The Golden Rule by Jessica Marie Baumgartner review

Hi everyone! After the incredibly dense and sometimes depressing Parade’s End, I needed something lighter. So I requested The Golden Rule by Jessica Marie Baumgartner from Booktasters and the author kindly sent me a copy. The Golden Rule is a children’s picture book and we follow our nameless narrator as she explores the Golden Rule – be kind to others – in various religions.

 

Baumgartner talks about diversity, and indeed mentions xenophobia briefly, which is done really well. This mistrust of people different from yourself, whether that involves religion or not, is still sadly alive and well in the world today. It is a hard, difficult topic to discuss, especially in a children’s book as there is a juggling act of keeping kids engaged while discussing a serious topic without ‘dumbing down’ the issue. I think Baumgartner does a great job of balancing the serious topics but still keeping the book accessible.

The illustrations by Laura Winship-Fanaei are also excellent. The illustrations have their own distinct style and didn’t feel generic. There was a particular page where the writing bent around the image which I thought looked really striking, and I would’ve liked to have seen more of that. But I thought the text and pictures complimented each other nicely; neither overshadowed the other.

Overall, The Golden Rule is a very sweet book for young children with a lovely message and great pictures. The simple (yet sadly, often neglected) idea of being kind to others radiates from every page, and the book would make great introduction to discussing the idea of inclusion with children.

The Golden Rule is published by Eleventh Hour Literary Press and you can find more information here.

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Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford review

Hi everyone! I was originally planning to write my review of Parade’s End in November with the centenary of the end of WW1 coming up. But I have quite a lot to say and, in fear of forgetting some of my thoughts, I have decided to write it now. Parade’s End is a quartet; the individual books being Some Do Not-, A Man Could Stand Up, No More Parades, and The Last Post. Our protagonist is Christopher Tietjens, the youngest son of quite a wealthy family, whose wife Sylvia has been having affairs during their relationship. However, things become more complicated when Tietjens falls for Valentine Wannop, a young suffragette, yet wants to remain loyal to his wife. This love triangle takes place before, during and after the First World War.

Some people may have seen the BBC adaptation with Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall, and this is maybe the first time I’m glad I saw the show first. The novels are very Modernist in style; which some people might not like but I don’t mind. But there are occasional flashbacks within flashbacks, and combined with a large cast of characters, makes the reading experience confusing at times. If I hadn’t seen the TV show beforehand, I think I would have been lost; the constant jumping of time and characters was a little disorienting. However, once you get sucked into the plot it does grip you.

One of my favourite aspects of the novels is the characterisation. Tietjens is such a noble, intelligent yet irritatingly passive person. As a reader you are never sure how to feel about him; he is a bit of an enigma. This is obvious during The Last Post; Tietjens doesn’t make an appearance until near the end. He is seen, but only in other characters’ flashbacks so you never get to view things from his perspective. It leaves him as this shrouded, allusive figure at the end. During the first three novels you are given some insight into his personality – with varying responses. Sometimes I found him to be quite a noble, tragic figure; doing what he knows to be right and putting that above his own wants. Yet at other moments he is a doormat, other characters seem to steamroller over him and he doesn’t stand up for himself. He is such an interesting, yet frustrating, character.

His relationships with Sylvia and Valentine can also be described in a similar vein. Tietjens and Sylvia do love each other but it feels ‘wrong’. They can’t seem to communicate or give what the other person wants; leading to outbursts and infidelities, especially from Sylvia’s side. She admires her husband but is frustrated by him, and you can feel her conflicted emotions through the page. Tietjens and Valentine’s relationship has a different quality to it. Again, there is the admiration for one another but I was always uncertain about their love. They could truly love one another, but I think Ford leaves open other possibilities. Does Tietjens love Valentine because she is different from Sylvia? Does he put her on a pedestal, as someone who has qualities he may want? Is it simply a case of wanting what you can’t have? You are never really told, and the ending does nothing to solve these conflicts. Instead it is up to the reader to interpret what happened.

Whilst the heart of Parade’s End deals with this love triangle, it also explores the changing society around this period. Through the character of Valentine you see the struggle for women’s suffrage; but in general you witness class systems being broken down. Without going into spoilers, something happens to Groby, the Tietjens’ ancestral home, which encapsulates the downfall of the ruling class. I found that particular passage to be very moving yet it felt a satisfying conclusion to the story.

Overall, Parade’s End is a bit of a roller coaster. Entertaining at times, frustrating at others; characters about whom you are not entirely sure what to feel about; there is a lot to take in. But I do believe it is worth the time and effort as I came away reflecting on what I had read. I was still thinking about these characters a week after finishing; they linger in the mind for a while. It won’t be for everyone, but if you like historical novels or those set during the Great War, you might like Parade’s End.

Parade’s End is published by Penguin Modern Classics and you can find more information here.

Life Honestly by The Pool review

Hi everyone! This week I’m reviewing Life Honestly by The Pool, which I received from the publishers via Netgalley. I must confess I had never heard of The Pool until earlier this year, though a quick Google had me intrigued; an online platform where women discuss various topics from sex and relationships to health, work and general life advice. The book is a compilation of essays either taken from the website or written specifically for Life Honestly.

I really enjoyed the essays overall. It was a great book to dip in and out of; the essays are sorted by categories so it was easy to find a particular topic. There was also a nice mixture of light-hearted works and heavier material. If there was an essay that wasn’t working for you, the next one might. The variety of writers (including co-creator Lauren Laverne, Juno Dawson, and Rowan Hisayo Buchanan) also means there is a variety of different writing styles which helps keep Life Honestly interesting.

However I did find some of the essays a little on the short side – which seems like an odd criticism considering I was told this in the blurb. The shorter ones lacked depth and didn’t really explore their topic fully. I would be enjoying an essay and be disappointed when I found out it was a couple of pages long, I was so interested in the subject at hand that I was sad it wasn’t discussed further.

The Pool is based in the UK and the majority of the writers are British, which means a lot of the essays use UK current affairs/news as springboards for discussions. While some topics are obviously universal and I think anyone male or female can relate to them; some people might not get the references. Awkwardly, in one essay I didn’t know what news story was being referred to and that did hinder my reading experience. It makes me wonder how Life Honestly will be received worldwide.

Life Honestly was an enjoyable read. Some essays did have an effect on me (particularly the ones dealing with mental health) and there wasn’t a writer I didn’t enjoy (so many new writers I need to check out). I just wanted more. There were a lot of interesting topics that could’ve been given more time to be fully explored. Overall if you’re a fan of non-fiction I think you’ll like Life Honestly.

Life Honestly is published by Pan Macmillan and you can find more information here.

Amanda Rio by Steven Donahue review

Hi everyone! Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I thought I’d review Steven Donahue’s Amanda Rio, and I kindly got sent a copy by the author. To outsiders the titular Amanda seems to have a happy life; she’s married to her high school sweetheart Bobby and they have 12-year-old daughter Mary, who is excelling in her extra curricular activities. However, in private it is a different story, with Bobby prone to violent ‘eruptions’ as Amanda calls them, and her reliance on booze to help numb the pain. After a particularly violent fight involving Bobby, Amanda attempts to get help for the both of them. But will it work?

Donahue is tackling very dark, disturbing issues such as domestic violence and suicide, so if these topics are too much to read for you I would skip this novel. I think these issues aren’t gratuitous here nor is there any moment these topics are glamourised. Rather they are portrayed realistically, and it is obvious that Donahue has done research into domestic violence cases. It gives the story a feeling of authenticity, and these elements are handled with great sensitivity and care which I really appreciated.

The characters are also very well-written. Amanda is an interesting protagonist; she makes some poor decisions throughout the novel but you understand why she makes them, even if you don’t necessarily agree with them. She displays both vulnerability and strength at various points; and as a reader you hope the stronger side to her personality wins out.

Bobby is also a fascinating character. He is incredibly charming and romantic when he wishes to be, though you know from the first chapter he is a monster. The fact you don’t know if he’ll snap or not makes him terrifying. He lingers over the plot even when he doesn’t appear in the chapters; he’s like this malignant force that dominates the book much in the same way he dominates the other characters’ lives. It feels like relief when you have reached the end of the novel as you don’t have to be in his company again.

My one minor criticism is similar to the one brought up in Monday’s The Beijing Family review; there were times when I felt Donahue added unnecessary details. I’m not really bothered by what the characters had for breakfast or anything like that; I very much want to progress on with the plot. But that’s a pet peeve of mine; others may enjoy a lot of details.

I really enjoyed Amanda Rio, though I understand why others may not or find it too upsetting. Donahue is a very skilled writer, especially when it comes to characterisation. There were a couple of spelling mistakes and unnecessary details but these are minor issues. Overall it was a very impactful novel.

Amanda Rio is published independently and you can find more information here.

The Beijing Family by Gina Tang review

Hi everyone! Today I’ll be reviewing The Beijing Family by Gina Tang, which I believe is the first in a series. I kindly received my copy from the author and Booktasters. Kara Chang is a LA-based real estate broker and developer who helps a family from Beijing find a house in the area. She quickly bonds with Simon, his elderly mother Grandma Moh and teenage son Greg. As she helps them find their dream home, they in turn begin to help her in ways she couldn’t imagine.

I was particularly fascinated with the passages describing life in China, especially from Simon’s perspective. China isn’t a country I know a lot about so those moments provided really good glimpses into it. They also made Simon a much more interesting character as you hear snippets of his past.

Feeding into this is the notion of cultural differences. There is a scene where Simon and his family have African-Americans round to dinner and Tang highlights the characters’ stereotypes of each other. She also makes a point about food and how that is very much wrapped up in cultural and national identity. What could be quite commonplace in one country might be considered odd, exotic or even disgusting in another.

Tang’s writing is very descriptive; which I liked in some respects. However there were moments, especially during the house-hunting chapters with Simon and Kara, where it felt overly detailed. The plot almost seemed to stop while these intricately detailed houses were being described, and I really just wanted to see the relationship between the two characters rather than this house.

Overall I did enjoy The Beijing Family. It is a very light-hearted, quick read with likeable characters. Tang does a great job of characterisation and prose; but like I said there were times when unnecessary details stopped the plot from flowing. However that’s only a minor criticism and just my personal taste; others might have a different opinion on the descriptions.

The Beijing Family is published independently and you can find more information here.

Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? by Hans Fallada review

Hi everyone! This Monday I’m back with another Penguin Modern book: Hans Fallada’s Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch?, which has been translated by Michael Hofmann. I have previously read Alone in Berlin, probably Fallada’s most famous work, and really enjoyed it so I thought I would pick up some of his short stories. Similar to my Clarice Lispector review, I’ll go through my thoughts on each individual story with my overall impression of the collection at the end.

The first story sees our nameless narrator try to answer the titular question. He wears a nickel watch though his father is a watchmaker, and explains the various scrapes he has gotten himself into. The story is only 5 pages long, and could be described as more flash fiction than anything else, so it was a really quick, easy read. Obviously due to its length there isn’t a lot of depth but I found the story funny and the protagonist quite endearing. There is a dark sense of humour running throughout, which is also apparent in the other stories, making this a good opener to the collection.

The second story ‘War Monument or Urinal?’ is probably my favourite out of all three stories. In the provincial town Neustadt, unemployed teacher Pumm works as a lowly reporter to earn some money, when a chance encounter with a policeman leads him to make a suggestion in his paper that the town should build a petrol station to encourage tourism. The suggestion causes arguments to erupt in the small town and things quickly begin to escalate. Fallada appears to mock local government officials, who seem completely inept at looking into this new proposal and dealing with the tensions said proposal has arisen. Their absurdity is laughable and it did make me smile on occasion. Fallada also looks at representatives from across the political spectrum, with nobody immune to mockery. The character of Pumm was also an interesting one. He is an ordinary man inadvertently caught in the middle, yet some of the decisions he makes are quite reprehensible. On the one hand you do sympathise with him, but on the another he isn’t necessarily the most likeable character, which I found interesting.

The final story is ‘Fifty Marks and a Merry Christmas’ which sees newlyweds Itzenplitz and Mumm struggle to scrape enough money together for Christmas. The two leads are likeable but this story felt longer than necessary. It could’ve been shorter and the narrative would still work. The secondary characters as well I didn’t find particularly compelling, and I was much more interested in Itzenplitz and Mumm and their relationship than the others. It was a very sweet, charming story but not without its flaws and I’m not sure if I would reread it.

Overall I did enjoy Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? The stories were darkly funny and it was nice seeing another aspect of Fallada’s writing compared to Alone in Berlin. With the stories being written in 1931/32 it was also interesting seeing snapshots of Germany between the wars, which isn’t a period I’ve read a lot about. The stories aren’t perfect by any means but I found them quirky, funny and enjoyable. This would make a good introduction to someone who has never read Fallada (or if you’re like me and want to read more by him).

Why Do You Wear a Cheap Watch? is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.

Snap by Belinda Bauer review

Hi everyone! Since the Man Booker Prize shortlist is to be unveiled this week on the 20th September, I thought I would read one of the long listed novels. I find the Man Booker interesting as I always consider the nominees a mixed bag; there’s some I adore, like Lincoln in the Bardo, and others I don’t get the hype around. However when I heard Belinda Bauer’s new novel Snap was nominated, I was definitely intrigued. It begins in 1998 where Jack Bright and younger sisters Joy and Merry are waiting in the car on a layby while their mum goes to find a phone to call emergency services. She’s been gone an hour when the children, fed up of waiting in a boiling hot car, decide to go and find her. Except they don’t find her; only the phone dangling off the hook. We then fast forward three years later to see how their mum’s disappearance has affected them.

The characterisation was a bit haphazard. I loved the children, and I think Bauer did an excellent job of portraying kids who had experienced trauma and grief. Even if you didn’t necessarily agree with their actions, you could understand and empathise with them. This is particularly true of Jack, who has had to grow up very quickly and well before his time, in order to look after his sisters. His character arc was particularly heartbreaking and I was very moved by him. Whenever a chapter was dedicated to the children I devoured it.

By contrast, I wasn’t impressed with the chapters about the police officers. They all seemed to be cliches, especially hard-as-nails Detective Chief Inspector Marvel. There was nothing particularly interesting or original about them; at moments I found myself rolling my eyes. Also one officer in particular seems to act a bit as comic relief; while I understand Bauer’s decision to include him, I didn’t find him funny or even relevant at points. He could’ve been replaced by any other officer and I wouldn’t have noticed. Another character, Catherine While, was so dull and non-descript it’s difficult to know what to say about her. She’s ‘there’.

Also the amount of coincidences became almost laughable. Whilst coincidences obviously do happen, the sheer amount of them borderlined on ridiculous. It became really bizarre towards the end and I think you do have to suspend belief before reading the novel. There were moments when reading when I would think ‘Really?!’ This was particularly frustrating as I found other passages really well written but others fell flat.

Overall, I thought Snap was a mixed reading experience. Some things I really enjoyed about the novel; others I was disappointed by. Without going into spoilers the ending, while poignant, wasn’t satisfying which I found a pity; the novel seemed to building up to this thrilling climax which never quite delivered. I find this an odd addition to the longlist; it doesn’t really do anything new or interesting with the genre and I do wonder if some better thrillers could have taken its place.
Snap is published by Transworld and you can find more information here.

Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín review

Hi everyone! I recently rewatched Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan, Domhnall Gleeson and Emory Cohen, and which had been one of my favourite films of 2015. I decided that since I had given the movie another viewing, I should reread the book too. The story begins in 1950s Ireland, where Eilis Lacey is stuck working behind the counter at the local shop. Her sister decides to give her a better life and, with the help of a priest, manages to secure Eilis passage to New York. There she struggles with homesickness, however she soon begins a romance with Tony and starts to feel at home in Brooklyn. But tragedy strikes and she is forced to return to Ireland, where she becomes friendly with a man named Jim Farrell. Soon Eilis finds herself torn between two countries and two men.

What struck me on this reread is how passive Eilis is. A lot happens to her but not because of her. Her actions are very much dictated by the other people around her who make decisions on her behalf. This works in regards to the ending; did she pick this particular man because she wanted to be with him or felt that she had to be with him? Yet at times I found it frustrating; she sort of drifts through life and I just wanted her to take charge of her own fate for once.

However I think Tóibín portrayed her beautifully; he really captured that feeling when you leave home, and the sense of loss that many experience. He also really captured the idea of this young woman trying to find her feet and I thought Eilis’ voice sounded authentic. There wasn’t a point where I thought this was a male writer mimicking a young woman; it felt very realistic.

The secondary characters were also nicely portrayed, particularly Tony and Jim. The reader is able to see the positives and negatives if Eilis remained with them, and it makes you question whether she has made the right decision. I watched an interview with Gleeson, who played Jim, and he suggested that perhaps neither men are right for her; a notion I hadn’t considered before and one which made this reread more interesting. Tóibín never suggests a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ man; rather he leaves the reader to decide for themselves who (if either) Eilis should be with.

Some people aren’t going to like Brooklyn; it is slow-paced with nothing particularly happening for large chunks of the narrative. It is very much about Eilis’ journey and her new life, so if you prefer plot driven books perhaps skip this one. I found the novel deeply relatable, and I’m sure it will (and has) resonate with many people; the feelings of leaving home and falling in love are universal so many can understand and sympathise with Eilis. If you haven’t seen the film or read the book I would highly recommend checking them out; this may be one of the rare cases where the film is just as good as the book.

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

Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady by Clarice Lispector review

I’m back with another Penguin Modern review; this time no.15, Clarice Lispector’s Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady translated by Katrina Dodson. I have never read any of this author’s work before so figured three short stories would be a good taster. As they are short and my reading was quite mixed, I’ll review them individually rather than the collection as a whole. Whilst doing some background reading on her (I knew very little before), I noticed Lispector is often compared to Virginia Woolf; a comparison I find lazy, as it seems every women writer who uses stream-of-consciousness is automatically compared to Woolf. But that pet peeve can wait for another day, so I’ll dive straight into the reviews.

The titular story was my least favourite. Our nameless narrator is in her bedroom, recalling her, well, ‘daydreams and drunkenness’. Lispector’s language was very beautiful, and there were phrases which jumped out as being particularly poetic, but overall the story felt a bit jumbled. I’m not sure if this was a flaw in the translation, or simply because our character’s thinking is disordered so the writing reflects that. But at times I wasn’t entirely sure what to think and feel, and I wasn’t really interested in the characters. The narrator seemed quite self-indulgent but other than that I’m not sure how to describe these people. They were just ‘there’.

By contrast the second story ‘Love’ was my high point in the collection. Ana is coming home from food shopping when a chance encounter with a blind man throws her into what appears to be an existential crisis. The word choice was incredibly emotive and paragraphs, especially those set in the Botanical Gardens, were very evocative and beautifully written. I reread numerous sentences due to how stunning they were.

Also, I thought Lispector really got under Ana’s skin. The repetition of phrases, emphasising Ana’s need for reassurance that she has chosen the right life, the life she always wanted, highlights her insecurity and an underlying sadness. After seeing the blind man which throws her off-kilter, there is a sense that now she is viewing life as it really is, rather than the dulled version she had been walking through. Lispector achieves this through very simple sentences, such as: ‘next to her was a lady in blue, with a face’ (pg 23). Previously Ana never thought about this lady; a sort of nothingness which now takes the form of a person, with thoughts, dreams and desires. The lady seems to become less like a background extra and more of a fully-fleshed being in Ana’s mind. It highlights the idea of Ana seeing life with all its complexities. Every comes together in ‘Love’, with it probably being one of my favourites of 2018.

The final story in the collection ‘Family Ties’ can be described as just ‘alright’. Catarina is dropping her mother off at the train station after the old lady had been spending some time with her, husband Antonio and their young son. The most interesting part for me was the mother/daughter relationship. Lispector effectively conveyed the hidden words that both wish to say to one another, but for whatever reason could not. There is a sense of frustration of wanting to speak honestly but something holding back. However by the end of the story, our perspective shifts to Antonio, which is where the narrative fell down. He wasn’t as compelling a character as Catarina, and I found myself getting quite bored by the end. For a story only 14 pages long it felt like it dragged and could have been shorter.

Overall this was a really mixed bag for me. The one constant was Lispector’s writing; her word choice and imagery in particular were stunning, and I found them really powerful. However the characterisation was missing in the first and third stories and, with the exception of Catarina, I struggled to connect with any of them. Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady seems quite devisive – guessing from the polarising ratings on Goodreads – but I am glad I read it, and would consider trying Lispector again in future.

Daydream and Drunkenness of a Young Lady is published by Penguin and you can find more information here.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton review

When browsing my shelves for my next classic to mark off the old TBR pile, I stumbled across a copy of The Age of Innocence. I’m not going to lie I don’t remember when I got the book; my guess is probably half a decade ago. So why not read it now (finally)? The plot is quite simple; in 1870s New York Newland Archer is engaged to the beautiful May Welland. However things become complicated when he starts to fall for May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska, who has returned to the United States after escaping her unhappy marriage.

The highlight of the novel for me was how New York society feels like a character in its own right. Wharton has clearly researched the style and manners of this period; and whilst I admit I know very little of Victorian New York society, it did feel realistic, although at some points quite heightened. At times it borders on comical, especially dealing with the hypocrisy within it, and some of Wharton’s wittiest lines appear when she is describing this world. The blurb on the back of my copy describes the novel as ‘subtly satirical’ which I disagree with; I found it quite blatant and enjoyed it nonetheless.

The narrative is completely told from Newland’s perspective, a decision which becomes clear as the novel progresses. We see everything and everyone through his eyes, and hear his comments on them. This includes his two lovers May and Ellen, and it is only when reaching the end of the novel does it become apparent Newland is an unreliable narrator. Not to give too much away, but he doesn’t see the two women for who they really are.

This is especially true for May; Newland seems to think her incredibly innocent to the point she doesn’t think for herself, and Countess Olenska is very much romanticised due to her perceived foreignness. It makes an interesting question for the reader; do I truly know these characters or has Newland’s bias influenced me? The contrast between the women is most obviously seen when Newland buys flowers for them; white lilies-of-the-valley for May and Ellen’s bright yellow roses.

Not a lot happens in The Age of Innocence; most of the drama and turmoil occurs below the surface, either in private rooms or, more often, in Newland’s head as he grapples with his love for Ellen. I did enjoy the slower pace Wharton used; though admittedly at the beginning I did find it a bit of a slog. I really wanted Wharton to move the plot along, however now with hindsight I realise how important it was to set up the society in which these characters live. It sets the stage (quite literally as it opens when they’re at the opera) for the rest of the novel.

I’m glad I finally did get round to The Age of Innocence, and am annoyed at myself for not doing so sooner. Wharton’s writing is beautiful and lyrical, and her portrayal of this upper-class world was really well done. The characters were also incredibly written, even the secondary characters seemed to come alive on the page. I would recommend the novel if you haven’t already read it.

The Age of Innocence is published by Wordsworth Classics and more information can be found here.