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 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: Skyward by Brandon Sanderson

“Claim the Stars”

Genre: Sci-fi, YA

Similar to: Illuminae, Top Gun, Star Wars (ish)

Could be enjoyed by: Nerds 😉

Publication date: 6th November 2018

Brandon Sanderson has always been one of those authors that I’ve put into my mental “must read” category – and then never got round to. He’s one of my friend’s favourite authors so I’ve literally been meaning to read the Mistborn Trilogy for years – it sits there on my Kindle shelf looking at me accusingly – but for some reason I’ve always passed it by. So, I was super duper excited to be approved for his latest novel, Skyward, on NetGalley because I thought the addition on a deadline would FINALLY spur me on.

My initial reaction after reading the book is WHY DID I WAIT SO LONG??? Skyward is excellent. I mean really, really good. It made me laugh out loud, it made me cry (something I always say books never make me do, although I’ve written that three times in the past few months) and it made me feel like an idiot for not picking up Mistborn when my friend (and about thirty bloggers) told me to. Sorry guys!

Skyward is the story of Spensa who lives on the planet Detritus, which, as the name suggests, is a junk planet abandoned by it’s previous inhabitants. She was born there to a family who were crew members on a fleet of spacecraft that crash landed on Detritus following a battle with their enemies, the Krell aliens. The survivors created a subterranean world for themselves but faced aeriel attacks from the Krell. They began building spaceships to fight back and as the daughter of a previously disgraced pilot, all that Spensa wants is to sign up to fight. Those in charge, however, have other ideas.

The first thing that struck me about the novel was just the way that it was written. As someone who often takes a little while to settle in to a book (as you can tell from the number of dashes and brackets in my reviews, my internal monologue never shuts up) I read the first fifteen pages without even realising. The novel zooms along with it’s overburners on fire, excitement and adventure on every page. I loved how the answers to my questions were slowly revealed, without any boring info-dumps or obviously fortuitous events. The narrative flowed seamlessly, even through the technical details of how to fly a spaceship. I was hooked from the first sentence to the last.

I loved how all of the characters were depicted in the book, with complex personalities and hidden motivations. Each of them had good and bad traits that often led to errors of judgement or bad behaviour, especially as they were all acting in a highly pressurised environment. I really enjoyed seeing how the characters interacted with each other; arguing, vying for position and using petty insults to cover up the fact that they were all just scared. Psychologically, it was really interesting to see how they used their own quirks to figure each other out and how their diversity eventually became a strength *suppresses urge to spout boring group development theory*.

Unusually for a sci-fi novel (especially one written by a man) the book is pretty female centric and I loved that the female representation was just…there. There was no political point, no-one in the story told Spensa she couldn’t be a pilot because she was a girl – indeed, the head of the defensive federation is a woman and the pilots seemed to be a 50/50 mix of men and women. The book could do easily have gone down the Handmaid’s Tale route, forcing women to keep popping out babies in order to ensure the survival of a small population against a vast number of enemies but Sanderson clearly chose to make Spensa his rebellious MC for reasons other than her gender. I personally found this a refreshing change (and I say that as a feminist – I just think that trope has been done too many times).

I also really, really loved the fact that there was no bloody romance taking up space in the life of a girl who simply wanted to kill space aliens and avenge the death of her father. It was soooo great not to have to deal with cringey teenage attempts at flirting, although I suspect there might be some of that coming in the next instalment *sigh*. 

I loved how the ending to the novel was so difficult to guess and although I had some idea, it was still a surprise. I’ll try not to give too much away but a certain character reminded me very much of AIDAN from Illuminae so I was kept in my toes wondering if he was a reliable narrator or not – and what bearing that would have on the rest of the story. 

Overall, I loved Skyward from the first sentence to the last. Some parts should have been boring (protracted battle flights filled with technical detail, endless comments about mushrooms) yet somehow Sanderson absolutely chuffing nailed it. 

Rating: 🌟Five “no YOU’RE crying at a talking plane” out of five.🌟

A fearless main character, a seamless narrative and an unexpected ending made Skyward a fantastic read from start to finish.

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

Review: Not That Bad ed. Roxane Gay

“Dispatches from rape culture”

Genre: Non-fiction, Anthology

Similar to: Nasty Women, Misogynation by Laura Bates

Could be enjoyed by: Enjoy is not the right word AT ALL but this book is so so important it should be read by everyone.

Publication date: 1st November 2018

Wow. This book is like a gut-punch to your emotions. It’s incredibly powerful, often difficult to read but ultimately incredibly important.

Not That Bad is an anthology of #ownvoices stories about rape, assault and harassment. It’s intersectional, featuring people from many different backgrounds (including men and some “household names” that I’d never heard of, but whatever. Not important. The stories are universal). It features a really broad spectrum of experiences (often in quite graphic detail) but also mixes in everyday harassment stories and casual misogyny -and it’s that that makes the book so relatable. It really illustrates how behaviour that we think of as being low-level (or even acceptable) is really the thin end of a wedge that goes from wolf whistles to rape. 

The book focuses on a lot of the issues that rarely gets discussed – coercion, manipulation and abuses of power all feature. It totally breaks down the myth that rape solely consists of a man dragging you into the bushes when you’re walking home at night and the idea that if you didn’t categorically and loudly say the word no then how could anyone reasonably think that you weren’t gagging for it? I really appreciated how the more grey areas of sexual assault were explored and the bravery of the contributors who said “this is what happened and I don’t know if it was rape but I know it was bad”. 

At many times I felt like throwing this book at a wall (if it had been a paperback I would have – you don’t get that excitement with e-ARCs). Weirdly, what got to me the most wasn’t the experiences of the victims but the responses of the people that they told. The title of the book itself refers to how experiences of sexual assault are downplayed – at least you weren’t killed, at least it happened when you were old enough to deal with it, at least he didn’t hurt you, at least you’re ok now. It’s not that bad. That sentiment seemed to be echoed over and over again. Urgh.

What amazed me was the stories about the perpetrators who didn’t feel like they’d done anything wrong. Obviously all of the stories are shocking but the very idea that someone could rape/assault a woman and genuinely not know was mind blowing. The guy who wrote the “sweet” story of hooking up with his girlfriend by carrying her semi-conscious body to the beach to have sex with her was so wrong on so many levels and genuinely made me feel sick. How did we get to a point where young people could think that situation could be construed as romantic?

I think it’s incredibly important for everyone to read this book but I’d highly recommend doing it in small bites. There’s just…a lot. A lot to process. A lot to get mad about. A lot to make you cry. Also, please think carefully about whether the book is going to be triggering for you. It’s pretty graphic and covers a wide range of experiences so do be careful with your mental health. 

Rating: Four and a half “at least you weren’t killed” out of five .

Powerful, upsetting but so, so important. Huge love and respect for everyone that contributed. 

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #22 Read an essay anthology.

 

Review: The Life and Times of a Very British Man by Kamal Ahmed

Genre: Memoir, Adult Non-Fiction

Similar to: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah (minus the humour)

Could be enjoyed by: People interested in a personal experience of immigration, racism and “Britishness”

Publication date: 18th October 2018

You might recognise the name of the author – Kamal Ahmed is the BBC’s Chief Economics Editor. From what I’ve seen of him on TV, he appears to be a nice, polite, slightly nerdy guy who talks a lot about facts and figures…and that’s kind of my problem with his book, The Life and Times of a Very British Man. It’s a well researched, coherent discussion of race, culture and immigration in the 20th and 21st Century but it’s all a bit, well, nice. Everything is written about in a very fair and balanced way (even if some of the statements are pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking) and whilst that makes for some interesting soundbites or perhaps a good newspaper article, reading an entire book which seems to be centred around the idea that racism=bad (and here’s some facts to back it up) can be a tiny bit dull. Like, we know that already. Give me more personal interest.

To be fair, Ahmed does interweave his personal experiences of growing up in 1970’s Britain as the mixed race child of a white British mother and a black Sudanese father but I struggled to connect to his annecdotes. I have a real issue with writers who describe their lives in a very matter of fact way because I find it hard to empathise with them and I personally found the slightly detached writing style didn’t engage me. It didn’t help that facts and figures were so freely sprinkled throughout the text, like a final year student trying to shoehorn in a load of references to their dissertation. I found that the overall effect was one of polite discomfort – a dispassionate cry of “something should be done about this!” but what was lacking was any kind of passion. I wanted more anger, more drama, more discussion of real world implications. Not another statistic from an ONS survey.

There were however some parts of the book that were really gripping. There was a dissection of the Enoch Powell “Rivers of Blood” speech that was very well written and super informative. I’d never even considered the content of the speech before (I literally knew those three words) and it was fascinating to look at the wider political climate at the time it was written and the implications on the rhetoric of politicians today surrounding the issue of immigration. I was also fascinated to read about Ahmed’s trip to Sudan and his feelings about the idea of “going home” to a country that was as alien to him as any tourist. Naively, I expected him to feel some kind of connection to the land, then I realised what a ridiculous notion this is -and started wondering what had informed that view…

Overall, The Life and Times of a Very British Man simply wasn’t for me. It’s well written, well researched and forms a cohesive argument but I struggled to engage with the author. Ironically, if he’d been a bit less British-stiff-upper-lip about the whole thing I perhaps would have enjoyed it more. 

Rating: Two and a half “is that the bloke off the telly?” out of five.

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

 

Review: No Tomorrow by Luke Jennings

Genre: Thriller

Similar to: Something by John Le Carre or Ian Fleming 

Could be enjoyed by: People who liked book one

Publication date: 25th October 2018

No, you haven’t read this review before – this is the second instalment of the novels that the Killing Eve TV show was based on. To be honest, by the time I’d finished this book the show had deviated so utterly from the text that I wasn’t even sure if it had taken the book into account, was going to do so in the next series or if Pheobe Waller Bridge was just forging ahead with her own storylines from now on. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

In No Tomorrow, the main characters remain as in the first book; Eve Polastri (MI6 agent) and Oxana Vorontsova (Villanelle, sociopath and assassin). The two women are locked in a deadly game of cat and mouse, with Eve edging ever closer to Villanelle and the secretive organisation that she works for – only to find out the extent to which she’s been manipulated.

Oooh!

I’ll start with a nice positive – this book was far more coherent than the first one (Codename: Villanelle). The whole narrative flowed better, there was more content, the characters were more fleshed out. I mean, it’s still an overtly glamourous, ridiculously premised spy thriller so it’s never going to win any literary awards but it’s also super fast paced, exciting voyerism. You just have to remember to suspend your belief from time to time.

It was also nice to see a few glimpses of the humour of the TV series but unfortunately it was nowhere near as frequent or as well done. I thought that was such a shame because the TV series really does stand out for it’s quick wit and black humour. However, the book still retains a certain charm and is definitely a page turner. The characters are just as far fetched as ever but the way that Villanelle and Eve are drawn to each other is unique and even a tiny bit sexy. I mean, Eve still has stratospheric leaps of imagination (her instinct, ha! That must be why she’s female) and Villanelle survives some frankly bonkers murder scenes (spoiler alert: a leather suitcase does not provide much protection from a bomb blast) but the dynamic between the two women is fascinating. 

It did find it annoying that I couldn’t for the life of me work out where the book was in relation to the TV series. Like AT ALL. Some events didn’t happen, others were alluded to, some were fairly similar but meant that things that had happened in the TV series didn’t make sense. It doesn’t help that a few of the male characters in the book have been changed to women for the television. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for diverse representation but it doesn’t make it easy when you’re reading ahead to find out what happens and you can’t even figure out who is who!

Overall, I enjoyed No Tomorrow a lot more than Codename: Villanelle and I’m looking forwards to seeing what happens next, both in text and on the television. I still prefer the TV series but the final chapter of No Tomorrow has set up a really interesting premise that I’m super excited about. I need to know what happens!

Rating: Four “don’t eat the banana if it’s got human remains on it” out of five.

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

 

Review: Codename:Villanelle by Luke Jennings

Genre: Thriller

Similar to: Something by John Le Carre or Ian Fleming (IDK, I’m not a thriller fan)

Could be enjoyed by: People who’ve watched the TV series and would like to know what the hell’s going on

Publication date: 6th September 2018

To clear up any confusion: yes, this is the novel that inspired the Killing Eve TV series. However, the show deviates wildly from the book so if you’re a fan of the programme, be prepared. For those of you who haven’t seen it I’d highly recommend doing so because it’s bloody brilliant and one of those rare occasions where the adaptation is better than the source material (that’s something I’ve literally never said before). 

I digress…

Codename: Villanelle is a super sexy spy thriller, set in various glamorous locations all over the world. It’s your usual fare: a good cop character (Eve Polastri) is recruited to catch a sociopathic assassin (Oxana Vorontsova AKA Villanelle) who is working for a top secret consortium hell bent on creating a new world order. What’s different is that both the MI6 agent and the assassin are women. A bit one dimensional, yes and not brilliantly written but still, it’s nice to see female characters taking centre stage for a change. To be honest, their depictions could have been a lot worse (I don’t know anything about their breasts, for example) but I think that says more about the low bar that’s been set by other authors than the quality of the writing here.

Whereas the TV series elevates the (slightly generic) story from good to brilliant with the use of clever dark humour and a complex storyline, the book is far less amusing and has a more obvious narrative. The only positive is that the book does provide more of a back story for anyone who has watched Killing Eve and got a bit lost. You get to find out more about the consortium (The Twelve) and their ideas for the world which helps to place Villanelle’s actions within more of a logical setup. You also get to understand a bit more of her back story so there’s less of the “she’s just a sociopath, go with it” which seemed to be the image that the TV series presented.

On the plus side, the book is extremely fast paced and is a real page turner. It’s fairly short so easy to rip through and despite being a bit generic there’s something about the two main characters that’s utterly compelling. Villanelle is a ruthless killer utterly without remorse and although the book has softened her a bit, the things she got up to provided a great big dash of voyeuristic escapism. The cat and mouse games that she plays with Eve were creepy/enthralling in equal measure but I did find Eve’s leaps of logic a tiny bit wearing. From a multitude of options she seemed to guess correctly every single time, leading her in a direct line towards Villanelle. Hmmmmm.

Apart from the occasional need for the reader to suspend their disbelief, the only other thing that let the book down was the writing itself. I found the text somewhat clunky and as the book is four novellas smushed together the narrative flow is a bit start-stop. This can be jarring at times but the action ramps up quickly, helping to smooth out the obviously bumpy plot.

Overall, I found Codename: Villanelle to be exciting and fast paced but also kinda generic and dare I say it – a tiny bit trashy. Pheobe Waller-Bridge has done an absolutely terrific job in adapting the text for TV and if I were you, I’d definitely watch that first then read the books if you have a burning desire to get a bit more background info.

Rating: Two and a half “please put down the champers and drink some water” out of five.

Sexy, fast paced escapism – just don’t expect the brilliance of the TV series.

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

Discussion: Is It OK To DNF an ARC?

Odd little fact about me- I very very rarely DNF books. There’s something that feels so wrong about doing it that I just…can’t. I’ve spent hours slogging through some thoroughly unenjoyable texts: Titus GroanThe Devil’s PrayerThe Foxhole Court, The Book of Mirrors…the list is huge. Yet I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time reading any of those books. I think I’ve just proven to myself that I definitely didn’t like them (and said so in my fun little negative reviews). Usually, if I’m reading a boring book I’ll put it on the backburner and read something else for a bit, then return to it half an hour at a time for the next few days/weeks/months. However, even I have my limits and unfortunately I think I’ve reached them with Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott.

You see, Swan Song isn’t an objectively bad book. It’s coherent, the plot moves along nicely, there grammar and spelling is fine, there’s no major storyline inconsistencies or majorly annoying characters. It has some good points; it’s glamorous, it features a number of well written characters, it feels authentic. The problem is…I simply don’t care what happens.

Honestly, I’ve never felt so emotionally distanced from a book. I have absolutely no idea why – it’s not like the characters aren’t multi-faceted or deserving of pity or the writing is terrible. It’s just that…I don’t care. You see, Swan Song is the story of Truman Capote (yes, that one) and the publication of excerpts from his unfinished novel”Answered Prayers”. Capote’s writing features all of his glamorous Hollywood/High Society friends and his bitchy stories about them and Swan Song is the imagined reaction to the release of such scandalous gossip. My problem is this: I don’t care about (fairly tame) gossip about 1950’s starlets. I don’t care about whose husband had an affair with whom. I don’t care who felt betrayed and who spat out their dry martini all over their Chanel evening gown. It just wasn’t for me.

But can I DNF it?

The problem is, I got a copy of Swan Song as an ARC and I feel weirdly obliged to give an honest review of the title – something I can’t objectively do if I’ve only read half of it. Yes, I know there’s a box on NetGalley where you can say that you’re not going to provide a review but there’s still part of me that feels that’s it’s wrong to give up. But then I look at the progress bar on my Kindle and it says something like 3 hours 15 minutes left to read and my heart just sinks (also, I’m not entirely sure that’s accurate – I can usually read an entire book in that time – perhaps it’s because I keep drifting off and having to re-read bits). 

There’s a part of me that’s worried that the book might suddenly get better and I’m missing out. There’s also a tiny little nagging voice that tells me that DNFing a book makes me a loser. Then there’s another part of me that thinks life’s too short to read something in not enjoying.

Things my brain is saying right now:

But what if I go to a dinner party and everyone is raving about the book and I have to admit that I gave up on it? (I can’t even begin to tell you how wildly improbable that scenario is).

What off my brain never lets me forget that I stopped reading it and it annoys me for the rest of my life? (More likely)

What if the book becomes a forgotten classic, only to be re-discovered years later and I have to admit that I was there at the start but I couldn’t see how amazing it was? 

Aargh!

Can anyone please help me to feel better about my dilemma? Are you a regular DNFer? Is it wrong? Am I over-thinking it? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

“Beauty, obsession and the natural history heist of the century”

Genre: Non-fiction (Adult), True Crime

Similar to: Fly Fishing by J.R.Hartley

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of books featured on BT adverts

Publication date: 26th April 2018

I’ll be honest – If it wasn’t for the #Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot I would never ever have picked this book up. It’s such a weird topic to write about, a completely bizzare story and features lots of different topics, none of which I’m particularly interested in.

You see, The Feather Thief is the true life story of Edwin Rist, a salmon fly tier who becomes so obsessed with the hobby that he ends up stealing a huge number of rare bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History in Tring in order to use their feathers to make salmon flies (and also makes pretty hefty profit selling the feathers on to other salmon fly tiers – Edwin is also a prodigal flautist and wants a new professional grade flute). 

Sorry, did I lose you there for a second? You don’t know what a salmon fly is? Or how it relates to dead museum birds? Or what this book is even about?

Yeah, that was pretty much my response when I read the blurb but I needed to read a book of true crime, sooooooo….yeah. I chose to read it.

And guess what?

It was INCREDIBLE!

I genuinely can’t believe how interesting this book was – especially for someone like me who knew literally nothing about salmon fishing, Victorian bird hunting or the esoteric (good word) world of modern day salmon fly tying. And now – now I know LOADS about all of these things and they are FASCINATING.

Let me explain…

The Feather Thief begins with an introduction into the world of the fishing fly. These are the things that you attach to your fishing hook (like a lure) to make the fish think that your hook is food or something to be attacked. Either way, the fish ends up with the hook in it’s mouth and you end up with a charming photo of you holding it by the tail before hopefully putting it back in the river. So, fishing flies are generally functional objects that help you to catch fish. People either buy them or make them using bits of feathers, tinsel, coloured plastic etc. – anything to grab the fish’s attention.

Except…

Except there is a bizzare, kinda underground world of people who create massively intricate, hugely expensive salmon fishing flies purely for fun – not fishing. They often follow Victorian instructions for such creations and as such need to get hold of the kinds of materials that would have been used at the time. This is where it gets interesting. You see, the Victorians loved feathers – especially from rare and/or exotic birds. Also, they didn’t give a tuppeny fig about ideals such as animal welfare, conservation or protecting vulnerable species – to be fair, none of these things had been invented yet. To the Victorians, if it moved then you should shoot it then either eat it, stuff it, preserve it or wear it. And if it came from a far flung country and looked fabulously exotic, so much the better for showing off your wealth and excellent taste. 

A huge market arose for the importation of feathers from the tropics and Asia (primarily for fashion) and so it was only natural that a gentleman interested in country pursuits should show off with a display of the finest, most highly decorative salmon flies that money could buy, whilst his wife paraded around with a dead bird on her hat. 

Cut to the present day…

For some bizzare reason, people are still interested in creating Victorian salmon flies (I guess everyone has to have a hobby). However, many of the materials required are now protected by law – the Victorians pretty much decimated much of the natural populations of thousands of animal species, particularly exotic birds. So, demand for rare feathers in the world of salmon fly tiers is particularly high – especially as their availability is so scarce.

Still with me?

Ok, so this is where Edwin Rist comes in. He’s a young American teenager with meagre funds but an all-consuming obsession with fly tying. Studying in the UK, he hears about the collection of bird skins that were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Darwin) who painstakingly caught, labelled and preserved exotic birds in the wild and had them shipped back to the UK for scientific research. Edwin views some of the collection (now housed at the British Museum of Natural History in Tring), scopes the place out then returns at a later date and steals hundreds of the specimins, specifically to create salmon flies (or to sell on to other tiers).

No, really. He absolutely decimates the collection of irreplaceable scientific specimens so that he can create salmon flies – display purposes only. 

The Feather Thief investigates everything from Wallace’s voyages to the tropics and the Victorian fascination with feathers to Edwin Rist himself, what happened when he raided the museum, how he was eventually caught (tiny spoiler – the museum didn’t even notice that the birds were missing for MONTHS) and also tries to trace the missing birds. It features interviews with some of the main players in the fly tying world and eventually the author even manages to talk to Rist himself. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and far more interesting than I’ve made it sound.

I loved learning all about the history of collecting bird specimens (for scientific research, private collections and for profit) and the huge industry that this created. Although this could have been a pretty dry info-dump the conversational tone of the author brought the subject matter to life. Johnson’s overall style reminded me of Bill Bryson (who as far as I’m concerned could make any subject captivating) and I could really feel how personally invested he was in the story. Although I’m pretty ignorant about the history of feather trading, The Feather Thief seemed to be very well researched and was heavily referenced throughout.

As the book progressed and Johnson focused more on the psychology of why Rist would risk everything to commit such a crime (and the arguments that his defence lawyer used to mitigate his sentencing) the manuscript becomes more of a psychological thriller. Who really is Edwin Rist? Was his sentencing fair? Where are the birds that he stole? How many members of the fly tying community knew about the heist or suspected they were buying stolen birds/feathers but didn’t say anything? Johnson investigates all of these questions and whilst he doesn’t necessarily come up with the answers, he objectively presents all of the evidence available and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Cleverly constructed, impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, The Feather Thief is an incredible book. I was completely sucked into the murkey world of salmon fly tying and the story of how a teenager could pull off such a high stakes, valuable, devastating heist with little more than some wire cutters, a rock he found on the ground and a wheelie suitcase. Seriously – just go and read it for yourself.

Rating:🌟Five felonious feather filching foreign flautists out of five🌟

Bonkers, esoteric psychological crime drama that could easily have been the plot of a of Jonathan Creek episode. Brilliantly engaging, a great pick for a true crime book that doesn’t feature a murder or violence of any kind. Weird and truly wonderful.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #2 Read a book of true crime.