Review: Wrecker – Noel O’Reilly

042 - Wrecker

042 - Wrecker

Rating – 3*

I picked this book up based on the cover and a recommendation from a wonderful bookseller – she knows my love of du Maurier and thought it would be impolite not to mention a book which has “echoes of Daphne du Maurier” on the front cover as a review quote. And I get the “echoes” I really do, but it’s just hard for me not to judge a book harshly when it’s promising something so big.

Wrecker is an interesting read – it focuses around a woman called Mary Blight who lives in a rural coastal village in Cornwall. Part of the day to day life of the villagers is shipwrecks, and we start with Mary going down to the beach to see what she can scavenge from the wreck. This time she discovers a lot more than she bargained for, and that’s really where our story starts.

Mary for me was a very bizarre character who I couldn’t fully understand or relate to – which makes it a bit more difficult in a first person narrative. On paper she’s my dream character in a historical novel; she’s independent, does what she wants and for herself only, she’s strong and unapologetic in her ways yet I didn’t connect to her because I didn’t understand her motivation. She seemed quite a conflicted character to read, and this uncertainty in her characterisation made it really difficult for me to enjoy the book to it’s full.

As for the plot, there didn’t really seem to be much of it. It was more of a meandering piece with a lot of nothing much happening. I suppose one of the main focuses is religion, and there was a lot more religion than I was expecting. That conflict between the traditional – pagan – beliefs of this small community and the Methodist faith that is thrust upon them by a relative stranger that made up quite a lot of the plot.

I think I would have enjoyed this book more had it been something more. For me there was just something missing even though it was a very well constructed and researched book but something just kept jolting me out of the historical setting and back to reality – it wasn’t a book I found myself absorbed in.

All in all though, I think this was a really good debut – while I find the likeness to Daphne du Maurier tenuous at best (the only connection I can find seems to be Cornwall and boats?) it’s not at all a bad book and I think I would keep my eye out for Noel O’Reilly in the future

Review: The Scent of Cinnamon – Charles Lambert

039 - The Scent of Cinnamon

041 - The Scent of Cinnamon

Rating – 3*

Firstly, it’s been a while since I wrote a review, so I’m more than a little rusty. Secondly, welcome to the first review in a series I’m going to be calling my Summer of Salt.

The Scent of Cinnamon is a short story collection published by Salt and is full to the brim with stories which completely boggled my mind. As with all short story collection there were some which I didn’t enjoy as much as others, but the collection as a whole is full of mysteries and things which made me think.

The titular story is one which on the surface didn’t seem all that deep, in fact it came across as a little meek and mild but come the end I was really engaged, I loved the direction it went in and genuinely didn’t see the end coming. This was a recurring theme with the whole collection – each story took it’s own path away from what I had cooked up in my head and I don’t think there was even one story in here which was predictable.

The collection spans time and genre, the only thing which really linked each of the stories together being the general writing style and I actually really enjoyed that. I enjoy a themed collection as much as the next person but sometimes it’s nice to have stories which really stand on their own.

My only criticism is that a lot of the stories end very abruptly, and as someone who likes all loose ends gathered up and neatly put in a bow that was really frustrating. I also found several of the stories haven’t really stuck with me, which isn’t great.

Overall this was a pretty solid collection, and if you enjoy very varied collections I’d definitely suggest this. There, I think, is something for everyone – maybe more for some than others. For me it was very middle of the road overall, but it was definitely worth a read!

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: 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.

 

Review: Your Soul is a River – Nikita Gil

031 - Your Soul is a River

031 - Your Soul is a River

Rating – 3*

Another day, another review, another book I had high hopes for. After reading only part of Nikita Gill’s second collection – Wild Embers – and falling head over heels in love with it, I bought an eBook copy of her first collection as it isn’t in print in the UK. As with a number of books I’ve read of late, I went in with very high hopes which didn’t quite get met.

This collection is by no means bad. In fact, if I had read this prior to Wild Embers I probably would have enjoyed both collections more. Nikita is an incredible poet; her work is compelling, profound, and very relatable as a reader. It was interesting reading this so soon after reading Wild Embers as I could see so many themes that followed through both collections.

I love the way she’s influenced by science. Science and poetry aren’t things that I would have thought could have been paired so perfectly. In the right hands they’re a match made in heaven and I do truly believe that Nikita’s hands are the right ones. Seeing how her style and writing has developed between the collections is interesting. This collection felt a little rougher, a little more tentative, in Wild Embers it felt like she knew her voice and wasn’t holding back – which is maybe why I enjoyed that more.

Ultimately this collection didn’t resonate with me like her other one did. This felt rougher round the edges – expected as it was her first collection – and a bit more repetitive. I’d still recommend it to anyone who is interested in poetry, as I do think she’s a really good poet to start with as it’s easy to follow and relatable! Overall this was a 3* read for me – but it was a high 3* and it’s definitely a collection I’ll dip in to again in the future.

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: The Vaccine Race – Meredith Wadman

019 - The Vaccine Race

019 - The Vaccine Race

Rating – 3*

Vaccines are an incredibly interesting topic – and interestingly enough one that I only know the bare bones about. This book was one on the Wellcome Prize longlist that I probably would have eventually picked up because the topic is one that I would gravitate towards in the non-fiction section of a bookshop.

The Vaccine Race spans the history of the vaccination – the science, the people behind them, politics, competition and ethics. At the core, it’s a very rounded and thought out book but I felt that it was too little of everything and it was trying too hard to be a more intimate and personal book and it sort of let some of the science fall to the side in places, which was a little disappointing.

I will say I enjoyed the science in this book, and I did like that as I was reading it felt like a race against time to get the vaccinations figured out before any more damage can be caused. I do enjoy reading about scientific and medical ethics, and I’m glad it was covered in pretty much every part of this book. Wadman in no way approves of the methods by which Hayflick tested his creations, but she explains that by the culture of the period he was working in that it was acceptable. Thankfully, science and ethics have moved on from going straight in to human trials on non-consenting participants!

I’ve seen this book compared to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and while I feel that it was written in the same tone in parts, what made that book incredible made this one only mediocre. Which makes me sad because I really wanted to love this book.

Unfortunately for me this missed the mark. I found the first 100 pages or so really interesting, the first chapter I was absolutely hooked on it, but from there it became a really hard read. It became a chore. Where I read 11 books before I started this one, it took the entirety of the second half of February for me to finish this. The start really lured me in to a sense that this was going to be an amazing book, and yeah, it just didn’t continue in the same way.

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: Silly Novels by Lady Novelists – George Eliot

011 - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

011 - Silly Novels by Lady Novelists

Rating – 3*

I have wanted to read this little essay collection by George Eliot for a very long time, and I thought that now was as good of a time as any. It’s a punchy little book in the Penguin Great Ideas series and contains half a dozen essays alongside the titular one.

Silly Novels is a 35 page essay in which Eliot criticises less able female authors of the period in which she is writing. She writes on how many writers perpetuated negative stereotypes of women which only enhanced the subjugation of women in history. She essentially summarises most novels of the time in one sweeping statement which covers pretty much all romantic novels written by women: a beautiful main character who falls in love with a member of nobility under exceptional circumstances. She argues that all these ‘silly novels’ give a bad name to the female novelist in general, which in turn makes it impossible for the actually talented authors to get recognition for their work. Hence why Eliot herself wrote under a male pseudonym, as did all three of the Bronte sisters.

The titular essay had me laughing, because what she outlines as the issue with many female novelists is still largely something I can relate to, especially when reading books from the same period in which she wrote.

However, while I loved the first essay – the first essay was marvellous – the remaining 4 or 5 didn’t quite hit the mark for me. They were a lot more specific reviews and essays which were more period specific and, from my perspective, not as easy related to. I found them quite hard to enjoy when I hadn’t read any of the source material which inspired them. As a result, I did find myself skimming a lot of the other essays as they just weren’t keeping my interest.

The tile essay though is a perfect look at 19th Century feminism, and a really good step up from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women which was published around 50 years prior at the turn of the century. There is an essay in which Mary Wollstonecraft is referenced, which is quite a nice step between the two!

I’d say this is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in essay collections, early feminism, or George Eliot in general. I’d also say that if you’ve read A Room of Ones Own or A Vindication of the Rights of Women this is definitely a good essay collection to pick up as it bridges the gap between the two. Woolf cites Eliot as one of her favourite novelists, and one of the only ‘grown up’ writers – and reading this I really get where she is coming from.