Tuesday, 29 September 2015

September Wrap Up

September was a pretty good month for reading, although admittedly the first two books were ones I'd started in August. It was also a pretty varied month for reading too, which is the way I like it!

Here's the books I've been reading this month (in order of when I finished them):

The Cutting Room - Louise Welsh
I didn't dislike it, but I didn't quite like it as much as I'd thought I would. I might try another Louise Welsh book in the future, but I'm not in any hurry to read more of her books if I'm honest.

A Room with a View - EM Forster 
Another one that was a bit less than I'd hoped for this month. Unlike with Welsh however, I have two of his other books fairly high up on my to read list (the order of that only exists in my head, but I'm pretty sure they're both on my Goodreads TBR shelf).

If I Stay - Gayle Forman
Now this one I did enjoy! Beautiful prose and highly emotive YA book of the month. I'd definitely recommend this one. However, as much as I like Forman's writing, I don't have any plans to read the sequel to this book - I think I like it better as a stand alone.

Sleeping on Jupiter - Anuradha Roy
The first of my six Man Booker choices (which didn't make the shortlist). I enjoyed this one, but even without having read all the titles that did make the shortlist I can see why it didn't make it. I would probably pick up another book by Roy given the chance though, particularly anything new she writes as most novelists do improve with each book. 

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
I picked this as my modern classic, but it's also a memoir (which is another monthly category I'm thinking of introducing in November, but we'll see!). If you're not a fan of memoir I'd still recommend this, as it reads so much like fiction that at times I had little inner jolts as I remembered what I was reading was really Angelou's life. I now feel like I need to bump Angelou's poetry higher up on my TBR list... it'll probably be one that I get from the library once I've worked through the majority of the Man Booker novels and new releases I want to read.

All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr
Historical fiction, but also kind of a fantasy novel at the same time? I was predominately interested in the historical aspect of this, as it's a bit more my taste than fantasy usually is. It did feel like it was longer than necessary, especially as it repeated itself at times, but well written and enjoyable if you have the time to read a chunky book like this!

Girl With a Pearl Earring - Tracy Chevalier
This one's reminded me that I actually quite enjoy historical fiction, and that I should probably read more of it! I'm also a fan of books about art/artists, which is another thing I probably don't read as often as I could.

The Illuminations - Andrew O'Hagan
I struggled to get into this one, but once I did get past my initial hurdles with it I started to enjoy it more and see its merits as a Man Booker longlisted book, although I am glad I got it via Overdrive as I wouldn't have felt it was worth the money.
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Sunday, 27 September 2015

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou // Book Review

"What you looking at me for? I didn't come to stay..."



I've never been one to read a lot of memoirs or autobiographies; the only ones I've really read so far were assigned texts while I was at university. This particular memoir - which seems to simple a word for this book - has been sitting on my shelf waiting to be read for far too long. I bought it not long after Angelou passed away, so I've had it for well over a year. I can't believe it took me so long to read it... I feel like I've been missing out, and as soon as I finished the book I was on Google trying to find out more about her, half wishing I could run straight to the library and grab books of her poetry (but alas, it was nearly midnight when I finished it, and no one's opened an all night library in my area). 

The first thing that I really loved - and that makes me want to read more of her work, and her words - was her writing style. It isn't what I'd class as beautiful in the way that some other writers are, but there was something so enrapturing about the way she wrote that kept my attention captured. Even when the events she was discussing weren't pleasant to read about, I was still caught by her voice. It actually really got me back into reading, as I was getting a bit slow/infrequent with reading until I started reading this and now I'm reading a lot more. 

I don't want to go into too much detail about the 'plot', so to speak, of the book – even though a lot of the story of Angelou's childhood might be relatively common knowledge. However, I will say that in this book Angelou paints an incredible picture of her childhood, moving between Arkansas, St Louis and San Francisco. Everywhere her story goes is created perfectly, without bogging you down in arbitrary descriptions of each setting. The worlds and places that Angelou grew up in and was formed by are instead built up by the people that were in them, the buildings that mattered, and the stories of the place. The anecdotal stories Angelou shares about each place do far more to create a sense of setting and the era than any description of the physical appearance of a place, and I loved that about the book – I posted a picture of one of my favourite anecdotes from the book on my Instagram.

I would definitely recommend this book, although there would have to be a trigger warning on it, and I look forward to reading more of Angelou's work. 
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Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Sleeping on Jupiter - Anuradha Roy // Man Booker 2015

The Man Booker shortlist has been announced now; I'm quite proud that three of my six choices made it into the six shortlisted titles, considering I hadn't read any of them at the time and that by the time the shortlist was announced, I'd only actually read one book from the longlist (this one!).

As soon as I had read it, I knew it wouldn't make the shortlist. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the book, because I did; I just didn't think it was good enough to make it into the final six. I can't really pinpoint why I – and the judges, apparently – didn't think it was shortlist material. My main criticism would have to be that I felt like the plot weakened in the second half of the book, and that I didn't feel quite as compelled by the narrative as I had before. I still cared about the characters – still wanted answers, to know what was going to happen to them – but it just ended up falling slightly flat.

Having had the time to reflect on the book, I can appreciate the ending a lot more than I did when I first finished the book. My immediate reaction was annoyance, because I felt like a lot of loose ends had been left hanging and that I didn't get the kind of closure I wanted, especially in respect of Nomi and her journey during the novel. I also felt that the last (short) chapter took a dramatic jump forward and before I had even started reading it, I was wondering why the author had neglected to tell me what had happened in between the end of the penultimate chapter and the beginning of this one.

The main focus point of the book is Nomi and her life – the other characters are all in some way connected to her, even though some of the connections are more tenuous than others; each character is tied in to the group in some way, and it was interesting seeing how characters overlapped with each other, encountered each other without knowing about the connections and relationships people had with each other. Nomi's childhood is also told intermittently through the book, with carefully controlled glimpses into the pain and difficulties she faced.

I think the biggest strength that I found in this novel was the way that Roy writes her characters; there's a depth to each that makes them memorable, makes them stand out, without giving you info dumps about their backgrounds. Although this was essentially Nomi's story, where it became relevant there was insight into the histories of other characters – how they came to be the people they are when we meet them, and what kind of person they really are.

All in all I did enjoy this book – it just didn't quite reach my expectations of it as a Man Booker longlisted novel.

Goodreads Listing for Sleeping on Jupiter
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Saturday, 19 September 2015

If I Stay - Gayle Forman // Book Review



If I Stay is a YA novel that focuses on approximately twenty four hours in Mia's life, beginning just before a terrible car accident that destroys her family and nearly kills her and leaves her in a coma.

This was an incredibly emotional book, which proved a little bit troublesome when I was reading it on my lunch breaks and on the bus! It was an incredible book though. The prose was beautiful, and I loved the fact that it didn't feel as though the language was being simplified like in a lot of YA novels. Admittedly I'm a few years out of really being the most obvious target for these kinds of books, but books like this make me understand why YA books are so popular amongst people who are outside of the target age range. There's no reason a story like this shouldn't resonate with people who are no longer teenagers, in the same way that someone can empathise with someone who is double their age.

The most emotive aspect of this book was, naturally, the struggle that Mia faced in coping with the loss of loved ones as well as finding the strength she would need if she was going to stay. Yet the way Forman painted all the characters was striking and powerful, from the loving memories she has of her family and her boyfriend, to the little moments where people were interacting with Mia's comatose body. The nurse who tells her she had better still be there when she comes back for her next shift; her grandfather's heartfelt honesty when he is alone with her; the desperation of her best friend and her boyfriend as they try to get in to see her.

It's a hard book to read if you don't like books that trigger your emotions like this, but it's also a gorgeously lyrical and thoughtful book that poses some really interesting ideas about death and loss. Mia's decision would have been affecting regardless of which way it went, but even though I knew it could only go one of two ways I was still close to tears (lunch break; if I'd been alone I'd probably not have been able to hold it together) in the end. My only slight disappointment was that it didn't delve into the after effects of her choice – yet although I know there's a sequel to this book, I don't really have any desire to read it. I'm not sure a sequel will have the same resonance as this did, so it's probably going to join the fold of other books that I feel are better left as stand alones (such as another Forman novel, Just One Day, and David Levithan's Every Day).
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Wednesday, 16 September 2015

A Room With a View - EM Forster // Book Review



I picked this up in the library last month primarily because I was attracted by the cover – it's a really beautiful edition. It's also one of those classic books that I feel like I've always been aware of, although in all honesty it's probably one of the less well known of his novels, at least from my perspective. Howard's End and A Passage to India are arguably the better known novels (and also on my reading list).

I did like this book, although in some sense I have to say I was a little disappointed by it. Part of the problem in the first place was that I wasn't able to make much time to read it, and because I wasn't that struck by it in the beginning I sort of laboured through the first half of the book. I started to enjoy the experience of reading the book more when I got into the second half, which I read in the space of an afternoon pretty much.

I think overall it wasn't quite as compelling as other similar novels I've read, nor did I get as strong a sense of the era as I would have liked. I also didn't find myself feeling that drawn in by the relationship between Lucy and George, as it didn't feel very well developed although admittedly, that might have been affected by my stilted reading experience.

The first section of this book set in Italy was probably more interesting for me overall, even though it was the section that I spent the longest on; I liked the development of the setting and the interactions between the characters in Italy was more interesting than in England.

Overall there's not a lot for me to say on this book because it didn't really affect me strongly either way.
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Saturday, 12 September 2015

The Cutting Room - Louise Welsh // Book Review


I didn't really have any expectations going into this book because I knew very little about it. I had heard of the author (and that she lived in Scotland) and I knew that the premise of this book was that an auctioneer had found some disturbing old photographs in a house he was working on, but that was all. 

I think I wanted to like it more than I ended up doing, because it started out well and it felt like it would be really interesting. Yet ultimately, I think I started to lose interest because there seemed to be so much – too much – going on that was surplus to the story.  

It often felt like she was fleshing it out too much with unnecessary side plots, as well as the excessively frequent descriptions of people who were only really around for as long as they were described, which swamped my reading experience – it lead to a little bit of haziness regarding characters who were actually relevant. Sometimes, I quite enjoy descriptive passages of settings and people, but it just didn't feel right most of the time while I was reading this.

I also didn't quite understand all the (in my opinion) gratuitous gay sex scenes between the main character and random men that he seemed to pick up wherever he went. It often felt like she was beating me over the head with the character's homosexuality, when other moments in the novel served perfectly well in illustrating his orientation (such as his infatuation with a young man who he meets while pursuing a lead about the disturbing photographs). If anything, Welsh would have been better sticking to just one sex scene – such as the only one which actually furthered the plot – and being more subtle through the rest of the novel in reference to his desires, because these more subtle allusions to his sexuality were far more appropriate when the novel was supposed to be about the photographs.

Ultimately the ending came as a considerable curveball, if only because I had been so distracted and pulled away from the main plot by all the superfluous information and hadn't quite made all the right connections between the information that actually mattered. 

However, aside from these criticisms, I did find the main plot interesting and I believe the novel would have been much more enjoyable had it been pared back and the right amount of focus given to the key scenes – there was a lot of interesting discussion and ideas around the ideas of the kind of photographs that the novel centred around and the very end of the novel in particular offered some fascinating insight into the subject of snuff. If only the novel had focused more into those ideas, I would certainly have enjoyed it more than I did. 
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Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Sleeper and The Spindle - Neil Gaiman // Book Review

To begin, this is, quite simply, a beautiful and fascinating twist on traditional fairy tales, and one that I wish (and hope?) is perhaps the first in a line of similar stories by Gaiman and other guy. The first thing you notice about this book, which is aimed at children, is the beautiful artwork. It's the kind of thing you'd be proud to display on your wall, it's so gorgeous, and it's actually making me very tempted to go out and buy myself a copy of this (I read it on Overdrive) just so I can look at it whenever I want!

Beyond gushing about how much I love the art, though, the story itself was brilliant too. I had assumed it would primarily be a re-telling of the Sleeping Beauty story, given the title, but one of the best twists of the story was realising that the queen of the story, who goes with her three loyal dwarves to save her kingdom from the 'sleeping curse' spreading rapidly towards them, is actually Snow White (after the events of the traditional fairy tale).

 It's the kind of fairy tale that children should be reading; my appreciation for this comes from the same place as my love for the recent Maleficent film. I love stories that subvert the typical pattern of fairy tales and show complex and interesting female characters, instead of the trope of the damsel in distress.

There's three major female characters in this; the Queen (Snow White), the Sleeper, and the old woman who somehow is the only person awake inside the castle, and who has grown old in there while everyone else was frozen in sleep. Despite how short the story is I liked the development of the characters, although as I said above it would be great to have more stories in this line and have the characters developed further.

There's not much more to be said about this without giving away too much about the plot/ending, but I would definitely recommend it, especially to anyone with children to share the story with. 
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Saturday, 5 September 2015

Fishnet - Kirsten Innes // Book Review

It's hard to sum up in a simple way how I feel about this book. Even the distance of time after finishing the book hasn't made me feel like I can easily explain this one in a way that justifies the text.

One thing I've been noticing with a lot of Scottish writers I've been reading (Kirsty Logan's The Gracekeepers is the only exception I can think of personally) is the tendency towards a darker, grittier story line, even when the novel doesn't fit into the typical crime genre. This book is certainly no exception; it was brutally honest about prostitution, giving the reader the perspective of it's main character, Fiona, as well as excerpted words from prostitutes themselves in the form of blog posts that we can presume Fiona was reading.

Fiona's sister, Rona, disappeared without trace seven years prior to the novel's present, and the plot of the novel is triggered by Fiona's discovery that in the place Rona was last known to be, she was working as a prostitute. The novel charts Fiona's struggles with her own life while trying to find her sister and understand how and why her sister made the choices she did. Fiona is stuck in a boring office job, raising a child on a low income and distant from the few friends and family members around her. At times, Fiona is caught up and occasionally confused by her own sexual desires and thoughts. She also changes her opinion, albeit slowly, towards sex work and the people in that line of work – the novel focuses primarily on female sex workers but does reference that men do sex work too – as she learns more and more about it throughout the novel.

Fiona was, for most of the book, not a particularly likeable character. I didn't really connect with her or care particularly about how her life ended up for most of the novel, but I was pulled in by her relationship with her sister Rona; the one thing I could connect to was the desire to know what happened to Rona and where she was. Additionally, the novel also brilliantly expressed the position of sex workers in relation to the beliefs that led to the more recent proposal by Amnesty International that prostitution should be decriminalised, giving strong and compelling arguments about why decriminalising prostitution is a positive step for the workers themselves.

Overall I would recommend this book, although I do need to find some more examples of Scottish writing that are more along the lines of Kirsty Logan's work as the grittier stuff isn't entirely to my usual tastes!

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Uglies - Scott Westerfeld // Book Review



This was my YA book of the month, and in a way a bit of an odd one, because it's a book that I almost read once upon a time when the series was first published. I was about eleven when the first of the 'trilogy' (the other books are Pretties, Specials and Extras) was published, but I think it was later when Pretties had been published that I was first aware of these books. 

It was the book store I always went to with my dad, the two of us splitting up to browse our chosen sections, and on more than one occasion I saw this series (I think initially before the third book had been published) while I was browsing. I don't know why, but it never appealed to me enough to actually go buy it and read it at the time. 

The first thing I think I should say is that although I gave this a relatively positively rating, I don't see myself reading the rest of the series (which is, like this book, available on Overdrive -- I don't think I would have read this had it not been free to do so). I don't actually know if I can pinpoint exactly what it is that's failed to draw me in enough to want to read the next one, but I guess partly it's that I have so many books I want to read and not as much time to read them, and given that I don't feel a strong drive to read these I'd rather give the time to something I am excited about instead. 

In terms of the story itself, one of the main things that stands out in my memory after reading this is that it really didn't go the way I expected it to. I didn't know much going in, only that the premise of the series is a future world where young people are given operations to make them 'Pretty' when they turn sixteen. Now that I have read it I couldn't say what I thought the plot would have been, but I suppose it makes sense: the main character, Tally Youngblood (which almost seems like a parody of a dystopian character's name, but never mind) is made to go out into the wilderness and the ruins of the society that came before theirs (ie our present day) and find a group of rebels who have run away before their operations. She's made to do this by the 'Specials', who will deny her her own operation until she leads them to the rebels. 

The message of the book is pretty clear as regards to beauty standards, and some of the points it makes are quite interesting and relevant, even if Westerfeld does bash you on the head with them a bit. The importance of appearance in our society (oft critiqued as wasteful and unfair by the book's characters) has been dealt with by the introduction of these operations which make everyone equal in their beauty, but the attitudes that Tally is exposed to when she finds the rebel's camp (or village, I suppose) show that this future isn't necessarily a better one.

I also liked the fact that Tally wasn't a straightforward character. Her whole belief system is challenged by what she encounters as the novel goes on, and although at times she was a little bit clich├ęd (see: her relationship with David) I liked that she made mistakes, that she grew and learned at a modest pace, and that her choices also opened up questions of morality (eg. honesty).

All in all, I did enjoy reading this book. I reckon I would have preferred it had I actually picked it up all those years ago, though, and been more likely to continue the series too. 


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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

September
TBR

Well, here goes... this is going to be my first attempt at doing monthly 'To Be Read' lists! I miss the structure of assigned reading every week, so although I can't read 2+ books every week now like I did in term time, I'm still giving myself

The obvious beginning to my September reading will be finishing what I started reading in August -- currently A Room With a View (EM Forster). 


If I Stay - Gayle Forman
YA book of the month
This is somewhat dependent on whether it'll actually be available on Overdrive during September. I think I might borrow this one quite early in the month just to be sure I'll actually have access to it. It's also one of those books where I sort of know the plot and the ending already, but I really enjoyed reading Just One Day by the same author so I've decided now is as good a time as any to get round to this one. If for any reason I can't get a hold of it, there's plenty of other YA books available to achieve my monthly YA goal.


Sleeping on Jupiter - Anuradha Roy
Man Booker Longlisted
I don't want to say 'Booker Longlisted of the Month' on this one because if I only read one a month, it'll take me half a year to get through them all! I suppose it probably will take me a while to get around to reading all of my picks, but I do hope to read all six before Christmas at least, so it's more of a vague category for me than a strict rule on what I'm reading. I've requested/reserved this one from the library, so it's just a case of waiting for it to arrive at my local library for me to collect! (Side note: when I made my Booker TBR I completely forgot that I could do this with library books, as it's going to make accessing them all much easier!)


All the Light We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr
Another library book -- whoops! This one I borrowed in August but haven't got around to yet, as I was reading another (physical) library book first, at the same time as reading an Overdrive ebook and a paperback that I own... I might need to stop juggling so many books at once. Anyway, this one's been one I've wanted to read for ages, and since it's also a library book which has to go back, I'll be aiming to read it this month. 


I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - Maya Angelou
(Modern) Classic of the month
My 'classic of the month' category is a pretty loose one, but it's likely to include any books from the 20th century or earlier that are arguably classed as 'classics' -- the kinds of novels that people are almost expected to read/have read at some point in their lives. I bought this one a while ago but never got round to reading it, so I want to make the time for it this month. 


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