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. 

Advertisements

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: Do Not Say We Have Nothing

baileys-logo
 4-stars
Madeline Thien’s epic about the story of a Chinese refugee, Ai-Ming in the 1980s and their history in revolutionary China is expansive and wide-ranging, covering decades of Chinese social issues and politics up to the Beijing demonstrations of 1989, and the consequences this has on Ai-Ming, and 10 year old Canadian Marie who she stays with on her escape to the US.

The book is not only a revolutionary saga but a beautiful exploration of Chinese culture, language and identity, with Marie constantly exploring the roots of words, their visual symbols and their meanings, which beautify connects non-Chinese speaking readers to the language and the ways of naming and speaking that the novel immerses us in.

At the centre of the novel is a musicality – not only in the importance of music to the characters, but in the way it is literally depicted on the pages, like the Chinese symbols, and in the patterns of speech and text. It is a long book reaching nearly 500 pages, and covers complex Chinese history, unfamiliar to many in the West, but it is incredibly accessible and easy to read, engaging us with characters from another time, place and culture the way that books should make us experience the things we don’t know or understand.

However, as the novel progresses we truly do start to learn about the horrors of China’s revolutions, we become involved in an epic story, spanning 60 years, focused around three important periods – life after the first revolution of 1949, the student protests of 1989, and finally the present day where Marie goes looking for Ai-Ming.

Thien’s context building is incredible, and her scenes depicting the real events of revolution are heart-wrenching. She frames the story through Marie, uncovering a mystery in her search for Ai-Ming. People disappearing and searches are a recurring theme, and so hidden communications, in an effort to find these people, also become a theme, through the copies made of the Book of Records, with the different meanings behind Chinese characters becoming code. Music serves the same purpose for Marie in the present day, and ultimately the book of records becomes an important metaphor for history – a lived, experienced history.

The book was insightful in terms of its Chinese roots but it also carries an important message for the world right now – that extremism in any form, even populist revolution is dangerous, harmful and spreads hate.

Thien’s book is beautifully written, highly literary but well grounded enough for the reader to connect with at the same time. It is a truly stunning work of art and an appreciation of art itself.

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: The Dark Circle

baileys-logo
 2 stars
Two teenagers are admitted to a sanatorium with TB in the 1950s in Linda Grant’s newest book The Dark Circle. Grant is a previous Women’s Prize for Fiction winner and the buzz suggests she is a contender on the shortlist.

Lenny and Miriam are admittedly far more interesting characters than I expected from the initial blurb, and I particularly love how they fall in love with literature, and connect with other patients during their stay at the ‘Gwendo’. The novel explores the phenomenon of TB from a number of perspectives, and looks at postwar life from the experience of the Jewish protagonists, to the implementation of the NHS. I really enjoyed how the novel transported you to a forgotten past, and felt that it did really evoke the early 50s.

However, for several reasons, I still didn’t really get on with this book. While Lenny and Miriam’s experiences are significant, and a story that needs to be told, the whole book felt like their experience in the sanatorium – stifled, monotonous and slow. Nothing really happens over the course of 320 pages. The switching points of view made it difficult to focus on which character was focalising at the time, and occasionally the prose just felt odd, with jarring metaphors. I couldn’t tell whether this was an attempt at originality or quirkiness to avoid cliches – however there was more than one turn of phrase which didn’t really make sense or made me question what it meant.

I could identify and sympathise with some of the characters, though others just felt flat and not fleshed out enough. I like the idea of the novel, in terms of the exploration of how the patients were not just medically treated, but socially, politically and on an individual level. It explored a range of human emotions with great nuance and it really did make me feel for the patients. However, because of the lack of pace and plot, and the writing style in general,  I struggled to immerse myself in it or really enjoy it.

Review: Fever Dream

mbi2017-logo Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), and translated by Megan McDowell (US), is a Man Booker International Prize 2017 nominee.

4-stars

Fever Dream is more like a novella than a novel, but for its brief 151 pages it still packs a punch. The writing style is experimental and intriguing and it deals with some pretty big themes.

The novel opens with a women in the Emergency Room talking to a child although this is not immediately clear – the conversation allows their identities and the events that led to this moment. The style is unique, with the ‘child’s’ voice in italics, giving it an ethereal quality – making us question whether it is real.

It is difficult to review without giving away key details that make the novel so important, so here is as few spoilers as possible in looking at what the novel is about. The woman has taken her young daughter on holiday to a rental home where she meets Carla whose son was poisoned. This poisoning sets up a theme of environmental damage and also that of caring for children.

Schweblin evokes exactly the feeling that the title gives – like a feverish dream. The atmosphere is oppressive, with the interview-esque conversation being directed and redirected over small details. The nature of the conversation itself is a dream-like and as readers we constantly question the reality of it – is it a dream, can it really be occuring? Paired with the magical realism so popular in Latin American literature which the book employs, this truly makes the book feel illusive.

The book is uncomfortable and really makes you think and question about what you would do, or would be able to do in a similar situation. My only issue with the book was that it was so brief, I feel like perhaps it could have been fleshed out a little more to add dimension to the story. But it is also possible that the style would have been difficult to sustain over a longer book.

I very much enjoyed this book and I think it could be a real contender for the Man Booker International Prize.


I am reading Fever Dream with Book and Brew as one of the official Reading Groups for Everyone shadowing groups.

Review: Hag-Seed

full-logo-crop

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

Hag-seed by Margaret Atwood is based on The Tempest.


 baileys-logo
 5 stars
If you thought a play within a play was Hamlet’s domain, think again. In Atwood’s retelling of The Tempest Prospero is a famous theatre director, Felix Phillips, who is ousted from his role and ends up putting on plays in the ‘Literacy through Literature course’ at a local prison under the name of Mr Duke.
Hag-seed is an incredibly clever exploration of the themes of this play, namely the role of prisons within it. As Felix enacts his revenge using the inmates he directs, the other characters are complicated – we have the Ariel he casts 8Handz, as a kind of Ariel, but he is also haunted by his daughter Miranda who died age 3, and so becomes a kind of spirit like Ariel.
Equally, the death of Miranda complicates who takes on this role in the play. Lady Luck, or the Auspicious Star is cleverly personified in Estelle – showing how Atwood’s attention to detail is faultless. The play is modernised both as Atwood’s tale and in the performance of The Tempest that Felix stages which features rap-numbers, dance and significant reinterpretations.
Atwood’s invented world of the play is clever and complex, making you think twice about the play you thought you knew. It deals with issues of revenge, justice, imprisonment and mercy in whole new ways, rethinking the ways in which we perceive these. We get to know the inmates and can sympathise with them,  they are funny, real understandable people.
The depths which Atwood reaches with Felix explore the character in completely new ways, we see his motivations, emotions and manipulations but also a softer and more vulnerable side. The references, allusions and explorations within this are an English student’s dream and it feels as though it may have been an exercise of intelligence for Atwood, who lists off a dozen different sources for reference in her acknowledgements. I can’t say how good this book would be if you weren’t aware of it’s heritage – but the story was good with an interesting plot and was well-paced, reaching an exciting climax. However most of the fun came from knowing what the hidden references and meanings were, so a knowledge of the play was important here.
I studied The Tempest for four years in a row at school and was frankly pretty sick of it – I’ve never seen or studied it again since. If this book could make me enjoy a play which I’m not a huge fan of then it really did its job. Atwood’s retelling was everything a retelling of Shakespeare should be – an accessible, exciting and engaging update to the Bard’s words.