Links marked with * are affiliate links: I earn a small commission from any purchase made by following these links, at no extra cost to you. This post contains #GIFTED items, as disclosed below.
So here we are… what could well be my very last Books You Need In Your Life piece! I’ve been doing these quarterly round-ups for three years now, and as you may have seen on Instagram, I’ve slightly lost the love for them. Writing the reviews began to feel less like something I really enjoyed, and more of a routine obligation; and we can’t be having that.
Next year, I’ll be exploring some new post ideas and alternative ways of sharing my favourite reads (so do ensure you’re following me on Instagram to keep up to date!) but for now, here we go. My final favourite reads of 2019…
The Exact Opposite Of Okay by Laura Steven* (Electric Monkey)
“Was so mad last night I couldn’t even bring myself to type out the exchange with Mr. Wells. In fact, I’m still so angry I’m just lying in bed in a vague state of furious nausea, like how I imagine Melania feels when she watches Donald remove his shirt.”
In my opinion, the most satisfying reads are the ones that have you, as a reader, doing a complete U-Turn on your opinion of them. During the early chapters of this book, I wasn’t quite on board with the witty, pun-filled narration of Izzy O’Neil, telling her story in real-time in the form of blog posts. With the protagonist being the subject of a nationwide sex scandal at the age of eighteen and dealing with the aftermath pretty much singlehandedly, I felt the complete lack of reference to any kind of emotion made it more difficult for the reader to feel for and connect with what she was going through. Initially, I found it difficult to invest in the story of what was undeniably the story of any high school teenager’s worst nightmares.
However, as the book progressed and things somehow continued to spiral for Izzy, it finally clicked for me that this seeming lack of emotional awareness could be much more telling than if the book were filled to the brim with heartfelt monologues and dramatic declarations. Because really, how often do you see fictional characters completely repressing their pain and lived experiences in young adult literature? Moreover, how often do you see that done successfully, without it affecting the overall impact and flow of the story? And how could I possibly sit here and condemn using making light of horrific circumstances and experiences as a coping mechanism, when this very blog you’re reading right now, is essentially me doing exactly the same thing about my own situation?
And when you look at things this way, it’s easy to see that this book could actually be a refreshingly relatable read for so many people. Once I’d seated myself more comfortably in this mindset, I began to more readily enjoy the punchy comedy and straight-up relatability of the teen protagonist’s thoughts and musings… despite the rather unique circumstances that brought them about.
The Exact Opposite Of Okay manages to confront some incredibly heavy topics such as victim blaming, revenge porn, and discrepancies in the way males and females are held accountable for their actions, all with humour and increasingly satirical insight, as well as conveying genuine warmth and personal growth from the protagonist. And for that reason alone, I’d recommend giving this one a go. Definitely one of the most memorable reads of the year!
Somebody Give This Heart A Pen by Sophia Thakur* (Walker Books) [GIFTED]
“I am surprised that my jaw has not unhinged itself with the amount of me I keep under my tongue.”
So here’s the thing. This collection of poetry arrived in my letterbox on Friday, I started reading on Saturday, and I was done by Sunday. And on Monday, as a result of spoken word poet Sophia Thakur’s written work, I finally felt at peace to pursue a risky decision I’d been on the fence about for months; one that’s already changed my future at the time of writing this. That’s what this collection did to me.
Divided into four chronological sections – Grow, Wait, Break, Grow Again -, the collection offers an upfront take on diverse and topical issues, including love, parenting, faith, ethnicity, gender and expectations. Whilst the works portray the author’s intricate self-awareness and shed light on their personal circumstances, there are so many elements that will speak to even those who, like me, have no situational shared ground or characteristics with the writer whatsoever.
I’m not usually a huge poetry reader: my reading habits are more akin to bulldozing through written material and gobbling up stories as fast as I could, and so I usually find it quite difficult to proactively slow myself down and learn to savour each and every poem. With this collection, however, these habits came about much more easily than usual.
Whilst some works naturally appealed more than others, Thakur’s rhythm and writing style are so easy to become immersed in, with quotes and stanzas so outstanding that you feel compelled to go back and read them over and over again, and then sit with your thoughts for a little while. Moments which stirred strong emotion were unfortunately not as common as I would have loved them to be, but the ones that were in there were impactful enough to stay with you for a long, long time. This is a truly remarkable first collection of poems, and I’m so glad to have been introduced to Sophia Thakur’s talent. I have no doubt it will continue to change lives in the future.
The Toymakers by Robert Dinsdale* (Del Ray)
“When you are young, what you want out of toys is to feel grown-up. You play with toys and cast yourself an adult, and imagine life the way it’s going to be. Yet, when you are grown, that changes: now, what you want out of toys is to feel young again. You want to be back there, in a place that did not harm nor hurt you, in a pocket of time built out of memory and love. […] Boyhood and adulthood – any toymaker worth his craft has to find a place to sit, somewhere between the two. It’s only in those borderlands that the very best toys are made.”
Robert Dinsdale’s The Toymakers is one of the most unique books I’ve read in a long time. Any works with an element of fantasy are usually way out of my comfort zone and typically not ones I enjoy, but this book was without a doubt an exception. On the surface, the story follows the inhabitants of the curious Papa Jack’s Emporium, located in wartime London. Underneath, you may be surprised to find a more sinister tale of power imbalance, envy, and the concept of free will.
This book is proving incredibly difficult to review whilst keeping spoiler-free, as the plot really does thicken and build-up as the chapters fly by, keeping you engaged and unable to predict what on Earth will happen next, right up until the final pages. However, what I can safely say is that the author strikes the perfect balance between portraying the seemingly mythical elements of the magical toyshop and the creations contained within it, and the real-life struggles of the family of shop-hands and creators. One moment you’re enthralled by the intricate mannerisms of Sirius, the family’s patchwork wind-up dog with a bark that sounds like ‘wet laundry’, and the next, your heart is aching in empathy for the family, each of them trying to find where they really fit in the world.
Spanning over 1917-1953, we follow Cathy as she flees her home, pregnant at the age of sixteen, and finds herself immersed in the Godman family: Papa Jack, who built this very emporium and the magical things within it, and the two sons whose brotherly love is severely and irreparably tested first by Cathy’s attention, and then the question of future ownership of the toyshop itself. We see how the perils of war and violence, racial intolerance, and the post-war aftermath each take a toll on the curious way of life concealed within those four walls, and the rather unpredictable impact the family’s lived experiences have on the toys they create.
I’ve had this book sat on my TBR pile for almost a year, believing it was a read to save for the run-up to Christmas. And whilst I do now believe that this book could be enjoyed by anybody at any time of year, regardless of my own earlier reservations, the eerie atmospheric magic of The Toymakers made it the ideal title to finish up my reading, this side of the festive season.
Above all else, this read is a celebration of the universal pull of toys: every person on the planet was a child once, captivated by the innocent enthrallment of toys and make-believe worlds, and as this book questions so eloquently, really, does that compulsion ever really leave you? If you’re stuck in a rut or unsure of what you feel like reading next, let me tell you right now, this one is for you. Sometimes, we all need reminding of the magic in the world around us.
Thank you so much to everybody who has read these Books You Need In Your Life posts over the years, and most of all, to those who’ve reached out with their own recommendations as a result of them. Do be assured that my love of reading, writing and reviewing is still going strong, so here’s to some new bookish adventures in 2020!
Don’t forget, you can find all of the books mentioned here on my Amazon Storefront* with Amazon Influencers, along with all my other favourites from this year. Do let me know if you decide to give any of them a go and how you find them, as I’m always up for a bookish chat.
In the meantime, do browse through my other bookish posts, and check out my own charity book, ‘Dear Chronic Illness’ and my debut non-fiction book ‘University and Chronic Illness: A Survival Guide’, to be released January 2020. You can also keep up with all my current reads (including the books I’m considerably less enthusiastic about…) over on Goodreads. Happy reading!
Links marked with * are affiliate links: I earn a small commission from any purchase made by following these links, at no extra cost to you.
I’m also very grateful to receive books from various publishers and authors, some of which are included in my posts. Others are re-reads of old favourites, and most are purchased of my own accord. I’d like to make clear that (unless otherwise disclosed), I’m under no obligation to review any of the complimentary books I receive, so do be assured that all of the reads included in this post are genuine favourites of mine that I hope you’ll enjoy too!