Thursday, 2 July 2020

My Year in Books 2020: June

Fingers crossed, I think I might be out of my slump! Hooray! For the first time since the lockdown started, I feel like I've really been able to get back into reading for pleasure. I've read quite a few novels this month - way more than I've been doing - and I found myself getting lost in the stories much more than I've been doing. I'm very pleased about this, as I was starting to think I was never going to enjoy reading again.

As always, here are my reviews of the books I read earlier this year: January, February, March, April, May

And here are my reviews of the books I read in June:

Car Park Life: A Portrait of Britain's Last Urban Wilderness by Gareth E. Rees (2019)

Last month, I saw an intriguing retweet from a Twitter account called Unofficial Britain, which was about a visit to a car park. Linked to the tweet were details of Car Park Life, Gareth E. Rees’s ‘portrait of Britain’s unexplored urban wilderness’. Something about the tweet and the description of the book had me hooked, and I immediately ordered a copy from the publisher. I was not disappointed. Car Park Life is an exploration of a series of British car parks – retail and chain stores only, as outlined in Rees’s manifesto early in the book – that takes in strange decorative features, hints of criminal and sexual misbehaviour, odd reclamations and reimaginings of history (dinosaur footprints at Asda, a steel sculpture of a Bronze Age man at Holiday Inn), trolleys, litter and ashtrays. The book is a sort of psychogeography, but with a darker, more self-reflective tone in places. It reminded me of Jon Bounds and Danny Smith’s Pier Review (which I read last October and loved). Like Pier Review, Car Park Life transforms a rather mundane feature of the British landscape into a ‘heart of darkness’. The book is as much about the power the landscape exerts over the author as it is about the landscape itself. And, like Pier Review, the book imbues its subject with a profundity it can never fully explain. It’s a rare treat to read a book that not only doesn’t give you answers, but leaves you with questions you didn’t know you could have.

The Moth: 50 Extraordinary True Stories, edited by Catherine Burns (2014)

Back to my charity shop to-read pile for the next one… I picked this one up in Aberystwyth last year. I hadn’t heard of The Moth, a storytelling event series that began in NYC in the 90s. Participants are invited to tell ‘true’ stories of their own lives and experiences (though with a bit of direction and editorial advice). This book is a collection of fifty stories that have been told at Moth events, arranged thematically. As you might imagine, the stories are relatively short, making this a real pick-and-mix of a collection. There are stories about love (of all kinds) and relationships, life-changing experiences, grief and death. I have to admit it is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories are a bit ‘literati’ for my tastes (bull-fighting with Ernest Hemingway was not one of my favourites). Others are quirky little slices of unusual lives (Mike Massimino’s story of fixing the Hubble telescope was pretty memorable). Of them all, it’s Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels’s story absolutely took the prize for me. Painful, moving, funny and ultimately life-affirming, it’s a story that’s going to stick with me for a long time. The beauty of a collection like this is that each reader will find something different to enjoy within the pages, and they’ll have differing appreciations of the various styles, tones and techniques that the storytellers use. I’ll admit it’s not quite as profound as I’d expected, but it’s an enjoyable selection of off-beat and (generally) well-told stories.

After the Accident by Kerry Wilkinson (2020)

As I’ve said a couple of times over the past few months, I’ve been really struggling with reading during the lockdown, and I’ve been struggling to get lost in stories. My mum’s been lending me books she’s enjoyed, and the pile keeps getting bigger. I decided just to jump straight in and read the one on the top. I didn’t read anything about After the Accident (even the blurb) – which makes it sounds like I put incredible trust in my mum’s recommendations! – because I thought it would be cool just to go in without any expectations. And I think I was right to do that, I think it added to my enjoyment. After the Accident is told in an unusual narrative style. It’s a series of snippets from interviews with a family group (and a couple of additional, periphery characters) conducted – surprisingly enough – after an accident. The McGinley family have gone to a Greek island for a holiday, but on the first night one member of the family is found unconscious after falling from a cliff. The style of the book is what really made it for me. It’s to Wilkinson’s credit that so many different voices, appearing in such short snippets without description or action, can come alive as an engaging and vivid cast of characters. As you may know, I’m a fan of unreliable narrators, ambiguous narration and uncertain endings, so I loved the fact that I couldn’t trust a single word any of the characters was saying!

Lies by T.M. Logan (2017)

I decided after I read After the Accident that I probably needed to just go for another thriller to help me get back into reading (and enjoying) novels. This was an impulse e-Book purchase with that specifically in mind. Again, I think this was the right choice. I actually read Lies in a single sitting – something I’ve not done for ages. It’s a well-crafted domestic thriller, with a few twists and turns (though I did see the ending, in part, coming). Joe Lynch is a happily married family man and schoolteacher. One day, after picking his little boy up for school, he spots his wife’s car and decides to say hello to her. That one insignificant decision leads to a discovery that makes Joe question everything he thinks he knows about his life. Or, at least, it makes him begin to question it. Actually, he still takes a few things for granted that perhaps he shouldn’t! I enjoyed this one; it was a fun ride, and Joe is an engaging (if slightly foolish) protagonist. I will admit there were times when I thought the machinations of his conniving nemesis were a little bit OTT – verging on ‘super-villain’ at one point – but the book stayed just on the right side of plausible. I also loved the way technology, specifically social media, was handled with a skilful blend of mundanity and menace. Overall, this was a well-written and fun read that kept me entertained. I think this one was a good choice.

The Other Wife by Claire McGowan (2019)

Next – and I’m not sure this is something I’m proud of – I just let Amazon make the decision for me. I picked the next two books I read this month from the suggestions that followed when I read Lies. That did mean I ended up with a couple of domestic noir thrillers, but that’s the way it goes. I read Claire McGowan’s What You Did a few months ago, and I enjoyed it, so I thought I’d give another of her books a go. I think I probably enjoyed The Other Wife even more than What You Did (probably), but I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think I just found one of the characters really engaging. The Other Wife is told from multiple perspectives (of course it is – no thriller worth its salt has just one narrator nowadays!). In the first part, we meet Nora, a widow in her forties who has been forced to sell the family home and move to a rented cottage after her husband’s death. The cottage is next-door to the one occupied by Suzi and her husband Nick. Suzi is pregnant, and feeling guilty about a bad thing she did. The third narrator is Elle, an insecure woman who worries that her husband might be cheating on her. These three stories come together in a not-altogether-surprising way at the end of the first part, but The Other Wife still has a couple of surprises in store – not least an unexpected character arc.

The Suspect by Fiona Barton (2019)

I read Fiona Barton’s The Child back when I started doing these monthly mini-review posts. I think it was one of the first books I reviewed, and I seem to remember enjoying it. The Suspect isn’t quite as intriguing as The Child, but it has its moments. It also has its problems. The story centres around two teenage girls, Alex and Rosie, who go missing in Thailand. Journalist Kate Waters (the protagonist of The Child and The Widow) decides to write something on the case, after being contacted by her old acquaintance D.I. Bob Sparkes. Sparkes thinks the case may be of interest to Waters, as her own son Jake is currently working in Thailand. (Jake’s departure, against his mother’s wishes, was a subplot in The Child). As you can probably imagine, Alex and Rosie’s disappearance turns out to be much more serious than just two teenagers forgetting to phone home – leading both Waters and Sparkes to travel to Thailand to investigate. While the plot does have its charms, it does rest on a rather easy to guess ‘twist’ and a bit of a massive coincidence (and it also contains a massive spoiler for The Widow, if you haven’t read that one). Worse, though, is the portrayal of every Thai character (all minor) as corrupt, lazy and (borderline) criminal and the clich├ęd depictions of the teen girls. Rosie, in particular, is a broad-brush portrait that really could’ve done with some depth or nuance. Overall, this one was a bit disappointing.

Six Wicked Reasons by Jo Spain (2020)

You might have picked up from previous posts that my mum and I are both big Jo Spain fans. I saw on Twitter that the next book in the Tom Reynolds series is out soon, and when I went to check the publication date, I spotted a standalone novel of hers I hadn’t read. Now, I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy The Confession as much as the Tom Reynolds books, so I was a little bit unsure about Six Wicked Reasons. Happy to say though, I really enjoyed this one. I found it utterly engrossing and got completely lost in the story – and I didn’t see the ending coming (though I loved it when it did). This is the story of the Lattimer family, a slightly snobby, kind of wealthy, very middle-class clan. Parents Frazer and Kathleen have six children – James, Ellen, Kate, Adam, Ryan and Clio – who each have their own demons to battle growing up. In 2008 (ten years earlier), Adam Lattimer walks out on his family and isn’t heard from for a decade. Six Wicked Reasons begins with Adam’s surprise return to the family home and a fatal accident that occurs at the reunion party. Spain then takes us back through the lives of the Lattimer children, and their relationships with their parents, as the truth of what happened when Adam unexpectedly returned is pieced together. Some stylish characterization, and a lot of cheekily unreliable narration, make for a compelling tale with just the right amount of melodrama.