Monday, 23 November 2015

Books I haven't read that I really should

We can't read everything. That's a fact. Even if as you work your way through your TBR there is more to be added in to it: new releases, books your friends have just read and loved, a book by that great author on the podcast you just listened to. But you know there are just some books you feel you need to read, and should have by now? Here are mine. 

Philip Pullman, Northern Lights- I haven't read any of the His Dark Materials books, which I feel is a travesty on my childhood. I can definitely remember starting it, but I don't know what ever happened to finishing it. I believe Jen Campbell is holding a read-along of all three in December because she re-reads them all every Christmastime (dedication, I think that they must be good), and I'm looking forward to losing myself in one of the greatest magical worlds ever created.

Jane Austen, Emma and Persuasion- I feel the need to complete Jane Austen's back catalogue. This are the last two of her novels that I haven't read and are next on my list. 

Daphne Du Marier, Rebecca-Another one I remember picking up but don't know why I didn't finish. And I'm sure I didn't finish, as I think it's quite a memorable one. Surely I need to read the book of which the opening lines I know off by heart?

Anything from J.K. Rowling (or Robert Galbraith) post-Potter- I admit, whilst I was a Harry Potter fan, I wasn't all that curious when Rowling came out with something new (I think first it was The Casual Vacancy). Who could ever recreate something like Potter? But the rave reviews of Rowling's detective series as Robert Galbraith have got me intrigued, and I'm going to try and reserve them at the library. 

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Spotlight: Helen Oyeyemi

Helen Oyeyemi is someone that I am immensely jealous of, I can't lie. She wrote her first novel when she was supposed to be doing her A-Levels, studied at Cambridge and lives in Prague. She's now published seven books (including plays), five of them novels, and she can still only be about 30 (she graduated Cambridge in 2006). She was a precocious talent who has now established herself in a successful writing career, producing critically acclaimed novels, which I greatly admire. She was on Granta's Top 20 Young Novelists under 30 in 2013. She's not much of a public figure: there aren't that many interviews with her, and I can't find a twitter page for her. This just makes her more enigmatic, I think. Anyway, to her books. 

The books I've read:

Boy, Snow, Bird: This is her latest book and most definitely my favourite. Here I think Helen got the balance just right between magical realism and an engaging, could-actually-happen plot. This was the first Oyeyemi I read and where I fell in love with her writing style: it's just beautiful, and I wanted to eat it up. It's the kind of beautiful writing that's easy to read too, and doesn't feel forced or try-hard. I loved the plot of this one too: it is told in three sections (but not in the titular order- it goes Boy, Bird, Snow), and follows a family in New England. Boy is the new wife of a widower, Arturo, who already has a daughter called Snow. When Boy has a baby girl, Bird, and she turns out to be coloured, the family pretty much falls apart, and it's interesting to see the tensions and fairytale elements weaved in. I think multiple perspectives really works here, and I loved to hear from each instrumental character and their dramatically different points of view. The themes are race, appearance and fitting in: very deep, but tackled in such a way that it doesn't feel like you're having an opinion forced on you, rather like you can explore things for yourself. Five stars. 

White is for Witching: My second Oyeyemi, and probably my least favourite. It's very experimental: it follows Miranda, who lives in a house on the white cliffs of Dover. However she has a condition called Pica which means that she wants to eat non-edible items, the main one of these being chalk. Aha. It's a novel that really explores Miranda's mental state. And the narrators- Miranda, her twin brother, her best friend, and finally, the house that she lives in. Bonkers, but it does work. I enjoyed it, but didn't feel I really cared for Miranda and it was sometimes a little too disjointed (just for my personal taste), so I gave it three stars. 

Mr Fox: I would describe this as a really interesting book. I just finished this one yesterday, and loved it at the beginning, and whilst my love petered off towards the end I did really enjoy it. It's about novelist St John Fox and his imaginary muse, Mary Foxe. One day she appears to him and tells him to stop killing off his female characters, a literary trope that he keeps on repeating. She calls him a serial killer, and then to battle it out the two of them (in his subconscious) start to tell stories which illustrate their side of the argument. Oyeyemi reworks folkloric characters such as Bluebeard and Reynardine, makes up some of her own strange tales (Blue and Brown? Hello?), and re-imagines St John and Mary (real and alive) in different situations. I enjoyed a lot of the pieces, and again they're written so well, but I felt a little like they led away from the original point that is made in the opening about how the killing of women in literature seems to make it okay in life, and about how male desires are so often hidden behind violence, both of which have to stop. The pieces became so obscure and fantastical that I couldn't quite remember what she was saying: although I really did enjoy the closing on the titular fox. I think everything in this book is well done, and well orchestrated: it just felt like a short story collection, rather than a novel. I gave it three stars but it is nudging on four: I'll probably change it. 

The books to read:

Icarus Girl and The Opposite House- her two earliest novels. I seem to enjoy her most recent works the most, but I would like to get to these. I'll probably feel even more envious of her when I read what she published so young. 

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours- a new collection of interweaved stories, out in 2016. 

I think Helen Oyeyemi is a really exciting author: her books might not always be perfect but I really admire what she's trying to do and the themes she is exploring. She's serious, establishing a viewpoint and certain opinions, but she does it in such a light and beautiful way that I feel she has a really important voice. I love seeing her writing progress over her work. And her writing is sublime. I feel like I'm really going to love what she does next. 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book Review: 'The God of Small Things' by Arundhati Roy

I picked this one up because it's November's reading choice for the ManBookering group on GoodReads. It's a novel I'd heard of before, and seen much praise about, one that I initially went into thinking that it would be fantastic- maybe a Man Booker prize winner that I would love (so far, my only five star winner is last years, Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North). 

It follows a family in Ayemenem, India, who consist of Mammachi- the grandmother-, Baby Kochamma- the grand aunt-, Mamachi's children Chacko and Ammu, and Ammu's children Estha and Rahel. There is a great scandal when Sophie Mol, Chacko's daughter comes to visit from England, where she now lives with her Mum and something awful happens, the causes of which are revealed slowly throughout the novel. Everyone has their own heartaches and problems- no-one quite seems to be happy in love: there are affairs and beatings and alcoholics- and everyone is flawed.

However, I gave this one two stars on GoodReads.  I feel disappointed in this one because it could have been great. The end fifty pages or so, and the ending itself, were so moving and touching. I have kept on thinking about the ending since finishing the novel and the ingrained injustice made me simmer with anger. It was all just so unfair. 

I just didn't like the writing style or the structure. I think when you look back on it, the novel said a lot of important things about India, about the caste system, and about love. It is interesting and educational, but I think that the execution takes away from the message and what Roy is trying to say. I didn't like the disjointed writing style, the odd slips into colloquialisms and odd spellings. I could have dnf-ed this book very easily before I'd hit page 100, because I just wasn't sure what was going on. I'd also have liked events to unfold in a more linear way: I'm all for retrospect, but even looking back events were all over the place. I was often confused, and this kept my interest in this book at bay for a long time. 

Overall, this is what I think critics would call an important book. It just wasn't always an enjoyable one. Who knows, it might be one for re-reading, knowing what I do now. 

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Book Review: 'The Blind Assassin' by Margaret Atwood

I'm compelled to write a review on this book because it confused me so. The Blind Assassin is a novel within a novel within a novel (did I get them all?): there are many layers of narrative all of which come together to solve on big mystery: what happened to Laura Chase?

What I liked: 

Laura is protagonist Iris' little sister, who (you find out on the blurb) died young in a car accident. This mystery element is interesting: you're given a lot of information at the beginning of the novel, almost like a dump, and then for the rest of the novel you're trying to work out why these events happened. It's interesting to act as detective, even when dealing with Iris' own narrative. 

Both Laura and Iris are interesting characters, and both are very much mysteries. Whilst you think you know Iris when she gives her first person narrative, it becomes very clear and time goes on that you as the reader really don't know her at all. Iris is much cleverer than she pretends to be: she talks a lot about her lack of education as a child, but her thoughts and prose are quite developed. Laura is similarly enigmatic: she is a character to be figured out, and her motivations are never entirely clear. 

I liked that Atwood respects her reader and their intelligence: she doesn't just feed you information, but leaves you to work it out for yourself. A clever aspect is her use of inter-textual bits, such as newspaper articles, for verisimilitude, which aid the reader but aren't over obvious signposts. It is a difficult feat to pull off, and the fact that you are- well, I was- still satisfied by the mystery says a lot for Atwood's writing. 

What I disliked: 

My problems came from one of the other narratives. Layer number one is Iris' perspective. Layer number two is excerpts from Laura's novel, The Blind Assassin. Layer three is excerpts from a fictional text- I think it's a graphic novel or comic- that a character in The Blind Assassin writes. Layers one and two I found interesting and enthralling: layer two again adds to the mystery element because no characters are named and it is told in the third person. The third layer just confused me: it was a science-fiction narrative, and I had no idea why it was there. Maybe it was because I'm not a particularly huge fan of sci-fi, I just didn't enjoy it. By the end, I flicked over these pages. I thought a synopsis of the text could have sufficed if it had to be included. Because of this extra, I felt that the text was overlong. 

Would you recommend? 

Yes, I think so. It's a great mystery with a really satisfying ending. But be prepared for a long read, and a bit of effort. 

Saturday, 22 August 2015

Man Booker Excitement

With all the hype around the Man Booker longlist announcement and the already great GoodReads group, I'm really wanting to get into an attempt to read my way through the nominees. However, with the length of the list and the other books I'm dying to get to, this is probably a little unrealistic. Heck, I've still got books I'd like to read from last years list (How to Be Both, Us, The Lives of Others). So I've chosen, in order, the few I'd really like to get to, and this will be my reading aim, if not by the time of the shortlist announcement, by the time of the winner.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara- OMG I wanted this book so much. And there was such a long waiting list at the library. So this one, I have purchased. And it is beautiful, and I spend a while staring at it each day. I've heard such fantastic reviews of this one, I can't wait to read it.

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler- a family drama told in an interesting way- backwards. It sounds rich and emotional, and something that I would love.

The Chimes by Anna Smail- an intriguing and beautiful fantastical tale, in a world in which words have been replaced by music. This concept has really hooked me.

The Illuminations by Andrew O'Hagan- I don't know too much about this one, but I know that is has mixed perspectives, which I always find interesting.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Series Review: 'The Bone Season' by Samantha Shannon

A spoiler free review of a series that is one of my new favourites- and which I'm not sure of the name of. There doesn't seem to be an overall name for this book series (of which two novels are currently published), so I'm going with 'The Bone Season', the title of the first in the series. I have recently scurried through both 'The Bone Season' and its sequel 'The Mime Order', and found it fascinating. Samantha Shannon (who was born in 1992... yes, 1992! She's only two years older than me. She's an inspiration. And also great to follow on Twitter.) began writing this series when at Oxford, and it's planned as a seven book opus. And I have to say, I haven't enjoyed a fantasy series as much as I enjoyed this one before. Apart from maybe 'Harry Potter'. I've always liked fantasy, and been interested in it, but it often doesn't quite grip me the way I think it should. This definitely did. Here are my thoughts:

- The fantastical system of clairvoyance is so interesting. It's a great change from systems of magic or vampirism or dystopia, which crop up so often in fantasy. I suppose this is a dystopia, but it feels like a very interesting, unique one, and one which could exist in our own world (due to the recognisable landmarks, maybe). Shannon has obviously put a lot of thought into categorising her clairvoyant system, and it really shows. Terms are explained, and there's a diagram in the opening pages. Otherworldly powers are not something I've ever been interested in before, apart from reading the odd horoscope, but I really enjoyed learning here.

-The world building is incredible. I loved Shannon's depictions of London; it really came across as a Victorian-esque, gothic, run-down city. I could picture the slums, the packed streets, the oxygen bars and the coffee houses. I loved the references to older British culture too, such as with the penny dreadfuls or Molly Malone. I think the world building really came into it's own in London: this was where the story thrived, even though Oxford was also well-depicted in the first novel. There's just something about clairvoyant London that makes it kind of... electric? I'd love to go to a Bone Season section in a theme park, or a tour of the Shannon's London like the Harry Potter studios.

- Paige is a great heroine. She's not sappy, not overly emotional, not bogged down by romance. She sacrifices things for the greater good, but not because she's just so nice or because it's the right thing to do, but because she actually wants her world to be better for her kind. She's strong rather than charitable, and a heroine with flaws too. She's physically agile but not on the level of an all action hero, and she's a clever planner too but doesn't see everything that the reader can, such as a few big reveals.

- I love the romance element. It's so well done: there's a forbidden, weird connection between two characters who shall remain nameless, and yet it doesn't overtake the plot, but rather adds to it, creating exciting dynamics and twists.

- Did Samantha Shannon read the 'House of Night' series as a child? The villains in her series really remind me of the arch-villains in that one, who are similar creatures also searching for world dominance. Both are terrifying, and also really interesting at the same time.

- The dedications are the best, always to the writers or the dreamers.

- I would really, really like to go to Oxford.

- Does it count as YA or adult? I picked it up in my local library from the Adult Fantasy section. However I've seen it on 'best YA fiction' lists, and the protagonist is a teenager, and it features tropes of YA fantasy fiction (romance, friendship, growing up).

- I'd love to learn more of the non-Scion world. Is it just like a futuristic version of our world? And I'm also curious about the rest of England- is it inhabitable, are there people there? Do people live outside of the cities? There's some mention of the North, but nothing concrete, to my memory anyway.

- The second book is better than the first, which excites me. I'm looking forward to the third.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Short Reviews of Short Books

1) The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I was recommended this book by a university professor for a project that I was writing, but I found myself unable to find it in my uni library, and I currently buy books only sporadically. However now I'm home my curiosity led me to order it to my local library.

This is a book about memory, and how we perceive events changes over time. I liked how short and succinct it was. It seems as if Barnes knew what he wanted to say about getting older, and the flexibility and sporadic nature of memory (especially when young and/or drunk). It was well written and wistful, and I feel like I could read it all over again and gain more from it. However I wasn't totally gripped by the thriller aspect or the actual plot itself. I didn't really click with the characters: they seemed almost otherworldly to me.

This is a Man Booker winner. I'm not sure I myself would crown it, but it would probably make my longlist.

3/5 stars.

2) Bonjour Tristesse by Francoise Sagan

I saw many readalongs on BookTube, and some favourable, some okay reviews, so I though I would give this one a go. This is a novel that I really enjoyed but did not love. I thought Sagan skillfully presented her character, teenage girl Cecile, who gets involved in her father's love life after her mother dies. I see the comparisons to F Scott Fitzgerald in Sagan's heady description of a time period filled with parties, glamour and heavy drinking, all layered with a certain darkness and corruptness. The plot is quite unpredictable, the ending shocking. Overall this novel was a short and pacy read, nothing mind blowing, but still one that I would recommend.

4/5 stars.