Review: Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

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Rating – 5*

I read this book in June – it was one of the few books I read while also reading War and Peace – and it’s been one of the hardest books to review in a long time. There was just so much to it. I went in to it, as with most hyped books, quite sceptical, but I came out the other side very much happy I gave in to peer pressure. I actually read this book in one sitting while on holiday, once I started reading it, I didn’t want to put it down. It was very much a ‘just one more chapter’ book – and then it was gone. All of it.

I really didn’t expect to like this book as much as I did. It is, at it’s crux, a book about motherhood. I’m not a mother, I don’t have any intention to become a mother, so I wasn’t convinced that I would find myself empathising with the main character, but I did. Yejide is one of the most complex, interesting characters I’ve ever walked in the shoes of – and Adébáyò is a magnificent writer because her character is made of so many layers and we see all of them as readers, I felt I understood her and her motivations.

As much as this book is about motherhood, it’s about family and parenthood in general, and also the cultural idea of a family as well. With all of the struggles to conceive, her husband Akin is pressured by his own family to introduce a second wife to their marriage – a common practice in Nigeria. In seeing Yejide’s childhood you understand her anger at this situation, and why she becomes so obsessed with conceiving their child – she would go to any lengths to be a mother and, in many ways, it was heartbreaking to read.

Every review I’ve read or watched about this book says that it takes you for a ride. There are so many twists and turns, and that just when you think you know what’s going to happen, something else does and proves you wrong. I am always dubious of reviews like that, but for once I really agree with them. This book went in so many directions it was an absolute roller-coaster, especially for my emotions.

I gave this book 5 stars. I’d highly recommend this book to anyone, I didn’t think it would be for me at all, yet I still found I could empathise because the writing is just so damn good. I read it nearly 2 months ago now and it has stuck with me, to the point I often think about it. The characters were just so vibrant I can’t help but think about them regularly. So seriously, give it a go if you haven’t yet! 

 

Review: Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

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Rating – 5*

Trying to compose a review for this book has been difficult because it is so momentous, and so fantastic, I’m struggling to find words. Finishing this book felt like an achievement, there’s not many books I can honestly say that about (Bleak House, Anna Karenina and The Count of Monte Cristo are the only others which come to mind, all of which are nearly twice the length of this).

I have to admit, I was a little scared going in to this book. It’s not that it was the longest book I’ve read – it was 520ish pages. It wasn’t even that it was translated. I think, for me, this book just has such a place on the literary cannon that I felt scared that I wasn’t going to like it.

The first time I heard of this book I was about 14 or 15, I was watching a TV show on the BBC called My Life In Books and Sue Perkins mentioned Crime and Punishment as one of her favourites. Now I love that woman and I knew, from that day, I was going to read that book. I tried, when I was younger, but I didn’t have the patience for it. I thought it was pretentious and hard work, so I threw it aside. Until this month where I picked it up and could scarcely put it down.

Crime and Punishment is simply the best character study I’ve read. Raskolnikov, our main character, is a young man, formerly a law student who was unable to continue studying due to the poverty he finds himself in. In order to remove himself from that poverty, he commits a crime and this book follows the fall out of that. As a reader you follow him in to the darkest pits of despair, the punishment is the mental torture that he finds himself going through after committing the crime. Raskonikov is on the brink of insanity for a large portion of this book, and as a reader that’s a very intense place to be. However, even though what he does is heinous, as a reader I still felt compelled to have empathy for him, he was not inherently a bad man he just made a bad choice and in spite of it all I was rooting for him.

This book is about so much more than Raskolnikov, his sister is one of my new favourite supporting characters in a book. Dunya seems on the surface to be meek and mild, but she’s pretty amazing in her own right and I’d have loved more from her perspective if I’m honest. Aside from his sister there are numerous interesting characters, who there is such depth to that they just jump from a page. The names do get a bit complicated – some go by 3 or 4 different names, but I soon found myself adapting and recognising each by their personality more than anything else.

There is a lot of navel gazing in this book, a lot of it is philosophical thoughts or long monologues but I found myself actually enjoying that. Some probably would say it’s a bit pretentious, 14/15 year old me certainly did! But I loved it, and honestly it’s one of the most readable classics I’ve read in a long time – I found myself constantly wanting to read “just one more chapter” – but I paced myself a bit so I could properly process what I was reading and enjoy it to it’s maximum.

I think a lot of my enjoyment has to be due to the translation because this flowed so, so well for me. I am intending to read War and Peace over the next couple of months, and this book has me so excited for that because it’s done by the same translators and I really love what they’ve done with Dostoyevsky, I can’t wait to see how they handle Tolstoy. Based on my enjoyment of this I may have to go back and re-read Anna Karenina.

Naturally, this was a 5* read. And it has actually changed my perspectives on some of the other books I’ve read this month! I honestly think this is going to be one of those books which stays with me for a long time; I know I’ll be thinking of it quite a lot over the coming weeks!

Also, just a side note, if anyone is interested in the TV show with Sue Perkins that I mentioned above, it is still available (at time of writing) on BBC iPlayer. So if you are able to get BBC iPlayer, it can be accessed here and she begins talking about Crime and Punishment at around 6:55.

Review: My Cousin Rachel – Daphne du Maurier

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Rating – 5*

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you will know of my unyielding love of Daphne du Maurier. She’s probably my favourite author of all time. This is one of the few of her books that I have read more than once, though my first – and only previous read – was at least 6 years ago! As a result, rereading this was like reading a whole new book and I absolutely loved it.

Our narrator, Philip, was orphaned at a young age and grew up with his Uncle Ambrose running a family farm on the Cornish coast. Due to his ailing health as he ages, Ambrose spends Winter abroad and it is one Winter, in Florence, that he meets Rachel. From there, we end up back in Cornwall and we go down a path of suspicion, intrigue, and quite honestly some madness.

I don’t want to give too much away, because the beauty of du Maurier’s work is the mystery and the intrigue that’s there, it’s that what keeps you turning the pages. Come the end, you still don’t really know what happened and it is up to you as a reader to decide what the truth is. Daphne du Maurier masters the unreliable, and at times dislikeable, narrator in this book. Philip is misogynistic, he is rash and harsh at times but throughout it all I did feel empathy for him and I did connect with him.

The titular character, much like in Rebecca, remains a bit of an enigma. Even at the end you never know her true motives, what she’s done, what she is intending to do. She is described as petite and delicate, but she can command a room better than any of the men in this book! At times I loved her, at times I loathed her, and by the end of the book I still don’t know which of those feelings is overriding.

I never thought I’d say this, but I may have enjoyed this more than Rebecca. Throughout the entirety of the novel there is tension and suspense which I have loved in all of du Maurier’s work. The ambiguity is also there, which is something I felt was mastered in this book compared to Rebecca – which while good did have undertones which if you look hard enough point you in the right direction. As a reader I was constantly swaying between theories, I didn’t know which characters to believe, which to doubt and that was happening throughout the book on the basis of individual sentences and intonations.

Honestly, this book is a masterpiece from my point of view. I’m maybe a bit bias in that du Maurier can rarely do wrong in my eyes, but this book had me on tenterhooks and I read it in 2 sittings. I could have read it in one, had I not needed to sleep. I adored this – and it has me so excited to finish reading du Maurier’s bibliography.

Review: Tipping the Velvet – Sarah Waters

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Rating – 5*

I was having a bit of a reading slump towards the end of April, so I decided it was the perfect time to have a reread. I haven’t reread a book in ages even though I have a pile of books which I want to get around to rereading it isn’t something I do a lot. Anyway, when deciding what to reread, for me, this was an easy choice.

Tipping the Velvet has always been a book that I enjoyed, but it is definitely one I enjoyed more on this third read than I ever did before. When I read it initially I must have been about 14 or 15 and a lot of the nuances, and even the plot, went over my head. I was young, naive, not quite in touch with my own sexuality yet and while the book was eye opening, I don’t think I fully grasped the magnitude of it (or even the profound affect it had on me at the time). It wasn’t until I reread it when I was around 18 or 19 that I probably understood more of it, that I realised what this book actually made me realise about myself – it was more eyeopening the second time than the first. Now, on this third read, I am looking at it through completely different lenses and I love it so much more than I did the two previous reads.

The main character in this is Nancy – or Nan – and we follow her over the course of several years of her life. At the start she works in her family business, shelling oysters in Kent and becomes entranced by a performer at the theatre – Kitty Butler. Kitty’s act is that of going on stage dressed as a man, and Nan finds herself going back night after night just to see Kitty. From here, Nan’s life takes an interesting turn down to the theatreland of London – she has ups and downs but every event she lives through shapes her for the next and I absolutely adore that aspect of her character development. The person she is at the end of this book is such a reach from the girl she was at the start, and you know every step of what got her there and I love that. All loose ends are tied up in the last chapter – anything left unresolved is very neatly resolved, it is a little cliche how it all works out but, frankly, I don’t give a damn.

Honestly, this is one of the best books I’ve read. It’s only rereading it now, at this point in my life, that I realise how profoundly impacting it has been on me over the years. Yes, I probably do have some emotional connection to it but that is most definitely one of the best things about rereading a book, remembering the feelings and thoughts you had on previous reads but also finding new things, finding that new connection.

I love this book, I urge anyone to read this book. It’s beautiful, it’s historical, it’s just damn fantastic. I can’t remember the last time I lost myself in a book like this – I did actually read it in two sittings (just a few days apart) and I laid up until 1am to finish it. That hasn’t happened for so long, and it’s made me so excited about reading again. May, I feel, is going to be a good month!

Review: When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

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Rating – 5*

I was anxious going in to this book. I’ve heard and read so, so many reviews about this and I had no doubts that it was going to be a book which was going to break my heart just a little bit. Those thoughts were right, and this book was amazing – there really aren’t many other words I can use to describe it.

For anyone who isn’t aware, this book is a memoir. Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon, but he was also a English Literature graduate, and held a Masters in the history of medicine before he went on to med school. His writing overlays both the love of literature, and the love of science and medicine, beautifully. The two are rarely combined, but as someone who does love both, I really appreciated who he mixed his knowledge of science and medicine with ideas and thoughts from literature.

At the age of 36, just before he completed his residency as a neurosurgeon, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. One day he was the doctor, the next day he was the patient. This book is his story, the journey he and his family took after that day he was diagnosed. I felt when reading this book that I knew him personally, that I went on this exhausting journey with him.

This book is unfinished; it ends with an epilogue written by his wife – Lucy – because he sadly died before he had a chance to fully complete this. While I’m sad that this is technically unfinished, I felt the note it ended on with his wife’s words, summarised the whole book. It wasn’t until I read the epilogue that I was moved to tears.

Kalanithi, from reading this book, was a caring, intelligent, genuine man who wanted to do good by people. He saw patients as people – not numbers or statistics – and I think a lot of people in medical professions could learn something from that alone.

I urge people to read this book, I read it in 1 sitting on a Sunday afternoon and I’m so glad I finally did.

Review: The Waves – Virginia Woolf

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Rating – 5*

This book is a masterpiece. It’s taken me a couple of days to actually try and find words to write this review because, honestly, this is a book you have to experience and I know that I will not be able to do it justice.

I tried to read it before, last Summer I believe, and we just didn’t get along. I wasn’t enjoying it, I wasn’t in the place where I could lose myself in the pages. This isn’t a book you can dip in and out of, in my opinion, it’s a book you have to let yourself get lost in. As it stands, I read it in two sittings. I tried reading it on my commute to work, but I ended up rereading those passages when I curled up to read the remainder of the book. Woolf is a writer who demands your full attention, and that just cannot be given while sitting on a bus.

In it’s most basic form, this is the story of a group of friends; told through their individual thought processes from childhood, through marriage and children, to middle age and ultimately death. Each of them has a distinct voice, and tells of moments of their lives. Snippets of time, some of which overlap, some don’t. It’s so difficult to put this book in to words because, honestly, I’m not sure I have any of the right ones.

More than anything, the writing is what captivated me. It’s poetic, lyrical and has rhythm. The more I read the more I could decipher the ebb and flow of it, yes there are many references to waves and water but, truly, for me the story itself is told in waves and it is just magnificent. If I can one day write a sentence as well as Virginia Woolf, just one sentence, I will die happy. I want half of this book tattooed on me, but if I were to pick one sentence from this book, one sentence to encourage you to try it. It would be this:

There was a star riding through clouds one night, and I said to the star, ‘Consume me’

I want to read this book again to fully appreciate it. I want to read it in one sitting, not two. I want to completely immerse myself in the lives of the 6 people who tell this story. Woolf for me is an an author whose books have to be read more than once to fully appreciate, and while I appreciated this, while I loved this book, I know that should I read it again and allow it to consume me, I will love it even more.

Give Woolf a go, people. Please. Don’t be daunted by stream of consciousness!

Review: Bleak House – Charles Dickens

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Rating – 5*

I don’t even know where to start with this book. It was a beast but my goodness it was an incredible one. I had been putting it off for so long, especially after my last Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities) really disappointed me, and a reading slump left me very intimidated as this book is over 1000 pages. But I don’t know what I was scared of. I read this in under a week, and also managed to watch the entirety of the 15 part BBC adaptation as I went along – which was also amazing!

Bleak House is alternatively narrated by the orphan Esther Summerson, and an unknown third person. Personally I preferred the tone of Esther’s narrative and found it much easier to read than those parts which focused more on the court case which is ultimately the crux of this book and the thread which tied all the characters together. However, for me it was Esther’s development through the book, and her personal growth, was actually the most interesting part of the story and I felt she tied the story together more than the court case ever did.

The plot is so complex and intricate, there are stories within stories which are all wrapped up beautifully by the end. The court case itself is pretty insane, and has been going on so long that at least one generation of the Jarndyce family has expired while waiting for a judgement, and not even the lawyers have any grasp on its intricacies. As for characters, not one felt surplus to requirements for me. Yes, there were a lot of characters but they all had their moments of importance and all had their imperfections and flaws which made them stand out – some more than others it has to be said! What I liked was the two different views you get of some of the characters from both streams of the narration, it’s quite a simple thing really but I found it really added to the depth of character for me.

To sum it up, I adored this book. And I when reading it I knew I had to watch the TV series. BBC adaptations never fail to take my breath away and this one was no exception. The cast is incredible, the way the story is put together on screen just made me appreciate the book all the more. Not only that, it was visually beautiful! I would seriously recommend reading and watching the series simultaneously as I for one feel it made my reading the book less daunting! Also, it’s very good to break up a burst of reading with a bit of period drama.

I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself rereading this book before the year is out. It’s amazing, it blew my mind quite frankly and I cannot wait to read more Dickens! Definitely don’t be put off by the size of this book, please, because it’s a masterpiece. Naturally, this is a 5* book. No doubts.

Review: Autumn – Ali Smith

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Rating – 5*

Ali Smith will forever be one of my favourite authors, this book has only emphasised that. I don’t think I can be coherent when it comes to Ali’s books, all my thoughts just jumble and make no sense whatsoever. Her writing is incredible and resonates with me in a way I can’t explain.

Autumn is a novel which is so present and I can only wish I read it when I first bought it – when it was even more recent. Just, how exactly it was possible for Ali Smith to create a full, rich novel involving Britain after Brexit in exactly the time it was taking place I don’t know. But it’s amazing.

This book, in it’s most basic form, is the story of a deep friendship between a young girl – Elisabeth – and an old man – Daniel. The story is told nearly entirely in the form of flashbacks. Stories within stories. Stories about race and identity, stories about art, feminism, sexuality, women, mothers sisters. Stories about a pop artist named Pauline Boty. Yet, ultimately it is the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel told through all these stories.

As expected with Ali Smith, it is beautifully written. It manages to be both thought provoking and hilarious, sad and happy. It made me think, it made me laugh, there were nods to so many other books, to art, it’s so layered I think every time I read this (because I will re-read it, it’s Ali Smith) I will find new things, new layers to the story and that is something I find pretty damn exciting, and something which will make me want to reread this book.

This year is off to a very good start on the reading front. It seems the books I had hoped to read in the last quarter of the year have so far been amazing, and it makes me glad I took a break from reading if only to enjoy them properly.

Review: A Closed and Common Orbit – Becky Chambers

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Rating – 5*

After nearly 4 months of not reading, I am so glad this was the first book I picked up after a slump, and the first of a new year. One of the last books I read before my slump was A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and it is, quite honestly, one of my favourite books of all time (as my review will attest to). I had high expectations for this, but also trepidation that I wouldn’t love it as much, but that fear was unfounded as I adored this.

A Closed and Common Orbit picks up where the previous book left off, but this time we’re following Lovelace – or Sidra as she chooses to be known now she has a body – and Pepper. We follow two stories, Sidra in the ‘present’ who is adapting to life in her body and we follow Jane, a girl from some years in the past who is part of a bigger picture which she doesn’t even know exists. These two threads of the story tie together in a very messy, but wonderful way and I found myself staying up until 2am to finish this book because I didn’t want to put it down, I needed to know how it was going to tie together and end.

This book is ultimately about humanity, and what it means to be, learning how to live and find your place. I got comfort from this book I didn’t even know I needed. While the situation is completely non-realistic, the experiences, the feelings, the thought processes they’re all relatable and applicable to day to day life. There were moments in this book which, much like it’s predecessor, took my breath away – it filled me with joy and tore me to pieces. Ultimately though, it was beautiful.

Becky Chambers writing is incredible. I can’t put words down to describe it but I just love the way she writes, her writing connects with me. This world she has created for these books is beautiful, and it’s a world I can immerse myself in as she writes it so vividly.

This was a beautifully written and fantastically diverse book, and there’d better be a third book which brings the two sets of characters together because I don’t want this to end here. There’s still so much to give, so much I want to learn about these characters and this world.

If you haven’t read A Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, read it. Then read this in close succession because it’s wonderful. I seriously don’t think I can recommend these books enough to people. And I really, really can’t think of a better way to have started off my reading in 2017 than with this book.

Review: When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard – Megan Beech

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Rating – 4*

I have said it before, and will undoubtedly repeat myself many times, I am by no means an expert on poetry. What I do know however is that I absolutely adored this poetry collection and would very, very highly recommend this.

Megan Beech is a performance poet; sometimes performance poetry just does not translate well when written down and read, this collection however translates to the written word beautifully. I found getting in to the rhythm of these really quite easy, it sometimes took a bit of slowing down to find that rhythm but it wasn’t in any way impossible. This easy rhythm made Beech’s voice come across clearly for me, although I am very aware that other people have struggled in finding this.

The poems themselves really resonated with me. Her point of view is one I really identified with and I found so much of myself and my own opinion in her words. What she was just saying sung to my soul, however cheesy that sounds. Her words are fearless, and it was both beautifully poetic and yet raw, exposed and quite brash. On the whole, I’d say it was amazing – and very, very passionate. One of my favourites in the collection was possibly Dadverts; actually it’s one of the more quiet pieces, it’s slower, but it really stood out for me.

I was torn as to whether I could give this 4 or 5 stars. It’s definitely the best poetry collection I’ve had the pleasure of reading, and one I will be revisiting. I loved Kate Tempest’s work, but if I’m honest this was better (or at least resonated more with me individually). I’m going to be keeping my eyes peeled for more by Megan Beech because this woman is amazing. Really, give this a go because it’s wonderful.