Review: The Parentations – Kate Mayfield

056 - The Parentations

056 - The Parentations

Rating – 5*

I picked this book up on an absolute whim on Audible. I had no idea what it was about, but from what little I heard in a preview and a quick check on goodreads I thought it’d be a book I enjoyed. I wasn’t wrong, I just wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love this book. I can categorically say now this will be one of my favourite books of the year – I’ve given a lot of 5* ratings this year, but none have come as easily as this one did.

Finding words for how much I loved this book is hard, in fact I’ve been musing over them for 3 days now as I write this. This book was an experience I wasn’t expecting, I haven’t been as pulled in by a book in a long, long time – to the point I read this book in 2 sittings, something I haven’t done with a nearly 500 page book in a very long time!

The story in this book is intriguing – it bounces around between London and Iceland, starting in the 1700s and following the same characters right the way through to present day. That alone intrigued me, as it should anyone, because it follows the same characters over 250 years or so, why wouldn’t that be interesting? The story is about a young man called Rafe – who we follow from the time his mother found out she was expecting him – and why he’s just so special. We never really follow him from his own perspective, instead we follow the life of his mother Elizabet, his aunt Clovis, and his god mothers Constance and Verity Fitzgerald. We move Iceland to London, our characters living in near exile, in grand houses and in prison at different points of the book – and while it spans 250 years or so, it moves at a hell of a pace when you get through the first few chapters of character building.

The women of this book are all unique – especially Clovis who is some Dickensian level of machiavellian; she’s a character who is absolutely abhorrent and for that, while I didn’t like her, I loved her. It’s very rare in literature to come across a woman who is so conniving and, let’s face it, a complete psychopath of the Criminal Minds variety and it was a breath of (very evil) fresh air. As for Constance and Verity, I want them to be my godmothers, I adored them both, they were the complete antithesis of Clovis and I can’t explain quite how much I was rooting for them! While Elizabet is Rafe’s mother, she plays more of a background part throughout.

There are other characters who are well rounded too. All the men in this book portray very different type of man to ones I’ve seen in novels before. It sounds crazy to say this, but I genuinely don’t feel like I’ve read these characters before, in any way, shape or form. Clovis’ husband, Finn, is not all he appears to be – and definitely does not wear the trousers in his relationship, shall we say. And their household staff are interesting too – dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, and very, very low level mentions of sexual abuse. Not one character is a stereotype, they’re all so multifaceted and layered, and even after nearly 500 pages I still felt like there was more to learn about them.

While the book is very character driven, the plot is also incredible.  It constantly kept turning in a way I wasn’t expecting, and before I knew it I’d read 250 pages and it was 1AM. How everything and everyone comes together, I adored. There are no other words for it. There is so much going on, and it’s so well put across, I just can’t believe it was over so quickly. It was one of those books I didn’t want to stop reading, but equally I didn’t want it to end. Finding that balance is tough!

I’d urge anyone even remotely interested in any form of historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or just good books containing amazing characters, to pick this up. I’m so sad it’s over, and I don’t often say this but I can’t wait to read it again.

Review: The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock – Imogen Hermes Gowar

 

050 - The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

050 - The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

Rating – 5*

I heard so, so much about this book in the run up to it’s publication this year, and yet I didn’t buy it because I wasn’t sure it was “for me”. I finally relented, purchasing a copy of this in my favourite independent bookshop and oh my word, I am so, so glad I gave in to the hype and read this because this book is, frankly, a work of genius.

I was absolutely hooked on this book. There’s no other way to say it. From the moment I picked it up I didn’t want to put it down and I’m so glad I had 3 days off mid-week to read this in a relatively short space of time without much interruption (aside from doctors appointments and trips to the shop to get food).

The story itself is very immersive due to the nature of the writing style. While the book is set in the 18th Century, and is written in a very complimentary manner to that, it’s not difficult to follow like a “true” classic can often be but it has a lot of the same atmosphere and feel to it. I found myself finding similarities to other books I love, written in recent years but set in a similar portion of history, and I realised that I am a sucker for good historical fiction.

One thing I absolutely loved about this book though is that it’s actually quite dark. I was expecting something a little more lighthearted, and while there were certainly those moments, this was a lot more twisty than I had imagined. Parts of the book are in fact quite oppressive or claustrophobic but it just adds to the strangeness and the charm of it.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. The author is one I’m going to be keeping an eye out for in the future because wowza, I think we’ve got a lot of good things to come from her! Also, the simple fact she’s a UEA Alumni makes me want to support every endeavour she undertakes!

This book is simply wonderful, and I imagine it would make a beautiful Autumn weekend read! I’m always quite late to a bandwagon, but sometimes that’s a very good thing.

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: 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: 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: 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 Passion – Jeanette Winterson

056 - The Passion

Rating – 3*

Jeanette Winterson is a genius when it comes to writing, it makes me sad that I only discovered her this year. I am very quickly finding she’s becoming one of my favourite authors, I just don’t know how I didn’t get to her sooner. This book surprised me in a very good way, and I don’t really know how to explain it, but I’ll try.

The Passion follows two protagonists, Henri and Villanelle at the time of the Napoleonic war. When going in to this I didn’t expect it to be a historical story, but it works. It works fantastically. Henri is a French soldier, hand picked by Napoleon to serve his dinner, and considers himself in love with him. Villanelle is a young Venetian girl who is wild and expressive, she goes to casinos and attracts trouble wherever she goes. On the surface, you can’t imagine the two lives of these people intersecting but they do, and how they do is incredible. Their stories are full of love and loathing, revenge and murder, and although there are no happy endings, there are some understandable, satisfying conclusions.

While Henri’s narrative is the one I enjoyed more of the two, I found his voice a lot more easy to follow, and his story a lot more chronological, Villanelle is a very interesting character who I couldn’t help but be entranced by. She inherited webbed feet, a characteristic usually found in boatmen’s sons, she cross-dresses and explores the city. She’s a free spirit and I loved reading the bits of this story from her perspective. I’d easily have read a 500 page novel about Villanelle.

I think with Winterson’s books they’re all going to be those I return to for comfort. I can definitely see myself curling up with this book again in the future, reading cover to cover, and finding so much more and appreciating it all the more. As it stands I gave this book 3*, because I wanted more from it, but over time I think it could definitely worm its way in to my heart and be boosted

Review: The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

055 - The Bear and the Nightingale

Rating – 4*

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book that I have been seeing everywhere since it came out earlier this year but I kept ignoring it. Every time I saw it I was drawn in by the cover but, for some reason, I just didn’t pick it up – and having read it now I think maybe subconsciously I was waiting for the right time to read it. This, my readers, is the perfect Winter book to curl up under a blanket with and that is just what I did. I curled up and read it in one sitting and I cannot tell you how good it felt to do that with a book after so long!

I’m not familiar with Russian fairy tales and folklore but, honestly, you don’t need to be to enjoy this. In the first chapter the fairy tale this is based on is recounted to the children by their nanny. It’s the story of the frost demon – Morozko – who is the Russian equivalent of Jack Frost.

“In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night.”

As a reader we’re following the life of Vasya. Vasya is everything I could dream of in a fairy tale retelling, she’s strong willed and wild, she doesn’t conform to societal norms of the culture she lives in – which in Medieval Russia is very misogynistic and not at all easy. Vasya, at least to me, was very much like Merida in Pixar’s Brave and that’s how I was picturing her.

Vasya is different, and when her mother was pregnant with her she could tell this. She knew that Vasya was to have a gift much like her Grandmothers – she can see the spirit guardians around her home, and those in the wild around her. To most these spirits are fairy stories, but everyone still adheres to the old ways – honouring those spirits, leaving food out for them and such, and while that still happens all is well. But then the old ways fall by the wayside leading to devastation in the community. Vasya doesn’t give up though, she continues adhering to the old ways, honouring the spirits – but being strong willed and defiant in a culture like that only leads to bad things for young women!

That’s nothing more than a very short summary – this story is so much more than that and is full of adventure and familial love – something I think so many books are lacking! Reading the blurb, this book really sounded like another YA trope jumping in the fairy tale retelling bandwagon. While it probably could be considered YA, I feel it had a lot more context and a lot fewer tropes than your standard YA book.

What makes me very happy is that there is to be another book in this world, and based on what Katherine Arden has said on Goodreads that the second is to focus on Vasya and her siblings Olga and Sasha who are two characters I really wanted to learn more about.

If anyone has looked at this book and put it back down, I’d say give it a chance because it is genuinely one of the cosiest books I’ve read recently, and I would definitely say this is a Christmas-y read. I for one loved it and was taken very much by surprise!

 

Review: Salt Houses – Hala Alyan

033 - Salt Houses

Raiting – 4*

I was fortunate enough to get this book as a review copy from NetGalley. I’ll not lie, it was the cover that drew me in and it makes me very sad that in the UK this isn’t the edition that has been published, if it were I’d be snapping up a physical copy of this book because it was magnificent.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book because it is that incredible. We start in Palestine, it’s 1967 and the eve of a wedding. We follow the same family, from different viewpoints and perspectives, over several generations, several countries, and 3 continents from Palestine being torn apart by the Six-Day War. The family ends up spread across the world, and it’s made even more relevant to this family as Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in the 90s; Kuwait being where some of the family set up a new home after the . How they feel living in America after 9/11. Ultimately though, this is about a family and the meaning of home. It’s a book that explores displacement, loss, and it also explores a woefully unexplained part of history – the view from the other side.

All the characters in this book were vibrant; each had flaws but they were almost charming because they were so well rounded, they were believable. I can’t talk about all the characters in this book because there are 5 generations by the epilogue – each of them as important as the last. I will say I had a soft spot for Atef, throughout the book he put up with a lot, and it’s only through the course of the novel that you realise quite how much.

As I said, this explores a very underrepresented portion of the population. The loss of identity for the children and grandchildren of Alia and Atef puts in to words what the horror what was 9/11 and being of Arabian heritage in the USA. Some parts of this book really broke my heart, and frankly it disgusts me that there are still so many ignorant people in the world.

The thing that stands out most about this book is the family is so normal. They’re ordinary. In spite of their atypical experience, so much about them as a unit was just them being a family, arguments and all, in spite of the horrors going on around them. They’re just people, a family, trying to get along in the world and find their place in it.

Alyan is a poet and that shines through in this book. For me this book was so rich; the prose was incredible, the scene building was amazing, and I was absolutely lost in wherever in the world we were in that particular chapter. Her writing is absolutely beautiful, and I’m looking forward to reading some of her poetry because if this was a taster of her work, the rest is going to be incredible.

I’m so glad I read this right now, but I have to admit I think this is a perfect sunny day, outside, read. This book made me feel like I would on a mid-summer evening, and I think reading it with that around me really would have heightened the reading experience for me. While it’s covering some really harrowing and heartbreaking history, it’s probably one of the most uplifting books I’ve read in a while. I’d highly recommend it to anyone.