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

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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!

Review: A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

taleoftwocitiesThis is my third foray in to Dickens and I’m quite glad it wasn’t my first. I may be about to be quite controversial here but… I didn’t really like this.

Now, don’t get me wrong this book was good in many ways. It met the expectations of what I have read of Dickens so far in terms of the writing, if anything this book was easier to follow the flow of in some ways. But I just didn’t like this book whatsoever on the plot front. I ended up getting it as an audiobook as I was finding it hard to engross myself in, which helped a little and got me through it.

The opening paragraph is possibly one of the best known in literature and I really thought I was settling down to something incredible and, in some ways, it was but it just didn’t capture me like his previous works have. I found this such a slog and, for me, there were very few shining moments. Honestly, if it wasn’t for part three this would probably have been a 1* for me. The last book of this novel made the slog of the first two parts almost worthwhile, almost. The characters on the whole were detestable, Lucie especially was infuriating; simpering fool of a girl, why everyone found her so wonderful I don’t know.

I hate to give a book a low rating but this one I have to. So it’s a 2* read. I’d only suggest this book if you’ve read Dickens in the past, in my opinion it’s not one to pick up as your first foray!

Review: A Little Life – Hanya Yanagigara

ALittleLifeFirst off, this review will not do this book justice, for good and coherent reviews scour Goodreads – there are so many incredible reviews of this book I don’t even want to imitate them. This book is beyond words, I have been trying to put my feelings in to words and I just can’t but anyway…

This book has taken me a lot longer to read than I anticipated but, oh what a read it was. I don’t think I’ve been this invested in a book, felt so in touch with the characters, felt so soul destroyed ever. This is just incredible and, in short, it fully deserves all the hype that is surrounding it. As I said, this book took me a long time to read, I couldn’t read much at once and I couldn’t read anything alongside it; it just completely consumed my life for nearly a month.

In short, A Little Life, follows the story of four young men in New York and slowly it focuses down to just the one of them; Jude. While this book is ultimately Jude’s tale, throughout it you get to know JB, Malcolm and Willem to the point you feel that all four of them are people you know personally – none of them felt fictional by the end of this. The depth of character is incredible, their souls are laid bare before you and I think they’re the sort of characters that will just sit with me. I will probably judge every book from now on on this level of characterisation that Yanagihara has put forward and I don’t feel remotely guilty

It is by no means an easy read, it isn’t one for everyone, it is a rollercoaster filled with trauma and harrowing events that absolutely destroyed me. This book really ought to have trigger-warnings galore on it’s front cover because some things were so difficult to read I had to put it down for a little while. But the thing is, I don’t think a book has ever had me openly crying like this did and I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I’ve been punched in the gut while reading a book either. By the end of my month of reading this, I was emotionally exhausted but I think I came out of it a different person, it was just one of those books that really affected and changed me.

It was a powerful, painful and exhausting book to read but so, so utterly worth it. It took me a month to read but I don’t mind that, I have read an incredible book here and it is one that I will reread in the future for certain. In short this book is a 5* read and I’ve run out of adjectives to describe it. I have the entire Man Booker shortlist sat in front of me but, honestly, I think this might just win it because damnit, it’s incredible.

Review: Frog Music – Emma Donoghue

frog-musicSo I was really excited to pick this book up. I’ve read a couple of books by Emma Donoghue before (Room and Slammerkin) and while Room was a standout, Slammerkin was a little more nondescript. From what I understand, Room is very different to the majority of her work but nonetheless I enjoyed a couple of her novels and I really liked the premise of this.

Frog Music is set in San Francisco and based on an unsolved crime – obviously there is a lot of wiggle room for Donoghue to play with characters and the actual plot. In chapter 1, Jenny is murdered and her friend, Blanche, is trying to bring justice.

This book is a bit messy. It has the story running as two timelines parallel to each other, the dialogue is quite sloppy and in some parts unnecessary. The story is grim (it is a murder, but there’s so much grimmer than that). The characters, something which I feel are often Donoghue’s strength felt really underdeveloped and I disliked most of them. If she had been written in a different situation, Jenny could have been simply amazing – a Victorian-era cross-dressing lesbian who goes out catching frogs and sent for wearing trousers – but she wasn’t established well enough for her to hold my interest. I would read a book about that woman but… this one wasn’t the one for her.

I forced the remainder of the book during the start of Dewey’s 24hr Read-a-Thon (which I found out about quite late, around 10am Saturday) and had to really force it down. Truthfully I skimmed a lot of the dialogue because it was just dull. It was a quick read, it just wasn’t all that good.

This has seriously made me question whether I want to read any more by Donoghue. This makes me sad, I held such high hopes for this – and for Donoghue’s writing if nothing else. But this just let me down. I think I went in to it with such high expectation I could only be disappointed. The on;y redeeming feature was Jenny, and she was so poorly used that I’m being generous when I say I’ll give this a 2/5.

Review: The Virgin Suicides – Jeffery Eugenides

TVSThis book frustrated me.

I struggled through it, assured by so many people that it was worth it and… nope. I just don’t understand the hype with this. The writing is great, I can’t fault Eugenides writing. I just really didn’t like this book.

The genius, and I think the attraction, lies in the fact that we’re observing these 5 girls from a very outside perspective. I think in a way it sates that curiousness that most people naturally have; that of being nosy in regards to their neighbours! I think that this candid outside view in is what the ‘addictive’ thing about this book is for people who like it. It was also the downfall in some respects, the girls were put on pedestals, their suicides glamorised – the girls were just under scrutiny for the boys to study.

Ultimately, this felt pointless to me. It was a slog, it wasn’t particularly interesting. It wasn’t a book that I was compulsively reading, instead it was a book that I carelessly threw in my bag and didn’t touch for two days. My main problem with this is it was just pretentious.

I will definitely give Middlesex a go. His writing was good. It’s just this book felt so out of touch with reality and I’d be lying if I said I enjoyed it. Sometimes, you just have to accept that you don’t fall in with the trend! 2/5

Review: All Over Creation – Ruth Ozeki

aocI’m going to start this review by simply stating that A Tale for the Time Being was one of my favourite books of 2014. I bought this book with great anticipation based on the book I loved so much and… I’m seriously disappointed. I found this whole book disjointed and somewhat infuriating to the point I considered giving up on it more than once.

It essentially is the story of Yumi (or Yummy, whatever) as she comes home to a farming community in Idaho after she ran away at 14. She comes back to find everything very much changed – her father is seriously ill, her mother has Alzheimers and her best friend who has her own share of problems. While the premise is good it just failed to reach its full potential in my opinion and Ozeki got too wrapped up in a side story of ethics to actually care about developing her characters to their full potential.

This book is preachy. There’s a lot of interludes about God (which I generally don’t mind if done well) and GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and how chemical intervention in farming is a sin and unnatural (or words to those effects) and it’s just a pain in the ass. It drove me mad. I just couldn’t put up with it! It could have had SO much potential if it wasn’t quite as preachy, it could have been a really thought provoking book if it was done with some subtlety.

Then we have characters who are just puppets and caricatures of stereotypes. We have hippies who live in a mobile home that runs on fryer oil and try to preach all their anti-GMO stuff. We have the runaway daughter returning home who seems to be ruled by her inner 14 year old and her hormones. Let’s just not mention her kids. Then we have the former teacher that is the reason 14 year old Yumi ran away who conveniently ends up back in town the same time Yumi is… It was just too much drama and not enough story.

I read this in 3 days, it was an easy read but it wasn’t one I enjoyed. It was quite a quick read, Ozeki is a really skilled author it’s just this novel was just bad. If I’m honest I only finished this because I’m a completist who has an urge to finish whatever I start and I’ll keep it on my shelf because of the same reason (it looks pretty between Ozeki’s other two books). But ultimately, this book just didn’t sit right with me so it’s 2/5 simply because some of it, just a little, was enough to redeem it from 1/5.

Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing – Eimear McBride

A Girl Is a Half-Formed ThingI’m just going to throw it out there – this was nothing like what I was expecting.

I picked this up in Oxfam after a few people I know mentioning it saying that it’s just a book that you “have to read”. I do agree with that statement. It is by no stretch of the word an easy read, it’s quite difficult in fact and truthfully, I really didn’t enjoy reading it much. But I am so glad I did read this. At times it was frustrating, it was difficult and I wanted to throw it at a wall but I persevered and it’s one of those books that I think is going to haunt me a little bit.

It’s told in a somewhat more modern take on the stream of consciousness technique, it’s broken, it’s haphazard. I struggled at first, I’m a fan of a stream of consciousness but this was very broken and it was difficult to settle in to. It does hold such a power; when the narrator is desperate, you as a reader feel that desperation because the writing becomes even more disjointed and fractured and that’s just such a powerful thing for an author to accomplish. There wasn’t one gramatically correct, fully complete sentence in this book. I also maybe think that it would have been a book better read in short bursts than for a readathon as it was for me; I think maybe I would have enjoyed it, or at least taken more from it, had I read it over a longer period of time. At the same time, I think it’s a book that is best consumed all at once. I’m very conflicted on a lot of points with this.

The story itself follows a young woman (initially as a girl) growing up; it’s a coming of age story. She has a brother that has had a brain tumour and it’s really not an easy read. It’s a story that has been told endlessly but the writing style gives this it’s own, unique voice and a perspective that is very individual to it. Truthfully, I didn’t understand what was going on half the time because it was so broken.

I can understand why this was so popular with the book-award circle; it’s experimental and new and very…award-y. But as a standard, every day reader, I’m a little conflicted. In one respect, I was thinking about this more than I’ve thought about a book in a long time, I don’t feel that it’s necessarily a book there for you to just enjoy – it’s one that’s made to make you think and made to make you put it down to just take a moment and question it. It’s not a book I think I ought to read at the time I did – I’m emotionally raw and this book does take it out on you a little bit!

I’ve sat on this rating for a while; I’ve been flitting back and forth from 1 star right through to 5 because I am just so conflicted about it. Ultimately, I have to give it 4. It’s just so raw and consuming. Maybe I’m just raw at the moment, maybe this book is a little close to home but… it just had a power to it that I can’t put in to words. It’s not a book for the casual reader, you have to be patient with it because it will frustrate you. It’s dark, it’s twisty but damn it’s a good book. I read it in 2 sittings, I just threw myself in to it – partially because it was for a readathon and partially because I just didn’t really want to stop. I had this morbid fascination throughout it.

So yes, this one has had me thinking quite a lot and it’s a comfortable 4/5 (though in time, I may change my opinion)!