Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

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Rating – 4*

Wives and Daughters is the first Gaskell book I’ve read and certainly won’t be my last as I really enjoyed this book. I won’t lie, I purchased this book solely for the cover – I think it’s absolutely beautiful and honestly one of the prettiest of the Penguin English Library editions. The fact I enjoyed the content was just an added bonus!

After reading a lot of non fiction,  I decided it was time to get back in to fiction. I have a list of 12 classics I want to read before the year is out and so far I’ve read two – this was the third from that list. After reading non-fiction I wanted something which, while a classic, was a more easy read and I’m really glad I picked this up because, honestly, it’s a really good place to start with classics in my opinion.

The story follows Molly, who we are introduced to as she is a young girl and we then see grow into a woman. Molly has been raised by her widowed father, and I think this was actually quite a nice thing to be seen in fiction from this era for it isn’t very often you get a single father narrative in a book (least of all in a classic!) Molly is quite a sheltered young woman, having grown up relatively isolated and her naivety comes through, but it’s not all that frustrating for me, it was actually quite endearing.

A lot happens in this book, and I don’t want to give it all away. But Molly’s world does get turned upside down when her father takes a new wife, she finds herself with a ‘wicked step-mother’ – though not all that wicked, she is quite shallow and conniving. There is love for Molly too, this is after all a classic and what classic doesn’t have love in store for the protagonist? Again, I didn’t find the romance in this book too shabby – it was for me quite believable (even though much of the book was cliched).

I found there were so many references to fairy tales. For a start, this book does open up with this passage:

“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.”

That frankly oozes fairy tale. Then there is the widowed father, naive young girl, step-mother, step-sister, and ultimately a romance for the protagonist. As I said, overall I found this a very charming, endearing, and very spring-like read and the fairy tale quality of it just added to that enjoyment.

However, this book is unfinished. Elizabeth Gaskell sadly died before she could finish it; though there are several sources which do outline what her original ending intended and as a reader it was pretty apparent what the story was building up to. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to finish it in her own words, rather the ending had to come from several sources and be more word of mouth. I would have really enjoyed to have read the ending in her own words.

This was a lovely break from all the non-fiction I’ve been reading lately, and definitely got me back in to classics. I think I would have maybe enjoyed this more had I been younger when I read it – as I said I feel this would be a good place to start with classics if you’re unfamiliar with them.

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

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Rating – 4*

So, this was the final book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist for me to read. I tried reading a few pages of it earlier on in my challenge to read the shortlist and I knew it was one that I was going to have to dedicate a full day to – it isn’t a book that I was going to be able to read over the course of a few days.

This book starts at 5:50am on a Sunday morning. It finishes a 4:59am on Monday morning. It’s the day in the life of Simon Limbres’ heart. Simon, who wakes up Sunday morning to go out with his friends – but doesn’t live to see Monday. It’s told through several narratives, we follow the doctors, the nurses, Simon’s family, the recipient of his heart. It’s a spanning book and really emphasises how every minute in the domino effect which is organ transplantation counts.

When this book was on topic, it was incredible. I loved the narratives which centred around the medicine, the decision making, the science. However, there are several tangents which just make no sense and absolutely ruined this for me – which is a shame because this could have been so much more if the waffle was just cut out.

I don’t think I would have picked this up had it not have been for this prize. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year – losing out to several other incredible translated books. I’m glad it’s one that’s getting recognition because it covers such an important topic and something that I’m very passionate about.

As I said though, it could have been cut down 50-70 pages and been just as incredible. While backstory is great, I don’t think this needed quite as much as it gave to each person tangentially connected to Simon.

So, that’s the last of my reviews for the shortlist. I will be posting a full consolidation of my thoughts and a general discussion of the prize and my feelings on who will win closer to the time of the winner being announced (April 24th!) Needless to say, I need to really think about this as these books have given me so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t say right now which one I want to win!

Review: Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

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Rating – 4*

Today it is time for a wee break from the Wellcome Prize and on to a classic. Moll Flanders. Personally,  I couldn’t think of a better way to break up all the non-fiction than to take a romp in the 18th century with a woman who was once portrayed on screen by Alex Kingston. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book and have Alex Kingston at the forefront of their mind?! Anyway…

Moll Flanders is the story of Moll Flanders. Moll starts off a girl, a girl who wants to make her own fortune in the world. She comes from a working class origin, and dreads the thought of going in to service (which is apparently the only option for a girl of her origin). She wants to be a lady. She wants to find Mr Right, settle down, and have financial security. After all, life in the 18th century wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, especially as a woman. London itself was not exactly the nicest place to be either, and Moll tries to make the best of the bad situation she finds herself in.

I really liked this book. Moll is probably one of my favourite characters in classic literature. She’s fun, she’s refreshing, she’s not a chaste, or girly, or swooning imitation of a woman from the Austen world of writing which drive me mad. She was ballsy, bawdy, and downright hilarious in parts. And reading this I could only picture Alex Kingston – and that made her even better in my opinion!

I found this really easy to read, and in places I was laughing out loud. It was genuinely good fun – which is something I rarely get to say about a classic. The plot was sparse, but I whacked the book up a star because Moll is amazing and I truly wish there were more women like Moll in classic fiction. She’s a gem, and I found myself rooting for her throughout even if she did make dubious decisions.

I’m looking forward to reading more Defoe. Not sure he’s top of my list to read, but one day I will read more!

Review: Moss Witch and Other Stories – Sara Maitland

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Rating – 3*

The premise of this short story collection is so, so up my alley. It’s honestly an incredible idea; it fuses fiction and science in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever found in another book. It’s a collection of short stories, each based around scientific fact and discovery – and each story has an afterword by a renowned academic in the field of science that the story focuses on. When I read the synopsis I knew I just had to have this book, I needed this book, and while it fell a little short of my high expectations I really did enjoy it.

As with most short story collections, this is very hit and miss. What surprised me most is the different narrative structures of each story. Some are very conversational such as The Geological History of Feminism which is a story of a young girl who goes to stay with her Aunt and gets an education on both geology and feminism (and has an absolutely fantastic title if I do say so myself). Another – How the Humans Learned to Speak – is very reminiscent of fables, and stories such as those written by Rudyard Kipling and explains in a very fun, if not simplistic way, how speech evolved in early hominids (pre-homo sapiens). The stories vary from the very realistic to full on not realistic; some are completely original whereas others are twists on myth and legend. It’s such a vast array of stories, and they all stand out completely independent of each other.

However, as much as I loved the structure and the science, sometimes it was a bit textbooky in the middle of a story and that ruined it a bit for me. The afterwords were great and such a novel idea, but when there’s quite a bit of wordy science in the middle of the story (even as a scientist) I found it a bit off-putting. Sometimes, the science seemed shoe-horned in and it was a bit difficult to get through – wading through treacle is a good analogy for some passages.

On the whole I did love this book. I loved the idea. I loved the structure. I loved that the stories were all so different from each other yet had that connecting theme of science. I generally loved how the science was incorporated in to the stories. But I only liked it overall – which is why it’s a 3* read.

I’d encourage anyone who is curious to pick this up. I do realise it’s probably not a book for everyone, but it’s something different and sometimes we need that in our reading lives!

Review: The Witchfinders Sister – Beth Underdown

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Rating – 4*

A little known fact about my reading tastes is that I love anything to do with Witch Trials. Naturally, when I saw this available on Audible I had to invest; not only was the narration good, but the story had me hooked in that 5 minutes I listened to. I don’t often read new releases impulsively, I can count on one hand the times I’ve picked a new release up without knowing anything about it. This was published on the 2nd of March – I picked it up on the 6th and threw myself at it like a thing possessed!

The Witchfinders Sister follows a young, recently widowed woman called Alice who has decided to return to her brother following her husbands death. Her brother, Matthew, is based on a historical figure who was a documented witchfinder in the 17th century. The plot of the story is loosely based around true events, all stemming from the life of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Seeing history through his sisters eyes, I feel, was a frankly genius way to look at it. Alice adds a layer of emotion, gives a personal connection to the situation around her, and throughout the book we flick back in time through her eyes as she tries to understand what made her brother the way he is – and it’s amazing.

I found this book absolutely engrossing. There were parts which were a bit slower than others but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The atmosphere in this book was fantastic, and the mystery and intrigue kept me guessing what was happening until the last page – which was very satisfying!

This is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I can’t wait for her future books because this was a very, very good debut and one. I loved the mix of historical fiction and, almost-but-not-quite, psychological thriller. I hope this isn’t the last of her, because frankly I want to see what else she can do.

Review: Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 3*

After Bleak House I decided I couldn’t wait any longer for another Dickens and this is the one which caught my eye. Dombey and Son was one of the first Penguin English Library editions I bought because look at it, it’s gorgeous and I’m a glutton for a pretty book. Sadly, after Bleak House, this fell a little flat for me.

It is over 1000 pages. This isn’t an issue normally, but the problem is that for me personally it could have been done in half that number. Initially I loved it, I got through the first couple of hundred pages in a few days and I was really enjoying it but then it just became more of a chore than anything. I kept going, because Dickens is like that and I was hoping so hard it would get better, but for me it didn’t. While the final chapter was somewhat redeeming, it wasn’t so mindblowing that it made this book better for me.

My main issue is that I didn’t feel much connection to the characters, which did make the story a little harder to invest myself in. Compared to Bleak House this just didn’t meet the mark on the plot or character front. Florence, while a wonderful protagonist, was too insipid and sickly sweet for my liking; Mr Dombey I just couldn’t get a handle on and struggled to understand. The background characters didn’t come to life quite like they have in a number of Dickens’ other books that I have read – even London wasn’t as vibrant in this book.

On the whole this was okay. Not the best Dickens book I have read, but by no means is it the worst (for it’ll be hard for any of Dickens’ books to be as ghastly as A Tale of Two Cities, and should one of his books surpass that feat it’ll be pretty awful indeed). I would say of his long books, this is my least favourite so far – Bleak House is by far a better place to go, or even The Old Curiosity Shop if you’re interested in picking up a monster of a book!

This time, however, I am not going to be put off from reading more. A Tale of Two Cities put me off Dickens for about 18 months and I’m not going to let this one get me down! If you have any recommendations of where to go next – I’m thinking Little Dorrit or David Copperfield maybe – let me know. I’d love to have input from people who have read more Dickens than me!

Review: The Dead Queen of Bohemia – Jenni Fagan

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Rating – 3*

I find it very difficult to review poetry collections – mainly because it’s not something I read regularly, or feel I have many things to say on. So this review is likely to be brief as I don’t really know what to say. Now that disclaimer is out of the way, I will go on to talk about this collection briefly.

I haven’t read any of Jenni Fagan’s fiction – although I have both The Sunlight Pilgrims and The Panopticon on my shelves and I have heard rave reviews about both. However, as someone who likes to break the mould a little, I thought I would start with her poetry. This book contains her new poetry as well as her two older collections which are both now out of print.

For me, this was very hit and miss. I found a lot of it repetitive – teenage angst and drug taking can only be told in so many ways. However, some of the poems – particularly those which focus on depression – really hit a spot with me and came in to my life at exactly the right moment. Two which stand out in this category of came-in-to-my-life-at-the-right-moment are Instruction Manual for Suicidal Girls (Boys, Trolls & Troglodytes) and Hitching a Ride. Those two were ones I found myself re-reading, flicking back to, and comparing other poems in the collection to – none made it to the same level as those two for me.

On the whole, this was good. It isn’t my favourite poetry collection, but there were some shining moments for me. I can’t wait to read her prose, that much is certain!

instruction manual for suicidal girls (boys, trolls & troglodytes)

Review: The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

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Rating – 2*

I really wanted to enjoy this, I really thought I’d enjoy this. Spoiler for you, I didn’t.

There is no denying that Atwood can write, technically this book is brilliant. The prose is – on the whole – incredible but for me, this 600+ page beast was just a disappointment. The characters, the plot, the whole novel-within-the-novel-within-the-novel situation – it was tedious and exhausting. By the time I reached the final 100-150 pages, I had long since lost interest. By that point I was honestly just trying to plod through and finish the damn thing.

The main character, Iris Chase, may be the weakest, most unlikable female character I have ever had the misfortune to read from the perspective of. I had absolutely no connection to her which made this book even more of a challenge. The story of Iris’ life was just so unbelievable that the plot just didn’t grip me, it had me snorting in disbelief instead. Everyone around her dies and it doesn’t feel believable, it feels like everyone dying is just a convenient plot twist in order for the author to write this exact book.

As I said, this book is a story-within-a-story-within-a-story. It was too many layers not executed to their best I feel. Technically, it was very impressive but as a reader it was just too convoluted. Come the end of the story, I was bored with all the layers to this book. I happened to think this structure was overkill, and I wasn’t compelled by anyone or anything. For me, I’d have preferred to have had the book be 200 pages fewer and one less layer to the narrative (because the complexity was, for me, surplus).

However much I disliked it, the prose was – in places – undeniably beautiful and for that, Atwood will never get less than a 2* review from me. But, out of all the Atwood I’ve read, this is by far my least favourite. I know that’s like blasphemy, it’s a Booker Prize winner, it’s probably one of her more  critically acclaimed books but for me, it just fell flat.

If you want good Atwood, I’d recommend The Handmaids Tale or Oryx and Crake/Year of the Flood – they surpass this monumentally in my opinion.

Review: Autumn – Ali Smith

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Rating – 5*

Ali Smith will forever be one of my favourite authors, this book has only emphasised that. I don’t think I can be coherent when it comes to Ali’s books, all my thoughts just jumble and make no sense whatsoever. Her writing is incredible and resonates with me in a way I can’t explain.

Autumn is a novel which is so present and I can only wish I read it when I first bought it – when it was even more recent. Just, how exactly it was possible for Ali Smith to create a full, rich novel involving Britain after Brexit in exactly the time it was taking place I don’t know. But it’s amazing.

This book, in it’s most basic form, is the story of a deep friendship between a young girl – Elisabeth – and an old man – Daniel. The story is told nearly entirely in the form of flashbacks. Stories within stories. Stories about race and identity, stories about art, feminism, sexuality, women, mothers sisters. Stories about a pop artist named Pauline Boty. Yet, ultimately it is the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel told through all these stories.

As expected with Ali Smith, it is beautifully written. It manages to be both thought provoking and hilarious, sad and happy. It made me think, it made me laugh, there were nods to so many other books, to art, it’s so layered I think every time I read this (because I will re-read it, it’s Ali Smith) I will find new things, new layers to the story and that is something I find pretty damn exciting, and something which will make me want to reread this book.

This year is off to a very good start on the reading front. It seems the books I had hoped to read in the last quarter of the year have so far been amazing, and it makes me glad I took a break from reading if only to enjoy them properly.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

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Rating – 5*

After nearly 4 months of not reading, I am so glad this was the first book I picked up after a slump, and the first of a new year. One of the last books I read before my slump was A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and it is, quite honestly, one of my favourite books of all time (as my review will attest to). I had high expectations for this, but also trepidation that I wouldn’t love it as much, but that fear was unfounded as I adored this.

A Closed and Common Orbit picks up where the previous book left off, but this time we’re following Lovelace – or Sidra as she chooses to be known now she has a body – and Pepper. We follow two stories, Sidra in the ‘present’ who is adapting to life in her body and we follow Jane, a girl from some years in the past who is part of a bigger picture which she doesn’t even know exists. These two threads of the story tie together in a very messy, but wonderful way and I found myself staying up until 2am to finish this book because I didn’t want to put it down, I needed to know how it was going to tie together and end.

This book is ultimately about humanity, and what it means to be, learning how to live and find your place. I got comfort from this book I didn’t even know I needed. While the situation is completely non-realistic, the experiences, the feelings, the thought processes they’re all relatable and applicable to day to day life. There were moments in this book which, much like it’s predecessor, took my breath away – it filled me with joy and tore me to pieces. Ultimately though, it was beautiful.

Becky Chambers writing is incredible. I can’t put words down to describe it but I just love the way she writes, her writing connects with me. This world she has created for these books is beautiful, and it’s a world I can immerse myself in as she writes it so vividly.

This was a beautifully written and fantastically diverse book, and there’d better be a third book which brings the two sets of characters together because I don’t want this to end here. There’s still so much to give, so much I want to learn about these characters and this world.

If you haven’t read A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, read it. Then read this in close succession because it’s wonderful. I seriously don’t think I can recommend these books enough to people. And I really, really can’t think of a better way to have started off my reading in 2017 than with this book.