Review: Human Acts – Han Kang

41 - Human Acts

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: Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera

28 - Signs Preceding the End of the World

Rating – 3*

Hello and Happy Sunday! Today, I will start with a short disclaimer, I’m finding this book very difficult to review and find the right words for. I picked it up for Brave New Reads 2016, and I’m very glad that it was pushed up my TBR because of that. I just find myself struggling to actually write about this novel(la). I think maybe it’s a book that you just have to experience for yourself!

Signs Preceding the End of the World follows a young woman, Makina, on her journey to find her brother, who crossed the Mexico-US border. Makina is a great protagonist, she’s intelligent, diligent and headstrong. In her village she works as a switchboard operator, able to speak both native language, ‘latin’ and ‘anglo’, she cares about this job and the people in the village when she’s tasked the job of crossing the border. She carries two messages on her journey, one from their mother and one from the Mexican gang leader who sent her brother across the border in the first place. The actual geography is never explicit, which is what makes this book feel almost ethereal, there are never any place names – instead she walks to the place where the hills meet and takes a bus to the place where the wind cuts like a knife. It adds a mythical quality to the book. It reminded me of the story of Persephone, on her journey to the underworld in Greek myth and I’ve seen that comparison pop up quite a lot.

This was an incredible translation by Lisa Dillman, however every time I read a book so wonderfully translated I really wish I could understand the original language. I found her note at the end of the book really quite enlightening in to her process, and I found it gave me a greater connection to the story itself. I feel that it was a very true translation, and it has all the key elements that the original had. It was a captivating book, and the translation was – as I said – incredible.

It was certainly a book which hit me, it was beautiful to read, but for me it felt like it was just lacking in a little something. Maybe I should have forced myself to stay awake and read it in one sitting, I don’t know, all I know is I don’t feel I got as much out of this book as others seemed to. I would urge people to try it, because it’s certainly a special book, and I will be reading the next book published by &Other Stories of the authors work because there was definitely something captivating about it!

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Review: The Vegetarian – Han Kang

23 - The Vegetarian

My Rating – 4* 

This is a book which came on to my radar quite a while ago, eventually I got around to it and boy am I glad I did. The Vegetarian is an incredibly powerful book; focusing on a young woman who takes it upon herself to eat a plant-based diet in a country where that just is not the done thing. I was curious about this book, I’m a vegetarian myself (and considering the possibility of becoming vegan) and as this is a very different cultural look at plant-based diets I approached it with what I can only call a morbid curiosity. Not only that, but I’d never read a book by a South Korean author and I really love to branch out across the world with my reading! What surprised me most is this is more than a book about a woman who  becomes a vegetarian; it’s an insight in to society in South Korea, and also a tentative narrative about mental illness.

Yeong-hye, our protagonist, after having a vivid dream decides that she is to be a vegetarian – or rather a vegan; upon waking in the middle of the night she goes to the kitchen and rids the house of meat. This is much to her husbands dismay and anger, who says “Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.“. We follow this experience of Yeong-hye’s decent in to veganism (as she rids her life of animal based products as well as meat) through the eyes of three members of her family; her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. Each of these narrators gets around 60 pages to tell their part of the story. Their sections don’t really overlap, they don’t really have much in common, the only common factor is Yeong-hye. It was a little jumpy in parts, and I wish there was more from Yeong-hye herself but I sort of liked the peripheral look we got at her throughout.

Now, this book is not for the faint of heart – it is frankly quite brutal in places. There is moments of force feeding, there is sexual assault, and I would also say that it could be quite triggering to people with any eating disorder. But that brutality? It really made this book stand out, and I think it will stick with me for that.

I gave this 4* because it didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I loved this book, I loved the premise, I loved the decent from the slightly odd to the out-right bizarre, I loved the journey it took me on. I just don’t feel it quite lived up to what I had imagined it to be in my head. I wish this were more of a social look at one woman and her plant-based diet in South Korea and less of a family drama. But really, that’s my only criticism. The prose was absolutely beautiful, and while a lot of that is down to the translator (Deborah Smith), there is no denying that this woman can write! I will definitely be checking out her other novel (Human Acts) at some point in the future.

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Review: Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs – Lina Wolff

17 - Bret Easton Ellis and Other Dogs

Rating – 4*

This book is very hard to rate and describe, and I really don’t know what kind of person I would recommend it to. I would like to preface this very confused review with an overarching statement of I really enjoyed this, the prose is absolutely stunning and this book it just captivated me when I was reading it. But for me this was a very, very slow read. This wasn’t a particularly long book, either.

The structure of this book is what interested me the most, it’s like a Russian doll. There are stories within stories in this book, and it flits between these stories and somehow they all come together quite beautifully. In a way it’s a short story collection, or at least a collection of vignettes. It doesn’t always make sense, I did often find myself a little lost and having to reread over sections, but it works. I hazard to say this, as I hate comparing authors, but this was for me very reminiscent of both Virginia Woolf and Ali Smith. Yeah. Those are big words, because if you know me you know I love those of those women. It wasn’t the story which brought these comparisons to mind, it was the way in which it was written.

We follow Araceli Villalobos, a young girl from a sleepy Spanish town. However, this book generally focuses on her glimpses of Alba Cambó. Alba, a writer, presents as this very confident woman and acts as both a guiding influence on Araceli but also is quite vindictive towards her. Without the relationship between Araceli and Alba, this book would not work as a novel. It would, frankly, be a bit of a mess and neither a short story collection or a novel. It’s hard to pick out key points of this book because it is so many little things without much of an overarching story. Honestly, how the narrative of this book came together is incredible, it’s like a patchwork quilt!

However much I enjoyed this book, it just didn’t quite hit the mark for me. My main issue is that I found it hard to pick up where I left off when I had put it down. I wish I could have sat and read it through, I think having done that I’d have adored this book. But picking it up after a few hours away was quite jarring for me, personally. It’s a solid 4* read for me though, I really enjoyed this. I’m also hoping to get the an event with the author on Monday so I’m really looking forward to hearing her feelings and how she wanted this to come across!

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Review: Les Misérables – Victor Hugo

06 - Les Misérables

Rating – 4*

This book was a beast which took me the entirety of the month to get through but it was oh-so-worth it. I listened to this primarily as, once again, my physical and audio versions were different translations; the Penguin edition is Norman Denny and the Naxos audio translation is Isabel F. Hapgood. As a result, I generally stuck to the audio version because flip-flopping between the two translations was quite confusing! Also, it is worth saying that I went in to this book knowing practically nothing. I haven’t seen any adaptation of it as I always knew I wanted to read the book first. This book is incredible and trying to condense all my feeling in to a concise review has been a challenge!

Everything in this book was incredible. The plot was enormous and spanned so many things, but more than anything this was a character study. This was definitely more character driven than plot driven and I loved that! The characters were so rounded and real, their struggles felt believable, I believed in this people and even the characters I hated were equally as fascinating. Jean Valjean, really being the main character, is the one I felt most invested in and his story, this book, really did wrench my heart at times. The first part of this book, with Fantine, had me in tears at more than one point! His struggles over the course of the novel, the two sides of him conflicting, is a really interesting read and one I am so, so glad I finally got around to.

In the end I rated this book 4 stars. I’ve read some long books in my time, most of them are incredible. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason. This book was one of them but… I wasn’t compelled to keep picking this up. If I didn’t pick it up for 2 or 3 days I didn’t feel I missed it. Don’t misunderstand me, when I was reading this book I didn’t want to put it down but I also didn’t have the desire to keep picking it up (as I did with The Count of Monte Cristo). A big book is a commitment and it has to have the momentum to keep you going and, this didn’t really. My main issues with this book were that I found myself lost at times as Hugo does like to go off on extreme tangents which last a considerable amount of time. It’s that reason why I found myself not really engaging 100% with it while I was reading it. Some of these tangents were really interesting, I really enjoyed some of them but I think I would, and could, have got just as much out of an abridged version and I really hate myself for thinking that! This book is as much about French history and philosophy as it is about Jean Valjean and some of that was very much appreciated!

If you love a big book, if you want to make a commitment for an indeterminate period of time, I do recommend this book. However, if you want a more fast paced French epic, definitely pick The Count of Monte Cristo up over this. Maybe this is one where familiarity would be a good thing and having seen the musical or the movie would have been of benefit, who knows? All I know is I enjoyed it and I am most certainly a convert to French classic literature!

Review: The Nutcracker – E.T.A. Hoffmann || Blogmas Day 21

the nutcrackerI bought this, and wanted to read it, because I saw the ballet. All I will say to compare the two is that this is essentially a Grimms Fairy Tale to a Disney movie. The performance is NOTHING like the source material. I don’t know what I was expecting, German children’s literature – especially classics – are notoriously dark and this was no exception of that rule.

The story itself follows seven year old Marie, who is given a pretty ugly, wooden Nutcracker from her godfather for Christmas. She has vivid dreams on that night about the Nutcracker and it follows that her godfather tells her the tale of the Nutcracker; how he was once a beautiful boy who was cursed to become ugly. Marie is determined to help her much-loved Nutcracker and wants to help him break the spell that made him ugly and we follow her adventure in to the doll kingdom! It really is the sweetest tale but is also quite brutal and gruesome in parts.

It really was a charming Christmas book. Having seen the ballet I feel I appreciated it more but that’s not to say you couldn’t get the same out of it if you haven’t seen the ballet, I think for me it just added a bit of meat to the bones! I loved this and will definitely reread it at Christmastime again.

Review: Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy || Blogmas Day 3

anna kareninaI want to write this review while the book is still quite fresh in my mind. This is a masterpiece. Not quite to the same level as The Count of Monte Christo (which I think will be hard to top) but it is nonetheless very much incredible. It’s not a book to go in to thinking it will be an easy read and I really don’t think it’s a good place to start with classics but it is one of the most amazing novels I’ve read this year.

The scope of this novel is insane and I don’t think I can summarise it and do the novel justice. The characters are varied and well written, there are layers to each of their personalities and by the end of the book I felt I actually knew these people. It’s not just the characters; the story flows beautifully and moves from point of view to point of view seamlessly, dialogue didn’t bore me (for once!) and everything contributed to make this an absolutely incredible novel. Tolstoy’s writing was a lot more readable and enjoyable than I was expecting to the point I’m actually considering reading War and Peace.

I part read, part listened to this novel and that really helped for me. Chunky classics like this lend themselves to audiobook quite well and the audio format really help me focus on the story. I chose the older audiobook, read by David Horovitch, and I don’t regret that decision. It was very easy to listen to, my only issue with it is sometimes – when a character was whispering – it was a smidge too quiet for me!

The main reason, for me, that this is a 4* not a 5* is that there were a significant number of rather dull chapters, particularly around the half way point I found myself getting infuriated by chapters on farming. Maybe it’s just me? I understand the need for a full scope on the situation but 19th century Russian agriculture is not really something I have a burning passion to read about. That being said, I feel that this will be a book I revisit in the future and get a lot more out of from the act of rereading, it took me the best part of the month but it was entirely worth it.

Review: The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas

countofmontecristoTrying to put this book in to words is a challenge. I don’t think there are enough words to just quantify how amazing this was, I really don’t. This is an enormous book, it’s a beast at over 1200 pages, the font isn’t exactly easy to read either but somehow it could have gone on for 1200 more and I don’t think I’d have been bored. I’m so glad that I wasn’t put off by the sheer enormity of it because this book is wonderful.

The way I recently described it to my friend is Sirius Black gone right. Edmond Dantés, our protagonist, has everything going for him at the age of 19 when this book starts; a beautiful girlfriend, the job of his dreams, a loving father… then it all goes wrong and he is imprisoned for 14 years. That isn’t really a spoiler as such as it generally features on all descriptions! Upon his leaving his imprisonment, he takes revenge on those that caused him to end up there. He takes up the identity of the Count of Monte Cristo and, after developing a very intricate plan over a number of years, dishes out his revenge cold. There are so many threads to this story which are woven together in such a satisfying way, there is no such thing as a loose end at the end of this 1200 page epic!

And while this is a story about revenge, it is also ultimately about love. All Dantés has done in the years after prison – and during – were because of his love for Mercédès. All the actions that seem awful in some respects are actually, in part, driven by love of another character. Talking of the characters, they were all incredible. They were all rounded; they had merits and they had flaws – Dantés included! Some of them I loved, others I loathed but I just loved every interaction and how all of the characters wove together… it was incredible.

I think I owe the speed at which I read this to the audiobooks assistance. It was a 52hr audiobook, which I listened to on 2x speed and I just loved it. It just really brought it all to life. I was so invested in this book, and audiobook, that I was having dreams that seemed to merge with the plot of this. I was completely immersed.

This book has gone to the top of my favourite books list. Honestly. I’ve read some good books in my life but few have been as incredible as this. This has gone in to my Top 5 Ever list (along with – to name a couple – Rebecca and Orlando). It is daunting; it’s a 1200 page book, but please – if you are going to read one classic (pre-1900) this year, or in your lifetime, make it this. If you’ve read this please speak to me. I NEED to talk to people about this book because I just don’t think I can ever forget it and I want to experience it as long as possible.

Needless to say this is a 5/5 book. Definitely the best I’ve read this year (although, Orlando is fighting with it a bit). I urge you – READ THIS BOOK! (and make it the unabridged version).

PS: As if you needed any more convincing, there’s a not so closeted, 19th century lesbian. It’s not there unless you look for it, but it’s not just in my head, there is critical reviews that defend this point. And if that isn’t enough of a sell, I don’t know what else I can do to convince you.

Review: Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

madamebovary“Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightnings,–a hurricane of the skies, which falls upon life, revolutionises it, roots up the will like a leaf, and sweeps the whole heart into the abyss.”

Madame Bovary is essentially a book about a woman who loves the idea of romance. Emma Bovary is a gem of a character, she’s entered a marriage with an idyllic viewpoint based on what she has read and finds out that love, marriage and sex isn’t like what she read about (I feel you, Emma. I feel you.). So, she decides to do something about it. The book follows her, and reads as an outsider looking in, as she embarks on a number of affairs.

There were a few glaring problems with this for me though; Emma as a character was far better than the book as a whole. I wasn’t keen on the writing style or the flow in parts. There are some beautiful passages, some descriptions are just so vivid but I think the core problem is that I didn’t feel like I was part of the story, I did just feel like an observer and that not being able to fully engage with it bothered me.

But Emma, oh Emma Bovary. You are a breath of fresh air and I love you. Just a little bit. It would be very easy to actually hate every character in this book, even Emma, but I found myself liking her. She’s quite conceited and narcissistic, she has an addictive personality but… She’s just awesome. She’s not perfect, she’s full of flaws actually, but she’s just intoxicating in a way.

I read this as part of my reading challenge for the year as a romance novel but, really, it’s not really a romance. It wants to be a romance and every character in the book wants their life to be a romance novel. But there’s a lot more to it than that and it’s not your typical fluffy romance either. By the end, it’s actually quite a sad book – beautiful – but heartbreaking.

Overall I’m glad I read this and I’m going to give it 3/5.

Review: Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – Haruki Murakami

murakami coverI think it’s fair to say this book wasn’t what I was expecting; but then, what really is expected when Murakami is at the helm? I haven’t had much prior experience with Murakami, I didn’t much enjoy Norwegian Wood when I’ve tried to read it but I absolutely loved 1Q84 – which is apparently a very different opinion to the masses! There was a question on Goodreads asking if disappointment in 1Q84 affected decisions as to whether or not to read this book – my answer to that is I loved 1Q84 so it absolutely affected my decision, in a positive way. I cannot remember the last time I bought a book (even an eBook) on release day. It was probably Harry Potter.

Back to this book, it’s about a man named Tsukuru Tazaki.  At the age of 20, Tsukuru Tazaki is kicked out of his group of five friends, three boys and two girls. Each of them has a colourful name: Red, Blue, White and Black, except for Tsukuru. It’s representative for the way he thinks about himself: colourless, with nothing valuable to offer the rest of the group – or even the world. This book follows him – in a series of present day tellings and flashbacks that cover the course of the 16 years since that day.

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