Midway Through Readathin Update

Read-a-thin Midway Update

So, it’s considerably past the middle of August, but I’ve recently got halfway through my TBR pile for readathin so I thought I’d make a post with some short reviews of the books I’ve read so far. If anyone missed it, I also made a post explaining readathin, and my TBR.

Milkman – Anna Burns
The first book I read was Milkman, which won the Man Booker award in 2018, so I had pretty high hopes for it. I have to admit, I didn’t really know anything about the book before I dove into it, and I was surprised to discover it’s somewhat dystopian — I am kind of fed up with futuristic, dystopian, dictatorship societies in novels after the YA craze from a few years ago. The world was, however, well-crafted, not restricted enough to feel entirely alien from our own, but with far too many regulations to feel familiar or safe. By not giving the characters names I felt I lost a degree of connection to them, and struggled to keep up with the various sister and brothers-in-law, and I also struggled to understand the power dynamics in the area the protagonist lives in, as it was unclear at the start of the book who was on the government’s side and who was rebelling against them, and who was in charge. Other than this, I did enjoy the style of writing in this novel, which was the reason I stayed engaged. The plot itself wasn’t anything particularly special: the focus was on the characterisation and world building, offering a snapshot into a different type of society through the eyes of a reasonably normal character who, in a departure from the conventions of YA dystopia at the minute, did not take on the government and save the world, which is what really sets Milkman apart from other dystopias that have been published in the last few years for me. Instead, the protagonist just tries to live her life as normally as she can, and doesn’t seem to express any particularly strong political opinions.
3.5 stars

Conversations with Friends – Sally Rooney
This was my first Rooney novel, but she’s been widely praised in literary circles, and is very popular among a lot of my friends, so I figured I had better give her a read. I’ve previously read an extract of her work in a creative writing class, but aside from that I have very little previous experience with Rooney. I do enjoy her writing style, though the relationships in this novel were somewhat uncomfortable, and none of the characters seemed to treat anyone with anything approaching respect. I don’t have an issue with unlikeable characters, however, as long as that’s the way they’re meant to be, and I felt like Rooney had deliberately created imperfect, flawed characters that the reader is meant to have a complex relationship with. I was reluctantly drawn to Frances, but I didn’t like her as a person at all. The only person in the novel I came close to liking as a person was Frances’ friend, Philip, who makes brief appearances, but is only a background character. This novel again, was more centred on character than plot, with the focus being on the changing relationships between the characters, as is suggested by the title. Even with the characters being mostly obnoxious, I still got a kind of sordid enjoyment out of watching their lives start to fall apart as the book progressed. I was glad the book ended the way it did, I think. It offered an insight into more functional, respectful relationships between the characters, giving a true sense of character progression and closure.
4 stars

What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
I do enjoy a short story collection, especially one with overlapping characters and themes. Oyeyemi’s work gives the reader several different ways to look at what appears to be the same world, though it takes a while to realise it. Many of the stories have a dark edge, and many are confusing, blurring the line between fantasy and reality, which seems to be one of Oyeyemi’s strengths. The recurring theme of the key was a subtle way to link the stories together, but really added a fantasy element to the story with the uncertainty and power that seemed to surround so many locked doors and keys throughout the collection. I definitely enjoyed some of the stories more than others: the first stood out to me, but a couple of the ones that were more heavily fantasy, in particular “is your blood as red as this?”, the story that focuses on a group of young puppeteers were just confusing and as a result I struggled to get into them because I was constantly questioning what was happening and who the characters were, and whether they were even human. I struggled to figure out whether this book was meant to be YA or adult as well, as the branding and writing style seemed to point towards YA, and many of the characters were teenagers, but I felt like many of the people I’d seen talking about it were treating it more as adult fiction than YA. I’d personally probably put it more into YA than adult, which is maybe in part because of the heavy fantasy elements that seem more at home in YA than adult. Regardless, I feel it would be an enjoyable read for teenagers or adults, so maybe it doesn’t matter.
3.5 stars

Mr Salary – Sally Rooney
This time, a single short story by Sally Rooney, and I started to notice a bit of a pattern in her work I don’t enjoy: an older man having a sexual relationship with a much younger woman. In Conversations with Friends the relationship was uncomfortable, but it didn’t ring any major alarm bells with me, as the couple met when the woman was 21, and their relationship was somewhat flirtatious from the start, and for the most part, their ages were mentioned in passing, and there didn’t seem to be a big age gap in the way they were characterised — it seemed like Nick could easily have been in his mid to late 20s rather than his 30s. In this story, however, the relationship between the characters was more like uncle and niece, or even father and daughter. Nathan’s older sister is married to the uncle of the protagonist, who lived with him during her university years. Having moved in with him when she was 19, the story makes it clear he acted as a sort of guardian to her, buying her gifts and taking an interest in her life, but refusing her advances. When the story takes place, however, he gives in to her. The narrator, Sukie, has clearly had an inappropriate fixation with Nathan for a long time, and it seemed like, despite rejecting her advances, he had never done anything to really dissuade her from continuing to pursue him, suggesting he got some kind of enjoyment out of her crush. Again, Rooney writes well, but this story left me feeling very uncomfortable, especially after seeing very similar themes explored in Conversations with Friends.

3 stars.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story – Ned Vizzini
It’s Kind of a Funny Story is also kind of an important story. The book follows Craig, a teenager who suffers with severe depression, who decides he wants to kill himself, but instead ends up checking himself into his local hospital, where he then has a five-day stay in adult psychiatric. This book teaches important lessons about mental health, about friendship, about family, and about the importance of a support network. The story is influenced by Vizzini’s own experience in a similar hospital. This book shows the compassion that can be found from near-strangers, as Craig builds important relationships with many of the other patients. The target audience for this book is definitely younger than the others I’ve read this month, however, and I’d put it firmly in the young adult category, not for under 15s due to the themes of abuse, mental illness, suicide and self harm (though maybe maturer younger readers would enjoy it). As someone more used to reading adult fiction, I found the style a bit juvenile for my taste, and I got through this book very quickly because the style was so simple. While this isn’t a criticism in any way — it’s presumably what Vizzini was aiming for when writing it, it’s not necessarily my cup of tea. The important thing with any book, however, is whether the author achieved what they were intending to achieve, and I think Vizzini did. There are moments of lightheartedness, comedy and joy scattered in amongst the depression and struggle, and I think that’s an important message for younger readers. Craig’s ultimate decision to live, to do what he loves and make the best of what he can while managing his depression is a lovely ending. However, there were some genuine issues I have with this book which would make me hesitant to recommend it to others. The book features some transphobic language (referring to a person as “he/she/it”), and seems to consistently misgender this character. From reading the book, it appears that the character identifies as female, but this is never respected by any of the other characters. She is seen as a “trap” by Craig, who initially finds her attractive before he realises she is transgender, and she is consistently deadnamed and misgendered. The other woman Craig finds attractive are objectified and obsessed over, and his advances seem somewhat unwanted at points. For this reason I’ve marked the book down quite a bit, and I think the way women, and in particular transgender women are treated in this book is a shame, because it’s otherwise a very authentic view of mental illness that seems uncommon in YA fiction.
3 stars.

So there we have it, my roundup of the 5 books I’ve read so far this month! I’m hoping to at least make a dent in the remaining five on my pile, even if I don’t manage to quite finish them all in August! This block of 5 has fulfilled 4 of the 5 prompts: something colourful (Milkman), something thin (Mr Salary), something recommended by a friend (Conversations with Friends), and something that’s been on my TBR for 2+ years (It’s Kind of a Funny Story), so I only need to read one more book that’s part of a series to fulfil the 5th and final prompt!

Thank you so much for reading, and please let me know what you thought of any of these books if you’ve read them!

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