January has been a surprisingly great reading month. I think it's partly due to the weather finally getting wintery, and my desire to not do much more than snuggle up with a book. That, and the fact that I've had a fair bit of travelling this month. So, without further ado...
You by Caroline Kepnes (Emily Bestler Books, 2014)
You is a seriously creepy thriller which is told from the perspective of Joe Goldberg, an independent bookseller who becomes obsessed with Beck, a young woman who visits his bookstore. The novel is told in the second person, meaning that it feels as if Joe is addressing the reader directly and on the whole it is really well written with a really dark streak of humour throughout. I would also agree with the many reviewers who have pointed to the similarities between this novel and some romantic fiction; with characters with traumatic pasts who are possessive of their love interests but Kepnes (rightly) shows this as being completely destructive and scary. Whilst I found the book engaging, I did feel like the plot was far too unrealistic for me to truly believe in the characters-and I also didn’t find Joe the charming protagonist that many seem to think he is.
I’d heard so many great things about Fangirl, which the internet adored due to its embrace of fan culture and the fact that Rowell places an introvert in her protagonist Cath front and centre of the novel. The book focuses on Cath, a dedicate fan and fanfiction writer of the ‘Simon Snow’ fantasy series, who is struggling with the move to university. Her twin Wren doesn’t want to live with her and embraces college social life; she has a mildly confrontational roommate Reagan who seems to constantly be accompanied by her boyfriend Levi; she’s trying to find her feet in a fiction writing class; she’s dealing with anxiety disorder and worrying about her Dad who is also dealing with mental health issues. If that seems like a lot of things to cover in a book, that is because it is. Rowell does deal with Cath’s anxiety really well, and there are many moments in Cath’s behaviour that felt very real and very familiar. However, there are certain aspects of the plot that didn’t work quite as well for me. I didn’t love how the characters that enjoy the social side of university get either punished in some way or are depicted as stupid; and I did feel that the love interest was a little too adorable with literally zero conflict at any point. But if you are after a light, fluffy read, it’s worth checking out.
I first read John Steinbeck at school, and Of Mice & Men is one of my favourite novels. East of Eden is widely believed to be his masterpiece, and is the sprawling tale of a variety of families living in the Salinas area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It especially focuses on the Trask family; the novel opens on Adam and Charles as young men who are ruled over by their veteran father Cyrus, and whose relationship is poisoned by Charles’ conviction that Cyrus loves Adam more than him. It is further complicated by the arrival of Cathy Ames, a mysterious, cold young woman, who ultimately gives birth to twins to Adam before abandoning their home. These twins, Cal and Aron, seemed doomed to repeat the events of the past. As with the other Steinbeck novels I’ve read, the descriptive passages were lovely and felt incredibly real; as did the majority of his characters. I just felt like I admired this novel more than I really enjoyed it, and I did feel that sometimes Steinbeck’s writing was a little heavy-handed to make his overall message clear. But I’m glad to have read this and look forward to reading more of his work.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)From one Pulitzer Prize-winner to another, All the Light We Cannot See has got to be one of the most raved about novels of recent years. It tells the stories of a blind French girl and a young German orphan in the WW2 years, whilst the former deals with the coming occupation and the latter is drafted into the Nazi war machine. I really liked the insight into life in Germany and France during WW2, as I always tend to, especially the weird Nazi-training school that Werner ends up in. There are passages that are written really beautifully as well, but I just felt a little disconnected from the main protagonists, and wanted to spend more time with the side characters. This also meant that certain events, whilst upsetting, didn't hit me as hard as I think they should have done. I just generally didn't really get why this book has had so much commercial and critical acclaim. I do recommend it if you're in the mood for a quick, 'intelligent' read, as Doerr writes in an almost thriller style, and the chapters are all super short which makes it a very readable experience.
After You by Jojo Moyes (Michael Joseph, 2015)
I was very nervous about reading this sequel to one of my favourite 'women's fiction' titles Me Before You after the early reviews were less than kind. However, I actually really enjoyed this. We rejoin Lou Clark, who is working at a dodgy Irish bar in an airport and still reeling from the events in the last novel. Moyes is so brilliant at capturing Lou's grief and complex feelings and I just loved being back with her. Whilst certain plot machinations didn't exactly thrill me, and there were certainly moments when it departed the realism that made Me Before You particularly good, Moyes just has a wonderful way with words and characters that means her work is always (for me) worth a read.
Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty (Faber & Faber, 2013)
This novel has been on my Kindle for ages, so it felt right for me to finally read it. The novel opens with the protagonist, Yvonne Carmichael, in the docks at the Old Bailey at the point where she realises that she is about to be convicted for whatever crime that got her there. It then flashes back over the events that got her there, all hinging on a moment when she decides to engage in an affair. Yvonne is a middle-aged, successful woman which was a refreshing change of protaganist. I also liked the way the novel discussed female sexuality in varied ways. However, I wasn't expecting it to be quite so erotically charged, and I felt like it dragged until the final 1/3, and I was mildly disappointed that the final crime wasn't anything more interesting. But it's a pretty page-turning read all the same!
All in all, this has been a pretty good start to 2016!