book review

Review: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

miniaturistThe Premise: in 1686, 18 year old Nella is sent to Amsterdam to live with the new husband she barely knows, a wealthy but mysterious merchant with a frosty sister and no apparent idea how to treat a wife. How suspicious. As evidence of this inability to communicate with a grown woman, Johannes buys his young (but not preschool) wife what is essentially a massive dolls house, for which she has to buy furniture from a mysterious miniaturist. There are also mysterious servants and spotty people, in case you’re wondering.

Thoughts: hurray for me; I’ve read another of the books I’ve neglected for ages and felt bad about. Also hurray; I really enjoyed it. It’s a really slow-burning story, with Nella’s initial confusion about the odd treatment that greets her at her husband’s house giving way to a succession of WTF moments, and I was pleasingly surprised by some of them (although at least one of them was, I thought, glaringly obvious). Burton’s writing is beautifully suited to the historical setting; I was less convinced by her more recent novel, The Muse, but I knew little enough about this period of history and the Netherlands to not feel the need to pick holes in this one. After a slowish start, the final act of The Miniaturist is packed with action, ensuring that my attention stayed with the story throughout.

The characterisation in The Miniaturist is really strong; I loved Nella’s aloof sister-in-law, with her snooty manners and collection of skulls. Cornelia and Otto are the servants who complete the household, and I particularly liked Cornelia too; I don’t know how realistic the representation of servants being besties with their masters is, but it was enjoyable to read nonetheless. The depiction of Amsterdam, with its guilds and trade and strict rules (no gingerbread men? Seriously?) was also really enthralling.

Here’s my problem with The Miniaturist: the miniaturist. Nella pushes requests for tiny furniture under the door, with the packages being delivered by a third party, and both Nella’s and my interest in who this character was became almost unbearable. However, despite the title of the book suggesting that the miniaturist is really important, there’s no satisfying explanation. How does she know so much about Nella’s new household, in order to create pieces that preempt the secrets about to be revealed? Why does she bother? And who the bloody hell is she? Well, I was slightly distracted by my daughter watching Tinkerbell in the background, but I didn’t see any answers in the book, and this annoyed me a bit. You could take out all the bits about teeny cradles and loaves of sugar and the story would be exactly the same.

In Conclusion: I found this to be an easy and engaging read, with intriguing characters, an interesting historical setting and a twisty-turny story that kept my attention. I was disappointed not to get some proper resolution to the whole miniaturist situation, but it’s a really enjoyable book regardless.

book review

Review: Here We Are edited by Kelly Jensen

here-we-areThe Premise: Kelly Jensen has collected together the work of 44 people on the subject of feminism, and their thoughts come in the form of (mostly) essays, cartoons, poems, letters to their former selves and conversations, among others. “Let’s get the feminist party started!” proclaims the back cover, which tells you something about the lack of poe-faced grandstanding to be found here.

Thoughts: I was approved to read this through NetGalley, but ended up buying my own copy because of the scrapbook-style of the book; visually, it’s rather lovely, with its jaunty orange colour scheme and beautifully scrawled fonts. It’s just one way in which the overall feminist message of Here We Are comes through a prism of positivity.

The book is divided into sections on topics like Relationships, Culture and Pop Culture, and Confidence and Ambition; it’s easily navigable and something a reader can happily dip in and out of – in fact, such an approach is probably preferable in terms of processing each individual contribution. Within the sections, regular FAQ pages pop up, considering such issues as “can men be feminists?” (the answer: yes, obviously) and “is it sexist to point out genders?” This pages are useful ways to highlight some of the key questions in 21st century feminism.

Some of the essays here will be familiar to certain readers; one piece, for example, comes from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist, while Mindy Kaling also contributes a chapter from her Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Some of the contributors were familiar to me; Courtney Summers, the author of All the Rage, features both in essay form and in conversation with Laurie Halse Anderson, and the singer Matt Nathanson is one of only a couple of men to feature. On the whole, though, Here We Are, introduced me to a range of new and engaging voices, particularly in the case of Brandy Colbert’s pieces on the importance of black female friendships. I also really enjoyed the poetic contributions to the book, Shrinking Women by Lily Myers and  Somewhere in America by Zariya Allen, both of which eruditely expose important issues. The section entitled A Guide to Being a Teenage Superheroine is very funny and incisive too.

What I particularly liked about Here We Are was the way in which it makes feminism approachable and relevant, linking it to all aspects of a young girl’s life. It’s also clear in its message that everyone benefits when gender equality is achieved, and that this equality must also be intersectional. Here We Are is particularly powerful when covering the experience of trans people, people of colour and those with disabilities, and, even in encompassing so many diverse voices, never shifts from its message of inclusivity. The book really highlights that there’s no set version of feminism to which everyone must subscribe; I liked how so many of the writers used the phrase “my feminism” to refer to their own specific beliefs.

In Conclusion: Here We Are is one of those rare books which looks beautiful and packs a punch, and it’s obviously particularly relevant now; in many places, these concerns never went away, and the recent women’s marches show increasing concern about issues which perhaps have not seemed as pressing up to now. The book manages to educate and inspire thought without haranguing; the approach taken to the material is spot-on. I recommend it, and congratulate Kelly Jensen on putting together something so effective.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday: Surprisingly Brilliant Books

This week’s TTT, hosted by the Broke and the Bookish, is about books we’ve either loved more or less than we expected. I’m not in the mood for slagging off ten poor, innocent books (except Norwegian Wood, which I am always happy to insult), so I’m going for ten books I liked more than I anticipated.

A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard
I didn’t love Beautiful Broken Things, but Barnard’s second novel, about a mute girl and a deaf boy, appealed to me far more. It was sweet without being sickly, and I felt like it was more realistic.

Broken Glass by Alain Mabanckou
On opening this punctuation-free book, I thought, ‘there’s no way I can read this,’ but I’m glad I stuck with it because it was darkly humorous and very engaging.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
As a self-confessed book snob, I wasn’t going to read something that other people actually like. But it was £4 in Morrison’s, so I bought it and did enjoy it a bit, although I did guess the big reveal pretty much straightaway. This is very unusual for me. Review here.

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Another book I pre-judged because I wasn’t a huge fan of the author’s previous work, I found myself really enjoying this historical novel about a young Irish girl who claims not to have eaten in months. Review here.

Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall
I downloaded this in a Kindle sale and left it neglected for months, but when I finally read it, I was enthralled. I now want to do a PhD in geopolitics. Review here.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet
I didn’t expect to like this, but read it anyway as I was on a mission to read everything on the Booker shortlist in 2016. It turned out to be my favourite from the list; I liked the unusual story-telling style and the many plot surprises. It was delightfully dark.

A Study in Charlotte by Brittany Cavallero
I was apprehensive about this Sherlock Holmes retelling because I hadn’t seen much chat about it in the usual places, but I liked it a lot; the teen descendants of Holmes and Watson have an enjoyably snarky relationship and the book makes clever use of the original stories. Review here.

The Fireman by Joe Hill
This book is 747 pages long. I assumed it would be a slog. It wasn’t. Review here.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis
I think I mention this book every ten minutes. I don’t even like dogs, so how did a book about them end up being one of my favourites of 2016? Review here.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Shamefully, the first time I sat down to read this, I couldn’t get into it. Oddly, I blame the fact that I was reading it on my Kindle. Once I got a paperback, I completely loved it and it was one of those rare books that I didn’t actually want to end.

Have you read any of these books? Let me know if you have, or if I’ve tempted you to pick them up.

book review

Review: Somebody To Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury by Matt Richards and Mark Langthorne

somebody-to-loveThe Premise: Freddie Mercury was, as most people will know, the charismatic and, ultimately, tragic lead singer with Queen. This biography takes us from Freddie’s birth as Farrokh Bulsara, through the entirety of his time as one of the world’s biggest rock stars, all the way to his untimely death from AIDS in 1991.

Thoughts: Freddie Mercury was probably the first rock star I could ever recognise. Brought up in a family for whom Queen soundtracked most car journeys, I remember singing Bohemian Rhapsody in full while my dad got us all lost in the mountains of Ibiza in the late 1980s. Mercury’s was certainly the first celebrity death I was aware of; I was almost 9 when he died in 1991, and I remember watching the the resulting tribute concert the following year. Queen’s music has stayed with me ever since; you can’t go to university in the UK and not hear Don’t Stop Me Now every time you venture out at night, and the band’s greatest hits have often roused me into awakeness on the drive to work. This book gave me an insight into the man behind most of these songs (as I learned from Somebody to Love, the members of Queen wrote individually and only shared writing credits on their final album).

Something that I found both clever and interesting in this book was the way in which the writers alternated between Mercury’s life and the development of the AIDS crisis. The book begins with a prologue that made me cry, starting with the end by describing Mercury’s last days, before moving on to the moment in 1908 when a hunter was bitten by a chimp in the Congolese jungle, thus transferring what would become the AIDS virus to humans. I knew very little about this, and the disease’s later spread through that region of Africa, to Haiti, to the USA and beyond, and, while harrowing, it was fascinating to learn about it.

I’ve read a lot of rock biographies and there is much here that is common to them all: the difficult first forays into playing live, the conflicts with record companies, the disagreements over money. Mercury’s status as a newcomer to Britain, having fled Zanzibar with his family, makes his story slightly different, while the contrast between his confident onstage persona and seemingly neurotic true character also gives the book something different to many of the similar books I’ve read. Obviously writing so long after Mercury’s death means that there’s little in the way of firsthand accounts here, and that makes it easy for the writers to show an element of bias; Mercury is certainly the hero of this book, even when his behaviour is appalling, and I felt that was an inconsistency in how the writers dealt with this, as opposed to the depiction of other key figures in the narrative.

Here are some of the other things that interested me in Somebody to Love. I was shocked to learn that pretty much every Queen album was panned by the music press. Although I know that homophobia, while not non-existent today, was a far bigger problem in the 1980s, but I was still quite shocked by the extent to which Mercury felt like he had to hide his bisexuality in order to protect the career of himself and his bandmates; it’s hardly surprising that he was such a tormented soul. I enjoyed reading about Live Aid too; I feel like I remember it because it’s such a pivotal piece of popular culture, but given that I was basically an infant at the time, I think my mum’s descriptions have given me a false memory. As a huge Bowie fan too, I enjoyed reading about the making of Under Pressure: a song that is now almost too poignant to listen to.

One thing I feel compelled to draw attention to: while the writing in the book is solid, there is one little quirk which, once I noticed it, I couldn’t help but find irritating. As Mercury’s story progresses, more and more chapters end with a portentous sentence like “But Freddie wouldn’t have three more years” or “but time was running out.” To refer again to my childhood, we used to watch a terrible programme called 999 Lifesavers, in which Michael Burke would dramatically intone things like “but the tide was coming in” to add terror to situations like people being stranded at sea or trapped in a mine or something. This became something of an era-defining joke in my house and, slightly distractingly, it meant I started to hear Burke’s voice as I came to these sentences. So make sure you don’t do that.

In Conclusion: Somebody to Love is a really interesting and engaging book. For me, the main advantage a biography has over an autobiography is the potential to examine an artist’s cultural impact and legacy, and Richards and Langthorne certainly do that. The parts of the book that deal with Mercury’s last days, particularly the way he was hounded by the press, are quite upsetting, but the book also manages to entertain, as is only fitting given its showman subject.