BOOK REVIEWS

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

In spite of its lively premise and its lovely cover art Sea Monsters is one of the most lacklustre books I’ve read this year. Thankfully, Sea Monsters is a slight novel, just around 200 pages. Then again, those 200 pages are a drag.

The summary for this novel is somewhat misleading as it promises the kind of surreal story that one could expect from authors such as Kevin Wilson or Samanta Schweblin. Sadly, Chloe Aridjis novel is far from being an inventive or subversive coming-of-age tale of a runaway girl. This work is tedious, uninspired…it lacks a spark. The traveling troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs mentioned in its summary are a mere red herring. They capture the readers’ attention but it turns out that their presence in the story is just a gimmick. Our narrator decides to run away with a tall lanky dark-haired boy who isn’t like other boys. She says she wants to find this troupe of Ukrainian dwarfs who seem to have ‘escaped’ from the circus they were employed by. The narrative consists in our protagonist having not so deep thoughts about life. Her tiresome and affected navel-gazing dominates her narrative. She relates her experiences or the conversations she with others in a way that adds little to no immediacy to her story (because of this the book earns the criticism of ‘too much telling, not enough showing’). Our main character mopes about nothing in particular. She seems vaguely intrigued by a guy she nicknames ‘the merman’ but this storyline lacks the zing of Schweblin’s ‘The Merman’ short story (here the guy is not an actual mermaid).
The 1980s setting seems to take precedence over character or story developed. While I appreciate the references to the genres, bands, and artists of the time (I mean, even Klaus Nomi gets a mention) they did not make up for the novel’s many shortcomings.

This book is just ‘meh’, lukewarm. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t like it, it didn’t really inspire any strong feelings in me. It was occasionally mildly frustrating but other than that…I just did not care for it.
Nevertheless, as with any of my less-than-enthusiastic reviews, I encourage you check out some of the more positive reviews.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

“What we had that day was our story. We didn’t have the other bit, the future, and we had no way of knowing what that would be like. Perhaps it would change our memory of al of this, or perhaps it would draw from it, nobody knew. But I’m sure I felt the story of that hall and how we reached it would never vanish.”

Mayflies is novel about the friendship between two Glaswegian men. The first half of the novel is set in the summer of 1986 when our narrator, James, alongside four of his friends go to Manchester to watch some of their favourite bands. Andrew O’Hagan really brings this era to life, through their slang and the references they use. During the course of this freewheeling weekend they have the time of their lives, going to pubs and clubs, getting up to shenanigans, hanging out withs strangers, all the while animatedly discussing music and politics (Thatcher, the miners’ strike). James, who is the more bookish and reserved of the lot, is particularly close to Tully, who is the undeniable glue that binds their group together and a wonderful friend. While this first half of the novel is all about what if feels to be young, reckless, free, and full of life, O’Hagan’s characters, regardless of their age, are capable serious reflections, such as wondering what sort future awaits them and their country.
This section is so steeped in 1980s culture that I sometimes had a hard time keeping up with their banter (I am not from the UK and I’m a 90s child so I’m sure that readers who are more familiar with this era won’t have such a hard time).

“The past was not only a foreign country, it was a whole other geology.”

The second half brings us forward to 2017 when both James and Tully are in their early 50s. Here the narrative feels far more restrained, reflecting James’ age. He has different preoccupations now, a career, a partner. Yet, he is recognisably still James. Tully too is both changed and unchanged. In spite of the distance between them (James lives in London now) the two have remained close friends. This latter section moves at a far slower pace, which should have been jarring but it wasn’t. If anything it felt very natural. Here we have more measured meditations about life and death, questions about what we owe to the ones we love, and reconciliations with the past.
O’Hagan succeeds in uniting two very different moments/stages of a man’s life. An exhilarating snapshot of being young in the 80s is followed by a slower-paced and more thoughtful narrative centred around people who haven’t been young for quite some time. I have read very few—if any—novels that focus on male friendship. So often we see portrayals that show how intimate and deep female friendships are, which is wonderful but it’s refreshing to read a novel that is very much an ode to the friendship between two men. O’Hagan’s portrayal of the relationship between Tully and James was incredibly moving and nuanced.

“Loyalty came easily to Tully. Love was the politics that kept him going.”

Although I may have missed quite a few cultural references and I definitely didn’t get a lot of the Glaswegian/80s, thanks to the musical education I received from my parents I mostly managed to keep up with this novel’s music front. I really appreciated James’ literary references, which later in life make their way into his conversations with Tully. I also liked the way James would observe the character traits of those around—both as a young man and later in life—as well as his pondering about childhood, adulthood, generational differences, life in general. His thoughtful narration was truly compelling.
Mayflies is an affecting and realistic novel that presents its readers with a vibrant examination of friendship and identity, one that I would thoroughly recommend to others.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Night Music by Jenn Marie Thorne — book review

30189974.jpgA delightful and thoughtful summer romance meets the classical music world in Jenn Marie Thorne’s criminally underrated Night Music.
Ruby, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the renowned composer Martin Chertok, has always felt the pressure of her name. However, unlike her older siblings, who have all embarked on successful musical careers, Ruby messes up her audition for Amberley School of Music. Having dedicated the last ten years of her life to her piano, Ruby struggles to envision a future outside of the music world. Her mother, a famous piano player, is far more concerned with her tours than Ruby. Her father, who is on Amberley’s faculty, is also far too devoted to his work. Ruby decides to figure out who she is and what she wants to do over the course of the summer…and then she walks in on her father’s new protégé playing her piano. After a viral YouTube video Oscar gained the attention of Martin and Amberley.
While Ruby certainly feels somewhat envious of Oscar’s musical genius, she soon developed feelings for him, and their bond is solidified by their love for music.
Oscar, who is black, knows all too well that his relationship with Ruby might jeopardise this one in a lifetime opportunity. Regardless, the two find themselves falling for each other.
Their relationship struck me as refreshingly ‘grown-up’. There is no ‘will they, won’t they’. Ruby is immediately drawn to Oscar, and their close-living quarters allows them to spend a lot of time together.
In many ways Night Music is a coming of age. Both Ruby and Oscar struggles against social and familial pressures: Ruby’s name may be ‘prestigious’ but it is very much a burden, while Oscar has to reconcile his love for classical music with its institutional racial bias.
I simply love the realistic way in which Thorne interrogates themes of privilege and failure. Being branded a genius or a prodigy is not all its cracked up to be.

One of my favourite shows is Mozart in the Jungle and Night Music provides us with a similar take on the classical music world. Thorne’s setting (New York) too is also wonderfully rendered.
The romance between Ruby and Oscar is incredibly sweet. Ruby’s relationship with her parents was complicated and believable. More than anything I appreciated Ruby’s self-growth, her self-awareness, and her willingness to recognise and call her self out for her own privileged background or for the presumptions she makes about others.
I’ve read this twice and I look forward to reading it a third time.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.25 stars

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BOOK REVIEWS

Perfect Sound Whatever by James Acaster — book review

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A compilation of wonderfully funny and awkward anecdotes.

Perfect Sound Whatever will definitely appeal to readers who are already acquainted with James Acaster. As I consider him to be one of my favourite comedians I was looking forward to this new book by him. Acaster manages to translate his ‘on screen/on stage’ humour to both the print and the audiobook format of Perfect Sound Whatever. What comes through is also his passion for the project that is at the heart of Perfect Sound Whatever: to convince his audience that 2016 Was The Best Year For Music.
He recounts of how the music from this particular year helped him rediscover his love for music and come through a particularly miserable year (aka 2017) in which his girlfriend broke up with him, he was dropped by his agent left him, and had to stop seeing his incredibly unprofessional therapist.

His deep dive into pop, rock, indie, metal, electronic, and some very obscure music of 2016 clearly provided him with both purpose and relief.
Throughout his endlessly amusing narrative he intersperses some of his favourite 2016 tracks, providing readers with some information about the artists’ life, career, and music style. His critique of these songs were surprisingly in-depth as he is able to discern exactly what elements of a track speaks to him and why. Acaster also manages to fit the right artist and track to a particular moment of his ‘not-so-good’ year. These songs clearly spoke to him and it was lovely to see the way in which music helped him feel more in control of his life.
I recommend listening to the audiobook format as Acaster’s performance enhances his already entertaining book.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up)

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BOOK REVIEWS

Between a Wolf and a Dog : Book Review

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Between a Wolf and a Dog
by Georgia Blain
★★★✰✰ 3 stars

This novel had a really strong start: Blain’s style was compelling and brought her story to life.
However, as the narrative progresses, I started to notice that the language and descriptions could be very repetitive and, at times, even overdone.
Although there are flashbacks and chapters set in the past, the majority of the story chronicles one single day. The focus is on Ester, a family therapist, her mother Hilary, who is a filmmaker, her estranged sister April, who is a singer, and Ester’s ex-husband Lawrence. The characters are portrayed with exquisite detail and within the space of a few pages their personalities are richly rendered. They all going through long moments of introspection, where they examine their present, past, and possible futures. The rift between Ester and April is one of the central aspects of the novel.
Failed ambitions, forgiveness, and loneliness are a common thread between these characters. They might not be extremely likeable but they seemed, for the most part, incredibly human.
I enjoyed the role that art has in this novel. At times the narrative pokes fun at the pretentiousness that exists in the ‘art world’, while in other occasions it embraced the creative process.
Sadly, halfway through I found that both the writing and the characters to be slightly more dramatic then what was necessary. All the women are ‘golden’ and ‘beautiful’, with ‘golden hair’ and ‘golden skin’, they are ethereal beauties….Lawrence is also incredibly handsome. It wouldn’t have bothered me if this had not been repeated throughout the course of the novel.
Also, there were many times where the writing seemed excessive. We have at least three instances were someone wants to ‘drink’ someone in (they specify ‘teeth’ and all). Everything was magnified to intensify certain feelings.
An absorbing start leads into a self-indulgent litany.

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BOOK REVIEWS

Wylding Hall : Book Review

Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
★★★✰✰ 3.5 stars

I’ve read two other books by Elizabeth Hand, one of which I consider an all time favourite.
Wylding Hall begins strongly enough. The narration uses a limiting form of structure and consists in a series of interviews with the former members of a British an acid-folk band.
In the 70s the band stayed at Wylding Hall in order to work on their second album but things don’t go quite as planned. During their interviews each character gives their own account of those weeks at Wylding Hall. Some of them are still convinced that whatever happened there was caused by unknown supernatural forces. Some are not so sure.
The fact that they are looking back to their time in Wylding Hall gives their accounts a nostalgic tone. They seem to regret not having prevented one of their own from falling ‘prey’ to whatever roamed Wylding Hall. Some simply yearn for the music they were able to create while staying at the hall or for their carefree living styles.
I was absorbed by the story but there seems to be no real conclusion…there is this mounting uneasy which culminates in nothing.
Great until its disappointing ending.

For fans of We Sold Our Souls.

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BOOK REVIEWS

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

A moving tale in which language is key. Patchett’s lyrical prose vividly renders a – somehow – surreal situation by focusing on the mundane: we see terrorists and hostages take part in ordinary everyday things (such as cooking, listening to music, playing chess…). A whimsical and absorbing story where characters albeit being limited by ‘language’ found other means through which they can understand one another. Patchett confines a diverse cast of characters in a restricted space thus creating all sorts of interesting relationships. The tone of the novel is somewhat light: plenty of subtle humour is found in the most tense moments.
An atmospheric and moving novel that beautifully conveys a complex – and very dangerous – situation.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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