mini review: ‘Riot Days’ by Maria Alyokhina

Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina

4 stars

4.5 stars. Punchy, frank, and unapologetically angry. This is a big ol’ feminist middle finger and I loved every word. Riot Days is structured fairly chaotically for a piece of non fiction, but rather than feeling disorienting, this works in its favour. Not neat, nor necessarily ‘eloquent’, it’s arresting and compulsively readable. Urgent, illuminating, and strangely poetic. Go read it!

Thanks to Netgalley and Allen Lane for providing this ebook for review.

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review: ‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ by Jesmyn Ward

sing, unburied, sing

4 stars

This was my first encounter with Jesmyn Ward, and on the basis of this beautifully written novel, it certainly won’t be my last.

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a story told by three central characters: mixed race 13-year-old JoJo, his black mother Leonie, and Richie – a friend of JoJos’ Pop ‘Riv’ who he knew as a young man whilst serving time at Parchman, a nearby penitentiary. Coincidentally, the same prison that JoJo and his little sister Kayla’s white father, Michael, is currently serving time.

When Leonie learns of Michael’s release from prison, she packs herself up with friend Misty, and her two reluctant children, to go meet him at the gates. They leave Pop and Mam behind, Pop who is struggling with his own demons whilst looking after Mam, who is dying of cancer.

What follows this decision is a journey filled with the truth of race in America, the bonds and battles of family, of drugs and visions, of the struggle between mother and a son coming of age, of ghosts, of memories most would leave forgotten, and somewhat, of magic.

The way Ward writes is so raw, so emotive, and her depiction of the bond between JoJo and Kayla was both heartwarming to experience and heartbreaking to see challenged. Whilst Leonie is unquestionably a terrible mother, and absent father Michael is no better, Ward does well in showing us how these characters come to be this way. We aren’t meant to like these characters, but in looking at their backgrounds and personal challenges, by the end we are well on our way to somewhat understanding them.

Such a great novel, and one that I would definitely recommend. Not an easy read at times, but an important one that’s beautifully told.

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some thoughts: ‘Days Without End’ by Sebastian Barry

Image result for days without end sebastian barry

2 stars

Got over 100 pages in, but I’m putting it down for now.

I was really expecting the relationship to be at the forefront at this novel, and although I’m told it begins to develop as you read on, the actual war aspect is very much dominating the novel at this point. I’m not really a fan of the brash, very testosterone filled narrative, and our protagonists voice isn’t sitting quite right with me for some reason.

I appreciate that a romantic, sexual relationship between two men would be very much kept under wraps during this time period, and especially in this setting. But I can’t help feel that as a reader I should be privy to more of the nuances of their relationship. Especially as it’s the main character recounting his experiences to us personally. Just being told that this man is the love of his life isn’t enough, I need to see it.

The initial reveal of them being lovers is written in very casually, and whilst I appreciate this blasé approach, at the same time the line ‘and then we quietly fucked and went to sleep’ seemed quite crass. The blunt language appears purposely chosen to shock the reader, and jolted me out of the story a bit. I would have felt exactly the same way if this phrasing was used in regards to a heterosexual couple. It just seems to me that in trying to not make a big deal of a gay relationship being portrayed in this story, we’re actually not given enough and it’s hard to buy into this intimacy.

A few of my colleagues have read this one and have really enjoyed it, and maybe I’m missing out of some gems as the book goes on. But I think I’ve read enough so far to assume I just don’t have that much invested in this particular story. I guess I’m not doing the best job in articulating why I’m not feeling this one right now, but regardless, I’m setting it aside.

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review: ‘Elmet’ by Fiona Mozley


5 stars

A modern gothic, rural melodrama. At it’s heart ‘Elmet’ is the gritty story of a complex family dynamic and a good vs. evil battle that has us rooting for the questionably deplorable underdog. A solid 4 stars to start with, with a few days to mull over this story, this has crept up to a well deserved 5 stars from me.

At the head of our tight knit familial trio, we have ‘Daddy’. A violent and damaged man who is driven by a primal love and need to care for his family and those less fortunate. Daddy has an almost Robin Hood type quality that endears us to him despite his obvious flaws. Whilst he clearly loves his children, he also lets them drink and smoke, exposes them to violence and often deserts them for long periods at a time. A bare knuckle fighter, for want of an honest trade, he manages to be a formidable fighter, masculine and intimidating, whilst carrying a fierce need to protect what is his and having a strong sense of honour.

Fourteen year old Daniel, son of Daddy, narrates this story. A quiet, somewhat effeminate boy with a kind nature, who cares more about ‘making house’ than following in the barbarous footsteps of his father. His sister, the far less inhibited Cathy, is a year older and a clear tomboy. She is far closer to her fathers nature, and appears to take after him in looks too, both dark and brooding. There is a strength to her character that I think was really interesting to play with. Looking at the offspring of this man in this way, one boy and one girl, manages to say a lot about the intricacies of gender without doing so explicitly, and I felt this aspect of the novel was really unique.

On the surface, this is a fairly uneventful story, yet the poetic language draws greatly on the landscape and creates a wonderfully rustic environment which acts as the backdrop to this curious life. For most of their lives Daniel and Cathy live with Granny Morley, who acts as a constant presence in their lives, whilst Daddy and the briefly mentioned (yet equally tortured) mother, flutter in and out of their lives. Their childhoods appear strained, but in many ways they live a normal life. Events lead Daddy to take his children away from this normality, to the place their mother was from. He builds a house purely from scratch sourcing materials from the surrounding forests, and they live primitively but happily. Unfortunately, but not entirely unintentionally, he happens to be building on a piece of woodland that isn’t his to build on. From this point on, the melodrama begins to creep in, and we are drawn towards a surprising and intense climax.

I really, really enjoyed this book. Whilst admittedly not for everyone, this is a fantastic debut, and Mozley has a voice that I definitely want to hear more from. I’d love some short stories from this author, another novel, to hear her speak – it’s safe to say I’m excited for what might be to come. I’m so glad a novel like this is being recognised by the Man Booker Prize this year. Whilst I’m doubtful it could win, I hope it at least makes the shortlist, as it’s my absolute favourite of the list so far.

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some thoughts: ‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor

Image result for reservoir 13

2 stars

I appear to be missing something here. Granted, I only gave this two chapters. It’s wise to expect at least some form of ‘set up’ at the beginning of a novel. We need to meet the characters, set the scene, get a feel for the writing. Unfortunately for me, this set up lasted the entire two chapters. And as two chapters signifies two years passing, that doesn’t bode well.

I just felt it was failing to really take off, the intrigue I was meant to feel was nonexistent. It’s possible that this is just not the kind of writing style, or story, I gel with. I’ve come to realise recently that I love me some dialogue. And the technique used here (someone tell me the name if there is one?!), where any dialogue is simply written into the text without the use of speech marks, just does not work for me.

I was also expecting some kind of murder mystery, but it appears to be a more subtle exploration of an intimate community that draws on the natural landscape. From reviews I’ve read, we don’t ever even find out what happens to aforementioned girl. And really, if I cared about anything I read of this, that was it…

If I’m missing something phenomenal in putting this down for now, please let me know. But something tells me that if I’m not hooked by now, it’s unlikely I will be further in.

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some thoughts: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

lincoln in the bardo

3 stars

Firstly, I feel it is important to mention that I had the pleasure of hearing George Saunders speak about this book at a literary festival. There also may have been a performance piece narrated by George and some of my colleagues, and this was nothing short of cool AF. Nevertheless, this was a while ago now. The book had only just come out, and there has been enough time between all the hype and my reading of this book, that I feel I was able to remain impartial during my reading experience. I’ve also never read any of Saunders’ previous works, so his writing is very new to me.

Although this book is quite the marmite of the book world at the moment, I’m going to remain somewhat annoyingly on the fence with it. There is no question that Saunders can write, and I can very much see this novels merit. But whilst it was an enjoyable and fresh reading experience, I’m not sure I completely buy into the gimmick. I finished this feeling a lot like I often feel when finishing a poetry collection. Whilst I can admire some passages, appreciate the themes and pick up on some of the imagery – ultimately, I don’t feel I quite ‘get’ it.

Whether you’ve read this one or not it’s probably of no surprise to you that you will encounter a huge cacophony of characters within these pages. Personally, this felt fun, kept me attentive, and propelled me forward in the book. But having said that, the inclusion of all these different voices did seem a little unavailing at times. I can see how this would work brilliantly in the audiobook version, but there is a thin line between impressing your audience and seeming unnecessarily flash when executing this in writing.

Saunders has clearly done a lot of research in order to accomplish this novel. He is great at giving us insightful snapshots of events, characters and their feelings. And funnily enough this works great in short stories, which he is more well known for and has exclusively written up until this point. But for me, the whole point of a novel (at least the ones I tend to enjoy) is that you don’t rush characterisation like that. You can give your audience time to get to know your characters in depth, to entice them into your narrative, to boldly set the scene. It was all go go go in this novel, and the nature of the way it’s written, almost play-like, is unrelenting.

In terms of where it sits for me in this years Man Booker Longlist, it’s pottering around towards the bottom with its’ equally hyped pal – ‘The Underground Railroad’. And that’s not to say that I consider this a ‘bad’ book, or that I didn’t enjoy aspects of both of these reads. However, I think in both cases, I was a victim of the hype somewhat. They didn’t quite live up to preconceived notions I had of them. That doesn’t mean I don’t think this isn’t a real contender for the win, and I would be shocked if they didn’t both at least make the shortlist.

Essentially, I liked this book. It pleasantly helped pass a leisurely weekend. But did it leave any real impact on me? No, not really. And no, i’m not of the opinion that all books need to do that. And yes, there were some genuinely human gems to be found in here, that made me intrigued enough to want to pick up some of his short stories in the future. However, I feel that this novel set out to achieve a heavy hit. And in my opinion, due to the way it’s constructed, it doesn’t quite manage that.

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mini review: ‘The Children’ by Carolina Sanín

Image result for the children carolina sanin cover

3 stars

‘The Children’ starts off as a peculiar story, but at least one I could follow and make sense of. Effectively Laura, a middle aged woman (who lives alone with her greyhound, Brus), comes across a small boy who appears to be homeless. She takes him in, makes reports through all the relevant channels, and then hands him over to the social care system. She continues to think about him, so tries to get back in touch with him and makes enquiries with a friend of the family who works in that department.

Then slowly, it all gets a bit odd. Surrealist elements start creeping in and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. From my recent venture into attempting to read ‘The Hearing Trumpet’, it seems that surrealist fiction doesn’t appear to be my type of thing.

Anyways, it’s pretty clear that this is a commentary on the welfare state and care of orphaned children in Colombia, but told in this kind of allegory… I think it went a bit over my head. It very much reminded me of ‘Fever Dream’, not that the stories are much alike, but more in the sense that I had a similar reading experience with both of them. Both are short, punchy, translated reads that are surreal and in some moments quite frightening, but at the roots are trying to tell you something quite important. I’m just not sure I quite ‘got’ it this time.

I think I’ll definitely benefit from a reread of this. But in the meantime, if you’ve read this, or have seen a good review around that goes into more depth, please let me know your thoughts!

sign off heartJess