The Books I Read in February 2016

I read five books in February, and they each got a different number of stars, using a 1 - 5 star rating. That's kinda cool, right?

And with such a strong opening tease like that, I will just crack on and get to these five books.

Girl on a Train by A.J. Waines (1 star)

Forgive me dear readers but I'm just going to copy and paste the review I left on Goodreads for this book, because I refuse to expel any more energy on it. And yes, if you detect an angry tone to that last sentence, you'd be 100% right. This book made me mentally shake my fists and bare my teeth on several occasions. Dammit. I just wasted two more sentences on this book. Now three... Okay. I'm stopping now.

(Oh, you'll have to go to the original review to see the spoiler bits - sorry!)

"I wanted to read this book because I'd read about how the other book of a similar name had actually catapulted this book to the top of the Amazon Kindle charts because people kept downloading it by mistake. (You can read my review of the other girl on train book here) I subsequently wanted this book to then be better than the other one. But it wasn't. It really, really wasn't.

So yes, I finished this book, because yes, it had me hooked in terms of wanting to know what happened, but ultimately I wanted to see if the book and author would redeem themselves. You see, after plodding along quite nicely through the first half, my only gripe was that the story badly needed an editor and about half as many words. But then I began to feel quite angry about some of the stances the characters and ultimately the author took, not least the offensive views that (view spoiler) and (view spoiler). It also had the most bizarre use of a church to create a community of characters (the majority of which didn't seem to be church-going types at all, see married man having multiple affairs with women much younger than him) and the fact that (view spoiler) really did make me almost laugh in disbelief.

All these scathing things said, I was surprised by The Big Reveal and didn't find it completely unthinkable or lacking in feasibility... albeit a stretch of the imagination.

But when all is said and done the previously mentioned viewpoints on issues we shouldn't mess around with, even in fiction, unless sensitively done so, means this is my first 1 star book of the year."

Rescue by Anita Shreve (2 stars)

I picked this book up at one of those open libraries you see dotted around streets, that are essentially a makeshift shelf outside someone's house for people to leave and collect books. The owner of this particular shelf around the corner from my house actually had a sign asking for financial contributions too so I popped a Euro through the letterbox in his door. Now I kind of want to ask for my money back. 

After the intensity of Daring Greatly and the pathetic-ness of Girl on a Train, seeing the woods Anita Shreve was like seeing a "Welcome Back: Enjoy Your Stay" hanging on the doorway of a hotel you stayed in once before and loved. Now don't ask me which of her books I've read before but I know that she's the kind of author you can rely on for a decent plot, well-put together characters and a calm, soothing command of language.

And I did get this. The book opened with mystery, drama, romance... it was like instant anger management therapy after my GOAT (didn't see that acronym coming!) rage. But then it stopped. Almost without warning the book lost all its spark, like another writer had taken over and they'd only been given a brief synopsis of what had happened before. So disappointing! 

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown (3 stars)

If you're oblivious to who Brené Brown is and what she does, this confirms you've not spent more than a minute or two on the TED talks website, which is something you should probably rectify as soon as you find yourself wanting a way to waste time while convincing yourself you're not wasting time. Don't pretend you're not that person. I definitely am and do not apologise for it. I love TED and feeling intelligent... I'm just not sure which comes first any more.

Anyway. This is not Brown's first or most popular book - I believe the Gifts of Imperfection is considered her most ground-breaking work - but this is still an important book that highlights very interesting and somewhat disturbing findings about vulnerability, shame and "daring greatly". While I expected to learn a lot about myself, I didn't expect to learn, or rather see, so much about the world around us and how essentially poisonous it is when it comes to shame and vulnerability. It made for a lot of uncomfortable reading. But there was also the parts that taught me something about myself and these were more hopeful and less doom-filled, thank goodness. In short, all these scary things I'm doing in my life right now - raising a baby boy even if I feel like I don't know what I'm doing, and writing and publishing books that I fear may get slammed or worse, not even read - it is in this daring  that I will grow stronger so that I can deal with shame and vulnerability better, and teach my son how to as well.

In fact, all current, future and wannabe parents should jump to the section on parenting. It offers no insight on sleep, food, or how to blow snot out of your baby's nostrils but it tells you pretty much all you need to know; don't worry about your kid coming up against adversity. In fact, let him/her and he/she'll be better for it. 

The rest of the book is of course worth reading (if a wee bit repetitive in places) for some frequently eye-opening, often face-palming, but ultimately encouraging observations about shame in both our personal lives and its role in the world around us. My only beef with this books was that the examples that Brené Brown used from her own experience - in her family, professional and personal life - all felt a little "too ideal" in terms of illustrating the point she wanted to make, which then added a bit of a contrived flavour to the flow of the book. But in line with the book's lessons, please know Ms Brown that this is just my personal opinion and interpretation and I do not wish to bring about any kind of shame. Unless this was a suggestion made by your editor. In which case you should pass on that shame to him/her because your messages are so strong and right and hopeful that you don't need to over-emphasise each point you make.

Some quotes from the book that I think are worthy of life on a post-it note:

"To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives our life purpose and meaning to living."

"When it comes to parenting, the practice of framing mothers and fathers as good or bad is both rampant and corrosive - it turns parenting into a shame mindfield."

"My good friend and colleague Robert Hilliker says 'Shame started as a two person experience, but as I got older I learned how to do shame all by myself.'"

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (4 stars)

Hugely popular when it was published in 2008 (it won the Man Booker prize) I successfully avoided this book until because I'm always wary of things that get a lot of hype. That and I'm slow and lazy. and in 2008 I was too busy perusing London's bar scene than I was the literature pages of newspapers. Anyway I finally read it and I found it as brilliant as it was disturbing. and as entertaining as it was stomach-wrenchingly sad. 

Written as a letter to the Chinese Prime Minister who is about to visit India, Balram Halawi takes it upon himself to introduce the Premier to what life is really like for an Indian entrepreneur. While it's clear very quickly that Balram is intended to amuse and appeal to the reader, it took me a lot longer to realise exactly what his story is about, but once that message was clear, it was uncomfortably hard to ignore. As it should be. But you don't want to stop reading because Balram stays funny thoughout and his plight is one you confusingly but without doubt root for.

I don't want to spoil the story for anyone who hasn't read it but let's just say that after finishing this book, I dreamt of India and in my dream the country was colourful and chaotic and the people were clean and kind. This surprised me because this is far from not the India that Balram describes in The White Tiger... and by all accounts he and the millions who start life just like him should know.

This short extract should offer a little bit more of an insight into why I say that...

'The poor win a few battles (the peeing in potted plants, the kicking of the pet dogs, etc) but of course the rich have won the war for ten thousand years. That's why, one day, some wise men, out of compassion for the poor, left them signs and symbols in poems, which appear to be about roses and pretty girls and things like that, but when understood correctly spill out secrets that allow the poorest man on earth to conclude the ten-thousand-year-old brain-war on terms favourable to himself."

The Unfinished Novel by Valerie Martin (5 stars)

A new to me author and yet another hand-me-down from my mum, this book is my favourite of the year so far and it's not just because it's a collection of short stories which I'm perhaps a little biased to as these are what I have spent the last three years working on as an author myself. Anyway. Let me tell you why these stories moved me.

It's not clear if it's intentional or a coincidence that the stories are collected by art but it does play a role in each story in each setting - a poet contemplating her relationship with a dancer, the love-and-hate fuelled conflict between two writers, the story of a tortured artist's girlfriend and a theatre arts teacher embarking on an affair with a student - and when I first suspected this two stories in I was a little apprehensive. How many extravagant and eccentric artistic types could I read about before I got bored? Turns out quite a few. Not that they were all extreme characters. Quite the opposite in fact, which was one of the reasons I loved these stories; they didn't all hang on dramatic events or climatic twists. Rather, everyone was believable while still being quirky. And the plots were simple but still layered, beautifully developed and beguiling from the outset, three things that are so important in short fiction in order to make the story strong (in my humble opinion).

The title story turned out to be nothing like what I expected but upon finishing it I could see why it was chosen as the "lead" story, and I think it was my favourite. But really in a collection like this, having favourites doesn't feel right because these stories sit so well together. Yes, they are linked by a common theme, yet together they tell us so much about people, life, love as well as what it means to be an artist or to have a relationship with art.

Now here's a short paragraph from the title story. I don't know why but it really did make me stop in my tracks...

"She brought her hand back to her heart. The color in her face drained again, but not because she was struck by my irrefutable assertion. Her voice was confident 'You'd give your soul to have written my novel,' she said."

*****

Now over to you! What books have you read recently that you would aware five stars to? Or how about one star? In fact, just let me know about those one star books. I love finding out what people didn't like reading and why.

And read January's book reviews and recommendations here.

Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before settling down with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. She collects vintage clothes, loves 70s disco music and writes stories that move you.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter and Google +

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