Like many others, my quarantine reading mood has been swinging from one extreme to the other. Some days, I can sit and read without breaking for hours on end. Others, I simply cannot concentrate. Nevertheless, I somehow squeezed in 11 books this month and high ratings abound. Without further ado, here are my bite-sized thoughts on the books I read in April.
*If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
Escapism is exactly what we’re all craving right now and this poetry collection explores just that. ‘If All the World and Love Were Young’ is a collection of poems structured around Nintendo’s classic Super Mario World. In this otherworldly narrative, Stephen takes us not only through the game’s levels – the visceral, flowered landscapes bleeding into our world – but also a step further along in his mother’s cancer journey. The collection is an imaginative, moving depiction of how video games become a way to slip through the looking glass; a way for a nine-year-old boy to be in two places at once when he needs an escape from reality. Overall, this is a lucid, emotional exploration of memory, grief, and the necessity of escapism.
The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui
After enjoying ‘They Called Us Enemy’ last month, I fancied reading another graphic memoir. Emotional, educational, and enlightening, ‘The Best We Could Do’ is a gorgeously illustrated memoir of a woman who, after becoming a mother, turns to the past to better understand her Vietnamese family and the obstacles they overcame. Thi Bui artfully tells a story that spans generations, flitting back and forth between her parents’ upbringing and lives in Vietnam during civil unrest, to her family’s harrowing emigration to America and her teenage years. While doing so, she explores the differences between American and Vietnamese ideologies and compares her experience of motherhood to that of her mother. This was a wonderfully intimate and insightful look at her family’s experience during the often-untold Vietnam war.
The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin
“Home is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.”
From the outset, ‘The Fifth Season’ is an immersive experience as Jemisin launches us into a masterfully built world. By switching between three different perspectives (Essun, Damaya, and Syenite) Jemisin presents her readers with three different stories which are unified by an overarching theme of survival. Despite their different ages, circumstances, and locations, these three women are orogene: they possess orogeny – the ability to manipulate earth and stone. However, in this world known as the Stillness, people perceive orogenes as dangerous abominations: they are usually either killed or brutally trained from a young age.
‘The Fifth Season’ is suspenseful and quick to read, and yet also intricate and complex. I love twisty storylines, and this is brimming with excellent converging timelines that eventually fuse. Moreover, Jemisin has crafted a whole vocabulary of words for this universe. That in and of itself is amazing. The writing is excellent, and I was extremely impressed by her use of a prolonged 2nd person point of view storyline that works seamlessly alongside her two third person POV’s. The craft is there, the story is there, the characters are there, and the whole thing is utterly strange and wonderful.
Normal People by Sally Rooney
With the release of the much-anticipated TV adaptation, I finally caved and read the story everyone has fallen in love with. I shared a full review for Normal People by Sally Rooney on my blog a couple of weeks ago, but in short, I thought it was stunning. At the time of writing, I’m halfway through watching the series, and it is just as beautiful as I hoped it would be.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
By far the most poignant of April’s books: ‘My Dark Vanessa’ tells the story of Vanessa Wye, who, when she was just 15 in the year 2000, became involved with her 42-year-old English teacher. Jacob Strane is neither young nor attractive, but Vanessa is only too willing to be pulled into what she believes is first love. The story alternates between Vanessa’s years as a schoolgirl and then a college student, and 2017 when another former student comes forward to accuse Strane of sexual assault amid the #MeToo movement.
This book was my most anticipated read of the year, and I thought it was incredibly powerful and shocking. It was unsettling being in Vanessa’s head: she had convinced herself that her relationship with Strane is the greatest love story ever told. It is only during the zenith of the worldwide revaluation of earlier sexual mores that she begins to redefine it.
Strane’s hold on her is at once fascinating yet frightening. He prays on her loneliness and isolation from her peers, complimenting her independence and ostensible maturity. His actions are unforgivable, yet he, too, is portrayed as human. This is where My Dark Vanessa’s complexity lies: there are no simple dichotomies between good and bad. Vanessa herself, a victim of Strane’s manipulation, narrates this story. Thus, through her eyes, we see him through and uncomfortable lens of empathy and compassion.
Overall, My Dark Vanessa is a clear-sighted social commentary on how the system has failed so many sexually assaulted women and children. This is a hard-hitting debut that portrays the ambiguities inherent in abusive relationships. Love is never the justification abuse.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in a quartet that follows Elena and Lila from childhood through to adolescence in 19050’s Naples. Ferrante depicts the girls’ nuanced friendship as they learn how to navigate not only the heavy history that looms over their neighbourhood, but boys, school, and the limited opportunities available to them due to their class and gender.
Ferrante’s intricate portrayal of 1950’s Neapolitan society is incredible. I was so struck by how the legacy of fascism came into view; how archaic injustices infiltrate the lives of the new generation. Elena’s confessional narration captures the essence of what it is to be female in a patriarchal, post-war society. She reveals how poverty is the norm, family violence is unremarkable, and aggressive masculinity is ever-present. Likewise, the character development was stunning. While Lila and Elena are both bright and intelligent, their lives start to diverge when Elena continues with her education, with the begrudging consent of her parents. Meanwhile, defiant Lila works in her father’s cobblers and charts her own course. From this point onwards, Lila’s beauty and relationship success begin to overshadow Elena’s school triumphs that often leave her feeling unfulfilled and alienated. Ultimately, society deems economic stability more important than academic prowess, especially for women.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
April’s classic is my favourite of the year so far. ‘The Age of Innocence’ is an incredibly poignant and clever insight into 1870s high-society New York.
The story of Edith Wharton’s novel follows Newland Archer as he falls in love with his fiancée May’s exotic cousin Ellen Olenska. Told in close third person, the novel filters most of its action and psychological insight through Archer. He presents us with a rich critique of New York high society—its fundamentally parochial, restrictive, and unimaginative nature.
Wharton doesn’t waste a word in depicting New York’s habits, traditions, or its expectations. She paints a picture of lavish parties and strict social standards that is both delightful and ridiculous. I also relished the love triangle at the centre of the novel. Archer is torn between the stability, comfort, and duty that comes with his marriage to May, and the escape from the artificiality he could attain with the unconventional Ellen Olenska. Following descriptions of Countess Olenska’s quirky outfits and dreams of female emancipation, it’s hard not to fall in love with her. And fall in love Archer does; she symbolizes to him a form of artistic freedom and escapism outside the reaches of society. ‘The Age of Innocence’ is a piercing narrative written in Wharton’s carefully elaborated prose, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.
The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Adichie is an author who I have wanted to read for a while now: ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ makes a frequent appearance on my Instagram feed accompanied by glowing reviews. Scrolling through my libraries ebook collection, I noticed that her short story collection, ‘The Thing Around Your Neck’, was available, so I finally decided to dip my toe into her work.
Despite being short, these stories were incredibly immersive and tackle a whole range of themes from patriarchy, immigration (to American and other nations), gender, and sexuality. My favourite of the collection of 12 were ‘On Monday of Last Week’ and ‘Jumping Monkey Hill’ which were both powerful.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
I’ll say it again: this series just keeps getting darker. I should have been prepared, but this book tore me apart. When I began listening to this series, it was light-hearted, enjoyable, all fun and games. Then suddenly, we descend into heartache with scenes of relentless sadness and mind-numbing pain. And yet, a glimmer of hope still glistens at its ending with an invitation to the final book.
‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King
No one writes about creepy small towns like King does. He combines humour with human observation, and I loved the little windows into the minutiae of his townspeople’s lives. Honestly, I loved these vivid descriptions more than anything else. In terms of the horror, I feel as if my high school obsession with The Vampire Diaries has desensitised me: the vampires didn’t at all faze me. Nonetheless, this didn’t detract from the slow-burning suspense that loomed with every closed door and shadowed nook in Jerusalem’s Lot. Unfortunately, the last third of the novel felt predictable, but I was by no means unsatisfied by the ending. This might not make it as my favourite King novel, but I’m excited to delve more into his extensive backlist!
Catch and Kill by Ronan Farrow
“In the end, the courage of women can’t be stamped out. And stories–the big ones, the true ones–can be caught but never killed.”
Catch and Kill masterfully tells the story of Ronan Farrow’s quest to reveal Weinstein’s repulsive activities to the world. As many others have mentioned, this harrowing book reads like an investigative thriller. The story is so outrageous that you could disregard it as pulp fiction. From shocking allegations and blackmail to corruption and full-on espionage, the truth behind the Weinstein scandal is mind-blowing.
There’s no doubt that Farrow is a talented journalist. He uncovers and makes the public aware of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of predatory sexual assault and harassment against the women he worked with. However, Weinstein is just one of many offenders in an industry where men abuse their power. Women would report the sexual abuse only to be coerced into silence by signing NDAS. Others would keep calm and carry on only to feel dehumanised, humiliated, and they would blame themselves for their assaulter’s repugnant actions: you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. Farrow intricately captures the terror and paranoia that eats away at Weinstein’s victims and I was frightened by the intensity of his power.
Overall, this was an intricate detailing of events that left me feeling paranoid, yet also hopeful. Brave individuals will inspire other victims to come forward, speak up, and reveal the truth behind the corrupt systems we thought we could trust.
It’s safe to say, this book made for a wild buddy read with Audrey over at Brunch at Audrey’s // @brunchofbooks on Instagram!
Have you read any of these books? What are you planning on reading in May?
Need more reading inspiration? Here are the books I read in March!
*Kindly sent for free via publishers and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.