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.

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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.

Review: 1Q84 Book Two by Haruki Murakami

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The world of Haruki Murakami is a very, very weird one. Literally no-one writes like he does. All of his books are set in quiet towns in Japan where people with ordinary lives have extraordinary, strange and bizzare things happen to them. His work defies categorisation – weird Japanese realistic fantasy is about as close as I can get. However, the stories are so brilliantly written and beautifully detailed that the fantasy elements feel totally natural to the overall narrative – to the point where you can describe an entire book and forget to mention that the main character can converse with cats.

This is quote from my review of 1Q84 Book One and I honestly can’t think of a better way of describing Murakami,  so I’m shamelessly plagiarizing myself. You see, his books really are weird. They’re incredibly intricate, delicate, beautiful little works of art, but there’s a surreal sheen over his portrayal of the mundanity of everyday life that kind of defies explanation. It’s like the difference between seeing a fish in an aquarium and going snorkelling in the ocean – you’re still just watching fish, but when immersed in an underwater world where anything could happen the two experiences are poles apart.

Book Two of 1Q84 has taken me a whole year to get round to  reading, but seriously, wow. This trilogy just gets better and better! The novel is a direct continuation of Book One, where the lives of Tengo and Ayomami are drawing closer together. We find out more about their histories and start to learn who the Little People are, where they come from and who the mysterious Leader is. This information is drip-fed throughout the narrative, so there’s still a huge level of detail about the minutiae of everyday life, but in a world where everything is just a little bit off it’s fascinating to spot the clues to the mystery of the Air Chrysalis.

Despite the fact that we’re learning more about the main characters, I still feel emotionally distant from them. Murakami has created two very controlled individuals who seem to act either completely rationally or without any sort of ethical conflict. There’s a sexual element to the storyline that the author has just about managed to make morally ambiguous, but it’s an odd one and I’m not sure how I feel about it yet. I suspect that was his intention, though.

Book Two has a slightly more menacing tone than Book One. The tension is definitely building and the pace is picking up. At the moment I still have more questions than answers and I’m optimistically hoping these will be resolved in Book Three (even though I very much doubt it).

The storyline is still completely bonkers, and I have no idea where it’s going next but that’s the best thing about these books. Murakami has created his own brand of logic within the story and so far he’s stuck rigidly to it – so whilst I feel like literally anything could happen I have faith that it will all ultimately make complete sense.

I understand that the 1Q84 books won’t be for everyone, but if you do want to read outside of your comfort zone then I’d definitely recommend them. You just need to put aside large chunks of time to get through them all – and be prepared, because once you’re into them, you won’t be able to put them down.

Rating: 4.5/5
Trying to explain it is pointless – just go with “brilliant”.

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #31 Read a book where the main character is a different ethnicity to you.

Review: The Tent, the Bucket and Me by Emma Kennedy

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—————PUBLIC HEALTH WARNING—————

Do not attempt to read “The Tent, the Bucket and Me – My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70’s” by the ever lovely and oh-so talented Emma Kennedy in public. Doing so can and will resort in displays of mirth (including snorting, giggling helplessly and the occasional full laughing fit) the likes of which the British public will not take kindly to. Please be aware that other vocal outbursts such as gasps of “oh no!”, cries of disgust and shouts of “oooh, I remember that!” may also take place.

In particular, the following segments have been identified as dangerously hazardous to health:

– The part where the entire family nearly die in a hurricane
– The part where Emma steps down a “hole in the ground” toilet and finds herself thigh deep in other people’s excrement
– The part where Emma’s Dad has to eat raw seafood
– The part where Emma has a rectal thermometer inserted into her anus in front of a crowd of nosy holidaymakers
– All parts where Emma shits herself (frequent mentions, specifically in relation to holidays in France)

In controlled experiments, responses to these anecdotes have created violent outburst of hilarity from the reader, which may cause alarm, concern or severe shock to members of the general public. Persons of a nervous disposition or fitted with a pacemaker may wish to avoid this novel in it’s entirety to avoid the risk of serious injury to health.

Please do not eat or drink whilst reading this book. Many of the stories contained within it’s pages present a significant choking hazard. The wearing of eye make and restrictive clothing is similarly inadvisable. Items such as mascara and liquid eyeliner can cause pain and irritation when silent tears of laughter course down your face when reading, for example, how Emma becomes coated in another child’s vomit on a ferry. If this occurs, rinse with water and consult a doctor if symptoms persist for more than 24 hours.

Please be aware that “The Tent, the Bucket and Me – My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70’s” by Emma Kennedy is recommended to treat symptoms of mild to moderate depression, sadness and melancholy. Readers may experience a return of their symptoms when they learn of the family’s decision to scrap Bessie, the faithful Land Rover but these should desist by the end of the chapter.

The usage of photographs within this book has been prohibited by Public Health England (PHE) due to the significant risk of death by dangerous amusement. Complaints arising from their removal may be directed to PHE directly; however it should be noted that any letters stating “this book would have been so much better with a few photos” will be immediately recycled in accordance with current environmental legislation and green scheme targets. A response may therefore not be provided. 

Individuals who wish to re-read this novel must do so at their own risk. Dangerously elevated levels of amusement may occur as a result of remembering what happens next. Symptoms can include shortness of breath, dizziness and/or premature ejaculation of laughter. If you are concerned about these issues or any other side effects please consult your doctor or other healthcare professional immediately.

Please remember that the 1970’s were DIFFERENT TIMES and as such none of the stories told within this book should be recreated.

Do not under any circumstances try this at home.

PHE Rating: 4.5/5
Emma Kennedy is not liable for any injuries sustained from the perusal, purchase or consumption of The Tent, the Bucket and Me – My Family’s Disastrous Attempts to go Camping in the 70’s. Readers must proceed with caution and do so at their own risk. Usage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is advised.

Please note that this book has been read in accordance with Book Riot Read Harder guideline #9 (Read a book you’ve read before) and Popsugar guideline #18 (Read a book you’ve read before that never fails to make you smile).

Review – All The Little Animals by Walker Hamilton

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Rating: 4/5
The only story of murder and abuse that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I do love a good short novel – the kind that you can read in one sitting. I picked up All the Little Animals way back in February after my visit to Astley Book Farm for my birthday. Three things attracted me to it; 1. It sounded incredibly interesting and quirky, 2. It had been made into a film (so must be quite a good story), and 3. It only cost £1. Bargain!

The novella was described as a “frightening tale of human depravity and violence” but also “a little masterpiece of compassion and simplicity” so it’s safe to say that I really didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a horror story? Maybe a twisted thriller or murder mystery? I’m not usually a fan of any of these genres so I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d enjoy the story, but as I said, it only cost £1, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Out of all my guesses about the storyline, the one thing that I really didn’t expect it to be was a beautifully detailed tale of friendship between two men. Yes, there’s violence, betrayal and abuse but this was all balanced out by the relationship between Bobby (an abused 31 year old man with what I guess you would class as a learning disorder) and Mr. Summers, a man so broken by his past that he’s left it all behind to live in a tiny, basic “house” (shed) in the backwaters of the Cornish countryside.

As Bobby runs away from his abuser, he encounters Mr. Summers and assists him with his primary task – burying all the animals that have died on the country roads. The descriptions of the animals, the scenery and Mr. Summers himself are so fantastical, and come from such an unreliable narrator that I wasn’t quite sure if there were elements of fantasy in the storyline. At first, I thought that Bobby might be having some kind of breakdown and that Mr. Summers was a figment of his imagination, or an allegorical reference to his own father. However, as the novel progressed I realised that Bobby just has a very vivid imagination – and this made the storytelling even more engaging and magical. I was actually surprised at how rich all of the scenes were – the detail, the emotions, the colours and smells – all were perfectly described with a remarkable economy of language to create such an emotive story. When I think back, it feels like I’ve read a 300 page novel so to condense the plot to just over 100 pages is incredibly impressive.

Utterly charming, horrifying, emotive and yet amazingly brief, All the Little Animals really is a must read book. Highly recommended.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #40 Read a book that you read on a trip.