The Girl of Ink and Stars – Kiran Millwood Hargrave | Book Review

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Title: The Girl of Ink and Stars

Author: Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Genre: Fantasy, middle grade

Publisher: Chicken House

Pushlishing Date: 2016

My rating: ***

I really had a hard time reviewing this book. It made me think about what I’m reviewing when I review a book, because I love the design of it, the cover is beautiful, it has french flaps, and every single one of the pages inside has this great map design. When I review I book I usually just review the content, which is how a review should be, but I feel like I want to shout out whoever designed this beautiful thing! The design is so important here, it’s pretty much what made me buy the book, because it managed to set the scene and the tone of the book before I’d read a single word, even on the blurb.

However, the beautiful design and the fact that that probably meant the publishers had put a lot of money into this book really made me expect great things from it. It’s like the publishers hyped it up so much – and then I was left really disappointed.

So, this book is set in a town on an island. A generation before the story takes place, a man arrived on the island, took over the town, and isolated them from the rest of the island. He’s now the general. Our main character is best friends with his daughter, and after the body of a girl is found in the forest, the general’s daughter goes out past the forest, to the forgotten zones (for some reason?) so the main character dresses as a boy to join the governor’s search for her.

The thing I loved about this book is the world building. The description of the island and its landscape, and what it’s like to live there. The rich mythology and importance of old tales that may hold truth in them. This really had a sense of other-worldliness. Sort of. There just wasn’t quite enough of it! I felt like the world building was just getting going, and then the plot kicked in. I want more world building! Overall, this is my biggest criticism of the story, as I feel like the world-building is the author’s biggest strength, but I didn’t feel like she played to it. I feel like there was too much of stuff she’s not so good at.

I feel like the author is not great at writing action scenes. Which sucks, because there were quite a few action scenes in this book. Especially for such a short book! A lot of the time I was left really confused about what was actually, physically going on in a scene and I just carried on reading and kind of muddled my way though it.

The other main issue I had with this book is that it’s too short. Like I said with the world building earlier, I don’t think there was enough of it. The length of the book also meant that I didn’t get to know the characters or the relationships very well, which meant I couldn’t really understand their actions. The governor’s daughter and main character’s best friend goes into the woods because…why? The governor’s soldiers do some spoilery things because…no idea. Also from the start it seems like people on the island hate the governor, so how come the soldiers are so loyal? Plus, from the start we find out that the main character’s mother and twin brother died when she was younger, and I feel like this is never addressed. The book just isn’t long enough to do all the things I want it to!

I think my problem with it might be the fact that it’s middle grade, which I don’t read a lot of, and didn’t know when I started reading this book. I only found out after I finished it and it made a bit more sense. I don’t read a lot of middle grade books but from what I hear, they’re pretty short and plot heavy. So I can understand why that’s the case in this book, but I really don’t feel like it plays to the writer’s strengths. I wanted this book to be longer, with more world-building (in terms of the history and mythology of the island), and more fleshed out characters and relationships. I feel like that would be a beautiful book!

I would like to point out, however, that the main character of this book is the daughter of a cartographer. Since the town was cut off from the rest of the island, there’s no need for this work anymore, but she has been brought up learning how to draw maps and loves it. The descriptions of her parents’ maps and of the maps she does herself are beautiful, they’re so lovely they make me want to be a cartographer even though I would be terrible at it. I feel like that’s a huge strength of the book – but it kind of illustrates my point that the author’s strengths lie in her description and world-building rather than in action-filled plot!

I’d love a young adult or adult book from her, something a little more fleshed out. But then, maybe middle grade just isn’t for me. What did you think of this book?

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Giant Days – Vols 1&2 | Book Review

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Title: Giant Days

Authors: John Allison, Lissa Treiman, Whitney Cogar

Genre: Contemporary, humour

Publisher: BOOM! Box

Pushlishing Date: 2015 – present

My rating: Volume 1: *** Volume 2: ****

This is an odd one, to me, because it’s a graphic novel that’s contemporary/realistic fiction, which I don’t see much at all! Giant Days follows three girls (and as the story goes on, two boys) as they start university. It feels a little different to other graphic novels, as most graphic novels follow one main plotline throughout all of the issues, which develops and goes on throughout the series. This graphic novel feels more like a TV show. Each single issue within each volume is a story by itself, it has a beginning, middle, and end, and whatever the main plot point or problem was gets resolved in that issue. The main progression throughout the issues is just them adjusting to general university life, time goes on, a couple of issues in the second volume sees them go home for the winter holidays, and then each issue contains its own mini-story, so it really feels like episodes of a TV show.

I was a little iffy about this at first as I wasn’t prepared for it and the whole thing felt a little off, but once I realised what was going on I found I actually really enjoy it! It generally feels like quite a relaxing graphic novel to read, which might sound odd, but a lot of graphic novels have big, exciting, complicated, action-packed plots that I have to keep up with and remember until the next volume comes out – but this felt like I could just sit down and watch a short, fun, funny episode of something, and just read one issue of the volume at a time.

I really love what this graphic novel is trying to do – which is, really, show what it can be like to start university for three very different people. (Plus – it’s set here in England, which I LOVE.) One character is strong, stubborn, and studios (I will not say nerdy!), another is dramatic, flaky, boy-obsessed, and a goth, and the final character is very innocent, quiet, and is still trying to figure out who she is. All of these characters are so different and represent so many different people, which is great, and they all get along so well, which makes it so fun to read.

Here’s my issue with classing this as ‘humour’ – I’ve done it here because it’s done on goodreads and because I do think it’s important to point out how funny this is. But it doesn’t feel like the writers are really trying to make me laugh, or cracking jokes. It just feels like they’re writing about people – and people are funny! People like to make their friends laugh! So while I do find this graphic novel funny, I think classing it as humour wouldn’t be quite right.

What I really love about this graphic novel is that it’s so character focused, where most graphic novels I read are plot focused. There is a lot of plot and a lot of mini-stories, of course, but the main focus really is on the people and their relationships with each other and other students. So far, it’s covered a bunch of important topics for university-aged people, from exploring your sexuality to realising that you do actually have to study if you want to not fail.

I feel like this did take a few issues to really get going, but by issue 3/4 it was really in its stride, which is why I gave volume 2 a higher rating than volume 1. I have really high hopes for the next one, which comes out in November! I really feel like if graphic novels usually aren’t your thing, maybe give this one a go, because it’s pretty different!

Have you read this? Does it sound like something you’d want to pick up?

 

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The Vegetarian – Han Kang | Book Review

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Title: The Vegetarian

Author: Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: Portobello Books

Pushlishing Date: 2016

My rating: ***

This book was something, like I’m sure it was for many of you, that really intrigued me. So many people were reading it and talking about it, including a lot of people who don’t usually read literary fiction. I’ve heard so many mixed opinions on it, and it recently won the Man Booker, so I finally picked it up to read it – after my mum bought it for me as a graduation present. She thought it was hilarious to buy me a book called the vegetarian as we’re both vegetarians. Ha ha, mum.

I’ve seen a lot of people give a synopsis about this book where they say the main character is a woman who decides to become a vegetarian, but I wouldn’t describe it like that. The blurb of this book says it’s a story in three acts, as the book follows three perspectives, all of whom are connected to this woman – her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. So although this woman is the centre of the book, I’d say that it’s about these three characters, and how they each cope differently with mental illness.

That’s really the crux of what I think this book is about: mental illness. After a strange dream, this woman decides to become a vegetarian. (Note: she also cuts out all animal products like eggs, so I’d say she’s a vegan, but this was written by a Korean author so it may just be a culture difference that we make a distinction between the two, or it could be a translation issue.) However, this isn’t just a normal lifestyle change, from the get go it’s clear that there is more going on here than simply changing a diet. So really, I’d say this book follows three different characters and how they each deal differently with having a relationship with someone with a mental illness.

To anyone that wants to read this but is worried it’ll be difficult because it won the Man Booker: don’t be. It has a very easy, simple, writing style. It also jumps right into the plot, which helps to draw you into the book right away. If this isn’t your usual type of book, let me reassure you that you won’t have a problem with the writing style.

I had a fair few problems with this book. I had real trouble with giving it a star rating. I settles on three stars, because usually if I give two stars it’s because there’s something I find glaringly bad about the book. But here, although I had issues with it, I wonder if that’s because I didn’t quite get it. Sometimes I think that we all have such different experiences of like and different outlooks, that sometimes I just won’t get a book that someone else might love.

First, none of the characters were likable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as I strongly think that a book doesn’t have to have likable characters to be a likable book. But here, I really felt like something was missing. I felt a real detachment from all of them, and I really feel like a likable character would have pulled me in that little bit closer.

Another problem I had was the choice of which person was used when writing. The first section is written in first person, when I feel like it would have worked really well in third, because again I felt a real sense of detachment from the character that seemed unrealistic to me. I don’t know if this whole sense of distance is a culture difference, but something about it really got under my skin while reading this. The last two section are both in third person, and I think they would have been better in first. Particularly the second section!

The second section is where I have most of my issues. I won’t ever give spoilers in my reviews, but I’m going to phrase this in a way so that hopefully if you’ve read the book you get what I mean. So, there’s some real strange behaviour in this section. The vegetarian woman’s strange behaviour is explain by the fact that she has a mental illness. However, the strange behaviour of the brother-in-law is explained by – nothing! This is where a first person perspective would have been good! What drives him to do those things? They’re pretty drastic and could have extreme consequences, why wasn’t his behaviour rationalised at all?

Overall, the main problem I had with this book is that fact that I know it was trying to make some kind of point methaphorically, but it didn’t work for me. I find it difficult to see metaphor in realism. Particularly when the metaphor centers around behaviour that’s a result of a mental illness. To me, it’s simply a book about mental illness and how it affects three people connected to that person. In this case, I really would have liked the vegetarian woman’s character to be explored more, I’d love more backstory, I’d love a perspective from her. If it’s all about the metaphor and the hidden meanings, I feel like they would have been so much more powerful if the book had leaned towards magical realism at the end, if her thoughts actually came true. In reality, this book sat somewhere in the middle where it didn’t really have an impact on me at all. I wanted so much more out of this book, one way or the other, and I just got something kind of middle of the road. It really didn’t have an affect on me, which is why it was so hard for me to give it a star rating.

People have been raving about this, and it just won the Man Booker, so I feel like I missed something. But hey, these are just my honest thoughts, and what else is this blog for! I’d love to know your thoughts if you’ve read this, please do let me know what you think in the comments!

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Out of the Easy – Ruta Sepetys | Book Review

 

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Title: Out of the Easy

Author: Ruta Sepetys

Genre: Historical, young adult

Publisher: Philomel Books (Penguin Random House)

Pushlishing Date: 2013

My rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆⋆

Well, she’s done it again. And by that, I mean, she’s done it before. Because she wrote this before she wrote Salt to the Sea. But I read that before I read this book.

Shall we start again?

This book is set in 1950s New Orleans, and follows the daughter of a prostitute. Yep, that’s all I need to pick up a book! The main character, Josie, lives above the bookshop she works in, and spends her mornings cleaning up the local brother where her mother works, reporting any found items to the madam, Willie. Josie longs to get away from this town where everyone knows her as the daughter of a prostitute, and make something of herself. She is inspired to apply for college in another state after a chat with a gentleman in her bookshop – who, the next morning, is found dead.

The story really kicks off from there, as Josie has a renewed determination to get out, while trying to find out what happened to this man, meeting interesting new people, and juggling her two jobs, her college application, and a trying relationship with her awful mother.

The first thing to say about this book is that it has such amazing characters. There are so many, but they’re easy to keep track of, and they all have such vivid, distinct personalities. Willie has got to be my favourite, she’s one of the best characters I’ve read all year. Ruta Sepetys manages to create so many believable and fully developed characters that are all so fun to read about. Her mother is a great character too – such a piece of work. She’s one you’ll love to hate. Josie herself was a great female lead – independent, intelligent, super hardworking, determined, and so likable.

The setting of 1950s New Orleans was set so well, the book gave a real sense of what it was like to live there. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and it seems like Josie can’t turn a corner without bumping into someone or other. The ties between people give it a real small-town feel, but the description of the bustling streets show that it’s growing fast.

So, characters? Yep. Setting? Yep. Plot? Loved it! What made this plot so great for me was that it was so unpredictable. There were times where I thought I knew what was going to happen next, but I never managed to get it right. Most of the time I had no clue where it was going, and I loved that. There’s a really nice edge of mystery to this story as she tries to figure out how this man ended up dead, but it by no means takes over the story. The story is more like a lot of different sub-plots, all of which Josie manages to be involved in. It’s never confusing, but there’s always something going on which meant I devoured this book.

Through the entire book, I had literally one negative thing to say about it- and it’s really nit picky. There’s a prologue, involving seven year old Josie, which ends with ‘that was ten years ago.’ I felt it was a little sloppy, as the next chapter could easily have just said ‘ten years later.’ Having a fist person narrator say ‘that was ten years ago’ makes it sound as if they are directly addressing the reader and telling them a story, which is not the overall narrative style of the book. But you know what? It bugged me for a couple of pages, and then I completely got over it and fell in love with the book.

Amazing, five stars.

Did I mention that she LIVES AND WORKS IN a bookshop?

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Book Review: Asking For It – Kate Harding

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Title: Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture – and What We Can Do About It

Author: Kate Harding

Genre: Non-fiction, feminist

Publisher: Da Capo Press

Pushlishing Date: 2015

My rating: ⋆⋆⋆⋆

Asking For It is an incredibly in-depth look at what ‘rape culture‘ is, how it is perpetuated, and the consequences of it. The book is split into three main sections: the first goes into depth about what rape is, clearing up any ideas about ‘grey areas’ that readers might have, and looks at the many myths surrounding incidents of rape. It also looks at the issues with stigma, backlash, blame, and discusses how the general population seems to view rape.

The second section goes into detail about rape and the law, from research carried out with police officers (for example, the study on 11 police and sheriff’s departments in the USA which found that 22.7% of the officers agreed with the statement: ‘any victim can resist a rapist if he or she really wants to’), to discussing the laws surrounding rape, and how rape cases are dealt with at trial – if they ever get there. The final section explores the more ‘pop culture’ or everyday side of rape culture and how it affects our everyday lives, and discusses subjects like online gaming, trolling, and examples of backlash when celebrities have been accused of sexual assault.

This book is essentially about two things: the issues surrounding masculinity as an identity and as a goal (which encourages violence and dominance, often sexually), and the issues within our culture and within our legal system that mean that most rapes go unreported or unpunished.

Now, after that extremely serious synopsis, the first thing I want to point out is the writing style: it’s fantastic. Kate Harding has such a strong and relatable voice which comes through clearly in her writing, so it feels like we’re being informed of all this by a friend. She manages to keep the tone light with sarcastic jokes (because, unfortunately, some people are so horrendous all you can do is laugh at their stupidity)(Note: I don’t mean I’m laughing at rapists, I mean I’m laughing at the guy who said that if a woman gets pregnant by her rapist then it wasn’t a real rape, as women have ways of ‘shutting that whole thing down.’ You can’t help but laugh at that ridiculous stupidity.) Yet, of course, the tone is always appropriate and doesn’t make light of anything that shouldn’t be.

Another thing I love about this book is its heavy usage of facts and statistics from actual, scientific research. Much feminist literature is purely anecdotal, and, while I love a lot of those books as they are good in their own way, I feel like the persistent and frequent use of real numbers in this book really hammered home the point. Don’t let that fact scare you off, they’re explained in completely simple and understandable ways, this book never felt like a chore to read.

The author shares her own rape story right at the end, which I think was a great choice and I applaud her for it. I feel like waiting until the end to share her story meant that I could put everything I’d just learned into practice – in a sense. When she described feelings of guilt, I knew why. When she described how others reacted, I knew why. When she described why she didn’t report, I knew why. It kind of showed me just how informed this book had made me.

The reason I didn’t give this book 5 stars is because of the editing, not at all because of the content. Sometimes the writing felt a little sloppy, with long sentences and multiple clauses which sometimes made it difficult to understand. It’s not too much of a major thing, and I certainly wouldn’t want that to put anyone off reading it as mostly it was fine, but I do feel like it should have been better edited.

Ultimately, the problem with a book like this is that everyone needs to read it – but not many people will. For me personally, I feel so much better informed of this issue, everything that goes into creating this issue, and the consequences of it. The book is more than just about rape, it’s also about masculinity and femininity and how that’s presented to us by our culture, which I feel is relevant for a general understanding of feminism. If you’re interested in expanding your knowledge of feminism and of rape culture I would definitely pick this up. Even if you feel like you’re a little lacking in knowledge, this book works for total beginners even if you’ve never read a feminist text before.

This book took an extremely difficult and important topic and managed to expertly inform of the facts from so many different angles, while keeping the entire book easy to read and – well, as enjoyable as a book on rape culture can be.

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