I originally borrowed this post format from Elle; I enjoyed writing these posts so much last year that I’ve decided to bring them back for 2023!
The Best Book I Read This Month Was…
… I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai. Pleasingly, unlike the set of books I read in January, there was some stiff competition for this coveted slot this month, and I’ve put a couple of honourable mentions below. However, this prep school novel won through because it was one of those rare books that was both completely gripping and immersive, but also so thoughtful and thought-provoking. I just loved reading it so much. My full review is here.
Hon. mentions: Bad Cree by Jessica Johns and Hijab Butch Blues by Lamya H.
The Worst Book I Read This Month Was…
… The Witch in the Well by Camilla Bruce. This novel focuses on a rekindled rivalry between childhood friends Catherine and Elena after they both decide to write books about a figure that haunts the history of their town. That figure is Ilsbeth Clark, a woman accused of horrific crimes in the nineteenth century. It’s constructed mostly from a series of documents: Catherine and Elena’s own narratives, plus excerpts from Catherine’s novel and sections from the historical records she’s been researching in the archives. Another, undocumented voice intrudes occasionally, and refreshingly, but this is the bulk of the novel. And unfortunately, in striving to give Elena and Catherine distinctive voices, Bruce makes them both hopelessly irritating. Elena uses plentiful hashtags, CAPS LOCKS and exclamation marks; Catherine, despite her more formal prose, actually sounds quite similar; both come off as equally deluded. I’m a big fan of an unsympathetic narrator but they have to be interesting, and I had no interest in either of these women. The only bit that gave me any kind of frisson was the description of the ‘witch in the well’ game played in the school playground, stepping in and out of a circle of chalk; otherwise, this totally lacked atmosphere. I received a free proof copy of this book from the publisher for review.
My Favourite Reread This Month Was…
… The Life and Death of Sophie Stark by Anna North. I first read this novel back in 2015 and named it as one of my top ten books of the decade in 2019, so I’m glad it held up! It tells the story of unconventional filmmaker and director, Sophie Stark, though a range of narrators; Sophie herself never gets to narrate, but we hear from her lover, her brother, her husband, her producer. North’s prose is utterly hypnotic, and I spent most of the book trying to work out how she does it (especially as I’ve since read her Outlawed and liked it a lot, but didn’t think it was nearly this brilliant). I think what makes this book so great is its series of nested stories. It starts with a woman telling a story on a stage and never really leaves that mode. I felt glued to the page by the narrative drive of a campfire tale, even when the stories told were much more complex and difficult. Sophie herself is a fantastic character, properly weird rather than movie weird, and both hard to like and to truly dislike. It was particularly special to read this book around visiting a wonderful exhibition at the film museum in Amsterdam, Saodat Ismailova’s 18,000 Worlds.
Hon. mention: Orkney by Amy Sackville, which I liked as much as I did last time I read it, back in 2013… but I do think it should have been a novella, which is possibly the only time I’ve ever said that!
The Best Ghost Story I Read This Month Was…
… The Upstairs Room by Kate Murray-Browne. Another reread! This debut, which I first read back in 2018, has been so thoroughly misunderstood by Goodreads reviewers that I want to shout its praises everywhere. It’s not a thriller or a (traditional) ghost story, but a deeply unsettling dissection of why we settle where and when we do – whether that’s in a relationship, in a job, or in a house. Any summary of the novel makes it sound like a mix of the ‘rootless millennial woman’ genre crossed with ‘middle-aged people’s marriage troubles’, but Murray-Browne’s writing is just so good: one of the writers that makes me feel I’m looking more clearly at the world after reading her, that my own life has been placed into better order. I’d shelve this next to Naomi Booth’s Exit Management. I’m thrilled to hear that Murray-Browne has a new novel coming out in 2024, which sounds great: ‘One Girl Began entwines the stories of three women, separated by history but connected by the same building. For Ellen in 1909, it is a box factory where she finds work and a transformative circle of friendship when her family fall on hard times. For Frances in 1984, it is a derelict ruin, where she joins a group of squatters and is drawn into a coercive relationship. And for Amanda in 2020, it is a gentrified conversion, where she finds herself trapped in a tiny flat and grappling with new motherhood as the pandemic looms into view. Over the span of 111 years these three women will come to haunt one another backwards and forwards in time.’
The Silliest Book I Read This Month Was…
… The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi. Jamie is fired from his job at a food delivery start-up at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic but then gets a new job opportunity; he can go and work in an alternative version of Earth, where tropical jungle covers Canada and enormous kaiju roam wild. But as the kaiju are powered by organic nuclear reactors, things could quickly get out of hand. This book is not intended to be serious. As Scalzi writes in his afterword, ‘KPS is not, and I say this with absolutely no slight intended, a brooding symphony of a novel. It’s a pop song.’ And it is pretty much as silly and fun as it promises, with a likeable protagonist and a serviceable secondary cast of scientists who work with the kaiju. For peak escapism, I would have preferred it to be a bit more immersive – the jungle setting is barely described and I felt like there was too much snarky dialogue, not enough space for the concept to breathe. Still, it’s hard to feel badly towards this novel.
The Best Sequel I Read This Month Was…
… Hell Bent by Leigh Bardugo. I was worried that this sequel to Ninth House might have too much action for me, but while I feel this Yale-set dark academia series could still stand to let its characters breathe a bit more, Hell Bent hits about the same balance as the first book, and is just as atmospheric. Alex is back for a second year at Yale, trying to perform the duties of Lethe by herself while investigating the mysterious murders of two faculty members. Looking forward to the third book!
Have you read any standout books in February?
6 thoughts on “February Superlatives, 2023”
I really enjoyed Alexis Keir’s Windward Family and Alison Mariella Désir’s Running While Black this month, honorable mention to Jessica George’s Maame, esp as I’m going to an event with her at the Bookshop on Thursday!
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Oh, exciting! Running While Black sounds great.
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I’m going to finish up the Makkai today and review it later this week. I have to say, I’ve found it a little drawn out, especially in the 2022 section — I wondered if the retrial was really necessary. But it’s so well crafted; so much thought has gone into the secondary characters and relationships, and I’ve never lost interest in the crime thread, or in being in Bodie’s head.
Both this month’s and next month’s book club reads are re-reads for me, which is a good excuse to revisit my shelves.
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It’s one of those books for me when I’m not the best judge of the pacing as I was enjoying it so much. I agree that it takes a long time over the evidence, but on the other hand the slowness of it did remind me of the very little true crime I’ve read!
Hope you enjoy your rereads.
I’ve heard such things about the Makkai! I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for it.
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It’s a good one!