Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeline Thien

037 - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

037 - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Rating – 3*

This book took me what felt like forever to get through, and then left me in a reading slump. Trying to write a review for it has left me stumped too because I don’t even know how to put in to words what I feel about this book.

The scope of this novel, it has to be said, is impressive. It’s a multi-generational family saga set amongst the political backdrop of China over the best part of the last 80 years. We follow the story of several members of the families and how they interconnect in the past and the present day primarily through a handwritten book called The Book of Records. It is through this book within the book that we bridge between past and present day and characters. As such, this book is able to explore the cultural and political history of China through two families and their interweaving lives.

The writing for the most part, while dense, was lyrical and enjoyable to read. My main issue was that I really struggled keeping track of what on earth was going on. The characters didn’t seem to have any definition, which is especially problematic when you’re ping-ponging between decades of history and completely different characters. It isn’t a book you can just relax in to, I found myself constantly having to focus and remember who was related to who and what other names they went by. It got confusing for me very regularly which really put me off picking it up for a few days.

Stories which have many characters and are set in many different periods of history have to be written in such a way as to not confuse the reader beyond belief. Unfortunately, this book failed at that for me. I think with more defined chapters which outline where in the story the events are taking place would have easily elevated this book to something so much more than it was for me as a reader.

I think I may give Thien’s writing another go in the future, but not too soon because this book actually exhausted me.

Review: Nefertiti – Michelle Moran

038 - Nefertiti

038 - Nefertiti

Rating – 5*

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump, so I decided to pick up a book I loved a number of years ago to try and get me out of it. Interestingly, I managed to pick it up 5 years to the day that I did originally and I loved it just as much a second time around.

The reason I read this book in the first place is because I’ve always loved Egyptian history (mainly due to my finding of The Mummy movies when I was only 7 or 8 and my baby gay self falling in love with Rachel Weisz). There isn’t really much fiction based in Ancient Egypt, definitely not the period in which this book focuses on, which upsets me because I do love it so much however it does mean that the few books set in the 18th Dynasty of Egypt hold a very dear place in my heart.

Like I said, very little is known about this period of history in Egypt – only 10% of this book is factual, the rest is educated guesswork and pure fiction. While on a second read I didn’t find the writing quite as good as I did the first time around, I still thought this book was amazing. The period in which it was written was so beautiful and Moran doesn’t skimp on details of art, architecture and how beautiful the country was at the time.

The book also explores the unrest in Egypt with Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign. Akhenaten wanted to be known as a builder and is responsible for the city of Amarna, and was also responsible for the religious shift towards monotheism from polytheism (didn’t work, he is known as a Heretic King). The book is rife with family politics, wars on the verge of breaking out – and it’s around these themes that the book is ultimately based.

I wouldn’t be the first, nor will I be the last, to bring up the likeness of this book to The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t read that book in a long time, but ultimately this book is written through the eyes of the overlooked sister of a Queen. Mutnodjmet is an endearing character when compared to her sister Nefertiti and I think that is ultimately what makes this book a lot more compelling to read. Through her sisters eyes you get a very different insight in to the life of the Female Pharaoh – while she was portrayed as a conceited, beautiful girl she was also strong willed, ambitious and ultimately an incredible Queen when out of the grasp of Akhenaten.

I really loved this book. It isn’t a literary masterpiece, but it is definitely still up there as one of my favourite books and reminded me why I love historical fiction so much. It isn’t going to be long before I revisit others of Moran’s books (and maybe visit some for the first time) as I just love the way she writes.

Review: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers

032 - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

032 - The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet

Rating – 5*

I have been desperately in the mood for comfort lately, and when I feel like that I feel the urge to reread. With the third book in the Wayfarers series coming out in July I decided on a cold Saturday afternoon to curl up with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and reintegrate myself with the absolutely wonderful cast of characters and world that Becky Chambers created. I didn’t regret it for one second.

Since I first read this in 2016 I have wanted to reread it. Finally doing that was on a par with rereading Harry Potter, if not better. Reconnecting with the characters in here was much like that catch up you have with old friends you haven’t seen in a couple of years – and you can just pick up where you left off.

For anyone who hasn’t read this book before, a quick summary. We follow the crew of a spaceship called The Wayfarer. The ships job is to create links between areas of the cosmos many lightyears apart – they tunnel. On this ship you have the most incredibly diverse range of characters and personalities, and each of them you fall in love with a little bit. Rosemary is the “main” character – she’s the new girl, and is essentially how we as a reader experience the space they find themselves in as it is her first time up there too. If you as a reader are unsure of something, Rosemary is probably going to ask the stupid question so you don’t have to. That in itself is a genius technique so we don’t feel so confused as readers. We follow this crew as they cross the cosmos and head towards, you guessed it, an angry planet. A planet which is at war with itself. Along the way we learn so much about each of the characters, and they learn a lot about each other. And it’s beautiful.

Reading it for a second time I picked up so much more of the nuance, more of the depth in the characters, I appreciated the different cultures explored and while I did previously appreciate all of those things I appreciated them so much more. I also really just appreciated the diversity of the characters more on a second read!

One thing that I loved the first time around and loved just as much this time around is how this book focuses on so many different forms of love and family. I still love the idea of feather families – those families you make for yourself – and it gave me the warm fuzzies this time around as it did originally. Yes, I just loved all the relationships and different types of relationship in this book – familial and romantic. It’s just a glorious thing to read.

What I said when I first read it stands – read this book, even if you don’t think you’ll enjoy it. It’s one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read. If you like Vastra and Jenny in Doctor Who, read this. If you enjoyed any sort of space-based TV show (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica etc) read this. It’s not just a great work of science fiction, it’s an incredible work of fiction full stop.

I absolutely cannot wait for the third book set in this world to be released this summer (I have it on preorder already) and I really wish I could experience this book for the first time all over again. I’m really hoping that Netflix pick this up for a series or something because I genuinely believe this is perfect for a series adaptation, and I would absolutely 100% binge watch it.

So yes. If the last 600 words didn’t convince you, please read this book!

Review: Let Them Eat Chaos – Kate Tempest

030 - Let Them Eat Chaos

030 - Let Them Eat Chaos

Rating – 3*

I’ve been really in the mood for poetry as of late, and I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some time, just waiting for the right moment. I’ve loved both of her previous poetry books. This is going to be a short and sweet review as, honestly, I don’t have much to say on it unfortunately.

This poem – for it’s one long poem much like Brand New Ancients was – was created to be read aloud and I think the fact I didn’t do that is probably the reason I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as her previous poetry work that I’ve read.

The pretext of this is actually quite fantastic – it follows several people in a flat block in South London at 4:18 am. For one reason or another, each of these individuals are awake at this time and we follow their stories as to why. So the premise is good, I just really didn’t enjoy the execution of it.

Unfortunately for me this just missed the mark. I think maybe it’s one of those poems I may have benefited from listening to or reading aloud myself – neither of which I was able to do when I picked it up during an insomnia fuelled night at around midnight! I really didn’t find any way of connecting with this like others have.

I can’t say it was bad because it wasn’t. I think it’s just geared up to a very specific kind of reader and I’m just not that of that kind of reader. At this point I’m not sure what I’ll be doing with her work in the future as both this and her novel missed the mark for me! I guess it’ll be a case of wait and see.

 

Review: Your Soul is a River – Nikita Gil

031 - Your Soul is a River

031 - Your Soul is a River

Rating – 3*

Another day, another review, another book I had high hopes for. After reading only part of Nikita Gill’s second collection – Wild Embers – and falling head over heels in love with it, I bought an eBook copy of her first collection as it isn’t in print in the UK. As with a number of books I’ve read of late, I went in with very high hopes which didn’t quite get met.

This collection is by no means bad. In fact, if I had read this prior to Wild Embers I probably would have enjoyed both collections more. Nikita is an incredible poet; her work is compelling, profound, and very relatable as a reader. It was interesting reading this so soon after reading Wild Embers as I could see so many themes that followed through both collections.

I love the way she’s influenced by science. Science and poetry aren’t things that I would have thought could have been paired so perfectly. In the right hands they’re a match made in heaven and I do truly believe that Nikita’s hands are the right ones. Seeing how her style and writing has developed between the collections is interesting. This collection felt a little rougher, a little more tentative, in Wild Embers it felt like she knew her voice and wasn’t holding back – which is maybe why I enjoyed that more.

Ultimately this collection didn’t resonate with me like her other one did. This felt rougher round the edges – expected as it was her first collection – and a bit more repetitive. I’d still recommend it to anyone who is interested in poetry, as I do think she’s a really good poet to start with as it’s easy to follow and relatable! Overall this was a 3* read for me – but it was a high 3* and it’s definitely a collection I’ll dip in to again in the future.

Discussion: January to March Reading Wrap-Up

Quarter 1 Wrap Up Header

Hello my lovely readers, and welcome to a rather different blog post – and one I haven’t done since August last year – a reading wrap up! I gave up doing wrap ups and TBRs because I wasn’t really reading much towards the end of last year and TBRs weren’t working. However, so far this year I’ve read 37 books. THIRTY SEVEN! I was aiming for 2 books a week to meet my goal of 100 books on Good Reads, but currently I’m on track to read around 150 books if I keep up this pace!

General Statistics:-
As I said, I’ve read 37 books so far this year from January to the end of March. The 37 books total 11,998 pages and it works out at an average of 324 pages per book. Which is crazy. I have a spreadsheet which I’ve been logging my reading on since 2012. In 2012 I was happy to have read that many pages in a year so to think I’ve managed to read that many pages in 3 months is incredible!

Diversity:-
Having participated in femmeuary – reading only female authors in February – I’ve somewhat skewed my author gender data, but as it stands 76% (or 28 authors) have been women so far. I’d rather like to keep up with that balance of around 75% female authors as I’m really enjoying what I’m reading so far, and don’t feel like I’m missing anything out!

I’ve also been trying to read from a more diverse range of authors as, I have noticed, my reading is very white – last year I read only 2 books by non-white authors. 2 books. So this year I’ve already surpassed that as 10 of the books – or 27% – have been from authors of a non-white ethnicity. Obviously it’s not ideal to still be around the 25% mark but it’s still a lot more diverse than my previous 2 years reading and, honestly, I’m loving it!

The Books in General:-
Genre wise – just over 50% of my reading has been non-fiction which is something that’s really surprised me when looking at. I know I’ve been reading more non fiction this year simply because I’ve been enjoying it a lot more. I’ve read several memoirs and thanks to the Wellcome prize I’ve also read a large amount of science non-fiction on top of that. This year I’ve also really been enjoying essays and essay collections so I’m pretty sure there’ll be a good balance of fiction to non fiction going forward. Right now as I write this I’m definitely more in a non-fiction mood than I am fiction and, honestly, I’m loving it!

My average rating is 3.6 if I’ve done my maths correctly. I’ve only had one 1* book, and I’ve had nine 5* books (two of which were re-reads in fairness).

Excluding re-reads, my favourite books I’ve read so far this year have been With the End in Mind for non-fiction and for fiction my favourite so far has to be The Gloaming which I do feel is cheating as it was an ARC and isn’t out until the end of next month, but whatever, my blog means my rules and I loved it.

Going Forward in to April:-
I don’t have much in the way of a TBR as such, but I’d like to keep up what I’m doing – as it stands my books per month have been gradually increasing, and while I’m aware it’ll plateau and probably dip at some point, I’d quite like it to keep quite steady at the 10 books a month area. One thing I want to do though is keep the fiction/non-fiction balance at around the 50/50 mark because honestly I am really, really enjoying non fiction lately and I have a lovely little collection of books on gender studies and feminism which I really want to get around to more of over the next few weeks!

If there’s anything anyone would like to see on the blog I’d love to hear from you. I want to do more chatty posts like this, because I feel that I’ve been banging out reviews one after the other (roughly at 1 every 3 days or so at the moment) and not really having time to just blog about reading in general.

I hope you’re all having as productive a reading year as I am so far. Feel free to send me recommendations, on here or on goodreads, as I said I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!

Review: A Guide to Being Born – Ramona Ausubel

029 - A Guide to Being Born

029 - A Guide to Being Born

Rating – 2*

This is one of those books which has been sitting there, itching to be read, for a number of years. I think I bought this way, way back on a friends recommendation and have had such high hopes for it since that I just didn’t want to pick it up – it wasn’t quite the right time.

I think I may have gone in to this book with expectations far too high because, well, I didn’t enjoy it. Ausubel’s writing is beautiful, there’s no escaping that. How she uses language, her turns of phrase, her imagery and atmosphere is incredible but the actual stories as separate entities? Those I didn’t enjoy so much.

So many reviews of this collection say that they (as readers) were swept up in her worlds, and loved the creativity and whimsy of what she created. Said that stories in here were beautiful. For me, I didn’t get that. Some of the stories physically repulsed me – and I get that that was the intention, to blur those lines between reality and fiction, to have questionable ethics and plots to make you think. But, honestly, some of it for me went too far over the line for me to enjoy.

I so wanted to love this book, but in the end I carried on reading out of a sense of obligation. Not because I necessarily wanted to. I hoped – fruitlessly – that I would find that story in here, that one that made me forget all the faults and issues I had, the one that swept me up and made me love this collection as everyone else on my GoodReads friends list seems to. But it didn’t happen. The stories did get better, but not enough for me to recall them at any given moment – never mind a week after the event in a review! And the stories I do remember I don’t particularly wish I could, I wish I could erase them from my memory.

As I said, Ausubel is clearly a talented writer to evoke this emotion from me – because I don’t think I’d feel so passionately about a book being packed full of stories I disliked if I hated the writing. I’d have just thrown it to one side and forgotten about it. But, with this book, I didn’t feel I could do that. Only go in to this book with a strong stomach and preparation that it isn’t quite the ‘Cath Kidston’ of short story collections like many of the reviews make you believe.

Review: Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

026 - Doctor Zhivago

026 - Doctor Zhivago

Rating – 3*

I decided to pick this book up at long last after I saw that Ange (Beyond the Pages on YouTube) was hosting a really informal readalong of it – informal in that it was “read at your own pace in the month of March”. That suited me perfectly and gave me just the kick up the backside I needed to finally pick it up. Unfortunately, I think it was a case of it wasn’t the right time for me to read this book, as I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

The book itself is incredible and it’s often said that this is one of the greatest love stories ever told (if you believe love to be tragic, I guess you could agree). It is essentially a story about a man who is considered a tragic hero who has been separated from the woman he loves due to civil war. I had no time for the love story, Zhivago as a character was not one I enjoyed reading – which is a bit pants given this is a book pretty much dedicated to his tragic life. Throughout the book we’re told that Zhivago loves both his wife and Lara, but he runs between the two. I never felt that he loved either of them from words or actions (until the final section which I will discuss later).

I found so much of this book improbable, most notably the series of increasingly unlikely coincidences where characters just seemed to bump in to each other in a country the size of Russia like it’s a village the size of a postage stamp. I don’t bump in to my neighbours as regularly as all these characters happened upon each other! If there were more explanation, maybe I’d accept it, but it just seemed to be a case of Pasternak needing a particular character in a particular place without any thought of how they got there! The first few times it’s acceptable, but then it becomes a bit absurd!

What makes this book so good for me though is the prose – the pages on pages of description of the surroundings. When the characters start talking it becomes stilted and frustrating again, but if this was just a meandering book about Russian mountains and snow, I’d have probably enjoyed it more. And whenever I stumbled upon a passage describing the surroundings I found myself falling a little bit more in love with the book and forgetting all the issues I had with it just a page before.

I think it’s also worth saying that in the edition I read there is a further part at the end which contained the poetry that Zhivago wrote – this was a much needed reprieve after the heft of the book, and was a more condensed version of what I enjoyed in this book. Pasternak’s prose (and kudos to the translators for doing such a beautiful job) is wonderful, it was just the main character and the plot that I didn’t enjoy. The poetry at the end was what lifted this book back up to 3* for me – and maybe it’s the poetry which makes me even slightly agree with the sentiment of this being one of the greatest love stories ever told.

So yes, unfortunately this book didn’t quite hit me how I hoped it would. It wasn’t bad, and I can understand why so many people love it, but for me the clunky dialogue and a series of unlikely coincidences detracted from the enjoyable bits. Still, I’m glad I read it.

 

Wellcome Book Prize 2018 || Shortlist Predictions

WBP Shortlist Predictions

On Tuesday the shortlist for the Wellcome Book Prize will be announced – as I have read 10 of the books, am part way through the 11th and may or may not get to the 12th I wanted to take some time out of a snowy Saturday afternoon to discuss my feelings on all of the books longlisted, and make a prediction of what Tuesday might hold.

I for one love these types of posts, I love reading them, I love watching people on YouTube make similar content, and I’ve never read enough of a prize longlist to partake in the discussion. This is going to be a long one, but I’m not even going to say sorry.

Reading this years longlist has been an absolute joy and a pleasure and something I will definitely be doing in the future years. I absolutely can’t wait to see what decision the judges make this year because whatever they pick as the winner, it won’t have been picked easily. Books focusing around biosciences and health are becoming increasingly popular and in this ever growing genre I think that it’s going to become harder and harder to narrow it down to 12 books, never mind to pick just one book from that pile to “crown”.

The 12 books on the longlist this year were all amazing in their own way, even if I didn’t enjoy them myself. However, for me the shortlist is quite clear – but I’d be happy if I managed to get even 2 right. I’m going to list the books on my dream shortlist by author surname:-

  • Stay With Me – Ayobami Adebayo
  • The Butchering Art – Lindsey Fitzharris
  • In Persuit of Memory – Joseph Jebelli
  • With The End in Mind – Kathryn Mannix
  • Behave – Robert Sapolsky
  • The Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman

I think a few of them are likely to be wrong – for me this year the fiction wasn’t as strong as in previous years – and often a lot of the links were tenuous. I also didn’t particularly enjoy any of the memoirs on the list which was a bit disheartening for me as someone who usually enjoys a memoir! It wasn’t that they weren’t interesting, it was that in more than one case I found that I was confused as to why they were on the longlist and they felt out of place.

For me though, the 6 books I have listed above stand above the rest. Stay With Me was one of those books that  I wasn’t expecting to love as much as I did, I and it’s stuck with me in the 9 months since I read it. I think it looks at both culture and infertility in interesting ways, and I feel that of all the fiction this one ‘fitted the brief’ best. It’s been a long time since I read it, and I made the decision to not reread it – maybe if it is shortlisted I will reread it.

The Butchering Art and also The Vaccine Race are very similar books with very different topics – and of the two I did prefer The Buthering Art. The former is about the history of surgery and how one man – Joseph Lister – changed medicine from something that was almost medieval and pretty certain to get you killed to something more like what we know today. He ‘discovered’ hospital hygiene, implemented things like sterilising and life expectancy soared because of it. The later is about the history of the immunisation, and the race to formulate one before more people died. While it missed the mark on the most part for me, it was nonetheless an approachable book which dealt with difficult topics in a good way. I didn’t love it, but it wasn’t bad.

In Pursuit of Memory is the story of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease – it’s both personal and scientific, for me it was a really powerful and informative read. I really enjoyed the way the book was put across, and I think it was a really good grounding for something that affects so many of us.

Behave is the book I’m currently only 15% through but already I can tell it’s a good one. Maybe not the best book I’ve ever read, but definitely good. However, the reason I’m hesitant to add it to the list (and it was the one I debated over most) is that it is dense, it is more academic (in spite of the dust jacket saying it was a really good book for non-specialists) and I’m not sure I particularly enjoy everything that is being said. However, I think it is an incredible feat of science and with time and patience I’m working my way through it slowly!

Finally, finally, I want to talk about With the End in Mind which is by far and away the best book on this list in my opinion. My review for that book has done crazy things, but with every share of it I feel a sense of pride because people are reading my review and taking the time to share it with people, people who don’t normally read, people who are scared of death and what it means and that’s what I wanted when I read this book. The traffic I’ve been getting is incredible – and all because of one review about a topic that is so taboo. When I read the book I knew all I wanted to do is tell people about it. I wanted to share it because it felt so, so very special when I read it. It has helped me, and I want it to help others. The fact that people have been taking time to read my review and then share it – to the point a UK based palliative care charity acknowledged it – is incredible and something very, very special because I had no idea it would do that. For a book about death it certainly uplifted me – and also made me shed a tear. For me this is the winner. I don’t care what the judges say, this book needs to be in hospitals, it needs to be given to relatives who are approaching a difficult junction in their lives. I could talk about this book for hours, in fact I probably have already and I only finished it 10 days ago.

But, now I’ve made my views known I’d love for you to share your opinions on the books on the longlist and what ones you think ought to be picked for the shortlist.

All I will say is I’m glad I don’t work Tuesdays because I absolutely cannot wait to see the special 6 announced on the 20th!

If you’ve got this far, thanks for reading and have a lovely weekend

Review: The White Book – Han Kang

022 - The White Book

022 - The White Book

Rating – 3*

In the last week I’ve somehow managed to get through 4 of the Wellcome Book Prize long listed books. This was the first of them, and actually one of my more anticipated books on the longlist as it’s by an author who I’ve heard of! This will be a relatively short review as the book itself was only 130 pages or so long!

The White Book by Han Kang is a rather short and sparse book, and one that having read I’m confused as to why it appears on the longlist. It’s a ‘concept’ book in my eyes, the writing is short and punchy, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to it, it’s vague and focuses very heavily on imagery.

The story behind this book is the loss her parents experienced when her oldest sister was born two months premature in a harsh winter and there was no way that she’d survive. It is heavily biographical, and I think the experimental nature of the writing comes from it being a cathartic piece that was meant for her more than anyone else. There is a lot of blank space – white space if you will – and some of it reads like poetry, some of it like prose. Some of it is vague and out there other parts are clear as a bell. There’s a disparity to this book and, for some reason, it just didn’t settle with me.

It was a powerful book in parts, the parts directly dealing with loss, grief, premature birth and the things which this book was nominated for the Wellcome Prize for were great but, as far as the prose goes I felt it was a bit too far out there for me! I’m not going to say it was a bad book, because a lot of it was great, some of the imagery was great but reading it in line with a book prize about biosciences and medicine, and also comparing it to her previous books translated in to English it did fall short of the mark for me unfortunately.