I’ve decided to do something a little different with my blog this year. Instead of trying to write a detailed review of a single book once a week (it’s always been the aim but unfortunately never the outcome!) I’ve decided to write bi-weekly posts sharing what I’ve been reading. So instead of a single review I’ll share everything I read (or don’t, those will be fun posts!!!) over the two weeks with shorter reviews. Really I’m grasping at straws, desperately trying to find a way that keeps me committed to my blogging and writing journey, as I know I have failed miserably over the last few years to show up here consistently. We can but try, so here goes.
In the first two weeks of January I have read ***drumroll*** five books. Which is actually quite impressive, even if I do say so myself. The first book I read was Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. It was the one I spent the longest time on as I was busy with life’s other demands. The last seven days have been less busier so I manged to read almost a book a day, which isn’t my usual reading style, but as my tbr (to be read) is curranty taking up all the shelf space I have available, I’ve decided that I need to make a dent into it before I can justifiably buy more books,(Although I have bough books this week , more about that later though). Below are reviews of the books I’ve read so far this year. Let me know if you’ve read any of these or if they are on your tbr list.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
I read my first Ferrante late last year and fell in love with her style and humour. It was her latest offering, The Lying Life of Adults, and I decided that I wanted to make my way through her back catalogue so when I saw My Brilliant Friend available at my local library I picked it up without a second thought, and without reading the synopsis. It was only when I finished the book that I realised it was the first part in a quartet: The Neapolitan Novels. My only criticism of the book would have been the pace, but of course that now makes perfect sense.
The story begins with Elena, an older woman now, on the phone to the son of her friend Lila, who has been missing for a few days. After some irritable exchanges Elena begins to tell the reader the story of their friendship, starting when the girls meet for the first time at the age of six in the1950’s in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. Elena is a good student while Lila is rebellious and often in trouble with her teachers. It’s a shock to all when it transpires that Lila has taught herself to read and write and goes on to obtain the highest score in their school. Thus begins the first of their many rivalries. The girls path diverge when Lila’s parents deny her further education and she starts to work in her fathers shoe repair shop. Although Elena’s parents aren’t thrilled about her going to high school primarily due of the cost, but because girls don’t need to be educated, they are coerced into sending her with the help of a firm but kind teacher Maestra Oliviero. As the girls begin to grow and have separate lives, Elena details the changes in them both and how Lila suddenly becomes the prettier one and attracts the attention of boys, including the many unsavoury characters of the neighbourhood. The book ends with the girls at 16 and both at very different junctures in their lives.
There is so much I loved about this book. The writing transports you to Naples in an instance and the characters, of which there are many, all seem to have such complete and developed personas, even if they only feature for a short part of the story. (I’m sure Ferrente is setting the pieces for later in the quartet). As a South Asian reader, I really enjoyed all the similarities I was able to draw between Italian culture and my own. The authors exploration of girlhood, of how class and gender impact the choices available to women as well as how casual the violence is in the book all fascinated me. The frustrations of poverty, the politics of the neighbourhood and the power of wealth were all explored in this first book alongside detailing the experiences of childhood and family relations, which I’m eager to see developed as the girls get older in the next three books in this series. I haven’t yet ordered the remaining books in the series, but I will as my plan is to read them slowly throughout the year.
Really Good, Actually by Monica Heisey
The second book I read this year was a bit of a random selection. I hadn’t actually been reading much at the tale end of 2022 and wanted to mix up my reading choices by picking something funny, unlike the serious books I usually read. Really good, actually seemed to have people cracking up and the author was a script writer for many shows including Schitt’s Creek, which although I haven’t watched, I’m assured is very funny. The story is about Maggie who at 29 is getting a divorced. Despite the fact they met at 19 in university, their marriage was less then two years old and Maggie spirals into her worst self as she tries to come to terms with her new reality. She finds herself looking for love on apps and exploring her sexuality whilst destroying the other meaningful relationships in her life in her quest to find herself again.
Although this book was definitely funny in parts, I didn’t find myself ugly crying as reviewers insisted I would. If I had to, I would compare it to In Case of Emergency by Poorna Bell, which was published last year or Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, both of which I found far more compelling. Maybe because I’m not the target audience for this book, but unlike the other two books, I didn’t find the protagonist particularly likable and it felt like it was written for a sitcom in places so the humour felt forced.
Really good, actually by Monica Heisey is published on the 19th of January by 4th Estate Books
Disobedient Women by Sangeeta Mulay
Since funny didn’t really work out for me I decided to move swiftly on to a genre I know and love. Women. Disobedient Women is set in present day India ad explores the politics of extreme Hinduism. Its starts with Aparna, a left leaning atheist and anti superstition campaigner, having a medical examination after being raped and then the first part of the book works backwards filling us in with Aparna Soman’s story. The second part of the book jumps back in time to 1976 and builds up Hari Sabnis’s story, from childhood to present day as the leader of a right-wing Hindu organisation, fighting to criminalise the selling of beef and organising mobs to patrol local neighbourhoods to ensure they are not being overrun by Western values. He is determined to move India from being a secular nation to a Hindu nation. In the remaining three parts of the books we find out the impact of both Aparna’s and Hari’s passions on the people in their lives as well as the lengths both are willing to go to defend their beliefs.
I thought this was an interesting read with lots of moments that make you think beyond the book and about politics around the world. What does free speech really mean and what, if any, limits should it have? Is everything open to critique? Should it be? I found myself contemplating my own ideas and beliefs and wondering what sacrifices I would be willing to make to stand my ground. The story is also about oppression, particularly that of women, and how women’s bodies can be used as tools to silence them. There were moments in this book I felt so angry I wanted to cry. The exploration of “shaming” was especially interesting as it is a universal strategy to dominate women. I hope we get more books exploring the politics of South East Asia and the impact this has on women’s lives, particularly those who are brave enough to stand up and challenge oppressions and the status quo.
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
As a rule, I don’t tend to read books by white men any more. I’ve grown up reading white men and as we know they are doing very well for themselves in the publishing industry, so I like to focus my attention on women and books in translation. So when I stumbled across Solar Bones in my local library I certainly didn’t expect myself to borrow it, but then I started to read the first few pages and I knew I wanted to read it all.
Solar Bones is a book in a single breath. If you are a stickler for punctuation, this probably isn’t for you. Its the reflections of a man, Marcus Conway, as he stands in his kitchen on All Souls Day reflecting on his life. He unpicks moments from his childhood and his marriage and then in later life with his children. As a structural engineer working for the city council, he wonders about all the buildings, from hospitals to schools, in his local area which he was involved in, and draws parallels with creating and constructing a life. Its such a wonderful read. I absolutely devoured this book and then went on to buy my own copy. I have a soft spot for Irish literature and this is one of the best I’ve read in a long time.
All My Rage by Sabaa Tahir
I’m not going to share my feelings about this book just yet. Its my January reading group book so I read it in preparation of the group later this month. The story is set in America and follows two young Pakistani teens, Noor and Salahudin in a small town called Juniper in California. Misbah, Salahudins mother is the third narrative voice, but hers deals with the past, giving the reader some context to the present day story.
It’s a love story riddled with complications and traumas. The story deals with the pitfalls of emigration, intergenerational trauma, alcohol and drug abuse and a whole gamut of emotions involved with being Teenagers and first and second generation immigrants in America.
The reading group is virtual and will be held on Thursday the 26th of January at 8:30pm, so If you’d like to join please drop me a message on Instagram.
As with every other reader on the planet, I always promise myself I’m not going to buy any more books until I’ve tackled the ones I already own. Unfortunately the promises I make to myself are extremely difficult to keep as I have only myself to answer too. I thought I did really well when I didn’t buy any books in the New Year sales, and was quick to applaud myself on my amazing self discipline. But was too cocky! To be fair to myself I have only bought ONE new book in 2023 and the others have been second-hand and ones I have already read but wanted to own a copy of. The only new book I bought is called A Son Returns by Mohammed Khan. I read a really compelling review on Instagram, and I also want to read more books by South Asian authors, in particular Pakistanis. The other books I bought were: The First Woman by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, Brown Girl Like Me by Jaspreet Kaur and Solar Bones by Mike McCormack.
How has your New Year of reading been?