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: Nefertiti – Michelle Moran

038 - Nefertiti

038 - Nefertiti

Rating – 5*

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump, so I decided to pick up a book I loved a number of years ago to try and get me out of it. Interestingly, I managed to pick it up 5 years to the day that I did originally and I loved it just as much a second time around.

The reason I read this book in the first place is because I’ve always loved Egyptian history (mainly due to my finding of The Mummy movies when I was only 7 or 8 and my baby gay self falling in love with Rachel Weisz). There isn’t really much fiction based in Ancient Egypt, definitely not the period in which this book focuses on, which upsets me because I do love it so much however it does mean that the few books set in the 18th Dynasty of Egypt hold a very dear place in my heart.

Like I said, very little is known about this period of history in Egypt – only 10% of this book is factual, the rest is educated guesswork and pure fiction. While on a second read I didn’t find the writing quite as good as I did the first time around, I still thought this book was amazing. The period in which it was written was so beautiful and Moran doesn’t skimp on details of art, architecture and how beautiful the country was at the time.

The book also explores the unrest in Egypt with Akhenaten and Nefertiti’s reign. Akhenaten wanted to be known as a builder and is responsible for the city of Amarna, and was also responsible for the religious shift towards monotheism from polytheism (didn’t work, he is known as a Heretic King). The book is rife with family politics, wars on the verge of breaking out – and it’s around these themes that the book is ultimately based.

I wouldn’t be the first, nor will I be the last, to bring up the likeness of this book to The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t read that book in a long time, but ultimately this book is written through the eyes of the overlooked sister of a Queen. Mutnodjmet is an endearing character when compared to her sister Nefertiti and I think that is ultimately what makes this book a lot more compelling to read. Through her sisters eyes you get a very different insight in to the life of the Female Pharaoh – while she was portrayed as a conceited, beautiful girl she was also strong willed, ambitious and ultimately an incredible Queen when out of the grasp of Akhenaten.

I really loved this book. It isn’t a literary masterpiece, but it is definitely still up there as one of my favourite books and reminded me why I love historical fiction so much. It isn’t going to be long before I revisit others of Moran’s books (and maybe visit some for the first time) as I just love the way she writes.

Review: Let Them Eat Chaos – Kate Tempest

030 - Let Them Eat Chaos

030 - Let Them Eat Chaos

Rating – 3*

I’ve been really in the mood for poetry as of late, and I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some time, just waiting for the right moment. I’ve loved both of her previous poetry books. This is going to be a short and sweet review as, honestly, I don’t have much to say on it unfortunately.

This poem – for it’s one long poem much like Brand New Ancients was – was created to be read aloud and I think the fact I didn’t do that is probably the reason I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as her previous poetry work that I’ve read.

The pretext of this is actually quite fantastic – it follows several people in a flat block in South London at 4:18 am. For one reason or another, each of these individuals are awake at this time and we follow their stories as to why. So the premise is good, I just really didn’t enjoy the execution of it.

Unfortunately for me this just missed the mark. I think maybe it’s one of those poems I may have benefited from listening to or reading aloud myself – neither of which I was able to do when I picked it up during an insomnia fuelled night at around midnight! I really didn’t find any way of connecting with this like others have.

I can’t say it was bad because it wasn’t. I think it’s just geared up to a very specific kind of reader and I’m just not that of that kind of reader. At this point I’m not sure what I’ll be doing with her work in the future as both this and her novel missed the mark for me! I guess it’ll be a case of wait and see.

 

Discussion: January to March Reading Wrap-Up

Quarter 1 Wrap Up Header

Hello my lovely readers, and welcome to a rather different blog post – and one I haven’t done since August last year – a reading wrap up! I gave up doing wrap ups and TBRs because I wasn’t really reading much towards the end of last year and TBRs weren’t working. However, so far this year I’ve read 37 books. THIRTY SEVEN! I was aiming for 2 books a week to meet my goal of 100 books on Good Reads, but currently I’m on track to read around 150 books if I keep up this pace!

General Statistics:-
As I said, I’ve read 37 books so far this year from January to the end of March. The 37 books total 11,998 pages and it works out at an average of 324 pages per book. Which is crazy. I have a spreadsheet which I’ve been logging my reading on since 2012. In 2012 I was happy to have read that many pages in a year so to think I’ve managed to read that many pages in 3 months is incredible!

Diversity:-
Having participated in femmeuary – reading only female authors in February – I’ve somewhat skewed my author gender data, but as it stands 76% (or 28 authors) have been women so far. I’d rather like to keep up with that balance of around 75% female authors as I’m really enjoying what I’m reading so far, and don’t feel like I’m missing anything out!

I’ve also been trying to read from a more diverse range of authors as, I have noticed, my reading is very white – last year I read only 2 books by non-white authors. 2 books. So this year I’ve already surpassed that as 10 of the books – or 27% – have been from authors of a non-white ethnicity. Obviously it’s not ideal to still be around the 25% mark but it’s still a lot more diverse than my previous 2 years reading and, honestly, I’m loving it!

The Books in General:-
Genre wise – just over 50% of my reading has been non-fiction which is something that’s really surprised me when looking at. I know I’ve been reading more non fiction this year simply because I’ve been enjoying it a lot more. I’ve read several memoirs and thanks to the Wellcome prize I’ve also read a large amount of science non-fiction on top of that. This year I’ve also really been enjoying essays and essay collections so I’m pretty sure there’ll be a good balance of fiction to non fiction going forward. Right now as I write this I’m definitely more in a non-fiction mood than I am fiction and, honestly, I’m loving it!

My average rating is 3.6 if I’ve done my maths correctly. I’ve only had one 1* book, and I’ve had nine 5* books (two of which were re-reads in fairness).

Excluding re-reads, my favourite books I’ve read so far this year have been With the End in Mind for non-fiction and for fiction my favourite so far has to be The Gloaming which I do feel is cheating as it was an ARC and isn’t out until the end of next month, but whatever, my blog means my rules and I loved it.

Going Forward in to April:-
I don’t have much in the way of a TBR as such, but I’d like to keep up what I’m doing – as it stands my books per month have been gradually increasing, and while I’m aware it’ll plateau and probably dip at some point, I’d quite like it to keep quite steady at the 10 books a month area. One thing I want to do though is keep the fiction/non-fiction balance at around the 50/50 mark because honestly I am really, really enjoying non fiction lately and I have a lovely little collection of books on gender studies and feminism which I really want to get around to more of over the next few weeks!

If there’s anything anyone would like to see on the blog I’d love to hear from you. I want to do more chatty posts like this, because I feel that I’ve been banging out reviews one after the other (roughly at 1 every 3 days or so at the moment) and not really having time to just blog about reading in general.

I hope you’re all having as productive a reading year as I am so far. Feel free to send me recommendations, on here or on goodreads, as I said I’d love to hear from you.

Thanks for reading!

Review: Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

026 - Doctor Zhivago

026 - Doctor Zhivago

Rating – 3*

I decided to pick this book up at long last after I saw that Ange (Beyond the Pages on YouTube) was hosting a really informal readalong of it – informal in that it was “read at your own pace in the month of March”. That suited me perfectly and gave me just the kick up the backside I needed to finally pick it up. Unfortunately, I think it was a case of it wasn’t the right time for me to read this book, as I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

The book itself is incredible and it’s often said that this is one of the greatest love stories ever told (if you believe love to be tragic, I guess you could agree). It is essentially a story about a man who is considered a tragic hero who has been separated from the woman he loves due to civil war. I had no time for the love story, Zhivago as a character was not one I enjoyed reading – which is a bit pants given this is a book pretty much dedicated to his tragic life. Throughout the book we’re told that Zhivago loves both his wife and Lara, but he runs between the two. I never felt that he loved either of them from words or actions (until the final section which I will discuss later).

I found so much of this book improbable, most notably the series of increasingly unlikely coincidences where characters just seemed to bump in to each other in a country the size of Russia like it’s a village the size of a postage stamp. I don’t bump in to my neighbours as regularly as all these characters happened upon each other! If there were more explanation, maybe I’d accept it, but it just seemed to be a case of Pasternak needing a particular character in a particular place without any thought of how they got there! The first few times it’s acceptable, but then it becomes a bit absurd!

What makes this book so good for me though is the prose – the pages on pages of description of the surroundings. When the characters start talking it becomes stilted and frustrating again, but if this was just a meandering book about Russian mountains and snow, I’d have probably enjoyed it more. And whenever I stumbled upon a passage describing the surroundings I found myself falling a little bit more in love with the book and forgetting all the issues I had with it just a page before.

I think it’s also worth saying that in the edition I read there is a further part at the end which contained the poetry that Zhivago wrote – this was a much needed reprieve after the heft of the book, and was a more condensed version of what I enjoyed in this book. Pasternak’s prose (and kudos to the translators for doing such a beautiful job) is wonderful, it was just the main character and the plot that I didn’t enjoy. The poetry at the end was what lifted this book back up to 3* for me – and maybe it’s the poetry which makes me even slightly agree with the sentiment of this being one of the greatest love stories ever told.

So yes, unfortunately this book didn’t quite hit me how I hoped it would. It wasn’t bad, and I can understand why so many people love it, but for me the clunky dialogue and a series of unlikely coincidences detracted from the enjoyable bits. Still, I’m glad I read it.

 

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: Little Dorrit – Charles Dickens

021 - Little Dorrit

021 - Little Dorrit

Rating – 4*

After Britain being covered in snow last week, and not being able to go to work because I had 2 foot of the stuff outside, it seemed only appropriate to dig a Dickens’ novel off of my shelf. Cold snaps like that, I thought, are very Dickensian, which is why I picked this up. When it’s cold out I always feel more inclined to read a classic, something about them is cozy and comforting, no matter what the subject and I felt like a big book after reading so many shorter ones last month, so I chose Little Dorrit.

Little Dorrit follows the intertwining stories of Amy ‘Little’ Dorrit and Arthur Clennam. Amy was born in Marshalsea Prison – a notorious Debtors Prison. Amy is the youngest of three children – and as with all books by Dickens we get a real insight to the entire family and all their faults (of which there are many!) As with a lot of Dickens’ female protagonists she is pure of heart, but while she is quite ‘innocent’ and childlike I do think she is actually one of his more rounded female characters because she isn’t absolutely flawless. Arthur returns to London, after living abroad with his father who has recently died, to live with his disabled mother – as with the Dorrit family, you get a real insight in to all of the characters from his mother to the maids and each of them, while a little cartoonish, have their own personality.

I really enjoyed this. I found the development of Amy believable, I found the relationships between the characters believable (to a degree) but I also found the ‘moral’ of the story a good one. Money doesn’t always buy happiness, and I really liked this take on it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a book with a character like Amy in, and I think that’s why I’m slowly growing to love Dickens – his characters are the other side of historical society and the voices that rarely got heard. I think I understand why his books are considered classics, and why they were just as loved when they were published as they are now.

The reason I gave this book 4 stars is that while I liked it, it didn’t grab me quite as much as Bleak House did. I feel it unfair to compare every Dickens novel to Bleak House but I find it really hard not to! It’s up there, it is, it was a blooming good read and I’m glad I finally got around to it. It just didn’t quite meet the 5 star mark for me!

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: I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

017 - I Am I Am I Am

017 - I Am, I Am, I Am

Rating – 3*

This book has been receiving incredible reviews, and I was very excited to finally get to it because it sounded interesting. As with a lot of the Wellcome Prize longlist, they’re not books I would ordinarily pick up and that was certainly the case with this.

Firstly, I will say, the cover is gorgeous, I love it (and if anyone is interested, the header for this post is an electron microscope image of heart cells, to pay homage to the beauty of it).

The premise of the book is the author telling stories from her life from the near-death experiences she’s had. It is a really interesting concept, and one I was quite morbidly fascinated by. Although it’s billed as quite a sensational book, with the byline of “seventeen brushes with death” it’s a lot more reflective and intimate than it may be sold as. Also, the final chapter is about her daughter (which actually, for me, was the most poignant chapter) and a couple of the ‘brushes with death’ are tenuous at best. Not to make light of her life, but not all of it felt entirely relevant to the premise.

I’ve never read O’Farrell’s fiction, and while the writing in this book was beautiful on the whole I’m not entirely sure her writing is for me. Some of the meandering thoughts were just too much for me, and sometimes her writing I found a bit grating. That isn’t to say it wasn’t good, it was, I just felt that maybe an editor could have taken a bit more time and care to make it flow a lot better. Another thing about this book which was a bit baffling is the timeline. It’s all over the place. Maybe it was done to keep you reading, I don’t know, but generally speaking I like a memoir to move chronologically and this was backing and forthing.

There are so many positive reviews for this book, people raving about it, saying how much they connected to it. I just didn’t. I didn’t connect, I didn’t like the meandering prose, I didn’t enjoy the timeline being all over the place. And, writing this review a week on, it hasn’t been a book that stuck with me. In a way I understand how people might connect with this book, but for me it just wasn’t that five star read everyone has been raving about.

Review: Orlando – Virginia Woolf

018 - Orlando

018 - Orlando

Rating – 5*

He – for there could be no doubt of his sex” is how this book opens, and it is one of my favourite opening lines in literature. Anyone who has been following this blog for a while knows how I feel about Virginia Woolf, and in particular this book. Orlando. This is my 3rd or 4th time reading the book, and this time I took more away than I ever have before.

Orlando is a book written long before its time and it is no spoiler to say that the character of Orlando starts as a boy of 16 in an Elizabethan court and one day, some years later, wakes up as a woman. This book astounded me this time because Woolf was essentially pointing out that sex and gender are two different things in this book. Gender is a social construct which is built around stereotypes of what society expects from people of a particular sex. It explores things like Male Privilege in a time where that wasn’t even a talking point, illustrated by Orlando (as a woman) needing to marry in order to claim her estate.

I don’t think I will ever be able to coherently express my feelings for this book. I absolutely adore it. Parts of this book I just read over and over again. There are so many beautiful passages in these pages, I wish I could share them all but I’d basically just be typing the book out. I think though, the passage below sums up this book quite well:-

“And as all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.”

I also feel it important to mention that this book was a love letter from Woolf to her female lover, Vita Sackville-West, on whom Orlando was based. They definitely don’t write love letters like this any more! This book is, ultimately, about freedom to be yourself, and to love who you want to love, and to be happy with whoever makes you happy.

I said when I first read this book 3 years ago that every time I reread it I would find something new to love, and this time around I took it more slowly and enjoyed the prose – because Woolf writes the most beautiful prose. I don’t regret it.

Honestly, I urge anyone to read this book, and when you do take it slowly. It may be a 220 page book but it’s a book that needs time taken on it to fully appreciate!