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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Book review: If I Could Say Goodbye

As always, many thanks to Net Galley and Hachette UK for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. If I Could Say Goodbye is available for pre order via Waterstones and Amazon.

Synopsis from Goodreads

A heart-warming and uplifting story about love, loss and finding the strength to say goodbye, from the author of The First Time I Saw You.

Jennifer Jones’ life began when her little sister, Kerry, was born. So when her sister dies in a tragic accident, nothing seems to make sense any more.

Despite the support of her husband, Ed, and their wonderful children, Jen can’t comprehend why she is still here, while bright, spirited Kerry is not.

When Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of Kerry, she doesn’t realise that the closer she feels to Kerry, the further she gets from her family.

Jen was never able to say goodbye to her sister. But what if she could?

Would you risk everything if you had the chance to say goodbye?

Publication date: September 17, 2020

Genres: Fiction, modern/contemporary

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jennifer Jones was always a faithful, older sister to Kerry. However, when Kerry dies in a sudden accident, her whole world turns upside down. Despite having the support of her devoted husband, Edward, and her two children, Jennifer struggles to come to terms with the sudden loss of her sister. She turns her grief inwards, blaming herself for Kerry’s death and wishing the accident had taken her life, instead of her sister’s.

If I Could Say Goodbye, is an honest portrayal of the many facets of grief and it’s reverberating impact on one family. It explores grief openly and honestly, and for that alone it deserves praise. Jennifer becomes so consumed by the memories of her sister, that her mind convinces her she is still there. Kerry is reborn in her imagination and experience of grief as she loses herself in memories of the past.

Grief is something we all experience at some points in our lives, but obviously in many different ways. Emma Cooper manages to explore how Kerry’s death takes a drastic toll on Jennifer’s mental health, from her feelings of guilt, responsibility and regret that follow in the wake of Kerry’s death. Jen finds herself talking to her sister more than her own family. This experience of Kerry being somewhat alive in her imagination, serves as a comfort to Jen in some ways, but ultimately, she realises the need to say goodbye is what will set her free.

“I turn my back on the sea and the cliff, on the grief and guilt that I’ve been drowning in, and break into a run: my life is about to begin again.”

This is a refreshing and realistic portrayal of grief told through Jennifer and her husband, Edward. In having this alternative perspective, Cooper conveys how grief can have a snowballing affect on the ones we love. Ed has to pick up the pieces of their life together, as he struggles to maintain their relationship and family. Jennifer’s family and her children become more distant as her experience of grief consumes her in more ways than one. Intertwined within this exploration of grief is a tale of love, friendship, relationships and family.

Although I thought this was an excellent representation of experiencing the loss of a loved one, I found the book itself hard to read. There was no real structure, which I guess could be part of the point, in being like grief itself, however, it made the reading experience more difficult than it needed to be. Although I engaged with the leading characters, Jen and Ed, I felt it didn’t have a ‘hook’ to keep me reading.

The writing is beautiful and very well structured, which allows for the impact of grief to be explored through many angles, however, the lack of structure and plot is what let it down for me.

For someone who has recently gone through the death of a loved one, this book was harrowing and hard to read in places, but nonetheless essential for its honest depiction of grief and loss. It was comforting in this respect and something I would recommend to others.

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What I read in June (2020)

Another month in lockdown has passed and we are also half way through the year! As usual, I will be sharing what I read this month and what I am currently reading. What have you read this month? Has anything stood out for you? Let me know!

Half a World Away, Mike Gayle

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This one was a real dark horse. It follows the lives of two siblings that have never met before, Kerry, who lives in a council estate and works as a cleaner and Noah, who lives in Primrose Hill and works as a barrister. They are two worlds apart but life suddenly brings them together. The novel explores the difficulties of an upbringing in care, forging new lost relationships and the pains of lost time. It was well written, heart-felt and incredibly readable.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, Robert Tressell

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I had started reading this at the beginning of lockdown, alongside all the other books I was reading, hence why it took me so long. This is a work of political fiction that explores the livelihoods of a group of white, working class men at the turn of the twentieth century in Britain. It explores workplace exploitation, poverty and class in a way which is still so shockingly relevant to today. It resonated with me in more ways than one and I am very glad I have read it, although it is far from a light read.

The Shelf, Helly Acton (e-ARC)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Refreshing and uplifting, this book made me laugh as well as cringe. Loosely based on the concept of the reality TV show, Love Island, Amy suddenly finds herself dumped on live TV. She is thrown together with a group of singles, as they each take part in a series of challenges to see who is crowned ‘The Keeper.’ I enjoyed reading this but found it quite cliche – but it had an element of feminism laced throughout that I liked.

All Men Want to Know Nina Bouraoui (e-Arc)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

This book was beautiful and unlike anything I had read before. Following the author’s life, this novel explores the pains of coming of age and being torn between identities from living in opposing continents: Europe and Africa. It is a work exploring identity, self reflection and sexuality, told in a lyrical and poetic fashion. It was strangely addictive to read and one that will always linger with me.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I was really looking forward to reading this. It certainly had a uniqueness that I’ve never experienced before. It was a mix between dark humor and crime, told through the perspective of a Korede, who acts as an accomplice to her Sister, a ‘Serial Killer.’ It was gripping in places but really lacked a certain amount of depth it could have benefited from. I enjoyed the dark feel of the novel but ultimately feel that it lost its initial momentum.

The Truants, Kate Weinberg (e-ARC)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I read this during a week in my life when I was experiencing insomnia, so who knows whether I truly made sense of it! However, I really enjoyed this and got stuck into the element of mystery at the heart of the novel. It’s a coming of age story with a unique twist. The characters were weird and wonderful which was what drew me to it. It had so much pace and suspense that I felt compelled to carry on reading. Jess’ strangely close relationship to her university tutor, is always weird, but it gets even weirder as the novel progresses…

The Sacrifice Indrajit Garai (Free e-book)

Rating: 3 out of 5.

A well written collection of short stories, focusing on the experience of human sacrifice and what it can mean for different relationships. This collection features the stories of Guillaume, a dairy farmer struggling to make ends meet, Matthew, a young boy who has a close attachment to a tree and Francois, an older man trying to make it as a writer whilst looking after his Grandson. The collection is harrowing and dark in places, but always countered with a sense of hope.

What I’m currently reading

If I Could Say Goodbye, Emma Cooper (e-Arc)

Due to be published in September, this is a book exploring the psychology of grief. The narration is told through Jen and her partner, Ed, as this experience impacts their relationship. I’m about half way through this and must admit, it has been a bit of a struggle so far. There’s no real plot and is a bit too heavy on the stream of consciousness for me, but I appreciate the attempt to portray the mental health implications of losing someone. As this has recently happened to me, I resonate with the elements of guilt the author is trying to portray through the characterisation of Jen. I’ll definitely read to the end but I’m not sure it will be one of my higher ratings!

A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

A novel centuries apart from the one above. This is a novel which explores the element of social upheaval wrought by the French Revolution in 1789, swinging between London and Paris. Dickens is full of his characteristic humor, portrays great characters and has a use of language which is lyrical, poetic, and informative. I love the feeling of change and upheaval that is being conveyed. I’m about 3/4 of the way through and very much enjoying it – I’ve always been fascinated by that part of history which helps!

What’s on my July radar?

I think I’m going to abandon having a TBR list as I feel so much pressure and disappointment when I look at it and realise I haven’t ticked off many. Instead I think I’ll be referring to it as a ‘radar’ as this feels more achievable. Sometimes I’m not in the mood to read anything from my list, and often discover new titles I want to read more.

So what’s on my radar for July? Definitely We Need to Talk About Race as I have very much been enjoying listening to the podcast and feel it will be a good introduction into exploring the racial history of Britain. Also An American Marriage, a novel I have wanted to read for a long time, and one I know has had great reviews. I’ve got a few e-ARC books to review as I’m trying to get my NetGalley feedback rating to 80%. Apart from that, I’m not going to list any more as I don’t want to pressure myself! Reading habits are so changeable so I don’t think it’s all that necessary to stick to TBR’s.

I hope you are all staying well and had a good reading month!

Violet xxx

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Book review: The Sacrifice

I have been pretty quiet this week due to multiple reasons. However, I’m back with another book review! Please note, The Sacrifice was kindly sent to me in an exchange for an honest review. I’ve never done a review of a short story collection so we’ll see how it goes!

Genres: Short story, fiction

Source: Free e-book

My rating: ★★★

Synopsis

The Sacrifice is a collection of short stories, written by Indrajit Garai, author of The Bridge of Little Jeremy. There are three stories in the collection, which all feature the exploration of human sacrifice and the strong bonds that hold family relationships together.

The Move, the first story in the collection, is about a dairy farmer in rural France who struggles to keep his business alive. Guillaume faces the real prospect of financial ruin as he tries to protect his son, eventually giving up everything to keep him safe.

The Listener, is a story told through the perspective of a young boy, Matthew, who tries to save his favourite tree from being chopped down. The tree is a source of comfort for the boy, in a time in his life where his home life is unstable, as his Mother begins a relationship with a new partner,

The final story is The Sacrifice, the tale of a struggling author who lives with his Grandson, Arthur. Francois has been struggling to make it as an author his whole life. As he begins a battle with rival publishers, he faces the real prospect of financial ruin. Often starving himself so that his Grandson can eat, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to keep Arthur safe.

The Review

The shining element in this collection was the sense of unity created between the three stories. Each story was very different in its feel and plot, however, they were all connected by a common theme – which is essential (in my opinion) for any short story collection.

All stories were united by the idea of human sacrifice, explored through various complex family relationships. Despite the suffering and darkness that is at the heart of all stories, there is always a sense of hope. I was left with the same feeling I got when I finished The Bridge of Little Jeremy and it is what Garai does best; despite everything, the darkness is always countered with a sense of hope, even against the worst circumstances.

“He saw, no matter how harsh his struggle for survival had become, there were still rewards of living on this earth.”

The Sacrifice, 148.

The exploration of human suffering and relationships across all stories makes the collection feel incredibly raw and real. It strikes at the most difficult elements that life can bring, but also maintains a sense of hope. As always by Garai, the writing is beautiful and I can quite easily get lost in the prose.

From reading The Bridge of Little Jeremy, I gather Garai likes to write about troubled characters, which features heavily in all these stories. Each character is facing some kind of hardship and strives to put it right. Garai also likes to explore the child persona which features in The Listener, as Matthew tries to do everything in his power to save a tree from being chopped down. But it isn’t just any tree, as it becomes his source of comfort in a time where he is experiencing anxiety and upheaval.

My favourite story in the collection was definitely The Sacrifice. Francois strive to make it as a writer and do everything to try and keep his Grandson thriving, and his story pays homage to the extent of human perseverance and struggle. For me, it was the most gripping as it had a sense of pace that the others lacked. I desperately wanted Francois to make it as a published author and receive the life he and his Grandson deserved, one free of the anxieties of financial hardship.

Despite the beauty of the writing, I struggled with The Move and The Listener, the first two stories in the collection. They both lacked a hook and reading them was a bit slow-going, as there was little drive and suspense to keep me reading. The Move redeemed itself slightly in the dramatic ending, however this was the only part that intrigued me. In this respect, I feel the first two stories were weaker than the last. They felt heavy and dense, with a definitive lack of direction.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this collection and really felt that all stories connected to each other. The language is beautiful and a joy to read but I felt the first two stories were a bit draining. However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Sacrifice, the last story, and think this is where the collection really excels. Definitely worth a read!

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Currently reading ~ June 18, 2020

Just a mid month update from me (well actually more than midway through…) thought I would do a quick post detailing my current reads. I’m actually pretty surprised at myself, usually I’d be reading 3-5 books at once but I have been very self controlled lately.

I set myself the goal of reading 50 books this year, which now doesn’t feel ambitious enough but then again, in January I had no idea that lockdown would happen or that I would get so into blogging! I’ve already read 35 books this year, and have a feeling I’ll be at the 100 mark by December.

Currently reading

  1. The Sacrifice by Indrajit Garai <- I am around 70% of the way through this and enjoying it so far. I was kindly sent it in exchange for a review, so many thanks to Books by Indrajit Garai @ Estelle for letting me have a copy! I reviewed (and loved) The Little Bridge of Jeremy a while ago and am excited to read the rest of this. Reading a short story collection is a nice change from what I usually read.
  2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens <- I am around 10-15% of the way through. After writing my post about classics, I managed to inspire myself to pick this up. It’s been one of those books I’ve wanted to read for ages so I thought now would be a good time. I’m finding the plot quite confusing but I love the writing, despite it being hard to understand. I find myself having to re-read sentences to get the gist of things. Definitely not a quick fire read, but very worthwhile. In a time of uncertainty and change I thought it was quite an apt choice.
  3. The Truants by Kate Weinberg <- About 15% of the way through, I started this last night before I went to bed and immediately fell in love with the writing. It feels so comforting and nostalgic. Also, it’s set not too far from me so that helps too. I think this is going to be a winner for me!
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And that’s it at the moment! I’ve almost surprised myself, at the beginning of lockdown I had about 4-5 books on the go at one time but I’ve managed to tone it down a bit since.

My June TBR as it stands:

  1. The Shelf Helly Action
  2. The Sacrifice Indrajit Garai
  3. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race Reni Eddo-Lodge
  4. An American Marriage Tayari Jones
  5. My Sister, the Serial Killer Oyinkan Braithwaite
  6. If I Could Say Goodbye Emma Cooper
  7. The Truants Kate Weinberg

It’s safe to say I usually get distracted and don’t stick to my TBR (anyone else?) but there’s still a good number of days left in June!

Reading recommendations are always welcome. 🙂

Happy reading!

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