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: Justine – Alice Thompson

042 - Justine

Rating – 3*

Justine is a very interesting, but bizarre, book. It is short at only 140 or so pages, but it packs a punch. I hesitate to compare it to anything, because I don’t think I’ve read anything like it before – but it reads like something written pre-1900, even though it’s a contemporary novel. For me, personally, I saw a lot of similarities between it and The Picture of Dorian Grey – but maybe it’s because it is about a man obsessed with a painting – and also Moby Dick (not that there’s any whales) but it’s focal point is a man driven to obsession over something.

The protagonist in this story is rich and spoiled. He is a man of frivolities and indulgence; he buys fancy paintings and lazes around smoking opium. At the start of the book, Justine is merely a figure in a painting who he fancies himself in love with, but then one day he sees a woman who is remarkably like the woman from the painting, and her name is also Justine. As a man with an addictive, and obsessive personality, he becomes ensnared by Justine and is absolutely convinced he is meant to be with her. But then there’s another woman, Justine’s twin sister Juliette and that’s when things get a bit crazy…

Needless to say I read this book in one sitting because it was so, so engaging. It’s fast paced and kept me guessing what would happen at every turn. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the other novella I’ve read by Thompson (The Book Collector) but I really do love her writing. My main issue with this book is, quite oddly for Salt, there were numerous spelling mistakes and typos throughout which really irritated me and reduced my overall enjoyment. Thankfully, I persevered because I really liked what I was reading, but I would tell any potential reader to be aware of their presence!

I can’t wait to read the other book(s?) I have by Alice Thompson sitting on my shelf. I have a feeling they might be good October reads!

Review: Stay With Me – Ayòbámi Adébáyò

041 - Stay With Me

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: 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.

May Wrap Up

05 - may wrapup

It’s been a very long time since I read enough in a month to warrant a wrap up – but being off work sick for the majority of the month has meant that I’ve got a lot more reading than usual under my belt. Books are the only thing that have kept me sane this month, so I thought it a good time to reinstate wrap-ups. I’m hoping they’ll become a regular thing again, because I do have a very nice spreadsheet with lots of data on, and it seems a shame not to share it!

So, this month I read a total of 19 things – which is insane. It doubled my total books read this year. 10 of them were graphic novels – I read Volumes 1-4 of Lumberjanes and also started reading the Marvel interpretations/graphic novels of The Wizard of Oz. I found they’ve been a really good distraction on bad days when I can’t focus on too many words or big plots but still want to feel like I’ve been achieving something. I’m still not sure if I’m going to do full reviews of graphic novels, or wait until I’ve finished a bulk of them and do more mass-reviewing. Let me know what you think would be best!

Of the 11 other books, it was a really good mix between literary fiction, short stories, non fiction, classics, and even a couple of kids books! I really enjoyed everything I read this month aside from The Seamstress and the Wind. My average rating was a whopping 3.7 – and as someone who is an eternal 3* reviewer that was quite impressive for me (taking out the graphic novels it’s 3.6 average). As for pages, I read a massive 4658 – which for me is boggling. The last time I read that much was July 2015 (according to my spreadsheet) – given the place I was in then compared to now, I don’t know how I’ve done it!

My favourite books this month, by country miles, were My Cousin Rachel and Crime and Punishment. I really can’t wait for next month for more du Maurier and also starting another Russian behemoth of a book – War and Peace. I can’t wait to get started on that tomorrow for the readalong that Ange & Yamini are hosting (Goodreads group can be found here with links to all the information).

Next month is looking to be another tough one – I’m still not back at work, I’m still signed off but I’m looking at maybe doing a phased return, which would be a much better balance for me all things considered. I’ve got a lot of life-things happening next month – my baby sister is 21, I’m going on holiday at the end of the month, and I am HOPEFULLY getting a tattoo (health permitting!)

I’m not going to do a TBR, because alongside War and Peace I have no idea what I’ll be reading. I will however probably do a holiday TBR closer to the event!

I hope you all have had a wonderful May & that your June is full of sunshine and books.

Thanks for reading!

Review: Jerusalem: The Biography – Simon Sebag Montefiore

038 - Jerusalem

Rating – 3*

Jerusalem is, for me, one of the most fascinating cities in the world. While I have never been there, it is probably one of those cities on my very short travel list because it is so historically rich. I’m going to say that this book will definitely not be for everyone and I respect that. For me, it’s just a fascinating topic that I wanted to learn more about (not being at uni has done wonders for my general knowledge!)

This book is a biography of the city of Jerusalem. Montefiore takes us on a journey from 2000 BC to the present day. Starting with the birth of Judaism, moving in to Christianity and Islam, this book avoids religious bias admirably; I think all three of these sections were handled really well. While it is natural that there is more Jewish history in Jerusalem, I think fair amounts of information were given to both Christianity and Islam without any bias in spite of the authors own family connections with Jerusalem and coming from a Jewish background. I find the origins of religion fascinating, and I think that is partly why I was so drawn to this book, as I find the basis of the three Abrahamic religions really interesting. Jerusalem is considered to be the birth place of all three, or at least in some peoples eyes, it is most certainly still a Holy city for all three religions. The city itself went back and forth under Jewish, Christian, and Muslim control many times over the years, and for me that’s something that is really very interesting to learn about as it’s not something that I’ve ever been taught.

This book also covers so much more than religion. There is sections of it dedicated to the Ottoman empire, the world wars, how conflict and xenophobia has had a role in the shaping of the city. Interestingly, there was a chapter on the six day war which is, shamefully, a conflict I have only recently become aware of due to my reading of Salt Houses. I’ve always dismissed modern history, I’ve always been more interested in ancient history – but if I’m entirely honest this era of history is something which I’m very glad that I’ve read about, and been able to research and understand. Education is so sheltered and whitewashed, for me I love to see it from different perspectives and learn about things that aren’t taught on the national curriculum.

Montefiore’s writing is fantastic – a lot of this read more like fiction because he tends to focus on one person in history and tell a snippet of the history of the city from their perspective (not first person, but you get my drift). Key figures map out the history and for me, that really made this book more palatable than some history books.

My only issue with this book is that it was heavy going. There was a lot of information – it covered over 3000 years of history – that in itself is not an issue, what my issue was with is the footnotes. SO MANY FOOTNOTES. The fact is that for me many of them could have been included in the bulk of the text, or put to the back of the book wherein supplementary information could be looked at if you wanted to. Instead they sometimes take up half a page and it’s just really frustrating for me as a reader! I also feel that there could have been a disclaimer that part of this book is his own family history – while that became pretty obvious while reading it, I felt a bit annoyed that it wasn’t something that was outright mentioned in the introduction – call me a bit silly if you like!

I’m really looking forward to picking up the other non-fiction book I have by Montefiore (The Romanovs) – but I think I’ll be reading that in quite a while because this is a book I feel I need to fully digest! His writing is great, and very engaging, and I feel like I’ve achieved something from reading this book. It’s a solid 3* and I’ll be picking up more books by Montefiore, and on Jerusalem!

Review: Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

037 - Crime and Punishment

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: Now and at the Hour of Our Death – Susana Moreira Marques

036 - Now and at the Hour of Our Deaths

Rating – 3*

This was a short and very interesting book. I picked it up because I’m on a bit of an independent publisher binge at the moment and, as Portugal won the Eurovision Song Contest I decided to pick the only book by a Portuguese author that I own up.

The basis of this book is that the author, who is a journalist, spent time with a palliative/end of life care team in a remote area in Portugal, and the result is this book. It is an intimate look in to the lives of the people undergoing care and their families.

The book is split, really, in to two distinct parts. Travel Notes About Death is the first part, and reads very much like poetry. It is short snippets from lives of those dying and their families, with odd interjections from the author. As I said, it reads like poetry and is absolutely beautiful – if the whole book read like this I would happily have given it 4 or even 5 stars because, honestly, I read a lot of it twice because it was so beautiful.

The second section is Portraits in which there are 3 distinct stories told. First we have the authors interpretation of these people, which is then followed by the voices of the patients or their families. These are three very different stories, and it is very intimate to look in on families at this time of their lives. It’s poignant, and the first story of Paula – a 40 year old mother dying of cancer – hit me quite profoundly to the point I was near tears when reading this section, particularly in her own words.

I feel I ought to just state that the translator in this book has done an incredible job, especially capturing the poetic nature of the first section, and the individual voices of the second section. The writing itself was beautiful, my only issue with this book is that it felt disjointed, there was no real flow to the narrative. As I said, if it carried on as the first section was, I’d have easily given it 4 or 5 stars, I just found the portraits a bit clumpy at times and if I’m honest I put the book down and didn’t feel an urge to return to it.

This is definitely an interesting read, but didn’t quite hit me full on!