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 – 4*

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 4 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.

Review: Autumn – Ali Smith

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Rating – 5*

Ali Smith will forever be one of my favourite authors, this book has only emphasised that. I don’t think I can be coherent when it comes to Ali’s books, all my thoughts just jumble and make no sense whatsoever. Her writing is incredible and resonates with me in a way I can’t explain.

Autumn is a novel which is so present and I can only wish I read it when I first bought it – when it was even more recent. Just, how exactly it was possible for Ali Smith to create a full, rich novel involving Britain after Brexit in exactly the time it was taking place I don’t know. But it’s amazing.

This book, in it’s most basic form, is the story of a deep friendship between a young girl – Elisabeth – and an old man – Daniel. The story is told nearly entirely in the form of flashbacks. Stories within stories. Stories about race and identity, stories about art, feminism, sexuality, women, mothers sisters. Stories about a pop artist named Pauline Boty. Yet, ultimately it is the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel told through all these stories.

As expected with Ali Smith, it is beautifully written. It manages to be both thought provoking and hilarious, sad and happy. It made me think, it made me laugh, there were nods to so many other books, to art, it’s so layered I think every time I read this (because I will re-read it, it’s Ali Smith) I will find new things, new layers to the story and that is something I find pretty damn exciting, and something which will make me want to reread this book.

This year is off to a very good start on the reading front. It seems the books I had hoped to read in the last quarter of the year have so far been amazing, and it makes me glad I took a break from reading if only to enjoy them properly.

Review: The Bricks that Built the Houses – Kate Tempest

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Rating – 3*

I went in to this book blind, having read both of Tempest’s poetry books published I knew I had to give her turning her hand to prose a go. It was, as expected, glorious. Tempest’s background in rapping and poetry is evident in this book with the way she writes her prose, it’s lyrical and when reading it I couldn’t help but find a light rhythm to her words in places.

Ultimately, this book follows the lives of Harry and Becky – although Leon is mentioned in the blurb he has a much less prominent role. Along the way we meet and array of characters, we learn their stories and each one has a part in the forming of the people that Harriet and Becky are today. Even though the plot, what little of it there was, didn’t really resound with me I felt like I knew Becky and Harry, and all the people we were introduced to over the course of it, simply because she has such a grasp on people.

What Tempest excels at in this novel is her depiction of family dynamics. The way in which she paints the characters, and the overlaps and intersections of their lives are definitely her strength. She really just gets the human psyche, each character – and there are plenty – is unique and has their own voice; and yet it is still her voice which resounds.

This is definitely a character study, if you want a plot driven book this probably isn’t the one for you. While the plot is rather thin, and I love a plot driven book, this was a nice break in pace of my usual reads. I just found myself longing for more prose, and less dialogue (as anyone who has read my blog for some time now will know, I’m not a big fan of dialogue in books which can be quite unfortunate!)

As debut novels go, this as a good one. It didn’t engage me as fully as I had hoped, if there were more prose I would have easily given this 4*, however as it stands I feel it has to be a 3* – and a lowish one at that. I loved it, don’t get me wrong, it just wasn’t quite my cup of tea. I really can’t wait to see what she does next, this woman is seriously talented!

Review: Human Acts – Han Kang

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Rating – 4*

I feel very conflicted about this book, on the one had it is a masterpiece – I cannot deny that, however I didn’t feel that compulsion to read it. It was a book I could put down and not read for a while, and that is what disappointed me. Human Acts is a brutal book, and tells of a period of South Korean history that I didn’t even know happened.

The book is split in to 6 chapters, each from the perspective of a different character affected by the massacre and also using a variety of different narrative voices. Each of these voices is so distinct and unique it’s quite special – much like The Vegetarian was – and I think that Han Kang’s ability to capture so many different voices, and Deborah Smith’s ability to then translate them, is incredible. Often, when there are many different voices in a novel, they get lost amongst each other but with the combination of Kang and Smith that just doesn’t happen.

Human Acts really drained me reading it, I think I should have just set aside an afternoon and read it in one go because it’s a book that needs your attention, but for me it just wasn’t one I could curl up and read in bed which made the reading experience of this quite jolting and an uphill struggle. It’s a book you have to completely get immersed in and I feel bad I couldn’t give it that. I feel if I did I would have rated it completely differently.

As I have said though, this book is a masterpiece and one I will read again in the future, maybe in one sitting on a rainy afternoon while wrapped in a blanket. I’m no literary critic, and there are plenty of reviews on goodreads which take this book apart and really analyse it and do it justice and that’s just something I’m not going to be able to do.

So, this book is incredible and if you have patience and time to completely immerse yourself in a book, if you want a book which will really challenge you and make you think about humanity… this is the book. I don’t think you would be at any disadvantage to pick this up over The Vegetarian as a first book by Kang, all I know is I will definitely be picking up anything she writes in the future – and I hope they keep the pairing of her and Deborah Smith.

Review: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

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Rating – 4*

Where to begin with this book, I don’t know. It is a magnificent feat I will give it that. I liked this novel quite a lot, but I didn’t love it and for that simple reason I feel a little disappointed. Oh, this book did nothing wrong. It was beautiful. But for me there was just something lacking, and what that was I don’t know.

The Essex Serpent was right up my alley. Historical fiction, slightly fantastic, fabulously Gothic, and reads like a classic. Honestly, it really wouldn’t be out of place among books written in the period it was set. It’s really hard to say that it didn’t feel like a recently written book, because it was fresh and the ideas in it were fantastic, but stylistically for me I would compare it to work by the Bronte’s, especially Anne and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

We follow Cora Seaborne, a young widow with a son, who moves to a village in Essex for a new start. She enters the parish as it is caught up in the myth of the Essex Serpent, a creature who is said to roam the marshes and take lives, who they think has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist, is convinced this creature is real and sets out to find it, and prove the myth true. Cora is, generally, a delightful character and her enthusiasm for natural history is awesome – I love a lady scientist, especially in a historical context! It is truly an incredible tale, with a cast of amazing characters (none of whom are too small or insignificant to be well rounded, though some fall a little flat for me). One thing I liked most is that often a historical novel, with a woman who has what we consider modern interests and ideals, seems out of place and contrived yet this really didn’t. In fact, it was done so sublimely that it didn’t feel forced, it was very believable and I really appreciated that.

However, at this point I hear you saying “if you loved it so much, why only 4 stars?”. Well, I wasn’t caught up in all of it. While it was a beautifully written book, and I loved the main plot point, I found the interaction between some characters forced. I didn’t much like Will, or his involvement in the story, and because it heavily revolved around his interaction with Cora I then found myself getting frustrated at the book as a whole. I wanted to love this, so much; so many people I respect have adored this book, but for me it was just lacking that something to make it amazing for me. While on the whole it was great and beautifully crafted, in parts I found it a little dull.

But, I am glad I finally read it. And it is absolutely beautiful. So give it a go if historical, fantastical, lady-scientists do it for you because I think you’ll like it!

Review: The Muse – Jessie Burton

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Rating – 3*

Number one, this book is beautifully designed. It is gorgeous. Noone can escape that. It doesn’t really cover much of what is on the inside but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Anyway, this book is beautiful inside and out, and I feel bad giving it a 3* review, but while the premise was amazing, and Jessie Burton can really tell a story, I just didn’t find myself as invested in this as I wanted to be.

There’s no denying it, this is an ambitious book. There were a lot of characters, and a plot that spanned decades. Odelle, our primary protagonist, was fantastic; Trinidadian born she and her friend have come to London to make a better life for themselves. She, a typist, eventually finds a job with a Miss Marjorie Quick at The Skelton Institute of art. At her friends wedding, Odelle meets a man who has a painting which needs an appraisal, so he finds her and that’s when we get the story behind the story. The story of the painting, which takes us back in time to Spain on the brink of the Civil War, and our protagonist there is Olive. The story alternates between Odelle’s experiences as an immigrant in London, trying to make her way in a world where her skin colour presents huge challenges and Olive’s story in Spain in, where most of the action takes place.

Don’t get me wrong, this book is masterful in parallels between our protagonists, Odelle and Olive. The writing is beautiful, the imagery is amazing and yeah, I loved so much of this story but, there were just too many unanswered questions and open ends for me, and I found that very unsatisfying. In parts it felt disjointed, and jumpy. I would have liked for it to maybe have slowed down in parts, and sped up in others. For me, the pace was all wrong but that’s a very personal thing. I’d liked to have known for certain what the deal was with Marjorie, and if she was who Odelle thought her to be.

All that being said, Jessie Burton in this book has proved herself to be an incredible writer. Her characters are well developed, her writing is elegant and flows beautifully, and her ability to capture human emotion is second to none. The only downfall for this, in my opinion, is the pacing and in some respects the plot. So yes, a happy 3*, bordering on 4 and I will definitely be picking up her next book!

If you’d like to purchase The Muse, consider supporting me and buying through The Book Depository: here

Review: The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

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Rating – 3*

I’m glad I finally got around to this. I picked it up around the time it was released last year, and if you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time you’ll be familiar with it’s presence on several TBRs since then. It’s just been a book that I’ve been a bit unsure as to whether I want to pick it up, and haven’t quite been in the mood for. However, I picked it as my book club book for May – and finally got around to it in July – so that is at least progress. I had heard mixed reviews about this, and they came from people who usually agreed on books so I was really dubious about if I would like this or not.

It follows the story of Stan and Charmaine in a not-so-distant-future. I love Atwood’s speculative fiction; Maddaddam and The Handmaid’s Tale are among some of the best speculative fiction I’ve read. Naturally, because of that, this book was one I went in to with high expectations and actually, I disliked a significant portion of this. There was an underlying tone which just didn’t resonate with me – for one the gender roles felt very dated.

As for characters, I detested both Stan and Charmaine; given the choice I’d say I preferred Stan. It was Jocelyn I liked most, both she and Stan’s brother (the name of who evades me now, 2 weeks on) but even then, some of the characterisation was so problematic for me.

It’s taken me 2 weeks to review this and I find the more I think about it the less positive I feel about it. As a result of that, this could never be more than a 3* book from my point of view.