52 Books in 2013 Challenge: June Update

So it’s July already – this year is going waaaay too fast for my liking.  June flew by, but I did manage to hit the monthly target of 4 books, although really I need to catch up a little bit if I’m going to get in 52 by December; by now I should be on about 26, but I can handle it.  If the weather holds out for the rest of July, I can get some reading done in the sunshine, and if it doesn’t… well, a rainy day of reading is time well spent too!  Here’s my June update:

Book 19: May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes

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AM Homes recently won the 2013 Women’s Prize For Fiction for this book, which follows Harry Silver as he tries to make the best of the situation created by the fallout from his brother’s breakdown.  The blurb promises “an act of violence so shocking that both brothers are hurled into entirely new lives in which they both must seek absolution” – but in my opinion, it wasn’t all that shocking.  Maybe that’s just me, having become somewhat desensitised to violence in books (but not films, strangely enough) and perhaps even expectant of shocking twists and events.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though…

I should have started by saying that I enjoyed the book for the most part – at almost 500 pages, it was a stupid choice to pick while doing this challenge, because it took me a few days to finish it.  Sometimes when an author’s writing is particularly enjoyable it is easy to get lost in a book, or if (as I found with Gone Girl) the story has enough dramatic moments to keep me gripped I’ll finish it in a day or two.  But in May We Be Forgiven I felt that the pace was uneven throughout and there were passages that seemed to suggest that what was happening was important or would have some lasting effect on the story, but then it turned out they didn’t.  And I found it unusual that the dramatic event hinted at in the blurb happens approximately 10 pages in or so, which is why I was expecting something bigger and more shocking to happen later, but the rest of the book deals with the consequence of these actions, and how Harry has to take on the responsibilities that his brother George has left him with (and that’s not the spoiler you’d expect, plus you’d only have to read a few pages to be up to scratch) while trying to juggle his own marriage and career, unsuccessfully.

I think one of my main problems with this book is that I didn’t find anything likeable about any of the characters.  Even the two children, spoilt but naive and kind-hearted in their own ways, had no real redeeming qualities.  As the book progresses, Harry indulges in activities that are at real odds with his personality, which make sense if you consider that he’s got a lot on his plate, but at the same time seem shoe-horned in to make him sound more complicated than he really is.  I didn’t care about the characters at all, and I wasn’t bothered about what happened to them.  And then near the end of the book, there’s a fairly long and incredibly boring section where the characters go on a bizarre trip to Africa to celebrate one of the children’s birthdays – what should have been an eye-opening experience for the characters was just another trip to another place, and they returned home unchanged.

The more I think about the book since finishing it, the more unusual I find it, as I did enjoy it while I was reading it (otherwise I wouldn’t have persevered with it) but I don’t think that it is the great novel that it thinks it is or was trying to be.

Book 20: What Money Can’t Buy by Michael Sandel

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Now here’s a book I’d been dying to read!  When it came out in hardback last year, I didn’t fancy forking out the £18 for it – that’s something that MY money couldn’t buy for sure.  But a trip to London the other day took me near to Foyles, and it would have been rude not to go in and have a little browse.  And suddenly I saw that this was now out in paperback, with a really lovely (if somewhat unrelated) cover, so I snapped it up.

What Money Can’t Buy is Sandel’s take on the moral aspect of markets, and what it means when we put a price on things, both for the item now for sale/rent and for society in general.  I’m always fascinated by what Sandel has to say about things.  As I mentioned in a previous post about books I loved his book Justice, which uses thought-problems and hypothetical situations to get you thinking about what you consider to be the right thing to do. In this book, he looks at the expanding grip of market principles in areas that some consider to be sacred, and the arguments for and against this treatment.  Of course, most of this is written about things that exist largely in America, but that didn’t alienate me as a British reader; in fact I think that it gave an extra edge to the instances where I recognised certain American market traits which were emerging and developing in the UK.

I did worry a little that I’d find myself struggling with some of the basic concepts – I wondered if I’d need to have some kind of understanding of economics in order to get a real handle on what Sandel was saying, but that wasn’t the case.  The basic idea of the book is an exploration of what people are willing to pay for, and whether this is morally acceptable or not – we’re never told by Sandel what to think, just given the facts and presented with different points of view.  His writing style is brilliant – easy to understand yet not in the slightest bit patronising, with an intelligent grace that infuses light-hearted humour and thought-provoking satire amidst the philosophical debate. I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who fancies reading some non-fiction that isn’t just about some niche area of science or history – the ideas in this book focus on the impact of markets on society, and that’s what made it so enjoyable and important.

Book 21: One Piece #1 by Eiichiro Oda

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I finally did it, you guys. I finally read a manga.

Yes, after months and months, possibly even years of “YOU WOULD LOVE THIS MANGA” and “READ THIS MANGA” and “MANGA MANGA MANGA” from my brother and even some of his friends, I caved and chose to include one in my book challenge.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no literary snob or purist – I’ll read anything if the story is good enough, but I was just never tempted by mangas, for no particular reason, and I’m somebody who gets put off by people harassing them to try things.  I will do so in my own time if I want to – don’t pressure me!  So the time came for me to finally try reading one, and I opted for One Piece on the advice of my brother.

From what I can remember, One Piece is about a young boy named Luffy who wants to join Shanks’s pirate crew, but they keep rejecting him because they think he’s too young and inexperienced.  Then he eats the gum-gum fruit (I think?) which gives him the special power to stretch his body like rubber, but also prevents him from ever being able to swim.  Then, ten years later and with the dream of becoming King of the Pirates, he sets sail on his own boat and starts to assemble his own pirate crew, encountering some bizarre and hilarious characters along the way.

As this is the first ‘episode’, I think the point of this was to give us an idea of the main characters, introduce them to us and show us a little bit about them.  Luffy’s enthusiasm and care-free nature (but also his dark temper at the start) immediately made him endearing, and I’m sure that as the episodes progress his story will be more enthralling with each one.  Then there was the little cutie pie Koby, who I loved – he wanted to become a marine, but was worried that his history of working as a slave in a pirate crew would hold him back.  The themes of nobility, duty and loyalty were strong in this book, and I liked that – I’ll definitely visit the other books in time, but maybe not straight away – I’d like to keep varying the books I read in this challenge.  But that’s not to say I won’t read another by the end of the year…

Book 22: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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Well, here it is, the last book of June and also the July book title for my book club.  Touted by some reviewers as the next Fifty Shades of Grey despite the fact that this is an enjoyable crime thriller and Fifty Shades of Grey is a moronic waste of paper and ink, I was pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable this book was.  Like I said, I’m no book snob, but I’ll admit to being a little sceptical of books that are heralded as the next big thing, because I wonder whether they’ll be hugely gimmicky.  And sure, this book certainly had a gimmick – the chapters alternate between Nick Dunne’s point of view set in the present day from the day his wife goes missing, and Amy Dunne’s diary entries from the day she meets Nick, telling the story of their marriage for the last five years.  But a gimmick isn’t always a bad thing, and I think it worked brilliantly well in this book.  I’ll be honest, I opened the book thinking that I’d find it too simple or too cliched, but I really didn’t.  The two sides of the stories are told with what I think are fairly distinctive voices, and when the accounts start to slip apart it is handled really well.

As with May We Be Forgiven, I was aware of the fact that a twist/event happened in the book, to the point that recommendations and reviews of the book even give you an idea of whereabouts in the book to expect this twist – which is stupid, because if you expect a twist you’re going to be less effected by it.  But nonetheless when the reveal comes, I think it was handled well and I ultimately was taken in by it too.  I really wouldn’t want to give too much away about Gone Girl, because I think it kind of does deserve the praise it’s getting – again, considering the accolades being heaped on May We Be Forgiven and the problems I found with the pacing, Gone Girl was paced much more competently, and I found myself sitting up at 1am going “Oh, one more chapter!” because I was hooked.

That’s not to say the book is without it’s faults.  I feel that it could have ended a good 60 or so pages before it actually did, and I found the ending to be poorly handled, unrealistic and unfulfilling, especially considering the brilliant job Flynn had done with the rest of the book.  In terms of characters, my thoughts about them during the actual reading process were at odds with what I think we were meant to feel, and then confirmed by what we learn afterwards – I’m not trying to say I’m so smart that I could second guess the author, I think it just illustrates my own judgemental tendencies, really…

Anyway, that’s June done.  Here’s to July, and let’s hope I can smash through the halfway point and read some great stuff this month!

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