There’s nothing like being mentally ill and having chronic pain in your arms, wrists and hands to make both reading books and writing reviews extremely difficult. But this is the world we’re living in, so we must make do! Here are the books that I read from May to August. A mere eight books. Seven novels and one non-fiction.
The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey
One day when out on his fishing boat, David meets a mermaid who is drawn to his singing. Shortly after this, there is a fishing contest and two American men catch her with the plan of selling her to make their fortune. David knows he must rescue her and so we follow the aftermath of this event. The story is told from three different perspectives: David’s journal entries from his later life; a first-person narration by the mermaid, Aycayia, written in non-rhyming verse; and a third-person narration of the main plot. The book is an interesting exploration of female sexuality and the different ways in which women are punished for it, as well as the damaging effects of colonialism. It is also a love story. Some writers would fail in their attempts to combine these themes, but Roffey accomplishes it without ever sacrificing the story. Highly enjoyable.
Now Is the Hour – Tom Spanbauer
Dear broken Mother, here, let me hold myself in such a way that you will see me, and if you see me, if I can make you smile, the trouble will leave your eyes and your eyes will go soft and be gold.
This was a re-read for me and I still adore it. Rigby John is standing on the side of the road with a flower behind his ear, headed for San Francisco. Now Is The Hour tells the story of how he got here. Brought up in a strictly Christian family, Rigby John has to learn how to accept himself, his sexuality, and learn how to move on from the bigoted community in which he was raised. It’s not going to appeal to everybody, and the writing is often crass or explicit, but it’s a book that means the world to me. Spanbauer can cut through it all and expose the emotional core of his characters with ease.
Detransition, Baby – Torrey Peters
Detransition, Baby is a book that has had its fair share of media attention and hype, which always leaves me nervous. What if I don’t enjoy it? What if my hopes have been raised too high? Thankfully, this is a book deserving of its reputation. Torrey Peters tells the story of three women who come together when one of them becomes pregnant. Peters explores motherhood, gender, sexuality, and relationships. At times, the book veered a little too much into soapbox territory and it felt like Torrey was sacrificing the story in order to make a speech, but overall it was wonderful. None of the main characters are wholly likeable; Reese in particular is a woman who I wanted to shake at times. But all of them felt fleshed out and real. Their imperfections both believable and well thought out.
The Pisces – Melissa Broder
Yes, I was late to the party on this one. You all know the story, I’m sure. Our protagonist, Lucy, has a bit of a breakdown and heads to LA to house-sit for her sister. There, she meets a merman. Screwed up relationships and merman sex ensue. I was utterly taken by the first half of this book. Lucy narrates this tale and she is awful. She is judgemental and selfish and completely incapable of making a positive choice. I loved it. However, by the last quarter of the book I tired of it a little. It got repetitive and I found myself being exasperated. Perhaps if it was a little shorter I would have enjoyed it more. However, Broder’s grim honesty and dark humour are delightful and it reminded me how much I enjoyed her essay collection, So Sad Today. I’m glad to have finally read it, but it left me conflicted.
Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson
Open Water is a perfectly formed little book. At less than 200 pages it still manages to pack a punch. Azumah Nelson made the brave decision to write in the second-person and manages to pull it off, which is no mean feat. In his debut novel, we experience the fragility of new love and the intimacy that comes with it. But this is not just a book about a relationship. It is about being young and black and British and in love. We see the devastating effects that racism has on their love and on their lives. The crowning glory of this book is its captivating writing. I drank up Azumah Nelson’s prose with joy.
Green Grass, Running Water – Thomas King
I read The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King a few years ago and it was outstanding. His writing was as lovely to read as the content of that book, so I knew I wanted to try some of his fiction. Green Grass, Running Water is a novel that I didn’t fully understand, but it never once bored me. It explores the intersections of traditional Native American society, mythology, colonialism, and the encroaching modern world. It’s highly referential and although there are notes at the back, I simply do not have the knowledge to grasp most of the references or all the mythological and religious themes. But it was a book I didn’t want to put down at any point. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
My Dark Vanessa – Kate Elizabeth Russell
When Vanessa was at boarding school as a teenager she had a relationship with her 40 year old teacher. Even as an adult she views it as a true love affair. However, when several women come forwards with statements about the abuse that they suffered from him whilst at school there, Vanessa is forced to reevaluate that time and relationship. Was she abused? Was it not the doomed love story that she still sees it as? This was an incredibly difficult book to read, but worth it. Vanessa is not the picture-perfect victim. She is scathing of the Me Too movement, she judges women and girls for the abuse they suffer, she refuses to see herself as having been abused or groomed. But my god you felt for her. You see how that time affected every aspect of her life, even when she can’t see it herself.
To The River: A Journey Beneath The Surface – Olivia Laing
To The River is a genre of non-fiction that I adore, which I sum up as “person walks around British countryside and tells you about it with many a tangent on the way”. Often those books are written by men, so this was a pleasant change of pace. Olivia Laing walks along the entirety of the Ouse in Sussex – a river that is mainly famous for being the one in which Virginia Woolf drowned herself. As well as treating the reader to her evocative depictions of the countryside, she also takes diversions and tells biographical snippets of the ghosts of that area. Writers are, of course, a common theme and Laing tells both the story of the Ouse and the story of Woolf. But we also learn about naturalists, fossil hunters, and those searching for dinosaurs. The book has a melancholic feel throughout, which was fitting for both the state of the world and also myself right now. However, I think my current lack of brain power meant I did not get the most out of this book. I look forward to reading it again in the future when I think I will appreciate it more.