The last month of the year… Some of you might know that one of my New Years resolutions this year was to keep track of all the books I read, which I decided to do here, since it might be of use or interest to some of you out there. Turns out I read rather a lot! But it’s been fun sharing them with you, and there’s nothing better than sitting inside the warmth with a good book, during a London winter…
Serpent’s Kiss by Melissa de la Cruz
Genre: Magic Realism
Logline: Sexy barmaid Freya, her bookish older sister Ingrid and their eccentric mother Joanna are witches, looking for love and creating magic in their small town home in the Hamptons. But when Freya’s twin brother returns from Limbo where he was banished, and accuses Freya’s boyfriend of framing him, things start to unravel.
There’s something so simple and fun about these books, this one being the second in the Witches Of East End series. They are flawed, I think, in the sense that they are a bit like watching a soap but with magic thrown in, and yet something about it all just works. I think because the characters are all distinct, and it’s all rather fun, you find yourself more than happy to suspend your belief and go with it. And whilst it’s all a bit over the top, it’s never predictable.
Let’s Kill Uncle by Rohan O’Grady
Genre: Dark Comedy
Logline: Barnaby is an orphan sent to an Island full of colorful characters for his school holidays, where he makes friend with fellow exile, Christie, but Barnaby stands to inherit millions, and his evil uncle is plotting his downfall. Unless the two naughty children can kill Uncle first…
Written in the style of it’s contemporary children’s literature, this book reads like a Famous Five mystery, but with all the social insights and parodies that Blyton left out, and with quite a dark turn. These children are not above blackmail or tantrums, and are happy to get whatever benefits they can from the townsfolk they stay with, whilst also carrying on a rampage through the island. Yet, you sort of end up liking them because they are so incorrigible and appear to be the most sensible on the island. The plot follows the kind of simple plotting of a childs chapter book, though with a complete psychopath in opposition to the “innocents”. It’s all quite comic, with larger than life characters and true villains, a jungle adventure landscape, and of course, a plot to murder. It’s actually a pretty classic book.
Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Genre: Victorian Sensationalism
Logline: The delightful Lady Audley was plucked from her dull life as a villiage governess when she married her wealthy husband, but her life starts to unravel when her husband returns from Australia and her maid starts to uncover her hidden past.
There’s something about Victorian Sensationalism that really keeps you ripping through the pages. This one was a huge seller in it’s own day, and was derided for it’s sentimentalism, it’s over the top plotting and for generally being part of pop culture. It has since been reclaimed as literature, especially by Feminists who do not like to see female authors consigned to the dusty back shelves of obscurity while they still have something to say. Without giving too much away, Lady Audley’s Secret, like other books of it’s time, pointed out the way in which social and legal parameters kept women in a very poor position and often led to their downfall. In this story, we see that Lady Audley was abandoned by a husband who could not take care of her, or their young child, and society would not allow her to help herself. She does a bold and somewhat immoral thing in hiding her identity and striking out on her own, and there are consequences which soon catch up with her. We’re meant to sympathise with the husband who abandoned her to an alcoholic father and abject poverty or worse, and then with his friend who investigates her, but… Even though she’s maybe not the nicest character, I always felt like I was rooting for her. That said, it’s just a ripping yarn, full of great descriptions of the era, of the landscapes, the people, and events that get very out of hand and leave our herione in all kinds of peril. It’s certainly never dull.
A Redbird Christmas by Fannie Flagg
Logline: Recovering alcoholic Oswald has spent his whole life in Chicago, but when his doctor gives him only months to live, he is told he should move to the sunny south to prolong his life. But a shopkeeping cardinal bird, an abandoned child and a cast of funny characters give him the life he always wanted, but is it too late?
Ah, Fannie Flagg, you darling woman. OK, so this one is kind of cheesy, but I found myself getting really into the lives of the small town of Lost Creek, and laughing at Mildreds grumpy attitude and old Alma’s senility. It’s another lovely book from this author, and I ripped through it with a cup of Chai tea in a cafe in London, waiting for a friend to meet me, and watching the rugged up passersby with their Christmas shopping. It’s not often that a book is clever enough to make me laugh out loud on the train to work, or to make me catch my breath hoping that the worst won’t happen, and this one does. It’s a really nice, sweet book, beautifully written and heartfelt, a perfect seasonal read.
Mama by Terry McMillan
Logline: When a young mother with five children throws out her abusive husband, she is determined that they will live a better life and go to college, but as they grow work is hard to find and life isn’t easy.
I’ve read a few of McMillan’s novels now, and they are consistently good. This is McMillan’s first book, and feels different in tone from her later prose. It’s a lot darker, more bleak but also shows the beginnings of the sense of humour and hope that characterises her later work. The interesting thing here is that because the characters are all struggling so hard to survive, none of them are actually that nice, they are all too human. This doesn’t detract from the story at all, it’s more like an insight into how life is and how life feels for a large proportion of the population of America. It’s a really good book, but not an uplifting read.
Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Genre: War/Historical Fiction
Logline: A couple and their houseboy find the balance of their lives disrupted when civil war breaks out in Nigeria in the 60’s.
This is kind of an incredible but harrowing book. It’s very much about the human side of war, and the families that live through it with the politics slightly less to the forefront, though not pushed aside at all. What I liked about it most, after the sheer artistry of the authors words, was that the author was an African writing about Africa, specifically a Nigerian talking about Biafra. I’ve looked for some African authors for a while, but it seems like a lot of what can be found is written by people who love Africa, or who want to write history, so I was really happy to hear about this author. And I loved this book. Each character is so well drawn and individual, responding to the world around them as best they can, often surprising themselves with their bravery as much as their cowardice or lack of power. They are not overly introspective and the author has a way of showing us the mystery of others by showing their thoughts, but not revealing everything, not sitting with the characters as they navel gaze. I found this book really powerful and moving.
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Genre: Southern Gothic/Crime
Logline: Two friends are torn apart when one of them is accused of causing the disappearance of a girl. Twenty years later, the past comes back to haunt them when another girl goes missing.
Larry Ott is a social outcast, looking for the approval of his mechanic father when he slowly makes friends with the new kid in town, Silas Jones, who fast falls in with the local crowd because if his gift for baseball. The fact that Silas is black and Larry is white is cause enough to keep their friendship private, but also because their parents strongly disapprove. And here is where the mystery begins. Set amongst the small town life of a Southern town, everyone knows everyone’s business and the landscape feels like a live participant in the lives and behaviour of the inhabitants. Snakes, dark woods, isolated houses, racial tensions, deserted properties are juxtaposed against neighbourliness, diner food and drive in movies. The narrative slips between the past when the boys are teens, and warily getting to know each other, and their adult lives, where Silas is now a policeman, and Scary Larry, though never convicted, is held responsible by the town for the disappearance of a girl called Cindy years before. The mystery slowly unfolds as we start to see that Silas might know more than he cares to admit and another young girl goes missing, leading to someone breaking in and shooting Larry in revenge for this new disappearance. The slipping between the two stories and the two time periods is artfully done, revealing just enough to keep you turning pages, to keep you guessing, and the characters of the two boys like pawns in the adult world, where innocence is slowly twisted.
The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
Genre: Victorian Literature/Crime
Logline: On her 18th birthday, beautiful, wealthy Rachel Verinder inherits a huge diamond from her uncle, but the stone is almost immediately stolen. Said to carry a terrible curse, suspicion begins to fall on all around her, and mysterious strangers threaten as her life falls apart.
Credited with being the first ever mystery novel, books before this telling the events of the crime and how the culprit is discovered, this tale is said to have inspired the greats like Arthur Conan Doyle to create detectives like Sherlock Holmes. Originally published in serial form, before being sold in volumes, like most Victorian literature was, this follows an episodic format, telling the story in a linear fashion through the epistles of different characters, events slowly unfolding. This allows for some humorous caricatures of well known social types at the time: the loyal servant, the zealous Christian woman, as well as leaving room for heightening suspense, as plots thicken and twist around but the character can only narrate what they themselves witnessed. It has some lovely dramatic tropes, the estranged lovers, the damsel in distress, a servant with a dark past, and some interesting themes around suicide, murder and opium use (which was to eventually take the life of the author). It might all sound a bit much, but this book is a classic for a reason, it’s truly a rollicking read, and you’ll never see what’s coming next, partly because it’s so preposterous! I highly recommend it.
The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe
Genre: Historical Fiction/Fantasy
Logline: An intellectual women finds her world upended by her hippy mother requesting she clear out her Grandmothers abandoned house, but when she finds a key and a name hidden in a Bible, she’s led into a search for a lost book.
Written by a descendant of two of the women convicted for witchcraft during the trials at Salem, who is also a historian of the time period, this book is incredibly evocative of the era, and includes loads of reference to actual events and circumstances, as well as a thorough knowledge of the lifestyle and facts of the period. As such it’s a fascinating read, but also with it’s strong elements of magic and mystery, it’s also a lot of fun. I kind of worked out what was going on a quarter of the book sooner than the protagonist, which was mildly annoying, but it didn’t spoil the enjoyment of the book as a whole. The author was fun with her characters, and the circumstances, whilst also drawing you in to the humanity of a time so very different from our own, and the true horrors of what the accused went through. I like the way the book switches between the modern and the medieval, I really enjoyed reading this book.