Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that we are now more than halfway through the underrated month of November, and I am still yet to post my reviews of the books I read in October. I mean, here we are now! I’m doing it, look! It’s just been an extremely busy time for your fave (me). I’ve been zipping about the country – currently typing from Newcastle, of all places – and I started a new job, and there were fireworks a couple of weeks ago, and it’s practically Christmas… But I read loads of books in October, or so it feels. It’s only right that I have a shout about them.
THE BAZAAR OF BAD DREAMS by Stephen King – Obviously in a spooky kinda mood, and also buoyed by the hype for IT, I finally got round to reading this collection of short stories by the master of horror himself. I’m a longtime King fan, having read Gerald’s Game at far, far too early an age and becoming scarred/hooked for life. I feel I can barely give an objective review of anything by him, because (despite the subject matter) his prose is so cosy and familiar. As I was working weekdays beginning 10am, I would get up early and sit for an hour every morning reading the stories, which was something I should definitely do again; I really enjoyed dipping in and out of this collection. An eclectic and mostly excellent selection of short stories, tied together by King’s chatty introductions and the odd recurring motif (more than one character chokes on a bar of soap, for example). More than anything, there’s a palpable sense of how much fun the writer is having – he just really likes writing, and a lot of that enjoyment gets transferred to the reader. It gets a bit indulgent at times, but it’s hard to mind the whims of good old Steve.
ON WRITING by Stephen King – I was planning on doing NaNoWriMo (don’t ask how it’s going…) so I thought I’d listen to this audiobook, having read the book many years ago. It’s intimate and charming having King literally talk directly to you. Despite being a reader of his for most of my reading life, I think this was the first time I’d heard his voice. The book itself is a classic! I didn’t learn much I didn’t already know, but then again, I have it before. The memoir bits are great, and I was utterly riveted by the account of the accident at the end of the book. Lots of the advice King gives on writing won’t be applicable to everyone, but it’s all solid commonsense stuff that can be adapted and adopted.
TANGLEWEED AND BRINE by Deirdre Sullivan – This book is a work of art, and is rightfully appearing on lists of beautiful books of 2017. The illustrations are dark and divine – more pictures in books for older children, please! I loved Deirdre’s Needlework – reviewed here – so I was looking forward to her collection of fairytale retellings. The author weaves her magical tales of princesses we almost recognise with fearsome & dark poetry. Tales as old as time are twisted into something new: something scored with pain and power. The illustrations are gorgeous, singing and intricate alongside the terse prose. I wish, however, that I’d read this piece by piece rather than in one greedy gulp, as the density of the imagery benefits from time to digest. I’m sure they’d be great performance pieces, too, which is not to diminish their power as words on the page – they are just rich with drama and voice. In whatever format, these stories are brilliant.
SIX OF CROWS by Leigh Bardugo – Kaz Brekker assembles an unlikely crew of thieves and villains to pull off an impossible heist and reap the reward of riches beyond imagination. This book has everything: intricate world-building, a diverse, bickering cast, high stakes, dizzyingly complex plotting. People have been telling me forever that I’d love it. And I think I’m about to get excommunicated from the YA community here, but… I didn’t love it. I can see that it’s good, and I can see why people like it, and I like the characters (Nina is my queeeeen) but it took me so long to read because something about it left me cold. I have no idea what! Answers on a postcard, please! A true case of “it’s not you, it’s me” and I would not hesitate to recommend it to others because it’s a good book. But, I mean, I’m not gonna read Crooked Kingdom.
S.T.A.G.S by M.A. Bennett – Accepted into elite boarding school St. Aidan the Great, Greer is finding it hard to get used to these pretentious people who don’t get her movie references. When school hottie and de facto king Henry de Warlencourt invites her to his country estate for a weekend of bloodsports, she is too curious (and excited) to heed the warning signs. It’s not just the deer that need to be afraid of huntin’… S.T.A.G.S is a huge amount of fun. It helps that it is exactly my sort of thing. I love morally questionable rich people, in fiction at least, and the aesthetic is utterly on point throughout. I was expecting it to be darker than it was – the stakes aren’t quite as high when you know the narrator survives to tell their story, and the “murder” wasn’t nearly morally ambiguous enough for me – but not every book, to my deep sadness, can be The Secret History, and this comes pretty close for a YA novel. Clever, dangerous, delightful.
THE LITTLE STRANGER by Sarah Waters – In postwar Warwickshire, a country doctor is called to Hundreds Hall, a grand house he has admired since he was a child. The house is falling into decline. The family is, too: the war hit them hard, and their old way of life is increasingly endangered by the encroachment of the modern world. But the doctor is fascinated, even haunted by Hundreds Hall, and soon finds he cannot keep away. I loved this book, which is unsurprising given how much I love both Sarah Waters and ghost stories, and the fact that I’m from Warwickshire (well, the West Midlands. Depends who you ask) myself. It was critically acclaimed on release, but a brief scan of the Goodreads reviews indicates that a lot of people have a problem with the pacing. To those people I say, READ FASTER. I read it in a couple of sittings because I couldn’t put it down. Maybe it wouldn’t live up to a reread? But for now, it’s one of my favourite books of the year. Entirely absorbing, with an astonishingly intense sense of time and place. It’s a convincing psychological thriller, a portrait of class in a very particular time period, set in the very part of England I’m from. It’s also a creepy tale of the supernatural. Sarah Waters is brilliant at writing repressed sexual tension and her characters are all so clearly drawn. The pages turn under your hands with creeping inevitability, as the impending doom and quiet brilliance of the ending approaches…
LA BELLE SAUVAGE by Philip Pullman – I don’t need to explain this one, surely? One of the publishing events of the year, the book we’ve been waiting for for a decade, finally a new installment in the story of Lyra Belacqua! I’m going to risk excommunication again here and say I still don’t know how I feel about it. It’s darker and weirder than I expected, and the second half dragged, and I couldn’t quite work out who it was aimed at (though I know Pullman would say it wasn’t “aimed” at anybody). I still loved it, don’t get me wrong. It’s a joy to be back in that universe, Malcolm is adorable, and the villain is effectively terrifying. I just feel more ambivalent than you’re allowed to be about The Book of Dust. Please don’t fight me!!!
THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED by Becky Albertalli – Molly has endured 26 unrequited crushes – 25 of which weren’t on Lin-Manuel Miranda – but she’s still waiting on her first kiss. Rejection is scary as heck! Her twin sister Cassie can’t relate, but suddenly there’s an extremely cute girl on Cassie’s radar. A cute girl who quickly becomes more than a crush, and now Cassie’s wrapped up in the overwhelmingness of new love, and Molly is more alone than ever. Alone but for the cute boys confusing her heart and her life, that is… I loved Albertalli’s debut, and this is in a similar lighthearted vein. Sadly, it just didn’t do it for me in the same way as Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda. It was very fun and sweet and I really liked the brilliant diverse cast, but it was a bit too predictable and the romance felt rushed to me. I’m glad it’s resonated with so many people, though – this is another case of not bad but not for me.
GOODBYE, PERFECT by Sara Barnard – I was lucky enough to secure an advanced copy of my namesake’s newest – thanks My Kinda Book! I saved the best for last. I’m going to have to read again and review closer to the publication date, because this is Sara’s best book yet. Gripping, challenging, compulsive reading with believably spiky characters having believably messy relationships & all the heart you expect of a Barnard book. Sara is just genuinely a great writer & chronicler of the unique trials and triumphs that come with being an (extra)ordinary teenage girl. It’s really, really good, you guys.
Wow, that was a marathon post! THANKS FOR READING, if you’re still here. October was my big catch-up-with-my-Goodreads-challenge-cos-I’m-unemployed month. Less of a gigantic post next month, I suspect, but we’ll see. A delight to have you here! Let me know if any of my controversial opinions have shocked you to your core.