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.

 

Review: The Letter For The King by Tonke Dragt

​Genre: Fantasy, Children’s Literature

Similar to: The Hobbit, LOTR

Could be enjoyed by: Parents looking to read their kids something other than Harry Potter

Publication date: (In translation) 7th November 2013, originally published in 1962

Some of you may remember that I sent out a request a while ago asking for suggestions for some of the remaining categories in the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge. One of those categories was to read a children’s classic published before 1980 and although you all gave some excellent suggestions, I shamelessly ignored them and read The Letter for the King instead. Sorry! I do honestly appreciate your imput, but this book just looked sooooo interesting that I had to give it a go.

Anyway…

The Letter for the King is something of a classic in mainland Europe but for some inexplicable reason was never translated into English until a few years ago (WHY???) The book follows the adventures of Tiuri, a teenage page who is on his way to becoming a fully fledged Knight. However, a chance encounter leads to Tiuri becoming tasked with a quest to travel across the Great Mountains to deliver a message to the King. In order to do so, Tiuri must avoid numerous perils, pitfalls and shady characters conspiring to stop him – otherwise the whole kingdom could be brought to it’s knees. 

Unsurprisingly, this is a lovely, exciting, easy read. It’s described as Children’s Fiction but I’d say the age range could be a little older – say ten years and up (I hate writing an upper age limit on these recommendations – I’m 35 and I enjoyed it!). I loved Tiuri and his unfailing dedication to always doing what was right – I thought he would make a great role model, especially for young boys. Unfortunately, these’s not a lot of (barely any) female representation but I’m reliably informed that this is rectified in the sequel. 

I really enjoyed all the action and suspense within the novel. I can imagine that if you’re reading the book as a bedtime story your kids would definitely be begging you for one more chapter. There’s just so much that happens and lots of chapters end on cliffhangers, so be warned!

I loved the central themes of bravery, friendship and choosing the right thing to do, even if it is the more difficult option. Although it feels very much like a high fantasy novel, there’s actually no magical elements so it makes for a bit more of a straightforward read. I actually didn’t miss them at all as the storyline has more than enough going on.   

Although the book is a great translation, it does retain something of that Germanic/Eastern Bloc creepiness that I have potentially only picked up on because I was subjected to watching those weird foreign cartoons as a child (things were very different at the BBC in the 80’s).Think like The Moomins or The Singing Ringing Tree, as parodied beautifully here by The Fast Show:  

Overall, I loved escaping into the world of Tonke Dragt. The Letter for the King is a great book to be enjoyed at any age and yet another brilliant find courtesy of Book Riot. I’d encourage you all to read it.

Rating: Four ‘how do I pronounce that inexplicably scary name’ out of five.

Fast paced, exciting and easy to read – I’m sure this book will now gain a whole new legion of English-speakng fans. 

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #11 Read a children’s classic published before 1980.  

 

Weird and Wonderful: Books I Wouldn’t Have Read Without #ReadHarder

*Featuring links to some of my early blog posts *cringe*

I’m sure that by now you know I loves me a reading challenge! I’ve been doing Book Riot’s #ReadHarder for a few years now and it really has helped me to broaden my literary horizons. As I’ve just found yet another brilliant book that I’d never have expected to enjoy, I thought I’d share with you some of the great discoveries that I’ve made over the years…

1.The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

Category: Read a book of true crime.

Who would have thought that a book about Victorian salmon fishing flies could be interesting? I certainly didn’t but right from the first page I was captivated by the bizzare world of modern day salmon fly tiers and the unbelievable story of the theft of hundred of thousands of pounds worth of incredibly rare birds from the Museum of Natural History in Tring purely so their feathers could be used in this arcane hobby. I loved everything about the book – the eccentric characters, the mystery and the sheer weirdness of the whole situation led to a brilliant story that had me hooked (see what I did there?😉)

2. Pretty Good Number One: An American Family Eats Tokyo by Matthew Amster Burton

Category: Read a food memoir.

“What the hell is a food memoir?” was my initial reaction to this category but since discovering the slightly odd genre I’ve found some real gems (shout out to Nigel Slater’s Toast which is also brilliant). There’s something about learning about a culture through their food that’s utterly compelling and it’s surprising what you can learn. I loved the way this book was written, how adventurous the family were in trying even the weirdest Japanese food (frozen octopus cubes anyone?) and the sheer level of excitement and enthusiasm that Matthew Amster Burton had for the topic.

Side note: apologies for this review – it’s very old!

3. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

Category: Read a book about books.

I would never, ever have picked this book up (despite it being in pretty much every Top 100 Books chart) because the title made it sound like something I might have appreciated if I was nine but not if I was in my thirties. I’m not a fan of Disney or princess stories and I really thought this would be some schmaltzy crap about a princess getting married and living happily ever after. Ha! How wrong I was! This book is just brilliant and one of my absolute favourites. If you haven’t read it, think Neil Gaiman’s Stardust but with an incredibly original self deprecating twist. An absolute classic.

4. Running Like A Girl by Alexandra Heminsley

Category: Read a book about sports



This book made me take up running – a minor miracle in itself – and whilst that hobby was short lived (almost killed me) it did inspire me to do more exercise; two years on and I’m still going strong (even though I deviated to yoga – it still counts!) I loved Hemmo’s humour, her attitude and her honesty and how she talked as much about the emotional side of exercise as much as the physical impact. Instead of being some preachy novel written by a super fit twenty year old this was an honest reflection of what it’s like to try a new sport when you’re a bit older, a bit heavier and a bit more worried about getting mugged/laughed at/embarrassingly injured. A great read, even if you’re exercise-phobic.

5. Women by Chloe Caldwell

Category: Read a one-sitting book

I loved everything about this tiny little novel, even though it felt like the kind of niche read that only a handful of people would ever enjoy. It was written with such honesty and emotion that it felt like I was illicitly reading someone else’s diary and, being incredibly nosy, I guilty consumed it all in one go. A really brave book that felt totally authentic, I loved every second.

Have you ever completed a reading challenge? What books have you discovered as a result? Have you read any of my top picks? Let me know in the comments!


Review: Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business by Dolly Parton

​Genre: Memoir, Autobiography.

Similar to: Well, it’s a celebrity memoir so…all the other celebrity memoirs?

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of Dolly Parton, obvs.

Publication date: 22nd September 1994

Now, I’m sure you’re all aware of Dolly Parton the country music singer, businesswoman and all around amazing person. I’ve previously blogged about Dolly’s Imagination Library here and talked about how wonderful I think she is. So when I found the inexplicably out-of-print autobiography Dolly: My Life and Other unfinished Business I was immediately excited to read it. 

The first thing to say about this book is hooo-boy, Dolly has led a pretty amazing life. From growing up in the Smokey Mountains to her metoric rise to fame, hers is your quintessential rags to riches story – and when I say rags to riches, I literally mean growing up in rags to becoming a multi-millionaire.

It’s genuinely hard to comprehend the level of poverty that Dolly grew up in. Her home was hand built by her family, it was papered with newspapers to keep the drafts out and the family’s chickens lived underneath it (and used to poke their beaks up between the gaps in the floorboards). I really enjoyed reading about her early life because despite having pretty much nothing, the Parton’s were a resourceful lot and in having to make their own entertainment, Dolly began to hone the singer-songwriter skills that she built her career upon. 

The other thing that growing up poor seemed to do for Dolly was to keep her humble. The book is peppered with her self-deprecating humour and jokes about her trashy apperance, her plastic surgery, the fact that her dad assumed that when she went home with her newly bleached hair and disposable income that she’d become a prostitute. She alludes to having had affairs (although she denies the lesbian ones as just good friends) but is hilariously honest about literally everything else – from not having children to her medical problems to her favourite cosmetic surgeons (there is genuinely a list of recommendations and contact details in the back). Dollly is fabulously un-classy in a way that most people would try to hide but she just doesn’t care – and that makes her life even more fun to read about. I loved her refreshing honesty and how her writing oozed with her warmth and intelligence.

I was slightly concerned that as a Christian, Dolly would stray into the realms of being preachy or judgemental but this never happened. She seems to live her life caring about and helping everyone – regardless of their background, sexuality or religion. There is a lot of talk about God but it’s always positive  – almost her own blend of Dolly wisdom and spirituality. I loved how her faith in God translated to her belief in charity, her championing of various causes and her attitude to helping out all of the members of her absolutely massive family. 

I will say that the autiobiography rambles a bit – it’s not exactly chronological and not being a country music fan I wasn’t always aware of the people that she was talking about but it was still hugely enjoyable. 

Overall, I loved reading about Dolly and her super-inspirational take on life. She’s had such a lot happen to her that it’s almost too much to fit in to a novel. Case in point? She gets abducted by aliens and writes about the experience for all of ONE PAGE. Amazing. Dolly Parton, I will always love you (oooh wahhhh).

Rating: Four ‘It’s a good thing I was born a girl, otherwise I’d be a drag queen’ out of five.

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #12 Read a celebrity memoir.

 

Review: The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

“Beauty, obsession and the natural history heist of the century”

Genre: Non-fiction (Adult), True Crime

Similar to: Fly Fishing by J.R.Hartley

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of books featured on BT adverts

Publication date: 26th April 2018

I’ll be honest – If it wasn’t for the #Read Harder Challenge by Book Riot I would never ever have picked this book up. It’s such a weird topic to write about, a completely bizzare story and features lots of different topics, none of which I’m particularly interested in.

You see, The Feather Thief is the true life story of Edwin Rist, a salmon fly tier who becomes so obsessed with the hobby that he ends up stealing a huge number of rare bird skins from the British Museum of Natural History in Tring in order to use their feathers to make salmon flies (and also makes pretty hefty profit selling the feathers on to other salmon fly tiers – Edwin is also a prodigal flautist and wants a new professional grade flute). 

Sorry, did I lose you there for a second? You don’t know what a salmon fly is? Or how it relates to dead museum birds? Or what this book is even about?

Yeah, that was pretty much my response when I read the blurb but I needed to read a book of true crime, sooooooo….yeah. I chose to read it.

And guess what?

It was INCREDIBLE!

I genuinely can’t believe how interesting this book was – especially for someone like me who knew literally nothing about salmon fishing, Victorian bird hunting or the esoteric (good word) world of modern day salmon fly tying. And now – now I know LOADS about all of these things and they are FASCINATING.

Let me explain…

The Feather Thief begins with an introduction into the world of the fishing fly. These are the things that you attach to your fishing hook (like a lure) to make the fish think that your hook is food or something to be attacked. Either way, the fish ends up with the hook in it’s mouth and you end up with a charming photo of you holding it by the tail before hopefully putting it back in the river. So, fishing flies are generally functional objects that help you to catch fish. People either buy them or make them using bits of feathers, tinsel, coloured plastic etc. – anything to grab the fish’s attention.

Except…

Except there is a bizzare, kinda underground world of people who create massively intricate, hugely expensive salmon fishing flies purely for fun – not fishing. They often follow Victorian instructions for such creations and as such need to get hold of the kinds of materials that would have been used at the time. This is where it gets interesting. You see, the Victorians loved feathers – especially from rare and/or exotic birds. Also, they didn’t give a tuppeny fig about ideals such as animal welfare, conservation or protecting vulnerable species – to be fair, none of these things had been invented yet. To the Victorians, if it moved then you should shoot it then either eat it, stuff it, preserve it or wear it. And if it came from a far flung country and looked fabulously exotic, so much the better for showing off your wealth and excellent taste. 

A huge market arose for the importation of feathers from the tropics and Asia (primarily for fashion) and so it was only natural that a gentleman interested in country pursuits should show off with a display of the finest, most highly decorative salmon flies that money could buy, whilst his wife paraded around with a dead bird on her hat. 

Cut to the present day…

For some bizzare reason, people are still interested in creating Victorian salmon flies (I guess everyone has to have a hobby). However, many of the materials required are now protected by law – the Victorians pretty much decimated much of the natural populations of thousands of animal species, particularly exotic birds. So, demand for rare feathers in the world of salmon fly tiers is particularly high – especially as their availability is so scarce.

Still with me?

Ok, so this is where Edwin Rist comes in. He’s a young American teenager with meagre funds but an all-consuming obsession with fly tying. Studying in the UK, he hears about the collection of bird skins that were collected by Alfred Russel Wallace (a contemporary of Darwin) who painstakingly caught, labelled and preserved exotic birds in the wild and had them shipped back to the UK for scientific research. Edwin views some of the collection (now housed at the British Museum of Natural History in Tring), scopes the place out then returns at a later date and steals hundreds of the specimins, specifically to create salmon flies (or to sell on to other tiers).

No, really. He absolutely decimates the collection of irreplaceable scientific specimens so that he can create salmon flies – display purposes only. 

The Feather Thief investigates everything from Wallace’s voyages to the tropics and the Victorian fascination with feathers to Edwin Rist himself, what happened when he raided the museum, how he was eventually caught (tiny spoiler – the museum didn’t even notice that the birds were missing for MONTHS) and also tries to trace the missing birds. It features interviews with some of the main players in the fly tying world and eventually the author even manages to talk to Rist himself. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and far more interesting than I’ve made it sound.

I loved learning all about the history of collecting bird specimens (for scientific research, private collections and for profit) and the huge industry that this created. Although this could have been a pretty dry info-dump the conversational tone of the author brought the subject matter to life. Johnson’s overall style reminded me of Bill Bryson (who as far as I’m concerned could make any subject captivating) and I could really feel how personally invested he was in the story. Although I’m pretty ignorant about the history of feather trading, The Feather Thief seemed to be very well researched and was heavily referenced throughout.

As the book progressed and Johnson focused more on the psychology of why Rist would risk everything to commit such a crime (and the arguments that his defence lawyer used to mitigate his sentencing) the manuscript becomes more of a psychological thriller. Who really is Edwin Rist? Was his sentencing fair? Where are the birds that he stole? How many members of the fly tying community knew about the heist or suspected they were buying stolen birds/feathers but didn’t say anything? Johnson investigates all of these questions and whilst he doesn’t necessarily come up with the answers, he objectively presents all of the evidence available and allows the reader to draw their own conclusions.

Cleverly constructed, impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, The Feather Thief is an incredible book. I was completely sucked into the murkey world of salmon fly tying and the story of how a teenager could pull off such a high stakes, valuable, devastating heist with little more than some wire cutters, a rock he found on the ground and a wheelie suitcase. Seriously – just go and read it for yourself.

Rating:🌟Five felonious feather filching foreign flautists out of five🌟

Bonkers, esoteric psychological crime drama that could easily have been the plot of a of Jonathan Creek episode. Brilliantly engaging, a great pick for a true crime book that doesn’t feature a murder or violence of any kind. Weird and truly wonderful.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks Netgalley! I also read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #2 Read a book of true crime.

 

Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

​​“Electrifying!”

Genre: Science fiction, speculative fiction

Similar to: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Could be enjoyed by: Fans of dystopian fiction or readers wanting to explore gendered oppression from another angle

Publication date: 27th October 2016

Imagine a world where, on the basis of your gender, you’re expected to act demurely and not come across as angry or aggressive. A world where you’re patronised, belittled and afraid of physical and sexual violence because you’re not physically strong enough to fight back. A world where society is structured to silence you, dismiss your ideas and treat you as a maid/sex slave. Where you can only leave the house with a chaperone, aren’t allowed to drive, can’t go out at night, can’t run a business or own property, can’t vote and have to dress in an appropriate manner. 

That’s not too hard to imagine, right? Because I bet you related those ideas to the treatment of women in places like the Middle East (or maybe even the UK or US). 

Ok, so now imagine that I wasn’t talking about the treatment of women – I was talking about the treatment of men.

Oooh.

That’s exactly what Naomi Alderman did in her prize-winning novel “The Power”. In it, women have developed a “skein”, a body organ that produces an electrical charge at will. Some women have a stronger charge than others but almost all are able to produce a bolt of electricity so strong that it can kill whoever they aim it at. Only women are affected and the book follows four individuals (three women and one man) to see how the world changes. 

The novel is also a book within a book, where a fictional male character  (Ben) writes to Alderman from some point in the future, daring to challenge the assumption that men have always been the weaker sex. The subtlety in the writing of these letters is incredible – the way that Ben defers to Alderman, her arguments that biologically women have to be strong and dominant to protect their children, her patronising tone and the final killer line to help Ben’s research to gain credibility “have you considered publishing it under a woman’s name?” all absolutely slayed me. It also highlighted some important points about our own long held beliefs about inherent gender differences – are they really as factual as we think or are they based on lazy stereotypes?

The main thrust of the novel showed how, as always, absolute power corrupts absolutely. It actually shocked me how there was a part of me genuinely cheering on the women who used their newfound strength to oppress the men. One of the best illustrations of this is the inclusion of two news anchors (one male, one female) and the shifting power dynamic between them as women across the globe caused riots, overthrew governments and created wars to exercise their dominance. Again, the subtlety of the writing was excellent but it really made me question the bit of myself that was thinking “ha! Now you know what it’s like!” which kind of suggests that as much as I would have hoped that the discovery of The Power would have created an equal society, the chances are that things would probably play out exactly as described. And – and this is a terrible transgression and one that I’m not proud of – you know who annoyed me the most? The men’s rights activists. I’m a terrible person and a very guilty feminist. 😈

I read that Naomi Alderman doesn’t like people referring to her work as dystopian fiction because for a lot of women this is simply their lived reality. It was amazing how, by simply flipping the genders, the treatment of men felt so abhorrent – and yet we know that women around the globe are treated like this every day. The Power made me confront my own internalised misogyny in a way that completely took me by surprise (I genuinely didn’t think I had any) and made me think about gender issues from an entirely different perspective. If anything, it’s actually given me a tiny bit of empathy towards men who think that feminists are just miserable women trying to take over the world – we’re obviously not but I can see why, from their lofty privileged perches, some men might see feminism as a threat to their way of life – which I guess it might be. (That’s about the point that my empathy dissipates and I think “why do you think you’re entitled to this? It’s not fair!” and I’m back to bring angry.)

The only issue that I had with The Power was the characters. In The Great Female Power Grab most of them behave horribly and there wasn’t really anyone that I connected with. I think this lack of engagement was the missing cherry from the top of the cake – if just one character had been a bit nicer then this really would have been a five star review 😥

Overall, The Power is a dazzling, electrifying book (see what I did there? Ok I stole the pun from Margaret Atwood but still).  The premise is incredibly ambitious and it made me think about power and gender dynamics from an entirely different perspective. If only the characters had been more likeable I would have been fangirling left right and centre but as it stands…

Rating: Four “Not all women!” out of five

Clever, unique, thought proving but not quite attention grabbing enough – the best chips you’ve ever had but without salt and vinegar .

Please note that I read this novel as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2018 #17 Read a sci-fi novel with a female protagonist by a female author.