Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Hot Milk (2016) by Deborah Levy

A solid coming-of-age novel is a wonderful thing. The sort of book that reminds you that – no matter how old you are – it’s okay not to have everything entirely worked out in your life. Deborah Levy’s Hot Milk is one of the best modern coming-of-age novels I’ve read in a long time because of this. It succeeds where I’ve seen so many other books fail – having a protagonist that is incredibly human and, as a result, incredibly relatable.

At the core of the novel is Sofia, a twenty-something anthropologist, and her mother, who suffers from serious joint problems in her legs. The two of them have travelled to Spain, seeking the help of the supposedly brilliant Dr Gomez. Isolated from her life back in England, and trapped in a remote Spanish community, Sofia discovers a lot about herself – as well as her complex relationship with her mother.

Hot Milk is a novel about identity, focusing Sofia discovering who she is, and who she wants to be, through the relationships she makes while in Spain. The main appeal of the novel, to me at least, is its heroine’s fantastically well-defined voice. Sofia feels original yet relatable, and is incredibly easy to like. She’s the sort of protagonist that every reader can find a piece of themselves in. She fumbles through most of the novel – not being driven by a clear goal like most protagonists – bemoaning her laptop’s cracked screen and arguing with her mother.

It’s a joy to see the world filtered through her eyes. Like most great novels written in the first person, Hot Milk offers a unique viewpoint, with Sofia’s observations ranging from hilarious to depressing – though sometimes they’re both. Some of my favourite passages in the novel focus on Sofia’s relationship with her step-mother and father. Though the scenes draw a lot of comedy from the awkwardness of their relationship, it’s also heart-breaking. ‘Estranged parents’ isn’t exactly an original focus, but the novel handles it really well.

Hot Milk isn’t the sort of plot-intensive novel that keeps you on your toes with its many twists and turns; it tells a simple story that, at its core, is incredibly easy to connect to. It’s book with characters that feel truly alive – and that’s one of the best compliments I can pay any novel.

Book Review: The Last Days of New Paris (2017) by China Miéville

Following last year’s This Census-Taker, China Miéville is back with another novella. The wait continues for a new Miéville novel – hard to think that his last one was five years ago – but The Last Days of New Paris does a pretty good filling the gap. It’s easily one of the oddest books that Miéville has released in a long time, and that’s saying something, featuring bicycle-people, wolf-tables and an old man who is partially made out of a steam train…

Bringing together true events and fictional ones, Miéville tells a very different World War II story. In the wake of the war, Paris is overrun with manifestations of surrealist creations – known as ‘manifs’ – who have been set loose on the world due to unknown circumstances. Strange creatures like the ones mentioned above roam the city along with Nazi soldiers who are hurriedly hunting for a secret weapon… Amidst this chaos, a fighter of the surrealist movement named Thibaut joins forces with an American photographer, Sam, in order to escape the ruined city.

As this description suggests, The Last Days of New Paris is an incredibly odd and slightly nonsensical novella – but in the best way possible. There are a number of brilliant and crazy creations featured throughout the story and, as Miéville points out in the afterword, almost all of them owe their origins to famous surrealist art. It’s easy miss some of the novella’s fantastical details, just because there are so many stuffed into it. Despite its short length, the author does a great of building up an imaginative and unique world while paying homage to surrealist artists at the same time.

And, despite feeling stuffed, I think The Last Days of New Paris is the perfect length. There’s definitely not enough material or depth here for a novel – and if Miéville choose to stretch it out any longer I could see the world of New Paris overstaying its welcome. At times the novella’s utter weirdness becomes a little bit tiresome, but I found the author’s afterword – which is an essential read – allowed me to forgive this a bit. He devotes a lot of pages to telling the story behind The Last Days of New Paris, and in many ways, it’s just as interesting as the novella itself.

I won’t deny that this release isn’t quite as satisfying or as immersive as Miéville’s best or even middling works, but its uniqueness is definitely something to be appreciated. It can be read in only a couple of hours, so I wouldn’t recommend paying too much for it, but The Last Days of New Paris is another fascinating release from one of my favourite authors.

Book Review: The Essex Serpent (2016) by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent is one of those novels that’s hard to ignore. It’s picked up dozens of awards and been sat in the window of every book shop, much like Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist from a few years ago – which I really wasn’t a fan of. Because of my disappointment of that novel, I was fairly hesitant when it came to this one. When you get a little excited for a book, it almost always ends up letting you down, right?

I’ll stop dancing around my opinion on The Essex Serpent and say that I did enjoy it. Sarah Perry’s latest novel, while a little overstuffed, is a good read. The central storyline is compelling, and while It does have a few too many characters, most of them are interesting. At its heart, the novel is about a married woman trying to discover who she really is after the death of her husband, whom she was forced to marry at a young age. Cora, along with her son Francis and her servant Martha, moves to the Essex countryside from London in search a mythical creature that’s rumoured to have been terrorising a nearby town. While hunting for the monster, Cora falls into company with the local’s church’s rector, William Ransome. As they try to prove and disprove the existence of the serpent, the two of them develop a close friendship.

Like I said, the central storyline is solid and Perry handles the central romance in an interesting way. Still, despite this, Cora’s struggles didn’t really feel like anything new to me. They felt very similar to those featured in the Victorian novels the author is clearly taking inspiration from… Though Cora doesn’t end up being half as interesting as the heroines in those books. In fairness, novels like Wuthering Heights and Ruth are an incredible high bar for The Essex Serpent to meet, but it just felt like Cora – as well as William – was missing a certain spark. Despite how well constructed the novel is, and how the heroine’s journey works well on paper, she just wasn’t someone I could get enthusiastic about.

The novel’s more interesting characters, in my opinion, hang around the fringes of the novel. Though I felt The Essex Serpent strayed too far from its central storyline at times – with there being a fairly long-winded B-plot about Cora’s servant trying to help those affected by London’s poverty – these side plots had some pretty fantastic character moments in them. Cora’s friend, London surgeon Luke Garrett, stole the show in many ways for me. The emotional journey that he and his friend George Spencer go through in the novel seemed much more original than Cora’s romance, focusing how powerful friendship can be in pulling people through tough times. Stella, William’s wife, was another stand-out character for me. Perry shows us her decline into illness in a gradual way, offering us her point of view along the way, and the way she does this is both original and moving.

Overall, The Essex Serpent is, in many ways, the book I expected it to be. It’s undoubtable good, but at times feels too structured and formulaic. Around its edges is where the novel’s best moments lie, where it appears less keen on being something that’ll be universally loved – basically book awards bait – and something a bit more weird and interesting. It’s a great novel that just feels a little bit lacking.

Book Review: Kruso (2014) by Lutz Seiler [2017 Translation by Tess Lewis]

Lutz Seiler’s award winning novel focuses on Ed, a German university student, who decides to run away from his life and live on the remote island of Hiddensee after a tragic family incident. In the 1980s – when the novel is set – the island was home to a number of artists, writers, musicians and forward-thinkers. After getting a job working on the island, Ed discovers that he isn’t the only one who has gone there to get away from his problems – making friends with the brilliant yet troubled restaurant owner Kruso. And as their relationship develops things slowly begin to spiral out of control.

Kruso is my first encounter with Seiler’s work and I found it to be a pretty enjoyable read. Tess Lewis seems to do a solid job of translating Seiler’s writing, keeping the author’s quirky personality intact. The novel definitely has a specific style to it – almost dream-like. Though the world of novel is definitely not fantasy-based, Seiler constructs Hiddensee to feel like it exists separately from the real world. From the free-loving hippie islanders to the strange rituals of Hiddensee, there’s an otherworldliness that represents the island as a place that plays by its own rules. Things happen and people act in ways that you wouldn’t expect them to in normal society – everything’s a bit more melodramatic and odd.

It’s a level of quirkiness that works better than it should. The novel feels melodramatic in a way that reminds me of a lot of nineteenth century novels; Ed spends his spare time speaking to an elderly fox, Kruso writes deep and emotional poetry, an ice cream man tries to commit murder… It functions on a more dramatic plane of reality than most novels these days do. And to be honest, it’s a bit of a double-edged sword at times. It definitely helps the novel stand out in comparison to other books I’ve read recently, but Seiler’s writing does border on irritating at times. Kruso in particular becomes a bit unbearable through his melodramatic behaviour.

The story of the novel progresses slowly, following the increasing intensity of the relationship between Ed and Kruso. They bond over the tragic events that led them to where they are and isolate themselves from everyone else in the process. While I enjoyed the narrative of novel, I found myself more interested in the island of Hiddensee itself. The author explores the various cultural aspects of Hiddensee in the 1980s extensively and it acts as an incredibly interesting backdrop for the story. Like many good modern novels (such as The Stolen Child which I recently reviewed) it uses an interesting setting to boost up what is fairly archetypal story.

Overall I’d say that Kruso is good, just not great. It’s not the sort of novel that’s going to blow your socks off, but it does have a handful of fantastic moments. More than anything, it kind of just made me want to just pick up a few non-fiction books on Hiddensee.

Book Review: The Blot (2017) by Jonathan Lethem

It’s not often that I come across a novel that squanders its potential so much as The Blot. That may sound harsh, but it’s true. This novel has so many fantastic elements to it – the first two thirds or so had me hooked – and yet some head-scratchingly bad ones too. What should have been a great novel about a professional gambler’s struggle with identity is instead bogged down with under-baked subplots and strange shifts in focus.

Alexander Bruno is a professional gambler with pretty much nothing to his name but a suit and a backgammon board. He meets with wealthy clients all over the world, playing them and trying to take their money. However, his world is torn apart when he discovers that he has a tumour in his brain. In order to have any chance of living, Alexander is forced to get in contact with an old associate who he had no plans of ever seeing again…

This plotline carries the book along quite nicely for the first couple hundred of pages, moving languidly yet remaining compelling. Jonathan Lethem does a great job of developing Alexander as a character, offering the reader fantastic scene after fantastic scene, slowly revealing him to be a broken man who tries to hide behind a suave persona. The drawn-out scene in which Alexander meets a German client for a game of backgammon is particularly fantastic. Credit to Lethem, he does an incredible job of making the reader invested in the backgammon game of a character they’ve only just met.

And the story continues to be great even when it moves past its gambling focus (which is abruptly abandoned) and onto Alexander’s illness. We see him rekindle a relationship with a wealthy old school friend in an attempt to use him to pay for the surgery he needs to save his life. The relationship between these two characters is easily one of my favourite aspects of the novel. The power dynamic between the two of them is an interesting one and something that I wish the author would’ve explored more.

And Lethem’s seeming refusal to explore the story’s most interesting elements more fully ties directly to my issues with The Blot. About halfway through the novel it becomes incredibly clear that he made it up as he went along, causing the whole thing to, well, go off the rails pretty majorly.

There are so many problems with the novel’s second half that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Let’s start by getting the novel’s weirdest aspect out of the way: the protagonist has mind reading abilities. Right, okay. That could be interesting, but the way that Lethem explores it is totally baffling, with it conflicting majorly with the overall tone of the novel. We only see Alexander read minds a couple of times in The Blot, it never ties into anything or gets resolved and it always feels like it’s in the background of the story. It feels completely unnecessary, almost existing in its own bubble in the novel, only receiving a few stray mentions. Why bother with it?

The novel’s other major problem is that Lethem just throws too many plotlines at the wall in the last 100 pages or so, clogging the story up with uninteresting details and stealing away time we could be spending with one of the more interesting plotlines. Our protagonist gets a goofy pop-culture-reference dropping sidekick, he’s given a new love interest (a woman who appears previously in the novel for about five pages right at the beginning), he becomes a political activist of sorts, he gets a job at a burger restaurant… All within the last 100 pages. And as you can guess the result is a jumbled mess.

By the end, the novel’s interesting aspects are all but gone and The Blot just becomes a massive chore to read. It’s a real shame, and it makes me wonder why someone didn’t step in and tell Lethem that he was running a potentially incredible novel into the ground for no reason at all.

Book Review: The Stolen Child (2017) by Lisa Carey

Like a lot of the books I read these days, I went into The Stolen Child pretty much blind. I’ll admit that I was wooed by the colourful bee-coated cover, which seemed to suggest a book a little bit on the fantastical side. When I opened it up and found out it was about two sisters living in Ireland in the 1950s, I grew a little concerned… I began to worry that I’d picked up some super-dry historical novel rather than a fun and fantastical one.

After reading the book, it’s actually somewhere between the two. The Stolen Child mashes together two different ideas/tones that don’t seem like they would fit together – historical and fantasy – and makes them work.

St. Brigid’s Island is a remote settlement off the coast of Ireland, being home to a small community. There’s no electricity there, no harbour – making it incredibly hard for boats to visit – and no real form of communication with the outside world. One day an American woman named Brigid comes to the island with the intention of living there, much to the suspicion of the island’s inhabitants. They are hesitant to take her in, the wary and lonely Emer especially. It soon becomes clear that she has come to the island to find a deep and magical secret kept hidden by its residents…

The Stolen Child is a slow novel, but it puts a lot of time into building up its characters. It always puts its characters before its magical elements, which is something I really appreciate… In fact, it doesn’t even bother to introduce the more fantastical elements of its story until the main characters are all fully formed. What I’m trying to get at is, basically, with most fantasy novels it feels like it’s the gimmick or the fantastical premise that comes first. With The Stolen Child it definitely feels like Carey came up with the characters first.

And there are a lot of strong characters here, Brigid and Emer in particular; the whole novel hinges on their relationship. Carey does a wonderful job of developing their relationship across the novel – with them flip flopping between friends and enemies a couple of times – always keeping it realistic. For example, when they fall out you can understand the argument from both sides and empathise with both of the characters. When conflict comes up in the novel, it’s rarely because of a clear villainous figure, it’s normally because of generally good people having different views.

I don’t want to spoil how the novel develops, but Carey does take things in a surprising direction that, at the same time, feels true to the characters she’s created. In terms of complaints with this novel, there were only a few things I didn’t like. At times it moves at a snail’s pace, being almost bloated with flashbacks, which can get a little tedious. The beginning in particular is a bit too slow. Secondly, there are a few characters I wish Carey had made a bit more three-dimensional. Though there are some incredibly well developed female characters in The Stolen Child, there aren’t really any male characters who gain much more of a personality than being a ‘drunk and abusive husband’.

This is a historical novel primarily and a fantastical one secondarily. And that’s not a bad thing. Though it does get slightly dull in a couple of places, The Stolen Child has a lot going for it and is definitely worth your time.

Book Review: The Hanging Tree (2016) by Ben Aaronovitch

Man, isn’t the Peter Grant series great? The Hanging Tree is the sixth book in the series (meaning that you have to get through five other books before you can read it) and potentially the best one. Featuring several books’ worth of pay-off, if you’re a fan of Peter Grant then you should definitely give it a read.

The book focuses on the investigation of a young girl’s death, who is believed to have taken some questionable pills at a party. As the case picks up in becomes clear that there are some magical elements involved it… causing Peter Grant to get involved. He soon discovers that this seemingly small incident is tied to an even bigger case, relating to a practitioner/criminal he’s been chasing for a long time: The Faceless Man.

The story picks up pretty much where the fourth book Broken Homes left off (the fifth one, Foxglove Summer, having taken a bit of a breather from the series’ overall story) with Grant slowly closing in on London’s most dangerous practitioner. I can’t talk too much about where the story picks up (in case there are any readers who haven’t read any of the books in the series yet), but trust me when I say that it does a great job of building on the world that Ben Aaronovitch has built. A lot of old characters return, being drawn back into the story, and a few great new ones are introduced.

Probably the main reason why The Hanging Tree works so well is that it acts as a major turning point for the novel. Like I said, it features several books’ worth of pay-off – feeling like a reward for reading some of the series’ lesser books (mainly Broken Homes). As the sort of person who normally reads standalone novels, I have to admit that there’s nothing quite like a series book like this one that really delivers on everything you hoped it would.

And luckily The Hanging Tree also features Aaronovitch’s usual great writing. It’s not the sort of writing that’s beautiful – there aren’t many great bits of imagery or flowery writing – but the kind that inhibits its protagonist’s voice incredibly well. Heck, all of the characters’ voices. By this stage in the series all of the characters feel well-rounded enough that it’s just fun to watch them bounce off each other (Sahra Guuleed the ‘Muslim ninja’ is a particular highlight). Basically, the writing style is consistent with the books that came before it and that’s a very good thing!

If you love the other books in the series, then you’re guaranteed to love this one. Aaronovitch doesn’t skimp out on giving fans what they want, making for a really rewarding read. And if you haven’t read any Peter Grant books a read before, then, well, give Rivers of London a go! Even if urban fantasy isn’t your sort of thing, you’re sure to find something to enjoy in it.