Thursday 31 December 2020

2020 Wrap-Up

Writing a summary of 2020 feels an almost impossible task. It’s been a surreal and challenging year, and there’s little enthusiasm surrounding the new year as the pandemic ramps up once again. I hope you have found moments of joy nonetheless, and that any wounds the year has inflicted will heal over the coming months and years. There’s a sense of collective trauma that has encouraged more open discourse around mental health, and this is one thing that I hope we’ll continue into the years ahead. Our worlds have shrunk this year and for many, the pace of life has slowed dramatically with empty days stretching out, yet months passing rapidly, leaving a sense of disorientation when we realise quite how much time has passed. It’s been surreal and often lonely, but there has been beauty within it, communities coming together, time to contemplate the things and people that mean the most to you, and a chance to look more closely at your surroundings. In walking the same streets over and over I’ve noticed little details I would previously have marched past in a rush to get home or to go to work. The changing of the seasons has garnered far more attention as we see the increasingly familiar landscapes change, flowers blooming, trees turning golden, and for some, the first laying of snow. This increased connection to and appreciation of nature has been another slice of light in a dark year, and one that I hope I don’t lay aside carelessly when life offers some return to ‘normal’.

I have become more involved in the wider book blogger community this year, cheering each other on, encouraging endlessly increasing to-be-read piles, and taking part in virtual readalongs that have made the act of reading more social, allowing us the chance to discuss books as we read them. It’s been an invaluable source of joy, thank you to each and every one of you who has been part of this in any way. Regular readers will have noticed a new presence on the blog this year - blog tour posts. These have been a great opportunity to broaden my reading, bringing some contemporary fiction into my book pile. Many of the books I would never have picked up otherwise, and although they weren’t all to my taste, there have been some real standout reads, notably The Beast and the Bethany and Amari and the Night Brothers.

I’ve read slightly more books this year than the past few and it’s been quite a mixed bag. My first read of 2020 remains a highlight - The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose, a

beautiful novel connecting disparate lives through art. Questions of Travel by Michelle de Kretser also had me thoroughly engaged in a story that spans decades and continents. On the non-fiction front The Moth: Occasional Magic had me marvelling at the strength of the human spirit and the huge breadth of experience. Van Gogh: A Life was one of the biggest books of the year and succeeded in bringing to life the intricacies of this most famous of artist’s journeys. Finally, a book that topped the non-fiction bestseller charts, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, a book that everyone should read at least once.

I’m not one for planning my reading too far in advance, but my short-term reading list includes The Midnight Library by Matt Haig, which I’ve heard wonderful things about; The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante; and a spot of Agatha Christie. The latter part of 2020 has been somewhat lacking in non-fiction and so I intend to jump back on that bandwagon, recommendations always welcome. 

I hope your shelves are overflowing with excellent books to dive into and that the new year holds some wonderful things for you all. And remember, after every storm the sun will shine again. Wishing you peace, love, and good health for the days to come.

Wednesday 30 December 2020

A Sparrow Alone, Mim Eichmann

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This post is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thank you to The Write Reads and the author for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

In 1890s Colorado in the midst of the Cripple Creek gold rush, we find teenaged Hannah Owens suddenly without a mother. She becomes a domestic apprentice in the home of a wealthy doctor but soon finds herself once again being tossed around by fate. She encounters a huge amount of suffering and is forced to act well beyond her years, desperately trying to avoid the perceived taint of prostitution that afflicted many women, often victims of sexual assault. We watch helplessly as a tangled web of intrigue and dishonesty forms around her, tripping her up every time she looks about to get ahead.

A number of the characters are drawn directly from history, including Winfield Scott Stratton who discovered a huge gold mine that started the Cripple Creek gold rush, and Pearl de Vere, the infamous owner of high-end brothel ‘the Old Homestead.’ The sudden huge population growth, and the resulting high demand for prostitutes, the local devastating fires, as well as unrest among the miners, provide a dramatic backdrop for Hannah’s story.

There’s a fairly large host of characters and it can take a little while to understand who they all are and how they fit together, especially as some appearances are fleeting. Eichmann provides moving back stories for many of the characters, fictional or otherwise, which help the reader appreciate the person behind the legend. There is great camaraderie between many of the women who have often faced similar challenges. The poverty that many live in, however, does on occasion lead to some callous behaviour as they desperately strive for some stability for their offspring. Stratton himself refuses any kind of commitment and takes advantage of many women who receive only coldness when they find themselves with child. John Barrington also positions himself to take what he wants, manipulating situations so his victims feel themselves to be completely out of options.

The mistreatment of women and the perception of them as commodities is a recurring theme. There are scenes of assault that can be difficult to read, and it is made clear that their lives can be ruined by it. Pearl is described as having great talent and compassion but is forced to put her dreams aside when she is impregnated by her father and labelled a ‘whore’. Hannah herself is used as part payment for her family’s debts, completely without her knowledge or consent. She hears tales of other women who have died as a result of such arrangements. There is no paternal affection evident, just businesslike transactions with the lives and bodies of their daughters. Hannah despairs and feels defeated when she realises the truth, but is determined and resilient, doing all she can to avoid a life of abuse, aided by those who were not able to save themselves.

There are undertones of discrimination throughout, and racism is often alluded to. When a white mother gives birth to a baby of colour they are forced apart, being told in no uncertain terms that they would not be accepted. We see later in the novel the impact of racial segregation and the way it deprives so many of an education. As a modern reader it is a stark reminder of the inequalities that have existed for centuries and have not yet been fully eradicated.

This is an interesting read that highlights the imbalance of power and expectations, with victim blaming rife. It is easy to forget just how young Hannah is, having been through so much in her short life. The particular historic setting was new to me but fascinating to learn about. There is great strength in many of the characters as well as villains that make resistance feel futile, so uneven is the playing field. Nonetheless, Hannah persists and is a gentle light in a dark world.

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Monday 28 December 2020

Amari and the Night Brothers, B. B. Alston

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This post is part of the ultimate blog tour for the novel. Thank you to Egmont Publishers and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Amari’s brother Quinton has been missing for months, and she spends her evenings posting his photo on as many sites as she can in the hopes of finding out what happened to him. When she receives a mysterious delivery, her world is turned upside down as she discovers the supernatural world and Quinton’s place in it. What follows is a wonderful adventure reminiscent of some of the very best children’s books.

Amari is strong willed and talented, but living in the shadow of her brother’s brilliance means she never noticed how much she excelled. She has a scholarship to a well-respected school where she struggles to fit in because of the colour of her skin and the neighbourhood she lives in. When she goes to the Bureau’s summer camp it seems like she’s finally found somewhere that people won’t treat her differently. She soon comes to realise, however, that the supernatural world isn’t all that different, with Legacy families having a sense of superiority, and some special abilities treated with fear. Despite some setbacks she learns to value her own skills and flourishes as she grows in her self-belief.

The mystery of what happened to her brother and why plays out alongside tryouts for budding junior agents, and although the conclusion wasn’t entirely surprising, there were some great twists and turns along the way. The tryouts themselves are cleverly constructed and reveal more about the world Amari is just discovering. The world building is brilliant and it’s great fun experiencing it for the first time through Amari’s eyes. She makes some great friends, but is always slightly wary, not knowing who can be fully trusted. The existence of illusion magic makes this all the harder as you can never be sure that what you’re seeing is real.

This is a fantastic book that deals with difficult subjects thoughtfully and realistically, such as discrimination and the pressure it puts on people to never slip up. The writing style flows easily and will draw you into Amari’s world, conjuring up the weird and wonderful, that you just won’t want to leave. Whether or not you’re usually a fantasy reader, I can’t recommend this highly enough.

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Wednesday 23 December 2020

The Quest of the Absolute, Honoré de Balzac

Balzac’s 1834 novel considers the nature of genius and the lengths it will take people to. Balthazar Claes devotes himself to the pursuit of the philosopher’s stone, spending his own fortune and that of his family in the process. Joséphine has always been a devoted wife, but despairs at the destitution he is leading them into, fearing for the life their children will have once she is gone. Early in the novel Balzac writes ‘Too often, vice and genius produce similar results, which mislead the multitude. Genius is nothing more than constant excess, which devours time, money, and the body, and which leads to the poorhouse even more rapidly than evil passions.’, setting the tone for the story to come.

Frequently you will despair as Balthazar’s seeming obliviousness to the needs and lives of those who love him. Despite the failure of his experiments, his family are compelled to offer what they can to help him. The other characters cannot think poorly of him, seeing the agony of a frustrated mind, and so, ultimately, the final line inflicts a sharp wound to the reader.

The family dynamics and role of women in the novel are interesting. Both mother and daughter, Marguerite, try to curb Balthazar’s recklessness to little avail. Indeed, there are moments of softness and affection, where we see that even in the midst of his mania a small part of him remembers his family. On the other hand, these can feel like small consolations of a family desperate to find some evidence of paternal affection. They live in fear of what he will do to himself if his experiments are taken away, and ultimately sacrifice themselves for his intellectual pursuits.

Balthazar is a conflicting figure - his behaviour is unacceptable in many ways, but, near the end of the novel Balzac writes ‘That colossal sorrow, so courageously restrained, had its effect on both Pierquin and Emmanuel, who sometimes felt so deeply moved that they were inclined to offer him the money necessary for a series of experiments: so infectious are the convictions of a genius!’ Whether or not you believe he is a genius, or feel any sympathy for him in his depressed state, Balzac is here offering us a chance to see him through the eyes of those close to him. As an outsider, the willingness to repeatedly bail him out may seem illogical, even foolish, but we are reminded how convincing such a level of conviction can be, drawing all those around him into the pursuit of the absolute.

This is an interesting, accessible book with characters that will keep you pondering after the last page. A great one to try if you want to broaden your classics reading.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann

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Ellmann’s epic stream-of-consciousness novel takes the reader into the mind of an Ohioan mother of four. Her narrative is interrupted every hundred pages or so with passages about a mountain lion’s separation from her cubs. This provides a nice juxtaposition, as well as offering an alternative view of humanity. Buried within the main narrative, amid musings on popular culture, politics, police brutality, and all the general concerns and anxieties, is a story of an ordinary life with some very real emotional challenges.

One of the main themes of the novel is motherhood - the narrator’s feelings of incompetence and unworthiness, as well as her grief and guilt over the loss of her own mother. The lion narrative also draws on the devotion of a mother and the lengths she’ll go to in order to protect her offspring. Our narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, worries about not being able to look after her children properly, of being neglectful. She variously acknowledges the importance and difficulty of parenting, and questions whether she should have become a mother. ‘the fact that making food for people is actually a highly pressured, skilled, responsible job, just like motherhood, but nobody seems to notice,’ gives us a sense that she feels strongly that making a living baking pies while looking after her children is not valued by society, and this feeds in to her own sense of self-worth. That she can acknowledge that her occupations are important and demanding gives the reader some hope that she has the potential to see value in herself.

Anxiety plays out for her in almost every aspect of her life, but perhaps never more so than when it comes to her children. She admits to feeling shy around them and being afraid to tell them what to do, but it this line on people deciding to try for a baby, that really resonates, ‘the fact that nobody ever tells them that the terror of what could happen to your kids cripples your life, the fact that all mothers are going through this all the time, I think; but we never talk about it,’

Fear of death and loss hangs heavy over her, the repeated mantra of having been broken by the death of her mother is present throughout. She talks of not being able to love fully since because she can’t bear to go through that pain again. Her own cancer journey contributed to the sense of fragility of life and yet she offers herself no compassion, feeling instead that she failed her family during her treatment and recovery. Reading this during 2020 made the fears and anxieties all the more pertinent and difficult to read and sit with.

Alongside the personal worries and dramas are a lot of references to awful real life events - school shootings, assault, and a myriad of other violent crimes. Some topics are familiar to the international reader but many may not have made the news outside of the U.S. It had me researching names and events that I hadn’t come across before and sharing some of the despair.

The impact of human activity on nature is also present and plays along neatly with the lion’s tale, although it is often the negative impact on humans with the likes of the proliferation of PFOA in almost everything that captures most of the narrator’s attention. She reminds us all of the way people carelessly poison the planet, and that it’s being destroyed for all living creatures, ‘the fact that the good news right now is that animals don’t yet know we’ve wrecked the place, or they don’t know we did it at least, or they’d come after us, red in tooth and claw, the fact that it’s actually pretty lucky they don’t blame us for it,’

The climax of the novel builds, the lion sections appear more frequently as the two lives seem on the cusp of overlapping. Despite there being some dramatic events, the end of the novel feels somewhat anti-climactic as the narrator continues in her never-ending monologue, her sense of inadequacy still intact. For some, this technique will be happily received as we bid farewell to the characters, safe in the knowledge that their lives will continue without our prying eyes. It feels as though her general anxiety and disappointment in herself turns every event, whether it’s a lemon drizzle cake that didn’t rise properly, or a brush with death, into another reason why she is not good enough.

This is a beast of a book, and one that will not be universally loved. The constant repetition of the phrase ‘the fact that’ can be grating and yet at other times you almost don’t notice it. It is, however, a book that will really make you think, and is an interesting glimpse into life in America. The references may be specific but the themes are recognisably relevant to the general human experience. An interesting read, but possibly not one to pick up if you’re trying to soothe your mind from the ills of the world.

Sunday 13 December 2020

The Cousins, Karen M. McManus

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the Ultimate Blog Tour for the novel. Thank you to Penguin and The Write Reads for providing me with a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The Story family is infamous. Wealthy and fractured, the four children of Mildred Story were disinherited with no explanation beyond a note that read ‘you know what you did.’ Except, they don’t, and have each become closed off in their other relationships as well as to each other. Over two decades later and the next generation is invited to Gull Cove Island for the summer. Their parents are not going to let the opportunity pass them by and soon cousins Milly, Aubrey, and Jonah are reluctantly on their way to the island for a summer they’ll never forget.

The cousins take it in turn to narrate the chapters, and Allison, Milly’s mother, also has some sections detailing the events of the year before her family were cut off. McManus sets the tone straight away, giving us a taste of each teenager’s personality, family relationships, and priorities. They each have their own secrets and varied thoughts on the Story family saga. The narrative style is chatty and believably youthful, although the voices lose some of their distinctiveness as the novel progresses.

There are a lot of twists and turns along the way as the cousins size each other up and wonder why their grandmother invited them to the island only to completely ignore them once they’ve arrived. Mildred herself is a bit of an enigma, largely absent but commanding a lot of attention. She has loyal advisers and you begin to wonder if she is being manipulated. The flashback sections show her struggling to keep up appearances after the death of her husband. Being in possession of a huge fortune, it’s not hard to imagine the vultures circling. 

For the cousins, who have had very little interaction with their aunts and uncles, it’s disorienting being on the island, where the locals seem to know more about their family history than they do. Could it be that one of them holds the key to unlocking the Story mystery?

An enjoyable read that will keep you guessing throughout. All the smaller reveals help build suspense and ensure you’re never quite certain that all is as it seems. You see the cousins grow closer and support each other yet also lash out and accuse when their reality is thrown off kilter. The Story siblings may not come off as all that likeable but their offspring have fortunately avoided some of the less desirable family traits. Love, mystery, and murder collide in this YA thriller whose conclusion is more heart wrenching than I could have imagined. 

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Wednesday 2 December 2020

Victorian Sensation, Michael Diamond

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In the mid-nineteenth century a number of factors came together that made the spread of scandal much easier. Newspapers became cheaper with the removal of taxes, meaning that a much wider readership were able to afford them. The opening of the Divorce Court in 1858 also offered a new source of scandal - court proceedings included personal details that newspapers would not have been able to print. Diamond, in an attempt to show that the Victorians were not all that different to us, walks us through some of the popular scandals of the time. 

There are some famous occurrences that modern readers will be familiar with, such as the Jack the Ripper murders, but Diamond doesn’t dwell too long on these and there’s a wealth of other sensations that the common reader will likely not have come across before. The Tichborne Case, for example, captured the public imagination. Roger Tichborne, heir to title and fortune, was presumed dead after being involved in a shipwreck in 1854. His mother believed there was a chance he was still alive and advertised widely, offering a reward for information. An Australian butcher saw the advert and made his way to England to claim his position as the lost son. Some were happy to accept him whereas others were more sceptical. The court case that ensued was the longest on record. It became a huge rallying point for the public who remained firmly on the side of the Claimant, despite evidence suggesting he was not the Tichborne heir. 

Diamond sets each scandal within its social and political context and reveals patterns in some of the deeds and defences. He also reminds us that Britain was less revolutionary than its continental neighbours, and that events considered sensational would not have been elsewhere. He discusses the role of celebrity, both in the context of crime, and entertainment. Oscar Wilde had very deliberately created a public persona for himself, but this made his fall from grace that much more severe, and his every move was tracked. Diamond closes with a discussion of P.T. Barnum, the great showman, and his focus on creating spectacle and sensation. He seemed to believe in the oft-repeated phrase ‘all publicity is good publicity’, and had huge success despite causing outrage in some circles. ‘Barnum, an impressario not a performer, had become a star in his own right, and gives a lesson in how to create sensations through size, planning, advertising, and razzmatazz. … Barnum had led the way into the twentieth century.’

This is an accessible book that helps to break down the commonly held view of Victorians as prim and proper with very rigid morals. The popularity of sensation novels and dramas show the huge appetite for such tales. He guides us through the real life events that inspired fiction and the response to these forms of entertainment. He writes also of the role of women’s writing and strong female characters that dominated the genre. The book offers a glimpse into the subjects that titillated and shocked, and the laws that made them possible. There was a fascination with poison as a means of murder, and we learn that arsenic could be freely sold without a licence, whereas items such as tea and coffee, which we consider every day essentials, could not. This is a great read for those who want to dive into the world of Victorian reporting and entertainment, offering summaries and context for a broad range of events. Diamond sets them firmly in their time while allowing us to see that the subjects that capture public interest haven’t changed all that much in the intervening years.