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My February Reads

The books I’ve enjoyed this month, in order of reading.    

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

What drew me to it? Numerous nominations for major awards, and for a second novel? (The author’s 2018 novel, The Mars Room was nominated for the Booker.) Of course I wanted to see what all the fuss was about! I bought it for its art theme when writing Smash all the Windows and it’ been languishing on my TBR pile ever since.

Genre/Themes: Coming-of-age, literary, motor bikes, land speed records, New York 70’s art scene (complete with all of its rivalries dressed up as self-promotion and flattery,), on the one side capitalism and on the other unionist workers and the Italian underground movement, the thin line between reality and performance, lies and truth.

Any coincidences with book I am writing? Multiple points of view.

I particularly enjoyed: The sheer scale of its ambition. Make no mistake, this is a big read, not necessarily in terms of length, but the subjects Kushner takes on. My favourite paragraph is one I’ll keep going back to: ‘Is he telling the truth?’ I asked Sandro. ‘He’s complicated,’ Sandro said. ‘You have to listen closely. He’ll say something perfectly true and it’s meaningless. Then he makes something up, but it has value. He’s telling you something.’  Listen to the lies, people.

I didn’t get on with: So much information is webbed together that it was occasionally overwhelming and hard to keep track of. I felt the edit could have been tighter. Kushner’s characters tend to go in for speeches. Sometimes they are recognised as dinner party bores, but not often enough. The second to last chapter could have been cut with no loss to the whole. We didn’t need the ex-lover’s take on the love affair. But perhaps the point the author was trying to make was how nothing should be discounted and everything influences everything else.

Facts: This is one of those books where I’m going to need to research what was fact, but the truth is that a lot of fact goes into fiction, just as a lot of truth goes into lies. It takes me back to my favourite description of fiction: “Made-up truth.” It’s what we do.


Secrets at St Bride’s by Debbie Young ~ Shortlisted for the Selfies (Best Independently-published work of Adult Fiction)  

What drew me to it? I picked this book as part of my Reading Challenge 2020 as my book that falls outside my usual choice of genre.

Genre/Themes: Despite the boarding school setting (think Malory Towers, St Clare’s and St Trinian’s), here the focus is on the staff and their secrets. It’s difficult to label a book as ‘cosy mystery’ when the darker underlying themes are escape from a controlling relationship and hints of domestic abuse. Another reviewer called it a ‘classic school mystery with a modern twist’. Let’s settle for that.

Any coincidences with book I am writing? Save for the large country house setting, none whatsoever (a welcome relief).

I particularly enjoyed: As someone with no experience of boarding school life, I enjoyed having new teacher, Gemma Lamb, as my guide to the world of St Bride’s. Gemma is not only an ‘outsider’. She’s escaping a controlling ex-boyfriend – not something she wants to broadcast to her colleagues. The sense of the school as a place of sanctuary is very much apparent as, slowly, Gemma discovers that she isn’t the only teacher with something to hide. But, unless you’re thorough when covering your tracks, even places of sanctuary can be breached. And Gemma has not been as careful as she’d thought…

I felt as if I came to know the school and cast. This was a quick read (perfect when one of February’s storms kept me indoors). Those left wanting more will be happy to discover it’s the first of a series.

Facts: The acknowledgements section reveals that author Debbie Young worked at Gloucestershire boarding school for thirteen years, which explains why the environment she created felt so real. (I note from the school’s website that, since 2019, boys have been admitted!) 


History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

What drew me to it? Another book that passed me by at the time of its release, but it drew my attention at Words on the Water.

Genre/Themes: It’s almost too slow-moving to be called a thriller, but that is the book’s essence. It’s also about the awakening of a young girl who, having grown up in a religious commune, lives in an isolated cabin on the side of a lake with parents (who may or may not be her biological parents) who seem to exert very little control over her, of her aching to belong, and how that ache makes her particularly vulnerable. It reminded me of My Absolute Darling, but without the abusive father.

Any coincidences with book I am writing? No.

I particularly enjoyed: The author’s superb use of foreshadowing. We know from the first paragraph that something terrible is going to happen, but the pace is so controlled, and the way that Fridlund sustains the tension is remarkable. Part of what works so well is the use of occasional glimpses into the future that show how the narrator is living now, and her perspective on what happened from the distance of time. Fourteen-year-old Mattie clearly senses that something was not quite right, but can’t put her finger on it. It’s we, the readers, who realise. I also enjoyed the book’s strong sense of place, which contributed so much to the narrative.

I didn’t get on with: The danger of foreshadowing is that we know that something bad is going to happen, so it lessens the shock.

Facts: History of Wolves was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017. Not bad for a debut!


PS: Those of you who have yet to read Smash all the Windows may like to know that it is currently on special offer for only 99p/99c or nearest equivalent.   

‘This fictional disaster echoes with real emotions. I read it twice and believed every word.’ ~ JJ Marsh.

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