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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 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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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:  All That Man Is by David Szalay

This is a great book.  It consists nine short stories about men.  It seems pretty random at first as the men are from all different countries, different classes and the stories are different; some funny, some sad some kind of just incidental.  After the first few though you realise that the age of the man goes up by a few years in each story, so I guess if you are looking for a theme this deals with the stages of life; the first main character is boy who has just finished his A-Levels and the last an old man facing declining health and the end of his life, in between you find young men exploring their sexuality, facing unwanted fatherhood, struggling to find career success, relationship breakdowns and disappointments  – life basically.  Some men are rich, some poor, some reasonably happy, others totally depressed – there was heaps of variety.

all that man is

I guess the downside of such a mix is that you are bound to relate to some stories and characters more than others.  My favourite was the second tale about a young French man who goes on an 18-30 style beach holiday to Cyprus on his own after his intended companion drops out last minute.  A bit of a saddo, he struggles to make friends when he gets there and ends up being taken under the wing of an obese mother and daughter from England.  Not cool!  I have never been a male French youngster but could really relate to the concerns, possibilities and awkwardness of youth that Szalay portrays.  This section was funny enough to have me laughing out loud and gasping with joyful shock during my commute.  It was also strangely touching about finding something rather nice in unexpected places – places that really are not cool!

After this classic the rest could only really go downhill unfortunately although I did still get a lot out of some of the other stories, my second favourite was probably the one about the young academic meeting up with his Polish girlfriend during a road trip and having to deal with her unplanned pregnancy.  In this tale I felt so sorry for both characters, one wants the child and one doesn’t and, in my opinion, neither one of them is ‘wrong’ but there is no compromise position and one of them is about to have their whole lives effected against their will.  They clearly care about each other but you can feel antagonism grow as he realises he may be forced into fatherhood he doesn’t want (an absent father is still a father) and she realises he is trying to persuade/bully her out of the motherhood she now craves.  It is very well written.

I also enjoyed the one about the poverty stricken British loser living with a few other oddballs in an unglamorous Croatian town remembering his glory days in the 1980s when he was briefly quite successful and owned a nice car.  He drops into every conversation the old car he used to own 30 years ago – and I can’t even remember the make as I have zero interest in car brands.

Overall though I would say I felt the stories were best when concerning young men.  They were more entertaining and rang truer than the later stories. I wondered if that is perhaps because I am still relatively young and can relate to the concerns of youth better than those of late-middle age and old age.  Or perhaps the same could be said of the author who is only a few years older than myself.

A very good read and easy to get into as the stories work stand alone so there is no effort involved remembering complicated plots or huge casts of characters – which (sorry to sound lazy) can be a relief if your reading time is made up of a few pages here and there on lunch breaks and commutes.

4/5

Zoe

Zoe

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Book Review:  All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

doerr

This novel follows the stories of two young people growing up during the Second World War.  Marie-Laure is a blind girl living with her widowed father in Paris and Werner is an orphan boy growing up in an orphanage with his sister in a German mining town.

The book alternates with short chapters from each of their stories.  There are also time hops.  The book begins on a night of terrible peril for both characters towards the end of the war then jumps back a few years to tell us how the characters arrived at this point, then every now and then the author throws in another moment from this one night to sort of remind us where we are heading before jumping back to the more linear story of our characters.

hitler youth

Werner is still just a boy when he is called on to fight for Nazi Germany

Overall I did not feel this book worked, which is a shame as there were some good moments and themes within.  I loved the character of Werner and the dark journey he found himself on.  It really dealt well with the question often asked about the rise of Nazism ‘how did this happen?’ ‘why did so many people go along with this evil?’.

Poor Werner has a really bleak future as a child, no parents and the only possible future mapped out for him is a dangerous grim life toiling in the mines.  But he is exceptional bright and wins a place at an elite school run by Nazis.  It feels like an amazing opportunity and his sister is the only one with doubts that it is the right path for him.  He never actually decides to become a Nazi and early on his journey the marching, chanting and arm bands seem relatively harmless, just meaningless routines he must go along with to get a good education and the advantages it brings.  By the time the more sinister elements become apparent it is almost too late and would take a huge act of courage and rebellion from Werner to leave the path he has found himself on…and he is still just a boy.  Although I wished Werner would rebel I understood why he didn’t and had huge sympathy for him and his plight.

The only problem with the very compelling story is I kept having to leave it every few pages to read about Marie-Laure!  I felt the author seemed to prefer her journey and devoted many more pages to it than Werner’s.  I found her tale a little dull in comparison.  There was some interest in reading how she copes with her blindness in wartime and some tension as her father and her have to flee Paris to stay with relatives.  But she is just so good, and her father is good, and her uncle who she later stays with is good – there wasn’t any of the juicy moral conflict we got with Werner.

FOT1229728

Our characters face real danger as the Allied bombs rain down

Another issue with the book was I felt the climax of the book (although not the end of the story), which I referred to earlier, this one night of terrible peril when our main character’s stories merge together and each faces extreme danger – was badly handled.  Doerr tries to build up to it throughout the book by starting there and giving us regular reminders it is coming, then when it finally arrives for our characters he tries to rack up the tension further with very very short chapters, some less than a page, alternating between viewpoints and some covering just a few minutes of time.  This seems to go on forever, bouncing back and forth between them for page after page after page, I got to the ‘oh just get on with it!’ moment very quickly.  And, of course, when the climax comes it is bound to be an anti-climax after all that build up.  From there the novel sort of fizzles out and Doerr does that really annoying thing where he feels he has to tie up every possible lose end, going years and years into the future and ensuring the reader has no opportunity whatever to make their own minds up about any aspect of the fate of the characters.

I quite enjoyed the beginning and the middle sections but by the end I was sick of it and very glad to take it back to the library.

2/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Moonraker by Ian Fleming

This is a fantastic Bond book.  A classic in every way (and my personal favourite).

The story begins with Bond in London tied up in boring paperwork (yes paperwork!  Something they don’t show you in the films.  But he is a civil servant as well as a spy).  As there is not much action going on M asked for his help in a personal matter.  An eminent man, war hero and top industrialist, Sir Hugo Drax, is suspected of cheating at cards in M’s posh London club.  The scandal it could cause!  Bond, the gambling expert, is asked to teach him a lesson at the card table to put him off cheating and avoid a scandal.  This relatively mundane beginning leads unexpectedly to action and drama and the whole city of London under threat.

After successfully deterring Drax from cheating ever again Bond dismissed the affair as the quirk of a brilliant man and agrees to go down to Drax’s factory in Kent to help out with a security matter.  Drax is developing the Moonraker, a powerful weapon that will ensure Britain’s military supremacy.  The project is so important that Bond is happy to let bygones be bygones and work side by side with Drax, but poor Bond doesn’t realise Drax’s true intentions or recognise what a dangerous enemy he has made…

bond_moonraker

I like this novel so much as we get to see so many different sides to Bond and his world.  One thing that is missing is the jet-setting as this is the only novel where he doesn’t leave the UK, all the action is in London and Dover (how glamourous.  Not!)  But there is ‘glamour’ provided by the mysterious (well, mysterious to a working class woman living in 2018) world of the old-fashioned gentleman’s club where careers are made and broken, fortunes made and lost at the bridge table and copious amounts of very expensive French Brandy consumed.  It is a world so well constructed by Fleming that I could almost smell the cigar smoke even while reading the novel on an Italian beach!

It is also a great novel for action.  Bond is completely black and blue by the end of the adventure as he gets into so many scrapes!  A cliff explodes on top of him, he’s beaten to a pulp while tied to a chair, run off the road in his Bentley and gets sprayed by a high pressure hose while hiding in a metal pipe!  The long car chases are particularly exciting.

As a contrast to this there are wonderful quiet moments.  Seeing Bond bored at his desk thinking about what he’s going to have for lunch makes you feel like you are being shown life behind the scenes of our hero.  The card game at the beginning is also fantastically detailed and tense.  You almost feel the same tension as when his life is at stake even though all he is risking at the card table is pride and an awful lot of money.

The other characters are top class.  Drax is a wonderfully villainous villain, who does the ‘classic’ of telling Bond his entire backstory and plan before leaving him to an elaborate death!  And Gala, the Bond girl, is the epitome of what a Bond girl should be: beautiful, clever, sexy, brave and attracted to but not intimidated by our hero.  She’s an undercover police officer and a full player in the action, certainly no damsel in distress.

5/5 – perfect if you are looking for action and adventure.

 

Zoe

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Book Review: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing persumed

The clue is in the title plus a serious crime has been committed. Great mix of characters reflecting UKs rich diversity. Author Susie Steiner really captures ordinary lives, the hustle and bustle of urban living and social welfare challenges.  The  protagonist does online dating and you really relate the all the uncertainty surrounding such attempts. Brent folk will enjoy recognisable locations including watering hole McGoverns. An engrossing crime mystery with  some unexpected outcomes. Looking forward to reading the next in the series following good reviews for this first crime novel which has garnered a lot of attention.  The follow up second crime novel Persons Unknown  was given Sunday Times book of the month for June 2017. Happy reading!

Sarah

 

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Event: Meet Author Anne Corlett

Anne Corlett

Come and meet author Anne Corlett at Kilburn Library on Thursday 7 December at 6.30pm.

Anne Corlett is originally from the north-east, but sort of slid down the map, finishing up in the south-west where she now lives with her partner and three young sons. Before she became a full time writer, she spent 16 years working as a criminal lawyer in London and Bristol.

The idea for The Space Between the Stars came to her while on one of the regular family trips up to the Northumberland coast. While walking on Beadnell beach one evening, she had a sudden clear image of someone arriving on that spectacular stretch of coast after an impossibly long journey, and the story grew from there. At the time, she was working on another novel as part of the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, but she put that project to one side to write The Space Between the Stars.

Anne has had short fiction and non-fiction pieces published in various magazines, journals and anthologies, and she has won, or been shortlisted for, various literary awards.

Anne has lots to share about the writing process and about her life as an author.  Book now for this free event.

Space between the stars

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150 Years of Beatrix Potter

beatrix-potter

2016 marks the 150th birthday of beloved children’s author Beatrix Potter, famous for her whimsy tales of animals doing everyday things that had that English charm about them. Each tale featured a titular animal, often in clothes having many adventures in the countryside, in which Potter was most fond. Most of her stories contained rabbits, in which the two most famous ones, Benjamin Bunny and Peter Rabbit were modelled after two rabbits Potter had as a child. She loved her rabbits, often taking them on family holidays to Scotland and walking the, on leashes.

The most famous book and the one that launched her to national (and later worldwide) famepeterrabbit was of course, The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The story begins which our plucky hero Peter wanting to explore the world around him. His mother warns him that Mr. Macgregor’s vegetable patch is dangerous. His sisters, The Cottontails, obey but Peter’s thirst for adventure gets the better of him. He sneaks into the garden and starts to eat all the vegetables he could find. Not before long the garden owner Mr. Macgregor catches sight of Peter and tries to capture him. Peter quickly makes a run for it but gets stuck in the fence. Lucky for Peter he gets saved by Benjamin Bunny and then promises his mother never to wander far again.

Today, Peter Rabbit has an empire, from books, games, décor and even his own animated series!

foxy-gentlemanMy personal favourite Beatrix Potter tale was the one of Jemima Puddle Duck. I do not know what drew me to this what some might see at first glance a melancholy tale of a duck desperately wanting to have a family. Nevertheless, I watched the video every day and carried around a plush of her everywhere I went. As I grew older, I came to look at Beatrix Potter’s tales with new eyes and when I started working here at Brent Libraries, re-discovered the books I read in my youth. The charm of her books is that all ages can enjoy and take away their own views of the tales. Throughout her life, Beatrix Potter wrote 23 of them, each featuring animals that she would see on her walks across the countryside and later on at her very own farm, Hill Top.

Brent Libraries will be holding a number of events this autumn to mark her 150th birthday. We will have a selection of her books out on display, including her “lost” tale, The Tale of Kitty in Boots, illustrated by Roald Dahl’s favourite, Quentin Blake. The Children’s Libraries across Brent will also be hosting craft sessions to celebrate, so why don’t you come along with your children and make their favourite character from the tales including the famous Peter Rabbit and my favourite always, Jemima Puddle Duck. The events will be on at the end of October so please check www.brent.gov.uk/events for your nearest library.

What is your favourite Beatrix Potter tale? Do you wish she made a tale from your favourite British animal? Please comment with your views.

 

By Solmaz

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