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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 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: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian

I thought this was awful.  So awful that I only got to page 69 and felt I was wasting my time so abandoned it.

This book was a best seller so what was I missing?

The book is about a man (whose name I can’t remember) who gets stranded on Mars during a space mission.  The Book pretty much seems to be set in the present day.  A crew of about six people have landed on Mars and there is a storm and they have to leave in a hurry.  During the evacuation whats-his-name gets hit by debris and apparently killed so the crew sadly abandon his body rather than risk more lives.

But he’s not dead!

He comes round with an injury and makes his way to the buildings that have been placed on Mars over several missions.  There are only basic supplies as it wasn’t intended that anyone would stay there for any length of time, and there is no way to contact Earth.  He knows there will be another mission in four years that can save him but doesn’t have enough supplies to last anywhere near that long so if he wants to survive has to find ways to create food and water.

The next part of the book is a lot of detail about him working out his survival techniques.  It is all written in the first person in the form of mission log entries.  According to other reviews the science described about how you could survive in these conditions is excellent, all the calculations and facts have been well worked out by Andy Weir…but I don’t care!  It’s boring reading about how much water you need to grow potatoes and about soil nutrients and oxygen supplies.  Dull, dull, dull – at least in this context.

What I wanted to know is how Whats-His-Name is feeling.  What is he thinking?  Why is he so driven to ensure his survival?  What is there on Earth for him to go back to?  We don’t find out – at least not in the first 69 pages.  He records his very detailed logs in an unbelievably irritating tone, it sounds forced and as if he is trying too hard be glib and funny at all times – and failing miserably.  At no time does it come across as a realistic inner voice.  I think he is lucky he was stranded alone, if I had been stranded with him I would have throttled him to death on day one even if that meant being left alone with no clue as to how to grow potatoes.

After an interminable 50 or so pages of potato growing (some of which I admit I skipped) the action jumps to Earth where we find out how his former colleagues are responding to his supposed death.  This is boring too.  All the ‘characters’ speak with the same voice, they are completely interchangeable and all talk in short glib sentences that don’t sound like real dialogue.

So I quit.

It isn’t that I hate science or realistic details but I think they are pointless in a novel if there is no heart to the story and no characters whose fate you are engaged with.  Perhaps that comes later in but I needed at least a taste in the first 69 pages to keep me interested.

1/5

Zoe

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The Book of You by Claire Kendal

The book of you

This is a really frightening book, I’d say more horror than mystery.  So beware if you are easily frightening and a wimp (like me).  But if you are made of sterner stuff it is a pretty good read.

The main character is Clarissa, a woman definitely down on her luck.  Her husband has left her after years of unsuccessful fertility treatment, her career has stalled and she hasn’t really got any friends…and now she has found herself pursued by a scary stalker!  Her life is so rotten that she greets a jury service letter as a source of salvation, being on jury service will get her temporarily away from her stalker and her crappy job and she might even make some new friends.  But I am afraid her high hopes lead only to disappointment.

The villain of the piece is Rafe.  He works with Clarissa at the University of Bath and probably drugged and raped her after a party.  I say ‘probably’ as we only have it from Clarissa’s point of view and she doesn’t remember exactly what happened, he gave her a strange tasting glass of wine and she awoke the next morning naked in bed with him feeling sore and bruised.  She is confused and disoriented and doesn’t report it.  From this point on he acts like they have begun a relationship after a night of consensual sex.  He pesters her and sends her creepy presents and when she yells at him to leave her alone behaves as if they are having a harmless lover’s tiff.

At times you feel quite frustrated with Clarissa.  Why didn’t she report the rape to the police?  Why isn’t she taking this more seriously?  But at other times you feel sympathy.  She is a very vulnerable woman, possibly quite depressed, and she has confused and complicated emotions about what happened to her that night as many rape victims do.  Also Rafe is very convincing to the outside world, he is charming and successful at work and even convinces Clarissa’s oldest friend that he and Clarissa have been having a relationship and that he is nothing more than a caring and concerned boyfriend to the mentally disturbed Clarissa.  So Clarissa comes up with a plan, she will systematically collect and record evidence until she has enough to present the police with a strong case against Rafe.

The trial Clarissa is a juror for, far from being an escape, is a rape case that brings up painful memories of her own experiences and fears.  At the same time, outside the relative safety of the court, Rafe’s behaviour becomes increasingly menacing.  Will she gathered enough evidence to see him convicted and out of her life or has she underestimated the danger she is in?  Read this book to find out…if you dare!

A bit too violent and scary for my tastes.

3/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

heart-of-darkness

This is one of those books I feel I am supposed to like.  It is on a very serious and worthy  subject and is a well thought of classic – but I just found reading it a chore.  It’s one of those books where I could read a page of text and just not feel like I was taking any of it in.  I found it dull and hard to follow, I didn’t really understand the characters or what was going on most of the time (perhaps I am very stupid!)

The book is basically about the brutal nature of imperialism in 1890s Africa.  The main character is Marlow who is travelling through Africa while employed in the ivory trade up the Congo river hoping to meet a famous/infamous Ivory trader called Mr Kurtz.  Along the way he witnesses how corruptly the imperialists are behaving.  At one point the boat he is on gets attacked by some native Africans…but that’s about all I can tell you as to the plot as my mind kept wandering and I struggled to take anything in.  It kind of ended and left me thinking “well what was all that about?”

Basically I just didn’t get it.

1/5

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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Book Review: Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's Ark

This is the Booker prize winning novel on a very serious subject of the holocaust.  And I didn’t finish it.  I feel bad, like I was obliged to find it brilliant and moving as so many other people have.

The subject matter really is moving and the darkest subject there is.  The story has an element of hope too however.  It tells the story of Oscar Schindler a Czechoslovakian businessman living under Nazi rule during World War II.  He uses his wealth, power and influence to save as many Jews as he can.  The book was made into a film, retitled Schindler’s List, which won a record number of Oscars.  It is based on a true story and real people.

I guess with the subject matter it’s not the kind of book you expect to enjoy but I have to say I didn’t find it hugely moving or engaging either.  The style didn’t pull me in.  Keneally moves between short, often harrowing, stories of Jewish families before quickly moving on to another individual’s or group’s story.  The only constant character is Oscar, but I never really felt I ever really got to know him well either.  I think it is probably intentionally arranged like this, it would be easier for the reader to follow if we stuck with one group of characters but perhaps part of Keneally’s take is to show how many horrifying stories there were and not give any one the focus of the book.  There was one tale I particularly liked with elements of joy about a couple who fell in love and married while confined to a work camp, their friends and family help them court, marry and even attempt a wedding night all in secret without the guards finding them out – it was almost funny!  Then we left the couple after only six pages or so – I was left wanting to follow their story for good or ill.  Other books I have read about the Holocaust recently have been Diary of a Young Girl and The Boy in Stripped Pyjamas, these tales make the holocaust human and almost manageable by focusing on a small tight experience, Keneally leaves the holocaust vast and hard to imagine or relate to.  It’s admirable but it just wasn’t for me, I constantly found myself wishing I was reading a factual book instead or that it would start to take on a more conventional storytelling approach, I found myself having to be disciplined about picking it up and reading it was slow going until I eventually gave it up with about 100 pages to go.

I’m not sure if I failed or the book did.

2/5

Zoe

holocaust memorial

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Book Review: The Only Story by Julian Barnes

“Would you rather love the more, and suffer the more; or love the less, and suffer the less? That is, I think, finally, the only real question.”

This is how it starts, and I immediately knew, just by reading those words, that I will be witness to a beautiful and heartbreaking love story that will leave me, after the last page, with a heartsore. I was entirely right.

“Most of us have only one story to tell. I don’t mean that only one thing happens to us in our lives: there are countless events, which we turn into countless stories. But there’s only one that matters, only one finally worth telling.”
The_Only_Story
As a younger man, the narrator becomes entangled with an older woman, and their story is told in three parts. Interestingly, the perspectives change from first person, to second, to third, possibly reflecting the narrator’s maturing, and the distance he places between himself and his love story over time. As the ‘only’ story continues, many other facets of love emerge including commitment, sacrifice, and obsession to the point of addiction.

The author explains his choices to use these narration techniques better than I ever could. .“And first love always happens in the overwhelming first person. How can it not? Also, in the overwhelming present tense. It takes us time to realize that there are other persons, and other tenses. ”.

“The Only Story” is a story about a powerful love destined to fail, about hope, social conventions, shame, unspoken guilt, and loss. It is a beautifully written novel, as everything Barnes writes, but I do recognise that a slow moving plot and a deeply contemplative style is not everyone’s idea of a bedtime read.

“You realize how sympathy and antagonism can coexist. You are discovering how many seemingly incompatible emotions can thrive, side by side, in the same human heart.”

 

Georgia

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