Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Best book of the month: The Nickel Boys
Worst book of the month: The Thorn Birds
Most disappointing book of the month: Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies
Most ‘pleasant surprise’ book of the month: La Table du roi Salomon
The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough (0.7★/5)
Nope. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope, so much nope. The blurb on the back of the book describes it as ‘an epic tale of family and love in the Australian Outback in the twentieth century’, which, yes, sign me up – except nope. The characters are all flat (except for the main two), and the incidental characters are honestly interchangeable. Plus, the central point is supposed to be the doomed love affair between the two main characters – a Catholic priest who is eighteen years older than his lover. He is twenty-eight when they meet and is immediately attracted to a child. And they have really, really, really weird sex that is meant to be metaphorical and narrative, but is just weird. But I can’t look past the whole Catholic-priest-paedophilia thing. I just can’t. The only saving grace of this absolute mess of a book is that it is, in parts, spectacularly well-written. But honestly, I cannot emphasize this enough: don’t read this book. Don’t do it. It’s so gross.
The Nickel Boys, by Colson Whitehead (5★/5)
My favorite book of the month, and already a contender for my top 10 list this year. There’s a more in-depth review/recommendation of this coming a bit further down the line, but for now, I’ll just say this: spectacularly well-written, beautifully-drawn characters, an absolute gut-punch of a reveal, emotional moments that hit you right where they’re meant to, and an incredibly gripping, gut-wrenching, hard-to-read story that everyone, and I mean everyone, should pick up. This is such a wonderful, emotional, beautiful book about some of the most horrific things I have ever read in my life. Colson Whitehead pulls no punches and he knows exactly what he’s doing. Read it. Read it now.
Anne Boleyn: 500 Years of Lies, by Hayley Nolan (1.5★/5)
This was a bad book. I’m not going to go too much into it here, not yet (thoughts on me doing a worst-of 2020 along with my top-10 list?), but this is just a bad book. Hayley Nolan complains throughout the book about how guilty historians are of cherrypicking their facts about Anne Boleyn, but she does so much cherry-picking of her own that it’s laughable. Her historical analysis and hypotheses are a massive stretch, and that’s the most generous thing I can say about her critical analysis. She attempts to be funny and modern, but it’s neither of those things – it’s just annoying. She ends every chapter with a series of hashtags. I’m not kidding, and it’s not cute; it’s just bad writing. And it’s such a shame, because the premise that she is working from is a good one, and the subject she’s exploring is rife for revisits and accurate, critical historical theory. She’s just not a good enough historian, researcher, or writer to be the one to do it.
La Table du roi Salomon, by Luis Montero Manglano, trans. Claude Bleton (4.7★/5)
So this is a bit of an esoteric plot, but is also one of my absolute favorite genres of all time (it’s up there with historical fiction romance!). It’s a very specific subgenre of fantasy: adventure-fantasy thrillers that center around historical mysteries, usually having to do with lost jewels, manuscripts, or legends that bring in religious myth and lost ruling houses of Europe. Yeah, I wasn’t kidding when I said esoteric and very specific and, quite frankly, weird. (I’m a weird nerd, as the same guy who told me to start this blog tells me multiple times a day.) This book is about a young man in Madrid who gets a job with a secret governmental department, whose main purpose is repatriating the artwork that has been lost/stolen from the Spanish patrimony over the centuries. There are riddles and secret maps hidden in old manuscripts, a network of art thieves backed by an all-powerful, all-seeing multinational corporation, secret councils that stretch back to the fall of the Visigoths under the first of the Iberian caliphates. If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is – and so often these types of books try and do too much and everything just falls apart and is terrible; but in this one, it all works really well and all the characters are vivid, three-dimensional, highly relatable and believable characters and the storyline only requires the barest minimum of a suspension of disbelief. I really liked this story and I’m really looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy!
Disappearing Earth, by Julia Phillips (3.3★/5)
This is the story of two little girls who disappear on a summer day in the remote Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia; and then the chapters beyond that are the overlapping stories of multiple different women that radiate outwards from the abduction. Except, well – the overlap of the stories isn’t obvious; you have to do a lot of the stretching and the lifting yourself to get the stories to connect, and they don’t blend into a cohesive narrative all that well. Julia Phillips’s treatment of ‘native’ vs ‘Russian’ narratives and viewpoints feels clumsy rather than insightful; and none of the stories, despite the fact that they cover some tough subjects, feel like they’re adding anything to the discourse, or sharing in particularly nuanced observations. It reads more like a demonstration of ‘wokeness’ than actual decent writing. I can appreciate the originality of the premise – an abduction that serves as a catalyst for an observational story rather than a book about the abduction itself – but the trope of a mystery that is only resolved, at best, ambiguously by the end of the novel is starting to really get annoying in how often it’s used; plus I just don’t think the characters were developed well enough, or the writing strong enough to carry the premise. This is going down as my most disappointing book of the month because I’d heard it incredibly hyped, and it just didn’t live up to the promise for me.
What Happens Now?, by Sophia Money-Coutts (3.4★/5)
A cute, if unoriginal book about a relationship that blossoms between a very eligible viscount and a slightly hare-brained, slightly nutty teacher who accidentally make a baby on their first date. It was a fun, cute, enjoyable, easy read, but the writing is nothing spectacular, I didn’t entirely agree with the author’s message of ‘the main female character only feels fulfilled because she has a baby and gets her man’, and the male characters in the book (especially the main romantic interest) is underdeveloped and not particularly interesting beyond the fact that he’s, you know, eligible. And the main character trait of the main female character is that she is a bit – well – scatter-brained and oblivious. But all in all, still an enjoyable, light, fun thing to read on an hour-long commute.
Niccolò Rising, by Dorothy Dunnett (5★/5)
Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, by Soraya Chemaly (3.3★/5)
Don’t have much to say about this book. Mostly because I already knew just about everything in it and agreed with the premise, the arguments, and the conclusion – but, to be fair, I knew going into it that I was very much the converted she’d be preaching to. Globally, I found the writing a bit simplistic for my taste, but other than that, a perfectly fine book. Invisible Women does a better, more compelling job of making the same arguments, though – so read that one first.
Villa Imago, by Éric Marchal (1.9★/5)
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo (5★/5)
Read my review of this book here.
Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Innovations and Adventures, by Mary Beard (4.4★/5)
This was a nice, interesting little read. Was a bit disappointing to discover that it’s a collection of book reviews rather than a collection of independent essays like I originally thought, but they were still well-written, and worked well as a cohesive whole that did sufficiently respark my interest in classical history and biography. Maybe give it a pass if classics and Latin isn’t your thing, though, as Mary Beard (who I do love as a historian) works on a baseline of her readers having a modicum of knowledge about the time period she’s focusing on.