Review: White Teeth by Zadie Smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: The Taste of Blue Light by Lydia Ruffles

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Picture courtesy of http://www.netgalley.com

Um….what was this book about? Seriously, I finished it last night and I just had to flick through the last few pages to remember what happened. Something about an art school…trauma…questionable consent issues…that was pretty much it.

So, in the spirit of turning every negative into a positive, this the perfect opportunity to do my first pared down bullet point review! Here goes!

The Storyline
– A teenage student (Lux) wakes up in hospital with no idea of how she got there; she just knows that she was on a night out then it’s all a blank
– She convinces her parents to let her return to her liberal arts boarding school despite her amnesia, migraines, obsessive behaviour, synaesthesia (where your senses get confused and you hear colours or see smells etc.) and other indicators of trauma
– She does literally no art despite the book spanning her final year of ART school and first job after graduation
– She has therapy where she just repeats “I can’t remember”
– She meets a boy and begins a relationship despite being clearly traumatized (more on this later)
– She’s eventually triggered by a painting (not hers) and remembers what happened
– She gets a job and has a relationship that breaks up
– She goes to see an exhibition made by an old flame
– The End.

Can you see why I forgot the storyline?

The Good Points
– It was quite an easy read
– It was very different to anything I’d ever read before (it’s questionable whether this is truly a good point)
– The was some representation of LGBTQ+ characters (although they didn’t have much agency)
– There was great representation of female friendships – this is probably the strongest point of the whole book
– There was realistic representation of drug addicts who looked like everyday people

The Bad Points
– None of the characters had any agency. They were all acting under other people’s orders
– As the main character, Lux was difficult to relate to. She did absolutely nothing to try to work out what had happened to her – which was understandable but didn’t make for an engaging storyline
– There was literally no point to many of the “interesting” things about the book. The main character had synaesthesia but it didn’t affect the plot in any way. The book was set in an art school but none of the main characters did any art AT ALL. 
– Insta-love
– The big reveal about What Happened That Night came two thirds of the way through the novel. That left one third with no suspense or intrigue

Stuff That Made No Sense
– The storyline. Surely if you can’t remember the night before you ask the people you were with?
– The outcome of What Happened and how it had been handled was fairly preposterous. Lux was deeply traumatised but was left with her friends to look after her and the occasional session with a counsellor?
– There was a photo that taken of the back of Lux outside the big famous building where she was an intern that went viral and yet no-one recognised her.
– This question suggested for a book group discussion of the novel;

“Did you find the book funny? Why is humour important to the story?”

Ermmm… are we talking about the same book? Was this meant to be a humorous take on trauma?

Stuff That Is Too Important To Bullet Point
I found the relationship between Lux and her sort of boyfriend Cal really troubling. Lux is obviously in a state of shock and is trying to process a harrowing ordeal. You can tell this from her behaviour, the way she talks, her physical symptoms, her appearance, the way that everyone is talking about her…she’s clearly very unwell and in desperate need of love and support. So, I think it’s pretty inappropriate for Cal to try to have sex with her, however much she encouraged him.

THIS IS NOT OK.

There’s even a scene where they start kissing (there’s a clear implication that they’re going to have sex) and she disassociates and floats out of her own body to look down on the scene. Thankfully, she stops the situation and Cal gets off her, but it’s the idea that he doesn’t even notice that she’s not actively engaged and enjoying herself that I found disturbing. I also especially disliked the fact that the author noted that Lux had had sex before – which enables her to live up to her reputation – like that has anything to do with it and clearly implies slut shaming. 

ALSO NOT OK.

Conclusion
– The plot was lacking in so many different areas that I wasn’t gripped at all
– The book petered out after the big reveal
– There were lots of things that didn’t make sense
– There was an issue with consent and slut shaming

Rating: 2/5 stars
A meandering plot, a reveal that came way too soon and questionable issues around consent meant that I really didn’t enjoy this novel.

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

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 – 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.

Review: George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

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As I sit here on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, munching my way through a free box of chocolates (thanks Ocado – free chocolates or champagne with your fifth shop – genius) I noticed the quote;

“‘I also adore so-called truffles… as Prestat makes them.’ So wrote Roald Dahl, author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

“Awww” I thought to myself, chomping away. “I love Roald Dahl.”

Immediately, there was a smile on my face as I thought back to my childhood, when I would badger my Mum to buy me another of his books from WHSmiths as she dragged me round town on a Saturday. I would then trail after her, trying to read and walk as she browsed yet another department store looking for who-knows-what. Sometimes, she would dump all the shopping bags down, tell me to stay where I was and go off on her own while I happily sat on the floor and devoured my newest paperback. Nowadays, this would probably be seen as neglect but I was perfectly happy in my own little world.

Back to rainy Tuesday…

As I looked out of the window at the endless grey drizzle, I decided that my afternoon needed a little bit of sparkle, just like my boring Saturdays used to. I got straight on to my online library resource (which would have blown my tiny mind) and downloaded my favourite book as a six year old – George’s Marvellous Medicine. 

I’ve always been a fan of shorter books – those you can read in one sitting, that have a small cast of characters and an easy to follow linear progression. Don’t get me wrong, I also adore getting stuck into a magnum opus of a text (high five, Wheel of Time saga) but nothing beats the satisfaction of adding a book to your TBR and ticking it off on the same day. Done! And yes, there are arguably better novels of Dahl’s like Matilda, the BFG or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but for me, there was a unique pleasure in his shorter books.

But would it stand up to the text of time?

In case you had a deprived childhood, George’s Marvellous Medicine is the story of a young boy left with his Grandmother while his parents go out for the day. George is tasked with giving his Grandmother her prescribed medication, but instead decides to invent a potion of his own. You see, the thing that I love most of all about this book is that instead of being a sweet old lady, the Grandmother character is truly terrifying, miserable, horrible and downright evil. I absolutely adore the way that she is depicted, with no redeeming features whatsoever – the total opposite of 99% of all other literary Grandmothers. Brilliant. So, after being bullied by her, George decides to literally give her a taste of her own medicine.

The story is a fabulous, magical adventure for kids. I’m not going to gender stereotype the book, but I bet the danger and naughtiness would appeal just as much to little boys as little girls. It’s tons of fun, with very easy language and a fast pace. As always, there are brilliant illustrations from Quentin Blake that really add another dimension to the story.

Although I was worried that George’s Marvellous Medicine would have lost some of it’s magic when reading it as an adult, I was pleasantly surprised that it had retained all of its original charm and sparkle. I’m not sure that you could still write a book about feeding your Grandmother a concoction of every hazardous substance in your house mixed up in a saucepan (just like you probably can’t dump your child on the floor in the co-op and leave them to entertain themselves) so modern parents may want to issue their kids with a health warning before letting them read it – but please don’t deprive them of such an exciting adventure. 

Rating: 4/5
Magical, thrilling, sparkly storytelling at it’s finest. Just don’t try this at home.

P.S. Realised I’ve used quite a few brands in this review – just wanted to clarify that I’m not in any way sponsored or making money by doing this!

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #25 read a book you loved as a child.

Review: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

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Dear Everyone Who Has Given This Book A Five Star Review (a quick glance at Goodreads suggests that there are many of you),

What on earth were you thinking?

From your comments, I’m not sure that we read the same novel. I appear to have downloaded a copy of the text in which someone (presumably with a vendetta against literature) has removed all of the action, the drama, the suspense and the narrative arc and replaced it with a series of scenes which, whilst somewhat amusing at first, slowly wear the reader down until they start having to make up challenges to get through the bloody thing. The Dickensian names, whilst initially pointing to a sense of humour, quickly become annoying. The characters are all miserable, grotesque individuals who are impossible to like or even feel empathy for. The castle and surrounding area is bleak and depressing. The storyline moves at a snail’s pace. Am I to believe that you genuinely gained enjoyment from this? Or are you just trying to look clever? I suspect the latter, overly positive Goodreaders.

If possible, I would like you to provide a brief synopsis of the story, in order to alleviate my concerns that I have somehow encountered a rogue copy. My summary would be;

“Baby Titus is born into the Groan family of Gormenghast Castle. He has a quiet start to life, the only occurrence of note being the unfortunate loss of many books in the great library fire, and the death of someone that I can’t name because spoilers. The End.”

Surely there is more to it. Dragons maybe? Magic(k) potions? All I got were white cats and blackbirds (which as we all know are way down on the magical fantasy animal rankings) plus one medicinal tonic which could have been magic but was more likely cod liver oil.

Perhaps Titus Groan is an elaborate ruse designed to lull readers into a state of boredom so hypnotic they become susceptible to subliminal marketing messages. I know I definitely dropped off a few times. I required litres of coffee to get through to the end. Are you all being sponsored by Mellow Birds Instant?

Please respond to my queries posthaste. I don’t want to leave a one star review and look stupid if this is, in fact, a brilliant book. I thank you for you attention to this matter and look forwards to your immediate response.

Kind regards,

Lucinda

Overall rating: Pending further investigation re: dragons. Provisional one star.

Please note that Mellow Birds will make you smile. I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #7 Read a book published between 1900-1950.