Book review: The Sacrifice

I have been pretty quiet this week due to multiple reasons. However, I’m back with another book review! Please note, The Sacrifice was kindly sent to me in an exchange for an honest review. I’ve never done a review of a short story collection so we’ll see how it goes!

Genres: Short story, fiction

Source: Free e-book

My rating: ★★★

Synopsis

The Sacrifice is a collection of short stories, written by Indrajit Garai, author of The Bridge of Little Jeremy. There are three stories in the collection, which all feature the exploration of human sacrifice and the strong bonds that hold family relationships together.

The Move, the first story in the collection, is about a dairy farmer in rural France who struggles to keep his business alive. Guillaume faces the real prospect of financial ruin as he tries to protect his son, eventually giving up everything to keep him safe.

The Listener, is a story told through the perspective of a young boy, Matthew, who tries to save his favourite tree from being chopped down. The tree is a source of comfort for the boy, in a time in his life where his home life is unstable, as his Mother begins a relationship with a new partner,

The final story is The Sacrifice, the tale of a struggling author who lives with his Grandson, Arthur. Francois has been struggling to make it as an author his whole life. As he begins a battle with rival publishers, he faces the real prospect of financial ruin. Often starving himself so that his Grandson can eat, he makes the ultimate sacrifice to keep Arthur safe.

The Review

The shining element in this collection was the sense of unity created between the three stories. Each story was very different in its feel and plot, however, they were all connected by a common theme – which is essential (in my opinion) for any short story collection.

All stories were united by the idea of human sacrifice, explored through various complex family relationships. Despite the suffering and darkness that is at the heart of all stories, there is always a sense of hope. I was left with the same feeling I got when I finished The Bridge of Little Jeremy and it is what Garai does best; despite everything, the darkness is always countered with a sense of hope, even against the worst circumstances.

“He saw, no matter how harsh his struggle for survival had become, there were still rewards of living on this earth.”

The Sacrifice, 148.

The exploration of human suffering and relationships across all stories makes the collection feel incredibly raw and real. It strikes at the most difficult elements that life can bring, but also maintains a sense of hope. As always by Garai, the writing is beautiful and I can quite easily get lost in the prose.

From reading The Bridge of Little Jeremy, I gather Garai likes to write about troubled characters, which features heavily in all these stories. Each character is facing some kind of hardship and strives to put it right. Garai also likes to explore the child persona which features in The Listener, as Matthew tries to do everything in his power to save a tree from being chopped down. But it isn’t just any tree, as it becomes his source of comfort in a time where he is experiencing anxiety and upheaval.

My favourite story in the collection was definitely The Sacrifice. Francois strive to make it as a writer and do everything to try and keep his Grandson thriving, and his story pays homage to the extent of human perseverance and struggle. For me, it was the most gripping as it had a sense of pace that the others lacked. I desperately wanted Francois to make it as a published author and receive the life he and his Grandson deserved, one free of the anxieties of financial hardship.

Despite the beauty of the writing, I struggled with The Move and The Listener, the first two stories in the collection. They both lacked a hook and reading them was a bit slow-going, as there was little drive and suspense to keep me reading. The Move redeemed itself slightly in the dramatic ending, however this was the only part that intrigued me. In this respect, I feel the first two stories were weaker than the last. They felt heavy and dense, with a definitive lack of direction.

All in all, I enjoyed reading this collection and really felt that all stories connected to each other. The language is beautiful and a joy to read but I felt the first two stories were a bit draining. However, I thoroughly enjoyed The Sacrifice, the last story, and think this is where the collection really excels. Definitely worth a read!

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Book Review: The Truants

The Truants is a coming of age story with a twist, telling the experience of Jess Walker’s first year as a student at the fictionalized University of East Anglia. Jess studies English Literature and enrolls herself on an Agatha Christie course, immediately finding herself enthralled by the subject, as well as the expert in the field, Professor Lorna Clay. Jess becomes friends with a group of uninitiated, carefree students, including falling for Alec, an ex student and current journalist.

Genres: Mystery, Suspense, Coming of Age, Literary Fiction

My rating: ★★★★

This book echoes the reverberated student scene of carefree days drinking in pub gardens and ignoring academic responsibilities. As the closeness of Jess’ relationship with Lorna unfolds, the mystery involving Alec starts to appear before the readers’ eyes.

Jess cannot help but be pulled in by the perplexing Alec. He is good looking, intelligent, but little does she know about his deeply troubled past. As a character, he is laced with toxicity, regret and past betrayal and takes it out on those who fall for him – a classic maverick disguised as a heart throb. Jess gets caught up in several disturbing love triangles, which serve to explore the realities of betrayal on a relationship and friendship basis. The lure of new love becomes her achilles’ heel as she is placed in the middle of a dark mystery of her own.

Something rather dark lurks beneath the seemingly picturesque portrayal of student life, which is discovered as the book progresses. Despite drawing so heavily on the works of Agatha Christie and her novels, this book is essentially its own mystery and a play on the psychology of relationships, seduction and betrayal. It combines a lot of different genres which I think is one of its selling points, it has elements of literary fiction, mystery and thriller, whilst being told within the coming of age paradigm. The feeling of suspense is naturally created early on in the book, which produces an unavoidable hook for the reader. The whole time I was reading I had a feeling of unease; but couldn’t help but read on. I was fascinated by the characters and wanted to see how everything would unfold.

I think the highlight of this book is in the complexity of the characters. The story only centers around a handful of individuals, but each are fundamentally flawed. This allows for the difficulties of coming of age to be realistically conveyed, with the exploration of problematic friendships and relationships. Jess, the protagonist, was particularly complex, and I was drawn to her insight. It is essentially a major portrayal of character development and exploring the dark incidents that lay within her experience at university.

That said, I did think the play on the mystery was to a certain extent cliche. Not being familiar with Agatha Christie’s writing, I can’t comment on the full exploration of this – and there may be things I missed. Critique’s and readers alike have drawn similarities between this and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, being an avid fan of that novel, I fail to see the comparison aside from the theme of ‘dark academia.’ I found the language in this underdeveloped and simplistic at times, whereas Tartt’s writing is wonderfully crafted, with layers of intricacy. In some ways, I think this book tries too hard. I got the sense it was trying to aestheticize student suffering within the framework of academic life. There are many troubling scenes and dark elements to the book, some are explored well, but others rather flippantly.

However, I very much enjoyed reading this and would recommend it to anyone. It combines so many genres, is full of complex characters and a sense of unrelenting intrigue. It grabbed me from the start and left me hooked, for that alone I would say it is very commendable.

A big thank you to Net Galley and Bloomsbury Publishing for giving me an e-arc copy to review. Please note however, this does not influence my review in any way.

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Book Review: My Sister, the Serial Killer

I was looking forward to reading this after constantly eyeing it up on the shelves back when the bookshops were still open. The physical cover itself is striking but so is the title itself. What could be more ominous than knowing your sister is a serial killer?

Synopsis from Goodreads

My Sister, the Serial Killer is a blackly comic novel about how blood is thicker – and more difficult to get out of the carpet – than water…

When Korede’s dinner is interrupted one night by a distressed call from her sister, Ayoola, she knows what’s expected of her: bleach, rubber gloves, nerves of steel and a strong stomach. This’ll be the third boyfriend Ayoola’s dispatched in, quote, self-defence and the third mess that her lethal little sibling has left Korede to clear away. She should probably go to the police for the good of the menfolk of Nigeria, but she loves her sister and, as they say, family always comes first. Until, that is, Ayoola starts dating the doctor where Korede works as a nurse. Korede’s long been in love with him, and isn’t prepared to see him wind up with a knife in his back: but to save one would mean sacrificing the other…

Image: Amazon

Review ~ ★★★.5/★★★★★ 

Genres: Novel, satire, thriller, crime-fiction

This book caught my attention right from the offset. Even before starting to read it the premise seemed odd and strangely appealing.

The protagonist, Korede is fully aware of her sister, Ayoola’s tendencies to murder boyfriends. One night she’s called up and has to help dispose the body of her latest victim. The way she accepts it as part of daily life, is both comical and alluring. It makes you want to read the book to find out how Korede comes to terms with this herself and how it has become so normalised between them. No one else in the family knows about these events. Throughout the novel Korede becomes more worried about her sister and the potential next victim. The horrific events of Ayoola’s actions are told in such a matter of fact, down to earth way that I have never encountered before. I guess it’s meant to be a kind of dark humor, it definitely gets points for originality – I’ve never read a book like it and was taken aback (in a good way) by its approach.

The crime genre scene is usually dominated by British and American parameters, so it was refreshing to see an entirely different setting. The novel is set in Lagos, the capital of Nigeria, and is deeply embedded within its culture. Both sisters have also had a troubled upbringing, due to abuse from their father, however, this isn’t really explored until the final pages. I liked the main two characters but felt the novel doesn’t give you the chance to get to know them.

The chapters themselves are short and snappy and this gives a level of pace to the book which I really liked. Although it is a short book anyway, I ended up flying through the chapters. I liked the way it seemed to mirror the nature of Ayoola’s personality and the flip decisions she seemed to make.

The initial grab for this book is definitely there – it has an intriguing and original feel, which offers the potential for a truly gripping story, however, I found my attention dwindling about three quarters of the way through. I no longer felt the compulsion to read on, in the way I had done in the beginning.

Being a short novel it is naturally restricted by the amount of depth it can convey, but in this case, I think extending the novel would have turned it into something excellent. This book lost me in the lack of character development and background information. There are fleeting references to how life was with their father around, despite it having an evident influence on their lives. We are only really given an insight into this at the end, having it at the beginning in more depth, could have added far more weight to the characters and the story as a whole.

I felt as if things just happened tentatively, without any real depth or connection to a bigger picture. The novel starts with a bang and hooks the reader straight away, however, it allowed itself to trail off into nothingness. Nothing major happens, there are no turning points or dramatic events, it just kind of finishes. Therefore, I found it lost its initial suspense and appeal quite suddenly, which resulted in a disappointing reading experience.

Overall, I liked the premise of this book and its originality, and certainly enjoyed its feel, which was what kept me reading. I liked the protagonist, Korede and her sister, Ayoola, but just wish I could have known more about them. The novel lacked depth and lost momentum, allowing little room for the darkly comical and complex story it could have been. It’s definitely worth a read, but don’t expect it to blow you away.

Cover image: Kristian Hammerstad for New Statesman

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Book review: All Men Want to Know (ARC)

Firstly, many thanks to Penguin UK and NetGalley for letting me review this book in advance, as always, this does not influence my review in any way. Just to let you know, All Men Want to Know is due to be published 6 August, 2020. You can pre order copies from the usual places!

All Men Want to Know

Author: Nina Bouraoui

Genres: Women’s literary fiction, auto-fiction, lesbian literature

Publication date: 6 August, 2020

My rating: ★★★★

This is a deeply moving work of “auto-fiction” told through the life experiences of its author, Nina Bouraoui. It combines the authors real life experiences growing up, but is a work of literary fiction in style and scope. Nina has lived a torn life, and one situated between two continents; Africa and Europe. She spent most of her childhood in Algeria where her Father was from before her Mother chose to move to Paris, because of the outbreak of Civil War.  This toing and froing between two cultures, means that Nina struggles to come to terms with her identity, “France is an outfit I wear: Algeria is my skin, exposed to the sun and storms.” 

The entire novel is told through vivid, first person narration. This may put some readers off, as there’s no typical story structure. However, I loved the sense of depth this created. The prose often reads as part poetry, part inner monologue of Nina’s thoughts, feelings and memories. I found it a harrowing read, as Nina never shies away from the honesty of her experience and the pain she has endured. In this day and age, we are so used to seeing peoples’ ‘real life’ experience through a filtered lens which often bears no reality, however, this novel strips it back to the bare bones. Thus, making it a moving depiction of the difficulties of coming of age, accepting oneself and learning how to live. It is a powerful portrayal of inner tournaments and the pain people go through during the process of accepting themselves.

Despite the novel lacking a traditional structure – it is divided loosely into four sections of memory which are used to account for the different periods in Nina’s life. These are: knowing, remembering, becoming and being. Each comment on her life at its different stages – from living in Algeria and witnessing its turbulence as a country, to beginning her new, independent life in Paris at the age of eighteen and toying with her sexuality. Due to this dual upbringing across continents – Nina grapples with her sexuality –  she has been attracted to women for most of her life, however, accepting this has been her biggest struggle, “I want to know who I am, what I am made of, what I can hope for…” 

Image: Algeria skyline via Pixabay

Homosexuality is still illegal in Algeria today, which relates to the difficulties of not just Nina’s own acceptance of herself, but the society in which she grew up. In Paris, she feels freer to explore this, due to living in a more accepting, Western culture. She acknowledges this cultural and personal struggle vividly, “I’m a victim of my own homophobia” in which the reader is a witness, as Nina documents her first difficult experiences with love and the initial anxieties these bring. 

Knowing, draws on Nina’s past experience in Algeria, as she accounts traumatic experiences of witnessing her Mother being sexually assaulted, and depicts the variable climate of Algeria which was going through civil unrest. I couldn’t help but feel this exposure must have impacted Nina’s conception of herself, which then impacted her attitudes towards her sexuality and ability to form relationships with women. She had to get over her own boundaries before those imposed on her from others. 

Remembering, documents visions of her past which are mainly in Algeria. Despite the country’s beauty she remembers that, “violence is etched into the land, unending violence” and this struggle is symbolic in her own boundaries to self acceptance. Becoming, is the most ‘present’ aspect of this autobiography, as it follows Nina’s life as a young adult, living in Paris. She frequents a local, lesbian nightclub in the hope of finding love with other women. This is the most interesting part of the book, as it shows how her past struggles and different cultural upbringings shape her identity and coming to terms with herself. She goes up and down like a yo-yo between being proud of her sexuality and path in life, to feeling disgusted, “I’m nothing but a faggot” which demonstrates the tumultuous rage often experienced with coming of age sexuality. But, with an added distressing aspect – her home country of Algeria, would imprison her for displaying her love for women. 

Image: Paris nightlife via Pixabay

Being looks back on her life. This element shows herself starting to accept her identity and letting go of the past. She appears to have found happiness and self love, as a relationship with another woman blooms, “I am the same but I’ve changed, I’ve let go, I’m floating free on this waking dream….” The kind of self acceptance Nina finds, was relieving to read, after Nina’s continuous periods of self doubt. Finally, she appears to be content. 

A stunning, autobiographical portrayal of the inner, psychological battle. Torn between two cultures and two ways of living, this documents Nina’s transition between hiding from the world and herself, and embracing it. Harrowing and dark at times, but also uplifting and beautiful.

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Book Review: The Shelf (ARC)

First of all, a huge thank you to NetGalley and Bonnier Books UK for sending me an advanced copy of this book – but please note, this doesn’t influence my review. The Shelf is due to be published on 9th July, 2020. It is currently available for pre-order via Amazon and Waterstones.

Synopsis

Amy suddenly has to prepare herself for a surprise holiday with her boyfriend. He’s even ordered a limo to pick them up. Blindfolded, Amy can barely contain herself for what she thinks is going to be a proposal. However, a dreamy vision of a proposal holiday is soon turned into a nightmare – as Amy realises she has been left alone on a TV set.  Jamie has taken her here to dump her. As if a break up isn’t hard enough, Jamie makes sure Amy is as publicly embarrassed as he can. 

Amy and five other dumped women soon discover they are on a new reality TV show called ‘The Shelf.’ The goal is to win the program through a series of challenges that prove their compatibility and motherly instincts. By a public vote, one of them will be crowned The Keeper. An inherently sexist premise of course, but I gathered this was the point.

Review

Image: via Helly Acton

Title: The Shelf

Author: Helly Acton

Genre: Women’s Fiction

My rating: ★★★☆☆

With many parallels to Love Island – The Shelf puts its female contestants through a hard time, with constant rolling social media coverage featuring the public’s opinion of each candidate. Winning the public vote is harder than it seems. Will the women realise they are better off without their exes who had the nerve to dump them on a reality TV show? Each candidate is put through a series of challenges designed to test them – from plastic babies to hosting the perfect tea party.

This is a compelling, re-interpretation of the ‘chick-lit’ genre. Unlike the standard women’s romance novel that results in the leading female character happily in love with her dream man, this novel illustrates the importance of a happy ending that doesn’t have to depend on finding love – but loving yourself.

Amy, the protagonist, has put herself through two years of slog in her relationship with Jamie, endlessly hoping that he would pop the question. She had grown used to his taunts about her body, her neediness and other ‘faults,’ but had placed them to one side in the hope they would get married and have a happy future. Throughout this time, she had lost parts of herself – it takes the entire duration of the novel for her to realise this.

Single over thirty is like an illness that’s too awkward and depressing to talk about.”

Instead of aiming to become the male ideal embodied by ‘The Keeper,’ she decides to portray an important message to women. That you are always enough on your own, and you don’t need anyone else (but especially a man) to complete you. For me, this is where the important, feminist message comes across. In having a character like Amy as the protagonist, the novel really thrusts to the forefront the significance of women being their own person and not succumbing to societal pressures.

Amy is the modern day Bridget Jones with an essential twist, she ditches the yo-yo diets, marriage expectations, and the fairytale Mr Darcy, replacing these with a new appreciation of herself and living life the way she wants to. I found this feminist take incredibley refreshing and much needed in this social media driven age, where everything is about women comparing themselves to others. It is so easy to get sucked into the highlight reels of others, that we forget to be ourselves. And this is exactly what the novel is commenting on.

Image: alison rachel via Pinterest

Life on a reality TV show is peppered with the glare of social media all over the contestants, each are judged 24/7 by the timelines fuelled by the public. The setting is incredibly similar to Love Island. If I’m honest I found some of the similarities, such as the baby challenge, very cliche, which detracted from the novel’s more poignant message. Although I enjoyed the read, even laughing out loud from some of Amy’s comical one liners, I did find the plot predictable from the start. I think basing it on the parameters of Love Island, meant it was bound to be predictable in some ways.

The show is dominated by old fashioned, male chauvinists who believe women should still be a 1950s housewife, much to most of the contestants dismay.

“Selfish Jackie! Distant Gemma! Bitter Kathy! Desperate Amy! Boring Hattie! And last but not least, Easy Lauren!”

However, having a lead character like Amy is central to this book as it goes against the very grain that the TV show setting creates. Amy does not let herself be lured into society’s pressures on women – but uses the experience to go against this, and against what she previously thought her life should value. This is a part of the book that I really liked. Amy’s strength of character and likeability really drives the novel and reveals its best parts and the central message to women.

“I am my own keeper…Be your own keeper. Each and every one of you.”

Above all, I admire this book because it’s message is an imperative one that puts contemporary feminism at the forefront of the social media, digital age. Amy goes through a journey of self discovery and realises she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. The societal pressures on getting married and having children is a false one, which can distract women from being their best selves. This ideal is often glamorized in the romance genre – I am very thankful this book did the opposite.

This book is different to anything I usually read but it certainly ticked a lot of boxes. It made me laugh out loud, I loved the main character, and appreciated the important message it conveys to women about self love. However, it didn’t blow me away, because I found the plot quite predictable and cliche. The ending was also disappointing and I was left wanting to know more. That said, I definitely enjoyed reading this book and was drawn in by the initial strange events when Amy realises she is not, in fact, going on a dreamy romantic holiday.

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