Reflections on the blog so far

I began the blog as a way of encouraging myself to read more and here I am over six months later and over half way through the challenge. At first, a book a week seemed daunting. But, as the weeks have gone on, I have to admit that I’ve not only thoroughly enjoyed myself, I’ve also snuck in a few extra books that I haven’t written about on the blog. I feel like I’m breathing words again and I feel refreshed.

The blog has allowed me to discover new authors to get excited about and some of those authors came from suggestions made by readers of the blog – thank you. The blog has helped me to think further about what I like to read and why. And, unexpectedly, doing the blog put me in contact with Red Button Publishing who published my novel, Home, this March. What a great six months.

I’m going to list my favourite books so far, but I want to be clear that every book, even if I didn’t particularly like it, lived with me for a while. Certain turns of phrase or paths of thought were woven into my everyday life. I can see a giant face with myriad eyes, I can picture a café at which a young woman watches a couple soon to be overcome by tragedy, I can imagine what it feels like to wish for a connection with a future world that doesn’t feel your own, I hear the soft squeak of boots sinking into thick fresh snow. It has not been easy to decide which books I liked best, but here goes:

Some of these books fit into more than one of my made-up categories, but I think you’ll get the picture. These are the books I would recommend you read if you haven’t.

It’s been a great six months of reading and I’m already enjoying reading more. If you have any suggestions for my reading list, please do get in touch.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I haven’t read any of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s other novels, but having read Americanah I certainly intend to. Americanah is a beautifully brave novel, whose rawness matters more than my frustration with the occasionally overstretched shape of the overarching narrative, the love story of Ifemelu and Obinze. I say the novel is brave because it tackles questions of race, economic migration and poverty openly; anger is rightfully owned, prejudice is expected from all angles, but with a welcome lack of sentimentality: this is not a novel to encourage priviledged weeping and ensuing charity. Whilst this can occasionally give the novel a polemical feel, it is a polemic that should be at the centre of the international world growing around us.

Ifemelu is the outspoken, honest heart of the novel, and we follow her journey from Nigeria to America and back. We enter her story as she is on the brink of return to Nigeria, and through a series of regressions in time we experience love, university strikes in Nigeria, becoming black in America, learning to live in America, and then returning home to a changed Nigeria. Her high school and university boyfriend, Obinze, allows for a glimpse of a similar journey to England and back. Ifemelu’s views are refreshing because they allow for contradiction. You can love and hate a place at the same time. You can be nostalgic about home but still want it to change.

What the novel expresses so clearly is the idea of choice as the greatest of riches. It is something most white middle-class Western European, North American people do not think about. Choice is taken for granted. When Ifemelu goes back to Nigeria, her friend turns off the generator at night, and ‘soon Ifemelu was tossing in the wetness of her own sweat. A painful throbbing had started behind her eyes and a mosquito was buzzing nearby and she felt suddenly, guiltily grateful that she had a blue American passport in her bag. It shielded her from choicelessness. She could always leave; she did not have to stay’ (end of Chapter 44).

Americanah should be on the Bailey’s Prize for Fiction short list this year. I hope, unlike We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulowayo, which was shortlisted for the Booker and which explored similar themes, though in a very different way, it actually wins. Though the messages do sometimes overcome the writing, they are an integral part of Ifemelu’s journey and it is a journey we should all be more familiar with.

Next week I’m reading Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister followed by Beauty by Sarah Pinborough. I’m nearly half way through the year of reading a book a week. Look out for my ‘favourites so far’ post coming soon.

This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes

The last A. M. Homes book I read, The End of Alice, was a disappointment. It took an interesting kernel of an idea, the musings of a paedophile in prison, and left it unfurled. I approached this book, therefore, with a kind of sceptical curiosity. I would have read May We Be Forgiven, which won the Women’s Prize for fiction last year, but This Book Will Save Your Life was an amazon steal at 99p. Sad, but true, that the price of fiction does sometimes dictate my reading…

So with all of that as background I was pleasantly surprised by This Book Will Save Your Life. Despite being about a man’s mid-life crisis, This Book Will Save Your Life was wonderfully refreshing. Richard, white, in his fifties, rich and living alone in LA with a cleaner, a nutritionist and a personal trainer substituting for a social life, has a panic attack that wrenches him from his solitude and forces him to reconsider his life. The book becomes his fight to reconnect with life, family, desire, and most particularly his son with whom he hasn’t had regular contact for years. It feels a little like reading a Douglas Coupland novel: very American, faintly surreal and sceptically new age. Donuts, those sugary, fatty, carb diet disasters play a huge part in awakening Richard to emotions and feelings long suppressed and he finds himself behaving with an unusual altruism that muddles and brightens his life.

This Book Will Save Your Life is a quirky and well-crafted account of one man’s struggle to find himself, to be honest with himself. The careful writing and socially cushioned characters provide a safe environment for the reader, regardless of some of the personal dangers Richard encounters, and though that makes for a comforting read, the book ends up being more pleasurable than provocative. Despite my pleasure reading the book, I again come away from an A. M. Homes novel wanting more. She writes well enough to raise my expectations. I hope the next book of hers I read will meet those expectations.

Next week I’m reading Amaricanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, followed by Little Egypt by Lesley Glaister and Beauty by Sarah Pinborough.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

The Trick is to Keep Breathing navigates the grief and depression of its protagonist, Joy, following the death of her separated but married lover, Michael. Michael drowns in the pool on their first holiday together in Spain. Joy’s inability to speak Spanish gives Michael’s death a frighteningly surreal quality, almost as if she is wading through a world she can’t breath in. She brings this world home with her.

Though her breakdown follows Michael’s death, it’s clear from Joy’s behaviour that submissive emotional fragility has been part of her life for a long time, and learning to step out of that behaviour is possibly the only way Joy is going to get better. What should she get better for, though? Her best friend has gone to work in America, her mother is dead, her elder sister is terrifying and though she has men in her life, they are like stiff drinks rather than relationships – they put a little fire in her belly, but give her a headache the next day. She feels she has no control over her life and the only step she can take towards taking control herself is to control what she eats – as little as possible – and to persuade the doctors that she needs a rest in a mental institute where she spends a large portion of the novel.

There is much to admire in the construction of the novel. I like the fragmented nature of the text: the lists, the occasional script layout, the notes in the margins, the memories of Spain in a poetical kind of repetitious italics, the letters. The book reads like the dislocated diary it is. However, I’d hoped for more. I’m interested in women using their bodies to express their suffering, refusing to nourish themselves and offering their physical self in place of their whole self, allowing sex to stand in for emotional connection. But somehow, The Trick is to Keep Breathing just didn’t move me.

Joy reads books, backs of cereal boxes, anything really, hoping to make sense of things, a hope not dissimilar to my own. I don’t hope for ‘the truth’ though, as I’m not sure it’s a graspable thing. I do, however, hope to find ‘glimpses of things just beyond the reach of understanding’ (p196) and The Trick is to Keep Breathing did reveal a few glimpses just not as many as I’d imagined it might. I think The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a well-written and interesting novel, and for the right reader, it could prove life-changing. Sadly, that reader is not me, but it could be you…

Next week I’m reading This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes, followed by Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Please do make book suggestions for future weeks.


The Machine by James Smythe

The Machine is an eerie read that questions not only our faith in the mindlessness of computers, but also our faith in our safety as we mindlessly use computers. Set in a not too distant future, the world has been ravaged by climate change and England, devastated by flooding, now endures the intense heat and monsoon type rains of a tropical climate.

Beth, the main protagonist, has moved to the Isle of Wight to escape the prying eyes and unwanted sympathy she received on the mainland. Her husband, Vic, came back from a war in Iran with severe shell shock and was offered the miracle memory cure of the machine. Like so many others with post-traumatic stress syndrome, Beth and Vic were desperate to improve their lives and like all the others who tested the machine’s new therapy, they come to regret opting for the machine. The treatment wipes bad memories from its subjects’ minds and replaces the gaps with cover stories (in Vic’s case they even doctor wedding photographs in an attempt to wipe out his memory of being or even wanting to be a soldier, and they change the way in which Vic and Beth met), but along with the bad much else is wiped as well. Vic, as with all the others, becomes a hollowed out man, barely even able to remember to breath let alone speak. He is in a special hospice lying on rubber sheets.

Not surprisingly, these failures cause huge outcry and the machines are banned, even for restorative use – they had thought they could be used to help patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s. A large religious lobby attack the use of the machine as playing God and claim that its victims have been stripped of their souls.

But when we meet Beth, she has spent many years working on a plan to get Vic back, PTSS and all. She poured over websites and saved money and the book opens with the arrival of the machine, delivered to her flat and masked as exercise equipment. With the machine and the hard drive of Vic’s memories, Beth plans to replenish Vic. But can replacing those erased memories really bring back Vic? What about all the other memories that weren’t programmed into the machine, the ones that disappeared with the others? What about the false cover stories? Unsurprisingly, once the machine has been switched on, her plans unravel and are expressed through clever use of the unreliable narrator. The humming of the machine pervades Beth’s world, vibrating through her at a pitch that shatters her life.

To say more about the plot would ruin reading the book, I think. And thought-provoking as it is, The Machine didn’t take me as far as I imagined it could perhaps because it was all too worryingly believable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Experimenting with soldiers is nothing new, nor is our desire to use machines to alter our experience of the world.

This would be a great contender for adaptation into a film for the Channel 4 Black Mirror series because it uses technology to question what it means to be human, but I’m not sure that I would award it the Arthur C Clarke Award, though to say that with any authority I’d have to read the rest of the short-list. Perhaps I will…

Next week I’m reading The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway (unless it is lost in the post in which case I’ll swap to the following week’s book), then This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes, followed by Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. As always, please feel free to make book suggestions for future weeks.