Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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Wow. You know when you read something that’s really hard hitting and epic and ambitious and feels completely authentic even though you know the characters aren’t real? That’s this book. It’s so powerful I’m not even sure where to begin.

Half of a Yellow Sun is the story of two sisters, Olanna and Kainene and their lives during the civil war in Nigeria. The fighting over land and political rule results in the short lived founding of a new nation – Biafra – and the women are caught up in the chaos that ensues. Told from both of their perspectives, plus Olanna’s servant Ugwu and Richard, Kainene’s British partner, we get to see the horrors of the war from very different perspectives.

At first, the novel is a fascinating portrayal of life in 1960’s Nigeria. Olanna and Kainene are from a privileged upper middle class family and it was really interesting to see how indigenous people with power and money were living in a post colonial society that still seemed very British. Juxtaposed to this was the extended family, who lived in villages with a far more traditional way of life. Being able to see both the lives of both the rich and the poor was really interesting, especially as I’ve read very few books about Africa in general and certainly not any from this time period. What struck me most was how oddly modern life seemed to be – Olanna and Kainene are both unmarried and living with partners, they attend university and have good jobs. That’s certainly not something that I expected to be happening in the 1960’s anywhere in the world, but especially not somewhere that I would think of today as being quite profoundly Christian.

Just as my interest in the story started to wane, civil war breaks out and suddenly, everything is thrown up in the air. What amazed me was how, for a good portion of the book, most of the characters tried to continue as normal with their daily lives. I’d never thought about war from as something that slowly creeps up on people but this book illustrates perfectly how it slowly affected little things, like your ability to travel or access to imported foods, until, one issue at a time, your life is subtly changed until it is almost unrecognizable.

As the book progresses, the horrors of war become more apparent and as the violence increases, so does the suffering of the people. Adichie doesn’t shy away from the impact of things like starvation and malnutrition on children and, although we don’t see any first hand account of front line fighting, the novel is quite graphic and shockingly sad. It is this insidiousness, the mundanity and powerlessness of the general population that is so well captured and gives the novel such extraordinary weight.

Half of a Yellow Sun also contains a book within a book – I won’t say too much but at the end I was really pleased to find out who the author was. I liked that the book ended sometime after the civil war had finished so that I got to find out what had happened to all of the characters (almost). I’d become very attached to each of the four narrative voices, despite all of them being in some way flawed so it was nice to not be left with too many questions at the end. 

I don’t think that I could honestly say that I enjoyed Half of a Yellow Sun, but it is an amazing book and one that I would thoroughly recommend. I loved that the dominant characters were women and it was so interesting to not only learn about a completely different culture but to see it from a privileged female perspective. Yes, some parts were quite harrowing and bloody but then this is fundamentally a book set within a war zone so I think the violence is completely justified. The nearest novel that I could compare it to is Empire of the Sun – and in my book that’s high praise indeed.

Rating: 4/5
Epic, ambitious, utterly absorbing and completely unique. A great history lesson about an often overlooked war.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #14 Read a book about war and the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #5 Read a book by a person of colour.

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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 – How to be Happy by David Burton

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Don’t be fooled by the title – this is not a ‘How To…’ guide, nor is it the story of someone who figured out the secret to living a fabulous, meaningful life. It’s the story of a young man coming to terms with his own insecurities, sexual confusion, depression and general angst that I’m sure anyone thinking back to their teenage years can relate to on some level. The story Burton tells is interesting, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, with periods of pretty severe depression and suicidal thoughts thrown in for good measure. Oh, and the bit about it being a memoir of sex is also misleading – rarely have I read an autobiography where the author is so truthful about how they found pulling someone completely, painfully difficult.

A lot of what I read in this book reminded me of the way that some of my friends seem to be constantly searching for some external thing that will make them happy – whether that’s a hobby, a partner, a successful career etc. when really what they’re doing is projecting their own insecurities. At some points I just wanted to hug David Burton and tell him that it was ok to be sad and confused, and that it would get better. Luckily, Burton comes to this conclusion on his own and How to be Happy has plenty of great examples of how building a support network is soooooo important for anyone who is suffering from depression/anxiety/low self esteem.

Burton is also very honest about his experiences and initial negativity towards therapy. I think it’s incredibly important to discuss this issue because I know that a lot of people still feel that they’re admitting defeat by seeking professional help for their problems. Happily, Burton finds a therapist that he’s comfortable with and the book shows how perseverance with counselling can have life changing results – but only if you’re prepared to really work at it.

The other thing that I really liked about this book was the way that Burton experienced confusion about his sexuality (to the point where he came out as gay to his parents) but then ended up having to rethink this. I’ve never seen this mentioned in a book before and it was really refreshing to see someone being so open about their changing feelings. This is clearly a very emotive topic and I applaud Burton for his honesty in saying ‘this is what happened to me and how I felt at the time’. I guess some people will see it as fuel for the ‘you’re too young to know how you feel…this is just a phase’ argument but I saw it as an example of how nuanced sexuality and sexual attraction can be and how completely confusing and difficult to understand it often is.

I did, however, find How to be Happy a little tedious in places. As a memoir of a fairly ordinary (albeit depressed) teenager/young adult there aren’t any explosions, zombies or natural disasters and the book is set in Australia, not in a post apocalyptic future.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and applaud Burton’s honesty in portraying a very difficult period of his life. I think that anyone suffering from depression could benefit from reading it as it is ultimately an uplifting tale of triumph over
personal demons.

Rating: 7/10

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 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #15 Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  

Review: The Yellow Envelope by Kim Dinan

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

I hate giving bad reviews when people are obviously trying hard to write a good book. If there’s obvious gramatical errors, or you can tell that parts have been rushed, or lazy stereotyping, or an obvious lack of research, or glaring continuity problems, or no plot then yeah, I’ll call you out on it. But his book is something worse. There’s nothing that was bad about the story or the writing style, or the editing per se. It’s the characters that I found immensely annoying – and as this is a non-fiction account about someone’s world travels with their husband, there’s not a lot you can do about that.

*Deep breath – tries to remain constructive*

If I were to describe this book in one sentence, it would be ‘one miserable woman’s trek around the world’. There are problems with everything. Her marriage seems to fall apart, then magically get better. At no point does she seem to be excited, despite the whole worldwide trip being her idea and nothing really bad happening. This gets a bit tedious after a while. 

I hate to say it, but I really struggled to sympathise with the author, Kim Dinan. She seemed to find the negative in every situation and even criticised others for being too spoilt and self centered (to be fair, she does seem to meet some horrendous tourists) without seeming to recognise that she had also acted pretty ungratefully. I thought it was a bit rich to be acting like a worldly wise hippy who got annoyed with part time travellers when most of the book is about how much she isn’t enjoying herself. At one point she discusses a situation with a friend where a fellow tourist hands out school supplies and takes pictures with local kids – which she criticises him for. Her friend sees it as a man unafraid to get involved, whereas Kim sees it as pushy and self serving. I would guess that the situation was probably a mix of all these things, but again Kim seemed unable to see the positive side for herself. It was this pervasively negative, glass half full approach that really ruined the book for me.  

I also found the title of the book quite misleading. The actual yellow envelope (an envelope of money her friends gave her to donate to others) itself doesn’t make an appearance until nearly half way through the story, and the whole novel seems to be a more introspective account of Kim’s thoughts and feelings about her life and her relationship. I failed to connect with Kim on an emotional level (I didn’t understand her relationship problems AT ALL) so I wasn’t really interested – I really wanted to hear more about the amazing places and cultures that she was experiencing. I simply couldn’t understand why someone would convince their husband to sell everything (house, car, pretty much all of their possessions), quit their job and embark on a worldwide trip (with no plans to ever return home) if they were unhappy in that relationship – especially as her husband wasn’t particularly keen on the idea and she had to spend months trying to get him to agree to it.  

The yellow envelope money is just such an amazing gift but Kim and her husband seem to massively overthink the scheme and don’t really engage with the idea. They do give money away, but they seem to struggle to do so and don’t seem to get much pleasure from it. I thought this was such a shame as the money could obviously make a massive difference to the lives of so many people (many of whom were living in abject poverty) but again there was a negative overtone to the process which turned what could have been such a positive into a negative experience. I also got quite annoyed at a situation where a monastry asked specifically for regular donations not one off gifts – which the couple completely ignored and gave a one off donation. There didn’t seem to be any kind of consideration to setting up small regular payments (even for a defined time period). Having worked as a charity fundraiser myself I know how important regular donations are (imagine trying to budget if you randomly got paid differing amounts every month) and it was this complete lack of awareness that really got to me.

I didn’t like the way that Kim and her husband Brian failed to really engage with the locals. They seemed to keep themselves to themselves and didn’t try to understand what life was like for any of the people that they met. Kim seemed to be so afraid of making a mistake that it really held her back, which for me was understandable, but a real shame. Because the couple seemed to just pass through destinations I failed to get any sense of place from Kim’s writing which to me is the whole point of a book about travel.

Some positives – the writing is well structured and flows easily. Some of the places described (albeit briefly) sound incredible and there are some funny moments. There’s also a happy ending which (I think) shows how far Kim and Brian come as a couple.

However – I just REALLY didn’t enjoy this novel.

Perhaps if I had been more interested in Kim as a person and I could engage with her emotionally then I might have enjoyed the book more. If you’re that type of reader, you may enjoy this more than I did – as I said, there’s nothing wrong with the writing itself, its the content matter that simply wasn’t for me.

Sorry Kim.

Overall rating: 3/10

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 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #8 Read a Travel Memoir.

Review: Toast by Nigel Slater

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I’ve always disliked Nigel Slater. I’m not sure exactly why but I thought he was a bit, well, patronising. I think it’s partly the way he speaks and partly his terrible TV show. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Slater presents “Simple Suppers”, a televisual concept so pretentious that when I first saw it I thought it was satire. Imagine the most middle class show kitchen ever. All the flour is decanted into mason jars, the butter is wrapped in brown paper and string, everything is painted in Farrow and Ball’s Elephants Breath. In between VT of Slater making balsamic reductions and char grilling asparagus are graphics of a little handwritten notebook with cute drawings of leaves and things with fake post it notes saying “don’t forget to cook a bit extra for tomorrow’s supper – even better the next day!” There’s something about this that really grates on me. No one lives like that. It’s all so fake but he presents with such seriousness – then you realise all he’s done is made an omelette with a few extra herbs that you could knock up in your sleep. Blaargh.

So you could say I had pretty low expectations of Toast – Slaters memoirs of his childhood to the age of 18. But boy, was I wrong.

Unlike other life stories, Toast is written in very short chapters which each centre around a memory of a specific item of food. I know that Slater is a food writer for the Observer so when I began reading this I did wonder if he’d just recycled his newspaper columns. Was I being ripped off?

All I can say is – I very much doubt that the content of Toast would be printed in a national newspaper. I couldn’t believe how candid Slater was. He was so honest about his feelings towards his own family, his early sexual encounters, his loneliness and struggle to make his father proud. He had almost nothing nice to say about his stepmother and didn’t seem to care that (presumably) members of his family would read it it and quite probably be upset.

To say I was shocked by this novel was an understatement. Not only to find out that Slater is from Wolverhampton (I seem to be reading a lot by people from Wolves, but he’s from the posh bit so I can’t relate as much) but to discover that he’s actually really rather sweet and comes across as witty, geeky and utterly oppressed by his family (he must be a therapists dream, there’s literally years worth of issues to work through). I couldn’t believe it – I actually found myself liking Nigel Slater. Weird.

Throughout the book there’s more than a hint of Slater’s bisexual/gay proclivities although he never confirms his sexuality. However, this seems almost irrelevant as its clear that Slater has one great love – food. This book is a love letter to all the cooking he had consumed throughout his formative years and is nowhere near as fancy as you might expect from someone who I always thought was a bit, well, up his own arse. Although towards the end Slater starts to discover decent restaurant food, throughout his childhood he devours his way through the whole repertoire of Marguerite Pattern 70’s style cooking and devotes as much love to a humble slice of toast as to home made lemon meringue pie. I have to add here that I also grew up on Marguerite Pattern’s Perfect Cooking and the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook (written by Bake Off’s finest Mary Berry, no less) and found myself reminiscing right along with him. I inherited Perfect Cooking from my partners mother and still maintain that it’s the best book to use for basic home cooking, although if you try out any of the variations of the blueprint recipes then you’re heading into uncharted territory.

Anyway.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s compelling reading and by linking his memories to specific types of food Slater creates an immediate bond between reader and author – I guess food is a great leveller. I love a bit of nostalgia and Slater’s memories of certain chocolate bars (Cadbury’s Aztec anyone?), dinner party food (I have vivid memories of my mother’s coq au vin and dauphinoise potatoes) and booze (when was the last time anyone had a babycham?) were really evocative of my childhood, despite it taking place almost two decades after his. The short chapters allow Slater to skip all the boring and-then-I-went-to-school-where-nothing-happened bits and just tell anecdote after anecdote, which makes the whole thing far more interesting.

Altogether I thought that Toast was a really interesting read and despite some desperately sad parts a lovely trip down memory lane. I have a new found respect for Nigel Slater – who’d have thought it?

Rating: 8/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge #19 Read a book about food and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #10 Read a book that’s set within 100 miles of your location.

Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017

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Hello lovely readers,

Well, it’s that time of year again to start making lists, drawing progress charts and trawling Goodreads threads for suggestions – yes, it’s the new Book Riot #Read Harder 2017 Challenge!

As you’re probably aware, I became slightly obsessed with the 2016 challenge and completed it in a few months. I found some great reads and surprised myself at what I learnt (food memoirs are great, reading out loud sucks). So, I was really  looking forward to the 2017 Read Harder Challenge.

First impressions of the challenge are…they weren’t joking when the called it read harder, were they? Perhaps “categorise harder” would have been more appropriate – some of the themes are pretty obscure (a character of colour going on a spiritual journey anyone?) And exactly what constitutes a micropress?

Thankfully, there’s lots of discussion on Goodreads and Book Riot themselves have published articles to help readers to correctly identify novels which fit within the categories. Personally, I don’t get too hung up on the specifics as I think the overarching aim is just to make you read more widely but for some of the themes I literally have no idea.

I’ve noticed this year that there’s hardly any books on my TBR that I’ve been able to use for the challenge. I guess that’s the whole point but this does have a cost implication. Thankfully Netgalley is a wonderful source of free reading material so I guess I’ll be using them lots. Plus there’s always the library (although it has been threatened with imminent closure).

Unfortunately, some of the categories mentioned in the challenge hold very little appeal for me. I hate re-reading books, I can’t find anything engaging that fits the definition of “a non fiction book about technology” and I have very little interest in sports. If anyone has any suggestions for these categories please let me know!

Despite this, I hope that this year’s challenge is as enjoyable as last year’s and I look forwards to uncovering some hidden gems that would otherwise have passed me by.

Happy reading!

Lucinda x

Review: Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith

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I read this book as part of the Book Riot 2016 Read Harder Challenge #4 read a book out loud to someone else.

I’ve finally finished Read Harder 2016! Yay! Applause! I’m so happy! But then, you probably knew that because you read my summary post, right??? I’ve just about managed to squeeze this post in before the end of the year, ready for normal blogging service to be resumed in the New Year (as I start Read Harder 2017!)

As previously mentioned, this is the final book that I completed as part of Read Harder 2016. The reason for this is not because I started it last, or because I was savouring it (although I believe all Patricia Highsmith novels should be savoured, she is the mistress of suspense and foreboding) or because it was a particularly long book. No. It is simply because reading out loud TAKES SO FREAKING LONG. I HATED how long it took to get through even a few pages. I thought I would enjoy reading out loud but actually this experience has taught me that I definitely don’t have the patience for it.

In terms of the actual book, the story is about two men who meet on a train (they are strangers funnily enough – the clue is in the title), both of whom were struggling with a significant person in their lives. They realise that no one will know that they’ve ever met and drunkenly plot to commit murder on the others behalf, providing they both go through with it. The novel unfolds as one character descends into alcoholism whilst the other barely holds it together as the weight of their crimes haunt them. As with all of Highsmith’s books Starangers on a Train is a tense melodrama with a sociopathic character at the centre whose side, bizarrely, you end up on.

In saying all that I admit that I found the book quite slow. I’m not sure if it was because I was reading it aloud or because I just didn’t engage immediately with the storyline. I thought that the idea for the plot was really inventive (its very difficult to imagine how to commit not one but two perfect murders) but in places where it was meant to be suspenseful it just dragged. I usually love Patricia Highsmith so I was quite surprised not to really enjoy the story.

The novel itself is very cleverly written and I enjoyed the language that it used – many of the passages are incredibly elegant. I found that the bits where action happened were very engaging and well written but large swathes were just a commentary about the stress the main character was under which after a while became a little tiresome.

Perhaps it would be better if I read the book again normally (i.e. in my head). I may need to read it again to verify this theory *checks reading challenges for a re-read category* hmm, there is one, I’m not sure if I can face it though. I think I’d be better with a book that I read longer ago. We will see.*

*update – since writing the draft form of this review Christmas has happened and guess what I got – a VMC copy of Strangers on a Train! Now I’ll have to read it again! :-/

Overall rating 5/10.