Review: The Devil’s Prayer by Luke Gracias

image

So, dear readers, here comes my very negative review of The Devil’s Prayer, as promised in my last post. I’ve tried to find some positives within the story, but honestly, its been a struggle.

The book is written out of sequence, beginning with the present day; initially it’s about the story of a silent nun breaking into a concealed room hidden deep within a monastry whilst some weird creepy ritual goes on outside. This first part (alas – it only lasts a few chapters) reads a bit like a Dan Brown novel and immediately had me gripped. Unfortunately, it went downhill from there.

The next part of the book was written as a letter being read by the nun’s daughter, which alternated between the present day (when the daughter was reading it) and the past (when the letter was obviously set). The letter explained the events that led up to the nun abandoning her family, joining a convent and trying to track down some centuries old religious documents. Unlike a Dan Brown book, there was no attempt at plausibility when the reason for this was revealed. Seriously, it’s ridiculous. I won’t say too much in case you’re some kind of masochist who actually still wants to read this book, but it really is a stupid premise.

Anyway, the book then goes on to explain that the quest was never completed and in order to save the world, the daughter must pick up where her mother left off. Which she does. Without question.

Cue an awful lot of pointless travel around Europe while the daughter continues to read what her mother had been up to. She’s being chased by some evil monks (all wearing bright red robes, luckily. I mean, surely they would have disguised themselves? Anyway…) so she literally arrives in one place, reads a bit of the letter, a monk turns up, she gets on a train, they follow, she goes somewhere else…pointless.

The story ends completely arbitrarily after literally nothing is resolved and it looks like the whole thing was a waste of time. I couldn’t believe that the story just stopped in the way it did. I mean, I was thankful that it was over, but it made no sense. Is there a sequel? (please God don’t let there be a sequel).  

Apart from the storyline, there were many, many other things that I disliked about the Devil’s Prayer. It’s incredibly simplistically written and the grammer is terrible; really clunky and awkward. I think that the book has either been edited by a child or the author simply bypassed this stage altogether. It looks like it hasn’t been proof read either – at one point something is described as spartan but it’s written ‘Spartan’ (noun) like the inhabitants of Sparta.

The characters are either completely, unequivicably good or downright evil. There are no shades of grey. Everything is completely black and white. If someone is jealous, they say ‘I always hated you, with your perfect life’. If they’re rich (female) they buy designer clothes and handbags. If they are rich (male) they have a bright red sports car. If they’re good, they fail to notice these glaringly obvious, stereotypical signals of wealth and struggle on to pay the medical bills, never once questioning whether anyone could help them out. At one point, the devil appears and just in case you were in any doubt, utters the phrase ‘Hello? I am the devil’. Aaaargh! Quite why he is talking like a California Valley girl is anyone’s guess.

The story itself, apart from being utterly unbelievable, is terribly written. It’s obvious what has basically happened from the beginning (you’re literally given this information as a recollection) and the only vaguely intriguing part is trying to work out which of the poorly outlined characters were responsible for which bit. You know they’re all in it together and you know why, so this held little interest for me. This endless interrogation of each character took the vast majority of the book, and was extremely tedious.

There were also huge, gaping, obvious holes in the story as it emerged. The main character massively implicates herself in various crime scenes; her car is found by the police, she has visible marks on her body like she’s been in a fight, a woman matching her description is seen, the scenes involve all of her friends – but the police just keep confirming that it can’t be her because she’s a bed bound quadraplegic. Plausible, you might think – until the next day when she makes a miraculous recovery and starts walking around as though nothing has happened and the police still don’t think to question her (or, you know, arrest her immediately).      

There are other, appalling incidents in the book that are frankly ridiculous – the main character appears to have been chosen by the devil for no discernible reason, she has consensual sex the day after she is brutally raped, she decides that someone she has known forever is the love of her life just because she sees some good in him. Nonsense.

So, just in case you think I’ve been overly harsh, I’d like to finish with my favourite quote from the book, which I think encapsulates all of my criticisms quite nicely:

“Standing next to the turtles on the beach…was a green dragon, which looked a lot like a T-Rex.”

I thank you.

Overall rating: 4/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley!

Review – How to be Happy by David Burton

image

Don’t be fooled by the title – this is not a ‘How To…’ guide, nor is it the story of someone who figured out the secret to living a fabulous, meaningful life. It’s the story of a young man coming to terms with his own insecurities, sexual confusion, depression and general angst that I’m sure anyone thinking back to their teenage years can relate to on some level. The story Burton tells is interesting, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, with periods of pretty severe depression and suicidal thoughts thrown in for good measure. Oh, and the bit about it being a memoir of sex is also misleading – rarely have I read an autobiography where the author is so truthful about how they found pulling someone completely, painfully difficult.

A lot of what I read in this book reminded me of the way that some of my friends seem to be constantly searching for some external thing that will make them happy – whether that’s a hobby, a partner, a successful career etc. when really what they’re doing is projecting their own insecurities. At some points I just wanted to hug David Burton and tell him that it was ok to be sad and confused, and that it would get better. Luckily, Burton comes to this conclusion on his own and How to be Happy has plenty of great examples of how building a support network is soooooo important for anyone who is suffering from depression/anxiety/low self esteem.

Burton is also very honest about his experiences and initial negativity towards therapy. I think it’s incredibly important to discuss this issue because I know that a lot of people still feel that they’re admitting defeat by seeking professional help for their problems. Happily, Burton finds a therapist that he’s comfortable with and the book shows how perseverance with counselling can have life changing results – but only if you’re prepared to really work at it.

The other thing that I really liked about this book was the way that Burton experienced confusion about his sexuality (to the point where he came out as gay to his parents) but then ended up having to rethink this. I’ve never seen this mentioned in a book before and it was really refreshing to see someone being so open about their changing feelings. This is clearly a very emotive topic and I applaud Burton for his honesty in saying ‘this is what happened to me and how I felt at the time’. I guess some people will see it as fuel for the ‘you’re too young to know how you feel…this is just a phase’ argument but I saw it as an example of how nuanced sexuality and sexual attraction can be and how completely confusing and difficult to understand it often is.

I did, however, find How to be Happy a little tedious in places. As a memoir of a fairly ordinary (albeit depressed) teenager/young adult there aren’t any explosions, zombies or natural disasters and the book is set in Australia, not in a post apocalyptic future.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and applaud Burton’s honesty in portraying a very difficult period of his life. I think that anyone suffering from depression could benefit from reading it as it is ultimately an uplifting tale of triumph over
personal demons.

Rating: 7/10

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #15 Read a YA or middle grade novel by an author who identifies as LGBTQ+.  

Review: Hagseed by Margaret Atwood

image

I’ve just finished Hagseed and my feelings are mixed to say the least. One the one hand, I really enjoyed Atwood’s writing and the characters that she creates. On the other, I felt like I wasn’t quite clever enough to be able to follow the various narrative threads and layers of metaphors woven throughout the book.

Thanks Margaret Atwood for making me feel thick.

This book (well, audio book) took me a while to get into as I didn’t understand at first if it was a straight retelling of the Tempest, or a story about doing the Tempest as a production. In the end, it sort of turned out to be both – but I wish I had been more familiar with the original Shakesperean text in order to see how Atwood had used it to inform her characters and the way that the plot developed. I haven’t read The Tempest since school so although I vaguely remembered what it was about (mostly fairies and a shipwreck) I felt like I needed a refresh. At the very end of Hagseed there is a summary of The Tempest and I wish that I had read (heard) this first as it would have helped me to understand the plot far better.

I got very heavily invested in the main character, Felix; a producer of plays who, after suffering the death of his wife and child is forced to retire from his job. He clearly suffers some mental health issues which makes for an unreliable narrator and means you’re never quite sure about the whole madnesss/genius thing. He’s clearly very talented but deeply disturbed by the death of his daughter, so you never know how much of what’s going on is fantasy or reality – much like in The Tempest (not too thick to see the parallels there, Atwood). Felix then goes on to get a job in a prison teaching English and Drama to a group of convicts. Far from resenting the scheme, the prisoners flourish under the tutelage of Felix and he casts them in a number of Shakesperean plays with great success. However, his greatest triumph is his production of The Tempest; the play which originally pushed his previous company to retire him early. Through some cosmic synchronicity and by taking advantage of some of the prisoners ‘skills’, Felix is able to use the play to not only get his revenge but also as a release from the mental prison he has created for himself. Again, this is one of the parts where the book gets very meta – Atwood makes it clear the The Tempest has a number of metaphorical prisons in it, Felix is producing the play in an actual prison, he is living in a mental prison and holding his own daughter prisoner within it… aargh! Sometimes I felt that there were three (or more) narrative threads which were all interwoven and I struggled to grasp all of the concepts. See, told you I was thick.   

You can see Atwood’s love for Shakespeare shining through in many parts of the book. She discusses a range of devices that are used to teach the play to the group of prisoners in order to engage them with the text, such as asking them to spot all of the prisons in the play, asking them only to swear using Shakesperian curses – it made me wish that I’d been taught like that. Did Atwood use to be a teacher? *checks wikepedia* yes, she did! What a guess.

As I said before, I’m not familiar enough with The Tempest to spot all the allegories that I’m sure Atwood has woven throughout Hagseed and as such I felt like there’s a whole level that I  missed – like watching the Simpsons as a child and not seeing all the adult jokes/political bits. My advice would be to familiarise yourself with the original Tempest story before reading this, or just to read the last chapter first. Trust me, you’ll get a lot more from the book if you do. However, despite feeling like I was missing something, I still enjoyed the book. There was a thread of tension throughout – you knew that Felix was planning his revenge but Atwood kept me guessing as to how exactly it would all play out (hahaha, now I’m getting all meta). Once I got into it I did find the story compelling and because I really cared about the main character I kept listening to find out how everything was resolved.

At the end of the book, Felix asks his students to present their ideas on what happens to the characters in The Tempest after the play ends. I felt like Atwood was trying to allude to something here (were the main characters in the Tempest directly represented in Hagseed? I was never quite sure if Felix was meant to be Prospero) but I feel like I missed it. If anyone has read this book and has an opinion please let me know!

Overall, I think that any Shakespeare fan would love Hagseed and I’m sure they would get far more from it than I did. I’m a big fan of Margaret Atwood and so I enjoyed the book, but I did feel a little lost in places. I think this would be a great book club text because a lot of questions are raised which could provoke some lively discussions. Its just a shame that I have no-one to talk to about it!

Rating: 7/10

  

Review: After You by JoJo Moyes

image

I approached this book with some trepidation. I’d read Me Before You and loved it (despite it absolutely Not Being The Kind Of Thing I’d Usually Go For) and I, like a whole legion of other fans, was curious to see what happened to Lou and the Traynor family next. I’d seen a few reviews saying that After You was nowhere near as good and had actually ruined the experience of the first book so I prepared myself for the worst. I’m pleased to report that nothing particularly drastic happened once I had read After You, but only because I don’t have ANY strong emotions about the novel. The best I can come up with is ‘meh’.

I hope I’m not spoiling anything by saying that the thing I enjoyed most in the first book was the dynamic between Lou and Will (the two main characters) and that this was obviously missing in the second installment. The relationship that Lou has with everyone else in her life is in no way as meaningful or powerful as the bond that she had with Will and I felt that this made After You nowhere near as engaging or interesting. The story picks up after Lou has got through her initial grieving and finds herself living in a small flat in London on her own, working in a bar. A major accident, a chance encounter and a very-much-not-by-chance encounter lead Lou to reconnect with her past, face some demons and finally start to live her life again. However, the plot meanders between a variety of other characters (so many that I lost track of who was who) and a number of other scenarios which don’t seem to have much impact – pretty much all the things that happen are once-in-a-lifetime events and could have been fleshed out into entire stories on their own, but Moyes just keeps adding one thing after another with the overall effect of watering down their impact.

I thought that the plot was pretty predictable (excluding some of the bizzare events that kept happening). It was easy to read (although I did notice a few random words like ‘wazzock’ appearing – I’ve not heard that since the 80’s) but I just felt that it was far too long and rambling. I thought that After You should either have been about the Traynor family and Will’s legacy/family, or Lou meeting someone and moving on. By trying to mash everything together I felt that the book lost its way and could have finished a lot sooner than it did. The ending in particular really dragged for me and I kept expecting it to finish, only for another thing to have happened.

I also thought that the relationship between Lou and love interest Ambulance Sam could have been a lot more complex but Lou’s feelings about Will don’t seem to get in the way at all. To be fair, there is an awful lot in the book about the different ways that people grieve but I felt that this was sometimes glossed over and occasionally felt like lazy stereotypes were employed to tie up loose ends – i.e. everyone releases a ballooon to say goodbye to their loved one to signify that they’ve moved on.

I didn’t think that the relationship between Lou and Sam was a patch on the relationship between Lou and Will. I expected a lot more soul searching and a lot more guilt from Lou but she seemed to fall in love again relatively easily. I cared SO MUCH about Will but I just didn’t engage with Sam in the same way. I felt that his character needed far more development which the excessive amounts of action in After You just didn’t leave space for.

I think that if Me Before You didn’t exist and hadn’t been so insanely perfect then I might have judged After You far less harshly – but I thought that it was a pretty disappointing sequel. Its not a bad book, but it seems to be a mish mash of two or three novels squashed into one, leaving events glossed over, relationships formed far too easily and characters underdeveloped. I wouldn’t recommend it.

Rating: 5/10.

 

Review: The Chronicles of Narmo by Caitlin Moran

Written by a teenage Caitlin Moran, this hilarious story of a large, dysfunctional family growing up in Wolverhampton was obviously heavily influenced by her own childhood and seems to be the basis for the hit sitcom “Raised by Wolves”.

The Narmos are a normal, working class family just trying to make ends meet. With not much cash but huge amounts of enthusiasm and creativity, the children convince their parents to home school them – with some unexpected and often downright bizzare consequences.

I enjoyed reading about the Narmo’s (I see what you did there Caitlin) although I did have some problems with the text. Good things first: it’s a great book when you consider how young the author was when she wrote it. Some parts (the home made bread that lasts 6 months, the school inspectors, the whole of their holiday) are laugh out loud funny. It’s an easy read as it’s quite short and the language is fairly simplistic. However, I did find quite a few negatives. The book is quite obviously written by a (albeit very talented) 15 year old which means that some parts are a bit unclear and the overall story lacks any kind of plot – it’s just a description of a series of events that occur within the family. There’s no real introduction or ending and the lack of structure meant that I did find myself getting a bit bored. I imagine that Caitlin Moran drew heavily on her own family to write the novel and as such I felt like I already knew the story, having watched Raised by Wolves (the sitcom based on her childhood experiences) and having read How to be a Girl (where she frequently peppers the text with anecdotes from her childhood). I thought that the characters needed more fleshing out and as there was quite a few of them I did get a bit lost trying to work out who was who.

In terms of the rest of Caitlin Moran’s work (which I’m a really big fan of) I don’t think The Chronicles of Narmo is anywhere near as good but it’s still a fun read for a younger audience.

Rating: 6.5/10

Review: Toast by Nigel Slater

image

I’ve always disliked Nigel Slater. I’m not sure exactly why but I thought he was a bit, well, patronising. I think it’s partly the way he speaks and partly his terrible TV show. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Slater presents “Simple Suppers”, a televisual concept so pretentious that when I first saw it I thought it was satire. Imagine the most middle class show kitchen ever. All the flour is decanted into mason jars, the butter is wrapped in brown paper and string, everything is painted in Farrow and Ball’s Elephants Breath. In between VT of Slater making balsamic reductions and char grilling asparagus are graphics of a little handwritten notebook with cute drawings of leaves and things with fake post it notes saying “don’t forget to cook a bit extra for tomorrow’s supper – even better the next day!” There’s something about this that really grates on me. No one lives like that. It’s all so fake but he presents with such seriousness – then you realise all he’s done is made an omelette with a few extra herbs that you could knock up in your sleep. Blaargh.

So you could say I had pretty low expectations of Toast – Slaters memoirs of his childhood to the age of 18. But boy, was I wrong.

Unlike other life stories, Toast is written in very short chapters which each centre around a memory of a specific item of food. I know that Slater is a food writer for the Observer so when I began reading this I did wonder if he’d just recycled his newspaper columns. Was I being ripped off?

All I can say is – I very much doubt that the content of Toast would be printed in a national newspaper. I couldn’t believe how candid Slater was. He was so honest about his feelings towards his own family, his early sexual encounters, his loneliness and struggle to make his father proud. He had almost nothing nice to say about his stepmother and didn’t seem to care that (presumably) members of his family would read it it and quite probably be upset.

To say I was shocked by this novel was an understatement. Not only to find out that Slater is from Wolverhampton (I seem to be reading a lot by people from Wolves, but he’s from the posh bit so I can’t relate as much) but to discover that he’s actually really rather sweet and comes across as witty, geeky and utterly oppressed by his family (he must be a therapists dream, there’s literally years worth of issues to work through). I couldn’t believe it – I actually found myself liking Nigel Slater. Weird.

Throughout the book there’s more than a hint of Slater’s bisexual/gay proclivities although he never confirms his sexuality. However, this seems almost irrelevant as its clear that Slater has one great love – food. This book is a love letter to all the cooking he had consumed throughout his formative years and is nowhere near as fancy as you might expect from someone who I always thought was a bit, well, up his own arse. Although towards the end Slater starts to discover decent restaurant food, throughout his childhood he devours his way through the whole repertoire of Marguerite Pattern 70’s style cooking and devotes as much love to a humble slice of toast as to home made lemon meringue pie. I have to add here that I also grew up on Marguerite Pattern’s Perfect Cooking and the Hamlyn All Colour Cookbook (written by Bake Off’s finest Mary Berry, no less) and found myself reminiscing right along with him. I inherited Perfect Cooking from my partners mother and still maintain that it’s the best book to use for basic home cooking, although if you try out any of the variations of the blueprint recipes then you’re heading into uncharted territory.

Anyway.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s compelling reading and by linking his memories to specific types of food Slater creates an immediate bond between reader and author – I guess food is a great leveller. I love a bit of nostalgia and Slater’s memories of certain chocolate bars (Cadbury’s Aztec anyone?), dinner party food (I have vivid memories of my mother’s coq au vin and dauphinoise potatoes) and booze (when was the last time anyone had a babycham?) were really evocative of my childhood, despite it taking place almost two decades after his. The short chapters allow Slater to skip all the boring and-then-I-went-to-school-where-nothing-happened bits and just tell anecdote after anecdote, which makes the whole thing far more interesting.

Altogether I thought that Toast was a really interesting read and despite some desperately sad parts a lovely trip down memory lane. I have a new found respect for Nigel Slater – who’d have thought it?

Rating: 8/10

I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge #19 Read a book about food and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #10 Read a book that’s set within 100 miles of your location.

Review: Nasty Women – A Collection of Essays and Accounts on What it is to be a Woman in the 21st Century

image

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

Funny, poignant, interesting, intriguing and challenging – there is something for everyone in this collection of essays by women about their lives in the 21st Century. The book covers a range of topics from the female perspective, including intersectional feminism, disabled access and consent amongst many others. Written from first hand experience, the voices are authentic and honest and provide a personal insight into issues which often go unchallenged within mainstream feminist narrative.

Because I hadn’t even considered some of the topics within Nasty Women I did find that a couple of the essays made me a little uncomfortable – which I think can only be a good thing. I know I’ve definitely been at best apathetic to certain problems which I’m now much more aware of. I loved the way that the book made me realise these things without being preachy or judgemental.

My personal favourite essay was about one girl’s love for Courtney Love. I really identified with what she was saying as I grew up in that post grunge Britpop and nu metal music scene. I also have mixed feelings about Courtney Love and I thought that the author really explored the good and bad whilst reminding the reader that Courtney is a woman who has been vilified by the press, was left widowed at a young age with a young child and is an addict with mental health issues.

Throughout the book there is some really excellent writing which is obviously completely authentic. It’s unusual to get a flavour of feminism through a particular lens from the people who are experiencing it all together in one book. It’s a great mix of people and experiences although I did think it was lacking something from the business community. It was a shame that no one talked about the gender pay gap, women at work, female leaders etc. There must be feminist business leaders/economists/HR people out there who have something to say about these issues.

I thought this book was a really good read with plenty of food for thought. It was quick to get through, covered a variety of topics and the first person narrative made it really interesting. I thought it was a good starting point for lots of issues that really need more discussion. A great book for International Woman’s Day!

Rating: 7/10.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge #15 Read a book with a subtitle and the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #21 Read a book published by a micropress.

Note on the publisher: this book has been published by 404ink, a new, alternative, UK based independent publisher. They can be found here. Check them out!