There are few things that make me happier than working through a stack of books on holiday. And who knew that a baby bump would serve as such a good book holder?
While last month was a real mismatch of fiction and non-fiction and a cross section of genres, April saw me calm down a bit and stick to fiction, the majority (all but one) written by women. It was also the first month this year that I came across not one but two books I really didn't like, although I did finish them, partly because I'm a stubborn old thing and partly because I honestly expected them to get better (spoiler alert: one did, one didn't). So here are my short and sweet reviews and read on to find out which ones I do and don't recommend you pick up!
This year's most hyped novel has got there thanks in part to a hefty leg-up due to comparisons to Gone Girl, a book I didn't love as much as I thought I would (but hold that thought, there's another book by Gillian Flynn on this list). So it wasn't really a book I wanted to read until Joanna Goddard referred to not being able to put it down while on holiday in Jamaica. Yes, it had me turning the pages quickly and quietly, ignoring my partner on more than a few occasions during our babymoon (sorry dearest!) and I did really enjoy the twists that came out and the way that although it was very difficult to like any of the characters, I still found myself rooting for them in a small way. That said, a few hours after I'd finished I found myself feeling a little uncomfortable with how both male and female characters shared the same traits (men were aggressive bullies and the women were flawed, scheming sociopaths) but don't let this put you off, heck it may even convince you to go ahead and read it yourself!
My first "proper" Hemingway experience - if a handful of his short stories and The Old Man and the Sea don't count - I had to force myself to get into his famous novel about the Spanish Civil War, but I think that had more to do with the fact my reading it followed The Girl on the Train which couldn't be faster paced, while Hemingway's novel which covers only a handful of days spent in a group of Republican rebels hiding out in enemy country. Considered a classic for many reasons - its portrayal of the war, its commentary on death, suicide, politics and love - once I'd gotten over the hump of Hemingway's use of language - he translates the regional dialect literally, using words like "thou" - I actually found it very easy to read. And boy, oh boy, can he write both a fight and love scene with equal skill, though of course I found myself pulled into the romance he created much more than the violence, as dramatic and moving as that still was. I'm also not sure if it was my version - another vintage buy from World of Rare Books - but curse words were replaced with the words "unspeakable" or "unmentionable", which did make me smile.
I'll admit it. I downloaded this because it was cheap and because the reviews were good. Unfortunately I didn't agree with the majority of those reviewers but hey, at least I didn't lose a load of money. This was the first novel of the year that I considered giving up on. I just couldn't get into it. And it wasn't just because the main narrator is an elderly women with dementia who kept repeating herself and not giving us the full story. As clever and creative as that may seem, it just became frustrating and slow. While the flashbacks to a younger Maud did move the story along at a better pace and had me slightly more interested, I personally didn't warm to the writing style enough to "fall" for any of the characters, their plights or their fates. I didn't even really care what happened to Elizabeth, which was what the whole story hinged on...
I reviewed one collection of Nin's erotic stories last month and I followed it up with this one, partly because it was recommended to me and the title got the better of me. Interestingly enough, it is in the opening story of this name that Nin really shows how good she was at writing a short story - full of sex or not. While other reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads claim that Delta of Venus is better, I actually found Little Birds to be a rounder, more complete and varied collection of stories. Still too many mentions of pert breasts though...
The second novel of the year that I considered walking away from was this one and I was very surprised by this having seen this book get recommendations from several bloggers I turn to for book recommendations, plus the film version features the almighty and incomparable Julianne Moore so... Then I heard that the author originally self-published so I downloaded it and saved it for my long flight back to Amsterdam following our babymoon in Thailand. Hmm. I got about 30% of the way in before I realised it wasn't going to get any better. It felt like a diary written purposefully to educate those recently diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers, rather than a moving novel which explores this topic with grace, open-mindedness and creativity. It was almost cold in its handling of emotions - those of Alice and those of her family - and the more interesting plot points were simply events that you expected to happen, like how she lost her way on a run she did everyday or how she started to forget her daughters' names. There was no digging deep into any of the characters, even poor Alice who had such potential. It also ended rather abruptly with no real clear conclusion helping me feel like I'd learned anything other than medical facts about early on-set Alzheimers. Maybe I expected too much (Julianne Moore does have the ability to blind side me) but I definitely expected more...
If I had to recommend one book from this month's list, it would be this one. Although originally published in 1973, referred to as a predecessor for the likes of Sex and the City and quoted from innumerable times over the years, I still found this novel refreshingly original and it certainly managed to make my eyes pop on occasion with its language, description and frankness about a woman's relationship with sex, men and herself. Of course, the main character is neurotic, self-obsessed and her own worst nightmare in many ways, but that has never stopped me enjoying a novel that explores issues that aren't explored enough in literature, in my opinion; equality in relationships, the concept of fidelity, and the female enjoyment of sex.
As I teased above, I read Flynn's debut novel, this month and I was pleasantly surprised. It has many of the things I liked about Gone Girl - mystery, fast-paced twists, quirky "can-I-trust-them?" characters and a very dark side - however unlike Gone Girl it felt more raw, more real and more rounded. It developed with a lot of sophistication, convincing me of things I'd later find out to be wrong, but still allowing me to feel clever enough to crack the mystery at the same time the narrator did. Furthermore, unlike Gone Girl, it concluded in a way that both shocked and satisfied me. My favourite thing about the book, however, was Flynn's writing. It reminded me that first novels are often "freer" than second, third, fourth books. I found her prose unusual but effective, her descriptions quirky but efficient and the way she both built and deconstructed key characters was original and unapologetic. I definitely recommend Sharp Objects if you enjoyed 80% of Gone Girl and now want a fuller, more fulfilling experience.
And please let me know in the comments what you enjoyed reading recently as I'm always on the lookout for book recommendations!
Frances M. Thompson
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