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.

Review: Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson

020 - Written on the Body

020 - Written on the Body

Rating – 5*

After saying not so long ago that I was going to forgo Winterson for a little while, I caved. This more than made up for the issues I had with Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. It was beautiful. It’s a work of art. It absolutely blew me away.

This book is, essentially, a book about worshipping a lovers body. It’s sensual, it’s captivating, and it’s intricate. It’s the first time with one of Winterson’s books that I’ve felt a full connection with the narrator – and I think this might be the book that I fall in love with her.

The main character remains not only nameless, but genderless. At the beginning I felt so sure that they were female, then in the middle I questioned it (and promptly changed my mind again), but by the end I was absolutely certain that they were female. It remains unsaid, it remains unnecessary to the story, and it also makes you as a reader question why you need to know in the first place – what does it matter? They have had female and male lovers, but focuses primarily on the love they had for one woman – Louise – and the fall out of their relationship.

The first section of the book focuses on the narrators love life, past lovers, sexual experiences, pitfalls of romance, and love. We see them in a stagnating relationship with a woman, which is comfortable but not passionate. Then they meet Louise, and things change. But Louise is married, and we get an insight in to her marriage and all the faults with it. Then something happens, which changes how our narrator looks at their relationship – and they follow their head not their heart, leaving Louise behind.

I want to say more, but I also want others to experience the beauty of this book first hand. I was blown away by it. I always felt that Jeanette Winterson was going to be just not in my grasp and then I go and read this. For me, it’s a slightly sexed up, more modern version of Orlando and I think that having read Orlando recently really helped with my enjoyment of this. There were a lot of similar themes across the two, so maybe if you like Orlando as much as me, you’ll love this too.

Oh, and the ending isn’t all sad, I promise.

Review: The Gloaming – Kirsty Logan

015 - The Gloaming

015 - The Gloaming

Rating – 5*

I am so, so excited that I was able to receive an ARC of this from NetGalley in exchange for a review. The Gloaming will be published by Harvill Secker on April 19th – and I’m going to urge anyone reading this to pick it up because it is gorgeous. Much like with all Kirsty’s previous books it focuses on Scottish folklore and queer themes – lesbian mermaids. Need I say any more? But it has been one of my most anticipated books of 2018, it didn’t let me down, it didn’t suffer with Second Novel Syndrome – if anything I may love this just a little bit more than The Gracekeepers.

I had very high hopes for this book ever since I saw Kirsty talking about it on Twitter and it didn’t disappoint. It focuses around the Scottish myth of Selkies and deals with it in a much more tasteful way than my last encounter with a book which revolved around the myth. I’ve loved everything about it, and while it wasn’t what I was expecting it was still absolutely gorgeous.

The book follows the story of Mara Ross and her family. They live on a small, unnamed island off the coast of Scotland and it’s a magical, but dark place. Her family are haunted by many things, in a house that’s not quite right on an island which just seems to be filled with ghosts. It felt a lot more grown up, a lot more rounded than her previous novel – the characters were more real and the relationships between them also felt very believable. The relationships between parents and children, sisters, lovers; all of them felt real.

Something else I loved about this book is the nod to her short stories. I loved how she wove things like The Rental Heart in to this so seamlessly, and how that in this slightly fantastical reality it was believable. It also made me want to go back and reread her entire back catalogue – so keep an eye out for reviews of me rereading her books!

Honestly, I cannot praise this book enough. It was absolutely gorgeous and I cannot wait to get my hands on a physical copy in April. If you have a chance to get your hands on this, do, and let it wash over you because it’s beautiful. I read it in one sitting, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and come the end I wanted to read it all over again. I feel so lucky that I was able to read this 2 months before release, and it’s genuinely one of the books I have been most excited for this year. I can’t wait to share it with my friends.

Review: The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanagihara

013 - The People in the Trees

 

013 - The People in the Trees

Rating – 2*

This book is one that has sat on my TBR since I read A Little Life when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015. Much like A Little Life this book doesn’t shy away from difficult topics – but the beauty of her writing didn’t make this any the easier to read for me. I’ve read somewhere that A Little Life was a follow up to this in a way, in that it is told from the victims perspective – so if that was difficult to read, this is exponentially more difficult.

The novel follows Norton Perina, a character who we know from the outset has been sentenced to prison for sexual abuse of one of his many adopted children. We know he isn’t a good guy from the first few pages, but this is his ‘biography’ – his side of the story. His story takes us back to the 1950s, we briefly get an insight in to his academic studies, but the book picks up when he goes on an expedition to a little known island with an anthropologist. His life is forever altered by the time on this Micronesian island, he goes on to win the Nobel Prize and is comfortable for the rest of his career from the groundbreaking discovery he made on the island.

While the science in this book is incredible, as is the writing, a lot of it didn’t sit comfortably with me. It felt very claustrophobic as a book, I was never comfortable in it. The landscape the majority of the book is set in is jungle, it’s oppressive, and that’s how the book felt to me throughout. At it’s core this book is about rape. Rape of people, land, nature, an entire culture. It’s about a man who does that to better only himself, and he admits in the book he’d do it all again.

I admit that her writing is incredible, I can’t deny that, and she has a way with writing problematic characters. I just felt really, really uncomfortable reading this book and I can’t separate myself from that. Reading a lot of reviews of this book I can see a lot of people liken it to Lolita – which I haven’t read and have no intention of reading – so maybe if you read that and appreciated it (I hesitate to say liked it) this could be a book for you?

For me though, I just can’t bring myself to give this more than 2* – it was on for a 3* until the final chapter, or rather the epilogue, which I most certainly could have done without.

Review: The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

005 - The End We Start From

005 - The End We Start From

Rating – 3*

The End We Start From was a book I just happened to stumble upon. I was looking for short books, novellas, anything of the sort to fill a couple of hours on my day off and found this – a 160 page dystopian novella – which ticked a lot of the right boxes for what I was in the mood for.

For an impulse purchase I had no information about prior to picking up, I really enjoyed this book. The writing was absolutely gorgeous and sucked me right in to the book – on further research in to the author I found that she’s a poet and when I think about it, that isn’t all that surprising when I think about the writing. A lot of people have said in reviews that this book reads like a prose poem, and I really get that.

The plot itself spans around a year in the life of our narrator and starts in the last weeks of her pregnancy. During those weeks, a flood occurs in London nearly destroying it and she and her husband have to evacuate for their own safety. They move several times over the course of the novella, and through all the devastation and heartache we get an insight in to motherhood through the eyes of our narrator which is actually beautiful.

It’s by no means a fleshed out book, the writing is sparse, there are a lot of gaps left for the reader to imagine what happens, no characters have full names and are referred to by only their initial; but I really enjoyed it. Maybe it was the relationship with water in the book, but at times I found myself thinking about The Waves by Virginia Woolf – not that this book is similar whatsoever, really, but the prose washed over me in a similar way (excuse the pun).

Megan Hunter is going to be an author I look out for, I enjoyed this book a fair bit for an impulse purchase. If you want a quick read which gets you thinking, I’d recommend this highly!

Review: Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit – Jeanette Winterson

2017 - oranges are not the only fruit

059 - oranges

Rating – 3*

I have been looking forward to reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit for a very, very long time. It’s a cornerstone of LGBTQ+ fiction, and it is a book that I’ve had on my shelf for a good 3 or 4 years and just never been in the mood to pick up. I have held it on such a pedestal that on reading it, I’ve been a little let down.

As always with Winterson’s prose, it’s beautiful. But I’m glad this wasn’t my first foray in to her writing. While I found the semi-autobiographical nature of it interesting, and I enjoyed the main crux of the plot surrounding the coming-of-age of Jeanette, I did find it disjointing on the whole. There are several side stories within the book, which while beautifully written, distracted me from the main plot. They probably had purpose, in literary circles they’re probably genius 5 page long metaphors but to the average reader (me, hi) they were a bit off putting.

One thing I will say is I listened to this as an audiobook which Jeanette Winterson read – and it was glorious. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, authors reading their own works is a pleasure and something that should be done more often. I attribute a lot of my enjoyment of this book to the audiobook as I think were I reading a physical copy alone I may have actually put the book down.

On the whole, this was okay. I will definitely continue to read Winterson’s work, but so far this has been a low point for me. I’m glad I read it, of course I am, and I can understand on reading it how it has impacted so heavily on society. It just didn’t meet the expectations I had for it unfortunately.

 

Review: The Passion – Jeanette Winterson

056 - The Passion

Rating – 3*

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

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

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

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