Review: Frankissstein – Jeanette Winterson

023 - Frankissstein

023 - Frankissstein

★★★★★

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Odyssey – Homer (Translated by Emily Wilson)

022 - The Odyssey

022 - The Odyssey

★★★★

I first read The Odyssey in August 2014 – so it’s been 5 years almost exactly since I last read it and, honestly, I think I enjoyed it so much more this time around. I don’t know if that’s because I listened to it as an audiobook this time around, the fact it was a different translation, or a combination of the two, but it moved it from a 3 star read to a 4/5 star read easily.

Most people are familiar with parts of The Odyssey – the stories of Circe, the Cyclops, Odysseus’ journey to the underworld – so it doesn’t seem worth rehashing over something that has been reviewed numerous times before in much better ways than I am capable of.

What I would like to discuss is the translation I read. Emily Wilson is the first female to translate The Odyssey in to English – and she didn’t just do that, she intended to keep the same rhythm as the “original” Greek verse so rewrote it in iambic pentameter. Not only that but she made it accessible. The foreword to this edition was enlightening, and discussed her translation process and choices and is actually something I’d highly recommend you read – before or after reading the main meat of the book. She points out in this section that many translations have made the book inaccessible due to their linguistic choices to give their version that “authentic” feel – something she says is absolute rubbish as the story has an oral tradition, and would have been adapted by each generation to fit in with the language of the day. If her goal was to bring The Odyssey to a new generation, I think she’s certainly going to achieve it with this translation.

Something else she’s done throughout this book is stripped away the former translators misogyny. This book is always going to be problematic in the way women are treated and represented, and while she has stayed true to the original story. Previous translations refer to the women who are enslaved to Odysseus and Penelope “sluts” or “prostitutes” – Wilson addresses them as slaves, and does seem to imply that a lot of their perceived wrongdoing against Odysseus is not entirely their fault, but a nature of their station. She explores Odysseus as a “complicated” man, which he most certainly is – and she doesn’t sugarcoat him or enhance his heroic deeds, which for me is appreciated.

She has stripped this story back to the roots, removing a lot of ingrained misogyny of translators along the way, leaving it to be told as simply and effectively as possible. I for one loved this translation.

The audiobook, read by Claire Danes, was also spectacular and something I would highly recommend. The story is, historically, orally told and hearing it rather than reading it was a very different experience and one I really enjoyed.

The Familiars – Stacey Halls

021 - The Familiars

021 - The Familiars

★★★★

I was lucky enough to win this book in a competition run by Bibliobeth way back at the start of the year, and I’m so glad I finally picked it up. For me this book had echoes of Rebecca – high praise given it’s one of my favourite books – not in the sense that it is an altered version of it, but in the characters and  the general atmosphere. Rather than being a poor-mans du Maurier, Stacey Halls takes all of that style and puts it in her own setting and it really, really worked for me.

In my opinion there are not enough books about witches – witches of the historical variety that is – and certainly not enough books about British witches. This book is based around the story of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, and is a fictional account of her life around the time of the Pendle witch trials in Lancashire. At the start of the book she is 17 and pregnant for the fourth time, but fearing for her life after her last 3 pregnancies – which ended in miscarriage and stillbirth – she chooses to hire a midwife of her choosing, Alice Grey. Alice is deeply entwined with those accused of witchcraft and over the course of the novel (and Fleetwood’s pregnancy) we unravel her story, and with it we watch Fleetwood grow. Fleetwood’s pregnancy goes on, along with the witch trials, and both reach their peak at the same time – Fleetwood going in to labour the night before the accused women take the stand.

Something I loved in this book was the friendship which developed between Fleetwood and Alice. Two women of very different upbringings and classes, yet they found this very unorthodox friendship and working relationship. The love that Fleetwood has for Alice – someone she calls her first friend of her own choosing – is special. I love a good friendship in a book, especially one which is so unlikely. The transformations in both Fleetwood and Alice over this book are something to love – Fleetwood was a bit of an airheaded socialite-wife who becomes a mature woman, a woman who fights for her child and her friend; and Fleetwood’s belief in the unassuming Alice gives her the confidence to grow. The true magic of this book is friendship – not witchcraft.

Womanhood is something that is also explored in this book – what it means to be a woman in 1612. At one point Fleetwood says that she “wouldn’t wish a girls life on anyone” and in a time when women are treated as objects, that isn’t exactly a surprise. Fleetwood, while still being a woman of the 17th century, has a (slightly) more modern monologue which enables these themes to be explored. She points out that most of the women accused of witchcraft are just poor women, using what skills they have to make their way in the world, they were mistresses to a man who wanted them to disappear, most accusations of witchcraft cam from a person of standing – and who was going to be believed in a public arena?

Having mentioned it, I can’t not go back to it  – the echoes of Rebecca. Fleetwood reminds me very much of Mrs de Winter, and her husband of  Maxim. Their relationship is very similar to the relationship between Mr and Mrs de Winter once they’re back at Manderley, a husband keeping secrets and a wife trying to unravel a mystery. We have a woman in the background who, while alive, torments Fleetwood much the same way that Rebecca did Mrs de Winter. There’s also a token Mrs Danvers like character, and even a dog who is similar to Jasper. All in all, there are a lot of similarities which I actually really loved because this was very much its own story, but I can see a lot of inspiration there and (for once) it’s done very well.

Ultimately this is a fantastic debut, and Stacey Halls is an author I will keenly await a second book from. I also think this would be a really good book-club book. For me, there was a few things lacking which is why this is a 3/4 star book opposed to a 5 star book. But make no mistake, I really enjoyed this and I would recommend it (especially alongside a read of Rebecca! Just for the parallels!)

 

Review: The Priory of the Orange Tree – Samantha Shannon

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

020 - The Priory of the Orange Tree

★★★★

After what feels like a very long reading slump I thought it’d be a great idea to pick up an 850 page epic fantasy novel to ease myself back in to reading gently, I don’t like to make things easy for myself after all. But I’m really, really glad I picked this up. Samantha Shannon is a new author to me, having not read The Bone Season, but as soon as I found out there were lady gays and dragons in this, I knew I had to read it. It took me a little while to get in to it, but my word once I was in to it I devoured it.

As far as fantasy goes, this book is very “traditional” in that there are two very different parts of a world, one where dragons are revered as gods and the other where they’re considered dangerous. These two parts of the world are separated also by geography (East and West), and their religious views. They have differing views on what happened 1000 years ago, when The Nameless One – a dragon like creature – was vanquished and with the imminent return of this creature threatening them all, is what drives this story along. All of this is explored through our four narrators: Tane, Ead, Niclays and Loth. Tane, a young girl in the East hoping to become a dragon rider; Ead, a young woman who has been appointed as a member of the household staff to Queen Sabran Berethnet but is hiding a lot of herself; Naclays, an alchemist who is spiteful and driven by a lost love; and Loth, best friend to Queen Sabran who is sent on a dangerous diplomatic mission. All of these threads interweave perfectly by the end of this though, which is much appreciated! Something unusual for me, however, is that all of these points of view were enjoyable. Each character had a unique voice which made the jumping perspectives more tolerable, and by the time all their stories intertwined I appreciated each of them individually.

Far and a way my favourite character in this book though was Sabran – for me the central character who never got her own voice. A very deliberate move on Shannon’s part. Sabran is directed in her queenly duties by those who surround her, she hasn’t left the palace since her mother died, every move she makes at the beginning is very much decided by someone else and by the end of the book she’s her own person, and a lot stronger as an individual than she was at the start. The whole story revolves around Sabran and her family’s involvement in the slaying of The Nameless One, and Sabran feels that pressure.

The relationships depicted in this book are also something special – and not just the romantic ones – the love between friends and family is something explored beautifully in here. And while there is romance, it’s not forced, it’s not over the top and it’s not in your face. It feels natural and organic, which is a rarity in fantasy! Romantic love comes in all varieties too – gay and heterosexual – and rather than being shoehorned in, it just is and I LOVED that.

Ultimately for me the start of this book let it down a bit. It was a bit slow going which is why it’s only a 4* read for me.

Review: The Gendered Brain – Gina Rippon

018 - The Gendered Brain

018 - The Gendered Brain

★★★★★

I’m not going to lie, this book was pretty much a cover buy – just look at how beautiful this cover is – but the content is just as fantastic. If I could give this book 6 stars I would, because honestly it’s one of the most comprehensive looks at the differences, and similarities in human brains on the basis of Sex (assigned at birth).

One thing I am going to applaud is how brilliantly the author distinguishes between sex and gender, and elaborates on how one is a biological entity (sex) and the other is more of a fluid thing which can differ from what biology tells us. So often books focus on the binary but Rippon doesn’t shy away from the non-binary. I will say in this review I do use male/female in reference to biological sex.

So, on to the actual content of the book. There have been a hideous amount of scientific studies to show that there are significant differences between the biology of male and female brains. However, studies have only been published if it has shown “significant” advantage to the males of our species. Primarily because studies have been carried out by men, for men, to prove women can’t do X, Y or Z. Infuriating and completely unfounded – a significant result statistically is dependent entirely on the type of analysis done, and while I won’t make myself relive the horror of my final year at university, I know that statistics can be skewed in favour of a particular result by using different analysis methods.

But these studies have impacted lives. They’ve perpetuated stereotypes and gender myths. Brains aren’t a one size fits each biological sex deal. What we’re now learning via neuroscience is that brains are more like play doh and completely shaped by the environment around us in our childhood. Children have experiences, and are surrounded by messages – gendered stereotypes – and that’s what shapes our brains. In telling a girl early on that she’s less likely to be good at science and maths it makes her less interested in it (in turn reducing their ability, completely “proving” the stereotype).

Biological sex is just one of the many variables which influence our brains; society has a far more pivotal role in influencing a brain of a child than anyone believed. Allowing a child to play with whatever toy they want, praising them and encouraging them to excel in whichever subjects they wish to lead to more varied brains – and more rounded individuals. Those encouraged to do what makes them happy are less likely to have mental health issues.

I found this book absolutely fascinating, and I think it’s going to be a book I refer to regularly and push in to hands of anyone not intimidated by such a big ole book! I listened to part of this on audio and loved that too. But anyway, I loved this book and I do imagine it’ll be a bit of a reality check for a lot of people who read it. I loved the detail, I loved how Rippon reviewed past research and also looked to the future. The future after this book is something I’m really excited to see because this, for me, is going to really open up discussion on this subject.

So yes, I absolutely loved this book. I would recommend it to anyone, seriously, even people not interested in the subject could benefit from reading this. And it’s definitely one to take slowly and appreciate, because it’s fact heavy but so important. So give it a go. If you only read one non-fiction book this year – or in your life – make it this?

Review: Spring – Ali Smith

019 - Spring

019 - Spring

★★★★★

Hello lovely readers, it’s been quite some time since my last review, and what a book to come back on. Spring by Ali Smith is quite the book, and quite the masterpiece and going to be quite the challenge to review because it is so good. I think it goes without saying, if you’ve stuck around here for a while, you know I love Ali Smith and this book is, possibly, my favourite of the Seasonal books so far.  But as with all of Ali Smith’s books it’s hard to actually explain what it is about because it’s so real. 

Before I start, I would also like to say thank you to Sarah Withers Blogs for running a competition in which I won this book – thank you lovely!

Spring follows two main strands, which cross over around half way through. As with all Smith books, this is done perfectly, and a little bit oddly (but equally, absolutely believably).  First we have Richard, a TV and film producer, who in late 2018 after the death of his best friend decides he wants to escape. Then we have Brit, who works for an immigration centre where detainees are, quite unreasonably, treated like prisoners. Finally we have the person who links these two stories – Florence, a young girl with unknown roots. All three of these characters end up at Kingussie station, which is the point at which their stories converge.

As with all of Smith’s characters they’re believable, even if on the extreme end of it. I’m feeling more now that these characters are all intrinsically interwoven in other books in this series – ever so slightly. For me, this series is becoming more and more genius and each book I enjoy more than the last because of the little nods to previous books.

This quartet, so far, has been very political – albeit sometimes more subtle than others. In this book there’s a focus on immigration, and people who are considered ‘other’. Brit works in an immigration centre, and unfortunately those places exist – people are treated like that. She’s our ‘voice on the inside’ – trying to justify what she does, making it as impersonal as possible by resorting everything to acronyms.

There was one paragraph in Spring which solidified this as a 5* book very early on for me, and even now reading it over again I’ve got goosebumps. So I’m going to leave you with this quote.

No, see, I’m not going to tell you what I voted. I’m not going to let you think you can decide something about me either way. All I’ll say is, I was younger then, and still thought politics mattered. But all this. This endless. It’s eating the, the, you know. Soul. Doesn’t matter what I voted or you voted or anyone voted. Because what’s the point, if nobody in the end is going to listen to or care about what other people think unless they think and believe the same thing as them. And you people. Asking us what we think all the time like it matters. You don’t care what we think. You just want a fight. You want us to fill your air. Tell you what it’s making us meaningless, and the people in power, doing it all for us for democracy, yeah, right, pull the other one. They’re doing it for their pay-off. They make us more meaningless every day.

Review: My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

013 - My Year of Rest and Relaxation

013 - My Year of Rest and Relaxation

So far the Wellcome Prize list has been nothing but a pile of disappointment. But there’ll be more of that in a separate post because this is a review (of sorts) of a book that I really didn’t enjoy and isn’t the time and place for that discussion.

Oh where to start with this book? The fact of the matter is I have nothing good to say about it. I didn’t finish it. The book infuriated me to no end and I only got to page 50 or so. I found it completely intolerable.

The premise is a semi-good one which did pique my interest but the execution was abysmal. The blurb says that it’s a “hilarious and strangely tender novel about a young woman’s experiment in narcotic hibernation”. There was nothing hilarious about this book. There was nothing tender about this book.  The protagonist is a self absorbed, highly strung, super rich type who swans about in her New York mansion, only working because she’s bored, and woe her life gets a little bit difficult so she decides to go to a really, really awful psychiatrist who just sends her away with a cocktail of drugs and almost advocates that she sleep for a year.

It’s truly a piss poor representation of depression – as much as most of us would love to just go to sleep for a year we just get the hell on with it because going to sleep for a year isn’t an option. It’s also a poor and irresponsible representation of medical professionals too.

It really concerns me that this was longlisted because the representation of mental health and medicine in this book is not okay. This book is really not okay. So many people have raved about it, saying it’s wonderful, but as someone who has been in a place that dark where all you want to do is hibernate (or worse) this book is so damaging. To say it’s a hilarious novel is so dangerous.

On top of all the really awful medical/health related stuff there’s the subplot of the fact it’s 2001 in New York City and her friend (who she treats awfully) works at the World Trade Centre and you know where it’s going. But that feels contrived, it feels like it’s there for the sake of being there. And call me a bit touchy but I don’t think September 11th should be used as a plot point in a book for the sake of drama when it otherwise has no reason to be there.

There was also the fact that this book had a lot of racial signposting and stereotyping which made me feel really uncomfortable. I don’t care where in the world your masseuse comes from, or your pool boy, or whatever other employee who is undoubtedly being underpaid and overworked because you’re an overprivileged 1%-er. But making a big deal about their ethnic origin, or their race, or their religion for that matter, isn’t representation it’s stereotyping and that’s not cool.

I read 15% of this book. Less than a quarter and I am this angry. My anger towards the judging for the Wellcome Prize is an entirely separate discussion but this book is not good. I truly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone unless they want to read a book and really not enjoy the experience whatsoever. Because this book is, quite frankly, utter trash.

Review: This Really Isn’t About You – Jean Hannah Edelstein

012 - This Really Isn't About You

012 - This Really Isn't About You

★★★

This was my first foray in to the Wellcome Book Prize Longlist for 2019 and, what can I say, this is an okay book.

This Really Isn’t About You is the authors experience with finding out she had a gene which increases her risk of specific types of cancer, and ultimately is the gene that killed her father. For me though there wasn’t nearly enough about this aspect of it – it was more a memoir on grief, sexual harassment and dating in a 21st century world than it was about the medicine and Lynch syndrome. That’s fine, but I was expecting a lot more from it I think.

It’s a very readable account, and the title is correct, it really isn’t about you it’s very much written by the author for the author. It reads like a therapy exercise, and while that does make it very easy to get through I did get to the end of the book and wonder what the point of it was. I would have loved a book which was more about her father – her father who was partly responsible for building the worlds first MRI scanner, a man who has had his part in the history of medicine. Her father was an incredible man and I’d have loved more about him, instead I found parts of this book to be really self absorbed.

But as I said, finishing this book I wondered what actually was the purpose of it. I don’t feel any more educated on Lynch Syndrome and, honestly, I read this book nearly a week ago and don’t feel I can recall much of it at all. I’d not have picked this up if it wasn’t for the Wellcome Prize, and honestly unless you’re really in to memoirs I’d not recommend it to anyone either.

Review: And the Wind Sees All – Guðmundur Andri Thorsson

011 - And the Wind Sees All

011 - And the Wind Sees All

★★★★

One of my many mini-challenges to myself in 2019 is to read more translated fiction, and a good place to start with any translated fiction is publishers which specialise in it. As I always seem to go for the same few publishers for translated fiction I decided to do a bit of research and branch out this time around which is how I discovered Peirene. I had previously heard of them, but just never picked anything up from them (so they disappeared from my memory, bad Ashleigh.) Anyway, I decided to go over to their website to see what they had on offer and was happy to find a number of books from countries I’ve never read before. Including this little gem from Iceland.

The blurb says that this book all takes place in 2 minutes, and that is sort of the case. What I thought it was and what it became were very different things in that I thought it was from one persons perspective, but it wasn’t. The book is a series of vignettes, from a series of individuals who all have one thing in common – the village in which they live. The main thread of the book is that the narrative takes place over a two minute bike journey which Kata – the choir conductor – takes through the village to the concert that evening. Each vignette from there is a snapshot in to the life of different villagers – some she encounters herself, others who observe her from their homes – sometimes we’re in the present but often we’re in the past.

With chapter exploring a different person it becomes more interesting the further in to it you get. I love seeing how characters from one persons past fit in to another past, or hearing a story from the other side of the fence. It really does bring the village alive, everyone is involved in everyone elses lives in one way or another. People have secrets, people have pasts, some people left the village and inevitably find themselves coming back, others have come to the village with no previous ties to it to escape from the city.

The writing in this book, and therefore also the translation, were beautiful. Parts of this were so, so poetic. I loved the more atmospheric descriptions of the landscape and whatnot, I’m a sucker for beautifully described nature and this was spot on for me. If this is the quality of all books published by Peirene I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on my next one from them (and bonus, some of the eBooks are 99p on the Kindle store at the moment, which cannot be snuffed at).

Review: Her Body and Other Parties – Carmen Maria Machado

005 - her body and other parties

005 - her body and other parties

★★★★

Something I want to do in 2019 is get back in to Short Story Collections. I love a short story collection and they were woefully absent from my reading last year. So when I tasked my sister to pick a few books for me and she picked this up I was very excited. Not only because yes, the cover is that green, but because the content sounded right up my street.

The stories in this collection are fantastic. They’re fabulist, magical, feminist and queer. There’s not a lot to dislike if I’m honest. There was one story that didn’t really engage me, and it seems to be a common theme among readers of this collection, and it’s the one which is an episode-by-episode account of Law and Order. As someone who isn’t a Law and Order fan that was a miss for me. But the rest of this collection? Amazing.

There are so many unreliable, but interesting narrators in here with stories which just err on the side of the fantastic but are grounded in reality. We have a woman who is documenting her survival in a devastating epidemic by her sexual encounters, in another story we join a woman who works in a clothes shop in a world where women are fading out of existence. There’s one story, Mothers, which is so out there it’s hard to follow and very open to interpretation; it’s the best example in the whole collection of the unreliable narrator in that our protagonist is handed a baby by her female ex-lover and it’s hard to follow what’s real and what isn’t after that event.

All of the stories in this collection are raw, gritty and at times difficult to read. But it’s fantastic and genuinely one of the most well put together collections I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me why I love short stories so much. It was the perfect blend of reality and magical, it’s feminist, it’s queer, it’s sexy. It’s a lot of things. I wouldn’t say this is the easiest collection to read, not when there’s elements of abuse and sexual violence interspersed throughout but it’s definitely a great book and one I’d recommend to people in the future.