Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Could be enjoyed by: Everyone apart from me

Publication date: 15th August 2017

After seeing the rave reviews of this book aaaand having it personally recommended to me aaaand seeing it win the Wome’s Prize for Fiction I knew I just had to read this book. 

After reading the first few chapters I was thinking “hmmm, slow start but ok…” . Then after a few more chapters I was thinking “woah, majorly disjointed storyline but ok…” . Then after reading a bit more I seriously began to doubt whether I’d picked up the right book. Was this really the new novel that everyone’s talking about? 

Home Fire is the story of a British Muslim family struggling to come to terms with the legacy of their Jihadist father. The son, Parvaiz, becomes a member of ISIS and it’s left to his two sisters to pick up the pieces and get him home. The story is a reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone which frankly went way over my head so please bear in mind that there might be lots of clever references used that I simply didn’t pick up on. 

Anyway…

The story felt extremely clunky to me. The novel was set in five different locations and frankly the first location (and character) seemed entirely superfluous to the rest of the book. It felt like the author was trying to be faithful to the original Greek Tragedy and in doing so had to shoehorn in bits of text that would otherwise have been cut. This made the book meander about to the extent that it felt like a good short story surrounded with a lot of filler. 

The other problem that I had was that not a lot happened – especially in the first half of the novel. Let’s not forget, this book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and yet weirdly, the two main female characters in it felt woefully underwritten. Isma was the stereotypical ” dutiful daughter”, taking care of the family finances by working abroad.I didn’t get a feel for any personality beyond that. Aneeka felt like an utter missed opportunity of a character. Her behaviour in the first half of the book was entirely based around having sex and yet I was never sure of her motivations. Was she in love? Lust? Or was she using her lover to get to his influential father? There didn’t seem to be any scheming, plotting or tactics employed except for the occasional bit of acting distant and again I had no idea why. In contrast, their brother, Parvaiz, was far more well rounded and had a much more interesting storyline. I definitely enjoyed the parts of the novel that focused on him the most.

There are a number of different ideas explored within the text about identity, belonging and sacrifice and in fairness, this is done rather well. The clash between what you feel you should be doing, what you want to do and what it would benefit you to do is replicated numerous times throughout the narrative, often so subtly that you almost don’t notice it. For example, one of the characters who we meet later on (called Karamat Lone) is a British Muslim politician trying to balance his public persona with his private beliefs. This manifests itself in big, obvious ways (he talks about his tough stance on immigration and the prosecution of individuals who go to fight for ISIS – to the extent that the Muslim community have openly criticised him) but also almost invisibly – his son is called Eamonn spelled the traditional Irish way rather than the Pakistani Ayman.I loved the way that these complexities were woven so deftly throughout the text without feeling obvious or unnatural.

I’m going to guess that the ending of the book is somewhat faithful to the original Antigone text but let’s think about that for a second. I’m woefully under-educated when it comes to classic literature but I’d stick a fiver on my guess that the Greek Tragedies are all about the high drama. Now imagine that being played out by an ordinary girl from suburban London. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? And using the good old she’s gone crazy trope didn’t work for me at all.

Overall, I have completely mixed feeling about this book. The Antigone reference went over my head, the storyline felt clunky and I felt like the female characters in particular needed fleshing out. However, the writing in parts was brilliant, the depiction of a radicalized young British man was really interesting and the overall narrative was, on the whole, compelling. That ending was a step too far for me though.

Rating: Three out of five stars

Great writing but trying to fit the modern storyline around an ancient Greek Tragedy didn’t work for me. I’m clearly in the minority though

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #9 Read a book of colonial or post-colonial literature.

Viewpoint: I Don’t Like YA, Please Don’t Hurt Me


I’m going to come right out and say it – I’m not a fan of Young Adult (YA) literature. That’s not to say that I don’t read it at all – I do; or that I hate every YA book ever written – I don’t. However, I find that overall, YA isn’t my bag. Am I just too old to relate? 
You see, I view all novels through my world weary, cynical adult eyes and I find that a lot of YA books are too perfect, too cute, too schmaltzy for my tastes (looking at you, John Green). From what I remember, teenagers do not talk like that. There’s far more swearing, boasting, lewd references and aggression than is ever portrayed. A lot of the YA books that I’ve read have teenagers talking like characters from Dawson’s Creek whereas I remember boys only being able to communicate in grunts, mumbles and the occasional “my mate wants to go out with you, yeah?”. 

Maybe it’s because I’m British and a lot of the YA I’ve read is written by Americans. My senior (high) school was all girls and was light years away from anything I’ve ever read about. We were all rolled up skirts, smoking on the school bus, mascara clad brats who obsessed over our weight, our favourite boy band member and who might be a lesbian (which was total social suicide). I’d like to think that the morals of teenagers (not to mention societal attitudes) have improved somewhat but that still leaves me with a feeling of disconnect. Where are the boys driving their girlfriends round too fast in shit cars with terrible music blasting out? Where’s the terrible snogging and awkward groping? Why isn’t anyone drunk? 

It seems like I’m in the minority. A five minute bit of “research” (googling) brought me to a survey which found that the largest age range of YA readers (28%) was between 30-44 years old. I’m 35. So what is it I’m not getting?

I tend to find that many YA stories lack the complexities of adult fiction. Sure, lots of the characters have issues -sometimes huge, life changing issues – but often they’re dealt with in a very black and white fashion. Many characters tend to be stereotypes (One of Us is Lying) and are either good, bad or misunderstood with little scope for moral ambiguity. And oh God, the morals. Just for once, I want to see a character do something ethically questionable and get away with it – without the author shoving their political/ideological viewpoint forwards to explain why THIS IS WRONG (Beartown anyone?) Isn’t it better to allow teenagers – not to mention all the other readers – the space to make their own minds up?

In defense of the genre, I will say that I enjoy the diversity that many YA authors include in their stories. The sheer scope of experiences covered – everything from disability to gender expression to racism – is often talked about in a way that you just don’t get in adult fiction books. Many of the novels are own voices, meaning that the author has personal experience of the topic that they’re writing about which again is great. However, as much as I’ve seen complex issues done well (Juno Dawson with Clean) there are some topics that get oversimplified to the point of being totally unrealistic or even end up becoming glamorized (Thirteen Reasons Why) which I think is frankly dangerous. 

I’m not claiming to be an expert on YA and I’m sure there’s lots of good examples within the genre of well written, interesting, thoughtful novels (The Hate U Give looks pretty good, as does Dumplin’) but so far I’ve really struggled to find them. I find it hard to relate to a high school experience that was so different to my own, I don’t like the trope-heavy writing (oh look, more insta-love) and I can make my own mind up about right and wrong without having it spelled out to me. If you like YA – whatever age you are – then that’s great for you but it’s just not for me. 

So, what do you think? Am I bring overly critical? Have I missed any nuanced, brilliantly written YA novels? Let me know in the comments!


Review: The Cows by Dawn O’Porter


“Don’t follow the herd”

Genre: Fiction *refuses to say chick lit*

Similar to: Marian Keyes? (she says having never read any Marian Keyes)

Could be enjoyed by: People who think feminism is the Spice Girls shouting “Girl Power!”

Publication date: 6th April 2017

I really like Dawn O’Porter so I was expecting great things from her novel The Cows, but oh my goodness what a letdown. The characters were horrible, the scenarios they found themselves in were utterly ridiculous, no research had been done and the sentences all went on and on, forever, like this, with far too many, commas. Urgh.

The Cows is the story of three women: Camilla, a blogger; Tara, a TV producer of investigative documentaries and Stella, a PA. Now, the whole premise of the book is that women shouldn’t be defined by whether they have kids or not. We’re far more complicated and nuanced than that. OK? Because what you also need to know is that:

Camilla is option A: Does not want kids. 

Tara is option B: Has kids.

Stella is option C: Doesn’t have kids but wants them.

These choices define absolutely every action that the characters take. The entire book is about the very thing it purports to be against.

AARGH!

The book tries to be funny, irreverent and lighthearted so features all of the usual tropes: death, living with the BRCA gene, the desperation of wanting a baby before it’s too late, mental health issues, abortion, isolation…what? You don’t think these themes are funny? That’s probably because they’re not. At all. You’d need to be a fairly skilled writer to include any of them in a humorous novel without being eye-strainingly jarring. And after reading The Cows – I have eye strain.

There’s a lot that I could rant about but I’ll give you a little example of how farfetched this book is. Camilla the blogger has eleventy billion followers that she found by printing off flyers and posting them to her neighbours. She blogs every day by thinking “hmmmmm” then brain dumps whatever’s on her mind, uploads it to her site then swanks off for some casual sex with her twentysomething hunk boyfriend. Approx. time blogging: half an hour. This makes her a millionaire. 

I laughed SO HARD.

The characters are all basically horrible people. Camilla -no-kids writes awful blog posts about not wanting children, shaming those who do because she had to be “controversial” (at one point she sees her sister (three kids) naked and describes in detail how the little darlings have ravaged her body, leaving her sounding like an incontinent old crone). Tara-one-kid gets caught masturbating on the tube (don’t ask – also an empty tube in central London on a Friday night – as if) and goes into woe-is-me meltdown, losing her job and being publicly shamed because she’s a woman (which, while I understand the double standard around sex for men and women, I actually think worked in her favour since she wasn’t arrested for public indecency). And Stella-wants-kids is a woman losing her grip on reality, facing her own terrifying demons, dealing with the death of both her Mum and twin sister plus the knowledge that she carries the BRCA gene. So she tries to seduce her boss purely so she can get pregnant by telling him she has cancer and hoping for a calculated sympathy shag. I don’t even know what to say about that if I’m honest. 

It was this sheer lack of subtlety in the writing which astounded me. When one of the characters makes a dubious moral choice (has a baby without telling the father), Dawn O’Porter clearly thought “I’d better clear this mess up!” so *spoiler alert* has her find him (takes five minutes of tracking down, how fortuitous), tells him but then “from the look in his eyes she could tell he wasn’t interested and she’d made the right choice in not saying anything”. Erm sorry but that’s bullshit. He might need, oooh I don’t know…ten minutes to absorb the information that he has an eight year old with a woman he can’t remember? 

In the end, I was thoroughly bored of this book. I give it plus points for showing a bit of female solidarity and a couple of chapters of female friendship but overall I found it jarring, clumsy and horribly stereotypical. Lots of people seem to think it’s hilarious but it really wasn’t for me. 

Rating: Two “don’t follow the herd who are reading this book” out of five.

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

Review: The Secret Loves of Geek Girls by Hope Nicholson

Genre: Comic, Anthology

Similar to: Like an old fashioned Annual but without the puzzles

Could be enjoyed by: Geeks!

Publication date: 9th December 2015

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls is a non-fiction anthology of prose, comics and illustrations from lots of different contributors (including Margaret Atwood and Marjorie Lin) about their own personal experiences of love. The contributors are super diverse, so there’s stories of queerness, asexuality, polyamory, unrequited love, love of fictional characters, friendships…pretty much every type of relationship that you can think of from people of all different backgrounds. With all of the contributors being self confessed geeks, the stories reference various nerdy pastimes such as fandoms, cosplay and online gaming, with overarching themes of not fitting in, not being interested in traditional “girl” stuff, being an awkward obsessive with a whole secret life that no-one else gets. Stuff that I think a lot of us can relate to.

However…

There was something that didn’t quite click with me and this book. I’m not sure if it was because I found it to be quite US/Canada centric or because I’d never had any kind of super intense relationship with a book/film/comic but I couldn’t see myself reflected in any of the stories. Yes, I could relate to some of the more general themes but because the contributions were so specific it was difficult to see my own brand of geeky weirdness being represented. 

I loved the diversity of the contributors and the attempts to be as broad in scope as possible but I did feel like this resulted in a bit of a mish mash of topics. I think the problem is that the world of geekery is so vast that trying to collect individual experiences and collating them without a strong central theme, or grouping them into sub-topics or whatever was always going to result in quite a jarring reading experience. 

Another issue for me was the short story format that was the basis of the book. Many of the contributions featured such niche interests that for someone outside of that world it could be a little confusing. Some of the terms used were unfamiliar to me and at times I didn’t quite understand what was going on.

Overall, I think that this is a classic case of great for you, but not for me. I’m sure that if you’ve got a particular geeky interest and you see yourself reflected in some of the stories then you’ll absolutely love it, but as someone who hasn’t experienced that world I didn’t quite connect.

Rating: Two and a half “wtf does that mean?” out of five.

 A mixed bag of stories made for a slightly jarring but nonetheless interesting reading experience. I’m just not the right target market for the book.

Viewpoint: Overused Phrases in Book Blogging

Hello bookworms!

I saw a discussion recently about well used phrases in book blogging and it got me thinking. I’m well aware that a lot of the time, I use the same descriptors over and over in my reviews (I also use far too many dashes like a poor man’s Emily Dickinson, but that’s another story). I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing – after all, there’s only so many creative ways to say “I couldn’t put this book down” or “it was a hard read” but I know there’s certain phrases that I try to avoid because for some irrational reason, they really annoy me. Is that weird?

1. Gaiman-esque


As though Neil Gaiman is the only fantasy writer out there. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love most of Gaiman’s work but he seems to be the go-to descriptor for a huge number of books. The annoying thing about this phrase is that Gaiman’s work is so varied that this label gets slapped on pretty much anything that’s a tiny bit sinister but also involves fairies/angels/pantomime villains. Please stop getting my hopes up.

2. Absolutely unputdownable


I said page-turner, not Paige Turner adult actress – honestly, the things you see when you forget to put safe search on.

I am guilty of using this one A LOT (also it’s cousin “an absolute page-turner!) although every time I read it I think “urgh, I sound like a Grazia quote” . Aside from the fact that this is factually incorrect, it just seems like a lazy way of summarising a full on fangirl paragraph about why you loved the book. 

3. The next Harry Potter/Handmaid’s Tale/Hunger Games etc.



I mean, it’s not is it. If it’s so similar to one of the biggest books of a generation it’s just going to be a poor imitation. “The potential to be as big as Harry Potter” is a far more interesting sentence. Top marks if it’s also “Gaiman-esque”.

4. An instant classic



Really? I’m pretty certain that only time will tell what becomes a classic and what falls by the wayside. I see this one far too often for it to have any kind of clout. 

5. I totally shipped the relationship between (insert ridiculously named characters)



…or any other phrases that I’m simply too old to understand. I actually had to ask another blogger what the word “ship” meant in that context and I’m too scared to use it in case I look like someone’s Mum trying to be down with the kids. High five guys…no?

What phrases are you guilty of over-using? What phrase really annoys you? Do you feel like you repeat yourself a lot in your reviews? Let me know in the comments!

Viewpoint: I’m a Book Blogger, not a Publicist

Some of you may have seen the recent furore on Twitter regarding some negative coments about the efficacy of book bloggers and their impact on book sales.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the debate (if you can call it that) and whilst I think it’s pretty obvious that book bloggers ARE a huge part of the PR and marketing plan for many new books – I don’t think that’s not really the point of book blogging.

At the end of the day, my blog is my little corner of the internet where I witter on about whatever I want. I usually talk about books because I have a deep, undying love for reading and have done ever since I was little. I devote hours of my time to book blogging, for free, purely because I love it.

But – and I’m going to say this in an outdoor voice *deep breath* I’M NOT HERE TO PROVIDE FREE PUBLICITY. That’s called MARKETING – showing off whatever you’re trying to flog in it’s most favourable light, highlighting the positives and wilfully ignoring the negatives. If I were, I’d be writing biased reviews about all of the good points of a novel and expecting to get paid for it as some kind of freelance book promoter. And you’d all see through it in about five seconds flat and stop following me.

I hate the idea that giving out an ARC or creating a blog tour is going to generate loads of publicity. That suggests that publishers expect positive responses to the books they’ve given out, purely because the blogger has received them for free. Sorry but that’s not how it works. I’ve received many ARC’s that I’ve been highly critical of (hopefully in a constructive way) because that’s the chance you take. Again – I’ll say it louder for the people at the back – I’M NOT HERE TO PROVIDE FREE PUBLICITY. All of my reviews – every single one – are my own honest opinions. And if you’ve sent me a book that I haven’t enjoyed, I’m going to tell you that. In detail. I’ll be fair and I’ll make it clear if I think I’m just not the target demographic but I won’t be anything other than honest.

That’s not to say that I won’t help out with promoting a book if my already written, honestly positive review can help the author/publisher. Sure, they can use it for quotes; I’ll happily post it on Goodreads, Amazon etc. I’ll send out a tweet and I’ll include any hashtags or links that they want. I think it’s important to remember though that I’ll do this for any book – whether it’s an ARC, as part of a blog tour, a library book, a borrowed book, a second-hand book, a book I’ve bought myself – regardless of when it was published or how much praise it’s already received. They all get treated in exactly the same way because I’m talking about something that I love. If that’s useful to a publisher then great – if not, it doesn’t matter to me because I DON’T WORK IN P.R. This is my hobby, not my job.

So, do I want everyone who reads one of my positive reviews to rush out and buy the book? No, I don’t. At the end of the day, it’s just an opinion. My reviews are solely written from my own viwepoint, so of course they’re biased – otherwise I’d be trying to collate everyone’s thoughts and creating some kind of meta-data overview. At the end of the day, I want my readers to think about what I’ve said and make their own judgements. I’ve read loads of fabulous, entertaining, five star reviews where I’ve known that the book in question isn’t something I’d enjoy. Like all readers over the age of ten I know my own preferences and tolerances, so for example if a reviewer goes overboard about the cute romance between two characters that’s a personal NOPE for me but if they slate a book for use of profanity – meh, I won’t count that as a negative.

Now, I could go on for hours about the intangible benefits to publishers of brand recognition, the difficulty of measuring return on investment when your sales could be impacted by a myriad of variables or the fact that you can’t attribute any profit to one specific strand of your marketing strategy if you’re not collecting customer feedback but I’ll leave my business degree knowledge alone because a) it’s boring b) it’s not my job to think about this stuff and c) IT’S NOT MY JOB TO THINK ABOUT THIS STUFF. Does it matter that my blog is tiny and statistically won’t have much reach? No. Because, for the third and final time:

I’M NOT HERE TO PROVIDE FREE PUBLICITY.

I blog for the friendship, the discussions and the entertainment.

I blog to “meet” likeminded individuals.

I blog because I enjoy talking about books.

If my blog can help to promote a book that I love then that’s great but that’s a by-product of my primary aims. We’re all here, diligently bashing away at our keyboards because we want to share our enthusiasm, our passion and our love for reading. For free. It would be lovely if everyone could be a bit more respectful towards us – after all, without us readers the publishing industry wouldn’t exist.

Lucinda x

Discussion: Is It OK To DNF an ARC?

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

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

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

But can I DNF it?

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

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

Things my brain is saying right now:

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

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

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

Aargh!

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

Loving Litsy!

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Hello everyone!

Exciting news – I’ve joined Litsy! It was described as “imagine if Goodreads and Instagram had a baby”… so as I don’t really like Goodreads and Instagram is just annoying, I thought I’d give it a go. Verdict so far – I love it! I did wonder if I needed yet another social media platform to engage with but Litsy seems to fill a hole between posts that are too short for WordPress but too long for Twitter. It’s also super easy to find pictures/link to the book that you’re reading so it automatically looks pretty and you can easily link to other people reading the same thing. Amazeballs!

I’m not sure yet if this is going to be just a two week love affair or a long term commitment (I don’t have a great track record with social media) so we shall see…

If you want to follow me I’m @lucindaisreading, hit me up!

Anyone who uses litsy comment below with your profile name so that I can find you…you know, if you want…or whatever…

Lucinda x