A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I was warned by several people that this book would break me over the course of 700+ pages and they were absolutely right. A Little Life is a gut-wrenching epic that doesn’t let up the misery for even a second. I, of course, loved it because I love miserable books.

Note: it’s difficult to talk about this one without a certain degree of spoilers. I’ve not mentioned specifics or character names in relation to things that happen, but this review will give you an overall idea of some of the events that take place. Also TW for mention of child abuse and abusive relationships throughout this whole review (and book)

The story takes place over seven decades and largely focuses on four friends; Jude, Willem, Malcolm and JB. It’s a diverse group, in terms of ethnicity, sexuality and experience. Jude remains pretty much unknown to the others for most of the story but the narrative weaves in details about the horrific abuse he suffered as a child. We see the four of them meet at college and grow up to achieve their dreams- or not in some cases- whilst navigating the difficulties of a friendship with someone who is so clearly hurting, and remains the core of the group, but refuses to left anyone in.

I read somewhere that someone had described A Little Life as the ‘great gay novel’ and it’s true that queer relationships of many kinds are represented on page (some healthily, others not) but I think it would be a disservice to imply that people can come here looking for a happy ending. There are pretty much none. There are some beautiful moments, and I don’t want to give away any more than I need to, but the overall tone of the novel is not for people who love a bit of light fluff. I should point out that neither the book, nor this review, are #ownvoices on this subject so obviously take my opinions with the scepticism they deserve; but I felt the topics of coming out in the public eye were dealt with critically and well and a breadth of different ‘healthiness’ of relationships was represented. Perhaps we’re falling in to the territory of the ‘kill your gays’ trope but as the majority of the characters are queer and no death is designed to further the story of a straight character it feels like it fits within the tone of the narrative. (Seriously no happy endings here. Even misery-loving me was yelling at the page)

I did have one glaring issue with the book that I was unable to forgive though and it kind of tainted the experience for me. I understand that the book, whilst being predominantly in third person, embodies the point of view and inner monologues of each of the characters, mainly Jude and Willem, I thought it was completely irresponsible of the author to refer to a sexual act between a nine-twelve year old boy and a middle aged man as ‘sex’. It’s rape, either call it that or don’t name it. It actually made me really angry to see it put down on a page as ‘they had sex’ because I feel like that’s a gross misuse of a writers power to challenge these things. That word shouldn’t have been anywhere near that situation, for a writer as clearly talented as Hanya Yanagihara it should have been possible to write around calling it sex. It left a bad taste in my mouth and it kind of tipped the balance in to some parts being almost like trauma porn.

Still, it is an extraordinary book and I’m not surprised it’s such a bestseller, despite the length of it and how harrowing it is. It covers everything from abusive relationships to self harm to suicide to child abuse to child prostitution to sexually transmitted diseases to friendships to gay relationships (spoiler alert: not one gay or bisexual character contracts or dies from an STI which is a welcome break from a harmful stereotype there). It’s one that I would say needs to be experienced if the subject matter appeals- it would be triggering to a lot of people and like I said before this is not one for people who value happy endings. I loved it, but I am a depressing-narrative-enthusiast.

Blog Tour: The Dry by Jane Harper

‘I just can’t understand how someone like him could do something like that.’

Amid the worst drought to ravage Australia in a century, it hasn’t rained in small country town Kiewarra for two years. Tensions in the community become unbearable when three members of the Hadler family are brutally murdered. Everyone things Luke Hadler, who committed suicide after slaughtering his wife and six-year-old son, is guilty.

Policeman Aaron Falk returns to the town of his youth for the funeral of his childhood best friend, and is unwillingly drawn into the investigation. As questions mount and suspicion spreads through the town, Falk is forced to confront the community that rejected him twenty years earlier. Because Falk and Luke Hadler shared a secret, one which Luke’s death threatens to unearth. And as Falk probes deeper into the killings, secrets from his past and why he left home bubble to the surface as he questions the truth of his friend’s crime.

The Dry is one of those books that grips you from the very beginning; throwing us straight in to the funeral of a young family that was, on the surface, a murder suicide as a result of economic depression within a small town. Returning home for the first time in year is Falk, who harbours a secret about his shared past with the friend everyone assumes killed his wife and child.

I found the setting of this one particularly interesting. The only way I can describe it is claustrophobic; Falk had got out but is drawn back in to the whispers and secrets of his small town home. The writing is beautiful and really draws you in to this crime mystery, without being sensational. It embodies small town drama whilst also being sensitive to the tragedy at the centre of the story.

I love a good crime thriller so I really enjoyed this one. It felt like an Australian Gillian Flynn novel; a gripping crime at the centre of something distinctly outback. 

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

I put off reviewing this one for a while because I am so torn on it. It’s a beautiful story about love and grief and the families we makes for ourselves… But it also falls dangerously in to a trope of killing off the only trans character to further the story of others.

Kitchen is a novel in three parts; Kitchen part one, which deals with Mikage, the narrator, moving in with Yuichi and his mother Eriko, who is a trans woman. Kitchen part two deals with Mikage and Yuichi’s grief and eventual love after Eriko is murdered in the gay club she runs. It is explicitly stated that she is murdered for being trans and I feel like the story never quite addresses that. Eriko is grieved quite profoundly by every character, but something that is a very real fear and danger for trans women across the world deserved to be more than just a passing paragraph before we focus on how her death affects her son and surrogate daughter’s relationship. So I have issue with the middle section. It is a book originally written in the 80s, but I don’t want to excuse something that could be potentially harmful to some readers.

The third part, Moonlight Shadow, also focuses intensely on grief but introduces entirely new characters. It’s almost a fantasy section, where a mysterious stranger allows a grieving woman to see her dead loved one one more time. 

Kitchen was an interesting read, especially with how it managed to be so immersive in Japanese culture within such a short book. It is beautifully written and translated, but regardless I think there are some very real issues that needed to be addressed. 

Under Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

Woow I neglected writing reviews towards the end of 2016! I got so caught up in reading all of the things in December I forgot to sit back and actually reflect on them for five minutes. I’ll be catching up- although I’m now about fifteen reviews behind.

Never mind.

This book was one of my favourites in 2016 and I’m so glad that it’s getting a lot of recognition for its portrayal of an invisible illness. I believe that it came out last week in the US, although we seem to have had in Europe for some time. Under Rose-Tainted Skies deals with the subject of extreme agoraphobia and OCD; the main character, Norah, is largely incapable of leaving her home and has various OCD rituals to get her through the day.

Things I immediately liked about this book were the fact that there was no underlying trauma behind her mental health issues and the fact that romance wasn’t used as some sort of instant cure. I’ve read a few books (mainly YA) about people with severe mental health issues and almost all of them have blamed trauma. Which, yes, is often a cause but it was nice to see a book where there no one strong catalyst. As someone who had a variety of anxiety issues growing up, it was nice to see that experience reflected and not feel like I had no right to be anxious unless one big thing had happened to me. Then, the romance; I’m generally not a romance fan, it tends to be very much designated to a secondary plot point in my eyes, so I liked the fact that a boy doesn’t come along to instantly solve Norah’s problems by helping her see the world or some such rubbing. Her mental health recovery is a work in progress, and that felt very much more real to me.

Overall, though, it’s a cute girl-meets-boy-story, with the added grit of having to work around some quite serious mental health issues. It doesn’t sugar coat them, nor does it dramatise them for effect (my favourite combination). It’s an optimistic, quick read that I think normalises something that often has a lot of stigma.

Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda

I was recommended Twenty Love Poems and A Song of Despair for my Chile book by a friend on Facebook and read it in one sitting (it’s a fairly short book). This is the fourth book I’ve reviewed for Read the World project and probably, so far, the one I’ve enjoyed the least. Not because I’m sure Pablo Neruda isn’t a genius, but because it turns out I don’t enjoy translated poetry (poetry in general I’m slightly iffy with). Which is my failing really. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it at all, just that it took a few reads for me to get my head around the poems.

I picked this one because I wanted to branch out from novels and short stories and poetry seemed like another layer (I also have some memoirs on my list). Pablo Neruda’s background fascinated me too, the idea of a politician who is also a poet is fairly outside my realm of understanding.

Objectively, the poems are beautiful representations of love and desire and I loved it the fact that my edition of the book included the original poems as well as the translation. My Spanish is awful, but I enjoyed trying to understand them before reading the translation.

Letters from Diaspora by Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura

Book number three for my Read the World project and I chose another collection of short stories for Bosnia Herzegovina, in part because I was really excited to read this book when I found it available for preorder. When I was at university part of the politics section of my degree focused on state rebuilding after war and the Bosnian war was one of my focuses. But I feel like it’s not enough to learn cold facts about a place, stories help us to understand a history far better than a textbook could.

So going in to this book I knew it wouldn’t be a happy one. Obviously, stories of displaced survivors of genocide, masquerading as civil war, are never going to be happy. But when you also take in to consideration the failure of the Bosnian government to address the massive inequalities between Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks afterwards, as well as the fact that the Bosnian war resulted in rape being categorised as a war crime for the first time, it was obviously going to be hard-hitting.

Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura writes beautifully and her stories cover an entire spectrum of experiences within the war; survivors, both Muslim and Christian, thinking back on those they lost and the country they’ve had to leave behind. There’s nothing romantic about their stories, as there’s nothing romantic about war itself.

My only minor criticism is a few typos throughout, which us perhaps a danger of self-publishing (but not the end of the world!) Letters from Diaspora is a short but powerful collection of stories.

Diversity December Bingo TBR List!

There’s a great event going on, mainly on Twitter, at the moment called the Diversity December Bingo. One of the organisers is a mutual of mine from Twitter so I’ve seen a lot of posts about floating around the past few weeks.

The idea is to pick a line in the grid and read a book that fits each square. I’ve picked the first horizontal line for my TBR list (although I’m looking at other squares to see if I’ll have time to read more this month!)

Non-Western Cultural FantasyWho Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor.

Demisexual Main CharacterRadio Silence by Alice Oseman

Mental Health AwarenessUnder Rose-Tainted Skies by Louise Gornall

POC On Book CoversWitness the Night by Kishwar Desai

Indigenous Main CharacterReservation Blues by Sherman Alexie.

A couple of these are on my list for my Read the World project too, so I’ll tick those off of the list. If anyone else fancies joining in then check out the #DiversityDecBingo hashtag on Twitter and Instagram!