Review: Wives and Daughters – Elizabeth Gaskell

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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.

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

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Rating – 4*

So, this was the final book on the Wellcome Prize shortlist for me to read. I tried reading a few pages of it earlier on in my challenge to read the shortlist and I knew it was one that I was going to have to dedicate a full day to – it isn’t a book that I was going to be able to read over the course of a few days.

This book starts at 5:50am on a Sunday morning. It finishes a 4:59am on Monday morning. It’s the day in the life of Simon Limbres’ heart. Simon, who wakes up Sunday morning to go out with his friends – but doesn’t live to see Monday. It’s told through several narratives, we follow the doctors, the nurses, Simon’s family, the recipient of his heart. It’s a spanning book and really emphasises how every minute in the domino effect which is organ transplantation counts.

When this book was on topic, it was incredible. I loved the narratives which centred around the medicine, the decision making, the science. However, there are several tangents which just make no sense and absolutely ruined this for me – which is a shame because this could have been so much more if the waffle was just cut out.

I don’t think I would have picked this up had it not have been for this prize. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year – losing out to several other incredible translated books. I’m glad it’s one that’s getting recognition because it covers such an important topic and something that I’m very passionate about.

As I said though, it could have been cut down 50-70 pages and been just as incredible. While backstory is great, I don’t think this needed quite as much as it gave to each person tangentially connected to Simon.

So, that’s the last of my reviews for the shortlist. I will be posting a full consolidation of my thoughts and a general discussion of the prize and my feelings on who will win closer to the time of the winner being announced (April 24th!) Needless to say, I need to really think about this as these books have given me so many thoughts and feelings I couldn’t say right now which one I want to win!

Review: Moll Flanders – Daniel Defoe

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Rating – 4*

Today it is time for a wee break from the Wellcome Prize and on to a classic. Moll Flanders. Personally,  I couldn’t think of a better way to break up all the non-fiction than to take a romp in the 18th century with a woman who was once portrayed on screen by Alex Kingston. I mean, who wouldn’t want to read a book and have Alex Kingston at the forefront of their mind?! Anyway…

Moll Flanders is the story of Moll Flanders. Moll starts off a girl, a girl who wants to make her own fortune in the world. She comes from a working class origin, and dreads the thought of going in to service (which is apparently the only option for a girl of her origin). She wants to be a lady. She wants to find Mr Right, settle down, and have financial security. After all, life in the 18th century wasn’t exactly sunshine and rainbows, especially as a woman. London itself was not exactly the nicest place to be either, and Moll tries to make the best of the bad situation she finds herself in.

I really liked this book. Moll is probably one of my favourite characters in classic literature. She’s fun, she’s refreshing, she’s not a chaste, or girly, or swooning imitation of a woman from the Austen world of writing which drive me mad. She was ballsy, bawdy, and downright hilarious in parts. And reading this I could only picture Alex Kingston – and that made her even better in my opinion!

I found this really easy to read, and in places I was laughing out loud. It was genuinely good fun – which is something I rarely get to say about a classic. The plot was sparse, but I whacked the book up a star because Moll is amazing and I truly wish there were more women like Moll in classic fiction. She’s a gem, and I found myself rooting for her throughout even if she did make dubious decisions.

I’m looking forward to reading more Defoe. Not sure he’s top of my list to read, but one day I will read more!

Review: How To Survive a Plague – David France

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Rating – 4*

There is no denying that this book is hard hitting, and one which has left a lasting imprint on me. It isn’t a book I would have picked up had it not been for the Wellcome Prize shortlisting of it. This book is a very personal insight in to the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

It is by no means an easy read, both in content and style. The writing is quite dense, and it is long and incredibly detailed. I persevered with it, in spite of it being quite difficult to work through at times because I knew what I was reading was important. It was a voice I hadn’t heard before. I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in a world where AIDS and HIV is part of everyday understanding, we’re taught about it in school; sexual health is taught year in, year out and we get letters posted to us from our doctors surgery urging us to get tested for STIs (my school even had chlamydia tests in toilets, and numbers and addresses for the sexual health/family planning clinics in the area) I can’t even imagine the horrors and the fear that people felt in a world where there wasn’t an answer. Where there wasn’t that understanding, even on a small scale. This book barely scrapes the surface of that fear I can only imagine feeling.

However, as I said, this book is quite dense. There are so many individual stories in here, stories of so many people and every one of them is important, but the book felt cramped and crowded. Every voice is important, but for me there were just too many to be able to focus in on what this book is ultimately about – the discovery of the HIV virus. For me, this wasn’t a book about popular science, so going in to it I had a slightly warped perception of what lay before me. The science when it showed up was interesting, but the in depth analysis of clinical trials did have me skimming through after a while.

For me, as someone who identifies on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, this is a very important book to read. Reading this made me realise just how damn lucky I am. Reading this brought me to tears, it devastated me in parts.

I wish there were an abridged version, or that the book was in two parts maybe – the scientific side, and the more personal side which tells the stories of the people in this book – I understand they overlapped significantly, but for me this was a bit disjointed in parts because of the juxtaposition of the two factors.

This is a very, very important book to read. There is no denying that. I’m glad to have read it, and I know a couple of people I will recommend this to. But it’s not an easy read by any stretch of the word, it’s intense in both the content and the sheer denseness of the writing and I can’t quite bring myself to give this 5* because I didn’t love it like I did some of the others in the shortlist.

Review: The Tidal Zone – Sarah Moss

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Rating – 4*

So, I actually read this book in October last year – it was one of the last books I read before I hit The Great Reading Slump of 2016. I thought it about time I reviewed it as I have decided to read the Wellcome Prize shortlist this year, and this is one that has made it. Naturally, this seemed like as good a time as any to finally write this review.

Most people who watch Booktube, or follow bookish blogs like myself, will have heard of this book. It’s been raved about – and for me that was a bit of a hindrance to it because it really set high expectations, which it didn’t quite live up to. However, reviewing this nearly 6 months after I read it has allowed me time to reflect back on it – and I realised that I can still remember it vividly, and that it has suck with me in that time.

For anyone who doesn’t know, The Tidal Zone centres around Adam – a stay at home dad to two girls. The whole family is shook when for no apparent reason Miriam, his 15 year old daughter, collapses at school. The book follows the family coming to terms with this, learning to live with the not knowing and the overwhelming fear that plagues them daily. It discusses everything; teenagers, gender, sex, academia, marriage, family, the NHS but it also follows mundane, daily chores that Adam undertakes too.

It really is a remarkable book, and I’m glad that it’s been recognised on at least one shortlist this year. I gave it 4 stars when I read it, and I think reflecting on it I would still very much agree with that rating. But, reading this has prompted me to pick up more of Sarah Moss’ work – and in researching I’ve found she’s been shortlisted for the Wellcome Prize several times, which just makes me even more excited to read more from her!

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – J K Rowling

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Rating – 4*

When I saw they were re-releasing this, I knew I had to have it. When I found out that Eddie Redmayne was narrating the audiobook, I pre-ordered it (and also purchased the kindle edition because the cover on it was much nicer than the British hardback).

It’s always lovely to dip back in to the Potterverse, I love all of it. And Fantastic Beasts has stolen my heart. This didn’t disappoint me, it was exactly what I was hoping it to be. This book is just great fun – and the audiobook even more so.

The audiobook is just under 2 hours, and it’s fantastic. It’s a encyclopaedia of beasts found in the magical world, and is a textbook referred to in the Potter series. Obviously in this you read about beasts familiar to us from Potter, and general folklore, but also this covers off so many more – not just those explored in the Potter series, or indeed Fantastic Beasts (although, given it’s a series I’m really hoping they include some more of these in the future!) I really just loved how this ties in muggle stories, and has footnotes from Newt and gah, I just really loved this okay?! I know it’s not much more than a fictional encyclopaedia but it really was good fun – and Eddie Redmayne reading it just made it even more so!

Something which surprised me in this, and I found very nerdily exciting, is the introduction. In the introduction there is information on policy and politics behind the classification system of magical beasts which is used in the book (and wizarding world in general!) and for me that was really interesting. I love looking in to the wizarding world from that perspective and getting that insight in to the workings of the Ministry of Magic (and MACUSA).

This is definitely a book for a Potterhead, and I think it’s a fantastic companion to the movie – especially as they’ve revised it to tie in. Also, it’s worth noting that all proceeds from the book (physical, eBook and audio) are going to Comic Relief or Lumos, the charity JK Rowling set up herself. The original edition was written specifically for Comic Relief, and it’s really nice to see that even after all this time the proceeds are still going to a good cause. So if you were in doubt, it’s for charity, and that should sway you!

Review: The Witchfinders Sister – Beth Underdown

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Rating – 4*

A little known fact about my reading tastes is that I love anything to do with Witch Trials. Naturally, when I saw this available on Audible I had to invest; not only was the narration good, but the story had me hooked in that 5 minutes I listened to. I don’t often read new releases impulsively, I can count on one hand the times I’ve picked a new release up without knowing anything about it. This was published on the 2nd of March – I picked it up on the 6th and threw myself at it like a thing possessed!

The Witchfinders Sister follows a young, recently widowed woman called Alice who has decided to return to her brother following her husbands death. Her brother, Matthew, is based on a historical figure who was a documented witchfinder in the 17th century. The plot of the story is loosely based around true events, all stemming from the life of Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins. Seeing history through his sisters eyes, I feel, was a frankly genius way to look at it. Alice adds a layer of emotion, gives a personal connection to the situation around her, and throughout the book we flick back in time through her eyes as she tries to understand what made her brother the way he is – and it’s amazing.

I found this book absolutely engrossing. There were parts which were a bit slower than others but I enjoyed it nonetheless. The atmosphere in this book was fantastic, and the mystery and intrigue kept me guessing what was happening until the last page – which was very satisfying!

This is Beth Underdown’s first novel. I can’t wait for her future books because this was a very, very good debut and one. I loved the mix of historical fiction and, almost-but-not-quite, psychological thriller. I hope this isn’t the last of her, because frankly I want to see what else she can do.

Review: In the Labyrinth of Drakes – Marie Brennan

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Rating – 4*

In the Labyrinth of Drakes is the fourth book in Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series. I love this series, I really do, so far none of them have let me down – this one is no exception. I’ve been putting off picking this book up as the fifth and final book has not yet been released, and I didn’t want the wait to be too long between this book and the next one. As it stands, the next book is due out in April – but when the audiobook will be released is anyone’s guess. I absolutely love the audiobooks for this series, they’re read superbly and I would really highly recommend them to anyone who is after something engaging and easy to listen to!

This book, much like the previous books, follows Isabella on her quest to understand more about dragons. The focus of her academic study in this book is breeding dragons in captivity, but as can be expected that’s not the only element of this story; the whole arc of this series is becoming something I cannot wait to see resolved in the final instalment.

In this book we also have the return of some characters from previous books, and the introduction of some new ones. I really love this series because Isabella’s best friend is a man, Tom. It is so refreshing to read a book where there are two people of opposite genders who are just friends. Especially when there is some romance in this book, it’s a breath of fresh air that that part of the book doesn’t go down the trope of a love triangle. I will forever love the fact that Isabella and Tom are able to remain friends, they completely ignore the rumours that go around, the inevitable scandals their friendship causes. Honestly, it’s one of the most genuine friendships between characters of opposite genders I’ve found in a book!

But, on the subject of romance, if you liked the undertones in Voyage of the Basilisk then the developments in In the Labyrinth of Drakes will make you very happy. I won’t say too much, to avoid spoiling it, but needless to say I am very happy with how it all came together.

My only disappointment with this book is how it ended. Abruptly. I was ready to keep going, they had this massive discovery and then it just ends. I know it was building up to the fifth book, and I really hope that the finale to this series doesn’t disappoint because, how this one ended, just aggravated me.

Needless to say, I will be picking up the final book in this series – and I may even forgo the audiobook to read it sooner!

Review: The King’s General – Daphne du Maurier

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Rating – 4*

I picked this book up entirely on a whim, I hadn’t read any du Maurier in a while and I decided it was time to remedy that as, one of my many reading goals, is to finish reading her entire bibliography. I went in to this knowing nothing, I didn’t even read the blurb I just pulled the first du Maurier off of my shelf that I hadn’t read and, frankly, that was a very good decision.

Unlike most of her other novels I have read, this is a piece of historical fiction. And it’s one with a very interesting origin. It’s set in Cornwall, as most of her books are, and progresses through the Civil War – a period of history I know very little about. Reading the authors note at the end is something I rarely do, but in this case I think it adds so much to the story – and I understand why du Maurier was so inspired to write this novel because of it.

du Maurier never shies away from an interesting, possibly controversial, protagonist. Honor is no exception to this. It’s the 1640s and she does not give a damn about society and convention, and I loved her for it. She refuses to marry the man her family pick for her, and then flaunts convention by not marrying the man she loves. She has spirit about her, and doesn’t let any limitations get in her way. Possibly the thing that surprised me most about this book is the way that disability is represented – we as readers know that it is there, but it isn’t something that imposes many limits. Of course it is a bit dated, but at the same time thinking about when this book was written, and also when it was set, it’s a pretty positive representation which always wins some points for me!

As with most of du Maurier’s writing, there is incredible atmosphere built up here. There is suspense, mystery and intrigue. There are hidden rooms, and dubious women and it is just everything I love about du Maurier. If that sounds good to you, read this.

It isn’t her best book, but it’s one I read in a day. I found myself hooked, I didn’t want to put it down, so I just kept reading. I haven’t done that with a book for a long time, so it’s high praise indeed! For someone new to du Maurier, this would be a good place to go, especially if you’re a fan of historical novels.

Review: The Outrun – Amy Liptrot

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Rating – 4*

This book has been one that has caught my eye since I first saw it in bookshops but it wasn’t one I picked up. It didn’t really appeal to me, if I’m honest. But then I had a few credits on Audible, and decided to pick it up as an audiobook because the soft Scottish burr of Amy herself reading it appealed to me. I’ve not been having the easiest of times lately, and just listening to a clip of this relaxed me and I knew I had to have it in my life, if only to calm me down.

It’s one of those books which came in to my life at exactly the right moment. I don’t have the experience with addiction which Amy struggles with in this brutally honest account of her decent in to alcoholism and subsequent recovery. But, a lot of the feelings I could relate to and I found myself connecting with this book. Because of that, throughout it I had a full spectrum of emotions – it had me laughing and moved to tears, and maybe that’s just because of the headspace I’m in right now.

I loved how this book just blurred together so many things. It is a recovery memoir but it is also so much more. There’s so much about wildlife and nature, which I absolutely adored. The writing is beautiful and it read so much more like fiction in parts. One thing I’ve come out of this book with is an urge to visit the Scottish islands and completely lose myself in them, this book was so immersive and Orkney itself became such a big part of it. I found the islands themselves  the biggest draw of this book and losing myself in them was an absolute pleasure.

I gave this 4* because I’m not sure I would have enjoyed it as much had I have had a physical copy over an audiobook (which I would highly recommend and I listened to the entirety of this in 2 sittings). The experience of an audiobook is something very immersive, and in the case of this book really was a good choice to make – but I don’t think I would have found myself as caught up in the book had it not been on audio.

Ultimately though, I’d recommend this book – I’m not sure who to, but read the description and see if it floats your kayak.