Category Archives: Fiction

DNF: How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran

how to build a girl

How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran
Harper, September 2014

Review Copy provided by the publisher

Two years ago, I read How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, which left me with mixed feelings. Reading my review now, I feel I am quite mild in my judgement of the book. Or perhaps, I started feeling more uncomfortable with Moran’s vision of feminism as time passed.

Knowing this, you might wonder why I requested a copy of How to Build a Girl when it was offered to me for review. To be honest, in hindsight I ask myself the same question. But I can answer it: Given the fact that I quite enjoyed Moran’s more personal reflections in How to Be a Woman, I thought a novel might suit her better, as it would leave her with more room for anecdotes and less for general ideas on feminism. That being the case, I was likely to enjoy it more.

Now I should state that I think my patience with books is a lot shorter now that I have so few moments a day in which I can read, and that being the case I tend to abandon books more quickly (I usually persevered until the very end), and am irritated a lot easier. The fact that I did not finish a book as such is less strong a judgement than it used to be.

You can probably see it coming from miles off: I did not enjoy How to Build a Girl more. Instead, I was irritated much more quickly, and abandoned the book hardly 40 pages in. The first reason being that instead of the novel format working to the advantage of Moran, it felt like it did not fit the writing at all. From the first I was asking whether the writing should be read as fiction or a form of autobiography. The preface explicitly states it is not – and yet the style seemed to suggest it somehow? Secondly, I just do not seem to share Moran’s sense of humour. Whereas I found her suitably funny in How to Be a Woman, the observations and puns in her text (of which there are a lot) fell entirely flat for me.

And so I gave up. Rather too quickly perhaps? After all, I was just 40 pages in.. Tell me, should I give Moran another go? Or is this simply a case of bad fit between author and me as a reader?

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender – Leslye Walton // Walker Books, October 2014 // Review copy kindly provided by the publisher

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender combines a number of things that appeal to me: a beautiful cover (though that might be a shallow reason), an interesting title (same), a multigenerational story that for once is told from the perspective of one person, and most of all it being the story about a girl with wings, it made me think of Eep by Joke van Leeuwen which I read and enjoyed two years ago. I was curious how this very different book would compare, because in some ways it does tackle the same themes of difference and love — themes that cannot help but be interesting, right?

To many, I was myth incarnate, the embodiment of a most superb legend, a fairy tale. Some considered me a monster, a mutation. To my great misfortune, I was once mistaken for an angel. To my mother, I was everything. To my father, nothing at all. To my grandmother, I was a daily reminder of loves long lost. But I knew the truth—deep down, I always did.

I was just a girl.

Ava Lavender is born with the wings of a bird. The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender traces the story of her grandmother and mother, as well as her extended family, as Ava tries to understand what makes her who she is. Love plays a key role in that history: familial, unrequited, long ignored, returned, and any other form of it.

Maybe it was because I had only recently finished The House of the Spirits by Allende, but Walton’s book reminded me a little of that: it shares the multigenerational storyline, the influence of magical realism as both deal with the intervening and lasting force of people who have died, and the engaging and sometimes poetic style. Mind you, I am not saying Walton writes like Allende (or that that is a bad or a good thing). It is just that I found both books to offer a very engaging style that draws you in right away. And in contrast with Allende’s book, my attention didn’t wane after the 100 page mark. Instead, it increased. Where at first I had to get used to Walton’s occasional use of repetition of certain phrasings throughout chapters, wondering if it didn’t feel awkward at times, I began to appreciate it more as it started to feel like a fitting portrayal of the echoes along generations from time to time. The book itself, the story, but also the style, drew me in along the way, and by the end I was loath to put it down at the end of a nursing session or because other work needed to be done.

Besides all the reasons I noted earlier on why Ava Lavender appealed to me from the start, upon finishing I can say that it has other things going for it as well: the worldbuilding, the characters (particularly Ava, Henry, Cardigan, and Rowe), the narration, and definitely the way in which the “weird” and otherworldly is portrayed as part of everyday life, or in a sense, really is regular like everything else. The only drawback for me? The very last pages had me a little confused. It certainly has that kind of ending where I am not sure what I am supposed to think. But in a way that fits the book perfectly as well?

Perhaps I appreciate the book more now that I sit down to write this post. Returning to the first words of the book, quoted above, upon having finished it, it is lovely to see the story comes full circle — or to see that a very brief version of it is actually told in that first paragraph. That may make it seem rather too simple or stylised, but instead I think it is quite an accomplishment to have such an image reverberate throughout the book — lovely, really, as is the whole of Ava Lavender‘s story.

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I have quite a number of books by Isabel Allende on my shelves. Most of them unread. I do not know why, but I always feel a little hesitant to pick them up. Am I intimidated? Or am I scared I might not like them as much as I expect to? I think it is a mixture of the two. When I read Island Beneath the Sea, the first and only book by Allende I had read until last month, I vowed I would get over those feelings and finally dedicate some reading time to her work. Because I did really like the story and the themes it explored. Despite this vow, it took me quite some time to pick up another one of her novels, this time her classic The House of the Spirits.

It was Aarti’s A More Diverse Universe event that finally gave me the push to give this one a go. I never even thought of Allende as an author nor about this title as a book that might count towards a challenge to read more diversely, but yay for her including it on a list of suggested titles and for me realising I actually owned a few of her suggestions and that now might be the time to start reading them. Sadly, I only made it through one book due to the time restraints of giving birth and taking care of a small baby, but at least I read one book, right?

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende // Vintage, 2011 // First published in English in 1985

The House of the Spirits is a family saga situated in an unnamed South American country which can easily be identified as Chile. The story concentrates on three generations, but mostly on the first and third in the form of Clara and Esteban Trueba, and Alba Trueba. Intermixed with the narrative of the personal lives of the Trueba family are elements of the supernatural (the magical realism component of Allende’s work), the social and the political. It also carries an undertone of gender criticism, though not always as explicit as I might have liked as I will explain below.

There is something about Allende’s style that appeals to me. I flew through the first 100 pages of this book. I found her prose very convincing and I immediately felt part of the world of the Trueba family. I had fully expected to continue reading the other 400 pages in the same vein. However, something made me slow down. And while, in the end I continue to feel that Allende’s worldbuilding and narrative is very convincing and I can still vividly imagine her characters a week after finishing the book, I cannot say I feel head over heels in love with this book, as I expected from those first pages.

The main thing holding me back from a declaration of outright love is the gender angle that I briefly mentioned before. I should add that this is more a matter of personal taste than me finding fault with Allende’s argument or gender perspective in the book.

Allende definitely argues for a less normative and patriarchical society in her book, which I think is illustrated by the fact that the book begins with Clara and not with Esteban, and that it is the women who take the lead even if Esteban is the narrator for much of the story. Yet, because Esteban is the narrator for part of the story, I felt uncomfortable with some scenes. It is an accomplishment that Allende manages to write from the perspective of many characters and not apologize for any of their feelings or deeds, and part of me appreciates that. Another part of me couldn’t help but feel incredibly uncomfortable with the many rape scenes and Esteban’s overbearing and masculine-centred behaviour. It just.. made my skin crawl at times. Particularly because Esteban’s character didn’t even bat an eye. True, Allende makes up for these scenes by drawing such wonderful women in Clara, Blanca and Alba, but I could never quite shake this discomfort at the character of Esteban, or maybe the masculine society as a whole. Is Allende’s protrayal of this realistic? Possibly, or even probably. Does she hint at acknowledging the discomfort this portrayal might make the reader feel? I think so. She also hints at disagreement with it. And yet… part of me wishes for more, or perhaps a little less of the brutality, or perhaps simply less details. Or maybe to have Clara do more than hint at her knowledge of Esteban’s former behaviour, or be more outspoken about it from the outset. I don’t know.

In short, I both admire and hesitate over Allende’s ability to draw such a realistic brutal history that is cushioned and mirrored in the personal entanglements of a family, but I also shrank back from the sharp edges of it. Are they there by necessity? Very probably. And therefore I feel I have no right to complain. But these sharp edges.. they made me uncomfortable nonetheless.

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A More Diverse Universe is a blogging event hosted by Aarti over at her blog BookLust in a effort to promote reading diversely, providing insight into the fact that reading diversily does not require you to change your taste in reading, only to search more actively for diverse books within your favourite genre(s). For more information and other reviews, please visit this dedicated post on Aarti’s blog or follow the hashtag #Diversiverse on twitter.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion

The Rosie Project - Graeme SimsionThe Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
Penguin, 2013

This is unlikely to be the first time you read or hear about The Rosie Project, it being another one of those books that everyone seems to have read before me. Praised by most readers, when this book appeared in our national “vacation library app”, which allows your choice of a limited number of ebooks to read on smart phone or tablet, I was curious enough to click and see what all the fuss was about.

The Rosie Project is the story of Don Tillman who hopes to find true love through a scientific method he himself set up under the title “The Wife Project”. It is quickly established that Don has Asperger syndrome –although never made quite explicit that this is the exact name for what he suffers from–, and that he doesn’t quite know how to interact with people as others do. He lives by a tight schedule, has a tendency to look at things scientifically, being a geneticists by professions and living mainly for his work. One day he meets Rosie, a girl he thinks his friend selected for him out of the candidates for his wife project, only to learn that she has her own project to work on: that of finding her biological father. Becoming increasingly caught up in helping Rosie, “The Wife Project” is put on the back burner while “The Rosie Project” takes centre stage.

What makes The Rosie Project so readable is its light and entertaining tone. It is a humorous and quick read that is easily picked up (even at 3 am in the morning) and can be read almost on a whim.

While I enjoyed reading it, and Bas even found me shedding a few tears towards the end (6 am in the morning), I admit I was a little uncomfortable with my enjoyment of it, which, in turn, means I am not sure “enjoyable” is the correct word to use.

Summarised, I think what bothered me most is that in order to be humorous, the book invites you to laugh at the characters, particularly at Don and what is considered his social awkwardness. Though there are hints later on in the book, that this is a strategy that Don himself employs in order to “survive”, and as such might be read in a critical manner, I could not quite shake the feeling that it seems a little bit too convenient and easy to play up the social awkward of those who are diagnosed with something like Asperger to create humour and sympathy. Similarly, there is a hint of normativity throughout the book, articulated by the other characters and by Don with his projects, that I don’t feel was challenged enough through the ending of The Rosie Project. And then there’s the comments on Rosie’s supposed feminism and the way Don relates to it that I didn’t feel quite called for the comments made.

In summary, The Rosie Project was an entertaining read, and I can see its appeal on one level. On another, I am not quite sure if I’d recommend it. At times, its very lightheartedness was at the root of my discomfort with the book, and it is this discomfort that I never quite managed to shake.

Recent Reads: Books that I loved

I am now on maternity leave, finally. I would have expected my reading time to expand, but that has been strangely disappointing. At the same time that I went on leave, major pregnancy insomnia hit. Meaning, I sleep about 2-3 hours on average each night, however tired I am. Usually, when I cannot sleep, I pick up my ereader to help distract me. However, that hardly seems to work as I am actually too tired to focus on a screen without my glasses on – and so I just lie awake and stare in whatever direction.

I did manage to read some books lately, though. And fortunately for me, apart from a large amount of books I started and set aside again (who knows, maybe I’ll actually write about them?), there were quite a few wonderful books among them as well. Here are three books I read recently which I loved.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell // Orion, 2013

Everyone raved about this book last year, didn’t they? And here I am, adding my name to the list.

What can I say? Eleanor and Park is just plain lovely. It was the perfect read for me right now, combining comfort with a critical eye. It tells of the developing love story between the two protagonists, Eleanor ( a girl from a troubled family with little to no socio-economical capital) and Park (a boy from mixed Korean-American descent, brought up in a happy family, but facing assumptions about his masculinity). Rowell manages to evoke that feeling of a developing love, where every first touch is incredibly vivid, and every moment shared is a treasure – and she does so in a manner that is very touching and real, something which is so often difficult or problematic to evoke. At the same time, Rowell does not romanticise. She acknowledges the complicated social rules of high school, the insecurities that everyone faces, the difficult boundaries negotiated through race, gender, and class. And by acknowledging that both protagonists love each other, but have to negotiate these precarious rules and their social consequences as well, Rowell achieves a balance between incredible love story and intelligent social commentary that is rare and unbelievably well done.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson // Persephone Books, 2008 (first published 1934)

Another book that has been a bloggers favourite: Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson. And again, I could not help but agree with those who have read this before me. I was not part-way in before I decided that I definitely need to order the other two books about Miss Buncle asap (which I have procrastinated on by telling myself that I could also read the other Persephones on my shelves first, before buying new ones).

It is difficult to explain what makes Miss Buncle’s Book work so well. A tale about an aging single woman who lives in a small town where nothing really happens, it explores the social interactions of Miss Buncle and her neighbours when their universe is disturbed by a book about their very town. Miss Buncle – unbeknownst to her neighbours – has authored this book by carefully observing their everyday life, and throwing it for a loop by making up alternative endings of her own. When the town finds out that these pseudonym characters are actually them, they all respond differently, but they almost invariably seek to find the person who has scrutinised their lives so carefully that the smallest secrets are now public. With gentle humour, perfect characterisation, and an overall feeling of loveliness, this book about a book within a book quickly managed to enchant me. I simply did not want it to end.

Miss Buncle’s Book is the perfect comfort read. Just writing about it makes me reconsider that idea of reading the other Persephones on my shelves first.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton // Corsair, 2013

Last but not least, I read Tooth and Claw. Are you tired of my gushing about perfect books yet? If so, I am sorry, but there’s one more to go.

Tooth and Claw takes the social rules of nineteenth-century society and explores women’s place within that society by imagining it as one consisting of dragons. Social status is defined by wealth and body size, and the latter can be achieved by eating other dragons which is condoned within a set of political and religious rules. Women are, as one might imagine, at the short end of this exchange. They have to be protected by a male (either family or husband). In marriage, they are expected to bear several clutches of dragonets, at the risk of their own life and those of the weaker children. Intermixed with these gendered expectations are ones about class, with servant dragons having their wings bound, and an exploration of the role of religion as both a force of repression and liberation.

Revolving around one family, the members of which we meet first at the gathering after their father’s death, when it is costumary to eat the deceased’s body, we follow the lives of three sisters and two brothers as they navigate the different pathways and social interactions that their careers, families, and positions have in store for them. The youngest three siblings receive particular attention, and it was for them that I felt most. But really, it is the whole set of characters, interactions, and the careful navigation and sometimes subordination of social rules that made this such an interesting read. 

On Goodreads some readers commented that they had to suspend disbelief for parts of the story (dragons travelling in carriages for example), but I couldn’t bother to be skeptical about these things. Tooth and Claw is so carefully drawn and narrated, making me care for the characters and their lot but also feeling intrigued by this social commentary and the way consequences of inequality were drawn out, that I cannot help but conclude once again that this was a book I loved, combining so many of the things I love and care for in fiction of whatever kind. There’s the added bonus of a somewhat happy ending — perhaps too happy to be entirely believable? — but definitely satisfying.

Highly, highly recommended. Is there anything comparable that I should read? Because I’d definitely love your suggestions!