Book Review: Love & Virtue

I added this to my list after seeing it on a few Australian bookstagrammers’ feeds and I was delighted when, earlier this year, someone in marketing sent me a PDF to order some proofs. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: getting free books – but not actually having to read said books unless I want to – is the best part of my job.

Love & Virtue is about Michaela, a first-year student at a prestigious university in Sydney, and her friend Eve, who’s wealthy, opinionated and oblivious in that way only rich people can be. Diana Reid is the kind of writer I like best: her writing was sharp and subtle and full of such wonderful character observations. Eve in particular was a thrill to read. I loved the parts of this book that were just about friendship and academia and settling into university life; the discussions the characters had about politics and ethics felt so real and natural, and like discussions I’ve had with family and friends. Reading this really just cemented how much I love slice-of-life books, the kind that are just about ordinary people doing ordinary things, because it was when this book got a bit plotty that I started to enjoy it less. Discussing these elements involves divulging spoilers, but I wasn’t convinced that certain plot points were set up early enough, which made me notice some gaps in the story, which made me feel like Love & Virtue was two different books merged (less than cohesively) into one. But this was a minor complaint amidst all the good stuff and didn’t spoil my enjoyment of this great book. Diana Reid is a fantastic writer and I really hope she continues to be published over here.

Book Review: You Made A Fool of Death With Your Beauty

Before I start my proper review, I just wanted to say how much it annoys me when people who self-confessedly don’t read romance read this book and say it’s so much deeper and covers heavier topics than other romances. I hate like 90% of all rom-coms I read (you may ask why I keep reading them, and it’s a good question) but I feel compelled to say romances mostly cover heavy topics in their characters’ backstories (death, mental health, trauma, domestic abuse, etc etc) and to anyone who thinks You Made a Fool of Death With Your Beauty is any different from other romances: you’re wrong. Stop being snobby and read some Emily Henry.

Now that the entire genre of romance has been defended, I’m going to change my direction entirely and say that I did not think this was a very good romance! I was saving this for my holiday, and I had pretty high expectations a) because of how gorgeous this proof is and b) because Akwaeke Emezi is known as a literary fiction author, so surely this would be a superior calibre of take on the genre? But it was such a middling book: the romance was a bit cringe and far too insta-love for my liking (who calls their girlfriend ‘sweetness’?🤢), I felt like it could do with a lottt more backstory, and I literally did not care about the love interest at all. I haven’t read any of their books before now but I do admire authors who try different styles and genres, and the writing was so gorgeous in the first chapter that I think I might pick up another of their books. The first chapter and the writing about New York were actually so banging I’m disappointed thinking about how it all ended up!

10/10 for my set-up though: I wish I could read all books in the pool with a pina colada. Thanks to Faber for the proof!

Book Review: The White Rock

I was saving this book for my holiday because I knew it had a connection to Mexico, but how delightful to pick it up and realise it is set entirely in Mexico! The White Rock is a really interesting story and very well-written: following four people whose lives intersect with the White Rock on the west coast of Mexico, it engages with topics like climate change, colonialism, societal constrictions, indigenous culture and traditions, and the brutality of fame.

Some bits weren’t as developed as they could be, and there was a lot of mystical and spiritual stuff in here that I couldn’t really relate to – sorry, but folklore and spirituality have always bored me – but I was hooked by every chapter and every character, and by the idea of history and humanity layering over each other into infinity. I hadn’t really realised this until I read The White Rock, but a lot of the books I’ve read recently are quite narrow in focus – one main character, one perspective, following a path that is quite recognisable to me and my life – and I forgot how enjoyable it is to learn about other cultures and other places, especially when it’s about a country I’m currently visiting. And especially when we did go to a national museum a few days ago but all the history exhibits (but not the castle ones or the instructions, so you can see why we were disappointed) were in Spanish so we didn’t actually get to learn about the history of Mexico at all. Anyway, I’d recommend this; let me know if you’ve read it too.

Thanks so much to Fig Tree for the proof!

Book Review: Ruth & Pen

Thank you to Hamish Hamilton for letting me read Ruth & Pen in advance! It’s stream-of-consciousness novel centring on Ruth (a woman in her 40s who has experienced infertility) and Pen (an autistic teenager hoping her best friend likes her back), and in its one-day setting, its constant pacing of the streets and its complete rootedness in one particular city (in this case, Dublin), it reminded me a bit of Mrs Dalloway. However, I loved Mrs Dalloway – and I did not love this.

I imagine this book must be such a treat for people who know Dublin well, and I did really enjoy the realism of this: I love specificity in all things in literature, especially geography, and this book absolutely delivered. It’s set on a specific day in a specific city referencing specific events, a real slice of life. But I didn’t find the story particularly interesting. I suppose what I mean is that: with these characters and their particular set of circumstances, the way the novel progressed wasn’t the most interesting way I could imagine these characters’ lives unfolding. But I did like this, and I’m sure I’ll read whatever Emilie Pine writes next. Has anyone read it?

Book Review: There Are More Things

I feel like this the way I feel about Yara Rodrigues Fowler’s debut, Stubborn Archivist. Love the way she writes about London, love the experimental format and the way this book feels so strongly rooted in the real world. The Grenfell Tower bit made me cry a little and north London being described as ‘going on holiday to a Zadie Smith book and what was Hampstead Heath and how had it got so big’ made me laugh. Love too some of the surprisingly poetic descriptions – a friendship being ‘sealed like tupperware’ really sticks in my mind – and love the way she captures the cadence of everyday conversation.

But – just like with Stubborn Archivist – I felt like there was too much quotidian detail, that I wasn’t sure about the purpose of some of the scenes. Stubborn Archivist was a much smaller story than this expansive, sprawling tale of London and Brazil, and with There Are More Things I felt like the experimental nature of the book did it a bit of a disservice: I wanted to gulp down so much more of the characters, their stories and their ideas than the fragmentary format would allow.

But I think Yara Rodrigues Fowler is one of the freshest, most interesting writers around and I really enjoyed her event at Mount Florida Books back in May. I’ll definitely reread this, and I’ll definitely keep reading her.

PS: got this very cheap using my work discount! It even arrived before the pub date, who knew you could preorder books from the Hachette warehouse?

Book Review: Girl Friends

Holly Bourne is one of my favourite contemporary authors, and I saved her new book Girl Friends for my holiday because I thought it would be the perfect holiday read. And it was: so readable and page-turning, with an intriguing friendship at its core.

Fern is thirty-one, in a happy relationship and with a thriving career as a mental health writer, when her old best friend from school, Jessica, turns up out of the blue. Jessica was a bad friend to Fern over ten years ago, despite their inseparability as teenagers, and Fern isn’t sure whether she can trust her. Why has Jessica reached out now, and is she really just looking for an uncomplicated friendship?

I didn’t enjoy this as much as her other two adult books, mostly because it feels like Holly Bourne has an agenda in writing this book, and she pushes it a bit too much for my liking. But this was still an easy four-star read: Jessica is the perfect balance of jealousy-inducing and a real genuine friend; the cultural references of the girls’ Noughties teenagerhood are great and atmospheric without being overdone; and Fern is a very easy character to root for. The best thing about this book is genuinely its readability: I had such a nice time reading this by the pool and the sea, and I didn’t want to put it down.

I was curious about the depiction of the male gaze in this book though, and how Fern and her friends respond to the rape culture that surrounds them. The statement, reiterated several times throughout the book, that women are the only people who can ever really understand other women, made me a bit queasy, and Fern’s obsession with a proposal is one of the most unhinged things I’ve read in a while. I was born eight years later than Fern and this feels like light years in terms of the acceptability of feminism; loads of the things she writes about are things I definitely never encountered as a teenager, although I’m not sure how many of these encounters and terms were still prevalent and just passed me by. Anyway, I just found it astonishing how much these girls warped themselves for boys and changed their personalities
something that never even occurred to me as a teenager, and something I was definitely way too shy to attempt anyway. I can’t decide whether this is supposed to be exaggerated, or a real depiction of how some girls behave and – like a few people have said on here – this all leads to a book that would be excellent to dissect and discuss, and maybe even read for a book club 👀 if people in my book club are reading, which I know they are 👀 let me know if you’ve read this and what you thought!

Thanks to Hodder for the proof!

Book Review: The Whalebone Theatre

I decided to read The Whalebone Theatre after a slew of positive reviews and comps to some of my favourite books; basically, I’m powerless to resist anything compared to I Capture the Castle. It tells the story of the Seagrave family from 1919 to 1945, centring mostly on the children: adventurous Christabel, sweet Flossie, charming Digby. This is a book I feel like I should have loved, given all the ingredients: slightly madcap family, interwar period, posh people in the English countryside, lots of artists, a literal theatre set up by the children.

But there was something about the first half of the novel, set mainly between 1919 and 1928, that didn’t grab me – that felt a bit lagging, nothing special. None of the adult characters were particularly interesting or novel and I found the children’s exploits a bit boring and, sorry, but the Seagraves were nowhere near as intriguing as the Mortmains.

I found the second half much better – and I don’t think that’s just because I love reading about the Second World War. It’s plotty, it’s atmospheric, it’s heart-rending (I cried on a jam-packed tram in Mexico City), it’s brimming with wonderful historical detail about Paris in the 40s and the French Resistance and what it was like to live through war. It made me fall in love with history all over again, which I think is the mark of a great historical novel. I wish this novel had been the second half only, with a few flashbacks peppered in: I don’t think the backstory was necessary to understanding or appreciating the characters, and it detracted from my enjoyment of the very very good war story. I don’t rate books anymore, but three stars for the first half, maybe, and 4.5 for the second.

Thanks to Penguin for letting me read this through NetGalley!

Book Review: Busy Being Free

Initially, I wasn’t sure how/if to review books that I’ve got free from work. Back in 2019 (the last time I was able to get new books from work), I would just review the books I liked and not comment on the ones I didn’t and I think I’m going to stick with that. So any Orion books you see on my feed are ones I’ve genuinely enjoyed, like Busy Being Free.

Busy Being Free is Emma Forrest’s memoir of her divorce, being celibate and raising her daughter in a small flat in North London. I definitely would have appreciated more of a structure and more cohesion of her experiences, but then the rambling vignette style adds charm and a strong sense of Emma’s personality, so maybe a conventional structure would have made this a little unoriginal. It’s very weird in places and quite self-indulgent and, put it this way: I thought I had very high self-esteem but I have absolutely nothing on the author. Emma Forrest did nothing to try and make this book palatable and relatable and I liked it all the more for that, for how comfortable she felt writing down her strange thoughts and the more esoteric things she’s done. I don’t think this book will be for everyone – if you’re frustrated by very middle-class women bemoaning their woes, for example – but I found it very readable, idiosyncratically well-written (the best kind) and absolutely teeming with personality. My favourite things in sitcoms are when characters hint at their bizarre pasts without providing any kind of context – like Phoebe in Friends and Alexis in Schitt’s Creek and other people I’m sure I’m forgetting – and this felt kind of like that.

Book Review: Holding Her Breath

I absolutely love the cover of this book, and I am happy to report I also very much enjoyed the contents. Beth Crowe is a former competitive swimmer and the granddaughter of a famous Irish poet, who has just started her first year at a university in Dublin.

Although I’m nowhere near as good as Beth, I can’t resist a swimming book – and this was absolutely great. It perfectly captured my own feelings of being in a pool and slicing through the water, and was also a really lovely coming-of-age story written as smoothly as the water Eimar Ryan so eloquently describes. The representation of Irish literary heritage was so good I still feel like Ben Crowe must be a real person, and bonus points for the bog bodies reference – millennial Irish writer gals just love those bog bods. Although I appreciate that this is a very slice-of-life novel, I think I wanted more of a denouement, maybe something a bit more decisive to happen, and I did also feel like the ending was quite rushed. But on the whole this is a very gentle, meditative read that was so easy to gulp down; I definitely recommend!

PS I feel a bit stupid talking about swimming like I’m an authority but recently a lifeguard asked me how my new-ish job is going and I said hello to the other guy in the fast lane because we see each other 2+ times a week so I guess I am a pool regular and am actually entitled to opinions about swimming!

Book Review: NW

I’ve read three of Zadie Smith’s novels now, and this is definitely my favourite. Although I haven’t *loved* any of her books, she’s one of those writers who just feels a cut above everyone else – who can make characters feel real and complex in a way that a lot of writers can’t.

NW is an ode to Willesden and Kilburn in northwest London, areas I’ve never been to, and is told primarily through the characters of Leah, Natalie and Felix, three adults who went to the same comprehensive and who have taken vastly different routes in life. The blurb made this cohesive in a way that the book isn’t, and I think the book could have done with a bit more of this cohesiveness – but that’s my only real complaint, and otherwise I really enjoyed it. NW is so atmospheric and evocative of the areas it describes, and the people who inhabit them; and it’s great at capturing the varieties of characters’ experience and how this is expressed through language and opinion. Naturally I liked some parts of the story more than others – the vignettes of Natalie’s life were my fave. But this was a great, fully realised, intricate book and I’m so glad I read it! ✨