Thursday, 21 September 2017

Review: 'Koh-i-Noor' by William Dalrymple, Anita Anand

Exactly two months ago I was browsing through The Guardian’s Culture section when I stumbled upon Maya Jasanoff’sreview for Koh-i-Noor, a book she described as ‘a dynamic and gory history’ of one of the world’s most famous gems. I was immediately fascinated and Tweeted as much. And then, lo and behold, I had the chance to read the book and prove to myself my earlier excitement was completely warranted. I guess I have the Guardian and Jasanoff to thank for this, as much as Dalrymple and Anand. (Also) Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/06/2017
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
The first comprehensive and authoritative history of the Koh-i-Noor, arguably the most celebrated and mythologised jewel in the world.
On 29 March 1849, the ten-year-old Maharajah of the Punjab was ushered into the magnificent Mirrored Hall at the centre of the great Fort in Lahore. There, in a public ceremony, the frightened but dignified child handed over great swathes of the richest country in India in a formal Act of Submission to a private corporation, the East India Company. He was also compelled to hand over to the British monarch, Queen Victoria, perhaps the single most valuable object on the subcontinent: the celebrated Koh-i Noor diamond. The Mountain of Light.
The history of the Koh-i-Noor that was then commissioned by the British may have been one woven together from gossip of Delhi bazaars, but it was to be become the accepted version. Only now is it finally challenged, freeing the diamond from the fog of mythology that has clung to it for so long. The resulting history is one of greed, murder, torture, colonialism and appropriation told through an impressive slice of south and central Asian history. It ends with the jewel in its current controversial setting: in the crown of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. 
Masterly, powerful and erudite, this is history at its most compelling and invigorating.

Non-fiction has to hit the spot. I often find myself craving a non-fiction read after a few fiction books, wanting to sink into rich history and fascinating detail. But not all non-fiction history books deliver that exquisite break you’re looking for. They’re either too technical and lose themselves in their own topic, or they breeze over the actual history in favour of personal beliefs or arguments. I hate being disappointed by a non-fiction read because it tends to trigger a reading slump with me. Thankfully, Dalrymple and Anand have crafted a brilliant book in which history and narrative go hand in hand. Koh-i-Noor is incredibly enticing, to the point where I was wandering around Shanghai reading, avoiding being hit by taxis only through sheer luck.

The Koh-i-Noor is a fascinating piece of history, surrounded by myths and legends but very few actual facts. And even the facts we have are obscured by the motivations of those who vied for possession of the diamond. Dalrymple and Anand start at the beginning of the diamond’s history, or at least what we think may have been the beginning. Tracing through the various sources, some never discussed before, Dalrymple and Anand attempt to trace the Koh-i-Noor through history, from Indian mines to te Peacock Throne to the Singh Maharajas and finally all the way to the Tower of London. Not once does their narrative become dry, rather with each new owner, each new home for the diamond, the story becomes more and more fascinating. I’d like to paraphrase Shrek here. History is like an onion; it has layers. And Dalrymple and Anand build up those layers brilliantly. By the end of Koh-i-Noor the reader has an actual understanding of how the diamond came to be so significant, how its reputation grew over the centuries and why so many people died for it. Dalrymple and Anand also don’t shy away from addressing concerns about imperialism and colonialization, especially when it comes to the diamond’s current resting place in London. It’s place in the British crown is, and will remain, controversial.

As I said, Dalrymple and Anand create a fascinating story in Koh-i-Noor. Dalrymple covers the first part of the diamond’s history in the book’s first part, ‘The Jewel in the Throne’, relating tales of close escapes, gruesome deaths and awe-inspiring battles. There is a lot of historical information in this chapter, most of which will be new to many readers, but he presents it in a way that prevents it from becoming too much. He treats his subject with respect, both highlighting the East Indian Trading Company’s circumspect ways of gaining power, as well as the friendly fire that brought the Mughals and Maharajahs down. In ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, the book’s second part, Anand tackles the Koh-i-Noor’s journey and stay in England, from its lukewarm reception at the Great Exhibit to its crucial influence on English classics such as Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone. With the diamond now in a completely different cultural sphere, its use and purpose shifts, yet it remains a lightning rod. The book’s two parts come together beautifully and seamlessly, and the book is as much a history of as an ode to the Koh-i-Noor.

I give this book…
4 Universes!

I adored Koh-i-Noor and it made me ravenous for more historical non-fiction, especially if written by Dalrymple and Anand. They present history as something within a modern reader’s grasp, bringing people who lived centuries ago to life and making them and their actions understandable, if not quite sympathetic. I’d definitely recommend this one to fans o historical non-fiction as well as India’s history more specifically. 

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Exciting News: Fiction & Feeling

I'm really excited to share some news with you I got from Quirk Books a few days ago! I'm very happy to introduce you to a new publisher: Fiction & Feeling, a UK publishing house aiming to show off the world in all its diverse and complicated glory!
Fiction & Feeling

“Fiction & Feeling are rapidly becoming my favourite new publisher.” -- KIERON GILLEN
“I can't bloody wait to read this book.” -- LAURIE PENNY

I love their logo, the two F's intertwined! Just wait until you hear about their first book, Split!

Tell someone you’re divorced and they look at you differently. The pity, shame, and sense of failing at something that was only supposed to end in death can be a heavy burden to bear.
But it doesn’t have to be.
This book collects essays written by divorced writers exploring what led them to divorce, how they lived through it, and, perhaps most importantly, who they are now that it’s over. Where often divorce represents loss and a feeling of defeat, these essays provide an alternative: divorce as a catalyst in gaining a new sense of self and the discovery of new ways to define success.
It’s not a how-to guide, but many of the essays provide examples of how life after the end of marriage can still be satisfying despite complications, joyful despite awkwardness, or revelatory despite grief. 
Featuring established and emerging writers, the one thing all contributors have in common is they’ve lived through divorce and have offered for this collection moving, challenging, sad, funny, heartbreaking, self-aware reflections of that time in their lives. The writers are from diverse backgrounds and provide essays that are true stories of grief and parenting; of queerness, kink, and compromise; of artistic differences and academic dissonance; of mental health and addiction.

And now for even more exciting news, here is their new collection, Becoming Dangerous: An anthology about ritual and resistance!
bookBECOMING DANGEROUS is a collection of deeply personal essays by marginalised people operating at the intersection of feminism, witchcraft, and resistance to summon power and become fearsome in a world that would prefer them afraid. Contributions from twenty witchy femmes, queer conjurers, and magical rebels create a book of intelligent and challenging essays that will resonate with anyone who’s ever looked for answers outside the typical places.

Rituals, and magic in general, tend to increase in popularity during times of uncertainty and unrest. More people are creating private covens on Facebook, sharing ritualised skincare routines, using tarot readings to make their weekend plans, making offerings to the Goddess, and performing binding spells on their political leaders… And with mainstream media such as broadsheets, Vogue, Stylist and Buzzfeed covering the world of magic this year, what could be a better time to start discovering our own power?   

From the fashion magick of brujas to cripple-witch city-magic; from shoreline rituals to psychotherapy, from ritualistic skincare routines to gardening; from becoming your own higher power to searching for a legendary Scottish warrior woman; —this book is for people who know that now is the time, now is the hour, ours is the magic, ours is the power. 
The Kickstarter project for this collection has gone live TODAY so hop over and consider donating because this is a collection I'm desperate for! Edited by Katie West and Jasmine Elliott, I'm really looking forward to reading this! Witches, rituals, MAGIC!! All of this is exactly what I want to read. And how gorgeous is the cover?

Look for Becoming Dangerous on the 2nd of February, 2018 and I hope we get to see much more from Fiction & Feeling  in the future!

Find Fiction & Feeling on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram!

Review: 'The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror' by Joyce Carol Oates

The Doll-Master and Other Tales of TerrorI have been wanting to read something by Joyce Carol Oates for ages. She has always been at the top of my list when it comes to wanting to read dark fiction, the kind of fiction that twists you up a little bit. So when I saw there was a new collection coming out featuring six of her stories, I knew the time had come. Thanks to Grove Atlantic and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/05/3016
Publisher: Grove Atlantic
From one of our most important contemporary writers, The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror is a bold, haunting collection of six stories.
In the title story, a young boy becomes obsessed with his cousin’s doll after she tragically passes away from leukemia. As he grows older, he begins to collect “found dolls” from the surrounding neighborhoods and stores his treasures in the abandoned carriage house on his family's estate. But just what kind of dolls are they? In “Gun Accident,” a teenage girl is thrilled when her favorite teacher asks her to house-sit, even on short notice. But when an intruder forces his way into the house while the girl is there, the fate of more than one life is changed forever. In “Equatorial,” set in the exotic Galapagos, an affluent American wife experiences disorienting assaults upon her sense of who her charismatic husband really is, and what his plans may be for her. 
In The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror, Joyce Carol Oates evokes the “fascination of the abomination” that is at the core of the most profound, the most unsettling, and the most memorable of dark mystery fiction.
I had mixed feelings about this collection. On the one hand The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror are exquisitely written, but on the other hand there was a lack of terror for me. Technically the difference between terror and horror is that terror is that feeling of anticipation and fear before something terrifying happens, whereas horror focuses on the feelings during and after the terrifying event. In that sense, Oates' stories do fit into the terror genre because all of them build up beautifully to a moment and then abruptly leave us before anything truly happens. But to me The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror felt much more like suspense stories, the focus being not so much on the horrifying events we were anticipating, but rather on the characters themselves, on how twisted and messed up human beings can be, how we lie to ourselves and others. In a way each story could be its own psychological thriller, exploring the dark recesses of the human mind. So the mixed feeling I ended up with was one related to the title, mostly, rather than to the stories behind the cover

'The Doll-Master' is a story of loss, which slowly but surely turns into something else. A young boy loses his cousin and steals her doll to feel closer to her. When this doll is taken away by a strict father, however, he begins collecting lost dolls. But not all is what it seems. In 'Soldier' Oates puts the reader into the mind of a man accused of killing a black teen in cold blood. It is a very uncomfortable place to be and Oates builds the tension very well as to whether he's a "hero" or a villain. In 'Gun Accident', perhaps one of my favourite stories from the collection, we see a young woman remembering a past trauma. It is an incredibly real-feeling story, which is perhaps why it is so effective. 'Equatorial' is an interesting story in which a wife becomes more and more concerned her husband is planning to kill her. Oates excels at making her an unreliable narrator, though, so the reader is constantly in doubt as to what is actually happening. 'Big Momma' is perhaps the most straight-forward horror story of the collection, with something big and dangerous lurking in the dark. A young and lonely girl is taken in by a classmate's family and finally given all the attention and love she so craves. But not all is as it seems. Finally, 'Mystery, Inc.' is the most literary and meta of the stories, a crime story within a crime story, as well as an ode to all the mystery and crime writers that have come before. It doesn't entirely fit into the collection, but I think I'm not the only one who loved it.

Oates is a great writer. All of her characters are dissected so carefully and laid bare so completely, despite the brevity of the short stories, that the reader truly get into their mind. It is here that the real power of The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror lies and it is also why I was slightly disappointed. These stories aren't necessarily terror but rather beautiful suspense. Oates creates these fascinating characters and immersive atmospheres in which the reader is constantly swinging from one opinion to the other. Who can be trusted? Who is telling the truth? What will happen once the story ends? The stories flow so easily and are so beautiful in their own way that I truly wanted to read way more. By calling this a collection of 'Tales of Terror' I feel Oates was done wrong because it is selling the wrong aspect of her work. Not every terror tale needs gore and death, but that is what most readers will want and expect from a terror-collection. Think of these tales as psychological suspense tales and you'll be more than satisfied.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

I loved Oates' writing and will definitely be reading more of her work. The stories in The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror are fascinating, if not necessarily terrifying the way you might be expecting, and they will definitely stay with you after you finish them. The rating is largely relating to the disappointment over the title and the expectations it caused.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Guest Post by Lisa K: A Little Bookstore and 'The Satanic Verses'

Back in July I posted teasers from Salman Rushdie's The Golden House, which I greatly enjoyed. But then I received a comment on the post by Lisa from Lisa K's Book Reviews that truly intrigued me. In it, she spoke of her experiences when The Satanic Verses first came out, the controversy it caused across the world and what that meant for her.  I immediately got in touch with her and am truly blessed she agreed to write a guest post for us about that time. Before we go into her writing, however, I want to add a quick note. For those who know little about the controversy around the book, and about Rushdie's writing in general, it is perhaps worth reading up on it in order to understand the outrage and offence it caused. Literature has an incredibly power to inspire people, both to creativity and to anger. Add to that mix the explosive element of religion, and you have yourself a literary Molotov cocktail. Although the threats and intimidation Lisa writes about below are never justified, it is something we as readers can perhaps understand considering our own passion for books.

I'm honoured to share that guest post with you now!

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting

While I have no doubt The Golden House is an amazing piece of writing, after all, Salman Rushdie has been authoring books for several decades now, each time I hear of a new Rushdie book, memories return to me of another book of his that caused a very frightening time for booksellers.
Image result for the satanic versesIn 1988 I managed a small bookstore for two years. A dream job for me since I’m an avid reader. I was happy in my world of books and magazines. My sister worked in the same mall (She also managed a bookstore, one much larger than mine), so we got to have lunch together, drive to work together. I loved every minute of it. Until September 1988 and the release of Salman Rusdie’s The Santanic Verses. I’m not sure how many of you remember when that book was first released, but I’m not likely to ever forget.
In The Satanic Verses, like many of Rushdie’s books, the author used real life events and people to create his fictional stories. He used accounts from historians in the part of the story dealing with the satanic verses. While winning many awards for this work of fiction, there was outrage among Muslims claiming it was blasphemy and it was mocking their faith. Ayatollah Khomeini called for Rushie’s death, which in turn led to assassination attempts on the author.
The Muslim community wasn’t just angry with Salman Rushdie, they were angry with any of us selling his book. They demanded we stop selling the books or “something bad would happen”. I couldn’t believe things were this bad over a work of fiction. My sister and I kept the books on our shelves (When we weren’t sold out). Sure, we’d read about the threats, heard about them on the news, but in our corner of Delaware nothing had happened.
One day my sister informed me her store had been the target of threats. Threats meaning, bombs, guns, all around “You’ll die if you continue to sell the book” type threats. My sister, never one to give in to anyone, kept her books displayed. If I remember correctly, she even ordered more copies and made a bigger display. I kept mine out as well. I figure I was too little to target. I was wrong.
The Golden HouseWhile working alone one day, a woman came into my store. I had The Satanic Verses on display in my store window. She approached me at the register and insisted I stop selling the books. I told her I couldn’t do that. The book was a bestseller, and the owner of my store wouldn’t be happy if I removed them. She quickly informed me that if I didn’t remove them bad things would happen to me and the store. I told her again I could only do what my bosses told me to do. She informed me that I was making a big mistake. She let me know I would pay for not removing the books. That I would be sorry. She would be back, but not alone. With that, she turned and left. Now, I was only twenty-one years old at the time, and she had managed to scare the life out of me. From that day on, until everything calmed down, I sold the book from under my counter.
I have always regretted giving in. I chalk it up to my young age. The me I am today . . . well, if that happened, I would build the biggest display I could, plaster my windows with posters of the cover, and stand at the store entrance waving the book and yelling “Come and get it!”
I haven’t followed the career of Salman Rushdie, too many bad memories I guess. I knew he had written many more books, but I honestly didn’t know he was still writing until I read about The Golden House here on Juli’s blog. While I won’t be reading the author’s new book (Nothing to do with bad memories. I’m a cozy mystery reader, so this one isn’t for me), I wish Mr. Rushdie all the best, and hope he sees great sales!
Lisa K of Lisa Ks Book Reviews
Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us, Lisa! I haven't read The Satanic Verses myself yet, mainly because I always struggled connecting with Rushdie's writing. That is, until I read The Golden House. If you have time, check out my review for it.

Find Lisa K on Facebook, Twitter and of course on her own blog! Also, please do share your thoughts on what Lisa has written or any similar experiences you have had yourself. Be warned, I will not allow offensive comments on my blog. Would you like to write a guest post? Do email me!

Review: 'The Golden House' by Salman Rushdie

I have had a rough time with Rushdie in the past. I had heard about the controversy around The Satanic Verses but didn't know enough about it to truly register it. And then at university I was made to read Shame and as we all know, being made to read something significantly diminishes the chance you'll enjoy it. So Rushdie and I parted ways for a long time after that, until I saw The Golden House. And my interest was peaked again. Thanks to Random House and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 05/09/2017
Publisher: Random House
A modern American epic set against the panorama of contemporary politics and culture—a hurtling, page-turning mystery that is equal parts The Great Gatsby and The Bonfire of the Vanities  
On the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, an enigmatic billionaire from foreign shores takes up residence in the architectural jewel of “the Gardens,” a cloistered community in New York’s Greenwich Village. The neighborhood is a bubble within a bubble, and the residents are immediately intrigued by the eccentric newcomer and his family. 
Along with his improbable name, untraceable accent, and unmistakable whiff of danger, Nero Golden has brought along his three adult sons: agoraphobic, alcoholic Petya, whose rambling soliloquies are the curse of a tortured mind; Apu, the flamboyant artist, sexually and spiritually omnivorous, famous on twenty blocks; and D, at twenty-two the baby of the family, harboring an explosive secret even from himself. There is no mother, no wife; at least not until Vasilisa, a sleek Russian expat, snags the septuagenarian Nero, becoming the queen to his king—a queen in want of an heir.  
Our guide to the Goldens’ world is their neighbor René, an ambitious young filmmaker. As research for a movie about the Goldens, he ingratiates himself into their household. Seduced by their mystique, he is inevitably implicated in their quarrels, their infidelities, and, indeed, their crimes. Meanwhile, like a bad joke, a certain comic-book villain embarks upon a crass presidential run that turns New York upside-down.  
Set against the strange and exuberant backdrop of current American culture and politics, The Golden House also marks Salman Rushdie’s triumphant and exciting return to realism. The result is a modern epic of love and terrorism, loss and reinvention—a powerful, timely story told with the daring and panache that make Salman Rushdie the standard-bearer of our dark new age.
The Golden House is a truly modern book, a book that delights in the 21st century.  Rushdie's characters live in the New York of now and throughout the novel he infuses the narrative with references to 21st century politics, pop culture and more. There is art, there is music, literature, the 2016 election, movies, clowns in the streets, so much makes an appearance in The Golden House that it is almost overwhelming. I personally adore social commentary in novels. I feel like it is one of literature's duties to reflect upon its own time and to draw lessons from it for readers. Think of how Les Miserables or War and Peace comment on Russia and France, and how both are obsessed with Napoleon. These novels told me more about the influence of Napoleon than my history teacher ever did. And so when I find a novel like The Golden House, which plunges itself headfirst into one of the oddest few decades to date, I can't help but love how topical and relevant is it. Will it feel dated in a decade or so? Perhaps, but it will always be a product of its time, a kind of ode to the optimism of the early years and the downward spiral of the latter years.

Despite having an initial dislike for Shame, I have come to majorly appreciate it for the way in which Rushdie consistently manages to weave together myth and fact, legend and reality. His take on Magical Realism consistently astounds me \and he does so again in The Golden House. On the one hand it is deeply rooted in the modern world, and yet it is also magical. Baba Yaga personified makes an appearance, there is a magic childhood, and myth and legend suffuses everything. What perhaps topped my fascination with the Magical Realism in the novel, is how incredibly meta this book is. At the heart is a young filmmaker who dubs himself René, leaving it up to the reader to guess whether that is his real name. In a meandering style he tells us of the Golden patriarch and his three sons as they move into his neighbourhood in New York. He doesn't just tell us their story, René shapes it into an idea for a movie. He considers how to best present the different people, what symbolism lies in their lives and how exactly this story will even end. As he uncovers more and more about the Goldens he gets more and more drawn into their lives, until he is a key part of the story he is crafting. This set-up is mind boggling, in ways, as the readder is constantly questioning what exactly is the truth, but then truth is one of the themes at the heart of the novel. The Golden House is a glorious puzzle that is well worth undertaking despite its countless pieces.

Rushdie really doesn't need me praising his writing style, and yet I will do so anyway. The Golden House is beautiful, how it blends together past and present, how its sentences run on and on and yet never lose their strength, how it doesn't forget itself in the middle of its social commentary. The style of this novel is flamboyant and effluent, and yet concise and meaningful at the same time. It always feel as if each of these words is supposed to be there, is necessary. Much like a Bach piece, take on word out and the whole thing may collapse. The Golden House is the kind of novel that comments upon the human condition, and that sounds more frightful than it is. With flawed yet human characters, plot lines that are too ridiculous not to be true, Rushdie poses the questions that lie at the core of our minds. What is good and evil? Can one be both at the same time? And what does that say about us?

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I absolutely loved The Golden House and devoured it way quicker than I expected. This novel has something of everything and paints a truly human picture of the last few decades. Are any of the characters likeable? I couldn't really say, but their story will teach you something about yourself. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in Literary Fiction.

I also have a great guest post up, by Lisa K., about The Satanic Verses in celebration of the release of The Golden House.

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Review: 'My Absolute Darling' by Gabriel Tallent

I love reading because books take you other places. They let you explore the world, transport you to other moments in time and into the minds of different people. There are books that bring you joy, take you on a moonlight stroll through the pleasant valleys of life. But there are also books that drag you down to the darker regions of life, the depravity and despair of some people's lives. And those books are just as powerful and necessary. My Absolute Darling is one of those latter books and it is an unforgettable read. Thanks to 4th Estate and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 29/08/2017
Publisher: 4th Estate; Harper Collins
A brilliant and immersive, all-consuming read about one fourteen-year-old girl's heart-stopping fight for her own soul. 
‘You think you’re invincible. You think you won’t ever miss. We need to put the fear on you. You need to surrender yourself to death before you ever begin, and accept your life as a state of grace, and then and only then will you be good enough.’ 
At 14, Turtle Alveston knows the use of every gun on her wall;That chaos is coming and only the strong will survive it;That her daddy loves her more than anything else in this world.And he’ll do whatever it takes to keep her with him. 
She doesn’t know why she feels so different from the other girls at school;Why the line between love and pain can be so hard to see;Why making a friend may be the bravest and most terrifying thing she has ever doneAnd what her daddy will do when he finds out … 
Sometimes strength is not the same as courage.Sometimes leaving is not the only way to escape.Sometimes surviving isn't enough.
Some books are terrifying and My Absolute Darling is one of those books. It is deeply chilling and psychologically tense. It also seems to have no true heroes but only villains of different shades of evil. It's not a very optimistic book, you won't walk away from it with a bounce in your step. And yet it is a wonderful book, incredibly visceral and emotional. Tallent captures the beauty and wildness of nature, the harshness of human contact, the unflinching cruelty of love. Despite its highly emotional topics, Tallent avoids cliches and overly dramatic prose. Rather, he digs deep into Turtle's psyche, bringing her internal life to the forefront in a way that feels genuine and real. He describes this so well that when he breaks outside of Turtle's world it almost feels jarring and yet strangely exhilarating. It's hard to describe just how much Tallent sucks you into his story and his world, but it is an experience I would recommend to everyone.

At the heart of My Absolute Darling is Turtle, who lives alone with her father in what seems the middle of no where. Her only true emotional and social contact outside her father is her grandfather, himself a conflicting and conflicted character. Her father trains her how to hunt, how to survive, how to anticipate the end of the world. Yet all his training and discipline, his obsessive love for her, has Turtle constantly on the edge of overwhelmed. As she starts to see more of the world around her, how other people live, she begins to question and to wonder, something that will ultimately lead to the end of everything she knows. My Absolute Darling is a chilling character study of both Turtle and her father, a journey into the depths of human darkness, but also an ode to human resilience. There are parts to this book which are truly shocking and graphic, both violent and sexual, and hence I would recommend perhaps avoiding this book if these are triggers for you until you feel ready to face them head on.

Tallent amazingly captures Turtle's mind. On the one hand she is slavishly devoted to her father, who is all she has. On the other hand she is developing her own mind, her own self, and starting to questioning the world he has created for her. There is something lyrical to the novel, how Tallent describes Turtle's ease around nature, her instinct in crisis. Tallent also avoids may of the pitfalls I thought might lie ahead. There is no happy ending with a cherry on top, no grand love affair that carries Turtle away from her misery, no guardian angel that steps in just in time. The novel focuses in solely on Turtle, her journey, her internal life, and she becomes everything the reader needs. My Absolute Darling is a novel of survival, but not in the 'I conquered it and now everything is good'-sense. Rather, it shows survival as the continuous struggle it is, the conscious decision day in day out to wake up and face the world again, to face your demons head on. In that sense, My Absolute Darling is also a very inspiring read.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

God this novel is amazing! I devoured My Absolute Darling and simply couldn't put it down. Tallent has you on the edge of your seat the whole time and leaves you shaken by the end. It's the kind of novel that will give you something new every time you reread it. I'd recommend this to everyone willing to go on this journey with Turtle, but keep the trigger warnings in mind.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Review: 'Girl in Snow' by Danya Kukafka

Nothing is more dramatic than high school drama. Except for the real world. And when those two combine with a murder mystery than you're usually in for a good read. So many books bring these three different elements together and weave either magic or sow chaos. The balancing of teenage hormones and horrible crime is difficult and it doesn't always go well. Girl in Snow is a novel that balances on that edge but, sadly, is constantly on the point of falling off. Thanks to Simon & Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 01/08/2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
An addictive debut thriller about the mysterious death of a small-town golden girl and the secret lives of three people connected to her: the social misfit who loved her from afar, the rebellious girl who despised her, and the policeman investigating her death.
As morning dawns in a sleepy Colorado suburb, a dusting of snow covers high school freshman Lucinda Hayes’s dead body on a playground carousel. As accusations quickly spread, Lucinda’s tragic death draws three outsiders from the shadows.
Oddball Cameron Whitley loved—still loves—Lucinda. Though they’ve hardly ever spoken, and any sensible onlooker would call him Lucinda’s stalker, Cameron is convinced that he knows her better than anyone. Completely untethered by the news of her death, Cameron’s erratic behavior provides the town ample reason to suspect that he’s the killer.
Jade Dixon-Burns hates Lucinda. Lucinda took everything from Jade: her babysitting job, and her best friend. The worst part was Lucinda’s blissful ignorance to the damage she’d wrought.
Officer Russ Fletcher doesn’t know Lucinda, but he knows the kid everyone is talking about, the boy who may have killed her. Cameron Whitley is his ex-partner’s son. Now Russ must take a painful journey through the past to solve Lucinda’s murder and keep a promise he made long ago.
Girl in Snow investigates the razor-sharp line between love and obsession and will thrill fans of Everything I Never Told You and Luckiest Girl Alive.Intoxicating and intense, this is a novel you will not be able to put down.
To quote Natalie Imburglia, I'm torn. It is undeniable that Girl in Snow has an intriguing plot with a lot of high stakes. It's also undeniable that Kukafka addresses a lot of interesting topics, as the blurb suggests. The small town struck by tragedy is a great setting to bring underlying tensions to the surface and Kukafka does so relatively well. However, there is something about the book that left me underwhelmed. Perhaps I have been ruined by psychological thrillers and mysteries where suspense lurks on every page, but Girl in Snow didn't capture me the way I really wanted it to.

Lucinda, this novel's sad victim, isn't truly at the centre of this novel. Rather, Kukafka focuses on Jade, Cameron and Russ as they are thrown into ever-deepening turmoil by her death and everything that comes with it. Kukafka explores the trauma of their lives before Lucinda's death and how these now affect their actions, choices, and ideas of self. In a way this is really interesting, but Lucinda therefore also becomes a side-character and about halfway through the novel I realised I didn't really care who killed her. The reader has no chance to build a connection to her and the novel's twists also don't really come from this plot line. Rather it is Jade, Cameron and Russ' lives which provide the reader with their excitement. Switching between their different points of view, Kukafka explores different angles of this small town's response to Lucinda's death, as well as showing how everyone has secrets, fears and hopes, how we all keep certain parts of ourselves hidden away. It is this that saves the novel, for me at least.

Danya Kukafka has a knack for describing emotional situations in a way that both places you inside the characters' minds while also removing you just enough to be able to appreciate the moment. You truly get a sense of who her characters are and what they feel, and this is the most interesting part of Girl in Snow. Occasionally the novel "breaks" its narrative to share excerpts from Jade's imagined screenplay, 'What You Want to Say But Can't Without Being a Dick'. This both works really well to give you an insight into Jade's mind and set up that everyone has thoughts they don't or can't share, but it also interrupts the tension Kukafka tries to build and snaps the reader out of the story. In a way it's emblematic of what didn't work for the novel. There are a lot of great ideas but the execution of them isn't always perfect. This also counts for the confusing mix of genres. On the one hand this novel is a murder mystery and crime novel, yet the pace is inexorably slow and halts Girl in Snow from truly building up momentum. Considering this is a debut novel that isn't necessarily surprising but it is promising. I'd rather have a book with great potential than an utterly boring yet beautiful one. As such, I would definitely give Kukafka's future books a try.

I give this book...

2 Universes.

I have very mixed feelings about Girl in Snow. On the one hand I really wanted to know how it would end, how it would all unravel. But on the other hand I never found myself truly engaged with the novel, truly caught by it. I'm confused as to who to recommend this to, since for crime lovers this novel won't deliver. Its pace may also be too slow for YA readers. Yes, I'm torn.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Review: 'Basic Witches' by Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman

I don't know how often I have said this but it bears repeating: I love magic and witchcraft and will read anything and everything about it, no matter how weird or dry. I'm even attempting the Malleus Maleficarum, despite the fact its blatant misogyny makes me want to die. Anyways, one of the latest books that crossed my path was Basic Witches: How to Summon Success,Banish Drama, and Raise Hell with your Coven. And few witchy books I have read have struck as true as Saxena and Zimmerman's handbook does. Thanks to Quirk Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date:
Publisher: Quirk Books

Tap your inner sorceress and channel the magical arts with this bewitching lifestyle guide. Need to exorcise a toxic friendship? Say the right symbolic curse and banish it from your life. Want to enhance your attractiveness? Pick the right power eye-shadow color and project otherworldly glamour. Interested in boosting your self-confidence? Whip up a tasty herbal “potion” to strengthen your resolve. All that plus historical and pop culture sidebars that situate today’s witchcraft trend within a broader context. With humor, heart, and a hip modern sensibility, this charming guide dispenses witchy wisdom for the curious, the cynical, and anyone who could use a magical boost to get through the day.
There are many 'How to Witch'-guidebooks out there, many of which unfortunately require a major leap of faith from the first page. There is a sense you have to immediately believe in greater powers, Gods and Goddesses and that if you don't you maybe shouldn't read further than the first page. Someone like me, who is still salty about not getting a Hogwarts letter, would love to wholeheartedly believe in magic but my rational self won't quite let me jump off that cliff. So I find myself reading those books with too much scepticism to embrace what they're telling me. So I was incredibly pleased to see Basic Witches not only acknowledge those hurdles, but also cast them aside. For Saxena and Zimmerman there is no need to believe in a greater power, only faith in the greatest power: yourself. Yes, this sounds cliche. But Basic Witches is as much a guidebook on how to love and accept yourself as it is on how to be magical. And what could be more magical than recognising your innate power and using it for good?

Basic Witches is a great mix of historical anecdotes, useful "spells", funny asides and an understanding of 21st century life. Basic Witches is very inclusive, doing its best to highlight racial and gender issues. The lack of judgement coming from Saxena and Zimmerman feels genuine, rather than coming across as a marketing ploy. The true power of Basic Witches lies in how it allows a beginner witch to truly base their magic of their own life. Saxena and Zimmerman recognise the magic and power in daily basic acts like applying make up, showering, cooking, cleaning, convincing yourself to actually go through with a doctor's appointment, etc. You want to invest yourself with some extra power to ace an interview? Use your magic to find a colour that screams power to you and wear it. Will it automatically make you more qualified for the job? No. But it will make you feel more confident. It is this kind of magic I adore because it works intrinsically with what you have, rather than rely on something otherworldly to come save you. I don't like being in need of help, especially if I'm supposed to be the powerful one.

Saxena and Zimmerman have created a great book with Basic Witches. Their writing is full of tongue-in-cheek jokes and references and clear instructions and tips. Basic Witches is meant to work for you, rather than the other way around. I tend to intensely dislike self help books because they feel generic and make everything a problem you need someone else's help for. Basic Witches manages to avoid most of that by suggesting rather than prescribing. Saxena and Zimmerman share some of their personal experiences and consistently emphasise the importance of finding what works for you, rather than what the magical community may prescribe. I'd love to read more of Saxena and Zimmerman's writing on magic... there is another book coming out right? Like tomorrow, maybe? That would be great. Also, Basic Witches has some great illustrations which are both hilarious and inspirational. I have to say my favourite was of the demon Frank who is simply an asshole and should not be listened to. I think we all suffer under his possession once in a while.

I give this book...

5 Universes!

I'd genuinely recommend this to anyone interested in magic, witchcraft or self-improvement. Do you want to read a funny take on how to accept yourself? Basic Witches is it. Do you want to read an interesting collection of spells that seem realistic? Basic Witches is it. Do you want your history of witches interspersed with 21st century awareness and inclusiveness? Basic Witches is it.

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Review: 'The Voynich Manuscript' by Dr. Stephen Skinner, Dr. Rafal T. Prinke, Dr. René Zandbergen

I spent the last four years of my life studying medieval English literature so naturally I have a rather unhealthy appetite for and obsession with medieval manuscripts. Usually I tend to keep my eye out for books on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts specifically, but a few years ago I first read about The Voynich Manuscript and the utter mystery it still is, and how was I supposed to resist that? So when I saw Watkins Publishing had a new edition coming out I was thrilled. Thanks to Watkins Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/08/2017
Publisher: Watkins Publishing
The Voynich Manuscriptis an extensively illustrated codex featuring cosmological and astrological diagrams interwoven with detailed herbal illustration, relating both to the magical and alchemic view of the universe. It is written in a strangely beautiful cryptographic script.
During my Masters in St. Andrews I did a module called 'Reading the Mediaeval Text' which was all about how to care for manuscripts and how to examine their provenance and contents. I loved being able to dig into the past of the manuscripts shown to us, to trace the history of ownership or attempt to decipher the writing. Let me tell you, that last thing was part of our exams and all of us in the course groaned under the task. So if Middle English proved so much of a challenge to us, how does one attempt to decipher a manuscript written in code? The Voynich MS was named after the antiquarian Wilfrid Voynich, who first brought the book to the attention of the wider world in 1912. The anonymous author of the MS used cryptography, making their writing a continuous riddle which many academics have wanted to solve. There have been suggestions as to the author, including Leonardo da Vinci, but none have proved likely so far, although the author was most likely a physician.

The Voynich Manuscript is split into, roughly, three sections. The first is a foreword by Dr. Stephen Skinner, where he briefly introduces the make up of the MS and how The Voynich Manuscript came about. The manuscript itself has 5 identified sections: a herbal section, a cosmological section (my favourite), a section showing women bathing (it's not quite as weird as it sounds actually), a pharmaceutical section, and a textual section.

This is followed by an introduction by Dr. Rafal T. Prinke and Dr. René Zandbergen, who dig more deeply into the Manuscript and its history itself, such as its unique alphabet, its different sections and its provenance. Since this is in my field of interest, I was fascinated to read about the history they attempt to establish for the manuscript, as well as the different studies and claims that have been made about the MS. Often with MSS like these, it is almost more important what definitely isn't true than what is. So that Leonardo da Vinci is not the author is a key finding, in a way. So in the case of The Voynich Manuscript, reading the Foreword and Introduction are a must. Not only are they interesting, they are also important to understanding and appreciating what you're about to see.

The Foreword and Introduction are followed by the reproduction of the MS itself. I absolutely loved poring over these pages. Although the illustrations are, by medieval standards, relatively simply and even amateurish, they are still stunning and fascinating. I especially loved the cosmological section (see the image to the right below) with its star rosettas and much more. The section on women bathing was also really interesting and I would love to tell you what conclusion Skinner, Prinke and Zandbergen drew from this, but for that you should truly read The Voynich Manuscript yourself. Of course I also tried my hand at figuring out any of the writing but failed miserably at even the smallest "word". Not that I will give up, I will be pouring over The Voynich Manuscript for a very long time.

The Voynich Manuscript is an 'in between'-kind of book. On the one hand it is clearly academic in nature, a reproduction of an obscure medieval manuscript. On the other hand, Skinner, Prinke and Zandbergen seem to have done their best to make it accessible to every kind of audience. I have read student textbooks more obstinately confusing than The Voynich Book, whose Foreword and Introduction do its best to set up a novice reader with some of the knowledge and background they will need to truly enjoy the MS that follows. Their writing is clear and precise, to the point and not filled with academic jargon. This means that it is not just a special interest book, but is open to the wider public that may have an interest in history or manuscripts. Since Watkins Publishing was kind enough to send me a physical copy of the book I simply have to talk about the layout of the book for a second. The reproduction of the folios are very clear and you can really see detail on the page. Also, at the bottom of each page they show the reader where in the manuscript they are. A folio is one page of parchment, which is then marked either as r for recto (the front) or v for verso (the reverse). As the book reproduces the MS page by page, the different leaves are referred to as f1rf1vf2rf2r, etc. They also show which quire you're on. A quire is four sheets, or bifolios, folded together which makes for 8 pages. The Voynich Manuscript treats its source material with care and clearly put a lot of effort into letting the reader get as close to the manuscript as possible.

If you want to know more about the manuscript, visit a comprehensive website set up by Dr. Zandbergen.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

I absolutely adore The Voynich Manuscript. It is a beautifully rendered reproduction of one of the most continuously puzzling manuscripts to have come out of Eastern Europe. Skinner, Prinke and Zandbergen treat the manuscript with respect and guide the novice reader into the MS's secrets as well as they can. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in manuscripts and medieval history.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Review: 'The Haunting of Hill House' by Shirley Jackson

HauntingOfHillHouse.JPGWhen you think of books in which literary fiction meets horror, it's hard not to think of Shirley Jackson. With her 1959 classic, The Haunting of Hill House she pretty much set the ground rules for what a supernatural thriller should look like. And yet, despite being a fan of hers, I never quite dared to give The Haunting of Hill House a try. Perhaps it was the fear that I wouldn't like it as much as her other work, that I'd be disappointed in one of my favourite authors. Thankfully those fears were all for naught as I absolutely adored this novel!

Original Pub. Date: 1959
Original Publisher: Viking

The classic supernatural thriller by an author who helped define the genre
First published in 1959, Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House has been hailed as a perfect work of unnerving terror. It is the story of four seekers who arrive at a notoriously unfriendly pile called Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of a "haunting"; Theodora, his lighthearted assistant; Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman well acquainted with poltergeists; and Luke, the future heir of Hill House. At first, their stay seems destined to be merely a spooky encounter with inexplicable phenomena. But Hill House is gathering its powers—and soon it will choose one of them to make its own. 
God I adore Shirley Jackson! Whether it is her short stories, like 'The Lottery', or her essays and letters, like the collection Let Me Tell You, I can't put her writing down. I first experimented with her novels when I read We Have Always Lived in the Castle, giving myself a first taste of the terror Shirley could create when given more than a few pages. What has always struck me about her writing is that she seems able to penetrate into what humans fear. As Shirley's Dr. Montague says:
“Fear," the doctor said, "is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.” 
Shirley brings her characters, and her readers, to that point where they give up on logic, where reason won't cut it and the brain has to accept something seemingly impossible is happening. And this doesn't have to just be ghosts. As 'The Lottery' shows, human behaviour itself can also require us to relinquish logic and patterns. I don't think I've ever seen another author capture it quite so well for me.

The Haunting of Hill House has everything one would consider necessary for a good horror read: a house 'without kindness', a Doctor who wants solid evidence of the supernatural, and three young people who follow him into the house. It's a set up that now feels almost cliche since this is how most supernatural thrillers start, books or movies, but it all came from Jackson. She crafts a tale in which both much is revealed and much left concealed. There is the hilarious banter between the house occupants as they attempt to cope with the mounting pressure of being in Hill House, but there is also the horrible banging on the doors at night. Reading The Haunting of Hill House you'll find yourself both furiously believing something is haunting the house, as well wondering which one, if not all of them, is loosing their mind.

Shirley Jackson is a great writer. She crafts an atmosphere like no other, and she brings the horrors of Hill House to life. Jackson manages to put a lot into a few words, never missing an opportunity to sow doubt and mistrust. Just look at the beginning of the novel:
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” 
These few sentences tell us a lot about the house at the centre of the novel. Hill House has seen perhaps too much reality, too much tragedy, and has become 'not sane' as a consequence. There are stark warnings about darkness and something walking the corridors, but also the reminder that it's a sturdy house, strong walls, solid floors. Jackson, from the beginning, sets up all the different ways you can interpret the hauntings going on, and despite giving the reader this freedom she has an intangible grip on the narrative and where it will go.

I give this novel...

5 Universes!

I read The Haunting of Hill House in one sitting because it's simply impossible to put this book down. Jackson created a genre with this book and she set the bar so high with this book I'm not quite sure anyone could top her haunted house. I'd recommend this to fans of Gothic Thrillers and the Supernatural.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Review: 'New Boy' by Tracy Chevalier

From the first moment I discovered Shakespeare for myself I adored his mix of high drama with "low" humour, how he managed to combine laughter with tears. His history plays were always my favourite and I found myself struggling with some of his most famous plays, especially Romeo & Juliet and Othello. Strangely enough, both were made more appealing to me by Bollywood adaptations, Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela and Omkara respectively. They gave me a new insight into the stories that made me reconsider my previous judgement of the plays. Chevalier has now done the same with her adaptation of Othello. Thanks to Hogarth and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/05/02917
Publisher: Hogarth; Vintage Publishing
'O felt her presence behind him like a fire at his back.' 
Arriving at his fourth school in six years, diplomat’s son Osei Kokote knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day – so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again. 
The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practise a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Watching over the shoulders of four 11-year-olds – Osei, Dee, Ian and his reluctant ‘girlfriend’ Mimi – Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.
As I said above, I initially didn't like Othello, at all. I thought it was overly dramatic and Othello himself also rubbed me wrong. When I watched Omkara, however, I gained a whole new understanding of the play. By transposing the play from its Western setting and the cultural baggage its collected over the years, the film presented its themes in a new and interesting way. The effect of racism and colourism, the differences in class, Iago's feeling of betrayal and Desdemona's powerlessness in the face of Iago's scheming and Othello's paranoia felt a lot more real. The story deals intensely with how we see ourselves. Othello is worried his race will always colour how people see him, no matter how successful he is. Desdemona is aware that her position and skin colour should stop her from following her heart, but believes that her love should help her overcome those obstacles. Iago is intensely jealous and I've always thought of him as a man who feels much more is owed to him without putting in the work. These people have so much to loose, especiallt in their own eyes, that talking about their fears becomes almost impossible, allowing Iago's intrigue to work.  Omkara shows us these developments very well and  I was hoping for the same from New Boy. Although Chevalier definitely refigures some of the play's themes in an interesting way, something about the novel felt strangely shallow.

From the blurb I was expecting New Boy to be set in high school, not an elementary school. Setting it at such an early stage in life, all the characters are "reduced" to 10 to 12-year old children, which brings up some really interesting topics. At this age, children are still very much copying what they see in adults and Chevalier shows very clearly how racism, for example, is learned and copied. She also shows portrays the desire for popularity that starts showing itself at this age very well. However, I couldn't help but feeling that the story of Othello lost some of its spark in this setting. Some of the story elements that feel so dramatic and poignant in the Shakespeare play are undermined by the melodrama of an elementary school setting, especially since New Boy takes place during a single day. O and Dee 'go with each other' within what seems like an hour and are somehow deeply attached to each other despite their young age, and similarly the feelings of jealousy and betrayal also arise during this one day. These children are very much acting out what they have seen adults do, and although that is interesting, this means that at the heart of it we don't get the same exploration of the self, but rather a commentary on society.

Osei, or O, is the son of a Ghanaian diplomat who has moved around for much of his young life and now finds himself the new boy once again towards the end of a school year in the 1970s. Chevalier dedicates a lot of time to showing us how O has experience being new, how he has developed certain strategies of coping both with the suspicion of anyone new and with the different forms of racism and prejudice he frequently encounters. Chevalier makes him an incredibly sympathetic character and I felt almost saddened by how quickly this characterisation dissolved when the plot really took off. Within a single day O seems to forget everything he's learnt and this didn't feel entirely realistic to me. Similarly, Dee seemed like a very level-headed and smart girl, yet once she starts 'going' with O she lost some of her sparkle. Perhaps it's also simply that I can't wrap my head around 11-year olds becoming this fascinated with each other so quickly or that a schoolyard bully could come up with such a convoluted ploy to hurt the other students, but the novel didn't feel as immersive and deep as I would have liked for it to be.

Tracy Chevalier is a great writer and I loved her writing in Girl with the Pearl Earring. She knows how to set a scene and how to describe those tormenting emotions. There are great moments in New Boy where this does show, especially when we see the teachers betraying their own racism, but perhaps it is the relative brevity of the novel, less than 200 pages, that prevents her from going deeper more frequently. Because of the reasons described above I feel this novel swims somewhere between Middle Grade and YA fiction. The lessons to be learnt from reading New Boy are very obvious and in many ways it is a good novel to set up a conversation with a child about racism and bullying. Switching between the narration of the different children, Chevalier is able to show multiple points of view, which works occasionally. But except for some moments with O, New Boy doesn't delve very deeply into the insidiousness of inherited racism and the obsession with popularity. I think Hogarth's range of Shakespeare adaptations is a brilliant idea because the reason his plays are so popular is because they touch on a range of intensely human emotions. I will definitely be reading more of the series, even if I didn't connect with New Boy quite the way I hoped I would.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I enjoyed New Boy but it didn't entirely work for me. For a young reader, however, this is a great introduction to the themes that make Othello a fascinating play. However, for an adult reader I don't think this novel holds quite enough to make it a worthwhile read. I'd recommend this to fans of Middle Grade and YA fiction.

Friday, 4 August 2017

Friday Friyay: Book Beginnings and Friday 56

It's Friday and it's pouring rain here in Shanghai like you wouldn't believe! I'm quite grateful for it since it's been incredibly hot here and this will hopefully cool it down a little bit. Also, this is my last week on sick leave! My eye is pretty much healed and the cornea only a little bit scarred so this time next week I'll be teaching English once again. I'm quite glad to get to do something productive again although I've also enjoyed the last few weeks of intense reading. But let's get on to the Friday fun! Book Beginnings and Friday 56 are hosted by Gilion over at Rose City Reader and Freda from Freda's Voice. Hop over their to join in on the blogging fun!

For this week's Friday Friyay I've chosen a book I just started, The Swan Book by Alexis Wright!
Oblivia Ethelyne was given her name by an old woman who found her deep in the bowels of a gum tree, tattered and fragile, the victim of a brutal assault by wayward local youths. These are the years leading up to Australia’s third centenary, and the woman who finds her, Bella Donna of the Champions, is a refugee from climate change wars that devastated her country in the northern hemisphere. Bella Donna takes Oblivia to live with her on an old warship in a polluted dry swamp and there she fills Oblivia’s head with story upon story of swans. Fenced off from the rest of Australia by the Army, its traditional custodians left destitute, the swamp has become “the world’s most unknown detention camp” for Indigenous Australians. When Warren Finch, the first Aboriginal president of Australia invades the swamp with his charismatic persona and the promise of salvation, Oblivia agrees to marry him, becoming First Lady, a role that has her confined to a tower in a flooded and lawless southern city.
Let's get to the quotes!

'Upstairs i my brain, there lives this kind of cut snake virus in its doll's house. Little stars shining over the moonscape garden twinkle endlessly in a crisp sky. The crazy virus just sits there on the couch and keeps a good old qui vivre out the window for intruders. it ignores all of the eviction notices stacked on the door. The virus thinks it is the only pure full-blood virus left in the land. Everything else is just half-caste. Worth nothing! Not even a property owner. Hell yes! it thinks, worse than the swarms of rednecks hanging around the neighborhood. Hard to believe a brain could get sucked into vomiting bad history over the beautiful sunburned plains.' 1%
I really liked this beginning although it also confused me. I'm not sure I'm entirely following the metaphor yet, although I get the idea of a virus in your head poisoning how you see the world. However, I already love Wright's writing. It's very lyrical and descriptive.

His artfulness in disappearing and reappearing was so strange, that as the swamp people had believed he was somewhere else, he could still make you feel that you had never seen him - that he was never there at all. This is why they were out on the genies' country.' 56%
I haven't gotten this far in the book yet, so it was quite difficult to find a quote without spoiling myself or you. This one is very good at intriguing me though. Who are we talking about, how does he keep 'disappearing and reappearing' and what is 'the genies' country'?

Also, I want to share some adorableness with you! I'm using the last week of my sick leave to foster two absolutely tiny kittens and they are simply too cute so here is an Instagram I took a few days ago!

Image may contain: cat

I've named them Luke and Leia because I'm an unmitigated nerd.

So, what do you think of The Swan Book? And aren't the kittens adorable?

Review: 'The Second Sister' by Claire Kendal

It has been a good while since I read a psychological thriller and I couldn't wait to jump back into the genre. There is something about this genre which I can't help but love. Maybe it is that the standout books from the genre always leave you with some deeper insight into yourself, especially your own dark side, or maybe it's that I just like scaring myself. But for whatever it's worth, I keep returning to psychological thrillers as a kind of palate cleanser after a row of non-fiction and literary fiction books.. For my return, I chose The Second Sister by Claire Kendal because nothing says 'this book is going to mess you up' like family and disappearances. Thanks to Harper Collins and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Harper Collins
The chilling new psychological thriller by Claire Kendal, author of the bestselling novel, THE BOOK OF YOU, which was selected for Richard and Judy in 2015. Perfect for fans of THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and DISCLAIMER. 
Ten years ago, Ella’s sister Miranda vanished without trace. Now thirty, the same age as Miranda when she disappeared, Ella has grown to look dangerously like the missing woman. Ella becomes convinced that the man who took Miranda is watching her family. To Ella, this is an opportunity as much as a prospect of fear. It makes her more determined than ever to find out what happened to the beautiful and mysterious Miranda. Because who better than a sister to see what the police overlooked and to understand the missing woman? Especially as the perpetrator leaves new evidence that only Ella takes seriously. Is Ella paranoid, or intensely intuitive? She idolised her older sister, but now she will need to face some difficult truths. How was Miranda, a nurse, able to pay cash for her flat and her luxury car? What made her write a will when she was still pregnant, asking that custody of her child be shared between Ella and her parents? The price of learning Miranda’s fate will be far higher than Ella imagines…
As I said, family and psychological thrillers are the perfect mix. Nothing sets up both drama and redemption better than the tight-knit circle of family. Usually the families shown in psychological thrillers are intensely fractured and toxic, which is why I loved that The Second Sister went the other way. Although Ella's family is not perfect and there are fights, tears and betrayals, there is also that deep love and concern that many other novels miss. Because of the relatively warm atmosphere this creates, the darker aspects of the novel feel extra dark. Psychological thrillers are often overly dramatic when it comes to plots. Psychopaths hide behind every corner and protagonists have iron strong wills that nothing can stop. Although Kendal fully joins in with the drama of her chosen genre, the slow burn approach of her novel allows it all to feel a little bit less over-the-top.

The Second Sister only really spans a period of three weeks, in which years of secrets, lies and fears unravel, but Kendal takes her time, setting up the core relationships and the family dynamic before really letting her mystery run wild. As such, the reader can't help but become quite invested in Ella, and in her nephew Luca who is utterly adorable. By giving herself this space at the beginning of the book Kendal also makes it seem more plausible that Ella would have an insight into her sister's disappearance that the police could never have, while also making us realise the changes in Ella as she gets sucked deeper and deeper into her own investigation. Ella's voice in The Second Sister is very strong and I found her very likeable. She is caring and passionate, and has trained herself to be alert and watchful since her Miranda vanished. You want her to succeed in finding answers, as much for her sake as your own. The characters around her vary from clearly untrustworthy to slightly untrustworthy, everyone seemingly having hidden motives that stop Ella along her mission for justice.

Claire Kendal really knows how to drop you in a scary situation and make it seem as real as possible.  By putting you directly into Ella's head Kendal is able to mine each situation for all it's got. Some of the scenes in the book are incredibly visceral, described down to the minutest detail until you almost want to stop reading. There are a lot of twists and turns in this book and I found myself suspecting everyone towards the end of the book. Once you think Ella is safe, Kendal puts another spanner in the works and throws the reader for a loop. She is also very good at setting up story lines early on and then letting them come to fruition later on. This should be expected from a thriller novel, but I find it's surprisingly rare to see it done well. Kendal does a good job at tying up loose ends towards the end of the book, but there is one story line in particular I still find unbelievable. Although I can't go into it without spoiling the book, it seemed like a far fetched idea that didn't sit well in a book that otherwise tries to be as realistic as psychological thrillers allow. As said, their plots are always slightly ridiculous and over-dramatic, but this one aspect involving a rather mysterious yet important man just felt overwrought. Overall, however, The Second Sister is incredibly thrilling and I couldn't put it down.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I really enjoyed The Second Sister and it completely had me in its thrall. Elle is a great protagonist, one of my favourites of the genre so far. Kendal will have you constantly wondering who you can trust and what is going to happen next. You might anticipate some of the surprises, but how she presents them will still delight. I'd recommend this to fans of psychological thrillers.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Review: 'Johannesburg' by Fiona Melrose

I never thought that moving to China to teach English would mean that my circle of new friends would be almost entirely made up off South Africans. Thankfully thye're utterly lovely people, and getting to know them has also made me more curious about South Africa and its history. We all know Nelson Mandela and now, thanks to the Daily Show, we also know Trevor Noah, but its history and culture were still unknown to me. So when I saw Johannesburg I jumped at the chance to get a sense of this amazing city. Thanks to Corsair and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 03/08/2017
Publisher: Corsair; Little, Brown Book Group

6 December 2013. Johannesburg. 
Gin has returned home from New York to throw a party for her mother's eightieth birthday; a few blocks away, at the Residence, Nelson Mandela's family prepare to announce Tata's death... 
So begins Johannesburg, Fiona Melrose's searing second novel.
An irascible mother, an anxious daughter trying to negotiate her birthplace and her past, her former lover, their domestic workers, a homeless hunchback fighting for justice, a mining magnate, a troubled novelist called Virginia - these are the characters who give voice to the city on a day hot with nerves and tension and history. 
Set across the course of a single day - that of Nelson Mandela's death - Melrose's second novel is a hymn to an extraordinary city and its people, an ambitious homage to Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, and a devastating personal and political manifesto on love.
Whether it's James Joyce's Ulysses or Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of Vanities, many authors have used fiction to immortalise their cities, to show us the streets they so love or that particular way the light has of hitting the roofs. It's difficult to truly encompass everything a city has to offer in a novel without the author coming across as a tour guide, but Melrose finds a way. Rather than wax lyrical about different buildings or streets, she aims to show the lives lived in Johannesburg. In a way Melrose makes the reader a bird flying over the city, landing here and there before flying off to visit someone else. It gives Johannesburg a distinctly poetic and lyrical quality, both achingly immediate and oddly removed. You have to mine some of the passages for their meaning, consider what it is Melrose is actively trying to tell you, but this effort is worth it in the end.

Johannesburg covers only a single day, but splits its narrative between a set of different characters. Melrose aims to include as many different perspectives into her novel in order to truly bring Johannesburg alive on all its different levels. The day is the 6th of December, 2013, the day Nelson Mandela died. It is also the day of Gin's birthday party for her mother, another day of hard work for domestic workers Mercy and Dudu, another day of protest for the homeless September, and a day on which a dog is lost. Initially it is difficult to see how all these stories work together and occasionally you do get confused as to who is speaking, whose life we are currently observing. The characters I feel got the most time were Gin and September, drastically different but both with their own kind of burden to bear. I would have loved to hear more of Mercy and Dudu, who I thought were amazing characters and had a lot of interesting insights into their city and country. Whether I know more about South Africa now I can't really say, but Melrose does infuse her novel with the kind of spirit I have seen in my friends as well, with the difficult but passionate love they have for their country.

Melrose has a talent for describing a larger scene and then zooming in on a surprising detail. A clear example of this is the style of the novel. Most of Johannesburg is written in third person, allowing the reader to both get close to the characters while maintaining something of a distance. Occasionally, however, Melrose dips into a first-person narrative to share her characters' most intimate fears and thoughts. It was towards the end I truly started to understand Johannesburg as an 'homage to Virginia Woold's Mrs. Dalloway'. Melrose lets her characters' thoughts ramble in a way that initially seems odd. I mean, why dedicate so much time to things that are seemingly pointless? It isn't until later, when the reader has spent more time with the characters, that this writing pays off because we can see what it is these characters obsess about, can't help but think about and even prefer not to think about. Many things are hinted at but not really developed and at the end of the novel you don;t necessarily know much more about any of the characters. The ending is not typical and may leave some readers a bit unsatisfied, but I enjoyed the elegiac nature of it.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

Reading Johannesburg was a very interesting experience. Melrose shows you the day in the lives of many different people and rather than pass judgement or explain, she leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Her love for Johannesburg shines through, however, and that is the real heart and soul of the novel.