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Books I’ve Enjoyed in 2018: A Mid-Year Report!

And so we’re already over halfway through this year! I’m not sure I like how quickly it seems to be going by. However, despite this busyness, I’ve still managed to find some time to discover some incredible reads. Here are my favourites so far!

The Secret History (Donna Tartt)

I’ve spent too much time trying to put my love for The Secret History into words. A clique of wealthy, eccentric Classics students murder one of their own — on the first page. The rest of the novel is narrated by an outsider who finds himself caught up in the group’s sticky and disturbing web, spending the narrative unfurling their remaining secrets and coping with his complicity. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. The tale is intoxicating in its alluring mystery, but the narrator’s rambling monologues are laden with sarcasm, wit, and hilariously quirky and cringe-inducing anecdotes — every one of its pages is a giddy, playful delight to read. It’s written with this old-fashioned English whimsy (one of the characters is called Bunny!), and yet there is profanity, fluorescent leotards, and cocaine peppered throughout, a contrast that submerges the story in layers of beguilingly murky unknowability. Its characters are beautifully deep and real despite how one-dimensional and unlikable they could be — in spite of the legions of horrible things each commits, I found my heart aching with empathy and love for almost all of them by the novel’s end. It is this depth and the attachment it inspires that heightens the reader’s stakes in the events they all endure, the sadness they suffer, and the joy they sometimes stumble across, and ensures that its reading is an intensely emotionally fulfilling experience. And I haven’t even mentioned how evenly and interestingly the plot is spread out, and how it barrels along to the climax to end all climaxes, how practically delicious its aesthetics and imagery is, and just how interesting and enjoyable its structure and mysteries are! It is as delectably and immediately satisfying as bingeing a season of your favourite TV show, and with plenty of emotional grounding that will stay with you for a long, long time after.

A Visit From The Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan)

A Visit From The Goon Squad is pretty much perfect. Its character-driven short stories are evocative of Lydia Davis’s, written with a beautiful attention to minute detail and a concise, minimalist approach to prose. Then, it connects all these tales in a variety of intensely moving and human manners and centres them on music, showing how the deep, inarticulable power of a good song can underscore our stories and connect us across time and space. The way in which various characters affect and appear in the lives of others across different chapters is exquisite in its everyday poignancy — its commentary on the importance and potential of human connection, and of how tiny a part of the world each of us really is, is beautiful. The references to the coolest of musicians, and how their art’s energies mirror and affect the larger life experiences of the characters, will resonate with anyone who has felt their heart soar and flutter while listening to their favourite song or dancing at their favourite band’s show. The book is written interestingly as well — one chapter is written solely using Powerpoint slides, and another in a kind of futuristic slang, elements which may sound gimmicky at first but which aid in selling the incredible strength of the character’s humanity and love. I really like how small some of the moments the book focuses on are, too, and how they manage to be funny and devastating and inconsequential and life-changing all at once — how evocative of real life it all feels. It will make you want to cry, and then make a beeline trip to your nearest record shop!

White Noise (Don DeLillo)

White Noise appears mundane at first. It’s about a middle-aged college professor called Jack, who lives in suburbia, goes grocery shopping, looks after his family, and who harbours the classic existential fears of death and unfulfilled purpose, for almost the entirety of its 350-or-so pages. However, the emotional response it evokes is anything but mundane. Don DeLillo masterfully applies black humour (fourteen-year-old Heinrich is the funniest parody of the pretentious, nihilistic teenager this side of Holden Caulfield!), powerful slow-burn plotting, noir-ish double personalities and unanswered mysteries, and austere prose in the most terrifying and incredible of ways. The novel’s prickly Midwestern setting, its use of technological and futuristic motifs that petrify in the realness of their constant surveillance and loneliness, and how the instant familiarity of the characters and their suburban sprawl viciously attacks the audience’s deepest-held fears and desires, buries itself deep under your skin and inspires the most visceral feelings of beautiful, mesmerising dread and anxiety short of a David Lynch movie. It will transfix you so much that you won’t even notice that it’s made you tremble with terror and admiration until you’ve shut the back cover.

Remember it’s a Sin to Kill a Mockingbird

The book’s original cover (source: npr.org)

I’ve had a long relationship with To Kill A Mockingbird. I first came across it when I was maybe 10, when I watched the film adaptation. My parents introduced me to a lot of incredible movies when I was that sort of age – another notable screening being Rear Window (!) – but I don’t think I really understood anything about them. Consequently, I also don’t really have any recollection about my first brush with Harper Lee’s novel, other than I think I kind of appreciated it as far as my brain at that stage had the capability to allow, and that I thought Scout was cool, even though she had a funny name.

Then, when I was 12 and halfway through Year 8, I had to read the novel for English class – or rather, I chose it from a list of novels that we were supposed to analyse, podcast-style, as our token group assignment for the semester. I’d decided, upon my impending teenagehood, that it was time that I become better read, in order to signify just how incredibly Grown Up I was to the outside world, Mockingbird being the only classic option on the reading list for the assignment – and, I thought, the movie was pretty good, so read it I did. And… I hated it, with a vehement, irrational passion. I thought it was slow, that it contained too much information that I – in all my wisdom – deemed irrelevant to the narrative, that the characterisation was implausible, that it didn’t really seem to have a proper climax. Why do people like this, I thought – how can they read this and not see how incredibly flawed and ridiculous it is? I’ve never read a more overrated book in my life! I don’t think I even managed to finish it. But then, I found myself a few months ago plucking my parents’ copy out of their bookshelf and deciding to reappraise it. And this time… I loved it, with the same passion which highlighted my hatred a few years prior.

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck in the novel’s film adaptation, 1962 (source: The Daily Beast)

The main thing I changed my mind about was the book’s voice, something that previously had really irked me. At first, it bypassed my preteen brain entirely that the novel was narrated by an older Scout, this misunderstanding spawning much of my disdain. I had been a progenitor of some Scout-level moments of precociousness throughout my own childhood – I believe here is the point at which I should recall how I excitedly asked my Reception teacher on my first day of school what we would be required to complete for homework that night – but even I had difficulty finding the scenario of an eight-year-old child using words like ‘condescension’ in everyday conversation plausible, also unable to believe that it could’ve been narrated from adulthood due to Scout’s fairly simplistic descriptions of many of the novel’s events. But then, perhaps I was still too young myself to realise that of course Scout was narrating her memories from an older perspective, but that she tells them just as she remembers them – with the naivety and altered context with which she experienced them in childhood. There’s a kind of poetic mystery to the presentation of her memories without the proper, adult context we readers are so eager to have shown to us, her retrospective realisation of such details all to be discovered and deciphered in the subtext. It, too, was kind of beautiful how subtly Lee used this lack of context, the way the deeper messages are intertwined within what was not written, to represent one’s coming of age – how you begin to realise deeper truths and become more open-minded as you gain more years to your name, and how these changes are often so subtle that you don’t even notice them until you think back. This evokes the kind of foggy, innocent joy we often feel towards our childhoods – and yet, it also challenges our ideas about nostalgia in a spectacularly confronting manner by using this innocence to narrate a selection of the book’s most horrifying sequences. I particularly loved this about the novel, especially as a teenager who is simultaneously excited yet terrified by her impending entry into the adult world, and it’s understandable that a younger me simply could not yet appreciate this.

Author Harper Lee in 1961 (source: Getty Images)

I further adored the novel’s usage of the small town setting. Lee adeptly utilises such a backdrop both to develop a focused ensemble of intertwined, endearingly bizarre characters, and to further juxtapose the comforts of the setting’s quirky nature with the mindless prejudice and evil such concentrated isolation can breed – the contrast afforded by the latter handled in an incredibly skillful, realist manner, reflecting the often contradictory complexities of our day-to-day lives. This has long been a fiction cliche, but I now unashamedly fall for it every time, the version of me who recently reread the book having since become avidly in love with Gilmore Girls (of course, a much more positive portrait – although Mockingbird is also incredibly optimistic in tone for a lot of its narrative!) and Twin Peaks – things that a younger me just hadn’t yet had time to discover!

Of course, the book is not without its flaws, the greatest of these being its datedness. The frequent usage of then-socially acceptable racial slurs by even its “good” (for want of a less simplistic term) characters make the modern reader cringe, particularly when juxtaposed with the fact that the exploration of the effects of racism and prejudice on society is perhaps the book’s thesis statement. However, although this aspect of the book remains unacceptable by our standards, so much of its thematic content and general sentiments on the vileness of racism and those who follow it, the acceptance that everyone should feel toward their fellow human beings, still ring true in an age that will be defined in future history textbooks by its widened cultural divide, and the horrifying uprisings of bigotry and violence that have stemmed from this. The book’s sentiments were so beautiful in both their angry passion and their undying, almost heartrendingly naive optimism, and the contrasting of this with incredibly horrifying – in that such things could ever be thought of as happening at all, and in that they still continue to occur, to some degree, close to ninety years from the book’s setting – events, such as the trial’s verdict and the fate of Tom Robinson, makes for affecting, relevant reading. This appreciation of its social sentiments  is something that thankfully has been a constant between both my readings.

A mockingbird, Lee’s symbol of innocence (source: Ryan Hagerty/The National Digital Library of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service)

It’s kind of funny, because in the end, I feel like one of the greatest messages I took from To Kill A Mockingbird is that of the slow, almost unnoticeable crawl that is one’s coming of age – and perhaps, my relationship with the book carries this too. Twelve year old me couldn’t appreciate the narrative because she didn’t know enough about art, about the world, she hadn’t grown up enough herself to see the potency of its craft and its message-making – and yet I am not sure I have discovered everything about it either. I feel that if I were to reread it again in a few years’ time, renewed experiences and wisdom would ensure that I would yet again take away different ideas. It’s cool how things change, right?

A Cookbook with a Difference…

season taste

The cover of Season to Taste (or How to Eat Your Husband) is plain and unassuming, much like the central character, Lizzie Prain. However, her mundane life is experiencing an almighty upheaval. At first, I took the subtitle to be a metaphorical one, but I was quickly disavowed of that ridiculous notion. Lizzie is, in fact, devouring her one-time life partner, who, Monday last, she knocked on the head with a shovel and is currently storing in the freezer.

Definitely not for the faint of heart, Season to Taste flips between present day Lizzie preparing various parts of her husband Jacob with ingenuity (and a touch too much relish) and scenes from their life together. As the picture begins to build up, we see that she was always the dormant one in the relationship; sexually frustrated and isolated, Lizzie is considered useless by her husband. But does their life of failed dreams justify its brutal conclusion? Lizzie is not concerning herself with such philosophical questions, instead turning to the more practical matter of hiding the evidence. However, suspicions are starting to be voiced from several quarters and Lizzie is discovering that as hard as she tries to shut herself off, life just keeps seeping through the cracks…

This book seemed to me to be quintessentially English. Lizzie’s eminently practical solution to corpse disposal smacks of maintaining a stiff upper lip, and her out-of-character act of violence comes as a shock, even to her. The recipes given for consuming a hand, say, with crushed potatoes and mangetout, are your traditional English fare, which is perhaps what makes them so gruesome. I kept being reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Edible Woman, as Lizzie tries to forge a new life for herself through absorbing the hurtful elements of her past, absolving as she goes.

With very black humour and surprisingly delicate prose, Natalie Young paints a very human picture of seemingly inhuman crimes and their ramifications.