Review: Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

007 - washington black

007 - washington black

★★★

Washington Black is a book that seemed to be everywhere last year – it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and has won numerous accolades. Needless to say it was a book I approached with some trepidation as it had such high praise from so many different areas, including reviews from people I trust.

I will start with saying that the writing in this book is beautiful, and I will definitely be reading more of Edugyan’s work. I can completely understand why this book had so much praise heaped on it however I can’t ignore the fact there are a lot of issues here that just made this book unbelievable. One of the biggest issues for me was that the plot drove the characters, not the other way around. For a first person narrative it feels quite passive, and while I understand the book is written as someone (Wash) looking back on his life I didn’t feel there as if I were seeing things through his eyes and living it with him – it was very much this happened, then this happened, then this happened. All tell, no show. Then there’s the whole globetrotting element which is just absurd, it doesn’t seem to matter where in the world someone is they find exactly who they are looking for just around a corner – Canada, Barbados or the Arctic it doesn’t matter.

The book starts off really strong, with a particularly interesting take on slavery in the West Indies, I was interested in the direction I thought this book was going to take but then it just became both meh and far fetched beyond belief. Some bits of it were fascinating, and fantastic, and when it was good it was really good. Come the end though I was slogging through it just to say I’d finished.

Also, I listened to the audiobook for the most part and while it was for the most part fantastic narration, there’s a bit in it which really ground my gears. There’s a brief interaction with a Scottish character and I don’t know what accent the narrator was doing but it sure as hell was not Scottish. It was awful. Just putting that out there.

I gave this 3 stars in the end, the first third of the book was good, the writing as a whole was beautiful, but the actual plot – the absurd twists and the dull characters just made this so, so difficult to enjoy.

Review: Evolutions – Oren Harman

001 - evolutions

001 - evolutions

★★★

This is the first book I’ve read in what feels like an age and I’m very much out of practice writing reviews, so let’s give this a go, shall we?

I’ve been in the mood to read non-fiction lately, and this was by far and away not what I was expecting when I picked it up. The way this book is written is far more poetic and ‘flowery’ than I was anticipating from a book in the popular science section of my local Waterstones to be.

I thought this book was going to be something that combined theology, mythology and evolution in a factual way – explained the origins of myths from a scientific point of view and instead it was a book which gave a personality to the universe. It could easily be in the fiction section of a book shop because it reads like flash fiction, just drawing inspiration on science and nature and, honestly, parts of it are breathtaking. As a scientist, however lapsed I am, it’s a very surreal experience to read the hard facts in and amongst such literary language.

While I loved how this book was written, and I shouldn’t judge a book based on what I was expecting. I think for someone maybe dabbling in popular science, this could be a good stepping stone between fact and fiction. For me the best part of the book wasn’t his wax poetic about the universe, but the essay section at the end. While it felt like an abrupt change in pace, it actually gave analysis to the first two thirds and provided references both for and against the mythology that was drawn. That’s what I wanted when I picked it up.

It also is worth saying that this is very binary in representation of gender and sexuality, which does grind my gears. Even when talking about asexual entities he was assigning gender to them and completely ignoring non-binary sex/gender (which is not just some modern development, it exists in history as long as life has been evolving).

Overall, a solid 3 stars, not sure it’ll be one I read again though – and I’d wait for the paperback, frankly.

Review: Trickery – Roald Dahl

057 - Trickery

057 - Trickery

Rating – 3*

I was fortunate enough to be approached by Penguin to take part in a blog tour to celebrate Roald Dahl day on the 13th of September, in exchange for taking part I was sent four of Dahl’s short story collections to peruse and review. Today I’m going to discuss one of those in the shape of Trickery.

I’ve never read any of Dahl’s adult fiction before so this was a really new experience for me, and I’m happy to say that his writing translates really well to an adult audience. The bizarre and slightly dark nature of all of his children’s books is elevated to a new level, a much more mature level, and it really works.

The reason I picked this book up opposed to one of the other three I was sent is that I felt that a book around Trickery would have a more varied assortment of stories than something like War. And it was just what I was in the mood for, stories with good twists! As you’d expect with a theme of trickery linking all the stories the collection focuses on how we as humans use deceit, lies and manipulation to achieve our goals – but this book also focuses on the repercussions and fall out which shows that it doesn’t always get you what you think it has and that life has many twists and turns to surprise you yet!

I’m sure many of you reading this will agree with me when I say that the trouble with short story collections is that it’s highly unlikely that you will love every single story. I gave this collection 3 stars because I really enjoyed around half of the stories, some stood out to me more than others, and while none were bad there were just weaker stories sandwiched between stand outs.

My two favourites in this collection were The Visitor and Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat. Both really stood out to me. In The Visitor we follow Oswald, a man who has travelled extensively and finds himself stranded in the Egyptian outback and receives help from a wealthy local resident and his family. However, I do think my favourite among the stories was Mrs Bixby and the Colonel’s Coat in which we follow Mrs Bixby, a woman who is carrying out an affair and gets more than she bargained for when trying to pull the wool over her husbands eyes.

This was a solid collection, and I feel very fortunate to have been picked by Penguin to take part in this Blog Tour to celebrate Roald Dahl’s work! I’m definitely going to be picking up more of his short stories because the good stories in this collection were great and ones that will stick with me. Not only that, but I’m also really looking forward to reading what all these wonderful people have to say over the next 2 and a half weeks!

Roald Dahl Blog Tour Card

Review: Circe – Madeline Miller

049 - Circe

049 - Circe

Rating – 3*

Having seen high praise for Circe prior to publication, and also the adoration for Madeline Miller’s first novel this is one of the easiest new releases I’ve purchased this year. I’ll be honest and say that I’ve not read The Song of Achilles, but it is a book that has intrigued me for a long time.

Circe is – I thought – a book about Circe. Circe, daughter of Helios, witch of Aiaia, famed for her part in the Odyssey and I was hoping this book would would be a history of her through her own voice. Yet at times I felt that she was a secondary character in her own story. The only time I felt she wasn’t was around the last third of the book which I ended up really enjoying but I didn’t find it, on the whole, anywhere near as compelling as I expected.

From what I know of Greek mythology this book is well researched, and that appears to be the general consensus on the internet. That’s not something I can fault. I can’t even fault the readability because it is very well written, it’s accessible and I think it may even spark a love of Greek mythology in readers who would otherwise have not discovered it. But, and I hate to say this, it’s dull. I found only a handful of moments in this book actually gripped me and I think Circe as a character deserved so much more than the lot she was given in this, and yet it’s meant to be a book about her.

The one redeeming feature, the bits I absolutely loved, was when Circe meets Penelope and what unfolds on Aiaia after this point. I could have read an entire book about these two women who had pivotal roles in Odysseus’ life and yet even parts of their tentative friendship were marred by Odysseus himself, even though he was not in the picture.

Ultimately this is a coming of age story, and maybe that’s why it just didn’t resonate with me. I’m not the biggest fan of a coming of age story, but if you are this might be a really good way to bridge the gap between your typical coming of age story, and something with historical and mythological context. It was good enough, and parts of it were good I can’t deny that but it wasn’t what I was expecting, and it wasn’t what the hype built it up to be. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I wouldn’t recommend it, I would just say go in to it with this blinkered view and be open minded about what you’re going to get.

A lot of people are saying this is one of the best books of 2018 or “the best book ever” and, if I’m honest, I’m going to have to disagree. It was average, and had this not had Madeline Miller’s name on the front, had it not have been so hyped, had it have had different characters but the same plot, I don’t think it would be lauding praise right now.

Review: The Third Reel – S J Naudé

046 - The Third Reel

046 - The Third Reel

Rating – 3*

As those of you who have followed this blog for some time will know, one of my favourite short story collections of recent years was The Alphabet of Birds so when I found out that not only was Naudé writing a novel but that it was to be published by Salt, I got very excited.

The Third Reel is set in an interesting point in history – Thatcher’s Britain, Apartheid South Africa, the beginning of the AIDS crisis. Our main character, Etienne is a young man who has fled conscription in South Africa and sought asylum in the UK. He is enraptured by film, and wins a scholarship to study at London Film School but then his world is flipped upside down by a young German artist who makes art and moonlights as a paediatric nurse. While researching for a project on lost film, Etienne is introduced to this lost German wartime reel, and he becomes obsessed with finding the other two. There is so much more to this book as this is just the surface, but finding the words is difficult.

As someone who only has remedial knowledge about 1980’s Britain, I think the way this is written suits that time period. It feels very artsy, but also very industrial and brutal much like that period of history was. Nothing in this book was what it appeared on the surface, it was so multifaceted with art and music and architecture all layering on top of each other to build this really quite unsettling – yet oddly beautiful – environment.

A lot of this book feels unsettling, and I think the reason for that is simply that it’s so beautifully written yet the content isn’t always very pretty. The relationship between Etienne and Axel is a bizarre one and one I’m not entirely comfortable with, but as a reader I don’t think I was meant to be comfortable with it.

Ultimately, this didn’t quite match up with the high bar I set it based on The Alphabet of Birds but it’s nonetheless a good book. Had I not been familiar with his writing style, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much however. So it’s very swings and roundabouts as to how much I enjoyed this, which is why I settled at 3* – because it wasn’t a bad book, it just wasn’t as good as I was hoping.

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 Gill

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.