I want to start writing book reviews on this blog, but I’ve decided that rather than write a separate post for every book I read, I’ll write one post at the end of every month, covering what I read that month.
I’ve had a lot of downtime this month as we’re still very much on lockdown in Oman – although more shops are open than they were a month or so ago, things are moving a lot more slowly than in the UK, as our case numbers are still on an upward curve. As it’s also over 40ºC most days, nobody particularly wants to go out, so there’s plenty of time for (indoor) reading!
The History of Bees by Maja Lunde
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I really liked this. The History of Bees is three interleaved stories set at different points in time, all about people who work with… bees (of course). In 1851, there is the biologist William, living in Hertfordshire, trying to invent a better kind of beehive. In 2007, his descendant George is an Ohio beekeeper who is trying to resist the rise of massive, highly modernized farming methods. In 2098 China, Tao pollenizes fruit flowers by hand, as all the bees have disappeared. All of them have interesting relationships with their children, so for me this wasn’t just a story about how humans are destroying bees and what the global consequences of that might be, it was also about the relationships between parents and children, and the expectations parents have; there were a lot of parallels between how the children respond to their parents despite the different time periods.
The book is quite depressing at times, especially the parts set in the future, as it does feel as though we are inevitably heading to the bleak breakdown of society that is described. It’s not quite as apocalyptic as Cloud Atlas (which this very much reminded me of) but it isn’t pretty. There is, however, a ray of hope at the end, and the feeling of the three different stories coming together. The History of Bees is well written, and I found the characters well developed. I think my favourite storyline was the one set in 2007, as I found the characters easiest to relate to. I also really liked Tao and her determination not to give up on her son. I thought William was the hardest to like as he came across as quite selfish. However, you can’t like every character and it was good to have some contrast between the three protagonists. Overall, a really well written book that made me think a bit more about environmentalism without being preachy. Will look out for more by Maja Lunde!
Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
It feels like everyone is reading this (in my case, re-reading it) after the death of George Floyd and everything that has come after. I read it a couple of years ago but felt it high time for a re-read, and I’m glad I did. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is a book that everyone should read, in my opinion – in particular anyone who, like me, didn’t learn much at school about the history of black people in Britain. We learnt about slavery in America and Martin Luther King Jr and apartheid in South Africa, but pretty much nothing about black history closer to home – so the first section, which covers some of this was, for me, a great starting point for learning about this. Second time round, with a determination to know more, I’m really glad that there are references in the back, and a bibliography, so you can dig deeper. The rest of the book then covers how racism is embedded in many of our systems (e.g. police, education etc), a look at white privilege, the intersectionalities between racism and feminism and racism and class, and, most critically for me, a final chapter on what I, as a white person, can actually do aside from feel guilty for privilege I haven’t really considered I had. Considering the seriousness of the subject matter, it’s actually really easy to read, and isn’t written in a dense or academic style, which makes it very accessible. Like I say, something everyone should read, even if it’s uncomfortable at times to be confronted with the reality of your own privilege.
Mix Tape by Jane Sanderson
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
A book with lots of musical references in. This sounded like my kind of book from the start, even though it’s clearly a romance. I don’t read a lot of romance books, but I’m happy to give it a go when there’s an interesting premise such as this. Mix Tape tells the story of Daniel and Alison, who grew up in 1970s Sheffield, fell in love, and then became separated for reasons that become clear towards the end. Years later they are both married with children but not particularly happy, and they find each other, in part through their shared love of music.
I am a bit up and down about this one. I love the idea of it, and I love the idea of second chances. The path to the ending isn’t particularly smooth, and they both – Alison in particular – do things that thwart it, which had me tearing my hair out, but which are the kinds of things actual people would do, because life isn’t a fairytale. There were also a few moments that made me wince in terms of the class privilege of the two characters – Daniel’s ability to book plane tickets to fly a very long distance at the drop of a hat and his wife not even notice, for example, struck me as rather unlikely, although perhaps that’s just because I couldn’t! I’ve put 3 stars above, though it’s probably more like 3 and a half… this was a good read on the whole but there were a few things that jarred a bit. I found it hard to believe how things had worked out between Alison and her brother, for example, and while I think Alison should have left her husband regardless of meeting Daniel, just because he was pretty unpleasant, Daniel leaving his partner seems to be justified somewhat more tenuously. I guess I mostly liked it, but I didn’t love it.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Normal People follows Marianne and Connell, two teenagers living on the West coast of Ireland, as they grow up from teenagers into adults. This has been made into a BBC drama series and I was determined to read the book before I watched it. The tension between the two leads comes from their different social and economic backgrounds. At the start of the story, Connell is popular at school, and working class, while Marianne is seen as an outsider, and is more privileged; Connell’s mum is paid to clean Marianne’s house, for example. The two have a secret relationship, which Connell will not allow Marianne to tell anyone about, and his unwillingness to tell people about this relationship drives them apart. They meet again at University. There, the positions are reversed, and Marianne becomes more popular, while Connell feels lost amongst the more educated, middle class students. Their paths keep crossing over the years, leading to what feels to me to be the right ending for the two.
I really loved this book, it’s very close to having more than four stars from me. The two characters felt like real people, making the kind of decisions that real people really make. Some of Marianne’s university friends reminded me very much of people I actually met when I was at university myself, and Connell’s experience of being a working class student in university also rang very true for me. It asks some big questions about how we behave in relationships, about social acceptance, about class and education… and there are lots of literary references too, which I liked – Connell and Marianne are both the kind of teenagers that read tough books. There are some really awkward, angsty, painful moments, but they felt very real, and I liked that. Now I *really* want to see the TV series!
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Harold Fry is a retired man living in Devon with his wife Maureen. One day, out of the blue, he receives a letter from an old colleague and friend, Queenie, in which she tells him she has inoperable cancer and not long to live. He writes back, but when he goes to post the reply, he walks past the postbox and carries on walking, all the way to Queenie, who loves in Berwick-upon-Tweed, over 600 miles away. This book is the story of his journey and the things he learns along the way, about life, and about himself. This could have been super twee but managed not to be – just about.
Much of Harold’s, Maureen’s and Queenie’s story is hinted at, and only revealed at the very end. I don’t want to give too much away, but the ending felt like it came together well, and satisfied my desire for a good ending. I don’t cry easily at books (films on the other hand… all the time!) but this one did make me feel like I could have done. I think I enjoyed Harold’s pilgrimage more earlier on, when he was less certain, and also hadn’t acquired companions. It got pretty dark at points, but that felt like part of the point, for him to come through that darkness. What I really liked about Harold and Maureen is that they felt like normal people you could meet on any street in England, and yet they had this multi-layered story hidden underneath.
The Ruby in the Smoke by Philip Pullman
My rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
I actually bought this on Kindle for L, which means I get a copy as well. She found it hard going, so I decided I would have a look. I think I misjudged it, as I thought it would be OK for her (she’s 9), but when I read it I can see why she found it tough – in a couple of years though, I think she’ll love it. The Ruby in the Smoke is the first in a series of young adult books by Pullman; despite being a fan of the His Dark Materials books, I had never read these. I now find myself wishing I had read them as a young adult (this was published in 1988, so I could have) as I think I would have loved Sally and her friends’ adventures.
Sally Lockhart is a 16 year old girl living in Victorian London. Her father dies in mysterious circumstances and she is drawn into that mystery, which spawns even more mysteries. She makes friends with a whole range of characters as she follows leads, and is in turn followed by some very villainous characters. The story moves quite quickly, and drew me in from the start; I read this in less than a day. There are some plot elements and settings that in hindsight, my 9 year old would have really struggled with – opium dens for example, would require some explanation (which I’m happy to do, but might be a stretch for her at this point). Sally is a great character to read – she’s smart, she’s determined, but she isn’t a flawless too-good-to-be-true heroine. I’ll try L with this again in a few years, but in the meantime I can definitely see myself buying the other books in this series.