Bibliophilia (iv) Book Reviews (A Mixed Bag)

I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover but how can you not? The cover says so much about it. Every so often, publishers will revamp a book with a new cover. Apparently, the least favourite book covers, or those with the lower end of sales, all happen to have a purple or purplish book cover. Fancy that? I wonder why?

I’m one of those finnicky readers that gets put off by certain types of font. I’m not a Times New Roman fan. I love the elegant Papyrus font. Just certain fonts put me off reading. I don’t know why. Anyone else a font freak?

Despite psychology, I buy a book regardless of blurb or review or cover or font. Sometimes, I’ll get it because I have a hunch it’s good. I’ll have opened it at random and a particular paragraph gripped me immediately and I’ll think, okay, you’re coming home with me. Though I prefer to buy used books.

These past few weeks I finally managed to read the books I’d borrowed from the library instead of renewing them for the umpteenth time. Plus a select few from my book tower. I’m still part-way through a few. But here are the ones worth talking about…

Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre

I had mixed feelings at first.  It started off promisingly enough, but Sartre meanders so much it takes the reader a while to figure out where he’s going.  The thing is, he doesn’t know where he’s going because he’s questioning everything at any given moment.  The existence of his hand on the table, the loneliness of night-time, the whole point of being.  We are privy to the fact that he is slowly losing his mind, or feels as if he is, and is confiding this with us.  No doubt we could name this condition now, bi-polar disorder perhaps, or a type of depression, but it is clear that he’s undergoing an emotional crisis as he persistently questions the very point of why he is here and cannot find one.  

The story continues in a present tense vein, chaotic and angsty, and I can’t help but wonder if Sartre himself was channelling his own feelings through the main character.  Given that this was the last thing he wrote before his death, it’s possible.  It was a rough draft that was found in one of his desk drawers and was published posthumously, so it may well be more of a personal journal.  You can tell it needs rewriting.  Still, though it feels largely unresolved, it contains a raw vibrancy that rough drafts often do, with some lovely turns of phrase throughout, making it very readable.

The Fine Art of Invisible Detection by Robert Goddard

I’m not crazy about Goddard as it seems he writes more to quicken the pace of a story than to make his words enchanting.  Still, he is a master of plot and this novel is an ideal example of this.  I do like the fact that the main protagonist is a Japanese woman in her late forties, a plain Jane if you will, which works to her advantage when she finds herself quite unexpectedly drawn into the world of espionage, enabling her to go about her business in an unassuming way because no one ever suspects her.  

For years, she has worked as a secretary for a well-known underground private detective in Tokyo, cases so top secret even she has no clue what they’re about or the reason behind the errands she is asked to run, but after her boss’s sudden mysterious death, she is faced with having to step into his shoes.  After spending her life blending into the background, it turns out this is the perfect quality for a private detective.  However, she does find herself entangled in one sticky situation after another, with only her wits to go by. The plot twists keep you guessing and do make up for the fact that the quality of writing is not, shall we say, electric.

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf

First of all, Wolf is such a talented writer.  If anyone’s got the right words to nail a point, she does.  Here she deals with what she terms “the Beauty Myth” – the idea that women must somehow conform to an impossible-to-achieve idea of beauty in order to be seen or heard, in any context of society, especially if they wish to be successful in the same ways as men, and especially as they age.  

She dissects this myth and lays it bare, this persistent dilemma that women face around the world: the pressure to be beautiful in order not to become invisible. She also discusses how beauty and sexuality can co-exist but are also separate things, and how the meaning of true beauty has been thwarted as a result.  

I really can’t put it as succinctly as Wolf as she is so good at explaining the whys and wherefores of how this myth began and also how as women, we can dismantle it, and collectively begin to redefine what real beauty is.  She correctly defines it as something women of all walks of life embody, in all periods of their life, who embrace their evolution as an ageing woman, the beautiful journey of it, and who come to discover that power and beauty does not diminish with age but grows.  She points out that it is this fearlessness that a patriarchal society is actually afraid of as it would disempower those who perpetuate the myth and thereby unseat the myth-makers – positions of power often filled by men.

More of a long essay than a book, I found it such an empowering read and I highly recommend it for both men and women, to recognise the beauty myth at work and to interrupt it, to encourage self-acceptance and gain more valued perspective.  

A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry by Gregory Orr

This book is wonderful.  Brimming with incredibly useful explanations, tips, theories and poetry exercises to assist the budding poet on their journey, it is a deeply enjoyable read.  I consumed it slowly in a drip-feed kind of way over the past year as it’s quite cerebral (for me, anyway) and there’s so much to take in.  Orr gives us a full in-depth view to all the various components that go into writing a poem, the many styles we can employ and how they’ve changed over the years. He covers the meaning of rhythm and meter, to the power of saying and naming things with words, and exercises to better engage the imagination when writing.  What’s more, we are given a wonderful array of poems to work with, from Whitman to Yeats, Dickinson to Neruda, Roethke to Baudelaire, that Orr uses as examples to illustrate his point or when offering us a juicy writing exercise to play with.  

The part I found most fascinating was where he talked about writing from what he refers to as our personal “threshold,” i.e. the place within ourselves where we’re at our most honest and vulnerable, our chaotic unresolved self, where we are called to dig deep and access the well where we hurt and feel and love the most.  From this place, he says, we write our very best poetry.  

I loved this book.  I will be dipping into it again and again, I’m sure. As a handbook for writing better poems, I recommend it wholeheartedly.  

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I’m not sure where to begin with this one as it is such an epic, densely populated with characters and twisting storylines.  But it’s Gaiman, so it’s easy to read, if that makes sense, in terms of writing, not so much subject matter, which always veers towards the dark side.  We follow the path of the main character, Shadow, whose story is the most interesting and mysterious.  I had such a soft spot for him, this big friendly giant of a man whose intelligence and abilities are always underestimated, and who finds himself in tricky situations more often than he’d like.  After his release from prison, he bumbles along from one crazy scenario to the next, under the instruction of an enigmatic older man who takes him under his wing and is a god in disguise, though he’s not altogether to be trusted.  

The whole tale is very filmic as it leads towards a climactic ending and is littered throughout with various gods of old from all cultures popping in and out of scenes, as well as new gods now worshipped that are growing in power.  I found it very reminiscent of Stephen King in that there is an undertone of menace as you read along, where you’re waiting for the bad thing to happen and sometimes it happens very quickly and other times you’re led along a winding path toward it and it’s unpredictable when it happens.  Then there’s a twist and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all and you’re suddenly in someone else’s dreamscape and there’s a whole other parallel narrative going on.

It’s unsettling from the off, but there are moments of surreal beauty. Gaiman’s imagination works in startling and surprising ways.  He wants the good guy to win but understands that doesn’t always happen yet there is a kind of justice to it all even though there isn’t entirely an explanation for parts that don’t make sense. If you enjoy this one, you’ll be pleased to hear there are sequels (Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog).  

I think I’ve said enough for now. Have you read any of these? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts 🙂

And what, pray tell, are you reading at the moment?

© N Nazir 2022

Bibliophilia (iii) Book Reviews (Random Reads)

I haven’t done a book post for a while and I thought I ought to address that. One, I’ve been reading a bit slower than usual and this time, one book at a time. Two, I do have a book problem, in that I’m addicted to buying books, and I really ought to get on with reading them rather than creating yet another book tower by the bed. Three, the books I did happen to read were not massively enthralling, so I didn’t feel compelled to recommend them.

Perhaps I should review them anyway? The thing is, I don’t feel comfortable giving anything a “negative” review. I only want to review stuff I wholeheartedly recommend. I’ll still read a book I’m not crazy about to the end though in case it livens up midway or has a blinder of an ending. That aside, I’ve had some great bookshop experiences lately.

Last week, in my local secondhand bookshop, I came across Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea. I’ve never read any Sartre and it seems like the kind of writer any reader worth their salt ought to notch on their desk post so I got it (literally only £1.29!). I also found a Vonnegut (£2!), a book of poetry by Margaret Atwood (£3!) and another book of poetry by Carol Ann Duffy (£2!). So it was a good day at the bookshop, people.

Anyway, I’ll stop banging on and let you know about some random reads I ardently recommend…

Blue Ticket by Sophie Mackintosh

This was a painfully beautiful read. So many poetic turns of phrase throughout that made me sigh.  No unnecessary words are used.  Some sentences are three words long.  Images are painted and left hanging.  An air of dystopia pervades the world.  You question which country this could be happening in and you have to fill in the blanks yourself. 

It deals with how women are judged within society for perfectly reasonable choices they make, and also how they are dealt with if they step over the line, drawn by an ill-natured authority. It is not for them to decide what they do with their bodies. There’s quite a parallel with what is currently happening with the anti-Abortion bill they’re trying to pass (and have passed) in certain US states.  It’s not an easy read.  Characters are acutely lonely for different reasons. Emotions are stark and glaring. You are left wondering what you would do in similar circumstances.  Still, I found this a riveting read and – to use an overused phrase – unputdownable.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

I got this a year ago, and I would have experienced it differently had I read it then. It’s quite poignant to read it with a filter of war waging in the country it talks about.  It’s actually a laugh-out-loud comedy and deals with relatable dysfunctional family scenarios with delightful dry humour, reminding you how “normal” your own family is.

It puts a lens on how family members can be so different and divided despite being blood-related, something I’ve always found fascinating. But also how one’s search for love can lead them to make shocking decisions that disturb the clan status quo, whilst also in some ways bringing it together.  Such as your elderly dad marrying someone less than half his age so she can get a passport and all his money, and he in return gets, well, other favours. A wonderful read when taking a pause between chores or for some coffee break quiet time.  Though at times the humour is dark, and darker still knowing the country it describes is being utterly destroyed as we speak.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

So I finally got round to reading some Vonnegut. And now I get why there’s so much fuss around this one. It’s a very surreal, unexpected premise for a tale. Gritty, unflinching, and at times, darkly ironic, it depicts the casual cruelty and senselessness of war told through the eyes of an accidental time traveller.

The main character has an unusual condition where he often finds himself coming unstuck in time so he is able to experience different moments in his life simultaneously. He is flung hither and yon from one reality to another, the main one being his experience of the deplorable fire bombing of Dresden in 1945, controversial because the war was coming to an end and it was therefore unnecessary (though of course, all war is unnecessary).

In a weird way, I found the whole tale very plausible. I could imagine someone having this condition. The ability to time travel as another level of extra sensory perception. And despite the subject matter, this book is infinitely readable because it’s peppered with such brilliant nuggets of wisdom and moments of candid comedy throughout.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’ve read this before but recently I had a strong urge to read it again and it was just as enchanting as I remembered it. Hemingway always takes me a while to get into, but this tale will gently sweep you away. We learn about the strange and beautiful behaviour of fish at sea told through the eyes of an age-old fisherman. We share his lamentation and the ongoing brotherly battle of wills between him and the sea creature he is trying to overcome, as they refuse to give in to each other. Both are at the other’s mercy and beyond help. This story really speaks of the bonding between man and beast. It’s moving and humbling. You’ll probably get a lump in your throat. It may well put you off fishing. It’ll certainly renew your respect for the sea.

I’m now spoilt for choice as to what to read next but it’s a lovely dilemma to have.

What are you reading at the moment?

© N Nazir 2022

Bibliophilia (ii) Book Reviews & Recommendations (Short Story Collections)

I thought I’d review some short story collections this month as, during a recent foraging session, I found a few I forgot I owned and still hadn’t got round to reading. So I finally did.

I started doing these Bibliophilia posts because I often find that no one I know has read the books I’ve read so I can’t really talk about them. And if I do, it causes spoiler alerts. I also have a couple of close friends who don’t read at all. I should probably join a book club. Maybe I’ll get onto that at some point. Anyway, I digress.

The beauty of the short story is that you often enter it right in the thick of action, and have to piece things together very quickly. There isn’t really time to fully flesh out a character’s backstory, so it’s a hefty challenge for the writer to make their readers care about what happens to them. As the reader, I like trying to figure out what’s already happened as well as what’s about to happen.

The short story collection also allows you to dip in and out and choose what you want to read at random. Which is great if you’re in the mood for a juicy short instead of a whole new epic.

Here are the goodies I recommend:

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

This was a compelling read both for its powerful imagery and familiarity, as Carter puts a new spin on old fairy tales, giving them a gothic twist and, it cannot be denied, heightened sexual undertones (The Tiger’s Bride). It’s actually a pretty feminist political read as she puts the spotlight on the feminine role in fairytales, dissecting them with a smart and critical eye, then very skilfully turning them on their head, sometimes making the female character the one to be wary of when you were tricked into thinking she needed rescuing.

At times, there is a feeling of being taken against your will but secretly wanting to be taken, a general backdrop of bewitchment and no sense for the reader how the tale might play out, as there is such an unpredictability and abruptness at play. You keep reading because the intrigue has reeled you in. Not to mention occasional moments of such bawdy dry humour, you will likely laugh out loud (Puss in Boots).

Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King

Reading Stephen King is always nostalgic because I read him a lot as a teen, so for me, he is quintessentially 90s. I thought it was about time I revisited him. This is a thick wedge of a book containing twenty five stories that are each so different, you can expect a new experience every time, as King cooks up tension and atmosphere with ease.

Some are incredibly creepy, to say the least, but then, of course they are. Others are mildly chilling and some will give you a feeling of doom from the start. Still others are cleverly macabre with twist endings (that you may see coming) and the odd one is a dull ramble of dialogue. There is a lot left to the imagination, and most of the time, the reader’s questions are answered by the end. A few I would also describe as the ultimate contemporary horror story, something you can easily imagine playing out in film, and happening in an everyday plausible way, which possibly makes them more freaky (Chattery Teeth, White Sneakers). Occasionally, there are those, I would say, (for example, The Ten ‘O’ Clock People, You Know They Got a Hell of a Band) that are quite surreal and clever in a Kubrick-esque kind of way, and King at his imaginative finest.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro

Five tales of music and nightfall is the strapline and it is truly the best way to describe this book. They speak of travelling musicians and transient relationships, spending summers in Italian piazzas or quaint English villages whilst trying to earn your keep, and the poignancy and nostalgia associated with a life like this. You will be gently wrapped up in a soft blanket by the fire, and made to feel homely and cosy before you have to move on again.

There’s some feeling of mutable magic that will creep up on you ever so softly whilst reading, and you’ll look up and realise the light is starting to change to dusk. And with it your night self will stir, as you travel from Venice to London, Malvern to LA, and experience all the good traveller feels.

This was my first taste of Ishiguro (I know, where have I been?) and although he has been dubbed “the unreliable narrator”, and I totally understand why, this read just really made me feel at home. Perhaps it will you too.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

Okay, so this one is an anomaly as it’s not a short story collection at all but a novel. I just assumed it was a bunch of short stories because of, well, the title. Silly me. I thought I’d include it anyway as I took the time to read it and it is indeed worth reading. In short, it’s an enchanting tale about a boy who has to travel far and wide with his father, a famous talented storyteller, to help him find his words again. For he has lost his words.

Which they do so whilst travelling through fantastical lands, crossing paths with a whole host of colourful characters. And of course, there is a quest that must be fulfilled. More than one, in fact, as Haroun’s mission becomes more complex the more he tries to navigate the new universe he finds himself in.

If you’re familiar with Rushdie, you’ll know how well he fleshes out his characters with a multi-layered back story, and whilst he still does this so well here, this tale is a very light read. I love Rushdie writing fantasy, his references and ideas are clever and refreshing, which surprised me because, as a writer, I sometimes find his sheer plethora of detail and plot-weaving exhausting. But this book is well-suited for younger and older adults alike. He has created a sophisticated world that is a joy to get lost in. It’s basically Rushdie writing comedy and nailing it.

I also find his use of the Punjabi / Urdu dialect for names of things delightful, as I have grown up with these languages, (this lingo is peppered throughout), so it allowed me to slide familiarly into the story. For example, it is set in the country of Alifbay (A and B in the Punjabi alphabet), they have to travel to Kahani (which means story), Khattam-Shud (the end) is the worst thing that can happen to someone, there is Gup City (meaning chatter) where is always excitement and action, and there is the land of Chup (silence) which is a dark silent place, and so on. Highly recommend.

I think I’ve talked enough so I’ll leave it there for now.

Have you read any of the above? Did you love them, or not? Are you a fan of the short story? If so, are there any great short story collections you’ve read at one time or another? Or do you prefer to get lost in a good novel instead? Feel free to comment…

© N Nazir 2022

Bibliophilia (i) Book Reviews & Recommendations (A Very Different Post)

Of course, I love books, as we all do. Writers are generally bibliophiles. Non-writers too. I can’t go past a bookshop without popping in.  If I don’t buy a book, I’ll take a bunch of front cover photos to remind me to get it later on. Lately, I’ve been lucky, the library near me is constantly selling piles of books for next to nothing, as so many people donated reads they bought over lockdown.  Really good books too, classics, prize winners, shortlisted reads.  And how cool that our lockdowns have got more people reading?

So, like you, I’ve been reading more than usual. Choice picks and old favourites (though I’ve always got a book on the go, to be honest) and I thought I’d share some of what I’ve consumed. I do have a terrible habit of reading about three books at once then flitting from one to the other. It keeps my interest in all of them ensuring I do eventually finish them. Sometimes, I even have to start a book all over again because I abandoned it too long and lost the thread.  No doubt that says a lot about me.

I won’t review everything I’ve read because, well, a lot of them aren’t worth recommending, they were just okay.

I must say, I do prefer tales set in modern times and struggle with those of a bygone era, as women don’t often get to play a great role or enact deeds of derring-do. Instead, they are often supporting characters, the meek wife, witches burned at the stake, damsels won as prizes, prostitutes or bar wenches.  Actually, that’s made their roles sound more interesting now and my argument seems to have failed. But you get my point. (Cue here for someone to suggest plenty of books with wonderful lead female characters set in all manner of historical periods and debunk my comment and make me look dumb.  Feel free, I welcome it 🙂 For the record, yes, I’ve read Jane Eyre and yes, it was good).

Here are a few I happen to think are utterly wonderful…

The Apologist by Jay Rayner

This book is so funny, I recommend it to everyone in the world. In short, it’s about a guy, a very sour and cutting restaurant critic, who upsets someone so spectacularly with his review one day, that the ensuing repercussions of this leave him filled with remorse. He then makes great efforts to make it up to the chef’s family, which is a novel exhilarating experience for him as he’s not used to having empathy or caring about people much at all.

From this point on, he decides to repent and do penance for every hurt he has ever caused anyone. With entertaining consequences. Kind of a My Name is Earl scenario but very British. In fact, it came before that. I wonder if the writer of My Name is Earl got inspiration from this…? It also pokes fun at the snobbery of the London restaurant scene. A great read. Especially if you fancy something light. Although it deals with the idea of karma in such an intelligent way, a reminder that everything you do has consequences.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I found this book pretty awe-inspiring despite its mixed reviews. Simply put, Cheryl Strayed tells her own true story of how, as a young woman in the mid-90s, she decided to trek the then fairly unventured Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Canada to Mexico, where she hiked through California, Oregon, and Washington. She completes this whole trek over three months and does so with profound bravery considering she is somewhat ill-prepared for some of the mishaps along the way. Doing the trip is her solution to work through the searing grief she carries from recent events which include the loss of her mother. With no one left in the world, she feels she has nothing to lose and begins her literal and emotional journey of healing, through walking, for endless hours, for endless days, in the wilderness. We, the reader, are tortured right alongside her as she struggles to find water and has to escape hair-raising situations.

I was moved and inspired in equal measure. It’s one of the few instances I’d say I enjoyed the film just as much as the book though for different reasons. The film is a beaut mainly because it’s such an honest reflection of the book, but I always recommend reading the book first. It also captured that exquisite sense of 90s nostalgia that never fails to seduce me.

Halfway up the Mountain by Kiran Khalap

Every sentence of this book is crafted like poetry. I almost want to describe it as poetic prose rather than a novel. It’s also written entirely in the second person which makes it more compelling to read. Poets will love this book as every other line can be used as a writing prompt. And though it deals with painful themes, it’s somehow such a soothing read.

In short, it’s about a young village girl in India who has to endure and somehow overcome the unfairness of opportunity that comes with having a traditional upbringing, and being a woman in a time and culture which does not always prize women. She does what she can to resolve her predicament, through spiritually elevating herself, and through forgiveness, themes which are threaded throughout the story. You follow her journey as she overcomes her obstacles and deals with her fate, overall. Really, it’s about the power of forgiveness, the heartache of motherhood, the valuable lessons pain has to offer, and how there is beauty to be found in almost anything.

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

I have just finished reading this diamond of a book.  It wowed me. The author is a narrator of huge skill, her plot centring around twelve women’s individual lives powerfully, authentically told, in this moving tale about trying to navigate your racial identity when faced with so many obstacles.  A much-needed voice in literature, Evaristo explores the politics of race, identity and class and takes us through each character’s path with such an informed understanding of what it means to be living in modern day Britain as a woman and specifically, as a woman of colour or mixed heritage.

She voices the black female experience, the gay black female experience, the mixed heritage transgender experience, the many ways, subtle and dark, that abuse and racism manifest, the hilarious side of dating across different generations, mixed race relationships and the fetishism of only dating a particular racial type, polyamorism and the politics of modern dating being swipe left and meet. Not to mention the politics of being a theatre-maker who can’t get a playhouse to produce your play because your work is considered too black, too real or too radical. Yet being tenacious nonetheless because like it or not, you’re an artist. It’s about how who you are is partly made up of how you’re seen by others and how you respond to those stereotypes or prejudices, how you deal with the cards you’ve been given.

Evaristo is witty, sharp, eye-opening and heart-wrenching. I was impressed not only with the depth and familiarity I experienced with each story but how deftly she weaves her characters’ paths together.  Absolutely deserving of the Booker prize.  I simply LOVE this book.  It is an utter joy to read. Anyway, did I mention it was good? Okay, I’ll stop now.


I’ll leave it there for now and do another post with more recommendations once I’ve finished the three I have my nose in at the moment.

Have you read any riveting / life-affirming / mind-blowing / rib-tickling books lately? Or indeed any of the above? Do you have some wonderful gems to share? I’d love to know your thoughts! If there is a book you consider an absolute must-read, I’ll add it to my list.

But just so you know, War and Peace is probably never going to happen. Unless you can persuade me otherwise 🙂

© N. Nazir 2021