Sunday, 19 January 2020

Review: 'Oligarchy' by Scarlett Thomas

Oligarchy first drew me in with the lovely set up of a modern day Russian "princess" at an English boarding school. It sounded like a fun read, but Scarlett Thomas digs much deeper than one might expect from the blurb. Oligarchy ended up being a read that really got me thinking. Thanks to Canongate and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/7/2019
Publisher: Canongate
The new adult novel from the bestselling author of The End of Mr. Y, about power, privilege and peer pressure
When Tash, daughter of a Russian oligarch, is sent to an English boarding school, she is new to the strange rituals of the girls there. Theirs is a world of strict pecking orders, eating disorders and Instagram angst.
While she spends her time with the other girls at the lake and the stables, a hand-picked few are invited to join the Headmaster at his house for extra lessons. Then her friend Bianca mysteriously vanishes, and quickly the routines of her dorm-mates seem darker and more alien than ever before.
In Oligarchy Scarlett Thomas does something seemingly impossible, making the reader feel sorry for privileged young girls at a boarding school. Theirs is a life of opportunity and no consequences and yet they're starved. Not just of food, but also of affection, healthy relationships, support and, oddly enough, education. A bit of a trigger warning should probably accompany this book, since it is full of diets, starvation tips and the glorification of thinness. Although all of these are shown negatively within Oligarchy, they could still be triggering for those dealing with eating disorders or body dismorphia. I myself was intensely uncomfortable at times as I felt myself being sucked into the minds of these young girls. This is where the power of Oligarchy lies, but also where the danger lurks.

Oligarchy starts out fun as Tash tries to adjust to her new life of sudden wealth and possibility. With access to a black Amex card and far away from everything she knows, she becomes part of the elite and finds she doesn't always fit in. There is alcohol, crushes on boys, fancy cars and run down city centres. Oligarchy's story meanders a bit once it establishes Tash and her surroundings, partially by switching between genres occasionally. On the one hand it is a coming-of-age novel, as Tash has some hard lessons to learn. It is also a mystery novel once Tash's friend disappears and there are more questions than answers from the adults around her. At its heart it is a novel about teenagers, teenage girls in particular, but it does get lost in itself. Oligarchy is a quick read, and an enjoyable one, but it will leave you with a lot of questions and thoughts to which the novel offers no answers or hints.

Oligarchy also strongly picks up on our society's fetishistic obsession with young female bodies. They're ethereal, otherworldly, and oh so thin. Whether it's school deans, Weight Watchers or men on tubes, everyone is obsessed with the physicality of the slowly starving girls. There seems to be no one in Oligarchy who has a healthy relationship with their own body or the bodies of these girls. The people brought in to help them only make it worse. The people meant to look over them would rather look away in case they're tempted. At times I wished Thomas would be gentler with her own characters. They're already getting judged with every step and even Thomas can't avoid being mean to them. For me it felt like there was a layer of awareness missing there, where Thomas could have gone deeper and made more of a statement on the toxic nature of body obsession.

I give this novel...
3 Universes!

Oligarchy is an enjoyable read with a deep hurt at its core. It is not an easy book, even if it is sometimes 'laugh out loud' funny. For those ready to confront eating disorders in this way, I'd definitely recommend Oligarchy. Just be aware and prepared.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Friday Friyay: 'Milkman' by Anna Burns

MilkmanIt seems that all I have been able to do the past 2 or 3 weeks is write this post and read. I was able to upload a few reviews last week, but this week just flew by and I haven't been able to do anything else. I have a few days off next week, so hopefully I'll be able to write and read a little bit more then. But for now, it's time for our Friday post with Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda. Today I'm sharing excerpts from Milkman by Anna Burns. I heard loads about this book last year but didn't get around to reading it. And then, surprise, surprise, I found it in an independent bookstore here in Germany!
In this unnamed city, to be interesting is dangerous. Middle sister, our protagonist, is busy attempting to keep her mother from discovering her maybe-boyfriend and to keep everyone in the dark about her encounter with Milkman. But when first brother-in-law sniffs out her struggle, and rumours start to swell, middle sister becomes 'interesting'. The last thing she ever wanted to be. To be interesting is to be noticed and to be noticed is dangerous.
Milkman is a tale of gossip and hearsay, silence and deliberate deafness. It is the story of inaction with enormous consequences.
I love the cover and I love the description. I'll be reading this one on my journey to the Netherlands tomorrow and I'm very interested to see what parallels Burns draws to her own native Ireland.

BB
:

'The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man.' p1
I love the anonymity of this opening line. We know nothing, really, and yet such a vivid picture has been drawn of a violent city, a dangerous environment.


F56:
'Wee sisters giggled again, this time at 'wife' though now there was a nervousness to the giggling.' p56
I'm not entirely sure what is happening here as I haven't started the novel yet, but from the page it seems like there are some serious family conversations happening. I don't know if the 'Wee' is a type (I doubt it), if means 'small' or if it's a name, but it gives the sentence and scene a bit of a familial tone.

And as always, there is the gem that is Book Blogger Hop, hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.


Is there a specific genre you like to read during the Winter? - Billy @ Coffee Addicted Writer

I don't think there is a specific genre I like to read during any specific season. I'm quite hopscotch when it comes to choosing my reads anyway. If I've read something rather intense and suspenseful, I'll probably switch to something lighter, or more fantasy-focused after. I also like to switch up my Fiction with my Non-Fiction. Occasionally winter is the perfect time to curl of with a good Fantasy book though. I did it last year with The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden and it was perfect. Me, the cat, blankets and a wintery, magical word of wonder between the pages.

One thing I do like to do at the end of the year is try and finish off all the books I only got halfway through during the year. So in a weird way I do my own kind of yearly round-up of genres that way.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Review: 'Ten Caesars' by Barry Strauss

I adore history! Looking back into history reveals so much about humanity, whether it's our ingenuity, cruelty or our ability to love and change. Roman history is one of my favourites because it includes all of the above and more. Loyalty, betrayal, extravagance, torture, religious freedom, religious oppression, expansion, invasion. All of it is right there and all of it is also in Ten Caesars. Thanks to Simon & Schuster and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 3/5/2019
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Bestselling classical historian Barry Strauss delivers “an exceptionally accessible history of the Roman Empire…much of Ten Caesars reads like a script for Game of Thrones” (The Wall Street Journal)—a summation of three and a half centuries of the Roman Empire as seen through the lives of ten of the most important emperors, from Augustus to Constantine.
In this essential and “enlightening” (The New York Times Book Review) work, Barry Strauss tells the story of the Roman Empire from rise to reinvention, from Augustus, who founded the empire, to Constantine, who made it Christian and moved the capital east to Constantinople.
During these centuries Rome gained in splendor and territory, then lost both. By the fourth century, the time of Constantine, the Roman Empire had changed so dramatically in geography, ethnicity, religion, and culture that it would have been virtually unrecognizable to Augustus. Rome’s legacy remains today in so many ways, from language, law, and architecture to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. Strauss examines this enduring heritage through the lives of the men who shaped it: Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine. Over the ages, they learned to maintain the family business—the government of an empire—by adapting when necessary and always persevering no matter the cost.
Ten Caesars is a “captivating narrative that breathes new life into a host of transformative figures” (Publishers Weekly). This “superb summation of four centuries of Roman history, a masterpiece of compression, confirms Barry Strauss as the foremost academic classicist writing for the general reader today” (The Wall Street Journal).
Ten Caesars discusses almost the whole of Roman imperial history, from Augustus to Constantine, which means Barry Strauss has to cover about 350 or so years in his book. He doesn't write about all the emperors that came between the two above, but has chosen the 10 "most important" ones. The book starts with a discussion of Julius Caesar, the origin of it all. From there we cover Augustus, Tiberius, Nero, Vespasian, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, Septimius Severus, Diocletian and Constantine. Each of these made undeniable contributions to the Roman empire and its reputation. Hadrian's Wall still stretches across the UK. Istanbul is still a key city. Christianity is still a major religion. Rome is filled with triumphal arches celebrating battles and victories. So how do you cover all of that in around 400 pages?

Strauss' genius in Ten Caesars lies in covering both minute details that make the emperors seem more personable and also the grand scale consequences of their actions. None of the emperors get away entirely clean. Ten Caesars feels like sitting down for a fascinating conversation with someone incredibly knowledgeable and also funny. It doesn't feel like Strauss is talking down to his reader, which is very much appreciated from a history book. He never undercut the horror of the time period, the warfare, religious intolerance and murder, but he also celebrates some of the good things that occurred. One thing he actively tracks, for example, is how the Roman Empire slowly integrated the people it conquered into its ruling class, which I found fascinating. Strauss also payed attention the the people around the emperors, such as the mothers, wives, daughters, best friends and mentors who shaped the emperors and their policy. It added an extra layer of interest, for me, to Roman history.

Ten Caesars is  not a deeply academic book. It is a very good guide to the ten emperors who made, perhaps, the most difference to the Roman Empire. This is an introduction to the chronology of the Roman Empire for those who don't have a definite understanding of it yet. I myself am somewhat aware, which means I had heard most of the names before but couldn't connect each of them to the right century or achievement. Ten Caesars gave me that grasp and also gave me plenty of jumping of points to do further research into. I enjoyed Strauss' writing a lot and he found a good balance between sharing historical information and writing an interesting book. Although it took me a little longer to finish than expected that had more to do with my schedule than with Strauss. As I said above, for those already well-versed in Roman history, Ten Caesars may not be the best read, but for anyone with an initial interest, Strauss' book is great.

I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I adored Ten Caesars! This is the perfect book for those who want to know more about Roman history before digging straight into the hard academia. Strauss is a great teacher and I will definitely be looking for his other books on Roman history.

Friday, 6 December 2019

Friday Friyay: Samanta Schweblin's 'Fever Dream'

Fever DreamIt's my first Friday back in Europe for an extended work/vacation trip and I think I've just about gotten used to the time difference and the fact that it's still so dark here every morning! I'd just about forgotten that since it feels like it's always light at 6am in Shanghai. Anyway, let's get this Friday show on the road with Book Beginnings at Rose City Reader, hosted by Gilion Dumas, and Friday 56 at Freda's Voice, hosted by Freda. Today I'm featuring Samanta Schweblin's Fever Dream. I adored her short story collection, Mouthful of Birds, it was one of my favourites this year, so I jumped on this book the moment I found it. 
A young woman named Amanda lies dying in a rural hospital clinic. A boy named David sits beside her. She’s not his mother. He’s not her child. Together, they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family.
Fever Dream is a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale. One of the freshest new voices to come out of the Spanish language and translated into English for the first time, Samanta Schweblin creates an aura of strange psychological menace and otherworldly reality in this absorbing, unsettling, taut novel.
Perfect Christmas read, no?



BB:

'They're like worms.
What kind of worms?
Like worms, all over.
It's the boy who's talking, murmuring into my ear. I am the one asking questions.
Worms in the body?
Yes, in the body.
Earthworms?
No, another kind of worms.' 1%

Usually I make the whole quote italic and indented, but this is how it was in the novel and I wanted to keep the format. I like the interplay between the voices, how we initially don't know who is who until she clarifies for us. It's also already addressed one of my least  favourite things ever, the feeling that something is crawling on or, even worse, in you.

F56:
'Your mother tells me that the dog made it to the stairs of your house, and sat there for almost a whole afternoon. She says she asked you about the dog several times, and each time you replied that the dog wasn't the important thing.' 56%
I didn't include the rest of the paragraph because it felt slightly spoiler-y and sad. I haven't reached this far into the book yet, but I'm curious what this section is about. I'm thinking this will be a metaphor for something she has left behind, perhaps a certain loyalty or trust. Or maybe it's just a really sad moment in which she ignores her dog.


And as always, there is the gem that is Book Blogger Hop, hosted over at Ramblings of a Coffee Addicted Writer.

           
Book Blogger Hop
Do you keep your TBR book stack on a separate shelf from your already read books or are they mixed? - Elizabeth @ Silver Reviews 

Since I mostly read on my Kindle these days, my TBR stack is a digital one. I do have a separate collection for my TBR NetGalley reads, and I move them to a "read" collection once I'm done. But everything else is just in thematic folders and all mixed up. I enjoy trawling through books to find the one I want to/have to read. 

When it comes to the physical books, my apartment unfortunately doesn't have a proper bookshelf, so they are all jumbled together on different window sills, tables and even on boxes made to look like furniture. I kind of love the scattered aesthetic though, I can find a book at any random moment and get lost in it. And that's how I like it!

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Short Review: 'Dungeons & Drawings: An Illustrated Compendium of Creatures' by Blanca Martínez de Rituerto; Joe Sparrow

Dungeons & Dragons is having a major revival this decade, in large part thanks to Stranger Things and shows like Critical Role. I'm a not so secret Fantasy-lover, so D&D has always been on my radar even if I haven't actively played it in years. In their Dungeons & Drawings de Riuerri and Sparrow re-imagine creatures from folklore old and new. Thanks to Andrews McMeel Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 11/12/2019
Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing

Who hasn’t been fascinated by monsters? This book collects some of the best creatures from Dungeons & Dragons, setting them out in an informative illustrated bestiary for beginners and enthusiasts alike.
Whether they’re beasts, spirits, demons, or even aliens, most fantasy worlds are filled with monsters. Some are harmless—many more are deadly. Luckily for the discerning adventurer, this book is here to help distinguish between the two. As a popular series sold at conventions and on Etsy, animators Blanca Martinez de Riuerro and Joe Sparrow have compiled three volumes into one deluxe edition. Each creature comes with a full-color illustration, a set of simplified statistics, a description, and a history section indicating its folkloric history and the scientific phenomena that may have influenced its creation. With creatures like the Archdevil, Dryad, Fire Bat, Gold Dragon, Smoke Devil, Bomb Plant, Ettin, and Spirit Fox, any tabletop player will find the perfect creature for their next campaign.
Martínez de Rituerto and Sparrow started off posting drawings online after discovering they shared a passion for tabletop RPGs and Dungeons & Drawings is very much a best-of collection. Each creature, be it spirit, monster or alien, gets a brilliant drawing that draws (ha!) both on the folklore and legends around it as well as on more modern visuals. The drawings are very easy on the eye and somehow very recognizable, yet that belies how intricate they are as well. Martínez de Rituerto and Sparrow didn't go for the easy get with their drawings, often highlighting features of the creature that have been overlooked before. Dungeons & Drawings walks the line between nerdy excitement and artistic venture. It's as much about the art as about the creatures, which means that those looking for an in-depth bestiary or for a Dungeons & Dragons starter guide, will probably be disappointed.

Dungeons & Drawings covers the world, with creatures from Japan, Mexico, Ireland and everywhere in between. Each creature's illustration is prefaced by a short introduction that rates it, according to different, partly Dungeons & Drawings-related categories. How dangerous are they, are they smart or can you outwit them? The introductions give you an idea of how they might be defeated and what their powers are. It also digs into the the history of the creatures' names, the different regions from which it hails and the different forms in which it can be found. I loved those sections  the best, as a lot of creatures actually have a fascinating background story.

I give this compendium...

3 Universes!

Dungeons & Drawings is a beautiful compendium of mythological creatures with modern but layered illustrations. It's perfect for those looking for a stunning book to lead through to gather some inspiration for their own RPG games.

Review: 'Mothers: Stories' by Chris Power

Short stories are beautiful. They are also very hard to write well. You have to encapsulate all the feeling and all the necessary plot in a few pages, rather than in hundreds of them. Writers such as Chris Power use short stories to give a reader a window into a character's life, building moment upon moment to gently drive home a message. It doesn't always work, but in this case, it does. Thanks to Farrar, Strauss & Giroux and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 15/02/2019
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux
An “extraordinary” (The Sunday Times) debut of unnerving beauty, Chris Power’s short story collection Mothers evokes the magic and despair of the essential human longing for purpose. 
Chris Power’s stories are peopled by men and women who find themselves at crossroads or dead ends—characters who search without knowing what they seek. Their paths lead them to thresholds, bridges, rivers, and sites of mysterious, irresistible connection to the past. A woman uses her mother’s old travel guide, aged years beyond relevance, to navigate on a journey to nowhere; a stand-up comic with writer’s block performs a fateful gig at a cocaine-fueled bachelor party; on holiday in Greece, a father must confront the limits to which he can keep his daughters safe. Braided throughout is the story of Eva, a daughter, wife, and mother, whose search for a self and place of belonging tracks a devastating path through generations. 
Ranging from remote English moors to an ancient Swedish burial ground to a hedonistic Mexican wedding, the stories in Mothers lay bare the emotional and psychic damage of life, love, and abandonment. Suffused with yearning, Power’s transcendent prose expresses a profound ache for vanished pasts and uncertain futures.
I need to once again start a review with a confession. There was some time between me receiving this collection and me starting it, which means that by the time I began reading the first story I thought this whole collection was about ... you guessed it, mothers. There are a lot of mothers in Mothers, but they aren't about mothers, per se. The collection is grounded by three stories that make up the beginning, middle and end: 'Mother 1: Summer 1976', 'Mother 2: Innsbruck' and 'Mother 3: Eva'. I once again have to confess I wasn't sure they were all related until I saw it confirmed in other reviews. I saw how the stories were connected but didn't trust myself enough to truly make these connections. Perhaps that is the point, however. Not all stories, or novels, are meant to give you a clear moral or a straightforward line of events. In Mothers Power sets out not to explain why we have difficult relationships or why we are unhappy. Rather, his stories shows us how his characters are in these difficult moments, how they are unhappy, each in their own way, and then leaves the reader carrying the stories with them.

In Mothers Chris Power shows the reader a set of characters who are all at a crossroad. They are drifting or stuck, searching without quite realizing it, about to be lost for good. The stories in Mothers aren't uplifting. Some of them are actually very bleak. In 'The Crossing' Ann and Jim are hiking and while the outer landscape is beautiful, something ugly is growing inside. There is a dissatisfaction there, a desire for something, anything, to happen. In 'The Colossus of Rhodes' the something ugly that grows is long overdue after having been repressed. In all the other stories, much like the triptych of Mother stories, are about remembrance and about being alone. 'The Haväng Dolmen' was one of my favourites as it combines the bleakness of the other stories with a terrifying undercurrent of horror. I think the lack of resolution in the stories, either story-wise or emotionally, means that reading Mothers leaves the reader with nowhere to go, nowhere to place the stories and therefore no way to let go off the bleakness.

It took me some time to get used to Chris Power's style in Mothers. Many of the narrators in this collected are very reserved, which means many of the stories are without high emotions. Each of the stories occur at a crossroads, where important and life changing things happen, but those moments seem to pass by, noticed but hardly commented upon. These things simply happen and there is only so much we can do about it. The stories are very calm and therefore may not be for everyone. The internal voices of the narrators are everything, which means that Powers manages to convey the claustrophobic feeling of being stuck in your own brain, of being somehow immobilized. There is some absolutely stunning moments of imagery and true realization in Mothers, which did make it a rewarding read despite occasionally struggling with some of the stories.

I give this collection...

3 Universes!

Mothers was a very interesting collection of stories, all related in theme and mood, but also vastly different. Many of these stories will fill you with unease, but Powers brings in beauty just often enough to reward perseverance.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Review: 'Lock Me In' by Kate Simants

I love me a good thriller, especially one in which our protagonist begins to question their own sanity. We all have moments where we doubt the things we see or hear, and I love exploring that emotion in fiction. Lock Me In first grabbed my attention with its cover and blurb, but there is a lot more to Simants' debut than meets the eye. Thanks to Harper Impulse, One More Chapter and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 10/3/2019
Publisher: Harper Impulse and Killer Reads; One More Chapter

Whatever you do, don’t open the door… By day, Ellie Power has a normal life. She has a stable home, a loving boyfriend, a future. But at night, she suffers from a sleep disorder. She becomes angry, unpredictable, violent. Her mother locks Ellie in her bedroom every night, to keep them both safe. Then one morning, Ellie wakes up, horrified to find the lock on her bedroom door smashed from the inside. She is covered in injuries, unable to remember anything about the night before. And her boyfriend Matt is nowhere to be found…
Lock Me In is a novel about hidden trauma and repressed memory. Ellie has no recollection of her fugues, the nights she loses to her sleep disorder, but she can feel they must be horrible, shameful even. This topic of fear and repression, of perhaps being your own worst nightmare and not being able to trust yourself, is a brilliant take by Simants. As a debut author she really managed to find a theme that will somehow strike a chord with every reader. Every person, family, culture and country has some underlying trauma that we tell ourselves stories about, that we lie about, things we lock away until they become too big to face.Towards the end of the novel, Simants explores this theme on a much bigger level, which surprised and intrigued me. Without spoiling anything, it was a great way of connecting the narrative to the real world. It's a surprisingly emotional topic for a psychological thriller, but one that will definitely engage the reader.

The narrative of Lock Me In is split between two different narrators. Ellie Powers narrates her own experiences in the first person, giving us an insight into her psyche as she begins to lose confidence in herself and everything she's been told. She has been locked in, by herself, by her mother, and by her own experiences. The second string of the narrative is told by DS Ben Kwon Mae who is investigating the disappearance of Ellie's boyfriend. Ellie and Ben have a history, which allows for the two of them to build up quite an interesting relationship. In Ben's case, it is a little harder to initially see how his own personal story plays into the theme of trauma and repression. It's worth waiting for though, because once Simants begins to unravel more of his background it definitely pays off. There is a twist towards the end of the novel, of course, which you will anticipate slightly if you have experience with the genre. The ending and some of the reveals feel a little too neat at times, but this can be forgiven with it being a debut. It also helps that Lock Me In is utterly gripping nonetheless.

This is Simants' debut novel, but there is a confidence to her writing that is envy-inducing. She ramps us the suspense slowly but surely and you find yourself caring more and more about both narrators. At times Ellie falls a little bit flat as a narrator, but this makes some sense considering her entire life has seen her locked in. Lock Me In feels like only part of the story, and this is a good thing! There is clearly a past to both Ellie and Ben that Simants makes real to the reader. As mentioned above, the past and what it means is the major theme in Lock Me In and Simants employs it very well. She avoids falling into certain thriller/suspense traps, like vilifying mental illness or making it a convenient excuse, which I really appreciated. Lock Me In made me really excited for Kate Simants future work.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Lock Me In is a gripping read that will have you thinking and wondering whenever you're not reading it. It's a great debut by Simants and the perfect read for anyone looking for a more suspenseful book over Christmas.