My Month in Books: August

Every month I round-up all the books I’ve read; here’s the list for August 2022!

No, this isn’t a self-help guide to murder; sorry to disappoint you if that’s what you’re looking for. Perhaps head over to the true crime section of your local library instead, for some top tips on bumping off annoying family members or irritating colleagues.

How To Kill Your Family is the bestselling debut novel from Bella Mackie (a freelance journalist who often writes for The Guardian).

Blurb on the back:

They say you can’t choose your family. But you can kill them…

Meet Grace Bernard. Daughter, sister, serial killer…

Grace has lost everything. And she will stop at nothing to get revenge.

I wasn’t looking for this book; I found it in our local Little Free Library, and grabbed it to bring on holiday. I mean, it looks like a fun read, with that pink cover and eye-catching graphics. There’s even a quote from current popular comic murder novelist Richard Osman, declaring “I loved this book”.

I’ll start off by saying that I enjoyed the build-up and descriptions of the murders; they are indeed darkly comical, and appealed to my twisted sense of humour. The protagonist, Grace, has strong opinions and prejudices against all kinds of people, which often make her seem shallow, although there is a deeper motivation that drives her to commit these crimes. (I won’t share any spoilers here!)

Chapters more-or-less alternate between Grace reflecting on life her prison cell after she has been, ironically, convicted of a murder that she did not commit, and the stories of the murders themselves, which she describes in delicious detail. Grace goes off on tangents, attacking other people’s lifestyles, which makes the reader wonder what kind of people does she actually does like; if she were a real person it’s hard to picture who her friends would be.

There is a twist at the end (no spoilers) which more-or-less wraps things up.

I enjoyed the crimes that Grace commits; even though she is meticulous and cruel, there is something very funny about this murderous story. I guess we have all day-dreamed about bumping someone off and getting away with it…

How To Kill Your Family is a nice companion to (the superior) My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite; both are darkly comical with blood, gore and humour aplenty.

Malorie Blackman writes in the foreword to this 2012 edition:

Noughts and Crosses wasn’t so much a book I wanted to write as a book I needed to write. It was born of a number of factors, including – but not limited to – a need to deal with a number of events from my past, a desire to tackle the subject of racism head on, and the burning anger I felt regarding the death of Stephen Lawrence and the subsequent mishandling of the police inquiry into his death…

…I knew I was writing a book that would make some adults very uncomfortable (and it did!) because I was dealing with racism, terrorism, the class system and the artificial divides we always seem to put between ourselves and others. But it was a risk that I was willing to take.

I read the whole book in just a couple of days and am still processing it all. I’m surprised that I hadn’t read it before now; I’ve seen it many times in libraries and bookshops, but never felt inspired enough to pick it up. Only recently have I started to dip into YA books.

It’s clear that Noughts and Crosses was ground-breaking with it’s premise: imagine a world in which dark-skinned colonisers conquered Europe instead of white-skinned people colonising Africa, so that our reality is flipped. In this imagined world, light-skinned people are the underclass, struggling against institutional racism.

The story centres around the forbidden relationship between Sephy (a dark-skinned Cross) and Callum (a light-skinned Nought). Blackman masterfully uses this relationship to hold up a mirror to the real world, to reflect the racism that still prevails in our society.

Let’s just say that this novel is something of a modern classic, and we can see its influence in other writers’ works, such as Ace of Spades by Faridah Àbíké-Íyímídé, another YA novel that also tackles the theme of institutional racism.

Blackman has since published four more books in the Noughts and Crosses series.

image from:

The BBC adapted the book into a TV drama in 2020; now I’ve read Noughts and Crosses I’m intrigued to see how it translates to television.

cover of Help Me! by Marianne Power

Marianne Power, a freelance journalist, spent a year devoting herself to following the advice in self-help books. Help Me! is her account of that year of self-discovery, including hilarious highs, terrible lows and everything in between.

Power delivered a TED talk about her experiences that she writes about in her book:

And here, she briefly goes through three of the self-help books that she lived by during her experiment of self-discovery:

I really enjoyed this book! It was fun to find out about a range of self-help books, some of which I’d heard of and none that I’ve ever read, and to see how effective (or not) they were when Power attempted to follow their rules.

The only self-help books I’ve ever really read are Ruby Wax‘s books about mindfulness, which I thought were pretty good (and very funny) but even those didn’t change my life. I definitely wouldn’t have the stamina to devote a whole year to not only reading twelve different self-help books, but to live my life by them.

Help Me! is surprisingly moving, especially when Power shares her slide into depression, which is partly fuelled by her obsession with self-help books. The way she jumps right into living her life by these extreme self-help books is at times inspiring, often courageous, but sometimes a bit silly.

The book is a rollercoaster of a ride, but like many scary fairground rides, perhaps Power’s self-help story is best observed from the safety of the sidelines rather than lived out for yourself.

Homesickness is a collection of short stories by Irish writer Colin Barrett, published in 2022.

Here’s Barrett reading from a part of his book:

The Guardian says:

A couple of stories are about writers, and all of them are, in some way, about writing, about the necessity and foolishness of one or another style as we circle what cannot be said. In each of Barrett’s styles, however, there is an utterness to his attention, a devotion to the lives of his characters, that shifts the work into some more lasting place. Barrett is already one of the leading writers of the Irish short story, which is to braggingly say, one of the leading writers of the short story anywhere. He means every word and regrets every word. He just kills it.

I must admit that I don’t usually read a lot of short stories; it’s not a genre that I dip into very often, although recently I enjoyed 19 Love Songs by David Levithan.

So, what made me pick up this collection by Barrett? Quite simply, I found it in a Little Free Library and thought it looked interesting.

All the stories bar one are set in Ireland (the exception being set in Toronto, Canada). What ties all these stories together is the richness of the characters, and what they say to each other; the dialogue often reveals all we need to know about these people, living their lives in small Irish towns.

iNews says:

You could open Homesickness at any page and find sentences of vim and elegance, ringing dialogue (“Cats are awful eerie creatures…”) and similes to savour: a pint of Guinness with a “head on it as neat as a hotel duvet” or, a few pages later, “dozens of cows stood around in the car park, gormless as wardrobes”.

If Barrett’s prose and dialogue occasionally sound over-fluent, they are usually counterpointed by the starkness of the setting and subject matter. He writes about people who have time on their hands in the day, living outside the routines of work or education. There is violence, depression, “sudsy fellatio” between men in a Land Rover after a drug deal. These characters may exist on the margins, but Barrett puts them at the centre of their own worlds.

These stories may be short, but they are potent and are here to be savoured; don’t rush through this book, take your time.

Published in 1999, Face was the debut novel from Benjamin Zephaniah.

Squarely aimed at a young adult / teen audience, here’s the blurb on the back:

“Yu bad guy.”

“Yeah man, ya wicked. De cool ruler.”

“Cool and easy does it.”

Martin was on top of the world. His credibility was sealed and Natalie was proud of him.
If there’s one thing that Martin is sure about, it’s that life is pretty good to him. But life – as Martin is about to find out – has a habit of throwing the unexpected at you.

“At this point Martin knew something terrible had happened to his face. His heart pounded in his chest. He shifted his eyes to the left and saw his father standing over him.

‘Are you ok, son?’”

Martin’s life is about to change forever…

Image taken from:

Martin suffers facial injuries after surviving a car accident; we follow his progress as he recovers from surgery and comes to terms with his new face. Zephaniah described the theme of the book as “facial discrimination”.

This is hard-hitting but heart-warming stuff, and teenagers should be able to relate to the characters.

More by Zephaniah: Windrush Child

The final book I read this month was The Bombs That Brought Us Together, a YA fiction book by Scottish author Brian Conaghan.

Published in 2016, it tells the story of fourteen year old Charlie, who has the misfortune of living in a war zone.

Here’s the blurb on the back:

Charlie has always lived in Little Town. It’s home: the Regime, the guns, the curfew, the poverty. He knows the rules. But then he meets Pavel. Scrawny but strong, with fierce blue eyes, Pavel is a refugee from Old Country – Little Town’s sworn enemy. Just about the worst choice of friend in the whole place. When the bombs come, the rules change. Charlie must choose a side.

Here’s the author talking about what inspired him to write the book.

Although now six years old, The Bombs That Brought Us Together feels very timely, with its themes of poverty, conflict, refugees and nationalism, which made me think of the war in Ukraine. We get a teenager’s perspective through the experiences of Charlie and his friend Pavel.

Mixed into the horror there are funny moments and teenage angst as well, which shows that life goes on despite the fear and destruction all around them. There’s plenty of jokes about bums, the “short and curlies”, swear words and teenage crushes, for example.

It’s easy to see why this won the Costa Children’s Book Award in 2016. Highly recommended!

What have you been reading this month? Let me know in the comments below!

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