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 · Reading Diary

Reading Diary: Monday, 2 August 2021 (My Dark Vanessa)

MONDAY, 2 August 2021

00.13 – What better time to start a reading diary than just after midnight?! I am hoping to get a chunk of reading done today/tomorrow, whichever I wanna call it – when I wake up! So, I thought a reading diary would be in order. This is also partly because of the book of I am reading at the moment.

On my Kindle I am reading My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell and man, do I have thoughts! I am about 100 pages in and although the read itself is not that hard, the subject matter is so, I don’t know, difficult? Tricky? Scary? I don’t even know how to describe it. Going in I had an idea what it was about, but the reviews had been so good, I thought I would read it anyway. It is about a young girl, 15/16, being groomed by her much older teacher. It’s weird to read it from her perspective and to see what she is thinking.

You get a glimpse at the girl at 32 and how she looks back at what happened to her. It’s painful, it’s worrying, it’s frustrating, but to be honest I feel very strange reading about her experiences as a young girl feeling flattered by the attentions of this adult man. It almost feels normal and that is the scary bit. It feels like a very important read, but I feel very icky about it.

I am impressed by the way the author manages to write sex scenes between this older man and this young girl without it feeling sensationalist or overly sexual. Vanessa’s point of view is strangely innocent and also quite clinical at the moment, which helps. But yes, icky, I feel icky reading it.

Anyway, it’s late. I’m going to bed, so I fill you in tomorrow when I have read some more.

08.27 – Good morning! I am about to have breakfast and I will start reading shortly after, I was thinking about this book and whether I am enjoying it. I don’t think this feels like the kind of book that you enjoy. It makes me feel appalled to be honest, and yet, it’s weirdly gripping and it does feel important. I haven’t looked up anything about the author. I wonder whether she wrote from experience or whether she talked to other people who had this experience, as it feels quite authentic.

Anyway, I will watch a YouTube video or two whilst having my morning coffee and breakfast. It’s a nice day, so I will be spending some time outside. We’ll see how much reading I will get done.

11.27 – I read about 30 pages so far. Not a lot, but after that I felt like I needed a break and ended up playing a bit of Animal Crossing. It’s nice to have a quiet day. I’m refusing to do chores right now 😂. Anyway, I will read a bit more until lunchtime. It’s a well-written novel, but it is leaving we with a rather nasty taste in the mouth, so I am not sure how I am feeling about it.

14.17 – I got aI got a good chunk of reading in since lunch, so I will take a break and take my daughter to go see her grandparents for a bit. I am still very much on the fence with this book. I admire what the author is doing, but I don’t like the way it makes me feel. I get it, and I think Vanessa’s dilemma is well fleshed out, but do I feel like I know Vanessa herself? No. And that feels weird. It’s like I am in girl’s head, who has no personality to speak of. Maybe that’s the whole point, that she has no life apart from the one she things she has with him. I am not sure. Maybe apart from the obvious that makes me feel extra uncomfortable. Right now, 60% into th ebook, I think I will make a prediction that I end up saying that I appreciate this book, but that it was not for me, because it is not right now. I read to relax and this book does not make me feel relaxed. It makes me feel icky and anxious. I should have known that before i started it due to the subject matter, but I guess I was curious.

20.52 – No reading since my earlier update. After a visit to my mum and dinner we have been enjoying the nice evening outside. I hope to get a bit more reading in tonight. Is it bad I want to get this book over and done with to move on to a book I will actually have fun reading? And yet, it’s definitely a good read. I just feel conflicted.

23.19 – Currently at 70%, page 259. I think I have about 100 pages still to go. I will read a bit more and hopefully finish it tomorrow, even if Tuesdays are usually my busiest day. I am not sure how many pages I read today. I try not to keep count anymore. Well over a hundred. That’s all I know and that is good going for me at this moment in time. That goes to show that I am picking the book up and I am intrigued by it and I want to read it, but it just makes me feel a bit unpleasant when I do. I still don’t understand Vanessa. I mean, maybe I understood why it started, but adult Vanessa and the older teen Vanessa I find harder to understand the choices she is making. But then that made me think about trauma and abuse and I know I have been lucky I have not experienced anything to this level, so maybe it is a good thing that I do not understand her. Like many I have been a victim to some sort of abuse, just not this type or to this level, but I do remember how I felt and reacted, which was very different from the way Vanessa feels. But then people are different and mine was nowhere near as serious as what is going in the book. Not that I am belittling what I went through, but at least I was an adult. As you can tell, this novel makes me think a lot about what the brain does with abuse, any kind of abuse, but this kind in particular. I praise the book for addressing the subject and to make the reader think. I am just not sure I want to… Does that make sense? Anyway, I am in too deep, so let’s see what happens in the final third of this book.

I will read a bit more and do a final update in the morning.

TUESDAY, 3 August 2021

09.18 – Just my final thoughts as I am getting to the final fifth of this novel. I think it was useful for me to do this diary whilst reading this particular book. I think I have said enough about how uncomfortable it makes me feel. Coming towards the end that hasn’t changed. In fact, it makes my skin crawl. Yet, the writing is really good, so I am still not sure how I will end up rating this. It’s a hard one for me.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?

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 · WWW Wednesday

WWW Wednesdays: 28 July 2021

***

WWW Wednesdays’ home is at Sam’s blog Taking On A World of Words. Check it out!

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you will read next?

***

What am I currently reading?

No progress on The Masnavi by Rumi this week, but I am sure I will get back to it soon.

I am reading Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières. That one is on my Summer TBR and it’s a bit of a modern classic. I am about halfway. I am enjoying it, but for some reason it takes quite a bit of effort to read. There is something weird about the writing style for me. I am not sure what I expected from this one, but I am liking it. It’s just a bit slower going than expected.

I have also not made that much progress with Life by Keith Richards on audio. I have just not taken much time listening to audio this past week.

What did I recently finish reading?

I only finished one book, which was The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho. That one was a recent charity shop buy. It was fine. Just not one I will remember.

What will I be reading next?

I will probably look at my Summer TBR and choose something from that. I’m still quite in the mood for historical fiction, so I may stick to that genre for now. Which one should I read?

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 · WWW Wednesday

WWW Wednesdays: 14 July 2021

Well, hello! It has been a few weeks since I did one of these!

***

WWW Wednesdays’ home is at Sam’s blog Taking On A World of Words. Check it out!

The three Ws are:

What are you currently reading?
What did you recently finish reading?
What do you think you will read next?

***

What am I currently reading?

I am reading the third and final book of Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy, which is Sugar Street. I am less than 20 pages in, but it feels like meeting with old friends. I think I will enjoy it a lot. On a random side note, I ordered this paperback secondhand and it has that lovely old book smell. 🙂

I have also started Book One of The Masnavi by Rumi, supposedly ‘the greatest sufi poem ever written’. There’s six volumes, so if I like it there will be a lot to get through. Rumi is quoted so much and I read a fiction book that talked about his life, which was fascinating, so I thought it was about time to read some of his work. I’m excited. This was written in the thirteenth century though, so a lot of it may go over my head.

Finally, I am listening to The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde on audio. I always name this as my favourite book if anyone asks, but it had been a while since I read it, so I was a bit worried that it would not hold up. However, it turns out I still absolutely adore Oscar Wilde’s writing. His prose is incredible. Listening to Stephen Fry narrating the book is an added joy.

What have I recently finished reading?

In the past week I have finally speeded up a little bit with my reading. I finished Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, which I loved. I definitely want to read more of her work. I also read A Sweet, Wild Note by Richard Smyth, which is a non-fiction book looking at the role of birdsong in our lives. I really enjoyed that one. It was not too scientific and yet there was a lot of interesting tidbits in there, related to science, literature and also philosophy. Finally, I read Perfect Tunes, by Emily Gould. That one was utterly forgettable unfortunately. Oh well, you can’t win them all!

What will I be reading next?

I looked at my summer TBR and I think I will be reading The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller next. It is one I have been meaning to read for a while and I think I’m ready to dive into it.

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