Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: My Dark Vanessa (Kate Elizabeth Russell)

Well written, but very unsettling

★★★★★☆☆

Title: My Dark Vanessa
Author: Kate Elizabeth Russell
Genre: Fiction / Contemporary / Hard-hitting
First published: 2020
Edition: Kindle e-book

2000. Bright, ambitious, and yearning for adulthood, fifteen-year-old Vanessa Wye becomes entangled in an affair with Jacob Strane, her magnetic and guileful forty-two-year-old English teacher.

2017.  Amid the rising wave of allegations against powerful men, a reckoning is coming due. Strane has been accused of sexual abuse by a former student, who reaches out to Vanessa, and now Vanessa suddenly finds herself facing an impossible choice: remain silent, firm in the belief that her teenage self willingly engaged in this relationship, or redefine herself and the events of her past. But how can Vanessa reject her first love, the man who fundamentally transformed her and has been a persistent presence in her life? Is it possible that the man she loved as a teenager—and who professed to worship only her—may be far different from what she has always believed?

***

I am not sure I have ever felt this uncomfortable whilstr reading a book. This whole read for me was a decidedly unpleasant experience, but I also feel like it is an important read and one that could mean a lot to people.

The author is clearly a very smart writer. The way she paints a picture of this illicit relationship between a teenage girl and a teacher almost 30 years her senior is very well done. You feel the wrongness of it and yet you can also understand why fifteen-year-old Vanessa is drawn into this intimate relationship. I was especially impressed by the way the author never makes the teacher in any way alluring. Instead she makes it clear that he appeals to Vanessa’s need for being understood and being special rather than any sexual attraction from her side.

That does not change that I did not enjoy reading this much at all. It as a good novel, but the subject matter made me feel icky and disgusted. I also had difficulty understanding Vanessa’s actions as she gets older. I guess I am not meant to understand them as such, but still. I just found I wanted to give her a good shake. Maybe that was the whole point of the book. Besides, every person is different and I did not go through the experiences Vanessa did, so how could I understand?

I find it really hard to come up with a conclusion of how I feel about this book. The quality of the writing is up there. It’s just that it is not the kind of book I like to read. I am glad I read it, but I would not go out of my way to read similar books. It is simply not the kind of reading I enjoy and since I read for escape I need to get at least some enjoyment out of it.

Still, this is a good book and I would recommend this book, but I would warn that it is an uncomfortable read.

5 out of 7 stars

(Also see my reading diary of 2 August for some of my thoughts whilst I was reading this one. )

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Corelli’s Mandolin (Louis de Bernières)

Just chopping onions, really

★★★★★★☆

Title: Corelli’s Mandolin
Author: Louis de Bernières
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction
First published: 1994 (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin)
Edition: Hardback, published by Pantheon

In the early days of the second world war, before Benito Mussolini invaded Greece, Dr Iannis practices medicine on the island of Cephalonia, accompanied by his daughter, Pelagia, to whom he imparts much of his healing art. Even when the Italians do invade, life isn’t so bad—at first anyway. The officer in command of the Italian garrison is the cultured Captain Antonio Corelli, who responds to a Nazi greeting of “Heil Hitler” with his own “Heil Puccini”, and whose most precious possession is his mandolin. Love is complicated enough in wartime, even when the lovers are on the same side. And for Corelli and Pelagia, it becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate the minefield of allegiances, both personal and political, as all around them atrocities mount, former friends become enemies and the ugliness of war infects everyone it touches.

***

When I started reading this one I was not sure what to expect. It is a modern classic, but I hardly knew anything about it. It took me a while to get into, but in the end I loved it.

I struggled to get into this book. It took me half the book to get into the writing and the story, but I flew through the second half. The writing style felt rather odd at the beginning, but once I got used to it, I actually really enjoyed it. It’s quite witty and dry and not without a touch of silliness. Yet, the book deals with heartbreaking events. Though the author admits that the book is not accurate when it comes to what happened on this particular Greek island, there is no doubt that the most grotesque atrocities were committed during WW II in Greece. Parts of this novel were harrowing to read. My heart broke several times over.

The story at its heart, about love that grows despite everything, is bittersweet, but made my heart glow. Maybe a part of me wishes that the ending had been a bit different, but maybe this ending was just right.

In the end I enjoyed this far more than I thought I would after the first quarter, especially since novels set in wars are not normally my bag. I would highly recommend this novel, but is not for the faint of heart. I do feel it is very much worth reading and the unusual tone of the writing only enhanced its story in the end.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: The Devil and Miss Prym (Paulo Coelho)

Engaging enough, but forgettable

★★★★☆☆☆

Title: The Devil and Miss Prym (original Spanish title: O Demônio e a Srta. Prym)
Author: Paulo Coelho
Translator: Amanda Hopkinson & Nick Caistor
Genre: Fiction / Magical realism
First published: 2000
Edition: Paperback, published by Harper Collins in 2002

A stranger arrives at the remote village of Viscos, carrying with him a backpack containing a notebook and eleven gold bars. He comes searching for the answer to a question that torments him: Are human beings, in essence, good or evil? In welcoming the mysterious foreigner, the whole village becomes an accomplice to his sophisticated plot, which will forever mark their lives.

***

I picked this book up for next to nothing in a charity shop earlier this month. I am not sure why I bought, as the only other book I had read by this author was The Alchemist and I did not like that very much. But I did, and when I was a looking for my next read I just picked up the top book from the pile. This book has a lot of bad reviews, which I have to say is always intriguing!

Yes, this book very much appears to be a morality tale, with the battle of good and evil at its centre. It talks about God rather a lot. However, I also feel it is a social commentary on the way we are as people and I did not see it as overly preachy. The fact is, people are fickle, and really, the world is not so black and white. Good and evil are not so easily defined and I think that is partly what the author is trying to say.

I found this book very easy to read and the story did keep me engaged, even if it did not quite excite me. In the end I found it quite forgettable, but I do not think it is a bad book at all. It’s an okay book and I really did not mind reading it. Will I read it again? No, probably not, but neither will I shy away from reading another book by this author if it crosses my path. I still have one hiding on my shelves somewhere. I found it engaging enough. I just don’t think it is one I will remember years from now.

4 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: The Song of Achilles (Madeline Miller)

My heart, people, my heart!

★★★★★★★

Title: The Song of Achilles
Author: Madeline Miller
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction / Mythology
First published: 2011
Edition: Kindle e-book

Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the kingdom of Phthia to be raised in the shadow of King Peleus and his golden son, Achilles. “The best of all the Greeks”—strong, beautiful, and the child of a goddess—Achilles is everything the shamed Patroclus is not. Yet despite their differences, the boys become steadfast companions. Their bond deepens as they grow into young men and become skilled in the arts of war and medicine—much to the displeasure and the fury of Achilles’ mother, Thetis, a cruel sea goddess with a hatred of mortals.

***

So yes, I will admit that I finished this book in floods of tears, a hallmark of a very good book in my humble opinion.

I had read Circe by this author and loved it, so I had been meaning to read this one for ages. I heard so many people raving about it! I do not know why it took me so long to finally read it.

As soon as I read the first page I knew I would love it. The writing is beautiful and the connection and relationship between Achilles and Patroclus is touchingly written. I admired Patroclus’ love and loyalty, even if Achilles annoyed quite a bit sometimes. What that boy needed was a really good slap. However, his flaws and the way Patroclus deals with them (or does not deal with them as the case may be), is what makes this story so compelling.

I loved how this story took well-known myths and shaped them into something fresh and beautiful to read. The ending broke and healed my heart at the same time – it was so perfect. The author has a great touch with words and weaves an incredible emotional story that will hold a bit of my heart for quite a while.

If you have not read this one yet, read it! It’s a thing of beauty.

7 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: In The Days of Rain (Rebecca Stott)

Fascinating and well written without relying on sensationalism

★★★★★★☆

Title: In The Days of Rain
Author/Narrator: Rebecca Stott
Genre: Non-Fiction / Memoir / Cults
First published: 2017
Edition: Audio book / Hardback, published by Fourth Estate

As Rebecca Stott’s father lay dying he begged her to help him write the memoir he had been struggling with for years. He wanted to tell the story of their family, who, for generations had all been members of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Yet, each time he reached a certain point, he became tangled in a thicket of painful memories and could not go on. The sect were a closed community who believed the world is ruled by Satan: non-sect books were banned, women were made to wear headscarves and those who disobeyed the rules were punished. Rebecca was born into the sect, yet, as an intelligent, inquiring child she was always asking dangerous questions. She would discover that her father, an influential preacher, had been asking them too, and that the fault-line between faith and doubt had almost engulfed him. Rebecca gathers the broken threads of her father’s story, and her own, and follows him into the thicket to tell of her family’s experiences within the sect, and the decades-long aftermath of their breaking away.

***

This book had been staring at me from my book shelves for a while and when I was picking up a new audio book I decided to go with this one. I think the audio book was a great choice for this one.

Religion is a subject that has always fascinated me. After all, it shapes the lives of so many people around me. Yet, I am always a bit hesitant when it comes to reading about cults/sects. Often these kind of books feel too sensationalised and that is not really my kind of thing. I felt this book was not that. The author’s voice in this feels conflicted still with the indoctrination she grew up with and her current beliefs. However, this is also a book about her relationship with her father and his relationship with the Brethren, the strict Christian church he was born into. This book also looks at the the history of the Brethren through the experiences of her own family.

I thought this book was really well written and thought out. The perspective was always very clear. This is the author’s perspective and her father’s, and they clearly feel this is a story that needed to be told. Their experiences with this particular church are harrowing at times.

Living in a country amongst several Christian belief systems, some of which are very strict indeed, I can see how religion permeates every aspect of their daily lives. Like I said, this has always been so strange, but fascinating to me. The way the author wrote this story was interesting and informative. It satisfied my curiosity, without straying into sensationalism, like so many of these books do. Neither did I find it overly emotional.

I really enjoyed this book and if the subject matter appeals to you, I would highly recommend it.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: Ayoade on Top (Richard Ayoade)

If life is getting you down, read this!

★★★★★★☆

Title: Ayoade on Top
Author/Narrator: Richard Ayoade
Genre: Non-Fiction / Comedy / Satire
First published: 2010
Edition: Audio book

At last, the definitive book about perhaps the best cabin crew dramedy ever filmed: View From the Top starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Ayoade argues for the canonisation of this brutal masterpiece, a film that celebrates capitalism in all its victimless glory; one we might imagine Donald Trump himself half-watching on his private jet’s gold-plated flat screen while his other puffy eye scans the cabin for fresh, young prey.”

***

This is one of those books that on the surface appears completely pointless, but at the same time I am so happy it exists, because it would brighten anyone’s day.

Jokes at the expense of a flop of a movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow? Oh, god yes, sign me up!

I have known Richard Ayoade as a comedian and cinema genius for many years and he is one of those people whose dry wit just works for me. Although in many ways this book is very much just a stand-up comedy routine, it still absolutely worked.

He roasts this particular movie with such an unrelenting barrage of precision ammunation that I cannot help the fact I want to watch this clearly very crap movie right now!

He lost me a couple of times on his meanders, but overall I honestly thought this was very funny. I listened to the audio book read by Ayoade, and of course he delivers it the way it ought to be. This may have coloured my final judgement, but if you are familiar with Ayoade, I am pretty sure if you read it on the page you would recognise his voice in it quite easily.

I would definitely recommend this if you just need a bit of light entertainment in your life. This was a hoot and a half. I wonder what Gwyneth thinks…

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: State of Sorrow (Melinda Salisbury)

YA fantasy with more of a touch of political intrigue

★★★★★☆☆

Title: State of Sorrow (Sorrow #1)
Author: Melinda Salisbury
Genre: Fiction / Fantasy .
First published: 2018
Edition: Hardback, published by Scholastic in 2018

By day, Sorrow governs the Court of Tears, covering for her grief-maddened father, who has turned their once celebrated land into a living monument for the brother who died before she was born. By night, she seeks solace in the arms of the boy she’s loved since childhood. But one ghost won’t stop haunting her, and when enemies old and new close ranks against her, Sorrow must decide how far she’s willing to go to win…

***

I am not sure I have much to say about this YA fantasy novel. It was good, I enjoyed it, but I am not going out of my way to continue the series.

There was nothing I disliked about this novel. The writing was fine, the characters were good enough and the plot was interesting. Very political intrigue based, but not too heavy, and I enjoyed that. For me, it just did not have a special something that made it stand out. The world building was not quite extensive enough for me personally. However, I still feel like want to rate it quite high, as I feel my opinion is definitely skewed because I do not read a lot of YA books these days.

I did like this book and I would definitely recommend this to older teenagers and young adults. There is some mild sexual content and the political aspect makes it more suitable for older teenagers in my opinion.

For now, I won’t be continuing with this series, but I may in the future if the second book happened to cross my path. This book is staying on my shelves for now. Nothing to do with the gorgeous cover of course…

5 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Girl With A Pearl Earring (Tracy Chevalier)

A quietly atmospheric novel, but something was missing…

★★★★★☆☆

Title: Girl With A Pearl Earring
Author: Tracy Chevalier
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction
First published: 1999
Edition: Paperback, published by Harper Collins in 2003

Griet, the young daughter of a tilemaker in seventeeth century Holland, obtains her first job, as a servant in Vermeer’s household. Through Griet’s eyes we see the complicated family, the society of the small town of Delft, and life with an obsessive genius. Griet loves being drawn into his artistic life, and leaving her former drudgery, but the cost to her own survival may be high. 

***

This book had been lingering on my shelves for a while and I finally picked it up. It was an easy read. It was well written and atmospheric, but I did not love it.

I think everyone knowns the painting this book is based on. It is one of the most famous paintings in the world. This fictional account of its birth is not based on much fact, as little is known about the painter or the painting itself. However, the author brought the time period to life with skilfull writing. The quiet tension between Griet and Vermeer is well written. Overall, this is a quiet sort of book and generally I like a quiet book, but I found something was missing, like the pearl in the painting. There is something niggling at me.

I enjoyed reading this book, but I did not find it particularly memorable. I am glad I finally read it and I would like to read more from this author.

5 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: Greenlights (Matthew McConaughey)

You could live life by McConaughey’s bumper stickers

★★★★★★☆

Title: Greenlights
Author/Narrator: Matthew McConaughey
Genre: Non-Fiction / Memoir / Philosophy (of sorts)
First published: 2020
Edition: Audio book

“I’ve been in this life for fifty years, been trying to work out its riddle for forty-two, and been keeping diaries of clues to that riddle for the last thirty-five. Notes about successes and failures, joys and sorrows, things that made me marvel, and things that made me laugh out loud. How to be fair. How to have less stress. How to have fun. How to hurt people less. How to get hurt less. How to be a good man. How to have meaning in life. How to be more me.”

***

I like actor Matthew McConaughey well enough, but I would not have thought about picking up this book, if not for two reasons. One: I saw him talk about his book on the Russell Howard show and it sounded like a hoot, and two: I do really like his voice. Reason enough to download the audio book, I’d say!

And I am glad I did, because this was a joy to listen to. There is something incredibly pretentious about this book and yet, it feels very honest and grounded in the person McConaughey is. It’s a paradox, I know!

This is not a straightforward memoir. In fact, McConaughey tells his life story while explaining his life philosophy bumper sticker quote by bumper sticker quote and plenty of notes to self, and to be fair to him, it all seems to make a lot of sense!

He talks about all the normal things a memoir like this would entail, but at the same time he takes a very critical look at himself throughout. This man has done some crazy things for some even crazier reasons! He emphasises life lessons and philosophies learned and adapted along the way.

Now, I have not seen a ton of his movies (Interstellar is probably my favourite from the ones I have seen), but I actually really enjoyed this book and I appreciate this man a whole lot more after reading (listening to) this.

I would definitely recommend this as an audio book, because he tells his own story with a lot of ‘oomph’, and he truly has one of the best voices out there!

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Reviews

Book Thoughts: It Only Happens in the Movies (Holly Bourne)

Bourne, Holly - It Only Happens in the Movies

★★★★★★☆

Title: It Only Happens in the Movies
Author: Holly Bourne
Genre: Fiction / YA / Contemporary / RomCom
First published: 2017
Edition: Kindle e-book

Bad boys turned good, kisses in the rain, climbing through bedroom windows… It only happens in the movies. When Audrey meets Harry, it’s the start of a truly cinematic romance – or is it? Audrey knows that Harry is every movie cliché rolled into one. But she still chooses to let him into her heart…

This is without doubt one of my favourite YA contemporary romance/romcom kind of books that I have read.

I loved main character Audrey so much. The first half of the book was absolute perfection to me. Audrey clearly struggled between her responsibilties to her parents and her simply wanting to be a teenager. On top of that she was still heart-broken over an ex that was clearly a bit of a piece of work.

I thought the way this book dealt with losing your virginity and sex realistically and very well. Too many of these books are way too romaticized and that is exactly what this book is criticizing, mostly by looking at movies, but at the same time the same applies to too many romance books, YA and adult both.

Throughout the book also deals with the divorce of Audrey’s parents and the repercussions of that on the mental health of her mother and on Audrey’s own ideas of love.

The book lost me a bit in the third quarter, but thankfully it finished strongly. I really enjoyed this book and I do feel that this is the kind of book that teenage girls should be reading. The heroine is realistically strong, but flawed as well. The male lead is even more flawed, but you kind of like him anyway, just like Audrey does.

The ending gives a strong message that hopefully would empower teenage girls reading this book.

Also, bonus points for mentioning ‘Before Sunrise’ which is one of my favourite movies of all time.

This was so close to 7 stars if not for that 3rd quarter.

6 out of 7 stars