Books · Read If You Like

Read, If You Like: Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston

Welcome back to Read, If You Like, my occasional book chatter series. I don’t love doing book reviews, so I usually style them as recommendations. I think I’ll add a few more thoughts to this one, though.

Read Red White and Royal Blue (Casey McQuiston, 2019) if you like:

  • American politics. I know, I know, trust me
  • A fictional world where Trump was never in the running for the presidency
  • He’s not mentioned once. It was like getting into a warm bath
  • A diverse cast of characters, but not in a ‘look I’m checking a box!’ way (I say this a lot about the books I recommend. But I never get bored of it)
  • Moderately explicit gay sex. Can something be moderately explicit? I’d put this book up the ‘adult’ end of the young adult shelf
  • The phrase ‘British accent’
  • the
  • singular
  • British
  • accent
  • Look, I didn’t say I liked that phrase
  • Polo (the sport, not the shirt)
  • Posh parts of London. Is Kensington Palace even in London?
  • The Internet has reminded me that Kensington Palace is in the, um, Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. I used to work just up the road. How did I make it into higher education

So, my other thoughts. Firstly, this novel reminded me that US politics is a shiny, shiny unicorn filled with toilet water, and even though everyone knows that the toilet water is dripping constantly from the unicorn’s nose, everyone upholds the sanctity of the unicorn. ‘That unicorn has integrity,’ people might say fondly as unicorn season rolls around. Not everyone respects the unicorn, but many feel that they should. ‘This unicorn season, we’re going to re-establish the integrity of the unicorn.’ I wanted to believe the unicorn had integrity too! I felt quite warm and fuzzy. This has never previously happened to me in a novel about anyone’s politics.

Red, White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston graphic with flags and flowers
I had to get the cover graphic from Waterstones, because the light is so bad in my uni room that I can’t set up a proper photo. I don’t feel bad about sharing Waterstones, because they’re the last new-book bricks and mortar in Southend.

Secondly, it reminded me that in the UK our politics consists of: middle aged men dancing; middle aged men lying; middle aged men jeering at other middle aged men across the Commons. If there was ever a unicorn in Great Britain, it limped out to pasture somewhere between the English Civil War and the poll tax riots.

It’s probably worth mentioning that my library copy is an older edition – last year, the author pulled a line of dialogue about US-Israeli diplomacy because some on social media suggested it was pro-Israel and therefore implicitly anti-Palestine. (That link is a good summary of the controversy, as is this one.) I don’t think I’d have thought that if I’d read the book before knowing about the edits. Having read it knowing about them, my two cents is that the line should have stayed. Partly because I’m not convinced that mentioning Israel in a book ‘unnecessarily,’ as one Twitter user suggested, actually ‘normalises’ the occupation of Palestine. Palestine has been occupied since 1967. We’re past normalisation, surely? Instead of haranguing authors, could our energy be better spent pressuring non-fictional politicians to work harder to end the conflict, and questioning why they haven’t already? I’m not convinced McQuiston’s joke is the problem, is all.

The other reason I think the line should have stayed is that, as an author, I’m not sure how I feel about publishers bowing to readers’ demands that passages are cut from published work.

That’s a lie. All my instincts say that it’s almost definitely a terrible idea. Unless there’s a genuinely accidental fuck up (getting a fact wrong or misusing a word in good faith) why not leave the piece as a time capsule? Every creator looks at past work and sees a thousand opportunities for improvement – it’s part of the job to learn and move on, creating something that’s better because time and practise makes us a more skilful writer and a more nuanced person. Making edits post-publication feels like we’re pretending that the new edition was the only one, like we never went through a learning process. Why does the original work have to change? Why is it not enough for the author to say ‘shit, yeah that line/plot point/passage did not come off as I’d hoped, but I wouldn’t write it now,’ or ‘I didn’t know about X issue when I was writing! It would have informed my work if I had.’ While we’re here, why do some readers think they can demand that an author changes their work? Spending £4.99 on an ebook doesn’t mean you own the author, dude. Point out an issue with a manuscript if you like, but the author’s reaction is their call – they don’t have to listen to you, let alone change their finished work. You didn’t both sign a contract when you picked up the book you’ve taken issue with.

I dunno, it might be because I’m finally reading Nineteen Eighty-Four, but publishers bowing to a small group of shouty people feels like a dangerous precedent, for free speech, for creative industries and for, well, humanity. It could harm writers, who might avoid exploring difficult, important topics for fear of backlash. It could lead to a rigid, unadventurous publishing industry that’s unwilling to fund anything that could lead to controversy – even though every book ever published has infuriated somebody. And it could harm audiences, especially younger readers, because teaching someone that if they shout loudly enough that they’ll get what they want never leads to a humble, empathic human being. Sometimes, Complete Stranger from Anywhere, Northern Hemisphere, you’re going to encounter things you don’t like, that make you uncomfortable, that you disagree with vehemently. This does not mean the thing owes it to you to change.

As readers, I think we have a responsibility to use our little grey cells and figure out if a character making a joke or a shitty comment is the same as the author making a joke or shitty comment, or if the author’s trying to make a wider point. Maybe the author is hoping the reader notices the subtext they’ve woven in. Maybe they’re assuming the reader has enough critical thinking skills to make the distinction between a character’s beliefs and the author’s, or to reflect upon why that joke is there in the first place. In my last book, a man breaks a glass over his daughter’s head. As a writer and as a human, I have to assume that my readers will perceive that character as a bad guy without needing me to pre-empt the scene with ‘PERSON ABOUT TO DO A MORALLY REPREHENSIBLE ACTION I DO NOT SUGGEST YOU DO.’

I’ll probably still have to defend myself at some point. Or defend the bit where – wait, spoilers. Hehe.

Back to Red, White and Royal Blue, because I really enjoyed it once I got over the fact there’s a Prince Henry and a Prince Phillip. And a Princess Beatrice… (I was unreasonably tickled by this, and I have no business being so because I once named a princess Beatrice, too. I was going to change it when I thought of a better name and then forgot. I don’t even know which sister is the real Princess Beatrice. I am digressing. Insomnia! And also I was woken up at 4am by a game of Cards Against Humanity.)

I hope that, if there’s a sequel one day, we get to see actual Britain. It’s always fun seeing outsiders’ interpretations of the UK, because they usually involve pomp and ceremony. The touristy bits. But I’d quite like to read about a cheeky Nandos with the lads, a post-Wetherspoons trip to Maccies, a football fan sticking a firework up their arse. I want clandestine trips to Greggs and a scene set somewhere that isn’t London. Ooh, now I want a pasty. In real life, not in a book. Well, also in a book.

Remind me to set a short story in a Greggs. That got long-ish, huh. I think a lot about critical thinking and fictional work and the author-reader relationship. Probably too much? Part of me wants to write something about a hugely difficult topic, yeet the book onto the internet and log off forever, leaving generations of readers to debate my true intentions and to pick apart lines trying to figure out what they’re meant to learn from the work. I’d have to stop thinking about pasties to do that, though. Ooh, speaking of stories, I asked my patrons the other day about a potential Easter-inspired Bezzina’s story. Let me know if this is something you’d like to see!

Look after yourselves,

Francesca


Want to support this blog and/or enjoy exclusive access to stories and chatter from me? Join the No. 1 Reader’s Club on Patreon! Alternatively, use the button below for one-off support of as much or as little as you’d like (if you’d prefer, you can use PayPal or Ko-fi). If you’re into fairy tales and/or want a brief respite from reality, you can also buy my bookThe Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes, from most ebook retailers and as a paperback from Amazon. (That link’s an affiliate. Gotta scrape every penny from Bezos, you know?)

Books · Read If You Like

Read, If You Like: Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery

Is it hugely shameful to have completely missed this children’s classic when I was an actual child? I don’t know how it passed me by, especially as there’s been a copy on my shelf for ages. I’d have loved this story 15 years ago… to be honest I quite loved it now. So let’s not beat about the bush:

Read Anne of Green Gables (LM Montgomery, 1908), if you like:

  • Chatterboxes
  • Nature
  • Really wonderful descriptions of nature, honestly, A***
  • Gently irritating characters who are well written enough that you they grow on you after a while
  • A look at early 20th century Canadian life
  • A warm feeling of cosiness
  • Slow living, which I suppose was just called ‘living’ a century ago
  • Honestly it is so cosy, it was a perfect January read.
photograph of 'Anne of Green Gables' by LM Montgomery, 1980s TV tie in Penguin Edition
I wanted to add some leaves or suchlike to the photo, but the background – a footstall my grandfather made that I use for propping up my laptop – seemed suitably rustic. Also I KNOW it’s a bit wonky ugh what are you, Instagram.

I’m probably going to give my copy of Anne away for bookshelf space reasons, but I very much hope to return to the world in future. I knew there was a series of Anne books and my instincts with series is to wonder if the author’s stretched things out for money or reputation, but I could live in Avonlea quite happily for years, and I got the impression LM Montgomery felt the same way. Maybe I’ll keep my copy after all…

The only thing part of me wanted more of is general background about Canada. We learn a lot about the world of the Avonlea and its inhabitants, but aside from Murdoch Mysteries (okay, including Murdoch Mysteries) I know almost nothing about Canadian history. The Home Children are mentioned in passing, as well as some political events, but I’m always after more. To be honest I think I’d prefer a list of good history books over a novel with more background: this really was one of those perfectly formed little gems (and it wouldn’t have made sense for Montgomery to spend paragraphs spelling out context, as her audience would have already known it). I also think it’s asking too much to expect a children’s book published in the 1900s to cover the intricacies of the Home Children, too, so I’ll shut my gob and look forward to reading the next instalment.

Other books I’ve devoured lately: Natalie Haynes’ Pandora’s Jar, The Scorpio Races, Brian Jacques’ The Taggerung (another children’s book that was on my shelf for so long that I’d stopped being a child when I read it AND NOW I learn Netflix is turning the whole series into a show. How did the entire universe of Redwall pass me by until the age of 25?). I’m partway through Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen and I think that might be my next Read, If You Like because it’s a really meaty story so far, with absolutely nothing in common with Anne of Green Gables except maybe the book name/character name element. Would you like to see any of the above as a Read, If You Like? I’m thinking of doing two or three books per post, if those books have similar themes. There are so many books to talk about and so few weeks in the year.

Did you read Anne of Green Gables as a child? Did you get the same ~ feelings ~ that I did as an adult?

Look after yourselves!

Francesca


Want to support this blog and/or enjoy exclusive access to stories and chatter from me? Join the No. 1 Reader’s Club on Patreon! Alternatively, use the button below for one-off support of as much or as little as you’d like. If you’re into fairy tales and/or want a brief respite from reality, you can also buy my bookThe Princess and the Dragon and Other Stories About Unlikely Heroes, from most ebook retailers.

Books · Read If You Like

Read, If You Like: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Welcome back to my occasional book recommendation series! I don’t like to overtly review books, because what I disliked about a novel might be what someone else liked about it, so it feels unfair to the author to write a post moaning about a novel I didn’t like. I also personally try to avoid reading too many reviews before reading a book, in case it doesn’t live up to the hype or I feel obliged to agree with reviewers when I actually don’t. Let me make up my own mind, I guess is what I’m saying. That said, I enjoy doing Read, If You Like because some of the best recommendations I’ve had have been where people have said ‘oh, you like X and Y book or film? Then you’ll probably enjoy this one!’ They are usually right.

So without further ado, the first Read, If You Like for 2021!

Read The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963), if you like:

  • Candid, realistic depictions of mental illness (note that if you are currently in the depths of depression, you might find that The Bell Jar either speaks to you and gives you hope or just pushes you a further into the depths, so please consume responsibly and also seek out some professional help)
  • Protagonists, like our lady Esther Greenwood, who are simultaneously very annoying and very real. I have met various Esther Greenwoods. I have been a bit of a Esther Greenwood. I think a lot of teenage girls and young women stray into Esther territory at some point, not necessarily in terms of her mental illness but in terms of being frustrating, frustrated and hugely overwhelmed by life’s opportunities
  • A snapshot of 1950s Americaaaa
  • With all of its lovely bigotry, I should add, just as a heads up if you’re not in the mood for casual racism
  • So much has changed
  • Deliberate, easily readable prose (Sylvia Plath was a complicated human being but this book felt accessible. I was expecting to find this A Very Tough Read, given its main topic is mental health, and although I didn’t skip through it, the prose is concise and draws you in. It’s not one of those books where every sentence feels laboured)
  • Irritating secondary characters
  • Some of them are so, so irritating
  • Reading around the subject, to an extent. Adding this in because on the back of my copy, the blurb proclaims that The Bell Jar was published a month before Plath’s suicide. I assume this nugget is on most blurbs. It was impossible, therefore, to read it without drawing parallels between Plath’s life and Esther’s. I studied Plath for a while at A Level so I remembered a bit about her experiences of depression and her death, and I kept thinking, ‘this feels autobiographical.’ To write about depression that well, you really have to have experienced it, which is probably why the book feels authentic. It is authentic. It’s also just a bit sad, you know? It’s hard not to wonder what sort of person Plath would have become had she lived past 30. So if you don’t know much about Sylvia Plath before reading The Bell Jar, except for what’s on the burb/author page of your copy, you might feel compelled to Google her afterwards. And if you did know about her, then that knowledge will colour your experience of The Bell Jar, and then your reading of The Bell Jar will influence how you feel about Plath. They’re always going to be linked in the reader’s mind.
Spine of 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath, plus a pen and pencil, on lined paper and envelopes.
I tried to do a proper photo of the cover, but it’s so grey and rainy here today that the lighting/shadows made everything very, very ugly. Enjoy this book spine instead!

So, yeah, not the easiest of reads but definitely worth a try if you’re interested in any of the above. I am cleansing my palette, I should add, both with Pandora’s Jar and with The Scorpio Races, which I actually tried to borrow from the library in November but lockdown got in the way. It is a very November book, The Scorpio Races. Pandora’s Jar is about women of Greek myths and how history’s done them dirty, ie by calling Pandora’s jar a box and conflating Pandora with Eve. The Bible’s Eve, not, like, Killing Eve’s Eve. You probably got that. Um. Follow me on Goodreads if you want to keep up with what I’m reading. I think I’m following myself on Goodreads. How is that possible when I only have one account?!

I will see you soon-ish for another one of these, maybe for Pandora’s Jar? With the country in lockdown there’s not much to do except my college work, writing and reading, and you guys don’t need to see my notes for the Effective Business Processes assignment. I drew a diagram the other day that looks like a blueprint for a bathroom’s plumbing. It actually has something to do with ‘critical path analyses’.

Told you you wouldn’t want to know. Leave a comment if you’ve read The Bell Jar, or Plath’s poetry – what did you think of it?

Look after yourselves!


Want to support this blog and/or enjoy exclusive access to stories and chatter from me? Join the No. 1 Reader’s Club on Patreon! Or we could just get coffee?

Books · Read If You Like

Read, If You Like… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams 

When Isobel gave me The Hitchiker’s Guide at Christmas in our newly-minted Secret Santa tradition, I thought it was because she’d heard me talk about how it was one of those books that I’d always wanted to read but hadn’t gotten around to (also on that list: War and Peace, most of Artemis Fowl, the Chilcot Report). It turns out that her university is on the cover.

That did not detract from my enjoyment of it.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (1979)

Read, if you like…

  • Disappointing cups of tea
  • Excellent narration
  • Mice
  • Space travel that’s less exciting than Han Solo in the Millenium Falcon but more exciting than actual space travel inevitably will be
  • Mentions of your home town, if your home town in Southend
  • Computers
  • The general unhappiness of council employees and/or petunias

I’m totally going to work on photos but I have 16GB memory and very little motivation to find props.

I’m also on typing on my mobile and the spelling checker on here is appalling so I am one hundred per cent sure I’ve spelt appalling wrong.

Just go read this book regardless of whether your uni’s on the cover.

Books · Read If You Like

Read, If You Like… Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

This is the second in a series. Possibly I am onto a good thing here. It helps I can write them in ten minutes, but let’s not be picky…

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson (2015)

Read, if you like:

  • Shapeshifting
  • Heroes versus villians
  • Male characters with beautiful flowing hair
  • Female characters who don’t have beautiful flowing hair
  • Comics (this one’s a dealbreaker; it started as a webcomic)
  • The illustrations in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl; Noelle Stevenson did those too
  • Dragons

Nimona graphic novel by Noelle Stevenson
I know I said I’d work on my #bookstagram, but there’s so little light in Southend at the moment that I dashed outside in my socks, put the book on a stone table, snapped and dashed back. It’s artfully crooked amirite

I don’t read a lot of comics, so shoutout to Ruby for giving me this a couple of Christmases ago. I’ve misplaced my library card so I’m making my way through the Shelves of Ignored Books in my room instead of just borrowing everything that sounds good (there is so much that sounds so gooooood). Be prepared for a mishmash of novels I’ve been too busy to read or novels with covers I don’t like. I started Oliver Twist this week – I managed to go 15 years in British education without ever studying Dickens, so my lazy Twitter-accustomed brain is struggling a bit – and I’m pretty sure there are some other total classics waiting to be discovered. The second Game of Thrones is a classic, yes?

Books · Read If You Like

Introducing Read, If You Like… The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins

Me: [sits down to write a blog that isn’t about Asia or coming home}

Me: [gets up for a jumper, looks at BuzzFeed, brews a coffee]

Me: nope, got nothing

[cont. for three weeks]

In light of my resolution to blog frequently/do interesting things/get my shit together, I’ve been brainstorming blogs I could do regularly, and so far I’ve come up with: the Six O’Clock News (again), book blogging (again), and the 50 blogs challenge I started and joked would take forever… two years ago. The problem is, the news makes me want to go back to a Cambodian island. I read very few blogs. And I can’t stand book reviews.

Whenever someone reviews a book and says they didn’t like, say, a certain character, if I read the book I also don’t like that character. If someone says they loved a plot twist and I read the novel, I feel obliged to like the twist. I’m also always on the lookout for the twist. Often the twist is shite because I knew there would be one. I do not want to inflict anything similar onto other people, so I stopped book blogging. But that’s not the attitude. After several seconds of thought, I’ve come up with a new way to review books that’s quick to read, offers none of my opinions and will let you know if this is the next book you should pick up. So sit down and enjoy the very first instalment of Read, If You Like…

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins (2015)

Read, if you like…

  • Unreliable, unlikable narrators
  • Domestic dramas
  • The first person
  • Thrillers of any kind
  • Multiple points of view
  • Trains

I’m not being facetious on that last one. There are rather a lot of trains.

The Girl on the Train Paula Hawkins Review
My #bookstagram game needs work – I was going to add my National Rail ticket holder to the photo but I couldn’t be bothered to walk upstairs.

And there you have it. If you haven’t read The Girl on the Train, now you have a reason to if you like any of the above. Geddit? Read, if you like…?!

I’m trawling my way through my to-read shelf, but if you have any recommendations for books, do your own Read, If You Like… in the comments!