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Flash Reviews: ‘Independent People’ and ‘O Caledonia’

Independent People by Halldor Laxness **** 9780099527121
Whilst in Iceland in February, I was lucky enough to pass the homestead where Laxness spent much of his writing life.  As a consequence, every single piece of work which I read of his feels even more vivid to me; it is as though, by seeing all that surrounded him, his already marvellously personified settings spring to life all the more before my eyes.

The beginning couple of chapters of Independent People were a little confusing in relation to the whole, but they certainly set the scene well.  The writing and translation are fluid, and the whole has been so well handled.  There wasn’t a single sentence rendered here which felt clumsy or underdone, and some of the prose is breathtaking.

Laxness has written with such depth; alongside the characters, one learns about Icelandic politics and history.  As with every one of his books, the novel has its sadnesses, but it is all the more realistic for them.  There are stories within stories within stories here.  Whilst I found parts rather difficult to read due to their subject matter and my squeamishness, Independent People is basically a masterpiece.

 

9780956567208O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker ****
I had incredibly high hopes for O Caledonia, and hoped it wouldn’t disappoint.  It did not; in fact, it is certainly one of the best coming of age stories which I have read in quite a while.  Startling, vivid, intriguing, and marvellously Gothic.  Troubled Janet was a fabulously crafted character, and I was so entranced as soon as I began to read her story.  I loved Barker’s prose style, and the delicious darkness to the whole.  O Caledonia is a mesmerising and incredibly well crafted novel, with a marvellous and surprising conclusion.

 

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Flash Reviews: ‘Ox Crimes’, ‘Black Eyed Susans’, and ‘Vinegar Girl’

Time for three more mini reviews!

Ox Crimes by Various Authors *** 9781781250648
I purchased Ox Crimes whilst seeking out my Scorching Summer Reads pile because it sounded wonderful. I love the idea behind it; twenty seven crime writers donating a story apiece to Oxfam. As with the majority of anthologies, there were a few stories which didn’t really interest me – the more hardboiled detective ones in this case – but on a high note, I have also (finally) discovered Stella Duffy.

I very much enjoyed how quirky a lot of these stories were; there were unusual elements to them for the most part, and not one could be termed run-of-the-mill. A mixed bag of crime stories, let’s face it, but literature for a good cause is always worth buying.

 

9781405921275Black Eyed Susans by Julia Heaberlin ***
I have been trying to read more thrillers of late, and Black Eyed Susans has undoubtedly been hyped. Whilst travelling to my early morning lectures, I must have seen a dozen posters with that eye-catching field of flowers, featuring the slightly ambiguous naked woman, dotted around the underground.

My thoughts about the novel are a mixed bag, as I had a feeling they might be. The storyline is intriguing; it has elements of the general thriller, but there are a few twists to it in places that I wasn’t quite expecting. Heaberlin’s writing didn’t blow me away, but the pacing was strong. The merging of past and present stories worked well, but the tenses were undoubtedly confused at times (and I say this as a proofreader). Black Eyed Susans felt, to me, rather drawn out in places, and whilst it kept me entertained, I don’t think I’d rush to pick up another of Heaberlin’s novels.

 

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler * 9781781090190
This had so much potential. WHY WAS IT SO DULL!?

I love Shakespeare. I love The Taming of the Shrew. I love the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I greatly admire what the authors have done. I had hoped that this would suck me in as Jeannette Winterson’s book did, but alas. There are nowhere near enough echoes of the original here; if you were not aware that this was a rewriting of Shakespeare, I’m not entirely sure you’d be able to guess.

I’ve not had the best experience with Anne Tyler’s novels in the past; I have begun three, and abandoned three. I think I’m going to give her up as a bad job. Thoroughly disappointing, and hopefully not a precursor of the rest of the series!

 

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Flash Reviews: ‘Moranifesto’, ‘Cities I’ve Never Lived In’, and ‘Rapture’

Time for some more mini reviews!

 

Moranifesto by Caitlin Moran **** 9780091949051
I think Caitlin Moran is excellent, and have very much enjoyed all of her other books. I was a little surprised, then, when I saw that Moranifesto had such harsh criticism from those I know who also like her, and/or her sense of humour. I read many comments about how the material was old, and not at all relevant to today. Yes, all of the newspaper articles have been previously published – surely that is the point? It would be almost impossible to publish a book like this where everything was current, and that book would then surely be out of date in six months, or a year’s time. Catch-22.

I do read books like this from time to time; David Mitchell’s Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse… is a very enjoyable case in point. I see no issue with reading ‘out of date’ articles, particularly when, like Moran’s, they are amusing, and still relevant to a lot of the things which are going on in the world at the moment. They offer new slants, and new perspectives, and therefore make ‘old news’ seem fresher.

There were a good few laugh-out-loud moments for me here, and reading Moranifesto has reestablished that Moran is incredibly talented at what she does. I wasn’t disappointed with this, and eagerly look forward to her next release.

 

9781555977313Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka *****
My parents very kindly found this for me in the wondrous Strand bookstore in New York, and I was so very excited to begin! This is Majka’s debut short story collection, and it is nothing short of brilliant. I was drawn in immediately. Nothing is predictable here, and elements surprise throughout. I adored the way in which each of the narrators and protagonists were so different; they each sprang to life incredibly quickly.

Cities I’ve Never Lived In is a collection about people; about displacement and disappointment. Its themes are large and well wrought – hurt, heartbreak, and loneliness prevail, but there is also a wonderful sense of hope at times too. The interconnectedness and the more mysterious touches were original, and Majka’s writing masterful. I can’t wait to get my hands on what she releases next.

 

Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy ***** 9780330433914
I purchased this as part of 2016’s Oxfam Scorching Summer Reads campaign. Duffy is one of my favourite poets, and this was a collection which I hadn’t yet had the pleasure to read. And a pleasure it is. Rapture is a series of interconnected poems about a single relationship, and the themes which Duffy encompasses are wide and surprising. A rich story weaves its way through.

As ever, her turns of phrase are beautiful, and I adored her use of nature imagery, and the way in which this was woven into the couple’s story. The poems here almost sing. They are wonderful and hopeful; sometimes bleak; always buoyant, and utterly mesmerising.

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Flash Reviews: ‘Alix & Nicky’, ‘On the Golden Porch’, and ‘The Smell of Other People’s Houses’

Just a few collected thoughts about some of my recent reads.

Alix & Nicky: The Passion of the Last Tsar and Tsarina by Virginia Rounding **** 9780312381004
Alix and Nicky remained on my TBR shelf for over two years, and after reading, I have no idea why that was. Well, perhaps the fact that my copy is rather a large hardback which was incredibly difficult to juggle whilst in bed…

I am a self-confessed Russian history nerd. I studied Russian history, from Peter the Great to the modern day, throughout my A Level History course and as part of my undergraduate degree. There’s something about it which is both mysterious and compelling. It is perhaps no surprise, then, that I picked this up when I was on a trip to Oxford.

Alix and Nicky is both rich and thorough, and I thought that the non-reliance upon a rigid chronological structure worked incredibly well. The writing is strong, the vocabulary varied, and the chapters wonderfully structured. I feel as though I learnt a lot whilst reading, which is always a bonus. Virginia Rounding is an author whom I haven’t read before, but based upon this, I have added the rest of her bibliography to my to-read list, and have a feeling that there will be some gems in store for me.

 

9780679728436On the Golden Porch by Tatyana Tolstaya *****
A few words to describe this wonderful, dark short story collection; original, compelling, evocative, rich, creepy, mysterious, startling, overwhelming, claustrophobic, and important.  More Tolstaya, please.

 

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue 9780571314959 Hitchcock ***
Whilst this intrigued, both in terms of plot and setting, and whilst I very much enjoyed the opening chapter, this just didn’t sit right for me. I had no issues with the writing, but predictability soon seeped in, and I did not even feel as though Hitchcock had made any effort to conceal such elements.

I was more interested in the stories of Ruth and Dumpling than those of the other characters, and the male narrative voice used for Hank just didn’t feel realistic. There were also distinct similarities in the narrative voices of other characters too, which I think let the book down somewhat.

 

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Flash Reviews: ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ and ‘Uprooted’

Time for some more flash reviews!

Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser *** 9780753826546
I am very much interested in Mary’s story, but haven’t studied any history of the period since I was at secondary school. I chose to read Fraser’s account of hers because she is so well revered; I thought that if anyone could present her tale in a fascinating and memorable way, it would be her. Alas, I have a few issues with the book. Mary Queen of Scots held my attention for the first 150 pages or so, but I felt as though it shifted after that point, losing some of its initial sparkle. Fraser’s effort is also a little protracted; it would have been better, and far more successful, had it been presented in a book of half this size. As it is, Mary Queen of Scots (book, not person – although she did stand at the height of five foot eleven…) was rather a behemoth.

The entirety is very repetitive; there is so much emphasis placed upon the (frankly largely unimportant) details of Mary’s appearance and height, and the reiteration of such things feels unnecessary. Fraser’s writing is not bad, but given her stature as a biographical historian, I had expected that it would be far tighter, better structured, and more expansive. Much of the vocabulary is used again and again, sometimes in the same sentence. The book could have been riveting – indeed, I thought it would be after reading the witty and amusing introduction – but it felt flat.

I would like to pick up another Fraser in future to see how it compares, but I shouldn’t think I will be doing so for quite some time. After all, the wrist ache needs to subside first…

 

Uprooted by Naomi Novik **
9781447294146I must begin by stating that I am not really a reader of fantasy novels, and tend to prefer a healthy dose of realism. That said, I largely decided to try ‘Uprooted’ since it was splashed all over my Instagram feed, and everybody was saying how amazing it was.

I did not find this an amazing book. Whilst the beginning captivated me, and left me wanting to know what was going to happen, I felt as though it immediately became plodding and rather dull. The narrative voice did not feel a realistic one to me, and it was repetitive to boot. The pacing was off, too. Reading it felt like wading through a pool of treacle; the end was in sight, but I just couldn’t bring myself to get there.

The elements of fairytale here would have captured my attention if they hadn’t been so trite. This book had so much scope to be good, and even original, but I feel rather disappointed that I had to abandon it 100 pages in; it just wasn’t doing anything for me.

 

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‘The Good Earth’ by Pearl S. Buck *** (Classics Club #3)

The third entry upon my Classics Club list was a novel which I had been meaning to read since I first started taking adult literature seriously, at around the age of nine or so.  Perhaps rather predictably, I waited for quite some years before purchasing a copy, but I made myself read it sooner rather than later.  To say that I was disappointed with the novel is fair; I believe that the setting and story had been put on a pedestal of sorts in my mind, and almost as soon as I began to read The Good Earth whilst on a relatively long train journey, I knew that I wouldn’t love it. 

Its premise – as I find with many classic or ‘modern classic’ novels – is fascinating: “In The Good Earth Pearl S. Buck paints an indelible portrait of China in the 1920s, when the last emperor reigned and the vast political and social upheavals of the twentieth century were but distant rumblings. This moving, classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan is must reading for those who would fully appreciate the sweeping changes that have occurred in the lives of the Chinese people during the last century. Nobel Prize winner Pearl S. Buck traces the whole cycle of life: its terrors, its passions, its ambitions and rewards. Her brilliant novel–beloved by millions of readers–is a universal tale of an ordinary family caught in the tide of history.”

Whilst The Good Earth was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, a year after its publication, I could not help but feel that the prose which had been used was rather too simplistic to build the levels of emotion which should have been present in such a novel.  I expected that Buck’s writing would veer toward the poetic, but in places it felt incredibly flat, largely due to its matter-of-fact third person narrative.  Some of her descriptions were rather nice; however, it did not seem as though the same amount of care had been taken throughout to make the prose feel consistent.

Buck’s perception of the Chinese culture was interesting, but I had the feeling that she was merely scratching at the surface for the most part.  One would think that as a resident of China herself, she could perhaps have included several details which are – or were – not that commonplace, but there was no real sense of her delving deeply into the history and social aspects of the country.  Due to the detached way in which the novel was both told – and, it could be said, constructed – I did not feel much sympathy at all for any of the protagonists, and did not often find myself agreeing with their actions either.

To conclude, whilst I have given The Good Earth three stars, I feel that my rating is rather generous.  Whilst I was relatively interested in the novel up until around the halfway point, and it did largely keep my attention, the second half of the story was rather bland.  Rather than rushing out to read more of Buck’s work, as I had half-expected I would when I added The Good Earth to my Classics Club list, I do not feel at all enthused to pick up any more of her novels.

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American Literature Month: Flash Reviews from the Archives

A series of flash reviews of American Literature seems a fitting interlude to post amongst the extensive reviews of late.  These have all been posted on the blog over the last couple of years.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner ****
I adore the Deep South as a setting and am wondering why, after finishing this stunning novel, I’ve not read any of Faulkner’s work before.  I adored the differing perspectives throughout, and the way in which each and every one of them was so marvellously distinct.  The story is such an absorbing one, and I love the idea of it – a family waiting for and commenting upon the death of one of their members.  Faulkner’s differing prose techniques in use in As I Lay Dying are wonderful, and show that as a writer, he is incredibly skilled.  Terribly sad on the whole and very cleverly constructed.

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Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann ***
I have read some absolutely marvellous reviews of this novel, and couldn’t wait to begin it.  The prologue of Let The Great World Spin is visually stunning and well thought out.  If only the rest of the book had been the same!  I enjoyed the author’s writing on the whole – some of his descriptions, for example, are sumptuous – but my stumbling block came with the characters.  They were interesting enough on the whole, but they were all so broken, often by alcohol and drugs.  Because of this, no distinct characters stood out for me, and I found it difficult to empathise with any of them in consequence.  An interesting novel, but a little disappointing by all accounts.

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Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan ****
Summer days warrant these witty, fun reads for me.  The books which Cohn and Levithan write are not your usual teen fare.  Rather than being fluffy, simply written and overly predictable (sorry, Sara Dessen, but I’m looking at you), their tales are smart, well constructed, intelligent in their prose and rather unique in terms of the cast of characters they create.  Yes, I suppose that there was an element of predictability here with regard to the ending, but the entire story was so well wrought that it really didn’t matter.  The characters are all marvellous, with perhaps the exclusion of Naomi, whom I found to be an incredibly difficult protagonist to get along with.  I loved the way in which Cohn and Levithan tackled serious issues – the rocky road of teen friendships, homosexuality, trying desperately to conform with peers, and so on.  Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List is a great book, and one which I struggled to put down.

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Children on Their Birthdays by Truman Capote *****
As with the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I got straight into these stories from the outset. I love the stunning sense of place which Capote never fails to create, and his characters are both marvellously and deftly constructed. His writing is just perfect. The tales in Children on Their Birthdays are short, but boy, are they powerful and thought provoking.

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A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams *****
Williams portrays relationships, even the most complicated, in a masterful manner. I love the way in which he writes. His characterisation is second to none, and he gives one so much to admire in each scene, each act. The characters were all fundamentally troubled souls, each imperfect in his or her own way, but they worked so well as a cast, and Blanche Du Bois is eternally endearing. Williams’ dialogue is pitch perfect. An absolutely marvellous, perceptive, strong and unforgettable play, and one which I’m now longing to see performed.

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