I didn’t expect the second post in my Recently Read series to be up so soon, but I’ve been getting through books a mile a minute! My new favourite hobbies are walking the dog whilst listening to Audible or curling up in bed with a story and a steaming cup of tea. Reading has been a wonderful form of escape for me during lockdown and I’ve loved getting back into it! Here are the titles I’ve been enjoying lately…
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert ★★★★☆
In 1940, nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has just been kicked out of Vassar College, owing to her lackluster freshman-year performance. Her affluent parents send her to Manhattan to live with her Aunt Peg, who owns a flamboyant, crumbling midtown theater called the Lily Playhouse. There Vivian is introduced to an entire cosmos of unconventional and charismatic characters, from the fun-chasing showgirls to a sexy male actor, a grand-dame actress, a lady-killer writer, and no-nonsense stage manager. But when Vivian makes a personal mistake that results in professional scandal, it turns her new world upside down in ways that it will take her years to fully understand. Ultimately, though, it leads her to a new understanding of the kind of life she craves-and the kind of freedom it takes to pursue it. It will also lead to the love of her life, a love that stands out from all the rest.
Now ninety-five years old and telling her story at last, Vivian recalls how the events of those years altered the course of her life – and the gusto and autonomy with which she approached it.
I really struggled to rate this. When I first started City of Girls, I had high hopes – the first few chapters were absolutely golden and made me laugh out loud. I thought I’d come across a 5 star read until I reached about a third of the way through, where the story started to lag slightly. It did pick up again but I felt much of the plot was predictable and the book on a whole was longer than it needed to be.
With that being said, there is so much about City of Girls that I enjoyed. I loved the pre-war New York City setting, the flamboyant characters, the glitz and glamour of the theatre and the portrayal of female friendships. I adored the protagonist, Vivian – I know a lot of reviewers disliked her but I thought she was hilarious. I found it refreshing to read about someone a little flawed and raw rather than your usual heroine who can do no wrong. I also thought the sex scenes were really well written (I usually hate sex scenes in books as I find them so corny and melodramatic, but in City of Girls they were very tongue-in-cheek and made me chuckle). While the story is slow in places, the author’s prose is easy to get lost in and I devoured all 480 pages in just under two days.
I’d wholly recommend this if you enjoy historical fiction and fancy a fun, feel-good read.
The Foundling by Stacey Halls ★★★☆☆
Six years after leaving her illegitimate daughter Clara at London’s Foundling Hospital, Bess Bright returns to reclaim the child she has never known. Dreading the worst – that Clara has died in care – the last thing she expects to hear is that her daughter has already been reclaimed – by her. Her life is turned upside down as she tries to find out who has taken her little girl – and why. Less than a mile from Bess’ lodgings in the city, in a quiet, gloomy townhouse on the edge of London, a young widow has not left the house in a decade. When her close friend – an ambitious young doctor at the Foundling Hospital – persuades her to hire a nursemaid for her daughter, she is hesitant to welcome someone new into her home and her life. But her past is threatening to catch up with her and tear her carefully constructed world apart.
The Foundling has received such amazing reviews on Goodreads and Amazon so I was looking forward to getting stuck in. I did enjoy it but I didn’t love it like I was hoping I would. I was surprised at how linear and underwhelming the plot was – it took me a long time to get into it. I listened to the audio version over the course of several days whilst walking my dog; if I’d have read the physical book I’m not sure I’d have even finished it.
At around three quarters of the way through, the story began to pick up and pique my interest. However, it didn’t lead to the exciting finale I was hoping for – the ending felt too far-fetched and left me disenchanted.
On a more positive note, the book is beautifully written and the author conjured a wonderfully atmospheric image of Georgian London. I’d actually never heard of The Foundling hospital before so it was interesting to learn about that particular piece of history.
All in all, a pleasant enough read but not one that is likely to stick in my memory.
Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams ★★★☆☆
Queenie Jenkins is a 25-year-old Jamaican British woman living in London, straddling two cultures and slotting neatly into neither. She works at a national newspaper, where she’s constantly forced to compare herself to her white middle class peers. After a messy break up from her long-term white boyfriend, Queenie seeks comfort in all the wrong places…including several hazardous men who do a good job of occupying brain space and a bad job of affirming self-worth.
As Queenie careens from one questionable decision to another, she finds herself wondering, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? Who do you want to be?”—all of the questions today’s woman must face in a world trying to answer them for her.
Queenie was another book I struggled to rate. I found the first half slow and stagnant and wasn’t sure where the story was going. I also wasn’t a fan of the switching between past and present. However, I thought the second half of the novel was excellent and incredibly thought-provoking. Queenie visits some dark places and touches on a variety of heavy topics, such as mental health, racism, domestic violence and miscarriage.
I loved Queenie’s character and even though she made several frustrating decisions, I was rooting for her throughout. I enjoyed following her relationships with her friends and family; especially Kyazike and her cousin Diana. I liked how the story panned out in the end and I was happy certain characters got their comeuppance!
This was a fulfilling read and I’d have rated it higher if I’d enjoyed the first half more. I’m looking forward to future works from the author.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah ★★★★☆
In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.
Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gäetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.
The Nightingale tells the stories of two sisters, separated by years and experience, by ideals, passion and circumstance, each embarking on her own dangerous path toward survival, love, and freedom in German-occupied, war-torn France–a heartbreakingly beautiful novel that celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women.
What a beautiful book. In my last Recently Read post, I declared Where the Crawdads Sing as my favourite read so far this year, but I think The Nightingale may have taken its place! I expected a romance novel set during WWII but what I got was so much more. It was very bleak; much darker than I’d anticipated and I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a story you ‘enjoy,’ but I couldn’t pull myself away. It sent me through a rollercoaster of emotions – hope, anger, elation, heartbreak. Some scenes made me feel sick to my stomach while others had me crying my eyes out!
I have been interested in WWII since I first read The Diary of Anne Frank in school. I loved that The Nightingale focused on the women’s struggle during the war – I felt as if I was right there with the sisters, living through their nightmare with them. At times it was so tense I wanted to stop reading but couldn’t. Whenever I was away doing other things, I was desperate to get back to the story.
I’d give The Nightingale 4.5 stars rather than 5 as there were certain relationships I wish had been explored more. Also, some scenes felt a little unauthentic and cliche to me. Still, this book blew me away and I’d urge everyone to read it. I’d recommend something lighthearted and uplifting for afterwards, though, as it’s guaranteed to have you in tears!
What books have you been reading lately? x
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