Category Archives: books

Book Review: Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Z

This is a fictional account for the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, focused, as you’d expect, on her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It takes us though the gay years of their time as the darlings of the Jazz Age, through their financial problems and Scott’s literary triumphs and failures on to alcoholism and mental illness.

I think the strongest parts of the novel came at the beginning and the end.  The establishment of their relationship and its eventual decline, there are parts of the mid-section that become a little dull, a little ‘…and then we went here, and then we went there and then we did this…’ in style but that is my only real criticism of the novel as overall it is a very good read.

“For days, while at my morning and afternoon dance classes, while I ate, while I bathed, while I tried but failed to sleep, I considered how I might become more like the woman I respected and admired.  Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant.  Contribute something.  Accomplish something.  Choose.  Be. “

A running theme throughout the novel is Zelda’s conflict with her role in life as a wife, a sidekick if you like, Mrs F. Scott Fitzgerald, merely an extension of her famous successful husband.  There are times when she enjoys the luxury Scott’s earnings bring and enjoys spending without having to earn and basking in his reflected glory, she enjoys helping with his novels and short stories without the credit.  But there are other times when she feels a niggling dissatisfaction with the life she has and wants to achieve more herself and explore her own creative talents.

It is well written because the author is not implying she is any kind of feminist heroine, Zelda doesn’t particularly have any interest in feminism or campaigning for women’s rights.  Zelda is an imperfect confused character who could perhaps be accused of wanting it all – but then who doesn’t?  It is a very human portrait and so is Fowler’s writing of Scott.  He can be quite controlling of Zelda and jealous of any attention she gets independent of him but we also see that he is sensitive and insecure and can be a loving and generous husband when at his best.

An interesting tale of two flawed people in a flawed marriage.

3.5/5

(This novel was made into a TV series, Z: The Beginning of Everything with Christina Ricci on Amazon.  I recommend this very highly and in some ways found the adaptation more insightful and entertaining than the novel itself).

Zoe

Z poster

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LGBT History Month at Wembley Library

February is LGBT History Month in the UK, a month long observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories, civil rights movements, achievements, cultures and rememberances. It is held in February in the UK to coincide with the anniversary of the abolition of Section 28, which was a clause that banned schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality in schools.

The painful history of Section 28 specifically concerns books – the rising support for it in the parliament and public came from fears that books promoting homosexuality were present in schools and around young children, and they would encourage ‘abnormal’ ‘bad habits’.

Sappho

Ancient Greek poet Sappho

It feels especially fitting then to celebrate literature about and by LGBT people in Wembley Library this month. Countless well known authors from around the world have been gay, bisexual and / or trans throughout history, sometimes written out of history and therefore hiding in plain sight. Historical examples are TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde (whose birthday coincides with both LGBT History Month and Toni Morrison’s birthday!), Leslie Feinberg, June Jordan and Sappho. More modern day examples are Juno Dawson, Jeanette Winterson, Paula Gunn Allen, Roxane Gay, Jack Monroe, and Sarah Waters. Much famous literature can be read under an LGBT lens – for example Shakespeare, or Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. The endless list spans centuries, races, ethnicities and religions, a testament to the enduring desire of people to speak and hear and see themselves through the written word.

It was important to choose literature for the display that ranged in genre, tone, target age group, time period, and author. LGBT literature often gets sidelined in publishing houses and bookshelves. Publishing rates are limited, and historically in LGBT films and books, storylines have been confined to negative stereotypes and unhappy endings. The books in the display do reflect that aspect of LGBT literature, but also encompass literature with positive depictions and happy endings, which are a becoming more popular in mass media. Importantly, there is also a section of LGBT literature for young people, who may be searching for visions of themselves in literature in a formative period of their lives.

The books in the display encompass just a small section of the memoirs, fiction, poetrty, plays and non fiction written by and about LGBT people in Brent Libraries. I would encourage staff and borrowers to have a look at the display, which is arranged by genre, and grab anything that attracts them, but also to peruse other books in the library with an open mind, because people might find that more authors, characters, themes and subtexts related to LGBT history and culture are weaved into the fabric of libraries and literature than they realise.

LGBT display

Wembley Library’s LGBT display

Alternatively if you want to buy copies for yourself, Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street (near King’s Cross) is the UK’s oldest LGBT bookshop and offers a range of LGBT fiction and non fiction. It’s holding a range of events for LGBT History Month.

To end, I’d like to recommend my personal top favourites in LGBT literature and film: Zami, by Audre Lorde, The Handmaiden by Park Chan Wook (a film adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith), and Heather Has Two Mommies, an iconic children’s picture book by Leslea Newman.

Happy LGBT History Month and Happy Reading!

Neelam

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Book Review: The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

She had thought that ageing would bring calm and indifference and impersonality.

This is basically a novel about a bunch of posh people dealing with ageing and mortality.

The main character is Fran.  She is fairly obsessed with death and ageing.  And it’s not surprising!  Not only is she facing her own old age but she works as a consultant on the design of retirement homes.  Her long term partner has died quite recently.  Her ex-husband, who she still sees frequently, is becoming increasingly infirm and is almost bed ridden.  Her closest friend has just moved into an old people’s sheltered accommodation, even though she in excellent health, in preparation for expected infirmity laying ahead.  Fran’s oldest childhood friend is dying of cancer.  Her son’s girlfriend has just died suddenly of a severe allergic reaction.  Death and ageing are all around Fran.

We follow Fran and her friends, family and acquaintances over the course of a month or so as they all deal with ageing and mortality in different ways with differing concerns and approaches.  That is about it really, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of plot, it’s more of a reflective thoughtful piece of writing.

It is quite enjoyable and has nice moments.  But it is never gripping (and probably isn’t supposed to be).  None of the characters really engaged me and I didn’t feel much of a connection or affinity with any of them.  It sort of just drifts along and is well written I guess, there’s just no real impact and I doubt I’ll think of it again once I have returned the book to the library and posted this review.

3/5

Zoe

dark flood

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Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse

This was a pretty good book, the downside is that I felt it should have been even better.

The action of the story is divided between 1960s London and 1930s Spain.

We begin in London where we meet Odelle.  Odelle is an aspiring writer who has immigrated to London from the West Indies.  After a few unsatisfying years working in a shoe shop she gets a better job as a typist at a top art dealers.  Here she meets the enigmatic and charismatic Marjorie Quick.  The arrival of a mysterious painting upsets Quick and awakens Odelle’s curiosity about both the painting and Quick’s relation to it.  The story then jumps back to 1930s Spain on the eve of Civil War where we find out about the creation of the painting.

In 1930s rural Southern Spain we meet the Schloss family and their brother and sister Spanish servants Teresa and Isaac.  The Schloss family are parents Sarah and Harold and teenage daughter Olive, they are from a British and Austrian background and have just arrived in Spain.  There are a myriad of tensions in this household: Olive is attracted to Isaac and they share an ambition to become artists, Harold is conducting a secret affair that young Teresa accidentally discovers, beautiful and glamourous Sarah suffers from depression and possibly alcoholism, Teresa is drawn to Olive and is jealous of the attention Olive is giving her brother…and on top of all this Civil war is brewing…basically there is a lot going on!

This is quite a plot driven piece and it’s hard to say more without risking spoilers (which I don’t want to do as this is definitely worth reading for yourselves).  The Spanish plot is compelling and keeps you wanting to know what happens next.  But we keep jumping back to the 1960s which is a bit irritating as it is rather dull in comparison.  I don’t think Burton convinced me at any stage of the necessity for Odelle to be in this story, we don’t need her to reveal the 1930s action as the author can tell us that without Odelle discovering clues to what did or didn’t happen.  Odelle has potentially a good story of her own, coming to Britain, facing racism and struggle to establish herself, but this story does not really get room to breathe – if Burton wants to tell that story she should have given Odelle her own book and not tried to shoehorn her into to a story mainly about art and the Spanish Civil War.  Burton tries to imply that the stories of Olive and Odelle are linked as they are both creative young women struggling with their art in different times, but I think each story was strong enough to stand alone and the piece is weakened by trying to slot them together somehow.

I think Burton introduces an interesting situation in Spain with intriguing characters but doesn’t quite develop either characters or plot quite fully enough (I had a similar criticism of the Miniaturist, although I think The Muse is much better).  I felt the book could have been longer and more detailed (not something I often say as I am generally a fan of short books).  It is good, but felt a little rushed and underdone.  Jessie Burton is a good writer through and imaginative – I would definitely read more of her work, I just think she should be more ambitious, there were all the ingredients for a great epic tale here rather than just an enjoyable OK story.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe

Concentr8

This young adult novel is set in London in the near future.  Teenagers across the capital have been given a new drug called Concentr8 officially to treat ADHD, but many believe it is actually to control the behaviour of healthy but boisterous young people.  The drug becomes controversial and is withdrawn suddenly.  This leads to young people rioting across the city, is this because the drug was controlling their behaviour and the control is now gone, or is it withdrawal side effects, or is the rioting not directly related to the drug?  We don’t know.

The story focuses on a small group of five teenagers who break away from the main riots and kidnap a GLA clerical worker (this isn’t a spoiler I hope as it occurs very early in the book).  They go on to hold this man hostage in a warehouse.

There is some fantastic tension in the book as the point of view shifts each chapter between the different teenagers who all have a different take on the situation, the hostage, the officials and police working to free the hostage and the journalist reporting on the situation.  There is edge of the seat stuff as you wonder if the hostage will be harmed or killed and if the teenagers will turn on each other.  But as the novel reaches its final chapters and conclusion all this tension fizzles out rather.  It almost feels like Sutcliffe didn’t really know how to finish things and so rushed the end a bit because he was starting to get bored with his own story!  This is a shame as the set up was so very promising.

3/5

Zoe

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Book Review: In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

in a dark dark wood

A very creepy story with lots of great tension!

This is the story of Nora, a twenty something novelist living a rather isolated but fairly contented existence in a studio flat in London.  She has her routines: going for a run, checking her emails, researching and writing her crime novels.  Her life is regular, rather dull, a bit lonely, but OK, until she is shaken from this by a blast from the past!

She receives an unexpected email from Flo, a stranger claiming to be the maid of honour for Nora’s childhood best friend Clare.  She is invited to Clare’s hen do, a weekend in a cottage deep in the Northumberland countryside (in mid-November!).  Her reluctance to accept tells the reader that there is something dark in her past she doesn’t want to confront, she hasn’t been in touch with Clare since she was 16.  Flo manages to guilt trip Nora into making the journey North by claiming Clare really wants her there.

She arrives at the dark lonely cottage along with three strangers and one other girl she knew from school – and no Clare.  The atmosphere isn’t right from the off.  The organiser, Flo, seems weirdly desperate for it to go well and be the perfect hen weekend, everyone else seems reluctant to be there almost as if they all have something to hide…

I won’t tell you more as I don’t want to give away any spoilers.  The best bit of the novel is the building tension, you know something dramatic is going to happen and when it does it doesn’t disappoint!  The only real downside of the novel is that after the big action bit there is a bit of a lull, most readers who have been paying any attention will have worked out the twist by ¾ of the way through (which is good, as a good crime/thriller writer should drop enough clues for the observant reader to work it out) but then it takes soooo long for the characters to catch up that it gets a bit dull towards the end.  Overall though a great thriller.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Break Down by B. A. Paris

This is a great exciting read, hard to put down once you get into it.

The main character is Cass, she is a teacher living with her new husband in rural England.  One night she is driving home from work in a heavy storm after an end of term celebration with colleagues.  Against her husband’s strict advice she takes a short cut down a quiet lonely stretch of road close to her home.  She sees a car parked with a woman in it, she hesitates but doesn’t stop as the woman doesn’t indicate she is in trouble.  Has the woman broken down?  Is she unwell?  Or is she up to no good?!  Cass doesn’t know but is too nervous to stop in case it’s a trick, also it’s late and throwing it down with rain.  She just wants to get home and also feels a little guilty about fibbing to her husband about her route – if she stops and gets involved there’s more chance he might find out she lied to him.  So she goes home to bed.

The next day she is horrified to hear on the news that a young woman has been brutally murdered in the spot where she saw the woman parked.  Now is the moment to come forward and go to the police as a witness and own up to her husband.  But she doesn’t, she is overcome with guilt and shame, wondering if she could have save the woman, so she continues with the lie that she did not take that route home and quickly it feels too late to confess the truth.

After this incident Cass’ life begins to unravel.  The guilt and lies seem to drag her down, she becomes stressed and forgetful and starts to wonder if she is developing the Early Onset Dementia that killed her mother.  Around this time strange things begin to happen – she starts getting silent phone calls and sensing someone is watching her and believes someone has been in her house and moved things around while she has been out.  Is it the killer taunting her because he knows she is a potential witness or is it all part of her mental problems and possibly a serious illness?  We don’t know and nor does Cass!

I can’t say much more without getting into spoiler territory – so I will stop there with describing the plot.  I hope I have said enough to get you interested as this is certainly worth reading if you want something exciting and mysterious without being too challenging or gory.  This is my kind of thriller.

As to down sides, I did find Cass and her lifestyle a bit dull at times.  She is only in her early 30s but for ‘fun’ all she does is potter in the garden wearing her special gardening shoes, for a treat she might nip into the nearest market town for a coffee or to wander round the shops.  She and her husband are young and well off with a large inheritance from her mother as well as two professional salaries but their lifestyle reminds me of my late grandparents!  (Probably me just being judgemental because I am such a trendy urbanite myself).  With reflection though I think her slightly dull character and lifestyle work for the plot, and they make sense as she was a carer for her sick mother from her teens to around 30 so probably never had chance to develop her own interests or find an circle of exciting, varied friends.  A wild, flamboyant character would probably have felt a bit much with the dramatic plot and Cass is actually a nice source of calm at the centre of things.

Another slight issue I had was that the climax seems to arrive in a bit of a rushed manner…but that is possibly just because I was turning the pages so fast when I was so eager to find out what was going to happen!  Occasionally I also felt the characters behaviour didn’t quite ring true, though this may have been deliberate from the author as we were seeing the plot from Cass’ point of view and a lot of the time she wasn’t thinking clearly and perhaps not reporting things accurately to us the reader.

Highly recommended.  I’m looking forward to reading more from B. A. Paris.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

This novel has a really fantastic concept.  It is set none specifically sometime around the present and then takes us forward a few years into the future so we can see the effect of the changes the world has faced.  It begins as teenage girls all over the world begin developing a power, they can generate electricity from their hands which they can use as a weapon to give people electric shocks.  First it is just teenage girls and then they find they are able to awaken the power in older women and baby girls begin to be born with the power.  The novel follows a handful of characters from different parts of the world, mostly women but also one man, as they adjust to the new reality.

The PowerThe novel is obviously all about gender relations.  How would the world look if women not men were the physically stronger sex?  The idea suggested is that the root of male dominance is superior physical strength and that if this were taken away in all cases, not just in some cases as it is now (we all know some physically strong and tough women and some physically weak men but these tend to break the overall pattern), gender relations would be transformed and women would be the dominant gender in all parts of the planet.  It also suggests that it would alter gender behaviour and roles in ways not even directly related to physical strength or power.  The whole idea really makes you think!

In terms of weaknesses I felt once the concept had been introduced the novel really went off the boil.  I didn’t find any of the characters tremendously interesting and the middle section of the book became rather dull.  It picked up a bit at the end when there were quite a few exciting and harrowing action sequences as men in parts of the world decided to try and fight back against the new reality.

3.5/5

Zoe

 

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Book Review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Insurgent

This is the second novel in the trilogy and picks up right where Divergent left off.  So Tris, Four and their uneasy alliance are sort of on the run after the vicious attack by mind controlled Dauntless on Abnegation.

Their society is more divided and ill at ease with itself than ever as our heroes have to seek allies and shelter with other factions as well as turning to the factionless for help.

This is a great book.  It’s action packed and exciting as well as taking time to explore more of the themes of Tris’ strange world and to follow her struggles to recover from the guilt at having killed a friend to defend her family in the last book.

I would say a downside is that Tris’ behaviour is a little infuriating at times.  She is needlessly (in my opinion) secretive with Four, who has made his love for her clear.  But I can see why the author has her act this way and she is trying to show just how messed up Tris is by the trauma and losses of the last book – she’s very human, acting illogically and making mistakes.

It’s good to get to know other factions a little better too.  Both the readers and Tris get to see that there are many members of factions who don’t neatly fit into the personalities they have been assigned.

The novel ends with a wonderful big reveal and a tantalising cliff hanger that has me impatient to read the next book!

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

This is an excellent book!  A novel aimed at young adults which is the first of an exciting trilogy.

divergent

The story is about Beatrice.  She lives in a very strange society which I believe is Chicago in the future (although I don’t think this is spelled out for certain).  In their society people live in ‘factions’, each faction has different attributes.  Candor are honest, Abnegation are selfless, Dauntless are brave, Amity are peaceful and Erudite are clever.  These factions perform different functions in society and mixing between the factions is minimal.  There is also a sixth group ‘the factionless’ these are people who live outside of society in extreme poverty because, for whatever reason, they were cast out of their factions – being factionless is seen as a terrible fate in Beatrice’s world.

At the age of 16 people have to choose which faction they wish to belong to.  Most people remain in the faction they were born into but this is not compulsory if you feel you do not fit it – leaving a faction requires a big sacrifice though as it will mean leaving your family behind for good.  To aid people in their decision they go through a complicated aptitude test which is supposed to reveal beyond doubt where they belong.

Beatrice is born in Abnegation and is torn in the run up to her decision because, although she loves her family, she doesn’t feel it is where she truly belongs.  But she is not sure she truly belongs in any of the other factions either!  She feels her personality is a mixture of different attributes (like a normal person to us!) in her world this is virtually unheard of as in is seen as vital that everyone fits in neatly to a fixed role.

Anyway, Beatrice makes her choice (I won’t spoil it for you) and begins the tough initiation process all teenagers have to go through before being accepted as full members of a faction.  The process is all the more tough for Beatrice as the whole time she has to hide the truth – that she does not fully fit in to any one faction.  Her uniqueness comes in handy however, as being slightly apart from the pack makes her more questioning which helps her spot something very dark brewing in the rigid and regimented culture she lives in.

This is a great story.  I found it very exciting and action packed.  I also loved it because of the parallels drawn with real teenage life.  OK we don’t have to choose a faction for life exactly but we are expected to know who we are and what we want to do with our lives at a very young age.  There is a lot of pressure to fit in and being a person who does not fit easily into an established mould can feel rather isolating – just like life is for Beatrice.

I am looking forward to seeing where the next two books take the characters and the rather sinister world they live in.

4.5/5

 

Zoe

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