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: Of Women by Shami Chakrabarti

Genre: Non-fiction, feminist literature

Similar to: A Good Time to be a Girl

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

Publication date: 26th October 2017 

*puffs out cheeks, blows out through pursed lips* 

Yeah.

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

JUST.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

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

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

Calendar Girls November: Favourite Middle Book in a Series

Hello friends!

Welcome to another edition of the Calendar Girls!

Calendar Girls was a monthly blog event created by Melanie at MNBernard Books and Flavia the Bibliophile and will now be hosted by Katie at Never Not Reading and Adrienne at Darque Dreamer Reads. It is designed to ignite bookish discussions among readers and was inspired by the 1961 Neil Sedaka song Calendar Girl.

Just like the song, each month has a different theme. Each blogger picks their favorite book from the theme and on the first Monday of the month reveals their pick in a Calendar Girls post. 

So without further ado, this month’s theme is…

Despite not having finished the trilogy (I’ve just been turned down for the final ARC 😢) I had to choose one of my favourite books of recent years…The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden.


I absolutely adored the first installment of the Winternight trilogy (The Bear and the Nightingale – terrible review from years ago here) but the sequel is where Katherine Arden really hits her stride as an author. 
The Winternight Trilogy is the story of Vasilisa, a young girl living in medieval Russia. She has a quiet life in a rural village, despite the fact that she’s inherited her mother’s gift to see the spirits that protect their agricultural way of life. As Christianity begins to make the villagers forget their old gods, the power of the good spirits weakens and the village becomes threatened. Vasilisa has to flee her home and immediately stumbles into trouble, being dragged ever deeper into the battle between good and evil. Is she strong enough to protect her people?

There’s a bit of everything in this story. Intrigue, romance, magic…The Girl in the Tower has it all. I think that one of the best things about the book is the usage of language. It is just so. beautifully. written. You could turn to any page and get at least one exquisite quote. I loved how descriptive the storytelling was, and because the novel is set in Russia the dark, snowy environment leant itself perfectly to such a magical, dark fairytale. It was incredibly atmospheric and evocative, and I loved how Katherine Arden wove Russian words into the narrative in such a way that you understood their meaning even though they bore no resemblance to their English counterparts. So clever.

I really noticed the development of the characters from book one and I loved how we got to find out more about each of them now that they had grown up a bit. I was initially worried that this novel would be the awkward middle bit, where everything is set up for a big finale but not much happens, but it isn’t at all like that. Instead, The Girl in the Tower could almost be read as a stand alone novel as it has a proper beginning, middle and end and a narrative arc all of it’s own.

There are so many other brilliant things about this story that I could go on for hours – the use of “real” Russian mythology, the family dynamics, the relationship between Vasya and her horse Solovey…but I would literally be here for days. You should probably just go and read it for yourselves 😜

So, have you read The Girl in the Tower? What would be your Calendar Girls pick? Let me know in the comments! 


TL;DR October Review

Hello Bookworms!

The clocks have gone back (causing much confusion), the fire is on and the leaves have created a slippery death trap on the steps going up to my front door. It must be October!

I can’t believe that last month I was on a beach in Devon and this month I’m digging out my massive winter coat but I am enjoying the novelty of getting cosy during the dark, cold nights. 

Due to various illnesses and my non-hubs putting his back out lifting a bag of compost – how glamorous – we haven’t done much in the way of leaving the house this month (non-hubs works at a University so we still succumb to freshers flu every year). We have had the damp issue sorted in the other house though and have finished off a few more bits and pieces in the kitchen so a small amount of progress has been made. 

Allotment/garden wise everything has been tidied up and stored away in preparation for the forthcoming cold weather. Due to a labelling error, all of my winter veg have got somewhat mixed up so I have lots of massive unidentified plants romping away. I’ve also got carrots, parsnips and kale still growing (plus a freezer full of beans) so we’re nicely stocked up for the months ahead. 

I’m ploughing ahead with my reading challenges and I’m nearly there with #Read Harder – I’m having a big push next month to finish off what I can (one of the books is Les Mis which I’m trying to read a chapter a day of, so won’t finish that until the end of December). 

Due to my unshakeable belief that since Winter is upon us there’s nothing to do but eat and hibernate, I’ve been quite busy with my blog this month. I wrote a discussion post about whether ARC’s are actually worth it and introduced a new feature called Viewpoint for which I wrote two posts; Top Bookish Podcasts and I’m a Book Blogger, Not A Publicist (which I wrote in response to some nonsense bit of book blogger bashing on Twitter). I also took part in my first blog tour and also the Calendar Girls meme where I chose The Worst Witch as my favourite book with witches.  

I had a bit of a meh month in terms of the books that I reviewed this month but I guess my little run of consistently high ratings had to end eventually. There were a couple of great picks but the rest were pretty dull 😑. They were:

Giant Days by John Allison: Squee! I loved this graphic novel as it gave me such nostalgia for my first few terms at uni. Really enjoyable. Four out of five.

No Tomorrow by Luke Jennings: The second in the series of books that Killing Eve is based on, this was far superior to the initial novel. Still not as good as the TV series but an enthralling page turner in it’s own right. Four out of five.

Dear Mr. Pop Star by Derek and Dave Philpott: I loved this book for it’s innovation, humour and sense of nostalgia. Brilliant -and also a nice stocking filler for Christmas. Four out of five.

The Life and Times of a Very British Man by Kamal Ahmed: I really wanted to like this book but despite a few interesting chapters it was all a bit dull. Two and a half out of five.

Codename: Villanelle by Luke Jennings: The first novel in the series that Killing Eve was based on, this book was a mish mash of four novellas that just didn’t work for me. Watch the TV show instead. Two and a half out of five.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed: Could be summed up as “a woman goes for a long walk in incorrect footwear”. I found it all a bit self indulgent. Two and a half out of five.

So that’s October wrapped up! How was it for you? Have you read any of the books I read last month? Are you a Calendar Girl? Follow the links or let me know in the comments!