Being brutally honest about books

Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label fiction. Show all posts

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Review: Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn

Jamaica? No, she wanted to.

This is possibly the grittiest and most "literary" book I'll read this year. I mean it. It's the kind of book you study in high school and hate, but read on your own and love. It's one powerful piece of writing, and it reminded me of The Color Purple but even bleaker.

Here Comes the Sun is set in Jamaica in 1994. The basic plot is a queer, black woman (Margot) trying to build a better life for herself and her loved ones. This involves working for a posh, white hotel owner and prostituting herself.

It's a character-based novel written in the third person, present tense (my favourite) and switches POVs between Margot, her secret lover (Verdene), her sister (Thandi), and her mother (Delores). All four are very flawed and complex, and they feel real. I thought Thandi and Delores were interesting, but I was much more invested in Margot and Verdene's lives. They're opposites in some ways but similar in others, and their relationship is pretty complicated.

One interesting feature of this book is the dialogue, which is written phonetically/in the Jamaican dialect. This gives the setting and characters authenticity, but I struggled to understand a few of the words and phrases. I got the gist of what they were saying, though.

I enjoyed the writing style. The non-dialogue parts are quite sophisticated and flow well, and I could picture the setting in my head. It made me want to go to Jamaica and see what it's like for myself, the good and the bad.

I liked the idea that this island we think of as paradise is really not. The book deals with some horrible themes: poverty, racism, rape, homophobia, forced prostitution... It's not for the faint-hearted. But, as I said, it makes an interesting contrast with the island setting.

Remember I said this book is bleak? Yep. It doesn't have a happy ending. Margot achieves her goal of having money and owning her own big house, but she loses everyone. It's a warning to be careful what you wish for. I don't blame Margot for her ambition - she just wants to exit the cycle of poverty - but the way she goes about it is unethical and she betrays her family and her lover. The book ends on a bitter note.

Overall, I really enjoyed Here Comes the Sun. (Well, "enjoyed" is a bit strong for such a dark book...) If you're interested in reading about Jamaica or just want to read something that's not set in the UK/US/Australia, this might be worth a try. If you're looking for something gritty with queer women of colour as two of the main characters, I definitely recommend this one.


Capturing the distinct rhythms of Jamaican life and dialect, Nicole Dennis-Benn pens a tender hymn to a world hidden among pristine beaches and the wide expanse of turquoise seas.

At an opulent resort in Montego Bay, Margot hustles to send her younger sister, Thandi, to school. Taught as a girl to trade her sexuality for survival, Margot is ruthlessly determined to shield Thandi from the same fate. When plans for a new hotel threaten their village, Margot sees not only an opportunity for her own financial independence but also perhaps a chance to admit a shocking secret: her forbidden love for another woman. As they face the impending destruction of their community, each woman—fighting to balance the burdens she shoulders with the freedom she craves—must confront long-hidden scars.

Add it on Goodreads

Tuesday, 1 November 2016

A New Favourite: Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace
Jane Austen meets JRR Tolkien

I watched the 2016 BBC mini-series a few months ago, which made me want to read the book. In case you don't know, the book is a monster, and it took me exactly 2 months to read. I read the ebook, not the physical book pictured, for this reason.

War and Peace takes place in Russia during the wars with Napoleon (1805-1813, although the epilogue happens in 1820). It was first published in 1865, making it historical fiction. The book's mostly about four aristocratic families during this time. I loved it. I'll try to avoid very specific spoilers, but if you don't realise that characters are going to die, go back and read the first sentence of this paragraph.

The good

  • An epic story of people fighting for their world and what or who they love (hence the similarity to Tolkien)
  • A rich, engaging setting (just like Tolkien...)
  • Philosophically rich (also like Tolkien) which is interesting when explored through the characters
  • Interesting, complex, developed characters (I found them much more complex and developed than those in Austen or Tolkien - Tolstoy just seems to know people incredibly well)
  • Interesting, complex, developed female characters (although women in this setting know their place, the women of War and Peace include some fascinating characters. However, there was one sentence about a woman who "slew hundred of the French", so they weren't all sitting at home. Awesomely, this woman actually existed.) 
  • It made me laugh (one character doesn't pronounce his Rs, a bear gets tied to a policeman and thrown in the river, several characters are (unintentionally) very very gay to a young 21st Century reader...)
  • It made me sad (lesson learnt: don't get attached to emo Russian princes)
  • Heaps of drama (similar to Jane Austen - particularly the family and relationship dramas)
  • Heaps of angst (between Pierre, Andrei, and Marya, there is a lot of melancholy)
  • Foreshadowing. Two characters' deaths (which I knew about because of the mini-series) were foreshadowed in one chapter, and it broke my heart.
  • Tolstoy's similes, metaphors, and analogies are entertaining. Sometimes, they help you to better understand a situation. Sometimes, they're less simile and more description of what's actually happening.

    The bad

    • Russian characters all have a bazillion names (thanks, Russian naming customs) which is very confusing. When you add in the fact that this translation Anglicises certain names, well...
    • Polish characters' names aren't even pronounceable  
    • Rumoured incest (however, I don't think they actually have an affair, unlike in the mini-series) 
    • Certain characters disappear for no reason and there's no word on what happens to them (one family lost two of their grown-up children, but we don't know anything about their reaction. Another minor character I grew attached to, due to her being so mysterious, disappeared after the last chapter - there was no mention of her in the epilogue, even though she'd been in the background the whole book. What?)
    • Structure - similar to Tolkien, sometimes when there's a change of POV, the book goes back in time a bit, which is confusing.

    The ugly

    • It's ~1300 pages long! No book has the right to be that long.
    • The scenes about war strategy and philosophy, and about history, are incredibly boring and I didn't follow. It's okay when they relate to certain characters, but sometimes they're just essays that don't specifically relate to the book.
    • The epilogues. That's right, epilogues. Plural. The first epilogue was set about 7 years after the end of the book, and it didn't give me warm fuzzy feeling about the characters' fates, although some of them were described as being happy. The second epilogue was about 40 pages of Tolstoy philosophising about history, and may as well have been published separately. I've seen people say to skip the epilogues, and I agree: the last 100 pages can be skipped without losing anything.

    The conclusion

    • I've found a new favourite book! How exciting! 
    • I know I recently talked about not judging intelligence by the books you read, but I feel smarter after reading this. 
    • Strongly recommend to fans of historical fiction and classic literature.
    • Will I read it again in my lifetime? Not sure. Maybe when I'm 50 I'll think about it. 

      The summary

      Tolstoy's epic masterpiece intertwines the lives of private and public individuals during the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia. The fortunes of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, are intimately connected with the national history that is played out in parallel with their lives. Balls and soirees alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and generals, scenes of violent battles with everyday human passions in a work whose extraordinary imaginative power has never been surpassed.

      The prodigious cast of characters, seem to act and move as if connected by threads of destiny as the novel relentlessly questions ideas of free will, fate, and providence. Yet Tolstoy's portrayal of marital relations and scenes of domesticity is as truthful and poignant as the grand themes that underlie them.

      Add it on Goodreads

      Tuesday, 22 December 2015

      A Reread of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice

      Pride and Prejudice  

      Date finished: 28 November 2015

      I first read Pride and Prejudice five years ago (not as long ago as I thought, actually, when I checked Goodreads) and gave it a 3-star rating. 13-year-old me didn't understand the language, but 18-year-old me found it much easier and more enjoyable to read the second time around.

      I enjoyed the plot about as much as I did the first time, but as most of you will know, there isn't much to it. The story is very simple, though it is slightly more interesting than some of the other Austen novels (I say this as someone who had read all her works at 16). It's entertaining enough, but it lacks the complexity that I would expect from a classic.

      What I got more out of by reading this five years later was the humour. Jane Austen wrote comedy and said herself that she couldn't sit down to write a serious novel if she tried. I didn't understand the wit as a 13-year-old as I found the archaic/formal/euphemistic language very difficult, but I appreciated it a lot more as an 18-year-old and even laughed out loud once or twice. I'm not sure whether it's due to Austen's style or characterisation that makes it so, or a mixture of both, but some of the dialogue is hilarious. While some of the ideas may not be relevant for 21st Century readers, the humour is timeless.

      Something I found worth reconsidering while rereading was the characters. Elizabeth Bennet is supposed to be intelligent, while I think she is a very average woman who makes some quick remarks. That's not to say there's anything wrong with her or that I can't sympathise with her as a character, just that in this day and age she would be ordinary, not the special snowflake she appears to be in her society. Mrs Bennet and her three youngest daughters are unbearable, and Mr Bennet, who is meant to be sensible and intelligent as a contrast to his wife, is not much better. In today's society he would be a horrible sexist, and Mrs Bennet even comments on the unfairness and strangeness of his will that prohibits any of his female descendants from inheriting his property. However, while Mr Darcy's rudeness makes it hard to engage with him, his unconventionality and sense of family honour make him one of very few likeable characters in the novel.

      The setting of the novel is so well-known I won't go much into it. Suffice to say, it is interesting to analyse from a feminist perspective: the women of the Regency era have very little options and decisions to make on their own, and are expected to marry as soon and as well as possible. This seems very unfair. But when you think about their society, the men have similar restrictions placed upon them, along with other expectations such as serving King and Country. So I won't make a final statement on whether this is a sexist setting or not. Also, we can't force our ideas on a society from 200 years ago as they just didn't have concepts like sexism in the same way we do.

      Pride and Prejudice lacks the depth to be great literature but is instead chick lit. However, it's funny and light and has entertained readers for two centuries. Most importantly, it improves on the second reading.

      Saturday, 22 August 2015

      Ask the Passengers by A.S. King

      Date finished: 22 August 2015

      Ask the Passengers is one of the best novels I've read in 2015, and as you can see from my previous reviews, I've read some pretty good books this year. It's so good that I read it in one day, unable to put it down.

      The plot is pretty simple, but nice. I think I'd read somewhere that it's a character-heavy rather than plot-based novel, but I enjoyed its simplicity - it's more realistic, considering the 21st Century, small-town America setting - you don't expect huge tragedies or monstrosities, or quest for the good of mankind. Instead, you get petty teenagers, small-minded townies and family getting in the way of a girl who just wants to be herself. I don't want to spoil anything, but there is a happy ending that will make you grin. There are a couple of points that didn't seem to be resolved, such as a court appearance that didn't happen, but I loved the plot in general.

      The protagonist, Astrid, is a very cool character who I could connect to. She's smart, perceptive, and funny, a non-mainstream teenager who doesn't want to be labelled by her peers. I think one of the reasons she's such a success as a fictional character is that so many of us can relate to her, no matter who we love or where we're from. I don't know how you could read this book and not love her.

      Most of the supporting characters aren't as loveable, including Kristina (Astrid's dishonest best friend), Dee (Astrid's pushy love interest), and Ellis (Astrid's selfish sister), and I disliked many of their actions, but their behaviours are justifiable and Astrid forgives them, so you can't help forgiving them too. The parents are far from perfect and understanding, but how many parents are? As Astrid herself philosophises, nobody's perfect. Her relationships with all these characters are rocky, but in the end everything is sweet.

      The writing is beautiful, a requirement for me giving a five-star rating. Sometimes first-person point of view in the present tense gets old, but no other style would be suitable for this novel. Astrid's voice is fantastic and it feels like a teenage girl could really be telling this story - it doesn't feel like a middle-aged woman trying and failing to write about teens, it's authentic and not overly complicated just for sophistication. I even laughed out loud once or twice, as it's funny too.

      This isn't your usual kid-realises-they're-gay LGBT teen novel, because there is so much more in it. I especially loved the Greek philosophy aspect, when in YA books I usually find it a bit pretentious of a young character to be that philosophical, but it's done in a neat way that instead of hurting my brain made me go along with it because it made sense. I also enjoyed the whole sending-love-to-the-aeroplane-passengers idea because even though it's unusual, it's believable, as people do have quirks like that. Of course, I did like the questioning-your-sexuality part too, which is the main theme of the book after all, but these other ideas make it wonderful and unique.

      There are so many reasons why Ask the Passengers is worth reading, some of which I've probably forgot to mention, but I can't recommend it enough to fellow teenagers and young adults, and any people who don't like their identity being put into boxes by society. Astrid questions the paradox that nobody's perfect, but this book is pretty close to it.

      Thursday, 19 March 2015

      Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

      Maya's Notebook
      Date finished: 19 March 2015

      Although she's a bestselling author, the only reason I've heard about Isabel Allende is because she was mentioned in Spanish class a couple of times last year and the year before. About a month ago I was looking for Hispanic writers to read, and remembered her name and looked up her books. This one sounded alright, so I picked it up from the school library and gave it a go. I found myself liking it more than I expected.

      Maya's Notebook is a beautiful story about grief and healing, but also a dark tale about addiction and crime. The contrast between Maya in Las Vegas and Maya in Chiloé at the end of the novel shows amazing character development as well as healing, and seeing her get better throughout the novel fills you with hope that while life can get bad, with time and effort and the love of others, it will improve.

      There are lots of fantastic quotes about life and love, such as

      Life is a tapestry we weave day by day with threads of different colours, some heavy and dark, others thin and bright, all the threads having their uses.


      It doesn’t matter who we love, nor does it matter whether our love is reciprocated or not or if the relationship lasts. Just the experience of loving is enough, that’s what transforms us.

      This novel is very slow-paced and I struggled to get through it at first. I very nearly gave up on it, exhausted by the long paragraphs and lack of variation in sentence length, but I persevered. Once I got through the first 30 or 40 pages, it got easier to read and even became enjoyable. Even though there is little in the way of action, Maya's Notebook is still a good read and I ended up really liking it.

      I thought the structure was quite effective. Usually I'm not a fan of flashbacks, but because there are two stories being told linearly, one in the past and one in the present, it worked and I liked slowly uncovering the story of Maya's past, how her life gets worse and worse, while in the present she makes progress towards getting better.

      The setting is what initially interested me. I've always wanted to go to Chile, and learning about Chilean/Chilote culture was fascinating. I had no idea what Chilean life was like, so this book opened my eyes to the reality of it. I grew up in a tiny, isolated place too, but it was nothing like Chiloé, so seeing how the community in this novel works together was lovely.

      The first person point of view made me sympathise with Maya, which was good because I don't think I would have, otherwise. I cannot relate to Maya in any way, but I cared about her, feeling sorry for her when she was at her lowest in Las Vegas and wanting her to heal and be safe in Chiloé.

      While it is slow-paced and long, this book is not at all boring, and the characters and relationships, rather than gripping plot, are what plays an important part in the story. I highly recommend Maya's Notebook to anyone wanting to read about Chile and what it takes to move on from the past. I know I'll be picking up other Isabel Allende books, after reading this one.

      Sunday, 14 December 2014

      Panic (Panic #1) by Lauren Oliver


      Date finished: 14 December 2014

      When I first read the blurb of this book I was a little wary of the "new alliances, unexpected revelations, and the possibility of first love for each of them" line, but I was pleasantly surprised when the book turned out to be original and unclichéd, and found myself liking it more than I'd expected.

      I loved how the book took me on a rollercoaster with its twists and turns, leaving me guessing as to what would happen next. I knew from the moment the tigers were introduced that they would have something to do with the climax of the novel, but I had no idea what. I also felt anxiety when Nat told Heather to drive Dodge's car for the final challenge at the end, knowing just how that would endanger Heather. I didn't expect the winner (I won't spoil it for you) to win, so that was a nice surprise. The feeling of suspense you get throughout the novel makes it hard to put down once you start reading, and that is the first sign that any book is a good one.

      The whole concept of this game, "Panic", where these teenagers risk their lives in a series of challenges over the whole summer in order to win a huge amount of money is a creative one. It's not like The Hunger Games, where the tributes have no choice but to participate, and have to kill their opponents to win. In Panic, the players have all decided to play for their own reasons - usually the money - and they all know each other. It's just as ruthless, but there are legal issues and it's not publicised. So no, Panic is not just another Hunger Games, and I think it is actually better. The fact that this book only came out this year and the film rights have already been sold to Universal just goes to show how great it is. And it will make a fantastic movie - you'll feel for the characters, despise the antagonists, and be kept in suspense.

      The writing itself is pretty good, too. It's nothing special, but it's clear and descriptive enough that you can picture what's going on, and it gets the message across. Lauren Oliver doesn't show off by using fancy language features when the story itself is interesting enough and doesn't need to be embellished.

      The characters all had their distinct personalities and goals, which was a bonus. I sympathised with Heather, wishing she could leave Carp behind, and Dodge, wanting to get revenge for his sister, was also believable. Heather and Dodge had surprisingly similar problems with their families, and from the blurb I first thought that they would get together. Thankfully, that was not the case, and it was made clear early on that they wouldn't happen. They both get their happy ending, though - that's what matters.

      Overall, Panic is a great new YA novel and I enjoyed it a lot. I would recommend it to anyone who likes YA fiction but is sick of the dystopian genre and the usual trope of the two leading characters ending up as a couple. Take it from me, and pick it up!

      Thursday, 22 May 2014

      Sense & Sensibility (The Austen Project) by Joanna Trollope

      Sense & Sensibility 
       Date finished: 21 May 2014

      Sense & Sensibility is my favourite of the Jane Austen novels. (I've read all of her works and I'm only sixteen. Just putting it out there.) I just love the contrast between Elinor and Marianne, and the bitch that is Lucy Steele, and the awkwardness when Elinor thinks Edward has married Lucy. I read the original three years ago - 200 years after it was published! - and thoroughly enjoyed it. I also enjoyed Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters (which is a hilarious adaption) and this modern version, which I read in two days.

      What I love about this version is that the plot and the characters are more or less the same as the original, but it takes place in the modern world. Only it's a different world to the one I live in, as there are still aristocrats, and the rich have nothing better to do than marry, have children, and renovate huge houses. Even though this setting was foreign to me, I was still able to grasp how Elinor felt, as she is definitely the character the most like me (apart from Mags, of course).

      Even though I already knew the plot, I still wanted to know how things would turn out, which is a very difficult thing for an author to do. I knew what was coming, most of the time, but where it mattered I was left guessing as to how that plot point would happen. I don't know if that makes sense, but even though I knew the story, this novel still had me hooked.

      As for characters, Elinor and Margaret were the only ones I could relate to (although the others were fantastic too!). They're more sensible and realistic and down-to-earth. I absolutely adore them. It's funny that although my interests are more similar to Marianne's, personality-wise, I'm much more like Elinor. Marianne is a bit too theatrical, but I guess that's the point - she's sensibility, while Elinor is sense. Fanny and John Dashwood, Mrs Ferrars, the Steeles, and Mary Middleton were the characters you love to hate. They're meant to be selfish snobs, and you really feel for the Dashwood sisters when they have to deal with them. Sometimes I wish I were a character in a book, but I wouldn't want to have to have anything to do with those rich bitches.

      The main thing that annoyed me about this book was the editing. There are lots of commas that are place after the quotation mark when they should go before it, which really pissed me off. Because it kept happening throughout the whole book. This is a published book - you'd think someone would check for correct punctuation! (Sorry, I'm a grammar nazi. Rant over.)
      The writing was, for the most part, excellent. Although there were too many adverbs in places (hint: instead of writing "she held the guitar embracingly", try "she embraced the guitar"), and too many adverbs does annoy me and distract me from the story. If you can write the sentence without using an adverb, do so.

      I would recommend this book to any Jane Austen fan, and anyone who likes a bit of drama. It's definitely worth the two days it took to read it.

      Sunday, 6 April 2014

      The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

      The Kite Runner
      Date finished: 5 April 2014

      I have to study this for English and let me tell you, I don't agree with "don't judge a book by its cover" one little bit. Just looking at the cover when my teacher handed me a copy, I knew that I was not going to enjoy this book. And I was right. To be fair, I hate any text I've studied in English, but this book didn't even interest me at all.

      For a start, how am I, a sixteen year old white girl in New Zealand, supposed to relate to a young boy in 1970s Afghanistan? I couldn't sympathise with Amir, I didn't get his culture, I didn't really get him. I knew all this by the second chapter. Interesting setting and character are the two things I look for in a novel, and I was deprived of these. So I wasn't exactly hooked by the beginning.

      For the whole first hundred or so pages, I was waiting and waiting for something to happen. The narrator's way of recounting every little detail about his childhood slowed down the novel to an unbearable pace. When I read a book, I need action, not a character's memories that will become totally irrelevant later on. The story in general was boring and I predicted that Amir would marry Soraya as soon as she was introduced, and I knew that he would adopt Sohrab as soon as it was mentioned that Hassan had a son. One of the other English teachers at school said that there are "so many plot twists" in The Kite Runner. So I read it anticipating those. There were literally two.

      In short, I'm glad that I didn't expect anything great from this book. I would have been extremely let down if I had. I wouldn't recommend this book to anyone - in fact, I would recommend that you don't read it. Why it has a 4.20 average rating on Goodreads I will never know.
      I'm Alexandria, a 19-year-old reader/writer/blogger from New Zealand. I love language, history, and sci-fi. Hi! I'm always around if you want to talk, which you can do via comments, the contact form, or Facebook.

      Contact Form


      Email *

      Message *

      Powered by Blogger.