Review: Once Upon A River by Diane Setterfield

 

Genre: Literary fiction

Similar to: A slower version of The Essex Serpent

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of literary fiction who don’t mind a dash of magical realism

Publication date: 17th January 2018

 

This is an awkward post to write. Initially, I LOVED Once Upon A River – like, sent out a tweet that the author liked about how much I was enjoying it – but once I got into the book…well… I got a little bogged down.

Let me explain…

It’s midwinter in England, in the old Swan Inn on the banks of the Thames. Stories are being told by candlelight by the village locals. Suddenly, a man bursts through the doors, heavily beaten and holding what appears to be a doll. But when the villagers try to help him, they realise that he’s holding the body of a drowned girl. They lay her to rest in a room on her own but hours later – a miracle! – she stirs and seems to come back to life. So starts a tale of intrigue, deception and magic, heavily laden with folklore.

So far so good.

But when the entire book is based around who is the girl  in an age when no-one could tell for sure, I felt like I was literally getting caught in the weeds.

Luckily, Once Upon A River is beautifully, magically written. The prose is lyrical, flowing, well… like a river. However, it also meanders about, with a huge cast of characters forming a number of slower moving tributaries that feed into the main narrative flow. The symbolism wasn’t lost on me but it took a while to understand. It also made the pace of the book s-l-o-w… really slow. Occasionally, the storyline was so stagnant I thought we’d veered off course into an oxbow lake. The gorgeous writing just about managed to pull me through the silt though.

The book is also incredibly atmospheric. I could literally see the characters (there’s pages and pages of descriptive text) even though they’re numerous and somewhat similar. Combined with the writing style this made the novel far more engaging but after a while, instead of gliding effortlessly through the prose I felt like I was drowning in it. I got somewhat swamped by the side stories and exhausted by the sense that I was treading water, waiting for the next thing to happen.

Oddly, the narrative picked up pace towards the end – to the point of feeling a little rushed – which I found quite jarring. I didn’t fully understand the ending (I sensed some kind of moral message but couldn’t quite decipher it) although I appreciated how the author tied all of the narrative threads together. I hated the idea that getting married and having a baby would make everything better though.

Overall, this was a very difficult book to review. I can completely see why some people (a lot of people) have given it five stars – it’s an easy book to immerse yourself in. However, I struggled with the slow pace and the lack of action. Whilst I quite enjoyed reading Once Upon A River, I didn’t love it – but I’m sure plenty of other people will.

Three “the words LITERALLY washed over me”s out of five.

Beautifully written and highly original but a little slow for my taste.

 

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Please note that I read this book for free in exchange for an honest review courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks NetGalley!

 

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Review: The Map of Us by Jules Preston

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Genre: Fiction

Similar to: A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Could be enjoyed by: Quirky fiction lovers

Publication date: 4th May 2018

In keeping with my highly focused and organised lifestyle, I’ve FINALLY got round to reading and reviewing The Map of Us which I requested one whole year ago on Netgalley. Better late than never!

You see, the reason that I delayed…and delayed…and delayed reading the book was that I simply had no idea why I requested it. I think I got sucked in by all of the “next Eleanor Oliphant” hype but in reality it’s nothing like that.

The Map of Us is a complicated story of one family across the generations. There’s Violet, physically disabled and seemingly disowned by her family, growing up at a time when that kind of treatment was somewhat socially acceptable; Tilly, her granddaughter who likes statistics, analyses her relationships with quantitative data and creates a Compatibility Index to prove where her and her ex went wrong; her father who is a professional sand sculptor; her sister who is addicted to buying designer handbags she can’t afford and her brother who is leading world authority on the colour blue. There’s also a whole host of other odd people who crop up along the way, adding to the narrative of the numerous main characters. And – hahaha – they’re all super quirky too! Hahahaha…ha. Oh.

To me, it felt like the characters were all a bit, well, weird purely for the sake of it. Don’t get me wrong, I love an oddball but when literally everyone in the book has their own thing going on that is nothing whatsoever to do with the main narrative then it gets a bit tedious. It’s even harder when the novel is character driven and the plot is wafer thin. For example, Tilly’s Dad refuses to sculpt dolphins, even though they always win the competitions that he enters. Fine – that’s a nicely observed bit of humour but the point was repeated so many times it felt utterly laboured.

My other issue was with the structure of the book. The chapters are written from a first person perspective but it takes a while for you to work out who is actually speaking and that there’s more than one narrator. This stops being a problem once you’ve got to know the family a bit – the chapters are short so it doesn’t take too long – but it is quite hard to get into at first. I don’t know why you’d deliberately make it awkward for the reader?

Overall, I think my main issue was that I just couldn’t engage with the characters and as such, wasn’t really bothered about what happened to them. The book was described as being charming and quirky and I can see why but for me it needed more action and a stronger narrative thread. I didn’t hate the book – it was a nice enough read but unfortunately I got bored with it all.

Two and a half “Oh, do grow up”s out of five.

Cute and quirky but kinda dull. Not for me!

 

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Please note that I read this book for free in exchange for an honest review courtesy of NetGalley. Thanks NetGalley!

 

 

Review: The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden

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“I will ride the world, in between times, through the farthest countries of night and day”

Genre: Fantasy/YA

Similar to: Grimm’s Fairytales mixed with classic high fantasy

Could be enjoyed by: Those who like their YA fantasy with a darker edge

Publication date: 10th January 2019

 

I am starting 2019 with a bang!

The Winter of the Witch was my most anticipated reads of this year and I’ve already earmarked it as one of the best books of 2019.

Yes, during the second week of January.

It is that good.

I have ADORED the previous two instalments of the Winternight Trilogy and I was super-duper lucky to receive this book as a physical ARC (my first!) directly from the publishers. So, thank you to Tess Henderson at Penguin Random House for sending it to me. It holds a treasured place on my book blogging trolley.

I can’t quite put into words how gorgeous this book is – it is BEAUTIFUL and MAGICAL and ATMOSPHERIC and HISTORIC and ETHEREAL and I have made a Pinterest board to try to get across a little bit of the flavour of the novel because shouting at you in capitals simply won’t achieve it. If you’re so inclined, you can check it out here:

The Winter of the Witch follows on from The Girl in the Tower, with Vasya getting caught up, as usual, in the action and having to flee for her life. Moscow is burning and the people are in turmoil; a small, scruffy witch girl makes for an easy scapegoat. Vasya is tested to the extreme but like a phoenix rising from the ashes, what doesn’t kill her makes her stronger. Helped by the most unlikely of characters she travels through Midnight – a magical realm beyond mortal boundaries to explore her family legacy and realise her true potential. As she returns to the city she foolishly focuses on the battle but not the war and – drumroll – this is where the true scope of her quest is finally revealed.

If you’re expecting a classic tale of good vs evil, that’s not what happens next. Instead, The Winter of the Witch is far more complicated, more nuanced and has far greater scope than the usual trek-through-a-forest-and-one-final-battle fare that is so often recycled in fantasy novels. Tropes are turned on their heads – the princess not only has to save herself but everyone else (twice), the demons don’t get slain, and one of the starring characters…well, no spoilers but OH MY HEART!!!!

Of the three books in the series, I think this one is my favourite. It’s more similar in tone to The Girl in the Tower but less straightforward, more multi-layered, more grown-up. Vasya learns far more about herself and it’s wonderful to see her really coming into her own, mastering her true power and potential. The other characters are further developed too, with each of them showing both the light and shade of their true selves. New characters join the story (with one that could almost be described as cute – but don’t worry, he totally fits in) and there’s a welcome return of the Chyerti, who have a much bigger role than in The Girl in the Tower. Thank goodness there’s a family tree in the back of the book because there’s a lot of people, they’re all related and what with the Russian patronymic system varying by gender (not to mention the nicknames)… yeah, it gets complicated.

The writing, as always, is utterly spellbinding and I was completely drawn in to the mythical world of medieval Russia. The atmosphere is similar to The Bear and the Nightingale but it also holds a more ethereal air – Vasya wandering through Midnight is like the forest from the first book but seen through a veil: real but also not-real, cold and dangerous but also mystic and enchanted. There’s also more violence in this book: more bloodshed, more destruction, more tragedy. The sense of loss and despair is strong and quite visceral at times – I had huge empathy for Vasya and the difficult choices that she was forced to make.

The ending really is the endgame to end all endgames. It was just everything that I’d hoped for, with everything that had been hinted at in the previous two books coming to fruition – and so much more. The twists and turns that lead to the final conclusion were hard to spot in advance and I genuinely didn’t know how things were going to turn out – I was completely mesmerised up until the final page.

Overall – I just loved everything about The Winter of the Witch. The atmosphere, the characters, the plot – all were captivating and I literally devoured the novel in a couple of days. I was worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my expectations but it utterly surpassed them all.

Rating: Five “how can it be over?”s out of five stars.

One word: spellbinding. This is a beautiful, cleverly crafted novel that turns many tropes on their heads whilst retaining a sense of traditional classic storytelling.

A future classic. 

 

 

 

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo


Genre: Classic

Similar to: In a weird way, the Bible? 

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of heavy lifting

Publication date: 1862

Ok, I lied. This isn’t a review.

There is simply no way to summarise a book that is over 1200 pages long and covers almost every topic that you can think of without it turning into a dissertation (or a parody review – I could use massively flowery language and insert a big chunk of text about Waterloo somewhere in the middle…) but it’s Christmas and whilst I’m ideas rich I’m time poor (although that is a suitably massive sentence – stop it Lucinda!) So instead, I’m going to attempt to talk about some of the main points that struck me about the book-that-has-taken-me-a-year-to-read. Wish me luck.

Les Miserables is a vast, epic novel written in the about what life in France was like for it’s ordinary citizens during the first half of the nineteenth century. Jean Valjean is a prisoner, put to work on the galleys (prison ships) for stealing a loaf of bread. He escapes, reinvents himself and goes about trying to live his life as the best person he can be, helping everyone he meets as and when he can. He sacrifices himself numerous times for his ethics but continues to live selflessly. He encounters Fantine, a woman doing everything she can to ensure a good life for her daughter Cosette. Through a series of events, Jean Valjean discovers that Cosette is being worked like a slave by the unscrupulous Thénardier family and buys her from them, bringing her up as his own daughter. He escapes the clutches of the law numerous times and ensures Cosette is given a the happiest life possible. (This is a hugely simplified summary with many events and characters missing but it’s the best I’ve got).

I think the first thing to do is a shout out to whoever invented e-readers. I read Les Miserables on a Kindle and it’s a good job too – this is a BEHEMOTH of a book. As much as I would have liked to slam it down on a train table, or perhaps carry it in my arms whilst looking wistful in a Breton striped top, I simply don’t have the upper body strength for that sort of show-offy nonsense. If you’re into that kind of aesthetic though, this is the book for you.

In order to deal with the sheer length of the book, I signed up to a read-along where you read one of the 365 chapters a day for a year. I would guess that the book was written with that in mind, although the chapters themselves vary wildly in length with some less than a page long and some taking half an hour to get through. I quickly found that reading just one chapter was never going to work for me, so I tended to save up a week’s worth of reading and have an omnibus binge instead.

The novel, apart from being massive, is amazing. And very…French. It’s political and idealistic and raw and gritty and factual and endlessly quotable and brilliant and sad and funny and despite being written nearly 200 years ago it’s still (sadly) relevant to society today. I imagine that it was controversial in it’s day for the portrayal of ordinary people struggling through their ordinary lives; living in poverty, going hungry, doing everything they can to make ends meet. There are some truly tragic characters but through Jean Valjean there’s a sense of hope and an overall redemptive arc that lifts the narrative from depressing to inspiring.

There are literally SO MANY life lessons to be learned from Les Miserables. I’ve just read another review where someone said that this book makes you want to be a better person and I think that’s right. One of the central ideas is that by treating everyone – even a convict or a prostitute – with respect, that person will not only use that kindness, they’ll pay it forwards. If we could all see each other as human beings, rather than putting them into boxes full of made up assumptions, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

There’s also huge questions around ethics; what is legally right and what is morally right. Jean Valjean learns that whilst the state can punish him, abuse him and take away his freedom, they can’t harm his soul. He consistently does what he feels is right, even when this is often the hardest (and sometimes the illegal) option to take. In contrast, we see Javert the police officer bound by the letter of the law, acting entirely within the boundaries of legality even when this causes abject human suffering. The compassion that Jean Valjean is able to show eventually becomes Javert’s undoing (written, I have to say, in an extraordinarily beautiful way).

Despite the heavy moral overtones, Les Miserables never comes across as preachy or judgemental. There is so much light and shade within the novel that despite it’s length, you’re compelled to keep reading. True, the language used is often excessively flowery but somehow I didn’t mind it. I was concerned that the book was going to stray into the realms of poverty porn, romanticizing the misery that many of the characters faced but I needed have worried – there are scenes of children going hungry, homelessness, torture…the parts that stayed with me the most were the treatment of prisoners being moved across the country and the slow demise of poor Fantine. These scenes were truly upsetting but again, beautifully written.

Occasionally, there were parts that dragged – I almost gave up when I got to the part about the battle of Waterloo – but the short chapters and interspersing philosophical/historical/cultural asides into the main narrative really worked for me. I felt like I learnt so much about that period of history and my new found knowledge keeps rearing it’s head in the weirdest of places – like when I was on holiday in Devon and found out that 19th Century French prisoners of war had been moved from galley ships to Dartmoor prison and had built the church there by hand.

In contrast, there were parts that I absolutely flew through – the Thénardier heist, the barricade scenes and the sewers were some of the best bits of literature that I’ve ever read. Truly amazing prose.

Overall, Les Miserables is an incredible book. I found the portrayal of ordinary people a particularly fascinating topic and I loved learning about the real world events that took place during the same period. Yes, it takes time and dedication to read – and you will have a truly epic book hangover when you’re done – but it’s well worth it.

Rating: Four and a half “this can’t be right…96% complete, 4 hours 37 minutes left – WTF?” out of five.

Exhausting, occasionally waffley but overall brilliant. Plus, you’ll have arms like Michelle Obama if you read it in hardback. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #24 Read an assigned book that you hated or never finished.

Review: Of Women by Shami Chakrabarti

Genre: Non-fiction, feminist literature

Similar to: A Good Time to be a Girl

Could be enjoyed by: People looking for a broad overview of feminist issues

Publication date: 26th October 2017 

*puffs out cheeks, blows out through pursed lips* 

Yeah.

This book was so close to being a DNF multiple times but I was just about interested enough to keep going. 

JUST.

Of Women in the 21st Century (to give it it’s full title) is a series of essay-like chapters regarding the treatment of women in various different areas of life (education, faith, healthcare etc.) highlighting the myriad of injustices that they face. Light bedtime reading it ain’t.

As the description suggests, the book is, well…it’s pretty depressing. There are SO MANY issues facing women and Shami Chakrabarti has detailed them all, with credible stats and references, eleventy billion times throughout the text. My main takeaway is that women are basically f*cked.

And that’s my problem, because I’m generally a positive little sunflower and I like to think that the world is ever so slowly changing for the better. I know that all these problems exist but there are lots of people working very hard to tackle them. It would have been great if they had got a mention – or if Chakrabarti has proposed her own solutions in a more concrete fashion.

I’m not knocking the inclusion of facts and figures in the book – far from it, Of Women is impeccably researched – but that doesn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience. The endless stats became meaningless when read as large chunks of text and the whole thing felt highly impersonal. I didn’t disagree with anything that she said but I wasn’t fired up by her arguments either.

I also felt that the book was highly, highly biased. There was no interrogation of the data presented and no consideration for any counter-arguments. I also got the impression (even though it’s not overtly stated) that it’s those bloody Conservatives who have caused/failed to solve some of the problems detailed – remembering of course that Chakrabarti is a Labour Party politician. Again, I didn’t necessarily disagree with what she was saying but it was all very one sided.

However, there were some parts of the book that were genuinely enjoyable. In particular, the section on faith was really interesting and well researched. I think this area is often overlooked in feminist discussions so it felt like Chakrabarti was bringing something new to the table, instead of summarising the main points of old ground.

Overall, I felt like the book was a fantastic overview, a starting point, an introduction to some of these issues but the tone of the piece was so dry and heavygoing that I could only really recommend it as a reference book for the basics of gender studies.

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

A good overview of the main issues facing women but written in such a dry, uninspiring fashion that what should be a hard-hitting account became meaningless.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! 

Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Genre: Western

Similar to: A more fun version of The Revenant

Could be enjoyed by: Men? This is very much a boy’s book (although I liked it too)

Publication date: 22nd May 2017

I have to say, I really like Michael Crichton books. They’re never going to win any awards for being outstanding examples of literary fiction but they’re easy to read, fast paced page turners and at a time when I’m still ploughing through the final few chapters of Les Mis, it was great to have a bit of light relief.

https://binged.it/2Sy5SjO

Yes, THAT Michael Crichton.

Set in 1876, Dragon Teeth is about William Johnson, a privileged Yale student with very little in the way of life experience. As a bet, he volunteers to go fossil hunting with the University’s resident paelentologist to the badlands of the Wild West. He endures a number of trials (including being caught up in the schemes of two warring professors) meets a host of real historical figures and gets stuck in the lawless town of Deadwood whilst attempting to get his important finds home – hopefully without dying in the process, of course.

As you can tell from the storyline, this is a really fun book. I loved how the author added in so many different crazy characters and awkward/dangerous situations which really brought the whole thing to life. Unfortunately, there were only a couple of female characters (who were mostly horrible) but that felt quite authentic for the period and setting (the lack of women, not their manipulative nature) so I won’t complain too much. The writing was fast paced, with tons of action and adventure. Again, it wasn’t great literature but it was highly compelling.

I really liked how Crichton blurred the lines between fiction and reality. Many of the characters and scenarios in the book were real and although much of the story is made up, it felt extremely authentic. The descriptions of people and places were really well written and I had a vivid idea of what it was like to live in Deadwood at that time.

Even though the novel was published posthumously after it was found as a draft on a computer, it still felt like a completed manuscript. I’m sure that if he’s been alive, Crichton would have spent more time working on it before sending it off to be published – it’s certainly not his best work, by any means – but it was obviously something that was near enough completion to still be a good read.

So, even though Westerns are really not my thing, I thought that Dragon Teeth was a really fun, compelling romp. I loved the vivid descriptions, the action and the inclusion of real historical figures. It made a great alternative to the trials of Javert and Jean Valjean!

Rating: Four out of five stars

A fun, easy book to read with surprising historic accuracy. A good option if you’re in a reading slump or as an alternative to a heavier novel.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #7 Read a Western.

Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Could be enjoyed by: Everyone apart from me

Publication date: 15th August 2017

After seeing the rave reviews of this book aaaand having it personally recommended to me aaaand seeing it win the Wome’s Prize for Fiction I knew I just had to read this book. 

After reading the first few chapters I was thinking “hmmm, slow start but ok…” . Then after a few more chapters I was thinking “woah, majorly disjointed storyline but ok…” . Then after reading a bit more I seriously began to doubt whether I’d picked up the right book. Was this really the new novel that everyone’s talking about? 

Home Fire is the story of a British Muslim family struggling to come to terms with the legacy of their Jihadist father. The son, Parvaiz, becomes a member of ISIS and it’s left to his two sisters to pick up the pieces and get him home. The story is a reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone which frankly went way over my head so please bear in mind that there might be lots of clever references used that I simply didn’t pick up on. 

Anyway…

The story felt extremely clunky to me. The novel was set in five different locations and frankly the first location (and character) seemed entirely superfluous to the rest of the book. It felt like the author was trying to be faithful to the original Greek Tragedy and in doing so had to shoehorn in bits of text that would otherwise have been cut. This made the book meander about to the extent that it felt like a good short story surrounded with a lot of filler. 

The other problem that I had was that not a lot happened – especially in the first half of the novel. Let’s not forget, this book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and yet weirdly, the two main female characters in it felt woefully underwritten. Isma was the stereotypical ” dutiful daughter”, taking care of the family finances by working abroad.I didn’t get a feel for any personality beyond that. Aneeka felt like an utter missed opportunity of a character. Her behaviour in the first half of the book was entirely based around having sex and yet I was never sure of her motivations. Was she in love? Lust? Or was she using her lover to get to his influential father? There didn’t seem to be any scheming, plotting or tactics employed except for the occasional bit of acting distant and again I had no idea why. In contrast, their brother, Parvaiz, was far more well rounded and had a much more interesting storyline. I definitely enjoyed the parts of the novel that focused on him the most.

There are a number of different ideas explored within the text about identity, belonging and sacrifice and in fairness, this is done rather well. The clash between what you feel you should be doing, what you want to do and what it would benefit you to do is replicated numerous times throughout the narrative, often so subtly that you almost don’t notice it. For example, one of the characters who we meet later on (called Karamat Lone) is a British Muslim politician trying to balance his public persona with his private beliefs. This manifests itself in big, obvious ways (he talks about his tough stance on immigration and the prosecution of individuals who go to fight for ISIS – to the extent that the Muslim community have openly criticised him) but also almost invisibly – his son is called Eamonn spelled the traditional Irish way rather than the Pakistani Ayman.I loved the way that these complexities were woven so deftly throughout the text without feeling obvious or unnatural.

I’m going to guess that the ending of the book is somewhat faithful to the original Antigone text but let’s think about that for a second. I’m woefully under-educated when it comes to classic literature but I’d stick a fiver on my guess that the Greek Tragedies are all about the high drama. Now imagine that being played out by an ordinary girl from suburban London. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? And using the good old she’s gone crazy trope didn’t work for me at all.

Overall, I have completely mixed feeling about this book. The Antigone reference went over my head, the storyline felt clunky and I felt like the female characters in particular needed fleshing out. However, the writing in parts was brilliant, the depiction of a radicalized young British man was really interesting and the overall narrative was, on the whole, compelling. That ending was a step too far for me though.

Rating: Three out of five stars

Great writing but trying to fit the modern storyline around an ancient Greek Tragedy didn’t work for me. I’m clearly in the minority though

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #9 Read a book of colonial or post-colonial literature.

Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: ??? *Resists urge to write Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a totally different culture* 

Could be enjoyed by: People who are interested in the experiences of first generation immigrants.

Publication date: 22nd March 1989

I’m going to let you in to a little secret here. Usually, I start my book reviews by assessing what emotions the novel has stirred up in me and allow them to set the tone for the review. Was it a super exciting story? If so, my review will have lots of exclamation marks and short, punchy sentences. Was it deeply moving? I’ll crack out longer paragraphs, throw in some half remembered A-Level psychology and feature the word “ohhhhh” a lot. But when I think of The Joy Luck Club I just think…meh.

So this probably won’t be a very good review (you’ve been warned).

I really wanted to like this book but I felt like I failed to miss the point. And upon reading the Wikipedia page for it, it seems that I absolutely had. You see, the novel features seven different characters – three mothers, three of their respective daughters plus one daughter whose mother has just died. The mothers are all part of the Joy Luck Club (a mahjong playing group) and are all Chinese immigrants, whilst their daughters are all Chinese-American. The book reads like a series of short stories from each of the characters. Occasionally these stories overlap but they’re often stand-alone vignettes. 

Apparently, the book is structured into four sections and the stories are themed for each as an allegory for the way that mahjong is played (?) Well, that went straight over my head. As far as I could see, the characters were picked at random to tell a story about their life. There seemed to be hardly any narrative thread holding it together. I immediately forgot who was related to who and couldn’t find the family tree explaining the genealogy using the ebook version. There was very little in the way of introducing the characters so in my head they became interchangeable – the “mothers” and the “daughters”. 

I have to say, some of the writing about what I’m going to call “old China” i.e. the lives that the mothers had before moving to America was really beautiful and felt totally authentic. I could have got completely lost in the stories if they’d perhaps been expanded to a longer form or if the book was just a collection of the experiences of those three characters. Unfortunately, they were interspersed with the stories of the younger generation, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The main problem for me was that the characters – all of them – were horrible. The mothers and daughters didn’t get on. The daughters were petty and bitchy to each other. The mothers were petty and bitchy to everyone. The men were either nasty or useless. I would have loved to see at least one family work it out but there was such a disconnect between them all that it wasn’t to be 😢.

I thought this was a real shame. I loved the stories set in China but with such confusing, similar characters, a cast of horrible adults and no redemptive arc (actually that’s not true – one of the daughters ends up connecting with her extended Chinese family but we don’t get to find out how that plays out) I found The Joy Luck Club to be totally underwhelming.

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

One word: meh. Some parts were great, some parts were dull /horrible /annoying.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #5 Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).

Review: The Cows by Dawn O’Porter


“Don’t follow the herd”

Genre: Fiction *refuses to say chick lit*

Similar to: Marian Keyes? (she says having never read any Marian Keyes)

Could be enjoyed by: People who think feminism is the Spice Girls shouting “Girl Power!”

Publication date: 6th April 2017

I really like Dawn O’Porter so I was expecting great things from her novel The Cows, but oh my goodness what a letdown. The characters were horrible, the scenarios they found themselves in were utterly ridiculous, no research had been done and the sentences all went on and on, forever, like this, with far too many, commas. Urgh.

The Cows is the story of three women: Camilla, a blogger; Tara, a TV producer of investigative documentaries and Stella, a PA. Now, the whole premise of the book is that women shouldn’t be defined by whether they have kids or not. We’re far more complicated and nuanced than that. OK? Because what you also need to know is that:

Camilla is option A: Does not want kids. 

Tara is option B: Has kids.

Stella is option C: Doesn’t have kids but wants them.

These choices define absolutely every action that the characters take. The entire book is about the very thing it purports to be against.

AARGH!

The book tries to be funny, irreverent and lighthearted so features all of the usual tropes: death, living with the BRCA gene, the desperation of wanting a baby before it’s too late, mental health issues, abortion, isolation…what? You don’t think these themes are funny? That’s probably because they’re not. At all. You’d need to be a fairly skilled writer to include any of them in a humorous novel without being eye-strainingly jarring. And after reading The Cows – I have eye strain.

There’s a lot that I could rant about but I’ll give you a little example of how farfetched this book is. Camilla the blogger has eleventy billion followers that she found by printing off flyers and posting them to her neighbours. She blogs every day by thinking “hmmmmm” then brain dumps whatever’s on her mind, uploads it to her site then swanks off for some casual sex with her twentysomething hunk boyfriend. Approx. time blogging: half an hour. This makes her a millionaire. 

I laughed SO HARD.

The characters are all basically horrible people. Camilla -no-kids writes awful blog posts about not wanting children, shaming those who do because she had to be “controversial” (at one point she sees her sister (three kids) naked and describes in detail how the little darlings have ravaged her body, leaving her sounding like an incontinent old crone). Tara-one-kid gets caught masturbating on the tube (don’t ask – also an empty tube in central London on a Friday night – as if) and goes into woe-is-me meltdown, losing her job and being publicly shamed because she’s a woman (which, while I understand the double standard around sex for men and women, I actually think worked in her favour since she wasn’t arrested for public indecency). And Stella-wants-kids is a woman losing her grip on reality, facing her own terrifying demons, dealing with the death of both her Mum and twin sister plus the knowledge that she carries the BRCA gene. So she tries to seduce her boss purely so she can get pregnant by telling him she has cancer and hoping for a calculated sympathy shag. I don’t even know what to say about that if I’m honest. 

It was this sheer lack of subtlety in the writing which astounded me. When one of the characters makes a dubious moral choice (has a baby without telling the father), Dawn O’Porter clearly thought “I’d better clear this mess up!” so *spoiler alert* has her find him (takes five minutes of tracking down, how fortuitous), tells him but then “from the look in his eyes she could tell he wasn’t interested and she’d made the right choice in not saying anything”. Erm sorry but that’s bullshit. He might need, oooh I don’t know…ten minutes to absorb the information that he has an eight year old with a woman he can’t remember? 

In the end, I was thoroughly bored of this book. I give it plus points for showing a bit of female solidarity and a couple of chapters of female friendship but overall I found it jarring, clumsy and horribly stereotypical. Lots of people seem to think it’s hilarious but it really wasn’t for me. 

Rating: Two “don’t follow the herd who are reading this book” out of five.

Please note that I read this book for free via NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks NetGalley!

Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls by Hope Nicholson

Genre: Comic, Anthology

Similar to: Like an old fashioned Annual but without the puzzles

Could be enjoyed by: Geeks!

Publication date: 9th December 2015

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls is a non-fiction anthology of prose, comics and illustrations from lots of different contributors (including Margaret Atwood and Marjorie Lin) about their own personal experiences of love. The contributors are super diverse, so there’s stories of queerness, asexuality, polyamory, unrequited love, love of fictional characters, friendships…pretty much every type of relationship that you can think of from people of all different backgrounds. With all of the contributors being self confessed geeks, the stories reference various nerdy pastimes such as fandoms, cosplay and online gaming, with overarching themes of not fitting in, not being interested in traditional “girl” stuff, being an awkward obsessive with a whole secret life that no-one else gets. Stuff that I think a lot of us can relate to.

However…

There was something that didn’t quite click with me and this book. I’m not sure if it was because I found it to be quite US/Canada centric or because I’d never had any kind of super intense relationship with a book/film/comic but I couldn’t see myself reflected in any of the stories. Yes, I could relate to some of the more general themes but because the contributions were so specific it was difficult to see my own brand of geeky weirdness being represented. 

I loved the diversity of the contributors and the attempts to be as broad in scope as possible but I did feel like this resulted in a bit of a mish mash of topics. I think the problem is that the world of geekery is so vast that trying to collect individual experiences and collating them without a strong central theme, or grouping them into sub-topics or whatever was always going to result in quite a jarring reading experience. 

Another issue for me was the short story format that was the basis of the book. Many of the contributions featured such niche interests that for someone outside of that world it could be a little confusing. Some of the terms used were unfamiliar to me and at times I didn’t quite understand what was going on.

Overall, I think that this is a classic case of great for you, but not for me. I’m sure that if you’ve got a particular geeky interest and you see yourself reflected in some of the stories then you’ll absolutely love it, but as someone who hasn’t experienced that world I didn’t quite connect.

Rating: Two and a half “wtf does that mean?” out of five.

 A mixed bag of stories made for a slightly jarring but nonetheless interesting reading experience. I’m just not the right target market for the book.