Review: The Passion – Jeanette Winterson

056 - The Passion

Rating – 3*

Jeanette Winterson is a genius when it comes to writing, it makes me sad that I only discovered her this year. I am very quickly finding she’s becoming one of my favourite authors, I just don’t know how I didn’t get to her sooner. This book surprised me in a very good way, and I don’t really know how to explain it, but I’ll try.

The Passion follows two protagonists, Henri and Villanelle at the time of the Napoleonic war. When going in to this I didn’t expect it to be a historical story, but it works. It works fantastically. Henri is a French soldier, hand picked by Napoleon to serve his dinner, and considers himself in love with him. Villanelle is a young Venetian girl who is wild and expressive, she goes to casinos and attracts trouble wherever she goes. On the surface, you can’t imagine the two lives of these people intersecting but they do, and how they do is incredible. Their stories are full of love and loathing, revenge and murder, and although there are no happy endings, there are some understandable, satisfying conclusions.

While Henri’s narrative is the one I enjoyed more of the two, I found his voice a lot more easy to follow, and his story a lot more chronological, Villanelle is a very interesting character who I couldn’t help but be entranced by. She inherited webbed feet, a characteristic usually found in boatmen’s sons, she cross-dresses and explores the city. She’s a free spirit and I loved reading the bits of this story from her perspective. I’d easily have read a 500 page novel about Villanelle.

I think with Winterson’s books they’re all going to be those I return to for comfort. I can definitely see myself curling up with this book again in the future, reading cover to cover, and finding so much more and appreciating it all the more. As it stands I gave this book 3*, because I wanted more from it, but over time I think it could definitely worm its way in to my heart and be boosted

Review: In A Glass Darkly – J. Sheridan Le Fanu

051 - In A Glass Darkly

Rating – 3*

Firstly I will apologise as reviewing a book read over a month ago is quite a task for someone with memory problems! This is probably going to be quite brief because of it, but I think the fact I can’t remember much of it says everything about the content – it wasn’t overly memorable.

I can’t lie, I picked this collection up purely for Carmilla (lesbian vampires people. Lesbian vampires.) as I thought for the price it was a better deal – and while the stories in this collection were interesting, I can’t say they were entirely my cup of tea. In a way, I wish I wasn’t such a bargain hunter and just read Carmilla as a standalone because it was by far the stand out of the collection.

I can understand why the stories in here were ground breaking – they predate the more well known classic ‘horror’ novels like Dracula by over 20 years, which is frankly quite impressive. And in a time before electricity I can imagine that all of the stories in this collection were pretty terrifying, now they were more humorous than scary.

What I did enjoy is that all the stories were connected in that they were all found in the papers of Dr Martin Hesselius – a character who was a sort of hybrid between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the 19th Century – a strong belief in the occult but also in possession of a very level head and medical expertise. I found the voice quite an easy one to follow, while there were the typical, over wordy elements of 19th century literature I was able to plod along quite happily and read each story in one sitting without feeling tired (which is often the case with Victorian novels!)

On the whole though, this was a 3* read. I loved the first story – Green Tea – about a reverend and a demon monkey, and I loved Carmilla. Those two aside it was all very meh and forgettable – to the point where a month on they’re the only two stories I can remember in the collection.

If you like Gothic literature, or have an interest in lesbian vampires or demon monkeys, I’d definitely give this collection of short stories/novellas a go!

Review: How to be Champion – Sarah Millican

048 - How to be Champion

Rating – 3*

I love Sarah Millican. She’s one of the few comics I’ve seen live, and is funnier every time I watch the DVD. I can’t wait to see her again in March, because she makes me laugh so much I ache for a couple of days. She is one of the most genuine, lovely people I’ve ever had a like from on Twitter (she’s up there with Clare Balding folks) and everything she stands for I feel passionately about. That’s why it hurts me to say that I only liked this book – I didn’t love it and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Now, comedians writing books I love, and this is no exception to the fact. I listened to this as an audiobook, and that in itself was a joy. I think maybe if I had paired it with a physical copy of the book I would have enjoyed it far more. Sometimes an audiobook works, sometimes it doesn’t – in this case I think a combination of the two would have made this book a 4 or 5 star read for me. Mainly because Sarah likes lists (I like lists, who doesn’t like lists?!) and they’re most certainly things better read than listened to. On the whole though, I would recommend the audiobook because nothing beats the book being read how the author intended it to be!

The book is a series of anecdotes from Sarah’s life – from her childhood in the North East, with miners strikes and weekend jobs at WHSmith, right the way up to the present day. It covers all of her life quite concisely with a smattering of advice and I really liked that. I love a memoir/biography that throws in some life lessons and I think one of the biggest messages I took from it is love yourself. At the end of each chapter she gives a tip on ‘how to be a champion’ and I looked forward to each of them!

I gave this book 3 stars, and I feel awful about it. 3 stars on goodreads is a solid “I liked it” – and I did, I really did. I really hope she does more writing in the future because I find her so relatable and easy to read. The book did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion (which was difficult to keep down when I was listening to it, trying to sleep, at 2am). I love what she has to say about body image, mental health and self-esteem. I just found a lot of it repetitive and not entirely my cup of tea, which makes me very, very sad.

Sarah is fantastic, and this book is definitely a read for anyone who – like me – loves the woman. She’s witty, sarcastic, and so many other wonderful things – this book really does show all of that. The book is champion, it really is, it just wasn’t entirely my cup of tea.

I’d recommend anyone who is a fan of her check out the Standard Issue podcast – the magazine was fantastic; the podcast is just a step up from it and I for one love it. It’s a podcast with women, by women, for anyone. It’s a lovely podcast of female empowerment and women standing up for other women, seriously recommend it.

Review: Lumberjanes – Vol. 1 to 6 – Noelle Stevenson et al.

Lumberjanes 1-6

Rating – 3* to 5*

Lumberjanes was my first foray in to a graphic novel – Volume 1 was available free through the Amazon Prime lending library and, having heard amazing things about this series, I decided it was very much a good place to start with the graphic novel genre. I wasn’t wrong because I am officially a convert to the form.

I was debating for a while about how best to review these – whether I should do individual reviews or just a bulk review – and as I recently finished the final volume currently in publication I decided to just do an overarching review of the whole series as it stands.

To summarise, the books follow a group of 5 friends (Jo, April, Mal, Molly, and Ripley) who are at a summer camp – Miss Qiunzilla Thiskwin Penniquiqul Thistle Crumpet’s camp for hard-core lady-types – I mean I think that tells you everything you need to know about the tone of the series! It’s fun, it’s funny, the girls get in to some Scooby Doo worthy situations with monsters and mermaids, and it’s about their friendship. It just filled me with joy reading it because all the girls are so, so different and each have their shining moments, and it is just a wonderful, wonderful series to read and one I think would appeal to so many different age groups – I love it and I’m nearly 24, but I’m pretty certain some of my friends younger sisters of 8 and 9 would love it just as much!

The first few in the series, I adored the artwork, however the primary artist changed and while I still loved the content I was quite sad to see the original art go because for me that was part of the charm of the characters. I got used to it but after going on a binge it was a bit of a shock to the system to see the characters all looking different! Thankfully the girls all kept their personalities so I eventually adjusted.

I could very easily read these over and over again, if only because I love Mal and Molly so much – my little gay heart could hardly handle it! This series completely NAILS representation, honestly, people come in all shapes and sizes, have different family dynamics, there’s exploration of sexuality and gender – but none of it is so in your face, or overtly ‘token’ – it feels natural and a lot more lifelike than many books aimed at an older audience.

This was a fantastic, fantastic, introduction to graphic novels and I can’t wait for the next two volumes to be released! One is due out in December and I’ma gonna get me that on preorder!

I leave you with a picture of Mal & Molly from (I think) the second volume, just to show you how darn adorable they are.

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Review: Justine – Alice Thompson

042 - Justine

Rating – 3*

Justine is a very interesting, but bizarre, book. It is short at only 140 or so pages, but it packs a punch. I hesitate to compare it to anything, because I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before – but it reads like something written pre-1900, even though it’s a contemporary novel. For me, personally, I saw a lot of similarities between it and The Picture of Dorian Grey – but maybe it’s because it is about a man obsessed with a painting – and also Moby Dick (not that there’s any whales) but it’s focal point is a man driven to obsession over something.

The protagonist in this story is rich and spoiled. He is a man of frivolities and indulgence; he buys fancy paintings and lazes around smoking opium. At the start of the book, Justine is merely a figure in a painting who he fancies himself in love with, but then one day he sees a woman who is remarkably like the woman from the painting, and her name is also Justine. As a man with an addictive, and obsessive personality, he becomes ensnared by Justine and is absolutely convinced he is meant to be with her. But then there’s another woman, Justine’s twin sister Juliette and that’s when things get a bit crazy…

Needless to say I read this book in one sitting because it was so, so engaging. It’s fast paced and kept me guessing what would happen at every turn. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the other novella I’ve read by Thompson (The Book Collector) but I really do love her writing. My main issue with this book is, quite oddly for Salt, there were numerous spelling mistakes and typos throughout which really irritated me and reduced my overall enjoyment. Thankfully, I persevered because I really liked what I was reading, but I would tell any potential reader to be aware of their presence!

I can’t wait to read the other book(s?) I have by Alice Thompson sitting on my shelf. I have a feeling they might be good October reads!

Review: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

040 - War and Peace

This is the only book I’ve read for the best part of two months. It’s been a journey, it’s been long and difficult but I am so, so glad to have finally read this gargantuan book. I stuck with the schedule in the Goodreads group that was on, which really did impact my enjoyment I feel. I think I could have enjoyed it more if I had read more when I had momentum rather than sticking to the 6ish chapters a day to get through it.

It’s not going to be a long review, or even much of an overview, because trying to pin my thoughts down is nearly impossible and something I don’t feel I can do after just one read. This is a book I know I will want to read again in the future – not immediately, but in a couple of years for sure. Only then do I think I’ll be able to give a more rounded view.

I’m not going to go in to depth because honestly, I feel like I’ve forgotten a lot of the finer points. Two months is a long time to be stuck in the same book and reading about the same people, and I did feel completely entwined with their lives, but come the end of the book I was tired of the company. I fell in love and out of love with so many characters; those we see through to the end I have such conflicting feelings towards.

There are a lot of issues for me; mostly in how women are represented in the book. I know many people use the excuse of “well it was just the done thing in that time period” – yes, I know, but it still makes me angry because there are so many interesting women in this book who were just objects or tropes, while they did have character I felt the women a lot more stereotypical than the men which, for me, just lessened my enjoyment. That is especially true given the nature of Anna in Anna Karenina – because she’s a pretty great female character, and knowing Tolstoy could create her just makes me frustrated with the endings the women got in this.

As for the story, I loved the ‘peace’ sections of the book; I loved following the lives of so many varied people in a period of history I know so very little about. The lack of knowledge of the history is something I know I want to fill at least a little bit before I reread the novel if only so I can understand the ‘war’ segments of the book a little more fully. For me, they dragged and I lost interest and motivation, which in turn made the whole book a lot more of a chore than an enjoyment.

It’s not my favourite Russian classic I’ve read. I preferred both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment – both of which are long, but not quite this long. And if I am entirely honest, if I am going to dedicate 2 months of my life to a book and read over 1200 pages, I want it to blow me away much like The Count of Monte Cristo or Bleak House – and keep me engaged, make me want to keep going, which this just didn’t unfortunately.

Ultimately, I’m not going to be rushing back to it in the immediate future, but I am so proud of myself in actually finishing it. It’s one of those books I have wanted to read for an absolute age, and to say I’ve finally done it is just such an achievement. While I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I had hoped, I think the satisfaction in reading it far surmounts anything I’ve felt from reading a book in a long time. It’s also made pretty much every other book in existence much less daunting to approach!

Also, this was the last book in my 50 books of 2017 challenge on goodreads – so I don’t even care it took me 2 months!

Review: Jerusalem: The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore

038 - Jerusalem

Rating – 3*

Jerusalem is, for me, one of the most fascinating cities in the world. While I have never been there, it is probably one of those cities on my very short travel list because it is so historically rich. I’m going to say that this book will definitely not be for everyone and I respect that. For me, it’s just a fascinating topic that I wanted to learn more about (not being at uni has done wonders for my general knowledge!)

This book is a biography of the city of Jerusalem. Montefiore takes us on a journey from 2000 BC to the present day. Starting with the birth of Judaism, moving in to Christianity and Islam, this book avoids religious bias admirably; I think all three of these sections were handled really well. While it is natural that there is more Jewish history in Jerusalem, I think fair amounts of information were given to both Christianity and Islam without any bias in spite of the authors own family connections with Jerusalem and coming from a Jewish background. I find the origins of religion fascinating, and I think that is partly why I was so drawn to this book, as I find the basis of the three Abrahamic religions really interesting. Jerusalem is considered to be the birth place of all three, or at least in some peoples eyes, it is most certainly still a Holy city for all three religions. The city itself went back and forth under Jewish, Christian, and Muslim control many times over the years, and for me that’s something that is really very interesting to learn about as it’s not something that I’ve ever been taught.

This book also covers so much more than religion. There is sections of it dedicated to the Ottoman empire, the world wars, how conflict and xenophobia has had a role in the shaping of the city. Interestingly, there was a chapter on the six day war which is, shamefully, a conflict I have only recently become aware of due to my reading of Salt Houses. I’ve always dismissed modern history, I’ve always been more interested in ancient history – but if I’m entirely honest this era of history is something which I’m very glad that I’ve read about, and been able to research and understand. Education is so sheltered and whitewashed, for me I love to see it from different perspectives and learn about things that aren’t taught on the national curriculum.

Montefiore’s writing is fantastic – a lot of this read more like fiction because he tends to focus on one person in history and tell a snippet of the history of the city from their perspective (not first person, but you get my drift). Key figures map out the history and for me, that really made this book more palatable than some history books.

My only issue with this book is that it was heavy going. There was a lot of information – it covered over 3000 years of history – that in itself is not an issue, what my issue was with is the footnotes. SO MANY FOOTNOTES. The fact is that for me many of them could have been included in the bulk of the text, or put to the back of the book wherein supplementary information could be looked at if you wanted to. Instead they sometimes take up half a page and it’s just really frustrating for me as a reader! I also feel that there could have been a disclaimer that part of this book is his own family history – while that became pretty obvious while reading it, I felt a bit annoyed that it wasn’t something that was outright mentioned in the introduction – call me a bit silly if you like!

I’m really looking forward to picking up the other non-fiction book I have by Montefiore (The Romanovs) – but I think I’ll be reading that in quite a while because this is a book I feel I need to fully digest! His writing is great, and very engaging, and I feel like I’ve achieved something from reading this book. It’s a solid 3* and I’ll be picking up more books by Montefiore, and on Jerusalem!

Review: Now and at the Hour of Our Death – Susana Moreira Marques

036 - Now and at the Hour of Our Deaths

Rating – 3*

This was a short and very interesting book. I picked it up because I’m on a bit of an independent publisher binge at the moment and, as Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest I decided to pick the only book by a Portuguese author that I own up.

The basis of this book is that the author, who is a journalist, spent time with a palliative/end of life care team in a remote area in Portugal, and the result is this book. It is an intimate look in to the lives of the people undergoing care and their families.

The book is split, really, in to two distinct parts. Travel Notes About Death is the first part, and reads very much like poetry. It is short snippets from lives of those dying and their families, with odd interjections from the author. As I said, it reads like poetry and is absolutely beautiful – if the whole book read like this I would happily have given it 4 or even 5 stars because, honestly, I read a lot of it twice because it was so beautiful.

The second section is Portraits in which there are 3 distinct stories told. First we have the authors interpretation of these people, which is then followed by the voices of the patients or their families. These are three very different stories, and it is very intimate to look in on families at this time of their lives. It’s poignant, and the first story of Paula – a 40 year old mother dying of cancer – hit me quite profoundly to the point I was near tears when reading this section, particularly in her own words.

I feel I ought to just state that the translator in this book has done an incredible job, especially capturing the poetic nature of the first section, and the individual voices of the second section. The writing itself was beautiful, my only issue with this book is that it felt disjointed, there was no real flow to the narrative. As I said, if it carried on as the first section was, I’d have easily given it 4 or 5 stars, I just found the portraits a bit clumpy at times and if I’m honest I put the book down and didn’t feel an urge to return to it.

This is definitely an interesting read, but didn’t quite hit me full on!

Review: Fly Away Home – Marina Warner

035 - Fly Away Home

Rating – 3*

After reading what I can only describe as an incredible book published by Salt earlier this month, I decided it was high time I started making headway on the collection of books I have published by them sitting on my shelves. It was this one which caught my attention.

Fly Away Home is a short story collection containing 20 stories. I had very few doubts going in to this collection, frankly I didn’t even know what it was about, I saw it in a local bookshop a few months ago, saw Salt’s logo on the side and picked it up. As discussed previously, I love them as a publisher and whenever I see a book when I’m out, I do have a tendency to pick it up!

Unfortunately, this collection wasn’t for me. It wasn’t that it was bad, it was just that there were only a few stand out stories in the 20 which I really enjoyed, everything else just didn’t hit all the right buttons for me. I love stories which tread the fine line between fantasy and reality. As a whole, the collection had this but I felt that the balance of the two was slightly off. There were so many stories in here that I wanted to love but just lacked something – it’s hard to put my hand on what it was because I loved so many of the ideas, it was just the execution of them which lacked.

Warner’s writing is engaging, it’s interesting and how she interprets myth and fairytale is really something I enjoyed. I just wish there had been more exploration in some stories (Mélusine: A Mermaid Tale for example is one I wish could have had more context and more exploration because I wanted to love that one so, so much) and explored less in others.

It’s by no means a bad collection, I did give each story a rating which, on average, was a 3*. One of my favourites was one of the earlier stories A Chatelaine in the Making which for me had the best balance of fantasy and realism in the collection; it was just the right amount of fantasy to make it read like a fairy tale, but enough realism there to make it dark and twisty.

It isn’t my favourite short story collection, but as with all books (especially short story collections I find) there is a large matter of subjectivity. If we all loved the same thing, then the world would be a boring place! If this book sounds like something you might be interested in do pick it up because I appear to be in a minority – at least according to goodreads!

Review: Testosterone Rex – Cordelia Fine

031 - Testosterone Rex

Rating – 3*

After the horror show that was the representation of women in my previous read, I decided to clear my mind and read a book on gender theory/feminism. I needed to cleanse my soul with something just like this. I actually bought this book because 1) the title made me laugh and 2) the cover is gorgeous. I did briefly read the blurb and picked it up because it sounded right up my alley.

I’ve never read any of Fine’s work before, though after reading this I have since purchased Delusions of Gender, which I am already looking forward to reading as I feel it would give this book a little more meaning.

Testosterone Rex is a relatively short book which aims to debunk the gender myth, or more particularly the “boys will be boys” stance and the universal blame of testosterone for all male behaviours. It’s a good book, for the most part, and it conveys some really important information. For me though, and this is just an opinion, it could have been put across in a much more approachable manner. What could have been pretty straight forward, with real world examples was often over complicated for someone who doesn’t have a background in social sciences or gender studies. Often I found myself scanning through the information in front of me and not fully understanding what was going on until the end of a section.

There were some really, really good bits in this book which I really enjoyed, other bits not so much. The book itself is split in to three main sections – past, present, and future. I found the first 70 or so pages on the past really engaging; honestly those set the book up as a 5* read for me. I also really enjoyed the future section, albeit it was only one chapter but I found the look in on gendering of childrens toys interesting and actually something I’d have liked elaborated on further. For me, what let this book down, was the middle – the present – and it was just that it was so dense.

This is by far the most academic book I’ve read on feminism, and I’m glad it wasn’t my first as it would have put me off the genre of ‘feminist non fiction’ (if there is such a genre!) for life – it would have scared me away because it’s very in depth, and often I couldn’t make out the wood from the trees. The best way to describe this would be a dissertation on gender studies, but without a clear conclusion, rather an overarching sentiment throughout for you to draw your own conclusion.

It’s most certainly not a book for people new to feminist non-fiction, but I would say it’s a good book to pick up if you’re new to – or even wanting to try picking up for the first time – more academic non-fiction and essay collections, because it is most definitely an academic text opposed to a ‘popular non-fiction’ book.

As I said, I’m looking forward to reading Delusions of Gender because if Goodreads is to be believed, that book is a LOT more popular than this!