Book review: If I Could Say Goodbye

As always, many thanks to Net Galley and Hachette UK for providing me with an advanced copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. If I Could Say Goodbye is available for pre order via Waterstones and Amazon.

Synopsis from Goodreads

A heart-warming and uplifting story about love, loss and finding the strength to say goodbye, from the author of The First Time I Saw You.

Jennifer Jones’ life began when her little sister, Kerry, was born. So when her sister dies in a tragic accident, nothing seems to make sense any more.

Despite the support of her husband, Ed, and their wonderful children, Jen can’t comprehend why she is still here, while bright, spirited Kerry is not.

When Jen starts to lose herself in her memories of Kerry, she doesn’t realise that the closer she feels to Kerry, the further she gets from her family.

Jen was never able to say goodbye to her sister. But what if she could?

Would you risk everything if you had the chance to say goodbye?

Publication date: September 17, 2020

Genres: Fiction, modern/contemporary

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Jennifer Jones was always a faithful, older sister to Kerry. However, when Kerry dies in a sudden accident, her whole world turns upside down. Despite having the support of her devoted husband, Edward, and her two children, Jennifer struggles to come to terms with the sudden loss of her sister. She turns her grief inwards, blaming herself for Kerry’s death and wishing the accident had taken her life, instead of her sister’s.

If I Could Say Goodbye, is an honest portrayal of the many facets of grief and it’s reverberating impact on one family. It explores grief openly and honestly, and for that alone it deserves praise. Jennifer becomes so consumed by the memories of her sister, that her mind convinces her she is still there. Kerry is reborn in her imagination and experience of grief as she loses herself in memories of the past.

Grief is something we all experience at some points in our lives, but obviously in many different ways. Emma Cooper manages to explore how Kerry’s death takes a drastic toll on Jennifer’s mental health, from her feelings of guilt, responsibility and regret that follow in the wake of Kerry’s death. Jen finds herself talking to her sister more than her own family. This experience of Kerry being somewhat alive in her imagination, serves as a comfort to Jen in some ways, but ultimately, she realises the need to say goodbye is what will set her free.

“I turn my back on the sea and the cliff, on the grief and guilt that I’ve been drowning in, and break into a run: my life is about to begin again.”

This is a refreshing and realistic portrayal of grief told through Jennifer and her husband, Edward. In having this alternative perspective, Cooper conveys how grief can have a snowballing affect on the ones we love. Ed has to pick up the pieces of their life together, as he struggles to maintain their relationship and family. Jennifer’s family and her children become more distant as her experience of grief consumes her in more ways than one. Intertwined within this exploration of grief is a tale of love, friendship, relationships and family.

Although I thought this was an excellent representation of experiencing the loss of a loved one, I found the book itself hard to read. There was no real structure, which I guess could be part of the point, in being like grief itself, however, it made the reading experience more difficult than it needed to be. Although I engaged with the leading characters, Jen and Ed, I felt it didn’t have a ‘hook’ to keep me reading.

The writing is beautiful and very well structured, which allows for the impact of grief to be explored through many angles, however, the lack of structure and plot is what let it down for me.

For someone who has recently gone through the death of a loved one, this book was harrowing and hard to read in places, but nonetheless essential for its honest depiction of grief and loss. It was comforting in this respect and something I would recommend to others.

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Book Review: The Truants

The Truants is a coming of age story with a twist, telling the experience of Jess Walker’s first year as a student at the fictionalized University of East Anglia. Jess studies English Literature and enrolls herself on an Agatha Christie course, immediately finding herself enthralled by the subject, as well as the expert in the field, Professor Lorna Clay. Jess becomes friends with a group of uninitiated, carefree students, including falling for Alec, an ex student and current journalist.

Genres: Mystery, Suspense, Coming of Age, Literary Fiction

My rating: ★★★★

This book echoes the reverberated student scene of carefree days drinking in pub gardens and ignoring academic responsibilities. As the closeness of Jess’ relationship with Lorna unfolds, the mystery involving Alec starts to appear before the readers’ eyes.

Jess cannot help but be pulled in by the perplexing Alec. He is good looking, intelligent, but little does she know about his deeply troubled past. As a character, he is laced with toxicity, regret and past betrayal and takes it out on those who fall for him – a classic maverick disguised as a heart throb. Jess gets caught up in several disturbing love triangles, which serve to explore the realities of betrayal on a relationship and friendship basis. The lure of new love becomes her achilles’ heel as she is placed in the middle of a dark mystery of her own.

Something rather dark lurks beneath the seemingly picturesque portrayal of student life, which is discovered as the book progresses. Despite drawing so heavily on the works of Agatha Christie and her novels, this book is essentially its own mystery and a play on the psychology of relationships, seduction and betrayal. It combines a lot of different genres which I think is one of its selling points, it has elements of literary fiction, mystery and thriller, whilst being told within the coming of age paradigm. The feeling of suspense is naturally created early on in the book, which produces an unavoidable hook for the reader. The whole time I was reading I had a feeling of unease; but couldn’t help but read on. I was fascinated by the characters and wanted to see how everything would unfold.

I think the highlight of this book is in the complexity of the characters. The story only centers around a handful of individuals, but each are fundamentally flawed. This allows for the difficulties of coming of age to be realistically conveyed, with the exploration of problematic friendships and relationships. Jess, the protagonist, was particularly complex, and I was drawn to her insight. It is essentially a major portrayal of character development and exploring the dark incidents that lay within her experience at university.

That said, I did think the play on the mystery was to a certain extent cliche. Not being familiar with Agatha Christie’s writing, I can’t comment on the full exploration of this – and there may be things I missed. Critique’s and readers alike have drawn similarities between this and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, being an avid fan of that novel, I fail to see the comparison aside from the theme of ‘dark academia.’ I found the language in this underdeveloped and simplistic at times, whereas Tartt’s writing is wonderfully crafted, with layers of intricacy. In some ways, I think this book tries too hard. I got the sense it was trying to aestheticize student suffering within the framework of academic life. There are many troubling scenes and dark elements to the book, some are explored well, but others rather flippantly.

However, I very much enjoyed reading this and would recommend it to anyone. It combines so many genres, is full of complex characters and a sense of unrelenting intrigue. It grabbed me from the start and left me hooked, for that alone I would say it is very commendable.

A big thank you to Net Galley and Bloomsbury Publishing for giving me an e-arc copy to review. Please note however, this does not influence my review in any way.

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Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

I was looking forward to reading this after constantly eyeing it up on the shelves back when the bookshops were still open. The physical cover itself is striking but so is the title itself. What could be more ominous than knowing your sister is a serial killer?

Synopsis from Goodreads

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet – than water…

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distress call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

Image: Amazon

Review ~ ★★★.5/★★★★★ 

Genres: Novel, satire, thriller, crime-fiction

This book caught my attention right from the offset. Even before starting to read it the premise seemed odd and strangely appealing.

The protagonist, Korede is fully aware of her sister, Ayoola’s tendencies to murder boyfriends. One night she’s called up and has to help dispose the body of her latest victim. The way she accepts it as part of daily life, is both comical and alluring. It makes you want to read the book to find out how Korede comes to terms with this herself and how it has become so normalised between them. No one else in the family knows about these events. Throughout the novel Korede becomes more worried about her sister and the potential next victim. The horrific events of Ayoola’s actions are told in such a matter of fact, down to earth way that I have never encountered before. I guess it’s meant to be a kind of dark humor, it definitely gets points for originality – I’ve never read a book like it and was taken aback (in a good way) by its approach.

The crime genre scene is usually dominated by British and American parameters, so it was refreshing to see an entirely different setting. The novel is set in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, and is deeply embedded within its culture. Both sisters have also had a troubled upbringing, due to abuse from their father, however, this isn’t really explored until the final pages. I liked the main two characters but felt the novel doesn’t give you the chance to get to know them.

The chapters themselves are short and snappy and this gives a level of pace to the book which I really liked. Although it is a short book anyway, I ended up flying through the chapters. I liked the way it seemed to mirror the nature of Ayoola’s personality and the flip decisions she seemed to make.

The initial grab for this book is definitely there – it has an intriguing and original feel, which offers the potential for a truly gripping story, however, I found my attention dwindling about three quarters of the way through. I no longer felt the compulsion to read on, in the way I had done in the beginning.

Being a short novel it is naturally restricted by the amount of depth it can convey, but in this case, I think extending the novel would have turned it into something excellent. This book lost me in the lack of character development and background information. There are fleeting references to how life was with their father around, despite it having an evident influence on their lives. We are only really given an insight into this at the end, having it at the beginning in more depth, could have added far more weight to the characters and the story as a whole.

I felt as if things just happened tentatively, without any real depth or connection to a bigger picture. The novel starts with a bang and hooks the reader straight away, however, it allowed itself to trail off into nothingness. Nothing major happens, there are no turning points or dramatic events, it just kind of finishes. Therefore, I found it lost its initial suspense and appeal quite suddenly, which resulted in a disappointing reading experience.

Overall, I liked the premise of this book and its originality, and certainly enjoyed its feel, which was what kept me reading. I liked the protagonist, Korede and her sister, Ayoola, but just wish I could have known more about them. The novel lacked depth and lost momentum, allowing little room for the darkly comical and complex story it could have been. It’s definitely worth a read, but don’t expect it to blow you away.

Cover image: Kristian Hammerstad for New Statesman

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Book review: All Men Want to Know (ARC)

Firstly, many thanks to Penguin UK and NetGalley for letting me review this book in advance, as always, this does not influence my review in any way. Just to let you know, All Men Want to Know is due to be published 6 August, 2020. You can pre order copies from the usual places!

All Men Want to Know

Author: Nina Bouraoui

Genres: Women’s literary fiction, auto-fiction, lesbian literature

Publication date: 6 August, 2020

My rating: ★★★★

This is a deeply moving work of “auto-fiction” told through the life experiences of its author, Nina Bouraoui. It combines the authors real life experiences growing up, but is a work of literary fiction in style and scope. Nina has lived a torn life, and one situated between two continents; Africa and Europe. She spent most of her childhood in Algeria where her Father was from before her Mother chose to move to Paris, because of the outbreak of Civil War.  This toing and froing between two cultures, means that Nina struggles to come to terms with her identity, “France is an outfit I wear: Algeria is my skin, exposed to the sun and storms.” 

The entire novel is told through vivid, first person narration. This may put some readers off, as there’s no typical story structure. However, I loved the sense of depth this created. The prose often reads as part poetry, part inner monologue of Nina’s thoughts, feelings and memories. I found it a harrowing read, as Nina never shies away from the honesty of her experience and the pain she has endured. In this day and age, we are so used to seeing peoples’ ‘real life’ experience through a filtered lens which often bears no reality, however, this novel strips it back to the bare bones. Thus, making it a moving depiction of the difficulties of coming of age, accepting oneself and learning how to live. It is a powerful portrayal of inner tournaments and the pain people go through during the process of accepting themselves.

Despite the novel lacking a traditional structure – it is divided loosely into four sections of memory which are used to account for the different periods in Nina’s life. These are: knowing, remembering, becoming and being. Each comment on her life at its different stages – from living in Algeria and witnessing its turbulence as a country, to beginning her new, independent life in Paris at the age of eighteen and toying with her sexuality. Due to this dual upbringing across continents – Nina grapples with her sexuality –  she has been attracted to women for most of her life, however, accepting this has been her biggest struggle, “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for…” 

Image: Algeria skyline via Pixabay

Homosexuality is still illegal in Algeria today, which relates to the difficulties of not just Nina’s own acceptance of herself, but the society in which she grew up. In Paris, she feels freer to explore this, due to living in a more accepting, Western culture. She acknowledges this cultural and personal struggle vividly, “I’m a victim of my own homophobia” in which the reader is a witness, as Nina documents her first difficult experiences with love and the initial anxieties these bring. 

Knowing, draws on Nina’s past experience in Algeria, as she accounts traumatic experiences of witnessing her Mother being sexually assaulted, and depicts the variable climate of Algeria which was going through civil unrest. I couldn’t help but feel this exposure must have impacted Nina’s conception of herself, which then impacted her attitudes towards her sexuality and ability to form relationships with women. She had to get over her own boundaries before those imposed on her from others. 

Remembering, documents visions of her past which are mainly in Algeria. Despite the country’s beauty she remembers that, “violence is etched into the land, unending violence” and this struggle is symbolic in her own boundaries to self acceptance. Becoming, is the most ‘present’ aspect of this autobiography, as it follows Nina’s life as a young adult, living in Paris. She frequents a local, lesbian nightclub in the hope of finding love with other women. This is the most interesting part of the book, as it shows how her past struggles and different cultural upbringings shape her identity and coming to terms with herself. She goes up and down like a yo-yo between being proud of her sexuality and path in life, to feeling disgusted, “I’m nothing but a faggot” which demonstrates the tumultuous rage often experienced with coming of age sexuality. But, with an added distressing aspect – her home country of Algeria, would imprison her for displaying her love for women. 

Image: Paris nightlife via Pixabay

Being looks back on her life. This element shows herself starting to accept her identity and letting go of the past. She appears to have found happiness and self love, as a relationship with another woman blooms, “I am the same but I’ve changed, I’ve let go, I’m floating free on this waking dream….” The kind of self acceptance Nina finds, was relieving to read, after Nina’s continuous periods of self doubt. Finally, she appears to be content. 

A stunning, autobiographical portrayal of the inner, psychological battle. Torn between two cultures and two ways of living, this documents Nina’s transition between hiding from the world and herself, and embracing it. Harrowing and dark at times, but also uplifting and beautiful.

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Book Review: The Shelf (ARC)

First of all, a huge thank you to NetGalley and Bonnier Books UK for sending me an advanced copy of this book – but please note, this doesn’t influence my review. The Shelf is due to be published on 9th July, 2020. It is currently available for pre-order via Amazon and Waterstones.

Synopsis

Amy suddenly has to prepare herself for a surprise holiday with her boyfriend. He’s even ordered a limo to pick them up. Blindfolded, Amy can barely contain herself for what she thinks is going to be a proposal. However, a dreamy vision of a proposal holiday is soon turned into a nightmare – as Amy realises she has been left alone on a TV set.  Jamie has taken her here to dump her. As if a break up isn’t hard enough, Jamie makes sure Amy is as publicly embarrassed as he can. 

Amy and five other dumped women soon discover they are on a new reality TV show called ‘The Shelf.’ The goal is to win the program through a series of challenges that prove their compatibility and motherly instincts. By a public vote, one of them will be crowned The Keeper. An inherently sexist premise of course, but I gathered this was the point.

Review

Image: via Helly Acton

Title: The Shelf

Author: Helly Acton

Genre: Women’s Fiction

My rating: ★★★☆☆

With many parallels to Love Island – The Shelf puts its female contestants through a hard time, with constant rolling social media coverage featuring the public’s opinion of each candidate. Winning the public vote is harder than it seems. Will the women realise they are better off without their exes who had the nerve to dump them on a reality TV show? Each candidate is put through a series of challenges designed to test them – from plastic babies to hosting the perfect tea party.

This is a compelling, re-interpretation of the ‘chick-lit’ genre. Unlike the standard women’s romance novel that results in the leading female character happily in love with her dream man, this novel illustrates the importance of a happy ending that doesn’t have to depend on finding love – but loving yourself.

Amy, the protagonist, has put herself through two years of slog in her relationship with Jamie, endlessly hoping that he would pop the question. She had grown used to his taunts about her body, her neediness and other ‘faults,’ but had placed them to one side in the hope they would get married and have a happy future. Throughout this time, she had lost parts of herself – it takes the entire duration of the novel for her to realise this.

Single over thirty is like an illness that’s too awkward and depressing to talk about.”

Instead of aiming to become the male ideal embodied by ‘The Keeper,’ she decides to portray an important message to women. That you are always enough on your own, and you don’t need anyone else (but especially a man) to complete you. For me, this is where the important, feminist message comes across. In having a character like Amy as the protagonist, the novel really thrusts to the forefront the significance of women being their own person and not succumbing to societal pressures.

Amy is the modern day Bridget Jones with an essential twist, she ditches the yo-yo diets, marriage expectations, and the fairytale Mr Darcy, replacing these with a new appreciation of herself and living life the way she wants to. I found this feminist take incredibley refreshing and much needed in this social media driven age, where everything is about women comparing themselves to others. It is so easy to get sucked into the highlight reels of others, that we forget to be ourselves. And this is exactly what the novel is commenting on.

Image: alison rachel via Pinterest

Life on a reality TV show is peppered with the glare of social media all over the contestants, each are judged 24/7 by the timelines fuelled by the public. The setting is incredibly similar to Love Island. If I’m honest I found some of the similarities, such as the baby challenge, very cliche, which detracted from the novel’s more poignant message. Although I enjoyed the read, even laughing out loud from some of Amy’s comical one liners, I did find the plot predictable from the start. I think basing it on the parameters of Love Island, meant it was bound to be predictable in some ways.

The show is dominated by old fashioned, male chauvinists who believe women should still be a 1950s housewife, much to most of the contestants dismay.

“Selfish Jackie! Distant Gemma! Bitter Kathy! Desperate Amy! Boring Hattie! And last but not least, Easy Lauren!”

However, having a lead character like Amy is central to this book as it goes against the very grain that the TV show setting creates. Amy does not let herself be lured into society’s pressures on women – but uses the experience to go against this, and against what she previously thought her life should value. This is a part of the book that I really liked. Amy’s strength of character and likeability really drives the novel and reveals its best parts and the central message to women.

“I am my own keeper…Be your own keeper. Each and every one of you.”

Above all, I admire this book because it’s message is an imperative one that puts contemporary feminism at the forefront of the social media, digital age. Amy goes through a journey of self discovery and realises she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. The societal pressures on getting married and having children is a false one, which can distract women from being their best selves. This ideal is often glamorized in the romance genre – I am very thankful this book did the opposite.

This book is different to anything I usually read but it certainly ticked a lot of boxes. It made me laugh out loud, I loved the main character, and appreciated the important message it conveys to women about self love. However, it didn’t blow me away, because I found the plot quite predictable and cliche. The ending was also disappointing and I was left wanting to know more. That said, I definitely enjoyed reading this book and was drawn in by the initial strange events when Amy realises she is not, in fact, going on a dreamy romantic holiday.

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Book Review: Half a World Away

I have been a bit absent with book reviews – they seem a bit trivial at the moment with everything going on. But I guess people still want to read! But I’m back with another good one! I had high expectations for this and wasn’t disappointed.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Strangers living worlds apart.
Strangers with nothing in common.

But it wasn’t always that way…

Kerry Hayes is single mum, living on a tough south London estate. She provides for her son by cleaning houses she could never hope to afford. Taken into care as a child, Kerry cannot ever forget her past.

Noah Martineau is a successful barrister with a beautiful wife, daughter and home in fashionable Primrose Hill. Adopted as a child, Noah always looks forward, never back.

When Kerry reaches out to the sibling she lost on the day they were torn apart as children, she sets in motion a chain of events that will have life-changing consequences for them both.”

Review

Title: Half a World Away

Author: Mike Gayle

Genres: Fiction, urban fiction, domestic fiction

My rating: ★★★★

Half a World Away is narrated between two protagonists – Kerry, who lives in a tower block in south London, and Noah who has a large house in Primrose Hill. I think this dual narration really serves to reinforce the dividing lines between them.

Kerry and her son, Kian, live their day to day lives struggling to make ends meet. Kerry works long hours cleaning wealthy houses in London, and is a full time, single Mum. The reader soon finds out that Kerry spent a significant amount of time in care, after her Mother struggled with parenting and various forms of addiction.

As a young child, Kerry spent most of her childhood caring for her younger brother, Noah. However, they were separated when Noah was adopted, whilst Kerry grew up in a care home. Ever since, Kerry has been longing for the day when they can reunite. From the age of eighteen, the age where legally you are allowed to request contact with your birth family, she writes Noah letters in the hope he will make contact with her. These letters are scattered throughout the book and add a certain rawness to Kerry’s emotions, by illustrating her life long hope of having her brother in her life again.

Noah’s life is very different. Although he’s adopted, he never really faces up to his former past. There is a lot he doesn’t know about his previous circumstances, and spends a lot of time shying away from it. He is adopted into a middle-class, privileged family and reaps the benefits of this lifestyle. As a barrister his life has gone in the opposite direction in comparison to his sister, Kerry. One day a letter from Kerry manages to reach him directly, which turns his world upside down. He never knew he had a sister and now he has to decide whether to recover his past life. Torn between a relationship breakdown with his wife, fraught conversations with his parents about his birth family, and his own personal struggles, Noah has to make a decision about the direction of the next stage in his life.

Image: Forbes. Street in Primrose Hill, London.

I thought this book was incredibly clever as it embodies the dilemma’s adopted, and care leavers face when deciding whether they want to contact their birth family. I particularly resonated with the feelings of both characters as I was adopted myself. I definitely empathized with both Kerry and Noah, as each character swung back and forth between wanting to know about their past, and worrying they’ll find out something they don’t want to hear.

Additionally, it explores the concept of “family” and what it really means. For Noah, family is definitely not as much about blood relations but who raises you – nonetheless, this doesn’t completely stifle his curiosity. For Kerry, she had always longed for that contact with her brother which suggests she felt that connection to a blood relative. It’s different for everybody, but the book raises the questions a person has to go through when wanting to find out about their birth family. It can put adoptive parents in an awkward place – luckily, Noah’s parents are very understanding and encourage him to learn more about his past.

Above all, class and difference in opportunity is at the heart of this book which highlights how time in care can influence your future outcomes. For most care leavers, Kerry’s situation is more of the norm. Care leavers are more likely to develop mental health issues, turn to addictive substances, live in poverty and are less likely to attend university. Having characters which are two polar opposites – really symbolizes this divide in opportunity that care leavers face. With the dual narration, the reader really gets an in depth insight into how different each siblings lives really are.

They also contrast as they had different fathers but shared the same, white mother. Kerry is a white woman, whilst Noah’s father was a black man. When the narration is told through Noah, we get an insight into his experience of this and difficult conversations he has had, having grown up with a white adopted family. People often had their queries over the family situation and wanted to know more. However, the way Gayle intertwines issues of class, race and disruption in early life – really reinforces the idea that society is naturally unequal. This is an ongoing, brutal reality of the modern world and symbolized so eloquently by paralleling two characters from such different backgrounds.

Image: Joe Newman for the Daily Mail. South London tower block.

Kerry’s perspective is an interesting one – she worries about meeting up with her brother because she lives in a council estate, doesn’t have much money and has ‘scruffy clothes.’ Kian is exposed to bullying at school because unlike his peers, he doesn’t have the latest trainers or PlayStation game. Her flat is tiny, but Kerry has put her heart and soul into is over the years to make it as nice as possible. Differences between the two siblings become eroded over the course of the book as they discover how similar they really are as people.

This book is laced with sadness (which I can’t go into for giving the plot away) but its execution highlights the value of time and how precious it is. Nearly twenty years have passed between Noah and Kerry, and the reader really hopes they can rekindle their relationship. But like all care and adoption situations, it’s awkward at first, messy and complicated. This is demonstrated so honestly in this book and I really take my hat off to Gayle, as it is hard to portray the realities of these feelings in a novel.

I loved this book, as it was easy to read but was a poignant story told with honesty and a huge amount of relatability. I think this is the first adult novel I’ve read that looks at the impact of being in care, and I really appreciate it just for doing that alone. The characters are crafted so well, each narration is told in such a down to earth and chatty style, that as a reader, I really felt I knew them.

However, it’s not a ‘beautiful’ novel as such, there’s no messing about. As someone who loves a bit of literary fiction and use of flowery language – there is none of this here. The language and prose is nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, maybe the rawness of the language is the entire point. Emotions are highly charged, and it would be wrong to cover these in littered metaphors and incomprehensible symbolism. Gayle gets to the point, and rightly so.

An honest, down to earth, and heartfelt story which illustrates the variability of outcomes that result from time spent in care, and having a disturbed upbringing. This book is littered with warmth and uplift but simultaneously, endless sadness and regret. It will definitely move you and re-asses your value of time, loved ones and family relationships.

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Book Review: Hot Milk

Deborah Levy is an author I have wanted to try for a long time, I heard about Hot Milk from listening to a Penguin Books podcast. It was one of those books that I wanted to last for as long as possible. I was disappointed when it ended but immediately felt I could read it again! Not many books do that, so I figured it must be something special.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Sofia, a young anthropologist, has spent much of her life trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s unexplainable illness. She’s frustrated with Rose and her constant complaints but utterly relieved to be called to abandon her own disappointing fledgling adult life. She and Rose travel to the searing, arid coast of southern Spain to see a famous consultant, Dr. Gomez—their very last chance—in the hope that he might cure Rose’s unpredictable limb paralysis, but Dr. Gomez has strange methods that seem to have little to do with physical medicine, and as the treatment progresses, Rose’s illness becomes increasingly baffling…”

Review

Title: Hot Milk

Author: Deborah Levy

Genres: Fiction, literary fiction

My rating:  ★★★★★ 

Do not be under any illusions, this is a simple story at first glance, but one which will leave an impact forever. The plot is neat and unassuming, told by a young anthropology graduate as she takes her mother to Spain in search for treatments to cure her various ailments.

Sofia, who is half Greek, half English, for me was an instantly likable protagonist. She’s 25, struggling to know what to do with her life and feels guilty for telling superiors she works in a Coffee House, sleeping above the storage room. She has little savings and a first class degree she doesn’t know what to do with. However, the way she sees the world and the way Levy describes it was enough to take my breath away. Whether it’s the influence of an anthropological background or just the way her mind works, Sofia sees the beautify in everyday life and her surroundings.

Partly, in going to Spain with her mother, Rose, Sofia is prolonging the realities of getting her life started. In between intense, romantic affairs, she has a yearning to complete her academic career but at the same time, likes to blissfully float through life.

“All summer, I had been moon-walking in the digital Milky Way. It’s calm there. But I am not calm. My mind is like the edge of their faintly glowing paths running across the screen, I have been making footprints in the dust and glitter of the virtual universe. It never occurred to me that, like the medusa, technology stares back and that its gaze might have petrified me, made me fearful to come down, down to Earth, where all the hard stuff happens, down to the check-out tills and the barcodes and the too many words for profit and the not enough words for pain.”

p.216

Sofia has always put her life on the line to help her mother, who she is practically a full time career for. She has abandoned her PhD and is living her life aimlessly. The novel begins with the smashing of her beloved laptop screen, which she tells readers, has the entirety of her life on it. Her mother frequently criticizes her and fails to see her merits, thus their relationship is fraught and laced with tension.

Levy creates an inversion of the typical mother-daughter relationship, as Sofia is the mother, caring and nurturing, and Rose abandons her daughter in more ways than one. It’s a portrayal of the mother-daughter bond, but unlike many others.

The title, Hot Milk, feels like it is drawing upon this “interior life” (Erica Wagner, The Guardian, 2016) of that relationship. ‘Hot Milk’ may be symbolic of the life force bond as breast milk (often hot) is the nurturer of new life and physical connection between mother and daughter. However, it could also relate to Sofia’s life as a barista, importantly, when foaming milk to make artisan coffee, the milk must be “hot” but never boiling – as this will create acidity, ruining the taste of the coffee. Hot milk therefore, could be symbolic of the importance of clarity – be that in relationships, life or other meanings. Furthermore, breast feeding is continually depicted with Sofia’s step mother feeding her sister, it feels apt that Levy draws upon these images to make poignant anecdotes on the mother-daughter relationship.

Another key bit of symbolism are the use of the ‘medusa’s’ – the local term for jellyfish. Sofia likes to frequent the sea near their rented apartment and often gets stung by jellyfish – she does this so often that she actually takes the life guard who treats these stings, for a lover. The significance of drawing upon the medusa didn’t come to me at first, but now it seems more significant. The medusa stings are likely to represent her fraught relationship with her mother, as the stings are something she endures again and again, eventually barely feeling any pain. We always tend to do more for those we love, even if they hurt us, don’t we?

Additionally, Rose’s condition eventually eats Sofia alive as she realises she cannot permanently put her life on hold, the frequent stings are a reminder of this power her mother has over her and the pain she has inflicted. Finally, there is also the sexual element, her stings are drawn upon as being a point of pleasure in sexual encounters. The sting in itself, could represent the sudden pang of sexual desire.

Levy creates a prose which is poetic and will change the way you view your own surroundings long after reading the final page. It makes the reading experience effortless and lyrical – in some passages, it reads like pure poetry.

This book had everything I could possibly want in a reading experience. The prose is beautiful, the protagonist intriguing, and the story simple yet alluring. It deals with a number of themes but essentially feels like a coming of age novel. It’s above all, a story that documents an individual’s self discovery and a, “powerful novel of interior life,” the reader truly becomes a fly on the wall in Sofia’s small, but intricate world.

Every so often everyone comes across a special book which has a lingering impact on them – and for me, this is one of those. During the reading process, I felt the density and beauty of the language sink into me as I became invested in Sofia’s life. The description made me want to see life in a different way and appreciate my surroundings with new vigor. I feel like Levy could make even a blank wall seem appealing!

Hours after finishing, I could still feel the novel’s presence, it made the perception of my own world more acute, and I found myself evaluating how everyday things truly look. I feel like this novel and its impact will always be at the back of my subconscious, luring me in and waiting to be read again.

My favourite quote: “I am overflowing like coffee leaking from a paper cup. I wonder, shall I make myself smaller? Do I have enough space on Earth to make myself less?” (p.202)

Normal People: Book Vs TV Series

Image: BT

I first encountered Sally Rooney’s Normal People last year when I received it for my birthday. Like many, I had heard of its success and was excited to read it.

The first time round, I enjoyed the story but felt dumbfounded as to why it had such success. To me, it was your average love story with a fair amount of teenage, first love dramas. When the TV series aired on the BBC, I decided to give the book another go. This post will be reviewing the book and TV adaptation.

About the book

Normal People is Sally Rooney’s second book, published in 2018. It immediately received international acclaim, with selling 64,000 copies in the first four months in the US alone. It went on to be long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, won the 2018 Costa Novel Award and became the Waterstones Book of the Year. So it’s pretty fair to say in the literary world it has done well.

Reviewing the Book My rating: ★★★☆☆

My first reaction when finishing this was a resounding, “meh.” It’s possible that because I was super aware of all the hype (which has only gotten worse) I had high expectations. I genuinely liked the story and got enjoyment out of reading it, however, I failed to see why every person under the sun was raving about it.

I re-read this earlier on in this month and this time round I hoped I would get more out of it. Spoiler alert – I didn’t really.

I found the relationship between Marianne and Connell problematic from the start, not because they are so different from one another, but purely how they react to their relationship. The way they both feel the need to cover up the relationship is beyond me. Yeah I get it, maybe if you are about thirteen years old it might be awkward, and you might worry about what your friends think, but they’re meant to be far more mature at this point as they’re applying for university. So what if your friends make fun of you?

And in later years at university, their lack of communication astounds me. If they are each others soulmates, why do they constantly do things that stand in the way of their relationship – like agreeing to see other people for instance. ??? They never sit down and have this conversation and it’s so frustrating and boring to see their relationship go up and down like a yo-yo.

I appreciate the attempt at creating complex characters, I still don’t know what to make of Marianne, and Connell in a sense, was far more likable. He was more down to earth and in touch with his emotions. But they both frustrated me and so did their relationship. I find the premise of them being “normal people” nonsensical. Firstly, because they both attend the top University in Ireland and they are more intelligent and well read than your average student.

Secondly, because of their situation. Connell’s Mum is employed as a cleaner in Marianne’s mansion and for most people, this isn’t really how you meet the love of your life. They are far from normal – and this portrayal of the type of love they have, the relationship they share, and their situation is not the average scenario. If Connell was so in love with her – why didn’t he say so with more force? Why did he poodle around with Helen for so long? And Marianne, with people who were no good for her.

The book is told in third person perspective which uses no dialogue and little punctuation. The narration switches between Marianne and Connell during their up and down relationship. This perspective did little for me and if anything, gave me a sense of greater detachment from the characters. The absence of dialogue is pretty unnecessary. If anything, it comes across as a bit pretentious, almost as if Rooney is trying to make up for the very average plot. However, I liked the switching between narrators as I think the reader gets a fuller picture of the relationship.

The story is far from nuance. As the book has won such prestige, I expected it to blow me away. But it’s your classic love story with a peppering of some more poignant themes, most prominently, Rooney’s treatment of the “social class performance” of university.

Touching on the experience of class at university was crafted through Connell, who is the token working class character. He comes from a single parent family and constantly feels like his isn’t good enough for middle class Marianne. University for Connell at Trinity, is disappointing and lacking substance. He documents himself sitting in seminars where people, because of their privileged former education, are able to ramble about texts they haven’t read with confidence. Seminars lack meaning as privileged students fire off phrases and literary analysis they’ve been exposed to since their lives began. Importantly, Marianne flourishes at University when she struggled at school. She can use her cultured background to her advantage as she mesmerizes everyone in all social settings. This portrayal of university culture was largely similar to my own, and I felt it added a poignant element to the novel – though it was far from perfect. (I won’t go on about this as it will make the post even longer, but I could do a separate post on this if anyone would find that interesting…)

On the whole – for me it was average and underwhelming. It was enjoying enough to read, but I don’t think it deserves the “future classic” status it has been given.

Reviewing the BBC Adaptation

Image: Entertainment Weekly

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Was the TV series any better? To be honest, I don’t think it could be as it was so close to the book, even word for word in many scenes. I found the format a bit strange and wonder why they chose to do it in 12 half an hour episodes, when you could have done 6 one hour episodes, it seemed to allude to the same sense of detachment I got from the third person point of view in the book.

It was nicely shot and put together with very good casting however – comparing a book to a TV adaptation is always a bit pointless, as it is a completely different way of telling a story. However, I did find the TV series more enjoyable – I guess you could say it was more gripping. I think this was aided by how short the episodes were – I found myself saying, oh go on then, just another episode, and before I knew it I had binged them all.

The sex scenes were prolific, I think there were three occasions this happened in the second episode. Despite the quantity of it, I was impressed by how natural the sex was conveyed, it wasn’t perfect, but real. Marianne’s sexuality wasn’t portrayed as any more or less than Connell’s – in one aspect at least, they were equal.

In the TV series I felt like there was more of a focus on Marianne’s troubled home life, featuring the constant abuse from her brother, Alan. It allowed her to be seen for what she really was, and what she tries to cover up with her insolence in the beginning. Her past abusive father and her now brother, played a role in making her tell herself she was unlovable or didn’t deserve to love. As a young woman, she is withdrawn at school, but at university she tries to challenge this model and break beyond it. She is a complex character, but the more I read, the more confused I was by her.

I guess I would say I got more enjoyment from watching the TV series, it was cast well and the acting was spot on. However, I find it interesting to see what was emphasized compared to the book. Naturally, the program focused on sex scenes and the dramatic elements of the book, including a fight with her abusive brother Alan, where he nearly breaks her nose. Although there was a scene when Marianne was invited to spend Christmas at Loraine’s (Connell’s Mother) and they were doing the pre-Christmas shop and bumped into Marianne’s mother. Her mother didn’t say a word to her, just stared blankly into the distance as if Marianne was invisible. This was one of the more bleak and poignant scenes – which perhaps wasn’t conveyed in the same way as the book.

Final thoughts

As I stated at the beginning, I still feel that Normal People is overrated. It follows the traditional parameters of a love story, with adding in some nuance aspects such as class, family abuse, and the realities of university life, but fundamentally, I found it underwhelming. Sure it’s a good story and it grips you, but does it deserve all the critical acclaim? I found the form lazy and the plot typical of young adult, coming-of-age, romance genres. The characters were interesting but frustrating. The TV series was more appealing, but nonetheless, it can’t be rated any higher than the book. Is it worth a read and watch, but should it be called the next classic of our generation? No.

I’ve barely seen any critical pieces about this but would love to know your thoughts on the book/TV series, let me know what you liked about it (or disliked).

These are some interesting mainstream reviews I found whilst writing this:

Book Review: Call Me By Your Name

Title: Call Me By Your Name

Author: Andre Aciman

Genre: Literary fiction, LGBT, Romance

My rating: ★★★★

This book has been recommended to me more than once, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Granted, it is a bit out of my comfort zone, however I felt myself pulled into the dreamy prose and the featuring of a timeless, hot summer in Italy.

Synopsis

Seventeen year old Oliver lives in the Italian Riviera. In one hot and heavy summer, he falls in love with one of his parents’ guests. His father hosts people every year and Oliver is used to the ritual, but nothing prepared him for this.

In the initial stages, Oliver tries to keep his attraction below the surface. He experiences all the emotions in the space of a few weeks, and battles with the inner fears of first love, lust and rejection.

However – passion is always hard to subdue. Oliver eventually makes his feelings known and what is to follow is a steamy romance, laced with endless intimacy. Oliver is constantly battling between what he fears is right or wrong. Their relationship is kept from all that know them and they sneak around to express their deepest love for one another.

The romance only lasts six weeks, but the impact lasts a life time. Wrought with narration about the human condition, this novel tackles the intricacies of passion and what it takes to feel.

Review

  • I was inherently drawn to the prose in this book, it is written entirely through the perspective of Oliver in monologue style. The writing is dense, descriptive and beautiful and I felt myself escape in it. Although I can see this won’t be for everyone.
  • It deals with some important issues – such as discovering sexuality, how to express this and what goes on in the mind of someone as they experience love for the first time. But this isn’t the usual perspective featured in mainstream literature – as it features a relationship blossoming between men.
  • Sadly, Oliver feels like he has to hide his sexuality and often feels trapped in a cycle of guilt about his feelings.
  • I had a slight problem with the portrayal of love – it seems to conjure up something that overrides self appreciation. Oliver almost loses his self worth when falling in love as he places all value in another person. I understand this is meant to portray the feeling of falling in love for the first time, but I thought it was somewhat over the top in some instances. (e.g the peach scene, which I won’t reveal for the sake of spoilers)
  • I think there’s a lot about this novel I don’t understand and that’s why I had some problems with fully appreciating it. (I didn’t really get the ‘Call Me By Your Name’ part and the nicknames, but maybe I missed something important…) ?
  • However – I felt that this novel has an utterly trans-formative capacity. For me, it got more poignant with the pace of time and as Oliver grew older. It illustrates the human impact of lost time, chances and lost love.
  • When I finished the book, I felt touched in some way – and that Andre Aciman had a reached a part of me that has never been felt before. But at the same time, I was left not knowing what exactly.
  • For me, the book’s success is in its poignant ending, revealing an enduring type of love that lasts a life time of waiting.