Ali Smith – Autumn

I picked up Autumn having never read an Ali Smith novel before. Autumn is the first of Smith’s seasonal quartet and cannot be categorised with further adjectives. It’s not a Brexit book because it’s also about time, friendship, age, modernity, sex, gender, art, etc, etc, etc…

It’s quite hard to summarise or even give an opinion on this novel because of it’s inability to be categorised. Smith’s writing reminds me slightly of Max Porter’s, as it is lyrical and poetic whilst still driving some sort of narrative forward. She drives a narrative, whilst writing beautifully, but not jeopardising narrative completely. This is an aspect I appreciated a lot because I think some writers do tend to get caught up in the art of their writing when writing this kind of piece.

The novel is interlaced with different perspectives as well as different time periods. The friendship between Elizabeth and her elderly relative, David, is projected through different lenses and also sporadically told, jumping back and forward in time. This element is quite reflexive of the memory process that occurs in human nature, as we often do not remember a person or relationship in a linear fashion and instead remember random moments that, once weaved together, would be out of order.

‘Time travel is real, Daniel said. We do it all the time. Moment to moment, minute to minute.’

I really enjoyed Autumn and I’ll be continuing with the rest of the quartet as soon as possible.

Decca Aitkenhead – All At Sea

Decca Aitkenhead is a very brave woman. All At Sea is her memoir revolving around the event of her partner’s death. Her partner, and father of her two children, died during a family holiday in Jamaica. He died saving one of his son’s from drowning in the sea and he, instead, unfortunately drowned.

I think what is so shocking about this story is that, through Aitkenhead’s vivid descriptions, you can picture it perfectly. The sea appeared smooth and gentle, however it had a sinister current that pulled out to sea. Aitkenhead’s descriptions of scenery aren’t the only vivid descriptions within the novel – her feelings and emotions throughout her story are striking. I didn’t feel like I was reading this book, I felt like I was listening to a podcast or something – her tone throughout the novel was incredibly honest and I didn’t feel like she was trying to ‘do’ anything by writing this story other than get it down onto paper.

It was an incredibly refreshing and unique story. It’s also terrifying and heartbreaking. I’m really unsure as to what else I could say about this other than to recommend it enthusiastically to everybody.

‘The overwhelming sensation of being home is one of homelessness.’

Christina Dalcher – Q

This book focuses on a dystopian society where individuals are scored and judged solely on their Q (Quotient) scores. These scores affect which possibilities are open to you, such as schooling, job opportunities, societal gatherings, etc.

The protagonist in the story, Elena, is married to the person responsible for the Q scoring – Malcolm Fairchild. Together, they have two daughters named Anne and Freddie. Anne has always sailed through life easily pushing the top brackets of Q scoring, meaning that she has never had any problems maintaining her top level schooling. Freddie, however, is the complete opposite. The novel proceeds to show a mother’s love for her child and what she would do to protect them and expose inequality once it has shown itself in the most evil form.

I thought this book was scary. It was scary because I don’t find it difficult to envisage a world in which everybody is judged solely on their grades, as if this is the only thing that they can offer to a society. As well as this, the novel repetitively compares the society in Q to that of Nazi Germany which highlights the harsh prejudices involved and makes the reader unable to sympathise or understand, at all, the society depicted.

Personally, I didn’t find Elena to be very likeable and, for me, that’s quite important to have in a protagonist in this type of narrative. I disliked that she lived very comfortably until injustice faced her own family, forcing her to act. Until then, she had made comments about other families only disapproving of the ‘unfairness’ of the society when they themselves were effected by it, which I thought was quite hypocritical.

Overall, I thought this was a good dystopian read that wasn’t too far from present society – it was believable in that essence. It made me feel better about the current society we do live in as, though a lot of things in our society do count on grading, we also value other aspects and unique personality traits that make people true individuals.

3.5/5

Rebecca Serle – In Five Years

This novel follows the story of Dannie Cohan. She’s a successful lawyer and has a successful love life too – she’s engaged to someone perfect for her. However, when she dreams one night that she awakens in an apartment that is not hers with another man five years in the future, her normal, successful life seems to dissolve into the background – especially when she is met by the same man four – and – a – half – years later.

I picked this book up because I was in the mood for an easy romance read. I guess it *kind of* meets this criteria. The real romance within this book isn’t one of discovering the sexual and romantic love of one’s life. The romance in this book exists between Dannie and her best friend. Dannie has always been there for her best friend and has acted as a sort of anchor to her friend’s reckless ways. However, when her best friend becomes ill, their friendship is really put to the test AND under a microscope. I think this element of the novel not chasing a proper romantic, sexual relationship, despite the illusion of doing so in the description, is really great. The great love of your life doesn’t always have to be the person you’re in a relationship with – it can be a friendship or a close familial bond and that is perfectly ok. I think this really combats the pressure some people can be under to find this perfectly relationship and this novel simply states that it is not an essential to live a happy life.

I really really really liked that message in the book – I can’t emphasise this enough. However, due to me being in the mood for a romance book, it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for and I did feel slightly let down and misled by the book. From reading the description, it’s obviously aiming to appear to be a fully fledged romance book and that’s where I felt slightly fooled (sorry)…

3/5

Felicity McLean – The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone

Rather obviously, this novel follows the disappearance of the Van Apfel girls – three sisters. The novel is set in Australia and the sisters disappear into the unknown during a school play at the local amphitheatre and are never to be seen again. It’s written from the perspective of Tikka, a friend of the sisters, and follows her trouble in accepting that the Van Apfel girls are actually gone.

I was initially really excited to read this book and was thrilled when I was granted a review copy by NetGalley (thanks!). However, the book failed to pull me in completely. I felt like the story began to pick up at around 30% through, but it just sort of fizzled out. I think my problem with this book was the fact that there was no conclusive ending to it, which I expect in most narratives due to typical expectations when picking up any novel. In retrospect, I should have looked more clearly at the novel’s description, as it states ‘the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved forever’ – the narrative really stays true to this statement.

I thought the characters in the novel were all rather serious, especially for young girls. However, this is quite acceptable through the issues highlighted within the novel such as abuse from parents and inappropriate relationships with teachers are implied. I think this was, overall, a good read. I wouldn’t pick it up again … but I didn’t hate it. For me, it just didn’t meet my particular expectations of narrative or tone.

3/5

Patrick Ness – The Knife of Never Letting Go

Prentisstown is unique. It is a town full of men and without any women. In Prentisstown, men can hear each other’s noise (thoughts), whether they want to or not. It is a month away until Todd becomes a man but, before then, Todd stumbles upon something that he has never encountered before – complete silence. The silence indicates the lies and deception that Todd has grown up with all of his life. This silence means that Todd, and his faithful dog Manchee, must now run from Prentisstown if they would like to live.

I’ve wanted to pick The Knife of Never Letting Go up for quite some time. I absolutely adored Patrick Ness’ A Monster Calls so I was eager to read something else that he’d written. I also think that young adult dystopian novels are one of the best forms of escapism and I really needed that during this lockdown.

I found the writing within this book quite hard to follow at first. Ness wrote it as if it is written from the unique perspective of Todd, which means that it comes fully loaded with spelling, grammar and wording mistakes. This took quite a while to get used to but it’s definitely a unique feature that this book boasts. As well as this, I found that the narrative was quite slow at first. When Todd flees Prentisstown, the actual initial ‘fleeing’ section drags out, perhaps, for around half of the book.

The characters, however, were the novel’s strength for me. I was charmed by Todd’s bravery yet evident vulnerability. I was even more charmed by Manchee – being a dog lover myself, it was an extremely pleasant surprise to see a speaking character in a book be a dog without it seeming too far fetched within the story presented (I know, sounds crazy). I also really liked Viola. Viola is a teen but is presented as really smart and carries her own opinions and isn’t afraid to stand up for them.

I think this book is a really great teen dystopian novel because of the characters I’ve discussed above. It shows that boys should not be afraid to show vulnerabilities and that girls should speak their opinions freely without any fear of being knocked down, etc. For me, being a 22 year old reader, there were disadvantages of this book (as described in a previous paragraph). But, overall, I would probably continue with the series if the opportunity came to be.

3/5 🌟

Kiley Reid – Such a Fun Age

This is a book about two women – Alex Chamberlain and Emira Tucker. Alex Chamberlain is a white, middle class blogger who struggles to maintain the facade that she projects via social media in her day-to-day life. Emira Tucker, on the other hand, is a young black woman, who is also Alex’s babysitter, and is struggling to financially make ends meet. When Emira is accused of kidnapping Alex’s daughter whilst in a supermarket, issues of racial treatment and prejudice begin to arise.

I was so so SO looking forward to reading this book. It was really hyped via social media – I saw many people blogging and discussing it, including Reese Witherspoon’s book club. This, usually, is an indication to me that a book should not be missed and must be picked up as soon as the opportunity arises. I managed to pick up a copy from my local library and enthusiastically began reading. Unfortunately, I don’t think I got it? I just really did not see what all the hype was about.

I’m reluctant to write about books that I do not enjoy as I wholly recognise that everybody has an individual reading experience and can connect with different books better / worse than others, but I’m just trying to be honest about my reaction to this one. I found it really hard to get into – the story was quite slow and not a lot actually happened in the narrative. Emira was accused in the supermarket … and then there was a lot of nothing before anything even happened before the last fifty (or so) pages of the book. I understand that character development is also a crucial part of any novel, but I didn’t really see much of that either. I thought the characters did seem quite false – I recognise this is fiction so this is inevitable to some extent. However, they just seemed really unreachable and unrealistic to me. I just don’t think that this book was for me unfortunately.

2/5

Afia Atakora – Conjure Women

Conjure Women follows the story of Rue. Rue was a slave owned by a plantation owner, whose plantation was destroyed during the Civil War. The story follows Rue’s struggle with life on the plantation after the civil war and, in particular, her identity as a conjure woman’s (Miss May Belle’s) daughter. During enslaved times, Miss May Belle was often called upon to cure people with what was believed to be magic and witchcraft. Once Miss May Belle is gone and the Civil War is over, Rue is often expected to take the place of her mother.

The tone of the novel, as a whole, reminded me of a John Steinbeck novel. The way in which the writing describes but doesn’t enforce characteristics of individuals and carefully, slowly, plays out their identities and historicised narratives is highly reminiscent of Steinbeck’s own narrative voice. As well as this, the careful allocation of imagery within Conjure Women also brings Steinbeck to mind. The repetitive emergence of foxes within the narrative suggests the resurgence of the natural world and order, as well as the implication of a natural antagonist towards the black population living in the plantation still – foxes were often used as symbols of antagonism in black folk tales.

Technical details aside, I really enjoyed this book. It was a perfect quarantine read due to the ability Atakora has to transport her reader both back in time and in geographical location. It was the perfect distraction from every day troubles and I became immersed in Rue’s personal dilemmas, including her responsibilities to her people, her responsibilities to women in general and the children that she cared for. This book enables you to criticise both the characters and the human psyche in general. Choices within this book enable us to view the human condition portrayed as one that is both selfish but undeniably accurate.

4/5 stars!

Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

I first heard about My Dark Vanessa over a year ago through the hype on social media. I wanted to read it from the minute I heard about it – a dark story of an inappropriate relationship between a student and a teacher? For someone who is drawn to dark stories, including traumas both physical and emotional, it sounded like an unmissable read. My friend kindly pre-ordered My Dark Vanessa for me way back in September 2019 for my birthday. It was due to come out in January and it gave me something to really look forward to closely after Christmas. However, the publication date was pushed back! How was I to cope? … Somehow, I managed. After reading it, I’m forever thankful that the publication date was pushed back if the book was not to the standard that it was upon it’s publication in March. It was un-put-down-able.

The story flicks back and forth from 2000 and 2017. In the 2000 chapters, we witness Vanessa getting groomed and raped by one of her teachers. In the 2017 chapters, we follow Vanessa’s journey to realising the extent of the crimes committed to her and her own understanding of these crimes. I really liked the switching between these time periods as it framed Vanessa’s younger, timid, behaviour with the thought processes that the older Vanessa is able to put into mature words. Vanessa simply viewed it as love and a real relationship which continued way past her childhood years.

I think what struck me in this book is that this could easily (and horrifyingly) have happened or still happen in real life. Vanessa takes a lot of the responsibility of her abuser’s actions. She hides his true actions from individual’s in positions of authority. However, these people do not push Vanessa further. This is what terrified me most – some of the adults in the story suspected that there was an abusive relationship ongoing, but they did not act. Someone very close to Vanessa (I’m attempting not to spoil here) knew, but they did not do anything about it. They allowed the abuse to continue by doing this. Though they are not the perpetrator, in this way, I believe they are complicit.

My favourite element of the book is that, even when Vanessa realises that she has been a victim to abuse, she refuses to act like a victim. She refuses to deal with it in anybody else’s terms but her own. The last scene depicts her simply sat with her dog. She seems to accept what has happened fully, yet deal with this reality in her own show of acceptance.

My Dark Vanessa was easily my most anticipated book of this year and it did not disappoint.

Rosamund Lupton – Three Hours

OK. Amazing.

I inhaled this book in a day.

Three Hours is about a school, in Somerset, under siege by a shooter. The narrative follows different characters: various children within the school, teachers, parents and law enforcement.

The book raises issues of what can happen when an individual is lonely, vulnerable and taken advantage of. It also raises subjects of terrorism and racial discrimination against innocent and, also, vulnerable individuals in their own unique circumstances.

I think what shocked and struck me most whilst reading this book was that this could truly happen to any institution, any where in the world. I feel like as someone living in the UK, I find myself so distant and unable to relate to the shootings happening in America more frequently. I’m aware that terrorist attacks happen in the UK, but it’s a lot rarer to hear of instances of shootings – in particular, school shootings that are more typical to the US. This thought process scared me because it shows what can happen when someone is isolated or treated badly by peers. It teaches us that, no matter how far we think we are from being attacked, we have no clue when or where bad things can happen. This book opened my eyes to the realisation that everybody is vulnerable and should be taken care of.

I couldn’t recommend this enough. For some reason, I’m attracted to these types of stories – one of my favourite books is We Need to Talk About Kevin. It’s a fascinating, yet gripping, read that will keep you completely hooked throughout.

This is also a perfect lockdown read – considering the school is in lockdown! Go read it – there are no excuses.