July book reviews

How have we already passed the halfway mark of 2021? It wasn’t a very book heavy month in the Wonky Librarian household… the manchild was home from university, my wife was ill and I was back to the PhD after a leave of absence for surgery. July seems to have sped by with only a tiny handful of books.


Rainbow Grey by Laura Ellen Anderson

Paperback, available now

I’m pretty sure I first saw this shared on Twitter and was smitten with the very camp front cover so pre-ordered it.

Set in the magical Weatherlands, Ray Grey doesn’t have the same weather-based magical powers as her friends and family, who are responsible for the weather systems on Earth. Ray does have Nim, a cloud cat who frequently explodes, as well as a penchant for visiting the library. In essence, she ends up on an adventure to prove that she’s brave after being teased by some bullies.

It has everything you want in a child’s book: adventure, imagination, magic, moral questions, fabulous illustrations, friendship and a few twists. The humour is sophisticated in its range; there’s slapstick silliness (exploding, farting, cloud cat), word puns and sufficient tongue-in-cheek moments to keep the adults chuckling. In that regard, it reminds me of How to train your dragon by Cressida Cowell.

The relationships were well developed, for instance parents who worried about her and applied boundaries and consequences without being unnecessarily cruel. At no point was Ray pitted against her parents, something I often find in children’s books.

It’s written for 8 – 10 year olds but I’d argue younger readers would love it as a shared or bedtime read.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍


Beyond the Black Door by A. M. Strickland

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Hardback, available now

Hmmmm. I really wanted to love this but I was left a little dissatisfied.

Kamai is a soul walker as she can pop into your soul whilst you’re asleep. She doesn’t learn how to fully hone this skill because her mother – her teacher – is murdered. Her mother has always told Kamai that she doesn’t have a soul like other people. No matter which soul Kamai visits, a black door appears, thrumming in the background; her mother has forbidden her to touch it or open it.

So, naturally, Kamai does both.

I really enjoyed the soul walking elements, socio-political constructs, friendships, familial relationships and setting. I was less enamoured with the romantic relationships and developments. Strickland explores a range of identities including gender queer, biromantics and asexual romantics – this is interesting and it’s not for this reason I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped. I think I am becoming ambivalent towards stories where the romantic relationships are integral to the plot or where they are the plot. Kamai’s self-discovery is great and I enjoyed reading it. What I disliked was the notion that she was falling for the bad guy (even though there are complexities with the situation) and that it was her process of working through this that brought about the plot resolution. Also, the relationship felt a little like grooming and definitely a lot like manipulation. Strickland gave with one hand with brilliant queer representation and then took away with the other, through an attempt at dark romance that simply reinforced tired tropes of abuse and misunderstood men. (Nora Martinez’s review on Goodreads makes these points much clearer than I can).

Probably another criticism is something I’ve seen in another review and it resonated with me. There is obvious peril and danger in order that Kamai can be the hero. However, whilst the world around Kamai is well depicted, we’re not privy to the wider world. This means the threat feels less threatening and the doom feels less doomy because we can’t fully appreciate the world or lives at risk.

Rating: ❤️❤️🤍🤍🤍


Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

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Hardback and audiobook, available now

I am able to appreciate and value a book without enjoying it, per se, and Girl, Woman, Other falls into this category. For instance, I think it’s a better work than its Booker Prize co-winner, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Evaristo should have won, hands down, but I still enjoyed Atwood’s book more.

Girl, Woman, Other is a very clever multi-narrator story exploring British women of different backgrounds, classes, ages and identities. The way Evaristo interweaves the lives is incredibly satisfying and she delves into meaty issues: parenting, love, class, privilege, inequality, feminism, oppression, intersectionality, family.

I have a thought and I’m worried I’m going to mishandle it with words, but here it goes… Despite the deliberately relaxed approach to punctuation and the centring of different voices, Evaristo’s book feels less like a novel and more like journalism, an academic publication or a Ted Talk. It teaches and highlights and explores, using the characters as a vehicle for the reader to understand big issues without reducing them to clichés. For this reason, whilst the characters don’t feel like stereotypes, they do sometimes sound unrealistic or as though they’re lecturing. The dialogue that follows is uttered by a middle-aged, drunk, high lesbian:

We should celebrate that many more women are reconfiguring feminism and that grassroots activism is spreading like wildfire and millions of women are waking up to the possibility of taking ownership of our world as fully-entitled human beings how can we argue with that?

Now, I might sound like that sober when writing an essay but even when I’m trying to be pompous, I don’t often speak like that aloud. I guess it feels like Evaristo’s manifesto – and her ideology chimes with mine a great deal.

Here’s a terrible analogy. I love roast parsnips and I love roast potatoes. Yum. What I don’t like is thinking that I’m spearing the final roast potato, which I deliberately saved until last, only to discover it’s a parsnip. I’ll still eat it and appreciate it but, all the while, I’ll be wishing it was a potato. That’s Girl, Woman, Other for me. If I’d known it was a parsnip (interesting book) before eating it, I’d have been more satisfied than I was when I hoped it was a potato (fictional novel)…

Ah well, it made sense to me and it’s lunchtime so I’m hungry.

Rating: ❤️❤️❤️❤️🤍

Still more books, glorious books…

Fair warning – these are all really highly rated. Not because I’ve become soft(!), I’ve just been really lucky with book choices, of late.

Book: “Where the Crawdads sing”
Author: Delia Owens
Source: Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖
Plot: Kya (the Marsh Girl) is abandoned by her family as a child and lives a solitary and wild life. She stands accused of murder.
Positives: the place and the people were so vivid – certainly helped along by an excellent audio performance. It felt fantastical and credible in equal measures.
Negatives: it took me three attempts to get into it but I can put my finger on why. I’m very glad I persevered.

Book: “The ballad of songbirds and snakes”
Author: Suzanne Collins
Source: Harback and Audible
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the 10th Hunger Games, the introduction of mentors, gambling and gifts. We are presented with Snow’s origin story.
Positives: it’s clever. Just like Atwood’s “The Testaments,” it doesn’t cause any seismic plot holes or negatively affect the original trilogy. Somehow, I preferred it as a prequel (compared to “The Testaments”). The characterisation is great… as a fan, I know where Snow ends up so I was surprised to find him a sympathetic protagonist. Also, unlike HBO’s awful handling of Daenerys Targaryen, his decline is authentic and believable.
Negatives: none. I was very satisfied.

Book: “Once upon a river”
Author: Diane Setterfield
Source: Amazon Kindle
Rating: 💖💖💖💖🖤
Plot: Hmm. It’s a bit tricky to summarise but, essentially, it’s set in the past on the Thames. In the middle of the night, a stranger staggers into a riverside pub, holding the corpse of a young girl. A few hours later, the girl breathes and wakes up. From here, the story focusses on figuring out who she is.
Positives: I really like the interwoven, snaking plot… like a main river and it’s subsidiaries. I worried there’d be no satisfactory conclusion but, pleasingly, this wasn’t the case.
Negatives: it certainly taps into some clichéd tropes about race but they’re most likely accurate for the era it’s conveying. I was left a little unsure by its approach, particularly as it’s a pretty foregrounded feature.

Book: “The seven deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle”
Author: Stuart Turton
Source: Audible (last year)
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: yup… can’t tell you! But imagine a Poirot / Inception hybrid and you’ll be close.
Positives: once you start figuring out what’s going on, you feel really smart! It’s very cinematic in its scope, depiction of place and character. I loved the plot twists (there are many); I would stay in the car to listen to the end of the chapter because I was hooked.
Negatives: some readers might not enjoy the repetition, which is a plot device, but I was a fan.

Book: “Parachutes”
Author: Kelly Yang
Source: Hardback
Rating: 💖💖💖💖💖
Plot: it’s the exploration of young people in the American school system but primarily from the point of view of parachutes (minors sent to live in the USA to study).
Positives: it’s honest and enlightening. It taught me a great deal about what life and education can be like for parachutes (whose experiences I’d never considered), 2nd generation immigrants and those from low income families. I knew the system was rigged but I didn’t know to what extent – this book teaches without forcibly teaching. It’s also brilliantly written and I really like the dual narrative.
Negatives: I guess some people will argue it has too positive and uplifting an ending but I’d counter-argue that, as a YA book, I’m pleased it has the kind of ending that might encourage others who have been abused to speak up. There’s value in that.