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MY 5 FAVOURITE READS OF LOCKDOWN #1, 2020

As we careen gracelessly into Lockdown 2 here in the UK in the year of our Lord 2020, I see a lot of people pledging to use their newfound free time to engage with their hobbies. Reading is definitely up there as a top pick, which had got me feeling reminisce-y. So I thought I would look back on some of the cracking reads I devoured during our first 2020 lockdown, and maybe give some of you out there a few ideas of what to pick up.

So, what did I read in Lockdown 1?

Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill

Was it, in hindsight, a great idea in the current climate to purchase a post-apocalyptic novel where humans are extinct and the robot race who destroyed them are following in the footsteps?

Yes. Yes, it was.

Sea of Rust packed a punch – with a likeable, ballsy robot protag and a very unique setting. I was drawn in by the world and the social commentary. I stayed for the bants. More lighthearted than anticipated. Recommend!


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Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

An utterly brilliant generational saga beginning with two sisters, Effia and Esi, born in different villages in Ghana during the 18th century. They never meet. Effia becomes the unwilling wife of a slave trader. Esi is captured and sold as a slave. What follows is two hundred years of history and gut wrenching personal stories of both Effia and Esi’s descendants.

The stories and perspectives were engrossing and the characterisation was basically perfection. A gritty, detailed and excellently crafted story well worth picking up.


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The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

“Blame the germs, the unburied corpses, the dust of war, the random circulation of wind and weather, the Lord God Almighty. Blame the stars. Just don’t blame the dead, because none of them wished this on themselves.”

What better way to lean into lockdown than to pick up a book about another pandemic? The story takes place in Dublin, 1918, over three days in a maternity ward at the height of the Great Flu. It is a short, claustrophobic tale of Nurse Julia Power and that’s all I’m going to reveal … I was more than a little bit destroyed by this one. I found it so powerful, the characters so brilliantly portrayed, and the scene and the atmosphere gave me chills. Absolutely loved it.


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The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart by Margarita Montimore

This is an absolute gem of a novel, all about a woman living her life out of order. The story was just as emotional as it promised to be, and I loved the writing style. Very polished and clean, no messing around with purple prose, no focus on imagery. Everything was focused on bringing the characters to life, which Montimore achieved with a clear expertise. All of the characters were enjoyable, likeable, and 100% felt like real people – real people I immediately connected with. Oona Lockhart is a real accomplishment: made me think, made me feel, and most of all, made me excited for what the author is going to bring us next.


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Circe by Madeleine Miller

“I had stood beside my father’s light, I had held Aeëtes in my arms, and my bed was heaped with thick-woolled blankets woven by immortal hands. But it was not until that moment that I think I had ever been warm.”

A fulfilling and feminist interpretation of the Greek tale of Circe, the witch-goddess daughter of Helios, Titan and god of the sun. The story definitely stirred my dormant childhood obsession with Greek mythology, and brought along Miller’s additional insights and flair. Circe is a phenomenally complex, yet relatable character. I cared about her from the start and was enthralled with her story and her relationships from the start. Highly recommend.


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Review: The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab

“And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark.”

The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue is the most enchanting release of 2020. I love a premise that sets up a question, one speculative element that creates a whole story. In V.E. Schwab’s latest adult novel, that question is: what if you were cursed to be forgotten by everyone you ever meet?

In 18th century France, Addie LaRue is forced into a marriage she does not want. Willing to sacrifice anything to avoid a life in captivity, Addie makes a Faustian bargain for her freedom. She is willing to trade her soul for an eternal life living by her own rules, but The Darkness will not agree without a time limit.

“You want an ending,” she says. “Then take my life when I am done with it. You can have my soul when I don’t want it anymore.”

The Darkness is intrigued by her offer, enticed by a new game. He grants her wish to become immortal, but in turn she is cursed to be forgotten by everyone has ever known, or will ever meet again.

One of the most compelling premises I have ever come across, and the story absolutely did not disappoint. The prose is indulgently purple, the similies were plentiful (three to an e-page at times, I counted), but the floweryness of the writing is the perfect fit for the type of story this is. It’s a slow walk along a river, it’s a late evening spent in good company, it’s a reflection on a what-if, but a reflection on ourselves as well. Who are we, without our relation to others? How do you build a meaningful life when it’s almost like you don’t exist? And, in Addie’s own words,

“What is a person, if not the marks they leave behind?”

I loved how the story is laid out, jumping back and forth between Addie’s early years struggling with immortality and the consequences of being forgotten, and present day when she meets another special character – Henry, the first person to remember her in three hundred years. As a character, Addie is not exactly overflowing with personality. She is a muted character, but her quietness worked with the quietness of the story, and she shows a lot of quiet strength in her own ways – and that was refreshing to read about. The non-linear set-up really works for the story, as we can learn about Addie’s early pain and troubles, but skip to in and out of her future where she has overcome, learnt, and devised her own manner of making her way in the world. I was really invested the minutia of her life – I wanted to know how she could eat, how she could afford anything, how was she going to solve this problem and the next? But where I was most compelled were when it came to Addie’s relationships.
There are many throughout the novel, and no matter how small, all are poignant. Her biggest relationship is the one she has with the Devil who granted her wish, who shows up every year on their anniversary, to see if she is ready to hand over her soul. The story of a human and the Darkness they make a deal with is nothing new, but in Schwab’s hand it is fresh and peculiar and intimate – and just fantastic to read.

“Do not mistake this—any of it—for kindness, Adeline.” His eyes go bright with mischief. “I simply want to be the one who breaks you.”

Though I loved their dynamic, the game they played for Addie’s soul, their whole relationship, really … I feel like it could have been structured better. We do get to a point in the novel where the Devil is just showing up in each consecutive chapter, dancing the same dance, throwing her the same lines and arrogance, not really progressing the story or their relationship in a meaningful way. This did slightly impact my enjoyment of that particular subplot, just because the repetition got so tedious.
Another area I didn’t connect with so much was Henry’s storyline. I really liked what he represented, his struggles with mental health and addiction were very well portrayed. But as a character, he didn’t grab me. He, much like Addie, was a quiet character, but in Henry’s case he needed to be a bit louder because I just could not hear him – connect with him. We got a lot of backstory on Henry (and his friend circle which, to be honest, didn’t bring anything to the table – they were just annoying), and for me, it just turned into a bit of a skip-fest. I kind of wish we had just stuck with Addie and her POV for the whole book; that said, the Henry chapters definitely had their moments, so that’s not a hill I’ll be dying on!

Though I may have stumbled over a few parts in this story, my whole reading experience was nevertheless and absolute delight from start to finish. This is one story that will never be forgotten, even if its title character is cursed to be. It is lyrical and melodic, genius in its own quiet way, and will stir up thoughts inside anyone who opens its pages. A real gem of a novel, not one to miss out on.



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Review: Why We Eat (Too Much) by Andrew Jenkinson

This is quite possibly my favourite Health book of all time. A bold claim, but the scope of this book, everything the author delved into and how brilliantly he explained everything was remarkable. And as far as non-fiction, goes I don’t think I have ever felt so compelled by a read.

Dr Andrew Jenkinson is a bariatric surgeon and this book covers his perspective and research on the epidemic of obesity. It’s clear than Jenkinson is passionate about the subject, and it was refreshing to read a take that does not seek to blame the individual for their weight gain. Jenkinson acknowledges that there are so many important factors that contribute to weight gain that have nothing to do with willpower, laziness, greed, or all the horrible things obese people are labelled – which do far more harm than good. That said, for someone whose work and interest revolves around obese people, Jenkinson isn’t always that great at empathising with them.

“The room darkened for a moment and I looked up from my notes. Mr Freeman’s large frame and body had blanketed out the light coming through the door frame.”

This was one of those times where I appreciated that the author did not infuse too much of their personality into their book! The vast majority of this book is focused on Jenkinson’s research, with only a few anecdotes about his work sprinkled in for flavour. (Could’ve done without, but anyway.) Jenkinson’s approach covers a vast number of topics: metabology, endocrinology, genetics, evolution, and food culture to name only a few. And my God was it all so interesting. I was astounded by how much of this information I’d never heard before. And how so much of it contradicts all of the mainstream ‘diet advice’ that saturates our society. And how – oh my – all you need is a quick Google search to see that oh! people have been talking about all this, but it was so hard to hear them over the din of fad diets and weight shaming.

We We Eat (Too Much) is a great starting-point book for further personal research on your weight loss journey. Understanding my own biology has been a massive part of my weight loss journey, and this book was an incredible help. Excellently-written and easy to understand, with game-changing research and health advice. Highly recommend.



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Review: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins


Mere months ago, it was announced that the highly, highly anticipated prequel to The Hunger Games was to star none other than the prick that (basically) started them: President Snow.

Now.

I had a few feelings about this. Disappointment was one of them. And I wasn’t alone. The internet, in a rare (!) move, turned divisive: some sad they were not going to be in for the treat of revisiting favourite characters and beloved themes; some fuming over the prospect of taking a deep dive into the POV of a despicable baddie; others twirling their pretentious moustaches and claiming to be above it all (“Honestly, am I the only one looking forward to an expertly crafted villain story, especially in a time of such socio-economic unrest in this country – surely we should relish the opportunity to walk a mile in the shoes of a genocidal fascist? You know, to better ourselves or something?”)

Good grief, Barbara, jog the fuck on.

There is nothing wrong with a decent-to-villainy story, but if you’re walking into a pre-established fanbase brandishing a narrative that’s the antithesis of the original trilogy … you’re gonna get some looks.

Yes, I was gutted. The previous books are a classic ‘little guy’ squaring up to ‘the man’; a brilliantly-written story of average people rising up and beating their oppressors. The Hunger Games was a massive inspiration for my generation and others, and in the year of our Lord 2020, God knows I was eager for another slice of that pie. I had less than zero desire to read about the early “heroic” days of the most poisonous villain in modern literature. And did I carry my bias with me as I picked up my kindle on release day? Yes. But did I also remember how much I loved Suzanne Collins as a writer and trusted her to do a good job anyway, as I settled myself down and started live-tweeting my read? Eh, just about.

Then Collins began with five epigraphs. Yes. Five. Another … bold choice.
And my doubt started to grow.
And then I was attacked by an onslaught of filler verbs which I was absolutely not expecting, and I am not ashamed to admit I was a little triggered.
My doubt grew some more.

By the end of chapter one, I was already playing a fun game of Count the Adjectives, while the other side of my brain was begging me not to judge Collins for her continuous infodump of a backstory.
By the end of chapter two, I was cringing so hard I genuinely started to believe this book had been ghostwritten by a less talented author. This couldn’t be the work of my beloved Suzanne Collins – the quality deficit was, quite frankly, shocking.

Let’s unpack.

Coriolanus Snow (another choice) is a young and ambitious student hoping to be picked as a mentor for the upcoming 10th annual Hunger Games. His hope is to shake himself free of the hardships of the past and improve his social status, not to mention earn some damn cash. He and his family have been dirt poor since the war, and goddamn does he like to remind everyone about it. I can’t tell you how many times the guy brought up the war (because I stopped counting) but let me tell you: uncle Albert would be proud of the numbers. By chapter three, I almost had to laugh at the absurdity. All it took was a character so something as mundane as pour a drink and Snow would just fall into a full-on PTSD flashback.

I recognise that this book was likely written to give fans the world-building I do not recall them asking for, and obvious fan-service aside I think it does a decent job of fleshing out the history of Panem and throwing the audience some interesting tidbits. However, there is an art to how both backstory and world-building are carefully spoon-fed to the reader, and Collins’ approach just made me feel like I was being fattened up for my foie gras.

So Snow is chosen as the mentor to – wouldn’t you know it – the district 12 tribute, a young lady called Lucy Gray. Yet another choice, relegating the lead female character and *spoiler!* eventual victor of the 10th Hunger Games into nothing more than a love interest with very little personality other than an annoying habit of singing far too often. Lucy’s potential victory becomes deeply-entwined with Snow’s own, and their relationship is a discomfiting mix of romantic feelings and him using her to achieve his own means.

Now, I’m fully on board with the premise, but for the life of me I could not tell you if the decent-into-villainy was successfully executed because the whole thing was overshadowed by 600 pages of piss-poor writing.

For your pleasure, I shall now list my grievances:

  • Snow never shuts up about how much he hates cabbages. Why does he never shut up about how much he hates cabbages?
  • On that note, please shut up about the damn war!
  • The fact that basically 100 pages of a 600pp novel are nothing but song lyrics is a shameless display of arrogance.
  • You’re not even that good at poetry, Suzanne.
  • This is how traumatic the war was for Snow, you guys. He was *abused*. No word of a lie: some dickhead stole his cabbage.

    • But it should be fine ‘cuz I don’t know if you know this but Snow hates cabbages. Can’t stand ’em.
    • For the love of God, who was your editor? Why the abundance of filler verbs? “He thought” appears 260 times.
    • “Snow lands on top” is your family fucking mantra? Is that organically-sourced cringe, Suzanne?
    • Call me crazy, but as this is a book that centres around the 10th Hunger Games, I was kinda looking forward to experiencing the 10th Hunger Games.
    • I never would have expected Suzanne Collins of all people to go pro with distancing writing. Snow’s mentee literally wins the Hunger Games and his singular reaction is “Right now, he felt invincible.”

Still somewhat convinced the story was written by someone else, I actually dug up my old copy of The Hunger Games to compare prose. Yes, I was that deep into my conspiracy theory. After a bit of Sherlocking, I did end up feeling less sure in my conviction, but I was reminded that Collins wrote the original trilogy in first person, which worked excellently. For some reason she chose to shrug off a technique she excels at and opted for third person. And she very clearly cannot pull it off. Not in the slightest.

TL;DR: I clocked out. Once one of the most engaging trilogies to grace the YA shelves, this new addition to the Hunger Games saga was utterly disappointing. I couldn’t tell you its positive points or what it was trying to achieve – in the end, anything decent was overshadowed by the horrendous writing and poor narrative choices. Considering we all know what Suzanne Collins is capable of, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is simply not good enough.



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Review: The Rearranged Life of Oona Lockhart by Margarita Montimore

“There would be bad days, there always would. But she’d collect these good days, each one illuminated, and string them together until they glowed brightly in her memory like Christmas lights in a mirrored room.”

Oona Lockhart is conflicted. It’s New Year’s Eve 1982 and at midnight she will turn 19, with the biggest decision to make: should she move to Europe to study economics, or should she stay in NYC with her boyfriend and her band? And as the countdown to the new year begins, she makes one wish: I wish I didn’t have to chose.

The clock strikes midnight … and she wakes up in 2015. She is 51 years old

This is an absolute gem of a novel, all about a woman living her life out of order. What a premise! So completely my cup of tea, and the story was just as emotional as it promised to be. This one is not a plot-driven novel, and while there were times while reading I felt the bitter sting of missed opportunity, the story does do a very good job of keeping you invested in the characters. I loved the writing style. Very polished and clean, no messing around with purple prose, no focus on imagery. Everything was focused on bringing the characters to life, which Montimore achieved with a clear expertise. All of the characters were enjoyable, likeable, and 100% felt like real people – real people I immediately connected with.

The focus of the story is on Oona’s relationships, and how she learns to navigate them when she is constantly jumping from one year to the next, not knowing how old she’ll be on her next birthday. Dusted in are a few other details, such as how she maintains a cash flow, how she reacts to new technology of the future, learning the future fates of her childhood friends. I do feel the story would have been a lot more well-rounded if there was a bigger focus on Oona herself, her character development, her working life, her hopes and dreams. These elements sort of take a back seat to keep the focus on Oona’s relationships. Sure, we see a lot of character through this, a lot of drama and comedy, turmoil and pathos. But Oona had a lot of potential that was left unexplored. I would have been very interested to see more of her, without anyone else to share the spotlight.

What I loved most is how much this story made me think. I love a novel that gives us a hypothetical. It gets those braincogs turning and churning, gives you that introspective feeling while reading, and long after. Oona Lockhart is a real accomplishment: made me think, made me feel, and most of all, made me excited for what the author is going to bring us next.



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The ads below help to pay for this website. If you can see them, thank you for not using an ad-blocker. If you’re a fan of my content and you would like to support a self-employed writer further, please feel free to share the love and buy your girl a coffee. The caffeine jolt may just get me through my final edits!
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