Ode to America by Odette Fraser

Ode to America by Odetta Fraser is a strange book to pin down. It is written like poetry, yet the narrative voice, plot, and chapters are reminiscent of a novel. The book’s blurb calls Ode to America ‘a song both difficult and sweet’. However one would like to categorise it, Fraser’s creation is definitely relevant: through the eyes of our nameless narrator we follow both past and present USA, and the exploitation of black people throughout the centuries.

Fraser, rightfully, pulls no punches. From the very first chapter she tackles slavery, and handles that topic with great aplomb. She is both sensitive and brutally honest; she is humanistic yet never shies away from the cruel, degrading realities of the slave trade, and the anger it makes her feel. It is an incredibly strong opening, and the book continues in this relentless manner until the end. As mentioned previously, Ode to America is broken up into chapters. Each segment seems to tackle a different problem in America society (though admittedly the rest of the world can still relate) and this structure was great. It feels like snapshots of a country, little snippets that help build a much bigger picture. In some ways, the USA is the main ‘character’ of the book, rather than our narrator, and the layout reflects that.

Fraser’s word choice and imagery are very evocative. Admittedly some comparisons threw me off – there is one between slave traders and penguins for example – but on the whole the language flowed beautifully. This also helped make the reading experience even quicker; you just naturally keep reading the flow of words. And, even despite the grim subject matter, there is still some wryness and wittiness to the text. The title Ode to America is a great example of that. Odes are normally associated with heroes; those deserving having praise heaped upon them. By contrast, Ode to America is somewhat ironic, and plays with the idea of odes themselves.

It is hard to sum up Ode to America accurately. Despite being 83 pages long, it does tackle a lot of weighty subjects and tackles them very well. Fraser’s writing is very impressive too. Not quite novel, not quite poetry collection, it is certainly a unique book and one I enjoyed.

I received a free copy thanks to Booktasters. To learn more about the book click here.    

The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell review

Lisa Jewell’s latest novel The Family Upstairs seems to be have been everywhere in the last 12 months. Everyone, from critics to bloggers to authors, has been singing its praises. So, I have decided to see what all the fuss is about. The Family Upstairs is told from three perspectives. In present-day St. Albans, Libby just turns 25 when she inherits the house belonging to her biological parents Henry and Martina Lamb, who died when she was young. Lucy is a homeless single mother living in the south of France and determined to return to London. The last narrative thread is set in the early 1990s and follows Henry, the Lambs’ eldest child. Throughout the novel, their lives converge, and secrets are uncovered.  

The plot was a lot of fun and I was genuinely intrigued all the way through. While I guessed a couple of twists quite early on, some of the revelations were surprising and these cliff-hangers made me want to keep reading. I really wanted to uncover the mystery. In terms of the characters, I enjoyed two of the main narratives. Henry was definitely a highlight; he was a very compelling, borderline unreliable, narrator. He has a distinct voice too which made him stand out from Libby and Lucy. Coupled with the fact that most of the dramatic events unfold in his narrative, it was always a delight when we got to his chapters. Admittedly at first, Lucy was a tad dull but as the novel progressed she became more endearing. She is a much more sympathetic character, and the relationship between her and son Marco was beautifully drawn.

Libby, however, was so unrealistic that she pulled me out of the story. At first, it was fine – here was a young woman who has been thrust into an extraordinary position. Readers are told all about her life which, whilst not the most interesting content, served as a parallel to the bizarre events she goes through later on. But a lot of the details Jewell gave were unnecessary. I don’t need to know what colour Libby’s playsuit is, nor what the random guy she met at a party looked like. A lot of those passages could easily have been omitted and not missed. Another thing I disliked was how Libby’s reactions to things seemed inappropriate. Minor spoilers alert, but at one point Libby discovers someone committing a crime. Her response?

Oh, he’s cute.

What? I know she is supposed to be actively looking for a boyfriend – we get a lot of mentions of this – but that is just bizarre. At points it felt like Libby had absolutely no personality; her only defining feature was her desperation to find a partner. My eyes rolled to the back of my head multiple times when reading her narrative. Compared to Henry and even Lucy, Libby’s story was a disappointment.

Overall, The Family Upstairs is a good thriller, perfect for a bit of escapism. Jewell’s writing is fine, though there was plenty of useless information that could have been cut. There were a couple of sentences that didn’t flow as well as perhaps they could’ve. Libby aside, the characters were intriguing, and the plot was a lot of fun. I enjoy a good mystery and The Family Upstairs checks that box. It was a fun, fast-paced read.

The Family Upstairs is published by Arrow Books and you can find more information here.

Savagery by JC Mehta review

Savagery by J.C. Mehta is a short but sharp poetry collection tackling what it means to be indigenous in 21st-century America. This is a very raw, honest, personal account and Mehta pulls no punches. She discusses her experiences in a straightforward manner with crisp, concise word choice and imagery. This is incredibly effective in highlighting the messages Mehta wants to convey, and the bluntness of the language forces the reader to confront the issues raised head-on. Different aspects of indigenous life are discussed with beautiful but brutal imagery, making Savagery a necessary read.

Another aspect of Savagery I enjoyed was Mehta’s structure. She uses a lot of free form poetry, and the majority of the poems have no meter or rhythm. Instead, they almost read like diary entries or someone’s unspoken thoughts; there is something deeply personal or confessional about them. This helps to create a connection between the reader and Mehta, and you become completely invested in the stories being told. Yet there are also a couple of times when Mehta plays with structure and does it wonderfully. The title poem ‘Savagery’ is a great example, where the line spacing nearly breaks up the poem into two separate columns. This disconnect in the poem helps to emphasize not only the disbelief of the speaker about Mehta’s indigenous background but also the wider disconnect and ignorance of indigenous culture in America. It is cleverly structured, and the collection as a whole is carefully arranged. Overall, Savagery is an honest, sometimes painful collection, and one that feels relevant in these times.

This review was first published on Readers Favorite. Savagery is published by Airlie Press.

The God’s Wife by Sarah Holz review

Forgotten princess. Rebel general. Rival queen.

How does a teen-aged princess who rallies her country into a revolution against her brilliant sister and one of history’s greatest military geniuses get lost to the shadows of time? Only one whose sister is named Cleopatra…

In 51 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty has ruled Egypt for nearly three hundred years despite generations of betrayal. The old pharaoh has died, leaving his throne to his joint heirs: Ptolemy and his older sister, the indomitable Cleopatra. As a clash of personalities and ambitions hurdles the ancient kingdom towards crisis, the warring factions of the court are blinded to the fact that there are more than two royal children in this dangerous family…

Princess Arsinoë has spent her childhood roaming cosmopolitan Alexandria, content to avoid the endless wars of the palace. But when the mysterious gods of her beloved homeland enter her dreams, calling on her to defend Egypt from the fury of the dynasty and the arrival of an even greater threat in the form of Julius Caesar, Arsinoë finds herself increasingly drawn into an escalating maelstrom of intrigue and violence that she must learn to navigate to save all that she holds dear…

It is obvious that Holz is fascinated by this period of history and has done a lot of research for The God’s Wife. Even smaller details like clothing and food seemed accurate and gave a greater picture of Ancient Egypt. The sheer amount of research helped to immerse the readers in this world; there was nothing that pulled you out or seemed ‘off’. It was very easy to be swept into the plot. With that being said, Holz also writes in a very accessible manner. You don’t need to know a lot about Egyptian history to enjoy the book, and there are also appendices at the back which many might find helpful. They certainly clarify a lot of things mentioned and I appreciated having these explanations.

The book’s main strength is the character of Arsinoë. Her development throughout the narrative was a joy to read, watching her start off as a young, naive princess to a powerful military general. Admittedly I knew little of Arsinoë before starting The God’s Wife – Cleopatra and Julius Caesar dominating my knowledge of this period – but after reading the book I wanted to learn more about the real woman. Holz made her very engaging; a character who you don’t necessarily agree with but is always compelling. Speaking of Cleopatra and Caesar, the secondary characters are also well-written. Obviously, they don’t have the same depth as Arsinoë but Holz has still injected them with strong, memorable personalities and their scenes are fascinating to read. Characterisation is one of Holz’s strongest suits.

The only slight criticism I have of The God’s Wife is the opening. Chapter One is Arsinoë recounting what happened to her family prior to the events we’re about to read. It is understandable why Holz includes this chapter as it provides background information, but it wasn’t presented in the most engaging manner. It felt more like someone listing events without going into depth about their significance and after a strong Prologue it did drag. By the halfway mark I just wanted to get into the meat of the novel. Passed the first chapter the plot and intrigue start up again and move along at a steady pace. However, that is a very, very small criticism of what is a great piece of historical fiction. The God’s Wife is a great book for those at all interested in Ancient Egypt.   

This review was first published at Reedsy Discovery and can be found here.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter review

I’m back! After the Wi-Fi went down at the weekend which meant I couldn’t write anything on Monday, it is finally up and running again. And my posting schedule has returned to normal. During my wee Internet-less break, I reread my favourite short story collection: Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. I’m sure everyone knows or at least has heard of it, but just in case, the collection is a series of fairy-tale retellings, often far darker than the originals (and that’s saying something!).

The titular ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is one of my favourite short stories. The mother/daughter relationship at the heart of the plot was wonderfully written and felt very relatable. The mother’s desire to protect her daughter but also understanding she needs to live her own life rang true. Plus, our narrator’s character arc is also delicately handled: she isn’t a particularly nice person but by the end there is a tremendous amount of sympathy for her. It was fun watching her develop and change over the course of the narrative. Of course, the story is supported by Carter’s stunning imagery, which manages to be both beautiful and gruesome. My favourite is the red choker the Marquis makes the narrator wear – a symbol of decadence, but also eerily looking like a slashed throat. The threat of violence is often present in these stories, simmering just below the surface before bursting out towards the end. Saying this, another favourite of mine is ‘Puss in Boots’, a totally different story from ‘The Bloody Chamber’. It is much more light-hearted and farcical, following cat Figaro and his owner trying to bed their respective loves. It is a sex-positive story, as seen through both the male and female characters, which provides a nice contrast to some of the other stories.  

Despite The Bloody Chamber being my favourite collection, there are still stories which baffle me. The very short ‘The Snow Child’ still makes me uncomfortable, yet I cannot not read it when I see it. Despite only being a few pages long, it is the one I remember the most, and the one I struggle to define. Every time I read ‘The Snow Child’ I glean something new: which is equally enjoyable and frustrating. The disturbing content aside, it is the one that always intrigues me the most. Another one I still think about is ‘The Courtship of Mr Lyon’, which is a reinterpretation of Beauty and the Beast. Yet it is strangely tame by Carter’s standards, out of all of the stories this feels less experimental. It more or less follows the plot we all know with minor changes, making it probably the least exciting story. This rather staid adaptation is even more bizarre when considering Carter’s thoughts on Beauty and the Beast: that Belle should, upon hearing how the Beast will die if she doesn’t stay with him, merely reply, ‘Die, then’. Not fall for his emotional blackmail. So, whilst ‘The Courtship…’ has all the gorgeous imagery and language we expect from Carter, the plot is a bit bland. The other Beauty and the Beast retelling, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, is a lot more imaginative.

With the nights drawing in and becoming colder, I always like to curl up with The Bloody Chamber and be swept away into these fantastical worlds. Carter’s writing is phenomenal, truly evocative and hauntingly beautiful and I enjoy the focus on the female experience. Not every story works for me, but The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is as close to a perfect short story collection as one can get.

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories is published by Vintage and you can find more information here.    

The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld review

After tackling the Women’s Prize for Fiction winner, today I am discussing the winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize: The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. Translated by Michele Hutchinson, the book follows ten-year-old Jas, who lives on a farm in a small village. Just before Christmas Jas’s brother Matthies drowns in an accident, and the novel follows how this tragic event affects both Jas and her family over a year later.

The Discomfort of Evening is a strange, disquieting book. Throughout the novel Jas and her other siblings Obbe and Hanna engage in increasingly disturbing behaviour. Following their brother’s demise, they are very much interested in birth and death which is seen in how they view sex and their treatment towards animals. Some readers will find this content disturbing. Certainly, I’m still unsure what to think of Jas a character – her curiosity makes her at times incredibly childlike and watching her grieve makes her sympathetic. Yet her actions are so concerning, and her chain of thoughts truly bizarre, that it is hard to fully relate to her. But I couldn’t tear my eyes off her, and that is due to Rijneveld’s writing. They capture these very disconcerting characters and claustrophobic setting with great skill and stunning imagery. It is obvious that they are also a poet – the sentences flow so smoothly and not a word feels out of place or extraneous. The novel is also incredibly atmospheric – sometimes oppressively so. I was disturbed but always engaged.

Rijneveld also tackles the theme of religion in The Discomfort of Evening. The family are deeply religious, attending church every week and quoting the Bible in various conversations. Yet, like everything else in the novel, religion is a very ambiguous character. Jas even thinks at one point they are living through the ten plagues, and this can definitely be felt through the plot. Yet Rijneveld also tackles religion through the dialogue between Jas’s parents and the vet, who makes numerous appearances throughout. Whenever the children try to discuss something serious, the parents tend to ignore them or dismiss them with a Biblical quote whilst the vet tells them everything directly, no sugar-coating the truth. At first he appears as some sort of God or Jesus figure, this teller of truths who lives ‘on the other side’ and who Jas greatly admires. However, as the novel progresses, the reader becomes acutely aware of his true intentions, yet the family are seemingly unaware. He becomes very much the personification of the idea ‘Beware of False Prophets’, and it is interesting to see how through the secondary characters Rijineveld discusses religion, and how people perhaps hide behind it in order to shield themselves or to mask unsavoury aspects.

The Discomfort of Evening is a brilliant yet intense novel. There is so much to unpack from the characters to the language to the themes that it is hard to discuss them all. The ambiguity of it all as well, never quite knowing how to feel, also makes it a very interesting book to write and reflect back on. I’m still not sure what to think; my impressions change every time. And that’s what makes it such a haunting, memorable piece of work. Rijineveld has also brilliantly captured grief and the different iterations of it, how people deal with it differently, and Hutchinson as well has done an excellent job of translating – she has successfully captured a sense of place and atmosphere. A worthy Booker award winner.

The Discomfort of Evening is published by Faber & Faber and you can find more information here.              

Atomic Kiss by Brendan S. Bigney review

Today I am tackling a genre I don’t normally review (something I hope to change): poetry. Brendan S Bigney wants to write poetry for non-poets and in Atomic Kiss, he has succeeded. Both the topics and imagery used are so relatable that even those who don’t read poetry often will understand and appreciate them. Bigney seems very interested in discussing relationships – both romantic and with ourselves – and mental health, using imagery of the natural world. Throughout the collection, nature is often used as a stand-in for a woman. The strongest poem, the titular ‘Atomic Kiss,’ does something similar: a woman becomes a metaphor for the atomic bomb. Our narrator seems to be discussing both the whirlwind and aftermath of a toxic relationship and also the fallout after nuclear warfare. The poem tackles the anxiety and complex relationship humans have with nuclear weapons under the guise of a romantic one, and the combination of societal and personal problems makes ‘Atomic Kiss’ relatable on different levels.

The majority of poems in Atomic Kiss are short, sharp hits of emotion with some only a sentence long. Whilst a couple felt too slight and their ideas not fully unpacked, this technique worked overall mainly due to Brendan S Bigney’s coupling of certain poems. Two great examples of this are ‘How Worthless Our Emotions’ and ‘Their Importance’ which focus on two opposing ideas, namely the importance or worthlessness of emotions in our lives. They both ultimately have a similar message, but the clash between the poems’ angles makes the collection more dynamic and helps it to flow easier. Similarly, word choice is used in this manner: for example, ‘rise’ is seen at the end of one poem and then in the first line of the following one. I found this repetition of language helped tie the collection together and made it a lot stronger. Atomic Kiss is a quick read which brims with hopefulness despite the occasionally grim imagery.

This review was first published on Readers’ Favorite and can be found, along with more information about the book, here.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell review

Saving the best until last, my final review for the Women’s Prize shortlist is Maggie O’Farrell’s winning novel Hamnet. Our protagonist is Agnes and we alternate between two different periods of her life; her early life and marriage to a certain writer and 1596 when their eleven-year-old son Hamnet dies. O’Farrell explores Agnes’ grief and how, years later, her husband writes a play named after their child.

Despite being called Hamnet, it is Agnes that dominates the book. O’Farrell has taken a relatively unknown figure and gave them an incredibly rich backstory, an opportunity to voice their perspective. This is seen in O’Farrell’s decision not to name Shakespeare at any point in the narrative. He is described as a son, a father, a husband – but never explicitly named. He is a mere secondary character, and it was refreshing to see an author focus on Agnes/Anne rather than him, even though this is fictional.

Saying that, the first chapters that focus on Agnes’ childhood felt very reminiscent of the Bard’s plays. Her connection to nature, her discovering the different properties of plants had strains of A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the image of a girl in a potentially magical forest felt Shakespearean. Agnes herself also had a magical, almost witchy quality which reminded me of texts like Macbeth. The nods to Shakespeare’s works were really fun to discover, though you don’t have to have read any of his work to enjoy Hamnet.

One of the book’s strengths is O’Farrell’s gorgeous language. She can take very simple, everyday objects and describe them in such a sensual, evocative way that they feel totally new and unique. The descriptions of food in particular were very rich – I was getting hungry just reading them. You’re instantly transported away to 16th century Stratford; the writing is so vivid and simply sensational. O’Farrell also beautifully tackles the subject of grief. It is both a deeply personal, yet universal emotion and she successfully conveys the depression and sadness, and how people cope differently. Sometimes I had to put the novel down as it was becoming too painful; I was reminded of my own experiences of grieving. It was a raw, honest look at loss, and I found it emotionally hard at points.

Hamnet was my first Maggie O’Farrell book, but it certainly won’t be my last. The characters, the language, the delicacy with which she handles her themes – they all rang true and combined created a stunning, quietly devastating novel. It is obvious why it won the Women’s Prize this year – and the 2020 shortlist had some truly great books – and I think it is a deserving winner.

Hamnet is published by Penguin Random House and you can find more information here.     

The Twins of Sanescid by Mane Guarda review

Aileen is having very realistic dreams that leave her unsettled, later, with terrible migraines. In the dreams she is a queen in another time or world (she is not sure). In her first dream she is pregnant for the second time. In another, she has twins. The first one is born with a birthmark characteristic of the Ewans (scary humans that don’t belong there), revealing that he cannot be the king’s son. The twin, born soon after doesn’t have the mark so the king recognizes the child as his own. Thinking that his wife has cheated on him, he confines her in a room far by the servants’ wing, forever.

Seven years later, Aileen is with her husband visiting Munich, to a special surrealist exhibition and among the artists is Zigor, the same child with the birthmark, she had dreamed about. How could that be?

Zigor hates his twin brother, Sendoa because he has everything he never had. The last time they saw each other was when they were 4 or 5 years old. One night he has a nightmare where he sees his brother on the verge of death. What can he do when he is planets away?

The Twins of Sanescid is an incredibly imaginative sci-fi/fantasy novella. It is a very cool concept and some strains of Octavia Butler’s Kindred are felt, particularly this connection between apparent strangers across time zones (and, in this case, planets). The plot itself is perhaps more reminiscent of a Shakespearean play, particularly the plot on Sanescid itself and the tragic misunderstandings that arise. I found the events happening here more engaging than the plot on Earth, and would happily read more about the landscape of Sanescid.

Sadly though, the writing in The Twins of Sanescid pulls the reader out of the narrative. Dialogue can be quite clunky and unbelievable. An example of this occurs early on when a group of artists exhibiting in the same gallery are having lunch together. Despite the majority of them being over 30, they still spoke and acted like teenagers in the school canteen. It felt unrealistic and by the end, I wasn’t sure what the point of the exchange was, it was just so bizarre.  There were other lines of dialogue that didn’t flow naturally, and it was jarring to read.

Similarly, the expositions of the different species and worlds affected the flow of the sentence structure. Throughout Guarda will place definitions of names and words in brackets which again felt clunky and drew me out of the story. The whole novella would flow a lot smoother if those explanations were woven naturally into the narrative, rather than being suddenly dropped in. Also, the reader is given information that was unnecessary. We don’t really need to know all that Aileen and Ulrich did on their trip to Munich, nor which artists exhibiting are fictional. Those details don’t add anything to the plot, and whilst it is understandable to include certain points for world-building, these could have been edited out and the plot would still work.

Overall, The Twins of Sanescid has a lot of potential. The premise is brilliant and there is a lot Guarda can explore in further novels. But the writing unfortunately pulled me out of the plot and the reading experience was frustrating. A lot of details were unnecessary, and the dialogue was unrealistic at points. It’s a pity as the plot is definitely intriguing. 

This review was originally published on Reedsy Discovery and can be found here.

Dominicana by Angie Cruz review

My penultimate novel from the Women’s Prize shortlist is Angie Cruz’s Dominicana. Set in 1965, fifteen year-old Ana marries the much older Juan and leaves the Dominican Republic for a new, exciting life in New York. However, life in the Big Apple is not as glamourous as she expected, and she is essentially confined to a tiny flat in Washington Heights. However, when Juan returns to their homeland unexpectedly, Ana takes the opportunity to explore the city with her brother-in-law Cesar.

Ana’s characterisation was fascinating to read. She is a very passive character, especially in the beginning. A lot of things happen to her rather than being the product of her own actions, as she is dominated by more aggressive characters. This makes her equally tragic yet very frustrating, though there is still sympathy for her plight. Similarly, when she first arrives in New York, Ana watches life through her window rather than being a part of it.  This sense of being caged helps not only to emphasise how out of her element she is but also her people-watching is also a stand-in for the reader. We read to escape and learn about another world the same thing Ana wishes to do. There was some nice mirroring between Ana and the reader which made Dominicana feel meta. The character of Ana feels like a comment on the act of reading, our desire to enter another world. Her character development is a tad predictable; her character beats have been used countless times beforehand. However, it was still enjoyable to read, and her acting like a stand-in for the reader helped to make the plot more exciting.

The secondary characters, however, are a mixed bag. Juan is the best out of them. He is a terrible, violent person and it is incredibly easy to hate him. He is a truly disgusting man. Yet throughout the book, we realise that he is also a victim of the situation him and Ana find themselves in. He has a lot more power than Ana, but you also realise that he has thwarted dreams and hopes, that his actions are also influenced by duty to the family rather than his own desires. Juan is  repulsive but also someone to be pitied, and Cruz handles that balance well. Even now, I’m not sure what I think of him. As mentioned above, the other characters don’t fare so well. The relationship between Ana and Cesar wasn’t explored in any depth. They just so happened to be close, despite Cesar barely being in the shared flat for most of the novel. Their friendship occurred so suddenly, it never felt plausible. Why Ana found Cesar so appealing, I’m also not sure. Whilst he is more fun-loving than his brother, he is very similar to Juan in many ways which makes her attraction bizarre. Ana’s mother also feels very flat. Again, she has thwarted ambitions – all the characters do within the novel – but she is constantly portrayed as a battle-axe. She seems to have little sympathy for her daughter or even questions her actions. There seemed to be little humanity there, and when it was shown it was too late. She was a one-dimensional character for the most part.

Overall, it is clear why Dominicana has split opinion. The characterisations are uneven, the disconnect between Ana and her life is depicted through a disconnect between Ana and the reader. There isn’t much to the plot, and it is one that has been told multiple times. At times, it felt as though I could skip a few pages and still understand. Yet I did like Cruz’s writing, especially when capturing 1960s New York, and Ana adjusting to life in the city. That story – of someone finding a new life elsewhere – always appeals to me, so that was also a big factor in my enjoyment. Ana as a stand in for the reader also intrigued me, and reading how Cruz’s family history inspired the plot was fascinating. She did try and discuss a lot of issues, such as immigration and violence, but admittedly I don’t think she entirely succeeded. It was eye-opening to see life as an immigrant in 1960s’ New York. So whilst I didn’t find Dominicana to be a terrible read, it is definitely the weakest out of the shortlist.   

Dominicana is published by John Murray and you can find more information here.