Review: Justine – Alice Thompson

042 - Justine

Rating – 3*

Justine is a very interesting, but bizarre, book. It is short at only 140 or so pages, but it packs a punch. I hesitate to compare it to anything, because I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before – but it reads like something written pre-1900, even though it’s a contemporary novel. For me, personally, I saw a lot of similarities between it and The Picture of Dorian Grey – but maybe it’s because it is about a man obsessed with a painting – and also Moby Dick (not that there’s any whales) but it’s focal point is a man driven to obsession over something.

The protagonist in this story is rich and spoiled. He is a man of frivolities and indulgence; he buys fancy paintings and lazes around smoking opium. At the start of the book, Justine is merely a figure in a painting who he fancies himself in love with, but then one day he sees a woman who is remarkably like the woman from the painting, and her name is also Justine. As a man with an addictive, and obsessive personality, he becomes ensnared by Justine and is absolutely convinced he is meant to be with her. But then there’s another woman, Justine’s twin sister Juliette and that’s when things get a bit crazy…

Needless to say I read this book in one sitting because it was so, so engaging. It’s fast paced and kept me guessing what would happen at every turn. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the other novella I’ve read by Thompson (The Book Collector) but I really do love her writing. My main issue with this book is, quite oddly for Salt, there were numerous spelling mistakes and typos throughout which really irritated me and reduced my overall enjoyment. Thankfully, I persevered because I really liked what I was reading, but I would tell any potential reader to be aware of their presence!

I can’t wait to read the other book(s?) I have by Alice Thompson sitting on my shelf. I have a feeling they might be good October reads!

Review: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times – Xan Brooks

029 - The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times

Rating – 4*

This book was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. Salt are one of my favourite publishers; I’ve never read a bad book from them and they’re a local publishing house, which just makes me love them even more. I was fortunate enough to win this book in a giveaway on Goodreads  – as someone who never wins anything, I was absolutely elated when this arrived in the post! However, with all my reading for the Wellcome Prize, I didn’t get around to this until the start of this month – but honestly, it was worth the wait.

I don’t know what I was expecting going in to this book, but honestly what I got wasn’t anything like I imagined. Trying to explain what this book was is difficult – because honestly it’s very unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It was absolutely mesmerising, but also quite an uncomfortable read in places, and I really enjoyed it.

The book is set shortly after WWI has ended, and we meet our young protagonist – Lucy – as she is on her way to the forest to meet The Funny Men. This band of men are named after Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz, and over the first part of the book we learn why Lucy is off to the forest to meet these men, who these men are, and the lines between fairytale and reality get heavily blurred. Over the course of the novel as a whole, those lines get even more blurred, the plot gets darker and even weirder, and seemingly unrelated plot points all come together and, frankly, it’s fantastic.

The first 20 or 30 pages for me were the hardest to get through, I had to read them twice before I actually found myself engaged in the book. It was quite a jolting start, if I’m entirely honest, and a little weird even for me! Once I got through them, and persevered, I found this a hard book to put down. Yes it was disturbing, and unsettling but come the end of it all I couldn’t help but have this overwhelming feeling of sadness that I was done with it.

This book was weird and wonderful and, while nothing like what I had imagined in my mind when I first read the blurb on Salts website in Autumn last year, it was incredible. It’s definitely not a book for the faint of heart and it’s also not a book that will be enjoyed by everyone. Personally, I loved it.

Now, you may be wondering why 4* not 5*? Well, it was a tough call but if I am entirely honest with myself, while it was beautifully written and expertly crafted, the different streams of the story often had me a little lost. It came together in the end, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a book coming together, but while reading it I did feel it was a little jumbled.

I look forward to what Xan Brooks does in the future, because for a debut, this was incredible.

Review: The Book Collector – Alice Thompson

 

22 - The Book Collector

Rating – 4*

This book may be small but it is certainly mighty. At just over 150 pages I was concerned that it wouldn’t provide all it promised, but it did and it provided so much more. It’s my first book by both Alice Thompson, and from the publisher, but it certainly won’t be my last.

We follow Violet, a young, influential girl who is seemingly swept off of her feet by a book collector, Archie. They marry, have a son, everything is rosy. Then the rose tinted goggles start to come away from Violet, she starts to see things, and as a reader you question her sanity. From this point the book takes a decidedly dark and twisty turn of events – we have a visit to the local asylum, murder, adultery; it’s all so very creepy and I loved it.

This comprises of such a small cast of characters, while they’re not all fully fleshed out  I think that it added to the story. The murky atmosphere, and not quite knowing everything, really boosted the book for me. This is one of the best, modern, Gothic novels I’ve read (and I love a Gothic Novel). It had elements of Rebecca which were done really well, not in an outright mimic of du Maurier but in a very subtle way which was really effective.

The writing here was really vivid. There was beautiful use of language, the atmosphere was created masterfully, the interwoven fairy tales also really worked for me. My one resounding impression from reading this though is that it would make such a good stage production. It was dark and creepy, but also beautiful. When I was reading this, I could see it all so clearly… Oh I so hope this is adapted in some way!

To explain the 4* rating; for me it was a little short and a bit too snappy. While I loved it the way it was, I wish there was just something more!

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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: The Alphabet of Birds – S J Naudé

15 - The Alphabet of Birds

Rating – 5*

The Alphabet of Birds was first published in South Africa and was translated in to English, from Afrikaans, by the author himself. In this there are seven short stories, however three of them link together somewhat in that characters pop up across them. This was an incredible collection.

Reviewing short story collections is always hard, especially one as varied as this was. The first story, The Noise Machine, we are thrown in to a party in Milan where there is a rare instrument and a mysterious character who makes someone address their past. In the second – Van – we have a white nurse in a predominantly black region of South Africa who wants the best for her patients who are suffering, in the main, from HIV; she throws her all in to this care as a result everything aside from this becomes minutia including her marriage and children. Then we have a couple of stories that have the main focus of close relatives dying, but they’re so much more than that; then there is a group of women who dance and a stolen dog, a deeper look in to a previous character and her family dynamic, and finally we have a performer who gets lead along a sort of dubious path. Basically, they’re all so different, yet very similar, and I loved them all.

While this is, on the whole, a collection of fiction that is very much realism there is still a little smattering of the unusual which I think works wonderfully in the short story medium. As a collection, it leaves you asking questions sometimes, most of the stories do finish open ended in order to enable you as a reader to form your own conclusions.

There is a sense of displacement in all of these stories, Naudé himself has moved about significantly and he really addresses that feeling of not quite belonging in one culture or another. There are stories set in South Africa but also in America and Europe, there is a real mix of countries and cultures which gave a really interesting perspective. My (step) uncle is actually South African and I really liked the fact that this collection, in a way, has enabled me to connect with my uncle on some level. There are other themes; music and death mainly, but these stories really do just fit together even though the themes are quite vague.

Also, something I really, really loved about this collection is there are a number of queer characters. Not as a plot device, they just are. There is nothing I love more from a book than an author just making a queer character a person not a caricature or a plot device. It is such a rare thing in any form of media – so kudos to Mr Naudé on that front!

I’m going to have to be honest, this is a short story collection I just connected with. The writing is incredible, the stories were incredible and I am so happy I discovered this. It blew me away if I’m honest and really reignited my love of the short story. A couple of the stories were 4* on their own but, on the whole, this is a 5* collection and I will be eagerly awaiting anything else this man publishes. I’m not sure how I’m going to top this book, in all honesty!

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