Monday, 5 October 2020

My Year in Books 2020: September

This month's list is a little bit shorter than August's. That's partly because I didn't have a week off work this month, of course, but also because this list doesn't cover all the novel's I read in September. Now that my radio show is back in full swing on North Manchester FM, I'm reviewing a lot more books on there. (You can see the archive of shows, with the titles I've reviewed, here.) The books I've included on this list are the ones that I wasn't reading specifically for a review, but ones I picked up just for fun.

In case you're interested, here are the rest of my 2020 reviews: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August

After the Silence by Louise O'Neill (2020)

I picked out this one from a selection of recently published crime novels. I know I shouldn’t say this, but it does have a really lovely cover that sort of caught my eye. The blurb looked interesting as well. Ten years ago, on the Irish island of Inisrun, Nessa Crowley was found dead after a party at the glamorous home of Henry and Keelin Kinsella. The murder was never solved. And now a documentary crew have arrived on the island to make a film about the case, after a decade of secrets, deception and suspicion. The islanders have always known who they blamed for Nessa Crowley’s death – but is there more to case than they suspected? This was a bit of a mixed bag for me. The bits of the story relating to island life (and the effect the arrival of the Kinsella family had on island life) were really atmospheric, with a nice touch of menace. And I enjoyed the interactions with the documentary makers – though I was disappointed that the filmmakers (and their film) didn’t play more of a role in the story. Ultimately, I was also disappointed in the mystery of Nessa’s death. Once you rule out the ‘obvious’ solution, there’s only really one possible explanation for everything that has happened on the island. Sadly, this meant I worked it out quite early on. After the Silence is a readable and atmospheric thriller, with some interesting characterization, but it’s a little light on mystery for my tastes.

A Cosmology of Monsters by Shaun Hamill (2019)

The next book on my September list was the featured book from this month’s Abominable Book Club parcel (the horror subscription service I signed up to last month). I really enjoyed this one, but it’s going to be difficult to really do it justice in such a short review. A Cosmology of Monsters is a curious book – an adult novel in which monsters (and proper under-the-bed-type monsters) are real, and which never undermines this by hinting at alternative explanations or ironic handwaving. And it’s all to Hamill’s credit that this absolutely works, and that an incredible amount of sympathy is created for the family dealing with the monsters’ attentions. The book has been described as a ‘gentle’ horror novel – partly because it’s devoid of gore and shock-for-shock’s-sake – but I’d also say it’s a perfect Halloween novel. Something about Hamill’s writing captures the essence of the season beautifully, balancing spooky thrills with an underlying sense of menace and uncertainty. The Halloween-ness of the book is, of course, heightened by the fact that the Turner family make their living from a Haunted House attraction. A Cosmology of Monsters is the story of that family – and their monsters – and one of the things that really stuck in my mind was the way Hamill captured the disintegration of the Turners, both as a family and as individuals, as the extreme stress of their situation takes it toll. I really liked this one, and it’s a book that lingers with you after you’ve finished reading.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (2006)

Time to return to my surprise book bundle from Lyall’s in Todmorden that I bought in the summer. I read a couple of books from the bundle last month, but I still have more to look forward to. The next one I picked from the pile was The Bastard of Istanbul. I wasn’t familiar with Shafak’s work before, but this is another book that I really enjoyed. At the heart of the book is the Kazanci family, and twenty-year-old Asya Kazanci (the ‘bastard’ of the title), who lives with her quirky extended family in Istanbul in the shadow of a family curse that states no male Kazancis will live long after their fortieth birthday. Into that family comes Armanoush Tchakhmakhchian, the stepdaughter of Asya’s Uncle Mustafa and an Armenian-American. Armanoush has travelled to Istanbul to find more about her family history and her heritage, but the past is a complicated thing and the way it impacts the present might not be immediately apparent. Shafak’s novel is whimsical, affectionate and thought-provoking. Although it deals head-on with the Armenian genocide and the trauma of its aftermath, the novel explores this through an intimate – and rather charming – portrait of one off-beat family with secrets that run deep. The way that Shafak paints this portrait brings together the particular problems of a single family with bigger questions of Turkish and Armenian identity. It’s an incredibly readable book, and like the last book on this month’s list, it’s one that sticks in the mind afterwards.

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