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: Plot 29 – Allan Jenkins

027 - Plot 29

027 - Plot 29

Rating – 2*

I am getting so close to finishing the longlist of the Wellcome prize now (as I write this it is the 15th of March and I have 5 days before the shortlist is announced and 2 books to finish!).

Plot 29 is a book which I found quite confusing. I think as a memoir around fostering, childhood neglect, and the struggle of finding a biological family it would be good, and as a book about keeping an allotment it would be good, however the combination of the two I found rather bizarre if I am entirely honest and something that as I reader I didn’t enjoy all that much. As with another memoir on the list I really struggled to find how this is relevant to bioscience or health – the link is just too tenuous for me (especially as I believe it was put on the list because of the mental health aspect of the piece, which I didn’t even pick up on!) So, for me this wasn’t really something I would have continued reading if it wasn’t for me wanting to read the entire longlist cover to cover!

The book essentially revolves around a year on an allotment in London – Plot 29 – which Jenkins is caring for. The book is based around this plot, and the year in a life of it. But that’s where the logic to the chronology ends. Within chapters there is so much jumping about, one moment we’re in 2016/17 and the next we’re in another decade – even the flashbacks and fragments of the past aren’t in any sort of order. This for me made even the major personal events in the book really anticlimactic and dull. And they shouldn’t have been, as I said initially if this book focused solely on his experience as a foster child, finding biological relatives, and also followed a logical chronology I think it could have been a really powerful piece of writing.

Unfortunately this book wasn’t for me – I feel a bit like it was mis-sold if I’m entirely honest. I appreciate this is someone’s life, and I am not in any way saying that it wasn’t moving but I found that as a book the way it was positioned felt a bit cramped. I find it interesting that it was originally to be a book about gardening and a year in an allotment with a little bit of personal stuff thrown in, but over time it grew in to what it became. I know a lot of people who have loved this book, and will love this book if they read it – but if we all liked the same things it’d be a dull old world!

Review: To Be a Machine – Mark O’Connell

025 - To Be a Machine

025 - To be a Machine

Rating – 2*

Another day, another book on the Wellcome prize long list! Today it’s To Be a Machine – a book which is essentially about how technology may one day help us avoid death. I don’t really know how to describe this book as, well, I didn’t really enjoy it!

Transhumanism is at its core the art of extending life using technology to do so – ideas like uploading our consciousness on to data chips, and cryogenic freezing are just the tip of the iceberg (if you’ll pardon the poor taste pun there!) of what this subject encompasses. If I’m entirely honest, I’m not all that interested in what this book was talking about which is maybe why I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

I feel that this book could have been an essay outlining the key points – I found the interviews with people who are very much in to the transhumanism movement a bit eye roll worthy, and I found the writing often crude and jarring. I’ve no issue with swearing or anything of the sort in context, but in this book I just didn’t feel it suited the tone. It was just over 250 pages and, honestly, it could have been something a lot more profound if it were half the length.

For me this just wasn’t something I enjoyed reading. I know a lot of people have really loved this book based on the goodreads reviews, but it just didn’t quite hit the right mark for me. I also feel that as I get further through the Wellcome longlist it’s becoming harder to not compare books to each other – and compared to some of those I have read recently this is a little short of the mark.

Review: Mayhem – Sigrid Rausing

016 - Mayhem

016 - Mayhem

Rating – 2*

Another day, another review for the Wellcome Prize longlist. Today I’m talking about Mayhem – which is a memoir about addiction and the impact it has on a family. While it was interesting, and intimate in parts, I didn’t find myself blown away by it, in fact I don’t feel there is much to say about it.

Rausing is the granddaughter of the man who found Tetra Pak, and her brother Hans is who this book is ultimately about. In 2012, after being arrested for possession of class A drugs, his London home was searched by the police where Eva – his then wife – was found dead. She had been dead for 2 months when the police found her. At the crux of it all was drugs – and this book (told from his sister Sigrid’s perspective) is essentially his side of the story, how he came to be addicted, how he and Eva tried to conquer their demons and ultimately the disease which is addiction.

I found the sections which focus on the science of addiction, the whole is it nature or is it nurture debate, really interesting and compelling. I can see why, based on these sections alone, it was longlisted but for me it lacked something. It was a personal story, but I felt constantly detached from the narrative. While I can tell that this is an emotional book for the author to write, it can’t have been easy reliving what was an absolutely awful period of history for her family, it came across to me as a bit narcissistic.

For me, personally, I don’t understand why this book is on the Wellcome longlist. It’s okay, it’s a memoir, but it doesn’t have that impact that things like When Breath Becomes Air or even The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks did – and they’re comparable having both been shortlisted (and winning) the prize in the past. On the whole, a bit of a miss for me.

Review: The People in the Trees – Hanya Yanagihara

013 - The People in the Trees

 

013 - The People in the Trees

Rating – 2*

This book is one that has sat on my TBR since I read A Little Life when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2015. Much like A Little Life this book doesn’t shy away from difficult topics – but the beauty of her writing didn’t make this any the easier to read for me. I’ve read somewhere that A Little Life was a follow up to this in a way, in that it is told from the victims perspective – so if that was difficult to read, this is exponentially more difficult.

The novel follows Norton Perina, a character who we know from the outset has been sentenced to prison for sexual abuse of one of his many adopted children. We know he isn’t a good guy from the first few pages, but this is his ‘biography’ – his side of the story. His story takes us back to the 1950s, we briefly get an insight in to his academic studies, but the book picks up when he goes on an expedition to a little known island with an anthropologist. His life is forever altered by the time on this Micronesian island, he goes on to win the Nobel Prize and is comfortable for the rest of his career from the groundbreaking discovery he made on the island.

While the science in this book is incredible, as is the writing, a lot of it didn’t sit comfortably with me. It felt very claustrophobic as a book, I was never comfortable in it. The landscape the majority of the book is set in is jungle, it’s oppressive, and that’s how the book felt to me throughout. At it’s core this book is about rape. Rape of people, land, nature, an entire culture. It’s about a man who does that to better only himself, and he admits in the book he’d do it all again.

I admit that her writing is incredible, I can’t deny that, and she has a way with writing problematic characters. I just felt really, really uncomfortable reading this book and I can’t separate myself from that. Reading a lot of reviews of this book I can see a lot of people liken it to Lolita – which I haven’t read and have no intention of reading – so maybe if you read that and appreciated it (I hesitate to say liked it) this could be a book for you?

For me though, I just can’t bring myself to give this more than 2* – it was on for a 3* until the final chapter, or rather the epilogue, which I most certainly could have done without.

Review: Three Daughters – Consuelo Saah Baehr

003 - Three Daughters

003 - Three Daughters

Rating – 2*

Three Daughters is a book I picked up entirely on a whim. It was available to borrow through Kindle Unlimited on Amazon, and as I have a trial period on it I felt that I had nothing to lose. If I didn’t like it, I didn’t pay for it, so all was good. I was a bit hesitant, as it has very mixed reviews – but the historical aspect of it, that and it was very female-focused, really appealed to me.

This book follows 3 women – Miriam, her daughter Nadia, and her daughter Nijmeh – over the course of a century. Each woman has a third of the book, or thereabouts, as the main focus. I will say that I really enjoyed the first part of the book about Miriam and her life. I loved reading about Palestine, and how it was impacted by the Ottoman Empire and WWI. I found the first third very engaging, it just went a bit downhill from there. While I found Nadia a really interesting character, I felt that once she became the focus the book lost momentum – we didn’t get to see how WWII affected the lives of anyone, and the characters from the first part of the book just seemed to disappear. The last third of the book takes the story to America, and if there were any momentum left it fizzled out by this point, to the point where I just struggled through the remainder of the book to say I finished it.

I found the end of the book disappointing, and frustrating. There were a lot of errors which I chose to overlook as individual things, but when you put them all together it’s a bit daft and you’d have thought an editor would have picked points up – such as a Frenchman trading in USD in the early 20th century and UK universities not having “sophomore” years. Minor things, but they built up to irritate as a whole leaving me quite frustrated as a reader at the poor quality of the editing/fact checking.

Overall I had to give this 2* – it was really a 2.5* but I’m not feeling particularly generous to it right now if I’m entirely honest. It was okay, it was quite an easy, fast paced read for a 720 page book, it just wasn’t really my sort of read unfortunately.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin

045 - The Left Hand of Darkness

Rating – 2*

The Left Hand of Darkness is a book that I’ve wanted to read for quite a long time. It’s certainly been on my radar for at least 18 months, and I’ve had it on my shelf for around a year. I had high hopes for it, as it seemed to be right up my alley (sci-fi, gender, sexuality etc.) and I so desperately wanted to love this book. As you can tell, I really didn’t enjoy it as much as I had hoped. This is probably going to get a little ranty, because I have Feelings about this book.

As always with books I have high expectations for, I go in quite harshly. I think maybe if I had read this book at a time when I was more influential – or generally younger. The main selling point of this book is gender/biological sex and the fact that the native species on the planet our protagonist goes to are ambisexual (meaning they are neither gender, but have traits of both) who take on the role of binary male/female when they enter their ‘mating season’. That premise sounded fantastic, but for me it was actually handled quite poorly.

Our main character, Genly Ai, struggles with this fluidity of gender – and as such nearly every character in this book is referred to as he/him, traits associated with women are considered negative in a character and there’s only so much of that I can take without going in to a blind rage. I found myself getting very frustrated throughout, which really took away from a lot of the good things about this book – things like politics and the world building, which had I not been angry would have maybe been more enjoyable. To me, rather than a planet full of ambisexual beings, the planet was full of men who happened to sometimes have babies – for me this missed the mark on exploring the fluidity of gender.

I understand when this was written there wasn’t the acceptance that there is today, or the tact in language, but there are simple things that could have worked which did “exist” back when this was first written – simply put gender neutral pronouns are very simple things, but omitted from use. It’s an alien race, there was scope to create gender neutral pronouns which were unique to the Gethenian people. Why are parents referred to as fathers, children as sons, and siblings as brothers if it’s a genderless society, and all beings are equal? If this book had been set on a planet where it was entirely male and they occasionally gave birth, I probably wouldn’t have read it, but I wouldn’t have this issue. And if you haven’t realised by this point, I have an issue!

Once I had hold of this issue, it got under my skin and completely detracted any of my initial excitement over it. I lost what little emotional connection I had with the characters, reading it felt like a chore, and I found myself very much uncaring as to how it was going to end. I don’t often skim books, but the last 50 to 100 pages of this I did simply speed read to get it over with.

 

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: The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

003-the-blind-assassin

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: Royal Assassin – Robin Hobb

46 - Royal Assassin

Rating – 3*

Unpopular opinion – I didn’t much care for this book. There is no denying that Robin Hobb can build an incredible world, and I really enjoyed book 1 but this was just a really hard slog for me. I was hoping that the pace would really pick up in this book, but if anything I felt it slow down from the first book. Reading other reviews of this, many people do say that “you have to get through this trilogy and then it becomes amazing in the next series” – and I find that really hard to swallow. I wanted this book to be amazing, not a precursor for something amazing – nearly 2000 pages building up to another series, which is itself between 3000 and 4000 pages seems like I’m being cheated a bit!

 

I listened to this as an audiobook. While from the clip I listened to of the first book had me quite dubious about the narrator, I have come to find him quite easy to listen to, and would seriously recommend this on audiobook.

Now, I gave this book 3* – but it was more a 2.5 if I’m honest – and in the goodreads term “I liked it”. It was a good story in parts, it does have merit and I can see why people love it but for me it really, really exhausted me. And, worst of all, everything still felt unresolved come the end. Honestly, I found myself a little disappointed. I don’t want to go too much in to the plot (though I struggle to recall anything of note as I’m writing this), as it is a second book in a series and in doing so some points of the first book would be ruined. But I found the romance (if you can call it that) quite irritating, the trials that Fitz went through could have been resolved in 200 pages less, and all was made worse for me by the characters. If they were better, maybe I’d have enjoyed the plot a bit more.

The primary issue is the characters, as I said above, and I can’t say I feel attached to any of them. Least of all Fitz. When a book is written in first person, I need a connection with the character, I need to have some sort of identification with them and with Fitz I just don’t have that. I found his character really monotonous, and didn’t feel like he grew at all through the course of this book. It wasn’t just Fitz though, I felt all of the characters were more like caricatures or puppets who I just didn’t gel with as a reader.

The fact it was an audiobook actually elevated the rating a bit as I rated the whole experience of the book, and audio definitely made the book a little more enjoyable for me. Without it, I would probably have rated it a 2*.

I just found it very difficult to read, and throughout I just became really despondent with it. I did finish it, I was in two minds as to whether to give up, but I’m a completist by nature. Because of that, I will read the final book in this series but I’m not in any hurry unfortunately. What I find most infuriating is so many people say that this trilogy is not reflective of the rest of the books set in the same world – that you just have to ‘get through’ this one and then it becomes amazing… but I’m really put off reading The Liveship Traders series after my rather rocky relationship with this first trilogy so far!