Review: Piranesi – Susanna Clarke

★★

This book, for me, did not meet the hype that has been thrown about for it. I loved Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I really enjoy Susanna Clarke’s writing but this book was just a huge miss with my personal tastes. And as much as I hate to say it, this is a marmite book and one that most people seem to be fawning over (much to my confusion).

Piranesi is an ambling story – and one that dragged on for much longer than it’s mere 250 pages would have you believe. For the first 150 or so, absolutely nothing happens. The character of Piranesi is really boring. I found this meandering narrative of corridors and birds that he sees more tedious and frustrating than charming. The characters are endlessly dull too, I didn’t feel any of them were multifaceted (and, let’s face it, there’s only 3 characters in this whole book really).

I kept reading because I enjoy Susanna Clarke’s writing; the world building was interesting and I have to admit, the final quarter picked up pace and is probably what I enjoyed most. Additionally, I did switch to the audiobook at one point and narration did make this marginally more enjoyable. Before the final quarter I was finding this difficult to get through and quite drab. Also, the ending was really anticlimactic.

Honestly, this was like treacle to get through. I genuinely think the 1000+ page behemoth that was Jonathan Strange was easier to get through than this comparatively slim, 250 page volume. I felt like I was reading it for hours, the ending was bizarre, nothing really happened and I just felt frustrated by the time I was done with it. If you want a gushing, positive review there are plenty of those on Goodreads as for some reason, unknown to me, the general consensus for this book is adoration.

Review: Love in Colour – Bolu Babalola

★★★★★

This book. This book.

Love in Colour is a collection of short stories, which are based on myths from mostly African folklore but also some other cultures, about love. I don’t read romance-y type books, I generally loathe romance in any book (because I rarely see me) and it always invariably disappoints or makes me lose all interest. But this felt raw and real, and passionate and I loved it.

As with all short stories, there were a couple I enjoyed less, but for the most part these were all hits. Every story was so rich, fleshed out and vivid, no character sounded like another. Bolu Babalola is a gymnast of the written word, each story had it’s own tone which suited the nature of the story, if it was softer or sexier, if it was passionate or chaste. I want full novels of some of these stories, because what I had had me wanting more.

My favourite story was Nefertiti, and oh my god I need this novel. Underground mob boss, low key queer Nefertiti? I want this. I need this. It was one of the more edgy and plot (rather than romance) driven stories in the collection, and while there was romance in it there was so much more to it than that. It did feel a bit like an outlier, in and amongst quite a bit of fluff, but then it still fit in perfectly. I do think it was an experiment, but it worked. So very well.

If like me, romance – especially heterosexual romance – isn’t something you gravitate towards, isn’t a genre you enjoy, I would encourage you pick this up. This feels real, for the most part the couples in this book are believable. I loved the different layers; that every story had warmth, depth and characters that I was invested in. I loved this book. I loved it and I’m so glad I saw it in a top 10 books of 2020 on Instagram and actually read that review because I’m pretty certain I’d never have picked it up. Honestly, there’s nothing better than a book that just takes you by surprise like this.

Review: A Thousand Ships – Natalie Haynes

★★

I’m going to preface this with my main thought which is – I think I read this book at the wrong time. I’d read a lot of historical non-fiction, and been listening to exclusively history podcasts, and picking up historical fiction straight off of that may not have been the smartest idea. Also, I partially listened to this and I think maybe reading it physically would have been a better experience.

For me this missed the mark. A Thousand Ships is retelling the Trojan war from the perspective of the women involved and on paper this is a perfect book for me. Greek Myth retelling and giving voices to lost women, heck yes! But in reality, it just didn’t work for me.

When this book is so character driven, it’s really difficult to then enjoy the book when you can’t connect to the characters. However, I felt that no voices were particularly stand-out, they blended in to each other and I didn’t feel I could fully invest in any one of the different perspectives because they all became one perspective to me which led to confusion. And those few that did stand out didn’t for the right reasons – Penelope was in this and her entire selling point is her chapters are letters to her husband, rehashing the Iliad/Odyssey verbatim in letters to Odysseus telling us the reader the plot of the Iliad/Odyssey in a CrEaTiVe way. For me, that felt lazy. Again, this could be an issue with the audiobook – the fact it was narrated by Natalie Haynes was great but each characters voice was the same. It was flat. It lacked personality. And as much as I love an author narrating their own book, and Haynes has a lovely narration style, it was very monotonous and would have suited a more linear/one perspective book a lot more. I’m not usually a fan of multi-narrator audiobooks but I think that this book specifically could really have benefited from more than one narrator.

On the plus side, the prose is lovely. I really like Natalie Haynes’ writing style, and I can see why this book worked for a vast majority of people. I’d like to see more like Children of Jocasta, which I read in 2018 (and apparently didn’t review?) because I feel her prose does suit a more linear, focused on one character narrative.

It’s really difficult to say anything more on this book because it just fell so far from the mark for me. I think rather than backing and forthing in narrative it would have been better being more intense character studies in an interlinking short story collection style (more like Girl, Woman, Other was). The actual structure of this didn’t work for me, the characters felt flat and yes, it just wasn’t for me. It’s not to say that

Review: Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

023 - Frankissstein

023 - Frankissstein

★★★★★

I adore Jeanette Winterson – she’s fast becoming one of my favourite authors and when I was on holiday and saw a signed copy of this book, I just had to buy a copy. I couldn’t resist. As it so happens this has now been longlisted for the 2019 Man Booker Prize and, having now read it, I am going to say I am surprised in the best possible way (because I enjoyed this book, but it doesn’t seem very “traditionally” Booker). I adored this book. I originally gave it 4 stars but in thinking more about it, and realising just how unforgettable this book is going to be for me, it easily bumped up to a 5.

This book follows two timelines. Firstly we follow the life of a young Mary Shelley and her contemporaries starting in the period which she wrote Frankenstein. I loved this fictionalised account of her relationships with her husband – Percy Bysshe Shelley – Lord Byron, and some others I’d not heard of until I read this book (and subsequently went on to research about them more) including John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. Mary faces her own oppression, and is a very forthright kind of young woman in a time where that was not the norm. To me that is not one jot out of character given who her mother was (Mary Wollstonecraft; 18th Century Feminist Extraordinaire) and I could very easily have read an entire novel based on the fictional account of Mary Shelley’s life.

Secondly, in the present, we follow Ry Shelley. Ry is a transgender/non-binary doctor who gets involved in his very own Frankenstein related story by Victor Stein. Along with Ron Lord (a man who is promoting the use of AI in sexbots) and a woman known as Polly D they get swept up in a frankly insane plot involving cryogenics, stolen body parts and absolutely mad science. The thing I loved about this present day section is how the parallels between it and the past unravel. Ry is a fantastic character, and in my opinion good representation of a trans/non-binary character (of course I can’t comment on the views of trans/non-binary people on this representation, I might be very wrong in how I’ve read Ry so if that’s the case, I apologise). We learn early on that Ry was assigned female at birth, and while he identifies as male and has had top surgery, he’s happy as he is without having bottom surgery. Ry is Ry – and I think it’s fair to say that the issues he faces throughout about his gender and transphobia in 2019 draw parallels to the oppression Mary was facing in the early 19th century.

Winterson is a genius. For me this book is genius. It’s a good mix of serious and laugh out loud funny. She draws parallels between the industrial revolution which Mary Shelley was living through, inspiring Frankenstein to the current boom in technology and AI. She makes the reader question so many things about life and intelligence and transhumanism, the role of AI and how that might change us as humans. More than anything, the modern period was funny. It wasn’t without it’s darker moments (gender related violence towards Ry to name the most obvious) but it was witty, and genuinely made me laugh.

I also have to confess that it took me a shamefully long time to work out that the 21st century names were all plays on the 19th century names. Ry/Mary was obvious, as was Victor Stein/Dr Frankenstein but Ron Lord (Lord Byron), Polly D (Polidori) and the modern day Claire (Claire Clairmont) took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out.

I loved this book. It wasn’t without it’s flaws, and I think it is fair to say that a lot of people on Goodreads have fair criticisms about Winterson’s representation of a trans character and I get that, I do. I’m yet to see one review by a trans individual though, and I have looked. If I find one, and they say it’s problematic, I would take everything I’ve said back and reassess my current opinion with new knowledge. But I leave this review with a quote from Ry, which I think sums up this book beautifully:-

“I am what I am, but what I am is not one thing, not one gender. I live with doubleness.”

Review: Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor

061 - Lagoon

061 - Lagoon

Rating – 2*

 Lagoon is a book I absolutely picked up on a whim. I was in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy section of my local bookshop, looking for something out of my usual comfort zone, and stumbled upon this. I’ve heard a lot of incredible things about Nnedi Okorafor (particularly her Binti series) and was interested to see that she’s actually a very, very prolific author!

I’m relatively new to the Sci-Fi genre in fiction – so I can’t really place this anywhere in particular on a scale. But I really enjoyed a lot of it – it’s a first contact story, but not little green men from mars like you probably think of when you hear Sci-Fi. The invasion of Nigeria comes from the seas, not the skies, which is what drew me to the book in the first place.  I love the idea of creatures from the deep coming to the surface!

The book also draws a lot of inspiration from a lot of Nigerian folklore and fairy tales, and I really enjoyed how they were blended in with the science fiction elements. I also felt that more than anything this was a book that looked at the humanity of a small population, and how something so big (such as an alien invasion) divides them and unites them simultaneously. While there are three main characters, there are also view points from several smaller characters – which are interesting but made the book feel crowded in my mind.

While I enjoyed the first half, I felt the second half lost a bit of momentum, and lost my interest. The ending was okay, it all came together nicely but I feel like it could have ended half way through and had the same impact on me. I gave this two stars, maybe because I didn’t fully understand it at the time of reading. In parts it felt cramped and overworked, in other places it was sparse and not thought out enough. It felt quite meh come the end, and I don’t feel that much was resolved.

What I will say though is that I did enjoy the writing though, so I think I’ll be picking up more Okorafor in the future.

Review: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Brontë

060 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

060 - The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Rating – 5*

I was in the mood for a classic, but rather than pick one of the many on my shelves I haven’t read, I reached for one of my all time favourites – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Anne is by far my favourite Brontë because of this book. And I honestly urge anyone to pick this up.

While this story opens with a letter written by Gilbert Markham, and is bookended with one at the end too, this is ultimately Helen’s story. It’s told through letters and diaries, which is something I find hard to get through when not in the right hands. Epistolary writing is incredible for just really getting in to a characters head, understanding their thoughts and feelings, and when done well it can be absolutely amazing.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a rare gem in classic fiction in that it deals with very complex issues and has very few tropes of 19th century literature with a female protagonist. Helen Graham is one of the strongest women I’ve ever come across in fiction, and Anne Brontë is an incredible author who was ahead of her time for writing her. What we experience through Helen’s diaries in this book is a story I’ve still to this day never seen handled as well as this, especially for the time period in which this was written (and set). The most incredible thing about Helen is that while she’s been through hell and back, and has experienced abuse that no woman should ever experience, she keeps her head high and is so poised throughout; she retains her dignity which is something I never thought I would say about a 19th century female protagonist!

What makes this novel so incredible is how real the depiction of alcoholism is, and how it impacts a family. This is, I know, the most autobiographical of any Brontë novel as I believe that Helen’s husband is based on the only Brontë brother, Branwell. It also depicts a rarity of a woman living independently, causing scandal, living under a pseudonym and not doing her husbands bidding. The different take on women in Anne’s world to Charlotte and Emily’s is, frankly, astounding. This book caused a rift between the women, and after Anne’s death, Charlotte took the executive decision to suppress this book and disallow a reprint to “protect” the family name as Anne didn’t hold the same, more pious, opinions as her sisters.

I originally read this book in 2014 – and it holds a very special place in my heart because it was the book I read on my last holiday with my grandmother before she died only a few months later. We read it together, and for that I think I will always love this book a little bit more than all other Brontë novels. If anything I loved it more on a second read, I really did. And if you’re to read one classic this year, or ever, I’d urge it to be this one because it truly is incredible.

Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman – Theodora Goss

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

059 - European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman

Rating – 4*

After reading the first book in this series and loving it, I had to immediately pick up the second in the series. Now, I’ll admit I was a little intimidated when I saw the size of this (700 and something pages!) but I somehow read this book in 2 or 3 sittings. I just couldn’t put this down.

Just to apologise in advance, this may contain spoilers for the first book, even though I am trying my best to make it spoiler free!

This book picks up where the previous left off, the characters are just as wonderful – if not more so – than they were in the first book. All of the female characters develop more, and we are introduced to a few more amazing women including Lucinda van Helsing, Carmilla, and an interesting woman in power – Aisha. We also get to meet Count Dracula and Mina Harker, which is always a bonus! My love of Dracula made me love this book all the more. The inclusion of Carmilla, and her female lover, made me very happy. Even though this is set in the 1890s every character that met them both just accepted it, maybe it’s just their nature as they themselves aren’t exactly your stereotypical citizen of the world, but it was just really refreshing! Dare I say that I loved Carmilla in this more than I loved Carmilla?

The initial premise of this is that Lucinda van Helsing needs rescued, and much like with all of the girls in the Athena Club did at one point in the first book. Something weird is happening to Lucinda, and they need to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. This journey takes them across Europe and out of the London that we became familiar with in the first book. And while there is a more in depth plot to this book than the first, it’s the characters that give the book momentum to move forward. The women in this are all incredible, and it’s why I loved the first book so much, and while I loved the plot it was them that made it all the better. We also get a more in depth look at their lives before they were all together, in freak shows and circuses, and all the colourful characters they knew (and new friends too!) Much like with the first book, their main motivation is understanding why their fathers created them all; it’s just taken to a new, more international, level in this.

Much like with the first book there is a strong female empowerment message, even in the characters from a different generation have the same view, mainly through the persuasion and influence from the younger girls! The women are so varied in their characteristics, and skills and it’s just so, so wonderful to see such a mish-mash of characters as friends. It makes me very happy.

Needless to say this has very easily become one of my favourite book series. I really can’t wait for the third and final book to tie all the loose ends in this up. I just can’t express how much I love this series, and a third book is going to be bittersweet when it’s finally released because I don’t want this series to end, but equally I can’t see where it goes. I think it’s safe to say I’d highly recommend this!

Review: Trickery – Roald Dahl

057 - Trickery

057 - Trickery

Rating – 3*

I was fortunate enough to be approached by Penguin to take part in a blog tour to celebrate Roald Dahl day on the 13th of September, in exchange for taking part I was sent four of Dahl’s short story collections to peruse and review. Today I’m going to discuss one of those in the shape of Trickery.

I’ve never read any of Dahl’s adult fiction before so this was a really new experience for me, and I’m happy to say that his writing translates really well to an adult audience. The bizarre and slightly dark nature of all of his children’s books is elevated to a new level, a much more mature level, and it really works.

The reason I picked this book up opposed to one of the other three I was sent is that I felt that a book around Trickery would have a more varied assortment of stories than something like War. And it was just what I was in the mood for, stories with good twists! As you’d expect with a theme of trickery linking all the stories the collection focuses on how we as humans use deceit, lies and manipulation to achieve our goals – but this book also focuses on the repercussions and fall out which shows that it doesn’t always get you what you think it has and that life has many twists and turns to surprise you yet!

I’m sure many of you reading this will agree with me when I say that the trouble with short story collections is that it’s highly unlikely that you will love every single story. I gave this collection 3 stars because I really enjoyed around half of the stories, some stood out to me more than others, and while none were bad there were just weaker stories sandwiched between stand outs.

My two favourites in this collection were The Visitor and Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat. Both really stood out to me. In The Visitor we follow Oswald, a man who has travelled extensively and finds himself stranded in the Egyptian outback and receives help from a wealthy local resident and his family. However, I do think my favourite among the stories was Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat in which we follow Mrs Bixby, a woman who is carrying out an affair and gets more than she bargained for when trying to pull the wool over her husbands eyes.

This was a solid collection, and I feel very fortunate to have been picked by Penguin to take part in this Blog Tour to celebrate Roald Dahl’s work! I’m definitely going to be picking up more of his short stories because the good stories in this collection were great and ones that will stick with me. Not only that, but I’m also really looking forward to reading what all these wonderful people have to say over the next 2 and a half weeks!

Roald Dahl Blog Tour Card

Review: The Parentations – Kate Mayfield

056 - The Parentations

056 - The Parentations

Rating – 5*

I picked this book up on an absolute whim on Audible. I had no idea what it was about, but from what little I heard in a preview and a quick check on goodreads I thought it’d be a book I enjoyed. I wasn’t wrong, I just wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love this book. I can categorically say now this will be one of my favourite books of the year – I’ve given a lot of 5* ratings this year, but none have come as easily as this one did.

Finding words for how much I loved this book is hard, in fact I’ve been musing over them for 3 days now as I write this. This book was an experience I wasn’t expecting, I haven’t been as pulled in by a book in a long, long time – to the point I read this book in 2 sittings, something I haven’t done with a nearly 500 page book in a very long time!

The story in this book is intriguing – it bounces around between London and Iceland, starting in the 1700s and following the same characters right the way through to present day. That alone intrigued me, as it should anyone, because it follows the same characters over 250 years or so, why wouldn’t that be interesting? The story is about a young man called Rafe – who we follow from the time his mother found out she was expecting him – and why he’s just so special. We never really follow him from his own perspective, instead we follow the life of his mother Elizabet, his aunt Clovis, and his god mothers Constance and Verity Fitzgerald. We move Iceland to London, our characters living in near exile, in grand houses and in prison at different points of the book – and while it spans 250 years or so, it moves at a hell of a pace when you get through the first few chapters of character building.

The women of this book are all unique – especially Clovis who is some Dickensian level of machiavellian; she’s a character who is absolutely abhorrent and for that, while I didn’t like her, I loved her. It’s very rare in literature to come across a woman who is so conniving and, let’s face it, a complete psychopath of the Criminal Minds variety and it was a breath of (very evil) fresh air. As for Constance and Verity, I want them to be my godmothers, I adored them both, they were the complete antithesis of Clovis and I can’t explain quite how much I was rooting for them! While Elizabet is Rafe’s mother, she plays more of a background part throughout.

There are other characters who are well rounded too. All the men in this book portray very different type of man to ones I’ve seen in novels before. It sounds crazy to say this, but I genuinely don’t feel like I’ve read these characters before, in any way, shape or form. Clovis’ husband, Finn, is not all he appears to be – and definitely does not wear the trousers in his relationship, shall we say. And their household staff are interesting too – dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, and very, very low level mentions of sexual abuse. Not one character is a stereotype, they’re all so multifaceted and layered, and even after nearly 500 pages I still felt like there was more to learn about them.

While the book is very character driven, the plot is also incredible.  It constantly kept turning in a way I wasn’t expecting, and before I knew it I’d read 250 pages and it was 1AM. How everything and everyone comes together, I adored. There are no other words for it. There is so much going on, and it’s so well put across, I just can’t believe it was over so quickly. It was one of those books I didn’t want to stop reading, but equally I didn’t want it to end. Finding that balance is tough!

I’d urge anyone even remotely interested in any form of historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or just good books containing amazing characters, to pick this up. I’m so sad it’s over, and I don’t often say this but I can’t wait to read it again.

Review: Liminal – Bee Lewis

055 - Liminal

055 - Liminal

Rating – 4*

I will start by saying this was one of my most anticipated books of 2018 – ever since I read the blurb in Salt’s 2018 releases catalogue I knew I wanted to read this and I’ve been waiting, and waiting until I could get my hands on it. Thankfully their website had it available a few days pre-release so I snaffled it up as soon as I saw it. (PS: Check out their website, amazing books, free UK delivery, I’m not sponsored – I wish I were – I just love their ethos, their catalogue, and I want more people to support one of my local publishing houses!)

This book follows the story of Esther – a young woman who has had a rather difficult start in her life. We know early on that she’s had a leg amputated, and the story as to how this came about is one of the many threads of this book. Esther and her husband, Dan, have had a pretty grim few months and decide to move to a small village called Rosgill in the Scottish Highlands – but we find that this young couple have a far from happy marriage. The story spans a week, from their first Friday in the highlands, to a very interesting Easter weekend just a week later.

I’m going to be honest – the first 50 pages of this book I wondered if I hyped it up too much. I wasn’t connecting, the characters felt wishy-washy, it felt overly descriptive and I’m so glad I persevered because oh my gosh – this book just crept up on me and once I hit around page 75, I didn’t want to put it down. A lot of the description comes from nature and the environment, the way the surroundings are put across – and once I got in to it I found that charming, whimsical and at times quite dark and unsettling. The way this story evolved I wasn’t expecting, and became increasingly involved in how it was going to develop.

I had a lot of issues with the relationship in this book, which was my primary issue but then I realised that was intentional. This isn’t meant to be a fairytale romance, it’s meant to be an unhealthy relationship and as the book progresses and Esther grows a backbone it becomes so, so much more enjoyable to read. Her history with her parents, her own impending motherhood, the relationship with her husband, and with the mysterious stranger – she develops over this 250 page book in a way I wasn’t expecting.

There are a lot of parallels and themes being pulled on from mythology and classical literature, especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There are a couple of mentions of it throughout but there are also a lot of more subtle references; Esther is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own over the course of this book.

I’m so glad I persevered. And I would encourage anyone to persevere with this because where it ends up is a surprise – I anticipated a few things but not the ultimate finale. I think this book was beautiful, and unsettling. Ultimately I really, really enjoyed this. Salt have pulled another blinder out of the bag with this book (again, not sponsored, I purchased this book with my own money) and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re in the mood for a slow building, gothic story set in the wilds of Scotland – and frankly, who wouldn’t be?