It’s been an unusual month, because I’ve cut my blog tours right down for the end of the year so I’ve made more personal choices about what to read and when. I’m still working through an endless TBR, but I’m reading them in the order I fancy – this feels like blissful freedom to a book blogger, even through I can see a teetering pile of proofs out of the corner of my eye. Not to mention the virtual teetering pile on Netgalley that I’m slowly working through. It’s a month that seems to disappear for me, as Christmas shopping starts in earnest and I end up so focused on December that November seems to pass me by. I’m also having my living room decorated, so that it’s all dry and we can put the Christmas tree up this weekend. I’ll be rearranging my reading corner too, now that it’s a more restful colour rather than the hectic stripes of the previous owner. So, it’s now a headline rush toward Christmas with lots of advent and Christmassy content to come.
This month’s photo collage is in honour of this new book from Jodi Picoult and her writing partner Jenny Finney Boylan. It’s seen as a controversial novel and I’ve been surprised by the many trigger warnings applied to it in reviews and read alongs. Some of these have misrepresented the novel or even ruined it by disclosing parts of the plot. What you need to know about this book is that it’s a straightforward Picoult novel based around a crime and a legal case. Bearing this in mind, I think most people know by now that one of the characters in the novel is transgender. For some people this makes the book problematic, but I am reassured by the fact that Jennifer Finney Boylan is a celebrated trans writer and activist. So this isn’t a cisgender writer trying to write about transgender experience. This is a writer who is using her own experience to communicate that character’s experience with authenticity. Yes, there are characters in the book who are ignorant or even show prejudice, but that’s necessary to fully represent what it’s like to be transgender. Our storyline follows Olivia and her son Asher and the life they’ve built since fleeing domestic violence when Asher was a toddler. Olivia settled in her father’s home and gradually took over his role as a beekeeper. Asher is now a teenager and has his first girlfriend, Lily. Lily is lovely and has been given the vote of confidence by the bees, helping Olivia remove the honeycomb like a pro. Olivia’s whole existence has been devoted to keeping Asher safe, so when she gets a phone call from the local sheriff to say Lily is dead and Asher has been arrested for her murder. Could Asher have inherited some of his father’s characteristics? This is an interesting novel that is also about domestic violence, trauma, jealousy and the difficulties of being a single parent. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.
This is an interesting addition because I re- read the book while writing about the work of Sarah Waters. I was interested in the parallels between this and her novel Affinity. I loved this when it I first read it last year and it was great to read it again. I loved the strong female characters here and the author’s clever use of liminal spaces to introduce relationships that would have been frowned upon in the 19th Century. Viola has been brought up by her clergyman father alongside a young boy he took into his care. Jonah and Viola have an incredible friendship and it’s really no surprise when they get married, although it does come immediately after their father’s death. Viola loves photography and is asked by a bereaved family if she would take a picture of their dead child. However, when Viola develops the pictures there is another child in the photographs – a child who wasn’t there. This potential spirit photography brings her to the attention of Henriette, a medium who’s been through a lot before she meets Viola and helps her to become a spirit photographer. The two women become close and Viola starts to worry about the intensity of her feelings for this new friend. Jonah, meanwhile, has secrets of his own left back in India where he was posted with his regiment. All three of these characters are so well observed and have such convincing inner lives so when they’re added to some evocative settings you’re immediately transported back in time. Loved it.
The Marmalade Diaries by Ben Aitken.
This was another unusual read for this time of year, but I was simply charmed by the relationship between Ben and the formidable old lady he’s tasked with living with. Ben is at a low ebb when a local charity matches him up to help a pensioner. Winnie is 85 years old and needs help from someone who can live with her and Ben needs a roof over his head. Winnie has an attic flat so he imagines only some of his time will be needed – for tasks such as putting the bins out, changing light bulbs and support with hospital treatment. However, once they are alone Winnie’s first words are along on the lines of ‘so what’s for tea’ and he realises he’s going to be at her beck and call a lot more. I found Winnie so funny, but sometimes she shows cunning and an ability to exploit her situation that was as hilarious to read as it must have been infuriating to live with. The stand-off with the coal man over unloading her delivery was epic – leaving Ben to receive the delivery, she feigns surprise that there was an extra charge to bring the coal onto the property and tip it into the bunker. Winnie has only paid to have dropped on the boundary, then claims that she knew nothing about the charge. Ben wonders if this is an oversight, or a sign of forgetfulness but the coal man comments that it’s an oversight that’s happened the last three times they’ve delivered. It’s beautiful to watch a friendship develop between these two unlikely house-mates and I was sorry to leave their company.
Last year A.M.Shine’s The Watchers scared the living daylights out of me and I was introduced to a new horror writer who writes stories I want to read. Yes, there are creatures and theyre terrifying, but there isn’t a lot of violence until the group start to venture about. I love that these are old fashioned stories in a sense, theres a slow creeping dread that builds, until you find yourself shutting your curtains at even the hint of sunset. Dr. Alec Sparling lives a very regimented existence in a remote Manor House in Ireland. His house is set back, covered and disguised with vegetation. There are shutters for the windows and and bolts for the doors. What is he hiding from? He has advertised for two academics to undertake field research and chooses Ben and Chloe. She is an archaeologist and he is an historical researcher with a wealth of experience in interviewing people. They must hike out to a remote Irish village and interview the residents about their life and their minimal contact with the outside world. This is a forgotten place, wary of strangers and as they stumble through a forest, tripwires attached to church style bells ring out their presence, giving the villagers plenty of warning. As Chloe and Ben finally meet the people they are shocked by their physical appearance. Poverty and hardship has marked their faces, but it’s the lack of new residents that explains the deformities they observe, years of in-breeding has clearly had it’s effect. These people are not pleased to see them and like Dr Sparling, they are nervous about dusk creeping up on them and Chloe observes the shutters at their windows, less high tech than the wealthy doctor’s, but for exactly the same purpose. Are they to stop people looking out after dark, or are they to stop someone looking in? The pair are told, if theDeeply unsettling and brilliantly written.
This beautiful book had been sat all year waiting to be read and I read this, then it’s sequel Heart of the Sun Warrior for our November Squad Pod book club. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but weirdly when I’m doing my yearly round up, quite a lot of my favourites have a fantasy or magic realism element. The first book in the duology introduces us to Xingyin who lives on the moon with her mother Chang’e. Her peaceful life is interrupted and she is forced to live incognito as a servant in the Celestial Palace, hoping all the time to free her mother from exile. In a stroke of luck she is chosen to train as a warrior alongside the Emperor’s son. This is a great story of a girl growing into a woman and also into her destiny as a great warrior. The settings are incredible, the mythology is full of monsters, an incredible atmosphere and so much colour. To top everything there’s also a love triangle between two warriors, one who is a loyal friend and the other brings pure chemistry. In the sequel, we see another disturbance in the peaceful realm in the sky meaning Xingyin must once again draw on her skills as a warrior. She has a to face a betrayal from one of her suitors and decide whether she can ever trust him again. What I loved most about the books were the luscious layers of description the author uses to build her world in the clouds, but also that Xingyin is always the centre of the tale as a strong, warrior woman.
My final book of the month is The Dazzle of the Light, which leapt straight into my top books of the year. It was possibly overshadowed by Kate Atkinson’s new release which covered the same period of history, but although I loved Atkinson’s book, I enjoyed this one more. The author told a story of two ambitious women, both from very different parts of society. Ruby is part of the notorious Forty Thieves gang. Women of all ages commit crimes ranging from pick-pocketing to jewellery heists and Ruby has her sights set on these more glamorous jobs where she can team up with one of the Elephant Boys. It’s on one of these robberies, where Ruby is seen by Harriet Littlemore. Harriet comes from a wealthy, upper class family and is engaged to a young politician. This isn’t enough though, Harriet wants something for herself and is excited to get a small role writing women’s interest features for the local newspaper. Ruby inspires her to research and write a piece about the robbery she’s witnessed and the Forty Thieves in general. When it appears, her words are accompanied by by an artists’s impression of Ruby, whose Harriet has called ‘The Jewel of the Borough’. It’s clear that Harriet hasn’t thought about what this article might mean for Ruby and her place in the Forty Thieves, or even where Ruby has come from before the gang. I loved how the author brought this post WW1 London to life, from the upper echelons of Parliament to the seedy club of Soho. She presents beautifully the issues of this strange period of adjustment after the war and the women’s fascination with each other is electric. A brilliant read and way up the list in my books of the year.
So, these were my favourites from the past month. In December the blog is always a little quieter, but I will check in from time to time. Currently I’m reading Russ Thomas’s DS Adam Tyler series, based in nearby Sheffield. I’ll be sharing my favourite reads of the year and my own bookish Christmas List too. Hoping you all have a lovely December.