July 2020 Reading Roundup

July was a curiously diverse month, reading-wise. I tackled a sci-fi epic, an autobiography, the latest YA novel in the Hunger Games series, and a rather eccentric metafiction novel.

Verily, is Tales from Absurdia a broad church when it comes to reading genres…

The Martian, Andy Weir ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The story of Mark Watney’s isolation on Mars is a phenomenal tale of one man’s courage and optimism in the most difficult of circumstances. It’s quite topical!

In brief, Watney – a NASA astronaut – is presumed dead and reluctantly abandoned on Mars. He rather incomprehensibly survives, so The Martian follows his attempt to survive the next 4 years on a 31 days’ worth of food.

It has been compared to Robinson Crusoe. A comparison which did alarm me, prior to my reading the novel (those who know me well know how much I dislike Robinson Crusoe). But, to be fair, I can definitely see the comparison.

I’m happy to say that in comparison to the literary teeth-pulling exercise of reading Robinson Crusoe, Andy Weir’s The Martian is far, far more enjoyable.

I must admit though, I wasn’t sure how I felt about The Martian in the early pages. Watney bordered on being a little irritating – his chirpiness felt at odds with the enormous task of survival facing him. However, the more time I spent with Watney, the more I enjoyed his company.

The novel is well-researched, genuinely witty, and a wonderfully optimistic piece of fiction. I adored the novel so much, I watched the film shortly after (also great!).

Becoming, Michelle Obama ⭐⭐

I’ll preface this by saying that I admire Michelle Obama greatly. She’s a wonderful role model for young women everywhere, and a tremendous human being. I don’t typically feel the need to pre-empt criticism with praise, but an autobiography is an immensely personal piece of writing. 

I did not love Becoming.

It’s a fashionable, if forgettable, book that I imagine lives proudly unread on plenty of Bookstagrammers’ shelves.

It’s not bad… it’s just okay. July 2020 Reading Roundup Becoming

Becoming just felt very vague on details that people actually want to know, which I suspect is probably down to limitations on what Obama could actually write. 

For example, the 2011 White House Shooting was an immensely serious incident, despite there being no injuries. This is mentioned in passing, in a rather ‘this was terrible but I wasn’t home at the time’ sort of manner, before moving on to the more humdrum aspects of White House social life.

The book was only published shortly after her husband left the Presidential office, and there are allusions throughout Becoming of the secrecy sworn by the First Family upon entering the White House.

Because of this, life in the White House only really begins in the final quarter of the book and it’s light on detail.

I don’t go to autobiographies for salacious gossip or for exaggeration – I’ll leave that to the printed press. But this is commercial writing at the end of the day, and I’m sorry to say that it’s rather dull and sanitised.

Becoming isn’t entirely without merit, however. I listened to the audiobook, which improved the experience. Michelle is a fantastic speaker, and I could genuinely listen to her read the phone book. The sections on her earlier life were rich in detail and I learned plenty about her character that really improved my already high opinion of her.

But this is where the disappointment lies. Michelle Obama is a very interesting and engaging woman, and I sense that she had more to say. If Becoming had been published 10-15 years later, I suspect it might have been a more interesting read.

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Suzanne Collins ⭐⭐⭐

Suzanne Collins is back – and she still doesn’t know what irony is (seriously, virtually every example of irony is in no way ironic).

It’s a good book though. I recently reviewed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and awarded it ⭐⭐⭐. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review

It’s a welcome entry into the Hunger Games franchise but it does have its issues, irony not withstanding. The plot meanders and the protagonist – Coriolanus Snow (yep, that one!) – is insufferable.

As a prequel to The Hunger Games, it does an excellent job of fleshing out the established world of Panem. Set 10 years after the Dark Days (and 64 years prior to Katniss), the reader gets a fascinating insight into post-war Panem, particularly the Capitol.

Compared to the flamboyant Capitol we’re already familiar with, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes presents a Capitol still recovering from the war. Buildings are falling apart, people are starving (Snow’s family among them), and actually – the Districts and the Capitol have plenty in common. 

There is even a fairly mainstream sympathy for the Districts and the games themselves are not popular. I found this quite refreshing and a very different take to that of the original trilogy.

Amongst the fans, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes seems to be a fairly divisive book however. For more details, check out the full review.

And Then There Was No One, Gilbert Adair ⭐⭐⭐

Wow. Where to start with this one?

And Then There Was No One by Gilbert Adair is a tale about a man named Gilbert Adair who attends a Sherlock Holmes fan festival, during which a guest is murdered. 

The final book in a trilogy of whodunnits, featuring amateur sleuth Evadne Mount, Gilbert Adair bumps into said Evadne Mount, the inspiration for his own creation, at the conference.

Are you still with me?

It’s a highly metafictional book (autofiction, I’m reliably informed) in which the lines between author and character are blurred beyond recognition. Throughout the novel, Adair parodies his own previous writing and it’s a genuinely funny book. It also contains a really neat Sherlock Holmes short story, written in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle. 

And Then There Was No One is a clever book and Adair plays with language, form, and structure in inventive ways. 

However, it’s quite self-indulgent and the jokes are, at times, slap-in-the-face obvious (a problem that some metafiction faces, purely by its own definition). It’s clever, but it knows it.


What have you read this month? Leave your recommendations in the comments below!

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes Review

Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review
Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes review
When Suzanne Collins announced that she was writing a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy, tongues started wagging.

Would it be about Haymitch’s time in the arena? Would it take place during the Dark Days?

Well, neither apparently. 

Collins instead chose to write a novel about President Coriolanus Snow’s teenage years. Sound unappealing? You’re not alone! It has proven divisive amongst fans.

However, I quite enjoyed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. It’s a flawed but nonetheless interesting detour through post-war Panem.

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8 Quotes About Travel by Writers

8 Literary Quotes About Adventure Waldo Emerson

Great literature can transport you anywhere.

But if you have the opportunity to do so, traveling is good for the soul.

It offers perspective – especially if you travel alone – and builds character. You have to learn to have the confidence to rely on yourself.

Here are 8 of my favourite quotes about travel from writers, starting with writer and chef Anthony Bourdain.

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June 2020 Reading Roundup

Reading Roundup June 2020

The month of June was fairly sparse in terms of reading time, so it’s a very short roundup this time.

However, from non-fiction to sci-fi, I did cover quite a  diverse range of books…

No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, Greta Thunberg

For some reason, Greta is a divisive figure.

June 2020 Reading Roundup Greta ThunbergBreak it all down and she’s simply a passionate young woman with a strong, single-minded desire to protect the environment.

As for her book; it’s less a book and more a collection of speeches. From addressing the European Parliament to House of Commons, No One is Too Small to Make a Difference is a manifesto of Greta’s ideas.

On one hand, it can be quite repetitive. Many of the speeches are similar. Because of this, I don’t think that No One is Too Small to Make a Difference benefits from being read. I’d recommend listening to the audiobook version if you have the option to.

On the other hand, of course they’re similar – you can’t be an activist and have a vague, confusing message that changes every other week.

And that’s the real brilliance of No One is Too Small to Make a Difference. You cannot possibly come away from this book without understanding Greta’s environmental argument.

As she says – if you don’t want to be lectured by a teenager, then don’t listen to her. Just listen to the science.

A Monster Calls, Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls is a strange creature of a book. It’s simultaneously dark, funny, breathtakingly tragic, and yet therapeutic.

I suppose it’s a book that examines grief and mortality through the lens of a novel. And I really like that – even if it left me feeling rather numb.June 2020 Reading Roundup A Monster Calls

At times reminiscent of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, at others the BFG, A Monster Calls manages to carve out its own identity thanks to the author’s ability to communicate real, intense emotions through its protagonist Conor O’Malley.

Conor is disturbed. Not just by the monster that haunts him at 00:07 every night. But by the bullying he experiences on a daily basis at school, the unconventional family setup, and his mother’s deteriorating medical condition.

Ness captures perfectly the crippling anxiety of school, the resentment of a distant father, and the stubborn, unwillingness of a child to face reality. It’s a marvellous book that reaches deep into your soul.

In fact, I still feel quite unsettled by A Monster Calls (that’s an very positive endorsement, by the way).

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick

This was my first experience of Dick.

With this inevitable joke is out of the way, let’s talk Blade Runner. Or as the novel is named, ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’.

I’m not sure about this one. I liked it, but I didn’t love it.

June 2020 Reading Roundup blade runner

Dick has a tendency to overwrite. His sentences are unnecessarily long, whilst saying very little. I seem to remember it taking him a couple of pages to describe Rick Deckard’s decision-process on whether to buy a goat or not.

It isn’t all bad though.

In fact, the setting is awesome. It’s an uncompromisingly grim future where much of humanity has left earth, whilst the few who remain live out their lives in drab, corrupt cities – using ‘mood organs’ to artificially regulate their state of mind.

The plot is okay. At times it threatens to be interesting, building towards a dramatic confrontation between Deckard and his replicant prey, only for the novel to end on a somewhat anticlimactic note.

Whilst I felt quite indifferent towards Blade Runner (the movie adaptation), it at least had the iconic confrontation between ‘Replicant’ Roy Batty and Detective Rick Deckard.

And there are some great philosophical ideas at play in Ridley Scott’s movie, which I can appreciate. They’re present in the novel, but it does feel like a rare case of the book being inferior to its big screen adaptation.

That being said, I did enjoy my first foray into the works of Philip K. Dick. Just not as much as I hoped to.

Central City, Indy Perro

This brings me on to my final book of the month – Central City is a debut novel by writer and ‘recovering academic’, Indy Perro.

A crime fiction novel, Central City follows Detectives Bayonne and McKenna as they investigate a spate of similar murders. Meanwhile, ex-con Kane Kulpa tries to move on from his past.June 2020 Reading Roundup Central City

My feelings about the novel are not dissimilar to ‘Do Androids Dream…?’ actually; with the small caveat that I think Indy Perro is probably a more talented writer than Philip K. Dick.

Central City itself is well-realised. It’s a living, breathing place, mapped meticulously by its protagonists. There’s a lot of tension brewing between the Irish, Italian, and Korean gangs, sometimes spilling over, and as a reader, you quickly understand that places like Waite Park are to be avoided!

I also really enjoyed the characters. Bayonne and McKenna form a sort of ‘buddy cop’ style relationship, with the former an experienced detective (not unlike Colombo!) and the latter a fresh-faced recruit. We’ve seen this before, but it works and I enjoyed it a lot.

On the other hand, the plot is meandering and disinteresting. For an already short book, it needs more to drive it forward. There aren’t really any twists I didn’t see coming, and it’s just not that thrilling.

Regardless, for a debut novel, it’s not a bad effort. Perro has some great groundwork if he wishes to revisit Central City in the future, which I hope he does.

What have you read this month? Leave your recommendations in the comments below!