Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

31349579I’ve seen a few suggestions on Booktube that this is the book that should have won the Bailey’s Prize and I can certainly see why everyone was so impressed (I’m glad I don’t have to decide between this and The Power myself)

Yejide has been married for husband, Akin, for years but there is no child. Her relatives turn up one day with a strange woman- they’ve arranged for her husband to have a second wife. Against the political upheaval of 80s Nigeria, Yejide tries everything in her power to have a child with devastating consequences….

This book completely engulfed me and turned out to be completely different to what I had expected from the blurb and the title. It went somewhere I didn’t expect and I ended up reading this story well into the night, not just to see where the plot was going but also because Yejide’s life made me ache for her. I wanted badly for her to be alright.

These days I tell myself that is why I stretch to accommodate every level of indignity. So that I could have someone who would look for me if I went missing.

Despite the slow horror after horror emerging like shadows in this story it is not bleak. It is full of magic and fairytales and dark humour; Yejide isn’t the type of heroine who just lies down and lets things happen to her, “Fumi don’t let me see your broomstick legs in this place ever again.”

Mean while the rising tension of political and social turbulence seeps into their daily lives. It was fascinating and gave a wider context to the story. I felt like we were leading up to a crash.

 

Love is the driving force in this book which is why you never lose hope that things will get better. I can’t believe this is a debut novel, it is not only incredibly moving but its pacing, characterisation and plot are masterfully written. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to be swept away.

 

 

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Deathless by Catherine M. Valente

deathlessFrom the first chapter of Deathless, I was ordering, pleading with myself to slow down and not to read so fast. But I couldn’t help gobbling the story down in one lavish gulp. Valente has written book that is both beautifully written and exactly the kind of book I love to read.

Set against the backdrop of Russia in the twentieth century, the story follows Marya Morevna as she watches the world change from a narrow house in Leningrad. A young man who is neither young or a man knocks on her door; he is Koschei, the Tsar of Life and he is Marya’s fate.

Every part of this book was so clever and imaginative I felt like I was stopping to gawp at the pages every five minutes. Valente writes the kind of story where I can hunt for the hidden meaning buried inside each passage or let the true significance fly over my head and just admire how beautiful it is.

After that, Marya Morevna understood that she belonged to her secret and it belonged to her. They had struck a bloody bargain between them. Keep me and obey me, the secret said to her, for I am your husband and I can destroy you.

This is what magical stories should always be. Showing the real world for what it is. Where the mythological world reflects the real world, where house elves have embraced Stalinism and the Tsar of life is at war with the Tsar of death. Where everyone pretends not to know what happened yesterday and the dead still have to go to work the next morning. Where Baba Yaga rides her pestle and mortar and turns girls into soup. The rich world of Russian folklore has been weaved into the twentieth century so effortlessly it sent shivers through me even though these are not the stories I grew up with.

After reading this gorgeous book and glancing at Valente’s website, where I see she has written a number of fantasy books and won dozens of prestigious awards, I can’t believe it has taken me this long to read one of her works.  I recommend Deathless not only to fantasy fans but also to those who love history and writers with a mastery over storytelling and the English language.

 

 

The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Láinez

thewanderingunicornEl Unicorno or The Wandering Unicorn is one of the most bizarre books I have ever read. It was written by the Argentinean author Manuel Mujica Láinez in 1964 and translated by Mary Sitton into English. The only copy I could get was a battered Berkley edition from 1984 so I don’t think it has recently been reprinted.

The story begins with the infamous medieval romance about Melusine the fairy, who marries Raimondin of Lusignan until their marriage disintegrates when he sees her half serpent body in the bath and she is compelled to go screaming around one of the many castles she has built. The tale then follows Melusine watching her family branching out across Medieval France and across to Palestine during the crusades.

I haven’t seen mythology this rich and archaic since I studied Arthurian literature at university. Fairies, unicorn horns, heraldic banners, knight’s templar, Jerusalem and angels living like monks in castle towers.

“From my retreat in the church tower I could see across to his cell and watch him pacing up and down, reading his devotions by the feeble light of a taper; but though we were neighbours, and the only non-human inhabitants of  Lusignan, we never exchanged a word.”

The main thread of this story is Melusine falling in love with her very distant descendant, Aoil, who has no personality to speak of. Melusine’s endless resentment and jealousy of other women bored me to tears and I found her stalking of a fifteen year old boy and lusting after him deeply disturbing especially when he was in the bath or sleeping. The only character I could have liked was Aoil’s half sister (who has some peculiar issues herself) but I strangely found her the only one I could feel empathy with

This is not a story to read in big sections; it takes concentration. Mainez goes off into tangents about the history of everything. The dry humour and lushness of imagination saved this from being tedious but authors like Susanne Clarke in Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell managed to do this with more success. The story definitely picks up halfway through and I didn’t have to force myself to read anymore especially when there is an utterly briliant twist I did not see coming.

Since this story follows the medieval tradition of the crusades there is a lot of Orientalism, Islamaphobia, anti-blackness and general western superiority. There are some people who would excuse this with being “a thing of its time” but it is never fun to read about. Nevertheless this is a very odd yet beautiful book and like Jorge Luis Borges said in his introduction: “a glowing dream of the past

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

20706317This is the kind of book you’ll stay up all night to read.

Harry August lies on his deathbed for the 11th time. A little girl calmly sits beside him and says “I nearly missed you Dr August. I need to send a message”

In the world North has created, a few people live their lives over and over again. They die and wake up as an infant back in the same exact time and place they were born. At the end of his eleventh life a little girl, who has also lived several lives, passes on an ominous message to Harry, a warning that has been passed down through generations of people like them.

I loved so many things about this book, the tightly woven plot, the ethics of messing with time and a deep and complicated friendship that transformed with each lifetime. And I loved the main character, Harry, who successfully carried the story with empathy and dry humour as he deals with living the same life over and over again:

Naturally my reaction to being born again precisely where I had begun – in the women’s restroom of Berwick-upon-Tweed station, on New Year’s Day 1919, with all the memories of my life that had gone before, induced its own rather clichéd madness in me.

Harry as a character grew on me with a slow burn until before I knew it, it was three in the morning and I was on tenterhooks for what he was going to do next. North expertly illustrates a man who is seemingly dispassionate about life and “linears” who live just once through it but we start to see that’s not quite true.  I already respected his cleverness, and North expertly illustrates how dynamic his mind is without outright telling us, but it was his reaction to the briefly mentioned character Rosemary Dawsett that was the turning point for me and made me Team Harry all the way. North writes scenes that are unsentimental and yet able to devastate you at the same time

 “Forgive me,” I wrote at the bottom. “I did not think I would break.”

Quantum Physics and Nuclear Power play significant parts in this novel and the last time I took any kind of science was at GCSE level. Despite this North writes in a way that made me feel I could understand it. She gave it context, made it exciting and this is an example of the great way fiction can bring an unfamiliar subject to life. I love fiction where I organically learn things while engaged in a great story and North delivers this with effortless skill.

This is an epic story of rivalry, of friendship, alternate timelines and the power of human discovery. It is definitely my favourite fiction book so far of 2016.

The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

9780241952887Inspired by Scheherazade and a Thousand and One Nights this book is a feast of 23 short stories all starting from the moment Eva Luna’s lover asks her to tell him a story she has never told anyone before.

The tales are crammed with sensuous and slightly macabre imagery and are all written in gorgeous prose with a strong sense of Allende’s Chilean-American identity. Allende and her translator illustrate a mastery over language that made each story part of an opulent and intense world that touched all the senses. I was expecting stories that were all style and little substance but what I found was a treasure chest of warm painful and joyful human emotion.  Nevertheless there was still a thread of magical realism or even just an archaic fairytale quality to each story that made them addictive to me:

Hermelinda was the only young woman in all the land – aside from the English lady who crossed through the rose fence with her shotgun only when in search of hares; even then, all the men could glimpse was a bit of veiled hat amid a cloud of dust and yelping English setters.

The stories have a variety of protagonists from schoolteachers to sex workers, corrupt politicians to campaigning priests, spirits, tyrants and great beauties. The politics and history of Latin America simmer underneath each story often with tragic and heated results.

There wasn’t a weak story in this collection but my favourites were The Gold of Tomás Vargas, The School Teachers’s Guest and A Discreet Miracle which all had an undercurrent of humour to the difficult themes of the plot which I really enjoyed.  

There were also stories which left me with a deep feeling of horror at the fate of the characters as child slavery, human experimentation, domestic abuse and colonialism were all shown without mercy. Overall however the collection left me with an uplifting feeling as it focuses on the healing power that love and community can bring.

Fairytale Retelling Challenge 2016

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‘Tis the season for book challenge sign ups and the first one I’ve put myself down for is the Fairytale Retelling Challenge run by Mel at The Daily Prophecy . As tempted as I was to sign myself up for the highest level (Cheshire Cat) I’ve put myself more realistically at the Evil Queen – 10 t0 15 books.

-Enchanted Moura: 1 – 4 books.
-Goose Girl: 5 – 9 books.
-Evil Queen: 10 – 15 books.
-Wise princess: 16 – 20 books.
-Kuma Lisa: 21 – 25 books.
-Cheshire cat: 26+ books

Here are some of the books I’m planning to read for the challenge. There’s a mix of fairytale and mythology inspired books more than traditional retellings.

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

masterThe Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 1966, Penguin 2007, tr: R. Pevear and L. Volonkhsky,

There isn’t another book quite like this one.

One afternoon the Devil enters Moscow and starts a chain of events that leaves chaos and insanity in his wake. In another time Pontinus Pilate chooses between bravery and safety in ancient Judea and finally the courageous Margarita makes a satanic deal to save the man she loves.

This books is a dark blend of absurdity, satire, romance and philosophy and made all the more powerful when considering that Bulgakov risked his life to write the manuscript. Under the Stalinist regime the fear was so great that he burnt the manuscript and then later wrote the whole thing again by heart. The idea that the greatest sin is cowardice is portrayed heavily throughout the book.

Biblical Judea and Stalinist Moscow are the two settings in the story and both are have the suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere of an extremely oppressive state. The secret police lurk behind the pages of Bulgakov’s novel; always chillingly alluded to but never named outright.

The satanic group and the antics they get up to are dark and comical; beginning with a beheading and on to an empty suit running an office, people bursting into song and unable to stop, the events at the theatre, a cat attempting to buy a tram ticket. Actually most scenes with the cat Behemoth:

But worse things were about to be found in the bedroom: on the jeweller’s wife’s ottoman, in a casual pose, sprawled a third party- namely, a black cat of uncanny size, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had managed to spear a pickled mushroom, in the other.

And then the unsettling darkness under the mischief makers light hearted guises. The ominous disappearances that could happen to anyone in Stalin’s Russia and the fate that befell Ivan the homeless and Pontius Pilate among others.

Music has such an important role in this story that it almost begs to be adapted to screen. In some cases Bulgakov sets the atmosphere by the music; Ivan’s desperate chase after the strange man he meets on a park bench is to the opera Evgeny Onegin, the opera Aida is quoted often, the Queen of Spades is hauntingly sang in a dream and folk songs are played at Satan’s ball. Faust of course plays a major part in the entire novel.

I recommend this edition by Penguin as it has annotations throughout the book.

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in months. I went through a block of being too intimidated to write reviews in case I didn’t do the book justice. Like this one.