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: One Hundred Shadows – Hwang Jungeun

004 - one hundred shadows

004 - one hundred shadows

★★

This book first came on to my radar around 18 months ago, and was the book that introduced me to Tilted Axis Press – a publishing house, founded by Deborah Smith who rose to notoriety translating Han Kang’s works (which went on to win prize after prize). Tilted Axis focus on translated works, especially those which otherwise may not have otherwise made it to the English market. While I’ve now read a handful of books from Tilted Axis, I’d yet to read the one which brought the publisher to my attention and once again in the mood to read a book in one sitting this little 150 page book was top of the pile.

Describing this story is difficult because, honestly, I don’t really know what went on in it. The story takes place in a run down area of Seoul and follows two young people; Eungyo and Mujae. They both work in shops in the district which are at risk of being shut down as the area is described as ‘a slum’. These two characters bond over their mutual situation, and their relationship develops over the course of the 150 pages. There is also the aspect of Shadows and their power over an individual – I wish there was more focus on this aspect of the book because I think if this had gone further in to magical realism I would have enjoyed it a lot more. A lot is left to the imagination and I did feel that my brain was constantly playing catch up to try and pick up threads.

The description of the book is “off beat” but I don’t quite think that covers the confusion I felt. Rather than off beat I think it was completely lost. The writing (and the translation) were beautiful but the actual plot left me confused and a little cold. I didn’t feel any particular connection to the characters, and while I read it in one sitting I did find myself distracted easily and never completely immersed.

The author has another book which has recently been published by Tilted Axis, and I will check that out because I did like the style of writing. I hate to judge an author on one book (unless the book is actually awful, which this wasn’t, it just wasn’t entirely my cup of tea and that’s fine).

Ultimately this was a 2 star read for me – I liked it, but it isn’t a book which blew me away, nor is it one I think will stay with me in any way long term. But it’s an author I’m interested by, and I do intend to look at buying her other book in English.

Review: The Parentations – Kate Mayfield

056 - The Parentations

056 - The Parentations

Rating – 5*

I picked this book up on an absolute whim on Audible. I had no idea what it was about, but from what little I heard in a preview and a quick check on goodreads I thought it’d be a book I enjoyed. I wasn’t wrong, I just wasn’t prepared for how much I was going to love this book. I can categorically say now this will be one of my favourite books of the year – I’ve given a lot of 5* ratings this year, but none have come as easily as this one did.

Finding words for how much I loved this book is hard, in fact I’ve been musing over them for 3 days now as I write this. This book was an experience I wasn’t expecting, I haven’t been as pulled in by a book in a long, long time – to the point I read this book in 2 sittings, something I haven’t done with a nearly 500 page book in a very long time!

The story in this book is intriguing – it bounces around between London and Iceland, starting in the 1700s and following the same characters right the way through to present day. That alone intrigued me, as it should anyone, because it follows the same characters over 250 years or so, why wouldn’t that be interesting? The story is about a young man called Rafe – who we follow from the time his mother found out she was expecting him – and why he’s just so special. We never really follow him from his own perspective, instead we follow the life of his mother Elizabet, his aunt Clovis, and his god mothers Constance and Verity Fitzgerald. We move Iceland to London, our characters living in near exile, in grand houses and in prison at different points of the book – and while it spans 250 years or so, it moves at a hell of a pace when you get through the first few chapters of character building.

The women of this book are all unique – especially Clovis who is some Dickensian level of machiavellian; she’s a character who is absolutely abhorrent and for that, while I didn’t like her, I loved her. It’s very rare in literature to come across a woman who is so conniving and, let’s face it, a complete psychopath of the Criminal Minds variety and it was a breath of (very evil) fresh air. As for Constance and Verity, I want them to be my godmothers, I adored them both, they were the complete antithesis of Clovis and I can’t explain quite how much I was rooting for them! While Elizabet is Rafe’s mother, she plays more of a background part throughout.

There are other characters who are well rounded too. All the men in this book portray very different type of man to ones I’ve seen in novels before. It sounds crazy to say this, but I genuinely don’t feel like I’ve read these characters before, in any way, shape or form. Clovis’ husband, Finn, is not all he appears to be – and definitely does not wear the trousers in his relationship, shall we say. And their household staff are interesting too – dealing with LGBTQ+ themes, and very, very low level mentions of sexual abuse. Not one character is a stereotype, they’re all so multifaceted and layered, and even after nearly 500 pages I still felt like there was more to learn about them.

While the book is very character driven, the plot is also incredible.  It constantly kept turning in a way I wasn’t expecting, and before I knew it I’d read 250 pages and it was 1AM. How everything and everyone comes together, I adored. There are no other words for it. There is so much going on, and it’s so well put across, I just can’t believe it was over so quickly. It was one of those books I didn’t want to stop reading, but equally I didn’t want it to end. Finding that balance is tough!

I’d urge anyone even remotely interested in any form of historical fiction, fantasy, magical realism, or just good books containing amazing characters, to pick this up. I’m so sad it’s over, and I don’t often say this but I can’t wait to read it again.

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: 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: A Guide to Being Born – Ramona Ausubel

029 - A Guide to Being Born

029 - A Guide to Being Born

Rating – 2*

This is one of those books which has been sitting there, itching to be read, for a number of years. I think I bought this way, way back on a friends recommendation and have had such high hopes for it since that I just didn’t want to pick it up – it wasn’t quite the right time.

I think I may have gone in to this book with expectations far too high because, well, I didn’t enjoy it. Ausubel’s writing is beautiful, there’s no escaping that. How she uses language, her turns of phrase, her imagery and atmosphere is incredible but the actual stories as separate entities? Those I didn’t enjoy so much.

So many reviews of this collection say that they (as readers) were swept up in her worlds, and loved the creativity and whimsy of what she created. Said that stories in here were beautiful. For me, I didn’t get that. Some of the stories physically repulsed me – and I get that that was the intention, to blur those lines between reality and fiction, to have questionable ethics and plots to make you think. But, honestly, some of it for me went too far over the line for me to enjoy.

I so wanted to love this book, but in the end I carried on reading out of a sense of obligation. Not because I necessarily wanted to. I hoped – fruitlessly – that I would find that story in here, that one that made me forget all the faults and issues I had, the one that swept me up and made me love this collection as everyone else on my GoodReads friends list seems to. But it didn’t happen. The stories did get better, but not enough for me to recall them at any given moment – never mind a week after the event in a review! And the stories I do remember I don’t particularly wish I could, I wish I could erase them from my memory.

As I said, Ausubel is clearly a talented writer to evoke this emotion from me – because I don’t think I’d feel so passionately about a book being packed full of stories I disliked if I hated the writing. I’d have just thrown it to one side and forgotten about it. But, with this book, I didn’t feel I could do that. Only go in to this book with a strong stomach and preparation that it isn’t quite the ‘Cath Kidston’ of short story collections like many of the reviews make you believe.

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 Seamstress and the Wind – César Aria

030 - The Seamstress and the Wind

Rating – 2*

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Susanna Clarke

strangeandnorrellTo try and sum this book up is difficult. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is a book that spans 1005 pages, it is modern yet reads like something by Dickens, it’s a slow burn that builds up ever so gradually and to try and summarise it in to a review and do it justice, I feel, is an impossibility. This is going to be a long review which tells very little as I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who does want to read this!

I’m going to break from my mould of reviews to give this a quick taster to anyone who has looked at the sheer enormity of this book and been put off, as someone who was really dubious as to whether this book was going to be for me, I just want to give a brief indication of the reading experience for this, because 1000 page books are daunting for even the most avid of readers. My first thing to say to anyone thinking about this is that if a 1000+ book that is a very slow burn with several sub-plots and footnotes isn’t something that tickles your pickle, then this book is probably not one for you. I would say if you like fantasy or historical fiction maybe give it a go and try the first 100 pages or so if you do want to just step outside of your comfort zone, just to see if you like it. On the other hand, if you appreciate all of those things and like a book that reads as if it was a very approachable, borderline fantasy book by Dickens then you will more than likely love this.

With that brief introduction over, I have to say I loved this book. It probably could have done with being 200 pages or so shorter but then, I enjoyed every minute I was either listening to or reading this. It straddles the borders between several genres of fiction – all of which I do enjoy – there is historical fiction, fantasy, it reads as if it were written by Dickens and has that approachability of a YA novel and I just loved that. The characters themselves were incredible. Mr Norrell is detestable yet oddly endearing; I found I liked him much more in the first half of the book than the second but, then, the first portion of this book is primarily Norrell with only a smattering of other characters. Jonathan Strange isn’t actually introduced until the 250 page mark and is a character who I did find interesting but somewhat annoying, he’s much more likeable over the course of the novel than Norrell and the twist in his story towards the end of the second section did break me a little. What I particularly liked is the downward spiral from that point in to the third section where things become desperate.

What I loved so much about this is that the characters were severely flawed. I appreciated that magic couldn’t solve all their woes. As I said above, the downward spiral of Jonathan Strange over the final third of the book was one that I could hardly put down. I actually read most of this book over the period of the bank holiday weekend because I was just so enthralled by it all!

The research that must have gone in to this book is also incredible. Susanna Clarke has written a fantasy novel which is based around the Napoleonic War and the affect on England and in spite of the magical elements it is historically accurate. Some of it did read more like an academic work; there are long arguments of why some magic can or cannot be done, citations from works of magicians who are long dead with footnotes which are insanely long (and I found really interesting though, I can understand why some people hate them!) There is also this grasp on the age in which Strange and Norrell are living which makes this feel very authentic in it’s efforts to come across as a 19th century novel.

I really can’t express my love for this book enough. It took me a month to read in full, but 600 pages were read over 2 days in the end. It was a slow, meandering read and I appreciated that. I’m still torn as to whether it is a 4* or a 5* book so I’m going to say it’s a 4.5 for now. However, I’m very excited to now go and watch the TV series, I just hope it lives up to the novel!

Review: All My Friends Are Superheroes – Andrew Kaufman

allmyfriendsaresuperheroesAll My Friends Are Superheroes is a sweet book just over 100 pages. It is one that I have had on my radar for quite some time but only actually picked up a few months back. I’m really glad I took an hour out of my day to read this.

Like the title suggests, we follow Tom a man who has friends who are all superheroes. Now, they’re not your cape-wearing, crime fighting type but they’re every day superheroes with mundane super powers. There’s The Amphibian who can live both on land and underwater; Hypno who can hypnotise like a pro and Tom’s new wife, The Perfectionist, whose source of power is her need for order. Anyway, we follow Tom – our perfectly normal protagonist –  and flash back through Tom and Perfs relationship and he tries to think of a way to get her to see him again after Hypno made him invisible to his wife. There are interludes where we learn about other superheroes and their powers and that’s quite a nice touch – doesn’t add much to the story but was nice nonetheless.

This is a perfectly sweet little book that I read in about an hour. It had all the elements of a fairy tale, the right amount of romance and just enough silliness to make me smile. It was good, not mind-blowing, and just really short and sweet. I can’t really say much more about it, it’s only 112 pages long so I don’t want to spoil it completely! All I will say to tie it all up is that I’m glad I read it and would say, if you have an hour and this on your shelf, don’t put it off because it’s a really nice little read – 3/5 from me on this one.