Wednesday, 28 June 2017

The Power - Naomi Alderman // Book Review

As always, I made it my goal to read as much of the shortlist as I could before the announcement. I am a little disappointed that I only read two of the books before the winner was announced, but - for once! - the winning novel was one of my picks.

Naomi Alderman's The Power was the first one off the list for me - although I already had an ebook copy of Stay With Me (review of that to come) thanks to netgalley, this was the book that excited me most on my initial impressions of the long listed titles, so I reserved it at the library straight away.

The main premise of The Power is that women develop a power, something like an electrical charge that they can express, which comes from a skein they have along their collarbones. Generally speaking, only women have skeins, and so only women can have the power. On that note, I want to get into my only real disappointment for the novel and talk about that first, so I can move on to focus about what I loved about the book.

I felt that, given the novel shows that not only women (by which, in this context, I mean cis women) can have and use a skein, there was a really interesting level of sex v gender, and gender v chromosomes/hormones, that could have been touched upon more, if not delved into very deeply. In particular, it wasn't entirely clear where the line was to make someone a 'woman' and therefore for them to possess a skein. Generally, the impression I got was that it required someone to be biologically 'female' at birth, but it would have been interesting to see how this affected trans people. I wanted to know whether trans men would have the power, have the possibility of having the power awoken in them like so many of the cis women whose power is brought out. Or, as so many older women might have hid their powers in the beginning, how many trans men were also having to hide theirs?

None of this makes the novel any less of a compelling story - it was just the one question that I wanted answers to and never really got, so it was a little disappointing when trans people weren't really involved in a story that so closely examines gender, sex and so on.

But on to the positives - this was ultimately a fascinating look into power, in all its forms. Women not only take on a kind of super power, with the ability their skein gives them, but the power balance shifts in all other ways. Women become physically superior, given that they can electrocute a man with relative ease; they take positions of authority and leadership over others, and they start to take control. At first, as you read this book, there's a kind of glee and excitement as you see women finally having all these different sorts of power, but as things go on, you slowly start to realise that power, no matter what kind or who has it, is ultimately dangerous and corrupting. It's a covert change, but the narrative slowly shifts until you realise that the only thing that has really changed in the novel's world is the gender holding power. Women are not, the novel shows, inherently good - they are not immune to the corrupting influence that power can have, the cruelty that can be wrought by power and their abilities. This isn't to say that the book suggests that the world and society we live in now is any better - but it shows that the problem is imbalance, the uneven distribution of power and control to one group, and not necessarily linked to a specific gender.

In particular the ending really pulls things together and it's definitely a book to make you think. As it neared the end of the main plot line, I started to feel disappointed with how it was turning out as it wasn't going the way I expected. However, the sort of 'after' ending section, with especially The Handmaid's Tale vibes, really pulled it back together again for me and made the entire premise much more interesting. It's the kind of book that would inspire you to reflect on your thoughts about gender, power and inequality, and I don't imagine it being the most comfortable read for some people too. But, as with Handmaid, it makes its point about the world and society, and has a very subtle and clever argument at its core.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Stay With Me - Ayobami Adebayo // Book Review

The thing I always love about the Baileys prize (and other prizes - but more so this one) is that it introduces me to books I might never have heard of otherwise, might never have even been interested in. I would quite like to be a bit more experimental with my reading choices one day and work on reading things that I've never heard of more often, but as there's so many books out there that I do know about - and know I want to read - I usually just go for what's that bit safer.

What I find quite interesting about this book in particular, though, is that not only did I come across it many months before it became longlisted (and then shortlisted) for the Bailey's prize, but I wanted to read it then too - without having heard anyone else talk about it before. I saw it on Netgalley, and although I don't remember what my first impressions were now, they were positive enough that I requested - and then received - the ebook of this last August.

I've always been meaning to read it since, always telling myself that I'd pick it up soon, but despite wanting to read it I never seemed to find enough drive to actually get started - until the Bailey's prize longlisted it. It was the nudge I needed, and I'm glad it came - I wish I had made the time for it sooner.

It was probably just me, but it took me a while to really get into the story of this one. I think it took me until the 40-45% mark before I really felt invested and involved in what was happening to the characters, but once I did I stayed hooked.

Stay With Me does an incredible job portraying the struggle of femininity and womanhood that Yejide faces. Yejide is under pressure to have children, to further her husband's ancestral line; she's faced with the difficulty of her husband's family's involvement and the second wife that they push on her and Akin. I can't say any more about the story itself without spoiling it, but the twists and turns that come throughout are thrilling. Even if you often get a sense of what might be coming next, or what might be behind a certain event, it still pulls you along with unexpected moments and details.

I only wish I knew more about the historical and cultural context to the story, because all I really know about the coups in Nigeria come from reading fiction. I think Stay With Me is a strong contender to win the Baileys prize this year, and from my reading so far I would be very happy to see it win - I loved The Power as well, which is the only other Baileys nominee I've read so far, but I do think I'd prefer Adebayo to win so far!

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Book of Memory - Petina Gappah // Book Review

This review has been sitting in draft form for ages now, so it's about time I finally edited and polished it up and posted it! I borrowed this one from the library a while ago now, although I can't remember now what motivated me to choose this one over other books - my memory isn't the best!

But onto the book: I definitely found this book well written from the point of view of the prose; I liked the author's writing style, her language and so on. I think Gappah is a great writer, and I would be interested in reading more of her work.

The story itself unfortunately wasn't as strong for me. I was interested, but I felt that it took too long to get to where it needed to be. So much time was spent on the present - the prison, the people in it - and she kept teasing and hinting at Lloyd and what happened without ever really getting there, which became frustrating. The aspects of Memory's childhood were good, though, and I can understand why the reflection on her first nine years was punctuated like that - but it just went a bit too slow.

Once into the latter half of the novel, when things started to pick up, I enjoyed things more. I still found it a bit irritating that things would be so heavy handed at times, like her references to Zenzo without really revealing much. It maybe wasn't as frequent as I remember, but it seemed excessive.

The relationship, and the story and the background to her relationship with her mother - especially with what she finds out about her mother at the end of the novel - were incredible. I wish it had either been a shorter book, with more of a focus on Memory's relationship with her family and her mother,  or that it had just generally paid more attention to that relationship, that history. It was fascinating, and even though it had been nudged and hinted at - the zinc bucket, the dreams, etc, it was still so remarkable and surprising to have the revelation. I would have liked to see that history and the character of her mother explored further, and that was definitely a strong point of the novel.

I think my biggest takeaway about the novel for me is how well I think this would translate into a film. I think it would be beautiful to watch, if in the right hands, and I can see the story being much better suited to that medium - similar to the way I feel about books like The Sense of an Ending, which I have read and which I recently saw in the cinema. A few bits could be cut to make the story more focused, but the way it's written time line wise definitely lends itself to film.

Saturday, 8 April 2017

March Wrap Up

I've had a bit of an unplanned hiatus from blogging this past month, but should be getting back into the swing of things this month - starting with a wrap up of what I read in March.

The Method - Shannon Kirk
I started this one in February, but finished it in March in time for my blog tour post on it! I enjoyed this book and it was a good one for the beginning of this month - check out my review for more.

Saga Vol 4 - Brian K Vaughan
I've definitely got to try to pace myself more with these, because I'm going to run out of new Saga issues soon and have to wait a while for more! Love this series though, and would highly recommend, especially to someone who isn't really much of a comic/graphic novel reader.

It's All Absolutely Fine - Ruby Elliot
I love Ruby's work and follow her on Twitter and Instagram, so it was about time I picked up her book! I think this is the kind of book I'll want to re-read again fairly regularly, so it'll probably be going on my wishlist (I borrowed it from the library as I'm trying not to spend money on books until I get through my slightly excessive TBR pile!)

A Darker Shade of Magic - V E Schwab
I might have caved and bought a book this month... but I'm so glad I did buy this, because it really helped me get back into reading more again and to renew my love for reading. I also don't know why I don't read more fantasy, because I do love it - almost as much as magical realism.

Himself - Jess Kidd
And, on the topic of magical realism - a mystery novel with a magical realism twist. Going in, I had no idea that it would be anything other than a standard mystery - a young man in search of his mother and what happened to her when he was a baby. It doesn't necessarily rank that highly for me as a magical realism novel, if only because I thought it was an underused element that didn't quite deliver in the way that novels like Ruby and What is not Yours is not Yours did for me. Still an interesting read that I'd gladly recommend, however, and a good book to round out the month.

As for April, I'm currently reading Nasty Women, which I started in March, as well as Stay With Me and The Power, both novels that have been shortlisted for the Baileys prize! Reviews of all three to come later in the month once I've finished them.


Monday, 6 March 2017

The Method - Shannon Kirk // Blog Tour

The premise of this novel had me hooked as soon as I read it - a pregnant teenage girl is abducted, but they made a mistake in abducting her. The novel's narrator is a bit of a shrunk down Sherlock Holmes, crossed with a slightly more emotive Amy Dunne; coldly brilliant and in control, tactical and measured and ready to do what it takes to save her life - and more importantly, the life of her unborn son. Thus we find her as the novel begins, telling the story of her abduction and her method for escaping.

I don't want to give away any of the plot aside from what would be evident from the beginning pages of the novel. As such, it's not spoiling anything to say that our narrator (at least most of the time, but I'll get to that) has to survive her kidnapping, because she's telling her story a number of years later, when she's in her thirties. However, everything else about what happened after her abduction unfurls more slowly, at least to begin with. She is just as methodical in telling her story as she was in living it; focusing on the keys days of her captivity, highlighting her "assets", the tools she might use in her escape plan. Small glimpses into her own life, her past and relationships - with her family, the father of the baby, her pregnancy before her abduction, her childhood - all developing the character.

The narrator wasn't the only strong character, but she was the strongest written of all the main players. I didn't exactly connect with her emotionally, at least not in the way I often would with a character, but she grabbed hold of me and captured my imagination. She might not have been the most likeable character, and I wasn't always sure about the portrayal of her emotional "switches" or the allusions to her being a sociopath, but she was a compelling narrator.

This is where I have to cross to something that disappointed me a bit; the characterisation and  development with the FBI agents who also take a significant role in the novel. I didn't dislike them,
but I found it a bit of a stretch that they were so wildly talented, to an almost superhuman level. I could respect Liu (the other less frequent narrator) and his partner Lola having the abilities they did,
but I thought it was a touch too much for them to be so vastly superior to anyone else. The story didn't need it; simply excelling beyond the average person's ability would have been plenty.

Lola, too, didn't seem to get the development she deserved; I can understand some of the mystery around her personal life and her history (it's part of the story that her identity is being hidden, with Lola being a code name) but I wished I could get a closer insight into her, a bit more depth to her. Both this and their abilities are quite small criticisms for me, though - they didn't detract from my investment in the plot or the narrator. For a debut novel, too, these are small criticisms indeed - it was an excellent first novel, and I would be excited to see where Kirk goes next as an author.

The novel might not have been "perfect", but then very few novels could have come close. I would always rather have something to be critical of and still enjoy a novel; both my criticisms and my praise come from this being a novel that has left an impression on me after reading, that make it worth talking about and worth reading for yourself.

I feel like I might talk too much about how well some books like this would work as films, but in this case I know I'm not the only one who thinks so - this has already been optioned for a film, and I'm going to be on the lookout for it, as I can see this being a great story for the big screen too!