Since December I’ve been on a self-development/spirituality audiobook kick which shows no immediate signs of abating. Therefore my fiction reading has slowed down but here are the books that I have got to.
The Galaxy, And The Ground Within (Wayfarers 4) by Becky Chambers
“She definitely looked to be the sort who would love a good exclamation point (or twelve).”
I’ve loved this Sci-Fi series so much I was a bit apprehensive about how it would be concluded. I had hoped it would circle back to the characters in the first book but instead once again we have a new cast (except for one) and this time they are all aliens. I say aliens, really they all talk and act in such human ways it doesn’t feel like reading about beings from other planets. The plot is that three spaceships are grounded at a kind of planetary rest stop when the satellite system goes down. The pilots are three different species and their host and her young child do their best to make them all feel welcome while stranded.
Like the other books it’s all about the characters and their interactions rather than an action-packed storyline. Prejudices are expressed and overcome and it leaves you feeling uplifted and hopeful. I can see how some would find the Wayfarers series too ‘woke’ with its themes about gender and race but I’ve loved it. 4.25/5
The Other Bennett Sister by Janice Hadlow
“There are times when happiness must be fought for, if we are to have any chance at all of achieving it.”
If like me, you’re a fan of Pride and Prejudice in any of its forms, I highly recommend this book. It starts off as a kind of retelling of the Austen novel but from the perspective of the overlooked, middle sister, Mary. In the many versions of the story, Mary comes across as dull, priggish and lacking in self-awareness. The Other Bennett shows how she may have become this way with a critical mother, a distant father and sisters who eclipsed her in varying ways.
It was fun to see Lizzy and Mr Darcy enjoying married life and the marriage of Mr Collins and Charlotte Lucas up close. However, it then carries on after the events of Pride and Prejudice as Mary sets out on her own quest to find a place for herself in a society where a single woman without money is in a precarious and piteous position. She aims to live only by cold rationality but finds this is challenged as we see Mary has feelings that she has tried her hardest to push down.
The plot is often unlikely and unsurprising in equal measure but it’s also a delight. The writing is seamlessly in the Austen style and Mary proves a compelling heroine in her own right. 4.25/5
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
“It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy.”
Hmm, I have many thoughts and feelings about this book which has been hugely popular and won Best Fiction in the Goodreads Awards last year.
I gained a lot from Haig’s memoir about depression Reasons to Stay Alive but this is the first fiction work of his I’ve read. At the start of the book, Nora becomes depressed after a series of tough live events, eventually becoming suicidal and taking an overdose. She finds out the place between life and death is The Midnight Library where each of the infinite number of books on its shelves represents an alternate life she could have lived had she made minutely different decisions. This way, she gets to go down various roads not travelled – the lives where she was an Olympic swimmer, a glaciologist, an academic, a rock star etc – to see if there is one she would like to stay in.
I can see that if you struggle with regret this book could be comforting but I would strongly advise against reading it if you’re actually depressed. The opening chapters are hard to read if you’ve been in that place and really, it offers no real solace if you’re in that situation (you’re far better off reading his non-fiction such as Reasons to Stay Alive or The Comfort Book). I found it overly simplistic and sentimental as well as boringly predictable. I knew exactly how these often daft parallel lives would turn out and how the story would end. It was all pretty trite and irritating. 2/5
Again, Rachel by Marian Keyes
“My personal brand was, ‘In recovery, but still great fun’.”
Marian Keyes is one of my favourite people. For me, the world is a better place for having her in it. She comes across as warm, funny, kind and compassionate. She is an addict in recovery and knows the depths of prolonged suicidal despair. I had a chance to meet her once but chickened out because I felt too emotional at the time.
A friend lent me a copy of Rachel’s Holiday when it was published in 1997. It was about an addict going to rehab in Ireland; an experience Marian went through herself. It’s beloved by Marian’s fans and Luke is definitely her best loved (lusted) male character. There was much excitement at the thought that there would be a sequel set two decades later. I re-read Rachel’s Holiday before I started Again, Rachel.
It was good to catch up with Rachel in her late 40s but obviously everything is not rosy. She is dealing with past trauma and life as an addict in long-term recovery. About half way through I guessed how the rest of the story would unfold but I still hugely enjoyed reading it. It was also a lot of fun to re-visit the raucous dynamics of the Walsh family – and to get more Luke! 4.5/5
Ariadne by Jennifer Saint
“I would not let a man who knew the value of nothing make me doubt the value of myself.”
I was a narrator in a play about Ariadne and the Minotaur in middle school so I was particularly drawn to this, though I have a love of Greek myth re-tellings generally. This version focuses on Ariadne and her sister Phaedra, princesses of Crete who lives are overshadowed by the existence of their minotaur brother living in the labyrinth under the palace. Everything changes for them when Theseus arrives from Athens with the other tributes to be fed to the half-bull, half-human.
This book is sold as ‘gripping’ and while I thoroughly enjoyed the first half, the second half was indeed a real-page turner. As usual women are the pawns of men and gods in these tales but both Ariadne and Phaedra endeavour to make the best of their situations and the story is told from both of their perspectives. I highly recommend it but especially for fans of Circe by Madeline Miller. 5/5
Please let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these or if you have any other books to recommend.