Review: Carol – Patricia Highsmith

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Rating – 4*

Carol is the first book by Patricia Highsmith I’ve read, it certainly won’t be my last because this book was simply fantastic and a book I very much enjoyed reading.

As many people are aware, this book was made in to a movie in 2015 staring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. I’ve had the DVD to watch since it was released, but as always I was determined to read the book first. I’m yet to watch the movie, but I know based on this I am going to love it when I do finally get around to watching it.

The novel is relatively short, we follow Therese – a young stage designer who is working in a department store over Christmas to make ends meet. In this department store Therese meets Carol, and from there we have a very slow burn romance between the two of them. It was realistic, it was engaging, and having images in my mind of Cate Blanchett certainly made it even more enjoyable.

As with all lesbian romances, there is a twist- someone has to have something tragic happen to them as ‘punishment’ for their lifestyle. Unfortunately in this day and age this is still a trope we find in TV and literature (I’m talking to you, BBC. Destroying the lives of lesbians everywhere!)  Somehow, this book was deemed a lesbian romance with a happy ending, but I disagree with that statement somewhat. While it was believable of the time that it was set in, I really don’t consider the ending a happy one – bittersweet maybe, but not happy.

This book is just so beautiful, and being so short I don’t want to say too much and give the plot away. All I will say is I can’t wait to read more of Highsmith’s writing because I loved her writing style; there was depth and beauty to her words. Everything in this book was just so perfectly placed and the pace of it was exquisite. For me, it was the definition of a slow burn!

However, there was just something niggling in the back of my mind which stopped me giving this 5 stars, it was a solid 4, maybe even 4.5, but giving this 5* just didn’t feel right. It is one I would love to return to, especially after watching the movie. If it’s a book you haven’t read, I’d highly recommend it because it is a joy to read.

Review: Now and at the Hour of Our Death – Susana Moreira Marques

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Rating – 3*

This was a short and very interesting book. I picked it up because I’m on a bit of an independent publisher binge at the moment and, as Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest I decided to pick the only book by a Portuguese author that I own up.

The basis of this book is that the author, who is a journalist, spent time with a palliative/end of life care team in a remote area in Portugal, and the result is this book. It is an intimate look in to the lives of the people undergoing care and their families.

The book is split, really, in to two distinct parts. Travel Notes About Death is the first part, and reads very much like poetry. It is short snippets from lives of those dying and their families, with odd interjections from the author. As I said, it reads like poetry and is absolutely beautiful – if the whole book read like this I would happily have given it 4 or even 5 stars because, honestly, I read a lot of it twice because it was so beautiful.

The second section is Portraits in which there are 3 distinct stories told. First we have the authors interpretation of these people, which is then followed by the voices of the patients or their families. These are three very different stories, and it is very intimate to look in on families at this time of their lives. It’s poignant, and the first story of Paula – a 40 year old mother dying of cancer – hit me quite profoundly to the point I was near tears when reading this section, particularly in her own words.

I feel I ought to just state that the translator in this book has done an incredible job, especially capturing the poetic nature of the first section, and the individual voices of the second section. The writing itself was beautiful, my only issue with this book is that it felt disjointed, there was no real flow to the narrative. As I said, if it carried on as the first section was, I’d have easily given it 4 or 5 stars, I just found the portraits a bit clumpy at times and if I’m honest I put the book down and didn’t feel an urge to return to it.

This is definitely an interesting read, but didn’t quite hit me full on!

Review: Salt Houses – Hala Alyan

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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.

Review: The Seamstress and the Wind – César Aria

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Rating – 2*

I feel that this probably wasn’t the best book to introduce myself to Aria’s work with. César Aria is one of the most prolific South American authors there is – he has over 80 published works in his native Spanish, which are slowly being translated in to English. I own the three published by & Other Stories and on reading reviews, I really think this was not the one to start with.

To start, the first chapter felt more like an introduction. I found myself flipping through to see if I’d missed something or if I had pages missing, but no, it’s just a very incoherent first chapter to this incoherent story. Coherence definitely isn’t Aria’s thing, and neither is editing. I’ve been reading about him and apparently he just writes – never looks back, never edits, and sweet mother of Merlin this needed an edit. There wasn’t much mention of the seamstress, nor of the wind. What the very brief description on the inside of this book promised was apparently a blurb for a different book because I didn’t get any of that.

There were so many things I disliked about this – transference of women like property and then casual rape to name just a small portion of what made me uncomfortable. I love weird books, I love magical realism, but this just felt like a poor imitation to me. I think it could have been good, had it have been edited. Also, I felt that there wasn’t really much plot, it was more of a rough draft or a proposal sent to a publisher who never got around to damn well editing it!

The only redeeming quality of this book, and something which means I will pick up the other two books by Aria that I own, is the writing style. While I found the absence of plot, soulless characters, and momentary WTF moments awful the writing – on the whole – was beautiful. When describing the scenery, or even some minute things that were barely worthy of writing about, I was actually quite drawn in. It was quite dream-like in some ways, and parts of it did read like a fairy tale. For that reason alone, this book gets one extra star from me. Beautiful writing doesn’t do it for everyone, it certainly doesn’t redeem things for anyone, but for me it actually made me finish the book – not that it was long at 138 pages. Had it been even 200 pages, I think I may have DNFed it.

Frankly, this is one of the worst books I’ve read this year. Up there only with The Blind Assassin. As I said, I will try some of Aria’s other works that I have as I have read other reviews and it seems that this maybe isn’t the best place to start. I’m really disappointed if I’m honest, because I so hoped I was going to love this!

Review: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times – Xan Brooks

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Rating – 4*

This book was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. Salt are one of my favourite publishers; I’ve never read a bad book from them and they’re a local publishing house, which just makes me love them even more. I was fortunate enough to win this book in a giveaway on Goodreads  – as someone who never wins anything, I was absolutely elated when this arrived in the post! However, with all my reading for the Wellcome Prize, I didn’t get around to this until the start of this month – but honestly, it was worth the wait.

I don’t know what I was expecting going in to this book, but honestly what I got wasn’t anything like I imagined. Trying to explain what this book was is difficult – because honestly it’s very unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It was absolutely mesmerising, but also quite an uncomfortable read in places, and I really enjoyed it.

The book is set shortly after WWI has ended, and we meet our young protagonist – Lucy – as she is on her way to the forest to meet The Funny Men. This band of men are named after Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz, and over the first part of the book we learn why Lucy is off to the forest to meet these men, who these men are, and the lines between fairytale and reality get heavily blurred. Over the course of the novel as a whole, those lines get even more blurred, the plot gets darker and even weirder, and seemingly unrelated plot points all come together and, frankly, it’s fantastic.

The first 20 or 30 pages for me were the hardest to get through, I had to read them twice before I actually found myself engaged in the book. It was quite a jolting start, if I’m entirely honest, and a little weird even for me! Once I got through them, and persevered, I found this a hard book to put down. Yes it was disturbing, and unsettling but come the end of it all I couldn’t help but have this overwhelming feeling of sadness that I was done with it.

This book was weird and wonderful and, while nothing like what I had imagined in my mind when I first read the blurb on Salts website in Autumn last year, it was incredible. It’s definitely not a book for the faint of heart and it’s also not a book that will be enjoyed by everyone. Personally, I loved it.

Now, you may be wondering why 4* not 5*? Well, it was a tough call but if I am entirely honest with myself, while it was beautifully written and expertly crafted, the different streams of the story often had me a little lost. It came together in the end, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a book coming together, but while reading it I did feel it was a little jumbled.

I look forward to what Xan Brooks does in the future, because for a debut, this was incredible.

Review: Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

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Rating – 5*

I was having a bit of a reading slump towards the end of April, so I decided it was the perfect time to have a reread. I haven’t reread a book in ages even though I have a pile of books which I want to get around to rereading it isn’t something I do a lot. Anyway, when deciding what to reread, for me, this was an easy choice.

Tipping the Velvet has always been a book that I enjoyed, but it is definitely one I enjoyed more on this third read than I ever did before. When I read it initially I must have been about 14 or 15 and a lot of the nuances, and even the plot, went over my head. I was young, naive, not quite in touch with my own sexuality yet and while the book was eye opening, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of it (or even the profound affect it had on me at the time). It wasn’t until I reread it when I was around 18 or 19 that I probably understood more of it, that I realised what this book actually made me realise about myself – it was more eyeopening the second time than the first. Now, on this third read, I am looking at it through completely different lenses and I love it so much more than I did the two previous reads.

The main character in this is Nancy – or Nan – and we follow her over the course of several years of her life. At the start she works in her family business, shelling oysters in Kent and becomes entranced by a performer at the theatre – Kitty Butler. Kitty’s act is that of going on stage dressed as a man, and Nan finds herself going back night after night just to see Kitty. From here, Nan’s life takes an interesting turn down to the theatreland of London – she has ups and downs but every event she lives through shapes her for the next and I absolutely adore that aspect of her character development. The person she is at the end of this book is such a reach from the girl she was at the start, and you know every step of what got her there and I love that. All loose ends are tied up in the last chapter – anything left unresolved is very neatly resolved, it is a little cliche how it all works out but, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Honestly, this is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s only rereading it now, at this point in my life, that I realise how profoundly impacting it has been on me over the years. Yes, I probably do have some emotional connection to it but that is most definitely one of the best things about rereading a book, remembering the feelings and thoughts you had on previous reads but also finding new things, finding that new connection.

I love this book, I urge anyone to read this book. It’s beautiful, it’s historical, it’s just damn fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I lost myself in a book like this – I did actually read it in two sittings (just a few days apart) and I laid up until 1am to finish it. That hasn’t happened for so long, and it’s made me so excited about reading again. May, I feel, is going to be a good month!

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

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Rating – 4*

So, this was the final book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist for me to read. I tried reading a few pages of it earlier on in my challenge to read the shortlist and I knew it was one that I was going to have to dedicate a full day to – it isn’t a book that I was going to be able to read over the course of a few days.

This book starts at 5:50am on a Sunday morning. It finishes a 4:59am on Monday morning. It’s the day in the life of Simon Limbres’ heart. Simon, who wakes up Sunday morning to go out with his friends – but doesn’t live to see Monday. It’s told through several narratives, we follow the doctors, the nurses, Simon’s family, the recipient of his heart. It’s a spanning book and really emphasises how every minute in the domino effect which is organ transplantation counts.

When this book was on topic, it was incredible. I loved the narratives which centred around the medicine, the decision making, the science. However, there are several tangents which just make no sense and absolutely ruined this for me – which is a shame because this could have been so much more if the waffle was just cut out.

I don’t think I would have picked this up had it not have been for this prize. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year – losing out to several other incredible translated books. I’m glad it’s one that’s getting recognition because it covers such an important topic and something that I’m very passionate about.

As I said though, it could have been cut down 50-70 pages and been just as incredible. While backstory is great, I don’t think this needed quite as much as it gave to each person tangentially connected to Simon.

So, that’s the last of my reviews for the shortlist. I will be posting a full consolidation of my thoughts and a general discussion of the prize and my feelings on who will win closer to the time of the winner being announced (April 24th!) Needless to say, I need to really think about this as these books have given me so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t say right now which one I want to win!

Review: The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss

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Rating – 3*

So, I actually read this book in October last year – it was one of the last books I read before I hit The Great Reading Slump of 2016. I thought it about time I reviewed it as I have decided to read the Wellcome Prize shortlist this year, and this is one that has made it. Naturally, this seemed like as good a time as any to finally write this review.

Most people who watch Booktube, or follow bookish blogs like myself, will have heard of this book. It’s been raved about – and for me that was a bit of a hindrance to it because it really set high expectations, which it didn’t quite live up to. However, reviewing this nearly 6 months after I read it has allowed me time to reflect back on it – and I realised that I can still remember it vividly, and that it has suck with me in that time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Tidal Zone centres around Adam – a stay at home dad to two girls. The whole family is shook when for no apparent reason Miriam, his 15 year old daughter, collapses at school. The book follows the family coming to terms with this, learning to live with the not knowing and the overwhelming fear that plagues them daily. It discusses everything; teenagers, gender, sex, academia, marriage, family, the NHS but it also follows mundane, daily chores that Adam undertakes too.

It really is a remarkable book, and I’m glad that it’s been recognised on at least one shortlist this year. I gave it 3 stars when I read it, and I think reflecting on it I would still very much agree with that rating. But, reading this has prompted me to pick up more of Sarah Moss’ work – and in researching I’ve found she’s been shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize several times, which just makes me even more excited to read more from her!

Review: The Waves – Virginia Woolf

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Rating – 5*

This book is a masterpiece. It’s taken me a couple of days to actually try and find words to write this review because, honestly, this is a book you have to experience and I know that I will not be able to do it justice.

I tried to read it before, last Summer I believe, and we just didn’t get along. I wasn’t enjoying it, I wasn’t in the place where I could lose myself in the pages. This isn’t a book you can dip in and out of, in my opinion, it’s a book you have to let yourself get lost in. As it stands, I read it in two sittings. I tried reading it on my commute to work, but I ended up rereading those passages when I curled up to read the remainder of the book. Woolf is a writer who demands your full attention, and that just cannot be given while sitting on a bus.

In it’s most basic form, this is the story of a group of friends; told through their individual thought processes from childhood, through marriage and children, to middle age and ultimately death. Each of them has a distinct voice, and tells of moments of their lives. Snippets of time, some of which overlap, some don’t. It’s so difficult to put this book in to words because, honestly, I’m not sure I have any of the right ones.

More than anything, the writing is what captivated me. It’s poetic, lyrical and has rhythm. The more I read the more I could decipher the ebb and flow of it, yes there are many references to waves and water but, truly, for me the story itself is told in waves and it is just magnificent. If I can one day write a sentence as well as Virginia Woolf, just one sentence, I will die happy. I want half of this book tattooed on me, but if I were to pick one sentence from this book, one sentence to encourage you to try it. It would be this:

There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me’

I want to read this book again to fully appreciate it. I want to read it in one sitting, not two. I want to completely immerse myself in the lives of the 6 people who tell this story. Woolf for me is an an author whose books have to be read more than once to fully appreciate, and while I appreciated this, while I loved this book, I know that should I read it again and allow it to consume me, I will love it even more.

Give Woolf a go, people. Please. Don’t be daunted by stream of consciousness!

Review: The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

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Rating – 2*

I really wanted to enjoy this, I really thought I’d enjoy this. Spoiler for you, I didn’t.

There is no denying that Atwood can write, technically this book is brilliant. The prose is – on the whole – incredible but for me, this 600+ page beast was just a disappointment. The characters, the plot, the whole novel-within-the-novel-within-the-novel situation – it was tedious and exhausting. By the time I reached the final 100-150 pages, I had long since lost interest. By that point I was honestly just trying to plod through and finish the damn thing.

The main character, Iris Chase, may be the weakest, most unlikable female character I have ever had the misfortune to read from the perspective of. I had absolutely no connection to her which made this book even more of a challenge. The story of Iris’ life was just so unbelievable that the plot just didn’t grip me, it had me snorting in disbelief instead. Everyone around her dies and it doesn’t feel believable, it feels like everyone dying is just a convenient plot twist in order for the author to write this exact book.

As I said, this book is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. It was too many layers not executed to their best I feel. Technically, it was very impressive but as a reader it was just too convoluted. Come the end of the story, I was bored with all the layers to this book. I happened to think this structure was overkill, and I wasn’t compelled by anyone or anything. For me, I’d have preferred to have had the book be 200 pages fewer and one less layer to the narrative (because the complexity was, for me, surplus).

However much I disliked it, the prose was – in places – undeniably beautiful and for that, Atwood will never get less than a 2* review from me. But, out of all the Atwood I’ve read, this is by far my least favourite. I know that’s like blasphemy, it’s a Booker Prize winner, it’s probably one of her more  critically acclaimed books but for me, it just fell flat.

If you want good Atwood, I’d recommend The Handmaids Tale or Oryx and Crake/Year of the Flood – they surpass this monumentally in my opinion.