Review: Circe – Madeline Miller

049 - Circe

049 - Circe

Rating – 3*

Having seen high praise for Circe prior to publication, and also the adoration for Madeline Miller’s first novel this is one of the easiest new releases I’ve purchased this year. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve not read The Song of Achilles, but it is a book that has intrigued me for a long time.

Circe is – I thought – a book about Circe. Circe, daughter of Helios, witch of Aiaia, famed for her part in the Odyssey and I was hoping this book would would be a history of her through her own voice. Yet at times I felt that she was a secondary character in her own story. The only time I felt she wasn’t was around the last third of the book which I ended up really enjoying but I didn’t find it, on the whole, anywhere near as compelling as I expected.

From what I know of Greek mythology this book is well researched, and that appears to be the general consensus on the internet. That’s not something I can fault. I can’t even fault the readability because it is very well written, it’s accessible and I think it may even spark a love of Greek mythology in readers who would otherwise have not discovered it. But, and I hate to say this, it’s dull. I found only a handful of moments in this book actually gripped me and I think Circe as a character deserved so much more than the lot she was given in this, and yet it’s meant to be a book about her.

The one redeeming feature, the bits I absolutely loved, was when Circe meets Penelope and what unfolds on Aiaia after this point. I could have read an entire book about these two women who had pivotal roles in Odysseus’ life and yet even parts of their tentative friendship were marred by Odysseus himself, even though he was not in the picture.

Ultimately this is a coming of age story, and maybe that’s why it just didn’t resonate with me. I’m not the biggest fan of a coming of age story, but if you are this might be a really good way to bridge the gap between your typical coming of age story, and something with historical and mythological context. It was good enough, and parts of it were good I can’t deny that but it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it wasn’t what the hype built it up to be. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I wouldn’t recommend it, I would just say go in to it with this blinkered view and be open minded about what you’re going to get.

A lot of people are saying this is one of the best books of 2018 or “the best book ever” and, if I’m honest, I’m going to have to disagree. It was average, and had this not had Madeline Miller’s name on the front, had it not have been so hyped, had it have had different characters but the same plot, I don’t think it would be lauding praise right now.

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: Wrecker – Noel O’Reilly

042 - Wrecker

042 - Wrecker

Rating – 3*

I picked this book up based on the cover and a recommendation from a wonderful bookseller – she knows my love of du Maurier and thought it would be impolite not to mention a book which has “echoes of Daphne du Maurier” on the front cover as a review quote. And I get the “echoes” I really do, but it’s just hard for me not to judge a book harshly when it’s promising something so big.

Wrecker is an interesting read – it focuses around a woman called Mary Blight who lives in a rural coastal village in Cornwall. Part of the day to day life of the villagers is shipwrecks, and we start with Mary going down to the beach to see what she can scavenge from the wreck. This time she discovers a lot more than she bargained for, and that’s really where our story starts.

Mary for me was a very bizarre character who I couldn’t fully understand or relate to – which makes it a bit more difficult in a first person narrative. On paper she’s my dream character in a historical novel; she’s independent, does what she wants and for herself only, she’s strong and unapologetic in her ways yet I didn’t connect to her because I didn’t understand her motivation. She seemed quite a conflicted character to read, and this uncertainty in her characterisation made it really difficult for me to enjoy the book to it’s full.

As for the plot, there didn’t really seem to be much of it. It was more of a meandering piece with a lot of nothing much happening. I suppose one of the main focuses is religion, and there was a lot more religion than I was expecting. That conflict between the traditional – pagan – beliefs of this small community and the Methodist faith that is thrust upon them by a relative stranger that made up quite a lot of the plot.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more had it been something more. For me there was just something missing even though it was a very well constructed and researched book but something just kept jolting me out of the historical setting and back to reality – it wasn’t a book I found myself absorbed in.

All in all though, I think this was a really good debut – while I find the likeness to Daphne du Maurier tenuous at best (the only connection I can find seems to be Cornwall and boats?) it’s not at all a bad book and I think I would keep my eye out for Noel O’Reilly in the future

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: Forgotten Women: The Scientists – Zing Tsjeng

035 - Forgotten Women The Scientists

035 - Forgotten Women The Scientists

Rating – 4*

I am a sucker for any book which covers feminism, forgotten females in history, female scientists and contains beautiful illustration. This covers all four of those points off nicely and I absolutely loved this book.

I judge any book about female scientists through history on it’s section on Rosalind Franklin. Anyone who knows me will know just how passionate I am about the acknowledgement of that woman and her contribution to the discovery of the double helix of DNA. Naturally I read the section on her in the middle of my local Waterstones and from that moment I knew I had to have this book. I started reading it on the bus home.

As someone who has read several books and essays on this subject in the past, I had heard of a significant number of these women but I never tire of reading different takes on their lives and learning new things about them. If I were to ever put my pen to paper and write a book, I would make it one like this. A book full of inspirational, incredible, intelligent women who made a difference to the world.

Each woman has 3 to 4 pages dedicated to her story, and a beautiful illustration by one of around a dozen (female) artists. Everything about this book is beautiful; it’s just a beautiful object and is now happily sitting in and amongst other books on feminism, gender studies and women’s history like it on my shelf.

The book I would compare this to is Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky. The only difference being this is a more in depth look at a lot of the same women as Women in Science is primarily aimed at children. I’d say this is a must read for anyone out there interested in women’s history, history of science and medicine or even just short, snappy and fun biographies akin to things like Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls.