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What I’ve been reading this month

All That Remains by Professor Dame Sue Black was a gripping read. Black essentially described her lifelong relationship with death, from deaths which affected her personally, deaths she investigated in her role as a world-leading forensic anthropologist, and even her thoughts about her own death. Not remotely morbid or maudlin, Black’s enthusiasm for anatomy and forensic pathology shone though, as did her wicked sense of humour. I really enjoyed this book.

I read Jane Austen’s Emma after work colleagues expressed shock that I’ve never read any of her work. I was left pretty conflicted. I raced through it, and I think I enjoyed reading it. However, I loathed almost all of the characters, and the manipulative snob of a protagonist in particular. This left a bitter taste.

I enjoyed Graeme Simsion’s follow up to The Rosie Project, The Rosie Effect, but not quite as much as the original. It was noticeably longer than the first volume, but someone felt as though it covered less ground, and naturally felt less original. I’ll still pick up the third volume when it’s published.

A Station on the Path to Somewhere Better was a wonderfully atmospheric thriller full of pleasingly complex characters. It was narrated by a man in his 30s, retelling horrific events which occurred during a visit to Leeds with his father when he was 12 years old. There was a good dash of horror in there, but at heart, this was an interesting reflection on the nature of parent-child relationships.

I’m sure I’ve read F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby before, and I read it again this month. I could barely remember any of it, and on re-reading, I’m not surprised. I’m not sure why, but I just didn’t feel any great connection to this book. It just sort of passed before my eyes, leaving no real impression at all (neither good nor bad).

John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism left me a bit conflicted. There were passages which made me see aspects of religion and atheism differently and changed my thinking. There were others that went above my head, I’m afraid: as someone with no particular background in philosophy or religion, some of it was just too technical for me. I left this book unable to give even a thumbnail sketch of the different types of Atheism despite each having its own chapter, which I guess says something about the book. But there were some great bits.

This 2,337th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

The Eight Mountains by Paolo Cognetti, translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre, was a brilliant Italian novel. The plot concerned Pietro and Bruno, two childhood friends who grew up in a farming community in the mountains of Italy, and followed the development of their relationship over decades. The book reflected on the different things we all get out of relationships: how our relationships with nature, society, friends and family are all so different and hold such different meanings and degrees of importance to each of us. I really enjoyed this.

A little while ago, a friend told me to read Stefan Zweig and to start with his biography of Montaigne. This seemed like such a weirdly esoteric recommendation that it sat on my “to read” list for ages, but I finally got round to reading it this month. It was wonderful! It was a beautifully written and very short biography of a man who lived an astounding life at a pivotal moment in history. Zweig’s prose—almost every line of which felt quotable—seemed to capture the vital essence of someone who lived hundreds of years before him. Montaigne was an eccentric genius, and this was not haigrophy: Zweig was uncompromising about Montaigne’s flaws. But still, this book left me awed.

Another book recommended to me was Conspiracy by Ryan Holiday. I’ve put this off several times because I thought I had no interest in it: I knew it to be a book about the legal actions concerning Hulk Hogan, Peter Thiel and Gawker Media, none of whom I have any real interest in. Yet, this turned out to be a book where none of that really matters. This is a book in which Holiday makes an argument—with some success—that there aren’t enough conspiracies in the world today. He suggested that too many people are willing to complain rather than plot, and that if more people secretly conspired to change the world, then the world would be a better place. Holiday illustrated his argument through a telling of the story of Peter Thiel’s conspiracy to destroy Gawker, a gossip website. Holiday frequently drew comparisons with epic historical or mythological conspiracies, in a way which felt at first absurd and hyperbolic, but which I quickly came to find endearing and somewhat convincing. If nothing else, Holiday’s enthusiasm for his thesis shone through and I ended up really enjoying this. While I wasn’t completely convinced by the central argument, it gave me quite a lot to think about.

Can it be morally right for a journalist profiling an interviewee to lie to them? That’s the question at the heart of Janet Malcolm’s famous book, The Journalist and the Murderer. Malcolm’s inspiration was a specific book about a convicted murderer which was clearly once at the centre of public attention, but I don’t think the fact that I was unfamiliar with the specifics hindered my enjoyment. I enjoyed this because it made me consider questions that are so far removed from anything I usually have cause to think about. It is a reminder of those who strive for lofty ambitions in journalism, and of what society has lost by letting volume, clicks and page views count.

I’m pretty sure I read all of Agatha Chrisie’s Poirot novels and short stories as a teenager, and I certainly read Murder on the Orient Express. I re-read it this month, and was reminded of the gentle pace and broad-brush sterotyping that make the Poirot stories so comfortable and easy to read. The careful plot and pacing, including the neat resolution common to all Poirot, make the whole think feel like a comfortable pair of slippers. No real thought was required, there was nothing especially challenging, and I didn’t gain any new insights into anything from reading this. It was just perfectly relaxing, which is exactly what I was after.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani, translated by Sam Taylor, is very much the French novel of the moment. At it’s heart, it was a book which explored the reasons why a seemingly perfect nanny would murder her charges despite clearly loving them. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that there is no simple answer, just an accumulation of experiences across a lifetime which lead to the terrible moment described in the opening of the book. I liked the complexity and gritty realism of this book, but somehow didn’t find it particularly engaging. I didn’t come to feel any particular connection with the characters, and while others have described it as “haunting”, I hasn’t really caused me much of a second thought since.

I didn’t realise before I bought it that Eddie Mair’s A Good Face for Radio was a collection of his Radio Times columns: had I known in advance, I wouldn’t have picked it up. I enjoy Mair’s wit, and have occasionally read columns by him, but I never really find that I get much out of reading collections of short articles. They tend to be a little repetitive and, by dint of the format, the ideas and arguments in them aren’t really fully explored.

This 2,336th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

Hans Rosling was an amazing man. In Factfulness, which he worked on right up until his death, he distilled his lifetime of learning about global public health into a series of simple lessons readers can all use to improve their understanding of the world. This book was simply brilliant, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone. It was one of those books that has the potential to elegantly and persuasively shift the general frame of reference. I think (and hope) this will become one of those books that defines our time and dominates our collective thinking for years to come.

Sam Guglani’s Histories was a collection of characters’ stories from across a week in an NHS hospital. The stories were intertwined, with several characters mentioned by other characters. Despite being a short book, this felt like a complete world which existed before the period contained in the book and continued afterwards. This felt like a true reflection of life in the NHS. It felt real, current, and somehow strangely complete.

In Less, Andrew Sean Greer painted a less-than-successful American novelist who accepted a string of minor literary engagements around the world in order to avoid attending the wedding of a former lover and also to avoid publicly marking his fiftieth birthday. Of course, the round-the-world trip caused him to reflect on life while the narrator filled in Less’s backstory. There were some marvellous lines in this book – in terms of imagery, philosophy, humour and more besides – and a great deal of wit. It was one of those rare books that actually made me laugh out loud from time to time. It got insidiously under my skin, and I was almost surprised by how much I cared about Less by the end of the novel.

In my lifetime, no human has travelled even 400 miles from Earth’s surface. In 1968, the astronauts of Apollo 8 travelled 250,000 miles from Earth on the first manned mission to the moon. Robert Kurson’s Rocket Men was a compelling narrative of a journey many consider to be the most important in human spaceflight to date. Kurson wove in a lot of American social history as context to the daring of the mission. So much that is written about the Mercury and Apollo programmes focuses narrowly on the US/Soviet ‘space race’, and it was refreshing to read something that talked about the historical context in a broader sense. Fascinating stuff.

Somebody I Used to Know was Wendy Mitchell’s fascinating and poignant autobiographical account of being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease at the age 58. I was interested to read about the stigma faced by the author, including from the NHS (in her roles as both patient and worker). Michell also brought insight into the coping strategies she has developed over the three years since her diagnosis. It was touching, moving and often rather funny.

Desperately Seeking Self-Improvement was an autobiographical account by two academics – Carl Cederström and André Spicer – who spent a year following the advice of self-help gurus, tackling a different area of their lives each month. Much of the outcome seemed to be played for laughs, but the humour wasn’t really up my street. When Caderström and Spicer included more sober reflection on the self-help movement or the effects on their lives, it often struck me as a bit superficial. The tone was very uneven. This book didn’t really do much for me at all.

Jospeh Reid’s Take Off was a far-fetched thriller in the time-worn subgenre of “damaged rogue agent defies the incompetent system to try to save the day”. It had a substantial body count, James Bond-esque antics which went far beyond stretching credibility (people leaping off the roofs of buildings, a gun battle in flight between a Cessna and a helicopter), and a final resolution which raised more questions than it answered. Reid clearly had more novels about the protagnosit Seth Walker in mind, and gave hints about tragedy and heartbreak in the Walker’s backstory in a way that I imagine was supposed to be tantalising, but just felt forced.

This 2,335th post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

I think everyone has some cultural awareness of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels given the number of adaptations there have been. I think many people also read it in school, though I don’t remember doing so. It was 300 pages of often laugh-out-loud social and political satire disguised as a sort of fantasy. It’s nearly 300-years old but didn’t seem it. The satire was biting and relevant to today’s world. The repeated needling of misogyny, in particular, felt like it could be from a sketch show commenting on today’s gender politics, and the observation that, in England, “ignorance, idleness, and vice, are the proper ingredients for qualifying a legislator” is made as regularly today as it has ever been. I thought this was brilliant.
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“Husband, father, drag queen, sex worker, wife, funeral director, trauma cleaner.” This was quite the collection of roles in life, all of which have been played by Sandra Pankhurst, the remarkable subject of Sarah Krasnostein’s biography The Trauma Cleaner. Krasnostein is a gifted author who brought out the humour in Sandra’s story alongside reflections on the ordinariness of this remarkable life, while also drawing broadly applicable life lessons from the more extraordinary areas of Sandra’s life. There were sections of prose which read like poetry. Krasnostein was up-front about the limits of her confidence regarding the accuracy of Sandra’s story, but even if only half of it were true, Sandra would still be a great subject for a biography.
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Nothing opened my eyes as much this month as The Secret Barrister, a book which flew with wit through the many holes in the English criminal justice system to devastating effect. I had no idea of the degree to which cuts to funding have damaged the criminal justice system. I had no idea that acquitted defendants not entitled to legal aid are no longer able to claim back their legal costs. I had no idea that compensation for wrongful conviction and imprisonment had been eroded to such an extreme degree. I had some idea that the Crown Prosecution Service wasn’t working, but I had no idea of the degree of the problem. I found this educational, shocking, sad and also hilarious.
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Rutger Bregman’s Upoptia for Realists, translated by Elizabeth Manton, argued that our societal development has stalled because nobody in politics promotes “visionary” ideas any more, only different versions of the same basic model of society. I strongly disagree: I think we are living through a time of profound societal change at a pace never before seen in the history of humanity. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book’s discussion of three ideas which probably receive less attention than they deserve: the 15-hour work week, a universal basic income, and a world without borders. This book helped me to look at society from a couple of new perspectives.
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Outliers was Malcolm Gladwell’s book about the effect of cultural and societal norms on individual achievement. It aimed to challenge the notion that exceptional achievements typically result from individual exceptionalism, positing that they instead often result from a combination of social fortune plus a strong dose of luck. My impression is that this is generally taken as given in British society, but is perhaps less so in the US. This means that, as a British reader, bits of this seemed tonally ‘off’ to me. That said, most of the anecdotes and examples in this book were new to me, and I enjoyed reading through them.
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Lies That Bind Us was no more and no less than a perfectly serviceable beach-read thriller by Andrew Hart. It concerned a group of twenty-somethings who went on holiday to Crete, where “things” happened. The group returned to Crete 1,000 days later to find that the “things” came back to haunt them. The central character, a compulsive liar, tried to piece the whole thing together through flashbacks. There was nothing particularly spectacular about the plot or writing, but the pages kept turning. There’s a thread of Greek myth throughout the book which is spoiled by being continually and unnecessarily exposited, but I can forgive that in this sort of “read it with half an eye” novel. It was fine.
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What I’ve been reading this month

It struck me that Matthew Kneale’s An Atheist’s History of Belief was neither particularly for atheists nor a comprehensive history of belief. Rather, Kneale presented interesting potted histories about the development over thousands of years of soecific aspects of various religions, picked – by Kneale’s own admission – for the fact that they are interesting stories. For example, he tracked beliefs about violence within Christianity from Jesus’s time through witch trials and the crusades to the modern day; and he followed Buddhism from it being a lifestyle through to a fully fledged religion and back again. Kneale clearly has a good eye for a story, and made this book very enjoyable and interesting.
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Anthony Longden’s essay in Slightly Foxed persuaded me to seek out a copy of Ruth Adam’s A House in the Country. It was a gentle story written and set shortly after the Second World War. A group of six friends (and a couple of young children), ground down by wartime urban living, decided to club together to live communally in a large country house in Kent, which they had loved at first sight. Adam described the mostly humorous, but sometimes poignant, series of adventures and disasters which follow. The characters felt absolutely complete and true-to-life in a fashion that is rarely true in a book this short. The most interestsing aspect to me was the natural discussion of the rapid change in social mores over the post-war period, and the impact this had on individuals. I have no idea whether this book was entirely fiction or rather based on Adam’s experiences. This is not the sort of book I would typically pick up, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
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Every Third Thought was an extended reflection on death by Robert McCrum who explored how one’s perspective on death changes with age. This wasn’t a superficial examination of the topic which ended with cheery messages about ‘living every day as if it’s your last’: it was an uncompromisingly depressing examination of the pain and suffering that often accompanies the end of life. There was much in this book to think about and reflect on further.
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I found Nick Clegg’s book on How to Stop Brexit disappoiting and confused. Most of the book was a restatement of reasons why Britain should remain the EU, but this was followed by a logically flawed set of suggestions for stopping Brexit. For example, Clegg argued that the referendum was unfair because the result of a ‘leave’ vote was not clear in advance. In this book, he advocated for a second referendum with a clear ‘leave’ deal on offer, but in which a ‘remain’ vote would result in a commission to re-evaluate and re-negotiate the UK’s place in the EU: therefore, the very same charge about a lack of clarity of sequelae previously associated with the ‘leave’ campaign then becomes problematic for the ‘remain’ campaign. Having enjoyed Clegg’s autobiography, I expected a lot more from this book.
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In Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday shared his angry at how easy it has become to manipulate bloggers into publishing content that is blatantly untrue, and how credulously traditonal media outlets then pick up those posts and re-report them as fact. Holiday drew on his experience in using this technique to court controversy as a marketer for American Apparel. Holiday admitted to seeing no easy solution, but wrote admiringly about subscription-based approaches to journalism as part of the answer. I feel better informed for having read this, but found the snarky tone and strong language distracting.
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I picked up the Lionel Giles translation of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War because it is so often referred to in other things I’ve read. It was a short book of military strategy written 1500 years ago. Much of it seemed pretty obvious, but I suppose that is because it has become received wisdom. What struck me most about this, though, was not really the book at all. Other have suggested that this book contains great lessons for surviving modern life, or for succeeding as a politician, or for informing business strategies, or for managing a team. On reading and realising that this is just a manual for slaughtering adversaries without mercy, it made me feel a little sad that people see so much in this for other parts of life. I hope life isn’t about fighting with others: I hope life is about discussion and mutual respect and compromise and forgiveness and helping people out. So reading this left me with a general sense of pensive melancholy, not so much about the book itself, but about the place many people see it taking in the modern world.
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What I’ve been reading this month

I’m not someone who would naturally pick up a book written 2000 years ago. I’m no classicist. But there has been so much written online and in magazines in recent years about Seneca’s Moral Essays that I thought I’d pick up a translation to see what all the fuss was about. The volume I selected contained Seneca’s essays On Providence, On Firmness, On Anger and the sliver that survives of On Mercy. These essays were many times better than anything modern I’ve read on character or morality. The John W Basore translations were highly readable and engaging. There were parts that made reference to Seneca’s contemporaries or cultural/religious figures that slightly went over my head, but the down-to-Earth “life advice” was astounding. It also made me reflect that there’s more in this single volume on effective management of people than anything I’ve ever previously read. I was completely blown away.
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A Death in The Family was the first of five parts of Karl Ove Knausgård’s radically honest autobiography. This volume covered Knausgård’s relationship with and the death of his father. The book was extreme in its honesty. Knausgård left nothing to the imagination. He didn’t spare family or friends in his descriptions of them and nor did he spare himself in documenting his darkest inner thoughts. His descriptions were detailed, meticulous and evocative. “Transcendent” seems to be a word commonly associated with this book and that captures my impression. It is a very impressive first volume.
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Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’s Algorithms to Live By stood at the intersection of computer science and philosophy. The authors explained a number of fundamental algorithms used in computer science (many of which were new to me) and then used tenets of philosophy to explain how these algorithms were also applicable in everyday life.
The premise sounded like a terrible marketing-driven airport paperback ‘What X tells us about Y’ concept. In fact, it was carried off very well. The computer science was quite complex (certainly well beyond my rusty A-Level Computing knowledge), but explained with a clarity that outstripped most ‘popular science’ books. The ‘relevance to everyday life’ was also carried through expertly, delving fairly deep into evidence-based psychology. There was a lucid connection between the two which the authors brought to life with thoughtful examples. This was interdisciplinary thinking done right.
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I picked up Unmasked, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir, because the reviews I read suggested that it was better than one might expect it to be—and that’s exactly how I found it. It would be interesting in any case to have some insight into the creative process of a man who has had musical successes writing everything from Elvis Presley songs to stage musicals to a requiem mass. But—perhaps surprisingly—this book was also very funny. There were bits that were a little cringe-worthy, including a bit where he makes a joke about the size of his penis, but he strikes the right note far more often than the wrong one.
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I struggled a bit to get through Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro, which is saying something considering that it was quite a short novel. In a nutshell, the novel found Quatro’s protagonist attempting to reconcile her Christian faith with a lifetime of sexual encounters. There were interesting ideas to unlock in that premise, but I didn’t really gain any real insight into them. This was partly because Quatro often took approaches which extended beyond my sphere of knowledge without anything like an adequate explanation (a treatise on apophatic theology, anyone?). It was also partly because the writing didn’t lead me to particularly care about any of the characters. Fire Sermon just didn’t quite do it for me.
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This 2,331st post was filed under: What I've Been Reading.

What I’ve been reading this month

The complete title of the Geroge Horace Lorimer book I read this month was quite possibly the longest of any book I’ve ever read: Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son: Being the Letters written by John Graham, Head of the House of Graham & Company, Pork-Packers in Chicago, familiarly known on ‘Change as “Old Gorgon Graham,” to his Son, Pierrepont, facetiously known to his intimates as “Piggy.”. As the title suggests, this was a series of fictional letters from the ‘self-made’ owner of a meat-packing business to his son, first published in 1902. The letters, which started at the point that Pierrepont left home for university, dispensed fatherly advice as his studies and career in the family firm steadily progressed. This book was only 76 pages long, yet was packed with quotable lines that could have been lifted from any number of self-help books written in 2018, let alone 1902.

“Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible.”

“The easiest way in the world to make enemies is to hire friends.”

“I remember reading once that some fellows use language to conceal thought; but it’s been my experience that a good many more use it instead of thought.”

“What was the use of being a nob if a fellow wasn’t the nobbiest sort of a nob?”

The gender politics was very uncomfortably 1902 –

“I like a woman’s ways too much at home to care very much for them at the office. Instead of hiring women, I try to hire their husbands.”

– as was the casual racism –

“Business is a good deal like a nigger’s wool—it doesn’t look very deep, but there are a heap of kinks and curves in it.”

– but otherwise, it was astonishing how little good advice has changed in the last century. I really enjoyed this book.
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In The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett combined a cheerfully twee tale of the Queen developing an interesting in reading with a complete dismantling of the concept of monarchy. The endearingly naive Queen reaches an epiphany as she realises that, contrary to what her upbringing and surroundings tell her, she is no better than or different from the ‘common reader’, and that her position has caused her to become unpleasantly aloof and uncaring. The message seemed to be that the monarchy can only exist while people (most notably the monarch) are ignorant of ‘other lives’: an appreciation that we are all fundamentally equal renders it untenable. I thought that combining an inoffensive story with a devastating critique of the establishment was masterful.
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Daniel Handler’s All the Dirty Parts was a novella narrated by a sex-obsessed, and very sexually active, 17-year-old. This whole book was constant sex, and much of it stomach-churningly “squelchy”. I think this novella contained more description of bodily fluids than everything else I’ve read in the last five years combined. Despite that, there were some surprisingly touching moments, especially when the narrator was out of his comfort zone, and plenty of gentle humour. This was a great study in watching a narrator squirm. It was also an interesting take on the impact of freely accessible pornography on developing sexuality. From repulsion to awkwardness to tenderness, Handler made me feel exactly what he wanted me to feel on every page of this book, and that deserves respect. As a reader, I was totally wound around his finger.
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I’d been putting off reading Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath as I’d been bitterly disappointed by some of his previous books. This was a mistake: I enjoyed this volume. This book was a collection of stories in which underdogs won. These were told in a compelling manner, recognising the complexity of life and of the situations described. Gladwell’s perspective on the reasons why the underdog won seemed insightful, even if it always basically boiled down to the fact that the underdog was underestimated. While the attempt to form theories based on handpicked stories which fit a particular narrative still rankles, it’s less heavy-handed in this book, and easier to ignore.
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Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall was a milestone in the development of modern satirical literature. I found that it had a pleasingly absurd plot and was very funny in parts. It has plenty of genuinely laugh-out-loud dialogue which could have been lifted from Monty Python. Despite this, I didn’t feel particularly fondly towards the book as a whole. I think it is because Waugh was satirising 1920s social norms, many of which seem patently absurd to modern eyes regardless. Layering even more eccentricity onto characters which are already absurd to modern eyes makes for extreme caricatures that are hard to invest in or care about. So while I’m glad I read it and enjoyed reading much of it, I wasn’t bowled over in quite the way I expected to be.
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I’m afraid I struggled to finish Emma Cline’s The Girls this month. This novel told the story of a 14-year-old girl who gradually gets drawn into a cult. This was an interesting idea, and I could see that Cline was trying to create an atmosphere that gradually transitioned from childhood normality to eeriness to tension and to fear. Unfortunately, I just didn’t feel particularly drawn in, nor did I really feel like I cared about any of the characters. The writing felt like it tried too hard, almost as though the author had replaced every adjective with another found in a thesaurus without really understand the sense of the replacement. All things considered, I was disappointed.
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