I feel like I fell off the edge of the earth in blogging terms in October and November. I know I wasn’t alone in feeling absolutely crushing anxiety over the election, spending up to 8 hours a day on Twitter and obsessively watching CNN, and even afterwards, found it hard to get my mojo back! Thankfully the Thanksgiving break was a mix of restorative and annoying — did anyone else find it REALLY hard having their kids home for another week after the amount of time off that there has been in 2020?! They’re back at school this morning though, so I’m taking the opportunity of a quiet house to do a mammoth reading wrap-up of the past two months!
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
If you follow author Matt Haig on social media, you’ll know he’s an absolute delight, and The Midnight Library delivers on his honest (especially about his struggles with mental health) thoughtful and empathetic writing style. 2020 as a year has probably made us all a little more introspective and forced us to examine our priorities, and The Midnight Library will help you along this journey. The premise of the novel is that our heroine, Nora Seed, has grown disappointed and disillusioned with her life, and decides to commit suicide. She finds herself stuck in a kind of purgatory, in the form of a library, able to choose any life she wants by choosing one of the books on the shelves. She can go back in time and correct previous regrets, by staying with an ex-boyfriend for example, or following a career path as a glaciologist, and then she can try out that life for a while to see if she prefers it to the one she had. It all sounds as if it could be horribly cloying, but in Haig’s hands it’s poignant and touching.
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Hamnet has popped up on all the Best Books lists this year, most notably as one of the New York Times’ Best 10 Books of the Year. Hamnet is the heavily fictionalized story of the death of William Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet, told through the eyes of Shakespeare’s wife, Agnes (her name is commonly known to be Anne but she was named as Agnes in her father’s will). I really struggle with books about grieving for a child as it just taps into my very worst fears, but despite its tough subject matter, Hamnet is transcendently beautiful, and would probably tie for my fave book of the month if I didn’t take my enjoyment of a book into consideration. I sobbed my way through about a third of this! It’s worth choosing though if you’re looking for something literary and powerful to take you to the end of the year and would be a wonderful book club pick. 4.25/5
The Singapore Grip by J.G. Farrell
I lived in Singapore for six years without ever hearing about this book, but then the BBC aired an adaptation this year and suddenly mentions of it were popping up everywhere. Originally published in 1978, The Singapore Grip tells the story of the lead-up to the Japanese invasion of Singapore in World War II. It’s definitely intended to be satirical, and very much skewers the uselessness of the British expats and army in Singapore and Malaysia. The fact that it’s written as satire doesn’t excuse the two dimensional “native” characters and the story often gets bogged down in details about the rubber trade as well as lengthy internal monologues. If you’re interested in Singaporean history however, definitely give it a read — I found it fascinating to learn about the extent to which Singapore was bombed, and the descent into utter chaos as foreign residents fled the sinking ship, abandoning Singaporeans to their fate. 3.25/5
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
I was so interested in how divisive Leave the World Behind was on “bookstagram” with many bookstagrammers who I follow keenly absolutely loathing it. The common accusation levelled against it is that nothing really happens, or that it wasn’t clear how the book ended, but I found neither true. Leave the World Behind asks, what would the apocalypse be like if you weren’t really sure if it had even happened? The story follows a well-to-do white NYC family who are renting an Air BNB in the Hamptons, when an older black couple turn up on their doorstep, claiming to the be owners of the house, and bringing disturbing news about a possible cataclysmic event. As weird happenings start to intrude on their isolation, the family all struggle to accept reality in different ways. If you love dystopian fiction, and don’t mind meandering narratives, you’ll love Leave the World Behind. 4/5
The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow
Set in New Salem in 1893, The Once and Future Witches follows the lives of the three Eastwood sisters, who are determined to fight for their rights (and the rights of all women) by rediscovering and re-igniting the lost art of witchcraft. This is a really long, spooky read, with the main story interspersed with dark little fairy tales. I loved the Eastwood sisters as characters, with each sister falling into one of the female archetypes of Maiden, Mother and Crone. If you’re looking for another world to get totally lost in right now, this would be a good pick. 4/5
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
I chose The Invisible Life as one of my BOTM picks in October, and had seen SOOO much buzz around this book. A satisfyingly hefty read at nearly 450 pages, this is one of those stories where you’ll wish it could go on forever. Our hero Addie LaRue makes a faustian pact with a “one of the gods who answers after dark”, resulting in being blessed with eternal life, but cursed with being forgotten by everyone, even if they only leave her company for a few minutes. The thought experiment is fascinating, and it’s such a fun read BUT there are some logistical issues which if you’re a picky reader might end up bothering you. I’m a picky reader and I did get a bit distracted by the holes but I still had a wonderful time reading this. 4.25/5
Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
It’s really hard to assign this book to a specific genre. Good Reads defines it as a “dark fantasy historical novella” which is probably as specific as it’s possible to get. Heroine Maryse Boudreaux and her friends hunt “ku kluxes”: evil zombie members of the KKK who feast on raw flesh. Set in Macon, Georgia, there are lots of mentions of Gullah culture, the film Birth of a Nation and other fascinating and terrifying historical references. It’s brief, cleverly-written and of course a more insightful and thought-provoking take on race in the South and the existence of the KKK than the surface storyline might suggest. 3.75/5
Lock Every Door by Riley Sager
This was my favourite thriller of the month, proving once again that Riley Sager is absolutely wonderful at spinning a great suspense yarn. Lock Every Door is set in an iconic Manhattan apartment building, The Bartholomew, where down-on-her-luck young heroine Jules becomes an extremely well-paid apartment sitter. When other apartment sitters start to go missing, Jules discovers The Bartholomew is hiding a dark secret. Lots of fun. 3.75/5
The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton
A murder and detective story set on a trading ship travelling from the Caribbean to Amsterdam in 1634, this is a suspenseful thriller with a modern feel that belies its historical setting. The story didn’t really leave an impression on me (I had to remind myself what it was about!) but it was an enjoyable read and probably just suffered from the fact I read it during election week, so my brain was not really in the reading zone! It’s by the writer of The Seven and a Half Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, so if you liked that, you’ll probably enjoy this. 3.5/5
All of my “meh’s” this month have a theme — releases from authors I usually love but were disappointed by this time around!
The Sentinel: A Jack Reacher Novel by Lee Child & Andrew Child
I usually love Jack Reacher novels, and had been eagerly awaiting this one, but I just couldn’t lose myself in the story. Yes, there are some classic Reacher scenes, but the plot was too convoluted for me to follow and I ended up skimming through to the end.
Invisible Girl by Lisa Jewell
Lisa Jewell delivers two really amazing thrillers for every mediocre one, which I think is actually pretty good odds. Unfortunately this was one of her mediocre ones, in my opinion!
The Searcher by Tana French
Tana French is another one of my reliable faves when it comes to thrillers, and I pre-ordered this back at the beginning of the year. Unfortunately I found the pace just too slow to hold my interest, and the thriller plot seemed to be secondary to a character-driven exploration of her hero’s inner life. Beautifully written, but under-plotted for my liking.