Victoria’s Book Reviews, June 2018

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Another month, another cracking list of books I’ve read, new books being published that I’ve got my eye on and, as ever, a classic I’m all going to make you read even if it’s the last thing I do.

OK, let’s get started…

What I’ve Read
My god. MY. GOD. If your book is going to be 600 pages long, it better be good and, bloody hell, The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse is UH. MAY. ZING. Incredibly – and rather embarrassingly – I’ve never read one of Kate’s novels before. And I also know very little about the political landscape of 16th century France(!), yet this piece of historical fiction is gripping. Oh my word, it is gripping. Love and betrayal, mysteries and secrets, war and adventure, conspiracies and divided loyalties… It’s all here and it unfurls with the brilliance of the most fantastic page-turner as we follow a man and a woman – a young woman in receipt of a mysterious message, and a Huguenot convert at the core of the resistance – as sectarian tensions threaten to set France alight. I could not put this down. One of the achievements of the year.

When you’ve been reading a 600-page novel, it’s hard to squeeze in much else but I also read Once Upon a Time in the East by Xiaolu Guo this month and I’m damn pleased that I did. This memoir of life for three generations of women in Communist China has drawn obvious comparisons with Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, but this book brings something new. It is an invigorated contemporary take on the experiences of, and challenges facing, a modern Chinese woman – China a country where women have often been less than second-class citizens, where endemic sexual abuse and domestic violence belies Communist portrayals of equality, and where a woman must fight for love and freedom in a society that seeks to crush individuality and promote censorship. An insightful and fascinating read.
 
What’s Coming Out
So, the big one being published this June has to be Florida by Lauren Groff, and I’ve already had the pleasure of reading this and, can I just say this – my god, can Lauren Groff write or what?! I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading her bestseller, Fates & Furies, but this short story collection showcases a master craftswoman whose sentences reverberate with depth and power. Each short story is inspired by Lauren’s home state – though not all are set there – but there’s a ripple of darkness that flows through every one of them, from the two young girls who become feral after being abandoned by their mother in the dense everglades, to the unsettled housewife who wanders the shadowy suburban streets at night to just breathe from the suffocating claustrophobia of domestic life. Awesome.

Now, I’m not usually one to recommend celebrity memoirs but This is Just My Face by Gabourey Sidibe is something else. It is electric, wickedly funny and is the zenith of zero fucks given. What a sensational work and I found it exhilarating. This is bare-your-soul in-your-face writing from Gabourey on growing up in poverty, her polygamous father, her sensational mother, and the challenges of being a large black woman in contemporary society. I loved this book. By way of example of writing style and subject matter, this is the opening line of the second chapter: “My Mom and I are always discussing how we’d deal with attempted rape.” Hilarious and completely on the money.

So, I’ve read those two gems but also in the ‘just published’ category yet perching at the top of my ‘to-read’ pile is The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya and Elizabeth Weil. This special memoir is already a New York Times bestseller and I can understand why. In 1994, Clemantine and her fifteen-year-old sister, Claire, fled the Rwandan massacre and spent the next six years migrating through seven African countries, searching for safety, never knowing whether their parents were dead or alive.

The two were given refugee status in the States when Clemantine was twelve, but their fortunes diverged as Clemantine thrived as her sister struggled. Only behind the façade, Clemantine battled with the scars of war, abuse and the destruction of her family too. Now, here in her own words, she provokes us to look beyond the label of “victim” and recognize the power of the imagination to transcend even the most profound injuries and aftershocks.
 
Classic of the Month
There has been this ‘thing’ recently of the Golden Man Booker Prize where, I think more for the sake of publicity and celebration of writing, Man Booker have compiled a shortlist of their favourite five previous winner to get the public to vote on this shortlist for the ‘ultimate winner’ type thing. Now, I had thought this would mean this month I’d end up talking about another book but, quite by shock, the masterpiece that is Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively is one of the shortlisted books.

My god, I love this novel. I adore it. I recommend it widely and often as it’s one that has been often overlooked. It’s a mini-masterpiece. Surprisingly short but a book that embraces both the romance of a life fully lived, as well as tough subjects such as incest and death. It centres around Claudia Hampton, a brusque, selfish woman who is lying on her death bed reminiscing about her passionate love affair during WW2 when she worked as reporter out in Cairo, as well as the loss of this love and the path her life went down after the war. Personal legacy and the inevitability of death loom large in this novel. Wonderful. I mean, it will probably lose this overall prize to Wolf Hall but, what the hell. If more discover this novel because of this shortlisting, then I will be happy.

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