Author Archives: Siobhan

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, a review

the buried giant kazuo ishiguro cover autumn leaves book and biscuit“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Set in Britain, shortly after the death of King Arthur, The Buried Giant follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice as they make a perilous journey through a land plagued with ogres, pixies and dragons to reunite with their beloved son. They can’t remember what it was that has caused their long estrangement, because a strange forgetfulness plagues the land, only that they desperately long to reunite with him in their old age after their own village has deemed them to be unsafe owning a candle, forcing them to spend the long evenings in total darkness. As they travel, a series of chance encounters make them realise that the amnesia has a magical cause, and as flashes of their memories return, Axl and Beatrice begin to wonder whether their marriage truly is as strong as they believe.

Typically understated and immensely powerful though it is, The Buried Giant initially appears to be a departure from Kazuo Ishiguro’s usual terrain, straying as it does into the realm of fantasy, in a post-Roman Britain overrun with the superstitious and supernatural. In reality, human relationships are at the heart of the novel, and it addresses themes such as memory, perception and love which have been keystones of his other works.

With the exception of the bombastic Sir Gawain, who is prone to soliloquising and projection, the characters are understated. The most interesting characters Axl, Beatrice and Wistan often seem to conflicted about their own actions, but for various reasons seem compelled to uncover the truth of the past, though by the end of the novel we are left wondering whether it is best to examine the darkness of the past, or whether it would have been better to embrace the forgetfulness to move forward in peace without true healing or forgiveness. Like many of Ishiguro’s works, it tells a restrained and deceptively simple story which nonetheless leaves you thinking about the implications of small scenes, and what their implications are for understanding the story on a micro- and a macro- level.

Spoilers to follow

The Ending of The Buried Giant

So, you’ve read The Buried Giant and now you’re wondering about the symbolism and that ambiguous ending. Does the boatman come back and take Axl to the island to be with Beatrice?

My feeling is that the boatman is clearly a psychopomp figure, so akin to the ferryman who carries the souls of the dead to the underworld, and the island is a place inhabited by the souls of the dead and dying, with the fact that this location is an island having clear links with Avalon and the references to Arthurian lore that crop up through the book.

To my mind, there’s no doubt that the boatman intends for Axl and Beatrice to be together on the island- there’s no ambiguity that they will be allowed to be together on the island, the boatman frequently makes reference to their clear devotion- it’s simply a matter of when. Beatrice is clearly dying, the pain, the blood in the urine and the fever that she suffers, coupled with her frailty make this immediately obvious to the reader, and by the end of the novel it’s clear that Beatrice, the boatman and Axl are all aware of her impending death.

The boatman’s questions in this instance, seem to be a form of ritual confession, unburdening the dying and the ones they will leave behind of the unspoken resentments of the past to allow them to move forward. The boatman is preparing Axl for his wife’s death, knowing that he will be left behind to wait for his time, he even shows him barnacles that he can harvest for his dinner.

Maybe I’ve got a tendency to read a happy ending into an ambiguous ending, but for me, The Buried Giant ends with the clear prospect of the couple being reunited, the boatman frequently reassures him that it is only for this crossing, the boatman has to do his duty and take only the dying Beatrice first. Axl’s mistrust is clear as he wades back to shore, but the boatman’s parting words, reminding Axl to wait for him on the shore, nod to the prospect of their reunion.

When they first meet the boatman says, “We boatmen have seen so many over the years it doesn’t take us long to see beyond deceptions. Besides, when travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years—that we see only rarely. When we do, we’re only too glad to ferry the couple together.”

On their last meeting, it’s clear from the questioning that Axl has let go of the resentment and anger over Beatrice’s infidelity, and she that he kept her from his son. The boatman knows that they share an abiding love which has endured the years, “It is beyond question that the two of you will dwell on the island together, going arm in arm as you’ve always done.”

 

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Lethal White by Robert Galbraith, a spoiler free review

Whisper it to the friends whose birthdays I’ve forgotten this year, but I had a reminder set in my phone for September 18th 2018 as soon as I heard that this would be the publication date for J. K. Rowling’s fourth Cormoran Strike novel Lethal White.

I had plans to buy it shortly after midnight to read on my Kobo while doing a late night feed with the baby. Those plans with scuppered by a trip to accident and emergency with a toddler sporting a 40 degree fever (she’s fine, she wanted me to take her to the museum when we were leaving the hospital at half past two in the morning) and the kobo store not having made it available until the next day. Still, the nights are long when sitting up watching a toddler for signs that her temperature is getting higher again, so I soon managed to catch up with Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacot where Career of Evil left off, on Robin and Matthew’s wedding day.

I’m not sure whether it was my state of mind while reading it, but for me, Lethal White, which sees Rowling take on the personal lives of the upper classes and characters across the political spectrum, felt a little more strained than the other books in the Strike series.

Rowling’s social commentary remains sharp but at times the verbosity which has seemed natural in other books in the Strike series felt a little stilted, and for me, Lethal White was lacking the easy humour which balanced out the darker elements of previous Strike books. It’s difficult to say how much of this was due to the need to cover the narrative arc of Strike and Robin’s personal lives in more detail while also bringing together the various threads of a murder mystery, and how much of the strain was due to JKR admitting in her acknowledgements that she’d taken a lot on in writing this book while working on various Harry Potter stage and screen spin offs.

Either way, Rowling/Galbraith’s sleight of hand lacked the usual lightness of touch I’ve come to expect from the Strike novels, the misdirection less effective with the red herrings that were laid out to distract proving ineffective in leaving me wondering whodunit until the end of the novel.

Is anyone else expecting the next novel in the series to feature another personal vendetta type crime as with Career of Evil?

Am I being cruel to think that Lethal White might be a victim of the success of the BBC TV series Strike? It felt as though a lot of the scenes were writing as staging directions outlining how Rowling saw the scenes being shot.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg

Just in case you were ever in any doubt as to whether I’m the kind of person to come late to a party, this week I read the ubiquitous Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

This originally published in 2013, and the coverage it received in the media is difficult to overstate. Newspapers, blogs, TV, radio, it seemed like you couldn’t move without someone giving their take on what it means to lean in to the point that the phrase lean in seems to have slipped into common usage with its own prominent entry in the Working Woman’s Guide to Business Jargon. What do Lean In and Fifty Shades of Grey have in common? You don’t have to have read them to have a pretty good idea of the narrative arc of either book.

So why read it now? In the years after the book was released, Sheryl Sandberg was everywhere. And I’d read profiles in the paper, but I was never interested enough to seek out what effectively sounded like a careers advice book for women. But my friend recently got me into a podcast player, and I’ve started listening to Desert Island Discs (I know) and one of the people featured was Sheryl Sandberg. Not only were her choices of tracks strong, but hers was the most heartbreakingly raw and human interview I’ve heard on there, so I decided to read her book.

And wow. What can you say in a review of Lean In that hasn’t been said before? Barring George Monbiot’s books about our impending doom, I don’t think I’ve ever read something which has managed to inform, entertain and depress me in such equal measure. On the one hand the anecdotes about Sandberg’s own career are interesting, the statistics looking at gender disparity in the workplace are fascinating and the advice is, in part, so f***ing depressing. I mean really f***ing depressing. There’s some advice in the book which says that men can ask for payrises and promotions based on their personal achievements and individual performance, while a woman has to link it to the common good to make herself seem unthreatening, likeable and a team player. And I can see that it would be true. And that’s what’s so bloody depressing about it all.

Honestly, by the end of reading it I was pretty much ready to reject my place in the world of work and take up subsistence farming. I’m mostly joking. But seriously, it’s an important book to read if you want to gain a better appreciation of how little progress society has made since the 1950s.

 

More reasons I’m not reading books

Following on from my post a few years ago about why I’m not reading, allow me to introduce the newest reason I’m not reading books, and not writing reviews of the ones I do get to read.

Erin joined us in April, and between being pretty tired juggling pregnancy, a toddler and work I haven’t had much energy to write blog reviews of some of the excellent books I’ve read. She’s definitely worth it though and her big sister is a superfan.

Cloud spotting with her big sister

I’m hoping to start reviewing some more grown-up books soon, but in the meantime feel free to ask me anything about picture books. I read about ten of those a day. I might even start reviewing them.

World Book Day 2018

Before I had Phoebe, I always imagined that I’d be really into planning dress up and coming up with costume ideas for World Book Day. After all, books and fancy dress are two of my “things”. Then she arrived and, who knew toddlers could be so opinionated and their mothers so tired that making a World Book Day costume for a preschooler would become a hassle rather than pure fun?

This year, Phoebe wanted to dress up as Kwazii from the Octonauts, but she watches that as her sole TV privilege (then spends the rest of her time role-playing it with me generally cast in the role of a Colossal Squid or Sperm Whale, thanks daughter dearest) instead of reading the books and I was a bit fundamental about insisting that for World Book Day she dressed as a book character. I was willing to compromise at dressing as a Pirate because she does love The Night Pirates with the rough, tough little girl pirates who steal the grown up pirates’ treasure but in the end, she decided that she would like to dress as…..

Room on the broom costumeThe Witch from Room on The Broom. I think she was expecting the full cauldron, cat, dog, bird and frog works, but I didn’t have the stamina for that. It’s hard enough finding a broomstick in February! She had a nice time making an exact replica wand herself (with a little help), and already had the skirt and t shirt. The cloak and hat will come for Halloween and dress up play, and since the cloak is reversible, she can play Little Red Riding Hood in it as well.

I think she looks very proud of her work in the end. I’d imagine she’s cast a lot of spells at nursery today!

 

 

I can’t defer book gratification

Something I’ve become increasingly aware of lately is my inability to defer gratification when it comes to reading (and jam doughnuts).

I keep making resolutions to read the books I have on my shelf before getting new ones. To work through a reading list systematically. To read Reservoir 13 that my brother passed on to me in October and keeps asking about. But mostly to make use of my local library to borrow books rather than buying them.

And I try so hard.

I take Phoebe to the library every Monday as that’s my day off work and we have a lovely time sitting with the teddy bears and choosing stories to read to them. Then I let her browse the shelves and pick some books for us to take home to read as bedtime stories. Sometimes, I’ll pick myself something that I’ve reserved up, so today I decided to plan ahead and check the catalogue for a book that I’ve been fancying since it broke out all over Twitter like a rash.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock. The cover is so beautiful and it popped up so promisingly in the library catalogue search. I only had to type Mermaid and there it was… probably because 21 people had reserved it before me. 21 people… I’m estimating loaning it for a fortnight each… that would make it nearly 2019 before I got my hands on the seductive cover, all clam shells and gold foil on a matte black background.

Reader, I walked home via W H Smiths and bought a copy there because I have no will power and was too tired and achy to even make it to my local indie bookshop.

 

Ten Secret Santa and Stocking Filler books for under £15

It’s that time of year again. You know, less than a month to Christmas and a lack of ideas for secret santa presents or stocking fillers has you panic buying “funny secret santa presents” like stressticles or office voodoo dolls which the recipient will throw in the bin by January 1st. I’m here to make a plea that you save the planet from the extra plastic waste, and for under £15 buy them book that they will enjoy for at least three hours, if not a lot longer.

The best bit? These will all be available at your local bookshop for a last minute Christmas gift.

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust

For readers of a certain age (my age) the release of La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust by Philip Pullman , the first in a new trilogy which is set to be a companion to his Northern Lights trilogy was probably the publishing event of the year. Hailed as a tidal wave of imagination, though darker and more savage than the original trilogy, it’s a safe bet for any lover of fantasy.

 

 

 

The Power

The most powerful work of speculative fiction that I’ve read in a long time, Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a must read for any fan of Margaret Atwood. I keep meaning to write a review of this, but my mind is still processing the emotions I felt reading it. It’s a safe present for any woman who hasn’t read it, and it’s always interesting to listen to people’s post-read dissections.

 

 

The Wildlife Gardener

I was delighted to see the new edition of Kate Bradbury’s best-selling The Wildlife Gardener publish this year and swiftly bought myself a copy. It’s the perfect present for any gardener or wildlife enthusiast, and gives fun, practical advice for creating a home for wildlife in what outside space you have available. Saving the planet starts here, folks.

 

 

The Lost Words

Remember when Oxford University Press decided that children no longer needed to be able to look up words like acorn and bramble in the dictionary? Well that outrageous act inspired Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, this beautifully illustrated volume of poetry. A spell book which reminds adults and children alike about the power of words, reading the poems brings the words back to life and gives nature power and relevance for a new generation.

 

Lincoln in the Bardo

Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2017, and shortlisted for multiple awards and honours besides, Lincoln in the Bardo is a safe fiction bet for anyone who likes to read the current big novel. This first novel is an experimental work of fiction, a story of love after death which looks at a problem which faces all humans, how do you find the courage to love when it means you will face loss?

 

 

Hortense and the Shadow

A beautifully illustrated picture book, with a story in the tradition of the old fairy tales, Hortense and the Shadow is dark and exhilarating at the same time. This is set to become an instant children’s classic which adults will love as well. I’ll be adding it to my collection.

 

 

 

Last Stop on The Reindeer Express

I loved Last Stop on the Reindeer Express so much when it published that I bought it only a month later to read with my daughter on Christmas Eve. It would make an ideal Christmas present for any picture book lover or younger gift recipient. A little girl who is missing her Daddy discovers a world within a post box and goes on a beautifully illustrated lift the flap and peep through the pages adventure. I can’t wait to read it as a family before Santa visits.

 

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

In case you worried that you’d run out of presents to buy for Harry Potter fans, the launch of the Fantastic Beasts film franchise has also lead to the publication of this beautiful Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them book which reminds me of the Tolkein’s bestiary that I had as a child, with the names, descriptions and magical illustrations of all the fantasy creatures you encounter in the Potter novels.

This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

Adam Kay is a comedian and former junior doctor, and This is Going to Hurt is his frank memoir of life on the front line of the NHS. Hilarious and heart-breaking, it gives you an insight into what life is really like for the junior doctors keeping us and the NHS ticking along.

 

 

Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling

I always find it fascinating when an author I admire writes an exposition on their craft. Philip Pullman is indisputably something of a master storyteller, and in Daemon Voices, a collection of thirty essays, he lets his readers peer behind the veil to learn about his views on storytelling, including such topics as the origins of his own stories, the art of writing, and the storytellers who have meant the most to him. A great gift for readers, and aspiring writers.

My Top Five Tips when asking bloggers to review your book

Most authors know that approaching bloggers to review their new book is a great way to drum up some free publicity that gives their book a word-of-mouth popularity, but when it comes to approaching blog authors, their emails can be very hit and miss. Based on the emails I receive every day, here are my top five tips to help authors with traditional presses and self-published authors achieve a higher response rate when approaching bloggers about their books.

 

Tip Number 1 – Check the blog’s reviewing policy

I wrote my reviewing policy so that anyone who asks me to review their book knows exactly what to expect when dealing with me – I don’t do paid reviews, I won’t mince my words, I don’t guarantee a review for books that were just blah  and I don’t review self-published novels. I’d say roughly half of the emails I receive asking me to review books are from self-published authors who haven’t spent the time familiarizing themselves with my reviewing policy beyond lifting my email address from it. If their book looks interesting and I know of another blogger who would review, I will try to link them up, but more often than not I have to delete their email without replying.

 

Tip Number 2 – Personalize your emails

No address is just rude, Dear Blogger is a bit annoying. If you’re taking the time to email bloggers, don’t send a clearly mass email in the hope that someone is going to commit at least three hours to reading your book and writing a considered review. Dear Book and Biscuit is acceptable, but most bloggers will have their name in their About Me section, and they won’t mind you using it.

 

Tip Number 3 – Build relationships

Bloggers can be really busy people. I work and have a toddler. Lots of other bloggers do too, or have other really time intensive commitments. If I’m pushed for time and declining reviews, I’m far more likely to make time to review a book by an author or publisher I have an existing relationship with. I doubt I’m the only one who feels like this. Rather than cold email a blogger, take your time to get to know their site, engage with it, comment on their blog, chat with them on social media. It will set you apart from authors who have lifted their contact details from a book reviewers list that many bloggers didn’t opt in to.

 

Tip Number 4 – Use your existing networks

If you’ve written a book, there’s a good chance that you’re a reader too. What existing networks do you have that allow you to reach readers that you’ve already built a relationship with? Do any of those blog, or would they be able to recommend interested bloggers who specialise in your genre? It’s worth reaching out with a personalized email to ask for their help or advice. It seems to me that there can be a lot of ego involved when people start out writing, but the authors I admire and who seem to be really successful are genuinely interested in being part of a community with like minded readers. I guess it’s all part of really understanding your target audience.

 

Tip Number 5 – Don’t pay for reviews

I know that it may seem tempting. And I know that there are unscrupulous sites which tout themselves as blogger networks who will take your money to arrange a blog tour or similar. I found this out when I provided an honest review after another blogger had begged me to as a favour, and the author became very upset because she had paid the other blogger (without my knowledge) and assumed that she had bought a positive review from me. It caused a lot of bad feeling all round. If you put in the work making yourself a part of a reading and writing community, you won’t have to pay for reviews, and you’ll build a more engaged following for it.

 

Fellow bloggers, is there anything else you’d add to this? Authors, what’s worked well in your experience?

Peter Rabbit: Mischief and Mayhem, Henley River and Rowing Museum

To say that Phoebe has an obsession with Peter Rabbit is something of an understatement. She lives and breathes Peter Rabbit, be it the books, the TV series with Nimah Cussack that I enjoyed as a child and found on Amazon, or the Nickelodeon series which created the admirable Lily Bobtail to go alongside the traditional male characters.

She wakes up in the morning and tells me she’s dreamt about Peter Rabbit, runs around the house looking for the fierce bad rabbit, and shows me the best places to hide from Mr McGregor after we’ve stolen radishes from his garden. At the end of all this, she falls asleep cuddling Benjamin Bunny.

You can imagine then that when I saw that Henley River and Rowing Museum were running a Peter Rabbit: Mischief and Mayhem exhibition, with everything from original Beatrix Potter illustrations and vintage toys, to interactive exhibits ideal for tiny rabbit addicts.

We had a lovely day at the museum. The ground floor exhibition area had a fairly traditional museum display with beautiful original illustrations, vintage toys, first edition books etc. in glass cabinets, which would have the potential to be a little dull for your typical toddler, but the museum had added a lovely little reading area, colouring table and post office in which children could write letters to their favourite Beatrix Potter characters. They also had a shelf of cuddly toys based on Beatrix Potter characters so the little ones could choose a friend to look around with, Phoebe chose Squirrel Nutkin (or Scwerl Nutkah, if you will).

Upstairs, there was a wonderful hands on exhibit for little children. They could serve customers in Ginger and Pickles shop, peg washing on Mrs Tiggywinkle’s line, plant and harvest carrots in Mr McGregor’s garden, play in Peter Rabbit’s burrow, and play puppets with Mr Tod, Tommy Brock and Diggory Delvet in a puppet theatre.

The museum entry cost about £25 for two adults, with free entry for children. On the face of it, that’s a pretty expensive day out, but this gives you entry to the museum for a year, and I’m already planning to go back to check out their Wind in the Willows exhibition. I was really impressed by how child friendly the exhibit was so, I’ll be keeping an eye out for what else is coming up in the future.

 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

neil gaiman american gods feather wing headdress cover “Hey,” said Shadow. “Huginn or Muninn, or whoever you are.”
The bird turned, head tipped, suspiciously, on one side, and it stared at him with bright eyes.
“Say ‘Nevermore,'” said Shadow.
“Fuck you,” said the raven.”
American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 

 

I’ve always like the work of Neil Gaiman for his classic storytelling ability, the way he draws in elements of classic folklore and fuses it with pop culture to create something new. I don’t think that the concept of Gods drawing power from belief is anything especially new, but I loved what Gaiman did with this in American Gods– how human some of the Gods had become, and the circumstances they find themselves living in. The ways they try to survive.

At times Neil Gaiman’s writing reminds me a little bit of Terry Pratchett without the footnotes because the stories within stories gain a momentum of their own and pull away from the main narrative. The vignettes in the novel are probably an example of this, some linked up with the main narrative as with the child in the cave and Hinzelmann, but in some like the story of Essie Tregowan it felt as though Gaiman was stretching his storytelling muscles and enjoying it, or in the case of the African twins that he was stretching his storytelling muscles and revelling in the horrors of history.

I’ve had American Gods in my house for a while now (this will be a regular theme in some of my forthcoming reviews- I’m trying to have a blitz of my unread books with missed results) after I found it on a bench with a playing card tucked in the back in lieu of a bookmark. It was starting to rain and the book marked looked as though whoever had been reading it had finished, so the book came home with me and it came to the top of the pile when I started seeing potential spoilers everywhere when the Amazon series was released- I needed to read it before someone spoiled a plot point.

I meant to review the novel before I watched the TV series to keep my thoughts on the two separate, but I’m afraid I watched the first episode so now the waters are muddied and I don’t want to write too much that will make this become an American Gods book and TV series comparison, but I thought that the episode that I watched was a poor adaptation. It felt too cartoonish; the violence amped up and the context missing. Because the concept of belief is so important to the novel, Shadow’s internal narrative was critical to the events of the novel. In the book his shock and disbelief at the death of his wife felt palpable, in the TV series, he just looked a bit pissed off.

So if you’re wondering, read American Gods first, then watch the TV series. Or skip the TV series entirely and pick up another book instead.