Review: The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

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Photo courtesy of Goodreads.

If you don’t know who Kate Tempest is, allow me to introduce you. Kate is a musician, novelist, playwright and poet from South London and has won many awards for her work, including the Ted Hughes award for “Brand New Ancients” and two Mercury prize nominations for her albums “Everybody Down” (2014) and “Let Them Eat Chaos” (2017).
If you’d like to find out more, her website is here.

As you would expect from such a creative powerhouse, Kate Tempest’s novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, is beautifully written with a lovely lyrical quality. However, her subject matter is pretty hard hitting and I found the juxtaposition with her writing style completely enthralling.

The book itself is a gritty account of life in South London for two struggling young women. Becky is a dancer/waitress by day and an erotic masseuse at night, whereas Harry is a drug dealer, gaining access to all the best parties to sell coke to her high end clients. Their two worlds collide when they meet at an event, and a series of chance occurrences leave them thoroughly entangled in each other’s lives.

I love Kate Tempest’s spoken word/music and so I was excited to read her novel. Apart from the beautiful writing, I was struck by what felt like a thoroughly authentic story. It really seemed like a “write about what you know” scenario – I imagine that many of the places and characters featured in the book are based on reality. There are some extremely well observed scenarios and her descriptions are so vivid that I was totally transported into the world she had created.

Kate Tempest is fantastic at portraying her characters in glorious 3D. They’re all flawed in some way but are just trying their hardest to make ends meet. Tempest is brilliant at showing both the light and shade in each person and doesn’t shy away from the effects of poverty on everything from career “choices” to mental health.

The Bricks that Built the Houses would be quite a depressing read if there wasn’t the most beautiful love story between the two main characters. This really lightened the tone and provided some of the most poignant observations about love and attraction that I’ve ever read. I think this is where Tempest’s poetic abilities really come into their own and I absolutely loved her writing about Becky and Harry’s relationship. Again, the authenticity of the love story stands out, not least because there is absolutely no saccharine sentimentality about it. I haven’t specifically researched whether Kate Tempest is gay/bi/queer but it feels like the relationship between Harry and Becky is one that she’s had personal experience of. It’s great to see this kind of representation in a non-YA, non-chick lit (I hate that term, but you know what I mean), non-erotic literature.

Unfortunately, I think the one thing that lets the book down is the actual storyline, especially towards the middle of the novel where I did find myself getting a little bit lost (and date I say it, bored). Some heavy editing would really help, as all the other elements are there and I particularly loved how interlinked everyone was towards the end. I did find the ending petered out a little – it would almost have been better to end on a cliff hanger, although I’m generally against them.

If you’re looking for an authentic social commentary about life for ordinary working class young people in 21st century Britain then I’d recommend this book. It just needs to be a bit shorter!

Overall rating: 3.5/5
The most beautifully written account of drug dealing in South London you’ll ever read.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #36 Read a book by someone that you admire.

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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 – 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: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I’ve never read Margaret Atwood before (I know) so this was my first experience of her work. WHY HAVE I IGNORED HER FOR SO LONG???? Seriously, this book (well, audio book) is amazing.

The book tells the story of Charmaine and Stan, a young couple living in a car and struggling to make ends meet since the economy collapsed. Living on Charmaine’s wages in her low paid, dead end job and spending their nights on the lookout for thugs smashing into cars and beating their inhabitants up, they hear about an amazing opportunity to volunteer for a new way of living. The town of Consilience promises full employment, housing, healthcare and a safe environment to live in – and it’s looking for residents. Seems too good to be true? It is – the catch is that you only spend one month at a time there as you have to ‘volunteer’ to spend the next month in prison. Stan and Charmaine have little choice but to sign up and at first they adapt well, but underneath the company endorsed plastic happiness their secret desires fester and manifest themselves in dangerous affairs.   

I found this book to be such an original concept that was amazingly well written and thoroughly engaging. There’s a very small cast of characters but the way that they all interacted and the impact that they had on each other was really fascinating. It’s amazing how Atwood got such a complicated story out of such a simple set up and still managed to tie it all together with a killer ending.

I loved how allegorical the title of the story was. Literally the heart goes last – it’s the final thing to stop working when someone dies (or is killed). In a figurative sense, even when Stan and Charmaine are interested in other people they still somehow love each other. Again, in Stan’s volatile relationship with his brother they always have each other’s backs. When Charmaine is asked to commit terrible acts she still does so with compassion. And at the end – I can’t say too much, but Atwood beautifully poses the question – can we really override our hearts with our heads? Or are our emotions too strong to break?

I also loved how there was a thrilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel. You know that Consilience is going to be a bad idea but the Stepford Wives style township seems to provide safety and security – two things that Stan and Charmaine are in desperate need of. You can tell that the sickly sweet packaging might look pretty now but will make you ill eventually – but what choice do the couple have? The truly terrifying part though is that in today’s political climate, are we really so far away from setting up social housing experiments along the same lines? And do we already have people living in such desperate need that they would willingly sign up? I hope Donald Trump doesn’t read this and get any ideas (no wonder people have protested against him dressed as Handmaids). 

I actually didn’t like any of the characters in the book, but I somehow ended up rooting for them anyway. As I was listening to the audiobook version I think I didn’t fully absorb all of the story because in places I found it a little hard to follow, so I’d like to read it properly. I also found the voices of the actors playing Stan and Charmaine quite annoying (Charmaine in particular was very nasal) but it was obviously intentional as her over-the-top cheeriness belied her underlying unhappiness and at times manic ability to keep putting on a brave face. By the end of the book, I found that this had actually added another dimension to the story (although twelve hours of listening to it is more than a little grating).   

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, especially fans of dystopian futures and intricate fantasy. I loved it.    

Rating: 8.5/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #4 Listen to an Audiobook.

Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd

A beautifully written tale of loss and letting go, A Monster Calls is the story of Connor, a young boy with a terminally ill mother. Connor begins to have terrifying nightmares and so is unsurprised when a monster appears in one of his dreams in the form of a Yew tree. Because Connor is used to being so frightened he doesn’t find the Yew tree monster all that scary, so they begin to converse…except the next day, Connor isn’t so sure that it was a dream after all.

Beware – this novel is a real tear-jerker. I never cry at books but I cried at the ending to this one. It’s just so sad and touching, with beautiful imagery and really emotive characters. What makes it especially poignant is the introduction where you discover the book was only part written by Patrick Ness because the original author died before she finished writing it. I wonder if she had children and wrote it to help them to deal with the loss of their mother? If so, that’s just too sad for words – but what an incredibly brave thing to do, and what a gift to give them.

The characters in the book are fantastic. I thought it was really important that Connor is shown to have a “normal” life despite what he’s going through with his mum’s illness. This is also a book about friendship, bullying, divorce, loneliness and dealing with difficult relatives. It shows how love can take many forms and can be found where you least expect it. It deals with all of these issues in a very realistic way and (without giving away too much) it uses a fabulous allegorical scene to show that sometimes, you just have to let go of the people that you love in order to set them free.

The book itself is quite short so I was able to read it in a couple of installments. Despite having two authors, it doesn’t feel like two stories mashed together and flows coherently from beginning to end. It features a young main character and is written in simple English, so it would appeal to older children/teens and up. I think it would definitely help a child going through the loss of a loved one (or an adult for that matter) because key concepts about life, death and illness are explained using beautiful stories-within-the-story that are basic enough for everyone to understand.

I hope this book is used in schools and that many children suffering from grief find that it helps them to express their emotions. I think the film will be amazing too and will hopefully be able to touch even more lives.

Rating: 8.5/10

I read this book for the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #37 Read a book that’s becoming a movie in 2017.

Monstress by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

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Photo courtesy of http://www.goodreads.com

Monstress is one of the most beautifully illustrated graphic novels that I’ve ever seen. It’s the story of a young girl who is captured into slavery. As she breaks out, she discovers not only a dark secret hidden within her but also that a number of different groups desire her knowledge and abilities…at any cost. Can she trust anyone – including herself?

I think it’s goes without saying that I really loved this graphic novel. It’s absolutely stunning to look at and has a really captivating narrative. I loved the mixture of dark, DC, western style comics with a manga style twist. The level of detail is astounding and adds so much to the overall narrative. I do find that sometimes comics are easy to skip through but with Monstress I found myself spending hours pouring over the graphics.

I really enjoyed the way that the comic was very much female centric, with lots of strong women from various different factions. I also loved the way that the broader themes of friendship, betrayal, desire, hunger, bravery and greed were defined. The story manages to encompass all positive and negative traits of what it is to be human – even when dealing with characters who are anything but. 

Some of the old tropes are there – dreams, monsters, a mask, a journey with a forbidden object, a hapless friend whose bravery saves the day etc. However, it’s done really well, as its quite a complicated story with lots of different groups all fighting it out, deceiving each other and crossing sides to fulfil their own ends.

Also, as Neil Gaiman points out – some of the best cats in comics.

I really want to know what happens next. I will definitely continue to read this series, if only for the exceptional artwork. Stunning.

Rating: 9/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar reading challenge 2017 #22 read a steampunk novel.