Victoria’s Book Reviews for May: Sapiens, The Book of Dust, The Water Cure and More

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So, for those of you who don’t subscribe to my monthly tinyletter or my YouTube channel, I complete a summary of books each month that I’ve read, those I’ve loved, and my highlights of some of those being published. I’m spreading the love of books so you can expect to see this on my website now too!

Now, I’m pretty damn excited with my selection for May as there are some cracking books in here, both fiction and non-fiction, as well as new names making waves along with far more established writers. Each month I also shine a light on a classic close to my heart and now that we are into awards season, I’m turning my attention to a former winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

But whichever way you go, I hope there’s something here to pique your interest!

 

What I’ve Read
Let’s kick off with an astounding book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a million-copy bestseller that’s been making waves and wowing readers ever since it was published in 2014 – and now I can finally add my name to that list. For this book’s scope is breath-taking – weighing up the past 100,000 years of human history to consider how homo sapiens emerged as the dominant creature when such success could not have been foreseen all those years ago, and how it is humans have become driven and defined by beliefs, whether they be in religion, nations, human rights, even capitalism. But it’s not just the scope for this is so well written – easily accessible, page-turning, and even with a bit of a dry sense of humour weaved in. What an achievement this book is.

Jumping from one lengthy volume to a collection of short stories, Bad Dreams by Tessa Hadley is a collection I enjoyed immensely. If you don’t know Tessa’s writing, she has a rich, languid, descriptive style that works perfectly in these unsettling stories of the dark underbelly of middle class life. A young girl temporarily abducted, a decades-long feud between sisters rises again in a battle over an inheritance and a baby, a young child witnesses a difficult scene between her mother and a visitor at an evening party… All these stories investigate psychological unease, and that tension between behaviour and needs, and social expectations.

The Pixels of Paul Cezanne by Wim Wenders is a collection of essays by this famous filmmaker (Paris, Texas and Buena Vista Social Club) that read as tributes to artists who have inspired him, whether that be painters such as Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and Cezanne, as well as fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto, performer Pina Bausch, and filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Ozu. As well as odes to brilliance and artistic bravery, these essays also cause us to challenge what we consider art and where skill and craft often lie unseen.

And this was really the month for lengthy masterpieces for me as I rounded up the month with La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman. What a joy it is to return to Lyra’s world, to revisit the Oxford of this parallel universe, and get back in with such famous characters as Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel. It’s like coming home to a warm fire on a cold day! This new book – a prequel to Philip’s famous trilogy – focuses on the first few months after Lyra’s birth when rumours of this girl’s relevance are already gaining ground, and the young infant’s life is in danger even before it has really started.

What’s Coming Out
I’m so excited to finally be able to talk about The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, published this month but which I read a few months back. I absolutely adored this book. I ADORED it. At times, potently political, at other times haunting, even gothic, The Water Cure is a radical exploration of female insecurity and power that follows three daughters brought up in an isolated compound away from men. But then men arrive…

Grace, Lia and Sky are three sisters in their late teens and early twenties who have been raised on an unidentified island by their mother and father, King, who have raised their children segregated form the real world for fear of its toxicity and violence towards women. But it quickly transpires that this is no idyllic sanctuary, with the parents obsessed with sadistic rituals. However, when King dies in a fishing accident, their lives are thrown into turmoil; their protection against the mainland and its men gone. The question is, will the parents be proven right in their reason to be wary of men?

Already hitting the bestseller lists is Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay. I’m a huge fan of Roxane’s writing and here, the woman edits and introduces an anthology of first-person essays tackling rape, assault, and harassment head-on. There are original and previously published pieces that address what it means to live in a world where women must measure the harassment, violence, and aggression they face, and cover a wide range of topics and experiences, from an exploration of the rape epidemic embedded in the refugee crisis to first-person accounts of child molestation. This promises to be both deeply personal and unflinchingly honest.

And we round out my faves of books being published this month with a major literary event: Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston, the author of the American classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, with a foreword from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, which brilliantly illuminates the horror and injustices of slavery as it tells the true story of one of the last-known survivors of the Atlantic slave trade—abducted from Africa on the last “Black Cargo” ship to arrive in the United States.

Almost a hundred years ago, in 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Alabama to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis, then the only person still alive from that voyage. Zora was there to record Cudjo’s first-hand account of the raid that led to his capture and bondage fifty years after the Atlantic slave trade was outlawed in the United States and this book is based upon these interviews.

Classic of the Month
Do you know, I wrote this article before the result of the Irish referendum on a woman’s right to abortion. Now the result of that is known, this selection seems more pertinent than ever as the way the Catholic Church has treated the women of Ireland is at the heart of this terrific novel.

We’re heading into book awards season, with shortlists for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and Man Booker International already announced, and with the Man Booker longlist due out in July. And so, this gives me a chance to recommend a previous winner close to my heart. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney is ferocious and extraordinary, and even more remarkable given that it was Lisa’s debut novel.

An accidental killing starts a metaphorical fire that blazes its way through those living in the margins in contemporary Cork. The Glorious Heresies takes it all on – and takes no prisoners: poverty, austerity politics, the Church, gangland killings, casual violence, drugs, misogyny, sex work, alcoholism, domestic abuse…

At the heart of the story is Maureen, the woman who accidentally killed a man. Unfortunate. But given her son is Jimmy, Cork’s most feared gangster, getting rid of the body shouldn’t be hard. Only her and Jimmy are estranged and the clean-up complicated when the girlfriend of the dead man comes looking for her boyfriend, and the bloke Jimmy orders to dispose of the body – Tony – starts to unravel with the pressures of his alcoholism and the trauma.

The plot is big, complex, but this is brave writing, too with the story unfolds from the point of view of each of the characters. Far from being disconcerting, this is brilliantly handled as the complex, multi-layered plot unfolds in all directions, the repercussions of this one event rippling out wider and wider.

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  1. Posted by Chef, at Reply

    Thank you for this post. Its very inspiring.