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.

Review: Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal

025 - Mend the Living

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

024 - Moll Flanders

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

023 - How to Survive a Plague

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

017 - Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

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

014 - The Witchfinders Sister

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.