15 Books I Read in 2020 – January to June

One of the few positives of the coronavirus lockdown for me was being able to spend more time on my hobbies, which is mainly reading. This year I set a challenge on Goodreads to finish twenty books, but without the distractions of my normal social life I managed to finish fifteen by the half-way point (by my standards, this is an achievement!)

In this post I’ll be sharing my thoughts on all of these books, because I love ranting and raving about what I read, and I really enjoyed writing my last post about books. If you’ve read anything on this list before, or if you’ve found something here to add to your TBR list, let me know either in the comments or over on my Instagram!

The Surgeon – Tess Gerritsen

2/5

The Surgeon has been sat on my bookshelves for about seven years now, and despite it being a police-procedural thriller (one of my favourite genres) I’ve only just got round to reading it. The plot centres around a serial killer who is targeting lone females, taking the reader along on the police’s race to catch the culprit. It’s also the first instalment of a long running book series that has it’s own TV show (Rizzoli & Isles) which ran for seven seasons, so I had high hopes for The Surgeon. Unfortunately, I was left feeling disappointed.

As with many thrillers, the plot was fast-paced, tense and hooks you right from the start. I was desperate to know who the killer was, and the chapters from the killer’s perspective added to the cat-and-mouse style chase which felt really exciting. However, I had some problems with this book that genuinely irritated me. The protagonist Jane Rizzoli is a female detective fighting to prove herself in a male-dominated, sexist police department, so naturally there were some misogynistic and sexist comments. Even so, I felt a bit uncomfortable at times as I found it difficult to distinguish between the deliberate sexist comments in the narrative and engrained sexism. It’s hard to explain, but I felt there were obvious moments or comments of sexism that were clearly frowned upon, and then others that were casually dropped in as if it wasn’t an issue. One example I can remember was the portrayal of women as victims, and some of it erred on the verge of victim-blaming in my opinion. At one point, I actually checked the author to see if it was written by a male or a female (obviously anyone can be sexist, but I often find that engrained sexism comes through more often in a male author’s writing that a female’s). I’m not sure if other’s felt this way or if it was just my reading experience, but this definitely grated on me over the course of the book.

Also, I really didn’t like Jane Rizzoli as a character. She is portrayed as a hard, cold and self-assured woman who has to fight harder to prove her worth as a detective, and whilst I usually root for a character like this, in this case I felt that she wasn’t actually as brilliant as the reader is told she is. In fact, she makes a serious mistake at one point which completely jeopardised her career, and my faith in her as a likeable character. Overall, this isn’t a series that I’ll be continuing. If you do want to give it a chance, it’s worth noting that this book includes very graphic content including sexual assault and gory descriptions of surgical procedures.

The Obelisk Gate – N. K. Jemisin

4/5

If you saw my last books blog post, you will know that I’m absolutely loving The Broken Earth trilogy so far. The Obelisk Gate is a strong sequel that further builds on the world and the characters that I loved in The Fifth Season, whilst dealing with themes of survival, familial relationships, power, xenophobia and so much more.

Whilst I really enjoyed this book, I didn’t find it as exciting as the first instalment and I feel that it had a slower pace. However, I’m not surprised at this as I had such high hopes for this book after loving the first one – and it did almost meet my standards completely! I think Jemisin does a brilliant job creating fully realised worlds and characters, and I get totally wrapped up in her stories. Obviously I don’t want to give away the plot with it being the second book in a series, but you can see a synopsis of the The Fifth Season on my first books blog post and decide if it sounds like something you’d enjoy. But take my word for it, it’s a fantastic series and I’m really looking forward to reading the finale!

The Book of Night Women – Marlon James

5/5

The Book of Night Women is a moving and powerful novel which follows our protagonist Lilith, born into slavery on a sugar plantation in the 18th century as she grows into a young woman. It goes without saying that this book comes with a content warning for extreme violence, but I feel that including this level of violence is so important in describing the atrocities of slavery, and it is wholly necessary and justified in this case. James does a sensational job of portraying the brutal reality of life as a slave, whilst also including moments of triumph and empowerment that bring some warmth to an otherwise bleak tale.

At first, this book was a struggle to read as it is written in Jamaican Patois, which at times felt like I was muddling over the words and not quite understanding everything that James was trying to get across. However, I quickly got used to it and it’s definitely worth the time and effort that you put in. The characters are fully realised and complex, especially Lilith, who I entirely rooted for despite her flaws and some of the things she does in this novel. Ultimately, I think it was a brilliant, thought-provoking and eye-opening read that I will never forget. Although it isn’t an easy read, it’s an important book to consider reading even though you might not enjoy the whole experience.

The Angel – Katerina Diamond

4.5/5

The Angel is the third book in one of my favourite crime thriller series which follows detectives Imogen Grey and Adrian Miles as they investigate crime in Exeter, England. Diamond has really impressed me so far, each book in the series has been full of suspense, twists and turns and they are all total page-turners. Her writing reminds me a lot of Karin Slaughter (the queen of dark crime novels) so I would recommend this series to you if you enjoy Slaughter’s work. She has a similar dark, twisted mind that can at times lead to very graphic writing, but I personally think the darker the better so this is partly why I enjoy this series so much (and I don’t know what that says about me).

This book in particular was incredibly difficult to put down, as the two alternating perspectives are both so addictive to the point where I just had to keep reading, and when I wasn’t I kept thinking about what would happen next. I also really like the dynamic between the two lead detectives and how they look out for each other, plus the fact that it’s set in England is an added bonus for me. This series is the perfect kind of fast-paced thriller that I can devour in a couple of hours, and I can’t wait to continue on with the series.

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

3.5/5

After loving The Book of Night Women, I picked up a second Marlon James book, A Brief History of Seven Killings. The plot centres around the attempted assassination of Bob Marley (known as “The Singer”) and includes themes of corruption, politics, poverty and drugs that each play an integral role before, during and after the assassination attempt.

This is an epic achievement of a book. It spans across decades, continents and the lives of the biggest cast of characters I’ve ever read in one book. The diversity of perspectives include CIA agents, gang members, journalists, politicians and even a ghost. However, for me personally I found it quite a difficult read for a few reasons. One, I had almost no knowledge of Jamaican history or politics when I started reading this (in fact I didn’t even know there was a real assassination attempt on Bob Marley) so I feel that I would have benefitted from having some prior knowledge so that I could understand the dynamics a bit more. Secondly, I was in a bit of a reading slump with this book so I would put it down for days and weeks at a time until I fully got into it during the last third. However, I don’t blame the book or the author for this, I think these are very me problems that unfortunately affected my reading experience.

Like The Book of Night Women, it contains lots of Jamaican Patois and extreme violence which both make it a challenging read, but the language is something you get used to throughout the novel and the violence is crucial in telling this story. However, whereas I loved Lilith’s character in The Book of Night Women, I didn’t have the same investment for many of the characters in this book, probably because there are so many and you hear less from them compared to a novel with only one protagonist. For that reason, I prefer The Book of Night Women, however I do really appreciate the achievement of this book and I hope to re-read it someday now that I am more familiar with the politics and context of this period in history.

Angel of the North – Annie Wilkinson

1/5

This book isn’t something I would have ever picked up myself, but this was lent to me by my favourite colleague because she knows I love to read, so obviously I gave it a go. Set in Hull during the World War Two bombings, our protagonist Marie is a nurse who is struggling with the burdens of her job, protecting her family and the realisation that her fiancee might not be as loyal as he seems.

This wasn’t a bad book, however, if not for the fear of offending my colleague by telling her I didn’t finish it when she asked what I thought of the book, I think I would have DNFed this one. It was never really my cup of tea to start with, and I found that it both bored me and irritated me. I didn’t especially like Marie as a protagonist and there were many times where an event that was just described was then re-told by Marie to another character, which was totally unnecessary.

The worst part of this book by far is Marie’s fiancee Chas. He is an awful, arrogant, chauvinistic character and the way this book ended infuriated me to the point that I actually threw it down and started ranting at my friend immediately. Also, this book portrays some highly un-feminist attitudes surrounding sex, infidelity and “the other woman” that I just cannot tolerate whatsoever. Definitely not for me!

Normal People – Sally Rooney

5/5

Onto something I absolutely loved! Normal People follows the ways in which Marianne and Connell weave in and out of each other’s lives over the course of their final days at school to their time at university. Their intense bond (both as friends and on a romantic level) fluctuates over time as they discover more about themselves and grow from their experiences.

I thought this was a beautiful story. I adore Marianne and Connell both as separate characters and as a duo, and I felt so invested in their relationship throughout the book and long after I finished it. I loved seeing their individual personalities develop as they go to university, with Marianne blossoming into a confident, popular social butterfly and Connell having trouble fitting in and coming to terms with who he really is. I thought their bond was so special, and although I wanted to shake them at times, I feel that some of their insecurities, mistakes and misunderstandings added to the realism of these “normal people” and reflected the difficulties and electricity of first love.

The recent TV adaptation is equally as fantastic – Rooney’s involvement in the screenwriting is clear, it is very similar to the original material and the acting by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal truly brought Marianne and Connell to life. I also appreciated its realistic portrayals of sex and consent which I feel are really positive messages to spread!

Overall, I really love this book and I definitely recommend it. So much so, that I’ve already bought Rooney’s other novel Conversations With Friends to get stuck into soon!

Mystic River – Dennis Lehane

5/5

After reading and loving Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane, it was only a matter of time before I got my hands on Mystic River. The plot follows childhood friends Sean, Jimmy and Dave, whose lives change forever when a strange car pulls up beside them and one of the young boys gets in. Years later, the three adult men are brought back together when Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, Sean is the police officer tasked with solving the crime, and Dave is fast becoming the prime suspect.

I absolutely loved this book! Much like Shutter Island, it was very difficult to put down, and every theory I had was quickly turned on its head. I never knew where the plot was going and this is such an important aspect of a mystery for me, I hate being able to predict what’s coming next! I’ve also never read any other mystery where I’ve felt quite as invested in each character. There was one character in particular that I cared about so much, and if you’ve read this book you will probably know who that is. The way that Lehane creates empathy in this novel is really interesting, and I think it sets it apart from other mystery thrillers that I’ve read and loved.

As both Mystic River and Shutter Island have been 5 star reads for me, I would highly recommend both of these books and I would love to see if Lehane has written any other similar novels.

The Last – Hanna Jameson

2.5/5

The Last sounded like the perfect book for me going off the blurb, so I had high hopes going into this one. Marketed as a mixture of two of my favourite sub-genres, The Last is a murder mystery novel set in a post-apocalyptic, nuclear-affected setting. The premise is so interesting to me, just imagine being stuck in a hotel with strangers after a sudden nuclear bombing, then the body of a little girl is found and you realise you might be living amongst the killer… not to mention the fact that supplies are dwindling, people are going stir crazy and you can’t get in contact with your loved ones. I don’t know about you, but I think this is a highly intriguing and genuinely creepy setup for a novel.

I’ll start with what I liked about this book. Firstly, it felt like a very real and plausible situation to me. At the very start of this book, our protagonist Jon receives push notifications on his phone alerting him of nuclear bombs dropping in various parts of the world. This is an absolutely terrifying thought to me, and it is exactly how I would imagine receiving such awful news if it happened today, so I liked how contemporary and believable it felt.

I also liked the exploration of ordinary people learning to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. The book delved into issues such as picking a leader, forming a new society, allocating supplies and punishing wrongdoings, and these are all elements that I really enjoy reading about in survival fiction. The tensions and drama caused by disagreements help form part of the narrative and I think these parts were done really well.

Onto what I didn’t like, I felt that the murder mystery element of The Last was definitely weaker than the focus on survival. The pacing was so slow and I felt that it was being dragged out deliberately so that the plot would conclude alongside the more developed survival storyline. At times, it felt like I was reading two different books and I wish they had been weaved together a bit better. In a way, I might have preferred it if the murder mystery had been left out completely or at least handled differently.

And lastly, I really disliked the ending to this book. The way it wrapped up the mystery was so disappointing, and the ways that certain clues were explained felt very underwhelming and poorly executed. I did still enjoy this book and it’s worth a read but I feel that it had so much potential that unfortunately it didn’t match up to.

Illuminae – Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

4.5/5

Told in the format of a dossier of hacked documents including interview transcripts, restricted military files, and instant messages, Illuminae is a young adult sci-fi story following Kady and her ex-boyfriend Ezra as they tackle space battles, artificial intelligence, a deadly plague and so much more.

This isn’t the kind of book I would usually be drawn to, but the format really intrigued me and I’m so glad I gave it a go because I ended up loving this book! I thought it handled some really dark and thought-provoking topics, which is great to see in a YA novel that is accessible to younger readers. In particular, I found the theme of artificial intelligence highly interesting, and I loved the points raised about becoming self-aware, as well as the ethics of prohibiting information for the benefit of society, versus the freedom of information and the right to know the truth. Plus, I found this book genuinely frightening at times, especially the elements of biological warfare and the plague.

I would’ve given this a five star rating, but there were some parts that weren’t perfect. Some of the dialogue between Kady and Ezra was a bit cringy to me, however I think I would’ve related to it a lot more if I had read this when I was younger, so this might only be a problem for me as an adult reader. I also felt that Kady was just a little too perfect, I would’ve liked to have seen some of her flaws or some character development to make her feel more realistic and human. I also felt the ending wasn’t quite as good as I had hoped, but there are two more books in the series so I feel it can definitely be built upon.

Overall, I’m really impressed by Illuminae, it dealt with some very scary and relevant topics in a great way, it kept my interest throughout and it made me think (which I always appreciate in a book).

PS. If you’re thinking of reading this book I would advice getting a physical copy, as I read it on my Kindle and I feel that the dossier format benefits the most from a paper copy in order to fully appreciate some of the art in this book!

The Butterfly Garden – Dot Hutchison

3/5

The Butterfly Garden is a disturbing thriller that begins as the FBI have just rescued a group of kidnapped young women from a private butterfly garden, all of whom have intricate butterflies tattooed on their backs. As two FBI agents question our protagonist Maya, she gradually reveals the story of the so-called Butterfly Garden, how she came to be there and the traumas that she and the other girls experienced there. Whilst I wouldn’t say that this book is particularly graphic, it centres around very dark subject matter and it can be disturbing at times.

I have mixed feelings about The Butterfly Garden. It drew me in quickly as the perspectives switched between Maya’s experiences before she was kidnapped and her time in the garden, and then the FBI agents who are questioning Maya and fear she may know more than she is letting on. I enjoyed reading about the relationships between the kidnapped girls, their differing personalities and the individual ways that they adapted to life in the Garden.

However, I felt that there were a few elements that were under-developed and could’ve been explored further. There is an elusion to Stockholm syndrome as some of the girls have butterfly wings tattooed on their face as well as their backs, which symbolised their acceptance, or even happiness at being held captive in the garden. There is further mention that some girls pretend to enjoy their situation in the hopes that The Gardener would let them go or treat them nicer. I feel like this barely scratched the surface of what it could’ve been. I wanted to know more about the experiences of the girls with the face tattoos and whether or not they were genuinely happy with their situation. Further development on this would’ve been especially beneficial to the story as The Gardener himself is described by Maya in a surprisingly positive light despite his abuse. Whilst he is clearly an extremely sick and emotionally manipulative man, Maya recalls pleasant conversations with him and times where he treats the girls with kindness or gives them special items to keep them happy. I wondered if perhaps Maya was an unreliable narrator, but again I felt this wasn’t explored as much as I would’ve liked. The Gardener was an unusual villain, especially compared with his two sons as side characters (one of which was truly terrifying and evil, and does some shocking things in this book) and I felt that the story would have benefitted from some more exploration on how far his manipulation had affected the girls.

A final note, I really didn’t like the unnecessary twist at the end. It made me feel like it had tried too hard to add a final “shock” factor that ultimately felt underwhelming. So yeah, I did like some parts of this book but it was far from everything I wanted it to be.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reed

5/5

How do I even begin to describe this book? I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a fantastic, wild ride, and the less you know about it before going in, the better. I listened to the audio book version as this seemed to be the most popular way to read it, and I would recommend this method as certain parts of the story really benefit from being listened to rather than read. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, so all I’ll say is that it follows an un-named woman and her boyfriend Jake on a road trip to meet his parents for the first time, and things just get weirder and weirder.

It’s a very atmospheric, slow-burning novel with horror elements to it, and I was scared the whole time listening to it without being able to pinpoint exactly why. Reed did a brilliant job at creating a creepy atmosphere that had me on edge the whole time.

I thought it was near-perfect, it had excellent pacing and the story was so clever. A tip for when you’ve finished the book is to re-read the shorter chapters from back to front, and you’ll read them in an entirely different way to the first time.

This was definitely a winner for me, and I think it will be for you too if you like feeling creeped out whilst not knowing what on earth is happening!

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

4/5

Brave New World is one of those classic speculative fiction books I’ve had on my list to read for as long as I can remember. As a big fan of dystopian fiction, every so often I like reading one of the classics that shaped the genre into what it is today.

Written and published in the 1930’s, Brave New World is set in a futuristic society in which citizens are genetically engineered to perfectly fit into an intelligence-focused social hierarchy. The concept of having a family has become laughable, individuals are kept happy with lives full of selfish pleasures and zero-side-effect drugs. Everyone seems to love their society, all except our protagonist Bernard who challenges the order and is starting to raise the suspicions of his acquaintances.

This novel has so many themes that I really enjoyed, especially as a former Sociology student. The society created by Huxley is fully realised with distinct institutions and social rules that I found both interesting and thought-provoking. The idea that from the moment of conception a person could be deliberately nurtured or mistreated to fit into a certain class or career is a very scary concept that has parallels to current social hierarchies, so I liked to see this idea written so literally – almost as a metaphor. I also liked the idea that certain citizens were very aware of their own conditioning, but were either accepting or happy to see their lives so regulated and controlled because it meant they lived a privileged life.

I especially liked the characters who had spent time in the Savage Lands, and I loved seeing how their experiences had shaped their thoughts in very different ways. I really enjoyed a conversation towards the end of the book where the idea of a “perfect society” is explored, and the idea that extreme levels of control and manipulation could be justified ‘for the greater good’.

This is a very enjoyable read and I can see why it has been so influential on the speculative fiction genre. If you enjoy reading about re-imaginings of society then this will probably be a worthwhile read for you.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang – translated by Deborah Smith

4/5

The Vegetarian was an unusual read for me, I went in not knowing much about the story except that a Korean woman named Yeong-hye decides to give up meat following a traumatic nightmare. After seeing some rave reviews, I thought I’d give it a try despite it not being my usual choice, and I was pleasantly surprised by it.

Split into three sections, each part follows a different person close to Yeong-hye as her life spirals further and further from what it once was. I really enjoyed the first two sections the most, they were entertaining, fast-paced and I couldn’t stop reading them. The second part was entirely different to what I expected, and it was probably my favourite. The final section was less plot-driven so I didn’t like it as much, plus I felt like I didn’t understand what was trying to be said, but after re-reading a few passages I really admired the issues it touched on. Despite feeling quite bizarre and surreal at times, ultimately I found it a very enjoyable read.

Tell No One – Harlan Coben

3/5

Last but not least, we have a book by one of the most popular mystery thriller authors of modern times, Harlan Coben. In Tell No One, David Beck is still grieving eight years after his wife was murdered, until one day he receives an email with a phrase only he and his wife knew. Reeling with the possibility that his wife could be alive, he embarks on a journey to discover the truth of what really happened eight years ago.

The Stranger is the only other book of Coben’s that I’ve read before, which I loved and gave 5/5. However, this one was slightly off the mark for me. I never thought I’d say this, but it was almost too twisty. Towards the end, I felt that I could barely keep up with what was happening, and as soon as one reveal came, I didn’t have enough time to digest this new information before another twist came and turned it all on its head. It got to a point where I didn’t really care what happened anymore because there had been too many “reveals” already.

I also didn’t feel particularly invested in any of the characters, and I found some of the plot to be a bit convoluted and unrealistic. Whilst I don’t think its a bad thing to be unrealistic (after all, it is fiction) I found that some of the reveals and events were oddly connected in ways that I thought were too convenient.

Saying that, this hasn’t put me off reading more of his books in the future. It was still a fun read in the sense that it had good pacing, tension and hooks you in from the start. However, this one didn’t live up to my expectations so hopefully my next pick The Woods will be better for me.

Thank you so much if you’ve stuck around till the very end of this very lengthy blog post! Please chat with me either in the comments or on Instagram if you have any thoughts on any of these books, or on any of my opinions! Until next time…

Lots of love, The Amber Approach

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