Unlike July, August was a great month for reading – my TBR list took a battering. Eight books, six by women. One BAME author, six Americans (so much for seeking diversity in my reading). My bullet journal tells me I have read 69 books so far in 2018 – well on my way to my goal of 100 books this year.
First up was After You by Jojo Moyes. Me Before You made me sob as Will and Louisa’s story came to its awful conclusion, even as the activist in me raged against the decision to show a disabled person (note, not a terminally ill person) opting for assisted dying. I don’t support assisted dying – I think it will be used to undermine the rights of disabled people to dignity, a sufficient income and care, and a full life for as long as they live. Still, Me Before You was an emotional portrait of a dilemma we all hope will never affect our families.
Despite my interest in the plot, I found Louisa infuriating from the start: there was no clue as to why she had decided to “settle” in so many areas of her life – in her relationship, in her cafe job. But I knew I wanted to see how her story unfolded after Will. After You packed nowhere near the emotional punch of Me Before You, and I found few of the relationships as compelling as Louisa and Will. But by the end, with everything in me, I wanted Louisa to stop settling and take a decision that wasn’t about her family nor about a man, – and she did. I’ll probably read Still Me at some point.
Next was White Houses by Amy Bloom. A lesbian relationship, in the White House, set during one of my favourite presidencies (FDR), about the amazing feminist pioneer Eleanor Roosevelt? It should have ticked every box. Sadly, I didn’t love this anywhere near as much as I had hoped – the timeline jumps repeatedly, and the narrative thread didn’t take root for me. I am sure others would love this, though.
My third book was The Martian. My nephew was shocked that I hadn’t seen the film – but I’d never heard of it. Mark Watney, an astronaut, is left behind on Mars, and must survive alone hoping for a rescue. I enjoyed this a lot – Mark’s ingenuity was fascinating, though I couldn’t stand his puerile sense of humour and wasn’t sure I liked him all that much.
Next I read Vox by Christina Dalcher. This sounded like squarely the sort of book I would like: a dystopian novel, with themes about the oppression of women. After a regime change, women in a near-future USA can utter just 100 words a day on pain of electric shock torture. Its debt to Margaret Atwood was clear. But unlike The Handmaid’s Tale, we spent nowhere near enough time with the interesting premise, exploring how women’s life changes, how female-male relations change, how the society deals with persistent transgressors, how men rationalise the changes. Instead it degraded fast into an action movie, sacrificing character and situation. I was really disappointed. I felt similarly about this to Naomi Alderton’s The Power, where women suddenly gain overwhelming physical strength, and a patriarchal society upends: there is a better book to be written set in this society.
Book five for August was The City of Lies by Michael Russell. I read most of the Stefan Gillespie crime thrillers, as 1930s/1940s Republic of Ireland is not a place I know well. This wasn’t an outstanding addition to the series, but it was fine.
My sixth read was And Again, by Jessica Chiarella. This was another book with an intriguing premise: what if you could take terminally-ill or multiply-disabled people, and move their minds to a healthy, newly-cloned version of their discarded bodies? Thankfully here the bodies were grown fresh, rather than being the property of sentient people who’d grown up in them (as in Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go). The misadventures of the four beneficiaries of the new bodies were diverting, but the questions raised were much more profound. What part of “me” is my body, as opposed to my mind? How much can you rely on the people around you? How do you avoid the mistakes of the past, given a fresh chance?
Book seven was my standout of this month: Octavia Butler’s masterpiece, Kindred. Why had I never read any Octavia Butler before? Go, read this now! Dana is a young African-American woman living in California in the late seventies – when she is suddenly transported to a Maryland plantation in the early 19th century. The time travel is why this is mislabelled as science-fiction – yet the mechanics and reasons for the switch of time and place are not the focus of the book at all, as it would be in sci-fi. Imagine the attitudes, freedoms and assumptions of a black woman of the late twentieth century, still intact but suddenly transplanted to a slave-owning household. The characters are exquisitely drawn, the story moves apace, and, at times, the cruelty of events on the page leave you catching your breath.
This book will stay in your mind for a long time. Everyone should read it – but especially those who, like me, are consciously trying to increase their reading about social justice issues such as the legacy of slavery, and their reading by non-white authors.
My eighth and final book of the month was as different as can be: Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows. It’s a YA fantasy novel set in a merchant city ruled by a magical and mercantile oligarchy and with a thriving underclass. I read this as a result of a blog recommendation from Emily at Yes Whale.
I needed a palate cleanser after Kindred, and wanted something fun. It’s a heist book: an unlikely gang gather for the biggest job ever, encounter trials, the group storms then norms, nothing quite goes according to plan, in the end they pull it off to some degree, and along the way build an unbreakable bond. So far, so obvious – though still fun. What I enjoyed about this most was the multi-racial, diverse sexuality cast, and the non-stereotypical role of the women. Bizarrely the characters were all suggested to be teenagers (maybe in a nod to the youth audience?) but the complexity of many of their experiences and their interactions with one another suggested a more advanced age. In any case; definitely worth a read.
So there we are: August’s reading. A better month of conscious picks, even if not all of them lived up to the billing. I’m off to add more Octavia Butler to my TBR list.
What have you been reading? Have you read Kindred? What other books or authors do you wish you had encountered earlier in your reading life?