Review: The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

055 - The Bear and the Nightingale

Rating – 4*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review: Mythos – Stephen Fry

054 - Mythos

Rating – 5*

When I saw this book on Audible I knew I had to get it – it’s one of the few audiobooks I’ve actually preordered this year. My thoughts were it is Greek mythology and Stephen Fry; sounds like a perfect combination. I wasn’t far wrong.

Greek Myths have an awful habit of being very dull reads – this however was not dull. The familiar tales were told in a much more modern, approachable way than the starchy collections I’ve read in the past. What I love most about this collection is how seamlessly he wove modern culture, and what we have obtained thanks to classical myth, in with the story – literature and music are referenced in abundance, but then there is also origins of elements and compounds in science which I had absolutely zero idea about prior to reading this! It’s both fiction and non fiction simultaneously because, actually, I feel I learnt a lot about what shaped humans (given that modern civilisation has a lot to owe to the ancient Greeks!)

The collection is told in a round-about chronological way, starting with the creation myth of Chaos, on to the Titans and the Olympians. The way the stories are put across is like a multi-generational saga, it makes it so much more modern than other collections I’ve read which are essentially the same stories. We get those familiar stories of Pandora and her box (or vase, as it was a mistranslation), Midas, Echo and Narcissus… so many of the stories which I adored as a child (and on reading this, love again).

Not only is it more modern, it’s so much more fun and I can’t help but think that’s entirely down to Stephen Fry as an author putting a bit off lightness in all the characters and having a bit of fun – and I loved it. I listened to this in the space of 2 evenings and it was a joy to listen to as he narrates it himself, making it twice as much fun as it would have been otherwise. I can only hope that he does more like this because, damn, it was so much fun!

I’d highly recommend this to anyone who likes Stephen Fry, classical myth, audiobooks, or is generally curious because actually while this is fiction I feel I learnt a lot of (useless) information from it which I can now use to impress my friends!

Review: Sealskin – Su Bristow

053 - Sealskin

Rating – 1* – DNF

It isn’t very often I fail to finish a book, give it only 1* and return it to Audible, but this is apparently my Waterloo. I was excited by this book, it’s set in Scotland and is a take on the myth of selkies. In a nutshell it sounded fantastic. That is until I started listening to it.

While the atmosphere is evocative, the writing is beautiful and it was fantastic to listen to, I’m not able to enjoy a book which has rape culture seeping through its every line. I’m not okay with that. Noone should be okay with that and I don’t understand how this book was even published. Within the first few pages our arse of a main character, Donald, sees some seals shed their skin and turn into beautiful girls and begin dancing on the shoreline. He likens them to children and yet he steals one of the pelts, and when they fled and one is left on the shore unable to go back to the sea, he thinks it’s a great idea to force himself on her. It comes out of nowhere. I’m thankful it wasn’t graphic but it was already too much. He then decides to take her home, because that’s a fantastic idea – essentially this is where the main bulk of the story starts.

When he gets home, with this young, naked, bleeding girl who isn’t capable of speech, his mother is understandably baffled. When she asks what happens, he tells her words to this effect:- “I saw this beautiful naked woman dancing there, like she was meant for me, and so I couldn’t help myself!” – bear in mind this was before the 50 page mark. So these words are spoken at the very start of the book. After that, I was just so angry I had to take a break.

If this were a story from Mhairi’s perspective, I think I could have liked it. She has no voice throughout this, she’s a plot device and a metaphor for Donald’s ‘redemption’ (bullsh*t redemption at that). The blurb of this book says it’s the story of atonement and forgiveness and I really struggle to see how when it’s nearly 300 pages of a rapist (and his mother) holding his victim, essentially, against her will. I fail to see how at any point this book could consider itself to be romantic.

I didn’t finish this book. I rarely DNF a book, I usually plod on and try persevere but with this, no. I’m not going to sit and read a book which is about a girl falling in love with her rapist when she doesn’t even get a voice.

Would I recommend, no. No I wouldn’t.

Review: Winter – Ali Smith

052 - Winter

Rating – 5*

I love Ali Smith (I absolutely adore her actually) and I have been looking forward to this book as soon as I finished reading Autumn. Winter is the second offering in the Season quartet and is as equally as powerful as its predecessor.

Essentially, this follows the story of two sisters – Iris and Sophia – but we also follow Sophia’s son Art (Arthur) and Lux, a young woman who has come in to their lives by chance. It’s a very dysfunctional family coming together at Christmastime. It reminded me a lot of The Accidental – Lux is similar in character to Amber in that she’s an outsider who brings a family together. It’s in some ways it is also reminiscent of A Christmas Carol – very subtly but oh so slightly there and I definitely found the connection with the season a lot easier in this book than in Autumn.

As she did in Autumn, the events of the past are mirrored with current events showing that history does repeat itself (to quote Battlestar Galactica, “All of this has happened before and will happen again”) and that we don’t often learn from it. History moves in cycles of events, and in Iris we have a character that bridges a generation gap and links events of the 1970s to those of the present day – nuclear war, racial tensions, so many other factors – and enables us to have a tangible link between the two periods of history which I found a very clever technique to make the entire book feel present not as if it were leapfrogging through time.

I actually decided to listen to part of this as an audiobook and I would highly recommend it. There are not many of Ali Smith’s books available as audiobooks but if you find your main issue with her writing to be the lack of punctuation (something which took me a long time to overcome) then definitely consider the audiobook as it takes that issue out of the equation completely! The narrator for it – Melody Grove – is fantastic and captured Lux as a character perfectly.

Much like with Autumn (and pretty much every Ali Smith book) I have so much trouble finding the words to review and describe this book as I genuinely believe Ali Smith is an author whose books have to be experienced, I find her work so immersive that when I come out of the other side I do then find it hard to review it without spoiling. Therefore, I will always tell you go just go and read (or listen) to it because in my eyes, this is even better than Autumn and that was shortlisted for the Man Booker.

I know Ali Smith isn’t for everyone, but honestly I love her writing and cannot wait to read her next book.

 

 

Review: In A Glass Darkly – J. Sheridan Le Fanu

051 - In A Glass Darkly

Rating – 3*

Firstly I will apologise as reviewing a book read over a month ago is quite a task for someone with memory problems! This is probably going to be quite brief because of it, but I think the fact I can’t remember much of it says everything about the content – it wasn’t overly memorable.

I can’t lie, I picked this collection up purely for Carmilla (lesbian vampires people. Lesbian vampires.) as I thought for the price it was a better deal – and while the stories in this collection were interesting, I can’t say they were entirely my cup of tea. In a way, I wish I wasn’t such a bargain hunter and just read Carmilla as a standalone because it was by far the stand out of the collection.

I can understand why the stories in here were ground breaking – they predate the more well known classic ‘horror’ novels like Dracula by over 20 years, which is frankly quite impressive. And in a time before electricity I can imagine that all of the stories in this collection were pretty terrifying, now they were more humorous than scary.

What I did enjoy is that all the stories were connected in that they were all found in the papers of Dr Martin Hesselius – a character who was a sort of hybrid between Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the 19th Century – a strong belief in the occult but also in possession of a very level head and medical expertise. I found the voice quite an easy one to follow, while there were the typical, over wordy elements of 19th century literature I was able to plod along quite happily and read each story in one sitting without feeling tired (which is often the case with Victorian novels!)

On the whole though, this was a 3* read. I loved the first story – Green Tea – about a reverend and a demon monkey, and I loved Carmilla. Those two aside it was all very meh and forgettable – to the point where a month on they’re the only two stories I can remember in the collection.

If you like Gothic literature, or have an interest in lesbian vampires or demon monkeys, I’d definitely give this collection of short stories/novellas a go!

Review: How to be Champion – Sarah Millican

048 - How to be Champion

Rating – 3*

I love Sarah Millican. She’s one of the few comics I’ve seen live, and is funnier every time I watch the DVD. I can’t wait to see her again in March, because she makes me laugh so much I ache for a couple of days. She is one of the most genuine, lovely people I’ve ever had a like from on Twitter (she’s up there with Clare Balding folks) and everything she stands for I feel passionately about. That’s why it hurts me to say that I only liked this book – I didn’t love it and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Now, comedians writing books I love, and this is no exception to the fact. I listened to this as an audiobook, and that in itself was a joy. I think maybe if I had paired it with a physical copy of the book I would have enjoyed it far more. Sometimes an audiobook works, sometimes it doesn’t – in this case I think a combination of the two would have made this book a 4 or 5 star read for me. Mainly because Sarah likes lists (I like lists, who doesn’t like lists?!) and they’re most certainly things better read than listened to. On the whole though, I would recommend the audiobook because nothing beats the book being read how the author intended it to be!

The book is a series of anecdotes from Sarah’s life – from her childhood in the North East, with miners strikes and weekend jobs at WHSmith, right the way up to the present day. It covers all of her life quite concisely with a smattering of advice and I really liked that. I love a memoir/biography that throws in some life lessons and I think one of the biggest messages I took from it is love yourself. At the end of each chapter she gives a tip on ‘how to be a champion’ and I looked forward to each of them!

I gave this book 3 stars, and I feel awful about it. 3 stars on goodreads is a solid “I liked it” – and I did, I really did. I really hope she does more writing in the future because I find her so relatable and easy to read. The book did make me laugh out loud on more than one occasion (which was difficult to keep down when I was listening to it, trying to sleep, at 2am). I love what she has to say about body image, mental health and self-esteem. I just found a lot of it repetitive and not entirely my cup of tea, which makes me very, very sad.

Sarah is fantastic, and this book is definitely a read for anyone who – like me – loves the woman. She’s witty, sarcastic, and so many other wonderful things – this book really does show all of that. The book is champion, it really is, it just wasn’t entirely my cup of tea.

I’d recommend anyone who is a fan of her check out the Standard Issue podcast – the magazine was fantastic; the podcast is just a step up from it and I for one love it. It’s a podcast with women, by women, for anyone. It’s a lovely podcast of female empowerment and women standing up for other women, seriously recommend it.

Review: Dracula – Bram Stoker

049 - Dracula

Rating – 5*

Dracula has long been among books I class as my favourites. I first read it 10 years ago, when I was but a girl of 14 (reading that review back was horrifying, let me tell you) and I remember loving it. I’ve not read it since then, but it’s always been a book that has stuck with me, and when asked to name some of my favourite books I always say “Dracula” without hesitation. I read it because of all the Twilight hype, I hated that book so decided to read the ‘original’ vampire novel and I remember being swept away in the dark, mysterious lore that Stoker created – and the same happened all over again on this reread.

While I seem to have remembered a lot of the novel in the 10 year gap since my last reading, on reading it this time around I think a lot of it did go over my head. I did say in my review that I would have to read it back to fully appreciate it, it seems that 14 year old me actually knew I was in over my depth because I definitely enjoyed it more this time around.

One major change in my opinion in 10 years is the fact I absolutely loved the fact this novel was epistolary this time around. The fact it was told through letters and journal entries, it builds such a better picture and you see each character through different sets of eyes. The story has so many layers in being told this way, because there is overlapping between the characters narratives. I’ve never been one for an epistolary novel, but Dracula certainly nails it. The story really works told in the way it was, and I honestly don’t think that a traditional narrative would have given the story such a profound impact, or even the longevity.

I can say without any hesitation this is one of my favourite books, and I feel I can say it with more confidence as I have read it both as a teenager and an adult without any change in my feelings towards it. I can see it becoming a book I reread quite a lot in my future, as it is a perfect, Autumn read when enjoyed with a cozy blanket, pyjamas and a cup of coffee.

Review: You Sad Feminist – Megan Beech

050 - You Sad Feminist

Rating – 5*

Last year, when I read When I Grow Up I Want to be Mary Beard I thought I had found my perfect poetry collection, the one I’d keep coming back to again and again, that was until I read this. Megan Beech surpassed herself in this second collection, and I don’t even know how to put in to words what I am feeling after reading You Sad Feminist because it was amazing, and I feel amazing after reading it.

In You Sad Feminist there is not only hard hitting feminist poetry (what isn’t to like in that sales pitch?) but also it explores her personal experience, and feelings, about mental illness. That was a theme in her previous collection, but it was more pronounced in this second helping of her work. This last year I’ve really struggled with my mental health, and I am so proud of myself for where I’ve got to in just a year, and in this collection I found myself identifying even more with what she was saying. This is the sort of poetry I wish I could write, because every word of this collection was incredible and resonated with me. It put in to words my feelings about myself, my mental health, and even the world in general in the most eloquent way and I found myself reading, and rereading poems in this book throughout a day. I probably read it in it’s entirety about 3 times over the course of a Sunday, and I’ve dipped in and out of it since just revisiting favourite lines.

In my review of her previous collection, I touched on the fact she was a performance poet and how that doesn’t always translate well to the written word – once again she nails it. Since reading this I’ve looked on youtube, found a few clips of her performing poems form this collection and while the words are a lot more hard hitting when read aloud, the meaning isn’t lost when just reading to yourself.

One of the bits that hit me most was in the last poem The Workshop. This wasn’t only because I’m the biggest Wizard of Oz fan, but also because it put in to a few short lines the last year of my life:-

This greyness, this staleness will not last.
You do not have to suffer.
Like Dorothy in Oz, your life that was can wash from greyscale to technicolour.
From this, your spirits can lift and your body can recover.
There is another road, a life of yellow brick gold in which you can find health and heart and home.

I sincerely urge people to look this woman up because she’s incredible. There are plenty of clips of her performing on YouTube – and I hope one day to be lucky enough to see her perform in person. In the mean time, please read or watch her work.

Naturally, this is a 5/5 read and one I have left copious amounts of post-it notes in so I can revisit as and when I wish to.

Review: Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens

047 - Our Mutual Friend

Rating – 4*

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

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

 

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

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

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

Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

046 - The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Rating – 5*

Putting my feelings for this book in to coherent sentences is going to be hard. This is a book I’ve been aware of long before I started my degree, and I really wish I had read it prior to university because it would have given me a different aproach to my day to day lab work. I knew her name, which is more than many scientists did, but when dealing with cell cultures it’s sometimes difficult to remember that every cell came from somewhere, and in many cases came from someone. More importantly, the immortal cell line – HeLa – which came from her tumor has changed the lives of everyone alive today. Yet, she was unknown until 20 years after the biopsy was taken, and she doesn’t get thanks for that.

This book was so much more than a book about cells – I’ve read many of books about cells and this wasn’t comparable to any of them. This is the biography of a woman science – the world – needs to remember the name of. Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta Lacks was a young mother of 5 when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer, and unknown to her or her family the doctor took two biopsies that day. One would diagnose her with cancer, the other would go on to be the most prolific cell line in history. HeLa cells have gone on to change the world – they were instrumental in the development of medical treatments such as the polio vaccine, they’ve been in to space, they’ve changed the face of science and medicine to what we now know it. But this is a book about the woman behind that immortal cell line; the mother, sister, wife, cousin, and friend. It’s a book full of compassion and it made me cry because I know just how instrumental this woman has been in my life.

The story in these pages is not an easy read. It covers race, religion, discrimination of many kinds, the American medical system (which to this day horrifies me), medical ethics, rights to our bodies and tissues – what it covers seems to be endless. There is also a brief touch on mental health in the book, due to one of Henrietta’s children – Elsie – suffering from epilepsy and being institutionalised at a very young age. While we never know the exact details of how the poor girl was treated while in the ‘care’ home, the general opinion on what was likely to have occurred sent a shiver down my spine. But for me, the thing which gave me most hope, was that education is power. Deborah, one of Henrietta’s children, armed with a dictionary and google, was determined to learn as much about her mother and what her cells have done for the world as possible.

Rebecca Skloot is a fantastic journalist who became fascinated by the story of the woman behind the cells when she was in college. She knew from a reasonably early point in her career that this was the book she wanted to write because the more she understood, the more she wanted to know about Henrietta. She handles this book with extreme grace and compassion, with very much overdue respect and gratitude to the family in every page of this book.

Honestly, this book is one that will stay with me for a lifetime. It’s not your typical, stodgy non-fiction as it’s more about the woman, not the science. It’s approachable and informative, and a very much deserved winner of the Wellcome Prize in 2010. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I leave you on this note:- HeLa cells, which were taken from the tumour on Henrietta Lacks’ cervix – were found to contain human papillomavirus 18 (HPV-18). HPV-18 is one of the strains of HPV which can cause cervical cancer, and in 2006 the cell line from Henrietta was used to develop a vaccine which is now given to all female school children in the UK (and many countries worldwide) which has, on estimate, cut cervical cancer cases by two thirds in 10 years. It’s by no means a cure, but it reduces the risk. That, for me, is something I feel both Henrietta (and her family) should be very proud of.