Best month of the year for me so far, at least in terms of rough numbers - I got through 18 books, although it's really more 17 if you don't count a reread. Some of these books were very good, others left me a little bit unimpressed, but I made some progress on my 2020 reading goals regardless (and completed my Goodreads challenge, yay!). As ever, read on for my full November wrap-up.
Best book of the month: Les roses fauves. Another standout by Carole Martinez. Weird, fantastical, marvelously well-written. Most 'pleasant surprise' book of the month: Boyfriend Material. Was not expecting to love this book as much as I did; but there you go, another 'violently delightful' book I immediately recommended to everyone I know as soon as I finished it.
Most disappointing book of the month: Love and Other Thought Experiments. I was expecting this to be brilliant, and intellectually I really admired the writing and what Sophie Ward was doing; it was just a bit too experimental for me and the emotional connection with the writing wasn't there for me. Worst book of the month: Louves de France. Had so much potential; did not live up to it. Tried to condense too long a timeline into too few pages, and so many of the characters ended up feeling interchangeable or tangential.
Rainbow Milk (3★/5), by Paul Mendez: This is a fictionalised autobiography, about a young boy who is kicked out of his Jehovah's Witnesses family for being gay and flees to London; and turns to sex work to make ends meet. A bit patchy, this one. The pacing was off; the emotional scenes about Jesse's life were a bit drowned out by the mundanity of everything else. I think there could have been more explicit overlap between the first chapter of the book, about Jesse's grandfather making his way as part of the Windrush generation, and Jesse's life itself; and the graphic descriptions of the sex Jesse has as an escort stale a bit by the ninth or tenth retelling. I also maybe would have gotten more out of it if I knew more about the music scene that forms such a fundamental part of Jesse's character arc and emotional maturity. But there were some moments of really lovely writing and the emotional climaxes are definitely powerful. The characters are well-crafted and vivid, and the emotional impact of Jesse's relationship with his awful mother is going to stay with me for a long time.
Au service secret de Marie-Antoinette: La Femme au pistolet d'or (4★/5), by Frédéric Lenormand: Another solid entry in this series. This mystery is a bit more sophisticated and a bit more fun than the first three, and it was a good laugh reading it. But I do think the relationship between Rose and Léonard has plateaued a bit and something needs to kick it into gear in the fifth book, which I will be reading once it comes out.
The Lady and the Highwayman (3.2★/5), by Sarah M. Eden: It's cute, it's kitschy, it's definitely over the top. This is a book about a secret society in London funded by penny dreadful authors who go around rescuing orphans and such; then there's a romance subplot between the leader of this society and a rival author that turns out to be - gasp! - a woman. It's not great writing and the romance won't set the world on fire, but whatever, it was fun and I enjoyed it enough to read the rest of the series.
The Searcher (4.5★/5), by Tana French: Not, as I originally thought, the 7th book in the Dublin Murder Squad mysteries (sad days). But still, a perfectly serviceable mystery that highlights to the maximum Tana French's gift for atmospheric, creepy settings. There's more nuance layered into this puzzle than her other mysteries - although I also think the central protagonist isn't the most interesting one she's written. Tana, please, for the love of God, write more Dublin Murder Squad books.
Love and Other Thought Experiments (3.1★/5): Oh God, I wanted to like this one. I can't even provide an adequate summary, since there is so much going on - it's about philosophy and alternate timelines and the divine and then, randomly, space travel? I really appreciate what Sophie Ward was trying to do, and the quality and imagination of the writing is stellar, but there wasn't enough there for me to emotionally connect with the narrative. This is a very clever book that I feel very clever for having read, but the fact that I walked away from it feeling unclear about what I actually read has made me feel like a moron, and I don't like being made to feel stupid. Too many threads that didn't tie back together satisfactorily enough for me. Still though - spectacular writing.
La fille qui lisait dans le métro (3.5★/5), by Christine Féret-Fleury: A cute, if not particularly deep book. Also, for a protagonist who presumably reads a lot (it's right there in the title!) I didn't actually see Juliette read all that much. A lot of metaphor here; I think I would have liked something a bit more anchored in reality. It was enjoyable, though - won't stick with me very long, but was a good palate cleanser, and it made me smile.
Real Life (5★/5), by Brandon Taylor: This was a phenomenal book. The fact that it is all condensed into one weekend means we get to spend a lot of time in Wallace's head, and really sink into his point of view and his thoughts. The writing is incisive and perceptive, and the conciseness and crispness of the prose means that the tension and the emotions ratchet up nearly imperceptibly but you can't escape feeling it at the pit of your tummy; everything is impeccably well-observed, and the nuance and characterization of everyone comes through crystal-clear. A spectacularly well-crafted narrative, and the fact that this a debut just makes me all the more excited for what Brandon Taylor will write next. I still think this is ultimately what will win the Booker* (this was written on 12th November, so I guess we'll find out in a week if this was correct...).
Fortune Favors the Dead (3.3★/5), by Stephen Spotswood: A fine, uncomplicated, if a bit unsophisticated homage to the crime noir thrillers of the 30s and 40s. My full review is here.
Star Crossed (4.5★/5), by Minnie Darke: An adorable little romcom, with some cute little astrology vignettes. I think the characters are very much guilty of being downright moronic and using absolutely stupid justifications for the very bad decisions they make, but all told it was a very enjoyable, very relatable read. And, refreshingly, the Wrong Girlfriend character is never made out to be a bad person or pitted against the other female characters. These characters were people I could see as being my friends, and I really enjoyed watching their romance blossom.
Boyfriend Material (5★/5), by Alexis Hall: One of the best romances I've read this year. Laugh-out-loud funny, a really sweet and believable romance between two delightful characters, and a realistic portrayal of what friendship groups and living as a real person is actually like. I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend.
And Then There Were None (5★/5), by Agatha Christie: A reread for me when I needed to jerk myself out of a quick reading slump. A delightful closed-room little puzzle mystery, and another confirmation for me (not that I needed one) that Agatha Christie is the best crime writer of all time.
This Mournable Body (3★/5), by Tsitsi Dangarembga: Not for me, I don't think. I can see why it was shortlisted for the Booker, as the language is technically excellent - but I don't like books written in second person singular. I think it, counterintuitively, creates a distance between the narrator and myself which means I could never be absorbed into the story, and my interest was never more than academic or passing. I want to read other books by this author, as her writing is obviously masterful, but this style just didn't work for me.
Les Prénoms épicènes (3.9★/5), by Amélie Nothomb: Not her strongest novella, and the pacing was off, which is unusual for Nothomb - but, also unusually for Nothomb, the plot felt far more grounded in reality than they usually are, and there were some very funny passages. I think there were one or two too many central characters, and the big climax in the middle of the novella lacked punchiness. Still, an enjoyable, fun, light read, and I remain always looking forward to her next offering.
Three-Fifths (5★/5), by John Vercher: ... Christ alive. This book was hard. Nothing about this book was easy to read, and it was so fucking sad that the ending actually made me sob. I hate calling books 'important', but this book absolutely is important, and is so difficult to get through, but the writing is spectacularly good and the emotional climaxes and narrative arc is so masterfully handled. Read, read, read this book.
Meursault, contre-enquête (5★/5), by Kamel Daoud: The perfect example of what a retelling ought to look like. This is a gloriously well-written, introspective novella about the brother of the unnamed Arab killed by Meursault in Albert Camus's L'Étranger, and it's a searingly well-written, introspective look at how this one man has had the weight of so much on his shoulders for his whole life and how carrying it has impacted him. The language is also absolutely stunning; it's lyrical and metaphorical while still remaining conversational and easy to read. Available in an English translation here, and I highly recommend it.
Les roses fauves (5★/5), by Carole Martinez: A lovely, lovely book that I absolutely adored getting to spend some time with. A contender for my Top 10 of 2020 list. My full review is here.
The Trouble With Goats and Sheep (4.6★/5), by Joanna Cannon: A character-driven, social-study novel that was supposed to be a mystery, but does have a violently delightful 10-year-old narrator. Read my full review here.
Louves de France (2.7★/5), by Catherine Hermary-Vielle: Another flop for me. Too long a timeline constrained into too short a book, and so not enough time spent with any of the characters. A better way of handling these really interesting characters - Isabeau de Bavière, Yolande d'Anjou and Jeanne d'Arc - would have been to have each of them be the central protagonist of their own book, centered around the same timeframe (the end of the Hundred Years' War). This might be the last Hermary-Vielle I attempt as every one of her recent books has not lived up to her potential, at least for me. Excellently researched as ever, though. And she picks such interesting time periods and characters to focus on - just such a shame she can't do them justice.
The Flip Side (1.5★/5), by James Bailey: A disappointing read for me, this one. The story didn't sit well with me - the fact that the main character goes hunting for a girl he only interacted with very briefly throughout Europe and sets up an Instagram page to track her down came across as massively stalkerish rather than romantic - and the dialogue was clunky. The characters all felt a bit flat, and there was NO chemistry between the two main romantic characters at all. Also, the prevalence of J names was honestly distracting. I give it points because the first dates Josh goes on while he's trying to get over his ex are so horrendously, laughably bad they did make me cackle.
*I was wrong. Shuggie Bain won. Whoops. Guess I have to read that at some point, now...
FYI, if anybody wants to look into this titles, I've created an affiliate list on Bookshop.org - a website I highly recommend everyone use to purchase your books going forward instead of the big chain bookstores (or, heaven forfend, Amazon). Every purchase through Bookshop.org supports indie bookstores, so you should, you know, do that. You can click over to that here.
Anyway, I do hope some of these titles spark your interest. Do let me know if you have read any of them, and what you think of the ones you do read!