Best of 2017 | Mid-year wrap-up

As we’re already half way through the year (say what…it seemed only yesterday I was thinking about my new year’s resolution and guzzling the last of the Christmas prosecco!) I thought I’d do a quick wrap up of my favourite reads so far.

I’ve almost read 50 books, so am pretty much on track to read 100 by the end of the year. Whilst this isn’t as many as some book bloggers, I’m really chuffed with my progress this year – to put this into perspective I only read 52 books last year. I’m intrigued to see if these five will feature in my top books of the year wrap up in December, or whether I’ll continue my streak of five-star reads and these will get knocked off the top spot (so to speak).

So, without further ado here are the five books that I’ve been raving about, recommending to friends and non-stop thinking about. Needless to say, all of these books have been five star reads for me.

Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (Guardian Faber Publishing)

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Written by award-winning journalist Gary Younge, Another Day in the Death of America tells the story of the children and teens killed by gun crime in a single 24-hour period, in America. Younge randomly chooses 23 November 2013 to chronicle the deaths of these ten young men. Whilst I found it tragic in parts, it is a book I needed to read. It is so well written; insightful, intelligent and thoughtful. I find the issue of gun control and violence in the US petrifying and scary; Younge’s account further opened my eyes to the complicated issues that are faced in the States, whilst also highlighting the vulnerability of youth. Although difficult to read in places, I was engaged throughout and thoroughly recommend reading this one. This was one of the first books I read this year and since then I’ve leant it to friends to read and talked about it over and over.

The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown (Viking)

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Rich in history, The Witchfinder’s Sister is a compelling story based around Matthew Hopkins, the Manningtree witchfinder, in 17th century Britain. We follow his (fictionalised) sister, Alice, as she learns of the hideous things her brother is doing to local women – she battles her moral compass as she decides whether she should intervene and along the way we find out the family secrets. This is a mesmerising tale full of darkness, terror and detail, instantly transporting you to the streets of Essex and the candlelit room where Alice resides. I absolutely loved it and was stunned to hear it was a debut novel – I had a book hangover for days. If you’re interested in historical fiction and/ or witches, I’d highly recommend this. Since reading this I’ve read a few other books based on this period and they haven’t compared.

The Gustav Sonata by Rose Tremain (Vintage)

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This story sung to me. A tender tale about the complexities of friendship and overcoming circumstance, Gustav and Anton’s lives are at the heart of this book. Split into three parts, we journey through their friendship, their love and their lifelong commitment to one another. Set in a post WWII Switzerland, it starts in kindergarten when the two children meet, the narrative then shifts back in time to look at the relationship between Gustav’s parents. The latter part of the book is set years on, with Gustav and Anton as two grown men living their separate, but still intwined, lives. Tremain pens humanity and pain on the pages so exquisitely – so much so that her writing flawed me, with the last paragraph making me cry happy tears. This was my first foray into Tremain’s writing and I am so happy and excited that I have the rest of her books ahead of me to discover.

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier (Virago Modern Classics)

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Light-hearted, high-spirited and fun – this book is very different from Du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca. I raced through this in a day and was captivated by the wonderful, mischievous Lady Dona St. Columb. Full of humour and action, Du Maurier paints such a vivid, vibrant scene that I was instantly transported to Navron House and the Cornish creek. The ending managed to surprise me too, as only Du Maurier could do – she executes the twists in her stories so well. This is the best book by Daphne Du Maurier that I’ve read so far.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo (Canongate Books) 

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Set in Nigeria, Stay With Me is a mouthpiece for Yejide and Akin, a married couple whose troubles push them to the brink of separation. The themes of individual identity, heritage and societal expectations of women are explored as Yejide struggles to conceive; she cannot offer Akin the family his family have always dreamt of. The plot then thickens, set against a backdrop of Nigerian politics. Stay With Me weaves a stunning and engaging story of deception and love. Featuring many twists and turns, the narrative flows effortlessly. It swiftly switches perspectives, between Yejide and Akin, making the reader challenge their assumptions of what the female or male view of marriage should be. I felt wholly invested in this book and was sad when the book ended – Adébáyò manages to fit so much in less than 300 pages! As with others on my ‘best reads of 2017’ list I was also astounded to hear that this is her debut novel. Without a doubt, I will be keeping an eye on what Adébáyò does next as I’m sure she has a bright future ahead.

Have you read any of my favourites? What did you think of them?

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Baileys Prize Shortlist Wrap-up

When the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist was announced earlier this year I made it my mission to get through all of them before the winner is announced (the prizegiving is taking place 7th June 2017). I got on pretty well and (thanks to my local library!) I read five out of the six. The only one I missed out on was The Sport of Kings – I didn’t have enough time to get stuck in before I had to send it back to my local library as it was reserved for another member!

Here are my thoughts on the 2017 shortlist:

The Power by Naomi Alderman (Penguin / Viking) – 4/5
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Set in a contemporary – and almost dystopian – world, The Power is a feminist study into what would happen if true, unlimited power was in the hands of women. In this new world, with the flick of a wrist, women can emit an electrifying force and this emergence of power soon leads to corruption. I honestly didn’t know what to think once I had finished The Power – it blew my mind. It was fascinating and terrifying; I still regularly think about it and I read it over 3 months ago now. I definitely encourage you to read this, whether you’re male or female, as I think everyone will take something different from The Power. Ultimately, it questions gender, power and religion. Trigger warning: there are some harrowing scenes throughout, featuring sex-trafficking, death, rape and civil war.

First Love by Gwendoline Riley (Granta) – 3/5
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What First Love lacks in length, being the shortest novel on the shortlist, it certainly makes up for with emotion and grit. The main character, Neve, is in an unhappy, abusive and seemingly loveless marriage with Edwyn. But there is more to it. It appears that her formative years have played a huge part in contributing to her current situation as well as her mental state; or is it actually Edwyn’s fault they’re in the predicament they are? Riley writes pithy dialogue which is true to life, giving us a glimpse into Neve and Edwyn’s marriage behind closed doors. We never truly understand their backstory. First Love is raw and disturbing in places, but it lacked a real story – the timeline felt confused and it is missing a satisfying ending, however I’m certainly keen to read more of Riley’s work to see how First Love compares.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeline Thien (Granta) – 3/5
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Spanning many, many years of Chinese history, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is an epic, expansive study into the realities of life under Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution. Family loyalty, music and brutality all feature heavily in Thien’s writing. I’ll admit that I had some trouble reading this – it took me at least 100 pages to get into the story, in addition to this there are so many characters, often with multiple names and nicknames that I had to wrack my brain to figure out who was who at times. It is a fascinating read, but also felt quite heavy-going, which made it hard to emotionally invest in the characters. Whilst this isn’t my favourite book of the shortlist I can definitely see why it has been nominated as it is a fantastic piece of historical writing that offers insight to the country’s fragmented state of affairs.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant (Virago) – 3/5
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Set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Kent countryside, The Dark Circle charts the beginnings of the NHS at the end of the Second World War. Second generation Jewish immigrants, twins Lenny and Miriam, are sent there in their teenage years to recover and gain strength. Linda Grant’s characters, whilst diverse, felt lacklustre; there is something missing for me as I didn’t care what happened to them, which is never a good sign. If the plot was stronger and quicker in places I think I would have been more connected to their stories. It is a moderately enjoyable read, but it certainly felt wayward in places, particularly as the story progressed to hear about their later lives.

Stay With Me by Ayobami Adébáyò (Canongate Books) – 5/5
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Spoiler: I absolutely loved this book. Set in Nigeria, Stay With Me is a mouthpiece for Yejide and Akin, a married couple whose troubles push them to the brink of separation. The themes of individual identity, heritage and societal expectations of women are explored as Yejide struggles to conceive; she cannot offer Akin the family his family have always dreamt of. The plot then thickens, set against a backdrop of Nigerian politics. Stay With Me weaves a stunning and engaging story of deception and love. Featuring many twists and turns, the narrative flows effortlessly. It swiftly switches perspectives, between Yejide and Akin, making the reader challenge their assumptions of what the female or male view of marriage should be. I felt wholly invested in this book and was sad when the book ended – Adébáyò manages to fit so much in less than 300 pages! I was also astounded to hear that this is her debut novel. Without a doubt, I will be keeping an eye on what Adébáyò does next as I’m sure she has a bright future ahead.

My prediction

Based on my overall reading experience I would absolutely love Stay With Me to win as it drew me in and enveloped me with its layered commentary on marriage and the pressures of being a woman. Having said that, I don’t think it will win – I think The Power will. It has so many themes that are prevalent and important in today’s predominantly patriarchal society. Until we have full equality between men and women I think this will continue to be an important, eye-opening read. It is clever, powerful (sorry, I couldn’t resist…) and really, really is something special. It is such a unique novel. Either way, I’d be happy if one of these fantastic novels won the prize! Now, we just have to wait until 7th June for the winner to be unveiled.

January Reads

I kicked off the year with a pretty good month of reading. I worked my way through eight books which consisted of one poetry collection, two non-fictions, three novels and two crime thrillers.

Sorry my mini-reviews are a little late this month! Here goes…

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Rupture – Ragnar Jonasson (Orenda Books) – 4/5

I was kindly sent an advance copy of Rupture by the lovely Karen over at Orenda Books, which arrived the day before Christmas Eve.

Set in the town of Siglufjörður Rupture is chilling, dark and atmospheric. We follow the local policeman, Ari Thór, and his investigation into a suspicious death from the 1950s in the isolated fjord of Hedinsfjörður. The story unfurled slowly, was full of detail and really packed a punch – I don’t want to say too much as I implore you to read it and see what all the fuss is about. An absolute must read if you’re a fan of crime thrillers. I have to admit that I’d never read any of Jonasson’s work before, and with this being the fourth book in his Dark Iceland series I thought I might be a little bit lost, but in fact I found that Rupture worked fantastically as a stand-alone novel. To be honest, I enjoyed it so much that I’ve now added the other three books to my TBR pile.

Ragdoll – Daniel Cole (Trapeze) –  5/5

I won’t say anything about this one here, as I’m involved with the blog tour for Ragdoll and will be posting an in-depth review on Tuesday 21st February. Keep your eyes peeled!

Another Day in the Death of America – Gary Younge (Guardian Faber Publishing) – 5/5

I added this to my reading list for Non-Fiction November, then sadly never got around to reading it. In Another Day in the Death of America award-winning journalist Gary Younge tells the story of the children and teens killed by gun crime in a single 24 hour period, in America. Younge randomly chooses 23 November 2013 to track and chronicle the deaths of these ten young men.

Whilst I found it tragic in parts, it felt like a book I needed to read. It was so well written – insightful, intelligent and thoughtful. I find the issue of gun control and violence in the US petrifyingly scary and Younge’s account further opened my eyes to the complicated issues that are faced in the States, whilst also highlighting the vulnerability of the youth. Although difficult to read in places, I was engaged throughout and thoroughly recommend reading this one.

Scrappy Little Nobody – Anna Kendrick (Touchstone) – 3/5  

This was a collection of autobiographical essays by Anna Kendrick, the actress and star of Pitch Perfect. I was really unfussed by these; they were quite self-indulgent and often not that funny. If you’re looking for a light hearted, humorous memoir I’d recommend either Amy Schumer’s or Sue Perkins’ instead as both of them are much better!

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer (Harper Collins) – 3/5

 ‘I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.’

Whilst I enjoyed The Shock of the Fall, and it was an okay book, it didn’t wow me. It didn’t surprise or shock me and it felt a little lack lustre. I thought Filer’s portrait of mental illness and the health system was good, but perhaps a little too simplistic at times. Personally, I think this book could’ve been chopped in half and still told the story succinctly.

Gold from the Stone – Lemn Sissay (Canongate Books) – 4/5

My Mum got me this poetry collection for Christmas as I’ve been super keen to find more poetry that I enjoy. Lemn Sissay’s work is bold and personal, commenting on race, the government, social services, relationships and much, much more – it is filled with rage, humour, sadness and love.

After reading this collection I went on to watch countless YouTube videos of Lemn reading them – his performances breathed endless life into the words, so strong and powerful. My favourite from the collection was Invisible Kisses, it’s just breath-taking       .

And the hippos were boiled in their tanks – William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac (Penguin) – 2/5

After being involved in a crime one Summer, Kerouac and Burroughs decided to collaborate on a novel about the event they’d experienced. At the time, the two authors were undiscovered and yet to write anything of note – their original manuscript was rejected by publishers, left untouched for decades in a filing cabinet until it was published many years later. Kerouac and Burroughs narrate alternate chapters, piecing together a tale of bohemian New York during World War II. For me, this had so much promise, but in truth I found it clunky and static, with little to keep me interested. It took me months to read this, which is crazy as it is pretty short at a mere 214 pages. 

Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff (Windmill Books) – 4/5

A tale of love and lies, we follow newly married Lotto and Mathilde through their marriage; with two sides to every story, we hear both the male and female view of what their life is like as time passes by. Groff’s storytelling is sublime and her descriptions and plotline kept me hooked until the very last page. However, one thing I wasn’t overly struck on was Groff’s incorporation of Greek tragedy, but at the same time it wasn’t off-putting as it mirrored Lotto and Mathilde’s tragic tale.

Mini Christmas Book Haul

 

As a bookworm and long-time book lover people often shy away from buying books for me for Christmas and birthdays, unless they’re ones I’ve explicitly asked for. This year I was pleasantly surprised, receiving a few books from family – I’ve included the blurb of each, below.

The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss (Granta)

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Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter’s school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing. In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed.

In this exceptionally courageous and unflinching novel of contemporary life Sarah Moss goes where most of us wouldn’t dare to look, and the result is riveting – unbearably sad, but also miraculously funny and ultimately hopeful. The Tidal Zone explores parental love, overwhelming fear, illness and recovery. It is about clever teenagers and the challenges of marriage. It is about the NHS, academia, sex and gender in the twenty-first century, the work-life juggle, and the politics of packing lunches and loading dishwashers. It confirms Sarah Moss as a unique voice in modern fiction and a writer of luminous intelligence.

The Museum of You – Carys Bray (Cornerstone)

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Clover Quinn was a surprise. She used to imagine she was the good kind, now she’s not sure. She’d like to ask Dad about it, but growing up in the saddest chapter of someone else’s story is difficult. She tries not to skate on the thin ice of his memories.

Darren has done his best. He’s studied his daughter like a seismologist on the lookout for waves and surrounded her with everything she might want – everything he can think of, at least – to be happy. 

What Clover wants is answers. This summer, she thinks she can find them in the second bedroom, which is full of her mother’s belongings. Volume isn’t important, what she is looking for is essence; the undiluted bits: a collection of things that will tell the full story of her mother, her father and who she is going to be.

But what you find depends on what you’re searching for.

Gold from the Stone – Lemn Sissay (Canongate Books)

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Lemn Sissay was seventeen when he wrote his first poetry book, which he hand-sold to the miners and mill workers of Wigan. Since then his poems have become landmarks, sculpted in granite and built from concrete, recorded on era-defining albums and declaimed in over thirty countries.

He has performed to thousands of football fans at the FA Cup Final, to hundreds of thousands as the poet of the 2012 Olympics, and to millions across our TV screens and the airwaves of BBC Radio. He has become one of the nation’s best-loved voices.