Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Review of Rowena's Key

Before I start looking at the book I'll just apologise quickly for not posting as frequently at the moment. I've just moved into my new uni house and have been dealing with a load of departmental issues at university, whilst working, having my family up and so on. Anyway, I managed to actually get a free e-book copy of Rowena's Key for my kindle, and I'm pretty glad I did. It was the first fantasy novel I've read in a while, so was quite an enjoyable read on that front.

The main character, Rowena, is (as the quote above suggests) a pretty standard woman in her mid-twenties. She owns an antiques store which her two best friends Ollie and Violet help her run. At the beginning of the book she manages to secure possession of an old family armoire, which she pays quite a hefty sum for. Soon she finds that it is not simply something which she can put her clothes in, but a kind of portal into another realm. It has a mirror in it through which she can see into another Earth. At first she thinks it's a trick, but what she didn't expect was to be faced with an incredibly handsome young man who claimed to be her prince.

In my opinion Nuest really succeeded in making the fantastical elements of the novel seem almost realistic. Often I've found that if writers attempt to set up the "real world" in too much detail before adding the element of fantasy it doesn't sit right, and the whole plot ends up seeming ridiculous. However, fantasy and reality work in harmony in Rowena's Key to make it seem as though these kind of things could happen to any woman. I also found it quite refreshing to have two protagonists who clearly have an interest in each other, rather than one remaining aloof.

All in all, it was quite a quick, easy and enjoyable read. Plus the plot twist at the end definitely makes you want more from this series of books!

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Friday, 26 September 2014

Review of The Dubliners

Ashamedly I've avoided reading any James Joyce for as long as is feasibly possible whilst studying for an English Lit degree. My time was up this week, and I had to cave in the form of The Dubliners in order to get ahead with some module reading. Admittedly the book made me feel like a rather inadequate student - I knew there must be some meaning behind this quandary of characters and situations, but had few ideas as to what. So, after doing a bit of research and rereading over notes I took whilst reading the book (yes, I'm that type of lit student, urgh), I've come up with some ideas about my take on this book.

For the majority of the novel I had no clue as to what was going on. I felt like I was wandering in circles around this semi-fictional Dublin and couldn't escape from the inane repetition of reading about the lives of various seemingly insignificant characters. I actually got rather annoyed at this and in this way missed the point - I wasn't confused because I didn't understand Joyce, I was confused because Joyce wanted me to be. If that makes sense. He purposefully made the life of the key protagonist of each chapter seem mundane and repetitive because he was trying to make his readers realise that that is the nature of Dublin society. Take, for example, Eveline. She could escape her tragic, boring life to go to Argentina with her love. Yet she doesn't. And why? Like most middle class women living in Dublin at the time she is stuck in a rut of routine, and cannot escape without casting off all familial, traditional and supposedly moral ties to her formal life. 

All of the characters reside on the outskirts of middle class society, and in this way give a sort of overview of life in Dublin during this period. Thus, they don't really speak to the reader as individuals, but as a collective entity of different sub-sections of the middle class. We have the potentially violated young boy, the manipulative mother, the lover with lost hopes and the list goes on.

Now, as to whether I enjoyed it ... I can't say it's going to be in my top ten. or really anywhere near there to be honest. Although I appreciate the literary merit of the work as it was relatively important for the avant-garde movement, it wasn't something that I exactly lost the track of time with whilst reading. Saying that, it's Joyce, so it's obviously well written. It's also quite interesting because of the sheer range of lives that he provides perspective on.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Review of "Some Veil Did Fall"*

I was kindly given Some Veil Did Fall by Choc Lit to review before it is published. Sadly, as much as I've loved Monsoon Mists (see review here) and Follow Me Follow You (see review here) I really wasn't amazed by this book. A quick description of the book made it sound really good and I was so looking forward to it, but unfortunately it didn't quite live up to expectations. Perhaps I expected too much, or perhaps the uncanny effect of it was lost on me after just completing The Woman in the Dunes, which captured the uncanny perfectly, but either way, it just didn't thrill me.

The plot centres around two sets of characters: Jon and Becky, and Adam and Ella. However, these characters aren't entirely separate. Jon and Becky are old friends who by chance are reunited in Gothic Whitby (aka the setting of Dracula). Adam and Ella similarly live in Whitby, but over 100 years before Jon and Becky. Their paths overlap in spooky and occasionally unnerving ways. Without giving away too much of the plot, Ella and Adam manage to communicate from beyond the grave, so that their story can be told, even if it is through someone else's eyes (literally!). 

There are a couple of reasons why I wasn't enamoured with this book, but also one or two which kind of redeemed it. I really felt as though Jon and Becky's characters weren't developed in the book. Becky herself was also not an entirely believable character at all. Maybe it's just me being cynical, but I certainly wouldn't immediately tell someone that I thought a ghost was trying to channel something through me ... The book really picked up when Ella and Adam got to tell their own story, without all this "ghost" business. It felt as though a lot of effort had been put into the historical aspect of the novel, which is potentially why the whole beyond the grave aspect didn't really feel explained well enough, or have enough of an introduction to make it believable.

Anyway, we're done with the negatives now. What probably saved this novel in my opinion was the last few chapters. Once I'd stuck it out to about 80% of the way through the novel (you can thank my kindle for those figures) it actually got to be quite good. The plot picked up a great deal and eventually got me hooked. And the ending ... well, let's just say it was (almost) worth waiting for! It really made you think about the rest of the book, and personally, I love endings that do that.

Would you read this? 

Steph x 

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Review of "Woman in the Dunes"

Sorry about the poor quality photo, but the cover of this book isn't exactly the most vibrant in the world. Both Kobo Abe's writing and the cover, however, both speak volumes through their seemingly dull appearance. The Woman in the Dunes is hardly the most inspirational title, but it captures the essence of the writing in this novel. It plainly states things, but has a multitude of meanings behind. Take the title itself for example: the book really is about a woman in some sand dunes, but it's also about the struggle of women in general, and the exclusive state of modernity, which does leave some people fending themselves in the outskirts or "dunes" of modern life.

This book grew on me. At first I had no interest in hearing about the confused plight of Niki Jumpei, insect enthusiast, who gets trapped in a village in the sands whilst trying to find a new breed of beetle. His incessant whining and refusal to accept that he had been trapped against his will, got very irritating very quickly. However, like the infuriating buzz of an insect, I suppose, once you paid more attention to the situations in the book they became much more interesting. 

Niki enters this barren environment and comes across a village that remains in the sand dunes. As sand is always moving, more like a liquid than a solid, continual work must be done in order to preserve the houses in the village. He is invited to spend the night in one, in a supposed act of hospitality from the villagers, but once he goes down into what is effectively a hole in the sands with a house and a woman in it, he finds it is far harder to escape than he'd ever imagined ...

According to TIME magazine, The Woman in the Dunes is a "haunting Kafkaesque nightmare". Having read Metamorphosis I can say that I entirely agree with this comment. The sense of the uncanny in this book was astounding. This book was probably one of the scariest I've ever read. I'm not talking about gore or horror as such (and I've had my fair share of those kind of books - anyone else love the "Goosebumps" set as a kid?), but actual nightmarish terror. We've all had those dreams in which we're running or climbing and we just can't escape. We think we're making progress, but we're not, and eventually a sense of panic overcomes us. This scenario is played out over and over again for Niki, but this time it isn't a dream. 

Even though Niki is the main character, the woman in the dunes is far, far more interesting. The fact that she isn't named struck me: she has no name because Niki, who pretty much controls the narrative, never asks her. He's happy enough to blame her for his struggles and to have sex with her, but connecting with her on an emotional or personal level? Pffft, why would be bother? I think this raises a lot of issues about gender relations in the modern world, and how we should deal with sex. Having said that, I've been researching the Communist Manifesto at the moment (for uni, it's hardly my idea of a "fun read"), and it made me think about the impact of capitalism on the world of the novel. So, if you're going to read it, it adds just that bit of extra depth to the meaning of the book if you do think about that.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Steph x

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Review of "Follow Me Follow You"*

This was my favourite line from the whole book. Although this doesn't directly give details of the plot of the book, it does actually speak true to what the characters are dealing with: the past. Now, although everyone says "never judge a book by it's cover", I'm a sucker for a book with intriguing cover art. So, when I first received this from Choc Lit I was quite put off. However, once I started reading I realised that (thankfully) the cover did not do justice to the contents of the novel.

Without giving too many spoilers, and going too deep into the plot, I'm going to give a quick summary of the book. The key protagonist is Victoria Noble, a recent divorcee with a four year old son (Seth) who hates her. She is co-owner of a social media firm called EweSpeak, and is slightly hung up over her past with actor Chris Frampton. In an effort to go "back to basics" to repair her relationship with her son, Victoria moves back to the town in which she grew up. Once there, she discovers that her past could just be the key to creating her and Seth's future ...

When I first started reading I got really worried. We Need To Talk About Kevin is my all-time favourite  book and it looked like Follow Me Follow You was going to go down the same plot route. However, the tension between Victoria and Seth was not the only plot strand of the novel. Chris and his son Ricky made a touching pair in the face of their tragedy. Plus, not only was it well written, but contained many narrative ideas and styles which I hadn't really come across. I personally loved the whole idea of EweSpeak, which is effectively twitter. The "bleats" (aka tweets) at the start of each chapter were such a unique and funny addition to the book. Also, the way in which certain key issues were handled (*ahem* I did warn no spoilers) was realistic and touching.

All in all, I loved this book, and after the first couple of chapters I couldn't put it down!

Have you read it? What did you think?

Get it here!

Steph x

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Review of "Benito Cereno"

To be honest, I've (ashamedly) always avoided reading any Melville because the idea of trawling through Moby Dick is enough to put me to sleep. A few weeks ago I reviewed Bartleby, the Scrivener (here) as part of my summer reading to get ahead for next year's course. This is pretty much why I read Benito Cereno. And I have to say, I enjoyed it about as much as I expected to; aka not at all. Thankfully it was only just over 100 pages long so I was able to get it over and done with in a day. 

However, having said this, it was very interesting to read a book written by a white, free man during the period in which it was permissible to own slaves in America. Recently I've read a number of very good and very interesting slave narratives, so this offered a new perspective on the issue. The story of Benito Cereno follows the story of the eponymous man whose slave ship is overrun by the slaves it holds. It comes into port and a captain of another ship enters. The "ringleader" of the slaves, Babo, forces Benito to make it appear as though the remainder of the white crew have hold of the ship. Eventually, Benito escapes from his clutches. A battle ensues and the truth comes out.

This narrative closely follows a true story narrated in the memoirs of Captain Delano, whom the illusion of peace was created for. The feeling of uncanny throughout the novella is potentially its strongest point. I have never read a piece of literature which, for me, screamed out the "unheimlich" as much as this did, not even Poe's poetry. Delano knows something is amiss, but cannot grasp what. Even though the atmosphere was never given a great deal of attention by the author, it was easy to envision a humid scene, wrapped in fog. Or at least, that's how it appeared to me. As I mentioned before, it was interesting to see how Melville tackled the subject of slavery in his writing. Some critics have suggested it is pro-slavery, whilst others believe it is abolitionist. I can see why both interpretations arise. For this reason, I think the perspective of the reader has a lot more to do with the conclusions drawn than the writing does.

Have you read it? What did you think?


Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Review of "Waiting For Doggo"

I managed to wrangle a proof copy of Waiting For Doggo (which will come out in November) through a competition on twitter. Now that I've read it, I am SO glad that I did. It's been sitting in my summer "to read" pile for a couple of weeks whilst I've been attempting to work through a backlog of books. Now, if you've read any of my recent reviews you'll know I usually pick out my favourite quote; with Doggo I was too torn to choose. And when I came close, I realised I liked whole paragraph rather than sentences.

This is the first book in years that I've managed to read in just a day. Most authors nowadays are encouraged to write 300 page books, because these are said to sell well. Unfortunately that sometimes means that stories get dragged out to a point where there's a lot of meaningless drivel and not a great deal of substance. Coming in at just over the 200-page mark, Mills avoids this in Waiting For Doggo. I enjoyed every bit of it, and felt that there weren't any "filler" chapters which I wanted to just get through to get to the good bits. 

One of the reasons why I enjoyed Waiting For Doggo so much is that Mills has managed to create a realistic novel without it being bland (or too much like a rom-com, bleurgh). Set in London, Waiting For Doggo narrates the growing bond between an ad salesman and his dog, an ugly piece of baggage from his recent breakup. I knew this much before I started, and expected to hear a tale of a man who sinks into a depressive pit over his lost love and can only find happiness through the pet she left behind. Thankfully, Mills did not take this tedious and predicatable route with the novel. Instead, it is far more humourous. Plus, it is funny without being badly written, something which I'm finding is getting rarer in recent publications. 

This is also the first book I’ve come across in a while that doesn’t have any unlikeable characters. There are no smarmy goody-goodies (Fanny Price anyone?) that are supposed to be likeable, but are just so annoying, nor are there any real dark-hearted characters. The key protagonist, Dan, is a loveable guy who hasn’t had the greatest luck in the world. His unlikely, and often grumpy, sidekick Doggo is also a brilliantly constructed character. Doggo thankfully doesn’t get given any speech in the book, and yet the author managed to give him a vibrant personality which echoes throughout the text.

All in all, it's been my favourite summer read. I would advise anyone to pick up a copy when it comes out - it's fun, lighthearted, and leaves you feeling happy at the end. 


Sunday, 7 September 2014

Review of Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl

So this is potentially the last slave narrative I'm going to be reading for a while, and I've learnt a lot during my experience. The key thing I've realised is that grouping all of these texts under the category of "slave narrative" doesn't really highlight just how diverse they are. Each one is written in a different narrative style: some are first person, some third; some written poetically, and some (as in this case) written in a rather matter-of-fact manner. They also explore different aspects of slavery, from focusing on the brutality of tricking free men and women into slavery, to how Christianity impacts the slave trade. 

Although Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl contains some important messages, I have to say that it is not the narrative which I found most interesting to read on either a contextual and a literary level. It follows the story of Linda Brent, a woman born into slavery. Considering how long ago this book was published, I'm going to give quite a few spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph now if you don't want to hear them! Linda's grandmother bought her own freedom and lives near to Linda's master's house. She has taught her how to be a Christian. Unfortunately, as Linda reaches puberty her master gets other ideas and begins to whisper sexual things to her and repeatedly attempts to take her virginity. Linda suffers through the abuse she receives both from him and her mistress and steadfastly refuses his attempts at seduction on every occasion. However, after a number of years of this she wishes to take revenge upon him, and does so by having sex with another white man who is not her master. She has two children with him. Sadly, the children are technically the property of her master. She knows she must escape from this master so that he will not sell her children far away to punish her. With this in mind, Linda goes into hiding, and spends several years concealed in a small, dark, damp hole in her grandmother's house. Eventually she escapes to New York, but finds that this "free state" is not as free for a coloured person, especially not a fugitive slave, as she initially thought. Her and her children are eventually reunited and, after a number of years, her master dies and her freedom is bought for her so that she can live in peace.

I usually write a little piece about what has made each of these slave narratives different from the others. Due to the title of this one, I expected to be writing a piece about gender. However, although the focus was on the sufferings female slaves were made subject to, the most striking aspect of it for me was the fact that escaping to the north did not solve the problems of all slaves. Many of the other slave narratives I have read have ended in happiness for those who escape to the north, almost to an idyllic extent. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, however, indicated that there were some truths behind the negative stories masters often told about the north to discourage slaves from running away there. Linda found that, although everyone was technically permitted to be free there, coloured people were often at a great disadvantage. For example, in the south only white people were allowed to ride in the first class car cabins, and slaves had to ride in a separate one. In the north again white people could ride in the first class one, but coloured people had to ride in an inferior one and yet pay for the privilege of doing so! The north was supposed to be a place of equality, yet it was anything but this. Linda had to struggle for everything she got, and repeatedly suffered from prejudice. Nor was she free from her original captors: The Fugitive Slave Act meant that many of them came up from the South to reclaim their "property" with the help of white people living in northern states. This indicates that a slave's suffering did not end with their successful escape to the north, and in this way offered a new light on the subject.

Have you read it? What did you think?

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Review of The Atlas of Us

Sometimes when I'm picking a quote to put with my review I pick one which I think sums up a key component of the book well, but this time I've picked the quote which I think most spoke out to me from the book. This actually happens at a fairly inconsequential part of the novel, and is a fairly unimportant conversation. However, it does speak volumes about a very important message behind the plot of the text.

I actually won this book in a twitter competition with Avon Books. This was the first book I've ever won, so I've been pretty excited to read it. Initially I thought this book was going to be largely about the 2004 tsunami (I read the prologue and had to put it down for a number of weeks, ugh). This particularly intrigued me as I haven't really found any literature about this before, so at first I was rather disappointed that it didn't continue in the same strain.

So now for what it's all about. The book travels along two stories. One follows the adventures of Claire Shreve, a barren journalist who is seeking to discover how to define herself as an adult woman who cannot become a mother. The other is all about a woman named Louise, who can only define herself through her loving relationship with her children and stale one with her mother. Louise's content marital life at home in the UK is suddenly put under the weight of the news that her mother was in the area in which the 2004 tsunami hit. She must fly out in an attempt to discover whether her enstranged mother is alive or has been lost to the sea. Once she gets there, she realises that her mother knew Claire Shreve, but how? Claire is trapped in a life determined by the fact that she cannot have children, and her husband is upsettingly optimistic about yet another round of IVF. She needs to learn how to be happy with her life as it is, and the best way to do this seems to be "stepping off the map" and travelling the world. The book follows the attempts these women make to discover their own path to happiness, and mothers and those without children alike may benefit from taking some lessons from this book.

I have to say, although I enjoyed the book in the end, at first I didn't like it a great deal. I felt that the plot was too simplistic and obvious. It was incredibly clear that the subject was personal to the author, and whilst that allowed for an authoritative take on some of the issues in the book I felt that certain ones in particular were stressed too much. The reader was aware that Claire was barren, they didn't need to be reminded every chapter. Saying that, perhaps that was the point - infertility is a problem that doesn't just go away, so why should the reader be allowed to forget about it if Claire couldn't? As I said before, the book grew on me. I thought that the ending was one of the most realistic I've read in a while. The realism of this novel was perhaps its strongest point. At the heart of the novel is a complex issue (trying not to give any spoilers), which could have simply seemed unbelievable if the novel were written badly, but the fact that Buchanan allowed the other components of the plot to be realistic made it work.

Have any of you read it? What did you think?