Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

“Hello, my name is Convenience Store Woman”

Genre: General Adult Fiction, Literary Fiction

Similar to: A shorter, Japanese Eleanor Oliphant

Could be enjoyed by: Someone looking for a quick, quirky read

Publication date: 5th July 2018

I don’t know what it is about books set in Japan but there’s just something that draws me to them. I think it’s because the culture seems completely unique but at the same time there’s a lot of parallels with Britain (or at least stereotypes of Britishness) like the formality, the politeness and the implications of class (and yes, the tea drinking). I also associate a strong sense of day-glo weirdness with Japanese literature that I find completely fascinating – so I was immediately drawn to an odd little novella called Convenience Store Woman.

Keiko has never really fitted in with anyone else’s expectations of her. She is unsure of everything – how to act, how to talk and how to dress so she essentially copies others (right down to their speech patterns) in order to pass as “normal”. The world is a difficult and confusing place until she enters employment in a highly regimented convenience store, where she is told how to complete every stage of every task that is expected of her. Unfortunately, her job and single status is unacceptable to her group of friends, so she is forced to take drastic action in order to fit in.

I adored this super-cute novella. Keiko is such a likeable, quirky character and I could absolutely relate to the pressure that she felt to fit in with the expectations of society. I could also understand the struggles that she had with being an outsider and how she found solace in the regimented, ordered world of the convenience store. As an ex-employee of a corner shop I fondly remember working there, chatting to customers (usually the same people every week) even though I was usually hungover after a Friday night out (I was only 18). I enjoyed the repetitive nature of many of the tasks and the way that I was not expected to do anything too difficult, which made a great change from studying for my A Levels. I completely understood how someone like Keiko would also find this atmosphere soothing. 

I loved the way that the book explored the idea that Keiko’s friends and family assumed that she was unhappy with her life just because it wasn’t typical of someone of her age. How often do we meet someone who is single and automatically try to romantically pair them up with our other single friends? How quickly would we dismiss a shop employee as potential marriage material? Or assume that someone with a degree working in a menial job was wasting their life? Maybe there’s a lesson in there that we should all be more accepting of each other’s choices. 

I also loved the way that the book referenced different ideas about conformity. Keiko obviously doesn’t want to follow the traditional path of career/marriage/children but she does seek solace in the rules of her workplace. This made me think about whether everyone needs to live by some set of rules to be happy, or whether we all need somewhere to go where we feel like we fit in? I’m not sure but it’s certainly food for thought. 

I really liked the ending of Convenience Store Woman and the way that Keiko finds a way to be true to herself. I got totally invested in her as a character so I was pleased to see that she got everything figured out in her own unique way. 

Overall I thought that this was a cute, hilarious quick read with a host of brilliant characters that also managed to ask some pretty big questions. I understand that the book has been a huge hit abroad so I hope it does well over here too. 

Rating: Four loud konnichiwas out of five.

Cute, quirky fiction with great characters and a healthy dose of hilarious Japanese weirdness. Highly recommended. 

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

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Review: I Still Dream by James Smythe

“Hello Laura. What would you like to talk about?”

Genre: Adult Fiction, Science Fiction

Similar to: A very drawn out Isaac Asimov short story

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of sci-fi with a background or interest in computing

Publication date: 5th April 2018

Yes my friends, it’s time for yet another review where everyone LOVES the book in question but I’m totally meh about it. I swear I’m not doing this deliberately.

I Still Dream is the story of Laura Bow, the daughter of missing tech entrepreneur Daniel Bow. Struggling to cope with her teenage years, Laura builds upon the work done by her Dad to create Organon, a rudimentary chat-bot-cum-computer-generated-counsellor. As Laura grows up, she enhances Organon to become more of a personal assistant and as technology advances it becomes more important to her everyday life. Unfortunately, a similar product is developed that gets launched online with catastrophic consequences and Laura is left to choose – should she keep Organon as her own baby or use it to try to save the world?

I’m going to put this out there straight away – I was soooooo excited to get an ARC of this book because both the title and name of Organon are taken from the Kate Bush song Cloudbusting and oh my God I love Kate Bush so much I could cry. 

And at first I genuinely thought I was reading the best book ever written. I LOVED the 90’s references, the dial up internet, the vinyl copy of Hounds of Love. It took me right back to my own teenage years and was brilliantly observed, right down to the last tiny detail. However, this excitement was pretty short lived. Once I’d finished the first segment (teenage Laura) I started to lose interest in the story. I didn’t care about the technical jargon, the one dimensional relationships with boyfriends or the meandering narrative that took us wandering off down a good number of narrative culs-de-sac (yes, that is the plural of cul-de-sac – I know it looks weird). The storyline got so slow in places that it felt like wading through treacle. Then suddenly, like a learner driver trying out clutch control – WHAM! It’s ten years later!

How delightfully offputting.

The other problem with these massive leaps forwards was that the plot became slightly confused – having ten year gaps prevented it from being completely cohesive. When you add that to a storyline that weaves about like a drunk uncle on the way to the dance floor I found it very easy to get lost. There was a lot of “wait, what year is it?” and “who’s that guy?” accompanied by a frenzied bashing of the left hand side of my Kindle. 

My other main issue was that I didn’t really like the characters. Laura was kind of bland and I never quite trusted Organon. However, there was a very touching portrayal of dementia later on which I thought was handled beautifully. It’s just a shame that these lovely little vignettes were scattered throughout the text and didn’t form part of the main narrative thrust. 

I struggled with the ending of the book – to be honest I’m not sure that I understood exactly what was going on and it seemed weird to introduce a new idea right at the very end of the novel. I thought that it could have been explained much better and should have taken place earlier on, so that the concept could have been fully explored.

Overall, I was fairly ambivalent towards I Still Dream. I loved the Kate Bush references and the 90’s section but I got bored by the ebb and flow of the storyline. I thought that the concepts that the novel introduced – the idea of the machines taking over but using technology to thwart them, the concept of conscientious coding to encompass morals into sentient beings and the possibility of living on digitally after death were big, difficult themes to explore and I was disappointed that more of the novel wasn’t dedicated to expanding upon them.

Rating: Two and a half hounds of love out of five.
Oooh, I just know that something good is going to happen…except it didnt #wtfthatending #dontintroduceanewideathreepagesfromtheend.

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

 

Review: Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny

“Talk about families…”

Genre: General Adult Fiction

Similar to: An American Zadie Smith, but not as good

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of US comedy?

Publication date: 1st June 2017 (I am so far behind with Netgalley reviews I’m surprised they still let me use it)

Have you ever read a book with no plot? I just have, and it’s called Standard Deviation. It’s as good as you’d expect a book with no plot to be.

The novel centres around Graham, a bland little man who has unfeasibly managed to convince two real life women to marry him (separately – he divorced his first wife then somehow gets a second). The first wife is Elspeth, a cold, precise, self possessed wraith of a woman who appears to have almost no personality. His second wife is Audra, a loud, shocking, in your face kind of person who makes “friends” everywhere she goes and will happily chat about her most intimate issues (and other peoples) with anyone that will listen. Graham ends up with both women present in his life, plus an autistic son called Matthew and a cast of Audra’s acquaintances who often end up sharing his house. They all sort of rub along….and nothing really happens. 

I’ve seen that other people found Audra hilarious but personally she grated on me. She was a bit like Janis in Friends – initially amusing but that wears off pretty quickly. I thought that a lot of her dialogue was just there for the shock value of being so inappropriate. I also hated how condescending she and Graham were, making comments about how they hoped their autistic son didn’t grow up to be like any of the men who went to his origami club and being really judgemental about Matthew’s school friends. 

I found the lack of plot in Standard Deviation quite frustrating – I was waiting for something more to happen. I liked the idea of providing a snapshot of everyday life but I really didn’t like not having a structure to the narrative. There’s one big event further on in the book but no beginning, middle and end to the story. It’s like a very dull midweek episode of Eastenders.

Overall, I didn’t like the main characters in this book and despite a host of quirky peripheral individuals I didn’t feel like I got to know any of them in enough detail to really enjoy their presence. I found the plot slow going (that’s me being kind – entirely absent is probably a better description) and most of the dialogue quite tedious. I know some people have raved about this novel but it really wasn’t for me.

Ummmm…that’s it really. So little happened that I have nothing more to say. 

Rating: Two “this is a long introduction”s out of five

One word: tedious. A plot would have been a good starting point. 

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

 

Review: Bottled Goods by Sophie Van Llewyn

A novella by Fairlight Moderns

Genre: Historical Fiction, magical realism

Similar to: An Eastern European Barbera Pym

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of short, kitschy, fantastical tales but with a dark side. 

Publication date: 11th July 2018

Whilst browsing through NetGalley, I came across four or five flash fiction novellas by Fairlight Moderns. I’d never heard of the publisher or any of the authors, but the books looked so cute and interesting that I chose one to read without even checking the blurb – something I never ever do. However, I’m really glad that I did because Bottled Goods is a tiny little gem of a book (with great cover art).
Set in 1970’s Romania, Alina grinds out a living as a teacher under a communist regime. Her loveless marriage and difficult mother compound the oppression of living in a dictatorship, so when Alina becomes a Person of Interest to the Secret Services it all becomes too much. After asking her Aunt for help, Alina uses the old ways to invoke the magic of her people to deal with her mother and make good her escape. Part terrifying portrayal of a communist regime, part Grimms fairytale, this pressure cooker of a novella is richly evocative of a history that is seldom talked about in mainstream literature.
 
I loved the way that Sophie Van Llewyn built the tension in this book. Although a fairly short story, Bottled Goods was so atmospheric I was completely taken in from the first few pages. The writing was brilliant; emotional but precise. Oddly, I found it reminiscent of The Bottle Factory Outing or perhaps something by Patricia Highsmith – there was something about the way that the tension was layered in with the mundanity of everyday life that was very reminiscent of those mid-century female authors. However, this book brings it’s own distinct Eastern European flavour that really worked with the almost dystopian theme – especially if your knowledge of the Eastern Block has been informed by the terrifying kids tv programmes that were shown in the 1970’s and 80’s (and which was parodied so well by The Fast Show).

I really sympathized with Alina and appreciated how the author didn’t shy away from the horrors of investigation by the Secret Service. I also enjoyed learning a little about Romanian history and culture, as it’s not a country that I’m familiar with. The book really brought home what it must have been like to try to live an ordinary life under a communist regime and the reality of not being able to speak freely (even in your own home) or trust anyone (even your family). I loved how informative it was even though some elements were clearly fantastical.

I have to say that I did find some of the chapters slightly disjointed, especially in the beginning and the ending did feel a little rushed. I can absolutely see how some parts were published seperately, as they almost felt like stand alone stories within themselves.

Although short, this is an oddly charming, terrifying, interesting little book. Brilliantly written, I’d love to hear more from Sophie Van Llewyn – and I’m definitely going to check out some more Fairlight Moderns *watches NetGalley review percentage tumbling*.

Rating: Four tripe soups out of five.

Richly evocative, fantastical and brutally authentic; you’ll devour this treasure of a novella in one sitting.

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

 

Review: Elefant by Martin Suter

​​”True Friends Come in All Shapes and Sizes”

Genre: General fiction

Similar to: A Streetcat Named Bob, but with boring science thrown in

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Fredrik Backman – it’s a similar style of writing

Publication date: 31st May 2018

Three words: Tiny. Pink. Elephants. 

I’m sold.

However

This book was not what I expected at all. I thought I’d get heartwarming magical realism, I actually got a clinical and scientific. Therefore, I thought there was only one way to review it*…

Elefant: An Analysis of Key Themes and Observed Effects on the Participant


By Lucinda Is Reading…


May 2018


Abstract

Elefant is a novel written by Martin Suter. For reasons unknown, it has become an international bestseller (Suter, 2018). The research aimed to analyse the key themes included within the novel and to explore the impact that these variables had on one participant (the reader). The reader recorded their thoughts and biological responses (emotions) to the novel and this qualitative data was explored in relation to the question “Is this book any good?”

Feedback was mixed and interpretation through a Likert scale resulted in an average score of three (It was ok).

Introduction

Many years ago, I was given some maths homework to learn about coordinates or…something, where you had to mark each one one a grid, join them up and then colour in the picture they created. You were left with four images of elephants, which naturally I coloured in pink. The classes work got put on the wall, but mine was the only one that wasn’t grey and I rembember my maths teacher telling me “that’s good, elephants should be pink”. Twenty five years later, I still agree.
So when I found a book about a tiny pink elephant called Sabu that goes on a wild adventure I was expecting lovely exciting magical realism. My hypothesis was that I would thoroughly enjoy the book.

Elefant is the story of Sabu, a tiny, pink, glow in the dark elephant. She is spotted by Schoch, a homeless alcoholic who assumes she’s just a hallucination. But when Sabu is still there when he sobers up, Schoch realises that she needs to be cared for – and the adventure properly begins. We find out that Sabu was actually genetically engineered to be pink and glow in the dark but that a genetic mutation caused her to be so tiny. Following her escape, the company that made her want her back, so it’s up to Schoch to protect her. Cue living in a mansion, private jets, GPS trackers and a patently unrealistic romance. 

Method

The novel was read over a period of a week and all thoughts and feelings were recorded. This data will be discussed in full in the next chapter.

Results

I thought that this book was a real mixed bag of positives and negatives. Based on a Likert scale of 1 (I did not like) to five (I really liked) I scored the following themes from highest (most positive) to lowest (most negative) thus:

  1. The characters (3/5) 
  2. The the scientific research (3/5).  
  3. The inclusion and representation of social and medical issues (3/5)
  4. The storyline (2/5). 
  5. The writing style (2/5).
  6. The inclusion of moral overtones (2/5).
  7. The inclusion of a highly detailed explanation of elephant insemination, including the procedure for manually procuring elephant sperm (1/5).

    Discussion

    1. The Characters

    Sabu gets bonus points for being adorable – I’ll say it again – tiny pink elephant – but it was difficult to connect with some of the others. Schoch was interesting but for such a short novel there were quite a lot of people involved and so I found most of them to be pretty one dimensional.

    2. The scientific research

    Based on one episode of a Freakanomics podcast (Dubner, 2018), the science around CRISPR Cas appeared to be accurate, so points for that. However, I REALLY didn’t need to know so much about it. I find the whole area of genetic engineering fascinating but if rather read about it in a work of non fiction rather than having long boring passages thrown into a fiction novel. 

    3. The Representation of Alcoholism

    For a book that was so rooted in science I felt that it should have been realistic in other areas too – particularly for social issues such as homelessness or alcoholism. Making Schoch stop drinking *clicks fingers* just like that with no counselling or support was a weird way to develop his character and didn’t sit well within the context of the narrative. I also thought that it minimised the issue.

    4. The Storyline Itself

    I expected something adorable, along the lines of Amelie. I got a low rent James Bond thriller with boring scientific explanations thrown in, plus quite a lot of pointless dialogue. I also thought elephant poo was featured far too heavily. STOP PICKING UP THE POO GUYS!

    5. The Writing Style

    I found the writing really cold, clinical and descriptive without being emotive. I have almost no idea what any of the characters were feeling which really didn’t work well with the storyline. I didn’t like the way that the story started in the middle then went back to the beginning because even though the chapters were dated (honestly, who can remember what date a novel started on) many of them just said “the same day” which is handy if you’re picking the book up again after not reading it for a while.

    6. The Moral Overtones

    I felt like the author thought “shit, everyone is going to be so on board with genetic engineering if they think they can get adorable pets out of it. I’d better chuck in a counter argument”. Honestly, I thought the whole thing was so bluntly shoved into one chapter (never to be mentioned again) that it felt quite jarring. 

    7. The Bad Sex

    Call me old fashioned, but I didn’t need such detailed information about how to get sperm out of an elephant or how to get an embryo back inside one. Poor elephants. 

    Conclusion

    I had such high hopes for Elefant but unfortunately I was really disappointed. I didn’t like the unemotive language, the structure of the novel, most of the characters, the inclusion of the technical science bits, the shoehorned in morality or the elephant prostate massage. 

    Especially the elephant prostate massage.

    I liked hearing about Sabu and I did enjoy the ending but the rest of the novel was a bit humdrum.

    Rating: Three happy endings out of five.

    References

    1. Suter, M (2018) Elefant. 1st Edition, Harper Colins.
    2. Dubner, S (2018) Evolution Accelerated. Freakanomics podcast Series Seven, Episode Twenty. Broadcast 2nd May 2018.


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



    *Yes, I know I’m not supposed to write a report in the first person but writing it in the third person just didn’t scan well, ok?

     

    Books I’ll Probably Never Read Tag

    Look at me, blogging on a semi regular basis! Thank you so much to the amazing Orangutan Librarian who is all kinds of awesome, although she definitely doesn’t need the publicity 😜.

    Bring on the wall questions!

    A Really Hyped Book You’re Not Interested in Reading?


    I really feel like a lot of YA fiction at the moment is really not for me – as I’ve said before, I’m too old for that shit. Also, I’ve never been remotely interested in Disney so maybe the Lunar Chronicles? (even though that’s actually what my broken leg looks like inside).

    A Series You Won’t Start/Won’t Be Finishing?

    I like to think that I’ll finish all of the series that I’ve started, although I expect that I’ll continue to bump the Wheel of Time books down my TBR, especially when I get to the ones that aren’t even written by Robert Jordan.

    A Classic That You’re Just Not Interested In?

    If I’m honest – most of them? I’m really not a classics fan. I was put off Shakespeare for life by my schoolteachers so maybe one of his plays like King Lear.

    Any Genres You’ve Never Read?

    (Well, that Google search threw up a lot of interesting images)

    Ummm, I don’t think so? I like to read as widely as possible and I’ll pretty much give anything a go.

    A Book On Your Shelves You’ll Probably Never Actually Read?

    Well, I was only saying to someone yesterday (whose name I have totally forgotten, sorry!) that I’m kind of scared of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It looks so complicated and loads of people have said how the writing style is really difficult to get into, it’s hard to work out who is talking, it’s really slow to begin with…and yet so many people love it. I keep putting it off, and that’s never a good sign with me.

    I tag anyone who wants to take part, but especially LizDani and Christina

    Are there any books you don’t think you’ll ever read? Let me know! 

    Review: Girl With Dove by Sally Bayley

    ​​”A Life Built by Books”

    Genre: Autobiography, Memoir

    Similar to: A less extreme version of anything by William S.Burroughs

    Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Victorian literature

    Publication date: 17th May 2018

    You know when a book is trying too hard to be clever and innovative? Yeah. That’s exactly how I found Girl With Dove. I’m sure lots of people will praise the novel for it’s highly original style, but it just wasn’t for me. Frankly I found the whole thing confusing.

    Girl With Dove is the autobiographical (I think – it’s hard to tell) novel of Sally Bayley’s childhood. She seemed to grow up in some kind of large extended family home/commune (again, hard to tell) with some pretty disinterested/depressed adults and (possibly) quite a lot of siblings, although they’re not really mentioned. She seeks refuge from the chaos at home in literature, specifically Agatha Christie, Bronte and Dickins and uses characters from these works to explore what is going on around her. 

    The short version of this explanation is – I don’t really know what this book is about. When I say that Sally Bayley uses fictional characters to explore her life, she quite literally quotes them, daydreams about them and uses them as a kind of shield to view her life from a safer distance. As you can imagine, this gets incredibly complicated. It doesn’t help that there aren’t that many big events that occur for the first 75% of the book, so it’s hard to work out the timeline and to separate fact from fiction (literally). It sounds like an upsetting story of neglect, but so many of the details are lost through the odd narrative style that I don’t really know what to think.

    It’s interesting that Sally Bayley chooses three female characters from literature to help her to try to make sense of her life. She relies on Miss Marple, Jane Eyre and Betsey Trotwood – three strong, sensible, stable  women who act as a weird kind of moral compass. I would guess that these characters appealed to her because she so obviously was missing a decent female role model (and also a decent male role model, but growing up in a house with no adult males this may not have even occurred to her). Unfortunately, filtering your life through fictional characters made me feel very removed from the storyline so I really struggled to emotionally connect with the book. 

    It didn’t help that I’m not familiar with any of the characters that she chose to feature so heavily in the story. Perhaps if I had been I would have found the novel easier to read, but without that knowledge I frequently found myself flicking backwards and forwards, trying to work out what on earth was going on (not easy on a Kindle).

    I don’t doubt that Sally Bayley has fantastic literary skilks, but unfortunately the narrative was so fractured that I feel like she tried a little bit too hard to be innovative and ended up with a confusing mess. I’m going to guess that the jilted narrative flow was done on purpose to reflect the turbulent childhood that she experienced, but I needed at least a few clearly defined events to hang the rest of the story from. I think that in the last quarter of the book, the storyline does become clearer and I enjoyed that far more than the preceding three quarters, but it just wasn’t enough. 

    Overall, I loved the idea of using books as an escape from real life (who hasn’t done that?) but I hated the execution. I read a book years ago called “A Fucked Up Life in Books” which used the same idea but in my opinion did it far, far better. As I said before, some people will love Girl With Dove, but it just wasn’t for me.

    Rating: Two WTF’s out of five.

    Confusing, difficult and overly ambitious, Girl With Dove makes literally no sense. I don’t even know what the title refers to. Best avoided, in my opinion.

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