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Book Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

This is a really fun book and will be enjoyed by anyone who liked fairy tales as a child.

It is a collection of stories from Norse mythology, the tales of the ancient Scandinavian Gods: Thor, Odin, Freya, Loki and quite a few you many not of heard of.  The tales are mostly funny and light but with darker elements here and there.  The Gods are mischievous, and also quite hapless at times.  They get up to no good and make silly mistakes.  My favourite stories were about Loki, who is a real trickster – doing things like removing the hair of Thor’s wife permanently just because he thinks it will look funny, and Thor, who is brave and strong…but also rather stupid (spending most of the time thinking about food and drink)!

It’s enjoyable and easy to read.  I think it probably works best dipping in and out of it and reading the stories one at a time, I got stuck on a long journey with this book and read a large chuck of it in one go which I found less enjoyable that just reading in short bursts.

3.5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

This is almost two books in one.  It starts with a brilliantly written, but fairly typical, coming of age tale about Esther a 19 year-old student struggling with decisions about what her future holds, coming into contact with the wider world for the first time in New York, and juggling her studies with dating and friendships and pressures to choose between career and marriage/motherhood.  Then things take a darker turn as Esther’s ‘eccentricities’ and anxieties become more extreme and she starts to lose control as her mental health slides into crisis.  If one didn’t know the history of Sylvia Plath I think one wouldn’t see this shift coming from the witty, sharp, well observed and cynical but fairly gentle and comic first half.

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story.

From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and off-beat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.”

Esther is in many way a very lucky young woman (albeit most of her advantages have been earned through intelligence and hard work).  She has a scholarship to a top college, a supportive mother, she’s attractive and physically healthy, and her handsome medical student boyfriend wants to marry her.  On top of this she wins a prestigious internship to learn about and contribute to a bunch of New York magazines, this is more a prize than serious work as the organisers lay on parties and free gifts over the weeks of the scheme, but it is also a serious opportunity to make contacts and learn about the industry.  She should be on top of the world, OK the 1950s in the US aren’t the perfect time to be a woman but Esther has choices and opportunities most woman at this time would dream of.  The choices are part of the problem, Esther finds herself overthinking everything, putting extreme pressure on herself to live up to her high achieving childhood and youth as she enters adulthood.  The story is not all doom and gloom though, Esther is witty and cynical (while not always that nice!), some of her actions and observations early in the book had me laughing out loud.

This part of the tale I think everyone could relate to.  Esther’s main problem is that she doesn’t really know herself yet.  While sparkling on paper and on the surface she actually lacks inner confidence.  This is true of many young (and not so young) people trying to work out their place in the world.

The second part of the story shows that Esther has real problems above and beyond what most of us face.  Whether triggered by pressure or just part of her mental make up her mind fails to cope with life and she tips over into a kind of madness, she can no longer function normally and begins to act in a dangerous self-destructive way.  It is a stunning account of a mental breakdown from the inside and feels painfully honest.

The book is given extra poignancy by the knowledge, that most literature fan will have, that Sylvia Plath tragically committed suicide at the age of 30.  In places the book feel almost intrusive as it feels like we are seeing within Syliva Plath’s tortured brain and observing the condition that would one day kill her – a painful privilege given to us by a brilliant woman.

5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: House of Names by Colm Toibin

“If the gods did not watch over us, I wondered, then how should we know what to do?  Who else would tell us what to do?  I realized then that no one would tell us, no one at all, no one would tell me what should be done in the future or what should not be done.  In the future, I would be the one to decide what to do, not the gods.” Clytemnestra

house of names

This is a retelling of the ancient Greek story of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra and their children.  Of the sacrifice of their eldest child, Iphigenia, and the revenge of Clytemnestra on her husband then the revenge of her remaining children upon her.  The story will be very familiar to many readers they form part of the Odessey and the legends of the Trojan War and are in the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides.  Despite their relative familiarity I think a retelling is a good idea as they are such interesting and dramatic tales with loads of scope for new interpretations and lots of opportunity to flesh out the characters and twist the reader’s sympathies this way and that.  Having said that I don’t think this particular retelling worked and I just found it dull.  I found it dull in the beginning but decided to give it a chance, I started to quite enjoy it and found the writing style quite relaxing and there were a few nice scenes but my generosity ran out and by two thirds through I was finding it dull again.  I was very happy when I finally finished it and was free to move on to something more lively!

If someone is interested in the tales of Agamemnon and his family I would recommend finding a good production of one of Aeschylus or Euripides on this subject and giving this book a miss.  I think if this had been my only experience of this legend I would be left thinking ‘what a boring story’.

2/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris

bring me backThis is an easy to read fast paced mystery/thriller.

We meet Finn, a 41 year old financial trader who lives with his fiancée near Cheltenham.  12 years earlier Finn experienced an awful tragedy when his much loved girlfriend, Layla, disappeared – assumed kidnapped and murdered – while they were on holiday in France.  After briefly being a suspect Finn was released without charge and has worked hard to rebuild his life and has finally found love again.  But no body was ever found, so closure has not come easily.

His uneasy peace is then blown away.  An old neighbour reports seeing Layla at their old cottage in Devon.  There have been fake sightings before, all turned out to be hoaxes or mistakes, but this is different, the old man knew Layla well plus it coincides with other strange happenings.  Layla always carried the smallest of a Russian doll set as a good luck charm and childhood memento, tiny Russian dolls start appearing on the walls near Finn’s house, they are sent to him in the post and left for him to find in other places he visits.  He also starts receiving emails from a stranger, again this has happened before with trouble makers and attentions seekers claiming to know where his lost girlfriend is, but this stranger seems to know things only he or Layla would know.

Despite this Finn is adamant Layla is dead and it must be a hoax or cruel trick.  But why is he so certain?  Has he been telling the full truth all these years?  Does he know more than he has told the police?  And if so, why did he lie?  What is he hiding?

It’s a great set up to a mystery.  I really enjoyed the early stages and trying to guess the twist I felt was coming (in case you are wondering, I suspected from page 15, convinced by page 136 – well done me!)  One reasons I enjoy mysteries is trying to guess the twist and in my experience guessing it either right or wrong needn’t spoil the rest of the book.  But in this case I do feel the story went downhill a little towards the end.  I liked the idea Paris had but didn’t feel it was perfectly executed and at times the plot veered from ‘crazy but possible’ to far-fetched.

Still a very good read and hard to put down once you have started.  I look forward to reading more from B.A. Paris.

3.5/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach

 

This is a good Read.  It takes us back in time to Amsterdam in the 17th century.  Holland is in the grip of ‘Tulip Fever’ when tulip bulbs were exchanged for huge sums of money and fortunes won and lost on this rather bizarre craze.  But our focus, at least to begin with, is on Sophia a young wife married to a much older husband who is about to have her portrait painted.

Bored and unhappy married to a man more than 30 years her senior she throws caution to the wind and embarks on a love affair with the artist employed to paint her.  Her only confidant is her maid who is a sympathetic ear (at least to begin with!) as she too is in love and willing to help her mistress pursue romance.  But how will it end?! If Sophia is discovered her reputation would be ruined and although she does not love her husband she relies on his good opinion and generosity to support her impoverished family.  Has she really found true love with her artist or just lust?  Will her servant keep her secret?  Will the lovers have a happy ever after or be disgraced by their reckless passion?  You’ll have to read it to find out!

There are plenty of twisted and turns to keep the reader engaged and a good dose of humour along with more serious moments.  I really liked the way Moggach moves the reader’s sympathy this way and that – I think we pity Sophia one moment as she is trapped in a marriage (and marriage bed!) with a man more than twice her age and longs for love and passion and fun with someone her own age.  Next we sympathise with her husband who is kind, loving and trusting – if lacking awareness as to how his wife might feel – he has a kind of oblivious vanity in assuming his wife is satisfied with him but is basically a good soul and doesn’t deserve what is coming to him…

A good light-hearted read ideal for a holiday or commute.

4/5

Zoe

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Tulip Fever

 

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Book Review: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Are you happy? He once asked Jude (they must have been drunk).

I don’t think happiness is for me, Jude had said at last

 

This is a brilliant and heart-breaking novel.

The main character is Jude St.Francis.  We follow him, and his friends, from young adulthood to middle age with detours into flashbacks along the way.

Jude’s childhood and adolescence was the stuff of nightmares.  Abandoned by his parents and then abused by those who should have cared for him.  Along with his mental scars this abuse left him horribly injured and physically disabled for life.  The focus is how he copes, or doesn’t cope, coming to terms with his past throughout his adult life.  As an adult he is a successful man is many respects with an impressive career, a good income, friends who love him and acquaintances who admire him but he can never escape the horror of his past and carries his childhood trauma with him his whole life.

As you may have gathered this isn’t a happy novel!  At times it is almost unbearably sad.  Jude is such a pitiable and compelling character and you long for him to find peace.  So it is not an easy read but nor is it a not stop tale of misery for the entire 720 pages!  Yanagihara inserts lighter moments to keep it just the right side of bearable, there is hope and joy in the friendships Jude manages to make, friendships that endure from his college days.  There is also a lot of content most of us can relate to.  As well and the more dark and serious struggles Jude has with his physical and mental health and haunting memories of child abuse are the more mundane dilemmas around career choices, growing up, moving from young adulthood to full adulthood and the transitions this involves.  Jude isn’t always the focus either, we also get to know his three closest friends who, while they have their own fair share of troubles, haven’t faced the living hell Jude went through as a young man.  So it is also a novel about growing up and finding your way in life.

I would recommend it to everyone.  It really moved me.  It also made me reflect on my own life at times.  Not many of us will go through what Jude did (thankfully!) but we all do have our own demons to face, our own painful memories to confront or forget, and our own life struggles.  It was a very human book, the focus was an extreme example of human suffering but I think through that came reflections and messages about the types of pain we all experience: loss, disappointment, shame, weakness.  No solutions offered I’m afraid, but the realisations that humans are bound by these common experiences and emotions was poignant.

5/5

Zoe

A Little Life

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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: 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: His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

This book has an interesting style.  It is fiction but is written as if it is true crime with the text made up primarily of witness accounts and trial documents and reports.  The crime in question is the murder of a Scottish crofter and his young son and daughter, the criminal is one of his neighbours, a 17-year-old boy, Roderick Macrae.  It is set in 1869 in the Highlands of Scotland.

Most of the book is an account written by Roderick (who freely admits his guilt) of the circumstances leading up to his crime.  It makes fascinating reading, not just because of the crime, but because of the picture it paints of life as a 19th century crofter.  People living as peasants long after the industrial revolution had swept the rest of the country.

The story also offers an element of mystery.  Not as to who did the crime, as that is pretty clear, but why.  Because he is so open about his guilt Roderick seems a reliable witness but aspects of his account don’t tally with evidence found in court documents.  Did he really kill the family driven by family pride after a prolonged disagreement as he claims or did he actually have baser motives?

It is a very interesting and well written book.  Mysterious and offers a glimpse into a world very different from modern Britain.

4/5

Zoe

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