This is (hopefully) the first in a monthly post where I round up on my book-related happenings that haven’t made it into the 746 or one of my challenges.
You all know that I stuck to my book-buying ban for three years, but have started buying/ borrowing a few new books here and there. The nature of my work means that I have to keep up to date with the world of books and although I am buying books again, I don’t buy many and I try to buy them all from my favourite independent book shop No Alibis in Belfast.
At the start of this year I was in a real reading and blogging slump. I found choosing what to read really tough. If I wasn’t reading something from the 746 I felt guilty. If I bought a new book, I wouldn’t feel like I could read it straight away as I had so many others vying for attention, so left the new books aside. If nothing in the 746 immediately appealed to me, I would invariably end up not reading anything. Or starting several and not following through on any of them.
I tried a new plan – one from the 746, one from Netgalley and one new book, but that didn’t seem to work either. Reading Ireland Month didn’t really pull me out from the slump as I’d hoped it would in March and a look through my blog shows just how few reviews I wrote in the early part of the year.
Then I made my 20 Books of Summer list and seemed to choose a really good mix of reads. I found myself flying through them and reading a whole lot of other books besides. Why the sudden burst in reading activity?
Several things have helped I think.
Firstly, I’m using my phone and iPad less and reading more actual books. When I read a real book I get less distracted by games or social media and tend to read for longer.
Secondly, I’ve started worrying less about what I’m reading. If I buy a new book or get approved for one on Netgalley and feel like reading it straight away, I do. As a result, I’m reading even more and the 746 is still going down, slowly but surely.
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss
I received a copy of Ghost Wall from Netgalley without knowing anything about the book or the author. I just liked the sound of it. I wasn’t expecting it to be the stand-out read of the year for me. Seriously, it’s going to take a really great book to top this one.
Ghost Wall is set in the recent past where teenager Silvie is spending two weeks re-enacting the Iron Age way of life in Northumberland. Accompanied by her bullying father, submissive mother and a group of university students and their professor, the group camp, wear tunics and hunt and forage for their food. As the fortnight wears on tensions start to run high as the idea of bog bodies, ghost walls and human sacrifices start to take a hold.
Ghost Wall is a short book, but a stunning one. The prose is gorgeous, the pacing and tension sustained and the characters vivid and relatable. It’s a work of terrible beauty, exploring how the past, both recent and distant, still have a hold on the present. It is worth reading for the first two pages alone. Now I can’t wait to read the rest of Sarah Moss’s work.
We That Are Young by Preti Taneja
The lovely Poppy Peacock sent me a copy of We That Are Young as a gift over the summer and I’ve been reading it for a few months.
To be fair, it is a doorstep of a book, but well worth the time. Transposing the story of King Lear to modern day India, Taneja tells the story of the ‘Company’ whose head, Bapuji is splitting his assets between his three daughter, Gargi, Rhada and Sita and his son Jeet.
Told from the viewpoint of each of his children, We That Are Young is a sprawling epic that explores the battle for power within a damaged family, the class differences in an ever-changing country and the lengths that people will go to hold on to wealth, status and the love of a parent. A worthy winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize, We That Are Young is well worth picking up.
You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life (You Are Raoul Moat) by Andrew Hankinson
Those in the UK will remember the terrifying and surreal case of Raoul Moat which hit the headlines here in 2010. Moat, recently released from prison shot and killed his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend, wounded his ex-girlfriend and shot and blinded a policeman David Rathband, who later went on to commit suicide. With the help of his two friends, Moat then went on the run for 8 days, releasing statements to the press about his wish to kill more police officers in revenge for their treatment of him and becoming a strange kind of hero to some (including bizarrely the footballer Paul Gascgoine). Moat was eventually found and after a stand-off, committed suicide.
Hankinson has used Moat’s recordings, lengthy statements, police and medical reports to get into Moat’s head and write about his final days in the second person, in a kind of Truman Capote style. This makes for a disconcerting and claustrophobic read. Hankinson is asking the reader to try and understand what makes a killer and to lay bare a toxic masculinity that was the bedrock of Moat’s life. Moat was undoubtedly intelligent, but wallows in self-pity, justifying everything he has done and placing the blame elsewhere. Hankinson allows Moat’s statements to stand, but in parentheses notes when Moat is not telling the truth, painting him as an unreliable narrator.
While fascinating, the book is also problematic mainly because of Moat’s incredible capacity to avoid responsibility for anything he has done. There were times when he was let down by the system and he undoubtedly had a difficult childhood, but it is hard to empathise with someone who is so incredibly self-involved and lacking in insight. To label Moat a monster (as Prime Minister David Cameron did) is as simplistic as labelling him a hero and in that respect, Hankinson does a good job of saying that reality is a whole lot less black and white, without letting Moat off the hook for the crimes he committed.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
I quite enjoyed Conversations with Friends, Sally Rooney’s debut novel and had very high hopes for Normal People, her critically acclaimed follow-up. Normal People has been universally praised by critics and readers alike and it’s exclusion from the Booker Shortlist last week was met with disbelief. I hate to say then, that I was disappointed. Normal People follows Connell and Marianne, a couple from a small-town in Sligo as their relationship changes and grows over several years. Connell is a popular boy whose mother cleans Marianne’s house. Marianne is well-off, but not well-liked and the two begin a secretive relationship. When the both start university at Trinity, the tables are turned. Marianne is popular with a wide group of friends, while Connell struggles to fit in.
Normal People is a typical ‘will-they, won’t they?’ narrative which is incredibly readable with some interesting characterisation (particularly Connell, who tries to navigate what it means to be a man in today’s society). For the most part I enjoyed it, although I found some of the dialogue stilted and unrealistic. I sometimes get the feeling that I may be too old for Rooney’s books and overall, I wasn’t blown away.
Normal People shares a similar plot to Belinda McKeon’s Tender, which I thought was a book with far more depth and emotional charge and I’m finding myself wondering what all the hype is about.
That’s my extra reads for this month. Have you read any of these? Do any tempt you?
Or do you have any other suggestions for getting out of a reading slump?
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!