Reading Round-Up: June 2020

As this global pandemic continues, so does the somewhat epic readathon I’ve apparently embarked on.

I didn’t read quite as much this month as I did in May, but then, that would be difficult. I don’t think I’ll have a month like that again, honestly, now that things are starting to get vaguely on the path towards normal (just a barely-cut dirt path, really, nowhere near to being an actual road to normal). I’m going to have more hours at work next month, with things picking up enough that I’ll actually have to interact with people instead of hiding in the back with a book. Plus, we’re looking at trying to move house in the next couple of months – which would mean having to actually clean the one I’m living in, for a start.

This month, mostly by accident, my Instagram has turned into a bit of a Bookstagram – there’s more posts about books on there than about anything else, which is unusual for me. Usually I’m an utter floozie for social media, posting anything and everything that comes to mind. I quite like this new Bookstagrammy direction, though, and I think I might continue.

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Books, selfies and Popsy dresses. Yeah, sums up my Instagram.

And so for some numbers: I have read twelve new books this month, and reread three. That makes 72 new books read in total so far this year. The rereads were all my slightly grim, forensic-y, death-y books from last year – I saw one of my colleagues pull one out (Working Stiff) and the resulting discussion led to me rereading my three favourites from last year and ordering two more. You can see the two new ones on the Instagram collage above – the Val McDermid and Forty Years of Murder – but I haven’t started on them yet. I was a bit death-ed out after the rereads and a couple of others that I’ll discuss in a minute.

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Scrolling down my list of books from this month, there is – for once – not a lot I can really complain about. It’s been a fairly good month for reading; I think there’s only three on there that I gave less than four stars on Goodreads. Even though there’s fewer books on the list this week, I’m going to stick to my plan from last month and only do my potted reviews on a few of them – more might start to appear on my Instagram as time goes on, but we’ll see how that goes. We all know how good I am at making a plan and sticking to it!

So let’s start, as always, with the best of the month – and just like last month, I can’t make a choice between two…

Favourite Number One

Girl, Woman, Other – Bernadine Evaristo

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I got this book for Christmas from my mum. I have a terrible history with books from my mum – I admire them from afar, save them for a ‘special occasion’, and forget about them for months. I even did it with the Harry Potter books when I was about eight. Once again I was guilty with this one, and boy do I regret it.

With all the racial tension in the world at the moment (to put it lightly) this book has been at the top of all the recommendation lists. It’s written as snapshots from the lives of twelve very different women, women whose narratives and viewpoints might otherwise be overlooked. Through showing these interwoven stories, you find yourself learning about black British history without even realising it – you’re so deeply involved in these women and their lives.

Disclaimer: I fully expected to hate this when I read the first page. You might remember one of my criticisms of Normal People last month was that I can’t abide dialogue without speech marks. The grammar geek in me nearly exploded at the realisation that in Girl, Woman, Other, punctuation in general is just mostly… missing. Yet after less than a chapter, I’d forgotten all about it, and I feel like that’s the point. You’re not reading this to read a strictly punctuated story with a beginning, middle and end. You’re reading it to enjoy the somewhat meandering, almost train-of-thought-style memories and opinions of the women. Speech marks and capital letters would just slow it down.

This book won the Man Booker prize last year, joint with Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood but it’s my opinion that this shouldn’t have been a joint prize – it should have been Bernadine Evaristo all the way.

Favourite Number Two

The Switch – Beth O’Leary

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Beth O’Leary’s first novel, The Flatshare, was one of my top ten books of 2019. I loved it so much, to the point that I was thoroughly depressed when I finished it that I would never be as good a writer as her. I loved The Switch even more.

When Leena Cotton is forced to take a two-month sabbatical, she swaps lives with her 79-year-old grandma, Eileen. Leena is thrown into Yorkshire village mayhem while Eileen navigates the London dating scene and life as a millennial.

If there’s one thing Beth O’Leary excels at, it’s her characters. The plot itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, but the fabulous characters make you want to keep reading long after the story is over. Eileen in particular is an incredible character, the kind I wish I could write myself (and the kind of person I definitely would like to be when I grow up, please). The dialogue is sparky and witty, and the book passes the Bechdel test with flying colours (of course, there is a romantic subplot or two but they’re definitely not the point of this book). The relationships between the women in this story are the glue that holds the book together, and you will start to care about them as if they’re old and dear friends.

Don’t be discouraged by the fact this will probably be called ‘chick-lit’ and sneered at by serious literary reviewers. They can go and enjoy their boring books and get themselves all worked up and depressed, while I snuggle up with the literary equivalent of a cup of tea and a snuggly blanket.

Honourable mention to…

Queenie– Candice Carty-Williams

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This very nearly made my favourites of the month, but I got a bit too frustrated at the titular character’s self-sabotage at times to quite put it up there.

Queenie (the character) has been deemed ‘the black Bridget Jones’ but I don’t think she fulfils this. She’s in a vaguely similar situation – trying to navigate life in London as a young woman in media, with a chatty, first-person narrative – but her story is far deeper. Queenie is a sparky, spiky, spunky heroine who tries a bit too hard to live up to her sparky and spunky reputation; she doesn’t know who she wants to be, and is desperate to escape the shadows of her childhood. This book is bursting with strong female characters, most of them black (I don’t know if I want to be Kyazike or if I’m terrified I might one day run into and slight her).

This book is at risk of being marketed as a romantic comedy, but like I said, it’s deep and dark, and explores trauma in an evocative and sometimes heartbreaking way. Some of the saddest moments in this book come from the sex scenes, and that is definitely unusual. When you read them, you can almost feel Queenie crying out to be loved, while she’s treated like a fetishised piece of meat by a series of men.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I rooted for Queenie all the way through – it’s another one that, this month, got five stars on Goodreads.

And some more…

The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein

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I started this while I was rereading my death-y books – I’d seen it pop up on Amazon and thought it looked interesting. To be honest, this turned out to be my least favourite book this month.

I was expecting it to be a somewhat gory, in-depth account of the titular trauma cleaner’s work – cleaning up after murders, suicides, hoarders so deep into their own rubbish they have to be dug out, you know the kind of thing. Being a grim kind of person, I looked forward to plenty of gross crime-scene tales. After all, the cover, has a picture of rubber gloves on it. And the word trauma. What more could you need?

It turned out to be more of a biography of the trauma cleaner herself. I’m not averse to a juicy biography (and believe me, this one is juicy) but I felt a bit… cheated. Out of my nice gory gore. Plus, I found the biographer herself to be a bit cloying, a bit eager to suck up to her subject; even with a traumatic past and horrific upbringing, said subject did some pretty despicable things that were just glossed over. And the number of times the writer described her as ‘beautiful’ or ‘sexy’ was a bit… odd. For a book supposedly about trauma cleaning. I just wasn’t all that keen.

Gather The Daughters – Jennie Melamed

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I’ve seen mixed reviews about this book, but I absolutely loved it. There’s something about the grim, bleak atmosphere that has just stuck with me, especially in the world today that’s not a million miles from being grim and bleak itself. It doesn’t help, of course, that there’s a bit of a mini-pandemic in the middle of the book that most certainly resonates.

Gather The Daughters is set on a mysterious island amongst an equally mysterious cult – it’s a disturbing dystopia, with inhabitants told one thing but the reader potentially believing another. As an ex-island dweller myself, I’m always excited to read stories of island communities, and often find myself identifying quite heavily with them. This was certainly the case with this, and with Wilder Girls last month – I spent half my life in Guernsey idly wondering what would happen if a major disaster struck (turns out: they’ll do marvellously well. I miss it).

Beware with this book – if I was the kind of person to shout ‘trigger warning’, I’d be shouting it now. There’s some fairly disturbing incidences of child abuse, and not to be spoiler-y, but the ‘normality’ of said abuse is perhaps the most creepy part of this story.

From Here To Eternity: Travelling The World To Find A Good Death and Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? – Caitlin Doughty

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I’ve been following the Ask A Mortician YouTube channel for years. Come on, have you not realised yet that I can be a bit… morbid? I thoroughly enjoy mortician Caitlin Doughty’s videos all about corpses, death, iconic corpses, funeral traditions, corpses in disasters, and, of course, corpses. I read her other book, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, last year, and loved it, so this time I treated myself to her other two books in audiobook form.

I only tend to like audiobooks when they are non-fiction, read by the original author, and these two books fulfilled that marvellously; they were both absolutely fascinating. The first is a discussion of death practises across the world – I was particularly taken with the funeral pyre in Crestone, Colorado and am quite sad I don’t live there. The second book is based around questions children have asked the author about death (and corpses, duh). It’s the kind of book I’d genuinely let my own child read (from the age of eight or so) but thoroughly enjoyed myself.

If you’re a bit of a death enthusiast yourself (not my term – go and check out that YouTube channel!) then I most certainly recommend these books.

And the rest…

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

Hurrah For Gin: Reluctant Adult – Katie Kirby

To Kill The President – Sam Bourne

The Farm – Joanne Ramos

Difficult Women: A History Of Feminism In 11 Fights– Helen Lewis

Plus some rereads…

All That Remains: A Life In Death –  Professor Sue Black

Unnatural Causes – Dr Richard Shepherd

Working Stiff – Judy Melinek MD

I say to myself every single month “I think I’ll calm the reading down next month – maybe reread some old favourites. Have a little break.” It’s clearly not working, is it? I’ve already got about four books lined up for the first week or so of July alone – my small collection of grim books about murder and forensics, plus a couple of others. The Amazon Prime delivery man is starting to know me pretty well… it’s probably a good thing that Waterstones is opening up again, isn’t it? Give the poor man a little break.

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