Girl at War by Sara Novic | The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks | The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah



Girl at War by Sara Nović

Published by Little Brown, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction


Zagreb, summer of 1991. Ten-year-old Ana Juric is a carefree tomboy who runs the streets of Croatia’s capital with her best friend, Luka, takes care of her baby sister, Rahela, and idolizes her father. But as civil war breaks out across Yugoslavia, soccer games and school lessons are supplanted by sniper fire and air raid drills. When tragedy suddenly strikes, Ana is lost to a world of guerilla warfare and child soldiers; a daring escape plan to America becomes her only chance for survival.

Ten years later Ana is a college student in New York. She’s been hiding her past from her boyfriend, her friends, and most especially herself. Haunted by the events that forever changed her family, she returns alone to Croatia, where she must rediscover the place that was once her home and search for the ghosts of those she’s lost. With generosity, intelligence, and sheer storytelling talent, Sara Nović’s first novel confronts the enduring impact of war, and the enduring bonds of country and friendship.

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This book was a real revelation for me and it shows how important prize longlists can be for bringing authors to the attention of readers. I had set out to read as much of the Baileys longlist as I could anyway, but Girl at War kept calling to me. I'm not sure if it's the book's European-ness that has appealed to me or if it's just the subject matter but I read it in two greedy sittings and I am already looking forward to the author's next book. 

The book is set in two different times, one part with Ana as a 10-year-old when the Balkans war starts, and the other with Ana at college, being thrust back into her past and travelling back to Croatia. Ana's voice is so brilliantly woven between the two timelines that I still can't believe this is the author's debut novel. I was taken by Ana's voice from the start, and keen to witness what happened to her while she remembered her past.

I think it's a brilliantly written piece of fiction that highlights powerful themes. Especially with the anti-European and "anti-foreign" sentiments developing in the UK and the role of the UN getting severely criticised. 

I loved following Ana when she goes back to Croatia and confronts what happened to her after years of quashing her memories. As a child she tried talking truthfully about what had happened to her but no one really wanted to hear. The reader can bear witness to the atrocities of this war by reading Ana's journey. 

I couldn't recommend this book highly enough. 

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The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

Published by Little Brown, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

With more than two million copies of her novels sold, New York Times bestselling author Geraldine Brooks has achieved both popular and critical acclaim. Now, Brooks takes on one of literature's richest and most enigmatic figures: a man who shimmers between history and legend. 

Peeling away the myth to bring David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage. The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David's life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected. We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him - from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikal, Avigail and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthral her many fans.

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I don't read a lot of historical/mythical fiction (though I love history and myths, weirdly) and I never seem to seek out this kind of book but I'm always so happy when books like this pop up on a prize longlist, bringing them to my attention. I absolutely adored The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and though The Secret Chord didn't steal my heart in quite the same way, it definitely made me want to seek more books by Geraldine Brooks and more books in the same vein.

The Secret Chord is a retelling of the story of David (as in David and Goliath) seen through the eyes of his prophet Natan, but also through the stories of the people closest to him. Regardless of the religious aspect of the book, we can see how myths get built and a legend starts. I didn't feel taken by Natan's voice at first, feeling him quite emotionally detached from what he was observing, but as the story grew, and as his understanding of David developed, I loved the concept of Natan telling the story. 

Natan is a fascinating character who channels prophecies through his body and rarely manages to witness them himself. He attaches himself to David as a young boy and serves as his prophet but also as his friend, being one of the few to be able to be honest with him. David is a flawed man whose decisions (and tragic flaws) impact on his life and the life of those around him. I very much enjoyed this brilliantly written and judged piece of fiction.

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The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah

Published by Faber and Faber, 2015
Longlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

Memory, the narrator of The Book of Memory, is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder. As part of her appeal her lawyer insists that she write down what happened as she remembers it. The death penalty is a mandatory sentence for murder, and Memory is, both literally and metaphorically, writing for her life. As her story unfolds, Memory reveals that she has been tried and convicted for the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, her adopted father. 

But who was Lloyd Hendricks? Why does Memory feel no remorse for his death? And did everything happen exactly as she remembers? Moving between the townships of the poor and the suburbs of the rich, and between the past and the present, Memory weaves a compelling tale of love, obsession, the relentlessness of fate and the treachery of memory. 

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There is a type of book that takes hold of you from the first few sentences and keeps you reading and invested in the story throughout. The Book of Memory was this kind of book for me. Petina Gappah's writing was quietly sublime; I was in Memory's head from the start and was fascinated to read her story. 

The story is told through a diary Memory starts while in prison, accused of murder. Memory is an albino woman who grew up with her parents and sisters before being "adopted" by Lloyd, a white man, when she was young. It is Lloyd whom she is accused of murdering, and in her diary she recounts the events leading up to her imprisonment.

The prose is powerful and the voice strong. Though I finished the book a few weeks ago, I still think about the story and about Memory's life in prison, and what it must have been like growing up as an albino woman in Zimbabwe. What really shone through the book was her feeling of always being the odd one out and never feeling like she fit in. This is the author's debut novel, but she has had a bunch of short stories and essays published, which I'll be looking out for.

LGBTQIA Classics Challenge 2016 on Queer YA



Happy New Year!

Just a quick post to let you know I'll be participating in the 2016 Classics Challenge organised by the lovely Stacey @ Pretty Books with a focus on classics with sexuality and gender identity themes. I'll be posting thoughts on books over on my other blog Queer YA (link here) so do head over there if you're interested.

I hope you received many lovely books at Christmas (I did!) and you had time to read a bunch of them over the holidays (I definitely did!).

June Reads

Hi all,

Here are the books I've read in June. I've read some truly amazing YA books, the new Judy Blume and discovered a fascinating gender studies book!

The Summer I Wasn't Me by Jessica Verdi

I read this book as part of the Queer YA Scrabble at the beginning of June. This was a stand-out book for me as it dealt sensitively with a lot of themes that are important to me and that I don't see so much in YA books: sexuality, femininity and religion. The fact that it was set in a camp to de-gayify was also fascinating. You can read my full review here on Queer YA but this is a book that more people should be reading and I will be pushing it into many hands!


The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

This is another book I read as part of the Queer YA Scrabble last month and it's been on my radar forever so I was so thrilled to finally get a chance to read it. This is another stand-out book for me in terms of YA. This book is utterly unique in its setting, characters and storytelling and I am in so much awe at Alaya Dawn Johnson's talent. The fantasy isn't your typical fantasy and there is a varied cast of characters. Brownie points for non-judgmental sex and masturbation scenes. You can see my full review here on Queer YA. If you love fantasy, this is one for you to discover this summer!


Elspeth Hart and the School for Show-Offs by Sarah Forbes

I read this lovely book for younger readers in one sitting, it was at times sweet and at others quite terrifying. Elspeth is a deeply lovable heroine and we can't help but root for her as she is trying to find out what happened to her parents while going about her daily life in the Show-Off School. Some of the characters are truly sinister and will remind you of the nightmarish characters in Roald Dahl's books. A lovely start to a soon-to-be classic series. 



One by Sarah Crossan

This book utterly broke my heart and is written with such a light and powerful touch that I'm sure it will be sweeping up all the children's / YA awards this year. This verse novel about conjoined twins Grace and Tippi will take over your heart. This is a heart wrenching and heart warming story about sisters, love and identity and is such an amazing addition to the UK (and Ireland) YA scene. It will also convert you to verse novels. Perfect for fans of contemporary YA like John Green, Jenny Downham and Gayle Forman. 


Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

I read this as the author's new book, Fear of Dying, is out at the end of the year and I wanted to read her classic novel which I'd never read before. I think this is one of these books that can't be read without keeping in mind the context in which it was written. This was very much an instant classic when it came out for its portrayal of female sexuality and which resonated with a lot of women at the time. The novel is narrated by poet and writer Isadora who finds herself in Vienna for a conference. She ditches her husband of five years in search of a more fulfilling relationship and what she ends up finding is herself. Things have changed since it was written but I really liked the style and the feminist themes so I'm very much looking forward to reading the new book!


Poirot Investigates (Hercule Poirot) by Agatha Christie

As ever, there isn't any month where I don't read an Agatha Christie! I was reticent to read Poirot at first, thinking the stereotypes on Belgians (and French people by extension) would be too annoying for me but I actually ADORE Poirot and even read his dialogue with a French accent in my head. This book is a collection of short mysteries that Poirot, Hastings and the famed little grey cells solve. I am always very proud to solve some of the mysteries myself and this was greatly enjoyable.


1492: The Year Our World Began by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

I'm doing some research on this period of history for something I'm writing and was hoping this book would be perfect but I didn't like this book as much as I'd hoped. Each chapter is about a different country for the years around 1492 and it was hard to put in perspective what happened simultaneously. It was interesting to read but I will be tracking down some other books on the subject to get more insight on some aspects of the period.


Women, History and Theory: The Essays of Joan Kelly by Joan Kelly

I loved reading this book. Joan Kelly is one of the first researchers in gender studies and she comes from a history background. It was so fascinating to read her essays - collected in this edition after her death - on looking at history from the point of view of women and how widely accepted periodisations in history can't apply to a history of women. Her essay on Renaissance and how there wasn't, strictly speaking, a Renaissance for women and this period of history was mostly about increased rights for men, was truly fascinating. This was a fantastic random find from the library and I'll be seeking more books by Joan Kelly in the future. 


In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

I adored this book! Loved it so so much! I'd only read Judy Blume's YA books and didn't know what to expect from one of her adult books but I totally loved it. The story is about three generations of family, friends and strangers in Elizabeth, New Jersey, after a series of unexpected events in the 1950s. I loved the variety of characters and what they were going through, especially Miri. I also loved the story, which was inspired by true events, and which is so topical and really makes you think. This is an amazing book and the perfect read for this summer. (Warning: not to be read on a plane or before a plane journey. You're welcome.)

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What amazing books have you read last month?

In July I've already read a few Judy Blume classics in preparation for her event on 16th July in Edinburgh (SO EXCITED! Tickets here if you want to come!), as well as Naomi Novik's AMAZING new fantasy book Uprooted and Nancy Tucker's memoir about her eating disorder The Time in Between

May Reads

Hi all,

Here are the books I've read last month:

Bulles and Blues by Charlotte Bousquet and Stephanie Rubini

This is the third book in this French graphic novel series that follows the lives of middle school teens. I loved the first two ones (Rouge Tagada and Mots Rumeurs, Mots Cutter) and this one was equally enjoyable. I love reading about the feelings of isolation and fitting in that the main character experiences and also the passion for drawing. I really love where this series is going and I think I'll do a post about all of them soon!



The Thirteen Problems (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie

I have become a HUGE Miss Marple fan so progressively going through the whole collection. This one is about a group of dinner guests telling each other stories with a mystery and the other having to guess the answer. There are thirteen stories told by different characters and Miss Marple is just showing everyone up by being amazing as always. This wasn't one of my favourite but I still hugely enjoyed reading it (and guessing 5 of the mysteries!).


Girls Will Be Girls: Dressing Up, Playing Parts and Daring to Act Differently by Emer O’Toole

I was really looking forward to this book and even though I loved most of it the last couple of chapters left me cold. I'm a feminist and also queer and I struggle sometimes to agree with what the new wave of (straight) feminists say. I thought this book would be one that wouldn't elicit this reaction. I was completely behind the whole idea of gender as a performance and costume and found that aspect fascinating to read about. The part of "dressing androgynous" and feeling ashamed of one's appearance less so. Worth a read if you ignore the last two chapters.  


Say Her Name by James Dawson

Say Her Name was shortlisted for the YA Book Prize shortlist and is a horror YA story set in a boarding school. I was very much looking forward to reading it as I grew up with (a French equivalent of) the Bloody Mary myth and it was great to see how it’d work in a contemporary setting. It's great for fans of YA horror. 

Finding Jennifer Jones by Anne Cassidy

I absolutely adored Looking For JJ and I've had my eye on this sequel for ages. We find Jennifer Jones as a student living in a flatshare and working for the summer. She is coming to terms with her new life and is trying to find her place in the world. Looking at the age of the main character and the themes talked about in the book, this could be technically qualified as New Adult though I know most titles in this age group are very different and mostly centred on sexy times. I loved this book and I loved the themes covered and I'm so glad Anne Cassidy shared the end of JJ's story with us. 


Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande

Someone heavily recommended Being Mortal to me which is Atul Gawande's latest title so the author was on my radar when I spotted this title at the library and decided to give it a go. This is the first one of his books I read and I was pleasantly surprised as I never thought a non-fiction book focusing on medicine would ever be my cup of tea (I mean, I faint at the sight of blood and have a phobia of needles and anything linked to hospitals...). I really enjoyed reading this and I'm looking forward to reading his other books (which Goodreads tell me are even better).


Disclaimer by Renee Knight

This is one of the domestic noir titles that has been recommended to me a lot. My wife loved it and I was looking forward to reading it but I ended up not loving it. I think it made me extremely uncomfortable and it wasn't quite the pleasant read but the plot is full of twists and turns and I can see it working really well for crime readers.




Recipes for Love and Murder (A Tannie Maria Mystery) by Sally Andrew

I absolutely adored this book! Cosy crime? Food? Fabulous main character? I mean was this book written for me?! It's Miss Marple meets Nigella. I loved the intrigue, the characters, the writing. Only negative thing I'd say is that the book really should come with all the food mentioned in the book for you to eat at the same time as the characters. 


The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Another domestic noir which I ended up not quite loving. In the same way that Gone Girl is a brilliant book that is a disturbing and stressful read, I can't say this has been enjoyable. I didn't like most of the characters. It's an interesting premise though and I'm sure all crime/domestic noir fans are loving this book. 




A Court of Thorn and Roses by Sarah J. Maas

I was SO looking forward to this book. I've enjoyed reading Sarah J. Maas's other series and this looked like a retelling of the Beauty and the Beast so YES PLEASE. But I ultimately didn't connect with the story as much as I'd hoped. There are Sarah J Maas's punchy writing style and sensual characters but the plot and world-building was what drew me out of the story.  

Freakboy by Kristin Elizabeth Clark

I was part of the online event Queer YA Scrabble last weekend on my other blog Queer YA and I read this as part of it. I've had this book on my radar for years and was so glad to finally read it. I hadn't realised it was a verse novel and it was a very pleasant surprise. The style really lends itself to the story and I found it truly amazing and inspiring. See my review here if you want to read.




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That's it from me. Hope you enjoyed this new format of post on the books I've read and you see something in there that you might fancy! What did you read in May that was mind-blowingly good? 

In June I'm reading some more LGBTQIA YA, the new Judy Blume and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara which is fast becoming my new favourite book ever. 

All The Bright Places - Jennifer Niven


Summary:


Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.
 
Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.
 
When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.
 
This is an intense, gripping novel perfect for fans of Gayle Forman, Jay Asher, Rainbow Rowell, John Green, and Jenny Downham from a talented new voice in YA, Jennifer Niven.


~~~

Becky's review:

I was surprised by how much this book moved me.

I started reading it and was expecting the novel to be a light teen-romance story: boy meets girl, girl meets boy, you know that kind of thing! And I was right in a way as all of those elements, which we know and love, from a Romance story are there in abundance. Niven describes the electrifying thrills of first love so well that the reader feels the exciting jolts of expectation and longing along with Violet every time she brushes against Finch’s hand. The relationship that forms between the two central characters is utterly believable; their love story is sweet, sincere and beautifully written. But the fact that both characters meet on top of a Bell Tower at the start of the book, contemplating thoughts of suicide, indicates that this is not going to be your average fairy-tale love affair.

The central Romance is born out of this meeting, and immediately flags to the reader that this story is going to be a complicated one.  The book does not shy away from complex issues about mental health, depression and suicide. As you read on and begin to root for both Finch and Violet to be together forever the narrative also subtly weaves in a sense of tragic foreboding. You want the star crossed lovers to live happily ever after, but much like another literary duo, Romeo and Juliet, the reader senses that this may not end well for one, or both, of the main characters. Niven isn’t writing a light literary Romance, but is bringing real and complicated social issues to the front of her narrative.

The characters are written really well, but for me it is the bold choice of themes that I really loved about this book. Niven challenges stereotypes and stigmatism surrounding mental health in our society by showing the undefinable nature of mental health problems. There is no easy fix and there is no typical person who suffers from mental health problems. The very nature of mental health difficulties are that they are hard to define, hard to explain to others who aren’t experiencing what you are feeling inside. But Niven shows that even though they are seemingly undefinable that we shouldn’t shy away from talking about them and sharing our thoughts and feelings with others as this is how we start to be able to understand them better.

Niven doesn’t rely on stereotypes of what people with mental health problems are like, Violet is just like you and me but she has suffered a tragic shock and loss in her life which deeply affects her, while Finch is extremely loveable, charming and strong in the face of an abusive father and struggles to cope with his own highly personal and unique problems. The lovers find each other due to their common grounding in suffering from mental health problems, but this does not define how they see each other afterwards. They see beyond that, they see each other, hear each other’s stories and love each other for who they are. Their suffering sparks a conversation and a connection, but it does not define or dominate their love story.

Well done Jennifer Niven! A brilliant and thought provoking read with real heart and great characters at its core.