BOOK REVIEWS

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

An eerie and elegantly written novel that thrums with increasing suspense. Waters’ masterfully renders past times and The Little Stranger shows that she can faithfully write non-Victorian settings. The novel’s vivid atmosphere lacks the passion which we can find in other stories by Waters.
This novel is rather slow paced: Dr. Faraday’s befriends the Ayreses who soon reveal themselves to be struggling. Their financial situation and poor reputation is not the only thing that bothers them. Something ‘sinister’ is occurring in the crumbling mansion they live in, something that seems set on haunting them. While I found Faraday’s narration compelling, I was never really taken by him or the other characters. They might be fully-fleshed out people but their vigourless conversations didn’t make them particularly fascinating.
It is the constant tension that makes the storyline so gripping. The ambiguous characters and strange occurrences are the best aspects of the novel. Waters’ writing is –as per usual– simply terrific. There is something refined about the way in which she writes, that complements the setting of her story.
Not her best but a solid read for fans of Gothic fiction.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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The Lessons by Naomi Alderman

The premise itself was enough to intrigue me. A close-knit group of friends attending Oxford? Yes please. Naomi Alderman’s style lends itself well for this: it has a ‘polish’ that evokes notions of privilege. However, the characters and plot do not convey the good qualities of Alderman’s style. Throughout, there is a sort of entitlement which feels hollow: Oxford is not the forefront of the story, and it is the annoying attitude of the characters which render this novel so self-important rather than the ‘exclusive’ setting. The Lessons lacks the compelling characters of The Secret History, the atmosphere of The Likeness, and the dramatics of If We Were Villains.

The focus of the novel isn’t as clear-cut as I expected. For such a short novel, I found my interest wavering time and again due to the lack of the story’s focus: Oxford seems forgotten soon after the first few intriguing chapters and Mark’s house also becomes seemingly forgotten. Alderman doesn’t spend enough time maintaining the background of this novel and the characters are not fleshed out enough as to detract from this. I would have been forgiving if I could at least have read about a decent character study, but there was no such thing. This ‘group of friends’ was composed of interchangeable characters who were so poorly developed that even the author is aware of it and tries to excuse her poor rendition of them by having the narrator say things like ‘so and so is still a mystery to me’ and ‘no one ever understood what she/he was about’. Really? That is a cheap trick. Her characters aren’t unknowable as they claim to be, but rather, they simply lack, in all fronts. They are shallows sketches who do not even appear that often in the novel. And I wouldn’t have minded as much if at least the two ‘main’ characters were fully developed. But they weren’t. Their relationship was…questionable. We saw no proof or progress, but we are made to believe that the protagonist falls under the influence of this very charismatic character who is anything but interesting. They all read like copies of the cast of *ahem* The Secret History *ahem*. What was the point of it all?
Lastly, the ‘Italian’ factor of this novel is complete nonsense. At least google real Italian names for Pete’s sake.

My rating: 1 star

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The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova

“Alexandra was trembling, because she had see the end and the beginning . And the sun had reached out and found her, stroked her, chosen her.”

An encompassing tale that is slowly unraveled through the meanderings of Alexandra – an American and newcomer to Bulgaria – and Bobby, her taxi driver. After a mishap in front of a hotel, Alexandra finds herself with an urn, holding human ashes. Distressed she attempts to return the urn to its owners, enlisting the help of her taxi driver as to make her way through Bulgaria in search of the owners.
I know that this is the type of novel that is difficult to read. For one, it takes its time. Secondly, it includes harrowing accounts of the forced labour camps in Bulgaria. It can – and will – overwhelm you. But, Kostova’s elegant writing style and her painfully humane characters, make this novel an experience worth undergoing.

The increasingly frequent switching of perspective works well because it is cleverly presented: enwinted in Alexandra’s story are the accounts of those she encounters during her journey. Characters narrate to her snippets concerning the family to which the urn belongs to. At times the novel includes what Alexandra herself reads. This ‘format’ also allows the main characters to ‘move’ around a lot: as they go from village to village they discover more and more about the owners of the urn.
Half-way through the novel there is a focus on past events, events which are difficult if not horrifying to read.

“I considered allowing my thoughts to return to that wonderful field, by the river, where my son sat, and then drew back. I wanted to save that, still–to look forward to it. I sent out a short prayer […] although I had not prayed since childhood and had no idea how to address it. It went out from me like a letter with no stamp.”

There is no escaping the brutality that occurs in these camps. My lack of knowledge –for I was ignorant of such camps existing after the end of WWII – left me incredulous. I did not want to believe that such things have happened, and so recently. Kostova’s depicts a painfully graphic image of these places. But by then, I was so involved, that I could not turn away. I had to –alongside Alexandra and Bobby – keep reading. I cared too much for the characters and I needed to know what would had happened and what was yet to come.
I adored Alexandra, Bobby and their furry companion. Their friendship underlines their travels and time and again we glimpse and feel their connection. It is a nuanced depiction of friendship that does not happen overnight. The people they meet are just as strikingly ‘real’: the ‘cast’ is largely composed of elderly characters and Kostova offers us a wide-ranging portrait of elderliness.
There is an almost wistful quality to this novel. There are moments where there is an otherworldly ‘feel’ to the storytelling which further enthralls the reader.
The rhythm created by the protagonists’ search – which slowly unfolds the mystery of the ‘urn’ – combines perfectly with Kostova’s beautiful writing. Her graceful style accentuates the nostalgic atmosphere of the story.

“ She knew the shapes of his head and the fine planes of his face, the way the thick hair would someday be cropped short, the long quiet body, the magnificent hands, the look of curiosity curbed into diffidence but not tamed–the directness of the eyes,”

A moving tale which will stay with you long after the last page.

“People seem to believe that despair is the same as anguish, but it is not. It’s true that despair is surrounded by anguish, but at its core, despair is a silent, blank page.”

My rating: 4.75 stars

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Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent

I won’t deny that –initially– there is an underlying tension that renders some portions of the story to be gripping. The first opening lines propel us into what promises – and fails – to be an intriguing mystery.
My main reservation about this novel is that it switches tones too often: there is an unbalanced – if not jarring – disparity between the seemingly ‘dark’ components and the unbelievably ridiculous moments.
I initially thought the narration and story reminded me of Joanne Harris’ Gentlemen and Players but it never really holds onto its strengths. That book perfectly balances humor and drama. Lying in Wait does not. The narrator who is almost gleefully telling us about their ‘bad’ intentions loses all its appeal. There are scenes and monologues that are just oddly grotesque: they do serve the purpose of unsettling the reader but they lose their desired effect by repulsing us and by making us question the believability of their situation/words. What should be funny is so ridiculously lampooned that it just becomes irksome.
The satirization of ‘class’ is completely overdone. Comments about ‘oh dear, the unemployed’ or ‘we do not mix with them dear’ were more annoying than witty.
The appealing premise leads to a ludicrous series of events which on the whole lead to a pointless finale. Then again, the story serves no real purpose and delivers no real message. The characters are all inept and their naivety is just downright irritating. I know that the story is set in the 80s, but I refuse to believe that people were so gormless.
What could have been a compelling mystery filled with dark humor ends being an exaggerated parody of the genre.

My rating: 1 star

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A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

“Come on, kids.”
I stood. “Where?”
“There’s a bar around the corner. Lemme buy you drink before the war.”

Despite having read two of the later instalments of Kenzie & Gennaro, I was still able to enjoy this first investigation of theirs. They are perhaps less weathered than their future selves but their line of enquiry is equally engrossing. Lehane’s distinctive wit characterise a lot of the narration, and Kenzie’s wisecracks pepper his story. The tone of his later novels are somewhat less jokey: experience might have diminished Kenzie’s – very entertaining – wise-ass commentary.

No one spoke for a few moments. I think we were all too impressed by the realization that we knew someone who used “conundrum” in casual conversation.

The story is rooted in Boston: Lehane’s vivid rendition of the city pulses with life. He swiftly illustrates neighborhoods through amusing and accurate observations. Here is a nugget of his sharp-witted descriptions:

If Donald Trump puked, Copley Place is probably what would hit the toilet.

Yes, the building has marbles fountains and golden statues.
Lehane also takes time for more serious and reflective contemplations. A lot of his commentary addresses the way in which certain neighbourhoods appear to one another and how these preconceptions inflamate hate.
Part of the focus of this novel is the strife between the opposing gangs, however, I think Lehane incorporates a lot more than that through his plotlines. There are the ‘powerful and untouchable’ politicians, the police, the ones who have to live in a ‘war-torn’ terrain. Lehane emphasizes how they all similarly try to drive a wedge between them and ‘the others’. Kenzie is not a flawless rendered judgment-free character. He too shows – to his own remorse – prejudiced behaviour.
Kenzie is one of the novel’s strengths. He is so incredibly engaging that it is hard for the readers to want to leave him.

“I go on the presumption that everyone’s full of shit until proven otherwise, and this usually serves me in good stead.”

The story propels us through Kenzie’s investigation which include more than a few ‘rough’ encounters. While the action drives forwards the plot, we also get a lot of interesting and unhurried scenes which helps to give us a fuller picture of the characters involved.
Characters are another of Lehane’s fortes. Besides the endearing protagonist, we have a series of believable and complex characters vividly depicted through Lehane’s skillful style.
For example, through a few remarks, he aptly evokes Bubba’s ‘essence’:

“If Bubba could have been born in another time, like say the Bronze Age, he would have been all set.”

While the mystery and the plot are not as complex and intricate as the following instalments, this first novel introduces us to Kenzie, Gennaro and Bubba, and on the whole, it allows us for a more depth reading of their characters.

“The world according to Bubba is simple – if it aggravates you, stop it. By whatever means necessary.”

My rating: 4.5 stars

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La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

Overall:
There is something aesthetically pleasing about Pullman’s daemons-populated world. There is a nostalgic yet magical vibe going-on that I really enjoy. The setting merges old-fashioned elements with more contemporary ones, and which makes for a wistful atmosphere. However, this was very much a companion novel, and, to my opinion, it could have easily been wrapped up in a much shorter novella.

Content:
I do appreciate certain aspects of this novel. I was compelled – and somewhat horrified – by the whole ‘badge-wearing’: I found it worryingly plausible and interesting. Children who are urged to tell on their own parents, friends and neighbours makes for a somewhat grim reality. But I loved that Pullman did that. I know some people will see it as an attack on the Church or something along those lines, but to me, it was simply a tell-tell signs of a rule of terror, something that has happened and still happens – I hope to lesser degrees.
I do think that Pullman needs to find a balance between serious and not. In one scene Malcolm confesses feeling somewhat guilty about the ‘spying’ he does, thinking he isn’t much better than his badge-wearing peers. Dr. Relf’s reassurance that he is doing ‘good’ is incredibly simple and deeply unsatisfying:

“The difference is that I think the people I work for are good. I believe in what they do. I think they’re on the right side.”

Really? You are telling a young boy to keep helping you because you believe that you are on ‘the good side’? Isn’t that what the CCD are saying? They don’t go around shouting ‘We are the baddies, wear these badges tell on your parents, ’cause we are the bad guys!’. That is such a cheap-trick. Then, Pullman includes a rather mature attack on one of his characters…So why include that and not a more nuanced and complex rendition of ‘good and bad’? With the exception of the ‘badge-wearers’ sections, there are many instances where I think things are far too black/white.
And the story itself moves so slowly. There is a lot of foreshadowing about future events, and for that reason, I think it could have worked better as a short story. Cameos stress the impression that this is just less eventful addition to Pullman’s trilogy. And Malcolm is just not that interesting to keep you engaged throughout his ‘adventures’ which in the end are just an ‘anticipation’ of Lyra’s ones. In addition, despite that we are told the contrary, the boy wasn’t all that smart or sharp. I didn’t care for his craftsman hobby and I do think that the story would have worked without Alice.
Many of the characters were rather flat and, I’m afraid to say, yet again, simple. And that the one bad guy – who sadly features in the whole novel – has a hyena daemon…yes, we get it, he is bad.
It was all very much one-dimensional: the plot, the characters….the writing too. Lots of uninteresting dialogues set in a rather prosaic manner. Hopefully, the following instalment, which follows a mature Lyra will be more well developed.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende

A novel that is both challenging and hear-rendering, and Allende showcases her skills for creating vivid characters and riveting storylines. This translation carries through a rhythm that is resonant with the one of writers such as Alice Hoffman.
But before I delve into a review…who thought that cover was a good idea?
I can’t believe that someone who had actually read this novel would decide to put this corny cover and add that cheesy inscription (‘every friendship leaves a trace’). No. Just no. This is badly marketed. You miss out on a readership that would actually enjoy and appreciate this novel while making readers who will end up giving it poor reviews because it isn’t what it advertises. This isn’t a light, fluffy, romcom. Allende talks about rape, torture, violent deaths, drugs, and many more topics that do not fall under the type of genre which that cover suggests.
Couldn’t you have used an image that at least evoked the ‘winter’ ?
No?Alright…you have the power Scribner. Rant over.

Allende handles challenging topics in a way that renders the reading process far from painful: balancing small everyday trifles with the most toxic aspects of our society. And she does it so well. She is a swift storyteller: the language and phrasing make each page incredibly compelling (kudos to the translator). The atmosphere created by Allende is enriched by graceful descriptions and wistful observations. She handles horrific situations in a upfront and honest way, she does not shy from portraying the ugliness of the world, and yet, the story doesn’t suffer from it. Far from it. The seriousness is contrasted by the incredibly sympathetic and ‘real’ main characters. I was engrossed by their pasts and by their present. The nostalgic tone of the novel is heightened by the characters contemplations. Allende’s expressive prose make this novel a true pleasure to read, despite that it explicitly depicts difficult – if not downright horrible – scenes. There is an element of humor that contrasts the character’s painful experiences. I recommend this to fans of Ann Patchett and or Anne Tyler.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

There is something incredibly endearing about this novel. From the very first line, Dickens draws us in, making us Pip’s confidantes, so that we eagerly follow him on his journey.

The first section of this novel, revolves around Pip’s childhood, and Dickens manages to reflect the young age of his protagonist onto the narrative itself: there is a youthful element despite that Pip is telling us of these events retrospectively, and while he sometimes foreshadows things to come, the element of surprise and discovery is not lost. I particularly enjoyed this first part: the Gargery household is a vivid and somewhat nostalgic portrayal of Pip’s childhood home, however imperfect it may be.

“In the little world in which children have their existence whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice. It may be only small injustice that the child can be exposed to; but the child is small, and its world is small”

The neighbours and routines add a layer of authenticity to the setting and to the story: the relationships between the various characters were always engaging. Miss Havisham…well, Dickens sure knows how to create a compelling yet eerie character. The feelings she evokes in the reader are further emphasised by her household. There is an almost surreal, magical, element to her.
Pip’s growth of character is…not exactly for the best. But, we do see glimpses of his regret, and we are made to empathise with his situation. His newly found ambition, made possible due to his sudden ‘great expectations’ will cause both us and him sorrow. I was particularly saddened by his rebuttal of Joe.

“As I had grown accustomed to my expectations, I had insensibly begun to notice their effect upon myself and those around me. Their influence on my own character I disguised from my recognition as much as possible, but I knew very well that it was not all good. I lived in a state of chronic uneasiness respecting my behavior to Joe. My conscience was not by any means comfortable about Biddy.”

But it isn’t all gloom and doom. Pip does inspire sympathetic feelings, especially through his new friendships such as the ones he has with Herbert and Wemmick. I was pleasantly surprised by Magwitch’s storyline, and I was all too glad to see Pip’s opinion of him change.

I was supportive of Pip’s love for Estella, despite the latter being a cold and unlikable character. Dickens, however, skillfully manages to make such a distant and detached character admirable:

“What?” said Estella, preserving her attitude of indifference as she leaned against the great chimney-piece and only moving her eyes; “do you reproach me for being cold? You?”
“Are you not?” was the fierce retort.
“You should know,” said Estella. “I am what you have made me. Take all the praise, take all the blame; take all the success, take all the failure; in short, take me.”

He makes his own characters aware of their reputations and behavior. And Pip too realizes Estella’s difficult personality. He evades falling into the ‘love struck fool’ trope because he is not oblivious to the fact that his feelings for Estella are quite irrational:

“Estella was the inspiration of it, and the heart of it, of course. But, though she had taken such strong possession of me, though my fancy and my hope were so set upon her, though her influence on my boyish life and character had been all-powerful, I did not, even that romantic morning, invest her with any attributes save those she possessed. […] The unqualified truth is, that when I loved Estella with the love of a man, I loved her simply because I found her irresistible. Once for all; I knew to my sorrow, often and often, if not always, that I loved her against reason, against promise, against peace, against hope, against happiness, against all discouragement that could be. Once for all; I loved her none the less because I knew it, and it had no more influence in restraining me than if I had devoutly believed her to be human perfection.”

It is easy to relate and identify with Pip partly due his intrinsically likeable nature: no matter what he does or do, he never causes hatred or contempt. We are made to ‘feel’ for him even in those situations where he himself is to blame. He is at the very chore of this novel: there is an immediate connection made to him due to very nature of his character. Sensitive, somewhat naive, not always thoughtful, but possessing a soulful mind, he is a fully fleshed individual.
The plot, later on, is not quite as engrossing as it initially was, but, overall, it was a compelling tale of friendship and moral values. Touches of humor lighten the topics touched plus, Dickens knew how to phrase things. I appreciated and rooted for the novel’s nuanced protagonist and the memorable cast of characters supporting his tale.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

“She had lost so much that she had lost herself as well. She had a secret that she carried with her, and it hurt, as if she store a stone beside her heart. It was her hatred of herself that was her burden, and it grew each day. At first it was tiny, a mere pebble, then it was as big as her heart, and then it was the largest thing inside her. She had decided it wasn’t the curse that was at fault. It was her.”

A truly delightful and ‘magical’ read. The wistful narration sweeps you off your feet from the very start. The rhythm carried by Hoffman’s style resonates with the her ‘other-worldly’ setting, one that is ‘ruled’ by words such as fate and curses. Hoffman swiftly incorporates magical elements into a New York of the 60s.
The pivotal relationship between the Owens siblings is rendered beautifully: the scenes between them are convincing and heart-warming. And while they do tend to disagree and squabble, there is an underlying love that is just palpable. Franny, the self-named Maid of Thorns, deliberately attempts to resists her feelings for her best friend, Jet, the kind hearted middle child, suffers at a young age the cruelty of the curse, while Vincent is a free agent, one whose powerful gifts render him hard to miss. Plenty of eccentricities mark these characters, distinguishing them from each other: their individual gifts become part of the characters themselves.
The story, which I would actually describe as more of a ‘tale’, follows their respectives journeys into a future in which they will be able to love freely and without consequences.
Sweet and alluring, The Rules of Magic is a must read for established fan of Alice Hoffman or any fan of a nostalgic type of magical realism, such as the one to be found in Chocolat, The Witches of New York, The Wild Girl and State of Wonder. Truly enchanting!

Love more, her aunt had said. Not less.”

My rating: 4.75 of 5 stars

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

To say that I was expecting more would be an understatement.
Perhaps, the kinship I initially felt with this novel was caused by my sharing the first name of its title character. I wanted a story that delivered an array of conflicting feelings in its portrayal of illicit liaisons. Sadly, Anna Karenina only delivered a great headache.
I will not blame the translation, for I approached various ones, and they all seem to faithfully convey Tolstoy’s deliberately repetitive style, or as Vladimir Nabokov would say, they capture the ‘robust awkwardness’ that pervades Tolstoy’s writing. The style itself was not one of biggest issues: yes, I did find it to be self-congratulatory, but, at times, it carried across a pleasing rhythm that lightened the overall tone of the novel. In later sections, the narrative mode is reminiscent of Joyce’s ‘stream of consciousness‘. Tolstoy seems to be trying different styles, using various techniques, to complete this labyrinthine novel. He is much too aware of his own skills, and I felt his dictatorial attempts throughout the novel. The realism imparted by the story is sabotaged by many inane coincidences and Tolstoy’s own moral agenda.

Levin becomes Tolstoy’s mouthpiece: the writer’s own views and beliefs are performed by this character. This in itself was not enough to make him unlikable, however, the important issues Levin raises and the interesting self-questioning loose their importance in light of the superficiality of his love: his passion for Kitty is preposterous. Despite the length of the novel, Tolstoy does not waste any words in regards of an actual reason for Levin to have fallen for Kitty – and vice-versa – making us assume that it was nothing more than an irrational and instantaneous attraction. The ludicrous ‘chalk’ scene had me laughing out loud: their sudden ‘telepathic’ conversation is much more unbelievable than the telepathic ‘bond’ between Jane and Mr. Rochester. Also, why should we root for someone whose ‘strong moral compass’ is underlined by hypocrisy? His admiration for the country life loses any credibility after he dismisses his own fantasy of marrying a ‘peasant woman’.
Anna…oh Anna. I had such high hopes for her. I sought out a nuanced complex character conflicted by her desires and her duties. What I got was a predictably self-absorbed and hysterical ‘fallen woman’ whose own obtuse behaviour is downright senseless: I kept asking, why, why was she acting in the way that she did, but I never got any answers. We are shown her irrational and ’emotional’ behaviour but we are not given a true insight of what goes on in her mind…(having finished the novel I would say that nothing is going on in there). Her affair with Vronsky is as unconvincing as the relationship between Levin and Kitty. He is barely more controlled than a dog in heat is, so he pursues Anna and she simply…likes it?

More importantly, is that Anna does not offer any redeeming qualities. She manipulates and uses those around her especially through her body language. Take for example how she shamelessly influences poor Dolly into forgiving Stiva: she gives her reassuring hand squeezes and pretends to identify with her difficult situation. Anna is all too aware of her own magnetism which Tolstoy attributes onto her looks rather than her personality. Her (view spoiler) should be viewed as redemptive but to me it simply professed the author’s zealousness: (view spoiler)
Anna’s brother, who predominately features in the opening chapter, is so irredeemably selfish it is almost entertaining: he does not feel guilty over his own affair but he is remorseful of not having predicted his wife’s reaction. His wife, Dolly, is forgettable and easily manipulated. Her sister, Kitty, lacks is a poorly rendered character.
Discussions about gender heavily feature in this novel but most of the time, this topic is considered by men and even when there are female characters present they either remain silent or only offer acquiescent comments. Levin’s rebuttal of a ‘capitalism’ suffers under Tolstoy’s stressing of the subject.
The story is filled by numerous dull passages that serve little purpose, characters who should be unique or at least, realistically flawed individuals, end being little more than caricatures, and, finally, the novel’s own sense of importance is countered by the laughable coincidences and aimless discussions, making Anna Karenina a drudge to read. Tolstoy…dear Tolstoy…your ideologies should not have featured so strongly in your own book: subtlety is key.
The only part I enjoyed was the first few chapters: there Tolstoy’s style is endearing rather than annoying and the characters haven’t shown their poor characterisation.
The improbable coincidences that occur in the story were not the sole cause of my animosity towards this novel: I love far-fetched and unlikely storylines – often prominent in sensational fiction – but I cannot abide presumptuousness. Tolstoy – time and again – pushes the reader into sharing his own views, and I was not willing to do that. How could I take his intentions seriously when he employs the most ludicrous course of action to deliver his ‘message’?

Side note: Tolstoy compares women to food and creates parallels between his female characters and animals…top marks…really.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

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