Review: Romola – George Eliot

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Rating – 3*

Anyone who reads my reviews regularly will know I adore George Eliot. This book, however, was a bit of a miss for me unfortunately.

Romola takes place in late 15th century Italy; Florence mainly. While Romola is the titular character of this book, as I have come to expect with Eliot’s work this book is much more of an ensemble piece and there’s so much more to it. Tito is, for me, definitely the main character – and an interesting, deep character he is! This book is an exploration of his character, how he descends in to morally ambiguous behaviour; Tito is truly one of the most well explored ‘villains’ in literature. Even though he was the bad guy, following his journey through this book to see him get to that point was complex, and on the whole enjoyable. I’m glad I read this book if only to ‘meet’ Tito.

On the other side of the coin we have Romola. Romola herself was disappointing for me, compared to Tito – who was portrayed in Technicolor –  she was very grey-scale.  I found myself getting frustrated; with characters like Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss I knew that she was capable of creating a female protagonist who fights against societal norms. I thought, at points, we would see Romola rebel, but we didn’t. Instead she submits to Tito, endures his abhorrent behaviour. She feels like a caricature of Victorian virtue – and that frustrated me to no end. She didn’t feel fully formed, she felt very halfhearted and where there was a deep study of Tito, I don’t feel as a reader I ever got any insight in to Romola.

The scope of this novel is amazing, and the research that she must have put in to it is incredible. Italy came alive, and when reading this I did feel like it was a sunny afternoon on the continent. I felt like I was in 15th century Italy. And while this had all of the key things I adore about Eliot’s work; beautiful prose, locations that come alive, (on the whole) interesting characters, I felt a lot of it was lost on me. While I admire the amount of research that went in to this book, it often lost me or frustrated me. I can understand why she is thought to have said this was her best book, her favourite book – because it is incredible – but to enjoy it fully I think you have to be a 15th century scholar.

George Eliot is still my favourite 19th century female author. The woman can do no wrong in my eyes. However, this is definitely not a place to start with Victorian literature, George Eliot, or classics in general. It’s definitely a book which required patience, and a dedication that only someone who loves either the Victorian novel generally, or George Eliot more specifically, can get a modicum of enjoyment out of. That and maybe 15th century scholars.

So, yes, I liked this book. Not my favourite Eliot by far, but one I may revisit in the future!

Review: In Order to Live – Yeonmi Park

018 - In Order to LiveThis review is going to be short. I don’t think I can be coherent about this book in the slightest, and I definitely don’t have enough words in my vocabulary to express everything I felt while reading this book.

The subtitle of this book – A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom – sums it up.

Yeonmi is my age. 8 weeks older than me in fact. And her life, it’s not something I could even imagine. I’m by no means sheltered, I’m aware of the atrocities in this world, but the extremes that this woman has been through in her short life are just beyond my comprehension. My knowledge of North Korea is very limited, as is most peoples knowledge to be honest, but this insight has definitely made me want to research it further.

There aren’t really any words, as I said. This book had me in tears. It’s by no means an easy read, but it’s probably one that has changed my life in a way. I honestly believe this is a book that needs to be on the school curriculum. It’s not a difficult read in the literary sense, but the material in it is often quite difficult to comprehend and process.

I chose not to rate this book. Not because I was undecided, because it’s an incredible book. But to me, this book isn’t about stars/ratings – it’s about something so much bigger than that, and to rate it would be to trivialise what this book represents.

Read it. Listen to it. Tell other people to do the same. This is such an important book, and I can’t believe all what Yeonmi has been through in the same length of time on Earth as me. She’s an incredible young woman and one more people should know the name of.

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – J K Rowling

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Rating – 4*

When I saw they were re-releasing this, I knew I had to have it. When I found out that Eddie Redmayne was narrating the audiobook, I pre-ordered it (and also purchased the kindle edition because the cover on it was much nicer than the British hardback).

It’s always lovely to dip back in to the Potterverse, I love all of it. And Fantastic Beasts has stolen my heart. This didn’t disappoint me, it was exactly what I was hoping it to be. This book is just great fun – and the audiobook even more so.

The audiobook is just under 2 hours, and it’s fantastic. It’s a encyclopaedia of beasts found in the magical world, and is a textbook referred to in the Potter series. Obviously in this you read about beasts familiar to us from Potter, and general folklore, but also this covers off so many more – not just those explored in the Potter series, or indeed Fantastic Beasts (although, given it’s a series I’m really hoping they include some more of these in the future!) I really just loved how this ties in muggle stories, and has footnotes from Newt and gah, I just really loved this okay?! I know it’s not much more than a fictional encyclopaedia but it really was good fun – and Eddie Redmayne reading it just made it even more so!

Something which surprised me in this, and I found very nerdily exciting, is the introduction. In the introduction there is information on policy and politics behind the classification system of magical beasts which is used in the book (and wizarding world in general!) and for me that was really interesting. I love looking in to the wizarding world from that perspective and getting that insight in to the workings of the Ministry of Magic (and MACUSA).

This is definitely a book for a Potterhead, and I think it’s a fantastic companion to the movie – especially as they’ve revised it to tie in. Also, it’s worth noting that all proceeds from the book (physical, eBook and audio) are going to Comic Relief or Lumos, the charity JK Rowling set up herself. The original edition was written specifically for Comic Relief, and it’s really nice to see that even after all this time the proceeds are still going to a good cause. So if you were in doubt, it’s for charity, and that should sway you!

Review: Junk DNA – Nessa Carey

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Rating – 3*

I was missing science – having finished lectures nearly a year ago now I was hankering to get back in the saddle, so to speak. Genetics is something I didn’t study in depth during the course of my degree (I favoured more protein based science which did require basic knowledge of genetics but nothing which really complex) but it is something that I have always loved learning about. I previously read Nessa Carey’s Epigentics Revolution way back in 2012 before I even started my degree and when I saw she had another book out I had to get in there because I remember loving the way she explained things and learning a lot from what I was reading.

This book explains things well too. She uses analogies (which I am very appreciative of) and it makes the book much more approachable for the keen ‘amateur’ scientist – someone who has a GCSE in the subject and a keen interest. For me, it was a great refresher on some of the basics and a more focused look on the complexities and I really enjoyed it.

Ultimately, Junk DNA is nothing of the sort – about 98% of human DNA doesn’t code for proteins, and is therefore considered ‘not-necessary’, or junk. However, as research has progressed it’s become pretty clear that the non-coding, or junk, regions of DNA are actually crucial to the healthy function of cells. Alterations in these non-coding regions result in significant disabilities and can prove fatal.

There is a link back to her previous book on epigenetics also. Epigenetics is the modification of DNA which does not change the sequence of the genetic code – this is most commonly done by adding groups on to that well known structure of a double helix without changing any of the functionality of the DNA. In this book Carey links the importance of ‘junk’ DNA and epigenetics in linking the malfunctions and human diseases.

As someone who has a background in science, I enjoyed this but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. I think having really enjoyed her first book I had high hopes for this one, and while I did learn from it I found bits of it quite difficult to get through and, as such, it took me a month to read this end to end. Which, I do realise isn’t bad by any standards but it didn’t have me as gripped as Epigenetics Revolution did in the past.

If you have an interest in genetics, this is definitely worth considering as a book to pick up! If you don’t, then I’d advise you avoid this book.

Review: Moss Witch and Other Stories – Sara Maitland

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Rating – 3*

The premise of this short story collection is so, so up my alley. It’s honestly an incredible idea; it fuses fiction and science in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever found in another book. It’s a collection of short stories, each based around scientific fact and discovery – and each story has an afterword by a renowned academic in the field of science that the story focuses on. When I read the synopsis I knew I just had to have this book, I needed this book, and while it fell a little short of my high expectations I really did enjoy it.

As with most short story collections, this is very hit and miss. What surprised me most is the different narrative structures of each story. Some are very conversational such as The Geological History of Feminism which is a story of a young girl who goes to stay with her Aunt and gets an education on both geology and feminism (and has an absolutely fantastic title if I do say so myself). Another – How the Humans Learned to Speak – is very reminiscent of fables, and stories such as those written by Rudyard Kipling and explains in a very fun, if not simplistic way, how speech evolved in early hominids (pre-homo sapiens). The stories vary from the very realistic to full on not realistic; some are completely original whereas others are twists on myth and legend. It’s such a vast array of stories, and they all stand out completely independent of each other.

However, as much as I loved the structure and the science, sometimes it was a bit textbooky in the middle of a story and that ruined it a bit for me. The afterwords were great and such a novel idea, but when there’s quite a bit of wordy science in the middle of the story (even as a scientist) I found it a bit off-putting. Sometimes, the science seemed shoe-horned in and it was a bit difficult to get through – wading through treacle is a good analogy for some passages.

On the whole I did love this book. I loved the idea. I loved the structure. I loved that the stories were all so different from each other yet had that connecting theme of science. I generally loved how the science was incorporated in to the stories. But I only liked it overall – which is why it’s a 3* read.

I’d encourage anyone who is curious to pick this up. I do realise it’s probably not a book for everyone, but it’s something different and sometimes we need that in our reading lives!

Review: The Witchfinders Sister – Beth Underdown

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Rating – 4*

A little known fact about my reading tastes is that I love anything to do with Witch Trials. Naturally, when I saw this available on Audible I had to invest; not only was the narration good, but the story had me hooked in that 5 minutes I listened to. I don’t often read new releases impulsively, I can count on one hand the times I’ve picked a new release up without knowing anything about it. This was published on the 2nd of March – I picked it up on the 6th and threw myself at it like a thing possessed!

The Witchfinders Sister follows a young, recently widowed woman called Alice who has decided to return to her brother following her husbands death. Her brother, Matthew, is based on a historical figure who was a documented witchfinder in the 17th century. The plot of the story is loosely based around true events, all stemming from the life of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Seeing history through his sisters eyes, I feel, was a frankly genius way to look at it. Alice adds a layer of emotion, gives a personal connection to the situation around her, and throughout the book we flick back in time through her eyes as she tries to understand what made her brother the way he is – and it’s amazing.

I found this book absolutely engrossing. There were parts which were a bit slower than others but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The atmosphere in this book was fantastic, and the mystery and intrigue kept me guessing what was happening until the last page – which was very satisfying!

This is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I can’t wait for her future books because this was a very, very good debut and one. I loved the mix of historical fiction and, almost-but-not-quite, psychological thriller. I hope this isn’t the last of her, because frankly I want to see what else she can do.

Review: Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

After Bleak House I decided I couldn’t wait any longer for another Dickens and this is the one which caught my eye. Dombey and Son was one of the first Penguin English Library editions I bought because look at it, it’s gorgeous and I’m a glutton for a pretty book. Sadly, after Bleak House, this fell a little flat for me.

It is over 1000 pages. This isn’t an issue normally, but the problem is that for me personally it could have been done in half that number. Initially I loved it, I got through the first couple of hundred pages in a few days and I was really enjoying it but then it just became more of a chore than anything. I kept going, because Dickens is like that and I was hoping so hard it would get better, but for me it didn’t. While the final chapter was somewhat redeeming, it wasn’t so mindblowing that it made this book better for me.

My main issue is that I didn’t feel much connection to the characters, which did make the story a little harder to invest myself in. Compared to Bleak House this just didn’t meet the mark on the plot or character front. Florence, while a wonderful protagonist, was too insipid and sickly sweet for my liking; Mr Dombey I just couldn’t get a handle on and struggled to understand. The background characters didn’t come to life quite like they have in a number of Dickens’ other books that I have read – even London wasn’t as vibrant in this book.

On the whole this was okay. Not the best Dickens book I have read, but by no means is it the worst (for it’ll be hard for any of Dickens’ books to be as ghastly as A Tale of Two Cities, and should one of his books surpass that feat it’ll be pretty awful indeed). I would say of his long books, this is my least favourite so far – Bleak House is by far a better place to go, or even The Old Curiosity Shop if you’re interested in picking up a monster of a book!

This time, however, I am not going to be put off from reading more. A Tale of Two Cities put me off Dickens for about 18 months and I’m not going to let this one get me down! If you have any recommendations of where to go next – I’m thinking Little Dorrit or David Copperfield maybe – let me know. I’d love to have input from people who have read more Dickens than me!

Review: The Other World, It Whispers – Stephanie Victoire

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Rating 3*

I picked this book up for a number of reasons. One, it’s published by Salt – who are amazing and one of my favourite publishers (also, local and when you order direct from their website you get wonderful little postcards, never fails to cheer me up!) – I’ve yet to read a book published by them that I didn’t like – be that poetry, short stories or a novel. Second, just look at that cover – it’s gorgeous and the quote is from Kirsty Logan. Third, the blurb on the back really appealed to me. Fairy tales and folklore, spirits and witches. Definitely up my alley.

However, for me, as a whole the collection felt a little underbaked.

Now, there were a few stand-outs for me; it was just that a few stories felt a little underdeveloped. I  think this would have been incredible had some of those underdeveloped stories been a little longer, just to give them a chance to grow! This book was a mass of incredible ideas and I wasn’t wrong, it was completely up my alley, it just needed something more.

A story I adored was Layla and the Axe – for me it felt like one of the more complete of the collection which is a little odd as it’s one that ends on quite an open note leaving the reader to make a decision of what ultimately happens. It had tones of Hansel and Gretel, and Little Red Riding Hood – mainly because there’s a forest and a house in it. But it’s much darker than even they are and I really loved it.

I also felt that she dealt with gender and sexuality well in a fairytale context. In Shanty our protagonist is a girl born into a boys body, and finds comfort in mermaids, and longs and wishes to be a mermaid, to have that freedom and liberation – that story alone contained some incredible prose which I read over and over. There is also the final story of the collection which is Morgana’s Shadow which deals with a young girl who is caught kissing another girl in a forest. “It was a kiss to seal a deal”, she explains, that deal being that in exchange for a kiss she acquires the power of shapeshifting. It was essentially a story which was one long metaphor which – in conjunction with Shanty – sort of puts in to words the emotional and physical struggles of breaking free and coming to terms with gender identity and sexuality.

I’ve read that the author is currently at work on a novel and, honestly, if it is anything like some of the stories in this collection I can’t wait to read it because I’m sure, with more pages and some heavy editing, this woman is capable of something incredible. I wanted more from this, and I’m certain a novel by her will give me that.

If you love short stories, love something a little bit on the odd-side. Something magical and captivating, I think this is definitely worth giving a go.

Review: The Dead Queen of Bohemia – Jenni Fagan

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Rating – 3*

I find it very difficult to review poetry collections – mainly because it’s not something I read regularly, or feel I have many things to say on. So this review is likely to be brief as I don’t really know what to say. Now that disclaimer is out of the way, I will go on to talk about this collection briefly.

I haven’t read any of Jenni Fagan’s fiction – although I have both The Sunlight Pilgrims and The Panopticon on my shelves and I have heard rave reviews about both. However, as someone who likes to break the mould a little, I thought I would start with her poetry. This book contains her new poetry as well as her two older collections which are both now out of print.

For me, this was very hit and miss. I found a lot of it repetitive – teenage angst and drug taking can only be told in so many ways. However, some of the poems – particularly those which focus on depression – really hit a spot with me and came in to my life at exactly the right moment. Two which stand out in this category of came-in-to-my-life-at-the-right-moment are Instruction Manual for Suicidal Girls (Boys, Trolls & Troglodytes) and Hitching a Ride. Those two were ones I found myself re-reading, flicking back to, and comparing other poems in the collection to – none made it to the same level as those two for me.

On the whole, this was good. It isn’t my favourite poetry collection, but there were some shining moments for me. I can’t wait to read her prose, that much is certain!

instruction manual for suicidal girls (boys, trolls & troglodytes)

Review: In the Labyrinth of Drakes – Marie Brennan

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Rating – 4*

In the Labyrinth of Drakes is the fourth book in Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series. I love this series, I really do, so far none of them have let me down – this one is no exception. I’ve been putting off picking this book up as the fifth and final book has not yet been released, and I didn’t want the wait to be too long between this book and the next one. As it stands, the next book is due out in April – but when the audiobook will be released is anyone’s guess. I absolutely love the audiobooks for this series, they’re read superbly and I would really highly recommend them to anyone who is after something engaging and easy to listen to!

This book, much like the previous books, follows Isabella on her quest to understand more about dragons. The focus of her academic study in this book is breeding dragons in captivity, but as can be expected that’s not the only element of this story; the whole arc of this series is becoming something I cannot wait to see resolved in the final instalment.

In this book we also have the return of some characters from previous books, and the introduction of some new ones. I really love this series because Isabella’s best friend is a man, Tom. It is so refreshing to read a book where there are two people of opposite genders who are just friends. Especially when there is some romance in this book, it’s a breath of fresh air that that part of the book doesn’t go down the trope of a love triangle. I will forever love the fact that Isabella and Tom are able to remain friends, they completely ignore the rumours that go around, the inevitable scandals their friendship causes. Honestly, it’s one of the most genuine friendships between characters of opposite genders I’ve found in a book!

But, on the subject of romance, if you liked the undertones in Voyage of the Basilisk then the developments in In the Labyrinth of Drakes will make you very happy. I won’t say too much, to avoid spoiling it, but needless to say I am very happy with how it all came together.

My only disappointment with this book is how it ended. Abruptly. I was ready to keep going, they had this massive discovery and then it just ends. I know it was building up to the fifth book, and I really hope that the finale to this series doesn’t disappoint because, how this one ended, just aggravated me.

Needless to say, I will be picking up the final book in this series – and I may even forgo the audiobook to read it sooner!