Something slightly different – a round up of my reviews for books I’ve read in the first half of this year, highlighting my top recommendations and one my favourite genres – books with young, supposedly “unlikeable” female protagonists in messy relationships!
(For those of you who already religiously follow my goodreads reviews, this post will be pretty redundant! For those who would like to religiously follow me on good reviews, find me here! I’ll also do another round up at the end of 2018, for the second half of the year.)
My Top Recommendations
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado – 5*
This was a stunning, unforgettable book of short stories that I found so exciting and enthralling to read. I don’t really know how to review it – I feel an intense need to discuss these stories, but also that any attempt to discuss the ideas in the stories will fall short at capturing what she captures or exploring these ideas as she does. I already want to re-read it – it was so densely packed with haunting ideas, searing insights, beautiful writing and innovative formats that I think I would always find something new in it. Through stories with magical fantastical metaphors she manages to capture so much of the painful reality of female experience, and it somehow feels more grounded and real than the majority of non-fantastical books I read. I can’t claim to “get” all of it, and sure, some stories worked better for me than others (as with pretty much all short story collections), but as a whole this is a book that will stay with me for a long time and I am so glad to have read. If you want to leave the book with complete clarity about “what happens” in each story and want neatly packaged ideas, it’s not for you – but I don’t find anything vague about the feelings or in the characters it describes, these aspects are bold, finely tuned and just so well written. Easily one of my favourite fiction books of the year.
When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife by Meena Kandasamy – 5*
Everyone should read this book. It’s up there with the most memorable and stunning books I’ve read in years. I’m never going to be able to do it justice, but it’s an incredibly powerful look at a (thankfully short-lived) abusive marriage – the disturbing increase in control and violence over time, the manipulated isolation, the cruel manipulation of extreme left wing politics used to justify the abuse, the attitudes from her family and society which kept her isolated, how this experience can’t be separated from the strands of misogyny throughout society and throughout her life, how this story is the story of so many. It contains so many specific vivid details which have stuck in my head. It’s also just beautifully written in ways I’m not eloquent enough to describe! She uses a variety of interesting writing styles and formats – not in a pretentious way, but in a way that adds interest and adds … just simple enjoyment in reading such a well crafted book. Go, get this book and read it.
Eat Up: Food, Appetite and Eating What You Want by Ruby Tandoh – 5*
Everyone should read this book as well! It is a love letter to food and to…everyone? It takes the kindest approach to eating that I have ever come across, a brave one that I don’t think I have ever seen before but is desperately needed in a society with incredibly disordered attitudes towards food and eating. It has no pretension, no “aspirational” ideas that make us and our food feel not enough, no infatuation with “natural” food or home-cooking, no scolding, no tricking you into fad diets behind a veil of “wellness”, no product being sold, no universal diet or rules we should all follow. Never have I seen “junk” food written about with the same empathy and joy and lack of judgement. It’s incredibly validating and reassuring and I even more emphatically recommend this to anyone who has had a complicated relationship with food in their life. The writing is so evocative and captures the significance and emotions of day-to-day food, finding romance in the mundane while also being unfailing practical and not berating anyone for rushed thoughtless meals. It is also wide-reaching, touching on the (current and historical) links between food and sexuality, race, gender, class, families, prisons, health, pop culture, and encourages thoughtfulness towards food where it is actually needed. It’s a beautiful incredible book.
I think this book is incredibly important and – I’ll say it again – everyone should read it.
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson – 4.5*
I enjoyed this much more than I expected – it was incredibly thoughtful and nuanced and didn’t try to simplify things by making anyone heroes or monsters or act like anything was black and white or simple. It dealt with the public shaming of a whole range of people, some more sympathetic than others, and similarly spoke to the shamers (again, some more sympathetic than others). In pretty much all cases he manages to acknowledge reasonable criticism but also find necessary empathy, which I think is a key take-home message. It didn’t ignore the fact that gender and race are significant factors in the kind of shaming that occurs and the consequences for everyone involved, the importance of power or perceived power (or lack of), or that shaming can be twisted and used against the initial shamer – I would have been interested for the book to explore things like this even more (in general the reason it didn’t get 5 stars was that I would have loved it to go even deeper), but I appreciate that it did look at a lot of different perspectives and shades of grey. Whether you ultimately agree 100% with Ronson or not, I think it’s a very valuable book to provoke thought, reflection and discussion.
Lullaby/The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani – 4*
This is an intense unsettling read – many reviews describe it as claustrophobic and that is the perfect word for it. You know from the front cover/page or any discussion of the book that this is about a nanny who kills the children she looks after (based on some real life cases), and then you go backwards and read about the lead-up to that point. If you’re expecting some neat, clean resolution and answer for why someone would do that, you may well be disappointed – personally I can’t imagine what simple satisfying “answer” there would or could ever be for such an act, and if the author had attempted to provide one I think I would find that disingenuous. But if you want a more subtle exploration of a very complicated dynamic between a nanny and the family she works for (with issues of class and race), and fascinating glimpses of insight into this characters life – both of which I believe do go some way towards “explaining”, through showing rather than telling – I think it’s fantastic.
Some books I loved about young,”unlikeable” women in messy relationships
i.e. one of my favourite genres
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney – 5*
I see so many reviews attacking unlikeable characters (95% of the time women) and my two consistent thoughts are 1) I’ll take fascinating over likeable every day of the week and 2) sometimes a readers inability to empathise with a character is a reflection on the reader… Personally, I was completely engrossed by this book and its sharply observed characters, especially the narrator who is stuck between intense self analysis and self awareness but also so much self delusion. She is figuring out how much agency she has, how to present herself in the world, how vulnerable to be and how her ideas and analysis of relationships can align with the reality – I struggle to see how anyone could not relate to these struggles on some level. I’m a sucker for any book about complicated dysfunctional relationships – especially when it’s exploring gender and class and power dynamics and looking at female friendships and queer relationships and non-traditional relationships – but Conversations with Friends is especially good at exploring so many ideas through conversation and introspection and social performance, all with simple clean prose. Loved it and can’t wait for her new novel released later this year.
If you want a taste of her writing style, read this short story. I think Conversations with Friends is better, but this I would have found intriguing – but if you immediately hate the narrator and the style, probably a sign the book won’t be for you.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler – 4*
A divisive book but one that I loved once I got into it. If you get annoyed by pretentious characters, then sure, stay away from this book. But for me their pretension was part of the whole point of the story and the narrator’s journey and growth – those people exist and can seem oh-so-impressive when you’re 21, and part of growing up is figuring out what is pretension and what actually matters. This book does an excellent job of capturing that period of time in your life – figuring out who you are and how people see you and being intensely self-conscious of that, intense desires conflicting with wanting to appear “older and aloof”, that need for approval and validation, being drawn into dysfunctional relationships because of this. I feel myself struggling to describe these experiences and to me that is a sign that this book does something special in managing to capture these feelings through a story. I also find it hard to dismiss it as “lacking in plot” when these formative periods of life are so significant and it’s evident how much the events of this book will impact on the narrator!
Other reviews also seem to get hung up on the (yes, slightly pretentious and detached) food descriptions but these are only a tiny portion of the book, with a much greater focus on immersing you in the world of service in a top NY restaurant, which it does an excellent job of – the steep steep learning curve, the lifestyle and socialising that goes along with it, how being a waitress is perceived, the odd relationship with diners. This alone was enough to interest me and make the read worthwhile.
I’d be a fool to recommend this considering how many people seemed to hate this book! But I think it’s worth persevering if you find the first couple of chapters a struggle – I think it does something special and I became completely drawn in.
I really enjoyed this quick read which darts back and forth, giving snapshots (each “chapter” is usually just 1 or 2 pages) throughout an intense on-and-off dysfunctional relationship between two women, one of whom (the narrator) has had no romantic experience with women before. It’s very introspective and every-day, there’s no huge drama in terms of plot; it’s all in the very well observed and specific details of her relationship and the impact on her life. These give the book its intimacy and intensity and make it so compelling. I didn’t need the (slightly heavy-handed, if beautiful) imagery thrown in to the last few pages, but otherwise I loved the very unpretentious plain writing style throughout.
(For those with just a sentence or two, click on the link for my full review)
Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear – 4*
A solidly gripping and mysterious whodunnit with lots of foreboding and tension, but lacking some emotional depth.
Her Dark Retreat by J.A. Baker – 2*
A thriller with a fantastically atmospheric setting but flat characters and minimal tension because 95% of the mystery was solved early on.
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay – 4*
Anything by Roxane is always worth reading. The title of this collection of short stories perfectly captures these messy, broken, damaged women and the difficulty the world has in truly empathising with them, supporting them, believing them, hearing them, seeing them as more than their trauma.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff – 4*
A slightly epic literary saga of a couple, would recommend if you like scattered snapshots throughout a lifetime and multiple POV.
Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman – 4*
There’s lots I loved about this book (most of which has been rightly praised in the media and by reviewers)- not least, the fascinating main character. You’ll probably know quickly if you want to read more or not. I’ve never read a main female character quite like her, and I absolutely loved finding out about her and following her day-to-day life, her routines and loneliness, her developing interactions with people and her growth. But I kinda wish it had focus solely on that more low-key day-to-day plot… The second underlying strand is a ~mysterious traumatic event in her past that she has repressed~ and this plot device has just been so overused, and everything but the final twist was pretty obvious from very early on, that it didn’t provide much tension for me and just felt unnecessary? I’d rather it had been omitted/her past experiences had been just gradually explored in a more plain way; but I’d still very much recommend the book and really enjoyed reading it!
The Core of the Sun by Johanna Sinisalo – 3*
This book had two very interesting premises: it’s set in a dystopian world where 1) various forms of “social engineering” have been used to encourage certain types of women – elois – based on regressive ideas about gender and 2) where use of capsaican is an illicit drug. I enjoyed a lot of the exploration of these ideas and I also enjoyed the writing and the format, switching between perspectives and sections of books/laws that give you details on the history and wider society. It was generally a pretty enjoyable, easy read with a plot that made you want to keep going. However I had a few key issues.
Firstly, I felt like the two ideas around gender and capsaican didn’t totally fit together (though there is one paragraph that tries to link them re: cultivating breeds), it felt slightly confused, and I’d rather have read two separate books which explored the ideas in much more depth individually – so much more could have been done with these worlds and concepts.
Secondly, I really struggled with how much contempt was aimed at the elois. It felt almost misogynistic and I’m really not sure what message I was supposed to take away from this all. I mean, the premise is that women were “bred” (and socially pressured) to have certain traits by only allowing certain women to marry/reproduce but a) this seems to imply a group of women exist in the real world who are like elois which I kinda object to in the first place (they come across as a misogynistic trope of what women are like) and b) if true, then I’d expect more sympathy and empathy? But there was just derision – they just had no redeeming traits, every negative cliche about femininity was thrown in there and roundly condemned, without giving them any sense of humanity. It just reminded me of the contempt shown in the real world for women who wear a lot of make-up, dress in “revealing clothing” etc and then are assumed to be vapid and dull, I dunno. I think you can question the socialisation of women, display this to an extreme in a dystopian fiction, without throwing a tonne of women under the bus, which is how this felt at times.
Finally, I found the ending just… weird and surreal, out of nowhere (the rest of the book was very grounded) – without giving spoilers, there wasn’t much explanation of what or how things happened which meant it was unfortunately quite unsatisfying.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara – 4.5*
A fantastically well-researched book on the Golden State Killer, written with incredible detail but also humanity and evocative detail, as well as an insight into the author and what it was like to become obsessed with this (until recently) unsolved case.
Them: Adventures with Extremists by Jon Ronson – 3.5*
This is a great collection of fascinating experiences with extremists, written with humour, but unfortunately it lacks some of the cohesion/personal reflection which Ronson usually does so well.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these books and any book recommendations you think I’d like based on the above!
Finally, shout out to What Page Are You On podcast, who have helped reinvigorate my love of reading this year, recommended many of my favourite books this year (When I Hit You, Lullaby, Conversations with Friends, Women, and Sweetbitter), and who are a delight to listen to!