Monday, 6 June 2016

Two Months in Books: April-May

This is a bit of a bumper post; whilst I spent a lot of April still struggling through a reading slump, by the end of May I found myself very much back in the reading zone. Whilst I'm still a little bit behind on my reading challenge, I'm very much hoping that June will get me back on track.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth (2012, Allison & Busby)
Bitter Greens starts with the story of Charlotte Rose de la Force, a real woman in the court of the Sun King at Versailles, who is not a beauty but is known for being massively witty. An unfortunate circumstance sees her abandoned to a nunnery where she comes across the story of Margherita, a young girl in a world that sounds an awful lot like that of Rapunzel.
I really loved the parts of the book that focused on the retelling of Rapunzel, both from the perspective of Margherita and the witch herself. The world of Renaissance Venice and Italy came so brilliantly to life in these passages, and the way the narrative is tweaked is really interesting. The emphasis on staying young and beautiful and powerful; and the destructive impact of love on some women, was brilliant.
I wasn't so into the story of Charlotte Rose, a lot of that part of the novel felt like a bit of an info-dump. Whilst the stories of the Huguenots and the poor position of women in French society at the time were really interesting; Charlotte certainly, I couldn’t help but feel that this could have almost been a biography by itself as it did just tend to feel like an entirely separate story.

Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (trans. Lucia Graves, 2013, Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 
I was really looking forward to reading this, as Zafon is one of my favourite authors and I thought this could be the book to break me out of my reading slump. However, I think it just made me very aware that me and Zafon's young adult novels just do not get on.
The novel is set in post-war Barcelona, where one day 15-year-old Oscar stumbles upon a stunning house and meets Marina, who lives there with her reclusive father. They witness an intriguing ritual together, which leads them to discovering a dark mystery from years before.
I felt like the tone of Marina was a tad all over the place; the main mystery plot was really dark and felt like something that could be found in his adult novels but as it was told from Oscar's perspective there was a weird humour there that frequently felt out of place. Also similarly to his previous young adult works, I had real problems around how Marina's entire existence was just to look sexually appealing  to Oscar (he is literally described as liking his lips over her). I'm hoping that I'll get on better with his next adult novel.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis (2014, Penguin)

I picked up Flash Boys ages ago, I think from Smiths when I was looking for another book for a deal and it sounded vaguely interesting.
It's a look at the increasing popularity of something called high-frequency trading within investment banks, where banks essentially make a bunch of money at the expense of the actual investors who trust them to make the right decisions for them. It follows a bit of an eccentric mix of Wall Street staff, led by Brad Katsuyama who decide to set up a morally fair stock exchange.
Michael Lewis' writing style is really engaging, even when the topic isn't necessarily action-packed and the 'characters' if you can call real people that were completely fascinating. From Brad, who fell into Wall Street with Royal Bank of Canada and hated the attitude found on trading floors elsewhere; to one of his colleague's who considers it something of a weakness that he was emotionally impacted by 9/11.
The only downside for me was that I felt that Lewis expected a level of understanding of the financial system that I just didn't have, which meant that there were numerous mentions of jargon that I just didn't understand, and there were minimal notes. This is a shame, because I think with that additional layer of understanding I would have gotten a lot more out of this.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (2003, Bloomsbury)
I think I've come to The Kite Runner in a bit of a roundabout way compared to most readers, in that this is the last of Hosseini's novels that I've got to read; despite its massive success.
The novel is the story of Amir, who as a 12-year-old witnesses a horrific attack on his best friend Hassan; an event which tears the two apart and sends ripples down the years of Amir's life.
As with all of Hosseini's novels, The Kite Runner is great at shedding light on historical events in Afghanistan; I was particularly interested in the parts of the novel about the Hazara people. Amir and his father's flight from Afghanistan was also a really interesting, if pretty horrendous, read-especially in light of the ongoing refugee crisis.
However, I was a bit disappointed with some aspects of the novel. I missed the multi perspectives that Hosseini frequently uses, and I felt that the characters just weren't as developed and interesting as the characters in his more recent works (especially And the Mountains Echoed). It felt like a lot of Amir's problems just sort of fell into that ~son seeking father's approval~ trope, which is one that I am just a little tired of. I also found that some of the plot 'twists' could be seen a mile off  which was a shame.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers (2014, Hodder & Stoughton) 

I was a little dubious of The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet at first, because the type of sci fi I enjoy tends to fall into 'speculative' or 'dystopian' brackets, not spaceships and aliens. However, after loads of hype online, a couple of award nominations and being stuck in a reading slump-I figured that this would be a good book to pick up.
The novel follows the crew of the spaceship Wayfarer, who are a tunnelling ship, meaning they punch holes in the galaxy to travel through. The novel's action really kicks off with them being given the mission to travel to a planet which the galaxy has an uneasy alliance with in a galactic war. 
Chambers divides her attention between all the members of the crew. From Ashby, the captain who loves his crew; to Corbin, in charge of the fuel and who definitely doesn't seem that friendly and Rosemary, a new arrival as a ship's clerk who appears to be running away from a mysterious past. This means every member of the crew is fascinatingly drawn and feels very real; even if they have scales.
I am just seriously in awe of the sheer imagination that must be contained within Chambers' mind. There are numerous different species and planets that the characters visit, all of whom have their own characteristics, specialisms and ways of life. As a bit of a 'hard' sci fi newb I did occasionally find it difficult to remember which species was which, but I can't help but just be dazzled by the amount of thought that must have gone into this. 
The plot was a fairly typical action-adventure, which would make a hugely entertaining film, but it kept me reading and definitely bust me out of the reading slump that I'd been languishing in.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan (2013, Doubleday)

This book is just a whole load of fun. Nick decides to take his new girlfriend Rachel to his best friend from his childhood's wedding in Singapore; but what Rachel doesn't know is that this is The wedding of Chinese society, and Nick actually comes from the Young family, a hugely famous and admired dynasty ruled over by Eleanor, a pretty terrifying matriarch.
Think Gossip Girl but set in China; super over-the-top and trashy, but a lot of fun.

Sofia Khan is Not Obliged by Ayisha Malik (2015, Twenty7)

I really surprised myself by how much I really enjoyed this book. The novel opens with Sofia being newly single after breaking of an engagement with a man who wanted to live in a house with a 'hole in the wall' into his parents home. Whilst working in book marketing, she finds herself accidentally pitching and writing a book on Muslim dating; forcing her to through herself into the world of online dating. All this is happening against the backdrop of her nosy family, younger sister getting married and her friends also all struggling with their own romantic entanglements.
This has been described as a Muslim Bridget Jones's Diary which is pretty accurate. Sofia is funny and doesn't always make the best decisions but you do ultimately root for her to succeed. Indeed, all the characters are really well drawn; Sofia's main love interests are all pretty unique, as are her friends and family. None of the characters felt like cardboard cutouts, which is really refreshing in this genre.
The element of this novel which obviously gains attention is the fact the majority of the characters are Muslim. What I really liked about this is that whilst their faith is really important to them, Malik doesn't treat the book like a lesson in Islam. Where she does touch on the issues facing Muslims in our society she does it either through humour (Sofia's response to being called a terrorist on the tube) or in a gently touching way (there's a moment outside a gay nightclub which made me a tiny bit emotional).
I stormed through this book in about one sitting on the train; and I'm very excited to see that Malik is working on sequels.

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