Sunday, 29 May 2016

A Little Catch Up

Just a quick post this week with more of a general bookish life/reading update than a specific theme. 

Firstly, I wanted to mention a new book-based iPhone app (alas, no Android version yet) called Litsy. As the always excellent Book Riot site put it, Litsy is what would result if Goodreads and Instagram got together and had a baby - it's a clean-looking and easy to use app that allows you to post pictures of your current reads and write short blurbs, reviews and quotes from them. There is also an organisational element which allows you to create 'stacks' of books (To Read, Reading and Read). 

I've only been on it a couple of weeks but it definitely has a cleanness about its design that Goodreads lacks and it is considerably easier to navigate, allowing you to find fellow book nerds easily and to start creating content and entering into the community quickly. That said, brevity is key on Litsy, with each post limited to 300 characters so you'll still want to head to Goodreads to get a spread of opinion on a book or provide longer commentary. For anyone with an iPhone who likes books however, Litsy is a nice addition to book-based social media and I'd highly recommend giving it a try. You can find me on there at ShelfofUnreadBooks if you want to come say hello and check out my current reads.

Books on the Nightstand
I'm also starting the make summer reading plans, thanks in no small part to the annual Books on the Nightstand summer book bingo. If you haven't discovered Books on the Nightstand (BOTNS for short) yet then you've got a treat in store because it's an excellent weekly books podcast from across the pond in the USA. Alas, hosts Anne and Michael have recently announced a hiatus on the podcast from the end of June but there are several years worth of episodes available for download on their website (which they are keeping live for at least the next two years), which should provide plenty of listening joy for the uninitiated. 

For the last few years Ann & Michael have hosted a BOTNS Summer Book Bingo on the show. The idea is to print a randomly generated 5 x 5 square 'bingo' card which lists different categories of books and then attempt to get bingo over the course of the summer by reading a book that will fit each box. So, for example, your bingo card might include 'book set in another country' or 'over 500 pages' or 'by a Latin American author'. The idea is to widen your reading and take you out of your comfort zone whilst, at the same time, having a little fun and turning it into a bit of a game or challenge. The rules are what you make them however Ann & Michael suggest that you:

  • Interpret the categories as you see fit
  • Don't use one book for more than one square
  • Use the Free Square for any book you want to read that won't fit into a category

I tried it last year and did find it a great way to get around to finally reading some books that have been 'bench-warming' on my shelves for a little while but that fitted the categories on my card. As I'm not a fan of a lot of the beach reads and airport fiction that fill shop shelves at this time of the year (I'm not dissing it, it's just I'm not a massive fan of romance novels and thrillers, which often seem to dominate summer reading lists), it's also a great way to keep me reading over the summer months. Last year, I managed to get 'bingo' on two lines before the official end date (the bingo technically runs from Memorial Day weekend in the States (i.e. this weekend) to Labor Day at the beginning of September) but this year I want to aim for full house and complete my card, so 25 books in total between now and September. The link to get a card is, as far as I know, live all year however so you can set whatever end date you want - or even keep printing cards if you enjoy the game and want to continue once you've completed one card. If you want to give it a go, you can print off a bingo card here - let me know in the comments how you get on! 

The VegetarianAs a result of the BOTNS Summer Bingo ('translated fiction' is one of my squares), I'm currently reading Han Kang's 'The Vegetarian', which recently won the International Man Booker Prize. I'd heard such amazing things about this novel on a lot of book podcasts and also from some of my favourite people on Twitter so I've had it on my shelf for a couple of months but only now had the impetus to pick it up. I'm about a third of the way through so far (at little over 150 pages, it should be a quick one to read) and it is certainly a very accomplished novella, which appears to have been brilliantly translated into a spare, precise English by Deborah Smith. The content however is, whilst stunningly rendered in prose, quite disturbing and some of the imagery is very visceral. I look forward to reading the rest and being able to give you a review in my wrap up next week.

As always, I'd love to hear what you've been reading so come say hi on Litsy (ShelfofUnreadBooks), Twitter (@amyinstaffs) or post a comment below! And, as always, until next time...

Happy Reading! x

Monday, 9 May 2016

REVIEW: What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell

What Belongs to YouWhen an author whose work I admire provides blurb for a book, I do tend to at least check it out. But when that author is Hanya Yanagihara, who wrote emotional rollercoaster ‘A Little Life’ (a book that had me in bits for most of last summer, see here), I really sit up and take notice. So when Hanya described Garth Greenwell’s debut novel ‘What Belongs To You’ as “a searching and compassionate meditation on the slipperiness of desire, the impossibility of salvation, and the forces of shame, guilt, and yearning that often accompany love”, I knew I wanted to read this book. And when Simon Savidge then raved about the novel on both his blog and in his You Wrote the Book podcast, it went straight to the top of my TBR. And, sure enough, it did not disappoint.

What Belongs to You’ begins with an American teacher entering the public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture looking for sex. There he meets a young hustler called Mitko and so begins a relationship that comes to define his life – and that could also possibly destroy it. As our unnamed narrator tells his story, we are rapidly drawn into the dark dance that these two characters’ conduct around each other – a twisted waltz of desire and eroticism, love and manipulation that examines the ways in which our backgrounds and cultures, private shames and desires can shape the way we are.

It is difficult to believe that this is a debut novel, such is the power of Greenwell’s writing. This is a deeply lyrical book, which manages to render even the basest human actions and feelings with vivid, poetic intensity. Take, for example, the beginning of the narrator’s first encounter with Mitko in the public bathrooms under the National Palace of Culture:

“Even as I descended the stairs I heard his voice, which like the rest of him was too large for those subterranean rooms, spilling out from them as if to climb back into the bright afternoon that, though it was mid-October, had nothing autumnal about it; the grapes that hung ripe from vines throughout the city burst warm still in one’s mouth. I was surprised to hear someone talking so freely in a place where, by unstated code, voices seldom rose above a whisper.”

This is a man on his way into a public bathroom to pay a young man for sex but it is written with such richness and such sensual detail that it lends the encounter an almost poetic air. And the whole novel is like this – from the descriptions of dingy hotel rooms and Soviet era blokove to the narrator’s evocation of his childhood in suburban America and his first, intense friendship with a local boy. It is hauntingly beautiful writing that lingers long after you turn the final page.

And it isn’t just the writing that packs a punch. It is remarkable that the novel is less than 200 pages given the emotional resonance of the story, which examines the nature of love and lust, of desire and its consequences. Throughout his encounters with Mitko, which change from paid-for erotic encounters into a more complicated mixture of yearning, friendship, dependence and guilt, and his recollections of childhood rejection and a longing to be loved and accepted, the narrator remains a complex enigma, hidden from the reader because he remains hidden from himself. Mitko is also elusive, weaving in and out of the story and wearing many faces, both beautiful and terrible and often both at once. For a reader, it is writing that asks a lot of questions and offers little by way of answers. What is love and what is desire? Who is the predator and who the prey? Can we ever really know another unless we know our own selves?

As you can probably imagine, this does not make ‘What Belongs To You’ an ‘easy’ read. Although not a lengthy book, it makes many demands on the reader - rewarding close attention to the subtleties of human interaction via writing that insists on being savoured not sped through. Fans of pacy plots and sharp dialogue should look elsewhere, for this is a Merchant Ivory novel rather than a Hollywood blockbuster. Neither is it ‘light’ in any sense of the word. This is, at times, an unremittingly bleak book, which offers little by way of salvation for its characters. It’s not quite ‘A Little Life’ bleak but, as with Yanagihara’s bestseller, the forces of shame and guilt cast long shadows into the characters’ lives. Take the time to get through this however, and you’ll discover a richly layered novel with an aching, emotional heartbeat that makes ‘What Belongs To You’ a commanding debut from someone who is sure to become a literary writer to watch out for.

My thanks go to NewBooks Magazine and to the publishers, Picador, for providing an advanced copy of this book in return for an honest and unbiased review. An edited version of this review may appear on the Nudge website and in NewBooks Magazine. ‘What Belongs to You’ by Garth Greenwell is available now in hardback and e-book from all good bookshops and retailers. 

Monday, 2 May 2016

April Wrap Up 2016

It almost felt like I didn't read very much during the month of April but I appear to have still managed four books, in addition to 'Eligible' and 'The Midnight Watch', both of which I reviewed earlier in the month. There will also be a review of Garth Greenwell's 'What Belongs to You' going up at some point as I finished that today, just a little too late to be technically included in this wrap up. So apparently I've been more productive that I gave myself credit for! 

GorskyGorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy

I picked this up because it was featured on the 2016 Baileys Prize longlist. Of all the literary prizes, the Bailey’s seems to most mirror my own reading tastes so I decided to give ‘Gorsky’ a go in spite of it apparently being a modern re-telling of ‘The Great Gatsby’, a novel I felt distinctly meh about when I read it at uni.

London dances to the turn of Gorsky’s millions but the Russian billionaire himself is proving elusive. Until that is, he turns up in a down-at-hell bookshop to request that Nicholas ‘Nick’ Kimović builds him the best private library in Europe. Drawn in by Gorsky’s alluring power and enviable lifestyle, Nick is soon attending swanky parties, where the elite of British society rub shoulders with newly arrived emigres from Russia and the Baltics. And, at the centre of it all is Gorsky – his money, his palatial new home and his abiding love for Natalia, the Russian wife of one of his new English neighbours.

As you can probably tell from the synopsis, this is a playful reimagining of ‘The Great Gatsby’ and the characters survive their updating in surprisingly good shape. Certainly I found Gorsky’s Natalia considerably less vapid than Gatsby’s Daisy, and Nick himself is an interestingly dislikeable narrator with a unique outsider’s perspective, both in terms of his class and his status as a Serbian immigrant, neither British nor Russian but a keen observer of both. All of the glitz and glamour of the original is here with a modern sprinkling of casual sex and even more casual drug abuse (both a little too casual and a little too frequent in my opinion).

So this is ‘Gatsby’ firmly re-located to the twenty-first century but with the addition of a knowing layer of contemporary concerns, such as the place of immigrants in modern British society and the increasing unaffordability of the London housing market for anyone who isn’t a Russian oligarch. As such, it works very well – the writing is infused with the heady scent of extreme wealth and the characters’ drift onto and off the page in a waft of affluence and ignorance. And that, unfortunately, is also the problem. If you have issues with ‘Gatsby’, as I do, you will have similar issues with ‘Gorsky’. So whilst I could appreciate the updating, I still found the plot to be thin, the character motivations unconvincing and the majority of the action to be without any real substance. I imagine ‘Gatsby’ fans on the other hand will be delighted with what is, in essence, a charming and accomplished updating of the tale, with some modern twists.

First Class Murder (Wells and Wong, #3)First Class Murder by Robin Stevens

Another accomplished outing for schoolgirl sleuth Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong, this time playing homage to Agatha Christie’s golden age classic ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.

Following the events of the ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ and ‘Arsenic for Tea’, Hazel and Daisy have been taken on the Orient Express by Hazel’s businessman father, who is determined to get them away from such scandalous situations and encourage ladylike (i.e. non-detective) behaviour. But when rumours abound of an international spy aboard the train, followed swiftly by the discovery of the body of one of the passengers, it isn’t long before Daisy and Hazel are conducting a covert investigation once again.

This YA series is proving to be an absolute delight, with each instalment adding a little more depth to the central characters whilst also retaining the series’ charm, humour and originality. Offering witty nods to the golden age of detective fiction, the series also manages to feel fresh and modern – quite a feat given it’s 1930s schoolgirl protagonists and Malory Towers style main setting! Although the series’ timeline is progressing rather slowly (‘First Class Murder’ takes place almost immediately after the events of ‘Arsenic for Tea’), it will be interesting to see how Steven’s grows her characters as the books progress - and with talk of war on the horizon in this book, I’m also curious to see if she takes them from the golden summers of the 1930s into the gritty environs of World War Two. Whatever Stevens chooses to do, I’ll be there for more Wells and Wong adventures!

If you’re not a cat fan, you might want to skip onto reading my thoughts on the second volume of Rat Queens because this book is a love letter to all things cat. If you are a cat lover however, read right on because you are among friends here!

Cox, a freelance writer and music critic, has written an entertaining account of the various cats who have been part of his life including his now ‘famous’ cats, The Bear (AKA @mysadcat) and Ralph (AKA @mysmugcat). Via a series of anecdotes, most of which manage to successfully tread the fine line between gentle sentimentality and mawkishness, he discusses his abiding love for his feline friends and how they have impacted on his life.

As a result, this is by no means the deepest of books but neither does it purport to be. In fact, ‘Under the Paw’ is exactly what it says it is – a series of recollections from one man about his cats, which is great for dipping into and out of when you fancy something that is gently amusing and easy to read.

A great continuation of a fabulous series, with all the wit, charm, sass and expletive-ridden action of the first volume. In Volume 2, the eponymous Queens are drawn further into the nefarious plot to destroy Palisade and the reader gets drawn further into their messy and complicated lives. We get a little more backstory about each of the characters (apart from Betty who is sadly underused for most of this volume), as well as the development of their relationships both with each other and with the more incidental characters around them.

All of which is great, apart from that there is a LOT of plot going on in this second volume, which can get a little confusing at times. I’m still not entirely sure if I understand what happened to Dee at the end for example, or what’s going on with Hannah and her history and I’m hoping the answers to these questions, along with the others raised, will be answered in Volume 3.

This is however a very minor niggle in an otherwise excellent comic and I’m really looking forward to the next volume of this irreverent and anarchic series. If you haven’t read it already then what are you waiting for – go order Volume On already!

So, that was my reading for the month of April. As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of the books mentioned - have you read them? Are you adding them to your TBR? And do you have any recommendations for future books for me? You can either drop me a comment down below or find me on Twitter @amyinstaffs. So, until the next time...

Happy Reading! x