A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

Summary from Goodreads:

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do.

But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the one he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster is something different, though. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Ugh, this book made me cry like a little baby. What is up with me choosing really sad books at the moment? First Lincoln in the Bardo and now this! I think I definitely need something light and funny to read after the heartbreaking, ugly-cry-inducing, I-want-to-hug-my-mom kind of book that is A Monster Calls. 

It is a middle grade children’s book, yes. And if I had read it as a child, I probably would have loved it. It’s got monsters, nightmares, loveable characters, scary grandmothers, and thirteen-year-old bullies – you know, the whole shebang. Little me would have loved that. But it is not just a children’s book. A Monster Calls is a book that can be read and loved by all.

Well-written and compelling, this is a book about grief, loss, and love that will resonate with readers of all ages. While Conor does confront his demons more literally than most, there is nothing didactic or forced about this. The writing is intelligent and beautifully simple, the characters are well-developed, and the whole time I was reading this, I just wanted to hug little Conor. After the first chapter, I could already feel the tears coming and by the end of the book, well, they definitely spilled.

While this book is incredibly sad, more than anything else, I felt a great deal of love while reading this. Love for Conor and his family, love for my own family and friends, and love for everyone who has ever experienced a profound loss. This is such a beautiful book, and one that will stay with me for a long time. In just 215 pages, this book will break your heart and piece it back together again, so that you can go and be present in the world as a wiser, more loving human being.

Just a little note about the illustrations: 

While the words themselves are powerful, they are complemented perfectly by Jim Kay’s magnificent and wildly expressive illustrations. If you do decide to read this book (please do), I would highly recommend getting your hands on the illustrated edition. If you’d like to learn more about Jim Kay and his work, you can find his website here.

And another little one about the story: 

The story behind this book makes it even more poignant. Siobhan Dowd, the award-winning author of numerous young adult novels, came up with the original idea and the characters, but died of breast cancer before she could put pen to paper. Patrick Ness was asked to write the book based on her idea, and he succeeded in achieving a work of fiction that both transcends its genre and painfully wrenches your heart.

Have you read A Monster Calls? What did you think of it? And most importantly, can you please recommend a book that won’t make me bawl my eyes out? 

~Anna

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna

Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier

Summary from Goodreads:

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again . . .

The novel begins in Monte Carlo, where our heroine is swept off her feet by the dashing widower Maxim de Winter and his sudden proposal of marriage. Orphaned and working as a lady’s maid, she can barely believe her luck. It is only when they arrive at his massive country estate that she realizes how large a shadow his late wife will cast over their lives–presenting her with a lingering evil that threatens to destroy their marriage from beyond the grave.

Oh my goodness, I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in so long! It’s like a gothic soap opera, but in the best possible way. It’s dark, atmospheric, melodramatic, and oh so decadent. Honestly, I don’t know why I only discovered this now.

From the very first sentence, which is one of the most famous opening lines ever written, I was totally immersed in the story. I got lost in the descriptions of Manderley. I wanted to walk those paths through the woods to the beach. I wanted to wander the halls and peer into rooms, long abandoned after Rebecca’s death. I wanted to touch, taste, and smell everything our heroine was experiencing. I wanted to sit by the fire in the Manderley library, watching the rain stream down the windows, and read this book until the end of time. Yes, it’s that good.

The characters in this book, especially the female characters, were utterly fascinating. Mrs Danvers sent chills down my spine and for most of the book, I found myself totally terrified of her, but then she also had these moments of incredible fragility and sadness. But just when I found myself sympathising with her, she would go back to being a manipulative hag. What a brilliant character. As for Rebecca, I could almost feel her presence in the room while I was reading. I could almost hear her malicious laughter and picture her at her desk writing her letters in her elegant, cursive script. In contrast to our timid, nameless, and ultimately forgettable narrator, Rebecca is someone who demands to be remembered, long after her death.

The book is often compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever was. In fact, she seems more alive than our little heroine, who seems to exist only to serve and appease others. Rebecca infuses every room with the strength of her personality, while our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, afraid to touch or disturb anything. Personally, I love that she remains nameless throughout the novel as it shows the extent to which her identity is subsumed by her husband’s and makes Rebecca seem all the more present.

Now I know there are a few Maxim de Winter fans out there, but I have to admit that I am not one of them. The whole time I was reading this book, I just wanted to slap him for being so condescending, brooding, and peevish. Yes, Mrs de Winter is portrayed as a sexless, child-like creature with very little personality, but that doesn’t mean that she should be treated as the human equivalent of a doormat. I mean, she is his wife after all. He asked her to marry him, not the other way around. This man who is more than twice his wife’s age never once calls her by her name, asks her how she is feeling, or gives her the freedom to form her own opinions. What a jerk. Ugh. It’s no surprise really that Rebecca turned out the way she did.

Overall, I cannot express how much I loved this book. In my opinion, it is the perfect book to read on a rainy day, while covered in blankets and sipping a hot cup of tea. If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend adding it to your TBR. I just wish I had discovered it sooner.

Have you read Rebecca? Did you love it as much as I did? I would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂 

~Anna

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary from Goodreads:

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Magnificent. As a big Adichie fan, I had pretty high expectations for this novel and thankfully it did not disappoint. Smart, funny, thought-provoking, moving – the list of adjectives I could use to describe this book is endless.

About halfway through the book, there is this scene where Ifemelu is at a posh dinner party in America and one of the guests makes the comment: “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy”. Well, Americanah is one of those books that is neither precious nor pretentious. And it is very much about race. And it is honest and well-written and wonderful.

Yes, this book is a love story (and a great one at that), but it is also so much more than that. It is about race, social inequality, immigration, self-acceptance, loss of cultural identity, and change. It’s full of memorable characters, hilarious and brutally honest commentary on cultural differences, and very detailed instructions on how to care for naturally kinky hair. At 477 pages, it is quite a chunky volume that does drag a little at times (I guess it is a bit Proustian in some ways), but it is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Americanah? Or any of Adichie’s other books? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Our Magic Hour – Jennifer Down

Summary from Goodreads:

Audrey, Katy and Adam have been friends since high school-a decade of sneaky cigarettes, drunken misadventures on Melbourne backstreets, heart-to-hearts, in-jokes. But now Katy has gone. And without her, Audrey is thrown off balance: everything she thought she knew, everything she believed was true, is bent out of shape. Audrey’s family-her neurotic mother, her wayward teenage brother, her uptight suburban sister-are likely to fall apart. Her boyfriend, Nick, tries to hold their relationship together. And Audrey, caught in the middle, needs to find a reason to keep going when everything around her suddenly seems wrong.

Evocative and exquisitely written, Our Magic Hour is a story of love, loss and discovery. Jennifer Down’s remarkable debut novel captures that moment when being young and invincible gives way to being open and vulnerable, when one terrible act changes a life forever.

Jennifer Down’s Our Magic Hour is a gorgeous Australian debut – raw, affecting, and occasionally heartbreaking. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did, but I read it in one sitting and I still find myself thinking about it.

The story develops out of a triangular relationship between three childhood friends now in their mid-twenties – Audrey, Katy and Adam – and grows in scope to include Audrey’s relationships with her boyfriend, Nick, and her family. Tragedy strikes within the first few pages and the novel traces the different ways that people process their grief. Plot, in a traditional sense, takes a back seat, allowing Down to explore the complexity of these relationships with empathy and nuance, never shying away from her characters’ ugliness or shortcomings. The characters in this book felt so incredibly real to me and they seemed to almost jump off the page.

While the characters are wonderfully constructed, my favourite thing about this book is Down’s depiction of place. The story is set both in Melbourne and Sydney, and these cities almost feel like characters in their own right. Maybe it’s because I have lived in both of these Australian cities, but I think that Down perfectly captures the atmosphere of both of these places and they felt so familiar to me when I was reading this book.

Overall, I thought this was an extraordinary debut and I’m really looking forward to reading more of Down’s work in the future. I think that she is incredibly talented and I believe that this book deserves a lot more attention than it is currently receiving. It made me smile, it made me sob, and it made me love and appreciate Melbourne so much more. Highly recommended.

Have you read Our Magic Hour? What did you think of it? Would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna

Sweetbitter – Stephanie Danler

“Let’s say I was born when I came over the George Washington Bridge sometime in 2006…”

Meet Tess: a twenty-two year old with a mundane, provincial past, who has come to New York to look for a life she can’t define. After she stumbles into a coveted job at a renowned Union Square restaurant, we spend the year with her as she learns the chaotic, punishing, privileged life of a “backwaiter,” on duty and off. Her appetites—for food, wine, knowledge, and every kind of experience—are awakened. And she’s pulled into the magnetic thrall of two other servers—a handsome bartender she falls hard for, and an older woman she latches onto with an orphan’s ardour.

Let me just start this review by saying that I wanted to like this book more than I actually did. I heard wonderful things about it from customers and one of my colleagues described it to me as Kitchen Confidential meets Girls. What’s not to love? Being the sucker for foodie fiction that I am, I picked this one up and was very excited to read it, but I have to say that I was a little underwhelmed. That’s not to say that I totally disliked this book! In fact, I thought it had some great moments (especially in the first 100 pages), but I think it was just hyped up a bit too much.

THE GOOD:

  • If you have every worked in hospitality, this book will definitely hit home and you will be able to relate to a lot of Tess’ feelings and experiences.
  • Danler’s descriptions of food are absolutely mouthwatering, to say the least. Word of advice: do not read this book while hungry.
  • Sweetbitter is one of the few books I have read that focuses solely on the present. We learn very little about Tess’ past – we don’t even learn her name until around page 200 – and she rarely discusses or even thinks about her plans for the future. In a world where everyone seems to be overly preoccupied with the question ‘what next?’, it was quite refreshing to read a book that is 100% focused on the present.
  • The relationship between Tess and her mentor, Simone, was quite intriguing

THE BAD:

  • I did not care at all for the romance in this book. Jake, Tess’ love interest, has the personality of her favourite food item (which is toast, in case you were wondering). Side note: how does one manage to land a job at a top restaurant if one’s favourite meal is toast with peanut butter?
  • The writing is quite pretentious and overly flowery at times. I didn’t mind this so much when Danler was describing food, but at other times, it bothered me immensely.
  • None of the characters are well-developed.
  • I thought that this book tried way too hard to be edgy and contemporary. Like, what was was with the random poems that made no sense whatsoever and were totally out of context?
  • The dialogue was totally unrealistic.
  • As a side effect of being a book solely focused on the present, this book had almost no plot. Tess describes her life as a backwaiter, makes a ton of bad decisions, does a lot of cocaine, learns about food and wine, and well, that’s about it. If you’re looking for something that will keep you up all night wondering what will happen next, look elsewhere.

All in all, I thought this book was overrated, although I did enjoy some parts of it. If you’re after a good foodie book that will make your belly ache from both laughter and hunger, I’d take Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential over this one any day.

Have you read Sweetbitter? What did you think? Do you have any recommendations for good foodie books? 

~Anna

Around The World in 26 Books!

Earlier this week, while talking to Tristen over at musingsfromablogabroad, I came to the realisation that the list of countries that I have read books from is shockingly short. I have read a lot of European, American, and Australian literature and, well, not that much else. It’s terrible, I know! Anyway, I’ve decided to remedy this by setting myself a challenge: I am going to try to read one book from a different country for each letter of the alphabet (i.e. A for Argentina, B for Belarus, etc).

As you can probably imagine, it gets a little tricky with letters like Q, Y and X, which is why I need your help. I thought I would post my very tentative reading list and if you have any recommendations, please let me know. I am finding it especially difficult to find Qatari, Omani and Yemeni literature that has been translated into English. Anyway, here it is!

A – Argentina, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

B – Belarus, Chernobyl Power by Svetlana Alexievich

C – Cuba, Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

D – Denmark, Out Of Africa by Karen Blixen

E – Egypt, Arabian Days and Nights by Naguib Mahfouz

F – Finland, Under the North Star by Väinö Linna

GGreece, Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

H – Hungary, Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

I – Iran, The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

J – Jordan, Snow in Amman: An Anthology of Short Stories from Jordan by Ibtihal Mahmood

K – Korea (South), The Vegetarian by Han Kang

L – Libya, The Return by Hisham Matar

M – Moldova, The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov

N – Nigeria, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

O – Oman, Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs by Abdulaziz al-Farsi

P – Philippines, Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Q – Qatar, The Holy Sail by Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud or The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia al-Maria (not sure if this one counts because she grew up in the US, Qatar and Egypt)

R – Romania, any book by Herta Müller

S – Singapore, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe

T – Thailand, Sightseeing by Rattawut Sapcharoeasop

U – Uruguay, The Ship of Fools by Cristina Peri Rossi

V – Vietnam, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

W – Wales, Gillian Clarke: Collected Poems by Gillian Clarke

X – Mexico, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Y – Yemen, A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal

Z – Zimbabwe, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any recommendations? I would greatly appreciate your help and if any of you want to join this reading challenge, please let me know. 🙂 

~Anna

EDIT: I forgot to mention that Tristen and I will be attempting this challenge together. Well, I didn’t exactly forget – I’m just technologically challenged and couldn’t figure out how to add the link to her blog. Anyway, I figured out how to do it and you can find her blog here. I strongly recommend checking it out as her reviews are very good and she has read pretty much every book on the planet. Oh, and she is much better at posting regularly than I am.