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Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon — book review

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Lady Audley’s Secret is a pretty entertaining sensation novel. The story is centred around Lady Audley who, surprise surprise, has a secret. Like most other sensation novels, Lady Audley’s Secret combines melodrama with an investigation of sorts. Robert Audley, the nephew of Sir Michael, is suspicious of his uncle’s new wife, the beautiful and young Lady Audley who, by all accounts, seems to be the embodiment of femininity. After the sudden disappearance of his best friend, Robert begins to suspect that Lady Audley’s ‘delicate flower’ front is an act. Throughout the course of the novel he attempts to find evidence to reveal Lady Audley’s true nature and identity.
There were many amusing passages and the character themselves often struck me as parodies of sorts. Sadly, after Robert realises who Lady Audley is my interest waned. What follows is a series of anticlimactic confrontations. Moreover, Lady Audley was not the ‘villainess’ I was hoping for. While the way in which she uses her femininity to manipulate others is certainly subversive, ultimately she seems to give up quite easily. Robert’s ‘hunt’ for the truth was far more satisfying that the actual confrontation.
Also, I think that the story would have benefited from some more ‘vitality’ (through humour for example). Maybe readers who haven’t read novels by Wilkie Collins will be able to find Lady Audley’s Secret to be more absorbing than I did.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel — book review

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To simply define Wolf Hall as being a historical narrative seems unfair. The word ‘historical’ conjures a sense of events that happened a long time ago. Wolf Hall, unlike most historical fiction, struck me for the immediacy and urgency of its narrative. While the events Hilary Mantel writes have occurred nearly half a millennium ago, the world she writes of feels far from stale or antiquated. Readers are made to feel as if Mantel had just plucked us from the 21st century and transported us into the political and religious unrest of the Tudor era.

Mantel breathes new life into the drama that unfounded so many centuries ago.
The novel’s present-tense narrative undoubtedly contributed in making me feel as if the events Mantel was writing of were happening right now. The narrative is not an omniscient one, there is no foreshadowing of what is to come. Throughout the course of this novel we are made to feel alongside Thomas Cromwell and his contemporaries that their future is not yet fixed.

The title of this novel conveys the dangerous atmosphere of Henry’s court. Suspicions run high, everyone seems intent on outwitting and outmanoeuvring his or her opponents, there is a great deal of plotting, quite a few betrayals, and a perpetual sense of unease hangs in the air. We read of a divided nation, a divided court, and of the self-division that occurs within every single character. As the characters wage overt and indirect wars for power and position, readers are presented with a panorama of human vices and follies.

Yet, while the world Mantel writes of is certainly a treacherous one, Wolf Hall contains so much beauty. I was moved by the glimpses of genuine love and vulnerability between certain characters. Thomas Cromwell in particular seems to possess plenty of admirable qualities. It is through his eyes that we often see his surroundings and he always seems to pay attention to all the beautiful textures that enrich his world. From the fabrics of people’s clothings to their appearances and expression. His perceptive eye seems often to pick up on other’s true intents and desires. In spite of the tension between the different ‘players’, there are also surprising moments of empathy and understanding.

It is incredibly just how engaging Mantel’s dialogues were. While I sometimes struggled to keep up with what was being said, or left unsaid, I still found myself captivated by the nuances of the characters’ language. While some are observe rules of civility, others let their passion or greed shape what the say. Each sparring of words is fraught with tension. There are so many clever uses of the English language, so many elegantly veiled threats and well-crafted sentiments. Regardless of their role or position, not one character seems to utter a word in vein.

What perhaps took me time to adjust to was the ‘he’ pronoun. The third point of view narrative does not refer to Thomas Cromwell by his name but by ‘he’. When this happened when Cromwell was speaking to other male characters I found it difficult to follow. My non-British education also proved to be a hindrance (it took me quite some time to figure out who was who).

This is a dense novel that demands its readers full attention. There is much to be admired in Wolf Hall. Mantel’s research, her grasp of the English language, her nuanced, and frequently immoral, characters…yet, reading her novel proved to be a laborious experience. There was so much that went over my head, and while I can see that this is due to my lack of knowledge, I also think that some of her stylistic choices (such as the constant use of ‘he’) lessened my enjoyment of her narrative.

Wolf Hall is a well written and exquisitely intelligent novel in which Mantel presents us with a beautifully intricate tapestry of shifting allegiances.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert — book review

43884209.jpgI feel cheated by the cutesy illustration on the cover of Get a Life, Chloe Brown.
Having recently finished a romcom novel with a similar cover (If I Never Met You by Mhairi McFarlane) I was under the misguided impression that Talia Hibbert’s book belonged to the same genre.
While Get a Life, Chloe Brown certainly starts out like any other romcom, with the promise of a delightful enemies-to-lovers romance, after the first fifty pages or so I realised that this book was going to be a lot more explicit than I’d anticipated …still, I wasn’t prepared for the sex in this book to be quite so
cringeworthy
.

The Good Stuff

After escaping unscathed what could have been fatal accident Chloe Brown, a thirty-something-year-old whose fibromyalgia has led her to live a fairly controlled and risk-free life, decides to ‘get a life’. She makes a list (with things such as ride a motorbike, go camping, have carefree sex) and finally moves out of her family’s house.
The first few chapters of Get a Life, Chloe Brown were thoroughly entertaining.
While we know that Chloe has a lot to contend with, her upfront and amusing inner monologues, and her awkward exchanges with others were diverting and uplifting.
Chloe’s reserved demeanour and cutting humour cause the superintendent/handyman of her building to form a not so great opinion of her and sees her as a haughty snob. Chloe herself dislikes Redford ‘Red’ Morgan because of his laid-back attitude and for the easy way in which he can charm others (including her younger sisters).
After Red rescues Chloe from a tree (in what was her attempt to rescue a cat) the two strike up a deal: Red will help Chloe with her list and in exchange she will build a website for Red’s art. At this stage of the book I found their dynamic amusing and I sympathised with both of them.
I was particularly looking forward to reading about Chloe’s story arc as I also suffer from chronic pain. Talia Hibbert articulates the in congruencies that come with chronic illness: Chloe’s craves independence and freedom, she does not want to be see in the light of her condition…yet she simultaneously wishes that others could understand that the everyday activities, actions and movements they might take for granted are impossible or cause incredible pain to her. I loved it when she tells Red that she isn’t hurt, she is hurting. Her condition is a constant. Yet, she doesn’t let fibromyalgia dictate everything that she is or does. Chloe has so much else going for her: her job as a website designer, her sense of style, and her humour.

The Not So Good Stuff
As I said, the relationship between Red and Chloe started well enough as it promised to be more of a slow-burn. Boy, was I wrong. After the first 50 pages Red is already masturbating and fantasising about Chloe (this after 1 sort of amicable/very banter-y interaction). Soon, the novel completely focused on Red and Chloe and their shared physical attraction.
What about Chloe’s sisters? Her parents? Her grandmother? They seem forgotten. The sisters have a cameo or two but that’s about it. I wanted to see more family interactions…especially since we are told that Chloe spent the last ten years of her life interacting and socialising with her family and has 0 friends. Surely she would have thought about them more?
Red…I wanted to like him…but I just couldn’t look past his creepy behaviour. He barely knows Chloe when he makes a pass on her. She was vulnerable, and he seemed to take advantage of that. He also had this weird ‘I’m a nice guy’ act which had him behaving like a woman’s idea of the ideal man (sensitive, funny, attentive, artistic, and most of all: HUNKY). Because we will be reminded time and again that Red is BIG, he is HUGE. Red is basically a tall and ripped walking breathing Greek statue.
Most of the book is about Red and Chloe fantasising about one another and having sexual encounters. There is some predictable miscommunication towards the end and that’s about it.
I don’t mind the odd sex scene or so but when the narrative is nearly entirely focused on the physical attraction between the two leads well, I begin to loose interest.
Hibbert’s portrayal of class is simplistic and superficial. Part of me was annoyed by the fact that Chloe never acknowledges her privileged background. Having fibromyalgia does not negate one’s wealth/education.
More than anything, I was disconcerted by the incongruent tone of this novel: on the one hand we have this very cutesy story in which both leads seem to act in a very childlike manner (with Red thinking and saying to Chloe things such as “you are too cute”, nicknaming her “Button”, and their silly email exchanges) on the other we have scenes upon scenes of cringe-worthy sex scenes that seemed closer to bad porn (is there such a thing as good porn? I doubt that) that a romance novel.

The Not Good At All Stuff (heads up: EXPLICIT LANGUAGE BELOW)
The scenes leading to their sexual encounters try to come across as hard-core, filled with dirty, and frankly crude, talk: the actual sex scenes however are anything but sexy or ‘steamy’ and I had a hard time keeping a straight face as they made me laugh my head off. They manage to be a weird combination of tawdry and hilarious.
These are some of unintentionally funny descriptions of Chloe and Red’s sex scenes:
➜ “her hot pussy fluttering around him” (fluttering?)
➜ “He gritted his teeth as his orgasm came barreling at him like a freight train” (I am dying with laughter. Like a freight train? Chloe better watch out!)
➜ “She melted, and he licked up her wetness like nectar.” (Chloe sure does melt a lot)
➜ “Her orgasm was so powerful she thought she might black out.” (their orgasms sure are powerful, better watch out for a concussion)

There were however also a lot of antiquated, and out of character, moments in which Red orders around Chloe (up to that point Red has been depicted as the embodiment of kindness, and whose inherently serene disposition make everyone around him, himself included, refer to him as a ‘nice guy’; whereas Chloe strives for independence and has a strong sense of integrity and justice).
Maybe if their ‘dirty talks’ had been more in line with their established personalities and dynamic (with Red reffering to Chloe as Button and Chloe calling Red Mr.Morgan ) I wouldn’t have found it so trashy. But here we have two supposedly ‘modern/different’ individuals who during their sexual encounters take up antiquated, outdated, and inherently misogynistic roles in which the man commands the woman:
➜“Who was she? Apparently, the kind of woman who thrilled at coarse orders like that, and broke a little bit when they were followed with hoarse manners.”
➜“I want to hold you open like this when you take my cock.”

And the worst thing is that this kind of talk starts when their friendship is still uncertain. Red, our supposedly tranquil and empathic guy, tells Chloe that “I want to put my hand under your skirt and feel how hot your pretty cunt is. But I bet you wouldn’t let me do that in public” when they still don’t know each other very well when they are out on a Chloe’s first night out.
There is also a scene following their first amicable encounter where we get a fully detailed depiction of Red masturbating while he fantasises about Chloe, a woman who until the previous morning he had disliked and whom he barely knows.

As much as I wanted to love this novel, I found the characters’ sex scenes to be vulgar and obsolete. One may have certain fetishes, whatever floats your boat, but why do so many ‘romance novels’s feature a woman who is happy to be spoken about in such a way? ‘Thrilled’ to be ordered and commanded, made to ‘beg’ until her manly man finally grants her the gift of his almighty ‘penis’. Also, how many women who come from a background similar to Chloe’s would refer to their vagina as their pussy? There is nothing wrong with the word VAGINA. It exists, use it.

I just wasn’t a fan of the way in which Hibbert would describe her characters’ desire. Most of the time her expressions and metaphors are either questionable or unfunny:
➜“She was dissolving like sugar in hot tea.”
➜“Her middle melted like chocolate fudge cake.”

Final verdict
What started out as a witty romcom ended up being closer to erotica with sex scenes which are both disempowering and unintentionally hilarious.
I have learnt my lesson: never trust a book cover.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë — book review

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“Who blames me? Many, no doubt; and I shall be called discontented. I could not help it: the restlessness was in my nature; it agitated me to pain sometimes.”

Jane Eyre is not only considered a classic (if not the classic) in feminist literature, but an exemplary piece of Romantic Gothic literature. Personally, I view Jane Eyre as a Bildungsroman novel, one that wonderfully dramatises a woman’s quest for self-realisation and personal freedom. Throughout the course of the narrative, the eponymous heroine of this novel undergoes an organic growth that allows her to find and develop her own individuality and to become, not only independent, but socially integrated.

If I had to be perfectly honest however I will admit that I enjoyed Jane Eyre more the first time I read it. This second time round I felt vaguely disenchanted by its story and baffled by its romance (which I will discuss further ahead). This may be because in the years between these re-readings I read and fell in love with Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (which happens to be an extremely underrated novel). Jane Eyre feels a lot ‘safer’ by comparison. The storyline is fairly straightforward, whereas Villette has a rather labyrinthine plot, and Jane—unlike the dark horse Lucy Snowe—carries her heart on her sleeve. Nevertheless, there is much to be appreciated in Jane Eyre.
Brontë’s writing is captivating and beautifully eloquent. Readers are likely to become fond of Jane and her many ‘plights’ within the very first pages. Jane is such a genuine character, and Brontë perfectly renders the workings of her mind.
There are also an abundance of insightful passages regarding questions of gender, class, and freedom. Sometimes these subjects are actively spoken about or discussed between the novel’s characters. At times it is Jane who turns these issues over in her mind, questioning her motives, aspirations, and feelings.
The friendship Jane develops with another girl early on in the narrative is quite touching. We can see the way in which this connection enables Jane to self-improve and to survive Lowood.
Jane also finds a constant companion in nature. As a child she escapes her painful existence by reading Bewick’s History of British Birds. Whereas as an adult she finds it soothing to go outside for walks, often projecting her own states of mind onto the landscape surrounding her. Throughout the course of her story the image of the moon takes on an almost maternal role.

“I watched her come—watched with the strangest anticipation; as though some word of doom were to be written on her disk. She broke forth as never moon yet burst from cloud: a hand first penetrated the sable folds and waved them away; then, not a moon, but a white human form shone in the azure, inclining a glorious brow earthward. It gazed and gazed on me. It spoke to my spirit: immeasurably distant was the tone, yet so near, it whispered in my heart—”

Like Villette, Jane Eyre demonstrates Brontë’s awareness to the harsh realities faced by women who lack financial, social, or familial support. As an orphan Jane is incredibly vulnerable as she is entirely responsible for her own survival. As ‘humble’ governess she does not believe that she could ever enter the marital marketplace. Jane occupies an awkward space: she is not a servant or working-class woman, yet she is repeatedly made to feel as socially inferior to her cousins and socialites such as Blanche Ingram.

“It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquillity: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it. Millions are condemned to a stiller doom than mine, and millions are in silent revolt against their lot. Nobody knows how many rebellions besides political rebellions ferment in the masses of life which people earth. Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts, as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex.”

Jane herself merely wants to escape the oppression and starvation that she experienced at Gateshead and at Lowood. Yet, although Thornfield Hall is presented to us through a fairy-tale lens (early on Jane compares Mr. Rochester’s mansion to “Bluebeard’s castle”), it is by no means a safe haven. Still, Jane can see beyond its gloomy interiors, and in spite of whatever or whoever may roam inside its walls, she falls in love with Thornfield Hall. Its ground have a particularly soothing effect on her.
Jane’s pilgrimage however does not end at Thornfield and the depravations that follow her employment to Mr. Rochester strengthen her resolve to gain true independence.

What I love the most about Jane Eyre is steeped in solitariness. Jane is an outsider, a single woman without any concrete social aspirations (as an orphan Jane is wholly responsible for her own survival and independence), who as an adult is most at ease in the role of impassive observer. Yet, underneath her fixed demeanour lies a passionate soul. Throughout the course of the novel, as Jane grows from a “passionate child” into a solemn governess, she is negotiating contradictory forces: on the one hand she desperately craves independence so that she can positively and freely experience the world, on the other, she does not want to be ‘wicked’ or to stray away from a morally righteous path. She simultaneously fears and desires to be the type of woman that Victorian society would deem ‘unnatural’.
Jane’s self-divide is strikingly rendered by her interior monologue which emphasises the interplay of psychological and social forces have on one’s ‘formation’. The dialogue between Jane’s different selves occurs throughout the course of the narrative. Most of her decision are dictated by her simultaneous and conflicting desire for self-sacrifice and self-dependence.
An aspect of Jane’s personality that is present from her childhood to her adulthood is her integrity (which other characters—such as Mrs. Sarah Reed, St. John Eyre Rivers, and Mr. Rochester—mistake as pride). Jane’s coming of age is the focus of Jane Eyre. Sadly the romance within this novel has often eclipsed its actual heroine. And while I can understand that modern readers may not see think of Jane as rebellious, to focus on her forgiveness of Mr. Rochester would be somewhat dismissive of her her earlier actions.

Whereas in Villette Lucy was fully aware of her romantic interest(s) flaws, Jane is much less critical. She does not seem to resent Mr. Rochester for having repeatedly lied to her and for having manipulated her. To Jane, Mr. Rochester is a victim. To me, Mr. Rochester is literally and figuratively big-headed. He gaslights, threatens, and emotionally manipulates Jane. He is awful. Brooding Byronic hero…as if. Most of what he said frustrated me. His redemption is extremely cheesy.
Jane is also blind to St. John Eyre Rivers’ horrible personality. He is yet another man who tries to coerce Jane into doing something she does not want to do. He also acts as if his own desires have godly origins and therefore must be obeyed.
While I do understand that Jane no longer wished to be separated from the man she loves, part of me wishes that her story could have ended in a more unconventional way…

“Do you think I can stay to become nothing to you? Do you think I am an automaton?—a machine without feelings? and can bear to have my morsel of bread snatched from my lips, and my drop of living water dashed from my cup? Do you think, because I am poor, obscure, plain, and little, I am soulless and heartless? You think wrong!—I have as much soul as you,—and full as much heart! And if God had gifted me with some beauty and much wealth, I should have made it as hard for you to leave me, as it is now for me to leave you. I am not talking to you now through the medium of custom, conventionalities, nor even of mortal flesh;—it is my spirit that addresses your spirit; just as if both had passed through the grave, and we stood at God’s feet, equal,—as we are!”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to four)

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier — book review

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Rebecca is a work of Gothic suspense that is told in a mesmerising prose and makes for an enthralling and evocative read.

“Colour and scent and sound, rain and the lapping of water, even the mists of autumn and the smell of the flood tide, these are memories of Manderley that will not be denied.”

While reading Rebecca I realised that I was already familiar with its opening lines and some of the novel’s key scenes. This may be because of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca film or thanks to the hilarious sketch by That Mitchell and Webb Look.
In many ways Rebecca—its story, its characters, its use of Gothic elements—is not incredibly original. Yet, rather than relying wholly on its precursors (such as Bluebeard and Jane Eyre) Rebecca presents us with a more self-aware take on these otherwise tired dynamics and scenarios.
While the cast of characters do have attributes that bring to mind Jane Eyre (not only is du Maurier’s narrator a ‘plain Jane’ but one of her few hobbies happens to be ‘drawing’) they also possess qualities that reflect their own period.

The narrator’s namelessness is incredibly effective. It suggests that this novel is indeed not about her, but about Rebecca (after all the novel is titled after her). Her namelessness also reinforces her sense of inadequacy—that is of being less, not enough, simply unequal to Rebecca—and her anxiety regarding herself and others.
Daphne du Maurier untangles the mystery at the heart of her novel in a slow yet utterly compelling way. During the ‘final’ explanation she details in incisive precision the motivations and circumstances that can lead ‘ordinary’ individuals to commit a major crime. More impressive still is that even after this ‘twisty’ revelation the narrative maintains its suspense.
Much of the narrative’s ‘tension’ arises from seemingly ordinary moments. Our narrator seems to find the conventions and traditions of the British upper class to be exhausting. In spite of her often reiterated wish to be a magnetic and socially accomplished woman, she shrinks away from her role as Manderley mistress (during ‘unpleasant’ or simply adult conversations she will lower her gaze and occupy herself with her hands or with petting the dog).
The narrator’s namelessness emphasises her disempowerment. While she refers to herself as Maxim’s wife, and others will address her as Mrs de Winter, our narrator feels unequal to her position and inferior in all aspects to the previous Mrs de Winter.
The narrator’s unwillingness and inability to fulfill Rebecca’s old duties or to partake in the daily runnings of Manderley, render her vulnerable to the creepy Mrs. Danvers (a woman who is as watchful as Madame Beck in Villette).
The second Mrs de Winter struggles to assert herself, so much so that she falls victim to Mrs. Danvers’ psychological attacks. It is because she is constantly undermined by Mrs. Danvers, timid towards Manderley’s staff, and painfully aware of being scrutinised, surveyed, and compared to Rebecca, that our narrator becomes convinced of her own inferiority.
While the premise and dynamics within this novel are far from unique, I enjoyed seeing how things played out. A naive young woman, her distant and secretive husband, his recently deceased achingly-beautiful-and-charming first wife, his Bluebeard-esque estate with its skull-faced servant…these are all exceedingly Gothic elements. Given the popularity of the ‘domestic thriller’ genre, it appears that readers have yet to grow tired of these type of stories. There are few authors however who have du Maurier’s sensual prose. There is a sensuality in the narrator’s obsession and jealousy towards Rebecca. While the second Mrs de Winter never sees a photo or portrait of Rebecca, she becomes familiar with everything about her. From her perfume and clothes to her calligraphy and daily routine. Other people’s impression of Rebecca shape the narrator’s own vision of her. Rebecca comes to embody all the characteristics that the present Mrs de Winter would like to possess. Her fascination is intermingled with a deeply felt hatred.

There is little romance in the love story within Rebecca. In spite of her naïveté, our narrator soon realises that Maxim is far from love-struck. His marriage proposal seems much closer to a business proposal, and later on, not only does he seem disinterested in our narrator but he is quick to dismiss her worries and anxieties (he will tell her not to be a little idiot).
Jealousy and paranoia soon begin to plague the second Mrs de Winter. She desires more than anything to be loved by Maxim, and fears that she will never live up to his first wife Rebecca. As she becomes more and more haunted by Rebecca, the narrator’s susceptible mind often lead her to distort and exaggerate simple conversations, and to observe in her surroundings Rebecca’s imprint (there were many moments in which she reminded me of Jane Austen’s incredibly impressionable heroine Catherine Morland). Through the narrator’s dreams and her moments of dissociation readers begin to see just how deep Rebecca’s presence is within her psyche and life.
The landscape alleviates our heroine’s mystification. The gardens and the sea mirror her state of minds, and allow her to examine and question her own feelings and circumstances. Manderley’s flora and fauna, as well as its weather, capture a sense of the sublime. The idyllic and haunted Manderley plays a central role in the story and constantly occupies the narrator’s mind.
Amidst love, jealousy, and feminine ideals, this beautifully written novel conveys with perfect clarity what it means to be young and inexperienced.

 

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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What Red Was by Rosie Price — review


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What Red Was by Rosie Price
★★★★✰ 4 stars

What Red Was is a stark and riveting debut novel that vividly depicts the lasting effects of rape on a young woman’s mind, body, and life. This is not for the ‘faint of heart’, and I am not writing this as some sort of snide but more of a heads-up since this novel portrays rape and trauma in an unflinchingly way. At times I was overwhelmed. The story will make you angry, sad, distressed, all the sort of emotions you should feel when reading about such a horrific act.
Another thing that I appreciated is that the story didn’t reduce its characters to convenient stereotypes. Nor did it glamorise depression, addiction(s), or self-harm. (Unlike a certain other novel out there…)
Kate wasn’t reduced to the abominable violation committed against her. She was a relatable and interesting character, and following her life prior to ‘that day’ really brought her character to life. Her friendship with Max was complex and poignant, and it didn’t fall victim to the friends-to-lovers cliché. The way their relationship changes over the years saddened me, yet it seemed inevitable and far too realistic.
Initially I thought that following the perspectives of Max’s family members detracted attention from Kate’s storyline but it soon becomes apparent that by shifting the focus to them made them into far more fleshed out characters. However uneasy this shift made me feel (especially when we read of the thoughts and general worldview of Max’s cousin) it gave the novel a more ‘democratic’ approach, were everyone, regardless of their likability had page-time.
This story is relevant, raw, and compelling even in its darkest moments. While I wished for a neater ending, I still would recommend this to those interested in reading a novel filled with fraught (and believable) familial relationships and a young woman’s uneasy path towards recovering her sense of self after being raped.

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Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss : review

★★★✰✰ 3 STARSUntitled drawing (5).jpg

I feel vaguely disappointed by this novella. While I can see that the majority of reviewers found this to be a moving and harrowing portrayal of abuse, I thought that—for the most past—this was a rather simplistic portrayal of an abusive parent.

The characters came across as very one-dimensional and yes, while I felt angry at Silvie’s father I also found him somewhat cartoonish. He seemed almost a caricature: misogynistic, racist, abusive. Everything he says and does corroborates to the image of a ‘bad man’. While I know that there are many people who fit all of those labels it seemed a bit easy for him to possess only negative qualities.
The mother seemed to belong to the 50s rather than the 90s. Again, she seemed the caricature of the victimised and self-effacing wife who does not bat an eyelash when her daughter (view spoiler). Yes, there are individuals who stand by and let their partners abuse their children but Silvie’s mother seemed conveniently stereotypical.
The other men were almost as bad. Stupid or blatantly blind to Silvie’s fathers disturbing behaviour.
While Silvie’s repression makes sense—given the way in which she was raised—it also made her very uninteresting and frustrating.
While the writing rendered some beautiful—and at times disturbing—landscapes, I found some metaphors to be a bit ‘trying’ and repetitive. I’m not sure why narratives of this kind are obsessed by pubic hair.
Overall, I think I might have preferred a shorter version of this story and while I wasn’t a ‘fan’ of this I look forward to trying something else by Moss.

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The Flatshare : Book Review

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The Flatshare
by Beth O’Leary
★★✰✰✰ 2 stars

One of the reasons why I was never able to immerse myself in this story is because of its writing style. While Tiffy’s chapter are written in a normal straight-forward prose, Leon’s chapters sounded like they were written by Yoda.
Because of this ‘stylistic’ writing choice Leon sounds at best like a confused child, at worst…drunk. He is presented to us as if he is this serious and smart guy but because of his weird narration he just seems so young and simple. The way he phrases things, all of those missing pronouns, chopped sentences…they make him sound like he has taken too much Ambien.
At the beginning he also had a tendency to refer to Tiffy as the ‘Essex woman’ which just made him seem all the more slow (as if he can’t be asked to remember her name).
A few examples taken from his pov:
“And no note, either. Feel like a fool. I’ve missed the chance to say thank you; probably upset her, too. Don’t like that thought.”
“The pause is like silence after gunshot. I slap hand to mouth.”

Apparently he also writes in this silly way since Tiffy wonders “if Leon will talk the way he writes, all short sentences and no pronouns”. I wish that Leon’s oddly phrased things had been restricted to his post-its rather than making his whole point of view seem so grammatically odd.
Tiffy’s chapter were far more accomplished. I really wish it had been all from her point of view. Leon would have seemed more credible. Tiffy had a potentially interesting storyline but she came across as yet another manic pixie dream girl.
A lot of dialogues had a hit or miss humour. Many of the jokes seemed forced. Most of the characters didn’t sound like real people…especially the elderly (there was an inconstancy in the sort of language they used).
The story was a bit boring, and fairly predictable. This genre is fairly formulaic and what makes or breaks the story is its characters. Sadly, thanks to this jarring writing style, I never felt connected to Leon or his relationship with Tiffy.
Also, Tiffy is this supposedly tall and big-boned woman, and there I was thinking ‘finally, how refreshing, she isn’t the typical petite and lithe girl’ but Leon (who is a nurse and spends a lot of the time moving but he isn’t really buff or muscular) is able to lift her and carry her in his arms?! Why include that over-used scene?!
Final thoughts: Other than a few amusing moments this novel has little to offer…

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Things in Jars : Book Review

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Things in Jars
by Jess Kidd
★★★✰✰ 3 stars

Throughout Things in Jars Jess Kidd showcases her creativity. This novel imbues its mystery with an intriguing mixture of fantasy and science.
Kidd’s main character is a tour de force. Bridie Devine is an experienced detective. Her strength, her resilience, and her sharp-wit, made her into an incredibly compelling character. Her relationship with Cora, her ‘second in command’ who is about 7ft tall, provided a lot of heart-warming scenes. Their interactions were funny and consolidated the depiction of her friendship.
At the start of the story, and coinciding with her new case, Bridie meets a former boxer Ruby Doyle…who happens to be a ghost. He claims that they knew each other, but Bridie doesn’t seem to remember him. Together they try to find Christabel Berwick, a remarkable child who has been kidnapped. Bridie and Ruby’s scenes were perhaps some of favourite moments in this novel. These two have a great (not strictly romantic) chemistry and I found their banter to be really entertaining.
The other characters were definitely…picturesque. They were not as interesting as Bridie or her friends and they often seemed either weird or creepy (a few manage to be both).
Kidd sets her intriguing story in London 1863. The city comes to life through layers and layers of vivid descriptions. Her London buzzes with a chaotic energy and at times it could be almost overwhelming there. The dialogues, dialects, and expressions all conveyed this historical period.
What stopped me from ever loving this novelin spite of its many meritsis the writing style. The sprawling narrative jumps from character such as Bridie to a secondary character to an animal, such as a bird or a horse, to the objects of a room or the city itself. Everything seemed to become part of this narration, and at times I wished it would just settle down on Bridie. From the start of the novel there are chapters from the person who has taken Christabel and they sort of undermined Bridie’s storyline, which should have been the focus of this story.
Often sequences would seemed clouded by this unrelentingly exuberant narration. Revelations where muddled, characters’ actions or choices seemed to be revealed in a backwards sort of way, to the point where it seemed I had to re-read and decode a scene before grasping what had happened.
Each phrase or description seemed far too playful. Soon these funny description became repetitive and predictable. The humour was overwhelmingly there. Everything was meant to be amusing, which didn’t quite work in favour of the most serious or dramatic scenes. The narrative was almost interactive…which I found irritating since it made the characters and their experiences in a bit of a joke. It just made some of themes less serious.
If you don’t mind this sort of playful style (which uses the type of humour that a child might use: arse and farts jokes, comparing people to turkeys and crabs ) this might be book for you.

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STONE MOTHERS : BOOK REVIEW

 

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Stone Mothers by Erin Kelly
★★★✰✰ 2.5 stars (rounded up to 3)

“People lie to cover their tracks all the time but in the aftermath of true horror, there is a window – minutes, even seconds long – where shock drives out dissemblance and there is only room for a kind of devastated honesty.”

This a novel that never quite reaches its full potential.
First, on what I liked.
I found the discourse on class and money (the way it can change you in ways that you might not be aware) to be very compelling. We see how money can distance you from your own family, your hometown, and even your younger self.
The novel also does a brilliant job in evoking this small English community and of how unemployment can damage a family not only financially but emotionally (there is anger, shame, guilt, and pain).
I also found it incredibly realistic the way in which Marianne’s mother vascular dementia affected her loved ones. She only appeared in a few scenes but these were some of the few moments in which I felt emotionally involved by the story.
Nazareth is a building which emanates unease. It is oppressing and labyrinthine, yet I was fascinated by it. Kelly give this place a horrifying history, one that shapes the protagonist(s). Nazareth seems almost a character, if not the focus of the story. We are often given small details that consolidate this building’s presence:

“When I was at school, we wouldn’t say anyone behaving eccentrically was going round the bend but ‘getting the number six’. Back in the day, the number six bus was the one that, after they closed the railway, ferried workers and patients alike from Nusstead and beyond to Nazareth. I’d assumed it was a universal idiom. It was only when I went to Cromer Hall that I understood that the phrase was something I’d have to censor, along with my history, and my guilt, and the accent I shed like a shell.”

Now on the things that didn’t quite work for me…
Like many other reviewers, I found this book incredibly slow. I don’t think that dividing it into four sections worked in the story’s favour. It just created distance between each narrative (the first one is from Marianne ‘now’, the second is from Marianne as a teenager, the third is from a patient staying at Nazareth in 1958, and the last one is from another character). They seemed like these self-contained condensed stories that didn’t merge well with one another.
The first section stresses this ‘big bad thing’ that Marianne did…and when we actually get the details I felt underwhelmed. Other things happen but they never seem ‘thrilling’ to me. The suspense felt a bit forced (especially the final section when there is this unnecessary vagueness that seemed to exist merely to prolong the narrative).

The characters…they occasionally seemed a bit clichéd but they did have ‘moments’ of credibility.
Marianne was just plain awful. I disliked her not because of the ‘big bad thing’ but because she often sounded like a martyr.She is supposedly ‘clever’ and ‘smart’ (something which other characters, her degree, and her career, seem to imply) but to me she seemed anything but intelligent. She didn’t even convince me in terms of her age. She is supposed to be in her later forties, she has managed to leave her small town behind, made her a new life for herself, etc. etc., and yet, she sounds exactly as experienced and self-aware as her teenage self. She was so naive, so irritatingly self-dramatizing, that she would been a more appropriate protagonist in an 18th cent. novel. I’m thinking something on the lines of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.
She spends nearly 60% of the book reproaching herself, bemoaning that ‘big bad thing’, her ‘evil’ deed seeps into her vision so that no matter her surroundings she will see a reflection her sins staring back at her (“The eels are back, and this time they’re sliding all over the sky”). Or she gives this dramatic descriptions: “His lips are white, like they’ve got bones in them.”. Jeez. When she spoke she did it with lots of exclamations marks (‘You saw her!’) and italics abounded, so that she often comes across as both juvenile and unrealistic. To begin with I thought that she was being sarcastic or disingenuous but she was turns out…she is just dense.
The other two narrators were less irritating but I did find that one point of view sort of ‘ruined’ what could have been an interesting individual. I was hoping to read from the point of view of a calculating, ruthless, possibly psychopathic woman…but what we get is a sort of vindication where we learn that she isn’t bad but simply (view spoiler). The last point of view is from a character who seemed an odd choice as she only appeared way back when in the first section. I think the book would have been more effective without this last section.
(view spoiler)
The main male characters fell in one of the following categories: stupid, dull, w*nker. There were two male characters who were decent-ish but had brief inconsequential appearances.
Marianne’s relationship with her husband was one of the least convincing things in the story. They acted like they just met each other and I kept thinking that he was her second husband or something. They have no real history, their interactions kept making me question if they really had just met or something (when they have been supposedly married for 20 years or so).
Lastly, I wasn’t a fun of the way in which people experiencing or suffering a mental illness or disorder were presented in such a patronising way. They look ‘broken’ and just feel everything ‘too much’: “she lives life so deeply but everything hurts her, it’s like – she’s got splinters in all of her fingertips and glass in her feet.”

There is this vagueness that tries to make scenes more ‘suspenseful’ by making things appear more sinister than they are…
The storyline is so slow and uneventful that I was temped to abandon it once or twice. There were few moments that I found enjoyable and or entertaining…still, there were some nice descriptions and although I think this would have worked better if all of the narratives had been from the first point of view, I think that Kelly’s writing has the potential to create a much more interesting story.

“My mind trips to doublethink: theories I believe in even as I know they can’t be true. Something was uncovered, something was found during the development of Nazareth. Or someone has spotted me and knows. Someone has seen old records, old names, and put two and two together to make the four that implicates the three – me, Jesse and Helen Greenlaw.”

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