Review: Spinning Silver – Naomi Novik

048 - Spinning Silver

048 - Spinning Silver

Rating – 5*

This book was a lovely, really enjoyable read for me. I do however think that the publishers need shooting because on reading this it’s very clear that it’s a Wintery book, and while there is something nice about reading a book about a harsh winter in Summer, when it’s around 30°C outside it’s more frustrating than anything. I am going to say straight up that I think this would have been a lot easier to give this 5* had I read it in Autumn or Winter, cuddled under a blanket with some hot, fruit tea! As it stands, I originally gave this book 4* but on writing this review I’ve come back to change my mind because I loved this book and I can’t blame the weather for my overall rating.

I loved Novik’s writing in Uprooted and I do think some of the issues I had with that book remain in this but ultimately this book is about strong women, and educated women, and how with education there is power and how can I find fault in that? I also had reservations about this book focusing a little on the “Jewish” trope of being shrewd and miserly – however I actually think the focus on Jewish culture, family and heritage was really well handled, and while there was emphasis on how outsiders look in, it was made very clear that this view was wrong. I really loved that the main family in this book were Jewish, and I love how seamlessly that was woven in to the story without it being a big thing, or a trope. Little things like lighting candles or celebrating Shabbat – it was just well represented and felt balanced and unforced.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and while reading you get several different points of view, at first I found it a little jarring but when you pick up the little quirks it’s easier to follow each narrative. I did find it a little bit frustrating when suddenly a new narrative would come out of nowhere and I had to pick the thread up, but I got there eventually and their perspective did add to the overall story arc. Miryem is our protagonist and I really, really loved her – without giving much away she’s smart and she stands her ground and I loved her. Then there are a full cast of other, incredible women throughout this book and where in Uprooted it felt like the protagonist resigned herself to her fate, in this book none of them took an unfair lot – they all found their strengths and stood up for themselves and yes, it was marvellous! I’ll also say that the “Rumpelstiltskin” character is redeemed and I grew to like him in the end, and I think while we’re on the subject of the end, it was tied up and brought together in a very appropriate way. On the surface it could be a little Stockholm Syndrome-y but actually, on reflection it’s something that’s built up to gradually and feels organic, but I’d like to hear other points of view on that if anyone else has read it!

I will also say that while this is a loose retelling of Rumpelstiltskin, there is a lot of Russian and Eastern European folklore and fairy tales mixed in. I think the nature of this story it is inevitably going to be compared to Katherine Arden’s Winternight series as there is a lot of the same foundations in place (Russian story of Morozko!) however, as much as I loved that series, this single book has captured me in much the same way and it was one book (anyone who knows me knows how I hate waiting for the next book in any series, it’s why so many of my favourite authors are dead!)

So I loved this book. I will be rereading this book, possibly this winter. I loved this book, and as I prefaced this review with, on writing this I grew to love it more than I did when I started it meaning I’ve now changed my rating because oh my word I can’t explain how much I enjoyed this book. I really need to get on to Novik’s other books because she hasn’t let me down with either of her fairy tale retellings!

Review: Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

047 - Everything Under

047 - Everything Under

Rating – 4*

This is the first, and probably the last, book on the Man Booker 2018 longlist that I’m going to read. I’m not going to go in to why I’ve fallen out of love with the Booker, I think enough people have discussed that currently, what I am going to talk about though is this incredible, and ambitious, debut novel.

I picked it up the day before the longlist was announced as the few pages I read in the bookshop were absolutely beautiful and I knew I had to read it.There are so many things I love about this book, so many. I think a lot of people will be put off by the fact it’s on the Booker longlist, and even those who aren’t I think may not enjoy it all that much. It’s very traditionally “Bookerish” in that there are a lot of things going on, and a lot of literary devices which just ramp it up a gear (a lot of people may say those little techniques mean the book is pretentious, I personally think if done right it just makes for good reading).

Reading this book is like being in a constant state of flux where nothing is entirely certain. Johnson in this book plays with so many things both with writing style (from first, second, and third person narratives from the same character) to family, gender and identity in all the characters. Language is a key theme and that in itself is played with fluidly, the main character and her mother living a very isolated life during her childhood and developing their own, made up language. The fact that Gretel and her mother lived in a river community is fascinating in and of itself, but it also leads to another fluid component of the narrative in that her mother doesn’t like to be stagnant and stay in one place too long.

It’s taken me a couple of days to fully digest this book and process what I read and thought about it because for a slim thing of under 300 pages it packed a punch with the content. On contemplating I realised there are so many parallels with fairy tale and myth (not only is the main character called Gretel, but there’s a recurring theme of breadcrumbs and connecting ideas), there are themes of identity and loss and abandonment. And all of the little things done with language, this book is of itself a love letter to language and words – it’s about the power of words and it’s oh so incredible.

Parts of this book genuinely made me pause and have to go back on what I read to check I read it correctly. I didn’t see any of the twists coming and I loved that.

Ultimately, I’m a very happy woman that I read this book, and that I picked it up before it became a bit less exciting because it was longlisted for the Booker. I think had I not saw this in a bookshop prior to the longlist, I wouldn’t have picked it up because of that and that’s a shame, and I think it says all too much about how contrived the Booker has become! I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time, and I’d highly recommend it.

Review: The Third Reel – S J Naudé

046 - The Third Reel

046 - The Third Reel

Rating – 3*

As those of you who have followed this blog for some time will know, one of my favourite short story collections of recent years was The Alphabet of Birds so when I found out that not only was Naudé writing a novel but that it was to be published by Salt, I got very excited.

The Third Reel is set in an interesting point in history – Thatcher’s Britain, Apartheid South Africa, the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Our main character, Etienne is a young man who has fled conscription in South Africa and sought asylum in the UK. He is enraptured by film, and wins a scholarship to study at London Film School but then his world is flipped upside down by a young German artist who makes art and moonlights as a paediatric nurse. While researching for a project on lost film, Etienne is introduced to this lost German wartime reel, and he becomes obsessed with finding the other two. There is so much more to this book as this is just the surface, but finding the words is difficult.

As someone who only has remedial knowledge about 1980’s Britain, I think the way this is written suits that time period. It feels very artsy, but also very industrial and brutal much like that period of history was. Nothing in this book was what it appeared on the surface, it was so multifaceted with art and music and architecture all layering on top of each other to build this really quite unsettling – yet oddly beautiful – environment.

A lot of this book feels unsettling, and I think the reason for that is simply that it’s so beautifully written yet the content isn’t always very pretty. The relationship between Etienne and Axel is a bizarre one and one I’m not entirely comfortable with, but as a reader I don’t think I was meant to be comfortable with it.

Ultimately, this didn’t quite match up with the high bar I set it based on The Alphabet of Birds but it’s nonetheless a good book. Had I not been familiar with his writing style, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much however. So it’s very swings and roundabouts as to how much I enjoyed this, which is why I settled at 3* – because it wasn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t as good as I was hoping.

Review: Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers

045 - Record of a Spaceborn Frew
From the ground, we stand. From our ships, we live. By the stars, we hope

045 - Record of a Spaceborn Few

Rating – 5*

Oh my word, where to start with this book. I just don’t even know. Trying to  form a coherent thought about something I love so passionately is difficult because while this book is very different to The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, the insight it gives in to this universe that Becky Chambers has created is magical.

This book was incredible, and I won’t lie, it made me cry. The characters in this book are from the Exodan fleet, these are humans that live on ships and the insight in to their lives is beautiful. This feels a lot quieter and more homey than the two previous books, focusing more on family and the circle of life than anything else.

Something I found really interesting in this book is the way that the fleet live – the structure of their space ships, the hierarchy of their society, and also their sustainable nature. I also think that the focus on how humans are not the superior race in this universe is something that we need to be reminded of and is put across so well in this, the humans of the fleet are not top dog, in fact their entire existence is dependent on technology from other races and “hand outs” and it’s something we’re constantly being reminded of throughout.

As with all of Becky Chambers’ books, the characters in this are beautiful. All of them. Tessa is Ashby’s (from TLWtaSAP) sister, and her portions of this story are very domestic as she’s a mother to two young children, one of which seems to be suffering from some form of PTSD and is struggling living in space. Isobel is an archivist – essentially a historian slash registrar – in the fleet who lives with her wife and is housing a harmagian who is researching humans and the Fleet. Eyas is a young woman who works as a groundskeeper, which is more than what it sounds, she’s responsible for caring for the dead and interring them back in to their ecosystem once they’re fully degraded. Finally we have Kip, a young boy who is struggling to find his place in the fleet and has questionable friends, ultimately he’s bored and we follow the growth of him as an individual in to what I can only describe as a fully fledged young adult.

All of these characters has a story which overlaps and brings them together seamlessly. It’s not exactly the happiest of stories but it’s quite a powerful one with a really important message about being inclusive and welcoming. I think it’s also really important to realise just how insignificant humans are in this universe, and to realise the fragility but also the incredible improbability that we exist. I could nerd out about this series for days. I really could.

A small point, and something I absolutely loved, is the insight in to the life-cycle of humans in the Fleet. I found both their naming rituals and also their funerary rituals fascinating. Maybe I’m a bit morbid, but I really love how death is approached in this book – in that bodies decompose and then they turn in to compost, to bring life to plants which in turn bring life to us meaning that our loved ones are always with us in the air we breathe. I mean, does it get any more beautiful than that?!

Along with all of this, there’s the seamless inclusion of all types of ‘people’ – sexuality, gender identity, touches on mental health, physical disabilities – all of them are beautifully interwoven in a way that doesn’t make them tropey. They just are and it’s exactly how it should be.

I also had the amazing opportunity to meet Becky at an event at my local Waterstones and oh my word, she’s one of the most intelligent, eloquent, wonderful humans I’ve ever had the chance to be in the same room as, never mind hold a conversation with. Her mind is incredible, and I really want to see where she takes this universe because it’s ever expanding and has endless possibilities and I just want to see all of them. She said herself she doesn’t know where she’ll go next, but I really hope we get a look in to a species who aren’t human, because the alien races she’s created are truly fascinating.

If you haven’t read A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, then please do. Then promptly read the next two books in this universe.

 

Review: The Falconer – Alice Thompson

044 - The Falconer

044 - The Falconer

Rating – 4*

Alice Thompson’s books have yet to disappoint me – while The Falconer is by no means one of my favourite of her books it was still amazing. I can’t believe I’m going to say these words but it had echoes of Daphne du Maurier, and I liked it.

Thompson’s books are generally small in stature but pack quite a punch. The Falconer is only just over 150 pages and I felt it was the perfect size for the content. While it tied up a lot of things, some of it was left open and I think that fits well with the atmosphere of the book. We as a reader are meant to have questions and I felt okay with that. I felt this required quite a bit of attention, but that’s not a bad thing, I just didn’t want to miss anything because it was so intricately written.

Being small, I’m not going to go too much in to the plot. But essentially this book follows a woman called Iris, who has applied under a pseudonym for a job as a personal assistant to the Undersecretary of War to find out what happened to her sister who previously had the same job as died in rather unusual circumstances. The year is 1936, and given that one of the characters is the Undersecretary of War you can expect some background happenings and undertones towards the outbreak of the Second World War.

As I alluded to previously, there are some strong similarities to not only Rebecca, but quite a lot of du Maurier’s body of work, especially in the atmosphere that Thompson has created. The similarities to Rebecca are no mistake in my opinion, it feels quite deliberate. Both books are set in large country homes and follow female protagonists trying to both fill the void and find out what happened to their predecessor who died in mysterious, unspoken circumstances. I also feel that there are echoes of Jane Eyre – which did inspire du Maurier – with the presence of The Mad Woman in the Attic. The more I sit here trying to compare, the more comparables I’m finding and frankly I love it.

Anyone who has followed my blog knows how I love du Maurier, and how I usually loathe anything that has the tagline of “echoes of du Maurier” but because this book didn’t come with that caveat I went in to it open minded and came out the other side pleasantly surprised. My only note to anyone thinking of picking this up is do it in the Autumn or Winter on a cold night under a blanket, because I think my enjoyment of it was impacted by it being 33°C outside and it sort of reduced the atmosphere of it for me!

I have a couple more Alice Thompson books left to read and I really, really cannot wait to finally get around to them.

Review: How To Be a Kosovan Bride – Naomi Hamill

043 - How To Be a Kosovan Bride

043 - How To Be a Kosovan Bride

Rating – 4*

Salt have gone and done it again. They have published a book that I find it difficult to find words for. How To Be a Kosovan Bride is an incredible feat on the authors part, and it was a compelling book to read. I wasn’t able to put it down and read it in around 2 and a half hours.

The book follows the parallel lives of two women – one is known as the Kosovan Wife, the other is known as the Returned Girl. We start the book on both of their wedding days, the Kosovan Wife ‘passing’ the virginity test, the Returned Girl not. As is hinted in her name, the Returned Girl is returned to her family and forges herself an academic life, going to university and studying English whereas the Kosovan Wife remains just that, a wife and a mother. Essentially the two women throughout the book have identities only relating to their marriage, or lack thereof. Poignantly the two women of the novel end up at a wedding as guests at the end, both observing the other and feeling longing for the life they see the other leading. The Returned Girl longing for the domesticity, and The Kosovan Wife longing for the freedom. For me as a reader who had become very invested in these characters, this was a stand out moment as for the first time the two women are named; signalling that they have both made a choice to forge their own paths and identities, and not have their identity thrust upon them due to their marriages.

Interwoven throughout is what links these two women – their writing. The Kosovan Bride is writing down a fairy tale she remembers her own grandfather telling her about The Maiden in the Box, and the Returned Girl is writing about the history of her country. These snippets of fairy tale and also brutal Kosovan history of the war are interspersed among the girls “How to…” sections, which is every other chapter. And it was so expertly done.

I was swept away in this book, I was rooting for both the women, I wanted them to find their own paths and happiness. I also found the insight in to a history I know nothing about – quite shamefully – really interesting. Hamill has clearly done her research, and from what I’ve read about her this was inspired by humanitarian work she does in Kosovo and in reading this book you can tell how much love she has for the country.

Overall I loved this book, and I loved the experience of reading it. Salt as a publisher never fail to disappoint me!

Review: The Scent of Cinnamon – Charles Lambert

039 - The Scent of Cinnamon

041 - The Scent of Cinnamon

Rating – 3*

Firstly, it’s been a while since I wrote a review, so I’m more than a little rusty. Secondly, welcome to the first review in a series I’m going to be calling my Summer of Salt.

The Scent of Cinnamon is a short story collection published by Salt and is full to the brim with stories which completely boggled my mind. As with all short story collection there were some which I didn’t enjoy as much as others, but the collection as a whole is full of mysteries and things which made me think.

The titular story is one which on the surface didn’t seem all that deep, in fact it came across as a little meek and mild but come the end I was really engaged, I loved the direction it went in and genuinely didn’t see the end coming. This was a recurring theme with the whole collection – each story took it’s own path away from what I had cooked up in my head and I don’t think there was even one story in here which was predictable.

The collection spans time and genre, the only thing which really linked each of the stories together being the general writing style and I actually really enjoyed that. I enjoy a themed collection as much as the next person but sometimes it’s nice to have stories which really stand on their own.

My only criticism is that a lot of the stories end very abruptly, and as someone who likes all loose ends gathered up and neatly put in a bow that was really frustrating. I also found several of the stories haven’t really stuck with me, which isn’t great.

Overall this was a pretty solid collection, and if you enjoy very varied collections I’d definitely suggest this. There, I think, is something for everyone – maybe more for some than others. For me it was very middle of the road overall, but it was definitely worth a read!

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!