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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

Borrow Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman from Brent Libraries

 

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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

If you do want to give this book a try you can borrow it from Brent Libraries

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Book Review: Red Queen and Glass Sword by Victoria Aveyard

red queen.jpg

These are the first two novels of a four part teenage, fantasy series.

The books are set in an alternative universe, or possibly our own future, we don’t really know.  The planet is like earth with towns, cities, rivers, mountains, etc etc. but the people are rather different.  In this world people are divided in two, there are the Reds and the Silvers.  Reds are just like us, humans, with red blood; Silvers look and more or less act like humans but they have silver blood and even more dramatically have what we would regard as magic powers, the Silvers call them ‘abilities’.  Some Silvers can control fire, some water, some can run amazingly fast others are incredibly strong, some have none physical powers like being able to read minds or perform mind control or see into the future.  There are a large range of abilities which tend to run in families.

As you may have guessed with such amazing powers the Silvers become the ruling dominant section of society – and they do not use this power benevolently!  Reds and Silvers live separately (except when Silvers need servants) the Reds live in all the poorest least desirable areas and are used by Silvers to perform all the horrid tasks in life; cleaning, hard labour, dangerous factory work etc.  And even worse, they are used as disposable foot-soldiers in the wars Silvers wage between their different groups and factions.  All young Reds must spend time serving in the Silver army and many don’t live out their conscription period, others come home physically broken, mentally scarred or both.  Obviously the Reds don’t like living this way and some do try to rebel but it is not easy when any insurrection can be crushed by superhuman Silver soldiers who the Reds cannot possibly beat in a fight.

So this is the set up for the novel.  In The Red Queen we meet 16 year old Mare who is a Red, living in poverty, trying to avoid conscription and help her impoverished family by petty thieving.  But one day something incredible happens, Mare discovers she has an ‘ability’ too, just like a Silver, except her blood in definitely Red and if anything her power appears stronger than that of an average Silver.  Her unique power is discovered by the ruling family of her country and they quickly decided the discovery must be kept quiet; their whole social order partly depends on everyone agreeing that Silvers are naturally superior to Reds.  By threatening the safety of her family she is forced to live in the palace and masquerade as a Silver so they can keep a close eye on her and study her developing ability.  I don’t really want to say much more about the plot as I don’t want to spoil it for you, there are lots of unexpected twists and turns which is a real strength of the novels.

In the second instalment, Glass Sword, we see Mare leaving the confines of the palace and taking her ability out into the wider world as she goes on a search to find more Reds like her.  This is a dangerous quest as most Silvers are determined to hold on the power and squash any threat to the existing hierarchy.

Overall these are very exciting fun books, though the Red Queen is a slightly slower burner.  After the interesting set up to the story then exciting revelation that Mare has powers this book becomes a little more steady paced as Mare spends time in the palace learning how to act like a Silver; etiquette, history and dance lessons included (yawn).  The only thing to really spice up this dull section is an intriguing love triangle developing between Mare and the two half-brother princes of the Silver royal family.  I did reach the point when I decided to give up on the series as the Red Queen was a bit too boring…but then the final chapters are so thrilling and unexpected that I just had to find out what happened next!

Glass Sword does not disappoint, it is a thrill ride from the opening pages.  It is an improvement from the Red Queen in that there is constant movement and peril and a team of other characters helping Mare on her quest.  My only criticism of this book is that in the dialogue the characters can come across as a bit one note, everyone seems angry all the time!  It is a pet hate with some teenage books in that the authors seem to think the best way to demonstrate that the characters are spirited is to make them endlessly snappy and irritable!  Also, although some anger is expected in times of difficultly and peril, how come all characters seem to react to stress in the same way?  In the real world some people react to bad stuff by becoming quiet and withdrawn, or deflecting how they feel with humour, or being depressed, or over the top positive etc etc.  In Red Queen world everyone just seems to get cross so there is a lot of dialogue where everyone is snappy and angry with everyone else and the voices seem to become interchangeable.  BUT this is not a novel to choose for subtly drawn characters and sensitive dialogues it is all about the action so this fault is not difficult to forgive.

I look forward to the next instalment.

4/5

Zoe

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glass sword

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Book review: Allegiant by Veronica Roth

This is the final instalment of the Divergent trilogy (there is another book, Four, but I believe this is a spin off not part of the main story).  The first novel Divergent introduced us to Tris and her strange home city that divides everyone in regimented factions, in Insurgent this society began to crumble, Allegiant takes the characters out of the city into the wider world for the first time.  Out there they discover some dramatic truths about their society, why it is closed off from the rest of the world, how the system of factions came to be and what it really means to be divergent.

Allegiant

I was disappointed with this book, not because it was totally terrible but it just didn’t live up to its predecessors.  It begins right after the end of the action in Insurgent, which got me off to a bad start… I left about a year between reading the two books and couldn’t remember what was going on!  The book isn’t generous with the reader in this respect, there is no handy reminder with the characters conveniently reflecting on everything that has just happened within the first few pages!  (So if you do want to read this I recommend you read it not too long after Insurgent.)  It is good that it gets straight into the action though, this is the book’s main strength, it is fast paced throughout.  I can’t tell you too much about what the action entails as it is full of major reveals and I don’t want to spoil it for you.

As to the books weaknesses – a main one was the way Roth switches the narration between Tris and Tobias.  I don’t remember her doing this in the first two.  It seems totally pointless as the two characters experience almost all the same things and their inner voices seem totally interchangeable.  This often confused me, I would pick up the book half way through a chapter and after reading for a bit come across something like ‘I pull Tris to me and kiss her hard’ and I’m thinking hang on I thought this was Tris, has she just kissed herself?  This happened frequently.

I also found aspects of the plot irritating and a bit lazy.  The aspect I am referring to is the ‘serums’ that the whole plot suddenly seems to depend on.  We already came into contact with the fear and truth serum; now there are memory, death and peace serums too.  It seems that most problems could be solved with an application of the correct serum and also perils caused to characters by being exposed to the wrong serum at the wrong time which could then only be overcome by developing an antidote to the said serum.  The science of the development of all these serums and antidotes was as vague as expected.  It felt that rather that deal with how the characters were behaving and looking for ways the plot could cleverly effect their actions you just squirt someone with a serum and get the result you need.  A bit disappointing.

There were some good moments though, a few surprising elements and scenes with real heart (just not enough!)

3/5

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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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 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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