Reading Round-Up: what did you read in June?

I read six fiction books this month; full details of each are below!

Lessons In Chemistry is the bestselling debut novel by Bonnie Garmus.

The blurb:

Chemist Elizabeth Zott is not your average woman.

In fact, Elizabeth Zott would be the first to point out that there is no such thing as an average woman. But it’s the early 1960s and her all-male team at Hastings Research Institute take a very unscientific view of equality. Except for one: Calvin Evans; the lonely, brilliant, Nobel-prize nominated grudge-holder who falls in love with—of all things—her mind. True chemistry results. 
But like science, life doesn’t always follow a straight line. Which is why a few years later Elizabeth Zott finds herself not only a single mother, but the reluctant star of America’s most beloved cooking show Supper at Six. Elizabeth’s unusual approach to cooking (“combine one tablespoon acetic acid with a pinch of sodium chloride”) proves revolutionary. But as her following grows, not everyone is happy. That’s because Elizabeth Zott isn’t just teaching women to cook. She’s daring them to change the status quo. 

What the critics are saying:

On par with Beth Harmon of The Queen’s Gambit, Elizabeth Zott swept me away with her intellect, honesty, and unapologetic selfhood. Lessons in Chemistry is a story for all the smart girls who refuse to dumb themselves down despite a culture that demands otherwise. Though a creation of the 50s & 60s, Zott is a feminist icon for our time.

Rachel Yoder
author of Nightbitch

A timeless book, written with furious elegance, black humour and delightful quirk. Elizabeth Zott is an iconic heroine – a feminist who refuses to be quashed, a mother who believes that her child is a person to behold, rather than to mould, and who will leave you, and the lens through which you see the world, quite changed. 

Pandora Sykes
journalist, broadcaster, and author of How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right?

Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus is the most charming, life-enhancing novel I’ve read in ages. It’s funny, clever, slightly whimsical without being in any way cutesy, and a perfect delight… Very strongly recommend.’

India Knight
The Sunday Times

All I can say is: what a remarkable book. I loved every page and enjoyed getting to know the formidable Elizabeth Zott; a woman ahead of her time in more ways than one. The story covers a lot of themes and sub-plots, all of which are neatly tied up at the end. Brilliant stuff!

I grabbed this from my wife’s bookshelf and read the whole thing in one sitting, on the beach, with the sounds of my children playing in the sand in the background.

My Sister, the Serial Killer is Oyinkan Braithwaite’s debut novel and it won several awards when it was published in 2019. It’s easy to see why; this is a witty, clever and funny take on sibling relationships.

Set in Nigeria, this is the story of two sisters: Korede (the older, sensible one) and Ayoola (the youngest, pretty and serial killer one). The novel opens with Korede helping Ayoola to clean up blood after she’s murdered another boyfriend…

The blurb:

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

Best described as: darkly comic. A very entertaining book!

Last month I read Birthday by Meredith Russo and enjoyed it so much that I tracked down her previous novel, If I Was Your Girl.

Blurb on the back:

Amanda Hardy is the new girl at school. Like everyone else, all she wants is to make friends and fit in. But Amanda is holding back. Even from Grant, the guy she’s falling in love with. Amanda has a secret. At her old school, she used to be called Andrew. And secrets always have a way of getting out…

You can read an interview with Russo here, where she discusses If I Was Your Girl.

This book deals with big issues – being who you really are; transitioning from male to female; suicide; first loves; surviving high school; LGBTQ representation; bullying; family struggles. At it’s heart is the story of Amanda and her journey from self-loathing to self-acceptance, and from lonely misfit to developing meaningful relationships.

I must admit that I didn’t find it quite as engaging as Birthday, but I’m very aware that, as a middle-aged cis man, I’m not exactly the target audience for a YA novel such as this!

Still, representation is important, and this is a wonderful book for the right audience.

At just under 500 pages, Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, is a book to slowly savour rather than to greedily gobble up.

Published in 1988, this tells the story of an artist, Elaine, from childhood to middle-age, through the lens of bullying; Elaine’s experiences of being bullied at school and the terrible toll it takes on her, casting long shadows throughout her life.

The blurb:

Elaine Risley, a painter, returns to Toronto to find herself overwhelmed by her past. Memories of childhood – unbearable betrayals and cruelties – surface relentlessly, forcing her to confront the spectre of Cordelia, once her best friend and tormentor, who has haunted her for forty years.

Elaine has a remarkable memory, recalling every detail from her difficult childhood; these memories are triggered as she revisits the city she grew up in as she prepares to open an exhibition of her work. We are privy to dark and disturbing descriptions of the pain she felt at the hands of her bullies, who were once her friends.

I found the book somewhat heavy going; I was at once curious to read about Elaine’s childhood experiences with her foe, Cordelia, yet also afraid of where it would all lead. It’s fascinating to see how her childhood experiences influenced her adulthood, yet also depressing. I kept with the story, hoping for a full-on confrontation with Cordelia and the past, for some explosive moment that would absolve Elaine and free her to move on, while somehow giving Cordelia the comeuppance she so clearly deserves.

The line blurs between the past and the present; do our memories remain locked up in physical locations that no longer resemble those places as we remembered them, or are we prisoners of the past, never quite free enough to move on, and forever reminded of the past by walking down the streets of our youth?

If I had to describe this book in one word it would be: haunted.

Having enjoyed the Netflix Heartstopper TV adaptation, I wanted to read the source material: Heartstopper by Alice Oseman.

This is just volume one from the series; I’ll have to wait until the local library buys the rest of the books before reading more.

Of course I already know the story, so there were no surprises. What amazed me, though, was just how close to the book the TV show is. The actors look just like the characters Oseman drew in the book; it’s almost as if the book was made after the TV show, rather than the other way around. It’s brilliant that Netflix remained so faithful to the source material.

If you’ve not read or watched Heartstopper yet you’re in for a treat, regardless of which one you start with: the books or the TV show.

Weighing in at a slim less-than-two-hundred-pages, I thought I’d devour this book in a couple of days; how wrong I was.

Instead of a quick read, this was a slow-burner for me. Not because I was particularly savouring the writing, but more because the story seemed to plod along without leaving me particularly hanging on for more…

Published in 1967, this is considered to be something of a classic. Set in Australia in 1900, it tells the story of the disappearance of a few girls from Appleyard College for Young Ladies, during a picnic at Hanging Rock.

Unusually for a novel, the climax of the action (i.e. the girls’ disappearance) happens early on; the remainder of the book details the fallout from that fateful picnic, and how it affects the community of characters.

For me, this wasn’t quite the page-turner that I was expecting (I suppose I thought this was going to be a thriller). The book gets more chilling, however, as it progresses, with vivid descriptions of nature; there is something sinister about the ways the trees, the flowers, the animals and the weather are described, that set a intense backdrop for the action, almost overpowering the landscape, threatening to take over the characters at any given moment.

The tension comes from the what happens after the girls disappear; the book gets darker, creepier and more sinister towards the end.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading! How about you?

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