The Man I Think I Know by Mike Gayle

Shopping my shelves is going well, as I have discovered another hidden gem that has been sitting there waiting for me to read it. I picked this up as my ‘To Be Read Pile Tarot Cards’ from Don’t Judge Books suggested I pick up a book by a male author and that led me to ‘The Man I Think I Know’.

I have enjoyed Mike Gayle’s book before, and the joy of having discovered him a little later in his career is that there is a whole back catalogue of books to start enjoying, too.

This book was truly wonderful. I know that it is not unusual to have male characters in books or male authors. However, it does seem unusual to have male characters written with such sensitivity and tackling some more complex emotions and relationships.

James has been struggling to rebuild his life since ‘The Incident’ changed his life forever, and destroyed his hopes and dreams. Danny has made some poor choices in life as a result of a tragic event in his family that he has been carrying the guilt for. Both men used to be on such different paths, but a twist of fate brings them back together in a way neither of them expected and together they help each other face their pasts and rebuild their lives. And a wonderful friendship blossoms along the way.

I really enjoyed the fact that this book gives male characters a more sensitive treatment. It allows them to be vulnerable and support each other through difficult times – and yet present them both as strong without losing the integrity of their character. For me, Mike Gayle has created characters, again, that I would quite happily sit down with and get to know more about.

This book made me laugh and made me cry (sometimes even happy tears) but has also stayed with me since I read that final word. I will be recommending this book to so many people as it was just wonderful and incredibly thought-provoking.

I have one more Mike Gayle on my shelves that is standing unread, so I will be sure to pick it up very soon, as he has so many wonderful stories to tell, about so many wonderful characters.

The Colony by Audrey Magee

A second review of a book that has been involved in the Booker Prize, immediately after a Booker Prize winning book – I am really not sure who I am?

‘The Colony’ by Audrey Magee is the March book club pick for ‘The Tasting Notes Book Club’ and, if I am honest, judging the book by its cover, this may not have been a book that I would read. However, again, I was proved wrong by that prejudging – this book was fascinating.

This book is an absolutely fascinating study of a life on a small island just off the coast of Ireland. An island of very few inhabitants, who are still speaking the Irish language and have kept themselves fairly separated from life on the mainland. Their news coming from the radio and those that bring supplies to the island. An isolated life – that is a life some are happy to accept but that the younger inhabitants have a desire to possibly pull away from, especially after the arrival of Mr Lloyd, the artist, who wants to paint the cliffs. As well as this, they are visited by Mr Masson, who believes he comes to save their language and their identity – but is he also just trampling all over what they know, and leaving a mark that can never be removed? What becomes clear is that the island is certainly not big enough for everyone.

The microcosm of life on the island, for me, reflected life on the mainland of Ireland. The story being punctuated by news reports of the Troubles reflected the idea of the risk of the destruction of life on the island. Especially, the idea of who is to blame for the conflicts and the struggles that are being experienced.

I may not have interpreted this book as others may do, but that is also the joy of reading: a shared experience when you read together, but an individual experience when you consider what the words mean to you.

For a slow-paced book, I was continually looking for time to read it and find out more about what was going to happen. And, although it may not feel that there is a large amount of action in this book, it is an interesting study of culture, heritage, people and relationships – and how the balance of these can be so easily disrupted, sending shockwaves far and wide.

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Who am I? Reading a Booker Prize-winning book, when usually the idea of doing that would be something I would usually avoid. As a sort of reverse book snob, I always think that these books are probably a bit beyond me. However, the cover of this book was so beautiful that I could not leave it in the shop; I was not sure it was a book I would necessarily ever get round to reading, but I have picked it up, read it and enjoyed it.

However, once I started this book, and got the hang of how this story was being told, I could not put it down. This is such a fascinating book: a mystery and a whodunnit, but with so much social and political commentary about Sri Lanka at a time of civil war. Maali Almeida has died and appears to be in a waiting room before his full final fate is decided; however, he has seven moons to try and get a message to the two people he loves the most and hopes they can use what he can pass on to them to rock Sri Lanka to the core.

It is so beautifully written that it became an automatic page-turner for me. I could not put this book down as I was absorbed in the story of Maali Almeida, his relationships, his actions, his stories and the world that he was experiencing. There is so much amongst the pages of this book that I am not sure I can do it justice – and I also do not want to spoil the story for anyone else who may pick it up and want to find out more.

It has taught me that I should not judge a book by the prizes that it wins, but by the stories that it may have to tell. I may be surprised by the worlds that I can enter and things that I can learn.

Two For Tuesday – Middle Grade March

I was lucky enough to join a buddy read for ‘Julia and the Shark’ with some of my bookstagram buddies as part of ‘Middle Grade March’. Another book I am ashamed to say has been sitting on the shelf far too long. The only reason has been my mood reading, and this has just been a book that I have been in the mood for. However, that is a mistake of mood reading as I have missed out on a treat for quite some time.

Kiran Millwood Hargrave has brought such a fantastic book to the world, again, with ‘Julia and the Shark’. With the illustrations by Tom de Freston, you are immersed in the story from the moment you turn to page one. I, again, do not want to give any spoilers of the story here, as I feel everyone should read this as I did, without too much knowledge of the plot.

However, what I will say is that the author has tackled the important issue of mental health in this book, with incredible sensitivity, but in a way that should start conversations. I was so impressed with this aspect of the book and pleased to see that there would be younger readers aware of this issue, because it is something that should be in the public domain at all times, and I think we still hold back a little about it.

‘Leila and the Blue Fox’ was just as wonderful, and I had to pick it up as I had enjoyed ‘Julia and the Shark’ so much. This time, the deeper issue amongst the pages is immigration. As well as the need for families to move for a safer and better life – and the impact that this can have on those families. It is again tackled with sensitivity, with a parallel to the natural world (even challenging the fact that for animals we accept it, but sometimes we do not offer the same understanding for people), that will again encourage readers and their families to spark conversation and try to educate themselves.

Both books carry some similar themes. Kiran Millwood Hargrave draws so beautifully from the natural world (as she does in all her books), and uses it almost as another character to bring the stories to life and educate us about the human race too. The illustrations from Tom de Frestin are so beautifully vivid, yet delicate, and add to the whole reading experience.

With strong young female leads who can inspire readers with their strength against all odds, and slightly flawed parent figures, not really through any fault of their own, we see a fantastic study of family relationships and the importance of communication in families. This is a book that I would recommend to young readers and adults alike, because these two books have so much in them that so many of us could learn from.

Medusa by Jessie Burton

I am a big fan of Greek mythology retellings at the moment, partly because I only know a few of the Greek myth, the ones we are always told, but also because so many amazing authors have taken on the challenge of bringing these fantastic stories to a new audience. (I know purists would say to read the original translations, and that is something I am constantly considering and, when the mood takes me, I will do so.)

Medusa by Jessie Burton is one that I have had an eye on for a while and, when I saw that it was on the ‘Yoto Carnegie Medal longlist for writing 2023’, I knew I had to read it.

I absolutely adored this book. I thought it was a great way to tell the story of Medusa, from not only her perspective but possibly from the perspective that it should always have been told from. I had been one of those people who had believed that Medusa was a villain, as – if we are honest – that is how history and culture have presented her to the world. However, now I have a new idea about Medusa and can actually judge with more understanding of her, I can see her as quite the hero of her own story. And, maybe if she had been treated better by the gods of Ancient Greece, or indeed simply left alone, she would not have been painted as a villain.

Jessie Burton writes beautifully about Medusa and her story, and I would really recommend this to anybody who has an interest in these stories and how they are being interpreted in the 21st century. Especially with there being a feminist edge to these myths – ones that we think we know, but should definitely re-examine.

The Seven Sisters by Lucinda Riley

I have seen the ‘Seven Sisters’ books all over Bookstagram and the book community, but I was a little put off. One reason, the hype: would starting these books be as wonderful as everyone was telling me it would be? And secondly, they are bricks and sometimes page numbers put me off (after all, Wolf Hall has been on the tbr pile for as long as I can remember).

Thanks to another fantastic buddy read on the little corner of Instagram that we affectionately know as Bookstagram, I picked up book one in the ‘Seven Sisters’ series, also called ‘The Seven Sisters’. And, I have to admit that I am very late to this party, but I am glad that I have finally shown up to it.

I was absolutely hooked on this book once I started; I just needed to know more about these six women and their adoptive father, Pa Salt. Lucinda Riley has created characters with such a rich history that they get under your skin, as does the mystery that she surrounds these six women with as they start to find out their personal history, before they were chosen by Pa Salt and made into a new family.

We start with Maia, the eldest of the sisters and possibly the most reserved, and a bit of a home bird. However, after Pa Salt’s death, she is left a clue (as are her sisters), which will help her possibly unlock the secrets of her past. The reader is whisked off from Geneva to Rio de Janeiro as we follow Maia on her adventures to find out more about her identity and her past. And, through correspondences from her Great-Grandmother Bel and clues in the present day, Maia begins to unravel the mystery of her past.

Lucinda Riley has really created such a page-turner and I just could not put the book down as more and more was revealed about Maia and her family. Also, as a history lover, as the events of the past are set around the events that led to the building of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, it sent me down a rabbit hole of researching more about that story, too, and the people involved.

So, as the book ended on a saga-like cliffhanger, I know I am destined to read the rest of the books, and hope they are just as engaging and fascinating as the first.