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This has been the first time in my life that staying at home to read has been a good thing. Also ironically my first ever reading slump. Here are the books that got me back on track.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a pandemic of global proportions, while technically the best time to be reading, actually makes reading nigh on impossible.
When restrictions and #stayathome were first introduced, I found I couldn’t concentrate on books. This has never happened to me before.
I would pick up various books, distractedly read about 20 pages of each and find myself somehow watching another episode of ‘Tiger King’. This can never happen to me again. Ever. I don’t care how cool the cats or kittens are.
Now, months into the pandemic, I have my to-be-read pile under control. Here’s my tip in case you need to ‘second wave’ goodbye to your own Netflix addiction: read light-hearted reads, as well as full-hearted ones, and alternate between the two.
There is a time and place for serious reads and a few—like My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russel—absolutely floored me during lockdown.
But, when the chips are down, and the loo roll shelves are empty, give yourself the freedom to read a book that will make you LOL or that feels like a (socially distant) hug.
I’ve prepared a literary list that will meet all your needs, except with respect to loo roll. (Please don’t use books as loo roll.)
Adults – Emma Jane Unsworth
It took a very special read to hoist me emphatically out of my reading slump. Without a doubt, that read was Adults. Told with a laconic irony, and capturing moments that made me bark with laughter and sigh sorrowfully, Adults is so thoroughly of our time.
It perfectly captured the social media malaise that (if we’re truthful with ourselves) we do all experience. It made me put aside all my thoughts of COVID-19 and reminisce about a time when (like protagonist, Jenny) I would agonise over the wording of a caption on a post on social media. We didn’t know how good we had it and how lucky we were.
A Bildungsroman of epic proportions populated by tarot-obsessed mothers, exasperated friends, influencers who exclusively post in black and white, and manchild artists with an overinflated sense of their own importance in the world.
My favourite read of the year so far, I gave it 5 out of 5 people pleaser’s punctuation of choice (the exclamation mark).
My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell
My Dark Vanessa is the definition of discomfort reading. It is impactful, abrasive, disquieting, hollowing. There were parts of this book that meant I had to put it down and walk away. There were parts that made me need to pick it back up hungrily. There were parts that made me despair and cry.
The interwoven story of a fifteen-year-old girl who is groomed by her English teacher and the unsettling depiction of the woman she becomes with her coerced, sycophantic sympathy and affinity for her abuser. I have never been more convinced of the contours of a character than I was with Vanessa. I have never been more nauseated and alarmed by what I was reading, and yet so desperately compelled to keep going. What a debut.
I want to tell you to read it; I feel almost irresponsible for doing so. Even writing this review weeks after finishing the book, I feel a swirling, sickening raft of emotions, among them awe—awe for Vanessa, awe for the stories she represents, awe for the unashamedly brazen way that Kate Elizabeth Russell tells this story. It was a hard read but I don’t regret it.
5 out of 5 copies of Lolita
The Switch – Beth O’Leary
The Switch gave me so many warm and fuzzies it was like a hug from family. I read Beth O’Leary’s latest novel in a day, helplessly transported between a fictional, rural English hamlet of misfits with hearts too big for so small a town, and a London apartment of hopeless (but actually absolutely bloody perfectly stereotypical) Gen Y-ers.
The premise of this book is Freaky Friday-esque, although with a little less fortune cookie and a lot more agency. Leena Cotton is a classic Type-A personality on the brink of success, and if we’re honest, a mini breakdown. Eileen Cotton is Leena’s grandma, seventy-nine years young, recently abandoned by her husband for their dance instructor but with a wicked sense of humour (best demonstrated by the fact that she named her cats Ant and Dec). When Leena’s boss forces her to take two months off work, Leena trades homes and lives with Eileen, and a fair bit of hilarity ensues.
There’s online dating (including the requisite catfishing experience), a romance carried out through dog walks and competition over the annual village fete theme, and neighbourly calamities aplenty. Simultaneously, there is that same careful, nuanced and empathetic handling of enormously challenging subjects like grief and domestic violence that made The Flatshare (O’Leary’s debut) as impactful as it was.
The question I know you’re all mentally clamouring at me to ask is: but is The Switch as good as The Flatshare? Like a person talking about their ex-lover to their current paramour, I’m going to say they’re ‘different’. If you were feeling isolated with all that’s going on, this book will be the perfect cure. I can’t be held accountable though if, once this is all over, this book makes you set up a dinner club for silver-haired septuagenarians or host a Medieval/Hawaiian themed village fete. I’m down for both if you do.
I gave The Switch 4 out of 5 pairs of political socks, which say ‘Brexit is bollocks’ around the ankle.
Thank you to Hachette and NetGalley for my review copy.
The Glass Hotel – Emily St John Mandel
The Glass Hotel had a translucent quality, meandering between characters, time, space and counter lives. The world Emily St John Mandel imagines here feels more aligned with our own than that in Station Eleven, Mandel’s most popular novel.
The Glass Hotel is the story of a Ponzi scheme and the people at its core (architect, lieutenants, victims, beneficiaries), of families, and of a hotel in the Canadian wilderness reachable only by boat. Mandel’s pacing is as perfect, her characterisation as clever as in her most famous post-apocalyptic tale.
In its own way, The Glass Hotel has more shadowiness, grey area and questions of morality than Station Eleven (in which humans murder each other) through its money and greed prism. It plays with our notions of memory and reality as effectively as the most sophisticated science fiction but in a way that is much, much more real to our own actuality. Too real even. It cements Mandel as an author of admiration for me.
4 out of 5 home videos in five-minute increments.
Hamnet – Maggie O’Farrell
To read or not to read: that is the question. The answer as far as Hamnet is concerned is an incontrovertible yes.
The writing is excruciatingly stunning; the story has induced my curiosity about Shakespeare in a way no English teacher ever did, and the characters were so fully and fervently formed that I genuinely found myself feeling angry at my husband when he was joking around after unbeknownst to him a character had cruelly died.
I was transported to 1596, my senses piqued and my emotional response as fevered as the brow of Judith, Shakespeare’s younger daughter whose battle with the pestilence is at the heart of this story. One for fans of Madeleine Miller’s Circe and in particular for those who see the value in giving peripheral characters a moment to emerge from a celebrated hero’s shadow.
I loved that Shakespeare was never formally named. His wife was mystical, formidable and so beautifully human. I now want to read Hamlet, a play that was inspired by the events portrayed in Hamnet.
More shamefully, I also want to watch ‘Shakespeare in Love’ to figure out where that floozy Paltrow fits in all of this.
I gave Hamnet 5 out of 5 ‘whoreson dogs’.
My thanks to Hachette for my review copy of Hamnet.