Review: Elephant Moon by John Sweeney

image

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

Gosh, this is a really beautiful book. I can see why it was made into a film (that, as usual, I haven’t seen). It’s so beautifully descriptive, and is set in such a fabulous location that I’m sure it would look wonderful on the big screen.

Elephant Moon is the story of Grace, a British school teacher working in Burma during the Second World War. She teaches the mixed race “orphan” girls (usually with deceased Burmese mothers and British/American army fathers who have long since left the country) at a boarding school/orphanage. Not fully recognised by either Burma or the US/UK, the girls are left to fend for themselves when the Japanese begin their invasion of the country. Instead of booking her own passage out of Burma through the British Consulate, Grace instead decides to help the girls to the safety of India by guiding them through the hundreds of miles of jungle between the two countries – on foot. Based on real events, and with the help of those they meet along the way (plus assistance from some very clever elephants) Elephant Moon is an incredible story of love, survival and the kindness of strangers.

I really loved this book. I adore novels set in the 1940’s and this one was so effortlessly, charmingly British that I got completely transported to the days of the Empire, with expat women in silk stocking and men with pencil moustaches  sipping gin and playing bridge at the club, despite the tropical heat and humidity. It was set in such gorgeous surroundings (unspoilt virgin rainforest) and had such adorable characters (beautiful, well behaved children, baby elephants, a teacher who I imagined to look like Cate Blanchett) that I completely fell for its old fashioned charm. Yes, the book is set in a war zone and so there are also many scenes of blood, destruction and death, but John Sweeney somehow manages to consistently evoke a feeling of sophisticated elegance even during the most harrowing passages. I felt that there was a real juxtaposition between the brutality of the war and the way that the characters sometimes interacted with each other and the natural beauty of the flora and fauna of the country.

I really enjoyed the love story that emerged between two of the main characters, and how terribly British the whole thing was. Again, there was a juxtaposition with another emerging relationship that was brutal in it’s execution and the combination of both scenarios playing out at the same time seemed the heighten the feelings of adoration/revulsion that I had for each. There other parallels too – the relationship that Grace had with the school children was similar to the maternal bond between the elephants, her mistrust of one of the male characters was echoed by a mother elephant, her complicated feelings of both despair and faith in the British Empire were mirrored in her feelings towards a certain Mr Peach….there were lots of intersecting themes that really allowed me to get lost in the story.

It would be totally remiss of me to fail to give the aforementioned elephants at least a paragraph of their own. I loved loved LOVED reading about them and their journey through the jungle with the children. They were absolutely adorable and such a good vehicle for creating so much of the tension and drama in the book. More stories should have elephants as central characters, especially if they’re babies called Oomy. Awwwww!

If there is one thing that I thought could be improved upon with this novel, it would be the ending. I felt that it was a little bit rushed, although I loved the content of how the story finished.

Inspirational, epic, charming and evocative, this is a beautifully written novel that you’ll find yourself lost in. It has a little bit of everything in the narrative and doesn’t shy away from the senseless destruction and terror of war, but instead juxtaposes it with scenes of majestic beauty to create something truly unique. Highly recommended.

Overall rating: 4.5/5
Terribly, terribly British, but terribly, terribly good.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #28 Read a novel set in wartime.

Advertisements

Review: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

image

I could review this book in one word: disappointing. I was really hopeful that it would be great, based on the blurb – but it just meandered about and tailed off at the end. Let me explain…

The story starts off quite promisingly. Juju and Cassie have been BFF’s all through their childhood, but as they get older they start to drift apart. They have one final summer together where they discover a creepy old derelict mansion in the woods and spend their days playing in it before they go back to school and start to make different friends. So far so good. Usually I would expect something to happen at this point – they take their new friends back to the mansion, something is discovered etc. etc. However, nope – just quite a lot about how the girls are drifting apart. The introduction of the weird doctor Anders Shute made me think that something was going to happen – was he abusing Cassie and/or her Mum? But again, no, nothing is revealed. Eventually, Cassie runs off and finally… no, nothing really happens with that either. The end.

Sigh.

I think my disappointment stems from the fact that I thought I’d really relate to the characters in the book. I’ve had friendships fall by the wayside almost too many times to count and its not often that you see this represented well as a central theme in a novel. You often get the “we used to be best friends and now she’s bullying me” trope, or perhaps the “I’ve been totally ditched for the cool new girl” scenario but the gentle decline of two people growing up in different directions seems to be pretty rare. Or at least, I haven’t often come across it (but then I don’t read a lot of YA). Therefore, I was really looking forwards to seeing how the novel would treat the girls’ friendship. However, apart from a couple of awkward situations where the parents thought the girls were much better friends than they actually were, and the ending where Juju worked something out about Cassie before anyone else, the majority of the book was just… nothingy. I didn’t really relate to Cassie (who I didn’t much like) or Juju (who was kind of boring) and having two teenagers who interacted with each other less and less didn’t really make for a good story.

I did enjoy the introduction of Anders Shute and the sense of foreboding that came with him. I loved how well observed his behaviour was, as he never actually does anything too weird – but you still know there’s something really off about him. I would have liked it if more had been written about his relationship with Cassie, or if there was some huge revelation about him – but no.   

Sigh.

By 3/4 of the way through the book I was starting to get properly bored, but hurrah – there’s a bit of action when Cassie makes a discovery and runs off. I thought it was really weird to have the main thrust of the story happen right at the end but I did enjoy this part of the novel, although I thought it was fairly obvious where she had gone.

By the end, I wasn’t really bothered what happened to Cassie, so everything fell a bit flat.

Meh.

Overall, this isn’t a terrible book – some parts are really well written, some characters are well observed and there’s nothing really annoying about it. However, for me there wasn’t enough action and I hated how there were lots of little storylines that went nowhere. The whole thing was pretty forgettable, really.

Overall rating: 2/5
Disappointing.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #1 Read a book recommended by a librarian.

Review: Our Man in Havanna by Graham Greene

image

Why, what a jolly good jape this novel turned out to be. Most excellent. Plenty of action but all good clean fun – a couple of ladies of the night but no mention of any how’s-your-father. Good show, Mr Greene!

It would be really interesting to know how anyone not-British gets on with reading period novels by British writers. It never fails to amaze me how much language moves on. So, for anyone who didn’t understand a word of the above paragraph, I’ll translate…

What a great adventure this novel turned out to be. Plenty of action, a few mentions of prostitutes but no sex – well done Graham Greene!

If you do struggle with slightly obscure English phrases, Our Man in Havana is possibly not for you. Despite the story being set in Cuba, the overall feel of the book is very much English. Mr Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, is eeking out a life in Havanna for himself and his daughter Milly when an encounter with a mysterious gentleman provides a way of earning some extra income. All that Wormold has to do is to submit a few reports about the goings on in Cuba. Unfortunately, there are two main issues;

1) Wormold doesn’t know what’s going on 
2) He possesses an active imagination and has a spendthrift young daughter, so is desperate for the cash.

What follows could be perceived as a farce, but it’s far more seriously written – think less Three Men in a Boat and more Catch 22. There’s definitely a satirical element to the novel that makes it very funny (I recognised the bureaucracy within the secret service as being very similar to all of the public sector jobs that I’ve had). The writing is quite economical – the book is a little on the short side – but it’s brilliantly done and really clips along at a good pace. Tally ho!

One of the downsides of this writing style is the lack of description, especially when it comes to the setting. Really, Our Man in Havana could have been called “Our Man Abroad Somewhere Warm” because it’s so scant on details of the scenery. I know that Greene defined the book as one of his “entertainments” (which I’m taking to mean beach read) so it isn’t meant to be too in depth, but a bit more descriptive prose would have been good.

I Ioved all of the characters in the book, including the piously Catholic but hugely manipulative Milly, the powerful but not that intelligent Captain Segura, the stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on Beatrice and of course, the humdrum little Mr Wormold himself. It’s a slightly wacky cast but they all fit in to the story well. In particular, I loved the attitude of everyone involved in the secret service – give him an OBE!

Towards the end of the book I felt that the humour died off a bit and although it was replaced with action I didn’t engage with it as much. I got a little bit lost when the “fake” reports started coming true and again, the brevity of the prose didn’t help with my confusion. I hated the ending (Beatrice and Wormold, really?!?) although again, the response from the characters within the secret service was hilarious and brilliantly depicted.

Overall, I really enjoyed Our Man in Havana. It had good pace, some great characters and was genuinely amusing. It could have done with a bit more detail, but as a light hearted romp it was really enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5
Light hearted, satirical novel about the most rubbish spy you could ever imagine. Highly recommended.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #9 Read an espionage thriller.

Review – All The Little Animals by Walker Hamilton

image

Rating: 4/5
The only story of murder and abuse that will make you feel warm and fuzzy inside.

As I’ve previously mentioned, I do love a good short novel – the kind that you can read in one sitting. I picked up All the Little Animals way back in February after my visit to Astley Book Farm for my birthday. Three things attracted me to it; 1. It sounded incredibly interesting and quirky, 2. It had been made into a film (so must be quite a good story), and 3. It only cost £1. Bargain!

The novella was described as a “frightening tale of human depravity and violence” but also “a little masterpiece of compassion and simplicity” so it’s safe to say that I really didn’t know what to expect. Would it be a horror story? Maybe a twisted thriller or murder mystery? I’m not usually a fan of any of these genres so I wasn’t entirely sure that I’d enjoy the story, but as I said, it only cost £1, so I thought I’d give it a go.

Out of all my guesses about the storyline, the one thing that I really didn’t expect it to be was a beautifully detailed tale of friendship between two men. Yes, there’s violence, betrayal and abuse but this was all balanced out by the relationship between Bobby (an abused 31 year old man with what I guess you would class as a learning disorder) and Mr. Summers, a man so broken by his past that he’s left it all behind to live in a tiny, basic “house” (shed) in the backwaters of the Cornish countryside.

As Bobby runs away from his abuser, he encounters Mr. Summers and assists him with his primary task – burying all the animals that have died on the country roads. The descriptions of the animals, the scenery and Mr. Summers himself are so fantastical, and come from such an unreliable narrator that I wasn’t quite sure if there were elements of fantasy in the storyline. At first, I thought that Bobby might be having some kind of breakdown and that Mr. Summers was a figment of his imagination, or an allegorical reference to his own father. However, as the novel progressed I realised that Bobby just has a very vivid imagination – and this made the storytelling even more engaging and magical. I was actually surprised at how rich all of the scenes were – the detail, the emotions, the colours and smells – all were perfectly described with a remarkable economy of language to create such an emotive story. When I think back, it feels like I’ve read a 300 page novel so to condense the plot to just over 100 pages is incredibly impressive.

Utterly charming, horrifying, emotive and yet amazingly brief, All the Little Animals really is a must read book. Highly recommended.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #40 Read a book that you read on a trip.

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl

image

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: Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake

image

Dear Everyone Who Has Given This Book A Five Star Review (a quick glance at Goodreads suggests that there are many of you),

What on earth were you thinking?

From your comments, I’m not sure that we read the same novel. I appear to have downloaded a copy of the text in which someone (presumably with a vendetta against literature) has removed all of the action, the drama, the suspense and the narrative arc and replaced it with a series of scenes which, whilst somewhat amusing at first, slowly wear the reader down until they start having to make up challenges to get through the bloody thing. The Dickensian names, whilst initially pointing to a sense of humour, quickly become annoying. The characters are all miserable, grotesque individuals who are impossible to like or even feel empathy for. The castle and surrounding area is bleak and depressing. The storyline moves at a snail’s pace. Am I to believe that you genuinely gained enjoyment from this? Or are you just trying to look clever? I suspect the latter, overly positive Goodreaders.

If possible, I would like you to provide a brief synopsis of the story, in order to alleviate my concerns that I have somehow encountered a rogue copy. My summary would be;

“Baby Titus is born into the Groan family of Gormenghast Castle. He has a quiet start to life, the only occurrence of note being the unfortunate loss of many books in the great library fire, and the death of someone that I can’t name because spoilers. The End.”

Surely there is more to it. Dragons maybe? Magic(k) potions? All I got were white cats and blackbirds (which as we all know are way down on the magical fantasy animal rankings) plus one medicinal tonic which could have been magic but was more likely cod liver oil.

Perhaps Titus Groan is an elaborate ruse designed to lull readers into a state of boredom so hypnotic they become susceptible to subliminal marketing messages. I know I definitely dropped off a few times. I required litres of coffee to get through to the end. Are you all being sponsored by Mellow Birds Instant?

Please respond to my queries posthaste. I don’t want to leave a one star review and look stupid if this is, in fact, a brilliant book. I thank you for you attention to this matter and look forwards to your immediate response.

Kind regards,

Lucinda

Overall rating: Pending further investigation re: dragons. Provisional one star.

Please note that Mellow Birds will make you smile. I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #7 Read a book published between 1900-1950.