TL;DR December Review

Hello Bookworms!

I can’t believe that’s Christmas over for another year.  As usual, we ate a lot, drank a lot, saw family and friends and even squeezed in a bit of reading (although not as much as I would have liked. We were at my Mum’s this year, which meant the usual Xmas eve crisis (no butter) and as always, one item of food being forgotten about on the big day itself. This year it was the pigs in blankets:

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We had some fun days out over the festive period, including a trip to the magic lantern festival at Birmingham Botanical Gardens:

…as well as a lovely Boxing Day walk round Kenilworth Castle (which was basically me saying LOOK AT THE DOGGIES!)

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We also had a family party and a get together for my friend’s sons birthday, which was nice – he’s three and him and his friends were very cute. We’re out at my friend’s brewery for New Years Eve so that should be fun too!

We’ve done almost nothing to the house this month – Christmas got in the way and it’s no fun doing DIY in an empty house with no central heating! We’ll start again in the New Year. It feels like the jobs will never end but when you consider that this time last year it looked like this:


And now it looks like this:


We’ve not done too badly! (No idea why the non-hubs is always bending over in my pictures, no wonder he has a bad back).

I completed the Read Harder Challenge in early December (which is unheard of – I’m usually finishing off the final few books over Christmas) so I can start afresh next year with the 2019 challenge. You can read my wrap up post here. The 2019 challenge has already been announced and I can’t wait to get started!

As usual, I also took part in the Calendar Girls meme where I chose Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist  as my favourite book that’s set in Winter. I also did a fun Bookish Naughty or Nice tag where I found out that I’d been naughty – oops!

I was so busy with Christmas that I didn’t post many reviews on my blog but I did finally finish Les Miserables which had taken me all year to read (!) I was so pleased that I’d stuck with the novel (even through the boring bits) and I’m looking forwards to a new four-book challenge – more news to come shortly!

The reviews I managed to post were:

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: An epic, sprawling novel that sometimes drifted off into existential waffle but was nonetheless brilliant. Four-and-a-half out of five.

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton: A fun, fast paced adventure that he somehow published from beyond the grave. Not his finest work but still a good book. Four out of five. 

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie: I didn’t understand the hype around this book at all. It felt disconnected, unrealistic and many of the characters felt underwritten. Not terrible by any means, just not for me! Three out of five.

Of Women by Shami Chakrabharti: A fantastic overview of all the issues facing women but written in a dry, textbook style that loses the impact of the data in the way that it’s presented. A good overview but a thoroughly dull read.

So that’s December wrapped up! Have you had a good Christmas? Have you read any of the books I read last month? Follow the links or let me know in the comments!

 

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Book Riot #Read Harder 2018 Wrap Up

Hello bookworms!

As you may know, every year I take part in the Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot and as I’ve just completed it for 2018, I thought I’d share my thoughts. I bang on a lot about this scheme but it really is one of the best ways that I’ve found to expand my reading horizons. If you’re not signed up to Read Harder 2019, what are you even doing with your life? Get involved!

Read Harder consists of 24 categories and you simply read a book that fits into the given parameters. Some are easy  (a book with a cover that you hate – loads of those around!) and some are really difficult (an essay anthology, a Western etc.). Here’s the full 2018 list with links to my choices:

  1. A book published posthumously – The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
  2. A book of true crime – The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson
  3. A classic of genre fiction (i.e. mystery, sci fi/fantasy, romance) – The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  4. A comic written and drawn by the same person – Tetris by Box Brown
  5. A book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, or South Africa) – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan
  6. A book about nature – Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham
  7. A western – Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
  8. A comic written or drawn by a person of color – The Kite Runner Graphic Novel by Khaled Hosseini
  9. A book of colonial or postcolonial literature – Home​ Fire by Kamila Shamsie 
  10. A romance novel by or about a person of color – Love, Hate and Other Filters by Samira Ahmed
  11. A children’s classic published before 1980 – The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt
  12. A celebrity memoir – Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton
  13. An Oprah Book Club selection – Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  14. A book of social science – A Good Time to be a Girl by Helena Morissey
  15. A one-sitting book – Women by Chloe Caldwell
  16. The first book in a new-to-you YA or middle grade series – Everless by Sara Holland
  17. A sci fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author – The Power by Naomi Alderman
  18. A comic that isn’t published by Marvel, DC, or Image – Giant Days by John Allison
  19. A book of genre fiction in translation – 1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami:
  20. A book with a cover you hate – The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
  21. A mystery by a person of color or LGBTQ+ author – The Night Listener by Armistead Maupin
  22. An essay anthology – Not That Bad ed. Roxane Gay
  23. A book with a female protagonist over the age of 60 – The Lido by Libby Page
  24. An assigned book you hated (or never finished) – Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Out of this fairly random assortment of books, five really stood out. In no particular order, they were:

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank  

Anne’s diary detailed her life in hiding during the Second World War from the Nazis. It wasn’t what I expected but I found it completely engaging and terribly affecting. 

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

This under-the-radar book had me completely spellbound from the first page to the last. It’s the true story of the theft of several highly valuable bird specimens from a museum and leads to the bizzare world of competitive fishing fly tying, organised crime and orchestral music. Unexpectedly brilliant, if you come across this book I’d urge you to read it.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The story of a dystopian future where women are kept in servitude, this felt weirdly prescient for a book published in the 80’s. I loved it. 

Women by Chloe Caldwell

Another under-the-radar book, this novella had me completely addicted. It’s the very simple story of a lesbian relationship but it’s beautifully written and utterly compelling.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Flynn

I loved everything about this domestic noir thriller, from the characterisation to the plot twists to the dark, Hitchcock-esque atmosphere. Fantastic.

Every year, Read Harder throws up some brilliant books that I wouldn’t have otherwise read and this year has been no exception. I think that overall, the two books that really left a lasting impression on me were The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and Not That Bad ed. by Roxane Gay. Both were really powerful own voices novels of women struggling through adversity and both have haunted me ever since reading them.

The books that really surprised me were The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson for it’s portrayal of a strange little world that I knew nothing about; The Lido by Libby Page which I’d assumed would be fluffy chick lit but turned out to be a very moving portrayal of lonliness, grief, ageing and community; Women by Chloe Caldwell which was a tiny little novella that massively drew me in to the portrayal of a relationship between two women and Tetris by Box Brown which was a fascinating story of the history of the game Tetris told in graphic novel form. All of these books looked like they weren’t really my thing but they all completely surpassed my expectations.

The books that I achieved the most satisfaction from reading were 1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami and Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Both were long, complicated tales that took dedication to get through but they were both utterly worth it.

The funniest book that I read was My Life and Other Unfinished Business by the legend that is Dolly Parton. The woman is an untapped well of positivity and compassion and her life story is incredible (at one point she gets abducted by aliens – it gets mentioned almost as a footnote on one single page. That’s how jam packed her life has been). 

I was introduced to a completely new genre with Tetris by Box Brown and The Kite Runner graphic novel by Khaled Hosseini. Graphic novels have really expanded from their comic book origins and they’re definitely a genre that I’d like to read more from. In saying that, Giant Days by John Allison was a more traditional comic and that was amazing too!

Overall, I loved taking part in Read Harder 2018 and I can’t wait to get involved in Read Harder 2019!

Did you take part in the Read Harder Challenge this year? What were the best books that you read? Let me know in the comments!

Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo


Genre: Classic

Similar to: In a weird way, the Bible? 

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of heavy lifting

Publication date: 1862

Ok, I lied. This isn’t a review.

There is simply no way to summarise a book that is over 1200 pages long and covers almost every topic that you can think of without it turning into a dissertation (or a parody review – I could use massively flowery language and insert a big chunk of text about Waterloo somewhere in the middle…) but it’s Christmas and whilst I’m ideas rich I’m time poor (although that is a suitably massive sentence – stop it Lucinda!) So instead, I’m going to attempt to talk about some of the main points that struck me about the book-that-has-taken-me-a-year-to-read. Wish me luck.

Les Miserables is a vast, epic novel written in the about what life in France was like for it’s ordinary citizens during the first half of the nineteenth century. Jean Valjean is a prisoner, put to work on the galleys (prison ships) for stealing a loaf of bread. He escapes, reinvents himself and goes about trying to live his life as the best person he can be, helping everyone he meets as and when he can. He sacrifices himself numerous times for his ethics but continues to live selflessly. He encounters Fantine, a woman doing everything she can to ensure a good life for her daughter Cosette. Through a series of events, Jean Valjean discovers that Cosette is being worked like a slave by the unscrupulous Thénardier family and buys her from them, bringing her up as his own daughter. He escapes the clutches of the law numerous times and ensures Cosette is given a the happiest life possible. (This is a hugely simplified summary with many events and characters missing but it’s the best I’ve got).

I think the first thing to do is a shout out to whoever invented e-readers. I read Les Miserables on a Kindle and it’s a good job too – this is a BEHEMOTH of a book. As much as I would have liked to slam it down on a train table, or perhaps carry it in my arms whilst looking wistful in a Breton striped top, I simply don’t have the upper body strength for that sort of show-offy nonsense. If you’re into that kind of aesthetic though, this is the book for you.

In order to deal with the sheer length of the book, I signed up to a read-along where you read one of the 365 chapters a day for a year. I would guess that the book was written with that in mind, although the chapters themselves vary wildly in length with some less than a page long and some taking half an hour to get through. I quickly found that reading just one chapter was never going to work for me, so I tended to save up a week’s worth of reading and have an omnibus binge instead.

The novel, apart from being massive, is amazing. And very…French. It’s political and idealistic and raw and gritty and factual and endlessly quotable and brilliant and sad and funny and despite being written nearly 200 years ago it’s still (sadly) relevant to society today. I imagine that it was controversial in it’s day for the portrayal of ordinary people struggling through their ordinary lives; living in poverty, going hungry, doing everything they can to make ends meet. There are some truly tragic characters but through Jean Valjean there’s a sense of hope and an overall redemptive arc that lifts the narrative from depressing to inspiring.

There are literally SO MANY life lessons to be learned from Les Miserables. I’ve just read another review where someone said that this book makes you want to be a better person and I think that’s right. One of the central ideas is that by treating everyone – even a convict or a prostitute – with respect, that person will not only use that kindness, they’ll pay it forwards. If we could all see each other as human beings, rather than putting them into boxes full of made up assumptions, wouldn’t the world be a better place?

There’s also huge questions around ethics; what is legally right and what is morally right. Jean Valjean learns that whilst the state can punish him, abuse him and take away his freedom, they can’t harm his soul. He consistently does what he feels is right, even when this is often the hardest (and sometimes the illegal) option to take. In contrast, we see Javert the police officer bound by the letter of the law, acting entirely within the boundaries of legality even when this causes abject human suffering. The compassion that Jean Valjean is able to show eventually becomes Javert’s undoing (written, I have to say, in an extraordinarily beautiful way).

Despite the heavy moral overtones, Les Miserables never comes across as preachy or judgemental. There is so much light and shade within the novel that despite it’s length, you’re compelled to keep reading. True, the language used is often excessively flowery but somehow I didn’t mind it. I was concerned that the book was going to stray into the realms of poverty porn, romanticizing the misery that many of the characters faced but I needed have worried – there are scenes of children going hungry, homelessness, torture…the parts that stayed with me the most were the treatment of prisoners being moved across the country and the slow demise of poor Fantine. These scenes were truly upsetting but again, beautifully written.

Occasionally, there were parts that dragged – I almost gave up when I got to the part about the battle of Waterloo – but the short chapters and interspersing philosophical/historical/cultural asides into the main narrative really worked for me. I felt like I learnt so much about that period of history and my new found knowledge keeps rearing it’s head in the weirdest of places – like when I was on holiday in Devon and found out that 19th Century French prisoners of war had been moved from galley ships to Dartmoor prison and had built the church there by hand.

In contrast, there were parts that I absolutely flew through – the Thénardier heist, the barricade scenes and the sewers were some of the best bits of literature that I’ve ever read. Truly amazing prose.

Overall, Les Miserables is an incredible book. I found the portrayal of ordinary people a particularly fascinating topic and I loved learning about the real world events that took place during the same period. Yes, it takes time and dedication to read – and you will have a truly epic book hangover when you’re done – but it’s well worth it.

Rating: Four and a half “this can’t be right…96% complete, 4 hours 37 minutes left – WTF?” out of five.

Exhausting, occasionally waffley but overall brilliant. Plus, you’ll have arms like Michelle Obama if you read it in hardback. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #24 Read an assigned book that you hated or never finished.

#Read Harder 2019 Is Here!

Hello Bookworms!

Today is a red letter day for me here at Casa Lucinda because the 2019 Read Harder Challenge from Book Riot is here! I am SOOOOOO EXCITED!

In case you don’t know, Read Harder is a reading challenge designed to push you out of your bookish comfort zone. There’s 24 categories and you simply read a book that you think fits each of the criteria. There’s no hard and fast rules, you can be as abstract or rigid as you like!

There’s plenty of online support for the challenge including a dedicated Goodreads group, the hashtag #readharder and the Book Riot website, where they post suggestions and recommendations. If you want to learn more (and maybe even join in) you can visit the Read Harder page here

So, without further ado, here’s the list for Read Harder 2019! 

  1. A epistolary novel or collection of letters
  2. An alternate history novel
  3. A book by a woman and/or AOC that won a literary award in 2018
  4. A humor book
  5. A book by a journalist or about journalism
  6. A book by an AOC set in or about space
  7. An #ownvoices book set in Mexico or Central America
  8. An #ownvoices book set in Oceania
  9. A book published prior to January 1, 2019, with fewer than 100 reviews on Goodreads
  10. A translated book written by and/or translated by a woman
  11. A book of manga
  12. A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character
  13. A book by or about someone that identifies as neurodiverse
  14. A cozy mystery
  15. A book of mythology or folklore
  16. An historical romance by an AOC
  17. A business book
  18. A novel by a trans or nonbinary author
  19. A book of nonviolent true crime
  20. A book written in prison
  21. A comic by an LGBTQIA creator
  22. A children’s or middle grade book (not YA) that has won a diversity award since 2009
  23. A self-published book
  24. A collection of poetry published since 201


I’m already flicking through my TBR and NetGalley backlog to see what books I can possibly assign to each category…a self published book should be easy, a book of mythology or folklore – Norse Gods by Neil Gaiman, been meaning to read that for ages…I literally came across a book about a sham doctor pushing ridiculous dieting methods yesterday, that would fit the true crime category… a cozy mystery though (yuck, not my thing)…and where TF is Oceania? 

So…to Google! *points and states into middle distance*

Are you thinking of doing this reading challenge? Do you have any recommendations for any of the categories? Let me know in the comnents!

Review: Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

Genre: Western

Similar to: A more fun version of The Revenant

Could be enjoyed by: Men? This is very much a boy’s book (although I liked it too)

Publication date: 22nd May 2017

I have to say, I really like Michael Crichton books. They’re never going to win any awards for being outstanding examples of literary fiction but they’re easy to read, fast paced page turners and at a time when I’m still ploughing through the final few chapters of Les Mis, it was great to have a bit of light relief.

https://binged.it/2Sy5SjO

Yes, THAT Michael Crichton.

Set in 1876, Dragon Teeth is about William Johnson, a privileged Yale student with very little in the way of life experience. As a bet, he volunteers to go fossil hunting with the University’s resident paelentologist to the badlands of the Wild West. He endures a number of trials (including being caught up in the schemes of two warring professors) meets a host of real historical figures and gets stuck in the lawless town of Deadwood whilst attempting to get his important finds home – hopefully without dying in the process, of course.

As you can tell from the storyline, this is a really fun book. I loved how the author added in so many different crazy characters and awkward/dangerous situations which really brought the whole thing to life. Unfortunately, there were only a couple of female characters (who were mostly horrible) but that felt quite authentic for the period and setting (the lack of women, not their manipulative nature) so I won’t complain too much. The writing was fast paced, with tons of action and adventure. Again, it wasn’t great literature but it was highly compelling.

I really liked how Crichton blurred the lines between fiction and reality. Many of the characters and scenarios in the book were real and although much of the story is made up, it felt extremely authentic. The descriptions of people and places were really well written and I had a vivid idea of what it was like to live in Deadwood at that time.

Even though the novel was published posthumously after it was found as a draft on a computer, it still felt like a completed manuscript. I’m sure that if he’s been alive, Crichton would have spent more time working on it before sending it off to be published – it’s certainly not his best work, by any means – but it was obviously something that was near enough completion to still be a good read.

So, even though Westerns are really not my thing, I thought that Dragon Teeth was a really fun, compelling romp. I loved the vivid descriptions, the action and the inclusion of real historical figures. It made a great alternative to the trials of Javert and Jean Valjean!

Rating: Four out of five stars

A fun, easy book to read with surprising historic accuracy. A good option if you’re in a reading slump or as an alternative to a heavier novel.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #7 Read a Western.

Review: Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Could be enjoyed by: Everyone apart from me

Publication date: 15th August 2017

After seeing the rave reviews of this book aaaand having it personally recommended to me aaaand seeing it win the Wome’s Prize for Fiction I knew I just had to read this book. 

After reading the first few chapters I was thinking “hmmm, slow start but ok…” . Then after a few more chapters I was thinking “woah, majorly disjointed storyline but ok…” . Then after reading a bit more I seriously began to doubt whether I’d picked up the right book. Was this really the new novel that everyone’s talking about? 

Home Fire is the story of a British Muslim family struggling to come to terms with the legacy of their Jihadist father. The son, Parvaiz, becomes a member of ISIS and it’s left to his two sisters to pick up the pieces and get him home. The story is a reimagining of Sophocles’s Antigone which frankly went way over my head so please bear in mind that there might be lots of clever references used that I simply didn’t pick up on. 

Anyway…

The story felt extremely clunky to me. The novel was set in five different locations and frankly the first location (and character) seemed entirely superfluous to the rest of the book. It felt like the author was trying to be faithful to the original Greek Tragedy and in doing so had to shoehorn in bits of text that would otherwise have been cut. This made the book meander about to the extent that it felt like a good short story surrounded with a lot of filler. 

The other problem that I had was that not a lot happened – especially in the first half of the novel. Let’s not forget, this book won the Women’s Prize for Fiction and yet weirdly, the two main female characters in it felt woefully underwritten. Isma was the stereotypical ” dutiful daughter”, taking care of the family finances by working abroad.I didn’t get a feel for any personality beyond that. Aneeka felt like an utter missed opportunity of a character. Her behaviour in the first half of the book was entirely based around having sex and yet I was never sure of her motivations. Was she in love? Lust? Or was she using her lover to get to his influential father? There didn’t seem to be any scheming, plotting or tactics employed except for the occasional bit of acting distant and again I had no idea why. In contrast, their brother, Parvaiz, was far more well rounded and had a much more interesting storyline. I definitely enjoyed the parts of the novel that focused on him the most.

There are a number of different ideas explored within the text about identity, belonging and sacrifice and in fairness, this is done rather well. The clash between what you feel you should be doing, what you want to do and what it would benefit you to do is replicated numerous times throughout the narrative, often so subtly that you almost don’t notice it. For example, one of the characters who we meet later on (called Karamat Lone) is a British Muslim politician trying to balance his public persona with his private beliefs. This manifests itself in big, obvious ways (he talks about his tough stance on immigration and the prosecution of individuals who go to fight for ISIS – to the extent that the Muslim community have openly criticised him) but also almost invisibly – his son is called Eamonn spelled the traditional Irish way rather than the Pakistani Ayman.I loved the way that these complexities were woven so deftly throughout the text without feeling obvious or unnatural.

I’m going to guess that the ending of the book is somewhat faithful to the original Antigone text but let’s think about that for a second. I’m woefully under-educated when it comes to classic literature but I’d stick a fiver on my guess that the Greek Tragedies are all about the high drama. Now imagine that being played out by an ordinary girl from suburban London. It doesn’t quite fit, does it? And using the good old she’s gone crazy trope didn’t work for me at all.

Overall, I have completely mixed feeling about this book. The Antigone reference went over my head, the storyline felt clunky and I felt like the female characters in particular needed fleshing out. However, the writing in parts was brilliant, the depiction of a radicalized young British man was really interesting and the overall narrative was, on the whole, compelling. That ending was a step too far for me though.

Rating: Three out of five stars

Great writing but trying to fit the modern storyline around an ancient Greek Tragedy didn’t work for me. I’m clearly in the minority though

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #9 Read a book of colonial or post-colonial literature.

Review: The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

Genre: Fiction

Similar to: ??? *Resists urge to write Memoirs of a Geisha, which is a totally different culture* 

Could be enjoyed by: People who are interested in the experiences of first generation immigrants.

Publication date: 22nd March 1989

I’m going to let you in to a little secret here. Usually, I start my book reviews by assessing what emotions the novel has stirred up in me and allow them to set the tone for the review. Was it a super exciting story? If so, my review will have lots of exclamation marks and short, punchy sentences. Was it deeply moving? I’ll crack out longer paragraphs, throw in some half remembered A-Level psychology and feature the word “ohhhhh” a lot. But when I think of The Joy Luck Club I just think…meh.

So this probably won’t be a very good review (you’ve been warned).

I really wanted to like this book but I felt like I failed to miss the point. And upon reading the Wikipedia page for it, it seems that I absolutely had. You see, the novel features seven different characters – three mothers, three of their respective daughters plus one daughter whose mother has just died. The mothers are all part of the Joy Luck Club (a mahjong playing group) and are all Chinese immigrants, whilst their daughters are all Chinese-American. The book reads like a series of short stories from each of the characters. Occasionally these stories overlap but they’re often stand-alone vignettes. 

Apparently, the book is structured into four sections and the stories are themed for each as an allegory for the way that mahjong is played (?) Well, that went straight over my head. As far as I could see, the characters were picked at random to tell a story about their life. There seemed to be hardly any narrative thread holding it together. I immediately forgot who was related to who and couldn’t find the family tree explaining the genealogy using the ebook version. There was very little in the way of introducing the characters so in my head they became interchangeable – the “mothers” and the “daughters”. 

I have to say, some of the writing about what I’m going to call “old China” i.e. the lives that the mothers had before moving to America was really beautiful and felt totally authentic. I could have got completely lost in the stories if they’d perhaps been expanded to a longer form or if the book was just a collection of the experiences of those three characters. Unfortunately, they were interspersed with the stories of the younger generation, which I didn’t enjoy at all.

The main problem for me was that the characters – all of them – were horrible. The mothers and daughters didn’t get on. The daughters were petty and bitchy to each other. The mothers were petty and bitchy to everyone. The men were either nasty or useless. I would have loved to see at least one family work it out but there was such a disconnect between them all that it wasn’t to be 😢.

I thought this was a real shame. I loved the stories set in China but with such confusing, similar characters, a cast of horrible adults and no redemptive arc (actually that’s not true – one of the daughters ends up connecting with her extended Chinese family but we don’t get to find out how that plays out) I found The Joy Luck Club to be totally underwhelming.

Rating: Two and a half stars out of five.

One word: meh. Some parts were great, some parts were dull /horrible /annoying.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #5 Read a book set in or about one of the five BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).

Review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

“From lost to found on the Pacific Crest Trail”

Genre: Memoir, Travelogue, Bereavement Help

Similar to: A mix of Eat, Pray, Love and A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Could be enjoyed by: I think people experiencing bereavement could find it helpful

Publication date: 20th March 2012

If you asked me to sum up Wild in one sentence it would be “a woman goes for a very long walk wearing incorrect footwear”. I really did find it that dull as it felt like the book plodded along at a snail’s pace. It’s a shame because I expected far better things from the novel, especially after reading all of the rave reviews. My overarching feeling was “meh”.

To expand on that one sentence description of the book, Cheryl Strayed is a young American woman whose life has been seriously derailed by the death of her mother and the subsequent break up of her marriage. After quitting University in her final term to help with her mother’s end of life care, Cheryl struggles to cope and a series of bad decisions leads to her decision to do something drastic – spending a few months hiking the Pacific Crest Trail completely solo. She has to carry all of her food, water and belongings on her back and camp each night out in the open. It’s an incredibly brave decision to make but ultimately I just didn’t find it that engaging.

Now, before you all jump into the comments section and call me a monster for trashing a book about a young woman who has just watched her mother die, I’m not saying that the book wasn’t emotional. On the contrary, it was harrowingly, viscerally grief ridden – to the point where I struggled to read some of the parts about Cheryl’s Mum’s last few days. It was just…depressing. Obviously, death is an incredibly upsetting topic but I wanted more of a redemptive arc – a sense of letting go of the grief and moving forwards but instead this is how the book went: 

walking, shoe problems, flashback: traumatic illness 

walking, bag too heavy, flashback: traumatic childhood

walking, hungry, flashback: harrowing death

walking, got lost, flashback: drug problems

walking, more shoe problems, flashback: divorce

walking, cold and wet, flashback: family drifts apart

walking, finally some sex, flashback: traumatic horse death

walking, money problems, flashback: more traumatic childhood

walking, anger 

The End.

I had complicated emotions about Cheryl. On the one hand I felt incredibly sorry for her as she seemed to be totally adrift in her life. Her Dad was abusive, her stepdad disinterested, her brother and sister were distant after the death of her mother. But whilst that provided a background for some of the situations that Cheryl got herself into, I did feel like some of her problems were entirely her own fault. Some of the things she had done to other people, whilst clearly a reflection of her own lack of self esteem/depression, were downright shitty. I felt bad that no-one had tried to help her but then would you help your wife if she’d cheated on you multiple times? 

Probably not.

On the plus side, although Cheryl was woefully inexperienced and naive (she doesn’t test the weight of her pack until the day she begins walking and finds she can’t lift it; she doesn’t have enough money; she doesn’t read the guidebook; she has the wrong size shoes) she perseveres and muddles through. In that way I had a lot of respect for her but I did find her lack of preparation infuriating. I mean, people die every year doing that hike. You’d have thought she’d at least have done a few overnight camping trips beforehand. Or, you know, checked she could pick up the bag that she’s be hauling round for the next few months (let along carry the bloody thing).

The journey itself is pretty epic and I will grudgingly admit that Cheryl’s tenacity and no-nonsense attitude was inspiring. I felt like her decision to  hike the Pacific Crest Trail was her attempt to come to terms with everything and although this was a book about “finding yourself” it managed to do so in a way that wasn’t too self indulgent. Unfortunately, this meant pages and pages of just…walking. Lots of flowery descriptions, lots of info dumps, quite a few transitory characters who were so briefly in and out of the story that I couldn’t remember who any of them were when they popped up later on – and it was all interspersed with the depressing details of Cheryl’s life. Then there was a rushed ending where she reached the finish point…and that was it.

Sadly, Wild just wasn’t the book for me – although I’m well aware that my views are seriously in the minority. I thought that the novel literally plodded along and although it was genuinely inspiring I also found it pretty depressing – and I hate to say it but also pretty boring. Imagine Lord of the Rings without any magic. 

Yeah.

Rating: Two and a half “why the hell didn’t you read the guidebook?!?” out of five.

As inspiring as it is infuriating, I found Wild a real slog to get through. Everyone else seems to love it but I can’t for the life of me see why.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #13 Read an Oprah book club selection.

Review: Giant Days Vol.1 by John Allison

Genre: Comic book/Graphic novel, YA

Similar to: Like a grown up Lumberjanes

Could be enjoyed by: Freshers, or people who want to reminisce about Uni

Publication date: 24th November 2015

I discovered Giant Days on my Kindle when I was poorly a few weeks ago. To be honest, I’d kind of forgotten it was there. I can’t even remember why I bought it – I think it was reduced and I was on a buying spree. So not really the best credentials – and when you look at the cover you can kind of see why. The title means nothing to me and doesn’t explain what the comic is about. The artwork looks like the kind of thing you’d see in a newspaper comic strip. There’s no context to the character depicted so no clues there either. Basically the whole thing is pretty forgettable but I wanted to read something light and non-taxing, so I gave it a go. 

I’m so glad that I did! Set at an unnamed UK university, the comic follows three freshers who are just becoming friends. There’s sweet, naive Daisy; acerbic, serious Susan and dramatic, boy-crazy goth Esther. They get up to all the usual uni stuff – drinking too much, getting freshers flu, lazing about in pyjamas getting to know each other. It brought back so many memories 😍

I found the whole set up totally relatable and laughed all the way from beginning to end. I’d almost forgotten how uniquely weird those first few weeks of uni are, where you make friends based on whoever you’re randomly living with despite having totally different backgrounds and interests. I loved how the characters were all so un-alike and yet still became friends – something that I could definitely identify with. 

It was refreshing to read about a UK uni experience (sitting chatting in bars, having your mother visit because you’re only a few hours away from home etc.) and nice for my poor virus riddled brain not to have to convert words like faucet and college into tap and university. I think that this definitely helped me to identify more with the storyline and made me forego my “no backpacks” rule – I often find that I’m too old to identify with YA literature so I was pleasantly surprised. 

I absolutely loved all of the characters in Giant Days but I especially identified with Esther – she was exactly like I was when I was 18 (she also reminded me of Pandora from Kerrang! magazine – that’s a reference literally none of you will get 😜). I loved the female representation and how their unlikely friendship thrived, with none of the usual in-fighting, bitchiness or generic mean girl tropes. It would have been nice to see more diversity, although I did appreciate how Daisy began to explore her potential queerness (which was handled really well and again felt totally authentic). 

Overall, I thought that Giant Days was a brilliant graphic novel – highly relatable, fun, hilarious and charming. I thought that it captured that whole coming-of-age, exploring who you are thing really well and the way that the characters and their friendship was represented was just great. What a perfect read for October – especially if you’re a first year student – and what a great going-away-to-uni gift! 

Rating: Four “stall my mum while I sober up!” out of five.

Funny, warm and charming, Giant Days is the most relatable story of being a fresher that I’ve ever come across – the nostalgia will give you all the feels. 

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #18 Read a comic that isn’t DC, Marvel or Image. 

 

Review: 1Q84 Book Three by Haruki Murakami

Genre: Magical realism/fantasy

Similar to: Literally nothing. 

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Murakami who also have a lot of patience

Publication date: 16th April 2010

The world of Haruki Murakami is a very, very weird one. Literally no-one writes like he does. All of his books are set in quiet towns in Japan where people with ordinary lives have extraordinary, strange and bizzare things happen to them. His work defies categorisation – weird Japanese realistic fantasy is about as close as I can get. However, the stories are so brilliantly written and beautifully detailed that the fantasy elements feel totally natural to the overall narrative – to the point where you can describe an entire book and forget to mention that the main character can converse with cats.

This is quote from my review of 1Q84 Book One (which I also used in my review of 1Q84 Book Two) and I still think it sets the tone nicely. Basically, Murakami books are downright weird – and 1Q84 is possibly the weirdest one yet. 1Q84 Book Three (the culmination of the trilogy) is where the average writer would begin to tie up loose ends…but Murakami clearly had other ideas. I’m actually left with more questions now than I had at the beginning, some of which involve pretty major plot points. The question is though – do I actually care? Did I expect to find anything out?

I guess the answer is…no. 

A big, fat resounding no. 

No

NO

NO.

You see, that’s the genius of Murakami. I didn’t really expect to have any answers, I don’t know what happened, nothing has been resolved before getting to the book’s final destination. 

All I know is, I just really, really enjoyed the journey.

1Q84 Book Three kicks off directly after the dramatic ending of Book Two, where Aomame was stood with a gun in her mouth about to pull the trigger. There’s a slightly laboured point about Chekhov maintaining that any gun introduced to a story must be fired so I was expecting some major drama. Except…that’s not what happens. 

Basically – nothing happens. 

The book is one long nothingy nothingness of no action, no drama and no plot development – and yet it still managed to grip me from the first page to the last.

No, I’m not entirely sure how either. But it did.

I think that perhaps one of the ways that Murakami managed this feat was the introduction of time slips and the concept that time was moving faster and slower for different characters or in different situations. This is all done extremely subtly through suggestion and the storyline is left up to the reader to piece together as the characters (none of whom meet each other until the very end of the book) weave in and out of each other’s narratives. In reality, this was done extremely effectively so it wasn’t as confusing to understand as it sounds and it added a new layer of WTF to keep me entertained. 

I said in my Book Two review that I felt emotionally distant from the two main characters and this feeling remained during Book Three. For all his genius, I don’t think that Murakami writes women very well and honestly, the number of times that breasts were mentioned bordered the ridiculous. I literally know more about Aomame’s tits than I do about the main storyline (to be fair, not that difficult) and the final heartening scene was somewhat ruined by her apologising for having small boobs. I mean, really….

The ending itself explained literally nothing and although I was heavily invested in the storyline, I quite liked the open-ended “resolution” as I felt I had enough information to draw my own conclusions.

So, who are the little people? Why were Tengo and Aomame inextricably linked? What even is 1Q84? 

Who gives a shit. This is a brilliant, epic trilogy; a masterpiece of magical realism and a fantastic, complex work that I’m sure most people will hate but I absolutely loved. 

Rating: Four and a half levels of unexplained weirdness out of five.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #19 Read a book of genre fiction in translation.