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: Sight – Jessie Greengrass

014 - Sight

014 - Sight

★★

I read this a few weeks ago, shortly after the Wellcome longlist was announced, and if I’m entirely honest I don’t remember much about this book. I wish I could say wonderful things but ultimately if I had to pick one word for this book it would be forgettable.

From what I remember this book follows a rather self-absorbed, 20-something woman who is pregnant with her second child. That didn’t interest me in the slightest unfortunately. I have no desire to procreate, so pregnant narrators are something that are very hit and miss with me anyway. I will say that the idea of a grieving daughter and a soon to be mother assessing her relationships with the females in her life is a good one, however if it had been left at that I think I would have enjoyed this book marginally more than I did.

However, it wasn’t just left at that (of course it wasn’t!) instead we had random sections about figures from history thrown in – something I really didn’t enjoy. I found the dichotomy between the present day story and historical figures jarring. Just when I felt I may be getting in to the present story I was pulled out of it by a tangent about Freud or the man who discovered the x-ray, and while I think this could have been a good tool if applied correctly, I don’t think it was applied correctly.

As I said, I don’t really have a lot to say about this book unfortunately as 2 weeks have passed since I read it and I actually forgot I had read it until I checked my list of books to review. I can understand that this might work for some people, but for me it was a massive miss unfortunately.

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.

Review: Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

007 - washington black

007 - washington black

★★★

Washington Black is a book that seemed to be everywhere last year – it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and has won numerous accolades. Needless to say it was a book I approached with some trepidation as it had such high praise from so many different areas, including reviews from people I trust.

I will start with saying that the writing in this book is beautiful, and I will definitely be reading more of Edugyan’s work. I can completely understand why this book had so much praise heaped on it however I can’t ignore the fact there are a lot of issues here that just made this book unbelievable. One of the biggest issues for me was that the plot drove the characters, not the other way around. For a first person narrative it feels quite passive, and while I understand the book is written as someone (Wash) looking back on his life I didn’t feel there as if I were seeing things through his eyes and living it with him – it was very much this happened, then this happened, then this happened. All tell, no show. Then there’s the whole globetrotting element which is just absurd, it doesn’t seem to matter where in the world someone is they find exactly who they are looking for just around a corner – Canada, Barbados or the Arctic it doesn’t matter.

The book starts off really strong, with a particularly interesting take on slavery in the West Indies, I was interested in the direction I thought this book was going to take but then it just became both meh and far fetched beyond belief. Some bits of it were fascinating, and fantastic, and when it was good it was really good. Come the end though I was slogging through it just to say I’d finished.

Also, I listened to the audiobook for the most part and while it was for the most part fantastic narration, there’s a bit in it which really ground my gears. There’s a brief interaction with a Scottish character and I don’t know what accent the narrator was doing but it sure as hell was not Scottish. It was awful. Just putting that out there.

I gave this 3 stars in the end, the first third of the book was good, the writing as a whole was beautiful, but the actual plot – the absurd twists and the dull characters just made this so, so difficult to enjoy.

Review: Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

002 - Convenience Store Woman.png

 

002 - convenience store woman

★★★★★

I went in to my local Waterstones looking for a book I could read in one sitting – I really wanted a book I could just binge. I will confess I didn’t actually look at this book myself, it was my sister who picked it up and said “this seems to be your level of weird” that ended up winning me over. Let me say now, she’s good at picking books.

Convenience Store Woman follows Keiko Furukura – a woman in her mid-30s who has worked part time in a convenience store for the last 18 years, much to the dismay of her family and few friends. We find out very early on in the book that Keiko has never been a “normal” woman by societies standards; she’s practical, needs routine, and takes social cues and conversational tactics from other people around her. As a child we see her getting told off for her way of doing things, and her natural response was to silence herself and observe, acting through imitation of her peers and putting on a facade of normality to please her family. As a 36 year old woman in her society, it’s expected of her at this point of her life to be married, have children, have a full time job – or at least actively be searching for them – but that’s not what Keiko wants. All Keiko wants is a quiet life, she’s happy being her and she doesn’t want to change for anyone; not her family, not her friends. She wants to exist in her bubble of routine.

In an effort to appease her friends and family, both of which she has been lying to in order to get them off of her back, she ends up in a very bizarre situation with an ex-coworker who is absolutely infuriating, but similar to her in a number of ways. Where she finds comfort and purpose working at the shop, he doesn’t want to conform to society and lashes out. But Keiko, being her wonderful self, sees it almost as an experiment and reacts in the most incredible ways.

I won’t say too much more about the plot, because at just over 150 pages, I don’t want to ruin this for anyone who wants to read it.

My first impressions of Keiko as a character were that it was an almost perfect representation of someone who is both on the autism spectrum and is completely asexual – something you don’t get a lot of in fiction, especially from a female protagonist. Her understanding of humans and relationships, how she mimics people in social situations to appear “normal”, her need of routine and guidance and rules. I loved her as a character, and I identified with her enormously. I honestly could have read 200 pages more of her day-to-day in the convenience store because she’s just so wonderful.

So, it was very easy for me to give this book 5 stars, if only because Keiko was a joy to have in my life for a couple of hours while I read this. If you want a good representation of female autism in fiction, I’d highly recommend this!

Review: Liminal – Bee Lewis

055 - Liminal

055 - Liminal

Rating – 4*

I will start by saying this was one of my most anticipated books of 2018 – ever since I read the blurb in Salt’s 2018 releases catalogue I knew I wanted to read this and I’ve been waiting, and waiting until I could get my hands on it. Thankfully their website had it available a few days pre-release so I snaffled it up as soon as I saw it. (PS: Check out their website, amazing books, free UK delivery, I’m not sponsored – I wish I were – I just love their ethos, their catalogue, and I want more people to support one of my local publishing houses!)

This book follows the story of Esther – a young woman who has had a rather difficult start in her life. We know early on that she’s had a leg amputated, and the story as to how this came about is one of the many threads of this book. Esther and her husband, Dan, have had a pretty grim few months and decide to move to a small village called Rosgill in the Scottish Highlands – but we find that this young couple have a far from happy marriage. The story spans a week, from their first Friday in the highlands, to a very interesting Easter weekend just a week later.

I’m going to be honest – the first 50 pages of this book I wondered if I hyped it up too much. I wasn’t connecting, the characters felt wishy-washy, it felt overly descriptive and I’m so glad I persevered because oh my gosh – this book just crept up on me and once I hit around page 75, I didn’t want to put it down. A lot of the description comes from nature and the environment, the way the surroundings are put across – and once I got in to it I found that charming, whimsical and at times quite dark and unsettling. The way this story evolved I wasn’t expecting, and became increasingly involved in how it was going to develop.

I had a lot of issues with the relationship in this book, which was my primary issue but then I realised that was intentional. This isn’t meant to be a fairytale romance, it’s meant to be an unhealthy relationship and as the book progresses and Esther grows a backbone it becomes so, so much more enjoyable to read. Her history with her parents, her own impending motherhood, the relationship with her husband, and with the mysterious stranger – she develops over this 250 page book in a way I wasn’t expecting.

There are a lot of parallels and themes being pulled on from mythology and classical literature, especially Ovid’s Metamorphoses. There are a couple of mentions of it throughout but there are also a lot of more subtle references; Esther is undergoing a metamorphosis of her own over the course of this book.

I’m so glad I persevered. And I would encourage anyone to persevere with this because where it ends up is a surprise – I anticipated a few things but not the ultimate finale. I think this book was beautiful, and unsettling. Ultimately I really, really enjoyed this. Salt have pulled another blinder out of the bag with this book (again, not sponsored, I purchased this book with my own money) and I can’t recommend it highly enough if you’re in the mood for a slow building, gothic story set in the wilds of Scotland – and frankly, who wouldn’t be?

 

 

 

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: Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

047 - Everything Under

047 - Everything Under

Rating – 4*

This is the first, and probably the last, book on the Man Booker 2018 longlist that I’m going to read. I’m not going to go in to why I’ve fallen out of love with the Booker, I think enough people have discussed that currently, what I am going to talk about though is this incredible, and ambitious, debut novel.

I picked it up the day before the longlist was announced as the few pages I read in the bookshop were absolutely beautiful and I knew I had to read it.There are so many things I love about this book, so many. I think a lot of people will be put off by the fact it’s on the Booker longlist, and even those who aren’t I think may not enjoy it all that much. It’s very traditionally “Bookerish” in that there are a lot of things going on, and a lot of literary devices which just ramp it up a gear (a lot of people may say those little techniques mean the book is pretentious, I personally think if done right it just makes for good reading).

Reading this book is like being in a constant state of flux where nothing is entirely certain. Johnson in this book plays with so many things both with writing style (from first, second, and third person narratives from the same character) to family, gender and identity in all the characters. Language is a key theme and that in itself is played with fluidly, the main character and her mother living a very isolated life during her childhood and developing their own, made up language. The fact that Gretel and her mother lived in a river community is fascinating in and of itself, but it also leads to another fluid component of the narrative in that her mother doesn’t like to be stagnant and stay in one place too long.

It’s taken me a couple of days to fully digest this book and process what I read and thought about it because for a slim thing of under 300 pages it packed a punch with the content. On contemplating I realised there are so many parallels with fairy tale and myth (not only is the main character called Gretel, but there’s a recurring theme of breadcrumbs and connecting ideas), there are themes of identity and loss and abandonment. And all of the little things done with language, this book is of itself a love letter to language and words – it’s about the power of words and it’s oh so incredible.

Parts of this book genuinely made me pause and have to go back on what I read to check I read it correctly. I didn’t see any of the twists coming and I loved that.

Ultimately, I’m a very happy woman that I read this book, and that I picked it up before it became a bit less exciting because it was longlisted for the Booker. I think had I not saw this in a bookshop prior to the longlist, I wouldn’t have picked it up because of that and that’s a shame, and I think it says all too much about how contrived the Booker has become! I’m going to be thinking about this book for a long time, and I’d highly recommend it.

Review: The Third Reel – S J Naudé

046 - The Third Reel

046 - The Third Reel

Rating – 3*

As those of you who have followed this blog for some time will know, one of my favourite short story collections of recent years was The Alphabet of Birds so when I found out that not only was Naudé writing a novel but that it was to be published by Salt, I got very excited.

The Third Reel is set in an interesting point in history – Thatcher’s Britain, Apartheid South Africa, the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Our main character, Etienne is a young man who has fled conscription in South Africa and sought asylum in the UK. He is enraptured by film, and wins a scholarship to study at London Film School but then his world is flipped upside down by a young German artist who makes art and moonlights as a paediatric nurse. While researching for a project on lost film, Etienne is introduced to this lost German wartime reel, and he becomes obsessed with finding the other two. There is so much more to this book as this is just the surface, but finding the words is difficult.

As someone who only has remedial knowledge about 1980’s Britain, I think the way this is written suits that time period. It feels very artsy, but also very industrial and brutal much like that period of history was. Nothing in this book was what it appeared on the surface, it was so multifaceted with art and music and architecture all layering on top of each other to build this really quite unsettling – yet oddly beautiful – environment.

A lot of this book feels unsettling, and I think the reason for that is simply that it’s so beautifully written yet the content isn’t always very pretty. The relationship between Etienne and Axel is a bizarre one and one I’m not entirely comfortable with, but as a reader I don’t think I was meant to be comfortable with it.

Ultimately, this didn’t quite match up with the high bar I set it based on The Alphabet of Birds but it’s nonetheless a good book. Had I not been familiar with his writing style, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much however. So it’s very swings and roundabouts as to how much I enjoyed this, which is why I settled at 3* – because it wasn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t as good as I was hoping.