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.

Review: The Falconer – Alice Thompson

044 - The Falconer

044 - The Falconer

Rating – 4*

Alice Thompson’s books have yet to disappoint me – while The Falconer is by no means one of my favourite of her books it was still amazing. I can’t believe I’m going to say these words but it had echoes of Daphne du Maurier, and I liked it.

Thompson’s books are generally small in stature but pack quite a punch. The Falconer is only just over 150 pages and I felt it was the perfect size for the content. While it tied up a lot of things, some of it was left open and I think that fits well with the atmosphere of the book. We as a reader are meant to have questions and I felt okay with that. I felt this required quite a bit of attention, but that’s not a bad thing, I just didn’t want to miss anything because it was so intricately written.

Being small, I’m not going to go too much in to the plot. But essentially this book follows a woman called Iris, who has applied under a pseudonym for a job as a personal assistant to the Undersecretary of War to find out what happened to her sister who previously had the same job as died in rather unusual circumstances. The year is 1936, and given that one of the characters is the Undersecretary of War you can expect some background happenings and undertones towards the outbreak of the Second World War.

As I alluded to previously, there are some strong similarities to not only Rebecca, but quite a lot of du Maurier’s body of work, especially in the atmosphere that Thompson has created. The similarities to Rebecca are no mistake in my opinion, it feels quite deliberate. Both books are set in large country homes and follow female protagonists trying to both fill the void and find out what happened to their predecessor who died in mysterious, unspoken circumstances. I also feel that there are echoes of Jane Eyre – which did inspire du Maurier – with the presence of The Mad Woman in the Attic. The more I sit here trying to compare, the more comparables I’m finding and frankly I love it.

Anyone who has followed my blog knows how I love du Maurier, and how I usually loathe anything that has the tagline of “echoes of du Maurier” but because this book didn’t come with that caveat I went in to it open minded and came out the other side pleasantly surprised. My only note to anyone thinking of picking this up is do it in the Autumn or Winter on a cold night under a blanket, because I think my enjoyment of it was impacted by it being 33°C outside and it sort of reduced the atmosphere of it for me!

I have a couple more Alice Thompson books left to read and I really, really cannot wait to finally get around to them.

Review: How To Be a Kosovan Bride – Naomi Hamill

043 - How To Be a Kosovan Bride

043 - How To Be a Kosovan Bride

Rating – 4*

Salt have gone and done it again. They have published a book that I find it difficult to find words for. How To Be a Kosovan Bride is an incredible feat on the authors part, and it was a compelling book to read. I wasn’t able to put it down and read it in around 2 and a half hours.

The book follows the parallel lives of two women – one is known as the Kosovan Wife, the other is known as the Returned Girl. We start the book on both of their wedding days, the Kosovan Wife ‘passing’ the virginity test, the Returned Girl not. As is hinted in her name, the Returned Girl is returned to her family and forges herself an academic life, going to university and studying English whereas the Kosovan Wife remains just that, a wife and a mother. Essentially the two women throughout the book have identities only relating to their marriage, or lack thereof. Poignantly the two women of the novel end up at a wedding as guests at the end, both observing the other and feeling longing for the life they see the other leading. The Returned Girl longing for the domesticity, and The Kosovan Wife longing for the freedom. For me as a reader who had become very invested in these characters, this was a stand out moment as for the first time the two women are named; signalling that they have both made a choice to forge their own paths and identities, and not have their identity thrust upon them due to their marriages.

Interwoven throughout is what links these two women – their writing. The Kosovan Bride is writing down a fairy tale she remembers her own grandfather telling her about The Maiden in the Box, and the Returned Girl is writing about the history of her country. These snippets of fairy tale and also brutal Kosovan history of the war are interspersed among the girls “How to…” sections, which is every other chapter. And it was so expertly done.

I was swept away in this book, I was rooting for both the women, I wanted them to find their own paths and happiness. I also found the insight in to a history I know nothing about – quite shamefully – really interesting. Hamill has clearly done her research, and from what I’ve read about her this was inspired by humanitarian work she does in Kosovo and in reading this book you can tell how much love she has for the country.

Overall I loved this book, and I loved the experience of reading it. Salt as a publisher never fail to disappoint me!

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: The White Book – Han Kang

022 - The White Book

022 - The White Book

Rating – 3*

In the last week I’ve somehow managed to get through 4 of the Wellcome Book Prize long listed books. This was the first of them, and actually one of my more anticipated books on the longlist as it’s by an author who I’ve heard of! This will be a relatively short review as the book itself was only 130 pages or so long!

The White Book by Han Kang is a rather short and sparse book, and one that having read I’m confused as to why it appears on the longlist. It’s a ‘concept’ book in my eyes, the writing is short and punchy, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to it, it’s vague and focuses very heavily on imagery.

The story behind this book is the loss her parents experienced when her oldest sister was born two months premature in a harsh winter and there was no way that she’d survive. It is heavily biographical, and I think the experimental nature of the writing comes from it being a cathartic piece that was meant for her more than anyone else. There is a lot of blank space – white space if you will – and some of it reads like poetry, some of it like prose. Some of it is vague and out there other parts are clear as a bell. There’s a disparity to this book and, for some reason, it just didn’t settle with me.

It was a powerful book in parts, the parts directly dealing with loss, grief, premature birth and the things which this book was nominated for the Wellcome Prize for were great but, as far as the prose goes I felt it was a bit too far out there for me! I’m not going to say it was a bad book, because a lot of it was great, some of the imagery was great but reading it in line with a book prize about biosciences and medicine, and also comparing it to her previous books translated in to English it did fall short of the mark for me unfortunately.