Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

Ava Lavender is the daughter of a woman scorned in love and the granddaughter of a woman haunted by the ghosts of her past.  She also happens to have wings, which she was born with.  In The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender, Ava traces the history of the women in her family, and the ways in which love in all its forms has caused them pain.  Their stories lead naturally on to her own, as her wings make her the focal point of a dangerous obsession.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender is an unusual book that is hard to describe.  The thing I enjoyed most about it was the quirky tone and narrative voice.  Walton's world just hints at the magical, and at the fairy tale, a world in which wings, ghosts, children with different coloured eyes, and cakes infused with the feelings of the baker, are possible.  I love books with atmospheres like this - our normal world painted in vivid technicolour.  Ava Lavender is as a result a very visual book, and one that would be great turned into a film.

I mentioned above that this story is a bit like a fairy tale, and therefore there is a darker side lurking underneath the surface.  Emilienne and Viviane (Ava's mother and grandmother) are troubled by love in rather ordinary ways, but Ava really experiences the darker side of obsessive love.  The later sections of the novel deal with brutal events, which seem even harsher set against the imaginative setting. I found what happened to Ava to be problematic, not because I don't think violence against women shouldn't be written about, but because there was a glamour to the scene.  Ava's sorrows are beautiful, it's all in the title, and her attack and it's consequences are written about in the same, fairytale, beautiful-tragic way.  When really it's just tragic and there are fewer things in life that would feel less beautiful.  I'm sure this was completely unintentional, but it still bothered me.

I found that I connected with Emilienne and Viviane better than Ava herself, as Ava remained a bit of a mystery throughout the novel.  I particularly connected with Viviane's story, her years spent pining after a lost love that didn't really turn out to be a love after all.  Including all three women in the narrative was definitely a good decision.

On the whole, I did enjoy The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender.  The writing style and the magical elements worked fantastically together, and it was a pleasure to pick up.  Fans of Sarah Addison Allen will enjoy this one.

Source: From the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
Published: 2014
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Jacob Jankowski is a veterinary student about to sit his final exams when he receives the devastating news that his parents have been killed.  Desperate and unable to cope, he hitches a ride on a freight train that turns out to house the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth.  The circus has fallen on hard times due to the Great Depression but Jacob's background ensures him a job as the circus vet.  Jacob is seduced by the exotic animals, glamour and romance of the circus life, but there are darker currents running underneath the sequins and glitter.  When he falls in love with married performer Marlena and the circus acquires Rosie the elephant, Jacob finds himself tested.

As always, I bought this book when it was surrounded by a lot of hype but then failed to read it in a timely manner.  I also failed to see the film, so I went into Water for Elephants with completely fresh eyes.  I was expecting a light, sentimental type read, and that's exactly what it was.  Even though Water for Elephants discusses some heavier themes such as animal cruelty, murder and the brutality of circus life, it does so in a Spielberg-esque way that left me in no doubt that things would be OK in the end.  It's like life without the sharp edges, and it makes for comfortable if not challenging reading.

My favourite element of Water for Elephants was the setting.  I'm not surprised this novel was turned into a film, as it's so visually evocative of both the time period and of the circus.  I could almost smell the popcorn and taste the excitement that the circus bought to the dreary towns it stopped in.  I also really enjoyed the character of Marlena, who had more guts than I initially took her to have.  The bits dealing with Rosie and the other animals made me want to try Gruen's novel Ape House, as I liked the way the animals were characters in themselves.

However, there were some flaws.  Jacob falls in love with a married woman, which could have made for some interesting complexity in the novel, but Gruen shies away from this by making her husband to be a bad guy.  This seemed a little too convenient for the plot.  As I mentioned above, there's never any doubt that things will end well for Jacob, and this takes away some of the tension.   Despite this, Water for Elephants is a really fun, escapist read.  I loved immersing myself in the world of the circus for a while.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2006
Edition Read: Two Roads, 2011
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates

In 2012 after being sexually harassed on London public transport Laura Bates, a young journalist, started a project called Everyday Sexism to collect stories for a piece she was writing on the issue. Astounded by the response she received and the wide range of stories that came pouring in from all over the world, she quickly realised that the situation was far worse than she'd initially thought. Enough was enough. From being leered at and wolf-whistled on the street, to aggravation in the work place and serious sexual assault, it was clear that sexism had been normalised. Bates decided it was time for change.  (from Goodreads).

Everday Sexism is a thoroughly depressing and yet important book.  Bates has collated the normal, run-of-the-mill experiences of countless  women, on a range of topics, and together it makes for pretty grim reading.  I was shocked to find out that one in three girls from 16-18 have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, that women are still missing out on jobs in case they decide to take maternity leave, and that the unemployment rate for men in the recession has increased by only 0.32%, whilst for women it has jumped by almost 20%.  The statistics were shocking enough, but what makes this book more powerful is that Bates includes the individual stories of the women that have tweeted her and posted on the everyday sexism website.   I could identify with so many of the experiences - the newlywed woman being asked when she is going to start having babies, the pregnant woman who only ever gets asked about her pregnancy, and the teenage girls who know they are more than their looks, but can't escape their insecurities.   Bates also shows how these experiences are normalised in the context of 'banter', with women who protest to e.g. sexual comments getting responses like "can't you take a joke?" or "you should be flattered."


I think the chapter that made the most depressing reading was the one concerning teenage girls.  I was lucky enough to be a teenager before the internet was everywhere (the days of dial-up), and I'm sure that it's so much harder now social media means that sexual bullying is common.  I was shocked to read about the amount of rape jokes reported in secondary schools, but when I asked my husband about it (he's a secondary school teacher), his experience matched those in the book.  When I was at school, boys might have joked about how girls looked, and that is cruel, but to be the subject of jokes about raping you, or what they want to do to you, or to have private photos shared - I can't imagine how hard that must be.  Bates reports on the girls that have committed suicide as a result of all these things.


I've always known that if I had a girl, I would raise her to be a feminist, to value herself for more than her looks, and to know that she can do anything that she wants to do.  Reading Everyday Sexism, I've realised that it is just as important for me to raise my son to respect women, to see them as more than objects, but as friends, colleagues, partners and equals.  I don't care if my son wants to cry when he is upset or play with dolls, and I certainly will try my best to ensure that he judges men and women in the same way, as people.  


I'd definitely recommend Everyday Sexism.  It's depressing reading at times, but does end on a note of hope, with stories of how women are starting to protest against the current culture, and how things could change for the better.


Source: Personal copy (kindle)

Published: April 2014
Score: 5 out of 5

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood

Oscar is a care assistant working at a nursing home in Cambridge. Despite being very intelligent, his academic career was cut short and he has always dreamed of attending one of the famous colleges near by.  One night, he finds himself drawn into a concert by the haunting sound of the organ, and there he meets Iris Bellwether, a medical student at King's College.  Through his relationship with Iris, Oscar becomes part of a group of students revolving around Iris' brother Eden, a gifted musician.  Eden is charismatic, bizarre, brilliant and perhaps a little insane.  As Eden begins to develop strange and possibly dangerous theories about the power of his music, Iris reaches out to Oscar for help.  Is Eden a great genius, or will his arrogance and instability damage the group?

I should start this review by pointing out that I've never read The Secret History or Brideshead Revisited, although plenty of other reviewers have noted similarities to these titles.  I went into The Bellwether Revivals with fresh eyes and I found it a bit of a mixed bag.  There were parts I loved, and parts where the narrative seemed to drag a bit.  Mostly, I loved the setting and the characterisation of Eden.  I'll read pretty much anything set at Oxbridge or amongst privileged individuals (I know, I really do need to get to The Secret History). so I was guaranteed to love this part of the book, the exams and colleges, textbooks and bicycles, grand houses and wealthy parents.  Wood's Cambridge has a slightly gothic atmosphere as well, which only added to my enjoyment of the setting.

The characterisation of Eden was superb too.  Wood perfectly captures that kind of person who is either manically clever or completely insane.  Eden has a magnetic personality that draws other people to him and his charisma is almost a force.  I enjoyed all the little details about Eden, like his notebooks full of scrawling, his air of superiority towards Iris, and the crazed way he plays the organ.  Wood keeps plenty of ambiguity about Eden, so you're not quite sure whether he is what he says he is throughout the novel.  Although Eden was such a well developed character, some of the others felt flatter.   Oscar was a bit of a bright-boy-held-back-by-working-class-family stereotype, and some of Eden's friends (Jane and Marcus particularly) just seemed to be there to make up numbers.

My main issue with The Bellwether Revivals was one of pace.  The book opens and closes with the same dramatic event, but the middle section felt a bit heavy by comparison.  I was keen to keep reading to find out what was going to happen, and I enjoyed the big reveal at the end, but it felt like I had to wait a long time to get there.  I'm not sure what Oscar's favourite patient Dr Paulsen added to the narrative; I know he had to be there for the plot to work, but his sections could have been cut considerably.

On the whole, The Bellwether Revivals was a worthwhile read.  If you enjoy books with academic settings or mysteries, you're sure to like this one.

Source: Personal copy
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Top Ten Authors I Need to Read More Of


It's rare for me to join in with Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish, but something about this theme really struck me.  I am terrible for reading author backlists - I keep on discovering amazing authors and adding all their titles to my wishlist, but I never get around to actually reading them.  So without further ado, here are the ten authors I need to read more of:

  

  • Geraldine Brooks - I absolutely adored People of the Book when I read it during my historical fiction kick a few years back.  I even own copies of March and Year of Wonders, I just need to pick them up and read them!
  • Angela Carter - There are no words for how much I loved her dark fairytale retellings in The Bloody Chamber.  I'm very keen to try Nights at the Circus in particular.
  • Daphne du Maurier - Rebecca became one of my favourite books as soon as I tried it.  I loved the twists and turns, and how unreliable the narrator was.  I think Jamaica Inn will be next.
  

  • Jane Harris - Gillespie and I was another deliciously creepy book with an unreliable narrator.  I've heard The Observations is just as good.
  • Eva Ibbotson - Eva's books are fluffy and fun and like a warm bath in the middle of winter.  There's so many of them I want to read!
  • W. Somerset Maugham - I'm only just getting into modern classics, and I adored The Painted Veil. I have a whole set of his books, but think I will be trying The Magician next.
 

  • Marisha Pessl - Night Film was just awesome!  I know it's very different, but I really want to try Special Topics in Calamity Physics.
  • Brandon Sanderson - Steelheart was good, but the Mistborn trilogy is the one I really want to try.  I love some epic fantasy when I'm in the mood.
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  • John Steinbeck - He's my husband's favourite author, and I loved East of Eden.  The ones I really want to try are Cannery Row and Grapes of Wrath.
  • Lucy Knisley - And finally and graphic novelist.  I loved Knisley's account of he time in France in French Milk, and fully intend to get my hands on Relish as soon as possible.

Have you read any of these authors? If so, what did you think?
If you're taking part in Top Ten Tuesday this week, I'd love to visit your list.



Sunday, 14 September 2014

Sam Sunday #59: Twelve Weeks Later



In some ways, it's strange to think that Giles is twelve weeks old today.  Like any set of first-time parents, we didn't really know what was about to hit us!  I love being a Mum and I love watching him learn new things - how to smile, laugh, grasp things with his hand, coo and recognise the people around him.  I love his chubby little wrists and how he smiles at me every single morning when he wakes up.  I love his dimples, how he is always wriggling and how he strokes my arm when I cuddle him.  Being a parent has changed me, and made me more open to other people, but it's so hard too.  I see many posts about how amazing being a parent is, and it truly, honestly is, but it's rarer to see people acknowledging just how difficult it is too. And I want to be able to be honest about my experiences.

One thing that has made it hard for me is that I'm still recovering from his birth.  I know I mentioned it a little bit on here, but I really did have a traumatic experience.  It's not an exaggeration at all to say that without immediate medical assistance after he was born, I might not be here today.  I was expecting the pain of contractions, and they were pretty awful (the epidural was amazing), but I wasn't expecting to have so much difficulty when it got to the pushing stage.  I'm petite, Giles was a big baby, and he twisted and got stuck on the way out.  Having the epistemology and forceps was horrible, but the worst part was the blood loss after.  I had two internal fourth degree tears and I quickly lost over half of the blood in my body.  I remember feeling cold, ill, vomiting, dropping in and out of consciousness and not much else.  Every time I came to, there were a lot of doctors around me - they had to perform surgery in the labour ward as it would have been too dangerous to move me,,and I had to have multiple blood transfusions. It was so scary and it's been a difficult recovery. I'm just getting to the stage now where I feel fine most of the time.

It's been such a big adjustment, becoming a parent.  Before, I was used to a busy working life that often spilled into my own personal time.  When I wasn't working, I had the freedom to do as I pleased.  Now I am much less busy, but only get snatches of time to myself during the day, and I use my brain a lot less!  It can be difficult to be on your own with a baby for twelve hours at a stretch.  I love him more than anything, but when he's particularly refluxy and won't settle, and won't let me put him down at all, it's tough, and can be lonely too.  Thankfully we seemed to have turned a corner with his reflux in the last week, as he's much more content and will actually let me put him down for his naps now, meaning I do get little breaks in the day.  This makes a massive difference.

I've still got about three months of maternity leave left, and I'm intending to make the most of them. Once I go back to work, and life becomes super busy again, I'm going to miss this time, the days when I get to do nothing but cuddle him, play with him and go for walks in the sun to look at the trees.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

I don't read much YA, but I would have to be living under a rock to not notice the massive success of this series.  With the third instalment, Isla and the Happily Ever After, recently published, I decided it was time to give Anna a go.  The basic story-line goes as follows - Anna is looking forward to starting her senior year and getting closer to her almost-boyfriend Toph when her father decides to send her to boarding school in Paris.  At first Anna is determined to hate being uprooted from her life in America, but she soon makes new friends.  One of these is Etienne St. Clair, who she finds herself developing feelings for despite him already being in a relationship.  As the year goes on, Anna and St. Clair have to deal with their conflicting feelings.

I can see why Anna and the French Kiss is so popular.  It's super fun to read and the romance between the two main characters is well written.  There's no insta-love here - Anna may be attracted to St. Clair initially, but we only see her fall in love as their friendship develops and they spend more time together.  At first they have an easy-going friendship, but as time goes on, they become closer and support each other through some major life events, and it was good to read a relationship grow in such a realistic way.  It also helps that Anna is a likeable main character.  She's aware that she shouldn't have feelings for St. Clair and so does her best to suppress them and just be his friend.    She isn't perfect and comes across as a normal, relatable teenage girl, and I'm sure this has contributed to this book being so loved by so many.

So I liked Anna, but I wasn't so keen on St. Clair.  Yes, he is described as being dreamy, and he is a great friend to Anna, but I thought he was terrible in the romance department.  He knows his friend Meredith has feelings for him, and chooses to let her hope rather than address it.  He's in a relationship with Ellie, despite having deep feelings for someone else.  He's not technically cheating, but he is on an emotional level, and he continues to stay with Ellie despite knowing that Anna likes him back.  I know that some of this is necessary for the plot, but St Clair just comes across as a bit spineless.  I was also sick of Perkins constantly reminding me that St. Clair is short - who cares?!

Anyway, Anna and the French Kiss was a really fun read.  It's not perfect but it's quick and engaging and I enjoyed reading it.  I'll definitely be picking up the next two books.

Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2010
Score: 3.5 out of 5