Review: What is Not Yours is Not Yours

I picked up Helen Oyeyemi’s short story collection, What is Not Yours is Not Yours, just before Christmas.  I love short stories – particularly ones that dip their toes into magical realism – and having finished Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (…for the third time…), I was on the prowl for something new.  Can’t lie, I was half drawn-in by the cover – it’s a beautiful looking book – and when the blurb on the back promised me “a collection of towering imagination, marked by baroque beauty and a deep sensuousness” I was sold and snapped it up.  (Baroque!)

From the back: “The stories collected in What is Not Yours is Not Yours are linked by more than the exquisitely winding prose of their creator…  The reader is invited into a world of lost libraries and locked gardens, of marshlands where the drowned dead live and a city where all the clocks have stopped; students hone their skills at puppet school, the Homely Wench Society commits a guerrilla book swap, and lovers exchange books and roses on St Jordi’s Day.”

Sounds amazing, right?  Yeah.

Unfortunately for me, I spent the whole book feeling like I was locked out of it and didn’t have a key to get in.  Don’t get me wrong, Helen Oyeyemi’s prose is beautiful at times, but despite that I just couldn’t seem to connect with either the characters or the stories unfolding in front of me.  I found myself getting confused a lot and having to flick back to see if I’d missed something, only to find I was still out there on the doorstep.  It’s a shame; so much of what I wanted and what I like as a reader was right there in front of me, but none of it was digestible or recognisable.  Like doughnuts served up in a blender.  Oh well.  😦

Have you read anything lately that you thought was going to be amazing but ended up disappointing you?

Review: Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee

You all know by now that I’m a massive history nerd and so it’d be fair to assume that I lap up historical fiction like vodka on a Friday.  Yeah, I don’t.  Don’t get me wrong, I love it – I’m just really fussy. I’ve been disappointed too many times.  I’ve picked up books expecting to be transported hundreds of years into the past with detailed descriptions of people and places only to find that the writer hasn’t done their research – I want to know all the gory details, people.  I want to know what people ate, what the air smelled like, how they used the toilet.  I want to feel like I’ve just hitched a ride in a Delorean.  And that goes for characters too; characters who act OOE  (Out of Era) annoy the hell out of me.   Oh, and when writers use real historical figures as characters, I tend to get a little bit nervous. (*cough* The Other Boleyn Girl *cough*) 

Anyway, I was looking for a book to take on holiday and doing my usual Amazon click-around when I came across Queen of the Night.  I was taken in by the blurb straight away; “Paris during the Second Empire”OOH – “Mysterious Past, Betrayal” – YESyoung woman’s tumultuous trajectory from circus rider to renowned soprano at the Paris Opera” – OH YES.  I love stories about women who struggle on and survive, but I was a bit nervous about throwing it into my basket.  The book’s close to six hundred pages, what if I hated the main character and had to, you know, struggle on and survive with her for that many pages?  Phew!  Also, the reviews were… mixed.  The one that most concerned me was the one that warned that there were absolutely no speech marks in any of those six hundred pages, and as that reviewer pointed out, understanding which character was speaking and when became really confusing after a while.

I’m not sure what made me take the plunge in the end.  Maybe it was because I was catching a plane in less than 24 hours and had to pack something, or maybe it was because I so desperately wanted it to be good that I was willing to take a chance on it.  You can probably see where I’m going with this, but I’m so glad I did go with my gut on the book because I completely and utterly fell in love with it.

Lilliet Berne is a legendary opera signer, the toast of Paris at the dawn of the Third Republic.  Known as La Generale in the ballrooms and newspapers, she’s rumoured to throw out diamonds and have a rare “Falcon Soprano” voice that is cursed.  When she’s approached by mysterious writer to appear as the lead in new opera about an American orphan who achieves fame as a circus rider she realises with horror that the libretto is based on her own past, a past that she thought was a secret and that is capable of ruining her reputation.  As Lilliet attempts to uncover the truth about who betrayed her she recalls the truth about her past, a story that begins in a ranch on the American Frontier and ends in the glittering salons of Paris during Second Empire.

Kudos to Alexander Chee, he spent over ten years researching and writing the book and the evidence of that pours from the page.  Everything you’d expect to be in a book set in Paris during the Second Empire is there; the Opera, Worth ballgowns, Can Can Dancers and Courtesans, the Franco-Prussian War, Commune and Seige… it’s all there, entwined with Lilliet’s adventure as she makes her way from orphan to circus rider, from can-can dancer to courtesan to maid of the Empress, as well as people of the era like – my all time fave – the Countess de Castiglione.  They’re written with respect, and fit well into the story.  It’s beautifully researched and written, and by the time I was a hundred pages in I found that the lack of speech marks weren’t the problem they’d been made out to be and that at the rate I was reading it, 600 pages wasn’t going to be enough!  It’s all very Phantom of the Opera (…uh, minus the Phantom).

Now while it’s pretty damn good, it’s not without its problems.  I think part of the reason I loved the book was because I’m a big fan of French history and music – I knew the era and the characters well before I’d even picked up the book.  I’m not sure if someone who was completely alien to it all would enjoy it as much as I did.  It’s beautiful, but probably not everyone’s cup of tea. And as much as I loved it, once Lilliet’s past caught up with the present, I lost interest a little.  The last fifty pages or so didn’t have the pace of the rest of the book.  As for the speech marks?  To me the fact that they were missing wasn’t a problem at all – but I couldn’t work out why they were missing in the first place.  It wasn’t a publishing mistake, so clearly it was a stylistic decision, but I wondered whether it was a worthwhile one as I’m sure there are readers out there who would be irritated by it.  Lastly, I couldn’t make my mind up about Lilliet as a character.  Even after 600 pages, I didn’t feel like I really knew her.  It felt a little bit like she was modelling the setting and era in the same way that a runway model shows off the clothes.  She was a bit… plain.  But I think that’s just me nitpicking because on the whole I absolutely adored the book 🙂

Nanowrimo 2016

Halloween is almost over, and so is October!  And while most monsters roll out of bed on November the 1st as normal human beings (y’know, minus the fangs and hollow eye-sockets) I’m the exact opposite.  I’ve just started turning into a monster.

Over the next 30 days I will forget to shower and brush my hair on more than one occasion, and my skin routine will, well, cease to be a routine and become more like an afterthought.  Drunk on more cups of darjeeling tea than at any other time of the year, I will be up late into the night.  And during the day I’ll be a sallow-faced, hunched zombie with bad hair (what’s new?) hissing at bright lights and muttering conversations between invisible non-entities.  I will snap, and I will bite.  A spell will fall over my home; dishes will sit in a swampy sink for days on end, and the fridge will cease to store fruit and veg and instead will become storage for half-eaten takeaways and pizza boxes.

All this and more awaits, but by November 30th – if all goes to plan – I will have written 50,000 words of a brand new novel in the series I’m currently writing (/slowly going mad over).

Yes, November is Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), where aspiring writers around the world pledge to forgo their sanity in favour of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.  Back in 2012 I signed up for the very first time as a wannabe writer who’d never even completed a story before let alone written 50,000 words in a month (was it even possible?).  I didn’t think I could do it.  But I threw myself into it; I carried a notebook to work and scribbled during my breaks (luckily there was a lot of testing in the school I was working at during November and I sometimes wrote during class).  I stayed up late to make sure I reached the daily word count target.  I finished with a completed book and a word total of 87,000.  Yeah, it was a rough draft – and I mean rough – but it blew my mind that I was even capable of something like that, and it completely changed my approach to writing.  I’ve completed it twice more since then 🙂

Since last year’s Nanowrimo fell slap-bang in the middle of relocating to Cardiff, it didn’t happen.  So this year I’m excited to get back to it; I’ve got my plan and I’m ready and raring to go.  If you want to check out my progress (or add me, if you’re a fellow Nano’er!) click here.

If you’ve ever wanted to write a novel it’s a great opportunity to finally give it a go; there’s plenty of support from other writers along the way (including daily pep talks from famous writers straight into your inbox) and actually reaching that 50,000 word count is a great feeling.  What have you got to lose? (Besides your sanity and personal hygiene…!)

Review: Rebel of the Sands

I love a good adventure story; it’s what I enjoy writing and reading.  Far off worlds, heroes on the run, a bit of romance and rebellion and villains on a power trip.  I love it!  So, Rebel of the Sands – with its starry-skied cover and swirling sands – reached out from the shelf and got me from the get-go.  Between the covers it’s story of saloon shootouts, sand and ancient magic, and although it’s little tropey in places (y’know, small-town, tomboy heroine forced on the run with an attractive, streetwise stranger – nothing wrong with that, of course! I enjoy tropes when they’re well done) – the setting is unique.  It’s Arabian Nights meets the Good the Bad and the Ugly, and I loved that premise. 🙂

Amani is trapped in Dustwalk; a town on the edge of the desert in a world where women have no voice.  Desperate to leave, she enters into shooting contest dressed as boy in order to earn the money she needs to get the hell out of Dodge – uh – Dustwalk.  A crack shot, she has a chance – until she meets Jin.  When the Sultan’s Army storms into town, Amani and Jin ride out on a stolen horse into a dangerous desert full of magic.

Although I mostly enjoyed Hamilton’s story – the writing was very good – I hate to say that a lot of the mythology washed over me.  Djinni, Buraqi, Gallan, Mirajin, Albish, First Beings, Destroyer of Worlds… I struggled to really take it all in and really understand it.  Don’t get me wrong, I liked what I was hearing, but only in the same brainless way that I like, I don’t know, hearing someone speak French.  They could be telling me I stink and I’d still lap it up with a goofy, misty-eyed grin.  As a result I kind of lost my way a little in the middle and didn’t really connect with what was happening.  Or where things were happening; I felt like a map of the world I was attempting to immerse myself in in the front cover might have helped.

I also didn’t 100% click with Amani. She reminded me a lot of Fan Fic self inserts; a smart-mouthed, stunningly beautiful girl who can hold her own against the boys (who all fancy her, obvs!)… But no real depth.  I wanted a little more vulnerability.  Because of this I didn’t really believe her romance with Jin.

(Also – and obviously not the fault of the author – frustratingly, the softcover edition I had was riddled with typos)

Long story short, I enjoyed the book (particularly the setting)... but wasn’t as swept off my feet by it as I’d hoped.

Review: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

I’m one of those writers who’s a terrible reader.  Actually, let me rephrase that.  I read a hell of a lot, but it’s just that I tend to gravitate more towards non-fiction (you’ll probably know by now that I’m a massive history nerd/know-it-all – and that’s an understatement), I read reference books that’ll help with whatever I happen to be writing about.  But, fiction?  It’s gotta be good to grab my attention and pull me away from thinking about my own book, my own worlds and characters (I should be writing!  I need to keep writing!).

I’d been wanting to read Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for a while, but when I saw that the film was coming out I decided that I needed to get a wiggle on and so I picked it up (in Costco of all places!).  I was expecting a children’s book about children with remarkable abilities (in the same vein as Harry Potter etc.), but I wasn’t expecting it to captivate me in the way that it did.  Tim Burton is directing the film – which is completely unsurprising as the book is just his sort of measure of weird and wonderful.  🙂

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