Review-ish: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I picked up this beast with some trepidation, after it had been mentioned so many times on various podcasts that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I’m a massive fan of modern American fiction, including Truman Capote, so it made sense that a book that explores his downfall would peak my interest, but I was also worried that it might have been over-hyped. In all honesty, I think I got into writers like Capote and Kerouac because I thought they made me look terribly cool when I was in my early 20’s, but I still do really enjoy the style of the time.

I actually devoured this book and then immediately passed it onto a friend, which is very unusual for me as I’m such a book hoarder. The subject matter itself is fascinating; I found myself googling each individual Swan and gawping at the glamour of them, but its wonderfully composed. Greenberg-Jephcott is a magician at conjuring up these waspy scenes, but also at capturing Capotes voice perfectly.

It would be too easy to paint portraits of these women as awful, self-centred and vain (says the socialist in me) OR as innocent victims to Capotes machinations, but instead, the Swans are far more fascinating to me than the writer himself. Although, his re-telling of his own history is so deftly done.  

The chorus of the Swans throughout the narration is so clever, a modernised version of the choruses used in Greek drama (for those of you who had rubbish English teachers like me). I have just read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is part of Canongates ‘Myths’ series, and she utilises the same tool.

I have no criticisms of the book at all, and really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So please read this and tell me what you think! And tell me your favourite Swan. I”m obsessed with Lee Radziwill.

Review-ish: Kindred by Octavia E Butler

‘Slavery was a long slow process of dulling’.

I was really thrilled to have stumbled across this on one of my many charity shops jaunts around South Wales, as I had heard of it, but knew nothing of the plot. The copy I picked up, as you can see, is a contemporary edition, so I hadn’t really considered when it was written.

I read it whilst on holiday in Portugal, and whilst it wasn’t an easy beach read, it was still good to be able to be fully-absorbed in it. Kindred is a hugely popular book, written in 1979 and therefore there are many, many better musings and academic writings on this than I can ever provide, so rather than delving too deeply into themes etc, I’ll just share my thoughts.

The concept is clever, and allows the reader to consider the similarities between the African American experiences in LA, 1976 to the Maryland of 1815. The linking of fates, the brutal and disgusting treatment of human beings as property, the realities of life for mixed race couples and the exploration of ancestry were brilliantly executed and fascinating.

In recent years, I have discovered that I have an aversion to time-travel stories (I think this began with the trauma of The Time-Travellers Wife). I struggle to watch films about it. I can’t handle the sliding-doors of it all, or the missing-people-by-moments-ness. Very articulate, I know. But I actually found the time-travel nature of this worked really well and wasn’t too painful for me!

So yeah. There’s a reason why its considered a classic. Get to it. It would make a great book club read as there’s so much to talk about. And I can see why its used for educational discussions.

Well 2019 might have been a ominshambles of a year, but holy moly I read some good books. I have never bought so many copies of the same books, but have loved forcing them upon friends and family as gifts (top buys were All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, not reviewed on here due to Doerr being a British male, The Electric Michaelangelo by Sarah Hall and A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman).

What books did everyone get for Xmas? I got a beautiful illustrated Studio Ghibli book of Princess Mononoke and maybe my 5th version of the Wizard of Earthsea as part of a stunning omnibus. I’m very aware that the book hoarding might one day kill me.

On another note, the reason its taking me so long to get my reviews out is because my laptop is. just. so. slow and I really have to talk myself into even turning the bloody thing on. I’m having cold sweats thinking about doing my tax return on it.

Kelly

Review-ish: One Night, Markovitch by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

‘What they were about to see was not something you hurry towards’.

This book is another beaut of a find from a charity shop book collecting mission, which has become a regular part of weekends for me and an obsession that I’m sure will one day kill me. I also do buy new, but there is a certain satisfaction that comes from finding a gem second hand. Last weekend, I found a John Irving that I had never heard of, in the same style of book covers that I have been collecting, lurking in the second hand book shop in the arcade in Cardiff. Reader, it is a compulsion. 

I have never really read anything about Israel before, in particular how the second World War effected events, so this was refreshing and informative. The experience of reading this has really confirmed to me how much I enjoy reading fictionalised history. 

I’ve been a fan of magical realism since falling in love with Louis de Bernieres and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but this time it was really interesting to read magical realism where the evocative background is Israel, rather than the South America or Europe. There is historical realism there, certainly, but it isn’t held to ransom by it. It provides some context rather than driving the narrative. And it did make me more aware of how Israel was formed and the effect that the second World War had on it and its people.

It is truly, bloody lovely. Even with my fairly rubbish imagination, I could see the homes in the kibbutz and had really vivid images in my mind of the characters. 

Although the main bulk of the story is about the eponymous Markovich, and that story is beguiling, it is the journey of Zeev Feinberg that really drew me in, and has stuck with me since. How the other characters respond to Zeev and his impulses are fascinating. The various other characters are just fantastic, in particular, the Deputy Commander of the Irgun. Little moments like how many children get named after him, are just wonderful.

The last third of the book, where the narrative focused on the children, felt a little less well-developed,  event though I enjoyed the more exciting parts of that narrative. The build-up was perhaps just a little too long. But the ending was beautiful wrought. I quite often HATE endings if I have loved the book, I never find them satisfying, but this ending felt right and did justice to the rest of the book. 

Reviewers on Goodreads have RAVED about her next two novels, some saying that this one is weaker in comparison so I will definitely be keeping an eye out for them.

Happy reading!

Kelly

Review-ish: The Assassins Quest by Robin Hobb (#3 in the Farseer Trilogy)

‘Sometimes a man doesn’t know how badly he’s hurt until someone else probes the wound.’

I’m basically just going to rhapsodise about this so please bear with me.

I have been recommending this trilogy to ANYone who will listen. It really is just perfectly constructed fantasy. I’m going to throw it out there, and I’m ready to bear the wrath, but I prefer it to the Game of Thrones books. Here’s why (and then I promise, I’ll actually talk about this particular book!):

–          The violence isn’t gratuitous

–          ALL of the characters are nuanced and are capable of growth

–          The magic is hard-won and not taken lightly

A huge amount happens in this final book of the trilogy. Its not so much a culmination of action, as the previous 2 books had plenty of that, but it does take us through what feels like the final part of this particular journey for Fitz. These books are huge. Finger-achingly and crampingly huge. But its all so necessary for the feeling that you get at the end. The big sigh. Questions are answered, some further questions are raised, but overall the narrative is extremely satisfying. 

As a central character, Fitz is more than worthy, offering us fist-bump opportunities as well as moments where we want to give him a good shake. The new characters that are introduced are fantastic (Starling and Kettle in particular) and the more familiar characters just grow and develop in sometimes quite unexpected ways. I won’t go too much further into the characters or plot, as if you haven’t already been sold by my review of #2, then this barely-a-review isn’t going to change your mind. And I’d rather that anyone who is interested, doesn’t have anything spoiled by me. Make sense? 

Its a testament to Hobb’s exceptional writing that upon finishing the Farseer Trilogy, the lad-at-home and I have sought out and started the next trilogy (The Liveship Traders) and have the following trilogy lined up (The Tawny Man Trilogy) so if I can keep up this sham of a review-site, you’re going to get a lot of Robin Hobb content. We also very nearly started a conversation with an unsuspecting woman on a beach in Portugal who was peacefully reading Robin Hobb unaware that we were excitedly whispering about confronting a fellow Hobb-nob and making her our friend.  Reader, we did not ruin that poor persons day, don’t worry.

I have been reading A LOT recently so the ol’ review back-log is significant at the moment. But the nights are drawing in, the leaves are falling and my favourite time of year commences so I WILL be getting my reviews in order.

Whats everyone reading at the moment? Does anyone read seasonally?? Im intruiged.

Kelly

Review-ish: The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel.

‘The truth sometimes reminds me of city buried in sand. As time passes, the same piles up even thicker, and occasionally it’s blown away and what’s below is revealed.’

Sometimes, I really wish that I had read Murakami’s work in the order they were written, as I think I’d find it so fascinating. But alas, I read Norweigan Wood as a teenager and came to his others as I found them in libraries, charity shops or second-hand book shops. This is the most similar to Norwegian Wood that I have read so far. It lacks the totally nutty magic of Hard-Boiled Egg and Kafka on the Shore. But it’s still a very charming read.

I was convinced that I had found this book slow, but according to my notes, I was absolutely gripped by it! In this way, I think its an easier read than his more fantastical books, but it didn’t haunt me for weeks afterwards in the way The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle did. 

It felt like a meditation on the internal workings of someone’s mind. How easily it can be misled. A gentle story, really about one man, Tsukuru Tazaki, as he tries to reconcile his past with his present. I liked the slowness of it, which I think is  reflected its singular focus. I enjoyed how every moment was described in great detail, like his time at the lake. Murakami’s work is very evocative, but it was surprisingly enjoyable to feel this in stillness rather than action.

It offers a really interesting reflection on loneliness and isolation, comparing emptiness or unease in our own skin to physical or emotional colourlessness. Of feeling like you are the one that lacks personality when surrounded by bolder, more colourful people. And how reality can be very different to your own perception.

The language is more accessible than some of his other novels, but the lack of drama might put some readers off. I found his lyrical descriptions of music, particularly noticeable in this book, really beautiful and moving.

The characters, similar to in Norwegian Wood, are a little bit bleak, a little bit morose. But realistic, reflecting a different side to humanity. And as always, Murakami can create a fully-formed and 3D character in a few words. But he always allows you a deep-dive into his main characters sub-conscious.

There’s other Murakami books I might recommend first, depending on your interests, but if anyone is reading them in order, I’d love to hear about it!

Kelly

Review-ish: Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker

”Silence becomes a woman’. Every women I’ve ever known was brought up on that saying.’

I’ve been aware of Pat Barker’s writing for years, having read her work in college (Regeneration I think) when studying First World War literature. But to be honest, I haven’t picked up anything of her since then. Until one of our Book Club members mentioned that she had, like Madeline Miller, been re-writing the Greek classics from a female perspective.

I brought this beautiful copy at Hay Festival where she was a speaker this year. I would have loved to have heard her speak and its given me the drive to take some time next year so get over to Hay more.

In all honesty, I read this a while a go now (I’m playing catch up on reviews) but the word one that sticks out still when I think of it is ‘brutal’. There’s much more blood, violence and brutality than Circe but then it follows the those affected by the Trojan War, rather than the squabbling of the Gods. There were moments that were hard to read.

It has made me consider trigger warnings. On Goodreads, many people asked about the incident of sexual assault in Circe, but other than questioning whether Silence of the Girls is appropriate for younger readers, there was a lot less discussion about trigger warnings, despite the fact that this novel contains many more incidents. I’d be really interested in discussing whether trigger warnings are necessary/important on novels further.

The title is powerful. Their silence is their strength. These women who are pawns, slaves and playthings in a war that saw them lose their brothers, sons, husbands and fathers. Barker flips the narrative, contrasting these steely women with passionate warriors that weep and throw their toys out of the pram at the drop of a hat.

Parker effectively uses italics to show the inner voice, from both sides. She manages to show so much nuance in the characters. Especially when Briseis is being struggled over by men on different sides of this tireless war.

The use of British vernacular did grate on me occasionally. But not enough to stop me from ploughing on. This book is definitely compelling. I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it, it was too violent for me to me to find enjoyment in it, but I couldn’t put it down. The writing is brilliant and all I expected from Barker.

I would whole-heartedly recommend it if you’ve been suckered into this sort of novel like I have. I assume that anyone picking up a novel based on Greek myths would expect a level of violence and would know what they’re getting themselves into. Why is it that reading about violence bothers me more at some times that others? Anyone else find this?

Kelly

Review-ish: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

‘I think it possible to put flesh on the bones of our terrors, most of all when we have turned our back on God.’

Cheers to Dai Brows for this recommendation. It’s definitely not something that I would have normally picked up as I shy away from period novels, but the recommendation was strong and Essex is the Mother and Fatherland so thought I’d give it a go. The cover is gorgeous actually, a William Morris design. I love it and it shows the reader that it’s much more than a piece of Victoriana.

It’s just a bit of a delight really. It has enough depth through the deeply complex and fascinating characters to make it truly gripping, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The narrative is so unusual, exploring Victorian thoughts on science, medicine, social housing, wrapped around a legendary serpent and this compelling and sometimes a bit frustrating (in a good way) central character.

Perry only hints at Cora’s past married life, which makes it all the more powerful. She creates a central character that is sometimes irritatingly niaive and at other times very self-aware. Cora herself recognises the contradiction of knowing that the marriage shaped her into the woman she is now.

Cora is a maverick and really challenges those around her’s perceptions of womanhood. I loved and loathed that everyone felt owed something by her; love, politeness, friendship, a typical family-life. This provides another layer of tension throughout the book and allows us to examine Victorian-life for women, through her experiences and the way that it contrasts to the other female characters.

Every character in the book, even the more minor ones, have the same level of detail, quirks and individuality. As I write this, I remember more and more of the characters; Naomi, Cracknell, Maureen Fry, Charles Ambrose and Thomas Taylor. A specific interaction between Cracknell and Cora’s son Francis stands out to me as peaceful, beautiful and faintly comical due to Francis’ matter-of-factness.

Perry uses foreshadowing in an impactful way without slapping you round the face with it. And her little updates or summaries at the start of many of the chapters were really poetically written and a simple and effective device.

This is a really great and pacey read. If you’re looking for something a bit different I highly recommend getting your teeth into it.

Whats everyone planning on reading over the Summer then?

Kelly