Review: The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

055 - The Bear and the Nightingale

Rating – 4*

The Bear and the Nightingale is a book that I have been seeing everywhere since it came out earlier this year but I kept ignoring it. Every time I saw it I was drawn in by the cover but, for some reason, I just didn’t pick it up – and having read it now I think maybe subconsciously I was waiting for the right time to read it. This, my readers, is the perfect Winter book to curl up under a blanket with and that is just what I did. I curled up and read it in one sitting and I cannot tell you how good it felt to do that with a book after so long!

I’m not familiar with Russian fairy tales and folklore but, honestly, you don’t need to be to enjoy this. In the first chapter the fairy tale this is based on is recounted to the children by their nanny. It’s the story of the frost demon – Morozko – who is the Russian equivalent of Jack Frost.

“In Russian, Frost was called Morozko, the demon of winter. But long ago, the people called him Karachun, the death-god. Under that name, he was king of black midwinter who came for bad children and froze them in the night.”

As a reader we’re following the life of Vasya. Vasya is everything I could dream of in a fairy tale retelling, she’s strong willed and wild, she doesn’t conform to societal norms of the culture she lives in – which in Medieval Russia is very misogynistic and not at all easy. Vasya, at least to me, was very much like Merida in Pixar’s Brave and that’s how I was picturing her.

Vasya is different, and when her mother was pregnant with her she could tell this. She knew that Vasya was to have a gift much like her Grandmothers – she can see the spirit guardians around her home, and those in the wild around her. To most these spirits are fairy stories, but everyone still adheres to the old ways – honouring those spirits, leaving food out for them and such, and while that still happens all is well. But then the old ways fall by the wayside leading to devastation in the community. Vasya doesn’t give up though, she continues adhering to the old ways, honouring the spirits – but being strong willed and defiant in a culture like that only leads to bad things for young women!

That’s nothing more than a very short summary – this story is so much more than that and is full of adventure and familial love – something I think so many books are lacking! Reading the blurb, this book really sounded like another YA trope jumping in the fairy tale retelling bandwagon. While it probably could be considered YA, I feel it had a lot more context and a lot fewer tropes than your standard YA book.

What makes me very happy is that there is to be another book in this world, and based on what Katherine Arden has said on Goodreads that the second is to focus on Vasya and her siblings Olga and Sasha who are two characters I really wanted to learn more about.

If anyone has looked at this book and put it back down, I’d say give it a chance because it is genuinely one of the cosiest books I’ve read recently, and I would definitely say this is a Christmas-y read. I for one loved it and was taken very much by surprise!

 

Review: Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

047 - Our Mutual Friend

Rating – 4*

Our Mutual Friend has been one of those books that I had a very on/off relationship with. The first 25% I absolutely stormed through, the middle 50% I struggled with, then it picked up again towards the end. Unlike my favourite of Dickens’ books, Bleak House, I didn’t find this as compelling or engaging meaning it took me the best part of 2 months to actually read it.

The novel kicks off with a body being found in the Thames. The body is identified to be that of John Harmon, a young man who has recently come home to London in order to claim his inheritance. However, upon his death the inheritance  instead passes to the Boffins, a working class family, and the effect of this spreads into London society.

 

As always with a book by Dickens, this has an expansive character list – all of which have interesting traits and characteristics. Some of them do feel more like caricatures, but for me that’s part of the charm with a Dickens novel. Lizzie is annoyingly angelic and probably annoyed me the most out of all the characters, because she felt even more flawless and contrived than Esther in Bleak House. Her innocence and naivety felt forced, and for me that was frustrating. Bella is flawed even after her character goes through a complete transformation. She is sweet, and silly, and full of compassion and her scenes with John (who is equally fantastic) were so great to read. John, is Our Mutual Friend, as without him there wouldn’t be a book to read. Everyone in this story is brought together, in some way or another, by John and I think that in and of itself was a really interesting concept for a book.

This was Dickens’ last complete novel (The Mystery of Edwin Drood was incomplete at the time of his death) and I think it is definitely one of his strongest for character and plot, I just found the actual writing – and therefore the reading of it – a bit clunky. It didn’t capture me like Bleak House did, but then I feel I have to stop comparing all Dickens’ novels to Bleak House in order to give them a fair chance!

I can’t wait to read more Dickens. I feel I may be finishing at least one more before the year is out – so keep an eye out for that if you’re interested!

Review: The Stone Gods – Jeanette Winterson

044 - The Stone Gods

Rating – 4*

Firstly, I don’t know how I’ve got to the age of 24 (almost) without having read any Jeanette Winterson novels. Nope. Not even Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. I’ve always known that I was going to love her work, so putting it off until I needed a book that was going to blow me away seemed logical – and it worked.

I don’t even know how to describe The Stone Gods. It starts in a futuristic past, and ends in a dystopian future. It’s everything I wanted it to be and more. It reminded me a lot of Battlestar Galactica in it’s premise, with the recurring theme of “all of this has happened before. All of this will happen again” and we see Billie and Spike in three different incarnations, each of them intertwining and it’s simply fantastic.

This book actually made me shed a tear, and I can’t remember the last time a book did that (probably more recently than I actually remember, if I’m honest with myself!) but it takes a lot for me to be moved to tears, and this did it. More than once. Why? It gave me an insight in to humanity, the world as a whole, and also it raised the scary realisation that this is becoming less and less like a dystopia and a lot more believable. And while it was sad in parts, it also made me laugh and it takes a lot to meld those two contrasting emotions so seamlessly within paragraphs of each other.

Truly this book is fantastic and I really, really cannot wait to delve in to more of Winterson’s work as it is very much overdue on my part! I’d really highly recommend this book to someone who maybe hasn’t read much of Winterson’s work – because it felt like a great starting place. Also, if you’re unsure where to start with literary fiction in general than this felt very approachable primarily because it crosses over with sci-fi quite spectacularly, making it the perfect starting point for someone wanting to branch out. Oh, and if you’ve watched Battlestar Galactica and wanted it to be a little more gay? yeah. Read this.

Review: Other Minds – Peter Godfrey-Smith

043 - Other Minds

Rating – 4*

I was drawn in to this book by the cover – it wasn’t something I had planned on picking up or reading, yet the octopus on the front drew me in and I read it cover to cover in two sittings.

I have a bit of a history with the octopus – back in my first year of university I wrote an essay about them, and in researching them I became fascinated by the whole family of cephalopods. They are such interesting, inteligent creatures and this book explores the evolution of them compared to us. I was also quite keen on evolutionary biology when at university (although, let’s not talk about that exam) and it’s one of those subjects that I just love reading about for pleasure. This book brought together two aspects of my degree that I loved, and as such I really enjoyed this book.

One of the most incredible sections of this book – one that I read more than once – was the section about how cephalopods like octopus, cuttlefish and squid are able to change colours. Now that in itself isn’t surprising, most people know that they’re able to change colour, what actually made me quite sad was the revalation in this book that they are all likely colourblind so can’t see the beauty themselves. I also found the section on the aging of the animals an interesting read because I was niavely under the impression that they could live for many years but that’s a misconception and they’re lucky if they live past one breeding season (in the case of females).

The author explores the development of the cephalopod brain and compares it to our own. He highlights how the development of mammalian and avian brains differs to that of cephalopods, and how differently we process information. What is established in this book is that cephalopods look at the word in a very different way to us (in spite of the fact that eyes and vision in general is quite similar, though evolved completely independently from each other). The stark differences between mammalian and cephalopod brains and cognition is likely the closest we’ll ever get to exploring the concept of alien intelligence because neural pathways and the brain in cephalopods evolved separately to those same traits in the mammalian world.

Putting it in to perspective, biologically an octopus is more closely related to a snail than humans, yet psychologically and on an intellectual level an octopus is very close to humans.

My only wish is that there was more science in it. I found that there was often tangents and side-notes, and it erred into the realms of philosophy opposed to science which is fine in moderation but I felt it happened all too often. I’d have loved for this book to have been a few pages longer and just rounded off less abruptly. But on the whole, I really enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to someone looking for something a little different to read – it’s a very approachable book and the audiobook is absolutely fantastic (but you’ll miss out on the pictures of octopuses and cuttlefish).

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: Carol – Patricia Highsmith

039 - Carol

Rating – 4*

Carol is the first book by Patricia Highsmith I’ve read, it certainly won’t be my last because this book was simply fantastic and a book I very much enjoyed reading.

As many people are aware, this book was made in to a movie in 2015 staring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. I’ve had the DVD to watch since it was released, but as always I was determined to read the book first. I’m yet to watch the movie, but I know based on this I am going to love it when I do finally get around to watching it.

The novel is relatively short, we follow Therese – a young stage designer who is working in a department store over Christmas to make ends meet. In this department store Therese meets Carol, and from there we have a very slow burn romance between the two of them. It was realistic, it was engaging, and having images in my mind of Cate Blanchett certainly made it even more enjoyable.

As with all lesbian romances, there is a twist- someone has to have something tragic happen to them as ‘punishment’ for their lifestyle. Unfortunately in this day and age this is still a trope we find in TV and literature (I’m talking to you, BBC. Destroying the lives of lesbians everywhere!)  Somehow, this book was deemed a lesbian romance with a happy ending, but I disagree with that statement somewhat. While it was believable of the time that it was set in, I really don’t consider the ending a happy one – bittersweet maybe, but not happy.

This book is just so beautiful, and being so short I don’t want to say too much and give the plot away. All I will say is I can’t wait to read more of Highsmith’s writing because I loved her writing style; there was depth and beauty to her words. Everything in this book was just so perfectly placed and the pace of it was exquisite. For me, it was the definition of a slow burn!

However, there was just something niggling in the back of my mind which stopped me giving this 5 stars, it was a solid 4, maybe even 4.5, but giving this 5* just didn’t feel right. It is one I would love to return to, especially after watching the movie. If it’s a book you haven’t read, I’d highly recommend it because it is a joy to read.

Review: Salt Houses – Hala Alyan

033 - Salt Houses

Raiting – 4*

I was fortunate enough to get this book as a review copy from NetGalley. I’ll not lie, it was the cover that drew me in and it makes me very sad that in the UK this isn’t the edition that has been published, if it were I’d be snapping up a physical copy of this book because it was magnificent.

I don’t even know where to begin with this book because it is that incredible. We start in Palestine, it’s 1967 and the eve of a wedding. We follow the same family, from different viewpoints and perspectives, over several generations, several countries, and 3 continents from Palestine being torn apart by the Six-Day War. The family ends up spread across the world, and it’s made even more relevant to this family as Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait in the 90s; Kuwait being where some of the family set up a new home after the . How they feel living in America after 9/11. Ultimately though, this is about a family and the meaning of home. It’s a book that explores displacement, loss, and it also explores a woefully unexplained part of history – the view from the other side.

All the characters in this book were vibrant; each had flaws but they were almost charming because they were so well rounded, they were believable. I can’t talk about all the characters in this book because there are 5 generations by the epilogue – each of them as important as the last. I will say I had a soft spot for Atef, throughout the book he put up with a lot, and it’s only through the course of the novel that you realise quite how much.

As I said, this explores a very underrepresented portion of the population. The loss of identity for the children and grandchildren of Alia and Atef puts in to words what the horror what was 9/11 and being of Arabian heritage in the USA. Some parts of this book really broke my heart, and frankly it disgusts me that there are still so many ignorant people in the world.

The thing that stands out most about this book is the family is so normal. They’re ordinary. In spite of their atypical experience, so much about them as a unit was just them being a family, arguments and all, in spite of the horrors going on around them. They’re just people, a family, trying to get along in the world and find their place in it.

Alyan is a poet and that shines through in this book. For me this book was so rich; the prose was incredible, the scene building was amazing, and I was absolutely lost in wherever in the world we were in that particular chapter. Her writing is absolutely beautiful, and I’m looking forward to reading some of her poetry because if this was a taster of her work, the rest is going to be incredible.

I’m so glad I read this right now, but I have to admit I think this is a perfect sunny day, outside, read. This book made me feel like I would on a mid-summer evening, and I think reading it with that around me really would have heightened the reading experience for me. While it’s covering some really harrowing and heartbreaking history, it’s probably one of the most uplifting books I’ve read in a while. I’d highly recommend it to anyone.

Review: Fantastic Mr Fox – Roald Dahl

032 - Fantastic Mr Fox

Rating – 4*

I’ve been having a few really rough days with my illness lately. I’ve been in chronic, constant pain, struggling to sleep, struggling to do anything if I’m honest – especially reading. When I’m feeling under the weather I love nothing more than picking up an old favourite, and now I enjoy audiobooks I’ve discovered a new found love for them that I didn’t have before. So, when I was unable to sleep one night last week, rather than lay there with the light on (keeping me awake) or stare at my ceiling counting down the hours until it was once again acceptable to get out of bed, I decided to use up one of the credits I have on audible and listen to one of my childhood favourites – I wasn’t disappointed.

Most people know the story of Fantastic Mr Fox – let’s face it – I don’t feel I need to tell you the plot here, or even how it pans out, or how much I love the characters (long suffering Mrs Fox I found a new appreciation for after this reread!). What I will tell you is that these audiobooks are incredible. I’ve previously listened to Matilda (narrated by Kate Winslet) and loved it, this narration by Chris O’Dowd – an hilarious Irishman if you don’t know who he is – brought a whole new life to a book that I already loved, and still love even at the age of 23. Highly, highly recommend this audiobook – and this book in general if I’m honest. It’s by no means a perfect book, but it’s an enjoyable one (with nostalgia attached to it), and one that I can’t find much to fault with even after all these years.

I will also say that after this reread (or listen. Or whatever) I finally watched the 2009 movie adaptation with George Clooney as Mr Fox and Meryl Streep as Mrs Fox. One the cast was incredible, two it brought a more modern twist to an old favourite, and three, I really enjoyed it. So while it looks a bit off-putting, and has been a wee bit Americanised – it’s totally worth a watch for a cozy afternoon, duvet snuggling kind of movie when you feel like being childish (or you’re ill).

Review: The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times – Xan Brooks

029 - The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times

Rating – 4*

This book was one of my most anticipated releases of 2017. Salt are one of my favourite publishers; I’ve never read a bad book from them and they’re a local publishing house, which just makes me love them even more. I was fortunate enough to win this book in a giveaway on Goodreads  – as someone who never wins anything, I was absolutely elated when this arrived in the post! However, with all my reading for the Wellcome Prize, I didn’t get around to this until the start of this month – but honestly, it was worth the wait.

I don’t know what I was expecting going in to this book, but honestly what I got wasn’t anything like I imagined. Trying to explain what this book was is difficult – because honestly it’s very unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It was absolutely mesmerising, but also quite an uncomfortable read in places, and I really enjoyed it.

The book is set shortly after WWI has ended, and we meet our young protagonist – Lucy – as she is on her way to the forest to meet The Funny Men. This band of men are named after Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz, and over the first part of the book we learn why Lucy is off to the forest to meet these men, who these men are, and the lines between fairytale and reality get heavily blurred. Over the course of the novel as a whole, those lines get even more blurred, the plot gets darker and even weirder, and seemingly unrelated plot points all come together and, frankly, it’s fantastic.

The first 20 or 30 pages for me were the hardest to get through, I had to read them twice before I actually found myself engaged in the book. It was quite a jolting start, if I’m entirely honest, and a little weird even for me! Once I got through them, and persevered, I found this a hard book to put down. Yes it was disturbing, and unsettling but come the end of it all I couldn’t help but have this overwhelming feeling of sadness that I was done with it.

This book was weird and wonderful and, while nothing like what I had imagined in my mind when I first read the blurb on Salts website in Autumn last year, it was incredible. It’s definitely not a book for the faint of heart and it’s also not a book that will be enjoyed by everyone. Personally, I loved it.

Now, you may be wondering why 4* not 5*? Well, it was a tough call but if I am entirely honest with myself, while it was beautifully written and expertly crafted, the different streams of the story often had me a little lost. It came together in the end, and there’s nothing quite as satisfying as a book coming together, but while reading it I did feel it was a little jumbled.

I look forward to what Xan Brooks does in the future, because for a debut, this was incredible.

Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

026 - Wives and Daughters

Rating – 4*

Wives and Daughters is the first Gaskell book I’ve read and certainly won’t be my last as I really enjoyed this book. I won’t lie, I purchased this book solely for the cover – I think it’s absolutely beautiful and honestly one of the prettiest of the Penguin English Library editions. The fact I enjoyed the content was just an added bonus!

After reading a lot of non fiction,  I decided it was time to get back in to fiction. I have a list of 12 classics I want to read before the year is out and so far I’ve read two – this was the third from that list. After reading non-fiction I wanted something which, while a classic, was a more easy read and I’m really glad I picked this up because, honestly, it’s a really good place to start with classics in my opinion.

The story follows Molly, who we are introduced to as she is a young girl and we then see grow into a woman. Molly has been raised by her widowed father, and I think this was actually quite a nice thing to be seen in fiction from this era for it isn’t very often you get a single father narrative in a book (least of all in a classic!) Molly is quite a sheltered young woman, having grown up relatively isolated and her naivety comes through, but it’s not all that frustrating for me, it was actually quite endearing.

A lot happens in this book, and I don’t want to give it all away. But Molly’s world does get turned upside down when her father takes a new wife, she finds herself with a ‘wicked step-mother’ – though not all that wicked, she is quite shallow and conniving. There is love for Molly too, this is after all a classic and what classic doesn’t have love in store for the protagonist? Again, I didn’t find the romance in this book too shabby – it was for me quite believable (even though much of the book was cliched).

I found there were so many references to fairy tales. For a start, this book does open up with this passage:

“To begin with the old rigmarole of childhood. In a country there was a shire, and in that shire there was a town, and in that town there was a house, and in that house there was a room, and in that room there was a bed, and in that bed there lay a little girl; wide awake and longing to get up, but not daring to do so for fear of the unseen power in the next room – a certain Betty, whose slumbers must not be disturbed until six o’clock struck, when she wakened of herself ‘as sure as clockwork’, and left the household very little peace afterwards. It was a June morning, and early as it was, the room was full of sunny warmth and light.”

That frankly oozes fairy tale. Then there is the widowed father, naive young girl, step-mother, step-sister, and ultimately a romance for the protagonist. As I said, overall I found this a very charming, endearing, and very spring-like read and the fairy tale quality of it just added to that enjoyment.

However, this book is unfinished. Elizabeth Gaskell sadly died before she could finish it; though there are several sources which do outline what her original ending intended and as a reader it was pretty apparent what the story was building up to. It’s a shame that she wasn’t able to finish it in her own words, rather the ending had to come from several sources and be more word of mouth. I would have really enjoyed to have read the ending in her own words.

This was a lovely break from all the non-fiction I’ve been reading lately, and definitely got me back in to classics. I think I would have maybe enjoyed this more had I been younger when I read it – as I said I feel this would be a good place to start with classics if you’re unfamiliar with them.