My month in books: August 2020

A turtle swimming in dark water. Photo by Jason Holland on Unsplash

I am really into reading at the moment – writing, not so much.

Here are my thoughts on the 9 books I read this month, including two that will definitely be on my list of favourites for the year.

How’s the Pain? by Pascal Garnier

This French noir follows an ailing hitman on his attempt to complete one last job. His efforts are complicated by his newly hired driver, an amiable doofus who appears to be ignorant of his boss’s career.

This was fine – definitely very cynical. One month on, I kind of forgot I read it. Maybe it’s just not my cup of tea.

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion is a sci-fi classic which was pitched to me, fairly accurately, as The Canterbury Tales in spaaaaace!

A group of people are brought together to travel to a remote part of a remote planet to appease a mysterious and deadly entity known as the Shrike. Each of the seven pilgrims decides that they will tell the story of how they ended up on this situation.

This structure allows the book to explore plenty of genres – from Catholic sci-fi to cyberpunk noir – but also means that my enjoyment of the book varied widely depending on who was narrating at the time. Some chapters were really enjoyable, while others set my eyes rolling. A section focusing on the life of an important rebellion figurehead gives more attention to the changes in her ageing breasts than her personality. Also, imagine you are on a road trip to your death with a bunch of strangers and one of them spends a solid two hours describing his sex dreams to you. Horrifying.

It turns out this is the first in a series and so the whole affair ends rather abruptly. But my interest is piqued, so I may read the next one – just not immediately.

Atomic Habits by James Clear

More self-help this month. This is a book about habits, and how to build and break them. It’s pretty readable and has lots of exercises, some of which I even did.

After reading the book I was convinced that I had all the keys to fix my life and would become a machine of pure success, which is how you know it’s a good self-help book. However, it turns out my ability to manage my habits varies wildly depending on how my mental health is doing. Therefore I would like an edition of Atomic Habits for Depressed People.

But I am now flossing regularly again. Thanks, James Clear!

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara

Joint winner for the title of “best thing I read this month”, and certainly the most disturbing. This was a gift from a friend who described it as “extremely dark and horrible”, and she was not wrong.

This is the story of Dr Norton Perina, a researcher whose once-bright career ended in disgrace when he was accused of molesting his many adopted children. Those children came from the same islands where Perina made his name as a scientist – a remote South Pacific nation home to a turtle that is said to provide eternal life, but at a terrible cost.

I was immediately reminded of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, which I read earlier in the year. Both novels deal with the intrusions of pharmaceutical companies into remote jungles and their effect on the indigenous people, particularly children. Of the two, The People in the Trees is my favourite by far.

The book is framed as Norton’s memoir, edited by one of his academic acolytes, which gives the book multiple layers of unreliable narrator – what has Norton chosen to mention, and what has his editor chosen to remove? That a book with such unsettling subject matter is also such a page-turner may sound strange, but it really is. This book will stay with me for a long time.

Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover was raised by fundamentalist survivalists in rural Idaho. She didn’t go to school, and her dad discouraged everyone from wearing seatbelts in the car because God would protect them. Westover’s bizarre childhood and her unlikely escape from it is the subject of this engaging memoir, which I believe has now been read by everyone on the planet and their mums.

There are so many injuries in this book. I read it in a state of permanent fear.

Milkman by Anna Burns

The other best thing I read this month.

Living in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, the unnamed narrator of Milkman is just trying to keep her head down – literally, she walks down the street with her nose in a book. It’s this behaviour, and the unwanted attentions of a paramilitary enforcer, that gets her into trouble.

Burns does a spectacular job of capturing the claustrophobic atmosphere of this society. Even the most casual conversation is riddled with anxiety due to the many layers of meaning – the literal words you speak, the obvious meaning they imply, what you want the listener to think you actually mean, what the listener believes you actually think – and, buried deep at the bottom, the speaker’s true feelings and desires.

There’s also a surreal edge to the whole affair. Our protagonist’s younger siblings, an entity collectively known as Wee Sisters, have unusual levels of intelligence and esoteric obsessions. A local woman, called Tablets Girl, is known by everyone in the area to be a serial poisoner – something everyone tolerates as long as they can keep a close eye on their drinks in the pub.

When it won the Booker in 2018, Milkman attracted a lot of discussion for being seen as difficult to read, and while it does require concentration, it’s hardly Finnegan’s Wake. But it is smart, captivating and unexpectedly funny. You should read it.

The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang

Having met my monthly quota of fine literature, I read a romance. Ambitious nerd Stella is successful in business, but not in love; would-be fashion designer Michael is making ends meet with a second job in sex work. Stella, convinced she doesn’t know how to be in a relationship, hires him as a practice boyfriend, and they find they have more in common than they expected.

Stella has Asperger’s, and Hoang (who herself is autistic) effectively shares her heroine’s experience of the world with us. Michael’s daddy issues are a lot less fleshed out. Overall, it’s a cute book and gave me happy fluffy feelings inside, which is 100% what I needed.

Lies Sleeping and False Value by Ben Aaronovitch

I’ll be honest – I started reading Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin first, and at this point in the month, my brain just couldn’t handle it (I was just about hanging on to flossing). Maybe September will offer kinder reading conditions.

Instead I just read the next two Peter Grant books. If you’re unfamiliar with these books, they’re an immensely enjoyable urban fantasy series about a secret branch of London’s police who deal with magical shenanigans. Lies Sleeping and False Value are #7 and #8 in the series.

Lies Sleeping makes some big moves affecting the overarching plot of the books, so after finishing it I just had to read the sequel. I liked False Value more – it’s a much more self-contained, monster-of-the-week-style adventure. It also deals with a secretive tech start-up and Aaronovitch absolutely nails the culture (the man knows his board games). Bonus points for naming a chapter after a TV Tropes page.

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