What I’ve been reading lately

As we near the end of the fifth month of 2023, I’m somewhat ashamed that this is my first blog post of the year. While I might have been AWOL on my blog, I have been quite busy in life – and in life, reading some pretty good books.

I therefore thought it’d be nice to run through a few of my recent favourites, and share my thoughts on the importance of reading for you (as opposed to for bookstagram and self-imposed reading targets).

A weird one

At the beginning of the year I read Bunny by Mona Awad and then immediately recommended the book to all my friends – to varying degrees of success. Billed as Mean Girls meets Scream Queens, Bunny really does send you down a rabbit hole as you follow main character Samantha’s immersion with a new clique of friends (bunnies) on her university MFA programme in a strange campus town.

This book will make you laugh, shudder and then doubt what’s real and what’s made up. I thought it was brilliant – just the right amount of weirdness and horror for me – but I know that it’s not to everyone’s taste. I just like weird things, ok! I also totally laughed out loud at some of the faux literary conversations had by the bunnies during the MFA programme – it reminded me a bit too much of people I knew during my English Literature degree and Creative Writing MA. Clearly Awad has spent some time listening to people talk a lot without saying very much… *ahem*

Another weird one

The kind folks over at Peirene Press recently gifted me a bunch of books and one of them was the strange and surreal History. A Mess. by Sigrún Pálsdóttir, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith – and ok, maybe this one was a little too weird for me.

While I enjoy not always knowing what’s going on when reading a book, I found History. A Mess. to be a little too obtuse. AKA, I had no idea what was going on at all for most of the time! Pálsdóttir’s first novel to be translated into English follows a young PhD student’s unravelling as she struggles with her academic ventures, family and her own mental instability between university in the UK and her homeland of Iceland. It’s surreal, anxiety-inducing and altogether disorienting.

While I found the book to be a challenging read, I did enjoy the ending which I felt was smart and almost made me want to go back and read the whole thing again. Almost. For fans of clever and literary fiction, plus concentrating a lot when reading, this one’s for you.

The one that gripped me

My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell was a choice for my recently-founded book club in Edinburgh, and I was very glad indeed that it gave me an opportunity to finally pick this one up. Definitely something of a viral book, I’d heard so much about My Dark Vanessa, I didn’t really know what to expect from it, so I was somewhat surprised when I found it to be in equal parts engrossing and challenging.

Please take the trigger warning before starting this one – the book follows fifteen-year-old Vanessa ‘fall in love’ with her much older teacher, embarking on a secret affair that changes the course of both of their lives. Weaved through the story is adult Vanessa’s perspective as she has to grapple with the realisation that the relationship perhaps wasn’t the great love affair she believed it to be. There’s a lot of denial in this one, Russell showcasing the complex and nuanced power dynamics at the heart of the story.

I can’t remember the last time a book stayed with me like My Dark Vanessa. In fact, I felt so inspired by the obsession within the book, of the all the shades of wrong and secrets, that I immediately changed course on a new short story I was writing to factor this sticky feeling in. It’s a difficult one, but I think it’s really brilliant.

The one that made me think

Influenced by a friend’s review, I started The Colony by Audrey Magee without knowing literally anything about it – the cover and blurb don’t give much away! Cue me discovering a clever and lyrical novel about language and art and who gets to own culture and land.

On an unnamed island off the coast of Ireland, an English artist arrives to depict the brutal but beautiful landscape of the islanders. Meanwhile a French linguist has arrived to continue his report on the decline of the Irish language. Both men think that they can merely study and observe the real lives and places on the island, but it soon becomes clear that to influence and control is as much a part of it as the ‘documentation’.

The title of the book gives it away – this is about imperialism. And politics and violence. It’s a stunner that will make you think.

The one I escaped in

I have to give thanks to Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles for resurrecting my love of fiction that picks you up and sweeps you along with it. Another viral book, I’m pretty sure everyone and their dog has heard of this one, and you don’t have to go far in a bookshop to see the resurrection of Greek mythology (especially feminist retellings) all over the shelves right now.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m a complete Ancient Greek novice, so I’m sure many of the characters and references in Miller’s sweeping epic passed me by, but that didn’t matter – Miller makes the story accessible, new and exciting. You don’t need to know anything before you embark on this one, you can just let yourself get lost in the story of Achilles and his companion Patroclus as they grow up together, fall in love (spoiler) and head to Troy for battle. There are men and gods, prophecies and war, a gorgeous love story and maybe a few times you’ll shed a tear. Chef’s kiss.

Onwards – and reading what I want

In a busy time of life (I got married last week!), reading The Song of Achilles ignited a spark in me for pure escapism. I often choose to read books that I see online or hear a buzz around, and this can mean that I stick to more ‘book club’ books, or what’s often considered upmarket/literary fiction, and that can sometimes be a bit limiting. It also means that I feel compelled to keep up with the latest releases, without stepping back to consider what I actually fancy reading at the time.

So I’ve therefore now decided to dedicate some time to immersing myself in what I want to read at the time, and right now what I’m craving is some wonderful fantasy. Which is why I’m 650 pages into The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon which I am SO enjoying. It’s got queens and witches, politics between different cultures and belief systems, assassins and pirates… And, most importantly, it’s got dragons. Count me in!

So as we come to halfway through the year, let’s put down our reading targets and competition we have with ourselves and each other, and make sure we’re enjoying what we do read. Happy reading!

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