Listening In and Other Stories by Shauna Kelley review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing Shauna Kelley’s short story collection Listening In which I kindly received from the author and Booktasters. It is a slim volume but the stories did leave quite a big impression on me.

Kelley’s writing style is very lyrical and evocative, making these narratives easy to visualise. I read another review saying that the stories are quite literary; which I agree with but I found them really accessible and would imagine those who aren’t into literary fiction will do so too.

Her characterisation is also impressive. In many of the stories – the most obvious being the eponymous ‘Listening In’ – have quite unusual narrators, which could lead to a reader feeling alienated from the story. However, Kelley does a great job of humanising them and making you care about these characters despite their odd quirks. Even if you disagree with their actions you understand their motives.

I also liked how Kelley weaves senses into the stories. As you can tell from the name of the collection there are plenty of references to them; sound, sight and smell all seem to feature in one or more of the stories. This helps to make the narratives more visceral and also helps to create really powerful imagery.

If I had to criticise, I did notice a few spelling mistakes. They didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the book but they definitely did pull me out of the narrative for a few seconds. But apart from that there isn’t much to dislike here. If you’re a fan of literary short stories with some great characters and imagery then you might want to check out Listening In.

Listening In and Other Stories is published independently and you can find more information here.

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The Glass-Blowers by Daphne Du Maurier review

Hi everyone! Today I’m reviewing The GlassBlowers by Daphne du Maurier, which like another of her novels, Mary Anne, is based on her own ancestors. Sophie Duval writes to her nephew, explaining the family history and what happened to his father, whom he had not seen since childhood. Sophie also talks of life during the French Revolution and the chaos it unleashed.

This is my second novel of the year which is set during the French Revolution, the other one being Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore. On reflection I think I preferred The Glass-Blowers more. Birdcage Walk is set in Bristol and is removed from the action in that sense. Meanwhile Du Maurier has set her novel in France which gives it more intensity. There is a real sense of danger here, that anything could happen.

Du Maurier also portrays the Revolution in a non-biased manner (Not the best phrasing but it’ll do!) She presents the events but doesn’t tell the reader what to think; both sides are portrayed as flawed and it makes the plot more interesting.

The characters as well are fully fleshed out. They were times when I was angry at them and others sympathetic; but I was always engaged. All their voices ring clear off the page and it is impressive to see Du Maurier flit between characters with ease. Sophie as the narrator is certainly an odd choice as she is not the most physically active person in the Revolution, but that step back means the reader can see the effects it is having on this family and the country as a whole, both good and bad.

I have no idea how much of The Glass-Blowers is true, but I certainly enjoyed it. It is a little bit slow at the start, but when the Revolution begins I pretty much devoured it. Du Maurier creates incredible suspense and you’re always left at the end of a chapter wanting to instantly read the next. If you’re a fan of Du Maurier’s other works you’ll certainly enjoy this.

The Glass-Blowers is published by Virago and you can find more information here.

Top 10 Books of 2018 (so far)

Hi everyone! Since we’re now in the middle of June – no idea where the time has gone – I’d thought I would look at the last six months and see which books have been my favourites. It’ll be interesting to compare this list to the one at the end to see the changes (or at least I think so anyway).

All the books mentioned I’ve read for the first time in 2018 (sorry Rebecca but I still love you!) though they may not necessarily have been published this year. I’ll keep this short and sweet as I’m sure you don’t want to hear me repeating myself, plus I’ll leave a link to the individual reviews if you want to find out more.

So without further ado, here are my top 10 books of 2018 so far:

 

10. A Dash of Flash by Millie Thom

 

A really sweet collection of flash fiction, filled to the brim with hilarious and touching stories. I had never read flash fiction before this and believe this is an excellent book to start with. Thom succinctly writes, every word is used to the fullest with no fat still clinging to the narratives.

Review of A Dash of Flash

 

9. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

My last review so it will be interesting to see how I feel about it in a few months. First impressions: loved it. It tells the story of Jojo who lives with his grandparents, drug addict mother Leonie and younger sister Kayla. When his father Michael is released from prison Leonie takes the kids on a road trip to meet him.

Lyrical, visceral and haunting, Ward successfully combines gritty realism and magic to discuss topics such as race and drug abuse. It is obvious to see why it has had such high acclaim.

Review of Sing, Unburied, Sing

 

8. Gary, the Four Eyed Fairy and Other Stories by Frank Mundo

My favourite short story collection so far, Gary the Four Eyed Fairy is a group of connected stories following the (mis)adventures of security guard J.T Glass.

Warm and witty, Mundo captures Glass’ voice completely that it sings off the page. Mixing humour with touches of pathos makes this an impressive collection and Mundo a writer to watch.

Review of Gary, the Four Eyed Fairy and Other Stories

 

7. Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

My first ever Pym novel but certainly not my last, Excellent Women follows thirty something Mildred Lathbury whose live is turned upside down when she meets her new neighbours the Napiers. She has a particularly soft spot for Rockingham.

This novel cheered me up, a refreshing change from the more dramatic novels I read (and who may be making an appearance later). Pym’s eye for detail is wonderful and her descriptions of post-war English society made me laugh. If you need a good book to curl into on a rainy day; this is it.

Review of Excellent Women

 

6. Ponti by Sharlene Teo

This one has lingered with me for months, it felt like an injustice to not have it here. Teenager Szu lives in Singapore with her mother Amisa, a once horror film star, and her aunt. A bit of a loner at school, she feels isolated until she is befriended by Circe. We trace the lives of these women from the latter half of the 20th century to the 2020s.

Teo successfully weaves complex characters into an intriguing and thrilling plot, and it is hard to believe this is a debut. The characters of Amisa, Szu and Circe are still with me after months of putting the book down. Another author to watch.

Review of Ponti

 

5. The Waves by Virginia Woolf

The Waves follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age, and we watch them grow, struggling with love and loss. Told through multiple perspectives Woolf allows the reader a glimpse into the mindset of each character.

This is my favourite of Woolf’s novels that I’ve read.  It seems odd to call this a novel as at times it feels poetic. As always with Woolf the language is beautiful and evocative, and your heart aches for these characters as they try and make their way through life.

Review of The Waves

 

4. Letter from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King Jr

I don’t think this small volume of two of Dr King’s works needs any introduction. A searing account of race relations in 1960s USA; yet what elevates this is King’s refusal to give up hope and believe in a better, more equal society. A fascinating, tragic book and one that sadly is still relevant in the world today.

Review of Letter from Birmingham Jail

 

3. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

The well-deserved winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this month, the novel is a retelling of the Greek play Antigone. Set in modern day London, we follow the lives of siblings Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz. While Isma and Aneeka study at University, Parvaiz is drawn to darker forces and ultimately joins ISIS.

Like Dr King’s book previously, this is highly topical for today, discussing the experience of being Muslim and how people can be radicalised. Shamsie never tells you what to think; she only provides you with what happened and it is up to you whether to forgive or condemn.

Review of Home Fire

 

2. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I read this all the way back in January but it is still seared into memory. It also has the dubious honour of being the only book this year to make me cry (seriously don’t read this while in public. It’s embarrassing). Lincoln’s young son Willie dies after suffering an unknown illness. He is interred in the cemetery where he meets a group of ghosts who refuse to acknowledge that they are dead.

Combining the heart-wrenching sorrow of losing a child with dick jokes, Lincoln in the Bardo certainly isn’t for everyone. Saunders’ structure is odd too; as the novel reads more like a play, giving an intimacy and urgency to the story. One that isn’t easy to forget.

Review of Lincoln in the Bardo

 

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Does this one really need any explanation? Tolstoy’s masterpiece follows the eponymous Anna as she begins an affair with Count Vronsky; much to the scandal of Russian society.

And if you’re thinking; ‘How has it taken you this long to read Anna Karenina?!’ My only response is that I’m a total moron. It has everything; love, loss, despair, humour that it is obvious why it is considered a classic. And Anna is probably one of my favourite characters of all time, with the supporting characters all well-developed.

Review of Anna Karenina

That’s it! If you made it through the list, well done! I tried to keep the waffling to a minimum.

Let me know down below what your favourite books have been so far.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward review

Hi everyone! I thought I’d share my review of another Women’s Prize nominee (I know the winner was announced last week and I’m a bit behind). Sing, Unburied, Sing tells the story of Jojo, a young teenager who lives with his grandparents, younger sister Kayla and drug-addicted mum Leonie in rural Mississippi. His father Michael is about to be released from prison so Leonie drives the kids up to meet him. Whilst we follow Jojo and his family we also meet Richie, the ghost of a boy who knew Jojo’s grandad.

Ward does an incredible job of capturing Jojo’s voice, it rings clear off the page. I’ve previously cringed at writers’ attempts to speak like a child as I find it quite forced and unbelievable. But here it felt realistic and helps to draw you into the story. Jojo is a beautifully realised character and you can’t help but sympathise with him. His relationship with his sister was so tender and touching, making it the highlight of the novel.

I was also impressed with how Ward dealt with the character of Leonie. She is very unlikable; a woman who appears to love getting high with her boyfriend more than her kids. I found her a very frustrating character but I think that is intentional. Yet Ward helps you to understand why she does horrible things, even if you disagree with her choices.

Ward deftly tackles racism within the novel. A chapter alluding to modern day racism will be contrasted with racism back in Richie’s day. It shows how it has evolved over the decades in between yet is still a constant present. There is a scene near the end of the novel which hammers this idea home and I found it very effective. It is an image that won’t be easy to forget.

At first when I heard about the magical realism in the novel I was skeptical. Was this going to be some cheap gimmick? I was pleasantly surprised, as it was an interesting way of reflecting on the past. There are two ghosts in the story; Richie and Given, Leonie’s dead brother who she sees when she’s high. Their presence in the narrative helps to discuss racism as I previously mentioned, but also looks at this idea that the past is never completely gone, that our actions affect our future selves.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is an excellent novel, one which is tender and heart-renching. The characters are well-drawn and complex, and Ward never shies away from tackling themes such as racism and drug abuse. It is obvious why it has received so many plaudits, and I think they’re well deserved.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is published by Bloomsbury and you can find more information here.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie review

Hi everyone! Since the winner of the Women’s Prize for Fiction is announced on Wednesday 6th June I thought I would take a look at one of the nominees. Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie has been everywhere; as well as the Women’s Prize, it has been shortlisted for the Costa Best Novel and longlisted for the Man Booker. This is a modern retelling of the play Antigone though you don’t need to have read it before starting this. Isma has gone to the US to study her PhD, leaving younger siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz behind. Aneeka is at University studying law, while Parvaiz is drawn into darker forces, and ultimately joins ISIS.

Shamsie does an excellent job of characterisation. Each section is narrated by a different person and each have their own unique voice. This technique not only allows the characters depth and elicits empathy, but it gives the reader a chance to understand the challenges faced by Muslims from multiple perspectives.

An early example is when Isma is stopped and interrogated before her flight to the States. An officer implies that a jacket given to Isma isn’t hers, and then starts to ask her opinion on topics such as Israel, suicide bombers and The Great British Bake Off. It is a truly eye-opening sequence, revealing the aggressions and prejudices Muslims face.

While Shamsie describes these events, and later on Parvaiz’s radicalisation, she never dictates to the reader how they should feel. You are left to judge these characters however way you choose, something I really appreciated. It gives the reader some agency instead of brow-beating them into how they must react and what to take away from this novel, unlike some of the other novels on the Women’s Prize longlist.

Shamsie also writes beautifully. Her language is evocative and visceral, making you feel as though you are with these characters. Yet it isn’t pretentious or flowery; Shamsie keeps it simple but effective. The result is stunning descriptions of London with intriguing character development. It is very hard to put this book down.

Despite the many praise I can heap on Home Fire I did have one small issue. Without giving away spoilers I found the ending to be a bit ludicrous. The novel has many dramatic twists and revelations throughout, all working well to add tension and build to a thrilling climax. However, the climax was so melodramatic it was almost funny. All these events cannot happen to one person, and I did have to suspend my disbelief for the last few pages. It was a bit of disappointment considering how much I loved the rest of the novel.

It is easy to see why Home Fire has been gathering praise, and I think it is justified. Shamsie tackles some big, topical themes but is never heavy handed. She has great characterisation and her writing style is incredibly vivid. Like I said previously I’m not a fan of the ending; but there is still plenty to enjoy here.

Home Fire is published by Bloomsbury and you can find more information here.

A Dash of Flash by Millie Thom review

Hi everyone! Hope you’re enjoying the Bank Holiday Monday – I know I am! Today I thought I would review A Dash of Flash by Millie Thom, which I received  from the author and Booktasters. This is a collection of flash fiction, admittedly something which I was interested in but hadn’t explored before. And I’m really glad these were my introduction.
Thom is a very accomplished writer. Every word is used to full effect, and I never felt a story was too long or superfluous. The word choice is quite simple but cuts straight to the point and is unpretentious which I really liked.

Thom successfully creates flash fiction which tells a complete story in very little pages, which is no mean feat. Some plots are more light-hearted than others, but I liked the balance between comedy and tragedy. It mixed things up and kept me entertained, wanting to know what the next story will be. Obviously I can’t go into too much detail for fear of spoilers, but I think my personal favourite was ‘Homework’ because it had quite an unexpected ending. There were several stories similar in this sense, with the reader believing they know how it will end but Thom adding a small twist. Again it kept things exciting and wanting you to keep turning the pages.

Overall I really enjoyed A Dash of Flash. A lot of the stories were really fun, entertaining reads that you could easily sail through. Thom is a truly great writer and showcases this here. I’m interested to see what she does next.

A Dash of Flash is published independently and you can find more information here

When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy review

Hi everyone! I’m back with another Women’s Prize for Fiction review. This time it is the shortlisted When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy. Our nameless narrator is reflecting back on her abusive marriage to a lecturer obsessed with Communism.

This is an incredibly harrowing read. Kandasamy goes into detail about the abuse; starting off with cutting access to others then verbal abuse then finally to rape and death threats. The tension builds throughout the book as these events unfold, and you are left terrified on behalf of the narrator. At the end of each chapter you hope she will escape.

The decision to make the narrator nameless is also interesting. It has a dual purpose, the first one being reflecting herself in the marriage. She has been stripped of friends and work, subjected to verbal and physical abuse. By not giving her a name, Kandasamy could be highlighting how this man has robbed our narrator of everything, even her identity. It also gives a universality to the story. This story takes place in India but in reality it could happen anywhere, under different names and guises.

For all the disturbing descriptions of domestic abuse I found the prose to be very lyrical. There was an amazing segment where our narrator writes letters to her lovers, both real and imagined. I found it very poignant and touching, with Kandasamy injecting real emotion into words that ultimately would never be uttered; that should never even exist in case her husband sees them. Yet there are a couple of dark one-liners and asides thrown in occasionally. They don’t feel inappropriate or out out of place; rather like the lovers’ notes, they allow the reader to catch a glimpse of the narrator’s personality not stifled by her husband.

When I Hit You is a difficult but rewarding read. Obviously due to the subject matter this book may not be for everyone, but I highly recommend reading it. Kandasamy writes so beautifully, a bizarre contrast to the horrific events described, and I think this must be one of the most poetic novels I’ve read this year. It is easy to see why it ended up on the shortlist and would not be surprised if it won.

When I Hit You is published by Atlantic Books and you can find more information here.

Two Girls in a Cafe by Lawrence G Taylor review

 

Hi everyone! Today I thought I would review the short story Two Girls in a Cafe, which I kindly received from the author and Booktasters. Ruth and Felicity are chatting in a cafe when the conversation turns to a man they both know. Both have very different opinions about him, and throughout the story you wonder who is telling the truth.

Taylor successfully crams a lot of ideas into very few pages. Do you truly know a person? Do our opinions of others reveal more about us than them? The story gives you a lot to think about whilst also being incredibly readable. The prose is simplistic but that isn’t a bad thing; rather it allows the themes and ideas of the story to shine through.

The characters of Ruth and Felicity were also well done. Both have very distinct personalities and their different voices were clear, making it hard for the reader to get them mixed up. However, the waiter seemed a little unnecessary. He didn’t add anything to the story, and when we followed his perspective I wished we were back at the ladies’ table.

Overall, Two Girls in a Cafe is a solid short story. Taylor writes his characters remarkably well, and successfully weaves big themes and ideas into the narrative without becoming pretentious. My quibble about the waiter is a very minor one and I did enjoy the story.

Two Girls in a Cafe is published independently and you can find more information here.

Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney review

 

Hi everyone! I thought I would chat today about debut novel Conversations with Friends. Set in Dublin we follow the ups and downs of four people. Frances, our narrator, is an English student and performs spoken word with best friend and ex-girlfriend Bobbi. They are befriended by journalist and photographer Melissa, who introduces them to her husband actor Nick. However when Frances and Nick become closer, the relationships between them all become increasingly complicated.

I had mixed feelings about the novel. The main positive for me was the character of Bobbi. She was believable and relatable, with some of the best one-liners. She is incredibly loyal to her friends yet doesn’t take any nonsense from them, and she was a refreshing presence in a novel filled with unlikable characters. And this is where I hit my first problem. I don’t mind unlikable characters as long as they are interesting or add something to the story.

Frances was a very dull character overall. She had no ambition or dreams or indeed much in the way of a personality. An example of this appeared early in the novel when she discusses her getting a job; ‘I didn’t want one. I had no plans as to my future financial sustainability: I never wanted to earn money for doing anything (…) I certainly never fantasised about a radiant future where I was paid to perform an economic role’ (pg 23). She was so frustratingly delusional it stretches belief. Here was someone who knows they need a job but actively avoids employment and instead relied on her parents for money. She also writes so sporadically in the novel it is a wonder she is able to get acclaim as a spoken word poet. Frances was such a flimsy character, especially compared to the far more dynamic and interesting Bobbi, that if she wasn’t the narrator I would have probably forgotten her.

Nick was not much better either. In fact it is hard to describe him as a character, as other than he’s handsome I don’t know any qualities he possessed. It is also difficult to fanthom how Frances liked him, and indeed vice versa. He essentially feels like a plot device, his relationship with Frances being the catalyst for most of the narrative, and Rooney never decided to flesh him out. And Melissa… well, Melissa’s there.

Another issue I had was the writing. Sometimes I felt the book needed an edit, or Rooney didn’t trust her readers enough so added pointless asides. Two examples immediately spring to mind. The first one happened when the characters are at a book launch. Frances asks for a glass of white wine and narrates ‘I looked into the wine, which was clear and almost greenish-yellow’ (pg 68). Why is that description necessary? Presumably the people reading Conversations with Friends have either a) drank white wine or b) have seen it at some point. It doesn’t have to described.

The second one is more bizarre than that. We’re told that Nick is washing the dishes in the sink, then later, on the same page Rooney writes ‘His hands and wrists were wet’ (pg 105). Err…yeah. That’s what happens when you dip your hands in water. These examples are even more frustrating when you realise Rooney can write. Some of her lines were really witty and her observations about people are spot on, which makes these inane moments baffling.

Needless to say, Conversations with Friends was a disappointing read. With the exception of one, I found the characters quite boring and forgettable. The writing has glimpses of sheer brilliance but also moments of awkwardness and stupidity. I would be interested in reading more of Rooney’s work as I think she has great potential, but her debut didn’t do anything for me. But, since it has plenty of praise from others, perhaps I’m wrong?

Conversations with Friends is published by Faber & Faber and you can find more information here.

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier review

Hi everyone! As the Fowey Festival, inspired by Daphne Du Maurier, is starting this Friday (11th May) and Du Maurier’s birthday is the 13th, I decided to revisit one of my favourite books (like I really needed an excuse). I’m pretty sure most people know the plot to Rebecca. Our nameless narrator meets the older Maxim de Winter while working in Monte Carlo. They marry quite quickly and go to live in de Winter’s house in Cornwall called Manderley, which seems to be haunted by the ghost of his first wife Rebecca. I shall end my brief plot summary here as the less you know going into the novel the better.

Du Maurier’s characterisation, especially that of Rebecca, is incredible. The titular character has an absent presence which dominates the majority of the novel, leaving Rebecca the one the reader reflects on after the novel is long finished. A scene which captures this presence perfectly is when the second Mrs de Winter enters her predecessor’s bedroom. She begins to touch the objects in the room and looking into the mirror, imagining Rebecca there. This scene reflects both Rebecca’s dominance and the narrator’s vulnerability, and could be read as how the second Mrs de Winter feels like an interloper, not just in this one room but in all of Manderley.

Maxim as well is a highly fascinating character. He is perceived as one thing in the beginning but throughout the course of the novel Du Maurier drops hints as to his true character. As a result you are left never quite sure how to feel about him. He is certainly an anti-hero, but it is hard to truly describe him. He has moments of both sympathy and horror, and this moral ambiguity is a joy to read. Du Maurier manages to brilliantly craft characters that are neither good nor bad; rather you are left as a reader to form your own conclusions.

The house also feels like a character in itself. Du Maurier begins and ends the story with an image of Manderley, signifying its importance within the narrative. It is a symbol not only of wealth and position, but also oppression, as the second Mrs de Winter in particular learns. The opening chapter, with that now iconic first line, also highlights Du Maurier’s writing prowess. Her descriptions of the house and the grounds are haunting and lyrical, being so evocative that you can clearly see Manderley. Yet here she also completely captures the speech of the narrator, who is quite a naïve young woman. The awe and wonder she felt seeing Manderley comes through in the opening chapter, when the readers catch their first glimpse of the house.

I could talk about Rebecca for pages and pages, and indeed its various adaptations. Du Maurier’s writing, as seen through the character development and imagery, is stunning. Every sentence adds something to the story, and every time I read it I spot something new. I also admire how Du Maurier is able to veer between the Gothic and moments of humour, the comedic moments mainly coming from Max’s sister Beatrice and brother-in-law Giles. Rebecca is a rollercoaster of a novel, and one which I am always saddened to leave.

 

Rebecca is published by Virago and you can find more information here.
Here is also a link to the Fowey Festival website if you are interested in attending.