I’ve had quite a few boring and repetitive jobs to do at work recently, so have turned to audiobooks to get me through. Turns out, it’s pretty easy to get your reading count up when you can get through an audiobook or 2 in one day. Now it makes sense how so many people on Instagram are regularly getting through 20+ books a month. It’s not something that I could do every day because I have to write a lot. If I try and listen as I write, I just end up typing words from the audiobook. Definitely not worth it. Last week, I made it through 3 books and managed to cross off 3 more letters from my monthly reading challenge. I’m starting to feel quite good about where I am in a reading sense. I just wish the rest of my life was as easy.
Octopussy and the Living Daylights by Ian Fleming
There’s something about a short story collection when its part of a larger literary series that just doesn’t work for me. I feel as though the majority of them just end up feeling like the leftovers. Those half ideas that never quite made it into a full novel. I know that’s an unfair thing to think because short stories need a different set of skills to a novel. However, Octopussy is not a collection that really disproves my theory. The stories in the collection aren’t exactly outstanding. I don’t think they’re terrible but there’s such a small opportunity for depth. I guess there is an argument that James Bond had been an established character at this point, so it wasn’t as necessary. However, it doesn’t really allow room for him to anything different to every other time.
Out of the four stories in this collection, I actually think that Octopussy is the strongest and this is the one that offers the least amount of Bond. It feels like the most fully formed of all the stories and introduces us to quite an interesting character in Major Dexter Smythe. Smythe is a World War 2 hero who has been implicated in murder and the theft of Nazi gold. Bond is sent to apprehend him. The story is through Smythe’s narration, which allows Fleming to touch upon some interesting ideas about morality and greed. It was definitely the most fully formed story of the bunch.
The others are a bit more hit and miss. The Living Daylights once again shows us that Bond doesn’t see killing as a great part of his job but there isn’t really much time to get into it in great detail. I know it’s a theme that Fleming explored elsewhere but I don’t think it was wise to attempt in short form. The other two stories are both pretty forgettable. Although, I guess the last one does stand out for being so unlike the rest. It’s a very different vibe for a spy story.
Overall, this isn’t Fleming at the top of his game but he was always a writer that preferred writing novels. These short stories don’t do the character or the writer justice at all. It’s not a bad way to spend your time but there are better Bond novels out there you could read instead.
The Outsider by Albert Camus
Next up is an absolute classic. Alert Camus’ novella is one of his most famous works and often considered to be one of the greatest pieces of 20th century literature. The story is narrated by Meursault, a Frenchman living in Algeria. We start with the news that his mother has dies and Meursault leaves to attend her funeral. A rather pragmatic and indifferent man, Meursault doesn’t cry at her funeral, which causes something of a stir with the other mourners. Weeks later, he is arrested for the murder of an Algerian man who had been involved in an altercation with his neighbour. Meursault’s strange behaviour before, during and after his mother’s funeral is presented as evidence in court.
On the surface, The Outsider seems like a relatively simple story but there is so much to take in. We’re essentially dealing with a man who refuses to play by society’s rules and who gets punished for this. Through his narration, we hear Meursault’s rationale for his actions and that he was acting in the way he thought best. However, we can also see that his isn’t exhibiting “normal” behaviour. There is nothing wrong with the way Meursault acts (apart from killing that guy I guess) but, because he dares to go against societal norms, he finds himself vilified. Camus is addressing the absurdity of these conventions. Or at least how mundane they are.
Meursault is seen as an unfeeling and inhumane monster. Yet we know that, actually, he is just honest about his feelings. Of course he was sad that his mother died but he knew that it would happen one day. He tells his girlfriend that he doesn’t really care if they get married or not but he is willing to. We know that these aren’t signs of a dangerous psychopath but we do know that they aren’t the norm. This short story brings into question what it is to be human and how our relationship with others defines us. Meursault doesn’t really care about other people because they don’t interest him. Yet this separation makes him seem cold and distant. The Outsider asks us to consider how important other people are in the forming of one’s own humanity. It’s crazy how Camus fits so much into such a short space.
This is one of those books that you might overthink before you decide to read it. It is so hyped and well-regarded that it might feel intimidating. Yet, despite all of the depth, The Outsider is a really easy and fun read. There is a certain amount of dark humour involved and Meursault’s narration is a lot of fun. It does raise some interesting points and is the kind of book that sticks with you. It’s definitely well worth a read.
Empress and Aniya by Candice Carty-Williams
My final audiobook of the week was the debut YA novel from Candice Carty-Williams, author of Queenie. I think I was a little bit harsh when I read Queenie last year. I think I expected something different and rated it harshly when it didn’t do what I wanted. That’s not fair, which is why I wanted to give Empress & Aniya a chance. Now YA, as we know, isn’t really my thing but I do love a good body swap narrative. I mean, I also love a bad body swap narrative but that’s probably for different reasons. I was ready to spend a couple of hours listening to this play out exactly as I expected it to. Basically, the opposite of what happened with Queenie.
Empress has has a rough childhood but, through her own determination, she has managed to get herself a scholarship to a very good private school. She can barely afford the school lunches and is worried that her fellow classmates will use her background as a weapon against her. So, when she is forced to buddy up with straight A student Aniya, Empress doesn’t want to let her guard down. Aniya grew up with everything that Empress didn’t have and has no idea how unusual her lavish lifestyle is. When the two girls switch places for a day, will they realise that both girls are hiding things from each other?
Okay, so let’s be real, anyone who picks up a book with this premise and doesn’t immediately know what will happen is very naïve. We have two girls, one being raised by a poor and dysfunctional single mother and the other by her rich parents. On their 16th birthday, the pair switch bodies. What could they possible learn? It’s not rocket science. The rich one learns how awful being poor is and the poor one realises that life isn’t completely rosy being a rich only child. This isn’t a narrative that will blow your mind or anything. I suppose it isn’t really meant to.
Instead, this book tries very hard to make some good points about important subjects. It discusses mental health and the importance of talking about your problems. Yes, it does it in quite a simplified way that sees everything turn out perfectly without any real issues. But I guess it needed to end on a positive note. I guess the main problem is that this is so short. There really isn’t much time to develop characters or bring depth to the story. It’s so fast paced that you never get a good sense of anything. The characters are all stereotypes and one-note. The themes never really get beyond anything we’ve seen before. Also, this doesn’t even really feel like YA. It reads much younger, which is probably why the story has such a Disneyesque happy ending.
Honestly, the thing that I enjoyed most about this (apart from the fact that it was free on Audible) was the narrator. She had such a lovely voice and did a good job. She couldn’t do anything about how dull the story is and how little happens. She did make the experience much more pleasant though.