Updated: Sep 2, 2021
A pretty decent month for me in the end, this! I got through 24 books, and most of them were quite good, only a few were mediocre, and only one was an out and out stonker (Le Montespan, you were so terrible I'm actually considering throwing you away so no one else will ever have to endure the act of reading you). There are some that didn't quite live up to their billing (looking at you, Detransition, Baby) but mostly the only bad things I've had to say about any of the books I've read this month is that they won't stick with me very long, and I probably won't be shelving them in the keep bookcase. But there were also three entries into the possibly-best-of-2021 list, and a couple that I am looking forward to rereading when I'm in the right headspace for them, and two truly delightful romances!
As ever, read on for my full month's wrap-up.
The Secret Bridesmaid (2.3★/5), by Katy Birchall: It was fine (maybe a bit less than fine). Easy, unthinking fluff. Not enough romance, and the plot is entirely unbelievable, but we don't read these types of book for the realistic aspects of the dialogue. Unsure if I'll read anything else by this author, though.
The Final Girl Support Group (2.8★/5), by Grady Hendrix: Fun, easy, typical horror fare. Nothing special but nothing standout bad either. Reviewed here.
Malibu Rising (3.5★/5), by Taylor Jenkins Reid: A fine book. Pleasant filler. Great for a plane; nothing much else to see here. Reviewed here.
The Roadtrip (4.8★/5), by Beth O'Leary: An almost-perfect romance novel. I would like Beth O'Leary to publish a novel literally every week. Please read this forthwith, thank you. Reviewed here.
Skye Falling (4.6★/5), by Mia McKenzie: A book I picked up kind of on a whim, and was a fun, quirky romance that blended in a lot of different themes and perspectives than I usually gravitate towards in my romances. This is the story of Skye, a thirtysomething woman who's spent her life avoiding serious entanglements, either romantic or otherwise, as a coping mechanism from her pretty shitty childhood; she only comes back to Philadelphia for two-week chunks in between trips; and then suddenly a twelve-year-old walks into her life claiming to be the product of an egg Skye donated in her twenties. This is a story about second chances, found family, and the complicated paths of choosing to forgive or not - and the romance angle of it is rather incidental, but was a nice additional touch. I highly recommend this book, because even though it reads pretty easily, it's been sitting with me since I've finished it and I think I'm going to be thinking about it for a while to come. I think this book will stand up well to a reread in the future, as well.
The Passion (5★/5), by Jeanette Winterson: A beautiful, beautiful piece of writing. It's the story of Villanelle and Henri, two people massively impacted by the Napoleonic wars, and how their stories interact and meld together. There's a bit of magical realism in here; it reads a bit like it's inspired by Angela Carter; and oh my word it's just so beautiful. The things Winterson does with metaphor and imagery is magnificent. I massively recommend it both for the originality of the story as well as the beauty of the prose. It's a contender for my top of 2021 list and I've already started hunting down copies of every single one of her other books. Please read this.
Shooting Stars: Ten Historical Miniatures (5★/5), by Stefan Zweig: Stefan Zweig is, somehow, seriously underrated in the English-speaking literary world (he's Austrian and so wrote in German in the interwar years). But his works are just exquisite - magnificent prose, magnificent use of imagery and narrative, and the translations are just sublime. This book is a collection of ten significant moments in world history and how they could have gone a different way and changed the course of the timeline. Highly recommend, especially as a work of literary nonfiction that's very easy to dip in and out of and just completely savour.
The Other Black Girl (5★/5), by Zakiya Dalila Harris: Excellent. I have no notes. Reviewed here.
The Alchemist (4.5★/5), by Paulo Coelho: A really lovely, almost fairytale-esque story of a shepherd who goes on a quest to find a treasure and ends up falling in love. The writing is beautiful and the story was fun, and I very much enjoyed the couple of hours I spent with this book. A perfect read for an evening when you need to escape your own thoughts with a book that does most of the work for you.
Second First Impressions (4.7★/5), by Sally Thorne: A cozy, easy read that feels very good without being too difficult or too fluffy. Loved it. Reviewed here.
L'Évangile selon Pilate (3.3★/5), by Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt: A bit disappointing, this - there is a real trend in French literature recently of retelling the story of Christ through the lens of Christ as a man rather than a deity, and really centering the story around what a typical person would feel if placed in that same situation. This book is evenly split between two parts, the first part a first-person POV of Christ (Joshua) retelling the story of how he became a preacher and came to be condemned to die; and the second half is Pontius Pilate, through the lens of letters to his brother, telling how he came to consider himself and his wife the first Christians (not historically accurate, but this is a retelling, so). It was framed very much as a comedic take on the story, Pilate investigating to find out what happens to Jesus's body after it disappears from the tomb, but it was really more introspective than that. I didn't hate that it was more of a philosophical novel than a straight historical caper, but I think the novel would have benefitted from Schmitt knowing what story he wanted to tell (Joshua or Pilate's) and sticking to that, giving the characters more space to breathe and develop, than trying to split the difference.
Great Circle (5★/5), by Maggie Shipstead: One of the best books I have ever read in my life. My slightly spoilery, very gushy review is here.
4.50 from Paddington (4.7★/5), by Agatha Christie: One of the better Miss Marples, so far. Basically, Miss Marple's friend sees a murder on a train, but nobody believes her and they can't find the body, and everything develops from there. A clever little backwards puzzle, with a very satisfying conclusion and no characters that have aged into problematic caricatures like you get in some of her other novels (everybody shits on the French, but that's just a constant of British society, so). Think this one is right up there with The Murder at the Vicarage for me.
Olympus, Texas (3.6★/5), by Stacey Swann: An intellectually complex and well-written book that I will need to reread to fully appreciate, because right now it was just too emotionally difficult to get through. Everyone in this novel was just so constantly awful to each other. Reviewed here.
Detransition, Baby (3.2★/5), by Torrey Peters: The story of Ames, Reese, and Katrina, who are trying to figure out a new way of being parents in the twenty-first century in an ever-evolving queer space. Reese is a trans woman; Ames is a trans woman who detransitioned to live as a man after she was the victim of a hate crime; and Katrina is Ames's boss and lover and the mother of the baby. I thought this novel did a lot of really interesting things and I also loved the way it existed entirely in nuance and shades of grey and internal voices and character growth, I just wish the plot of the novel had advanced a bit more quickly and that the ending was less ambiguous. As it was, it did feel a bit like the story ended in the exact same place it had started, and all we'd really done was go round in circles. That might have been a deliberate authorial choice, but in that case it needed to have been made clearer throughout the narrative. I'll definitely read Torrey Peters's next book though.
The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side (4.1★/5), by Agatha Christie: Did not reach the heights of 4.50 from Paddington, but was still a good mystery. I dock points because I was able to successfully guess the murderer in Chapter 4, which I've never been able to do with Agatha before, and I think that's because this plot resembles very much an earlier Miss Marple - so either this is a blip, or Agatha is losing her edge and needs to wrap up the series. I hope it's the former.
The Murmur of Bees (3.7★/5), by Sofía Segovia: A lot of magical surrealism - the story of Simonopio, a boy who is magically connected to a swarm of bees, in the orange-growing region of Linares in Mexico. The story of his relationship to a local magnate family is set against the Mexican Revolution and the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. The writing is really beautiful, and I think the translation is excellent; I just wish the story had picked up before 300 pages in and I wish the plot had been a bit more of an important feature, instead of the flipping back and forth of chronology and POVs. I think that's a debut error more than an issue with the writer herself - the talent is there, all the parts are there, it just wants for experience and maybe some ruthless editing. I'm going to read her next few books though, because the writing is gorgeous.
Unmarriageable (2.9★/5), by Soniah Kamal: Here's the big issue I have with any modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, especially retellings where one of the main characters is a self-professed Austenite. How do none of the characters notice that they're in an Austen retelling? You expect me to believe that they go through the entire story without once thinking, huh, it's a little weird that this guy's name is basically Darcy, that's a bit on the nose, why has my life suddenly turned into a very famous romcom of a novel? Anyway. This novel was fine. It was fun, but the dialogue did lean into a lot of very heavy plot- and social-commentary-lifting that made me quirk an eyebrow and roll my eyes a bit, and the pacing wasn't exactly smooth. Still a good read, though. One of the better P&P retellings I've read.
Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent (3.8★/5), by Isabel Wilkerson: Not quite was I was expecting, but I think that's the publisher's fault more than the book's - the blurb on the back described it as a historical comparative of caste systems in India and Nazi Germany and how they parallel with the caste system in the States, but actually the book is more of an overview of how the history of slavery and Jim Crow in America led to the formation of a caste system that impacts the economy and the body politic today. Which was an interesting, informative, important book in of itself (if very grim and difficult to read at times), so the publisher didn't do it any favours there. I dock points only because the writing style got a little grating - not every paragraph has to be grandiloquent and used to make a Grand Overarching Point, Ms Wilkerson - and because the ending basically just said "Wouldn't it be great if there were no caste systems anywhere" without offering any kind of concrete examples of how to make that happen. Which, you might argue, isn't exactly this author's job anyway. Also since the historical comparatives ended up being so little used I almost wish they'd been left out entirely, since in its current format the occasional 2 paragraphs on India and Nazi Germany felt very tacked on rather than actually providing helpful insights. Still recommend the read, though - just maybe not as a bedtime book.
The Women of Troy (2.4★/5), by Pat Barker: Bleeeeeeurgh. Reviewed here.
A Tale for the Time Being (3.5★/5), by Ruth Ozeki: A weird, weird book. The resolution is dependent upon an understanding of quantum physics which, spoiler alert, I do not have at the best of times, and the final few chapters of this book tipsy on a late bus home really was not the ideal setting. I'm still not sure what this book was about so don't ask me. Maybe it'll make sense after I discuss it in book club next week. It was an incredibly compelling read, though.
A Caribbean Mystery (3.1★/5), by Agatha Christie: The second Christie in a row that I've been able to guess the murderer in! I think I'm starting to get to the point where I've now read so many of her novels that I can pick out the plots she's recycling (I figured this one out the second the plot from Gaslight made an appearance). Will I keep reading them and loving them? Yes, of course I will. But I'm starting to miss the originality of the early Poirot and Marple novels.
Le Montespan (0★/5), by Jean Teulé: I don't know if this has ever happened to me - a book I considered so out-and-out awful that there is not a single good thing I could say about it. This is supposed to be a retelling of the life story of Athénaïs de Montespan from the point of view of her husband, who really didn't like the fact that his wife was so publicly fucking the king. But this is actually a very crass, very graphic porno for people who are body waste fetishists. The story is nonsensical, the writing is poor, all the characters look and sound and behave like each other, and the pacing and narrative is basically nonexistent. Also I hate the way that Teulé sexualised the bodies of children for a laugh. This was an awful book and I hated every single sentence. Teulé should be arrested for his crimes against an idea that had so much potential.
Bath Tangle (3★/5), by Georgette Heyer: Run of the mill Georgette Heyer. Cute, fluffy, unthinking fun. Bonkers plot as always, though perhaps less substance than the other two I've read.
There you have it, folks - that's all she wrote! As always, let me know which of these books have struck your fancy and which you want more information on, etc. etc. Sorry for the long post.