I swear I am spending the vast majority of my life at the moment wondering where 2017 is going. Instead of waffling on about that, though, let’s have a chat about the books that I read in June.
Brand New Ancients by Kate Tempest
I have become a very big Kate Tempest fan this year. Whilst I didn’t enjoy this as much as her poetry collection, Hold Your Own, it was still very good. Basically, Brand New Ancients is one long-form poem telling the story of two families. I love how Tempest weaves the story together with insightful observations on modern life – I feel like she just gets it, if that makes any sense. If you are new to Kate Tempest, though, I would start with Hold Your Own.
Buying a Fishing Rod for my Grandfather by Gao Xingjian
This was quite a different short story collection by China’s first winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. The translator’s note explains that Gao Xingjian’s fiction does not set out to tell a story but that the interest is supposed to come from the language itself. The stories felt like snapshots of moments in time rather than typical stories. It might have been helpful if the note had been at the beginning of the book so I could have known what to expect. In any case, I did enjoy the first few stories. They were very atmospheric and I think the “snapshot” style really worked. The last two, however, (there are only six stories in the collection) I was not a fan of at all. They were very stream-of-consciousness and, to be honest, confusing. I think this collection is worth a look for the first four stories but I would skip the last two.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
I cannot believe that it took me so long to get around to reading this book. I remember my mum telling me that I would love it years ago but, for some reason, I just never picked it up. I suppose the positive side of that is that I had the pleasure of reading it now. I Capture the Castle is a children’s classic about the Moortman’s, an eccentric family living in a tumbledown old castle. The narrator is seventeen year old Cassandra Moortman and she is writing about her family and their rather precarious financial circumstances. One day, the American owners of the castle arrive (two handsome American brothers) and Cassandra may find herself falling in love, although not quite in the way that she expects.
The characters in here were so brilliant. Every single one of them. I giggled my way through their eccentricities and Cassandra’s voice, in particular, was so witty. Cassandra also really grows emotionally throughout the novel, which was fantastically done. I would highly, highly recommend this.
When in French : Love in a Second Language by Lauren Collins
Hmmm… this was one of those books that sounded right up my ally and that I thought I was going to love but ended up disappointing. The subject matter really sounded like it was going to be my thing as the premise is that Lauren Collins is writing about moving to Geneva to be with her french-speaking partner and what it means to love someone in a second language. My first serious boyfriend was a native Portuguese speaker so I thought that I might relate to some of her experiences. Unfortunately, the book doesn’t really seem to know what it wants to be. The first chapter is basically just the author bitching about all the things she hates about Geneva. Then it flits between being her autobiography (most of which has nothing to with the subject matter of the book) and being an academic discussion on language (most of which felt like it had been copy-pasted out of a textbook). I did laugh at the odd anecdote, where the language barrier led to misunderstandings, but mostly I felt like the book didn’t really discuss what the blurb made me think it would and was a little all over the place.
If you are looking for a book about an inter-cultural relationship, Almost French by Sarah Turnbull is much more interesting.
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
I’m not sure why but I just didn’t get on with this one. The story follows Nadia and Saeed as they embark upon in a relationship in their war-torn country. Around the world, “doors” are beginning to open which allow people to move from one country to another. Soon, Nadia and Saeed find themselves as refugees, forced into a prematurely serious relationship.
I thought that the author made an interesting commentary, in places, on the refugee crisis and on the experience of refugees. Overall, though, I never really became emotionally invested in the characters (as much as I wanted too). I felt as though I was being held at a distance. The prose is very sparse and simplistic, which may have been the problem but I’m not 100% sure. I just wanted something more from it. Whilst I think the subject matter is hugely important, this particular book just didn’t really engage me. If anyone has any recommendations of another book on the subject then I would love to hear them.
Ship of Magic and The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb
Ship of Magic and The Mad Ship are the first two books in the epic fantasy Liveship Trader’s trilogy by Robin Hobb. After I have read the third and final book, I would like to do a separate review dedicated to the series as a whole. For now, I will just say that the first two books have been brilliant. The characters are excellent, the world is very well developed and, in spite of being almost 900 pages each, they are such easy reads. Not for a second did I feel like the books dragged. I would highly recommend these two and am hoping to pick up the last book in the series soon.
The Unseen World by Liz Moore
My heart was not ready for this book. The Unseen World is a sci-fi novel about thirteen year old Ada who is being raised by her father, David. David home schools her and takes her to the lab where he works everyday. Instead of having friends her own age, Ada is closest to her father and his colleagues and has become something of a prodigy. However, her father begins to display some worrying symptoms and Ada’s life is flipped upside down. She is forced to attend school for the first time, as well as confront her father’s mysterious past.
I thought that Ada was a fascinating character and that the author developed her remarkably well. And the way everything comes together at the end is absolutely beautiful. However, most of the book absolutely devastated me as Ada is forced to deal with her father’s failing health and come to terms with her new life. Not a good book to pick up if you aren’t in a great head-space. I happened to read it during a bad week and it just made me feel more depressed. I do recognize, though, that it is very well written and I did really love the ending. I would like to re-read it at some point, when I’m in a better mood, and see what I think then.
The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss
READ IT, READ IT, READ IT, READ IT.
The Tidal Zone has been such a hyped book, so highly praised by pretty much everyone. Yet it was still a surprise to me to find out how brilliant it is. Honestly, this is a modern masterpiece that I will be thrusting into everybody’s hands forthwith. The story is narrated by Adam, a stay at home dad who is working on a history of the rebuilding of Coventry Cathedral. One day, he receives a phone call saying that his daughter, Miriam, has collapsed and stopped breathing. Miriam is conscious again when he arrives at the school but the family must deal with the aftermath, not knowing what caused her attack and whether it will happen again.
This is just so brilliantly done. It is an exploration of how we go on when tragedy has struck, of how we survive in an uncertain world. The commentary on our modern day lives is superb and spot on. The characters are fantastic – I honestly loved all of them – and the writing is exquisite. Occasionally, I would come across a sentence that was just so perfect I had to marvel at the ability of human beings to create such things. I was worried that the slight stream-of-consciousness vibe that the book occasionally slips into wouldn’t work for me but it is very well handled, never confusing or self-indulgent.
If there is one book that I think everyone should read this year, if you haven’t already, it’s this one.
The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
Let me preface this review with the fact that I do love Michel Faber. The Book of Strange New Things was one of my favorite reads of last year and I gave his poetry collection, Undying, five stars when I read it in February. So, my disappointment levels are high that The Crimson Petal and the White didn’t really do it for me.
I know, I know, everyone seems to love this book. But it is just so darn long and so darn slow. By the time it was over I could only feel relief. That is not to say that it’s all bad – I did find myself getting into it occasionally and I thought that the main character, Sugar, was great – but whenever it started to grip me, it would lose me again. The book is about a prostitute in Victorian London called Sugar who attracts the attentions of wealthy perfume magnate, William Rackham, and follows her social climb through her relationship with him. Good premise, interesting era to explore, good main character. But Faber spends so much time on the boring or unlikable characters, such as William. And it is seriously just so long. 830 pages and not much happens until the last quarter. It did have its moments but, overall, not a winner for me.