Short Reviews October 2019

Back in the ‘real world’ after completing my Masters, I am catching up on short reviews of my reading this year. It has been quite a mix – fiction, non-fiction and YA – some related to my coursework, some a complete escape. Here is the first batch:

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler

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I had this book on my to-be-read list for a long time, when I worked in a bookshop it received glowing reviews from staff and customers alike. I finally got around to it after a friend lent me a copy. I should not have waited so long! This is an atmospheric and compelling read, not my usual kind of read, but utterly enthralling. The writing is as beautiful as the cover, and I was so moved by Andreas Egger’s story. A quiet and tender story about a man’s life, his relationship with the land, and with solitude. One that lingers.

Promising Young Women – Caroline O’Donoghue

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I was very excited to read Caroline O’Donoghue’s debut novel. I love her podcast Sentimental Garbage (if you haven’t heard it yet, check it out here) and the book had been receiving brilliant reviews. What initially begins as contemporary fiction takes on a distinctly gothic feel, and it is a chilling insight into the damage abusive relationships can cause, and the cost of being a promising young woman. Unputdownable, and unforgettable.

Proud – edited by Juno Dawson

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An anthology of stories and poetry by a selection of writers, each with a black-and-white illustration. A wonderful mix of queer stories, a book I wish had been around when I was a teenager. My two favourite pieces were Moira Fowley-Doyle’s ‘Love Poems to the City’ (particularly poignant for me given its links to Dublin and to recent referenda here, and I adore Fowley-Doyle’s use of language) and Karen Lawler’s ‘I Hate Darcy Pemberley’, a contemporary f/f take on Pride and Prejudice with a strong voice. I think this is an enjoyable read, and one that will mean a lot to young LGBTQIA+ readers.

Walk Through Walls: A Memoir – Marina Abramovic

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This book had been on my list for a while, and I gave a presentation on Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present’ to justify reading it during my Masters! While Abramovic’s perspective on many of the events described is undoubtedly biased, the background this gave to some of her famous performances was invaluable, and I felt I gained a lot of insight into both the artist and her work. Highly recommended to fans of contemporary art, or those who want to learn more about this iconic ‘grandmother of performance art.’

I would love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, or any reading recommendations you have!

My Top Reads of 2018

This year was a slower one for me reading wise. I read 37 books this year, a mix of fiction, non fiction and YA. Also a lot of art history and theory for my masters which aren’t included in the count. Here’s the top ten books I read this year.

Notes to Self: Essays

1) Notes to Self Emilie Pine (Non Fiction)

Normal People

2) Normal People Sally Rooney (Fiction)

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

3) The Lonely City Olivia Laing (Non Fiction)

Tin Man

4) Tin Man Sarah Winman (Fiction)

Leah on the Offbeat (Creekwood, #2)

5) Leah on the Offbeat Becky Albertalli (YA)

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6) Americanah Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (Fiction)

To the River

7) To the River Olivia Laing (Non Fiction)

 

Pulp

8) Pulp Robin Talley (YA)

The Miniaturist

9) The Miniaturist Jessie Burton (Fiction)

The Immortalists

10) The Immortalists Chloe Benjamin (Fiction)

 

#PULPstories tour Robin Talley Q&A

I am loving Robin Talley’s latest book Pulp, and was delighted to be asked to take part in the #PULPstories tour. I will be reviewing the book on the blog next week, for now, here’s a Q&A with wonderful author Robin Talley.

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What inspired you to write PULP?

I first learned about lesbian pulp fiction — a genre of books popular in the 1950s and 1960s that were published as cheap paperbacks and marketed to men, but that focused on romances between women — several years ago. When I first read one of these books, Marijane Meaker’s groundbreaking Spring Fire, published in 1952, I was mesmerized, both by the story itself and by the world it presented. It focused on the relationship between two deeply closeted lesbians living in a time when being who they were meant having to go to extreme lengths to keep their sexuality a secret, and facing horrific consequences if they slipped up (which of course they did). There was an entire wave of these novels, some of which sold millions of copies, all during a time and place when anyone who didn’t conform to expected norms faced terrible oppression. I wanted to explore that culture, and I thought it would be interesting to look at it through the lens of a teenage character in the present day — someone to whom all of this would seem like irrelevant ancient history, until she probes a little deeper and finds out it’s anything but.

 

Why do you think it’s important to feature LGBT characters in YA novels?

In the decades since young adult books became a publishing phenomenon, there have been only a small percentage of YA books published with lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender characters in central roles. That number is starting to increase at last, but we’ve still got many years’ worth of catching up to do. LGBT teenagers deserve to see characters like themselves in the books they read, and they, as well as teens who don’t fall under the LGBT umbrella, both want and need to see characters who reflect the real world they live in — a world that’s diverse in terms of sexual orientation and gender as well as race and ethnicity, religion, and disability status.

 

What do you hope readers will take away from Pulp?

That the social justice struggles of the twentieth century might seem like the distant past, but the truth is, we’re still fighting the same battles now that we confronted then. The movement for equality has been going on for many, many generations, and there’s no question that we’ve got a long way to go. We have to be mindful of what came before us so we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past, and so we can fight back against the political leaders and others in power who are trying to take us there on purpose.

Check out the rest of the stops on the #PULPStories tour below:

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Review: Notes on my Family by Emily Critchley

I was sent a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a review, this has not swayed my opinions or reviewing in any way!

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Notes on my Family 

Emily Critchley

Everything with Words, 2017

Contemporary, 12+

Louise Coulson is 13 and a half years old, and she very much likes being left to her own devices. She has a particular set of rules about how she likes things to be, and how she orders her life. And with her family in crisis, her world seems to have been turned upside down. Her father is having an affair, which means her parents will be divorcing. Her mother is having a breakdown, her brother is comfort baking, and her older sister has started dating a fireman. Lou’s life at school is disrupted too when she is told to be new girl Faith’s ‘buddy’. Lou and Faith are completely different, but form an unlikely friendship.

Lou’s observations on her life and the people around her are insightful and intriguing. Critchley has created a very likeable protagonist, and one whose many idiosyncrasies and quirks make her who she is. Readers who struggle with anxiety or are not neuro-typical will find a lot to connect with in this character. The other characters are interesting and multifaceted, and it is a very engaging read that handles tough topics in a sensitive manner. If you’re looking for a well-written teen or YA book that deals with difficult family situations or with not fitting into the world around you, I would definitely recommend this.

 

Review: I Was Born For This by Alice Oseman

I’ve been following Alice Oseman’s books since her debut, Solitaire, and I’m a fan of her very modern and diverse YA. I interviewed Alice Oseman when Radio Silence was released, check out the interview here and my reviews of Solitaire and Radio Silence.

The publisher sent me a copy of this book in exchange for a review, the opinions expressed below are honest and my own.

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Angel Rahimi is obsessed with The Ark, the boy band who are taking the world by storm. The Ark are her world – she reads fanfiction about them, tweets about them and makes up theories about their relationships. She has travelled to London to meet her friend Juliet, who she knows through the online fandom, in person for the first time. Together, they are going to actually get to meet The Ark, who they refer to as ‘our boys’.

For Jimmy Kaga-Ricci, one of the boys in The Ark, their rise to fame has been less than dazzling. He loves playing music with Rowan and Lister, but the media frenzy has his anxiety spiralling out of control. His band mates aren’t faring too well either – Lister is drinking too much, and Rowan’s relationship is showing the strain. Is the major new contract they are about to sign a blessing or a curse?

Told in alternating chapters from Angel and Jimmy’s points of view, this is a wonderfully diverse exploration of fandom, friendship, mental health and self worth. It is an entertaining read, and Oseman’s care to represent her protagonists’ experiences authentically and sensitively really shows. With a hijabi teenage girl and a gay transgender boy at its centre, this book is diverse but in a way that is far from tokenistic. Neither character is defined by their faith, sexuality or gender but are rounded and well developed, although I felt the complexities of Angel’s relationship with herself could have been explored more. Jimmy’s anxiety and paranoia is almost painful to read, and I really feel we got into his head. I didn’t feel as much of a connection to Angel.

I loved how I Was Born For This engages with fandom and fan culture, and the intensity of love and passion fans can have. For this, and its queer representation, this is definitely a book I would recommend. Radio Silence remains my favourite of Oseman’s books though!

 

Author Interview: Sophie Cameron (Out of the Blue)

I loved Sophie Cameron’s debut Out of the Blue, which explores grief and loss through magical realism, as well as featuring a beautifully-told love story. I was delighted to get the opportunity to interview Sophie Cameron and ask her about her writing process and LGBTQ+ representation in YA.

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Jenny Duffy: The title Out of the Blue fits the book so well – in terms of grief, the suddenness of the Beings’ falls. Did you have this title all along, or did it come later in the process?


Sophie Cameron: I actually had a really hard time finding a title! I tried out lots (including some really cheesy ones) but nothing really fit. I was thinking about it on my walk to work one morning when I spotted a sticker for a community/arts centre in Edinburgh called Out of the Blue – I figured that worked pretty well, and it stuck!

JD: Which part of the story came first – the magical elements, the characters or the themes?


SC: The idea of the angels falling to earth came first (from a Lynx Deodorant advert, randomly enough) and then the characters. I never really think about the themes I want to include in a book at first; I try to focus on the characters and the story and let them arise naturally, then work on bringing the themes out later.


JD: I loved the scene in which Teacake is shown paintings of angels, were there particular images you used for reference when imagining the Beings?

SC: Their colouring was inspired by street artists in Barcelona: I used to walk past golden and silver angels every day on my way to work, which gave me the idea of making them different metallic colours. Otherwise I just invisioned them as looking like people with wings, but all the paintings mentioned in the book are based on real works of art. It was really fun to research!


JD: What are some of your favourite LGBTQ+ YA books?

SC: More Than This by Patrick Ness, You Know Me Well by Nina LaCour and David Levithan, History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera, We Are Okay by Nina LaCour, Girlhood by Cat Clarke, Noah Can’t Even by Simon James Green, It’s Not Like It’s a Secret by Misa Sugiura, The Summer of Jordi Perez by Amy Spalding… and I’m really looking forward to Anger is a Gift by Mark Oshiro, Running With Lions by Julian Winters and Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell, which are all out this year.


JD: In the book Jaya says ‘There were all those words – labels that we didn’t need, but that wrapped themselves around us, suffocating whatever it was that we had.’ What are you own feelings on labels? Do you see them as helpful or damaging, or both?


SC: I think they can be restrictive for some, but empowering for others. Finding the right label was important for me when I was younger as it helped me work out who I was, but I don’t find them quite so important (for myself) now, and I know some people who have never wanted or needed them – either position is totally valid, so I think it’s good to show characters who both do and don’t identify with labels in books.

JD: Different characters in Out of the Blue have very different responses to their sexuality, in terms of acceptance and coming out. Were you very conscious of the importance of showing a range of experiences?


SC: Actually, not really… it just happened naturally as it fit the story. Obviously different people will have hugely different experiences with regards to coming out or being accepted for their sexuality, and if books reflect that then that’s great. But I don’t think authors should necessarily feel they have to show that variety, either. It can be too much to fit into one story, for one thing, and I also think we need more stories with LGBTQ+ characters that don’t touch on issues at all.

JD: The relationship between Jaya and Allie has a beautifully slow build – what do you think is the most important ingredient in writing a romance?


SC: For me, I think it’s that the characters’ relationship feels quite balanced and that they both have their own arcs outside of the other person – my favourite romance in YA is The Sun is Also a Star, where both characters have their own storylines that become intertwined. Romance isn’t usually the main draw to a book for me, though, so it may be totally different for other readers!

JD: What would you like to see more of in YA?


SC: I think the most pressing issue in YA is a lack of books by authors of colour – there are only a handful published in the UK every year, so I want to see many more of those and lots of support for those that are published. I’d also like to see more diversity in general, and more stories that are focused on friendship or sibling relationships.

JD: What’s next for you writing wise?

SC: I’ve just finished the second draft of my second book, which will be out in 2019. I’m having a wee break to catch up on reading and then I’ll get started on what will hopefully be Book 3!


JD: Finally, a piece of writing advice you would pass on?

SC: The author Kirsty Logan mentioned in a talk a few years ago that she aims to write just 100 words a day, so I tried that and it worked really well for me: it’s short enough as a goal that even if I’m feeling totally uninspired (or lazy) I can usually manage a few sentences, and quite often I end up writing way more than I’d intended anyway.

 

Exhibition Review: The International Style of Muriel Spark

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Part of Muriel Spark 100, a programme of events celebrating the centenary of the birth of iconic writer Dame Muriel Spark, this exhibition in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh takes a journey through the various places Spark lived – Edinburgh, Africa, New York, London, Rome and Tuscany – showing the significance of these places to her work and charting her career. Mirroring the often unusual structure of Spark’s novels, the exhibition is not arranged chronologically, and it is possible to wander from section to section and explore Spark’s life and writing. I also love the design of the poster and postcards for the exhibition, as pictured above.

Featuring letters and telegrams from such illustrious names as Jacquelie Kennedy Onassis, Elizabeth Burton Taylor, Evelyn Waugh and Maggie Smith (to name but a few), the manuscript of Spark’s most famous novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and dresses Spark wore for publicity shoots; this is exhibition offers a fascinating insight into the writer’s world. Spark said that ‘since 1949 onwards I have thrown away practically nothing on paper’ and the NLS holds an impressive personal archive of her work and correspondence.

Image of Muriel Spark from NLS website

The only Muriel Spark novel I have read to date is Loitering with Intent (a brilliantly comic satirical book) but having been to this exhibition I am keen to read more of her work! Myself and the friend I was visiting in Edinburgh stumbled across this exhibition, it was a wonderful surprise and definitely one of the highlights of my trip.

I would highly recommend seeing this exhibition in person, entry is free and the National Library is a gorgeous building, but plenty of information and some of the exhibits can also be seen here on the National Library of Scotland’s website.

Review: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

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The Immortalists

Chloe Benjamin

Tinder Press, 2018

Fiction

 

If you knew the day you were going to die, how would you chose to live?

1969, New York. On an unbearably hot summer’s day the four Gold children seek their destinies. The strange fortune-teller they have heard so many rumours about them predicts the date each child will die on, knowledge that will completely change them and their lives. Simon escapes the bonds of the family business, running to San Francisco to live and love freely. Klara pursues her passion for magic, becoming a performer in glitzy Las Vegas. Daniel decides the fates of others through his work as an army doctor. Varya turns to science and logic to try and gain control. They must all live with their prophecy, whether they decide to defy it or believe it.

I was intrigued by this book’s tagline (quoted above), and the story definitely didn’t disappoint. The span the book covers is impressive, and I felt Benjamin really captured the different periods and places her characters inhabit. Each sibling was a complex character with an interesting story, although Klara’s story was the one I enjoyed the most. I liked the magic (bordering on magical realism) in her tale, her hope and her dreams, and the way it explores sexism. Varya was the character I related to the most. The book invites readers to question how people change (or if they can. As the fortune teller tells Varya ‘most people don’t’) and what role we play in our own fate.

The Immortalists also explores family dynamics well – how they all react to the loss of their father, how close Simon and Klara are but how Simon becomes estranged from his other siblings, how growing up can change relationships. It is an emotional read that shows how these connections can be supportive or fraught, and how we can lack understanding even of those closest to us.

This is a gripping novel about life, death, love and what it means to be alive.

Favourite Books of 2017

This was a recent Top Ten Tuesday topic, but I wanted to wait until the end of the year in case there was a last minute addition to this list (and there was!) In 2017 I read 69 books, just one (one!) book shy of my goal of 70 books. I read 100 books in 2016 so this was a bit disappointing, but 2017 was certainly a busier year for me in many ways. So, without any further ado…my ten favourite reads of 2017!

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

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Having heard so much about this book before reading it, I wasn’t sure it would live up to the hype, but it most certainly did. A smart yet emotional read that explores relationships, vulnerability and the need to connect with people.

Tangleweed & Brine by Deirdre Sullivan, illustrated by Karen Vaughan

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A collection of 13 dark, witchy fairytale retellings. With a focus on the female body and experience, and diversifying the cast of fairytales, this gives familiar tales a fresh feminist spin. Also, the illustrations and the writing are stunning.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

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Starr is caught between two worlds – the poor neighbourhood she was raised in, and the posh high school she attends. When she witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend Khalil, staying silent is no longer an option. A powerful read, one I cannot recommend highly enough. It is hard to believe such a strong book is a debut.

 

 

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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A great introduction to a brilliant author, I plan to do more catching up on Elizabeth Strout’s backlist this year. A short yet insightful book, more telling in what is left unsaid, about writer Lucy Barton being visited in hospital by her estranged mother.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

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A stunning collection of essays encompassing music, art, heritage, identity and so much more. A book to savour, and one I have marked many quotes from.

Things A Bright Girl Can Do by Sally Nicholls

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A fiery feminist read about three girls from very different backgrounds, all campaigning for the vote. With memorable and rounded characters and plenty of rich historical detail, this is a very interesting and inspiring read. (This was my Secret Santa gift from a fellow Rick O’Shea Bookclub member, and the late addition to the favourites list)

The Space Between by Meg Grehan

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A tender and beautiful love story told in verse. Beth, suffering with severe agoraphobia, decides to spend a year indoors and alone. However, when a dog called Mouse comes nosing at her window, his owner Alice in tow, her plans are changed.

Spellbook of the Lost & Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle

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Beguiling magical realism, full of secrets and twists. The writing is beautiful, and the plot compelling. Fans of Fowley-Doyle’s debut The Accident Season will love this.

A Line Made by Walking by Sara Baume

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I loved Spill Simmer Falter Wither, but I thought A Line Made by Walking was even better. An almost painful read about loneliness, art and identity with photographs taken by the artist protagonist interspersed throughout the book.

The Break by Marian Keyes

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I adore Marian Keyes, I only started reading her work a couple of years ago but since have devoured her backlist. Her new novel was the longest book I read this year (576 pages) and I loved it. The family dynamics were my favourite thing about it, and how she manages to make me both laugh and cry when reading her books.

I have set a goal of 70 books again this year, and have just finished my first, Flying Tips for Flightless Birds by Kelly McCaughrain, about a circus family, which made my little heart soar.

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2017

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly feature run by The Broke and Bookish, combining books and lists. This week’s topic is our favourite new authors from 2017. My best books of 2017 post is coming later this week.

Elizabeth Strout

I read My Name is Lucy Barton in one evening, and was so intrigued by the characters and relationships. I have since read more of Strout’s work, and attended an event in Dublin in which she was interviewed by Sinead Gleeson.

Sally Rooney

Rooney’s debut Conversations With Friends is as brilliant as all the reviews and buzz would indicate. One of my favourite reads of the year, I’m very excited to read her future work.

Meg Grehan

Meg Grehan’s debut The Space Between is a tender and beautiful love story, told in verse. She is definitely one to watch you!

Maria Semple

This year I finally read Where’d You Go, Bernadette and it lived up to my expectations. I loved the memorable characters and sharp wit. Today Will Be Different is on my TBR list.

Mary Paulson-Ellis

The Other Mrs Walker was one of my co-worker’s staff picks, and I am delighted she introduced me to it. This was such an intriguing and gripping read, I was enthralled by it.

Lucy Addington

The Red Ribbon was a very moving historical read that gave me a different perspective on WW2. Addington is a fashion historian, and I am looking forward to checking out her book Stitches in Time.

Alice Broadway

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the Ink trilogy. This was a book I judged by his cover, and I’m glad I picked it up!

Jenny Han

My friend lent me Han’s To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before trilogy and I flew through it. I loved reading about Lara Jean and her sisters, and look forward to the movie coming out.

Karen M McManus

McManus’ One Of Us is Lying was a real page turner, I couldn’t put it down!

Ayisha Malik

I loved the voice in Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, it was so strong and it was a really enjoyable read.

Leave a link to your TTT post, or comment with some of your favourite authors of 2017.