Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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Wow. Where on earth do I start with this review? White Teeth is such a sprawling, all encompassing tale of life in South London told from a myriad of perspectives that it’s hard to sum up all my feelings about it.

But, I am a book reviewer (Netgalley gave me a badge and everything) so… here goes!

White Teeth is predominantly the story of two immigrant families (except the father of one family is English with a Jamaican wife and the other family are Asian) joined through friendship (except the wives – they have a mutual distrust) and having children of the same age (who are also friends). As the children grow up, they attend the same school (except for one child who is sent to live with family abroad) and the book follows their lives as they find a place for themselves within society.

That is frankly a rubbish description and covers less than half of what goes on in the book but it’s the best I can do. My Netgalley badge is a lie!

I think the main thing that I can say about White Teeth is that I really enjoyed it. I can’t believe that such a sprawling, ambitious novel is also a debut. It’s got so much going for it – there’s a fabulous list of diverse characters, it tackles loads of issues head on and feels really authentic. It’s quite different to anything that I’ve come across before and its really well written and engaging.

For me, the novel’s strongest point is the characterization. Everyone mentioned within the book is well fleshed out with a big personality and tons of their own agency. There’s not one person who could be replaced by a lamp and it wouldn’t affect the story (regular readers will know this is my biggest bugbear). I loved each of the main characters but it was the smaller parts that really made the book for me – everyone from the niece-of-shame (a lesbian – this name made me laugh out loud) to Hortense, the Jehovah’s Witness grandmother riding around London in a sidecar with her young male “friend” from church. There are so many scenes driven by the minor characters that are absolutely brilliant and really add to the main narrative.

I really enjoyed how the book spanned decades so you really got to know each of the characters and understood how their actions in the past had implications for the future – not just for themselves but for their children and grandchildren. White Teeth is a broad, ambitious book but it’s brilliant at focusing on the minutiae of the character’s lives so that you get a real understanding of who they are and where they’ve come from.

I also loved the way that White Teeth is not just the story of working class people. So often when you read a book like this all of the characters are in the same socio-economic category, but the novel also features the Chalfords; a white, liberal, middle class family who, through their attempts to “give back” to the community end up mentoring both children from the two main families. The Chalfords are so brilliantly depicted that I can’t believe that Zadie Smith didn’t base them on a real family. Everything about them is absolutely spot on and although it would be very easy to sneer at their do-gooder attitude there’s not even a hint of this. I think it’s particularly brave to introduce three main characters half way through a book but Smith absolutely pulls it off.

Another thing that’s handled particularly well is the issue of culture. The blending of cultures in interracial families, the bringing of your own culture to a new home, the integration of your culture into British society, the melting of lots of different immigrant cultures together…there’s tons of different examples of all of these things happening (often all at once) and it was really interesting to see both the positive and negative outcomes. It was also great to see how the second generation children were affected by this and how they constructed their own British Asian or Black British culture, and how this intersected with religion, science and societal expectations.

Overall, I really enjoyed White Teeth, although because it’s such a long book my interest did start to wane towards the middle (although it picked straight back up again with the introduction of the Chalfords). I’ve knocked off .25 of a point for this, so I’m giving the book…

Rating: 3.75/5
A sprawling, authentic, hilariously character driven novel.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #38 Read a book set around a holiday other than Christmas.

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Review: A Streetcat Named Bob by James Bowen

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Photo courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com

Heartwarming! Touching! Reaffirms your faith in humanity!” said the Goodreads reviews.

“I thought it was rubbish!” said my mother after she read it.

Personally, I can see my mum’s point. Even though I did find the story quite touching, I also found James Bowen’s attitude quite annoying in places. You see, A Streetcat Named Bob is the story of Bowen, a young homeless man living in a hostel in London. He found Bob the Cat outside his apartment and took him in, feeding and caring for him as well as he could. The book is the story of their lives together, busking and selling the Big Issue.

Before anyone thinks I’m a monster, I’d like to clarify that I have every sympathy with homeless people. I know that everyone has different experiences in life, that people sometimes make mistakes or bad decisions and that everyone deserves help when they need it. I can’t imagine sleeping rough or in a homeless shelter or what that would do to your self esteem. However, I also think that if you are offered assistance, you have a duty to try your hardest to also help yourself – and that was my problem with this book.

Despite the fact that Bowen was classed as a vulnerable adult, entitled to benefits and a place in a hostel, he still managed to book himself a holiday to Australia. Throughout the book, his attitude to work seemed to be that he could just busk for a few hours a day to supplement his benefits enough to continue his life in the hostel. I appreciate that he may have some mental health issues as well as poor physical health and that it might be really difficult to get a job with a presumably dodgy employment history, but there was absolutely no attempt to try. I got really annoyed that even after being accepted as a Big Issue seller, he continuously broke their rules and even sold it after they had banned him! Sure, the situation wasn’t entirely Bowen’s fault, but his refusal to try to sort the problem out made me loose quite a lot of sympathy for him. Again, I’m guessing this comes back to poor mental health but it read as though he just wanted to take the easy way out.

Despite this attitude, I did find a lot of what Bowen did quite inspirational. As an ex heroin addict he transitioned to being a methadone user and throughout the course of the book manages to become completely clean, which is obviously an absolutely massive achievement to be applauded. It seemed that Bowen’s love for Bob gave him back some of his self esteem, and as he grew in confidence he managed to tackle a number of his problems, reconciled with family and, obviously, became a published author. It was lovely to see how Bowen was able to start putting his life back on track and what a positive influence a pet can be.

In terms of the way that the book is written, I have to be honest – it’s not great. Some parts were quite repetitive, others got a bit confusing. The dialogue can be a bit literal and whilst it was interesting to see what life for Bowen was like, I wanted to know more about his thoughts and feelings, his back story and his relationships with others. He mentions friends and family but doesn’t go into detail and whilst I understand that he may not want to discuss certain aspects of his life, it may have given the reader a better understanding of his situation.

If I took anything away from this book, it was a better understanding of the amazing work that the Big Issue does. (For those of you who aren’t aware, the Big Issue is a magazine that homeless people are allowed to sell for a small profit.) I do try to buy a copy whenever I see a vendor but I’ll definitely make more of an effort now.

Overall, I found this book to be both inspirational and quite annoying in equal measure. It’s an easy read but it’s not brilliantly written. Maybe see the film instead.

Rating: 2.5/5

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #10 Read a book with a cat on the cover.

Reading Challenge Wrap Up

Hello lovelies!

So, with a mere 10 hours to go, I managed to complete both the #read harder 2018 reading challenge and the Popsugar reading challenge 2018. This was after a particularly depressing comment made about a week ago where I realised that I still had two massive books left to read to finish both challenges. So, on the advice of the book blogging community I decided to forego the usual festive tv watching with my family and concentrate on reading instead. 

And I’ve done it. Yay!

I’ve either already reviewed each book, or I will do over the forthcoming weeks, but I thought I’d share a few highlights…

Top five books that I enjoyed the most
Oh, the Princess Bride by William Goldman. I just loved it. Everything about it was wonderful.

Elephant Moon by John Sweeney was a lush, tropical jem of a novel. Very British, very colonial, but still charming and exciting. Plus – baby elephants!

The Roanoak Girls by Amy Engel was a fabulous mixture of sadness, intrigue and suspense that had me hooked from the beginning.

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey was brilliant, exciting and was difficult to put down. Despite not being a fan of horror, I absolutely loved this book (possibly because it’s not that scary). It ticked all the boxes for me.

Monstress by Marjorie Liu was an absolutely beautiful graphic novel. I wanted to frame every page and put it on my wall. Definitely one to savour/re-read.

Most surprising novel
Toast by Nigel Slater really shocked me, as I usually can’t stand his cookery programmes. I find there’s something intensely irritating about him. However, his memoir was beautiful, cleverly written and very touching. I fully expected to hate it but I actually really enjoyed it.

Most satisfying book
The Clan of the Cave Bear was a mammoth novel to tackle (and was also one that I left until half way through December to start). Luckily, it was very engaging and I whizzed through it.

Book that was furthest out of my comfort zone
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov was a real test to see through to the end. Some parts made me feel physically sick. I don’t think I would have finished it if it hadn’t been part of the reading challenge – I’m kind of glad that I did though.

Novel that you loved, but no-one else seems to know about
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill was a wonderful book, but I don’t think many bloggers picked up on it. On the face of it, it’s not my thing at all – I suppose it would broadly be defined as romance – but it’s a great story with a magical element that I really enjoyed.

Most challenging category
I really struggled to find a book published by a micropress, but I eventually came across Nasty Women by various authors, a diverse collection of essays about what it’s like to be female in the 21st century. I loved reading about this topic from such different perspectives and would highly recommend it for it’s intersectional perspectives.

Most hilarious novel
The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy is probably the funniest book I’ve ever read. A great recommendation if you’re feeling down and need a little pick me up.

Books that left a lasting impression on me
Running Like a Girl by Alexandra Heminsley actually made me get up and go for a jog. It also helped enormously with injuries, technical details about foot placement etc. It’s a great, funny book in it’s own right but it’s also a useful guide to anyone who runs.

Also, I defy anyone to read the poetry of Primo Levi and not be profoundly moved by it. His descriptions of the horror of the holocaust, his struggle to come to terms with what happened but his ultimate acceptance of the situation was actually life changing.

Least favourite books
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake was just sooooo dull. I didn’t get it at all. I have no idea why people think it’s brilliant.

The Hundred Lives of Lizzie Loveitt by Chelsea Sedoti seems to have been loved by lots of people, but I thought it was total rubbish. I’m probably too old to get it!

The Book of Mirrors by E. O. Chirovia was really badly written, despite having a great opening chapter. Avoid!

Book that introduced me to something new
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie taught me all about the civil war and the founding of Biafra, something that I knew literally nothing about. It’s obviously harrowing, but deeply moving and very engaging.

Book that made me want to read more in the series/from the same author
Again, the Clan of the Cave Bear was super engaging, and I can’t wait to find out what happens to Ayla next.

Similarly, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami just keeps getting better. This year I read book two, and I can’t wait to get stuck into book three.

I would have said M.R. Carey, but I did read the subsequent novel to The Girl with all the Gifts (Fellside) and it was a complete let down. I believe there’s a prequel to The Girl with all the Gifts which I might read, but in all honesty the book was so great that I don’t want to ruin it.

So – did any of you complete any reading challenges this year? Do you agree/disagree with my choices? Let me know in the comments!

Review: The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

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Photo courtesy of Goodreads.

If you don’t know who Kate Tempest is, allow me to introduce you. Kate is a musician, novelist, playwright and poet from South London and has won many awards for her work, including the Ted Hughes award for “Brand New Ancients” and two Mercury prize nominations for her albums “Everybody Down” (2014) and “Let Them Eat Chaos” (2017).
If you’d like to find out more, her website is here.

As you would expect from such a creative powerhouse, Kate Tempest’s novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, is beautifully written with a lovely lyrical quality. However, her subject matter is pretty hard hitting and I found the juxtaposition with her writing style completely enthralling.

The book itself is a gritty account of life in South London for two struggling young women. Becky is a dancer/waitress by day and an erotic masseuse at night, whereas Harry is a drug dealer, gaining access to all the best parties to sell coke to her high end clients. Their two worlds collide when they meet at an event, and a series of chance occurrences leave them thoroughly entangled in each other’s lives.

I love Kate Tempest’s spoken word/music and so I was excited to read her novel. Apart from the beautiful writing, I was struck by what felt like a thoroughly authentic story. It really seemed like a “write about what you know” scenario – I imagine that many of the places and characters featured in the book are based on reality. There are some extremely well observed scenarios and her descriptions are so vivid that I was totally transported into the world she had created.

Kate Tempest is fantastic at portraying her characters in glorious 3D. They’re all flawed in some way but are just trying their hardest to make ends meet. Tempest is brilliant at showing both the light and shade in each person and doesn’t shy away from the effects of poverty on everything from career “choices” to mental health.

The Bricks that Built the Houses would be quite a depressing read if there wasn’t the most beautiful love story between the two main characters. This really lightened the tone and provided some of the most poignant observations about love and attraction that I’ve ever read. I think this is where Tempest’s poetic abilities really come into their own and I absolutely loved her writing about Becky and Harry’s relationship. Again, the authenticity of the love story stands out, not least because there is absolutely no saccharine sentimentality about it. I haven’t specifically researched whether Kate Tempest is gay/bi/queer but it feels like the relationship between Harry and Becky is one that she’s had personal experience of. It’s great to see this kind of representation in a non-YA, non-chick lit (I hate that term, but you know what I mean), non-erotic literature.

Unfortunately, I think the one thing that lets the book down is the actual storyline, especially towards the middle of the novel where I did find myself getting a little bit lost (and date I say it, bored). Some heavy editing would really help, as all the other elements are there and I particularly loved how interlinked everyone was towards the end. I did find the ending petered out a little – it would almost have been better to end on a cliff hanger, although I’m generally against them.

If you’re looking for an authentic social commentary about life for ordinary working class young people in 21st century Britain then I’d recommend this book. It just needs to be a bit shorter!

Overall rating: 3.5/5
The most beautifully written account of drug dealing in South London you’ll ever read.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #36 Read a book by someone that you admire.

Review: Elephant Moon by John Sweeney

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Photo credit: http://www.goodreads.com

Gosh, this is a really beautiful book. I can see why it was made into a film (that, as usual, I haven’t seen). It’s so beautifully descriptive, and is set in such a fabulous location that I’m sure it would look wonderful on the big screen.

Elephant Moon is the story of Grace, a British school teacher working in Burma during the Second World War. She teaches the mixed race “orphan” girls (usually with deceased Burmese mothers and British/American army fathers who have long since left the country) at a boarding school/orphanage. Not fully recognised by either Burma or the US/UK, the girls are left to fend for themselves when the Japanese begin their invasion of the country. Instead of booking her own passage out of Burma through the British Consulate, Grace instead decides to help the girls to the safety of India by guiding them through the hundreds of miles of jungle between the two countries – on foot. Based on real events, and with the help of those they meet along the way (plus assistance from some very clever elephants) Elephant Moon is an incredible story of love, survival and the kindness of strangers.

I really loved this book. I adore novels set in the 1940’s and this one was so effortlessly, charmingly British that I got completely transported to the days of the Empire, with expat women in silk stocking and men with pencil moustaches  sipping gin and playing bridge at the club, despite the tropical heat and humidity. It was set in such gorgeous surroundings (unspoilt virgin rainforest) and had such adorable characters (beautiful, well behaved children, baby elephants, a teacher who I imagined to look like Cate Blanchett) that I completely fell for its old fashioned charm. Yes, the book is set in a war zone and so there are also many scenes of blood, destruction and death, but John Sweeney somehow manages to consistently evoke a feeling of sophisticated elegance even during the most harrowing passages. I felt that there was a real juxtaposition between the brutality of the war and the way that the characters sometimes interacted with each other and the natural beauty of the flora and fauna of the country.

I really enjoyed the love story that emerged between two of the main characters, and how terribly British the whole thing was. Again, there was a juxtaposition with another emerging relationship that was brutal in it’s execution and the combination of both scenarios playing out at the same time seemed the heighten the feelings of adoration/revulsion that I had for each. There other parallels too – the relationship that Grace had with the school children was similar to the maternal bond between the elephants, her mistrust of one of the male characters was echoed by a mother elephant, her complicated feelings of both despair and faith in the British Empire were mirrored in her feelings towards a certain Mr Peach….there were lots of intersecting themes that really allowed me to get lost in the story.

It would be totally remiss of me to fail to give the aforementioned elephants at least a paragraph of their own. I loved loved LOVED reading about them and their journey through the jungle with the children. They were absolutely adorable and such a good vehicle for creating so much of the tension and drama in the book. More stories should have elephants as central characters, especially if they’re babies called Oomy. Awwwww!

If there is one thing that I thought could be improved upon with this novel, it would be the ending. I felt that it was a little bit rushed, although I loved the content of how the story finished.

Inspirational, epic, charming and evocative, this is a beautifully written novel that you’ll find yourself lost in. It has a little bit of everything in the narrative and doesn’t shy away from the senseless destruction and terror of war, but instead juxtaposes it with scenes of majestic beauty to create something truly unique. Highly recommended.

Overall rating: 4.5/5
Terribly, terribly British, but terribly, terribly good.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #28 Read a novel set in wartime.

Review: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

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I could review this book in one word: disappointing. I was really hopeful that it would be great, based on the blurb – but it just meandered about and tailed off at the end. Let me explain…

The story starts off quite promisingly. Juju and Cassie have been BFF’s all through their childhood, but as they get older they start to drift apart. They have one final summer together where they discover a creepy old derelict mansion in the woods and spend their days playing in it before they go back to school and start to make different friends. So far so good. Usually I would expect something to happen at this point – they take their new friends back to the mansion, something is discovered etc. etc. However, nope – just quite a lot about how the girls are drifting apart. The introduction of the weird doctor Anders Shute made me think that something was going to happen – was he abusing Cassie and/or her Mum? But again, no, nothing is revealed. Eventually, Cassie runs off and finally… no, nothing really happens with that either. The end.

Sigh.

I think my disappointment stems from the fact that I thought I’d really relate to the characters in the book. I’ve had friendships fall by the wayside almost too many times to count and its not often that you see this represented well as a central theme in a novel. You often get the “we used to be best friends and now she’s bullying me” trope, or perhaps the “I’ve been totally ditched for the cool new girl” scenario but the gentle decline of two people growing up in different directions seems to be pretty rare. Or at least, I haven’t often come across it (but then I don’t read a lot of YA). Therefore, I was really looking forwards to seeing how the novel would treat the girls’ friendship. However, apart from a couple of awkward situations where the parents thought the girls were much better friends than they actually were, and the ending where Juju worked something out about Cassie before anyone else, the majority of the book was just… nothingy. I didn’t really relate to Cassie (who I didn’t much like) or Juju (who was kind of boring) and having two teenagers who interacted with each other less and less didn’t really make for a good story.

I did enjoy the introduction of Anders Shute and the sense of foreboding that came with him. I loved how well observed his behaviour was, as he never actually does anything too weird – but you still know there’s something really off about him. I would have liked it if more had been written about his relationship with Cassie, or if there was some huge revelation about him – but no.   

Sigh.

By 3/4 of the way through the book I was starting to get properly bored, but hurrah – there’s a bit of action when Cassie makes a discovery and runs off. I thought it was really weird to have the main thrust of the story happen right at the end but I did enjoy this part of the novel, although I thought it was fairly obvious where she had gone.

By the end, I wasn’t really bothered what happened to Cassie, so everything fell a bit flat.

Meh.

Overall, this isn’t a terrible book – some parts are really well written, some characters are well observed and there’s nothing really annoying about it. However, for me there wasn’t enough action and I hated how there were lots of little storylines that went nowhere. The whole thing was pretty forgettable, really.

Overall rating: 2/5
Disappointing.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #1 Read a book recommended by a librarian.

Review: Our Man in Havanna by Graham Greene

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Why, what a jolly good jape this novel turned out to be. Most excellent. Plenty of action but all good clean fun – a couple of ladies of the night but no mention of any how’s-your-father. Good show, Mr Greene!

It would be really interesting to know how anyone not-British gets on with reading period novels by British writers. It never fails to amaze me how much language moves on. So, for anyone who didn’t understand a word of the above paragraph, I’ll translate…

What a great adventure this novel turned out to be. Plenty of action, a few mentions of prostitutes but no sex – well done Graham Greene!

If you do struggle with slightly obscure English phrases, Our Man in Havana is possibly not for you. Despite the story being set in Cuba, the overall feel of the book is very much English. Mr Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, is eeking out a life in Havanna for himself and his daughter Milly when an encounter with a mysterious gentleman provides a way of earning some extra income. All that Wormold has to do is to submit a few reports about the goings on in Cuba. Unfortunately, there are two main issues;

1) Wormold doesn’t know what’s going on 
2) He possesses an active imagination and has a spendthrift young daughter, so is desperate for the cash.

What follows could be perceived as a farce, but it’s far more seriously written – think less Three Men in a Boat and more Catch 22. There’s definitely a satirical element to the novel that makes it very funny (I recognised the bureaucracy within the secret service as being very similar to all of the public sector jobs that I’ve had). The writing is quite economical – the book is a little on the short side – but it’s brilliantly done and really clips along at a good pace. Tally ho!

One of the downsides of this writing style is the lack of description, especially when it comes to the setting. Really, Our Man in Havana could have been called “Our Man Abroad Somewhere Warm” because it’s so scant on details of the scenery. I know that Greene defined the book as one of his “entertainments” (which I’m taking to mean beach read) so it isn’t meant to be too in depth, but a bit more descriptive prose would have been good.

I Ioved all of the characters in the book, including the piously Catholic but hugely manipulative Milly, the powerful but not that intelligent Captain Segura, the stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on Beatrice and of course, the humdrum little Mr Wormold himself. It’s a slightly wacky cast but they all fit in to the story well. In particular, I loved the attitude of everyone involved in the secret service – give him an OBE!

Towards the end of the book I felt that the humour died off a bit and although it was replaced with action I didn’t engage with it as much. I got a little bit lost when the “fake” reports started coming true and again, the brevity of the prose didn’t help with my confusion. I hated the ending (Beatrice and Wormold, really?!?) although again, the response from the characters within the secret service was hilarious and brilliantly depicted.

Overall, I really enjoyed Our Man in Havana. It had good pace, some great characters and was genuinely amusing. It could have done with a bit more detail, but as a light hearted romp it was really enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5
Light hearted, satirical novel about the most rubbish spy you could ever imagine. Highly recommended.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #9 Read an espionage thriller.