Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

4.5 stars

Sing Unburied Sing has been described as a ‘Southern Odyssey’ and it certainly lives up to this. While it only spans days in real time, it covers years of racial tensions, poverty and struggle in the rural South.

The story is told from multiple perspectives – largely 13 year old Jojo and his mother Leonie – who is addicted to cocaine, and a neglectful mother. Jojo and his sister Kayla, are mixed race, with a black mother and white father, and as such have been disowned by his father’s white family, instead primarily cared for by their ‘Pop’, Leonie’s father. An excursion to pick up Michael, the children’s father, upon his release from prison is a harrowing journey through the lives they live and struggle through. The multiple perspectives, alongside elements of magical realism, captures the lack of communication and understanding between characters, which drives much of the tension and frustration of the narrative.

The story is truly tense, as it feels throughout as though the family is about to implode. Jojo’s narrative is deeply moving, and often difficult, and while Leonie’s is far less sympathetic, it does give insight into her experiences and how she struggles to relate to and connect with her own children. There are stark and horrific moments, in everyday tasks as well as the horrendous injustices the family face. However, there are also, very momentarily, deeply beautiful moments, between Jojo and his sister, or with his Pop. The setting is completely immersive – you can almost feel the oppressive heat and imagine the many smells of the novel filling your nostrils. The magical realism is captured so seamlessly that it doesn’t feel odd or out of place but perfectly fits with the themes the narrative has gradually established.

Ward captures the intensity of human emotion in the smallest of actions and incidences, in the same way that the family becomes a microcosm for Southern society – with the relationships between the black and white families, and the history between them reflecting larger tensions and discrimination. The book is difficult and complex, as well as truly sad, but it is not completely bleak with a sense of hope in the characters of Jojo and Kayla, as well as a pure good-heartedness in Pop.

This book is truly stunning and it will be a big one this year.


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. 

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Review: The Word is Murder

4-stars
The Word is Murder feels like a classic British murder mystery from one of Britain’s best loved writers.

However it has one unique aspect – it’s central character and narrator is the author himself. In either an odd or highly inventive approach the story is narrated by Anthony Horowitz himself – presumably a fictionally constructed version of him. This could serve to make the events seem more realistic and add an air of the classic murder mystery to the book – think of the way Dr Watson narrates the Sherlock Holmes books.

However, even Conan Doyle created a fictional narrator and the slow start to to the book in which the narrator describes his work in TV and books could feel self indulgent, if not disconcerting. The concept does help us think more critically about the genre, and how we frame what we read. As a murder mystery goes it was clever and engaging – and a challenge, since no-one likes a crime they can solve straight away!

An old woman plans her funeral and is murdered the same day – the initial concept is intriguing and when we find out that ten years ago, she killed a young boy in a hit and run – everything gets much more interesting.

The book is well written – with interesting characters, and all the right elements of the genre. You will be intrigued and hooked by the plot. While there are darker aspects themes to the book it is largely as lighthearted as a murder mystery can be. I recommend curling up with this on a rainy late summer Sunday afternoon with a good old cuppa – its a perfect, easy rainy day read.


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: Home Fire

5 stars

Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel is a modern retelling of the story of the classical story of Antigone, however her contemporary style and current setting make this a truly relevant and accessible story.

The Pasha family are modern British Muslims, struggling to find their place in British and Western society under the legacy of a terrorist father who died on his way to Guantanamo, not to mention the disappearance of a brother. When Isma, the eldest who has cared for younger siblings, befriends British Home Secretary Karamat Lone’s son, the two families become embroiled in a saga which reflects the complexities and turmoil of being Muslim in modern day western society.

For such a sort book, it is incredible how well it covers the nuance of these complexities – from the seemingly contradictory approaches to sexuality and appearance in the headscarf-wearing Pasha sisters, to the hardline immigration stance of a Muslim Home Secretary.

Shamsie’s writing is exquisite – at times slightly surreal and abstract – placing you very much in the shoes of her characters, in their dreams, their chaos. But it is also wonderfully readable and the integration of modern technology, from texts to tweets is woven into the narrative seamlessly, making the book timely and relevant, but in a way that will not necessarily become dated as technology moves forwards.

The story is highly engaging and very readable even if you aren’t aware of its classical influences – it very easily stands in its own right as a novel, independent of its source material. The story is touching, hard-hitting and heart-breaking. Shamsie should be applauded for her ability to create depth of character and such a poignant story in so few pages. One of the best books of the year!

 


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: Final Girls

3 stars

A Final Girl is the last woman standing at the end of a slasher movie.

Quincy is a real-life Final Girl, along with two others who have each survived massacres. She has been living a normal life for over 20 years but when something happens in the present, her past catches up with her.

There’s not much more that can be revealed without spoilers but this book has been billed the thriller of the year and it is certainly a pacy, page turning read. Hats off to Sager for not being predictable – the book is so full of twists and turns and constantly has you guessing but it was clever enough to fool me right ’til the end.

However, while it was set to be potentially brilliant, another ‘next Gone Girl’, it did fall short for me. Quincy can’t name the man who attacked and murdered her friends so she refers to him constantly as ‘Him’ – with the use of the capital feeling overworked and bringing to mind a sense of ‘he who must not be named’ which jars. While the plot does twist and keep you guessing, the main reason I didn’t guess was because the clues weren’t there. The actions and motives didn’t really fit with the characters.

The most frustrating part though was that I hoped the book might follow in its’ predecessors’ footsteps and revise the archetypal roles that women are pigeon-holed into. However, the book continues to perpetuate tired stereotypes with the dichotomy of women as ‘victims’ or ‘perpetrators’ and ‘virgins’ or ‘sluts’. The only complication is the idea that the women are ‘survivors’ but it adds little to the established roles.

Equally the perpetuation of the myth that sex is both pain and pleasure was frustrating for a book that seemed to be focused on women’s experiences. The framing of grown women as ‘girls’ only compounds these issues further.

Final Girls was nothing on Gone Girl but it was a fun thriller with a shocking twist and it was certainly entertaining if not gripping.

 


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: How to Stop Time

4-stars

Matt Haig’s latest novel is about a man who has lived for over 400 years but only looks 40, because he has a condition in which he only ages one human year every 15.

Naturally, Tom Hazard, is concerned about how social intolerance means his condition could be a danger to him and those around him. He eventually joins a secret society designed to protect those like him and the rules are that he must change his life every 8 years and he can never fall in love.

However, after 400 years Tom has his own agenda – looking for his daughter who has the same condition. Like anyone else Tom must overcome his fear of the future, of wearing his heart on his sleeve and of all the things that make him human. While he may have met Shakespeare and F Scott Fitzgerald, making this book a Literature lover’s dream, he still has to learn the very human lesson of what it means to live. The story is well told, flashing back to moments from Hazard’s life as the memories affect him.

Haig could have told a linear story but the book is all about memory, Tom’s memories and how they intersect with history. As a modern day history teacher, he brings history to life – pointing out that history was lived experience not just facts from text books. While some moments pulled from the past have potential to be cringe-worthy, for example, the depictions of Shakespeare, they are executed well – clearly well researched and written with the perfect balance of sincerity and frivolity to make the book light-hearted but also incredibly meaningful.

How to Stop Time is sci-fi for people who love romance, and historical fiction for those who love the present. It doesn’t fall neatly into any of these genres but pulls bits from each. The book is funny, framing the present of smartphones and selfies from the view of a man who lived in Tudor London. It is also heartwarming – exploring themes of love and life which affect all of us, even when we don’t live for hundreds of years.

It is also profoundly sad as books of this nature often are but it carries so much meaning and joy that in some way this is ok. We know that Tom will outlive anyone he falls in love with, we know he may be persecuted, or else have to live in secrecy and we know that the future is still as scary as ever. However, How to Stop Time shows us that just living in the present and filling our lives with love and happiness, despite what the future may hold, could make even 400 years worth living.


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 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.