Review: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

Trigger warnings for rape and violence against women.

Welcome, readers to the world of The Unspecified Past. Cast your mind back..

No, longer ago than that.

No, keep going.

Woah there, not quite as far as dinosaurs. Back up a bit.

OK you’ve got it. Cave People. Good. I shall continue.

Yes, Cave People, or prehistoric Man. Specifically, the time when homo sapiens had become a distinct species from our cousins, homo…umm… the other type of early man with the big foreheads that only spoke in grunts. You know the ones.

So, welcome to the prehistoric world. Look at all the vegetation! The clear running water! The sabre tooth tigers! Ahhhh, how idyllic.

See the way the homo-sapien child runs through the wildflower meadows. What’s that in her hands? Is it a slingshot? Why, she must have learnt to use tools! Yes, there seems to be a dead rabbit hanging from her back. And look, a bunch of wild garlic – is that food, or has she discovered its antiseptic qualities? Let’s follow her to find out.

Look, she’s heading for those caves! That must be where her tribe lives. Why yes, there’s a…is that big-forehead-early-man-type? Does the homo sapien girl live with this separate race of people? Is the big-forehead-early-man-type…communicating with his dead ancestors because his brain has allowed him to retain all of the knowledge of the previous generations via a combination of meditation and psychoactive drugs? Yes, yes he is. How fascinating! 

What is the child doing now? She’s approached one of the other tribe members and he’s… oh, he’s thrown her to the floor and now he’s…oh god, what is he doing to her? Oh dear. Quick, let’s go back….

*wibbly wobbly screen effect*

So yes, the Clan of the Cave Bear. Part anthropological view of prehistoric man, part young adult horror story of living with ancient savages that regularly beat up and rape their women. It’s an odd one to categorise, what with the child/teenage protagonist making it seem like it was aimed at a YA audience, but with violent scenes that you definitely wouldn’t want kids reading. Luckily, this book is approximately five million pages long so hopefully that will put off younger readers.

As an older reader, I actually found the book really engaging. Aside from the violent rapey bits (I’ll deal with those in a moment) the “world building” (if you can call it that – it is, after all, set on Earth) was very cohesive and although some parts were obviously made up – I very much doubt our ancestors had the knowledge of all the previous generations – the book was very well researched and felt authentic. For example, a lot of the parts about the medicinal properties of plants were correct and would still apply today. The mix of the obviously made up and scientific accuracy blended seamlessly together, despite the author obviously taking some liberties when it came to historical accuracy.

I loved the main character, Ayla, and her role within the clan. She was fearless and clever and managed to win the grudging respect of the male leaders, despite acting in a way that could have got her killed. Because she was an outsider to the group, Ayla’s observations threw up so many interesting topics for debate – the role of women in a patriarchy, the prominence of nature vs nurture, the benefits of diversity within a group…there were so many important lessons to be learnt from the novel that are absolutely relevant today.

However, there’s one part of the book that I’m not sure of – the rape scenes. The premise is that in a relatively uncivilised society, women were there to produce children and look after the hunters gatherers (probably historically accurate, but who knows). The men saw the women as little more than slaves and expected them to be subservient at all times, including when they felt a bit horny. Being physically weaker than the men, the women were powerless to refuse but – this is the bit I struggle with – the females were portrayed as understanding that having sex with men wherever and whenever they wanted it was part of their duty, so the issue of consent never arose. 

Hmmmm. I’m still not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, I can see why the book was written in this way but come on, surely the women could have had a little bit more choice? 

Apart from this, I really enjoyed The Clan of the Cave Bear. It feels like it’s going to be an epic series and there’s just so many different directions that subsequent books could take that I can’t wait to see what happens next. 

Rating: Four wooly mammoths out of five

Well crafted fantasy with great characters and huge scope for subsequent novels. The start of something that you can really get your teeth into.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #Read a book that’s been on your TBR way too long.

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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.

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: All Day by Liza Jessie Peterson

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

Bugger me, America is messed up. I’m sure the UK has some pretty shocking practices when it comes to children awaiting trial for criminal offenses but as far as I’m aware we don’t lock them all up together and stick them on an island, like some kind of Lord of the Flies for black kids. However, that’s exactly what happens in this true-life account of incarcerated children – children! – who are awaiting trial for seemingly minor misdemeanors on Rikers Island, New York.

The book is the account of one teacher’s perspective on what it’s like to work with these kids. Locked up, far from their families, with just the clothes they were wearing when they were arrested, the full extent of what happens to these poor (in both senses) young men is portrayed with brutal honesty. From gang fights to mental health issues everything is recounted with no sugar coating. It’s a morbidly fascinating glimpse into a world very few of us (hopefully) will ever get to see first hand.

*At this point, I am going to have a little bit of a rant. This is tenuously linked to my review but only because of my involvement in the UK justice system. You have been warned*

As someone who spent a few years working in the UK police force at a time when they had just been branded “institutionally racist” I have a little bit of experience of the ways that we worked to change the organisational culture. We aimed to include diversity in everything we did, not just with training (a full two day session that was actually really fun) but by embedding it into everything we did, from appraisal and job interview questions to marketing and branding. We had area Diversity Action Groups with targeted action plans. We attended events like the Caribbean Carnival and Pride. We targeted recruitment adverts to specific interest publications to increase the number of female, LGBTQIA+, disabled and minority ethnic applicants. We had support groups for all the different diversity strands that reviewed all of our policies and procedures to ensure fairness and transparency. We monitored the ethnicity of anyone stopped and searched and published the figures on a monthly basis (if anyone is interested, they were always overwhelmingly white men). Of course there were still problems, but I witnessed myself the amount of work and the dedication of many, many officers and staff to really engage with the idea. And things changed. Slowly, teeny tiny bit by bit, things got slightly better. We recruited record numbers of females and minority ethnic staff. We had awareness days for religious and cultural celebrations where staff and officers brought in food and talked about what the day meant to them. It was really fun (and the free food was a huge, yummy bonus). Everyone seemed really positive about the changes that were being made. I believe (obviously I can’t prove this) that as a result, Drtection rates for hate crimes increased as more emphasis was put on outreach work within communities that were previously very hostile towards the police. I really felt like the actions that we took were having an effect on the community that the police force served.

So I was horrified to read that almost every single inhabitant at Rikers Island was black or Latino – and that it was just accepted that if they had been white they would have been let off with a slap on the wrist. I literally can’t believe how blatantly racist the system is -and that no-one is doing anything about it.

*Ok, rant over. Back to the book review…*

It was really interesting to see how working in such a place was incredibly difficult for the staff – something that often gets neglected in such stories. Peterson is understandably frightened at being left in charge of a class of potential criminals who are disinterested in learning – what’s the point when your life will forever be tarnished with a criminal record? The way that she engages with the kids, enlightens them about their options and inspires their creativity is really impressive. However, the anxiety that she has about taking the job, the sheer effort of designing interesting ways to teach the curriculum and the massively long hours (not to mention the incredibly low pay) all take their toll and I really felt for her when she had to make tough decisions about continuing in the role.

It’s a shame that, as a reader, you don’t get to understand more of the back story about the inhabitants of Rikers Island. Understandably, Peterson has to maintain a professional distance but it would have been fascinating to understand what the young men had been through in order to end up where they were. There are certain issues that get alluded to (violence, drug abuse, sexual abuse etc.) but you never get to find out a full back story.

Despite the fascinating subject matter, I also found the storytelling a little clunky. There were parts that went into massive detail and parts which were skimmed over. I thought that with better editing the book could have been really great, but as it was I gave it…

Rating: 3/5
Could have been more engaging with emphasis on the background of the inhabitants and needed editing – but worth a read for a glimpse into the murky world of reform for minors.

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 #19 Read a book in which a character of colour goes on a spiritual journey and the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #32 Read a book about an interesting woman.

Reading Challenge Update

Hello lovely readers!

Now that we are over a third of the way through the year (where did THAT go) I thought I’d review the two reading challenges that I’m taking part in to check my progress and also to look at my Netgalley account to see what percentage my feedback ratio is.

Incidentally, does anyone else get a bit obsessed by their reading stats or is it just me? I digresss…

Ok, so first up I had a look at the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. This challenge compromises 24 categories, so 2 books a month to be identified and read.

Current progress:

23/24 books identified (with an idea for the remaining novel).
9 books completed.
3 further books started but currently incomplete.

Verdict – winning!

I then looked at the Popsugar Reading Challenge – 40 categories so just under 4 books per month to be identified and read.

Current progress:

35/40 books identified. Struggling to think of a book with career advice and a book from a non-human perspective. Can anyone help?
16 books completed.
1 further book started but currently incomplete.

Verdict – on track.

Finally I had a look at my Netgalley account. Netgalley recommend that you have a feedback ratio of 80% or above. I have 11 books which have already been published that I haven’t reviewed – basically that I’m behind on. I have a further 5 books that are due to be published from June onwards that I’m not worrying about yet but that drags my overall feedback ratio to 54% which is quite frankly rubbish.

Verdict – must try harder. 

So overall I think I’m doing ok, I’ll be concentrating on getting my Netgalley score up which will also mean reigning myself in when requesting new titles *sad face*. On a positive note I’m not going to worry about the reading challenges because I seem to be doing quite well in those *happy face*.

How are you getting on with your reading challenges, Netgalley scores or TBR lists? Do you have any suggestions for the two Popsugar categories that I’m struggling with?

Lucinda xxx

 

Review: Things I Should Have Known by Claire LaZebnik

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

Things I Should Have Known is a sweet, unique and funny YA novel set within the slightly dysfunctional Mitchell family. There’s a controlling, no-idea-how-to-deal-with-teenage-girls stepdad, a pushover Mum who has previously been clinically depressed (so JUST WANTS TO MAKE EVERYONE HAPPY), an older teenage daughter with autism called Ivy and a slightly spoilt, typically stroppy younger daughter called Chloe (the main protagonist). Chloe is one of the popular girls at school, with the jock boyfriend and one dimensional friends. She realises that Ivy has never had a boyfriend and so sets about finding a suitable candidate to date her. Enter Ethan, the adorable, wouldn’t hurt a fly classmate of Ivy’s who Chloe thinks is perfect for her. Unfortunately, Ethan’s brother David goes to the same school as Chloe and is known for being an annoying weirdo. Thrown together by Chloe’s desire to make her sister happy, the unlikely foursome end up coming to some pretty startling realisations about themselves, and each other.

I thought Things I Should Have Known was a great read. I felt that it was such an honest portrayal of what it was like to live with an autistic person, warts and all. It’s unusual to have a story with an autistic character as the sibling of the narrator – everything else that I’ve read in this category is either from the point of view of the parents or the autistic person themselves, which I thought made it unique. It was also nice to see that although the impact of autism features heavily, the book also had another strong storyline (the relationship between Chloe and David) which gave it a bit more variety.

I really liked that there was a bit of everything in this book – LGBTQ+ issues, disability, teenage angst, family problems…all dealt with in a believable and sensitive way. Each character is flawed and to see how they all adapted to a challenging situation was really interesting as a huge range of reactions and emotions were conveyed. I became really invested in the storyline – at one point the main character Chloe makes a huge mistake and I really felt for her.

Unfortunately, some of the comments that Chloe makes about her boyfriend are truly cringeworthy and their relationship seems a little too perfect for two teenagers at high school. Chloe goes from being a bit of a vacuous cheerleader type to a sensitive young woman, who doesn’t care about her boyfriend being the picked on, unattractive weirdo that her friends don’t like. Similarly, David goes from being the weird, bullied, outspoken nerd to the politically correct, feminist, adorkable love interest. Even so, their relationship was very cute and I will forgive the fact that some of the things they said would never come out of the mouths of fifteen year olds because they were just such a sweet couple.

Despite the fact that this was a YA novel it was good to see some difficult issues like full time residential care for autistic adults being discussed. I thought that the issue was dealt with very sensitively, although I expect that in the real world far more problems would have occurred. It also would have been nice for the author to have considered some of the real world implications of long term care, not least the financial element. I guess you can’t have everything, eh?

Despite this, I found myself really enjoying the novel. It’s a nice twist on the standard YA plotline of boy meets girl and it dealt with some difficult issues with sensitivity, even though things turned out to be a little too perfect in the end.

Rating: 7.5/10

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 Popsugar Reading Challenge #13 Read a book by or about a person with a disability.

Review: Interworld by Michael Reaves and Neil Gaiman

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Interworld seems to be the “forgotten” story written by Neil Gaiman – but I loved it. Fun, chaotic and wildly imaginative it’s a real Boys Own adventure of a novel.

Joey Harker is an ordinary young boy living a perfectly normal life, until one day he walks (not walks, walks) into an entirely different dimension – and chaos ensues.

I was a little concerned that there may be an issue with having two main authors, but unlike the other Gaiman collaboration that I’ve read (Good Omens – where you can literally attribute different characters to either Neil or Terry Pratchett) the book flows seamlessly. There’s lots of action and a few unpredictable moments and unexpected events that amp the pace up and kept me interested until the end.

The characters could have been a little better defined – as they are all variants of anti-hero Joey from different dimensions it was very easy to confuse them. However, the other characters (in particular the baddies) were described in such terrifying detail that I had a very clear imagine of what they looked like.

I can imagine this book would appeal to tween or teenage boys – although I am neither and enjoyed it too.

I thought that Interworld was a madcap adventure that was a hugely imaginative and fun read. As it’s aimed at younger people there wasn’t really enough of a story to get my teeth into but I would still like to find out what happens in the rest of the series.

Rating 7/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar reading challenge 2017 #8 Read a book with multiple authors.