Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

 

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?

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.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

“But a lonely man is an unnatural man, and soon comes to perplexity. From perplexity to fantasy. From fantasy to madness.” My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

I don’t get as much time to read as I used to (and even less time to write blog posts that do more than scratch the surface of books) but I was determined to read My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier before the Roger Michell directed film version starring Sam Claflin and Rachel Weisz hit the cinemas, or at least before going to see it.

For readers who first encountered Daphne du Maurier through her most famous novel Rebecca and have loved her works ever since, My Cousin Rachel doesn’t disappoint, offering the same rugged Cornish landscape, with a plot featuring stately piles, mystery, romance and intrigue which keeps twisting and turning to the very end.

In My Cousin Rachel, Philip Ashley takes on the role of naïve narrator, whose comfortable existence is rocked when his beloved cousin Ambrose Ashley dies abroad, shortly after his marriage to Philip’s mysterious cousin Rachel. The official verdict is that Ambrose has died of a fever, which was further complicated by a brain tumour that lead to violent delusions, but Philip believes that there is some truth to the letter Ambrose has sent him begging for help and suggesting that his wife has poisoned him. Philip vows revenge upon Rachel, and soon has this in his sights when she arrives at his house to return Ambrose’s belongings. But Rachel is every bit as charming as Ambrose made out, and despite his suspicions, Philip finds himself increasingly drawn to the attractive widow.

Though My Cousin Rachel has a huge amount to recommend it, what stands out for me is the psychological complexity of the novel. Despite being the titular character, Rachel remains something of an enigmatic figure, in part a vulnerable woman living at the mercy of her erratic relative, in part a woman with huge power to entice, heal and potentially destroy, we receive almost all of her history and description through other characters which means her actions can never receive a straightforward interpretation. Philip’s progression from his self-perception as something of a man of the world who has modelled himself on his idol, sees him move from outright misogyny to falling into a deep obsession, acting out an Oedipal complex with his father figure’s widow who oscillates wildly between being an object of desire and a symbol of destruction in his mind.

It’s enough to make you want to go on a Daphne du Maurier binge all summer. And I’m going to Cornwall soon…  as to whether Rachel is guilty or innocent, I’m keeping spoilers out for my review for those who have yet to read it, but let’s discuss in the comments!

Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig

I’ve been finding it difficult to get drawn into novels recently. You know the kind of thing, you’re busy with work and life, so when you do get the time to read you’re so tired that your brain doesn’t really engage enough to full commit to the world of the novel.

But every so often, something comes along which really hooks you, so you forget about that. The kind of book where you go and have a lie down with a low level headache when the baby’s gone to bed at seven, start reading the first chapter, and before you know it, it’s two in the morning and you just have to finish the last chapter even though you know you need to be up at half past five. Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig was that book for me this week.

The novel opens with fourteen year old Ginny, an autistic girl who is living with her Forever Parents  having been removed from the care of her unreliable, drug addict mother, looking aft er one of those electronic plastic babies they give teenagers to give them a better understanding of what an unplanned pregnancy can do to your quality of sleep. She’s tried rocking it, shushing it, letting it suck her finger, but it just keeps crying. And it reminds her of her Baby Doll, the real one, which she left in a suitcase at her mother’s apartment when the police came to remove her into care.

People will inevitably compare Ginny Moon to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but for me, Ginny Moon was actually a far more gripping read, the kind of gripping where someone has hold of your intestines and every now and again gives them a little twist to make sure that you’re paying attention. With respect to Mark Haddon, it might be the benefit of fourteen years life experience and having worked with autistic children since I read The Curious Incident… and it might be having a child of my own, but I really felt that in Ginny Moon the author Benjamin Ludwig had crafted something much more involving.

I don’t want to give too much away, because I would highly recommend that you read this, and that you do so without spoilers, but I felt like I was being dragged along through Ginny’s story, seeing all of the pieces fitting together from the information that Ginny was unable to communicate to her Forever Parents and therapist because they were unable to fully appreciate that what she was saying was true, and becoming more and more horrified by the potential situations that I anticipated playing out but that Ginny was partially blind to because of her all-consuming fixation on her Baby Doll. I found myself simultaneously feeling an immense like for characters for the way they behaved towards Ginny, and a total empathy and pity because who could honestly say they would have been able to behave differently?

I was one chapter from the end of Ginny Moon when my nearly-two year old woke up. I went in to her room, picked her up and cuddled her back to sleep all the while thinking how lucky we are. A real privilege checker of a book.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

“As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I’m a good one. A show-stopper. I’m the kind of kid they’ll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick.”

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

 

At the opening of Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, fifteen year old Anais Hendricks, the anti-hero of the piece, is sitting hand cuffed in the back of a police car being transferred to The Panopticon a children’s unit with a watchtower that forces its residents to live under constant observation. She has blood on her school uniform, and a police woman is lying in a coma that she is unlikely to come out of.

The opening of the novel, coupled with the fact that Anais is feisty, intelligent and stylish, seemingly possessed of a six sense which allows her to see to the very core of people, could make this sound like a middle of the road, young adult dystopian novel. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Because beneath her tough exterior, Anais is incredibly vulnerable, a teenage girl for whom the label at risk might have been invented- in the grip of delusions fuelled by narcotic psychosis or untreated borderline personality disorder, she has been exploited or failed by most of the adults she has encountered in her short life. This is not a novel which uses a dystopia as a smoke screen for real world issues, this is a novel about real world issues which hammers home the appalling ways that the most vulnerable members of society are so often failed and demonized.

Jenni Fagan’s writing is like slam poetry, the perfect words chosen with flair that punches you in the guts. Her characterisation is exemplary and nothing I can say will do it justice, so what I will say is that The Panopticon is a novel which probably needs a thousand trigger warnings, but I would recommend that everyone reads it.

The Housekeeper by Suellen Dainty

“I am the housekeeper, the hired help with a messy past who cleans up other people’s messy lives, the one who protects their messy little secrets.”

When Anne Morgan’s restaurateur boyfriend and boss begins an affair with an investor’s daughter, Anne becomes obsessed with lifestyle guru Emma Helmsley whose Marie Kondo-style lifestyle tips promise to bring order to her newly chaotic existence. And it isn’t too long before she sends a speculative application to be Emma’s housekeeper, so that she can be closer to the lives of Emma and her perfect family.

I’m normally not a fan of books without likeable characters to get behind, but in this single white female with a twist novel, Suellen Dainty has gotten it to work to make The Housekeeper an entertaining story of memory, abuse and betrayal.

The Phantom Tree by Nicola Cornick

I’ve always had a bit of a thing about the Tudor dynasty, and Catherine Parr as the surviving wife of Henry VIII always fascinated me, how do you follow up marrying one of the greatest tyrants in history? Falling in love with and marrying an equally questionable man (see the rumours around Thomas Seymour’s relationship with his stepdaughter on Katherine Parr’s watch) before dying shortly after giving birth to your sole child. Tragic. And what happened to Mary Seymour, the baby who survived? She disappears from history. And that’s where Nicola Cornick’s latest novel The Phantom Tree comes in.

“My name is Mary Seymour and I am the daughter of one queen and the niece of another.”

Browsing antiques shops in Wiltshire, Alison Bannister stumbles across a delicate old portrait – supposedly of Anne Boleyn. Except Alison knows better… The woman is Mary Seymour, the daughter of Katherine Parr who was taken to Wolf Hall in 1557 as an unwanted orphan and presumed dead after going missing as a child.

The painting is more than just a beautiful object from Alison’s past – it holds the key to her future, unlocking the mystery surrounding Mary’s disappearance, and the enigma of Alison’s son.

But Alison’s quest soon takes a dark and foreboding turn, as a meeting place called the Phantom Tree harbours secrets in its shadows…

Part timeslip, part romance, part mystery, part ghost story The Phantom Tree follows the dual narrative of Mary Seymour in Tudor England, and Alison Bannister in (mostly) modern England. Alison, trapped in the 21st century, desperately searches for clues left as to the whereabouts of her lost son by her sometime enemy, Mary, who in turn struggles to carve a life for herself in a land where her mysterious visions have lead to accusations of witchcraft while still making time to fall recklessly in “love”.

I appreciate that this sounds like a jumble sale of genres, but for me it worked. Especially the witchcraft element of the story and the way that this played out with the mysterious Darrell, though I have to admit a part of me found the story of the lost child really challenging. When the novel had finished, I thought that it was really nicely handled, but I think that this might be a challenging read for anyone who has been separated from a baby.

The feminist slant on life in Tudor England was very welcome, and I thought that the character progression of Alison throughout the novel was really well handled. I wasn’t wholly sold on Mary’s transition from a wise imp of a child to a would be Juliet surrendering much of her integrity to the first good-looking man who pays attention to her, but hey, we all did silly things as teenagers and the story had gained enough momentum to carry me through- though I would have liked to see more time and attention giving to the riddle of Alison’s sewing box.

Something that I found really interesting was the use of historical and fictional characters, in as much as I wondered why the author had decided to create a fictional version of the historical Wild William Darrell in Will Fenner. I assume it was because of the misdeeds of the characters associated with the family in the book- one of which was clearly forewarned in the earlier part of the novel and one of which really took me by surprise- and concerns about how their descendants might react to the artistic license taken with the story, or perhaps out of respect to the memory of the individuals in question. Either way, very interesting, and I’d love to pick the authors brains about it.

In summary, it’s an interesting read, and another instance of Nicola Cornick putting her own spin on history to create an enjoyable yarn. It would make a great summer read…summer, it is coming.

I’ve written this post as a part of Midas’ The Phantom Tree Blog Tour. Please visit some of the other blogs involved to see what their reviewers thought.

The Phantom Tree Blog Tour FINAL