award-winning poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Set in the rural Netherlands and featuring a family slowly descending into dysfunction, it paints a harrowing picture of how grief can change people. One day, ten-year-old Jas, the narrator, tells the reader how her brother dies in a tragic incident. She documents how the family dynamic slowly but surely decays. It’s an interesting perspective, which makes the feel of the novel all the more powerful. 

It’s certainly original — even addictive to read — but I thought the levels of discomfort to which it goes to, was unnecessary in parts, and would certainly not engage a general audience. But maybe I’m wrong and missing the point entirely. Who knows? That’s part of the beauty of literature. 

“Even though it will feel uncomfortable for a while, but according to the pastor, discomfort is good. In discomfort we are real.”


#3 Where the Crawdads Sing, Delia Owens

Fiction, 5/5 stars 

No novel is ever universally loved. But as a bookseller, I noticed this was one that flew off the shelves, and everyone raved about it. After being recommended it by a handful of people, I decided to try it. This is a type of novel that is hauntingly beautiful. There is so much sorrow, misfortune and sadness, accompanied by a beautiful landscape and message. I couldn’t stop reading it, and neither did I want to. 

After finishing it, I noticed the reception was more divisive than I had initially understood. Some people said they were bored by the book and even gave up halfway through. But for me, I couldn’t put it down. 

Where the Crawlands Sing is set within a small town on the North Carolina coast. It tells the story of, “Marsh girl” abandoned by her mother and the rest of her family, as they fled from her abusive and violent father. Soon, he leaves too, and Kya is left to fend for herself as a child. She learns how to fish, cook and befriends Nate, who teaches her how to read — as she only managed to attend one day at school. 

Kya has spent most of her life in solitude and at one with nature, making it difficult for her to form close relationships with others. However, something soon blooms between her and Nate as she struggles to navigate those first feelings of love. As soon as things start to work out for her, and she opens herself up, something dreadful happens that has the ability to pull her life all apart — again. 

This novel had all the assets that I believe makes a compelling read. The characters were believable and interesting; the plot was thick with what-ifs, questions and interesting thoughts about childhood, community and social expectations. The story was well told and kept the reader on their seat. I enjoyed it from start to finish and would recommend it to anyone. 

“I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”


Overview 

In January I read just over 1,000 pages, which is far less than I would usually reach. However, I’m coming away from the month feeling satisfied with what I read and what I’m taking away from each book. 

Each novel I read opened me up to new ideas, experiences and thoughts from different perspectives I would not necessarily encounter in real life. I learnt a lot from each and was reminded of the power of words and how they can make us feel. 


Currently Reading 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf

I’ve been reading this for a while. Because it covers the course of an entire day in such depth, I find it quite heavy to read and digest. I’ve been reading it in small chunks, hence why it is taking me so long to finish. 

I do love it though — but realise it is not everyone’s taste. There is something so unique and magical about reading Woolf’s words, and I can’t quite put my figure on what exactly that is. Perhaps I’ll know when I finish it. 

The Searcher, Tana French

I love this. I love the feeling of it; it’s so eerie and creepy. It’s definitely a slow burner, which I don’t mind, but I’m intrigued to find out where the story will go. I’m reading this on my Kindle which I use for nighttime reading in bed. I’m about halfway through and enjoying it so far. 


Well, that was my month in reading. Based on my history, I read less this month than I usually do, but I’m not bothered. I’m not trying to race ahead and read as much as possible this year, but take in every read.

I want to value every word on the page and give each story my full attention — rather than always being focused on the next book. 

Thank you for reading


Stuck for what to read? Check out some of my recommendations: 

5 Non-Fiction Books Everyone Should Read

What The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley Teaches us About Friendship

50 Fiction Recommendations for 2021


Please note, this was originally published on Medium in A Thousand Lives.

Book Review: How I learned to hate in Ohio

Many thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a e-ARC copy of this book, I am slowly but surely getting through my shelf! How I Learned to Hate in Ohio is due to be published in January, 2021. You can pre-order your copies via Amazon, if you wish to do so.

How I Learned to Hate in Ohio

David Stuart MacLean

The Overlook Press, January 2021

Coming of Age, Fiction, Literary Fiction

3.5/5 stars

Synopsis (Goodreads)

A brilliant, hilarious, and ultimately devastating debut novel about how racial discord grows in America
 
In late-1980s rural Ohio, bright but mostly friendless Barry Nadler begins his freshman year of high school with the goal of going unnoticed as much as possible. But his world is upended by the arrival of Gurbaksh, Gary for short, a Sikh teenager who moves to his small town and instantly befriends Barry and, in Gatsby-esque fashion, pulls him into a series of increasingly unlikely adventures. As their friendship deepens, Barry’s world begins to unravel, and his classmates and neighbors react to the presence of a family so different from theirs. Through darkly comic and bitingly intelligent asides and wry observations, Barry reveals how the seeds of xenophobia and racism find fertile soil in this insular community, and in an easy, graceless, unintentional slide, tragedy unfolds.

Review ~ 3.5/5

I would describe this book in a nutshell as a dark, seemingly poignant demonstration of the hate that inflicts many communities across America.

Through the exploration of racism, Xenophobia, Islamophobia and white, middle-class discontent, this novel shines a light onto the forms of hatred and division which remain at the heart of many American communities.

Barry Nadler lives in Rutherford, Ohio, and is beginning his freshman year of high school in the 1980s. It’s a time in American history that was fraught with divisions and rising race wars, amidst the backdrop to the Iraq war and the War on Terror to follow. Barry is very much alone and likes it that way, but soon meets Gurbaksh who quickly becomes his one and only friend. Gurbaksh is a Sikh and frequently gets belittled at school and within the neighborhood due to his beliefs, which allows the book to illuminate the extent of Islamophobia present in the community.

I enjoyed this book and the themes it aimed to explore – however, it only really starts to take shape at the end of the book and has no real structure to it. The chapters are remarkably short and snappy which creates a nice pace to it but without this, I fear I would have struggled to get through it. I naturally finished it quickly due to the structure of the book.

The narrator, Barry, was likable enough, but I didn’t like the way he didn’t do a whole lot to challenge some of the racist rhetoric that was thrown around within his community. Maybe he was just too young?

This is the second book I have read that has centred on Ohio and portraying a social commentary through its main character, Ducks, Newburyport offers a similar feel but narrates observations from the present day, rather than the past. I think this book is important and has a place but I was constantly waiting for something to happen and when it did, it was pretty short-lived and left more questions than answers.

The feel of it, mainly executed through its young, teenage narrator, reminded me of The Catcher in the Rye – a novel I didn’t particularly enjoy. I would argue this is better as it is far more poignant and ambitious, and I was quite struck by the penultimate ending.

Fundamentally, this is a novel about multiple forms of hate and how it can divide communities.

“Hate is safe. Hate is urgent. Hate is unkind. Hate is ubiquitous. Hate singes the hated out and provides anonymity for the hater.”

Aside from the rampant exploration of racism, the novel also deals with dysfunctional families and relationships. Barry’s father and mother have a complex relationship which unfolds throughout the novel, eventually resulting in disastrous consequences and I can’t help but think this has some kind of effect on Barry – possibly quelling his ambition.

I enjoyed this book and appreciated what it was trying to do and think it is incredibly relevant to the current climate. I would probably recommend it to others who are fans of books that issue a type of social commentary placed within a distinct community.

Thank you for reading!

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Please note – this post does contain Amazon affiliate links and if you choose to use them, I will earn a small fee but this doesn’t impact my review in anyway.


 

8 Thoughts From Reading The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

As a committed Donna Tartt fan, I was very much looking forward to this. The Little Friend was Tartt’s first novel and has mixed reviews. Having read and loved The Goldfinch, I had high expectations, but I was definitely not blown away. These are 10 thoughts I had whilst, during, and after reading, The Little Friend.

*Caution* ~ may contain spoilers.

The Little Friend

Donna Tartt

Novel, fiction, bildungsroman

Bloomsbury Edition, 2017 / 2002

Rating: 3 out of 5.

What is going on?

I found the book incredibly hard to follow, despite its simple premise. The novel is told mainly through the perspective of Harriet, a young girl growing up in Alexandria, Mississippi. Harriet spends the book trying to find out what happened to her brother, Robin, who was found hanging from a tree in the family’s front yard, many years ago. The novel jumps about from person to person, which I don’t usually mind, however in this case I found it hard to see how the different perspectives linked together, to aid the overall story.

There are so many characters and I’m struggling to keep up with them

Although the narration is mainly told through Harriet, it is alternated with the perspective of Danny Ratcliff, who Harriet thinks has murdered her brother. His life, and daily activities are paralleled with Harriet’s attempt to track him down, but this is also executed with no real structure. Ratcliff also introduces many other characters into the story – including Farish, his accomplice, Eugene (another accomplice), Curtis and Gum – who I never quite worked out.

And of course, there’s all the characters in Harriet’s family – her sister, Allison, Ida, the family’s maid, her mother and all her aunts and grandparents. And of course, Helly, her best friend. It really is a mind field and I struggled to keep track of them all and work out who was who.

Image: Jp Valery for Uplash

I’m really near the end and I still haven’t found out what happened to Robin

As I kept getting nearer towards the end, I was waiting for something to happen and it never came. Although the events towards the end of the story are quite exciting, we never find out who murdered Robin which I found so frustrating as this is what the novel is set up to do. It was just so unsatisfying that the whole premise of the book just wasn’t fulfilled.

I love Tartt’s writing but this novel feels jumbled and like it doesn’t have a structure

You cannot fault the writing stylistically, as Tartt undeniably has the ability to write and create a sense of atmosphere, which is executed well in this novel. However, there was just no structure to the story and I found it hard to want to keep reading. The only thing that kept me going was that I thought I was going to find out what happened to Robin. It was a pleasurable reading experience because the writing was good, but there was just so little substance to it.

I’m sad as I thought I would love this as much as her other books

I’d be lying If I said I didn’t finish this book feeling endlessly disappointed. Maybe I’m judging it too harshly as it was her first book and I have the benefit of having fallen in love with her more recent books but I did really want to like this. Part of me is also sad because I’ve now read all of her books and I know she takes a while to write.

Everything changes when Ida leaves

About 3/4 of the way through the book Ida, the household maid leaves as Harriet’s mother decides she no longer needs her services. Tartt portrays this noticeable break in the novel through incredible symbolism. The character of Ida is symbolized as being the carrier of normality in the household and Harriet’s life more widely, “Time was broken. Harriet’s way of measuring it was gone. Ida was the planet whose round marked the hours…” The story noticeably shifts to something more sinister when Ida leaves, and this crafting of the novel is the most sophisticated part.

I love Donna Tartt’s writing, but this novel was really redundant for me

The more I read, the more I was getting frustrated. There didn’t seem to be any climax to the story, yes there are a few exciting events, but the overall crux of the novel is never executed, which is such a shame because the writing as usual is spot on. Tartt has this unique ability to craft in depth character studies that drive the story forward, but unfortunately, in this case there was a lack of story in the first place and a plot that was unfulfilled.

The feeling of the book and the setting is infallible

Tartt’s characteristic attention to detail and use of sensory language portrays the feeling of growing up in Mississippi in in the 1970s from the perspective of a young girl. It is a fascinating character study – but I can’t help but feel it is nothing more than that. Her language creates an atmospheric feel to the book, my only wish was that it had a definitive story arc with a penultimate ending.

I’m currently trying out a few different formats for book reviews, let me know what you think of this one!

Book review: Broadwater

Many thanks to Net Galley and Fairlight Books for providing me with an e-ARC copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review. Broadwater is due to be published September 3, 2020. I hope you enjoy the review!

Genres: Short story, literary fiction, multicultural interest

Rating: 4 out of 5.
Image: Fairlight Books

Broadwater is a collection of short stories, told through a variety of different perspectives from the inhabitants of Broadwater Farm, an area in Tottenham, North London. The area is home to multiple generations and nationalities – all sharing a common experience of living in the high density housing that regularly graces some of London’s most deprived areas.

Each story, told through a different inhabitant, features the struggles of everyday life – be that the lingering impact of Windrush and the hostile environment policy, economic struggles, difficulties in family life and relationships, living with mental health problems, and the ongoing battle to just stay afloat. Every story is told in such a raw, human centered way, that the reader cannot help but fully empathise with each individual. It truly reveals the sense of the “cope and hope” style of life that the many individuals included in this book, seem to subscribe to.

Written in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster and during the Coronavirus epidemic that has highlighted the ongoing racial inequality in the UK, Broadwater is a collection of stories so suited to this time and one that will always be relevant. The promises of regeneration projects across deprived areas of London in recent years, have consistently failed to live up to expectations, as echoed by the portrayal of living conditions in these stories and by the characters themselves,

“Look, however you dress it up Ricky, so-called regeneration is just a pretty word for social cleansing.”

After a series of riots in the late 1980s, Broadwater was given a bad reputation, but in recent years has been revived. Despite the hardship woven throughout this book, told through a myriad of different stories and perspectives, what unites them all is the shared experience of community. Every character is connected to the next and there is a common bond of solidarity that defines the feeling of this book. Each story is short and sweet, but connects to the larger picture, which is the commonality of human experience.

The book largely centers on the struggles caused by long term racial inequality, as Broadwater is home to one of the most ethnically diverse areas in London. Each story and the variety of character experiences, really reflect this in such a harrowing and eye opening way. In light of recent events in the US, and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, these stories feel all the more important and relevant for everyone to read.

But the stories also speak to everyone regardless of race, on a human level. In her writing, Jac Shreeves-Lee demonstrates the beauty in the everyday which corresponds so jarringly with an unavoidable sense of suffering. In the many stories featured in the collection is the sense of lost dreams, but channeled beautifully with a sense of hope and wonder for life.

Broadwater is a community joined together by a variety of backgrounds, races, ethnicities and the individuals that tell its story are amalgamated by a shared sense of commonality due to the endless strive for hope and the promise of a better life.

It lingers with an unavoidable sense of the harsh realities of life that so many people living in deprived areas of London face, despite the endless promises of something better to come. But on the flip side, reveals the power in the shared community, which ultimately, is the driving force that keeps so many individuals afloat.

A powerful collection of short stories that enlightens the mind and soul – it is as honest as it is captivating, and the characters will linger with you long after you finish the final pages.

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The halfway point: reflecting on my best and worst reads

As we are over half way through the year, I thought I would share my best and worst reads for the year so far.

These last 6 months I have finally been able to get back into reading for pleasure and I’ve managed to get through a whopping 39 books! Last year alone, I barely managed 20 due to being in the final year of my degree.

It has been pretty hard to pick my best and worst reads because I have read so many good books so far, but alas, I will pick out of those I have read.

My best read: Hot Milk by Deboarh Levy (★★★★★)

You know you’ve found your next favourite book when you purposefully slow down whilst your reading so each page can last a bit longer. I found myself doing this the whole time when I was reading this because I just didn’t want to finish.

The story is remarkably simple, yet completely mesmerizing. Sofia, an aimless twenty five year old, takes her Mother to Spain in search of cures for her many ailments. Along the way she has intense, romantic relationships and begins to unravel a lot about herself and the past.

Throughout this journey she ultimately realises that she has been putting her life on hold to try and save her mother. It’s a tale of the inverted mother-daughter relationship, set in one hot and heavy summer in Spain. The prose is beautiful and everything I could ever want in a book – I found myself re-reading lines and passages just to be able to take in the language over and over again. It’s poetic in places and a true marker of the beauty in literary fiction.

Most importantly, it reminded me why I have always loved fiction. It’s a fantastic example of the power of words and how they can convey the intensity of emotion to readers. Types of emotions that when read and re-experienced, then become universal.

Although the book is rather short and sweet, it left me with a lingering aftermath. Long after I had finished the final page I could still feel the novel’s presence in the way I perceived my surroundings and my view of the world. That’s when you know you’ve just read an amazing book, right?

My worst read: Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann (★★★)

By far not my worst rated book, but that’s a different story. I would say this has been my worst reading experience of the year and one I truly didn’t enjoy. I had to push myself to keep reading as I thought it would get better and I wanted to like it.

Most Booker Prize nominee’s have the potential to divide readers and this is an excellent example of that. I had read both raving and negative reviews and of course, wanted to try it for myself. Big books have never put me off, neither have descriptive books or books with lots of inner monologue, but this just took it to the extreme.

The book is composed of a few sentences that span over 1000 pages. It has been given credit for originality and reworking the novel, when in reality, I just think it ruined what could have been an enjoyable and thought provoking reading experience. It follows the mindset of an Ohioan housewife who shares her thoughts and anxieties about the world around her.

There’s a lot of criticism of Donald Trump, worries about climate change, nuclear weapons and is a deep reflection of contemporary America and this element makes the book different, relevant and appealing. However the abandonment of any structure and chapters made it impossible to read for me. I struggled for months to finish it and I would have rated it more if it had been half the size or structured differently.

I don’t think its lack of structure makes it original or prize worthy, but rather takes away from what could have been an incredibly poignant and accessible critique of contemporary society. I say it is my worst read in terms of when I think about the reading experience I had with the book. In comparison to the one above, it felt like a chore, which reading shouldn’t!

What have been your best and worst reads so far? Let me know!

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