Read in 2017: July

3.8.17

#37 - THE BELLWETHER REVIVALS // Benjamin Wood
'Bright, bookish Oscar Lowe has escaped the urban estate where he was raised and made a new life for himself amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge. He has grown to love the quiet routine of his life as a care assistant at a local nursing home, where he has forged a close friendship with the home's most ill-tempered resident, Dr. Paulsen. But when he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and enigmatic medical student at King's College, Oscar is drawn into her world of scholarship and privilege, and soon becomes embroiled in the strange machinations of her brilliant but troubled brother, Eden, who believes he can adapt the theories of a forgotten Baroque composer to heal people with music. Eden's self-belief knows no bounds, and as he draws his sister and closed circle of friends into a series of disturbing experiments to prove himself right, Oscar realises the extent of the danger facing them all...'
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 This book felt like a more accessible version of The Secret History.  Campus novel with an eclectic, highly intelligent group of friends culminating in death.  It's all here albeit in a much more digestible format than Donna Tartt's famous work.  If I'm honest, I think I actually enjoyed The Bellwether Revivals a little more; in part because it was easier to read but also because it's set in England and so I could visualise the setting much more vividly.  The fact that it was a much more manageable read doesn't mean in any way that the writing wasn't good...in fact there were points when I found myself re-reading sentences to savour the language a little more.  Ultimately the genre and topic's never going to be my favourite but it was fun to read nonetheless.
Rating: ★
Good if: you found The Secret History a little heavy-going

#38 - THE SHOPPING BASKET // John Burningham
'Steven is sent out for groceries on to the mean street of the city with only a shopping basket for protection. There are several shady characters about who are offering to lighten the load of the basket by helping themselves to his provisions! Steven's having none of it and with the help of some of the city's less attractive sights he outsmarts all of them and makes it home in time for tea.'
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This is a children's book which I've omitted from these lists in the past but in the interest of consistent numbering I decided to include.  Plus Ella and I read it multiple times so it's definitely earned its place here! The story of Steven's shopping trip and the characters he meets was a joy to read and had us both chuckling throughout.  And from an educational point of view it allowed Ella to practice her counting and play more than/less than number games using the illustrations.
Rating: ★
Good if: you want a book for both adults and children to enjoy

#39 - CODE NAME VERITY // Elizabeth Wein
'"I have two weeks. You'll shoot me at the end no matter what I do."
Shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, Code Name Verity is a bestselling tale of friendship and courage set against the backdrop of World War Two. 
Only in wartime could a stalwart lass from Manchester rub shoulders with a Scottish aristocrat, one a pilot, the other a special operations executive. When a vital mission goes wrong, and one of the friends has to bail out of a faulty plane over France, she is captured by the Gestapo and becomes a prisoner of war. 
The story begins in `Verity's' own words, as she writes her account for her captors. Truth or lies? Honour or betrayal? Everything they've ever believed in is put to the test . . .'
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I'm reluctant to say to much about this one for fear of giving any of the plot away.  I enjoyed reading certain parts more than others but my overall feeling is that this novel was a little dry and too heavy on the finer details of the aircrafts and the logistics of flying.  This felt very much 'YA' so perhaps I would have enjoyed it more had I read it when I was a teenager - somehow I never read the characters as being the ages they were, although maybe that's my own prejudices and awareness of the target audience affecting my overall impression.  The good points?  It raised really interesting questions of morality and the truth and had a strong female friendship as the core of the story.  Not my cup of tea but not terrible, either. 
Rating: ★ 
Good if: you fancy a wartime novel with a feminist twist

#40 - THE LAST DAYS OF LEDA GREY // Essie Fox
'During the oppressive heat wave of 1976 a young journalist, Ed Peters, finds an Edwardian photograph in a junk shop in the seaside town of Brightland. It shows an alluring, dark-haired girl, an actress whose name was Leda Grey.Enchanted by the image, Ed learns Leda Grey is still living - now a recluse in a decaying cliff-top house she once shared with a man named Charles Beauvois, a director of early silent film.
As Beauvois's muse and lover, Leda often starred in scenes where stage magic and trick photography were used to astonishing effect. But, while playing a cursed Egyptian queen, the fantasies captured on celluloid were echoed in reality, leaving Leda abandoned and alone for more than half a century - until the secrets of her past result in a shocking climax, more haunting than any to be in found in the silent films of Charles Beauvois.'
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Elijah's Mermaid by the same author is one of my favourite books and although quite similar, this one didn't quite hit the mark for me.  Fox is a talented writer and able to weave rich, evocative narratives but I've found that if you don't gel with the overarching theme then that isn't quite enough.  It's quite a heady, atmospheric book with twists and turns and moments which leave you questioning whether the things you've read are real or not.  I'm still very much a fan of Fox and would read more by her, however this one doesn't go down as a favourite.
Rating: ★
Good if: you like dark yet whimsical historical fiction

#41 - THE SIMPLE LIFE // Rhonda Hetzel
'Rhonda Hetzel feels passionately that living simply leads to a richer, more fulfilling existence. Having made the decision to live frugally, embrace sustainability and opt out of the capitalist consumerist mindset, she set about working out how to achieve her goal, learning traditional skills, reducing her spending and environmental impact and focusing on the simple things that make life worth living: family, friends, and a home-cooked meal.
This is the story of her journey and the lessons she has learned along the way. Rhonda relates why she wanted to change her lifestyle, what simple living means to her, and offers guidance to those thinking about taking the same path.'

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I was looking for more reading material to do with simple living and decided to give this eBook a whirl.  It started off well, with some take-home consideration about consumerism, but I found myself not really enjoying the 'at home' side of things.  It felt rather dated - living off the land and, ultimately, giving the impression of being the ideal housewife.  Which I'm not against, if that's what someone chooses to be, but I'm sure that the antidote to capitalism could be a little more progressive.
Rating: ★
 Good if: you want to read more about sustainable living

#42 - ALL THE GOOD THINGS // Clare Fisher
'Twenty-one year old Beth is in prison. The thing she did is so bad she doesn't deserve ever to feel good again.
But her counsellor, Erika, won't give up on her. She asks Beth to make a list of all the good things in her life. So Beth starts to write down her story, from sharing silences with Foster Dad No. 1, to flirting in the Odeon on Orange Wednesdays, to the very first time she sniffed her baby's head.
But at the end of her story, Beth must confront the bad thing.
What is the truth hiding behind her crime? And does anyone - even a 100% bad person - deserve a chance to be good?' 
 I read this in one day and it's going to stick with me for a long while yet.  Again, it's one that I don't want to give too much away on, but it was heartbreaking and I felt empty by the end.  Being a similar(ish) age to Beth meant I could relate to her environment and some of her experiences, yet she and I are also so different that it was really eye-opening to read.  It's written in a no-nonsense style which I think would resonate with our generation; like Carys Bray with a bit more grit.
Rating: ★
Good if: you want an up to date contemporary which isn't afraid to tackle more serious topics

#43 - THE TIDAL ZONE // Sarah Moss
'"Put your fingers in your ears, lay your head on the pillow, listen to the footsteps of your blood.
You are alive."
Everything you know, the everyday comfort of your ordinary life, can be broken in an instant.
Adam is a stay-at-home dad who is also working on a history of the bombing and rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. He is a good man and he is happy. But one day, he receives a call from his daughter's school to inform him that, for no apparent reason, fifteen-year-old Miriam has collapsed and stopped breathing.
In that moment, he is plunged into a world of waiting, agonising, not knowing. The story of his life and the lives of his family are rewritten and re-told around this shocking central event, around a body that has inexplicably failed.'
I'd heard such rave reviews about this that, honestly, I was a little dubious.  I was wrong!  The writing is so accomplished that within the first chapter I knew it was worth the hype.  The characters are complex, unlikeable at times and through them we explore difficult topics.  I found Miriam downright precocious but enjoyed her character's views on the patriarchy.  Stay-at-home dad Adam's dynamics with his family (and workaholic wife) provided an interesting viewpoint to consider and his father's reflections on him coming of age in America gave further depth to the story.  My only gripe is that I didn't enjoy the focus on Coventry Cathedral - whilst it certainly added another layer, I feel as though it got in the way of the main plot.
Rating: ★

 Good if:  you like beautiful writing with plenty to think about

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