‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’ by Sally Rooney **

There is hardly an author more hyped in modern British society than Sally Rooney, it seems. I very much enjoyed her first two novels, her debut Conversations with Friends, and 2018’s Normal People, which I thought pitch-perfect. I was quite looking forward, then, to picking up her newest effort, 2021’s Beautiful World, Where Are You, and joined my library’s reservation queue before it got too long.

I was not sure what to expect from Beautiful World, Where Are You, and feared that it would be a rehash of her first two books. Let’s face it, these novels are filled with similarities already, from their Irish setting, to the hapless individuals who don’t really know where they’re going in life. If I’m honest, the blurb of Beautiful World, Where Are You didn’t hold much appeal for me. Had this just been a random tome from an unknown author which I’d picked up in the library or a bookshop, I doubt I would have chosen to read it. This perhaps should have been an indicator for me of what was to come.

The novel deals with four people approaching the end of their twenties. Novelist Alice has just rented an enormous house somewhere on the coast of the Republic of Ireland, and meets warehouse worker Felix there on a Tinder date. This encounter is one of the most awkward and cringeworthy interactions which I have read in a novel for quite some time. Felix is incredibly shifty, and I still do not understand the motivations for Alice inviting him on a work trip to Rome, when she has only met him three times – on said awkward date, on an equally awkward encounter in a local shop, where he spends a lot of time hitting a ready meal against his leg (?), and a ‘party’ at his house, which she practically invites herself to anyway – and he really does not seem to like her. The odd relationship which then ensues between the pair is so convoluted as to be unbelievable.

Alice’s best friend from college, Eileen, at least has some real-world problems to deal with, on her very low salary, with prickly parents who seem to favour her older sister, and living with a married couple in a barely adequate flat in Dublin. Her relationship with the slightly older Simon, whom she was friends with as a child, is on-again, off-again, and becomes quite exhausting to follow. I did like Eileen on the whole, though; perhaps this is just because she appeared very favourable in comparison to the quite loathsome young author in this novel.

Beautiful World, Where Are You had so many five-star reviews on Goodreads far before it had been released; that’s the kind of author Rooney is. It feels a little odd to add my meagre two-stars to the list, but I pride myself on being honest in my reviews, and I cannot rate it any more highly. I read most of the novel feeling bored at the lack of direction in the plot, and at the infuriating characters. Alice particularly – whom many have indicated is a version of Rooney herself – is not at all likeable.

I still can’t make up my mind as to whether I actually enjoy Rooney’s writing. In Conversations with Friends and Normal People, her style felt fresh, and exciting. Here, the author is clearly trying to come across as more mature and worldly-wise. The prose, in consequence, is both far too matter-of-fact and pretentious, in an imbalanced combination which soon feels rather jolting to read. I did not like this new departure much at all, and whilst there is a marked improvement in the last hundred pages or so, I felt like there was a lot of wading to do before I reached the more readable sections of the novel.

There is a vast detachment throughout from the characters, and some of them do not feel like realistic constructions at all. Even after finishing the novel, I do not really see what the point of Felix was; he was flat, rude, and came with a set of actions and speeches which made no sense in the context of the whole. There is also a real lack of emotion throughout, even through those parts of the narrative which should contain a lot more feeling – for instance, when Alice talks about her time in a psychiatric hospital.

Something which Rooney has been so strong at in her previous work is in writing about the relationships between people, particularly as they change over time, and shift with circumstance. Sadly, this strength seems to be very much lacking in Beautiful World, Where Are You. The relationships between the four – perhaps with the exception of Alice and Eileen toward the end of the novel – just do not feel feasible. The long, drawn-out, and repetitive emails, which Alice and Eileen write to one another throughout, I found ridiculous. These are filled with so much existential angst, and ramble on for pages and pages, constantly repeating their themes. If I received something similar from one of my friends, I think I’d be a bit worried about them.

For me, Beautiful World, Where Are You felt very lacklustre, even vapid. In some places, the novel has far too much to say, and in others its narrative feels rather lost. There are a lot of the same themes to be found here as in Rooney’s previous two novels, but I do not feel as if they are explored quite as well. The style of Rooney’s newest book was not as readable for me, and I found myself having to force my way through some of the chapters – particularly those with Alice and Felix at the fore. I’m honestly not sure that I’ll pick up any of Rooney’s other books in future, so underwhelming did I find this one. Of course, it is great that the author wants to grow, and to change her style to something more mature, but it just wasn’t something that I enjoyed.


‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane **

Loving stories about old houses, and the families which live in them, Black Lake by Johanna Lane piqued my interest as soon as I spotted its blurb on my local library catalogue.  Despite Ireland being a country that I love to visit, I have found of late that barely any Irish literature has made its way onto my yearly reading lists.  Of course, I wanted to rectify this, and again, Black Lake ticked that box.

The Irish Examiner calls the novel: ‘A complex and beautifully structured story’, and the Irish Independent writes: ‘Lane’s prose is graceful, textured and her elegant style reflects the Campbells’ glazed retrograde world.’  John Burnside also praises the novel highly, 9780755396320deeming it: ‘A beautiful portrait of a family faced with unbearable loss.’

The Campbell family have lived on a sprawling estate named Dulough, the Irish for ‘black lake’, on the Irish coast of Donegal, for generations.  Like many families whose homes have been handed down, the Campbells have run out of money, and have little choice but to let the government take over the care and upkeep of the house, making it into a ‘tourist attraction’ in the process.  The family have to therefore move into a ‘small, damp caretaker’s cottage’ on the estate.  The ‘upheaval of this move strains the already tenuous threads that bind the family, and when a tragic accident befalls them, long-simmering resentments and unanswered yearnings are forced to the surface.’

Black Lake opens in autumn, when the family have opened up the house to the public, and moved into their new cottage.  The tragic accident described in the blurb has taken place at this point, and the family’s mother struggles to cope; she ends up taking her daughter, twelve-year-old Kate, from her boarding school, and locking her into the abandoned ballroom with her for long stretches of time.  At first unnamed, and without voices of their own, the initial chapter gives an insightful glimpse into the Campbell’s family dynamic.  As winter approaches, Lane describes the way in which, in her beautifully sculpted prologue: ‘The girl remembers when the snow began, flakes settling into the windowpane, muffling everything outside, even the wind.  The tourists were gone by then and it was just the sound of her father and the housekeeper moving about below, shutting up the house, covering the beds in dust sheets, rolling up the rugs, stowing away quilts no one ever slept under.  The girl missed the sound of the visitors, the guide herding them from room to room, story to story.  Surely, when the house was finally locked for winter, the father would say that they had to leave, too?’

Lane takes notice of incredibly small details; of the removal men, she writes, from the perspective of the Campbell’s eight-year-old son: ‘The men were older than his father; they had deep lines in their faces, like valleys, Philip thought.  He imagined tiny glaciers settling into their skin, the ice cracking and expanding.’

Whilst Black Lake is well structured, with different chapters following each of the characters in turn, there is a sense of detachment to the whole, which is exacerbated by the loose third person narrative voice.  I do not feel that Black Lake reached its potential; it was rather run-of-the-mill for a familial saga, and the writing was nowhere near as poetic as I expected after reading its prologue.  Unfortunately, Black Lake quite failed to hold my interest; it is not a bad book, but simply did not stand out enough for my personal liking.

Purchase from The Book Depository


‘White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas’ by Robert Twigger **

I came across a copy of Robert Twigger’s White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas whilst browsing for books to take on holiday.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but was very much intrigued by the title and blurb.  I love travelogues and travel literature, and imagined that this would be a mixture of the two.  Its blurb says: ‘These mountains, home to Buddhists, Bonpas, Jains, Muslims, Hindus, Shamans and animals, to name only a few, are a place of pilgrimage and dreams, revelation and war, massacre and invasion, but also peace and unutterable calm.’

9780297608714In White Mountain, Twigger professes that he wishes to look at and explore the links between real and imagined journeys over the vast range of the Himalayas.  His father was born there, and he therefore feels a connection, which pushes him toward exploring the mountains himself.   In his own trips to the region, he ‘encounters incredible stories from a unique cast of mountaineers and mystics, pundits and prophets.  The result is a sweeping, enthralling and surprising journey through the history of the world’s greatest mountain range.’

White Mountain did not live up to my expectations.  Rather than the geographical biography which I was expecting, I was met with an incredibly imbalanced range of chapters, some of which are so short as to say barely anything, and others which are so long that they ramble and meander around points which could be interesting, had they been focused upon.  The historical detail was fascinating; the religious detail was rather overblown, and saturated the whole.  The nods to science are rendered intelligently.

However, Twigger has an odd habit of repeating himself throughout, and giving the same details over and over again.  Much of White Mountain, indeed, is about Twigger himself; he comes across as rather self-righteous, and often overshadows the fascinating stories of explorers in the region with his own experiences.  Quotes from others have been included, but these are often left alone, and not analysed in any way.

Upon finishing White Mountain, I awarded it three stars, but after mulling my decision over, I have decided to downgrade it to two.  The book had such a lot of potential which simply has not been reached, and the way in which it has been structured is jarring, and lacks balance.  Photographs have been randomly placed throughout; they have little bearing for the most part about what has been written, and serve to interrupt the narrative.  I would, for all of these reasons, steer clear of Twigger’s books in future.

Purchase from The Book Depository


A Disappointing Novel: ‘The Shadow Land’ by Elizabeth Kostova

‘Soon after arriving in Bulgaria a young American helps an elderly couple into a taxi – and realises too late that she has accidentally kept one of their bags. Inside she finds an ornately carved wooden box engraved with a name: Stoyan Lazarov. Raising the hinged lid, she discovers an urn filled with human ashes. As Alexandra sets out to locate the family and return this precious item, she gradually uncovers the secrets of a talented musician shattered by oppression – and she will find out all too quickly that this knowledge is fraught with its own danger.’

9781911231103I have now resigned myself to the fact that Kostova will probably never again reach the heady heights of The Historian, a book which I have read twice and loved even more the second time around. The Swan Thieves, her second novel, was markedly disappointing, but I did struggle through to the end, something which I could not bear to do with her third effort, The Shadow Land.

The novel is set in Sofia, Bulgaria, a city which I recently visited and absolutely loved. The city itself is not well evoked within The Shadow Land, and neither is Bulgarian culture. Kostova flits back and forth in time to her protagonist Alexandra Boyd’s childhood in the US, using her first person perspective in which to do so, and rendering the present day story in a third person narrative voice. Alexandra’s voice is not at all convincing, and I found Kostova’s writing rather dull in places; even her descriptions are rather ordinary.

The Shadow Land sounded like a promising book, but it failed to pull me in, and it got to the point where I simply could not stand to read more about the very annoying Alexandra. I think it is high time to give up on reading Kostova’s future work.


Three Disappointing Novels

I subscribe to the Nancy Pearl rule of only reading fifty pages of a book and giving up if you aren’t enjoying it.  It works very well indeed for the mostpart, but there are occasions in which I have read an enjoyable book by a certain author, and want to see another of their works through to the end in the hope that it might improve.  There are also those books whose storylines sound far too good to give up reading.  I have grouped together an amalgamation of three such books, all of which I had high hopes for and was ultimately disappointed with.

‘The Listeners’ by Monica Dickens

The Listeners by Monica Dickens **
If I had bothered to read the blurb before purchasing The Listeners, I doubt whether I would have chosen it over Monica Dickens’ other books.  Its premise – troubled people seeking help from The Samaritans, which is partly based upon her own experiences in setting up the first American branch of the charity – does not render it the most cheerful of novels by any means.  The front of the very ugly Penguin edition which I read says that ‘her famous novel about the Samaritans’ is ‘compassionate, observant and amusing’.

I did like the way in which The Listeners followed different characters, both victims and workers for the Samaritans, but there was a real sense of distancing throughout, and I felt unable to identify – or even sympathise with – the characters because of it.  Dickens has created a cast of very troubled people, and there are far too many characters throughout, which further hinders any care and compassion being built up on the side of the reader.  Whilst Dickens is not shy in describing those whom she creates, they feel rather two-dimensional, particularly when considered as an entire cast.  As with much of Dickens’ work, it is nicely written, but it is neither as lovely as Mariana, nor as witty or absorbing as her memoir, One Pair of Feet.  It was even a little dull in places, which I found surprising; I was expecting it to be a very engaging novel.  It was lovely, however to see that some people do give up their time to help others in such life-changing ways.

Purchase from The Book Depository

Celebrations at Thrush Green by Miss Read ***
This was another book which I borrowed from the library, and based upon the two books written by Miss Read which are upon my read shelves, I was expecting quite a quick and cosy read.  The premise sounded relatively intriguing: ‘There’s double cause to celebrate in Thrush Green: the school is in its centenary year, and an unexpected letter sheds light on the village’s most distinguished son, whose statue has stood on the green for many years.  However, the preparations are plagued with anxieties…’.

Sadly, and even though I did enjoy it on the whole, Celebrations at Thrush Green is my least favourite Miss Read book to date.  It was a little too quiet and predictable overall, and some of the characters did not feel as though they had been well fleshed out.  I will still read more of the extensive Thrush Green series, but I can only hope that all of the books I have yet to come across are more enjoyable than this one.

Purchase from The Book Depository

‘An Expert in Murder’ by Nicola Upson

An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson **
This is one of the novels which I picked up in the library sale. I hadn’t heard of the author before, but the premise – in which an imagined Josephine Tey works as a detective of sorts to solve crime – was really interesting.  (Side note: I hate to be superficial, but the beautiful Faber & Faber cover also attracted me to the volume.)  The storyline does sound marvellous:

“It is 1934, and celebrated Scottish crime writer Josephine Tey is on her way to London to see her own hit West End play – but her trip is interrupted by the grisly murder of a young train passenger…  Cleverly blending elements of the Golden Age author’s real life with a gripping murder mystery, ‘An Expert in Murder’ is both a tribute to one of the most popular writers of crime and a richly atmospheric detective novel in its own right.”

I am beginning to adore quaint crime novels, and this seemed to fit the brief perfectly.  Until I started to read it, that is.  The sense of place is very well portrayed from the first, but the scenes and settings are the liveliest thing about the entire book.  The style of the prose fits the period relatively well, but oddly, a lot of the dialogue, and the things which the characters talk about – do not seem to.  There are often quite modern constructions within the conversations, which sit oddly against the whole.  The third person perspective which Upson has used does work well with the unfolding story, but something about it renders the characters rather flat.  Whilst An Expert in Murder starts off relatively well, it soon lost momentum.  It lagged a lot in places, and did not hold my interest throughout.  There were no characters whom I really liked – or was even interested in – and I even found Upson’s portrayal of Josephine Tey rather insipid.  I doubt that I will read more of the author’s work based upon this, especially given the poor reviews of her fiction which I have seen around the Internet since reading this book.

Purchase from The Book Depository


Two Disappointing Reads

I have begun to read and subsequently abandoned two novels which I was very excited about of late – The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan, and July’s People by Nadine Gordimer.  The reasons as to why neither story really gelled with me are as follows.

‘The Valley of Amazement’ by Amy Tan

The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
I have very much enjoyed Tan’s work to date, and when I spotted this beautiful behemoth in the library, I picked it up immediately (and then silently cursed it on the way home for weighing me down).  It is an enormous book, and took Tan eight years to write.  The story begins in 1905, and tells of Violet Minturn, the daughter of an American woman who ‘grows up in the confines of Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house’.  When the Emperor is deposed in 1912 and ‘celebrations rock the city, a cruel act of deception separates Violet from her mother and she is forced to become a virgin courtesan’.

Throughout, the novel is told using the first person perspectives of Violet and her mother, but from the very start, it does not feel quite real.  There is an unusual sense of detachment which plants its seeds from the first.  Stylistically, it is much the same as Tan’s other books, what with the use of Chinese and American nationalities and the differences between the two, the female perspective, and telling the same story from the point of view of more than one character.  The cultural details which Tan includes are relatively interesting, but sadly, it felt as though there was nothing at all original about The Valley of Amazement.  I did not have the patience to read through six hundred rather large pages, and am now unsure as to whether I will read more of Tan’s future publications.

Purchase from The Book Depository

‘July’s People’ by Nadine Gordimer


July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
On reflection, this was probably an odd choice of book to take with me on a long weekend to France, dealing as it does with segregation in South Africa.  July’s People was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, so I was expecting great things from it.  I really liked the storyline, and the way in which Gordimer challenged the racial differences which were so prevalent at the time:

“The members of the Smales family, a liberal white couple and three young children, are rescued from the terror [in which armed militants ruthlessly killed innocents all over the country] by their servant, July, who leads them to refuge in his native village.”

In terms of its prose style, it was not at all as I had thought it would be.  Gordimer writes in a contemporary manner – she does not use conventional techniques, but instead puts dashes in the place of speech marks, occasionally starts sentences with lowercase letters, and so on.  For me, July’s People was not executed as well as it could have been.  The whole felt too matter-of-fact and rather detached to be an absorbing novel.  Based upon my experiences with this book, I am not sure I’ll be trying to read more of Gordimer’s fiction any time soon.

Purchase from The Book Depository