Last year's January was a stonker for reading books and this year's January was also a good month, which I really needed seeing as I didn't finish a single book in December last year. I don't know why a month of no completed books makes me feel a little low and lost, but it does. Maybe it's because I know that reading not only makes me happy through the act itself but it also enhances my life in so many ways. As a reader I exercise my brain. my emotional intelligence, my empathy and I am entertained. And as a writer, I learn good and bad ways of putting words together, and good and bad ways of creating characters, executing a plot, building tension, hiding and revealing details and moving a reader to feel something. That last bit is the most important to me. I love it when I put a book down and find myself still feeling something for it many minutes or hours afterwards. If just one person told me that one of my stories had that same effect on them, my work as an author would be done.
Until I got another idea for a story, and then I'd get back to writing.
Anyway, a few of this month's books moved me like this, and a few really, really didn't...
Is it controversial to say that I preferred this lesser known Atwood novel to The Handmaid's Tale? Well, scandal achieved because I really did prefer it. Maybe it's because it was less dystopian, less disturbing and more saga-like? Or maybe it's because the characters came alive quicker and easier? Either way I enjoyed this story which was told in two alternating sections; first third-party reports and a third person narration of an ongoing mysterious affair between a man and a woman, and secondly a first person recounting her life story at an elderly age. And repeat and repeat etc. It worked well, and had me guessing how the two were connected early on, which pretty much guarantees I'm going to plough through a book and read it until the end. I'm terrible for that; always trying to beat the author in connecting their dots before I'm supposed to. As it happened, I did rightly put a few things together before they were revealed, but I didn't quite get everything and in fact, some of it was left open and uncertain; something I'm totally okay with if it's done the right way. And I'm very happy to say that Margaret Atwood is very accomplished at this. Lovely prose, less lovely characters, a not-really-lovely-at-all-but-very-interesting plot, but ultimately it was a very lovely reading experience.
Also get this for a provoking quote about motherhood: "What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them an existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves - our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies. Now that I've been one myself, I know."
I wrote a review of this book for Goodreads:
"Crazy good (and occasionally bad) prose, crazy mostly bad natured characters, crazy good and bad plot twists and slightly crazed writing style at times. For all of these reasons I'm convinced that reading this book will make me a better writer who, in the future, will not fear digging deeper and deeper into the darker holes of her characters. You have been warned."
I'd also like to add that I found it somewhat astonishing that Barack Obama publicly stated that this was his favourite book of last year. For one thing, it's a long read and I personally would certainly not have managed to both read it and run arguably the most powerful country in the world, but also it really makes you examine your own relationship in excruciating detail, even if you try not to. But I suppose when you're married to Michelle Obama you never doubt your partner-in-life, because hey, she's Michelle Obama. I wish I was married to Michelle Obama.
And here's an example of some of that crazy good use of words: "Already he love the laugh she held in her, which nobody else would see."
This is the book my partner bought me as part of a new tradition for Christmas Eve, which we stole from Iceland. Considering my partner's step-father is Icelandic I think we're allowed to steal it. Essentially it's the tradition of gifting each member of the family pyjamas and a book on Christmas Eve. We added to it by enjoying a huge heart-warming macaroni cheese before we then opened our books and got to reading.
My partner is an amateur physicist in the making. Despite not attending any kind of further education, he loves discovering more about our world's make-up and the space that exists beyond it. I'm talking dark matter, gravity, perpetual motion, the whole she-big-bang (see what I did there?!). There's rarely a month that passes in which he doesn't ask me, what are black holes?. and invariably I forget. So that's why he bought me this book. I half-groaned, half-grinned when I pulled the wrapping paper away. Ugh, physics, but oh, look it's so pretty... I mean seriously, look at the cover. It's gorgeous! And I could immediately see it was a short read. What I didn't expect was how beautifully the words would flow and how much I would be able to understand, even on limited sleep (thanks Baby Bird!). It was originally written as seven articles published in an Italian newspaper so the languages graduate in me is contemplating getting it in its original language, but for now I'll just feel impressed with myself that I read all seven of these lessons and I enjoyed them all... even if I didn't understand every part of every one. This was thanks in huge part to the occasionally wildly romantic language employed but just as often it was because a more simple and subtle turn of phrase was effective at explaining a very complicated theory.
Stand by for possibly the only quote from a physics book that prompted an emotional reaction in me... " In short the theory (of relativity), describes a colourful and amazing world where universes explode, space collapses into bottomless holes, time sags and slows near a planet, and the unbounded extensions of interstellar space ripple and sway like the surface of the sea... And all of this, which emerged gradually from my mice-gnawed book, was not a tale told by an idiot in a fit of lunacy, or a hallucination caused by Calabria's burning Mediterranean sun and its dazzling sea. It was reality."
I should preface this review by saying I really don't like chick lit. If you've read any of my previous book reviews, you'll know this. So why did I read Me Before You, which is possibly the most talked about, reviewed, loved and cried over chick lit novel of the last few years? I read it because I wanted a book to make me cry. It had been a while since a book made me sob and sometimes you need that... don't you? Is it just me? Oh dear, that's embarrassing. Anyway, here's the review I wrote on Goodreads...
"I read this because of the hype and the tears. I wanted tears. Yes, it's true, sometimes I just want to read a book that makes me feel like putty. And it almost got me. Almost. I could hear my tear ducts whirr into action at one point... they just didn't follow through. I suppose that's what I could also say about the book in summary. It didn't wow me, or woe me or make me wonder. Although the story is charming and original-ish, the chick-lit dialogue (inner and outer) just put me off from start (I almost abandoned the book several times but kept going for the promise of sobbing on the horizon). It's not that I hate this book, or think the seven gazillion people who love it are wrong for doing so, it just proved a point to me that I really don't like chick-lit or these kind of girl-meets-boy romances when there is so much telling rather than showing. It also frustrated me that some of the more tender scenes in the book actually revealed some lovely turns of phrase, suggesting that Ms Moyes could write much more subtle and sensual language but the genre/publishers perhaps censored this in favour of cliched, unnatural conversation and unnecessarily long back stories and repetitive over-explaining. All that said, I did plough through it quickly, so that's why it gets three rather than two stars."
So there you go, even a book loved by millions couldn't turn me on to chick-lit, which kind of makes me feel sad and left out as a reader, and sad and poor as a writer! (Oh and please, please let me know if you read Me Before You and you felt the same way as me!)
Long-term readers of my book reviews will know that I'm slowly working my way through the Philip Marlowe novels and that I'm a huge fan. Yes, they're racist. Yes, they're sexist. Yes, they're far too clever for their own good (there is no guessing whodunnit ahead of Mr Chandler!). But like Marlowe, as offensive as they are, they're also equally self-deprecating and often very effective at giving the underdog the upper hand. I liked The High Window because it was fairly uncomplicated compared to other Marlowe mysteries - there was just one "case" albeit it with several overlapping facets - and there was a fine array of sassy, sharp-tongued characters as well as the usual oddball supporting players. I don't want to reveal any of the plot but this is a fine Marlowe novel to start with... and if you do read or have read it and you guess the outcome before it's revealed to you, then you're a much smarter person than me, which is a little worrying as I'm currently working on a mystery story... Oh well, I guess that's why I'm still working on it and Raymond Chandler is still loved to this day as the original creator of hard-boiled detective novels.
And if you want an example of what you can expect from Philip Marlowe and his antics, here's a little passage I smirked at from start to finish...
'Mr Marlowe,' she said. 'I'm a strong-minded woman. But don't let me scare you. Because if you can be scared by me, you won't be much use to me.'
I nodded and let that one drift with the tide.
She laughed suddenly and then she belched. It was a nice little belch, nothing showy, and performed with easy unconcern. "My asthma," she said carelessly. 'I drink this wine as medicine. That's why I'm not offering you any.'
I swung a leg over my knee. I hoped that wouldn't hurt her asthma."
What books have you read recently that moved you? Or didn't? I'd love to hear your recommendations for good books in the comments. And if you missed them, here are the books I enjoyed most in 2015.
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 starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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