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The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby - Review

Thursday, February 14, 2019

I read this book for my book club, I'm not sure I'd have ever chosen it myself but I'm really glad I read it. I'm looking forward to discussing it with my book club next week! Trigger warnings for death if you're going to read it. Be careful with my review, too.

It's about an optician on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which is between Sicily and Tunisia. The optician is never named, which for me adds an element of everyman about him - he's just a man who happens to be in a place at a time that he may not otherwise have been, and so may we be at some time. The optician, at the beginning of the novel, is lamenting the turn of the season in Lampedusa, meaning people are leaving for the Italian mainland and business is on the downturn. The optician and several friends are about to go out for the last time on the yacht belonging to one of them. The optician thinks about what could have happened that meant they didn't go - like a chance in the weather.

But they do go. On the second morning, the optician is lying in bed savouring the tranquillity. He goes up on deck and hears a noise that he at first takes for seagulls. Then he and the others realises that they are people screaming. They take the boat over and find people drowning in the sea.

They are migrants, coming on a boat from Africa to Europe. The boat has sunk and there are corpses everywhere. There are people still alive, too, though, screaming for help. The optician and his friends start to pull people out, scarcely able to believe what they are seeing. They pull people aboard a boat meant for ten, eventually saving 47 people. The boat is low in the water by the time they return to Lampedusa, told to leave by the Coastguard.

The migrants are taken to a centre on the island and the optician and his friends are left to deal with the trauma of what has occurred - and the knowledge that 350 more people have died, unable to be saved.

If the optician ever thought of migrants before, it was only in theoretical terms. Now he can't stop thinking about them - about the young man in the vermillion t-shirt, about the young woman found still attached to her newborn baby, about the outstretched arms of all those desperate to find sanctuary on the boat.

This is a really short book but incredibly powerful. The plight of the migrants is told horrifically - because it IS horrific that people die in unsafe boats in the sea, taken advantage of by unscrupulous traffickers and left to take their chances by the coastguards and governments. This is a true story, but names have been changed and Kirby, a journalist, has expanded the story to deftly get across the traumas suffered by all involved.

Proud by Various Authors - Edited by Juno Dawson - Review

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

I had of course heard the buzz around Proud, a new anthology featuring LGBTQ+ stories by LGBTQ+ authors. Many of the authors will already be known to you, but, like with previous similar anthology Stripes, the publishers also solicited submissions from new, as yet unpublished authors, and four are featured here. The standard of stories is so high that I've already forgotten who the unpublished authors were, they're all excellent. I read this book in a couple of days while away last week, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

There are all kinds of teenagers here and all kinds of stories - a coming out story, a getting comfortable with yourself story, a coming of age story, a running away story - and all featuring queer teenagers of many types. There's trans kids and lesbians and gay kids and kids who aren't sure where they fit in yet. My favourite ones were the ones by Tanya Byrne, Fox Benwell, and Dean Atta. Dean's is a poem and it's right at the end and it hit me right in the feels. I loved it, I thought it was a perfect ending to the anthology.

I loved Tanya's story because it was about music and making friends through music, and I loved Fox's because it was about a fierce warrior and their friends.

This is a gorgeous anthology and I will probably buy myself a paper copy when it's out in March. I received a free copy of the ebook but was not otherwise compensated for this review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

All the Invisible Things by Orlagh Collins - Review

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Where did I get it? Netgalley, thank you so much to Bloomsbury Publishing for the opportunity to read this. 

What's it about? Vetty is moving back to London with her dad and sister Arial after living for four years in Somerset. Her mum died four years ago of cancer and the family went to live with Dad's sister Wendy and her girlfriend Fran. At that point, Vetty left behind her friend Pez. She met him when they were young, and they were inseparable, but they haven't had much to do with each other since she moved away so she's nervous about seeing him again. 

She gets back to London and finds a different Pez. His parents are still arguing like always. Pez is secretive and when Vetty meets his friends, she's not impressed with the way he treats a girl he's been seeing. But Vetty also starts to fall for March, this girl, as well. People assume things about Vetty's sexuality but she isn't sure what she feels - she likes both girls and boys. 

She gets a job working in March's mum's cafe, and the two girls begin to get closer. Pez is still going through some stuff, and when he goes with Vetty back to Somerset for her aunts' wedding the two of them talk about some stuff. 

I had a few problems with this book, which was a shame because I wanted to like it more than I did. Firstly, I felt like really nothing happened. It was like one third of the way through the book before anything actually happened - before that Vetty spent a lot of time just thinking about things only. Secondly, I found it daft that in four years Pez had never visited Somerset? It's not exactly the end of the earth to get from London to there, so I just thought this was daft. Thirdly, Vetty is really called Helvetica, and her sister is called Arial, and you can call your characters what you like but why name them after fonts??? The reason given - that Vetty's mum liked the order of fonts - was just daft, and kind of a pointless part of the book? It annoyed me.

Fourthly and perhaps most of all, to say this book is supposed to be about a bisexual girl, it doesn't mention the word "bisexual" until three quarters of the way through. And this isn't something that Vetty wouldn't know, she clearly would. She talks about her sexual feelings and how she likes just a person rather than a gender, but she can't even think she might be bisexual? It felt wrong and I was unimpressed. 

What age range is it for? 13+ 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Yes, with the above caveat. The lesbian aunts was a nice touch, I liked their wedding and the conversations they had with Vetty. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Yes Pez is mixed race and I think March is too. It's set in a very diverse London, which is excellent. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No I don't think so. 

Is there any sex stuff? There's masturbation! I really liked this, I thought it was very well done and is good to see in a YA novel. There's mention of watching porn, quite a lot about idealised bodies in pornography, and other discussions of sex. 

Are drugs mentioned or used? Maybe weed, nothing else. 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, Vetty's mum died and there's something else that touches on death. 

Are there swear words? Yes 

What criticisms do I have? I think I've outlined them above. I didn't hate it, and your mileage may vary, but I was disappointed 

Would I recommend the book? Kind of, but I think there's better bisexual representation out there 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? I've been trying really hard to get to my Netgalley books, and I was looking forward to it. 

What other books is it like? It reminded me of Odd One Out by Nic Stone which I read recently. 

How many stars? Six out of ten. 

All the Invisible Things is published in March 2019. I was given a free electronic copy of the novel but was not compensated in any other way for this post. All thoughts and opinions are my own. 

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie - Review

Thursday, February 7, 2019

I'd heard about this book sometime last year since it won a bunch of awards, and I knew a few people who had read it and raved about it, so I ordered it. It's been sitting by my bed for a couple of months because I knew I wanted to get to it but wasn't sure when.

I started it on Monday and it took me a bit to get into because I wasn't sure where it was going. I had read that it was a modern telling of Antigone, but I'm not familiar with that story so I can't say if it's faithful or anything. It's about a Muslim family in London in the 21st century. Isma is the older sister, and for the last seven years, since the deaths of their mother and grandmother, she's been parent to her siblings Aneeka and Parvaiz, who are twins. Aneeka is off now at law school and Parvaiz has disappeared - supposedly to a cousin in Karachi, Pakistan, but really to fight for Islamic State in Syria.

Isma heads off to Boston, in the United States, to take up a post graduate research position. There, she meets Eamonn, an over privileged mixed race man not unknown to Isma - his father, Karamat, is from the same area of London that she grew up in and was known to Isma's family. Karamat is now a politician tipped to be Prime Minister, and in fact during the novel gets promoted to Home Secretary. Isma really likes Eamonn and hopes for more between them, but in the next part of the novel Eamonn returns to London and strikes up a relationship with Aneeka.

At this point in the book I couldn't really get where the book was going to go, but then it picked up and we moved through three other points of view before the end. I don't really want to say more as I don't want to spoil the book, but I thought it as a whole had a lot of depth and nuance. I liked Isma best, I understood how she wanted to do her duty even when it was painful. I liked how both sisters wore hijab but were very different about it, and how we the reader were let into their worlds when their heads were uncovered. I loved the setting and the politics, and I was really shocked by the ending. I knew it wasn't going to end well, but I utterly didn't expect that.

I haven't read anything by Kamila Shamsie before (I think I started and gave up on A God in Every Stone) but I definitely would again. Nine out of ten, utterly captivating.

I'm posting a picture of the blurb too because I think this helps to understand the story better.

Our House by Louise Candlish - Review

Monday, February 4, 2019

I was in the mood to read a thriller kind of novel, with a bunch of twists and turns, so when I saw this advertised for 99p I bought it on Kindle. I was hooked by the premise - a woman turns into her street one day and finds another family moving into her house. They say that she, Mrs Lawson, has signed all the contracts, along with her husband, Bram. But Fi has done no such thing and is in a state of shock.

We get four strands of narrative: Fi, on the day that house is sold, Friday the 13th of January, Fi, a couple of months later, telling her version of events on a real crime podcast, Bram, on Friday the 13th after he's absconded, and Bram's suicide note, that he starts writing on that day too. We learn that Bram had sex with someone else the previous summer, so he and Fri split up but decided to do "bird's nest" custody, meaning they both stayed in the house with their children at times, but lived elsewhere at other times. This gave Bram access to the house, and we see how he came to sell it without Fi's involvement.

I had seen that there was a twist in the last part, which kept me guessing all the way through. I picked up some red herrings and some bits, but didn't quite see what was going to happen. I liked Fi and Bram too, although I thought they both acted like terrible humans in parts. I thought Fi was a bit too obsessed with the house - it's just bricks and mortar after all, although my house isn't worth two point two million dollars so what do I know. I thought the constant 'oh and here's something else terrible that happened' was a bit frustrating, but over all I did like the book and it kept me hooked, which is exactly what I was looking for. I am giving it eight out of ten and will look for something else by the same author.

Pulp by Robin Talley - Review

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Where did I get it? I was poking around Netgalley and it was appearing as a "read now". I don't know enough about Netgalley to say whether that was just for me or generally or what, but I'd been wanting to read this book so I immediately downloaded it. Then, because I'm trying to read books I'm excited about straight away rather than put them off for months (I don't know why I do that) I started it just after the Maggie Stiefvater book. Thank you Negalley gods, anyway!

What's it about? It's about the lesbian pulp fiction books of the 1950s, which I'd heard of but don't know much about. There's a dual narrative. In 1955 we meet Janet, who's just graduated from high school and who is in love with her best friend Marie. The times mean that they can't be together; Marie's government job means that they have to be even more careful. Janet buys a pulp fiction book and falls in love with the genre and feels validated because she didn't know there were so many girls like her. She writes to the author and receives a reply, so begins to write her own book about two girls falling in love. 

In the other narrative we meet Abby, who is seventeen in 2017 and in her senior year of high school, about to apply to colleges. She and her girlfriend Linh broke up a few months ago and Abby's struggling with the feelings she still has for Linh. She loves lesbian pulp fiction books and wants to know what happened to an author called Marian Love. She also starts to write her own book in the genre, although she's trying to subvert the tropes. Her parents are falling apart but Abby buries herself in the mystery of what happened to Marian Love.

Interspersed are extracts from the novels mentioned, which I really liked reading. I would definitely read one of them in full! 

I liked the book, it's fun and moving all at the same time. I liked the stuff about how the 1950s and in particular McCarthyism meant that Janet couldn't be out about who she was. I liked that she got some good lesbian experiences, though - she has sex and she meets other lesbians in a bar. I liked that you could see the difference that sixty years of civil rights movements have made and that although things aren't perfect for Abby in 2017, she's able to be out to her family and has a ton of queer friends around her. I like how politically engaged both girls were, that's very relevant to today's teens. I liked the ending, it felt very real and was a happyish ending even if not perfect. 

I felt like some of the stuff about writing and getting published was quite meta, I felt like there was a lot of Robin's own experiences in there, which didn't detract at all from the book but which made me - an aspiring author - laugh a bit. I'm glad Robin put these bits in, it feels like she probably had fun with them. 

What age range is it for? 14+

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? Obviously! There's a non binary person too which was nice to see although they were a secondary character. 

Are any main characters people of colour? Linh is Vietnamese American and Abby is Jewish, although these aren't central themes to the book but are mentioned. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? No 

Is there any sex stuff? Yes, it's really lovely 

Are drugs mentioned or used? No I don't think so 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, somewhat violent but not explicit 

Are there swear words? Not that I recall 

What criticisms do I have? Almost none, I got a bit frustrated with Abby towards the end of the book, but I did feel sympathetic towards her 

Would I recommend the book? Yes absolutely. 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? It's ages since I read anything by Robin and I've heard really amazing things about this book so I wanted to see for myself. 

What other books is it like? It is like Robin's other books and like Becky Albertalli's. The stuff with Abby really reminded me of Leah on the Offbeat. 

How many stars? Eight out of ten! Lovely book, I'm glad I read it

All the Crooked Saints by Maggie Stiefvater - Review

Monday, January 28, 2019

Where did I get it? The library! I hadn't even heard of it, it just caught my eye because it was by Maggie. 

What's it about? It's set in the Colorado desert in 1962. There, one night, we meet three cousins, and their pirate radio station. The cousins are all in the Soria family; the Sorias left Mexico and set up a small settlement, Bicho Raro, in Colorado. There, the Saint of Bicho Raro performs miracles for the pilgrims who arrive to the village. But, the miracles never quite work out how the pilgrims think they will, making a motley crew living in the village. The Sorias can't talk to the pilgrims for fear of 'interfering' with their miracles, something which they've done in the past and which has had terrible consequences. 

Anyway, the cousins. There's Daniel, who is the current Saint of Bicho Raro because he has a lot of magic, I think? He seems pretty sick of pilgrims and performing miracles, to be honest. There's Joaquin, who seems quite desperate to get out of Bicho Raro and out of Colorado completely; he looks east for his fashion inspiration. He is the host of the radio show the cousins are putting it, under his alter ego name Diablo Diablo. Lastly there's Beatriz, second choice for Saint, but who is said to have no feelings, and who is quite worried about her parents, who are falling apart. 

Into the village arrive Tony and Pete. Tony is a DJ who needs a miracle, and Pete is a high school graduate who has been promised a truck in Bicho Raro and who is hitchhiking there. Tony gets his miracle, which backfires, and Pete is set to work. 

It took me a week to read this book, and it isn't that I didn't like it, but I found it quite dense. It skipped about a bit in point of view, which I find odd and somewhat confusing. I liked Daniel and Beatriz and some of the pilgrims, but not everyone. It's filled with Maggie's usual mix of realism and magic, which I liked. I wish we'd seen more of Beatriz's personality, and less history, but that's possibly just personal preference. It's a good book. 

What age range is it for? 14+ 

Are any main characters LGBTQ+? No 

Are any main characters people of colour? Yes, they're all Mexican Americans, except maybe Pete and some of the pilgrims? I think Maggie did a good job of incorporating this folklore, but I appreciate she is white and so am I. 

Are any main characters disabled either mentally or physically? Yes 

Is there any sex stuff? No 

Are drugs mentioned or used? No 

Is there any talk of death? Yes, it's not graphic

Are there swear words? No 

What criticisms do I have? I just.... I didn't love it. I don't think it went deep enough. I'd have liked one storyline to follow instead of lots. 

Would I recommend the book? Yes 

Why did I choose to read it at this point in life? Library deadlines

What other books is it like? Maggie's other books!

How many stars? Seven out of ten 

Where is the book going now? Back to the library... I've already had to renew it once as I didn't get to it over Christmas!



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