Tag Archives: book reviews

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern

Starless Sea Book Cover with photograph of embossed pages with bee key and sword motif

“Zachary takes out the book. He turns it over in his hands and then puts it down on his desk. It doesn’t look like anything special, like it contains and entire world, though the same could be said of any book.”

The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern

There’s nothing hugely new about a novel in which a boy finds a book and it leads to a world of adventure. A story in which a boy finds a book which leads to an unknown enemy hunting them to retrieve the book isn’t hugely new either, Carlos Ruiz Zafon did this with The Shadow of the Wind. But believe me when I say The Starless Sea is far from basic. It’s so extra it’s meta.

A moibus strip of stories, The Starless Sea reads like a love letter to storytelling, video games and fan culture. An adventurous storytelling adventure which spans from myth to modern day and back again, watching entire empires rise and fall in the liminal spaces occupied by our book hangovers. This is the heartsong of the readers.

 “A boy at the beginning of a story has no way of knowing that the story has begun.”

It’s rare that I want to start a book straight away after finishing but I could so easily have done that with The Starless Sea, and I would have enjoyed it just as much, appreciating how the puzzle fits together, catching the references that I glossed over chasing the plot, becoming an acolyte to Morgestern’s storytelling.

There must be a more elegant word than book hangover (and my guess would be it exists in German or Japanese because they have the best words for these intangible concepts) to describe the feeling of a book that stays with you, that you want to revisit from scratch and occupy all over again. What Erin Morgenstern has done in this novel is effectively distill that essence and used it to paint a cast of characters who are both slaves to the story and causes of book hangovers in their own right.

Given the book’s fondness for cocktails, I’d love to try a starless sea if anyone mixes one up. Otherwise, I’ll take the bees knees.

 

Spoilers for The Starless Sea Below

“And there are always those who would watch Alexandria burn.

There always have been. There always will be.”

Yeah, okay, she’s technically the villain of the piece but you can’t really blame Allegra for wanting to protect the harbour and the starless sea can you? She chose the wrong path but I bet many a booklover would have done.

Who else thought Mirabel had gone rogue there? I have to admit that I did and the ice sculpture briefly seemed apt. As an act of penance, I’m going to have to dye my hair pink and dress like Max from Where the Wild Things Are. It’s happening and I’m not sure I can wait until World Book Day.

Eleanor and Simon do find each other at the end! That’s nice, the poor kids had a rough deal. Loose ends have to be tied up but the book doesn’t labour the point and I like that.

But who killed the Owl King this time? Or did he not have to die this time? Was that not the point of the sword after all?

I love Madam Love Rawlins, love, trust and acceptance. Those are mothering goals.

How horrific is the idea of drowning in honey? What kind of mind comes up with that?! It reminded me of one of the Plantagenets asking to be executed by drowning in a barrel of wine. It probably sounded like a good way to go until he actually had to go through with it.

I need a Kat Hawkins in my life and on my WhatsApp. But not as much as I need a kitchen.

What are the cats about?

Is anyone else tempted to make the room with the dolls house and the paper world? It can’t just be me.

Again, I love you Kitchen.

This is morbid perhaps, but I loved the idea of people being mummified shrouded in the stories of who they were. It was a really poignant moment for me.

The bees say that “she” always sends them a key to end the story. And Zachary is the key this time. Is she the Sculptor? How many stories have there been? Is this story, and this puzzle, just one of many? But if the sculptor is a godlike figure telling the story of Zachary, Mirabel, Dorian, The Keeper… what universe is she existing in? And who did she begin sculpting the stories out of raindrops for.

Come to that, how does time work? Who wrote the story of Zachary finding the door down in a book that was published before Mirabel was born so that Eleanor was able to read it?

Is Kat now the sculptor of a new story? She’s the world builder of the piece with avant garde theatre and virtual reality fusions. Is she there to build the new harbour? I get the feeling there will always be a new harbour, the egg cracks and a new story emerges.

Have you read it? I’m desperate to hear what other people think of it all.

 

Stag’s Leap by Sharon Olds

Cover image of Sharon Olds Stags Leap anthology of poems about her divorce published by Cape PoetryReading Stag’s Leap is an uncomfortable sensation. At times, you feel like you are reading a stranger’s diary, section by section chronicling the breakdown of their marriage and aftermath of their divorce. Minutely observing the aftermath winter, spring, summer, fall… years later. Should you be reading it? This raw heartache?

At times, it’s more than that even. As you come to see slivers of yourself in the minutiae of the poet’s remembrances, there’s a gut punch as you recognise aspects of your own life and relationship and for a moment, despite the specificity, you forget that you are reading about Sharon Old’s heartbreak and begin to own it yourself. You are forced into something somewhere beyond empathy. The hidden chocolate bars of Discandied, the hidden tensions of Attempted Banquet create a hysteric feeling that something might be hiding in your own life, that a relationship so well-observed, so scrutinized by a seer poet, could hide a secret that drives two people apart after a life together.

Stag’s Leap is brilliant, of course, but oh so brave. To expose, surely, your utmost vulnerabilities – at times angry, at times disbelieving- to pin down your heartbreak so clinically, like a butterfly collector, and display those emotions and thoughts for all the world to marvel at.

The whole collection is a must read, but the poems that called out to me were Tiny Siren, for the cinematic melodrama of the moment described; To Our Miscarried One Age 30 Now, for the obvious overidentification that poem provoked; and finally The Healers. There’s a line at the end of The Healers that suggests that the poet’s husband had been uncomfortable with her career, “he did not feel happy when words/ were called for, and I stood”. It would be wrong to judge a relationship or a person based on a sequence of poems, but it did make me wonder what Sharon Old’s ex-husband must have thought of becoming the inspiration and subject of a T.S. Eliot Prize and Pulitzer Prize winning collection of poetry given the implication of The Healers.

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Did anyone else see that viral video of Rutger Bregman at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum meeting? I expect that I’m not the only person who wanted to high-five him after he told a few billionaires that they needed to pay their taxes and quite their bullshit philanthropy schemes. It didn’t go down well apparently…

The Davos elite may not have liked it, but the viral video has made Bregman this week’s folk hero and has raised the public profile of Bregman, who was already a rising star in academia. On the back of the Davos video, and articles I later read, I bought Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There to see what else he had to say about the state of the world.

If, like me, you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety about the state of the world, Utopia for Realists is in some ways very reassuring. It highlights that (as long as you don’t think about rapidly impending climate catastrophe) the world is better for humans than it’s ever been before. In the West at least, we are effectively living in what your average Medieval peasant would have considered to be a utopia. But, Bregman argues, our progress has stagnated and we need to return to utopian thinking to consider the betterment of all of mankind, with the best minds applying their minds to the problem of how to make life better for all in an increasingly unequal society. He quotes Bertrand Russell saying,

“It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”

For Bregman, we’re lacking a mighty dose of imagination, funneling our best minds into sectors like finance where they move money around, contributing very little to the betterment of society in pursuit of growing the GDP- a useful measurement of a nation’s power at wartime, but a poor barometer of social welfare. Social dysfunction improves under GDP, but for Bregman it’s no great coincidence that the US which has the highest GDP has the highest number of social problems. The things that we would see as social progress, such as cheaper life improving technology, causes the GDP to shrink. Nurses, teachers and social workers who actively contribute to the improvement of society don’t rate highly in terms of GDP. The yardstick our politicians use to measure a country’s wellbeing and progress is not fit for purpose.

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman sets out his vision for how we might come closer to a more equal society which would be more like a utopia for everyone: a universal basic income, shorter working week and, radically, open borders. His academic argument for this is strong, but I’d argue that he makes a strong moral argument as well. When the mortality rate for Somalian toddlers is higher than that of frontline US soldiers in the American Civil War, Second World War or the Vietnam War then there’s something seriously wrong with the world and it’s time that lots was done to fix this on a global scale.

This is one of those books that I’m going to insist that everyone should read, and I don’t do that often with non-fiction, so add it to your TBR pile now.

 

 

January 2019 Reading Round Up

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

Am I Ugly? by Michelle Elman

Utopia for Realists and How We Can Get There by Rutger Bregman

There was a time when four books in a month wouldn’t have seemed like very much, but these days I’m happy if I manage to read and review a book a week. With age comes realism I guess, on which, I’ve yet to write a review of Utopia for Realists, but I thought it was brilliant and will link a review here when I get a chance.

 

Am I Ugly? by Michelle Elman

I don’t normally review non-fiction that I haven’t chosen for myself, but when I had a query as to whether I’d be interested in reviewing Am I Ugly?, a memoir from Michelle Elman, a body positive influencer who goes by the handle @scarrednotscared on Instagram, I signed up because I’ve got a few scars of my own and I wanted to see how Michelle’s experience related to my own.

I was nine when I was run over and the accident left me with a fractured skull, broken nose, a badly broken leg and, the jewel in the crown, a full thickness degloving crush injury to my left foot. If you don’t know what that is, don’t google it. I will not accept responsibility for any damage caused to keyboards by you losing your breakfast, regardless of how long it’s been since you ate it. So, in short, a life time of experience with some none too subtle scars and a few prolonged hospital stays.

Michelle Elman’s scarring is a result of multiple surgeries to treat hydrocephalus, and the complications that stemmed from earlier surgeries. Her memoir starts with an account of her health rapidly deteriorating at boarding school and the emergency surgeries that soon followed. While the memoir is billed as an account of one woman’s journey to body positivity, and while I’m sure that it was intended as such, for me, the book wasn’t really about the scars as a profound childhood trauma that the author was left to manage without any sort of adequate support. I’d really recommend it to anyone trying to understand how a child might experience a long hospital stay and traumatic illness.

Elman has changed a lot of names in the book, including the name of her school (which can be viewed on her LinkedIn profile so isn’t a hugely effective smoke screen) presumably for legal reasons in light of the allegations she makes about her teacher’s failure to safeguard her during her illness and the diet that her house mistress puts her on. Basically, if you were toying with the idea of spending £15,000 per term to outsource your child’s education and wellbeing to an external agency, then this would put you off.

The names that she can’t change, however, are those of her parents, and it does leave you wondering what they were thinking sending a young child with such a dangerous condition to boarding school without proper oversight. Rather than rush her immediately to a hospital when realising how ill her daughter has become at boarding school in the UK, her mother makes her feign wellness to fly to a hospital in LA which has previously treated her “because they have her notes”, risking her daughter’s health on the outbound flight. Following a series of surgeries in the US, she is then in hospital in an intensive care unit where she receives limited psychological support and the medical professionals discuss her condition in front of her in a way that seems designed to increase trauma. As soon as she is well enough, she’s shipped off back to boarding school in the UK, where her peer group has dispersed, finding herself isolated from her family who are in Hong Kong, without friends, and mistrustful of the teachers who have previously neglected her wellbeing.

Once back at boarding school, the author finds herself gaining weight from her inactivity while in hospital and is soon locked in a cycle of feeling awful about her scars and her weight, wondering whether she will ever be able to have a relationship with a man because of the scars. This all comes to a head at university, where she is forced to confront that she is still suffering from the trauma of her ICU stay in America. And it’s hardly surprising. I really felt for the poor girl. To go through all of that in a secure and supportive environment is hard enough…

I think a lot of how my recovery post-accident was dealt with made a big difference to our experiences and possibly our various perceptions of our scarring. I was carted off to a psychologist to talk about my PTSD pretty much as soon as I was out of hospital, suffering nightmares and squeaking in distress every time I was taken across a road (bit of a low point that).

I don’t ever recall feeling especially self-conscious about mine, my frustration with my foot has always been the ongoing pain that it causes and the things that it’s stopped me doing. If I had the option of having my scars disappear, I’d probably keep them because they are a big part of who I am and I probably wouldn’t feel right without them (the underlying bone issues and my ongoing fear of cars though, they can f*** right off…).

What I do relate to though is the being told how brave you must be (as if there was a choice but to cope as best you can?) and the expectation that this sets up that you will keep being brave. And that this becomes a role that you have to play. I remember after one of my surgeries the nurse coming to see if I needed painkillers and still feeling okay because the local anaesthetic was still working and my grandmother telling me that it was okay to ask for the painkillers if I needed them, saying, “You don’t have to be brave.” And I fell to pieces, because it upset this whole identity that had been constructed for me in the hospital about being a “brave girl” and a “good patient”. It’s been interesting to see about how Michelle went on to experiment with different kinds of therapy to address her PTSD, and that is something I’d like to learn more about as I’m vaguely aware that’s a journey that I’m still on.

I understand that this is intended as a book about physical scars and the bravery that it’s taken to embrace those, but for me, what’s impressive about this book is the emotional and psychological scars that the author has addressed and the strength that it takes to confront those so publicly. Michelle is still so young, so to tackle the issue of undiagnosed PTSD head on is a brave move, and will hopefully raise awareness for the carers of other young people in similar situations.

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

On a warm summer’s evening in 1881, a beautiful young woman is murdered in front of her fiance at her engagement party in full view of fifty guests. Her killer escapes, but her murder sets in motion a chain of events which begin to uncover a dark secret. When legal clerk William Lamb finds his comfortable life ripped away from him by his mentor’s violent suicide, his world begins to crumble as he is forced to confront why an ordinary man like himself has suddenly become the focus of a sinister group with links to three of the world’s major super powers.

On paper, The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans has hints of everything that should make a good mystery novel. A shocking and inexplicable murder; mysterious artefacts with a long and improbable history; a character on a journey of self-discovery; criminals with their hearts in the right places; the great and good of society engaged in terrible deeds; a mess of strong female characters…

But for me, while the plot was strong and on the whole well-paced this novel fell far short of its promise. It felt like a story board where characters were moved through set pieces which had been lifted from a selection box of plot ideas then slotted into a novel. So often, the characters’ actions seemed completely at odds with their characterisation at this point that it left me unable to understand what would make them act in the way they did.

Why would a ruthlessly pragmatic woman focused only on her own survival try to rescue an elderly man that she doesn’t know from a situation that she can’t hope to escape?

Why would a wiley and discreet detective spill the details of a secret meeting in a moment of offhanded unguardedness to a journalist friend when he has so successfully refused to divulge any information to him before?

Why would an elite group with unlimited wealth and power allow themselves to be thrown into chaos by one lone drip, when they have the police in their pockets and they have enough circumstantial evidence to bring him down?

Why would the meticulously controlled Obediah Pincott just let everyone go on a whim?

There were just so many plot holes when a bit more finesse at characterisation would have tightened all of this up. The character of Savannah Shelton was the most obvious problem here. With only the vaguest hints of where she’s come from, and that she’s on the run, wanted for murder, we have no understanding of why she would repeatedly risk her life to save William Lamb. It felt very strongly that the author is hoping to leave the door open for a sequel to The Fourteenth Letter (probably one which sees the Vicomtesse Adeline return in her mask like the Phantom of the Opera and attempt to claim her grandchild/nephew/niece to continue her eugenics programme with the help of now President Cornelius Tinbergen forcing Savannah to return to America…whether she’ll still have goose-stepping German soldiers propping up her eugenics programme following the demise of her brother remains to be seen) and if it does, I hope we’ll see more characterisation.

As a plot driven novel, it’s enjoyable enough but I felt that the switch from murder mystery to an exploration of Darwinism and eugenics was a bit of a cliché fuelled stretch.

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Last month, after years of resistance, I signed up to Instagram (you can follow me here if you like) and started playing around with Bookstagram. It’s been a pleasant experience and I guess for me has been closer to what blogging was like when I started – a community of bookworms discussing their favourite reads with people from around the world and picking through what they loved and hated about various books. With a little more focus on the images than a traditional blog, but the level of detail and analysis in the microblogging element has pleasantly surprised me.

At risk of digression into the world of Bookstagram (best talk about that another time) this is where I came across Girls of Paper and Fire (aff. link) by Natasha Ngan. Lots of people were posting pictures of copies they’d received in the run up to Christmas, the title was intriguing, the cover was cool, I was dealing with a teething baby… reader I treated myself and bought it.

Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a fantasy world, which seems to have been inspired by aspects of Imperial China. The society is made up of three castes, paper, steel and demon. The paper caste are humans without demon characteristics, the paper caste have aspects of both human and demon, and the demon caste have animal appearances and incredible strength. The are the elite caste, with paper at the bottom and steel somewhere between the two.

Lei is a human girl born to a paper family. Her mother was abducted during a demon raid on her village when she was a child, but otherwise she lives a quiet life in a rural backwater. But people come from miles around to her father’s shop because Lei has unusual eyes, eyes which are bright gold and look like they belong to a demon in her human body. It is these eyes that catch the attention of one of the Emperor’s soldiers, and lead to Lei being kidnapped to become one of his paper girls, a harem of concubines who are selected annually for the “privilege”.

Girls of Paper and Fire has been compared to Memoirs of A Geisha, but personally I found this to be a very lazy comparison. I thought it was more reminiscent of  (af. link) Empress Orchid by Anchee Min with a girl trying to find her place as the Emperor’s concubine and the perilous, cruel world in which she lived (though maybe it was partly inspired by Journey to the West?). Even so, Girls of Paper and Fire is a more explicitly violent novel than either of these, and leaves the reader under no illusions about the reality of Lei’s life with the threat of violence constantly hanging over her. The trigger warning at the start of the book is both wise and necessary, especially in Young Adult fiction.

I didn’t think that the book was exceptionally well written, and found the writing a little jarring at first, though this either improved or became less noticeable as the book went on. Although Lei was the main character, I felt that her character was less well drawn than that of more minor paper girls and I didn’t feel that her thoughts and actions were always credibly linked. Despite this, I thought that the story was original and the concept was well executed, though I assume that Lei’s eyes are some how related to the Moon Goddess alluded to in the book who defeated the God of Knight. I’m guessing that this is a foreshadow of what will happen later in the series, but if so I would have liked to have learned more about what power or ability Lei has that makes her a girl of fire, otherwise Wren would be, for me, the girl of fire, the member of the paper girls who is different for being a Xi warrior. For all her bravery, Lei wasn’t exceptional as a character, but maybe that’s the point.

It seems almost obligatory to leave YA novels open for a sequel these days (Girls of Paper and Fire is the first part of a trilogy), but I did think that the ending of the novel was cleverly constructed to leave Lei and Wren breathing a sigh of relief, not appreciating that the word Flight in Lei’s birth blessing pendant may well be hinting that she will spend the rest of her life on the run from the Demon Bull King Emperor.

 

Circe by Madeline Miller, a review

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles (read my review here) so you can imagine I was thrilled when I received a copy of her new book Circe to help while away the hours while I waited for my very overdue baby while I was on maternity leave earlier this year.

In Miller’s retelling of the Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is the unloved daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god, and Perse, a sea nymph. Overlooked by her mother for lacking the beauty that might secure her a marriage to a god, and thus her mother’s social standing, she is left to her own devices and mocked by her more attractive siblings. When the abandoned brother she has raised from infancy rejects her too, she is desperate for any affection and discovers that she has the power of witchcraft. But this sees her banished from her father’s palace and placed on an island in complete isolation, where she truly comes to know herself and her power.

While I very much enjoyed reading Circe, and Miller’s writing is on point as always, I thought it was interesting that it was branded as a feminist retelling of the Greek myth. For me, even throughout Miller’s version, much of our perception of Circe is derived from her interactions with the male characters. We see Circe’s struggle to find her place in her powerful and abusive father’s court; the terror she strikes into Glaucus, the human she falls in love with but who abandons her when she gifts him divinity; Apollo who takes her as a lover, but for the novelty more than anything else; the men who rape her and set her on her course of turning men into pigs…the only men she feels comfortable with are brilliant humans like Daedalus and Odysseus, but even then her relationships with those are complicated by the existence of their sons. Even when she seems to achieve a degree of freedom, it is always the result of having to bargain with the male world, I suppose that you could argue that that’s the system that every woman operates within but even when Penelope comes onto the scene and in scenes with Parsiphae, I’m not convinced that Circe would pass the Bechdel test.

As for the happy ending that Circe is said to receive in both myth and this retelling, her character certainly deserves it. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was another example of her giving something away for a man.

Oh and if this leaves you wondering, as I always have, “How do you say Circe?” The correct Greek pronunciation would be Kirky, but Miller says that she finds Sirsee to be more accessible to the modern reader.

Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg, a review

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.

 

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, a review

“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.