Reading Round-Up: February 2021

Short month, February. Those few extra days can make a hell of a difference when you’ve got targets to meet.

Hasn’t seemed to make a difference to my reading, mind you.

Before I get into all my monthly stats and mini-reviews and general rambling, let’s take a little moment for some celebration: the end might be in sight! For the pandemic, that is. Oh, I’m not stupid, I know full well the UK is still drowning in cases and there’s no way we’re ever going to get this fully under control. It’s going to end up being an annual thing, with all of us trotting off to get our vaccinations every winter, like we do for the flu. Well, like some of us do.

But the peril, the lockdown-inducing, death-rate-soaring peril looks like it might finally be coming to a close. Here in the UK, we’ve vaccinated somewhere between 25% and 30% of the adult population now. I have more friends and family members getting vaccinated every week; most importantly of all to me, my mum is getting hers next week. The government (in general, don’t get me started, but this bit is quite positive) has revealed our roadmap out of lockdown, with an optimistic date for the country getting some form of normality back. I’m starting to make tentative, hopeful plans for an autumn holiday. Fingers very, very crossed.

Anyway, this is supposed to be a book blog, not a wistful look at a potential happy Covid-free summer.

My life has been much the same in February as it was in January. Lots of annual leave, lots of sitting on my sofa ‘playing’ trains with my small boy. Not a lot of writing. My NaNoWriMo novel, so promising, has officially stalled right at the last few chapters. I just can’t decide how it’s going to end, no matter how easily I can leap into the main character’s head and see things from her point of view. It’s seeing things from the other characters’ points of view I can’t manage, so although I know what the main one’s going to do… I can’t yet visualise how the others are going to react. And that’s what will decide on my ending.

All in all, it means there’s been a lot of time I should have been writing, but spent the time reading instead. It’s not quite the extreme number of January – I think that was anomalous – but it’s a pretty decent chunk, nonetheless.

And guess what? It’s time to get out those balloons and party poppers I can’t stand, because there’s some minor celebrating to do!

Oh who am I kidding – if you broke out balloons and party poppers I’d break into a run to have a panic attack somewhere. But you can bring me some cake anyway because, drumroll please, this very afternoon I hit the halfway point in my Goodreads challenge!

Yes, I read 15 books this month, bringing my total up to thirty-five new books this year so far. That’s in two months. My overall aim is to read 70 books this year, which I thought would be a decently conservative number to pick, even though my total was so high in 2020. I figured I wouldn’t have as much time to spare in 2021, with some full-time work and hopefully not as many lockdowns. I’m not going to increase my goal even with this storming start, because all that still holds true: hopefully within a few months, things will get relatively closer to normal and both work and social life will pick up again, leaving a lot less time for reading.

But saying that, I’d just like to make a point. Every time someone asks me how I manage to read so much, I always make some excuse or other. “I’ve had loads of spare time.” “I’ve only got one kid.” “I don’t have a life.” Well, do you know what? I’m going to stop making ‘excuses’. Why should I downplay this? I’m damn proud of how much I read, and the variety of books from many different genres in my totals.

Having to remain ‘modest’ all the time, acting like you’re not proud of your achievements, big or small… I can’t decide if this is a ‘British’ thing or a ‘woman’ thing. I’m not sure whether I should be directing this rant in a not-so-patriotic direction, or a feminist one. But either way, I’ve had enough of it. I’m not going to pretend I’m not pleased with myself any more. Because I am.

I do have a life. I have a job, I have a family, I have friends. I even have other hobbies. I just manage to make time to read a lot, too. And even if that makes me ‘geeky’ or ‘nerdy’ or ‘square’, do you know what else? It exercises my brain, I never stop learning, it keeps my imagination ticking over, and most importantly of all, it makes me happy.

Anyway. Little rant over. Let’s see what I’ve actually been devouring this month! It’s been another mixed bag – I finished off the Chronicles of St Mary’s series, which remains absolutely awesome and I can’t wait for the next one, and I read all the short stories from that universe too (I could technically have counted each individual story as a ‘book’, seeing as they’re all available separately, which would have bumped my total up massively, but I thought that might be cheating a little bit so I just bought the two collections of them instead; cheaper, too). I started a new series in the same universe, too. Then there was non-fiction, some poetry, and a couple of long-awaited sequels. Oh, and an apocalypse. Can’t forget that.

Let’s start with…

The Best of February

Oh, balls, now I have to decide on my favourite from this month. I think it’s going to have to be a tie.

Last One At The Party – Bethany Clift

I pre-ordered this book on the strength of a Facebook ad alone, and I’m so glad I did. This book has been taking up space in my head ever since I finished it right at the start of the month, and I think it’s going to stay there a while.

Three years from now and roll up, it’s pandemic o’clock once again! But there won’t be any endless lockdowns or tier systems this time around. This time, you get the virus… and you’re dead in six days. But what if, for some reason, when the virus spreads and ravages the entire world, it leaves you alone? What if you’re the last woman in Britain?

Before I had a child myself, I ate up post-apocalyptic fiction, the gorier the better. Detailed descriptions of rotting flesh and hopeless death? Right up my street. Now, though, I can’t brush it off so easily. Maybe it’s just being in an actual global pandemic but some parts of this book made me literally shake with fear – I couldn’t stop thinking what I would do myself. The drug that sends you into a peaceful sleep and then kills you so you don’t have to die horribly of the virus. The newsreader’s implication that you should give it to your healthy child if you get sick because there won’t be anyone to look after them and they’re better off dying than succumbing to gruesome sickness themselves. The father who takes his small boy to die at the Natural History Museum so he can see the dinosaurs for the last time. I felt my heart break every time.

Yet some parts of this book are darkly hilarious; raiding Harrods for skincare and handbags when there’s nobody else to judge or even see the wrinkles receding. Visiting London’s tourist attractions while high as a kite on industrial quantities of Tramadol. The unnamed main character is heartily normal, not always likeable but immensely human. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but even though this book utterly broke me in places, I loved it.

The Galaxy, And The Ground Within – Becky Chambers

This is the fourth and final book in Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, and I gobbled it up in one blissfully peaceful child-free afternoon. If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll probably have spotted these books a fair few times, I love them so much. I’m not usually much of a sci-fi fan, but these books are my exception.

This last instalment was not a disappointment. Yet again Becky Chambers immerses us in her fabulous, well-rounded universe, no detail left unconsidered. Like the other stories in the series, nothing much epic or disastrous happens, and when it does, it’s not for long. But while the ‘action’ is quiet, the story is pulled through by its characters.

The thing with Becky Chambers’ books is that you really fall in love with the characters, whether they’re loud and bombastic, or a quiet presence lurking on the outskirts of the action. Every single one has depth, a backstory, a real personality – finishing each book feels like leaving friends behind. The only negative is that this is the last book in the series, so I don’t get to read any more of their adventures; or the characters from the previous instalments in the series. This makes me so sad, I can’t help but keep hoping for more!

Also, this book is BLOODY BEAUTIFUL. I love anything patterned in stars or galaxies or aurorae, and this cover just made me so happy.

And some more…

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

I still can’t make up my mind about this book. It’s been all over Bookstagram for months, and it was on my TBR for just as long. I actually got it for Christmas and finally picked it up this month. I did find the immediate story and concept gripping: a library of lives, where you can erase your past regrets and maybe be given a second chance at life, right at the point of death. Choose a book and choose a life. Doesn’t sound a million miles from the way I escape between pages, swallowing imaginary lives and keeping real life at bay. And I do love a library. Especially an infinite one.

But I’m not usually one for ‘motivational’ books. Or anything too airy-fairy and ‘inspirational’ (every time I see that trite ‘The Boy The Fox The Mole and The Biscuit’ or whatever the hell it’s called I roll my eyes so hard I give myself a migraine). I saw someone else on Bookstagram say in an unfavourable review that this book was like a collection of motivational quotes woven into a story, and sometimes it did feel like that. But while I sometimes found the sentiments platitudinous, I can see how for someone suffering a bad moment in their own soul, this book could provide something to latch onto. A lifeline, even. What seems like a platitude to me in my my current happy, mentally healthy state could be exactly the snippet that jumps out and saves someone’s life.

In fact, towards the end of the book, one line jumped out at me and really resonated. “It is easy to mourn the lives we aren’t living.” I try to live without ‘what ifs’ but of course they sneak in occasionally. What this book has done is reinforce that no matter how many books are in your personal ‘midnight library’, you really are only given one life, and you need to live it. Truly, live it.

Dead Head – CJ Skuse

This is the third in the Sweetpea series and it certainly did not disappoint.

These books are so hard to classify – you’d immediately say ‘thriller’ because of the general murder-y plotline, but there’s more than a little ‘Bridget Jones with an axe’ about it. In this third instalment, Rhiannon Lewis has had her gruesome deeds revealed to the world, and she’s on the run. At first I thought the ‘road trip story’ aspect of this book might bore me a little bit, but Rhiannon’s quirky, irreverent voice, filled with pop-culture references and sarky asides, grips your attention even when the actual plot is a bit ‘Deathly Hallows Part 1’.

I don’t want to give any spoilers because these books are full of twists and turns, but let’s just say I’m pleased there’s a book number four in the pipeline. I can’t get over the sheer gore and horror of the violence and brutality in these books, and the way it’s coupled with actual laugh-out-loud humour and a truly excellent narrative voice. The juxtaposition is fantastic.

Doing Time – Jodi Taylor

This is the first book in a new series by Jodi Taylor, who you might recognise as the author of the Chronicles of St Mary’s books I bang on about all the time. This month I read both this book and its sequel, and I really enjoyed them.

This new series is in the same universe as St Mary’s (and indeed, St Mary’s makes regular cameos) – in the undated future when the Time Police is merrily stamping its clompy boots up and down the timeline. As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s set among the Time Police themselves, namely three young new recruits and their adventures as they adjust to their new life.

As always, I absolutely adored Jodi Taylor’s sparky, quirky characters and her chatty, particularly human style of prose, as well as the immense thought and detail that has gone into her universe and its timeline. I did find, though, that although gripping, the Time Police stories don’t yet have the same great emotional punch as the St Mary’s books – but I’m looking forward to more from this series, it certainly seems to be finding its feet a little more in the second book.

The Hungover Games – Sophie Heawood

I don’t know what I was expecting when I bought this book – I’d seen it reviewed favourably on Bookstagram, in passing, and when I saw it on Kindle for 99p, I thought I might as well pick it up. I’d skimmed mostly past the synopsis, thinking it was going to be a memoir of crazy times in Los Angeles. Could be entertaining, I thought.

Well, it was kind of like that. But only for about five minutes. Most of the book (which, by the way, is a memoir – I thought it was fiction for a good half an hour) covers the author’s life after she accidentally gets pregnant while living the aforementioned crazy times in Los Angeles. The rest of the book covers her pregnancy and her early parenthood as a single mother, wistfully looking back on her life while getting to grips with a whole new life.

This book really struck a chord with me. Maybe sometimes it was a bit disjointed, and I don’t always get on with the near-stream-of-consciousness style; but this was one of the most realistic memoirs of early-years parenting I’ve ever read, filled with harsh-but-true gems of parenting. My favourite little snippets involve the battle between the ‘old you’ and the ‘mum you’, and how difficult it is to marry the two. And the joy of going for a poo when it’s the only alone-time you’re getting in a day. All in all, this book wasn’t what I expected, but it was all the better for it.

And the rest…

Hope For The Best – Jodi Taylor

Plan For The Worst – Jodi Taylor

The Long And Short Of It – Jodi Taylor

Long Story Short – Jodi Taylor

Plum – Hollie McNish

Hard Time – Jodi Taylor

Confessions Of A Forty-Something F**k Up – Alexandra Potter

A Life On Our Planet – David Attenborough

Cults Uncovered – Emily G. Thompson

Roughly translated from that big old pile up there – it’s been a good month for reading. Only the one that got below three stars on Goodreads – the one about cults, which only got two (as I said on Instagram, it’d do for a very basic introduction to the subject, but has very little argument or analysis and I probably already had most of the information it contained just from falling down Wikipedia holes). Everything else was pretty much excellent, or not far off.

So what does March have in store? Seeing as we’re still going to be in more-or-less lockdown for most of it, I’m guessing it’s going to be more of the same and I’ll probably have another fairly decent literary month. One thing that I’m really enjoying at the moment is that some time towards the end of December/start of January, I went through the Amazon and Waterstones websites and pre-ordered a big old list of books coming out this year. And, as is my wont, I’ve forgotten the existence of most of them. It’s a delightful surprise when they fall through the letterbox. I just have to keep on reading them and not let that big old TBR pile get any bigger…

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