MARgINAlia

A plume with a hue

My holiday reading plan

Finally, I am heading off for a long-awaited and much needed eleven day holiday on a Greek island. These are the novels that will be accompanying me.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. I had originally planned on reading this for May’s Asian Readathon but as it is about 500 pages, I thought it would be perfect for immersing myself in whilst relaxing in the sunshine. It’s a family saga spanning 100 years, which explores, in the words of Good Housekeeping magazine: ‘two different cultures, and what it means to be the outsider’. David Mitchell describes it as ‘addictive’.

Ponti by Sharlene Teo. This is another novel I bought with the Asian Readathon in mind – I can’t remember how I discovered its existence – but its premise sounds ideal for a holiday read. This coming-of-age novel intriguingly involves a remake of a cult seventies horror film series, and explores memories, guilt and lost friendship. Ian McEwan praises it as ‘remarkable‘ and I trust his judgement!

Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I purchased this novel for the Storygraph Reads the World challenge, where one of the prompts is a writer from Zimbabwe. After a bit of research on who I could read, I went for Dangarembga who was short-listed for the Booker. It’s another coming-of-age tale, which focusses on a thirteen-year-old girl embarking on her education, which her family hope will improve their economic circumstances. It has praise from Doris Lessing, Chinua Achebe, Madeleine Thien and Alice Walker, who respectively describe it as ‘a masterpiece’, ‘as natural as the grass grows’, ‘astonishing’ and ‘unforgettable…not to be missed’. I hope it’s not too political for a holiday read although it is said to have ‘wicked humour‘.

Bunny by Mona Awad. This was a last-minute purchase as I’m hearing so many positive reports on this ‘dark academia’ novel and thought it would be perfect for the airport/flight. It’s about a group of students on an MFA programme: outsider Samantha who is drawn into the rich girl clique, the Bunnies. It’s apparently satirical, a mix of thriller and fairytale horror, and is described by Margaret Atwood as ‘sooo genius’.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. I’ve just finished Volume I of this classic novel and will probably continue with my one or two chapters a day whilst I’m away.

I think Ponti, Nervous Conditions and Bunny will be quite quick to read, whereas Pachinko will take me longer, and Wuthering Heights is a deep-dive that I’m spending more time on. Hopefully, I won’t get through them all before the return flight but if I do, I’ve got the audio of Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner to listen to.

My reading week: 24/52

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Currently Reading

My contemporary read is Panenka by Ronan Hession, and the classic is Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which I’m simultaneously listening to.

I haven’t picked up Words in Pain by Olga Jacoby for over a week and so I’m probably going to put this to one side for the time being.

Recently Completed

I brought a few books to completion this week, the first being Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller.

Twins Jeanie and Julius have always been different from other people. At 51 years old, they still live with their mother, Dot, in rural isolation and poverty. Inside the walls of their old cottage they make music, and in the garden they grow (and sometimes kill) everything they need for sustenance.

But when Dot dies suddenly, threats to their livelihood start raining down. Jeanie and Julius would do anything to preserve their small sanctuary against the perils of the outside world, even as their mother’s secrets begin to unravel, putting everything they thought they knew about their lives at stake.

I’m reading this for a buddy read but had to forge on ahead because I needed to return it to the library. I did, however, make copious notes about my thoughts at the different check-in points of the novel. I didn’t think it was quite as good as Our Endless Numbered Days and Bitter Orange but I think that’s because I didn’t find the premise as engaging.

I also finished listening to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo.

Kim Jiyoung is a girl born to a mother whose in-laws wanted a boy. Kim Jiyoung is a sister made to share a room while her brother gets one of his own.

Kim Jiyoung is a female preyed upon by male teachers at school. Kim Jiyoung is a daughter whose father blames her when she is harassed late at night.

Kim Jiyoung is a good student who doesn’t get put forward for internships. Kim Jiyoung is a model employee but gets overlooked for promotion. Kim Jiyoung is a wife who gives up her career and independence for a life of domesticity.

Kim Jiyoung has started acting strangely.

Kim Jiyoung is depressed.

Kim Jiyoung is mad.

Kim Jiyoung is her own woman.

Kim Jiyoung is every woman.

I very much enjoyed this novel but probably should have read it instead of listening to it as I found myself wanting to underline parts of the text. I was shocked at the blatant discrimination portrayed, which the writer backed up with real-world statistics, thus giving substance to the protagonist’s experiences and communicating the gravity of the situation of women.

The classic read/listen that I finished this week was The Seagull by Anton Chekhov.

Arkadina, a famous actress, and her lover, a famous novelist, are spending the summer on her country estate, but their glamorous presence proves fatally disruptive to the lives of all those present, especially her son, Konstantin and Nina, the girl he loves.

I’m seeing this play next month so, as I’m not familiar with it and to enhance my enjoyment, I decided to read it first. It explores the typical Chekhov themes of unfulfilled dreams and unrequited love, something which I think he does particularly well. So many people have lofty ambitions but can’t take the actions necessary to achieve them, remaining in a state of paralysis and mourning what could have been. I’m looking forward to seeing how this is portrayed on the London stage, with Emilia Clarke (of Game of Thrones fame) playing Nina.

I also read a book I’ve had on my shelves for many years, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho.

Pilar is an independent and practical young woman who is feeling bored and frustrated by the daily grind of her university life. Looking for a deeper meaning to her existence, she happens to meet an old childhood friend, now a handsome, mesmerising spiritual teacher – and a rumoured miracle worker. As he leads her on a magical journey through the French Pyrenees, Pilar begins to realise that this chance encounter is going to transform her life forever.

I finally dusted this one off as it fulfilled the Storygraph Read Around the World challenge for a writer from Brazil. It was quick and easy to read but it wasn’t for me. Although I liked some of the inspirational ideas about following your dream and taking risks, I generally found it too overtly preachy and the characters a little, well, characterless. Overall, it wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad: it was just mediocre. There was a point in my life where I loved Coelho’s novels, but I think that time has passed.

I also did a quick re-read of At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop for the No Book No Life Book Club, which I’ve written about before. It was just as good as it was first time around. I’d highly recommend it.

Reading Next

My next read is going to be Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I’ve heard so many good things about. I’m not a fan of multi-generational family sagas so I hope I’m not going to be disappointed.

Half-year reading review 2022

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Now that we’re approaching the midway point of 2022, I thought I’d ask myself a few questions about my reading experience so far. I got this idea from Thornfield Books on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8d0RTHS2JEQ) but have adapted the questions slightly as some of them don’t apply to me. To date, I’ve managed to read 54 books.

What’s the best book you’ve read so far?

I’ve had five five-star reads but the best was Piranesi by Susanna Clarke. It was enchantingly unique and I didn’t want it to end.

What book was the biggest disappointment?

This would have to be The Doll by Ismail Kadare, who is a previously unknown-to-me, highly-acclaimed Albanian writer. Consequently, my expectations were high and the book didn’t live up to them.

What book was the biggest surprise?

This is another of my five-star reads, which I only bought because I found it in a charity shop: At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop. I truly didn’t expect to like it, not wanting to read about the horrors of the Great War, but it was a beautifully poetical exploration of horrific subject matter.

Who is your favourite new author?

For this category, I’m going to choose Sarah Moss, a writer who is new to me. I love the way she inhabits the minds of her characters, be they male or female, young or old, giving each their own identifiable voice.

What books are you looking forward to reading during the second half of 2022?

There are three novels I’m particularly looking forward to: Pachinko by Lee Min-Jin, Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, and Bunny by Mona Awad.

What fun reading-related experiences have you had so far this year?

I’ve joined the Hardcore Literature Book Club, which is a subscribed reading programme and series of lectures organised and delivered by Benjamin McEvoy.

I’ve been participating in the Online Silent Book Club, which is a great way to sit and focus for an hour’s reading and then chat with others about your experience.

I went to see Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London.

I visited the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and learnt more about her life and work.

The first half of 2022 has been great in terms of reading and I’m looking forward to an equally enjoyable second half.

My reading week: 23/52

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Currently Reading

My current novel is Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller and I’m listening to Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo.

My classic read/listen is The Seagull by Anton Chekhov, in preparation for an upcoming theatre trip, and my ongoing non-fiction book is Words in Pain by Olga Jacoby.

Recently Completed

I finished two books this week, the first being Sister by Rosamund Lupton, which has been chosen for my June book club.

When Beatrice gets a frantic call in the middle of Sunday lunch to say that her younger sister, Tess, is missing, she boards the first flight home to London. But as she learns about the circumstances surrounding Tess’s disappearance, she is stunned to discover how little she actually knows of her sister’s life – and unprepared for the terrifying truths she must now face.

The police, Beatrice’s fiancé and even her mother accept they have lost Tess, but Beatrice refuses to give up on her. So she embarks on a dangerous journey to discover the truth, no matter the cost.

I first read this shortly after it was published in 2010 and preferred it the first time round. I remember being gripped by the storyline and shocked by the twist, although this time I couldn’t recall for the life of me what that twist was! I still found the plot intriguing and was keen to reach the end to find out what happened so it was an easy read. The author does leave hints as to the ending and I think if I read it again now I would appreciate these clues. I also thought it offered some interesting insights into the grieving process. However, I found it a little far-fetched this time around and felt that the ending, which had pleased me so much previously, was a bit of a cop-out.

When it was first published, there weren’t so many psychological thrillers on the market so this one stood out as being different; now bookshops are awash with them and they’re losing their appeal for me.

Some of the events take place in Hyde Park/Kensington Gardens and ironically I was reading the novel whilst staying in this part of London, before heading off to Bath where my second read was partly set: the classic Persuasion by Jane Austen. It’s fun reading novels whilst you’re on location!

At twenty-seven, Anne Elliot is no longer young and has few romantic prospects.

Eight years earlier, persuaded by her friend Lady Russell, she broke off her engagement to Frederick Wentworth, a handsome naval captain with neither fortune nor rank. Now older and wiser, the decision has haunted her along with the memory of the man she loved.

When fate throws the two together again, in very different circumstances, Anne will learn how deeply the past can still wound and what can be endured for love. As she finds herself again torn between the demands of family and social convention she must learn to find her own judgement in a sea of influence.

I chose this novel for my Reading the Classics challenge because I’d seen it dramatised on stage earlier this year. Amazingly for me, with my aversion to pre-20th century literature, I absolutely adored it. I did a deep-dive into it, listening to a series of lectures given by Benjamin McEvoy of the Hardcore Literature Book Club, and this certainly created an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience. I very much liked the quiet, unassuming heroine, Anne, and the slow manner in which the story unfolded. The penultimate chapter was a satisfying joy and I have to give this novel one of my rare five star awards.

Reading Next

I have no idea! I need to finish Unsettled Ground by Tuesday so I can return it to the library and I also want to finish The Seagull next week. I’m going on holiday soon and have a few books lined up for this break (although the final selection hasn’t been completely decided) so I will need something I’m confident I can complete before I go. I have an alarming number of books on my TBR shelf to choose from.

Going hardcore on the classics

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As I’ve said before, I managed to study for a degree in literature whilst avoiding, for the most part, works written prior to 1900 – and I have steered clear of them ever since. Last month, I decided I should remedy this shameful situation by always having a classic on the go. So far I’ve read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R L Stevenson, and am about to finish Persuasion, also by Jane Austen of course. I’m enjoying the latter so much that I’m rationing myself to one chapter a day because I don’t want it to end – but only have two chapters left! (I can’t actually believe I’ve just written that last sentence!)

Although I’ve embraced this challenge, I am aware that I still have an aversion or wariness when it comes to the literary canon so it therefore makes perfect sense (does it really?) to subscribe to Benjamin McEvoy’s Hardcore Literature Book Club on Patreon. I’ve been working my way through his back catalogue of lectures on Persuasion, which has certainly enhanced my enjoyment of not only this novel but the other novels I’m reading as well.

During July, August and September, we will be working our way through Ulysses by James Joyce (a novel that I did dip into at university but didn’t read in its entirety). I feel confident that I will be able to get through it with the support of the book club and lecture series and, dare I say, I’m looking forward to it.

I’d like to think it doesn’t get much more ‘hardcore’ than Ulysses but I have a feeling it might!

You can find out more about the book club here: https://benjaminmcevoy.com/

An update on May’s Asian Readathon

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A week into May, I came across the Asian Readathon challenge hosted each year by withcindy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z617Xo1Pjss

Despite starting late, I managed to complete the challenge, although I did inadvertently select two authors from Japan when I really should have ensured that each author was from a different country – a slightly annoying oversight!

Here are the prompts and my choices.

1. A book written by an Asian author: Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad (Iran/Armenia)

2. A book featuring an Asian female/older woman: Dear Friend, From My Life, I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li (China)

3. A book by an Asian author that has a universe you would want to experience OR that is totally different to yours: Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (Palestine)

4. A book by an Asian author that has a cover worthy of googly eyes: The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura (Japan)

5. A book by an Asian author that has a high rating or was highly recommended by someone: How Do You Live? by Genzaburo Yoshino (Japan)

I did start to listen to The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Vietnam) but found it hard to concentrate on. I’ve since picked up the paperback in a charity shop so will come back to it for a listen and readalong.

I enjoyed finding books to match the prompts and having this focus for the month. As I often read Japanese and Middle Eastern literature, it wasn’t too much of a diversion from my usual selections.

My reading week: 22/52

Currently Reading

Fiction: Contemporary Stories edited by Nick Jones.

Classic/audio: Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Non-fiction: Words in Pain by Olga Jacoby.

Recently Completed

I’ve finished four books this week, two classics and two contemporary novels.

The first one was Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

Northanger Abbey is the most youthful and optimistic of Jane Austen’s novels. It tells the story of young, impressionable Catherine Morland, whose first experience of fashionable society introduces her to the thrills of Gothic romances, and to the sophisticated Tilneys, who invite her to their family home, Northanger Abbey. But there, influenced by novels of horror and intrigue, Catherine begins to think that terrible crimes are being committed, and her imagination threatens to run away with her.

I first experienced this novel at school and I think this might have had something to do with the fact that I have tried to avoid the classics ever since. However, returning to it now was a charming experience and I can understand why there is so much enthusiasm for Austen. It’s delightfully satirical and having read Gothic novels, such as The Mysteries of Udolpho, I could understand how they were influencing Catherine in the way they did. It was a joy to watch the story unfold and to recognise the heroine’s naivety and her gradual awakening. There were moments of humour, and the characterisation was beautifully executed: Mrs Allen’s obsession with her dress, Isabella’s transparency, Thorpe’s bumptious arrogance, and Henry’s sympathetic understanding. I’m now looking forward to exploring more classics.

This fits prompt 18 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: Jane Austen inspired.

It’s also part of my Reading the Classics project.

The second classic I read/listened to was The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Published as a ‘shilling shocker’, Robert Louis Stevenson’s dark psychological fantasy gave birth to the idea of the split personality. The story of respectable Dr Jekyll’s strange association with the ‘damnable young man’ Edward Hyde; the hunt through fog-bound London for a killer; and the final revelation of Hyde’s true identity is a chilling exploration of humanity’s basest capacity for evil.

This is such a famous story that I felt I already knew it despite not having read it. I liked the narrative style (accounts, letters and a testimony) and found the descriptions of both people and place evocative. I also enjoyed the exploration of the idea that people are not wholly good or evil, but contain the capacity for both. My volume contains other short stories, which I will also read at some point.

This, too, is part of my Reading the Classics project.

Moving to contemporary fiction, I read Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason.

Everyone tells Martha Friel she is clever and beautiful, a brilliant writer who has been loved every day of her adult life by one man, her husband Patrick. A gift, her mother once said, not everybody gets.

So why is everything broken? Why is Martha – on the edge of 40 – friendless, practically jobless and so often sad? And why did Patrick decide to leave?

Maybe she is just too sensitive, someone who finds it harder to be alive than most people. Or maybe – as she has long believed – there is something wrong with her. Something that broke when a little bomb went off in her brain, at 17, and left her changed in a way that no doctor or therapist has ever been able to explain.

Forced to return to her childhood home to live with her dysfunctional, bohemian parents (but without the help of her devoted, foul-mouthed sister Ingrid), Martha has one last chance to find out whether a life is ever too broken to fix – or whether, maybe, by starting over, she will get to write a better ending for herself.

This is shortlisted for the 2022 Women’s Price for Fiction (I’m working my way through this shortlist) and I can understand why. There was so much to enjoy. The characters, even when not acting their best, are sympathetically drawn and I was invested in them from the outset. The slow-paced narrative moves in time and I liked the way the story gradually unfolded and was revealed. There were points where it made me laugh and moments that brought tears to my eyes. All-in-all, it’s an excellent exploration of what its like to live with mental illness.

Finally, I read the International Booker Prize 2021 winner, At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop.

Alfa and Mademba are two of the many Senegalese soldiers fighting in the Great War. Together they climb dutifully out of their trenches to attack France’s German enemies whenever the whistle blows, until Mademba is wounded, and dies in a shell hole with his belly torn open.

Without his more-than-brother, Alfa is alone and lost amidst the savagery of the conflict. He devotes himself to the war, to violence and death, but soon begins to frighten even his own comrades in arms. How far will Alfa go to make amends to his dead friend?

I was surprised to pick this novel up in a local charity shop and probably wouldn’t have read it otherwise even though I’d been toying with the idea. After I’d bought it, it appeared as the June read for the No Book No Life Book Club. The subject matter didn’t sound the sort of thing I’d enjoy and I thought it was going to be a hard-going and difficult read. How wrong I was. It was absolutely captivating and I read it in a day. It was interesting to read it after The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde as it too depicts the duality of character, and the co-existence of good and evil within people. Despite to horrific depiction of war and its impact on the protagonist, it is incredibly alluring and poetic (reminding me of The Sirens‘ chapter in Joyce’s Ulysees), and I’ve given it a rare 5 stars. What a gem!

This will suit prompt 38: Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Reading Next

I’m probably going to go for Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller.

My quotation this week, from At Night All Blood is Black, shows the duality of human nature.

The bad side of my crimes had won out over the good side…God’s truth, each thing carries its opposite within…God’s truth, that’s how things go, that’s how the world is: each thing is double.

David Diop

20 Books of Summer and other challenges

A small section of my TBR which is becoming two books deep

I really enjoy doing reading challenges or reading around a theme; here are the ones I’m currently taking part in.

20 Books of Summer

I have got around seventy-five books on my TBR shelf so I thought it would be a good idea to participate in this challenge, which is all about reading twenty books from your TBR in order to decrease the size of the pile. Find out more about it here: https://746books.com/2022/05/04/announcing-20-books-of-summer-22/

Women’s Prize 2022 Shortlist

There are six novels on the above shortlist and I’m currently working my way through them. So far I’ve listened to The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak and read Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason. If these two novels are representative of the remainder of the list, it’s going to be an excellent thing to do. Read about the shortlist here: https://womensprizeforfiction.co.uk/features/features/announcing-the-2022-womens-prize-shortlist

Storygraph Reads the World

I found this challenge on Storygraph. The aim is to read one book set in each of the following countries by an author from that country: Brazil, Haiti, India, New Zealand, Palestine, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam and Zimbabwe. So far I’ve read Amnesty by Aravind Adiga (India), Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (Palestine), and have listened to The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak (Turkey). Strictly speaking, I’m not adhering to the rules but am reading an author from the country even if the novels are set somewhere else.

The 52 Book Club Reading Challenge

The aim is to read 52 books, each fulfilling a specific prompt. Find out more about it here: https://www.the52book.club/2022-reading-challenge/. I’ve got seven prompts left to do.

Reading the Classics

This is my own personally devised challenge that I’ve just started. Despite having a degree in literature, I managed to complete it without reading a great deal of pre-20th century literature. There are also many 20th century classics that I haven’t read. To remedy this embarrassing void, I have resolved to always have one classic novel on the go. I’ve only just started and have so far read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. I’ve just started Persuasion by Jane Austen. After this, I’m planning on reading Vilette by Charlotte Bronte. I think literature lessons in school put me off (we read Northanger Abbey and Jane Eyre) as I’ve enjoyed the ones I’ve read so far. To make this challenge more interesting, I’m going to try and find the novels in charity shops rather than buy them new. Today I ‘borrowed’ Vilette from Caffe Nero!

Storygraph’s Onboarding Reading Challenge 2022

This comprises six prompts, which allow users to explore different areas of the app and as I’m new to it, I thought ‘why not?’!

Although doing so many challenges may seem a bit daunting, there will be books that can be used for multiple prompts. It just adds a bit of fun and focus to my reading.

What reading challenges do you take part in?

My reading week: 21/52

Currently Reading

I’m reading Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, as part of my challenge to read the 2022 Women’s Prize shortlist.

I’m still listening to The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This is a long one and it’s going to take me some time. I should probably be reading it instead.

My current classic is Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, and here I’m doing a mix of listening and reading.

My non-fiction read is Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.

Recently Completed

I finished reading Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad.

Deep in an Iranian suburb, made rich by the booming oil industry, Clarice Ayvazian lives a comfortable life surrounded by the gentle bickering of her children and her gossiping friends and relatives. Happy being at the heart of her family, she devotes herself to their every need. But when an enigmatic Armenian family move in across the street, something begins to gnaw at Clarice’s contentment: a feeling that there may be more to life – and to her – than this. Dizzy with the sweltering heat and simmering emotions, Clarice begins to feel herself come alive to possibilities previously unimaginable.

This was sold as being for fans of Anne Tyler (which I am), and I agree that it is in the vein of the ordinary workings of a ‘normal’ family and what I would call a quiet novel. I enjoyed the playing out of the family dynamics and the underlying tensions, and the sense of mystery created by the new family that moves into the neighbourhood. It’s told in short chapters, which always makes a novel quick and easy to read.

However, I was more or less able to predict events and there were no surprises, and the whole novel felt inconclusive. I would have preferred a deeper insight into the psychology of the characters, particularly the main character as it was told via first person narration. She didn’t seem to have much self-awareness, and I struggled to make sense of her. Having made this criticism, I feel this could have been intentional on the part of the writer: Clarice begins questioning the way she lives her life, its purpose and whether she is fulfilled. She can’t come up with answers and so how can the reader know? I found this as frustrating a situation as Clarice probably did, as when she ponders what she will do as her children grow up and become more independent.

Then I will finally have time for things I want to do, I thought. My critical streak started in, ‘Like what things?’ …’I don’t know.’ It was a depressing thought.

Overall, I enjoyed this novel but was left with the feeling that, like Clarice, I wanted something more. Does this make it a clever novel?

This fulfils prompt 42 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: An indie read (it’s published by OneWorld).

I also read it for prompt 1 of the Asian Readathon: A book written by an Asian author.

The second book I completed was Take Me With You When You Go by David Levithan and Jennifer Niven.

Ezra wakes one day to find his sister gone. No note, no sign, nothing but an email address hidden somewhere only he would find it.

Escaping their toxic home life, Bea finds herself alone in a new city – without friends, without a real plan – chasing someone who might not even want to be found.

As things unravel at home for Ezra, Bea confronts secrets about their past that will forever change the way they think about their family. Separated by distance but connected by love, this brother and sister must learn to trust themselves before they can find a way back to each other.

This young adult novel is an unusual choice for me and I discovered it when searching the teenage section of the library in a bid to find the kind of books available to young people these days. I’m an English and maths tutor and because so many of my students have an aversion to reading, I want to be able to recommend books that I think they will enjoy. My aim was to experience something that I felt would appeal to them. I chose this one because it’s got a beautiful cover, I’ve heard of David Levithan, it has both male and female main characters, and it’s written in email form.

I wasn’t expecting to like it but I enjoyed it immensely! It’s gripping from the start and, through the emails, events are gradually revealed so that the reader is constantly putting the pieces of the jigsaw together to ascertain what has happened in the past and to predict what will happen in the future. However, because of the form, we only ever saw other characters through the siblings’ eyes, and I desperately wanted to know more about the motivations, thoughts and feelings of the other characters; in particular, I was desperate to learn more about their mother. I liked the siblings and had a lot of sympathy for them, even when they weren’t acting at their best. The novel deals with gritty issues, such as abuse, homosexuality, relationship breakdowns, friendships, the challenges of navigating the teenage years, and loss, in a way that I feel young people will be able to relate to. I have to confess I couldn’t put it down and completed it in two days. I would definitely recommend it to teenagers and within its pages there are important messages:

It’s wonderful when someone else sees you, the real you but…maybe the most important thing is seeing yourself.

I’m going to stretch this one and use it for prompt 50: a person of colour as the main character (one of the central characters fulfils this requirement)

Finally, I read Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li.

Written over two years while the author battled depression, Dear Friend is a painful and yet richly affirming examination of what makes life worth living. Interweaving personal memoir with a wide-ranging celebration of writers and books, this is a journey of recovery through literature.

From William Trevor and Katherine Mansfield to Kierkegaard and Larkin, Yiyun Li traces the themes of time and transformation, presence and absence. Drawing on personal experiences from her difficult childhood in China, she constructs a beautiful, interior exploration of selfhood and what is required to choose life.

This memoir of Chinese author, Yiyun Li, is divided into eight sections and got off to a very promising start with reflections on time, memory, emotions, dreams, and battles. Then I struggled with it and at a little over half way through I was questioning why I couldn’t grasp the thread that should hold it together and it became much harder for me to understand. I desperately wanted to enjoy it but I couldn’t say that I was and felt I was limping towards the end to the point where, desiring not to give up but to finish it, I resolved to read just ten pages a day to achieve this. Much to my surprise, my interest was piqued during the final three sections, which felt much more coherent to me. I wonder if my experience with the memoir mirrored the writer’s experience with depression, if indeed the sections were written in chronological order.

I found many thought-provoking ideas, even when I wasn’t enjoying it so much, and it is possibly the most underlined book I possess. It’s hard to pick just one so I opened the book at random and found this tragic statement, which sums up the Yiyun Li’s despair:

Often I think that writing is a futile effort; so is reading; so is living.

I read this for Prompt 2 of the Asian Readathon: A book featuring an Asian female/older woman.

I will also use it for prompt 33 of the 52 Book Club Reading Challenge: A bilingual character – one of the topics the writer explores is her experience of moving, not only physically to another country but to another language, and how language is linked to our identify:

What happened during my transition from one language to another did not become memory.

Reading Next

I have three exciting library books waiting to be read:

  • Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller – I’ve read two books by this author and like the unusual scenarios she creates
  • Should We Stay or Should We Go by Lionel Shriver – Having recently read We Need To Talk About Kevin, I’m impressed by Shriver’s writing and the ideas she conveys
  • Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafron – I couldn’t resist a novel that bears my name!

A new experience: The Online Silent Book Club

Photo by Vincenzo Malagoli on Pexels.com

Always up for a different experience, I was intrigued when I came across the Online Silent Book Club and had to give it a go.

The session started with a brief introduction by the host, followed by introductions by the attendees who gave information about what they would be reading during the session. It was an eclectic mix: from Jane Austen to a non-fiction on start-ups, from Emily Henry’s latest novel to a biography on Roosevelt, from a book on the Beatles to a Neil Gaiman novel.

We then read for an hour before reconvening to feedback on our reading experience. It was very interesting to hear people talking about their books and what they’d managed to do in the sixty minutes.

This is a ridiculously simple idea and, let’s face it, anyone can block an hour off in their diary and sit and read if they want to. You don’t need to go online and do it with others. However, it can be so easy to get distracted by other demands and I found that setting aside the time in this way meant I focussed for the hour and managed to read the first 50 pages of Things We Left Unsaid by Zoya Pirzad. Knowing I was going to be speaking about it to the group meant I thought about what I’d read in more depth. It was also a great way to get into a novel and I think that an extended session when starting a new book is a very helpful way to quickly feel more comfortable with it.

All-in-all, this was a positive and fun experience.

Find out more about the Online Silent Book Club here.

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