May Reading Wrap Up

And just like that, we’re approaching the half-way mark for 2018. Mad, exciting, worrying, and ever so slightly terrifying, this year has flown by – which I know I probably say every year, but at least I’m consistent.

Reading wise, May has been my best yet with 5 books devoured. The first of which was particularly monstrous, as I finished the Laini Taylor Trilogy with Dreams of Gods and Monsters. Breathtakingly creative, this series has been one that is as inspiring as it is impressive. There are moments of hilarity as well as heart-wrenching sadness, with characters that are diverse, charming, and well-crafted. Laini Taylor has had be won over as an author since reading Strange the Dreamer last year, and I’m so glad I decided to read this imaginative, fantastical series.

Somewhere during my reading of Dreams of Gods and Monsters, I went to an incredible talk by Louise O’Neill, an author who manages to deliver books that punch you in the gut and leave you reeling, wanting to change the world. You can see my review of Asking for It here, a book that I’ve thought about often since finishing, so I knew I had to pick up her latest book The Surface Breaks. A feminist retelling of ‘The Little Mermaid’, this treasure of a book is one I’d recommend to anyone in their early teens – as I wish I had had it when I was that age. Closer to the original story rather than the Disney version, this tale is of a young girl who is paraded around as a commodity and something to possess rather than an individual with her own voice, her body something to be used and decorated and belonging to the men around her. This is a story of her reclaiming her body and her voice, despite losing it. The Sea Witch is an incredible character, one who I want to have her own story, and never before is it made so painfully clear that the heroine goes from one abusive relationship to the next, her life dictated by the men she tries to love, until she finally wakes up and sees the world for what it is. Buy it for your daughters, nieces and sisters, and especially buy it for your sons, brothers and nephews. A powerful, important book.

After thoroughly enjoying the new Marvel film, I decided to keep that love going by picking up Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman. He is such a clever writer, and more and more I find a more suitable title for him is wordsmith. He crafts sentences and stories in a way that sweep you to another place, and definitely makes his mark on these myths – some well-known, and others less so. I honestly could have read this in one sitting, but managed to pace it out with various tube-journeys. Would highly recommend to those who are new to Norse mythology, and even old hands who want to revisit the grand stories told in a different style.

Clearly not over my onslaught of fantasy, after that I delved into Seraphina by Rachel Hartman. I’ve seen this book several times over the last few years, and always thought it would be something I’d enjoy (hello, dragons). A very different kind of fantasy book, this one is set in an old-fashioned world and written in a language to reflect this setting. It’s a world of court and dragons, and a girl stuck between the two worlds. Well-told, this was definitely a slow-burner for me but definitely worth the wait.

Then finally, I read ‘The Custard Heart’ and other stories by Dorothy Parker, all wrapped up in the new beautiful Vintage covers. Along with two other tales, ‘The Custard Heart’ was a well-told short story with a strong female lead and interesting side-characters. Each had a loud, boisterous heroine and tackled various themes and topics. Whilst they didn’t have my heart soaring, I did enjoy them as short reads and am glad to have had a taster for Dorothy Parker’s writing style. A great way to finish off the month of May.

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March Wrap Up

 

Back again with another reading wrap up, this time for the glorious month of March. This is the month where I had the embarrassingly late realisation that I should probably count the books that I read for university in this wrap up, and maybe that way I’ll feel more motivated to keep reading them.

First up was the glorious Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab which I was very kindly sent by Titan Books for an honest review on the Waterstones website (and you can see what I said here – my review is titled ‘A Swashbuckling Finale’, which I was pretty proud of). It was a brilliant end to what has been a fantastic trilogy, and whenever I try to do my own writing for fun I think of how Schwab weaves together her masterpieces and marvel at her extraordinary imagination. If you enjoy fantasy filled with magic, pirates, parallel Londons, cross-dressing thieves, and a magical red coat, then this is the trilogy for you.

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The next book I read was Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, which I read for the Feminist Book Club I am a part of. It had such a powerful effect on me that I had to write a review on it straight away, which you can read here. I had to put this book down several times because I physically couldn’t read it all in one go just due to how painful to read it was – in a good way. It follows the story of a girl who lives in a small town who gets raped, and how her friends and family react to it. What makes this a very difficult novel to swallow is the fact that we see this girl before the rape, and she isn’t someone that you root for – she lies to her friends, maliciously degrades them, and overall just isn’t someone you want to hang around. As a reader, it’s very difficult to be thrown into a narrative alongside a character like this, especially as all you want to do is sympathise with her when she does get raped. And of course you do sympathise, and the author is powerfully demonstrating the message that there is no circumstance in which rape should be pardoned. A brilliant book with a very important message.

To recover from that book hangover, I read Blood For Blood by Ryan Graudin. The follow-up of Wolf by Wolf, this marked the end of a duology. I think I may have preferred the first book, but that by no means meant that this wasn’t a great conclusion. The characters are certainly explored and developed more, and I think the end was very fitting, if not very hard to accept personally due to what happens to some characters – and that’s as much as I’ll say.

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Following that I read two plays for university: The Island by Athol Fugard and Thebes Land by Sergio Blanco. Both were for a module on classical reception, the first of which is a famous reception of Antigone, the latter a reception of the Oedipus myth. Both were very dynamic reads, especially when you know the mythology inspiration behind them, and I wish I could see them performed.

Finally for March, I read Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, a book that I’ve put off reading because I loved Illuminae, the first in the series, so much that I was gutted to find out the sequel focussed on different characters. But oh my god how I’m glad it did, because the characters you meet in Gemina are, dare I say it, almost even better than the ones in Illuminae. A brilliant sic-fi read and the most interesting, using not prose but an amalgamation of emails, transcripts, the occasional transposed video blog, diagrams and more. It’s fun and a new way to read, one that I absolutely adored.

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Which brings us to my total of 12 books read so far this year, excluding the books that I read on my Kindle (because Amazon is the devil and we should support bookshops as much as possible). So to look to my 2017 reading challenges, this is what it looks like so far:

  1. 4 ‘Classics’
  2. *A Man Booker nominee
  3. *A Baileys nominee
  4. *A Feminist Book cover to cover
  5. **‘A Blue Cover’
  6. A Graphic Novel
  7. A Horror Book
  8. *Finish a series you’ve started
  9. A friend’s favourite book
  10. Poetry book
  11. *Book over 500 pages
  12. Book under 150 pages
  13. Book with a character with your name
  14. An autobiography
  15. **A play
  16. *A book from your TBR
  17. **Book published in 2017

Conjuring of Light ticked off the ‘Book over 500 pages’, Asking For It ticked off the ‘Feminist Book’ because although it isn’t non-fiction it is based on true events and it’s powerful enough to deserve that place. Blood For Blood sorted out ‘finish a series you’ve started’, the two plays obviously ticked off the ‘play’ challenge, and Gemina ticked off ‘Blue cover’ once more. So I have eight challenges left to complete this year: the four classics, a graphic novel, a horror book, a friend’s favourite, poetry, a book under 150 pages, a book with a character with my name, and an autobiography. The only ones I’m worried about are the classic challenge, the horror and the autobiography – mainly because I don’t know what to read. So if you have any recommends for horror books, hilarious autobiographies, or your favourite classics, then let me know in the comments. Please. I beg.

 

Asking For It by Louise O’Neill

I’m part of a Feminist Book Club, and for next month we’re reading Asking For It by Louise O’Neill, a book that I had heard of briefly but didn’t know much about. Originally classed as YA, often today you’ll find this book among adult fiction and, honestly, even at 20 I found this book so difficult to read in terms of the themes and what happens in the book. Trigger warning for this discussion, as this book deals with rape, bullying, and suicide.

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In a small town where everyone knows everyone, Emma O’Donovan is different. She is the special one – beautiful, popular, powerful. And she works hard to keep it that way. 

Until that night . . . 

Now, she’s an embarrassment. Now, she’s just a slut. Now, she is nothing.

And those pictures – those pictures that everyone has seen – mean she can never forget. 

BOOK OF THE YEAR AT THE IRISH BOOK AWARDS 2015. The award-winning, bestselling novel about the life-shattering impact of sexual assault, rape and how victims are treated.

This first part of the review is spoiler-free, and I’ll indicate when I do go into spoiler territory. To start with, this book is all about a girl from a small town in Ireland who is gang raped after drinking and taking drugs, something that she has no memory of – only pictures that the boys took of her that were uploaded to social media.

The first half of this book leads up to this event, and whilst you go in knowing what will happen at the halfway mark, you are by no means ready for what will happen. Our protagonist, Emma O’Donovan, is not a character that you will like. Part of the popular crowd at school, she is mean, vindictive, spiteful, and all-in-all a horrible person, and it is this that makes this book even worse than you can imagine. Because, as a reader, you don’t like her. But you’re with her as she goes through this traumatic event and want to fight this battle for her as people turn on her, yet part of you still remembers how awful of a person she is. It’s like a huge slap to the face, a constant reminder that it doesn’t matter who she is or what she’s done – no one deserves to be so violently assaulted, and no one ever is asking for it.

We meet Emma and her so-called ‘friends’ in the first half, hanging out, going to parties, and living their lives. Emma is known for her beauty and she prides herself on that, judging those around her by their looks. She’s a bully, and uncaring towards everyone including her friends, only interested in someone if they can give her an advantage in some way. She’s loved by her family, in some kind of way, but they too value her looks and how she compares to others – they think of her as a ‘good girl’, one who never drinks or does drugs or has sex.

When reading the scene leading up to the rape, I had to put this book down to take a breather. I would definitely recommend making sure you’re in the right frame of mind to take on this book and especially would advise taking breaks, because I personally could not take it in all in one go. The aftermath of the assault is even worse, but you join Emma a year afterwards. That is as much as I will say in terms of plot for this non-spoiler section.

It’s gutting, this piece of fiction, mainly because you know that although it’s fictional and set in a fictional town, this is happening to girls – and boys – every day. You know it’s based on real events, and as much as it sickens you, there are still people who think ‘she was asking for it’. Even today, you go on the comment sections to awful news stories about people getting raped, and you’ll  have some people still saying that the rape victim is partly to blame, that they shouldn’t have been wearing such short skirts, that they shouldn’t have been drinking, that really they’re making themselves more vulnerable and ‘what do they expect to happen?’ And these people genuinely believe what they’re saying, as if the victim is at fault and is partly to blame. Because we live in a society where rape still isn’t as black and white as it should be. A woman gets mugged and the mugger is punished. A woman gets raped and she’s asked what she was wearing. One very poignant line that got to me in this book was the comment that the rapists are innocent until proven guilty, the victim guilty until proven innocent.

This book is so important, and should be read by everyone. Rape culture is something that needs to be addressed more, especially in how we present it. We should be telling people not to rape and punishing them if they do, not telling people how not to get raped. When you look at the most typical rape cases, the victim is normally wearing something that isn’t revealing, and often it’s by someone that they know. It baffles me that we’re still trying to change these ideas people have about rape. This book, I hope, will help to change that.

*Spoilers ahead*

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One thing this book does is let you see Emma go back to school for the next days after the rape, and then we lose all contact until a year later to see the aftermath. We’re not with her for the suicide attempts, we’re not with her for the abuse she gets, we’re not with her when she starts going to therapy, we’re not with her when her parents abandon her in almost every way – so when we finally do get back, it feels like there is no hope. It feels like, for a reader, there is literally nothing to be done. All we know is that Emma, in an effort to try and make it all ‘go away’, originally played it off as nothing and then only later agreed to say it was rape. You want to burst into this book and sit her down, much like her brother and therapist, and tell her that she is not at fault. Tell her that she is not the reason she was raped. Tell her that she should demand justice. Tell her to fight.

Yet I speak from a privileged background. I have a loving supportive network of friends and family, all who would stand by me and, most importantly, believe me if I told them I had been assaulted. It’s easy to say that I would fight for justice when I haven’t been assaulted, so it’s killing to watch someone – character or not – go through such agony only to fall. What makes it worse is that Emma recognises that when she was unconscious, those four boys assaulting her was rape, but before – when she has sex with Paul and is slightly drunk, when she doesn’t want to have sex and he ignores her – she doesn’t classify as rape.

The fact that her friend/rival Jamie was raped a year before the start of this book makes you feel even more inclined to dislike Emma. We know that Emma was the one to tell her not to say anything, and it’s almost, almost, understandable when Jamie turns on Emma.

The fact that this book ends with Emma telling her family that she wants to retract her statement, that she doesn’t want to go through with it, almost had me in tears. And when her mother and father smile at her afterwards, like they’re proud as if she won’t be the ‘raped girl’ anymore? Nearly destroyed me. Her own mother says the line ‘they’re good boys really. This all just got out of hand’.

This book is utterly heart-wrenching, gutting, soul-destroying, and at the same time exactly as it should be. You’ll find so many discussions about this book and the subject matter, and I for one would highly recommend listening to ‘The Banging Book Club’ podcast. They cover this book in their first episode, and it’s great to listen to other people discussing this challenging book.