Monday, 28 September 2015

Holiday Reading Wrap Up

As I mentioned in my last post, I've just spent an extremely enjoyable ten days soaking up the sunshine of the Mediterranean. After many deliberations, I did manage to come up with a holiday reading list and, having done little more than swim, sunbathe, eat and read for the last 10 days, I managed to get through a fair amount of the books I took with me. Rather than include them in an end-of-month wrap up, I thought it would be better to have a separate post just for my holiday reads, to avoid either post being over-long. 

A Spool of Blue ThreadA Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

I kicked off my holiday with this Man Booker shortlisted novel about three generations of a Baltimore family. As Abby and Red Whitshank grow older, decisions must be made about how best to look after them. As their four children descend on the family home, the novel unwinds backwards through three generation uncovering the secrets, tensions and everyday moments that make the Whitshanks the family who and what that they are. 

This is a quiet and reflective family saga so, if you like plenty of action and pacing this isn't going to be the book for you. If you're happier with a slower pace however, this is an absorbing book with some beautiful writing. I've never read an Anne Tyler novel before but I understand that she's often praised for her characters and, having read this novel, I can see why. Her characters are all fully-realised with all their curves and edges in place. Everyone stands out on the page and, despite there being a fairly large cast, you never lose sense of who is who or what makes them unique. 

This is a novel about the nuances of family life and an insight into the little things that make up an everyday family. That does mean that it isn't plot heavy although I found that there was enough there to support the characters and allow them to develop and move forwards. The title of the novel reflects the content very well, with the saga of the family unraveling backwards like a spool of thread as you read. My only slight disappointment was with the ending which sort of just peters out, without any sense of resolution or climax. Whilst this does fit with the overall narrative style, it does leave the reader a little adrift after the final page has been turned. Overall though, this was a great start to my holiday reading - gentle, well-realised and insightful.

Asking For ItAsking For It by Louise O'Neill

Eighteen year old Emma O'Donovan is beautiful, happy and confident. One night she goes to a party. All eyes are on her. The next morning she wakes up on the front porch of her house with no memory of what happened or how she got there. Then she checks social media and she sees the photos, the explicit detail of what happened the night before. Suddenly Emma is at the centre of a scandal, creating ruptures within her family, friends and community at large. Because can it be rape if you don't remember what happened?

O'Neill's second novel, the follow up to the widely successful 'Only Ever Yours' (reviewed by yours truly here), packs a powerful punch. It's a brutal look at the divisive issue of consent in the social media age and, as such, does come with trigger warnings for rape, as well as for drug and alcohol abuse. What makes 'Asking For It' so good is the character of Emma herself. Emma is not a nice girl - she's manipulative, self-absorbed and vain and, in the heady heat of summer, rapidly going completely off the rails. Emma's character, and the decisions she makes, complicate the issues at the centre of the novel - does it matter that she deliberately wore a short dress? That she was drunk? That she was high? That she went to the party looking to have sex? That she made the first move? Would we say that Emma was asking for it? These are the questions that O'Neill asks her reader and they are not always easy ones to answer. 

This is an extremely important book - I'd go so far as to say I think it should be required reading in schools and colleges for older teens and young adults. It tackles a very relevant issue in a brutal and unflinching way, questioning our current definition of consent, our definition of young women and their behaviour and our use of both social and traditional media streams. It's not an easy read and, on reflection, probably wasn't the best choice for my sunlounger; but it's such a vital one. There is no happily ever after in this novel - it will make you angry and so it should. It will make you question the way in which we deal with rape victims, the way in which the media portrays rape and the way in which social media responds to it. This book will get you talking about what remains a taboo area. So go away and read this and lets start having a long overdue conversation. 

The RocksThe Rocks by Peter Nicholls

Following the brutality and trauma of 'Asking For It', I thought something lighter was in order. So what better than a novel set on the sunny Mediterranean island of Mallorca, just a short hop from where my own sunlonger was situated? Turns out quite a lot of things would have been better than this which, I'm afraid to say, I found terribly dull (in addition to being both dull and terrible) and which almost became a DNF. Oh no! So, what exactly was the problem? 

The novel begins with a confrontation and a mystery. Brits Gerald and Lula were briefly married in 1948. So what catastrophe caused them to separate on their honeymoon and not speak for sixty years, despite living on the same small island? And how does their shared history impact on the romance of their (unrelated) children years later? I hate to say it but, by the time I reached the conclusion to the mystery, I really didn't care. The plot, whilst ambitious, seems to sprawl without any clear sense of direction. Whole chapters turn into long, rambling accounts of a character's thoughts and deeds that later turn out to have no relevance at all to the plot at large. In addition, I found all of the characters to be so unbelievably vapid. The women are particularly irksome, being for the most part sex-crazed maniacs who like to lead the men in their lives around by the short and curlies. I found this characterisation at best laughable and, at it's worst, rather insulting. Oh, and did I mention that there's also a scene in which one of the main female characters seduces a 15 year old boy on her 80th birthday? Need I say more?

So, why the heck did I finish this novel? Well, it's partly because I really hate not finishing books and also because I won't review anything that I at least didn't give the courtesy of reading to the end. So does it have any redeeming features? Well, yes it does. The Mediterranean setting is very well realised and Nicholls does a good job of capturing the gentle undulations of life in the Balearic Islands. I also really liked Gerald's background story, with it's connections to Homer's 'Odyssey' - if only the 'The Rocks' had told this story in more depth rather than focus on his doomed romance with Lulu!  All in all however, this was a bit of a dud for me. Needless to say my copy of 'The Rocks' got 'donated' to the hotel library in the hope that maybe someone else will enjoy it more than I did! 

ArmadaArmada by Ernest Kline

Following the disappointment of 'The Rocks', I wanted to read something that I knew I'd like. I adored Ernest Kline's last book 'Ready Player One' (reviewed here), which is a love letter to all things geek. His latest novel, 'Armada' offers more of the same but this time tackles the tropes and traditions of alien invasions. 

Teenager Zack Lightman has spent his whole life dreaming of being whisked away on some life-altering adventure. Of becoming a little more like his heroic fighter pilot alter-ego in hit computer game 'Armada'. A little escapism never hurt anyone, right? Then Zack sees the space ship. The ship that is an exact replica of the ones he fights every night in his game. As impossible as it seems, Zack isn't going crazy. In fact, he's one of the many gamers who has been secretly trained by the Earth Defence Alliance to help defend the Earth against a growing threat. A threat that is now ready to invade...

I really enjoyed this book. It's not ground-breaking and it gleefully borrows tropes and ideas from throughout the whole of the science fiction genre. That said, it subverts and plays with a lot of them in a way that makes this book more than just an homage or pastiche of the existing canon. Although written in a very similar style to 'Ready Player One', this does manage to be a noticeably different sort of novel which I felt was slightly more adult in tone. In addition to being the story of an alien invasion, this is a wry coming of age tale about a kid who has to learn to stop playing, learn to trust his instincts and start taking control of his life. That said, I do feel that this novel is a little more niche than 'Ready Player One' - it does require a love of the sci-fi genre and of videogames to get all of the references and you've got to really enjoy Kline's chatty, eclectic writing style to stick with the book. For me, it really worked and I'd definitely recommend it to like-minded sci-fi and videogame nerds. For new readers however, maybe start with 'Ready Player One' and move on to 'Armada' if you enjoy that one. 

Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle EastHeirs to Forgotten Kingdoms by Gerard Russell 

Having gorged on fiction, I wrapped up my holiday with some non-fiction reading in the form of Gerard Russell's timely and insightful 'Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms', subtitled 'Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East'. Despite it's reputation for religious intolerance, the Middle East has long sheltered many distinctive faiths, from a group that regards the Greek philosophers as incarnations of God to another that reveres Lucifer in the form of a peacock. These religions are the last vestiges of ancient civilizations - their worship dates back to the pharaohs of Egypt, the Byzantium conquest and the depths of the Persian empire. In 'Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms', Gerard Russell, a former British diplomat with personal experience of the region, travels into the distant, and often near unreachable, regions of the Middle East to meet the people who follow these ancient beliefs and to see what impact the region's current instability is having on their communities and their faith. 

I found this to be a fascinating book. More of a travelogue than an academic work, it is instantly readable and Russell does an excellent job of explaining the often complicated belief systems of each group he meets. More importantly, he focuses upon individual stories, giving a glimpse of the people behind the faith. In this way, he can bring in some of the more complicated aspects of theology, history and sociology whilst providing a human anchor to his narrative. Whilst it does not dwell too much on the current divisions that have made the Middle East such an unstable region, Russell's book does offer also offer a unique and timely reminder that religious dominance and persecution are nothing new and reflects on the varied ways in which minority religions have survived assimilation and persecution over the years, including the ways in which their followers are continuing to do so today. A fascinating subject that introduced me to a number of groups about which, in my ignorance, I had heard much but knew little. Insightful enough for the casual reader but with enough depth to provide a jumping off point for further study, I would recommend this to anyone interested in learning more about the Middle East and its people. 

And that's it! 10 days of blissful reading joy (with the exception of 'The Rocks' but let's forget about that one!). Whilst on hols I also started Margaret Atwood's latest 'The Heart Goes Last' - which is AMAZING - but I haven't finished it yet so I'll include that one in my proper month end wrap up next weekend. As always, I'd love to know if you've read any of these books and, if so, what you thought of them. Or maybe you like the sound of one of them and are going to give it a try? Leave me a comment down below or tweet me @amyinstaffs to join in the conversation. And, until next time...

Happy Reading! 


Monday, 14 September 2015

The Great Holiday Reading Dilemma

Ah, it's that time of year again. That hallowed, golden time I've spent so many months waiting for, counting down to and marking off the calendar. That's right, bookish friends, I'm off on my holidays to spend some time lying on a sun lounger reading books and drinking iced tea with a little umbrella in it. Try not to hate me too much. Holiday time does bring with it a bookish dilemma however, namely the dreaded baggage allowance. I'm quite lucky to have a 23kg weight limit for my hold luggage however, once you've added the essentials like sunscreen and clothing, even the most generous of luggage allowances only allows for a limited amount of holiday reading. And so, the hardest part of packing begins...what books do I take on holiday with me?

Asking For ItClearly an e-reader can assist in this instance. And I am indeed taking my trusty Kindle with me on my hols. My Kindle is always loaded with a range of free classics, e-books versions of old favourites and random 'Daily Deal' buys from the Kindle store that sound interesting. For my holiday, I've also treated myself to a few recent releases that are currently only available in hardback and would thus otherwise be completely unsuited to holiday packing. So I've got Kirsty Logan's 'The Gracekeepers' to look forward to, Claire Fuller's 'These Endless Numbered Days' and Louise O'Neill's latest 'Asking For It', which seems to be all over Twitter and Booktube right now. Between these three and all the other stuff loaded on there, I'm not going to run out of reading material so problem solved right? Surely the answer is to just take the Kindle on holiday with me.

Wrong! Whilst I know a lot of people probably just take their e-reader on holiday, I'm always a bit worried that's a little 'all your eggs in one basket'. What if it breaks? What if I drop it in the pool on day one of the holiday? Plus, if I'm honest, I just don't enjoy the experience of reading on an e-reader as much as I do a proper, hard copy, physical object book. I like a nice chunky paperback that I can break the spine of and flick through the pages, that can can bits of sand between the pages and that can be left temptingly on my sun lounger to lure me back to it after a swim. E-readers, convenient as they are, just don't have the same appeal. 

The Heart Goes LastSo I'm back to the dilemma of choosing books. Given that I do have the three on my e-reader, I only want to take 4 or 5 paperbacks. Two slots are already taken with books I've been saving for my holiday - a proof of Margaret Attwood's 'The Heart Goes Last' (which I am SO excited to read - that will be book one, devoured at the airport I think) and Michel Faber's 'The Book of Strange New Things', which I started earlier this year when I borrowed it from the library but put aside until it was out in paperback and I could properly sit down and digest it. I also like to take a non-fiction book with me in case I get fiction fatigue and am weighing up either 'Sapiens' by Yuval Noah Harari or 'Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms' by Gerard Russell, which is about disappearing middle-eastern religions and the people who practice them. At the moment, I think the Russell is winning if only because 'Sapiens' is massive even in paperback format. 

The RocksWhich leaves two slots left. And about 6 books in the 'maybe' pile. I like to take a range of genres and book types because I never really know what reading mood I'll be in when I've finished my current book - so I generally have a TBR ranging from pacy genre fiction through to more literary offerings. I've been really impressed by the 2015 Man Booker longlist so have under consideration a copy of 'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne Tyler and also 'The Chimes' by Anna Smail, both of which I have heard only good things about. Peter Nichol's 'The Rocks' has been on my TBR for a while and does seem to have a summery vibe about it, being set in a Mediterranean villa - I do love a holiday read that it set somewhere warm and sunny. Everyone I know seems to be recommending Eleanor Ferrente's 'My Brilliant Friend', also set in the Med, but it is the first of four so I'm worried about taking it and then being bereft of the other three books. Then there's 'The Street Sweeper' by Elliott Perlman, which my mum bought me for Christmas following a strong recommendation from a book-selling mutual friend and which I set aside for a time when I could really appreciate it - a time like a nice holiday. Basically, I'm changing my mind on an almost daily basis and am rapidly coming to the conclusion that I'd be a rubbish book prize judge. I'll probably end up just doing 'eeny meeny miney mo' and choosing them that way.

The Street Sweeper. Elliot PerlmanDoes anyone else suffer from this problem? I'd like to know if this is a general bookish problem or just me and my book hording getting out of control! And has anyone read any of my holiday 'to-reads'? I'd welcome any suggestions for a great holiday read, or help in choosing my final book list! Feel free to tweet me @amyinstaffs, or leave a comment down below with your thoughts. In the meantime, I'll be upstairs surrounded by empty packing cases, a pile of books and an increasingly irate husband...

Until next time folks, Happy Reading!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

August Wrap Up: The One Book Month

A Little LifeAugust has been a slightly in unusual month in that, other than reading 'The A to Z of You & Me' (my review of which you can find here), I read just one other book. That's right - one. I made it a good one though and there's definitely enough in this one for a lengthy discussion because my book of choice was 'A Little Life' by Hanya Yanagihara.

You may well have heard of 'A Little Life' because it's been getting a fair amount of press recently, especially since it was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2015. I first heard about the book some months ago when Anne Kingman and Michael Kindness dedicated an entire episode of their excellent bookish podcast 'Books on the Nightstand' to this novel, which Anne immediately declared as one of her reads of the year. Since then, the book has also been raved about by Simon Savidge of Savidge Reads (who has posted his own review and discussion of the book here), another blogger and podcaster whose opinions I value and whose tastes seem quite similar to my own. 'A Little Life' only came out in the UK in the middle of August so I picked up the US edition (pictured above), which has the amazing - and much talked about - 'orgasmic man' photograph on the front. Personally, I feel this cover gives a much better sense of what the novel is about than the UK version (pictured below), which makes out that it's a standard New York novel.

And indeed at the start of the book, you may well be fooled into thinking this is a standard New York novel. As it opens, the book introduces you to four college friends who have all moved to New York to try and make it big in their chosen careers. There's JB, a struggling artist, trainee architect Malcolm, would-be actor Willem (waiting tables whilst waiting for his big break) and lawyer Jude. So far, so cliche right? Wrong. Yanagihara cleverly weaves in elements of enigmatic back stories and tantalising glimpses of the future to add depth to each man's personality and, in these early chapters, you get a real sense of each individual character as well of of the life of the city itself.

As the book develops the focus narrows onto Jude, the most enigmatic of the four friends. Now a successful litigation lawyer, Jude's life appears to be one of sunshine and roses. He is incredibly successful in his job, has a gorgeous loft apartment in the city and is surrounded by devoted family and friends. Scratch beneath the surface however and Jude is one of the most damaged characters that I have ever come across in literature. This is where the book takes its now infamous turn towards the darkness, heading into harrowing territory as it delves in Jude's past, examining the many facets that make up his complicated, damaged psyche. It isn't a spoiler to say that this novel has trigger warnings for physical, mental and sexual abuse, child abuse, self-harm, suicide and depression. All of which makes reading it sound about as enjoyable as having teeth pulled. 

Again you'd be wrong however. This isn't necessarily a book I'd say I 'enjoyed' - there are just too many harrowing moments for enjoyment to be the right word. I do however think that this book is extremely important. It constantly challenges the reader, making you confront assumptions about social expectations and obligations as well as about the ways in which we as a society respond to victims of abuse and violence. I have never really understood the psychology of self-harm and, despite having some experience with depression and anxiety, have always struggled to understand why some people would feel suicide was a valid option, especially if they are surrounded by people who love and care for them. This book makes you consider both these issues and the way in which you respond to them. It is both extremely impressive and also quite terrifying, to be made to walk a mile in a psyche as tender and damaged as Jude's. 

A Little LifeThis is not to say the novel is without it's flaws however. Whilst I do feel it needs to be a weighty book in order to absorb you fully into the lives of its characters, I would argue that it would benefit from an edit in places. There are a few times where key incidents are repeated - as if Yanagihara really wants to make sure you get the point - and I felt this was unnecessary given the harrowing nature of some of the incidents the first time around. I also felt that, at times, the book slightly revels in the misery that it inflicts upon Jude. Whilst I am sure that there are people who, sadly, can relate equally harrowing stories in real life, I did question the realism of the fact that every person Jude meets before the age of 16 is an abuser in some form. Equally unlikely is the fact that everyone he meets in adult life (with one notable exception) is unquestioningly loyal and loving. Add in the fact that, without exception, everyone in this novel becomes startlingly successful in their relative fields and you can see that there are some areas that start to brush the borders of believably, which is a great shame considering that Yanagihara has otherwise done such an excellent job of making 'A Little Life' feel so true, so honest and so very real. 

These points aside however, I really did value the experience of reading 'A Little Life' and I would urge others to go and read it. It's an amazing book, one that is raw and real and just so, so human. That said, my recommendation would come with some warnings - this is a difficult book to read and is extremely dark in places. If any of the trigger warnings mentioned above are things that you don't like to read about, then you may want to stay away. Equally, this might not be the right book for anyone struggling with depression or grief because it is just so very raw in places. Beautiful and terrible in equal measure, 'A Little Life' leaves you thinking long after the final page has turned. 

As always, I would love to know if any of you have read 'A Little Life' and your thoughts on the book if you have. And has anyone read any of the other Man Booker longlisted titles? I have 'The Chimes', 'The Illuminations' and 'A Spool of Blue Thread' on my TBR but I'd be interested to hear about some of the other nominees. Next month should be slightly more business as usual. I have some holiday time coming up , most of which I intend to spend lying on a sunlounger reading, so am currently compiling a holiday reading list (more on that in the next post). And, after a short foray into a refreshingly light YA mystery novel, I am currently tackling John Burnside's somewhat disturbing novel 'The Dumb House' so I'll let you know my thoughts on that when I'm done. You can leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs but, until the next time...

Happy Reading!