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: The Picture of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde)

Still an absolute masterpiece on re-reading/listening

★★★★★★★

Title: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Author: Oscar Wilde  
Narrator: Stephen Fry
Genre: Fiction / Classic
First published: 1890
Edition: Audio

Enthralled by his own exquisite portrait, Dorian Gray exchanges his soul for eternal youth and beauty. Influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton, he is drawn into a corrupt double life, indulging his desires in secret while remaining a gentleman in the eyes of polite society. Only his portrait bears the traces of his decadence.

***

When someone asks me what my favourite book is I always mention this one, but I had not actually reread it for years. I figured it was time and what better way to revisit a favourite than by audio book, especially when it’s read by Stephen Fry. I am pleased to say I love it just as much as I always did.

Oscar Wilde’s prose is exquisite. There is something in the way he writes, the way he constructs his sentences that speaks to me. And I think the story, which centres around beauty and corruption and the way they influence each other, is endlessly fascinating. What exactly is beauty? Why do we crave it if it corrupts so easily? I think Wilde really touches a heartstring for many there. It was undoubtedly a subject that occupied his own thoughts more than was good for him.

I have never read a novel so full of quotable lines. It just makes so much sense. There is passion in this book, and disappointment. Tragedy, and admiration. It has the perfect beginning and the perfect ending.

Stephen Fry does a great job narrating this, which is no great surprise. He sets the perfect tone and made me believe the story and the characters.

Yes, if you ask me what my favourite book of all time is, I will still respond “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. Now I need to finally get on and read the rest of his work. If you have not yet read this classic, I urge you to read it as soon as you can. It’s a masterpiece.

7 out of 7 stars.

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Sugar Street (Naguib Mahfouz)

Of course there had to be some tragedy in this concluding novel

★★★★★★☆

Title: Sugar Street (original Arabic title: Al-Sukkariyya)
Author: Naguib Mahfouz
Translator: William Maynard Hutchins
Genre: Fiction / Historical Fiction / Classic / Middle East
First published: 1957 (in Arabic)
Edition: Paperback, published by Black Swan in 1994

The novels of the Cairo Trilogy trace three generations of the family of tyrannical patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Jawad, who rules his household with a strict hand while living a secret life of self-indulgence. Sugar Street brings Mahfouz’s vivid tapestry of an evolving Egypt to a dramatic climax as the aging patriarch sees one grandson become a Communist, one a Muslim fundamentalist, and one the lover of a powerful politician. Filled with compelling drama, earthy humor, and remarkable insight, Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy is the achievement of a master storyteller.

***

The conclusion to the Cairo Trilogy takes place amongst a changing political climate. The characters from the first book are now in the thralls of old age whilst their grand children try to find their feet in the world. The youngsters from the first book now have children and have had their own share of tragedies and disappointments to deal with.

There is a lot of politically charged philosophy in this final instalment and not everyone in the family share the same views. As changes are afoot marriage remains a topic of utmost importance, but marriage does not always mean happpiness. Some things, like homosexuality, are hinted at rather than explicitly told, but considering the time in which this novel was written it is to be applauded for sure that the subject was broached, and it is handled in a delicate manner.

There is something about the way this author writes. Sometimes the prose is beautiful and at other times there is a simplicity to it that makes it all feel very real. By now, as a reader you have followed these characters through what feels like a lifetime and you have shared their disappointments and their tragedies and they almost feel like old friends.

In a way I am sad that this trilogy has come to an end, and although the ending was a little ambiguous, I am satisfied. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. There is something very human about this series. Through these novels I have also learned a lot about Egypt’s history in the first half of the twentieth century.

If you’re interested in reading some Arabic literature, this trilogy is a good place to start.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Perfect Tunes (Emily Gould)

Let me know when you find the passion this book is missing!

★★★☆☆☆☆

Title: Perfect Tunes
Author: Emily Gould
Genre: Fiction /Contemporary
First published: 2020
Edition: Kindle e-book

It’s the early days of the new millennium, and Laura has arrived in New York City’s East Village in the hopes of recording her first album. A songwriter with a one-of-a-kind talent, she’s just beginning to book gigs with her beautiful best friend when she falls hard for a troubled but magnetic musician whose star is on the rise. Their time together is stormy and short-lived—but will reverberate for the rest of Laura’s life.

***

I love music and I love a good contemporary every now and then. This should have been right up my street, but unfortunately it did not quite work for me.

We start off with main character Laura meeting Dylan, a guitarist in a local band. The romance, if you can call it that, between the two characters was passionless and flat. I never quite felt the attraction between the two characters. They just happened.

The second half the book deals with Laura’s relationship with her daughter. Even here there was a distinct lack of emotion and that was exactly what this story needed, a good dose of emotion and passion. Not just romantically, but also for life in general. Both were sorely lacking. The main character is supposed to be someone who loves music, but I did not feel like she really cared about anything. This is a shame as the story could have actually been good. The author is not technically a bad writer, but the connection between her characters fell completely flat.

I was disappointed with this novel and though I did not hate it , it just needed so much more than it gave me.

3 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Flames (Robbie Arnott)

Exquisite prose that makes you feel nature

★★★★★★☆

Title: Flames
Author: Robbie Arnott
Genre: Fiction /Magical Realism
First published: 2018
Edition: Paperback, published by Atlantic Books in 2019

A young man named Levi McAllister decides to build a coffin for his sister, Charlotte – who promptly runs for her life. A water rat swims upriver in quest of the cloud god. A fisherman named Karl hunts for tuna in partnership with a seal. And a father takes form from fire.

***

I can’t remember where I came across this book, but as soon as I read what it was about and where it was set I needed to read it. About ten years ago I travelled around Australia and one of the places I loved the most was Tasmania, the setting for this book.

The fact that I have been and seen many of the places mentioned in this book definitely added to my reading experience as it was easy for me to visualize the landscape. The way the author handled the setting and the especially the feeling of nature was what made this book so wonderful for me.

The highlight of this novel was definitely the prose itself and the overall feel of it. It was very strange and creative. The story itself was interesting and felt very original, even if it did not quite do everything that I had wanted it to do in the end. I felt like I never quite knew the characters. That is my problem, not the book’s problem. This is the kind of book I will read again in the future and without whatever expectations I had going into this book, as I would already know the story, I think I may well love it even more.

Overall this one was right up my street and I will definitely be reading more from this author. Highly recommended if you like magical realism that just takes it up that notch into the realm of the weird and wonderful.

6 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

Book Thoughts: Heartstone (Elle Katharine White)

A fantasy retelling of a Jane Austen classic let down by a lack of passion

★★★★☆☆☆

Title: Heartstone
Author: Elle Katharine White
Genre: Fiction /Fantasy/ Retelling
First published: 2016
Edition: Paperback, published by Harper Voyager in 2016

They say a Rider in possession of a good blade must be in want of a monster to slay—and Merybourne Manor has plenty of monsters.

Passionate, headstrong Aliza Bentaine knows this all too well; she’s already lost one sister to the invading gryphons. So when Lord Merybourne hires a band of Riders to hunt down the horde, Aliza is relieved her home will soon be safe again. Her relief is short-lived. With the arrival of the haughty and handsome dragonrider, Alastair Daired, Aliza expects a battle; what she doesn’t expect is a romantic clash of wills, pitting words and wit against the pride of an ancient house. Nor does she anticipate the mystery that follows them from Merybourne Manor, its roots running deep as the foundations of the kingdom itself, where something old and dreadful slumbers . . . something far more sinister than gryphons.

A fantasy book based on the framework of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice? Yes, please! Unfortunately, it did not quite hit all the right notes for me, but I did enjoy it.

There were parts of this book I really enjoyed. The world building was not extensive, but there was enough for it to work. The idea of putting the story of Pride and Prejudice in a fantasy setting with dragons, direwolves and gryphons was a good one and it almost worked.

Where it let me down was the character interactions. They just lacked any kind of tension. The thing that makes Jane Austen’s book work so well is how dynamic the dialogue and interactions are. In this retelling they were lukewarm at best. If the love story, which is kind of what it is building throughout, was stronger, it would have made a much better book.

If I stop comparing this book to the book that inspired it, it was a good read that I enjoyed well enough. It was entertaining and it was well enough written. In a way it is frustrating as there is so much potential, but somehow it missed the mark a bit.

Overall, I felt the story was held back by a lack of passion, on the love front, but also on the battle front. There were a few bits that were strongly written, like the initial encounter with the gryphons, but others just lacked depth and excitement.

If the synopsis floats your boat, this one is worth reading. It may work better for you than it did for me.

4 out of 7 stars

Books · Read in 2021 · Reviews

(audio) Book Thoughts: Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë)

A tale full of unlikeables, but well narrated

★★★★★☆☆

Title: Wuthering Heights
Author: Emily Brontë / Narrator: Joanne Frogg
Genre: Fiction / Classic
First published: 1847
Edition: Audio /Hardback

As darkness falls, a man caught in a snowstorm is forced to shelter at the strange, grim house Wuthering Heights. It is a place he will never forget. There he will come to learn the story of Cathy: how she was forced to choose between her well-meaning husband and the dangerous man she had loved since she was young. How her choice led to betrayal and terrible revenge – and continues to torment those in the present. How love can transgress authority, convention, even death. 

***

This one has been on my shelf for a good while in the shape of a lovely Penguin clothbound edition, but I decided to listen to it on audio book instead. I think that was the right decision.

This story is full of unlikeable characters and it is definitely not a book that will cheer you up! In fact, it is dark, gothic and full of anguish and sadness. However, it is also very atmospheric.

I quite liked it. Nelly, the housekeeper, has a great narrative voice and I liked the way it was a story told mainly from her perspective. The audio narrator did a great job giving her a particular voice, which really added to the atmosphere of the book. I am not sure whether I would have enjoyed this as much had I read the actual pages. It is rather bleak and the characters are so unpleasant. But on audio I really enjoyed the experience.

If anyone goes in thinking Wuthering Heights is in any way romantic, you would be severely disappointed. It really is not. Far from it. Pretty much all the characters in it are controlling and traumatised in some way. No one is happy or lets anyone else be happy. Yet, there is a strange fascination with these people because of that, I guess. It’s kind of clever in that way.

Overall, I enjoyed this Classic and appreciated the depressing story it was telling, but it’s not one of my favourite classics and I won’t be in a hurry to read it again.

5 out of 7 stars