Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton

I received an e-ARC of Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton from NetGalley in return for review consideration. The novel will be published by Penguin in the UK on 1st February 2018.

Dolly Alderton is a journalist and former dating columnist for The Sunday Times, and Everything I Know About Love recounts her childhood, school and university years, and her stepping out into the adult world. She relates tales of success, failure, and hilarity (Rod Stewart-themed house party, anyone?) as she and her friends learn what it means to come of age in the new millennium, faced with challenges and opportunities their parents could never have conceived of.

I enjoyed this memoir a lot. Alderton writes well, with a friendly and casual style that draws you in and allows her to move from light, happy sections to more intense, sometimes deeply sad passages without becoming overwrought. It has the feeling of a very longform personal essay, the kind that I personally enjoy reading, but I know is not to everyone’s taste. I think, however, that Alderton does a good job of balancing the funny stories with personal insight.

The book is divided nicely into sections, bookended by chapters entitled ‘Everything I Knew About Love as a Teenager/At Twenty-One/At Twenty-Five’, with ‘Everything I Know About Love at Twenty-Eight’ providing the final chapter. These short chapters list out the truths Alderton held dear at those ages, and I found myself reading down these lists and going ‘yes, yes, yes’ to so many of the points. Particularly in the ‘as a Teenager’ section, there were points which made me shake my head in memory of Past Me, certain that she knew All The Important Things when really, nothing was further from the truth.

Alderton and I are almost the same age (I’m a year or so older) so there were a lot of elements of her book which really resonated with me, such as growing up as the internet became a ‘thing’, using instant messenger and mobile phones to constantly talk with friends you’d seen at school mere hours early, much to the consternation of your parents. Her university experience, however, was definitely not like mine, though probably much more reflective of what most students expect – making friends, drinking too much, and occasionally attending a lecture or two – and it definitely reminded me of some of my friends.

There were some deeply touching moments within the memoir, particularly as Alderton learns to deal with loss and the ever changing nature of friendship and life. My favourite part of the book was probably the last quarter. I don’t wish to spoil it for anyone, so I will say only that Alderton has some realisations about her life, what she wants to get out of it, and what she might need to do to make that happen. I came out of the book with a lot of respect for her.

All in all, this was a witty and moving book that I would recommend to anyone looking for a well-written, satisfying memoir about love, friendship, and growing up in the nineties and noughties.

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Book Tag!!

I was tagged by Kristina over at Books and Dachshunds (you should definitely check out her awesome blog!), and I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get my answers sorted!! But here we go:

  1. What’s your favourite setting in a book? My favourite settings are either a spaceship, or a ranch (with horses and all that).
  2. What is your favourite cliché/overdone thing in a novel? There are so many good ones! Enemies-to-lovers, friends-to-lovers, huddling together for warmth. I think fake relationship might be my favourite one though – I love the typically performative nature of the fake relationship, and then inevitable moment when the characters realise they had Real Feelings all along.
  3. Is there something you’d wish to post more of on your blog? If so, what? Because I’m fairly new to this, I don’t really have an answer for this yet. But in time, I would like to write more about broader topics – favourite books in [insert genre here], a treatise on [specific author]; that kind of thing.
  4. Is there one type of post that you’d like to do on your blog but don’t because you are scared/think nobody would read it? Again, because of the newness, I don’t really have much of an idea on this at the moment.
  5. One genre you just cannot do? Honestly, I think I can read pretty much anything as long as there’s good characterisation and isn’t blatantly sexist, misogynist, homophobic, racist etc. These days, I’m not really picky about genre, but I am picky about the specific books I’ll pick up, and that helps me avoid a lot of things that might frustrate me (and I’m not talking about things that are challenging for whatever reason – reading things that challenge me is important – but things that just don’t make an effort to move away from stereotypes and harmful assumptions about particular groups of people). Anyway, this answer got long!!
  6. What’s THE book you would have loved to have written, and why? I really don’t know! Maybe Ninefox Gambit, just because I can’t even imagine how Yoon Ha Lee came up with the systems that govern that universe and I wish I had that kind of imagination and ability.
  7. If everything would remain the same, what would you change in your life? Why? I could be better at speaking up about things in real life. It’s easy enough on the internet, but I’m not always as vocal as I could be when someone says something offensive.
  8. Which animal is your patronus? I’m the walking potato dog from this video (I promise, it’s worth ten seconds of your life to go and watch this)!!
  9. What’s that popular book everyone seems to love but you hate? I feel like there might be quite a lot of these? But I’m going to go with How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran – I read it against my better judgment, even though I knew the criticisms of the book, because friends were telling me they were defining themselves as feminists because of it. It was exactly as frustrating as I was expecting and whilst I think that more people defining themselves as feminists is a good thing, I had so, so many problems with this book. And then more problems because people kept telling me I was overreacting.
  10. Do you prefer cold or hot weather? I’m definitely a cold weather person. I tend to burst into flames if there’s too much sun. Plus, my view is that you can always put on more clothes when it’s cold; there’s a limit to how many clothes you can take off.
  11. If you could have anything in the world, what’s that one (1) thing you would choose? Deep answer or shallow answer? Deep answer is a political system that means more people’s votes actually make a difference in elections (do not get me started on the failings of First Past The Post and why more people should care about electoral reform). Shallow answer is a large and delicious cake of some kind, because I’m kind of hungry right now.

Now for my questions (much harder to think of!):

  1. If you could only read one genre for the rest of your life, what would it be?
  2. What’s your Desert Island Discs book (you’re stuck on a desert island and you have one book – what is it)?
  3. Name a character that you’d like to hang out with.
  4. What fictional universe would like to live in and why?
  5. If you wrote an autobiography, what would its title be?
  6. Is there a book you’d like to play a video game version of? If so, what book?
  7. What book do you recommend most often to people?
  8. What’s your favourite book from childhood?
  9. What book has surprised you most, either good or bad (you thought you would hate but you loved it, or you thought you would love it but hated it, or something else entirely)?
  10. What’s your favourite book cover?
  11. And finally, what’s your favourite flavour of cake? Or, if you don’t like cake, favourite pizza topping?

I’ve completely lost track of who has and hasn’t been tagged in this, so I’m not going to tag anyone in particular, but if anyone has any thoughts about any of my questions, let me know!

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Top Ten Tuesday – 16th January 2018

I’m doing the Top Ten Tuesday meme, which has just moved to That Artsy Reader Girl, and the theme for 16th January is…Bookish Resolutions and Goals. I didn’t do ‘proper’ 2018 resolutions, so this seems like a timely topic.

  1. Read 100 books – this is my main goal for the year. I hit 170 last year, but I don’t want to overstretch myself. Having said that, I’m already up to 10 so far this year, so 100 seems eminently doable
  2. Complete the 2018 Read Harder challenge – I have a post in the works about this which I must finish at some point, but in the meantime, it’s a thing I hope to accomplish again this year
  3. Read fifty books for Beat the Backlist – my current books are mostly ARCs, but even just my reading for my book clubs should get me halfway to this goal, so reading a couple of extra books each month seems manageable
  4. Read all my book club books – this one seems pretty obvious
  5. Read more classics – as I’ve mentioned before, I really haven’t read that many of the classics, so I’d like to try and work on this this year
  6. Listen to more audiobooks – I’ve always loved audiobooks, but never really listened to them unless I was travelling. Now that my commute is on a quieter route, and my libraries have such a great range of audiobooks I can access through Overdrive, I’ve been listening to various things on my commute, and would like to continue that this year
  7. Read more in French – every time I pick up a French book, I feel the words start to flow back into my brain. It can be a frustrating process for me, because my reading is so much slower, but it’s good for me
  8. Do more close reading – this is something I know will improve my writing, but I often get caught up in just reading and don’t pay as much attention as I could to the words, the structure, and everything like that, so it’s definitely something I should work on
  9. Have more discussions with people about books – going to a couple of book clubs last year has made me realise how much I love discussing books with people, even if I haven’t always enjoyed what we’ve discussed
  10. And finally, actually keep up this blog! It’s a very long time since I wrote things on the internet regularly (oh, Livejournal days, how I miss you)

So that’s this week’s top ten. What are your bookish resolutions for the year?

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Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed

I received an e-ARC of Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed from NetGalley in return for review consideration. Ahmed’s debut novel, Filters is an #ownvoices YA novel about coming of age in America as an Indian-American Muslim teen. It is due to be published by Hot Key Books (an imprint of Bonnier Zaffre) in the UK on 16th January 2018.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

American-born seventeen-year-old Maya Aziz is torn between worlds. There’s the proper one her parents expect for their good Indian daughter: attending a college close to their suburban Chicago home, and being paired off with an older Muslim boy her mom deems “suitable.” And then there is the world of her dreams: going to film school and living in New York City—and maybe (just maybe) pursuing a boy she’s known from afar since grade school, a boy who’s finally falling into her orbit at school.

There’s also the real world, beyond Maya’s control. In the aftermath of a horrific crime perpetrated hundreds of miles away, her life is turned upside down. The community she’s known since birth becomes unrecognizable; neighbors and classmates alike are consumed with fear, bigotry, and hatred. Ultimately, Maya must find the strength within to determine where she truly belongs.

I absolutely loved this book. I’ve rarely read a contemporary YA novel with such realistic and vivid characters, nor one that tackles with such aplomb some seriously heavy issues. Ahmed has done a brilliant job of balancing Maya’s everyday concerns – boys, college, parents – alongside the specific issues faced by an Indian-American Muslim teenager.

Maya’s relationship with her parents is masterfully described by Ahmed, as Maya tries to spread her wings without disappointing her parents, whose more traditional views sometimes run counter to Maya’s. The conflict between the two parties is handled well, as Maya starts to work out what path she wants to follow, and how to follow it when her parents expect something quite different from her. Maya does have support from her mother’s sister, Hina, who has trodden a very different path to Maya’s mother, and offers words of wisdom from someone who has moved further away from the traditional expectations placed on her.

The two main male characters in the book – Kareem, the older Muslim boy, and Phil, a boy at Maya’s school – were equally well-written. Ahmed manages to avoid many of the clichés of similar romantic storylines, and both boys are fleshed-out characters with their own feelings and opinions, and they affect Maya’s life in different ways. I liked Maya’s thoughts and conflict over the two boys; to me, it seemed realistic, not too melodramatic, and showed three teenagers/young adults being generally thoughtful in their dealings with each other in way that I haven’t often seen in YA.

Between the main storyline runs the story of another character, the perpetrator of a horrific crime that will have a distinct and deeply serious impact on Maya’s life, and the lives of her family and other people around her. In the aftermath of this crime, Maya feels keenly the effects of Islamophobia in the community where she’s grown up, and it brings home to her how different her lived experience is from most of her peers, and the additional challenges she faces by virtue of not being a white American. I really liked how Ahmed wove this storyline into the main narrative, the different elements that it brought to the overall story, and the commentary it allowed her to make about people’s assumptions and how damaging they can be.

With all of this being said, I’m neither Indian nor Muslim, so I can’t speak to the accuracy of the representation from the perspective of lived experience. However, I personally enjoyed the book and am thrilled to see an #ownvoices author bringing a new voice into the YA canon.

I would recommend this book to anyone, but particularly to people who enjoy well-written, well-plotted contemporary YA with a wonderful main character and a story that will, as they say, give you all the feels. I really can’t recommend it enough.

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Seven-Sided Spy by Hannah Carmack

I received an e-ARC of Seven-Sided Spy by Hannah Carmack from NetGalley in return for review consideration. Seven-Sided Spy is a queer, mystery novel, Carmack’s debut, and is due to be published by NineStar Press in the UK on 15th January 2018.

I’m going to start by copying the blurb that attracted me to the book on NetGalley, which is the same as on Goodreads, rather than providing my own:

In the midst of the cold war, the CIA’s finest and most fatal female agent, Diana Riley, vanishes. Kidnapped by the KGB and taken to the backcountry of North Carolina, she and her team of unsavory partners are forced to undergo illegal experimentation.

But, when the experiments leave them horribly deformed and unable to reenter society without someone crying monster, the previously glamorous and high-maintenance spies must escape KGB captivity and avoid recapture at the hands of Nikola, a ruthless KGB agent with an intense and well-justified grudge against her former flame.

This synopsis gave me the impression that the book would focus on Diana and her relationship with Nikola, which is not the case. The book actually has a really diverse cast of characters, and the focus is split between Diana and the various members of her team, ‘local’ Ruby, and the KGB agents. That the book is actually focused on a large, mixed gender group is a really positive thing, but is not what I was expecting given the blurb, and as NetGalley allows you to send comments to the publishers, I have let them know this. This is an enjoyable book, and I would want other potential readers to maybe have clearer expectations of the book when they picked it up.

Moving onto the review, this was a very interesting and unexpected book. As described in the synopsis, Diana and her team are experimented upon by the KGB, leaving each them altered in a different way. The way Carmack details the effects these changes have on her characters is really strong, and not what you might typically see in a situation where a character has acquired unusual powers. I particularly enjoyed the way she describes the different physical effects, and how she makes the experiences of each character unique.

Once the experimentation has happened and Diana’s team is left on the outer edges of society, the story gets both larger and smaller. Much of the narrative takes place in a huge forest which is richly described and provides a great location for various confrontations and fight scenes, whilst creating a feeling of claustrophobia as time moves on and their team remains stuck. Nikola’s team have more room to explore, but the experiments they’ve undergone have fundamentally changed their relationships and they can’t necessarily work and live with each other as they had done before.

There are also flashbacks which provide some backstory to some of the characters, particularly focusing on people they have loved and lost (or left). I enjoyed these, though they were sometimes confusing or not clearly identified as flashbacks and separated from the main text. They really helped explain how and why some characters acted the way they did, and provided context for decisions some of them made.

There were definitely a few elements of the book I didn’t enjoy so much. The core cast of characters is quite large, and as they’re mostly spies, they’re known by multiple names, which I found hard to keep track of. Combined with the flashbacks I’ve already mentioned, I did find that I sometimes wasn’t sure exactly who I was reading about, or whether I was reading something set in the main storyline or in the past.

I would also say that for a book described as a thriller, there were times when it felt slow to me. Action is quite liberally interspersed with more intimate, personal scenes, but for me, that didn’t always work as I didn’t feel particularly attached to many of the characters. This was particularly the case when it came to Diana and Nikola – I felt their personal motives were the ones I understood least, which was slightly frustrating to me.

All that being said, this is a book with a fascinating premise and a varied cast of characters. If you enjoy character-driven thrillers with a ensemble cast and a science-fiction edge, this book is worth a read. I’m also going to be keeping an eye out for what Carmack writes next, as I think her ideas in this book were super interesting and I would like to see where she takes things next.

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Top Ten Tuesday – 9th January

I’m doing The Broke and the Bookish‘s Top Ten Tuesday meme, and the theme for 9th January is…Ten Books We Meant To Read In 2017 But Didn’t Get To (and totallyyyy plan to get to in 2018!!). So, without further ado:

  1. All Systems Red by Martha Wells – this is a sci-fi novella about a robot who just wants to be left alone for a bit, and the nature of humanity and all that jazz. I will get this one read, I will!
  2. The Sellout by Paul Beatty – in fairness, I did get about halfway through this one (and was massively enjoying it!) but the library needed its copy back and then suddenly it was the end of the year and I hadn’t picked it up again
  3. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas – I know, I know, how have I not read this already? My excuse is that a friend has said she’ll lend me her copy and that hasn’t happened yet, so I should get on that
  4. Updraft by Fran Wilde – this one is super well-regarded by people whose thoughts I frequently agree with, but there kept being something more ‘urgent’ to read. I need to make this one a priority this year
  5. Penance by Kanae Minato (trans. Philip Gabriel) – I heard about this on a Book Riot podcast, added it to the list, and then forgot about it. So I’m making it one of my Read Harder task books to make sure I read it this year
  6. Once Were Warriors by Alan Duff – this is an NZ classic, but not much known elsewhere. It’s where my partner’s from, so I’m trying to read some of the ‘everyone in NZ has read this’ books and this year, hopefully I will actually get round to this one
  7. Solitaire by Kelley Eskridge – this book has been on my TBR list for forever, but it’s difficult to find a copy. I need to just sort myself out and buy a copy, but I haven’t managed it yet. Hopefully 2018 is the year that I do!
  8. Binti by Nnedi Okorafor – Okorafor is a writer I want to read more of, and the Binti series gets such high praise. I sometimes find it difficult to pick up novellas though, in the same way that I don’t often want to read short stories, but the third book in the trilogy will be out later this year, so that should be the necessary motivation
  9. Uprooted by Naomi Novik – I’ve read about two thirds of the Temeraire series and love Novik’s writing. My library finally got a copy, so I will make a start on it soon(ish)
  10. Hunger by Roxane Gay – it’s Roxane Gay and I haven’t read it yet. That’s about it, really!

So that’s the ten. There are so many others, but these were the ones which really sprang to mind. Which books did you miss out in 2017 that you really need to get to this year?

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Touch by Kris Bryant

I received an e-ARC of Touch by Kris Bryant from NetGalley in return for review consideration. This lesbian romance novel will be published by Bold Strokes Books in the UK on 16th January 2018.

Please note that the below review contains some plot spoilers, and that the book itself contains scenes of an explicit, sexual nature between consenting adults of the same gender.

Touch tells the story of Hayley Sims, a paediatric physiotherapist who’s asked by her boss to take on an unusual client. Elizabeth Stone, who goes only by Stone, is a hockey player at the top of her game who injured her leg in a serious car accident. Her parents are friends with Hayley’s boss, and as Hayley used to work with athletes, Stone is her newest patient. It quickly becomes clear that Hayley and Stone have more chemistry than is appropriate between a doctor and patient. To make matters more complicated, Hayley also has a fiancée, Alison, a workaholic surgeon who gets on better with Hayley’s parents than Hayley herself. Hayley soon finds herself reassessing her relationship with Alison as her feelings for Stone start to grow.

I really enjoyed all the technical elements of the book, learning about physiotherapy as Hayley treated Stone and her other patients. I know very little about physiotherapy or injuries of the type Stone has suffered, so this was all fascinating to me. I also appreciated Hayley’s internal conflict between her role as Stone’s physician and her growing attraction towards the other woman. The parts of the book that dealt with Stone’s career as a professional hockey player were also interesting, particularly as ice hockey isn’t super popular over here so again, my pre-existing knowledge of the sport was very limited. As with many lesbian romance novels, the main characters are portrayed as skilled and competent within their chosen fields, and that’s always something I enjoy reading.

The whole book is written from Hayley’s POV, and I liked her character’s voice. Sticking with the POV of just one character allows Bryant to delve more deeply into Hayley’s thoughts, fears, and motivations. She was generally a likeable character, often more concerned about trying to keep others happy than going after her own desires, and very dedicated to her job. It was also interesting to see her work through her true feelings about her relationship with Alison, and I felt this was done in a very realistic way.

The downside of the book being from Hayley’s POV is that Stone’s motivations were sometimes less clear, particularly towards the end of the book, and I found her character harder to get to grips with. Part of her characterisation is also that she’s a little self-absorbed, at least at first, and isn’t always particularly sympathetic. Having chapters or sections from Stone’s POV might have endeared her character more to me. Bryant does show her character growing and developing though, and by the end of the book, it was clear to me that Stone had changed for the better, which I liked.

I also found the latter half of the book somewhat frustrating, as an spanner is thrown into the works of Stone and Hayley’s burgeoning relationship by a secondary character. I am often annoyed when ‘characters refuse to talk to each other about something important’ is a major plot driver, and that was partly the case towards the end of this book. To Bryant’s credit, she does deal with this plot point well, with Hayley being as frustrated as I was by Stone’s refusal to open up to her. And once Stone actually explains herself, the situation is quickly resolved. Nevertheless, this element of the story did somewhat reduce my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, this was a good lesbian romance novel. The POV character is engaging and realistic, and Bryant has a lovely way with sense of place and background characters, who really fleshed out the story for me. If you enjoy romance novels about women who are truly committed to their professions (this is a thing I love!) and who learn to take risks on other people, this one’s for you.