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

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 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

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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.


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 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.

Review: The Power

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 5 stars

A feminist dystopian by a Margaret Atwood mentee, nominated for the Bailey’s Prize. It almost sounds too good to be true.

Well it isn’t. The Power by Naomi Alderman is everything I wanted it to be. The book is simultaneously a deeply personal and epic exploration of the gender-power dynamic in the modern day.

The premise is fairly basic: what if, overnight, the power shifted? What if one day, the literal power was in the hands of teenage girls?

In Alderman’s future the ‘Day of the Girls’ sees women gaining a superhero-esque electric power, giving them the physical means to not only equal men, but to overpower them. However, Alderman is far too clever to make this a simple ‘girls run the world’ story, instead reflecting the complexities of patriarchal society in her dystopia.

The story is told through multiple focalising characters, giving an expansive view of the way the world changes, across the US, Europe and the Middle East. The different characters are complex, all dealing with the phenomenon in unique ways. As well as seeing the perspective of a variety of girls and women; Allie, a runaway, Roxy a british teen and Margot a US politician, Alderman offers us the perspective of male journalist Tunde.

 

“She cuppeth the lightning in her hand. She commandeth it to strike.”

 

The story spans years of changes and illustrates a gradual but seismic shift, however Alderman offers us nuance – as well as women gaining power, we see women abusing that power. Oppression of and violence against men becomes widespread, however, women are still targeted and gender specific violence is enacted against them. Women become leaders, yet many are still hiding and on the run, at the hands of just as violent a regime as before.

Clever tropes and symbols litter the story, illustrating these changes for us – for example the news anchors Tom and Kristen, who debate the issues, yet as time passes Tom is replaced by a younger man and Kristen becomes the intelligent authority on political affairs and economics. In between chapters we see scientific explanations and archaeological finds explaining what has occurred, and short of those which incorporate humorous references to modern technology, it may have you beginning to question your historical knowledge.

Alderman combines dystopia with horror, humour and satire to create a perfectly crafted inversion of patriarchy. This book should be required reading for everyone to understand exactly what gender inequality is and means, not just for women, but for men too, who are also disadvantaged by patriarchy. Ultimately, Alderman shows that women are human, we are capable of the same mistakes, vices, and atrocities as men. There is no such thing as a female utopia and ultimately tying power to gender has no positive outcomes.

The Power is a compelling treatise on all the problems of patriarchal society – from objectification to sex trafficking – however, it is also an engaging story about empowerment and the danger of power.

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: The Lesser Bohemians

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 5 stars

My first impression of this book was that it was unreadable. However I am so glad I persevered because it was truly amazing.

The Lesser Bohemians spans the first year of an Irish drama student in London, set in a period which resembles the 90s, who gets involved with an older man. The style of the novel is what initially makes it quite difficult – it is almost like stream of consciousness,  which makes it feel quite Modernist, clearly owing something to Joyce.

However, once you get into the style and get used to the flow it is actually beautiful, rhythmic and lyrical. Sentences trail off, interruptions occur, distractions happen – it is very real, physically real, and an intriguing way of writing. Somewhat ironically the language becomes more lucid and easier to read as the novel progresses.

Aside from the language the characters are interesting and mysterious – with most only given names towards the end of the novel, including the narrator herself. This has a great effect as I found some of their monikers quite surprising after I got to know the character.

Equally the plot is compelling while still remaining undefined – we are never quite sure where it is going, which is part of the plot itself, as the characters themselves don’t know either. There are plot events which came as a surprise, and without wanting to give away any spoilers, the content is difficult and could potentially be triggering.

However, the issues were well dealt with, illustrating the complexities of these issues. The book explores different kind of relationships and their natures, for better and for worse. This book made me feel so much; it made me laugh, cry, feel awkward and feel horrified. I sympathised with the characters, I hated them and I was tearing my hair out over their actions. The book challenged my romantic side, and it felt like it was doing this very deliberately, constantly undermining my rose-tinted expectations while building them back up again.

It is a difficult book to discuss without giving anything away, but I loved it for the beautiful, evocative language, the experimental style and for being so moving. I am so glad that I persisted because otherwise I would have missed this incredible book.