Fantastic Planet by Douglas Bosley review

Upon landing on an unexplored planet, Crab learns that it is full of quirky plants and animals. Every nook and cranny is full of interesting creatures to describe. But when its time to travel back home and share these new discoveries, Crab’s spaceship won’t launch! Will ingenuity be enough to get this explorer home or is Crab stranded on a Fantastic Planet?

This was a very sweet children’s picture book. Crab is a really likable protagonist and Bosley has injected enough personality into his main character that the book is never dull. He carries the simplistic plot and makes it entertaining. As a narrator, he does a great job of navigating this new world and guiding the reader through it.

The illustrations, also done by Bosley, are the highlight of the book. They are remarkably evocative, capturing the star HR 8832 and its inhabitants. The only criticism there is of Fantastic Planet is that I would have liked to have seen more of this alien world. Bosley does cram a lot into very few pages and the premise could easily expand into a longer picture book. Yet this is only one in a series so perhaps Bosley explores this world more in other books.

Overall, Fantastic Planet is a fun picture book. Whilst there may not be a lot on offer for adult readers, certainly younger children will enjoy this, thanks to the main character of Crab and the adventurous aspect of the book.

This review was first published on Reedsy Discovery. 

Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay review

As Valentine’s Day has just passed I wanted to do a bookish post on the topic, and I’ve spent the past couple of days racking my brain for ideas. In the end, I decided to simply do a book review on a novel that a) counts towards my goal of rereading more and b) is set on Valentine’s Day: Picnic at Hanging Rock. Between the novel, the acclaimed film directed by Peter Weir, and the recent TV adaptation most people already know the premise. Set in 1900 at Appleyard College for girls, three students and their teacher mysteriously vanish whilst on a picnic at Hanging Rock. The community, stunned by the disappearances, attempt to recover the missing women.

Lindsay deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction, for example writing newspaper articles about the disappearances, and she does this to great effect. Whilst this is a work of fiction, it makes you question what would happen or could happen if something like this occurred in real life. Could a handful of schoolgirls simple disappear? How and why? It makes the events of the novel more disconcerting to imagine them really taking place rather than viewing them as just fictional. Lindsay also throws some intriguing plot twists into the story, always keeping the reader suspecting what happened. Having these clues dotted about makes it quite fun to try and guess what is happening, even if it seems impossible to work out.

The one criticism I have of Picnic at Hanging Rock, a problem for me on my first read and still now, is the ending. In my edition the chapter where the disappearances are solved is present, but I know it was originally published separately. Without going into spoilers, it just didn’t work for me. The open-ended original worked a lot better; leaving the readers to guess what had happened. It certainly invites a lot of discussion and speculation. But the novel, whilst centred on this mystery, felt more about the girls at Appleyard College and their relationships. Certainly, that is what I enjoyed most about the book. Lindsay captures her characters incredibly well and it a joy to watch them develop over the course of the plot. It’s also interesting to see how the mystery affects them and how their lives are impacted. They are not mentioned in the final chapter, which focuses entirely on the missing persons, which meant I wasn’t wholly invested in those last few pages. In some ways, the girls that remained were more fascinating than the ones who vanished.

With that being said, I still liked Picnic at Hanging Rock on my reread. The blurring of fact and fiction was really well-handled, and it added depth to the story. Lindsay’s writing is also very atmospheric and she creates these beautiful backdrops for the action to unfold on. Her characters as well are beautifully drawn. I just think the last chapter is unnecessary, and weakens an otherwise very strong novel. I can see why it was initially left out.

Picnic at Hanging Rock is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.  

Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams review

This month I seem to be catching up on the latest debut novels. On Monday I reviewed The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins and now I’m turning my attention to Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams. This novel follows the eponymous Queenie Jenkins, a twenty five year old journalist living in London. Having recently broken up with boyfriend Tom, Queenie’s life starts to fall apart.

The ‘black Bridget Jones’ is a phrase that has been flung around numerous times in relation to Queenie. In some respects I understand why: it is a humorous story about the ups and downs of a single woman living in London. Yet that is where the similarities end. Carty-Williams tackles much darker themes than Fielding did: racism, domestic violence, and mental health are just some of the topics touched upon in the novel. She writes about these heavy subject matters with great sensitivity, and whilst the novel is really funny, she never undermines those serious moments with humour. The passages where Queenie is struggling with her mental health were beautifully written, full of emotion and just incredibly raw and realistic. It felt like a very accurate portrayal of mental health problems.

As mentioned the novel is funny, largely in part due to the central character. I adored Queenie. She was witty and vivacious, making the book a joy to read; I finished it within a week of starting. I was just so thoroughly swept up in her storyline and her various relationships. She is incredibly flawed and there were moments when she was unlikable, but she never stopped being a compelling character and I always wanted to know more. Also the conversations she and her friends have throughout the novel were reminiscent of ones I had with my friends when we were in our early twenties. That definitely played a part in my enjoyment; I could relate to these women in some way plus there was a nostalgic factor. Perhaps readers from other generations might have a different reading experience. Queenie’s grandparents as well were adorable and her interactions with her family were always hilarious.

It is hard to imagine that Queenie is a debut because it is very well-crafted. Carty-Williams manages to blend drama and humour excellently and moves between both with ease. Queenie is also a wonderfully written character and certainly one that I will remember for a while. I had a lot of fun reading this novel and think it deserves the success it has had.

Queenie is published by Trapeze and you can find more information here.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins review

Sara Collins’ debut novel The Confessions of Frannie Langton is a startlingly vivid account of black peoples’ experiences in the Georgian era. The year is 1826 and lady’s maid Frannie Langton is on trial for the murder of her employers/owners, George and Meg Benham. The novel flashes back and follows Frannie as a young girl growing up on a plantation in Jamaica. As a mixed race child, she never really fits in with anyone around her so she turns to books for comfort. Soon, her and plantation owner Langton set off for England, where she is given to the Benhams and subsequently begins an affair with Meg. But one questions always lurks beneath the surface: did she kill them?

The book is beautifully written, and certainly one of the most lyrical I’ve read in a while. Collins wonderfully captures the sights, sounds, and smells of both Jamaica and London, making the reader instantly drawn into the world. She is also adept at getting underneath Frannie’s skin and exploring her character through original and surprising metaphors and imagery. It was an absolute joy to read and just being swept up in this gorgeous language was lovely; despite often at odds with the grim subject matter and themes.

Collins also explores aspects of this time period that I had never previously considered. A key example is when abolitionists are mentioned. Whilst perhaps good-intentioned, they are predominantly white men wishing to write about the lives of black people, without letting black people write their stories for themselves. An early example is a conversation between Frannie and an abolitionist named Feelon. When Frannie says she wants to write her story herself, Feelon remarks she needs to ‘season’ it:

“I showed him a raised brow. ‘If people don’t know already what happens on a West India estate, Mr Feelon, you’ve wasted your life in the printing of all those pamphlets.’

‘But the slave tales we print shed light on suffering‘, he said, his own face running oil, like a lamp. ‘Which is the only way to keep attention to our cause’.” – pg. 42

The idea that both plantation owners and abolitionists exploit black people, for different reasons and through different ways but still undermining them, was a new concept to me and made me question what I know of this time period and slavery. In a way, this book seems like Collins’ way of giving back the voices of people like Frannie.

However, the relationship between Frannie and Meg fell flat. To be honest, I never saw the attraction between the two of them and, without giving away spoilers, their relationship was incredibly toxic and was border lining on abusive. Whether the relationship was supposed to be this way or an actual beautiful romance that I was supposed to root for, I don’t know. Also, the fact that Frannie is sort of an unreliable narrator heightens this uncertainty. It was the one main problem I had with the novel, that I was never sure how to feel about them.

Overall, The Confessions of Frannie Langton is an incredible debut. The language is stunning and was a highlight of the reading experience. The setting was evocative and how Collins dealt with slavery and abolition was unique and fascinating. However the core of the novel, the relationship between the two women, didn’t work; it seemed horrendous and I just couldn’t support it. But I would happily pick up Collins’ next book because this was a very promising first novel.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.  

 

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood review

It’s no surprise I went into The Testaments with some trepidation. My previous experiences with Atwood’s writing have been mixed – I really didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale and thought Hag Seed was good but forgettable. Plus the announcement of The Testaments, a sequel to Handmaid, seemed like a cash grab designed to take advantage of the TV show’s success. Yet I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by this. The Testaments follow three women; Daisy, a teenager living in Canada, Agnes a girl in Gilead and Aunt Lydia, one of the villains from the previous novel. We follow their journeys and watch as their lives intertwine.

Unlike in The Handmaid’s Tale, the plot is incredibly fast-paced and gripping. Combined with really short, snappy chapters, this made The Testaments unputdownable; by the second half I was hooked and needed to know how it ended. Perhaps because Atwood didn’t need to do much world building that she was able to dive straight in and tackle a more complex plot. It definitely held my attention. There are obviously still the illusions to real life suffering inflicted on women throughout the world, and these were particularly chilling.

One of the reasons I didn’t like The Handmaid’s Tale was the character of Offred. She was  incredibly bland with no discernible personality traits. The Testaments is the exact opposite in this regard. All the female leads – Daisy, Agnes, and Aunt Lydia – have been given their own distinct voice and language. Even without looking at chapter headings it is easy to know who is speaking. They also have their own personalities and it is interesting comparing the three women, and how their experiences are reflected in their word choice. The character that has stayed with me the most is Aunt Lydia. I vaguely remember her from the first book but she never particularly made much of an impression on me. Here she is truly fascinating. She’s morally ambiguous, and I never knew whether to like or dislike her. Some of her actions are truly deplorable, whilst others are more noble. Even after the novel ended, I wasn’t sure how I felt about her.

In the case of Atwood’s writing, it was third time lucky for me. Due to my past experiences with her books I was reluctant to pick up The Testaments but now I am glad I did. Everything that was missing from The Handmaid’s Tale for me is in abundance here. With a riveting plot and interesting characters, I couldn’t put this one down. Now, to get onto Girl, Woman, Other so I can compare both Booker winners.

The Testaments is published by Chatto & Windus and you can find more information here.

At the Teahouse Café: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook review

Continuing my recent binge of anything non-fiction is an essay collection by author Isham Cook. At the Teahouse Café is about China, where Cook has been living since the 90s. The topics within the collection are far-ranging, from everything from the firewall to music to medicine and even dating.

Cook begins his collection by discussing the pitfalls that many travel writers fall into, especially when talking about a culture foreign to themselves. How does one capture an entire nation into one book?  This was a particularly fascinating opening as it wasn’t a topic I had considered a great deal before, and it revealed some of the reasons why Cook compiled these essays together. As someone who has never been to China, I found At the Teahouse Café interesting yet was also aware that this is purely Cook’s perspective and experiences through the preface.

The essays themselves vary greatly; not only in content but in style. Some are more serious, tackling big topics whilst others are more tongue-in-cheek or satirical. This helps to stop the collection becoming too predictable and staid, and certainly the unpredictable element of what was coming next made me read on. My favourites were when Cook was being satirical, as seen in the essay titled ‘The question of breeding (why foreign men get the ‘ugly’ Chinese girls)’ which obviously explores dating and relationships. It helped keep the topics interesting as well as injected the book with humour. Throughout Cook explained Chinese culture and its differences with the West in a succinct and understandable way. You come away from the collection feeling you know more about the country than before. Or at least, I did.

At the Teahouse Café is ideal for anyone who wants to learn more about China. I think this would be recommended who know very little, rather than those who have visited the country before. A really enjoyable essay collection.

At the Teahouse Café: Essays from the Middle Kingdom is published independently and you can find more information here.  

Monthly Round-Up: January 2020

This will be interesting. As I’m sure most of you have noticed, I have never done a monthly round-up before; mainly because I’m not sure if people would be interested in them. But I thought I would give them a go and see how the posts get on. I also thought it would be nice to look back on my reading and film watching on a monthly basis as I don’t normally reflect on these until the end of the year. Especially in regards to films, I normally do a ‘Top 10 of the year’ and that’s it; yet I watch on average 40 films at the cinema so a good portion of those are never discussed. Hopefully by writing about them in round-ups I can recommend good films that perhaps don’t make the final list. But without further ado I shall start with the books:

Books Read and Reviewed in January 2020

I shall just list them here with links to the reviews if you want to know my thoughts on them: I won’t rehash all my feelings here.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott  

I See You by Claire Mackintosh

Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne Du Maurier

The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

Animal Farm by George Orwell

January has been a very different start to the year. Normally I read fiction with maybe a couple of nonfictions littered throughout the year – go back three or four years ago I never read any nonfiction at all. So to have three books out of seven falling into this category is highly unusual for me. Certainly I have been enjoying nonfiction a lot more lately – my top 3 books of last year were all nonfiction – and it is a genre that I wish to explore more and already have my eye on a couple of biographies that sound interesting. Mark Twain is quoted as saying “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” Perhaps that’s why I’ve been finding nonfiction so compelling. Saying that, I have been busy reading two novels: The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood so maybe my nonfiction binge will come to an end.

Films in January 2020

I’ve made four trips to the cinema in January, and all of them are Oscar nominees. Awards season sees me binging on a lot of films, trying to see as many of the nominees as possible, so expect to see a few of them in February too. I will just discuss them in the order I saw them:

Little Women (dir. Greta Gerwig)

Little WomenI don’t need to explain the plot as everyone knows it. In regards to the film, I loved it. Gerwig has changed the structure of the story, alternating between past and present, and it works brilliantly.  It helps to alleviate many of the problems I had whilst reading Alcott’s novel, especially the Jo and Professor Bhaer relationship. This is explored a little at the beginning of the film, but even those small scenes really establish their feelings for one another. Plus, the fact Bhaer is now closer to Jo’s age and not condescending towards her writing helps. The acting is excellent, especially from Florence Pugh as Amy, a character that is normally despised. Here she is a very sympathetic, likable person, which is due to Gerwig’s writing and Pugh’s thoughtful portrayal. It was interesting getting to know her more and exploring her relationship with Laurie more. The cinematography was also gorgeous, and the use of warm vs cold colours to symbolise the two timelines was well done. I can talk about this film and how glorious it is all day, in particular the ending which would have made Alcott proud.

Jojo Rabbit (dir. Taika Watiti)

Jojo RabbitThis has been described as an ‘anti-hate satire’ and is set during World War Two. Our protagonist is Johannes ‘Jojo’ (Roman Griffin Davis) a young boy who is a member of the Hitler Youth. He’s so enamoured with the leader that he is Jojo’s imaginary best friend (Watiti). Yet, Jojo’s beliefs start to come into question when he discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their house. I have heard some people complain that it went too far so it wasn’t funny. I actually think the opposite, that Watiti could have explored the satirical elements more, especially in regards to the character played by Stephen Merchant. However, that is probably my only critique of the film as I had a great time watching it. Sam Rockwell as the Hitler Youth leader was the highlight for me, combining both humour and pathos into his small role. The use of pop music as well was spot on and a really clever addition – I had to stop myself from joining in on Bowie’s Heroes.  Despite the rather grim subject matter, I still found this to be a heart-warming, funny film.

Bombshell (dir. Jay Roach)

BombshellBombshell is a semi-fictionalised account of the scandal that rocked Fox News: when a group of women, spearheaded by Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) accused head Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) of sexual assault and discussed the overall toxic atmosphere in those offices. It is easy to understand why Charlize Theron (looking startlingly like Megyn Kelly) and Margot Robbie, playing a fictional character, are receiving award nominations. Both are phenomenal, along with Kidman and Lithgow, who is terrifying as Ailes. As someone who remembers the events that ultimately brought down Ailes and Fox anchor Bill O’Reilly, I found this a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes yet perhaps those unfamiliar with the people involved might feel differently. The opening segment, featuring Theron/Kelly wandering around explaining the different floors in the Fox building, felt a little unnecessary and clunky. I know this was for people who didn’t know the story, but it felt like it stalled the plot from beginning. Having her speaking directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall, also totally threw me off. It was an interesting choice made by Roach but I’m not completely convinced it paid off. Still, a solid and painfully relevant film.

1917 (dir. Sam Mendes)

1917Yep, I saw a World War One and Two movie in the same month. 1917 though is far more serious than Jojo Rabbit: we follow young soldiers Blake and Schofield (played by Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay) who must deliver an important message to call off an attack: 1,600 men are about to walk straight into a trap. Most discussions around this film centre on the fact it was filmed to look like one continous shot. It is certainly impressive to look at, and helps to up the tension – already palpable from Mendes’ direction and the brilliant score by Thomas Newman. The feeling of dread seems to linger over every frame. Interestingly, there is only a handful of scenes of violence in 1917, with the aftermath of battles being shown in the back- and middle ground.  This gives the sense of danger around every corner. The two performances by Chapman and MacKay are brilliant, and I wish they had got more recognition this awards season. Their friendship was really believable and I genuinely cared for their characters. In a cast which included Colin Firth, Richard Madden, and Benedict Cumberbatch (admittedly in cameos) these two really shone in the film.

 

And that is it for January! Let me know if you’ve either read any of the books or seen any of the films mentioned and what you thought of them! Also, let me know if you like monthly round-ups and would like to see more of them, it’s always nice to get some feedback so I can improve the blog.

Animal Farm by George Orwell review

George Orwell’s novella Animal Farm needs no introduction: its inclusion on various ‘Greatest Books of All Time’ lists and school curriculums means most people know of it. Manor Farm is run by the alcoholic Farmer Jones and has fallen into a state of disrepair. Encouraged and led by pigs Old Major, Snowball, and Napoleon, the animals stage a revolt and overthrow their incompetent farmer. Renamed ‘Animal Farm’, the property initially appears to flourish. However, Napoleon, power-hungry, wishes to run the farm a lot differently.

I was one such person to first read Animal Farm for schoolwork, though admittedly, at the time I knew very little about the Russian Revolution at the time. Looking back on the novella, (definitely) older, and (hopefully) wiser, it is interesting to see the parallels between the characters and key figures from this period. The dynamics between Old Major, Napoleon and Snowball are obviously meant to mirror Lenin, Stalin, and Trotsky respectfully, but even secondary characters such as Boxer the horse and his idea of working harder to resolve problems on the farm, is modelled on Alexsei Stakhanov. It has been fun seeing how these historical figures have been reinterpreted by Orwell.

The narration as well is excellently done. It is quite detached, almost emotionless. This helps to create a distance between the characters and events and the reader. I read this in two different ways: the first one, that it reflects Orwell’s feelings of helplessness that he couldn’t discuss or critique certain aspects of the Soviet Union; he had been reduced to watching rather than being more involved, which is a similar position the reader finds themselves in. But also, having the narration quite simplistic means it is difficult to misinterpret Orwell’s intended meanings, specifically looking at how language is manipulated to suit a particular viewpoint or agenda. Napoleon in particular seems to do this – he twists words to suit himself, which stands in stark contrast to the narration which is much more honest.

There are some interesting parallels to be made between Animal Farm and the current political climate, making the novella all the more terrifying. Orwell’s writing is exceptional, from how he has taken famous figures, made them animals and fitted them into the plot through to the narration. Even the subtitle – mine is ‘A fairy story’ – seems deliberately and ironically chosen. A brilliant, horrifying, timely work from one of my favourite authors, and one that fully deserves its place on those Greatest Book lists.

Animal Farm is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.

 

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold review

The title The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper sums up this nonfiction nicely. Rubenhold narrates the lives of Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Kate Eddowes, and Mary Jane Kelly, from their birth to those fateful days in 1888. Along the way, she also explores Victorian society as a whole.

Rubenhold’s extensive research means the women’s voices are reclaimed and their stories told. She doesn’t look down on them for their choices, and also doesn’t leap to conclusions, unlike the police operating in Whitechapel. Instead, she explores the reasons why a woman might become destitute in Victorian London. The reliance on alcohol (many of the women here suffer from alcoholism), the lack of jobs for the working class, the belief that destitute women and prostitutes were essentially the same. All these factors contributed, and it was in turns fascinating and horrifying reading about the conditions the women faced. It was an interesting reading experience: I wanted the women to better the lives, to get a lucky break, whilst knowing how their lives ended. Whilst Jack the Ripper is barely mentioned in The Five, his presence lurks within every page.

Yet Rubenhold doesn’t focus on their deaths – for example, the gruesome pictures of their bodies are omitted, replaced with images or drawings of them whilst alive. They are, of course, mentioned, but it is ultimately the women themselves that take centre stage. And this idea Rubenhold also explores: that the perpetrator is often the one in the limelight, rather than the victims. This is especially true for Jack the Ripper. Books, documentaries, movies, even video games have featured him as a prominent character, with the women often sidelined or reduced to mere corpses – and this fascination with criminals extends even today. This idea gave me pause and made me think of my own interest in true crime and why discussion seem to centre around the person committing the crime, rather those it is happening to. Rubenhold also links this idea with violence against women and how that is perceived, both in Victorian London and today. The linking between past and present was very effective and highlights problems today within our discussions of violent crimes.

The Five isn’t only for people interested in the Jack the Ripper case, but also those wishing to know more about Victorian society. Rubenhold goes into depth about subjects like workhouses, family dynamics, even laws or societal norms which affected women in a negative way. It is an interesting, though sobering, read and has made me question a lot of the assumptions I held regarding these women and their killer.

The Five is published by Doubleday and you can find more information here.

The Cut Out Girl by Bart Van Es review

Many people will remember Bart Van Es’ nonfiction memoir The Cut Out Girl winning the Best Book of the Year at the Costa Book Awards back in 2018. Slightly shamefully, I have only now just got around to it. Van Es looks back at his family history; particularly during the Second World War when his grandparents would hide Jewish children. One girl, Lien, came to live with them and regard them as her family. Yet years after the war, something happened that made Lien and the Van Es family cease contact. Now, Lien’s story is told in full about what happened during and after the war.

The structure of this book was cleverly done and really added to the reading experience. The chapters flit between present day in 2017 and the 1940s. This gives the reader a glimpse into Lien’s life growing up in wartime Netherlands, but also lets us learn more about Bart, his motives in writing this book, and his research. He doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics; indeed, I found his self-reflection brutally honest at points. It made him an endearing figure along with Lien. Her narrative provided a personal touch, her narrative focussing on her experiences whilst Van Es provided the larger context on what was happening.

With memoirs or biographies such as this, especially with the author a relative of the people he is writing about, there might be a tendency to be biased, or present a rosier picture than was real. But Van Es was completely fair to everyone mentioned in the book, and he helps you understand the motivations behind their actions. Whilst I did not agree with everything that Lien or the Van Es family did, it was understandable and I was sympathetic to their plight. It made the later scenes all the more heart-breaking: you can see where both parties are coming from but because they can’t communicate their feelings, they struggle to understand one another. I came away from The Cut Out Girl viewing them as flawed people.

Van Es’ descriptions were beautifully written, and made me long to visit the Netherlands to witness the scenes for myself. His writing was really evocative and helped me picture what was happening. He also handles sensitive subjects with a delicacy and sensitivity. He is obviously diving into a distressing subject matter; discussions of war as well as sexual abuse and suicide are mentioned, which might upset some readers so caution is advised. Yet these topics are never sensationalized and treated with the seriousness they deserve.

2019 was an excellent year for me in terms of non-fiction, and with The Cut Out Girl it looks like 2020 will be the same. This is such a well-crafted, expertly written book that I will be pushing into the hands of my family and friends. Despite the grim subject matter – and there were plenty of moments that made me well up – The Cut Out Girl is ultimately an uplifting story about the power of family. Highly recommended.

The Cut Out Girl is published by Penguin Random House and you can find more information here.