Thursday, 31 March 2016

March Wrap Up + April TBR

It's been a good month for reading, even if it hasn't been the best month for posting reviews! I'll be honest, I think with the combination of Easter weekend and job hunting (as my current contract ends in mid April, eep!) I was just enjoying the pleasure of reading this month and not even thinking about writing reviews - bar The Painted Ocean, which I received in order to review so naturally, I read it more critically and took notes on that one.

It was a good month for reading. Nothing's knocked Reasons to Stay Alive off the top spot yet for 2016, but Middlesex is definitely going to be up there for this year!

 Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
This book took me quite a while to read, which isn't really a surprise given how long it is. Lately, I've been quite apprehensive about reading such long books - not because I don't enjoy them, but because I've found that the small sense of achievement I get from finishing a book really motivates me to read more - and it's really important now that I don't have as much time to read as I did in university! Though it was long, Middlesex was brilliant, and definitely lived up to the standards set in my head by The Virgin Suicides. I was a little bit disappointed when I read The Marriage Plot by Eugenides, but Middlesex was fantastic - perhaps even better than The Virgin Suicides, if only for how much I've come to enjoy a good sprawling American narrative that looks back into family history, that dances through time.

The Painted Ocean - Gabriel Packard
I wrote a full review of this book, which should already be online by the time this post goes up. I had somewhat high hopes for it, and I was really let down. I think this book could have been so much better with more time and development on it - it was a struggle, but the potential is still there and it almost redeemed itself with its unusual ending.

I Call Myself a Feminist - Victoria Pepe et al.
I read this for March's Feminist Orchestra pick. Jean's Thoughts posted a review which kind of summed it up for me. I didn't really gain a lot of new knowledge or opinions from it, and I did find some of the pieces less engaging or enjoyable than others. It was still an enjoyable read, however, and I did enjoy seeing many of the perspectives and points made by others - and I also think it'd be a fantastic book for those who don't know as much about feminism or are newly interested in it. I think one of my favourite pieces - mainly for the fact that it was one of the ones that did teach me something I didn't really know - was Rosie Brighouse's on the Human Rights Act. I had no idea how important is truly is, and although I always felt it should stay in place, I'm now far more concerned about the risk of it being taken away and feel much more strongly about it.

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
I knew absolutely nothing about this book going into it. It was just one of those books with a title (and rather beautiful and distinctive cover) that always seemed to be cropping up. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one. At times I got a little bit lost with the way the narrative swung around through time and it took me some time to get to grips with the plot, but it was a truly beautiful and wonderful book to read. I think this is the kind of book I would want to re-read again, more than just once, in order to pick up on all the things I probably missed or didn't fully absorb in my first reading.

The Adoption Papers - Jackie Kay
I've had Jackie Kay's novel Trumpet on my tbr shelf on Goodreads for a while now, but with the announcement that Kay had been selected as the Makar this month, I decided it was about time I read something of hers - and what better than her first published work to start with! I borrowed this one on Overdrive and read it in the space of an afternoon. I preferred the poems in the first part of the collection (I'm not sure if it'd be right to say 'half' as it's less obvious when you're absorbed in an ebook than a physical book!) which focused on the narrative of the child, the birth mother and the adoptive mother - a reflection of Kay's own life, as she was adopted as a baby by a Glaswegian couple. The rest of the poems in the collection were excellent too - I'm looking forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Tipping the Velvet - Sarah Waters
I'm not sure if I'll end up writing a full review of this one at some point, although I think it might be unlikely... regardless, I enjoyed this book. I'm glad I started with her first novel, because I do think there's room for improvement and that I'll enjoy her more recent books more. At times, I wasn't entirely sure about it and was mostly just worried about Nancy and the different lives she seemed to be living - she didn't really seem to think for herself so much as let herself be buoyed along in life by whatever came along. Although I'm not sure she entirely lost her naivety, she does eventually grow up and seem to settle down into a healthier, happier life by the end of the book. I've already got a copy of The Little Stranger waiting for me, so that'll likely be my next Sarah Waters at some point later this year.

And here's what I'll be aiming to read in April...

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? - Jeanette Winterson 
Having read and enjoyed Oranges are not the Only Fruit by Winterson (and re-read it for a class at university) it's about time I read the more autobiographical account of Winterson's life that was the foundation for Oranges.

The Improbability of Love - Hannah Rothschild
This has been included in the longlist for this year's Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, so when I saw it on NetGalley I requested it. I don't really know much about it, so there's not much else to say aside from that I hope I enjoy it!

Nightwood - Djuna Barnes
This is a book that's been sitting on my shelf for a while, so it's on the list (in the unofficial 'books that have been waiting for long enough' category). Set in 1920s Europe, it feels like it'll be a fantastic book, although again I don't really know an awful lot about it right now!

Adventures in Human Being - Gavin Francis
I picked this up recently in Waterstones on a complete whim. I think I'd seen it a couple of times before while I was in there and had quickly fallen in love with the cover - I'm not even sure I absorbed much more of what this book was about before I caved and bought it! The author is a doctor based in Edinburgh (like me, which may or may not have been an additional selling point) and it's non fiction on the topic of the human body and illness. It's a subject that I'm very interested in, which was especially piqued at university, so I can't wait to read it!

Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales - Angela Carter
Another of my favourite genres/subjects - fairy tales. I bought this one late last year (for once, it's a book that I can actually remember buying). I've got mixed feelings about Carter's work going into this based on the work of her's that I've already read - I wasn't a huge fan of The Passion of New Eve but I thought The Bloody Chamber was brilliant. Since the latter was fairy tales, I'm quite optimistic that this will be a good one.  

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Painted Ocean - Gabriel Packard // Book Review

When I was a little girl, my dad left me and my mum, and he never came back. And you're supposed to be gutted when that happens. But secretly I preferred it without him, cos it meant I had my mum completely to myself, without having to share her with anyone. And I sort of inherited all the affection she used to give to my dad - like he'd left it behind for me as a gift, to say sorry for deserting me.

Shruti is eleven years old when The Painted Ocean begins; she's living in an English suburb with her mum, who speaks little English, and faces losing her mother to the pressure from her family to move to India and remarry - and leave young Shruti behind in England. Alongside and beyond the story of Shruti and her fight to make her mother stay with her in England is the story of Shruti's relationship with another Indian girl, Meena, who joins Shruti's school. 

This book wasn't what I had expected or hoped it would be; unfortunately, it didn't live up to its blurb/synopsis. I had relatively high hopes for this book going into it, and even as I went on through it, I still kept hoping that it would grow and reach the potential that I felt the story had. At most, I will say that the ending was certainly a huge surprise and that it changed my opinion on reflection - but I still can't say that I liked this book, and for the majority of my time reading it, I didn't enjoy the book. 

Shruti is the narrator of this novel, and she was one of the most major issues I had with it. Her narrative voice was completely infuriating. From the ages of eleven to around eighteen/nineteen, where the average writer/narrator would go for the unobtrusive "she said" for general speech, everything in this book is either "she's like" or "she goes" or something to that effect. It was not only hideously cliched, but also felt like a heavy handed and inaccurate attempt at representing how a pre-teen/teenage girl would speak. The only time this would appropriately have been used would be within dialogue, as that's how it's used in real life. To use it in place of the standard "she said" was completely distracting and unnecessary within the narrative itself. This is, of course, only one of the most frustrating ways that the author tries to emulate how a young woman would speak. I took a note of one particularly cringe worthy sentences I came across that to me exemplified my issue with how Shruti is made to speak (spoilers in the quote - don't read it if you don't want to know anything about the plot in the latter half of the novel):

And I wish I could lock him inside that goat cage and torture him till he tells me how to get off the island. But I'd have to lock Meena inside it as well, otherwise she'd just let him straight out. But this is all just whatever, cos I'm blatantly never gonna do that.

The most offending part of the quote is in bold. When I read this line, I had to stop reading for a few minutes and just breathe in an attempt to calm my frustrations with the way the author was treating his main character. 

I really did feel - arguably still do - that this story had a lot of potential. I could even almost tolerate the way that Shruti spoke in the beginning (when she was eleven), but as time went on and she didn't seem to mature as she aged, it just grated on me more and more. There were many other issues I had with Shruti's character. Her naivety, for instance, was verging on painful to deal with throughout the novel, as well as her complete disregard for common sense and logical thinking. I could understand this to a degree with Shruti at eleven, but it actually seemed far worse when we're with her at eighteen/nineteen and the events that take place at this point in her life. There also seemed to be an inexplicable flip where Shruti goes from worryingly obsessed and possessive of Meena to an unexpectedly and comparably normal attitude towards her, which I felt went unexplained. Her relationship and her feelings towards her mother, too, seemed to get sidelined into the second half of the book considering how integral they had been to the first half of the book.  

Having finished the novel, there seems to be two clear halves to the book (excluding the ending); Shruti's childhood and her relationship with her mother, and Shruti's trip to India to meet with Meena and what happens there - I won't go into too much detail about this to prevent spoilers. I think the problem with the book is that it felt too much like the author had stuck together two separate and only partially formed ideas for novels, and attempted to join them together by inclusion of some common characters (namely, of course, Shruti). 

If anything, I think these two halves of the novel would have been better served as separate novellas, with more time spent on developing each. Shruti belonged in the first half of the book - her characterisation fitted the storyline, fitted the tumultuous and complicated relationship she had with her mother. There was a lot of potential to look more at the relationship between the English and the Indian, the cultural clash, and the impact of all of this on the mother and the daughter. There were still flaws with the first half of the novel, but had there been a stronger focus on their relationship and the cultural differences, it would have balanced out.

The second half of the novel could have had potential as a novella too, if it only had a different (or rather, better written) narrator at its centre. Objectively - and without focusing too much on how Shruti acts in this half, and how she narrates - the plot of this had some good potential and could also have been really interesting. I think the ending of the novel (which to me felt somewhat separate to the other two parts) went well with this second half - but didn't really feel right when taking the first half into consideration too. 

Ultimately, I don't think I actually regret reading this book. It wasn't the best book that it could have been, but the ending certainly threw me off balance in a way that at least made me think and talk about this book far more than I'd been anticipating. If nothing else, it's got an interesting ending that puts a new spin on everything you just read - so if you can cope with Shruti, it might still be worth your while. 

(Thank you to NetGalley/Little, Brown for giving me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review).


Saturday, 5 March 2016

Satin Island - Tom McCarthy // Man Booker 2015

I'll be honest: I was putting off reading this one. I started reading the first chapter months ago; I didn't feel strongly about it either way, but there were so many more exciting books waiting to be read that I just couldn't get myself interested in reading any more of this one.

It's hard to even talk about this book now that I have read it, because I'm not really sure if I know what I think of it. I can't say I enjoyed it - but then, I don't know if I was supposed to. The main character and narrator of this book is a man called U. He's an anthropologist based in London, of an unclear age (unless I missed that in amongst all his rambling thoughts and musings about eighteen different things that I didn't really care about). If I had to, I could probably guess a rough age for him based on the references to his history - fleeting though the references to his own life and history are, he does talk about one of his anthropological studies and places this in time.

I think the problem I had with this book was U. I didn't like him. I didn't even dislike him. He was barely even a person for me; U acted more as a mouthpiece for a variety of scraps of information and ideas than as a fully formed narrator. Although there was something of a story running through the book, it wasn't enough to justify the amount of time spent purely inside U's head as he dwelled on pretty much anything and everything.

One of the few elements of this book that I could actually like - which also fell down as being an under-utilised one - was the character of Madison. It's hard to say what I liked about her, especially given how little time she got in the novel, but I was always hoping to see more of her in the novel as it went on. I think my interest in her also strengthened my dislike for U, because he didn't really appear to care about her. Mentions of Madison, for the most part, consist of U finishing one of his many musings by saying something to the effect of 'and then I had sex with Madison' before moving on to a new discussion point, or returning to an earlier one. For the majority of the novel she exists as a woman he has sex with and has little identity beyond that.

U does, however, have an unusual fixation on finding out why she was in Turin, something that begins from the very first chapter when U is stuck in Turin airport and, during a Skype call with Madison, learns she had been there once. Even this proves how self-centered U is - despite her repeated insistence that she hasn't been to Turin, only to its airport, he still continues to probe her and ask why she had been in Turin.

When U - and the reader - finally find out Madison's story about how she came to be in Turin airport, for the first time I actually found myself compelled to keep reading. I wanted to hear her story, wanted to hear her talk about her life and experiences; I wanted to know more about her after desperately seeking more information for so long in the novel as a whole.

I suspect it was intentional on the author's part, but all it really did for me was prove to me that I was reading the wrong person's story. When Madison talks about her time in Italy, how she ended up at Turin airport, U barely says a word - and I vastly preferred it that way. Admittedly I'm not sure I'm happy with how Madison was treated in the snippet of her life we were given, either, but regardless - I wanted Madison's story, not U.

Ultimately I think that if I was to view this text outside of my own feelings, I could see some of its merits. It strikes me as being the kind of novel that you're meant to think about, that's meant to make some kind of point about society as a whole and possibly about people like U. For that (and for Madison, who deserved a better novel) I don't outright dislike this book. I just can't say I particularly liked it, either.

** I received a copy of this book for review from the publisher in exchange for an honest review**

Thursday, 3 March 2016

March TBR

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
This is leftover from last month's TBR, although I did start reading it in February - I just didn't finish it. I'm looking forward to continuing this one, and hope it's as enjoyable (if not more so) than The Virgin Suicides.

The God of Small Things - Arundhati Roy
I've had this on my bookshelf for too long, so it's my choice for this month's unofficial category of "books that have been waiting far too long to be read". I don't actually know anything about it off the top of my head, and I think I'm going to leave it that way and let myself enjoy the book without any expectations.

I Call Myself a Feminist - Victoria Pepe et al.
This book is the first pick for the new feminist book club started by Jean's/BookishThoughts  (aka The Feminist Orchestra Book Club). I debated picking this up a few times when I saw it in Waterstone's, but I usually ended up finding something else that I wanted to read more and leaving it behind out of duty to my bank account. However, now that I have an excuse (as well as having saved up enough stamps to get £10 off in Waterstones!) I've bought a copy of this and am looking forward to reading it this month! 

Tipping the Velvet - Sarah Waters
Waters is an author whose books I've been meaning to get into for ages, so I'm going to be starting at the beginning this month (hopefully!) with her debut novel. I don't know much about it aside from it being set in Victorian London and having lesbian main characters, but I hope I enjoy it - and then it'll be on to the rest of her books!

The Painted Ocean - Gabriel Packard
I requested this one for review last month as the really appealed to me. It's due to be published on March 3rd, which is the day after this post is due to go up; the odds of me having finished it before it's published aren't great, but I hope to get it read and reviewed this month.