#SmallActsofOliphant

This morning’s email from HarperCollinsUK


This little email landed in my inbox this morning from HarperCollinsUK.

I reviewed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman a couple of months ago, and loved it. It reminded me both of our natural suspicion of seemingly selfless acts of kindness, and our equal delight and renewed faith in humanity when we discover that the act of kindness was truly selfless. I love that HarperCollinsUK have created a hashtag to inspire us to make someone’s day a little better with an act of kindness. Perhaps if we can make these little acts a habit, we will learn not only to treat each other a little better, but to also be a little less suspicious of kindness when it comes our way.

For my #SmallActsofOliphant, I have given the old TV sat in the garage, awaiting the moment I could be bothered to take it to a charity shop, to my next door neighbour. At first she was worried about how much money I would want for it, but once I explained that it had been given to me for free when I got it so didn’t feel that it was right to accept any money for it – I just wanted it to go to a good home – she was very happy.

What will your #SmallActsofOliphant be?

Book review: The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

cover110731-mediumThe Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

Publication date: 15 June 2017

Genre: Historical Fiction, Women’s Fiction

Length*: 5 hours 20 minutes

(*based on the time it took me to read this title)

Published by: Zaffre

Available at: Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads

My rating: 4 out of 5

Publisher’s description:

In a nation divided by prejudice, everyone must take a side.

When young seamstress May Bedloe is left alone and penniless on the shore of the Ohio, she finds work on the famous floating theatre that plies its trade along the river.

Her creativity and needlework skills quickly become invaluable and she settles in to life among the colourful troupe of actors. She finds friends, and possibly the promise of more…

But cruising the border between the Confederate South and the ‘free’ North is fraught with danger. For the sake of a debt that must be repaid, May is compelled to transport secret passengers, under cover of darkness, across the river and on, along the underground railroad.

But as May’s secrets become harder to keep, she learns she must endanger those now dear to her. And to save the lives of others, she must risk her own …

A gloriously involving and powerful read for fans of Gone With The Wind and Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway

My review:

 

I will be honest; as someone who has spent the last decade working in the theatre industry, I was compelled to pick up this book purely for the title. I am fascinated by the ways that the inner workings of theatre are portrayed in literature, and how these compare to my own experiences of working backstage. It does sound a little like a busman’s holiday, I will admit; reading for pleasure about something that you live and breathe every day.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no busman’s holiday here. The theatre is not the main focus of the story at all, but instead the pleasing backdrop that facilitates May’s journey of self-discovery. She is not an actress discovering herself through the part she must play on stage, rather it is the series of experiences that she finds herself thrown into that conflict with her own comfort levels and perception of right and wrong.

The book is a delightful read, gentle and unsuspecting (like May herself), but full of grit when peanut butter hits the toast, as it were.

This book is billed as ‘women’s fiction’, which is not a genre I would normally find myself consuming with enthusiasm. I can’t help feeling that putting this book in that box is unfair because of the expectations that such a label (rightly or wrongly) puts on the story. Yes, the main character is a woman. Yes, it is a journey of discovering one’s identity as an independent woman. But, for me, that is not enough to put it in that particular box. This story follows a person who has always followed in the wake of another and is then rudely abandoned and must find the confidence to find their own path – for me, the gender is immaterial; it just so happens that this person is a woman. So, if you normally veer away from women’s fiction, don’t let this book’s categorisation put you off. You will find that there is plenty of tension and pace, and plenty of heart-stopping moments.

Aside from the growth of the main character, this book is also about the slave trade that was so prevalent in America at the time the book is set. It asks interesting questions about where ethics and moral code stand when the humane action is the illegal action. Is it ok to break the law in order to follow your own code of ethics, when you are presented with an opportunity to save someone from a situation that you feel is morally wrong? How do we feel about those who seek to profit from the immoral but legal action? Is it ok to follow the illegal but ethical action when it puts other people’s lives in jeopardy without their consent?

Reading this book was easy; the pages slid effortlessly past my eyes. I found myself making extra time to read it so I could find out what happened next. I loved it. It would make a fantastic holiday or long weekend read.

Thank you to Zaffre and Netgalley for providing me with an advance e-book of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Post Truth by Matthew D’Ancona

Book review: Post Truth by Matthew D'Ancona [Cover image from Netgalley.com]Post Truth: The new war on truth and how to fight back by Matthew D’Ancona
Publication date: 18 May 2017
Genre: Non-fiction (Adult), Politics
Length*: 2 hours 16 minutes
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
Published by: Ebury Publishing, Penguin Random House UK
Available at: Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads
My rating: 3 out of 5

Publisher’s description:

Welcome to the Post-Truth era — a time in which the art of the lie is shaking the very foundations of democracy and the world as we know it. The Brexit vote; Donald Trump’s victory; the rejection of climate change science; the vilification of immigrants; all have been based on the power to evoke feelings and not facts. So what does it all mean and how can we champion truth in in a time of lies and ‘alternative facts’?

In this eye-opening and timely book, Post-Truth is distinguished from a long tradition of political lies, exaggeration and spin. What is new is not the mendacity of politicians but the public’s response to it and the ability of new technologies and social media to manipulate, polarise and entrench opinion. Where trust has evaporated, conspiracy theories thrive, the authority of the media wilt and emotions matter more than facts.

Now, one of the UK’s most respected political journalists, Matthew d’Ancona investigates how we got here, why quiet resignation is not an option and how we can and must fight back.

My review:

I have gone back and forth for the last week thinking about what rating I would give this book. On the one hand, a four because it is a book flagging an important issue of the moment that we should all be vividly aware of, no matter which end of the political spectrum we identify with; but a three because the title and the publisher’s description led me to think that the book would be more instructive in ‘the ways to fight back’ than it actually is.

The book is well-written, clearly explaining its thesis. It reads like a very long political feature article, with the effect that it is accessible and easily consumed. The book illustrates where we find ourselves, some of the history that has got us here, and why we should all be concerned. The book goes on to say that we should do something about it, that it is our intellectual (and perhaps even moral) responsibility to act in defiance to information that contains emotive hooks but little or no factual evidence. I agree.

However, the final chapter, which is where this book states itself as a manifesto and call to arms, contains little more than a reinforcement of the arguments stated in the previous chapters while pointing out that what makes ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ so compelling are their emotional hooks and a suggestion that in our attempts to give a voice back to truth based on hard facts we should make sure we present them in a way that appeals on this compelling emotional level; facts should be presented in such a way that a non-expert can understand the resulting impact and why it should matter to them. This may be all that is needed to be said if your audience are people from the media industries and industries that routinely output information for mass consumption, but what about the ‘normal’ person who is seeking a way to tackle misinformation on a daily basis? The only advice offered is to independently verify facts for yourself before taking them as truth. But what if you are an ordinary person who already does this, who already employs critical thinking in all areas of your life? If this book is to truly be a call to action, it needs to equip ordinary individuals in how they can directly tackle and dilute fake facts, disarming them, reducing their power to become the new truth. I found this information to be lacking, which was disappointing as this was my primary interest in the book. (Or perhaps I simply misunderstood what was written.)

That said, I maintain the idea that this is an important book to read, if only to provoke debate and self-interrogation in search of everyday means to neutralise the growing trend of a select few deciding what is truth, even in the face of the facts that should (but no longer seem to) show that the truth lies somewhere else.

Thank you to Ebury Publishing, Penguin Random House, and Netgalley for providing me with an advance e-book of this book in exchange for an honest review.

From the archives – June

As I gaze at the virtual tower of to-be-read books precariously piled up in my Kindle, threatening to virtually tumble if I don’t keep a virtual eye on them, I found myself wondering: what was I reading this time last year? So, I decided to take a little stroll through my imaginary book palace, and revisit the books that punctuated my June 2016.

Feel free to join me. Just mind you don’t bump your head through this door and watch your step as we go down these slightly dark and steep stairs (I really must get electric lamps installed down here, but candlelight is just so pretty).

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I finished reading The Last of Us by Rob Ewing at the end of May 2016 and was delighted when Rob Ewing got in contact with me to thank me for my review. He then agreed to let me interview him. I still have fond feelings towards this book. If you haven’t read it, do it.

 

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Hot off the back of The Last of Us, I burned my way through My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal. Oh, my goodness. It made me cry, and I still mentally hug Leon every time I think of him.

 

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I started reading The Big Picture by Sean Carroll. A brilliant popular science book that explains not just how quantum physics applies to daily life, but how understanding how even the smallest parts of the universe work can inform your philosophy and understanding of life, the universe and everything.

 

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In June 2016, I started working on a theatre production of 1984 by George Orwell. So, I downloaded the audiobook to remind myself of the book so I could compare it to the theatre production. I had originally read 1984 at the age of 13 or 14. Now, in my 30s, I was struck by how bleak it was – I hadn’t remembered it being that bleak. The theatre production was even bleaker. And exactly 101 minutes long.

 

 

So, that’s the tour of the June 2016 archives. Feel free to make yourself a cup of tea, find a comfy chair, and rifle through a few books. Hopefully, you’ll leave with a few suggestions for your own to-be-read list.

Let me know what’s on your list for this month – I’m always after suggestions for my own!

Book review: When I Wake Up by Jessica Jarlvi

cover110929-mediumWhen I Wake Up by Jessica Jarlvi
Publication date:  01 June 2017
Genre: General Fiction (Adult), Mystery & Thrillers
Length*:  5 hours 21 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
Published by:  Aria Fiction
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads
My rating: 2 out of 5

Description

A breathtaking, heart-pounding, dark debut, sure to delight fans of The Girl on the Train and Before I Go To Sleep.
‘Why won’t Mummy wake up?’
When Anna, a much-loved teacher and mother of two, is left savagely beaten and in a coma, a police investigation is launched. News of the attack sends shock waves through her family and their small Swedish community. Anna seems to have had no enemies, so who wanted her dead?
As loved-ones wait anxiously by her bedside, her husband Erik is determined to get to the bottom of the attack, and soon begins uncovering his wife’s secret life, and a small town riven with desire, betrayal and jealousy.
As the list of suspects grows longer, it soon becomes clear that only one person can reveal the truth, and she’s lying silent in a hospital bed…

My Thoughts

I think I must be getting picky in my old age, getting harder to please. I loved The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I thought Gone Girl was stunning, and Before I Go To Sleep was a delicious treat. So, I was intrigued when I read the premise for this book, eagerly digging into it. However, it turns out this is really not my kind of book. The premise is fantastic, but I found the pace of the novel difficult, feeling as though there were moments that I knew I was meant to find tense and didn’t. I ultimately finished the book more out of a sense of loyalty to the process of seeing the book through rather than being gripped.
I was hoping for a mind-blowing ending that, for me, never happened. For me, if you are going to have multiple suspects in a whodunit, and then tell the story from each of their points of view, as well as giving all of them sufficient motive, there needs to be a clue that it could have been them when the point of view of the narration is focused on them. The one who actually ‘dunnit’ is shown, even in their own point of view, to have been hurt by the accident, and filled with concern for Anna’s well-being. The only sign that they are a fallen angel is a one night stand, and they show regret and a want to recommit themselves to their spouse in light of their guilt. That this person, who doesn’t show a hint of violent tendency or desire for 90% of the book, only shows a violent streak at the end, confirming themselves as the attacker, is disappointing and feels like the never before mentioned candlestick holder that condemns the villains of old murder-mystery stories. Especially as all the other suspects are shown to have violent/seriously dodgy streaks.
So, all in all, I found it to be a disappointing read – sadly, not my kind of book.
Thank you to Aria and Netgalley for supplying me with an advance ebook of this story in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Night Brother by Rosie Garland

cover102770-mediumThe Night Brother by Rosie Garland

Publication date:
  01 June 2017
Genre: Historical Fiction
Length*:  6 hours 17 mins
(*based on the time it took me to read this title)

Published by:  The Borough Press, HarperFiction, HarperCollins UK
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My rating: 3 out of 5

 

 

 


Description

From the author of The Palace of Curiosities and Vixen comes a dazzling and provocative new novel of adventure, mystery and belonging. The Night Brother shifts tantalisingly between day and night, exploring questions of identity, sexual equality and how well we know ourselves. Perfect for fans of Angela Carter, Sarah Waters, Erin Morgenstern.

Rich are the delights of late nineteenth-century Manchester for young siblings Edie and Gnome. They bicker, banter, shout and scream their way through the city’s streets, embracing its charms and dangers. But as the pair mature, it is Gnome who revels in the night-time, while Edie is confined to the day. She wakes exhausted each morning, unable to quell a sickening sense of unease, and confused at living a half-life.

Reaching the cusp of adulthood, Edie’s confusion turns to resentment and she is determined to distance herself from Gnome once and for all. But can she ever be free from someone who knows her better than she knows herself?

Exploring the furthest limits of sexual and gender fluidity, this is a story about the vital importance of being honest with yourself. Every part of yourself. After all, no-one likes to be kept in the dark.

My Thoughts

When I started reading this book, I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. The language constantly nagged at me, and it took me some time to work out why it felt familiar even as it felt strange: it’s almost the language of fairytales. Until the mention of the Suffragette movement, I couldn’t place the time that the story takes place in and, because of the fairytale feel that comes from the style of language, I wasn’t sure that the story is set in a ‘real’ historical time. The geographical setting is real, and I found myself feeling a connection with the book as parts of Manchester that I know and love (from the couple of years I spent living there) were named and described as their Victorian versions.

It is a striking book: while it is historical fiction, it deals with extremely contemporary themes of gender, sexuality, and identity. The story skilfully questions what it is that defines us as individuals to others, and to ourselves. Through the struggles of Gnome and Edie, it shows how gender and sexuality cannot be defined as binary options, but rather two points on an analogue scale which a person can appear anywhere on. It cleverly illustrates how when the different facets of our personalities are forced to fit into socially acceptable boxes, and we are compelled to fit ourselves in them, it is harmful. We are better off accepting our different sides, seeking to find a way to live with our contradictions peacefully. If we can only be brave enough to share the fullness of the people we truly are with another whom we can trust, fear can be replaced with acceptance.

Rosie Garland’s approach to these questions of gender, sexuality, and identity is inventive and original. Rather than tackle these questions through Sci-Fi or YA fiction (which seem the most obvious genres for these themes), she has skilfully used Historical Fiction to demonstrate that these themes and philosophical questions that we think of as modern concerns are timeless – they have been around for as long as the concept of ‘socially acceptable’ has existed.

The historical setting of the story takes a backseat to the story itself, so if you’re after a historical novel that will closely follow renowned events, or teach you something about events during the Victorian era, you might not get what you are after. You will get a book which is easy and enjoyable to read, with an original plot, and an unexpected outcome. A good book for the daily commute or winding down before bed, it’ll take you out of your own world for a bit and dump you, unapologetically, into the middle of possibly the most dysfunctional family you can imagine.

Thank you to The Borough Press and Netgalley for supplying me with an advance ebook of this story in exchange for an honest review.

Book review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

27273869Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman


Publication date:  18 May 2017 (UK)

Genre: General Fiction (Adult)

Length*:  4 hours 45 mins

(*based on the time it took me to read this title)
Published by:  HarperCollins, HarperFiction

Available at:  Amazon.co.uk, Goodreads

My rating: 4 out of 5

Description

A stunning debut. Eleanor Oliphant has learned how to survive – but not how to live.
Eleanor Oliphant leads a simple life. She wears the same clothes to work every day, eats the same meal deal for lunch every day and buys the same two bottles of vodka to drink every weekend.
Eleanor Oliphant is happy. Nothing is missing from her carefully timetabled life. Except, sometimes, everything.
One simple act of kindness is about to shatter the walls Eleanor has built around herself. Now she must learn how to navigate the world that everyone else seems to take for granted – while searching for the courage to face the dark corners she’s avoided all her life.
Change can be good. Change can be bad. But surely any change is better than… fine?

My Thoughts

This debut novel seems to have had a stellar start: Shortlisted in the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize as a work in progress, it has gone on to be sold around the world. Pretty amazing for a debut.

The most striking thing about this book is the perceptiveness of human nature which is embedded in the main character, Eleanor. This perceptiveness takes two distinctive angles; Eleanor’s articulate judgement of other people (she says all the things about other people that you’ve thought but never said), and the details of her own nature which she unwittingly reveals as the story unravels from Eleanor’s first person point of view.

As the reader, you live inside Eleanor’s head. This is particularly interesting as Eleanor is not exactly a likeable character but, despite this, you end up caring about her, realising that all of her most grating qualities are a product of coping mechanisms.

If you enjoy novels told by an unreliable narrator, then you will enjoy the intricate and carefully applied use of this narrative device. Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine and the more she says it, the more she believes it and eventually, if she believes it hard enough, it might actually be true. She is completely ‘fine’ in the same way as you growl ‘I’m fine’ at your partner when you’re really not but don’t have the capacity right now to go into all the reasons why.

As well as being completely fine, Eleanor is also completely average; nothing to see here, move along please, or at least that’s how she sees herself. When someone does think there is something better than unremarkable, Eleanor’s carefully assembled house of cards comes tumbling down. The path from an organised life, totally under control, to chaos (much in the style of the second law of thermodynamics) is tracked through three sections of the book, named “Good Days”, “Bad Days”, and “Better Days”.

This is a beautifully executed book, and an emotional rollercoaster. Full of keen observation of the human condition, it is well written and tightly plotted, taking you on a journey of twists and turns, never quite certain where it will take you next.

Thank you to Netgalley and HarperCollins for providing me with a Kindle edition of this book in exchange for an honest review.