Reading Round-Up: July 2020

The world continues to fall apart, piece by piece, and I think we’ve all given up being surprised by it now. I’m currently sitting in my living room listening to a storm and much as I’d love it to be this

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(still somewhat obsessed with the MCU)

…it being 2020, it’s a lot more likely to be this:

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What a delightful year, all round, and we’re only just over halfway through. Though I have a tropical daiquiri, so it can’t be all bad.

Anyway, anyway. I am supposed to be talking about books.

Remember last month I said my Instagram was going in a kind of Bookstagrammy direction? Well, it’s gone all the way and I am loving it. I started myself off with a little challenge, the #RFABJuly20 challenge by Reviews From A Bookworm, and it’s transformed my grid into something that’s at least vaguely cohesive. I’ve only been doing it properly for a month and I’ve already met some lovely new people and had a ton of book recommendations.

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It’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve read so much this month. I seem to remember some kind of sentiment last month along the lines of “hey, lockdown is relaxing a bit, I’m doing more days at work, this is probably the last month I’ll read so much”. Er, well…

I’ve read sixteen new books this month, and reread a further four. That brings my total so far this year to 88 new books read – I know, right? What in the name of all that is holy? When I look back to 2017 me, rereading the same books over and over again, counting it as a major win if I picked up something that was both new and not a sequel to an old favourite, I feel… well, I feel a bit sad. I was definitely missing out.

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It’s been another good mix this month – a bit of non-fiction, one via audiobook, probably a bit more literary fiction than I usually get through, and even a kids’ book (I had to finally give in to nostalgia and give some modern Jacqueline Wilson a try – not bad). Most of my reading once again came from BorrowBox, and a bit from my trusty Kindle App, though thanks again to the whole Bookstagram thing, I’m finding myself drooling over pretty hardbacks even more than usual. Though I have to have restraint at the moment… more on that later.

Anyway, let’s have a couple of mini reviews!

For the first time in a couple of months, I actually had a clear favourite for July!

July Favourite

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo – Taylor Jenkins Reid

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This is the second time this year a Taylor Jenkins Reid novel has made it to my favourites – and just like with Daisy Jones & The Six, I really, really wish I’d read it sooner.

This book was a total surprise to me. Just looking at the cover and skimming over the blurb, I was expecting it to be kind of… darker, really. Perhaps a black widow-esque situation, with the titular Ms Hugo in the role of shady murderess.

It’s nothing like that.

It is in fact a beautifully written, heart-rending love story, following the life of the classically beautiful Hollywood star, Evelyn Hugo. The framing device of her narrating her biography to a young journalist provides another level to the story, and an extra little layer of mystery. Evelyn’s narration covers several decades, all leading to her sitting in her luxurious apartment – totally alone except for a maid and a a journalist. And the reason for this solitude is nothing at all like you’d think, just from reading the first chapter or two.

Evelyn is so perfectly, realistically written you can almost reach out and touch her. She is thoroughly unapologetic and has flaws aplenty, but always treads that fine balance between ‘flawed’ and ‘irritating’ (a problem I had in some of the other books I read this month). The love story itself is tragic, and beautiful, and without wanting to spoil it (I managed to have NO clue about the novel’s main twist and I want to keep it that way for as many people as possible) let’s just say the title is rather deliberately misleading.

I borrowed the eBook version of this via the BorrowBox app; but I loved it so much I plan to buy my own hard copy soon. Partly so I can physically throw it at everyone who crosses my path so I can make them read it, partly just because I know I’m going to want to read it again. And possibly again.

Honourable mention to…

Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell

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There’s no other word for this book than ‘beautiful’, and I’m not just talking about the cover.

Very little has been surmised about Hamnet Shakespeare, whose death in childhood is said to have inspired one of his father’s greatest plays. Even less has been written about his mother. This book imagines their lives in breathtaking detail – I was taken so deeply into Elizabethan England, I was thoroughly surprised to look up and find myself on my sofa.

One thing that struck me was the way the writing managed to weave complexity and nuance through the most simple phrasing. The characters were perhaps some of the most deeply realised that I’ve ever read – sufficiently distanced, too, from their famous father and husband by the simple means of not ever mentioning his actual name.

Above all, this is a novel about grief; meandering towards its heartbreaking climax, you know what’s coming and you can’t help fervently wishing it won’t.

Oh, and just to tie in with the world today – be warned about the lovely description of how the Plague reached Stratford. Couldn’t help but read that with a bit of a wince, knowing the trajectory we’ve all been on of late.

And some more…

Things A Bright Girl Can Do – Sally Nicholls

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Come on, it wouldn’t be me without a bit of Young Adult creeping in, would it?

For a book I’d avoided for a while because it seemed like it was aimed at the younger end of YA, it certainly covered some deep, dark topics without going all that deep and dark about them. It follows the lives of three young suffragettes, all in different positions in society and with slightly varying attitudes towards the suffragist cause.

Although the ending was a little bit anti-climactic, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and would definitely recommend it as a starting point for any young person dipping their toe into the world of feminism, particularly of the early twentieth century British variety.

The Hunger – Alma Katsu

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Thanks to my endless fascination with all things macabre and grim, I found myself down a Wikipedia hole about the Donner party – not all that well known in the UK, basically a wagon train of pioneering Americans in the mid nineteenth century who got caught out by various bad decisions and worse weather, and ended up trapped in the mountains resorting to cannibalism.

If that’s not a hook enough, in this book, the author reimagines history with a bit of a supernatural element to it. The descriptions are rich and gory, and the tension is palpable throughout the story – you know what’s coming, you just don’t know when or, thanks to this new supernatural element, how. It was a bit slow-going from time to time, which is why I didn’t give it five stars on Goodreads, but it’s definitely a good read if you don’t mind a little bit of fact-bending for artistic license.

Unconventional – Maggie Harcourt

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I read another couple of Young Adult books this month, and this was by far my favourite. It’s a simple story about a teenager who works with her dad, organising fabulously geeky fan conventions – there’s the compulsory love story, self-finding, parental shenanigans, all the typical ingredients for a decent YA novel.

I should say now, I’m a geek and a nerd, very much so, but I’ve never been a convention fan. There’s something about the meet-and-greet part I just don’t like; as someone who struts up to her favourite rock stars and barges into their lives without a care in the world, I don’t see the attraction in paying a hell of a lot of money for an autograph and a gritted-teeth photo.

However, this book made me see that conventions are so much more than that, and actually sound like quite a lot of fun. The main character, Lexi, is well-realised and well-written; even with the typical YA heroine anxiety and bad decisions, you still find yourself liking her (one of the other YA books I read this month, Solitaire, was exactly the opposite and the heroine’s personality was so irritating I was quite tempted to throw it on the ‘Did Not Finish’ pile). The author of Unconventional has been termed ‘the British Rainbow Rowell’ and, as a huge Rainbow Rowell fan, I wouldn’t say this is far off the mark.

Stiff – Mary Roach

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Well, I haven’t read that many books about death recently… indeed, the two I bought in June are still sitting on my TBR pile, patiently waiting. This was the one audiobook I listened to this month, and it was definitely a good choice on which to use my monthly credit.

The subtitle to ‘Stiff’ is ‘The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers’ and that pretty much sums it up. It’s pretty much a detailed account of a selection of things you could do with your body once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil and left it behind you – as well as some pretty harrowing things that said bodies can be used for in cases of accident or crime.

This was an excellent book to listen to rather than to read; the narrator manages to get the balance just right between cold facts and the author’s sardonic humour, while still carrying off the right respectful tone for a book about corpses. Plus, there was the added bonus of my husband coming into the room at precisely the wrong moment every single time I was listening to it (when the first snatch of a book you hear is discussing post-mortem penis size, you’re bound to get a pretty impressive look on your face).

And the rest…

My Mum Tracy Beaker – Jacqueline Wilson

The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth and Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine – Thomas Morris

Clap When You Land – Elizabeth Acevedo

Where the Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens

Sex Power Money – Sara Pascoe

An American Marriage – Tayari Jones

The Undomestic Goddess – Sophie Kinsella

When They Call You A Terrorist – Patrisse Khan-Cullors and asha bandele

Solitaire – Alice Oseman

Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas – Adam Kay

Plus some rereads…

Strange Practice – Vivian Shaw

Dreadful Company – Vivian Shaw

Grave Importance – Vivian Shaw

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

I’m exhausted just typing that all out. I honestly should have reviewed a couple more – Where The Crawdads Sing, An American Marriage, When They Call You A Terrorist… they’re all thoroughly amazing books for very different reasons, but they deserve to be reviewed by someone better than me. After all, I’m largely still a reviewer of the ‘flails about and yells READ THIS BOOK’ variety rather than having any great depth or knowledge.

I’ve saved a few of the books I bought this month to read in August; that spending ban is rearing its ugly head here. You might recall last month we were considering moving – well, things moved quite quickly this month, and we’re moving house in three weeks! We’re literally going ten minutes walk up the road from where we are now, to a much nicer house which – fingers crossed – won’t feature neighbours who think we’re living in Ibiza circa 2005 and they need to be the DJs.

As I’m sure you all know, moving is quite an expensive business. So book-buying is somewhat off the cards for the next month. I’m going to have a good go at my extensive TBR pile, before it gets packed into cardboard boxes, at least. That’s why I probably won’t do a month-long photo challenge on Instagram in August, too – we’re going to be doing shuttle runs up and down the road in the week before we move, so we don’t have to do it all in one go, and my beloved books will probably be the first things to go! Archive boxes crammed full of paperbacks aren’t exactly the most Instagrammable things…

I feel like I should throw in a disclaimer here about how I probably won’t read much next month, moving and work and all that… but we all saw how that went for July, didn’t we?

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