June has been a funny month. I started it in Ibiza, holding a gin and tonic the size of my head, and I’ll finish it on my sofa, probably crying along to Queer Eye. I joined bookstagram this month, set my blog up and got properly back into reading. It’s helped to heal the hole in my heart after giving up horses (I’ve owned and ridden horses for over 20 years), and it’s helped provide a distraction for my anxiety.
So because I’m one of those people who’s either totally committed or entirely out of the picture, I’ve read 11 books this month. Some were entirely the fault of bookstagram, others just looked at me enticingly in Waterstones. They’ve all been fairly different, but also share common themes: strength, perseverance, learning about yourself, faith, humility, perspective, history.
You’ll also notice they’re almost all 4 or 5 stars. I pretty much won’t read a book that I don’t like or enjoy. I spend too long at work reading boring documents about technology, pensions and investments to want to struggle through a badly-written or dull or poorly-plotted book at home. I also spent three years too long studying English Lit at uni, and forcing myself to read books that I had less than zero interest in.
Disclaimer – if a book is hard or complex or challenging, I won’t let myself stop reading. But if it’s badly written, has ridiculous plot holes or is problematic, I’ll happily let that sit at the back of my bookshelf. Too defeatist? Maybe. But life is too short to read books you don’t enjoy.
Anyway, enough rambling. Here’s my June wrap-up.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
Arundhati Roy | 4/5
Some books demand attention and shout at you to read to the very end, not letting you put them down for a second. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness doesn’t shout. It whispers quietly. And without you realising, its rich descriptions and historical accounts seep into your life. I found it hard to get fully into this book – maybe because I’m used to reading lighter, plot-driven books; maybe because I was sat by a noisy pool in Ibiza. But after 20, 30 pages, I found it hard to get my mind out of it.
It’s a story about everything and nothing. It mimics humanity closer than any book I’ve read. Life is not a neat, three act structure. Life is confusing, complex and plotless. Life is about hope, love and the people you surround yourself with. And that’s exactly what The Ministry of Utmost Happiness represents.
“I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens there’s lots to write about. That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.”
Madeline Miller | 5/5
Circe, the witch of transformation, has change in her blood. She changes from a character the gods only acknowledge to bully, to one they fear. She has held everything in her hands — from prophecies and death to pure love. And the question that plagues her throughout — what her true self is — is finally answered at the end of the novel.
Circe is, without a doubt, the role model that adult-me needs. Her quiet rage, her inner strength. Her open heart and endless love. And her ability to bounce back every single time she’s knocked down. It’s these lessons, along with the novel’s pace and language that kept me transfixed. I was obsessed with her decisions and her development. And while the lack of dialogue and action may put others off, I was too vested in the story to notice.
Madeline Miller has two qualities that set her writing apart from most historical fiction: a way of storytelling that enchants and consumes the mind. And such a deep knowledge of Greek mythology that she can subvert, twist and mould it to fit her narrative, without it seeming like ticking off names on a mythological bingo card.
“But in a solitary life, there are rare moments when another soul dips near yours, as stars once a year brush the earth. Such a constellation was he to me.”
Margaret Atwood | 4.5/5
Atwood’s Penelope gives us the side of the story we’ve always been looking for. And she gifts it to us in the form of a sarcastic, sharply intelligent, observant woman who’s spent too long being held in silence. Atwood prefaces The Penelopiad with her reasons for writing the book. And much like with Circe, it’s to tell a story that’s been left out of history for so long.
Penelope is dry, witty and smart: she’s a woman you can believe in and look up to. The combination of prose and poetry made this short novel feel more like a performance. And jumping around between past, present and future adds a twist that keeps your mind on its toes.
I found this almost too short: it’s so easy to read; Penelope’s direct narrative is engaging and flows swiftly through the mind. The quick pace shuttles you to the end. And it’s only the maids’ interspersed verses that slightly hamper your speed. But it’s the brevity that packs the punch. By the time you reach the end, you’ll feel like you’ve barely started. Which, I imagine, is exactly how the 12 maids felt about their lives.
“The songs say I didn’t notice a thing because Athene distracted me. If you believe that, you’ll believe all sorts of nonsense.”
Candice Carty-Williams | 5/5
Everyone must read this book. It should be on school reading lists and played in waiting rooms. It will challenge, educate and entertain you within a single sentence. You’ll laugh, cry and wince. And you’ll fall head over heels for Queenie, a whipsmart young black woman trying to navigate adult life.
Queenie is a raw, heartbreaking yet hilarious story that bounces from group chats to gentrification, romantic encounters to racism. Yet regardless of the subject matter, Candice Carty-Williams’ witty, evocative style handles it perfectly. At first, Queenie may seem like a story about a girl getting over heartbreak. But it’s so much more. It’s about feminism, trauma and abuse, the Black Lives Matter movement, mental health and racism. It’s not afraid to call out privilege and tell uncomfortable truths. And in today’s divisive society, it’s an important message.
I couldn’t help but fall in love with the characters from page one. Queenie makes bad decisions, she lets people down – but she’s a gorgeous, warm-hearted, hilarious soul. I wish I had friends like Kyazike and Darcy – they’re a perfect depiction of what friendships in your 20s are like. The group chats are brilliant. You’re bound to know at least one of the shitty boys – Tom, Ted, Guy – in real life. And Queenie’s family: they shine from the page.
I think I read Queenie in a few hours: once I was in, I was hooked. From the marvellous dialogue and fast-paced plot to the social commentary and fresh writing style – it’s an addictive read that’ll leave you wanting more.
“I looked first at Gina, then around the room to see if anyone was going to back me up. Instead, I was met with what I’d been trying to pretend hadn’t always been a room full of white not-quite-liberals whose opinions, like their money, had been inherited.”
Sally Rooney | 3.5/5
I love reading books with really mixed reviews, and that’s unarguably the case for Normal People. Everyone on #bookstagram seems to love it or loathe it, so it intrigued me as to why it had such split opinions. Part of it, however, I put down to hype, as with anything popular.
While the plot itself – the will-they-won’t-they – isn’t the most ground-breaking narrative in the world, the storytelling is very different. Sally Rooney’s style stands out head and shoulders above other similar books. In its almost literary style, it mimics both Marianne and Connell’s academic pursuits and personalities.
The dialogue is quick and realistic. None of it feels forced, and the characters are well-written, even if not instantly likeable. The ferocity of their love makes the book twinge with sadness. It’s reminiscent of all the great love stories: young love that burns so bright is rarely set to last.
But it’s not just a straightforward romance novel. It explores subjects like abuse, mental health, politics and literature. I enjoyed this book and read it pretty quickly. However, I couldn’t totally warm to the characters, and I felt the ending was too abrupt.
“It was culture as class performance, literature fetishised for its ability to take educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about.”
The Essex Serpent
Sarah Perry | 4/5
The plot is a heady combination of science vs religion, the power of friendship and the hunt for a lurking, sinister evil. And while I enjoyed the narrative, it’s the language that makes this special. It’s thick, rich and entirely opulent. It feels like wading through treacle, in the best way. You can’t help but wonder at the arrogance of the rolling sentences and flurry of punctuation. Out of this language rises a sharp wit: I hadn’t expected humour in The Essex Serpent, but found myself laughing along (when not fighting a lump in my throat). Sarah Perry’s observant eye and dry humour clearly matches my own.
The Essex Serpent is – without a doubt – a Victorian novel written in the modern day. Its language and structure bears an uncanny resemblance to the novels of Dickens and Austen. There’s a hint of Mary Shelley’s gothic, twisted influence too. This heavy language and classic writing style may put some readers off the book; it entirely depends on what writing you like. I found this book hard to put down: not just because I was SO invested in the characters or because I HAD to know who or what the legendary serpent was. But because of the effort it takes to read. My mind had to be 100% in the book to roll with the language.
Too many books force the importance of romantic love and marriage, using it as a way to denote a happy ending. The Essex Serpent has a wholeheartedly happy ending. But this isn’t to do with romance or finding an OTP. It’s about finding peace with yourself and learning how to live a content – if not always happy – life.
“Joanna gave her permission. Stella, too. Or must we all bide our time until a man provides written consent?”
Fredrik Backman | 5/5
The way Fredrik Backman writes about rape/rape culture and toxic masculinity is almost beyond words. But here a few anyway: immense. Delicate. Talented. Painful. Cutting. Sharp. Just. Heart-wrenching. Backman’s use of language, as always, is inspirational. It makes me almost green with envy that he can write in such a blunt yet sensitive yet observant way.
Backman’s writing style is at once delicate and obnoxious. He writes with such grace, and equally, he delivers messages in blunt swoops. The vivid language and unorthodox linguistic twists continue throughout this novel.
Beartown is the first book for a long time that’s made me set it aside and just sob quietly. Don’t be fooled by the hockey. This book could be set around football, rugby, gaming – anything – and it would have the same message.
“It’s just that Sune is no longer sure that’s all a hockey team should consist of: boys who never lose.”
This Is Going To Hurt
Adam Kay | 5/5
If you live in the UK and you have ever – or will ever – use the NHS, then you categorically have to read this book. The way our press and politicians speak of/treat our junior doctors (and nurses) is nothing short of shameful. And I feel if more people had read this book, then we wouldn’t be in such a dire situation.
Told in a dry, sarcastic manner, TiGtH takes you on a journey from fresh-faced grad to burnt out, shut down ex-NHS employee. Its irreverent tone makes this immensely readable. But prepare yourself for the end… you’ll feel like a grand piano just landed on your heart.
Just another reason why the Tories are the worst thing to have happened to this country (ever).
Us Against You
Fredrik Backman | 5/5
I didn’t think a book could hurt me more than Beartown did. And then along came Us Against You. I found it harder to get into this one – maybe it was my subconscious trying to save my already-bruised heart. However, after a couple of chapters, I couldn’t stop. We pick up just days after Beartown finishes. We witness the fallout from the rape – which turns out to be kindling for a much greater fire.
I pretty much read this book going ‘don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji don’t kill Benji’ as it’s made pretty clear from page one that someone is going to die. In fact, a few people die. And each one of those scenes will rip your heart from between your ribs and dance all over it.
As with in Beartown, Backman still gives you regular updates on where certain characters are in the future. Yet instead of this being reassuring, it feels like someone pulling your eyelashes out one by one. Think of these scenes as tiny tasters of the pain to come. This is a fantastic book, and where Beartown focused on rape, rape culture and toxic masculinity, Us Against You scrutinizes violence and homophobia.
I read Backman’s books in two minds: as a lover of great stories and a professional writer. Many authors can tell good stories, but have lazy or poor writing styles. Some are brilliant writers, yet lose the essence of a story between their sentences. Few can do what Backman does – tell stories in an intoxicating manner, while writing in a way that makes me weep with jealousy and admiration.
“He had no team. So they gave him an army.”
Nadine Brandes | 3/5
Romanov was a buddy read with three awesome women I met on bookstagram. It was wildly out of my comfort zone – I don’t tend to read much romance or magic. But, always game to widen my reading, I gave it a go. Now, it’s a cool concept. And Brandes is a talented writer and storyteller. However, something just fell flat for me.
It might have been the slow-paced, lengthy opening, much of which could be told through back stories and memories. Or maybe the lack of depth to character relationships. Or the the unsophisticated world-building. Either way, the ending didn’t carry much impact for me. The part of the book with the most action felt rushed, and the magic in the book was never explained with enough confidence to believe in it.
The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller | 4/5
Reading The Song of Achilles is like sitting on soft sands under a warm sun, a cool breeze curling across your skin. All the while, you’re staring at a storm on the horizon. Dark clouds, sheets of rain and violent crashes of lightening are on their way to you. So, do you enjoy the here and now? Bask in the sun and play in the waves? Or do you sit in dread, waiting for the storm to arrive?
It’s this element of despair and sad understanding that plagues – and enhances – the story’s most beautiful passages. Each sentence makes me want to weep with the futility of it all: you cannot read this story and not know how it ends.
This is an epic myth; an epic retelling; an epic love story. It broke my heart from the first chapter and continued to dance across the pieces for the remaining 32.
“I have heard that men who live by a waterfall cease to hear it – in such a way did I learn to live beside the rushing torrent of his doom.”