Sunday, 11 June 2017

At Home in Slumpsville

Image result for reading booksFirstly, an apology. It's been a while since my last blog post I know. Partly this has been to do with having had a busy few weeks in my real life including a very pleasant but very busy weekend away in Cornwall (it involved mead, good times were had by all). But, if I'm being completely honest, it's also because I've been a fully paid up resident of Slumpsville for the last month or so. 

Yes, the reading slump has paid a visit. For some reason - and I'm never entirely sure why - I've been really struggling to get into anything, fiction or non-fiction. I've tried all of my usual tricks - reading something really pacy, re-reading an old favorite etc etc - and nothing has managed to get my reading mojo back.

For anyone who doesn't read regularly (so, probably not people who are reading this blog, right?!), a reading slump might not seem like a big deal. So what if you've not got a book on the go? But reading is a really important part of my day to day life and not reading majorly messes up my routine. The nature of my day job means a regular lunch break during which to read isn't, alas, a thing in my life any more but I do enjoy reading in the bath (for those of you appalled by the thought of this, see my post of Bookish Confessions!) at the end of a long day and I have, for as long as I can remember, always read immediately before turning out the bedside light and heading off to the land of nod. So not reading really messes with my equilibrium - late night YouTube, computer games and podcasts do not for a good nights sleep make. 

The good news is that, fingers crossed, I seem to be breaking the back of the slump a little. I took the drastic step of taking a couple of weeks off reading and all things reading related (hence no recent blog posts!). As a result the sense that I should be reading has lifted a little. It's odd but sometimes I feel so pressured to read (either because I want to have something to blog about, because my TBR has reached mountainous proportions or because I'm reading to a deadline for review or for book club) that it takes the joy out of doing it. Instead I've been playing my PS4, listening to music, writing a bitand listening to podcasts - just giving myself permission to have a bit of a reading break basically. And you know what? I miss reading. I miss that moment when I settle down with my book at the end of the day and cosy up for the evening. Some time away is drawing me back and I've begun to look at my bookshelves again with excitement.

My plan now is to capitalise on this. I usually have an immediate TBR next to my bed - books that are due back to the library, books that I need to read for some purpose or deadline, or recently purchased books. And sometimes, just sometimes, I feel that pile traps me into reading the books I think I have to as opposed to what takes my fancy. So I've got rid of the pile and gone back to my shelves to pull out some titles that just appeal. My plan is to curl up with them and read the first few pages of each then read the book that most appeals after that. It's an idea called 'Try A Chapter' that I first saw on Simon Savidge's YouTube channel that seems just perfect for narrowing down a TBR and deciding on your next book. Hopefully it'll mean I'm on the next train out of Slumpsville at any rate. 

I'll let you know how I get on in the next post - which will hopefully be soon! In the meantime, if you have any tips to help me finish off this reading slump, I'd very much appreciate them. You can tweet me @amyinstaffs, leave me a comment down below or come say hi over on Goodreads. And, until the next time...

Happy Reading! x


Monday, 22 May 2017

REVIEW: Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Our Endless Numbered DaysSome books I can review straight after I finish reading them - whether that's because they left me flatter than the average pancake or because we clicked from the off and I've been left with all of the feels. With others however, I feel that I need a little distance before I can comment. Our Endless Numbered Days was one such book and it's taken a couple of weeks for me to feel certain enough in my thoughts to be comfortable putting finger to keyboard to review it. 

The premise of the novel is, I have to say, fantastic. Peggy is eight years old when her father takes her to 'die hütte', a ramshackle cabin in a remote European forest, and tells her that her mother and the rest of the world are gone. Forced to survive on whatever they can find in the forest, Peggy's fairy-tale cabin holiday becomes a nightmarish fight for survival. And, as she grows up and starts to discern fairy tales from reality, the veracity of her father's tale becomes harder  and harder to believe. Blending tropes from mythology and folklore with a taut psychological thriller and a gentle commentary on consumerism, the story is certainly original and the effect is haunting. 

It's no spoiler to say that Peggy survives her time in the forest. From the outset it is evident that the novel is being told as a recollection by a now seventeen year old Peggy, recently back in London with her mother Ute and Oskar, the nine year old brother she never knew existed. As Peggy, or Punzel as she has come to call herself in the forest, struggles to re-adapt to everyday life, she sifts through her memories of her time in die hütte, leaving the reader to filter out the imagined from the real. It's a very clever technique but not one that I felt worked as well as it could have, with a number of key points left unresolved at the novel's close. This may well have been Fuller's intention but, as a reader, it was immensely frustrating as the truths about the dream-like world of die hütte and the reality of Peggy's childhood remain blurred, deadening the impact of the ending. I don't do spoilers in my reviews but there is one key mystery surrounding the entire existence of one character which is left maddeningly unresolved - either outcome has disturbing implications for Peggy/Punzel but the irresolution resulted, for me anyway, in a decreased sense of impact in these final revelations.

My other major issue was with Peggy's father, James. Although Fuller tries hard to paint a picture of a complex man who clearly suffers from some form of mood disorder, I found it hard to empathise or sympathise with him. He's just too selfish. Even before the revelation that brings his world crashing down and leads to his decision to take Peggy off to the woods and tell her the world has ending (not exactly A-star parenting), he's all me, me, me. From making his young daughter carry out practice drills in the fallout shelter to allowing her to skip school and live in the garden for a week, James is one jumbled up mess of bad choices and poor decisions. And one they are on their journey, his alternating fits of rage and crushing bouts of depression endanger Peggy's life on more than one occasion. Which, for me, made Peggy's devotion to him seem almost unbelievable. Yes, he's her Dad. And yes, he is definitely the more laid-back and 'fun' parent (Peggy's mother Ute is, to put it mildly, a bit of a cold fish). But at times it's really hard to buy into his love for Peggy and I never quite bought their relationship - a bit of an issue as a lot of the plot revolves around the parent/child relationship and the impact of James' lie on Peggy's life and world view. 

So does this mean that I don't think 'Our Endless Numbered Days' is a good book? Well, no. I'm really glad that I read it. Fuller has packed a lot into this novel - probably a little too much for a comparatively slender 300 pages - and she does a lot of it very well. Her descriptions of Peggy and James' woodland world are wonderful, filled with all of the senses and creating a dreamlike world whilst retaining the gritty reality of what a life of survival really means (acorn soup and eating lots of squirrel, in case any of you were wondering). I also adored the fairytale allegories. I could wax lyrical about all the ways Peggy's story mirrors themes of childhood versus adolescence in Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and, of course, Rapunzel but then this review would turn into an essay and we'd have disappeared down tangent alley. Needless to say however, if you dig fairytales then you'll probably dig 'Our Endless Numbered Days'. 

All in all, 'Our Endless Numbered Days' is a book with a lot to offer to a lot of different readers. Fans of books such as 'Room' will enjoy another tale of a difficult situation told from a child's perspective, fairytale fans will enjoy sifting through the symbolism and thriller fans will get a kick out a dark tale of abduction and lies where the main fighting is that which takes place inside the characters heads. And there is plenty to discuss which makes it an ideal choice for book clubs. Personally I didn't love it. Didn't hate it either. It's a pretty good book. Which sounds like damning with faint praise but certainly isn't intended to be. Fuller is a good writer and I'll be interested to read her next novel, 'Swimming Lessons', which has just been released. If she can keep the accomplished style whilst tightening her plotting, it should be a damn fine read.

'Our Endless Numbered Days' by Claire Fuller is published by Penguin Books and is out now in paperback, ebook and on audio from all good retailers. Go make a bookseller happy and buy it from your local independent or high street bookstore - if you need any more incentive, they probably do coffee and cake too. 

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Bookish Confessions

We all do it. We try to be good little readers - to always use bookmarks, to never crack the spine, to read the classics or the latest 'hot' novel. But we know in our hearts that something has to give - even the best book lover can't be perfect all the time. So here, for your amusement, are my Bookish Confessions. You'll never get me to admit to them out loud but that doesn't stop them being true!

I Break The Spines

Yes, I admit it, I like cracking the spines of my paperback books. There will, I know, be some readers of this post who will gasp in horror and never let me darken their web browser again. I can't offer any defence - I just find them more comfortable to hold once I've done it, especially when I'm around the halfway point. Plus, I like my books to look a little read when I'm done - we've been on a journey together, that book and I so we might both be a bit weather-beaten when we're done. I don't crack the spines on hardbacks though - I'm not a monster.


I 'Tent' Books

Another sin for quite a few readers of my acquaintance. For the most part, I do use bookmarks - bookmark collecting being second only to the acquisition of the books themselves as a retail activity that brings me pleasure. But sometimes you just want to pop a book down for a few moments while you grab a fresh cup of tea or a shawl to snuggle up in. And then...well, then I'll probably just pop the book upside down on the coffee table or the sofa for a bit. Usually only for five minutes or so. It's not like it's book neglect after all - for longer non-reading intervals, a bookmark (or train ticket/receipt/piece of paper randomly grabbed from my handbag) is always in use.

 I Read In The Bath

Water and books do not a good mix make but nothing beats a hot fluffy bubble bath (complete with Lush bath bomb, obviously), a mug of tea and a really good book. Write off the evening because that is me done. I've only dropped a book once or twice - a rapid trip to the airing cupboard followed by a couple of days in close proximity to the radiator whilst being weighted down with hardbacks (to combat wrinkly pages) usually rescues them enough to remain readable. I do (whisper it) sometimes take library books in to the bath though and also my Kindle. Yes, I like to live life on the edge...

For Every Book I Read, I've Probably Buy About Five

I don't keep a lot of read books - just a few favourites and reference books, along with signed editions and presents from friends & family. Which means the majority of the books in my office/library are unread. This has no impact upon my buying and borrowing habits whatsoever. I have a problem. I have accepted this. I believe there is no known cure.

I Have An Overambitious TBR

This is especially true when I take out multiple library books (current stack pictured). Only three weeks to read them? Huge hold list of eager readers waiting for me to finish? No problem, it'll be a cinch - I'll have them read in a weekend. My brain clearly thinks I'm still in uni with endless days ready to be filled with books, games and larking about. Instead I have a full-time job, a house to clean, clothes that need washing and ironing and a husband who occasionally wants to talk to me instead of my book cover. Renewals are my friend and library fines my old nemesis.

I Will Judge A Book By It's Cover

I mean, they're the first thing you see right? Publishers have been putting considerably more effort into cover design in recent years, with foiling and gorgeous artwork abound. But there's still the occasional dullard out there. All book lovers know them - there are memes and Buzzfeed posts filled with images of covers featuring stereotypical tropes; women turned slight away from the reader (often to be found on female centred historical fiction), sinister looking woodland in the fog (crime/thrillers), pastel line drawings of wine, cakes and svelte women in stylish clothing (chick lit) etc. Covers are supposed to be something of a guide to what's inside a book and, as such, I'll freely admit to judging them as a result. Yes, I know I might be missing out but a girl has to have some way of thinning out the crowd of books calling for attention right? Also, film tie-in covers are just a no, always.

Do you do any (or all!) or the above? Have I committed crimes against books and you'll never read my blog again? And what are your bookish confessions - don't try to pretend you don't have any! As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts and have a natter so do come and say hi over on Twitter (@amyinstaffs), drop me a comment down below or find me on Litsy, Goodreads and Instagram. This is a slightly more irreverent post than normal so if you like it (or even if you don't!) do let me know - I want to vary the blog content a bit so thought it might be nice to do something different. And, as always, until the next time...

Happy Reading! x

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2017

Image result for baileys women's prize for fiction 2017The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction is one of my favourite literary awards. Not just because it highlights books written by women (although, for the record, I think that is both awesome and still very much needed), but because I've always found that the books chosen most closely mirror my own reading tastes. Strong plots and characterisation, literary without being too abstract, books grounded in the everyday experience. The release of the longlist is like getting a selection on twelve books picked for me by a friend.

The 2017 list is, for me, the strongest in a while. I can genuinely say there wasn't a book on the longlist that didn't intrigue me. Although I'll admit Annie Proulx's doorstop 'Barkskins' gave me pause for thought - a book has to be really good for me to make room in my TBR for over 700 pages! And I did struggle with Eimear McBride's first novel, 'A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing', due to the stream of consciousness narrative - although that's probably because when I read it, I wasn't in a position to give the book the attention it deserved. Maybe I'll give her another try with 'The Lesser Bohemians'. I also worry that 'First Love' might be little on the literary side for me so I'd be interested to know what anyone who has read it thinks.

Do Not Say We Have NothingBefore the list was announced I had already read (and reviewedthe brilliant 'The Essex Serpent' and Margaret Atwood's 'Hag-Seed' (also reviewed) and enjoyed both of them immensely. Neither made the shortlist in the end which I felt was a shame - although I like to think maybe this is because the shortlisted books are just that good! 


'The Gustav Sonata' has been on my TBR shelf for a while and 'Do Not Say We Have Nothing' was a book I purchased following its inclusion on the Man Booker longlist last year, so that definitely needs to get read soon. The others were, for the most part, completely new to me - which is one of my favourite things about the prize. 

My awesome local library had a copy of 'The Sport of Kings' - another doorstop (545 pages) - which is about a horse-racing dynasty. Not my usual fare but if a novel is capable of getting Simon Savidge (who famously does not enjoy books about horses) to enjoy a horse-racing book, I'm game! Simon also got me excited about 'The Lonely Hearts Hotel' after raving about it on Twitter and Booktube. I've also seen lots of buzz surrounding Emma Flint's 'Little Deaths', based on the true story of a woman accused of murdering her children and subsequently tried on the basis of her life choices. It's been compared to Sarah Waters and Megan Abbot on Goodreads, which has me sold. 

MidwinterAnd out of the rest of the runners and riders, 'Stay With Me' probably appeals to me the most with its whispers of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie style tale set in 1980s Nigeria. And 'Midwinter' gets kudos for having a fox on the cover. Because foxes. Seriously though, novels about father and son relationships are relatively few and far between so that sounds interesting. I wonder if 'The Mare' has probably lost out on a bit of publicity to 'The Sport of Kings'? Two books ostensibly about horse riding on one prize list and all that - but I think the clash of cultures premise sounds really interesting as long as its done with delicacy. 'The Woman Next Door' seems to have been similarly overlooked in the press - I've heard less 'buzz' about it than some of the other titles - maybe because it sounds quite comic? Again, if anyone has read either of these, I'd be interested to know your thoughts. 

The Dark CircleSince the longlist was announced I have borrowed and read Linda Grant's 'The Dark Circle', my first encounter with this author. I really enjoyed the book, which is about twins who are send to a sanatorium after being diagnosed with TB. Like many of my favourite novels, it combines strong characters with some interesting history (in this instance about the founding years of the NHS) that, despite not being heavy on plot, managed to captivate me entirely. Finishing it resulted in my first book hangover for a while. I was really pleased to see its inclusion on the shortlist. It's the only one of the six that I've finished so far, so I can't say whether I feel it will win - only that it would be a worthy winner if it does. 

The PowerI'm now reading Naomi Alderman's 'The Power', another shortlisted title, although I'm having a few issues with it. The concept - young women suddenly acquire the ability to emit an electrical charge from their bodies - is certainly interesting. But I'm struggling to connect with any of the narrators (there's four of them) and, whilst I'm getting all those 'Handmaid's Tale' vibes from the premise, the book just isn't quite getting there for me at the moment. I'm only a third of the way through though so it's early days - I'm certainly intrigued enough to persevere. 

All in all however, The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction certainly promises to have my reading life wrapped up for a good few weeks! and I'll be really excited to discover the eventual winner for 2017. I'd love to know if any of you follow the prize and have picked up a book as a result - or maybe you prefer The Man Booker, the Costa Book Awards or a specialist prize such as The Wainwright Prize? As always, please have a chat in the comments below or say hi over on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links in the sidebar). And, until the next time....

Happy Reading! x 

Friday, 17 March 2017

REVIEW: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

HomegoingIt is, in my humble opinion, extremely rare to come across a novel that is too short. So it's a pleasant surprise to come across a novel that, if anything, I could have spent considerably more time with.

'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi is an ambitious literary debut that has, quite rightly, received plenty of praise and a good deal of hype both here in the UK and over the pond in the US. Set in both the US and Ghana, the novel traces seven generations of a family, starting in the eighteenth-century and moving through the years to the present day.  It's a mammoth subject - three hundred years across two continents - a little too large, I think, the be contained within a relatively slender three hundred pages. Which is not to say that 'Homegoing' is not an extremely impressive and accomplished debut, because it most certainly is. It's just that, having finished it, I was left wanting more depth in some areas. 

The novel opens with half-sisters Esi and Effia. Born into different villages by different mothers in eighteenth-century Ghana, Effia is married to an English slave-trader and lives in comfort in Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to her, Esi is imprisoned beneath her in the castle's dungeons, ready to be shipped from the Gold Coast to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised as slaves on the cotton plantations of the South. From these opening chapters, rich with description of Ghanaian life and the complex relationships between the Asante and Fante tribespeople, we follow the two threads as Effia's descendants face civil war and British colonisation whilst Esi's children become embroiled in tumultuous founding of the USA. These opening chapters are a joy to read, brimming with visceral historical detail and a sense of place:

"On her fourteenth birthday, she was in the heart of Asanteland, in her father's. Big Man's. compound/ He was the best warrior in the village, so everyone had come to pay their respects to the daughter who grew more beautiful with each passing day. Kwasi Nnuro bought sixty yams. More yams than any other suitor had bought before. Esi would have married him in the summer, when the sun stretched long and high, when the palm trees could be tapped for wine, climbed by the spriest children, with their arms holding the trunk in a hug as they shinnied to the top to pluck the fruits that waited there."

After a couple of generations however, the chapters seem to speed up and the second half of the book occasionally felt like a sprint to the finish and with less of the lyricism that, for me, gave the first half it's immediacy. This seemed especially true of the chapters dealing with Effia's descendants in Ghana, which was a great shame as I was eager to learn more about the relationship between the Asante and Fante tribes, and the history of slavery on the Gold Coast. 

Whilst I appreciate that Yaa Gyasi is giving us a snapshot of each character's life and, in doing so, painting a larger portrait about history, race and identity, some of the later characters felt a little thin as a result. This was, for me, especially true of the final chapters in which Gyasi is bringing together the many threads she has woven into her narrative and, in characters Marjorie and Marcus' struggles with identity and heritage, I think she wanted the reader to see the forces that had shaped their respective family destinies and, as such, their places within both America and Ghana. 

"Instinctively, Marjorie raised her hand to the necklace [...] It had belonged to Old Lady and to Abena before her, and to James, and Quey and Effia the Beauty before that. It had begun with Maame, the woman who had set the great fire. Her father had told her that the necklace was part of their family history and she was never to take it off, never give it away. Now it reflected the ocean water before them, gold waves shimmering in the black stone."

Because of the brevity of their narratives and some of those proceeding them however, I felt as if Marjorie and Marcus were touchstones for these themes rather than characters in their own right. In a book that is otherwise so accomplished and nuanced, the ending felt rushed and a little convenient. In a story of this scope there are always going to be gaps but, at the end, I felt that the characters slipped between these, forever just out of the reach of the reader. 

In the grand scheme of the whole novel however, this is a minor criticism and certainly not one worth dismissing such a wonderful reading experience for. Overall, 'Homegoing' is a fabulous read, breathtaking in scope and brimming with emotional force and exquisite language. As a debut novel it is extremely impressive, balancing intimate portrayals of individual lives against the epic struggles of nationhood and identity. As I said at the beginning of this review, I could have spent a lot more time with this book - and that is a rarity indeed! 

'Homegoing' by Yaa Gyasi is published by Viking and is available now in hardback, e-book and audio from all good bookstores. 

If you're thinking of buying a copy, why not support your local high street or indie bookstore, which you can find at http://www.booksellers.org.uk/bookshopsearch, or over at http://indiebookshopweek.org.uk/Find-Your-Indie/Find-Local-Bookshop. Go on, show your local bookshop some love! x

Sunday, 26 February 2017

REVIEW: Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End
When I picked up Sebastian Barry's 'Days Without End', which has since gone on to be the overall winner of the Costa Book of the Year 2017, I wasn't sure what I would be getting. Praised as a historical novel, the book had also received a lot of press for its portrayal of a gay relationship and Barry is an author know for his lyrical prose style. Having never read Barry before, I didn't know his writing - overly lyrical 'literary' titles sometimes fail to make my wheelhouse - but I've always found books set in the early days of the American West fascinating and I was interested to see how the author would introduce a realistic LGBT element within this setting.  

I have to say that, having now finished the book, I was completely blown away by it. The novel is extremely well-written with lush prose, fully-realised characters, a real sense of time and place and - to top it all off - a gentle, tender portrayal of love and family amidst the tumultuous Civil War period.

The novel introduces us to Thomas McNulty, an Irish emigrant orphaned young who has travelled to America for a fresh start. Here he meets John Cole, another young drifter, and they begin a short-lived career as 'young ladies', dressing up in a saloon so that miners may dance with them and forget their lonely lives. As they enter adulthood and their true gender becomes more evident, the two sign up for the US Army and, aged barely seventeen are thrust into first the Indian Wars and, eventually, the blood and fire of the American Civil War. When Winona, a young Indian girl, crosses their path, Thomas and John find their lives both enriched and imperilled.
 
The novel is more bloody and yet more beautiful than I was anticipating. Barry does not shy away from the realities of war and our 'heroes' take part in more than their fair share of killing. More than one outright massacre of Native American villagers takes place during the course of the book and it does not make for easy reading. What holds the book together in these sections is the power and integrity of Barry's voice - or rather the clear-headed, surprisingly perceptive narrative of the uneducated Thomas: 

"Indians look very puzzled, surprised and offended to be shot but they go to the wall with noble mien I must allow. You can’t have nothing good in war without you punishing the guilty, the sergeant says with a savage air and no one says nothing against that. John Cole whispers to me that most times that sergeant he just wrong but just now and then he’s right and he’s right this time. 
I guess I’m thinking this is true."


Thomas' voice, which has a unique blend of naivete and wisdom, was the key to this novel for me. If it hadn't been for the sheer power of the voice - the sense of reading someone's memoirs as opposed to reading a narrative - then I think I might have found the violence too bloody, too senseless and without any sense of redemption. And yes, I know that war is bloody, senseless and often without redemption in actuality but I don't necessarily want to read that in my downtime. So the fact that Barry uses the voice to confront the savage nature of war without losing the book to brutality was, for me, on of the strongest points of the novel.

Thomas' voice also kept me going when the plot veered towards the implausible, namely the numerous interludes when Thomas and John resume their entertainment career, with Thomas acting the lady to John's 'beau'. I may be wrong but I can't quite believe that mid-Western society was quite as au fait with the bending of gender norms as this novel at times makes out. And I fail to believe that even the most short-sighted of priests wouldn't spot a thirty-year old man in a wedding dress, however effeminate his facial features and clean-shaven he happened to be.

That said, I thought the love story very well handled. Thomas and John have a gentle, understated love for each other that just is. It was so refreshing to read a novel that doesn't make a big deal of a same-sex romance - there's no dramatic moment when the two realise they're in love, no staggering guilt about what happens. They are friends, then they are comrades, then they are lovers, then they are family. Just like that. It was beautifully done and the sense of family and unity that Barry creates between Thomas, John, Winona and their friends stays on just the right side of sweet without veering into saccharine

Overall, I loved this book. The plot is a little loose and meandering at times and it does have one or two implausible moments, but that failed to break the spell when I was reading it and I remained drawn in by the power of the voice and the sense of place and time that Barry has crafted. Some may argue that Thomas' voice itself if implausible - would an uneducated Irish orphan be capable of such poetry? I guess that one has to assume that education has nothing to do with the soul and, if nothing else, you get a real sense that this narrative comes from the soul's very depths. 

"Things go on. A lot of life is like that. I look back over 50 years of life and I wonder where the years went. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands.Can’t do much about that. 
We have our store of days and we spend them like forgetful drunkards.
I ain't got no argument with it, just saying it is so."

'Days Without End' by Sebastian Barry is published by Faber & Faber and is now available in paperback, ebook and audiobook from all good retailers