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.

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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.

Review – The Humans by Matt Haig

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I found this lovely little book whilst on holiday in Dawlish earlier this year (for £1.50! Result!) I’ve read a few things by Matt Haig (see here for a review of Reasons to Stay Alive) and have really empathised with his non-fiction writing, so I was excited to see what this book was about. After reading it, I can confirm that empathetic self help sci-fi is a thing, and Matt Haig has totally cornered the market. Oh, and that it’s pretty good.

The Humans begins with a classic science fiction setup – an alien arrives on earth in the body of a human man and proceeds to take over his life. All the classic tropes are there – the car headlights, the nakedness, the jarring impact of being run over but miraculously healing yourself. So far so repetitive rip-off. But what happens next is a sweet, funny, achingly self-aware look at what it means to be a human in the 21st century. Which is odd for a story about an alien assassin, but there you go.

Written in a familiar tone, the novel focuses on the life of Andrew Martin, an Oxford professor with a wife (Isobel) and child (Gulliver) and dog (Newton). Andrew is extraordinarily focused on his career (to the detriment of his family) and is poised to announce a groundbreaking advance in mathmatics. Unfortunately, the aliens monitoring our planet aren’t happy about us mere Earthlings taking such a dramatic step forwards and send an unnamed alien assassin to inhabit Andrew’s body and to kill anyone who knows too much about his discovery. However, once alien Andrew begins to learn about life on Earth, things get complicated. Emotions get involved. And that’s where the problems start…

I loved the way that an alien being was used as a device to highlight the ridiculousness of being a human. It was often self-referrential in a gently mocking way, such as when alien Andrew learns that humans often do things that they think will make them happy that actually make them miserable, such as writing a semi-autobiographical novel. Because alien Andrew is, obviously, not from round here, he questions ‘normal’ behaviour and his stark comparisons and lack of understanding of basic social norms are often brilliantly observed, right down to tiny details. I loved how these funny little observations were littered throughout the text and found myself chuckling out loud on several occasions (not a good look). I’d heard this book being described as similar to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and I can completely see why – despite being very different subject matter there’s a reflection of human behaviour which, when seen through another’s eyes, shows how utterly baffling and contradictory people can be.

Having read Matt Haig before I know that he’s suffered from depression and anxiety and so the description of Gulliver’s mental state felt completely authentic. I really liked how there was no specific reason for him to feel so low and I thought that the reaction of his parents was very realistic. In fact, the way that all of the characters related to each other was by far and away the best thing about this book. It showed how complicated and messy family dynamics can be, how love can be evidenced in many different forms and that whilst forgiveness may not be easy, it’s always a possibility.

The only thing that I didn’t really like about the book was the lack of pace and direction. Often, the story would meander along and although it was very sweet and funny, not a lot would be happening. I did get bored in places and had to have a little reading break, but the short chapters did help and the story always pulled me back in eventually.

In saying that, I LOVED the part towards the end where alien Andrew detailed all the advice that he would give his son based on what he had learnt about humanity. It was clever and funny and would be brilliant to refer back to if you need to make a speach at a wedding. Just a great piece of writing, even out of the context of the book.

I really enjoyed The Humans, despite it not being anything like I expected it to be. I very much enjoyed the quirky writing style and the gentle way in which human behaviour was mocked. There were some big, dark themes dealt with in a very honest and realistic fashion and their portrayal and the advice given was brilliantly written. Despite occasionally lacking in direction, the warmth and humour shone through to make a really lovely read. Recommended for anyone who wants the equivalent of a literary hug.

Overall rating: 4/5
Not at all what I expected, but I really enjoyed the originality and humour.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #21 Read a book from a non-human perspective.

Review – Fellside by M R Carey

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Photo credit: http://www.goodreads.com

Let’s get this out of the way IMMEDIATELY – this book is not The Girl With All The Gifts. It’s not as fast paced, nowhere near as interesting, the characters are not as well developed, the action isn’t as constant and there are parts where it’s just plain hard to believe.

*so tempted to just write rating: 2/5 and leave it at that*

But I wouldn’t do that….

So, Fellside is the story of Jess, a young heroin addict who is convicted of manslaughter. She has very foggy memories of the event (she is accused of starting a fire which kills a young boy) but through a series of visions/hauntings (not really sure what to call it) and with the help of her legal team she unravells what really happens. That’s kind of the main plot but there are lots of other side stories that take over and tenuously link together. Its all a bit confusing to be honest.

Because the multiple storylines are all smushed together, you would think the action would be a mile a minute – like reading two books at once. Well, you’d be wrong. There were some parts of Fellside that really needed expanding upon – in particular I would have liked a lot more character description as with quite a large cast it was easy to get people confused – and some parts where literally. nothing. happened. and it was so slow and boring that I wanted to give up reading it. Apart from not really getting a sense of the main characters, I also felt that the smaller characters were all pretty bland and samey so it was easy to forget their back stories. This did not help when, at the end, some of these bit parts became pivotal to the storyline – I kept having to flick back to try to work out who was who.

Of the main characters that I could get a handle on, they collectively had very few reedeeming features so I didn’t really care what happened to any of them. I suppose I felt a bit sorry for Jess but she just seemed so bland and hopeless early on that by the time she had picked herself up I really wasn’t that bothered.

I found a lot of the storyline pretty unrealistic. I can deal with the fact that its a supernatural thriller, but there were lots of inconsistencies that made me question what was happening. For example, Jess is really badly injured in the fire and has to have reconstructive surgery on her face. By the accounts of the other characters the success of the surgery is limited by the seriousness of her burns and she is left with a weirdly frozen expression that a lot of her fellow inmates find creepy. And yet, despite having limited interactions with Jess (and when they do meet Jess literally says nothing) her lawyer falls completely in love with her. I’m not saying that Jess’ facial features preclude her from having someone fancy her, but I felt that the insta-love was totally inappropriate given that the characters hardly say two words to each other. Or when Jess is at death’s door early on and you know she can’t die because she’s the main character. Yawn.

I also struggled with how random the plot was. Instead of having exciting twists that you didn’t see coming (where the reader would think ‘oooh! I did not see that coming!’) we instead had bizzare plot detours where you were left thinking ‘what?!?’. I really hated that.

Despite nearly giving up on this book a number of times, I did read it to the end because a) it was part of a reading challenge, b) my friend had leant it to me with the warning ‘it drags on’ and c) my momma didn’t raise no quitters. Perhaps crime thriller/supernatural thriller/horror fans would enjoy it more but it just wasn’t my cup of tea. 

Overall rating: 2/5 (but you knew that already).
Disappointing, hard to believe that this was written by the same author as The Girl With All the Gifts.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #17 Read a book involving a mythical creature.