Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

4-stars

Arundhati Roy’s second novel has been long awaited, coming 20 years after her first. This highly anticipated book will have garnered high expectations from fans, and for me it didn’t disappoint.

This novel is expansive, exploring geographical issues surrounding Kashmir, the religious tensions in the region, ideas of revolution, gender identity, and identity politics in general – all issues which couldn’t be more relevant or important in 2017.

Anjum is a ‘hijra’ a term used to describe transgender women in South Asia. The novel depicts her life and struggle, and where her life intersects with others who are outcast, alone or in need of a home.

Anjum bridges the gap between Muslims and Hindus, between old and young, men and women, Indian and Kashmiri, through Jannat’s Guest House, which she gradually builds from a tin shack in a Delhi graveyard. The novel seems to be haphazard, jumping in narrative voice and focalisation. However, eventually these strands do pull together to meet, making the novel complete, whole and rewarding.

Roy’s prose is utterly exquisite, and the presence of India behind the novel isn’t just a ‘character’ in the way we sometimes metaphorically speak of the depictions of countries and cities in books. Roy very literally makes Delhi real, living and breathing; a ‘thousand year old sorceress, dozing but not asleep, even at this hour.’ Passages such as this one are the kind of literature that takes your breath away, which you reread over and over.

Despite being 20 years in the making, it feels as though the novel lives in the here and now. It preaches tolerance in the light of religious and transgender persecution, something which has never been more relevant with the rise of extremist politics in the last year. It presents an India in the age of video and selfies – with the videos on phones that characters obsess over mirroring an age obsessed with live streaming and on the go access.

For me the only fault lay in that the multiple narratives and wide-ranging nature made the book feel less polished than it could have and a bit like hard-work, to keep track and keep up with all the different strands of the story. But even this didn’t ruin such a beautiful novel, which not only evoked a sense of India, but managed to balance the death, suffering and misery, that features all of the way through, with kindness, tolerance and hope.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness couldn’t have arrived on our shelves at a better time and I hope Roy’s novel inspires some of the sentiments that she achieves in her novel.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: Miraculous Mysteries

4-stars
Miraculous Mysteries is a wonderful little collection of impossible crimes by some of crime fiction’s best loved writers.

The collection is varied, with all sorts of mysteries which all have one thing in common – they are seemingly impossible to solve. The book opens with a gem from Conan Doyle ‘The Lost Special’ which was probably the best story of the whole book. Other highlights included ‘Diary of Death’ and ‘Death at 8.30’ by relatively unknown authors.

Impossible Crimes are perfect for mystery lovers because of the challenge they offer and the intelligence and wit that goes into them. Think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and it is easy to understand why these stories are popular.

This mix of authors, some of who were lesser known,  and their different styles was refreshing. The stories were fun, with some that were completely impossible and others which you could have a good stab at working out. This is the perfect combination, as you don’t want to have to be working things out constantly as you go, so it allows you to sit back and relax and just enjoy the novels too.

My favourite stories were the ones that built up more context and scenario around the crime, allowing me to get a little more caught up in the action, for example like in ‘Too Clever by Half’. I also enjoyed having a bit of background about the writers as this helped me learn a bit more about them, or even recognise them from characters that I am culturally aware of.

The thing that did grate on me slightly was that despite the effort to include a few female writers in what is clearly a white male dominated genre – none of the ‘detectives’ whether officially in the role of detective or not, was female. I felt like there surely could be a good Miss Marple or other witty female out there solving impossible murders, however as they were classic short stories they are drawn from a time period where such stories were in short supply.

Overall I did really enjoy this book, and it is absolutely perfect for when you want a quick crime to solve with a cuppa and some cake – because that is the only way you should read these stories.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: New Boy

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The Hogarth Shakespeare series is a project rewriting some of the Bard’s most famous plays, into novels by some of the world’s best-loved authors.

New Boy by Tracey Chevalier is based on Othello.


4-stars

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s great tragedy, with Othello, a black general and his wife Desdemona going to war, where his ensign Iago plots his downfall.

Chevalier reframes the story, with the military setting becoming an elementary school playground in Washington DC. Osei is the new boy, and the only black boy in an all white school, who is soon befriended by Dee, despite the aversion of the other students due to his race.  Ian, a known school bully, decides to reassert the pecking order by bringing Osei down.

This take on the story is incredibly interesting, fleshing out characters more than we see in Shakespeare’s words and in a way we don’t often see on stage. We see insights into each of the main characters, Osei, Dee, Ian and Mimi (Ian’s girlfriend representing Emilia from the play).

These insights are interesting, deviating from what many see as the key aspect of Othello – the mystery behind the motivations of the characters. Iago’s motives are the most debated of any of Shakespeare’s villains, while Othello’s actions and anger has also been questioned, as has Emilia’s complicity. In New Boy, we see first-hand insight into the characters and their thoughts and feelings giving us a whole new perspective, particularly in the case of female characters Dee and Mimi whose dramatic counterparts are often overlooked and dismissed.

Chevalier brings in a whole new dynamic in the relationships by making Osei new to the school. In the play Othello is an established general who has earned the respect of his men, meaning he has power, which Osei does not. Equally, the key part to Iago’s deception is that he is seen to be honest, whereas Ian is known to be manipulative and a bully. As such the rewriting does take out some of the nuance of the original story, however, it is an enjoyable new way to look at a well-worn tale.

The novel is also short, coming in at under 200 pages it is more of a novella, contrasting to the long scope of Shakespeare’s plays which last 3-4 hours depending on the cuts made. It is very accessible, easy to read and an engaging story – although we may know what happens we want to see how it is done, and it is done very cleverly.

Rewritings and adaptations never live up to the original tales, however they do allow Shakespeare to live on in new ways and for us to understand him in a contemporary context. New Boy does exactly that and is a very enjoyable and accessible way to approach history’s greatest playwright.

 


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: He Said/She Said

4-stars

He Said/She Said was a must read for me as another psychological thriller exploring not only domestic relationships, but socially contentious issues like consent.

For this reason I was also nervous – this is a subject which is easy to deal with badly, with so many stereotypes and preconceptions it would be easy to fall into a number of traps. But thankfully all my fears were unfounded, Kelly deals with the subject brilliantly with a perfectly poised thriller that plays into, and challenges all of our worst assumptions, offering a twist which I didn’t see coming.

We know from the blurb that Kit and Laura, a young couple, witness a crime – a rape, which they have to testify about in court. We receive the story in chapters alternately narrated by Kit and Laura, both from the time, and when their past catches up to them in the future. This is all set against a clever back-drop of  eclipse chasing, setting a symbolic foreboding and climax to mirror the plot, adding a more literary element to the genre fiction. We see the internal workings of the couple’s own relationship, as well as the court case they participate in and its aftermath. This makes it the perfect book for fans of domestic thrillers and court case drama alike.

The story is well paced, engaging and had a twist worthy of Gillian Flynn to round off a fantastic thriller. The only fault I could find, if it is a fault at all, is simply that I didn’t find any character particularly compelling, but the story itself was so engaging that this was a minor issue, and it would be a rare thing for a book to achieve all of this.

The ending is intense, gripping and completely unexpected. Overall, this was a brilliant read and one I would fully recommend to any crime or thriller fan!


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: The Lauras

4.5 stars

This book was a wonderful surprise discovery. It tells the story of a 13 year old who, after a fight between their parents, is ripped from bed and shuffled out during the night to leave home and undertake a journey of discovery across the US with their mother.

I say ‘they’ because Alex does not want to be identified as either gender – something you see them realising confronting and dealing with as the novel progresses. Alex’s mother leaves her husband, Alex’s father, to embark on a journey that takes over two years and spans the states of America. Is she running away from something, or towards it?

Each city, state or place brings its own narrative episode as well as insight into the mother’s history, introducing us to a plethora of ‘Lauras’, women from different points in her past who influenced her life in some way. It became hard to keep track of all the Lauras, as they seemed to blend into one mythical figure, and although we assume she is looking for these Lauras through the whole book, they all seem to be this mythical figure.

As the book progresses we piece together enough history to watch the mum grow up, as well as watching Alex navigate the rocky progression from 13 year old to almost adulthood, while constantly on the move. This makes the book a journey in more ways than one – it is a journey across America, a coming of age journey about growing up, an adult journey through a past too gritty to be referred to as ‘memory lane’, and ultimately it is about a search for meaning and belonging.

Both Alex and her mother are dealing with their identities in terms of gender and sexuality, and these issues are dealt with very well in the novel, in a way that was really heartwarming. It also deals with themes of abuse, of a variety of different natures, and while this is a difficult topic it is used and explored in ways that help to expose problematic attitudes.

America comes to life in this book – a varied America, with the cliche of greasy diners and strict religious communities, to wild mountainous regions and the sandy beaches of Florida. Each place comes to life with its own history, and potential; every one has its stories. The book is rich in storytelling, the stories we tell each other, the stories we hear and the stories we tell ourselves. It is a beautiful journey through what it means to be a child, a teenager, and adult and simply a human.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: Saint Death

3 stars

I heard Marcus Sedgwick talk about this book at Bath Children’s Literature Festival and so was so excited to be approved for it on NetGalley.

I was really interested in the book after having studied a lot about the US-Mexico border and being a Breaking Bad fan, a narrative that focused on the other side seemed right up my street.

The novel is focalised through Arturo and spans 24 hours from the moment his old friend, Faustino, comes to ask for his help as Faustino owes the cartel $1000. The only way Arturo can save his friend is to gamble, and try to win the money back. Despite being set in a short time span, the novel does explore the history and lives of the two boys, as well as life in Juarez and Anapra, where Arturo lives. However, the book is short, under 300 pages, and doesn’t develop the history of the characters as fully as I would have liked – it might have been good to learn about some of Arturo’s family history before he went to the city for example, otherwise it seems like it comes out of nowhere.

The gambling scenes were well plotted and entertaining, and many of the characters were intriguing as we hear them fleshed out more fully. Sedgwick has a literary tendency in his writing and the book is full of symbolism although sometimes this is made to obvious – we know the significance of the number 5 reoccurring without Arturo having to think it for us. In some places this literariness is effective, Faustino’s name for example referencing the deal he has made through recalling ‘Faustus’ or the imagery of Santa Muerte. However, in other places it felt out of place – interspersed online conversations debating the ‘state of the nation’ just seemed to jar and interrupt the story rather than adding something of value. As a teenager I would probably have loved these segments for making me feel engaged and knowledgeable about world affairs but now I feel like they we glaringly conspicuous and these issues could have been woven into the fabric of the novel more.

As a YA novel it was well-pitched, and I would expect nothing less from Sedgwick with such an extensive back catalogue. There is swearing, but doing it in Spanish adds authenticity to the setting, while equally, sex and violence are present and necessary rather than used gratuitously.

Overall it was a good story and a interesting plot and I definitely think it has big appeal as a YA novel.

 

I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: Flesh and Bone and Water

3 stars

It is hard to describe the plot of this book without spoilers. The story is told from Andre’s perspective, as an adult, looking back on the events which occurred during the year of his 18th birthday and which completely changed his life, taking him from his home in Rio, to permanently living in London.

By about a third of the way through you begin to develop suspicions of what may have happened to Andre and Luana. Sauma does a good job of toying with the readers expectations and it was entertaining. However, I couldn’t help but feel it fell a bit flat. The eventual revelation is momentous and despite the short length of the book, there is a huge build up to it, however the amount of time exploring the issue itself is so short and is focused far more on continuation of the plot than exploring what it means for those involved.

I loved how the novel was immersed in Brazil and Brazilian culture and the prose was beautiful and really evoked the mood. Unfortunately, I struggled with Andre as a character; he was difficult to relate to and once the primary plot twist become obvious, I felt it lacked anything deeper and more compelling. The strands of the story came together well, however I would have loved it to explore issues like what happened to Andre’s mother, or Luana’s own situation more. I wonder if perhaps chapters from Luana’s perspective might have been more interesting in these respects. I think it was simply because the novel was so short that it didn’t quite reach my expectations.

It was definitely readable and I would be keen to try more from Sauma. I did enjoy her style and thought her plot was very interesting, unfortunately it just didn’t blow me away.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Review: The Roanoke Girls

4-stars

I was intrigued by the the premise of The Roanoke Girls and so was keen to get a hold of a copy to review. It sounded like Amy Engel is one of the many authors contributing to the mass of crime thrillers featuring ‘girls’, in the wake of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train and more recently The Girls.

The book is short – 288 pages in total and is compelling so it didn’t take me long to read, although by the time I finished I felt incredibly confused and conflicted – and you’ll see why.

The premise is that girls from the Roanoke family have all been disappearing and dying at young ages – all before their teens, with the exception of Lane’s mother, however when she commits suicide, her daughter Lane is forced to go stay with her grandparents and cousin at the family home. There is a taboo subject which lies under the events of the whole novel and is fairly easy to work out from near the start. What is more interesting is the disappearance of Allegra 10 years later.

The novel is split into sections, skipping from the past to present, both focalised through Lane. Interspersed throughout the novel are also short sections about each of the Roanoke Girls. I actually very much enjoyed these devices which helped drive the mystery behind the story and feed ideas of conspiracy – even though we know most of what is going on it becomes more about the detail and how it occurs. Engel used the Roanoke reference – with it’s connotations of mystery and The Lost Colony, very well. Possibly for this reason it also felt reminiscent of American Horror Story  (without the horror and gore). It also felt incredibly cinematic – I could see this making a brilliant noir if the right director picked it up.

The author also dealt well with the taboo subject – exploring the complicated emotions around it, and rather than falling into the trap of victim-blaming she actually challenges this issue.

On the other hand the novel does read a bit like a YA book (to the point where I actually had this on my YA shelf) and it is most definitely not. I don’t know if this is because it is the genre Engel predominantly writes for or a side effect of focalising through a 16 year old for much of the novel. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but I just didn’t feel like the prose was particularly sophisticated. The book also risks romanticising a lot of behaviours – teenage sex and underage drinking amongst other things. The girls themselves are also almost mythologised in the way they are represented as beautiful and alluring.

So all in all I was quite conflicted over what rating to give this but it ultimately came down to the ending which was very good and which I didn’t see coming at all. Engel offers the perfect twist and a brilliant way to conclude the novel.

For this reason I would give what would have otherwise been 3 stars a 4 and I will definitely give any future novels by Engel a go too.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Review: Stay With Me

baileys-logo5 stars

Stay With Me tells the emotional story of the pressures society places upon women around motherhood and one woman’s desperate struggle to find her identity when all she wants to be is a mother.

Yejide desperately wants a baby, however her and her husband Akin are yet to conceive. Facing the pressures of Nigerian culture which values motherhood and offspring highly, the couple are forced to accept the polygamy which Yejide’s mother-in-law forces them into. Yejide is desperate to conceive, delving into superstition as she begins to clutch at staws.  Either due to unfortunate coincidence or the pressure placed upon her, Yejide develops from a ghost pregnancy, threatening to break her marriage apart.

What ensues is a tale of betrayal, deception, scandal and loss much darker than you would have ever expected. The novel is told from the perspectives of both Yejide and Akin as they fight to form a family and then literally fight to keep their family alive. It is also set against a backdrop of political unrest, which mirrors the tense atmosphere of the novel, up until the parallel climax  of both the context and storyline. Alongside its use as a literary device this also serves to ground the novel in a real sense of time and place.

The story is difficult and heart-wrenching. Seeing both perspectives complicates where your sympathies lie and all of the characters are at fault. Notably Yejide is not always sympathetic and likeable – but this was a good decision, as it made her far more real and relatable, as she struggles to come to terms with her identity and relationship to motherhood in a culture which places mothers on a pedestal and shuns women who cannot meet this standard.

The book was compelling and exquisitely written, making it emotive, frustrating and ultimately heart-breaking. If this is Ayobami Adebayo’s debut, then surely there can only be better to come from such an exciting new author.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Amazon. 

Review: Three Daughters of Eve

5 stars

The last thing I was expecting from a novel with a blurb introducing a Turkish housewife at a party, was a campus scandal plot worthy of The Secret History.

The novel has multiple narrative strands – almost all focalised around Peri, a bright Turkish woman, at three different points through out her life, as a young girl, as a student at Oxford, and finally as a woman with daughters of her own. Peri constantly battles with her religion, her identity and most crucially to the story, God.

Her parents are both foils and facilitators for the opposing views which tear her apart. If she thought she could escape this at Oxford, she was wrong – the two friends which the reclusive Peri makes serve to replicate this. More importantly however, is Peri’s involvement in the seminars of a Professor Azur – an exclusive club for which she is handpicked, centring on the exploration of ‘God’.

A conflicted Peri takes the opportunity to search for answers, at great costs. We see the incongruity between the different versions of Peri at 18, and in her 30s, only being able to piece together what could have changed her slowly as more and more of the narrative is revealed.

Shafak knows exactly how to get you hooked on a plot without over-egging it, her prose was beautiful, and the extent of literary and philosophical references allowed it to be literary and clever, without ever being inaccessible. You didn’t need to know Rumi to understand what was being referred to as it was always subtly laid out, allowing the reader to simply appreciate the beauty of the references. The novel doesn’t force you to think about the issues it deals with – you could very easily skim these and focus on the plot, but if you want to look deeper the debates it explores are fascinating musings on feminism, ethics, philosophy, politics and religion – not to mention how these all intersect.

A wonderful exploration of what it means to be a Muslim woman – this book absolutely captures the idea that identity politics is just not that simple. It was fascinating and wonderful, and a must-read for 2017.


I received this book as an advanced reader copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; all opinions are my own. 

Image from Penguin Books