Review | The Etymologicon – Mark Forsyth

15956908

Paperback (Icon Books, 252 pages)

First published 2011; this edition published 2013

Rating on Goodreads: 4 stars

“What is the actual connection between disgruntled and gruntled? What links church organs to organised crime, California to the Caliphate, or brackets to codpieces?

The Etymologicon springs from Mark Forsyth’s Inky Fool blog on the strange connections between words. It’s an occasionally ribald, frequently witty and unerringly erudite guided tour of the secret labyrinth that lurks beneath the English language, taking in monks and monkeys, film buffs and buffaloes, and explaining precisely what the Rolling Stones have to do with gardening.”


Oh, I do love words. And Mark Forsyth has made me remember just how much.

The Etymologicon is clever, hilarious, and I love it. The connections between chapters and words are ingenious, and I came out feeling decidedly more enlightened about the English language.

I’d already read Forsyth’s The Horologicon, (you can find my review here) and The Etymologicon most certainly matched it in terms of brilliance, if not exceeded it. With mad chapter headings such as ‘Sausage Poison In Your Face’ and subheadings such as ‘The Scampering Champion of The Champagne Campaign’, you know you’re in for a roller coaster ride of entertainment.

And the history behind the words included is incredibly fascinating, especially when you are told how words came about and how some words briefly surfaced before vanishing off the face of the earth (see ‘gruntled’, the opposite of the still used ‘disgruntled’). Some words are downright bizarre, others magnificent and others amusing – I think my favourite has to be how ‘assassin’ came into existence, and you’ll have to read it to find out why.

(As a side note, the cover is beautiful; whoever designs Mark Forsyth’s book covers, I want to hug them. So simple, yet so exquisite. Less is definitely more in this case.)

Go out and buy this book. If you’re a word-nerd like me, you’ll adore it.

 

Review | Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

20913559

Paperback (Picador, 355 pages)

First published 2013; this edition published 2014

Rating on Goodreads: 3 stars

“Northern Iceland, 1829. A woman condemned to death for murdering her lover. A family forced to take her in. A priest tasked with absolving her. But all is not as it seems, and time is running out: winter is coming, and with it the execution date. Only she can know the truth. This is Agnes’s story.”


 

Agnes has had a tough life, that much is certain.

I won this as part of the Bailey’s Prize giveaway, and it was one of the ones that I was most excited to read. I’m fascinated by Iceland and its culture, and so Burial Rites seemed right up my street. I started it hoping for the best, and in some ways, I was not disappointed.

The characters were full of depth, and I really empathised with Agnes’s struggle. I loved the inclusion of Icelandic language and it read easily, even for someone who knows little if any Icelandic at all. The descriptions of nineteenth century Iceland were rich, and they were definitely captivating; Ms Kent has an undeniable descriptive skill.

What stopped me from speeding through this novel was the fact that I found it rather slow and difficult to get through at certain parts; it was only in the last hundred pages that I was truly gripped. The ending happened very quickly, which added to the reader’s shock, and I was left mostly satisfied. But I still found the pace of the story frustrating. Had it been faster, I would have given Burial Rites a higher rating – and yet I can appreciate why the pace was the pace it was. The novel is a contemplative one, and exploration of character and truth, and fast pace does not necessarily occur in such tales. It is a saddening, poignant story, and I know Agnes will stay with me for a long time. What makes her narrative even more moving is the fact that it is based upon true events, and I will definitely be researching them.

I will still recommend this to people, because it is a good, rich novel. Let me know what you think below if you have read it; I’d love to know your thoughts.

Review | Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

20939941

Paperback (Fourth Estate, 400 pages)

First published 2013; this edition published 2014

Rating on Goodreads: 4 stars

“From the award-winning author of ‘Half of a Yellow Sun,’ a powerful story of love, race and identity. As teenagers in Lagos, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are fleeing the country if they can. The self-assured Ifemelu departs for America. There she suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London. Thirteen years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a blogger. But after so long apart and so many changes, will they find the courage to meet again, face to face? Fearless, gripping, spanning three continents and numerous lives, ‘Americanah’ is a richly told story of love and expectation set in today’s globalized world.”


Make no mistake – this is a powerful novel.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Americanah – I have not read many books on race in Western society, with the most famous one I’ve read perhaps  being The Colour Purple by Alice Walker. At first, the jumps between past and present confused me, but I was quickly able to adapt – and I am so glad that I stuck with this novel.  What unfolds is a fascinating, wonderfully detailed, lyrical account of love, culture shock and trying to find one’s place in the world. And I loved it. The presentation of Nigeria and America through a foreigner’s eyes is vivid, the characters have so much depth – and I cannot express my delight at this book enough. Ifemelu’s blog posts are revelatory; after finishing this book, I was left with a newfound perspective on race, and I know that Americanah will stay in my mind for a long, long time.

I cannot talk about the beauty that is Americanah without mentioning the torturous, heartbreaking relationship between Obinze and Ifemelu. Though they spend most of the novel apart, Ifemelu’s sorrow and regret and sheer longing for what they once had is at once evocative and painful; I found myself gripped by the both of them – I was praying that they would be able to resolve their troubles. The writing is that realistic that I could see the two of them, feel the tension between them, and I was so invested in their bond.

(I stayed up until 2am to finish this, by the way. That’s how good Americanah is.)

Americanah is a thought-provoking, inspiring work of fiction, and I truly do recommend it. Buy it. Read it.

 

Review | Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding

856684

Paperback (Picador, 310 pages)

First published 1996; this edition published 1996

Rating on Goodreads: 4 stars

“A dazzling urban satire of modern human relations? An ironic, tragic insight into the demise of the nuclear family? Or the confused ramblings of a pissed thirty-something?”

 


Oh, Bridget. How wonderfully normal you are.

I’d been meaning to read Bridget Jones’s Diary for years and years – ever since I’d seen the film. I found the film hilarious, and I was sure the book would match it in humour.

Boy, was I right. I don’t think I went a page without either giggling, grinning or otherwise expressing a sort of amused show of solidarity. The humour is what makes this novel, and I applaud Ms Fielding for such comedic skill.

The structure of the novel is – of course – in diary form, and the events of the book take place over a year. Bridget starts a diary in an effort to reevaluate and change her life; what ensues is both life-affirming, funny and often shocking. The style is informal, engaging, and it is easy to read. The language isn’t flowery – rather, it is punctuated with many a choice word (new favourite: ‘fuckwittage’) that only adds to the novel. I don’t often say that swearing adds much to books, but it really does here.

The characters are fleshed-out, flawed and so, so human. Her mother is possibly the greatest comic example of a mother I’ve ever seen, and Bridget herself is one of the most realistic characters that I’ve come across. Daniel Cleaver makes me want to throw his own surname at him (disgusting pig of a man) whereas Mark Darcy makes me want to snort with laughter whenever I see his reactions to Bridget’s antics.

I don’t really have any negative aspects to speak about in this review, save that wonderful as it was, I don’t think I’ll be picking it up again. I think it’s one of those books that once you’ve read, you don’t need to read it again. That’s my personal opinion, however. Oh, and if you expect it to be similar to the book in terms of events – it isn’t. It’s the different events in the book that make it better – and so, so much funnier.

Bridget Jones, I salute you. Don’t ever change.

Review | Grimm Tales: For Young and Old – Philip Pullman

16126208

Paperback (Penguin Classics, 444 pages)

First published 2012; this edition published 2013

Rating on Goodreads: 3 stars

“In this beautiful book of classic fairy tales, award-winning author Philip Pullman has chosen his fifty favourite stories from the Brothers Grimm and presents them in a ‘clear as water’ retelling, in his unique and brilliant voice.

From the quests and romance of classics such as ‘Rapunzel’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Cinderella’ to the danger and wit of such lesser-known tales as ‘The Three Snake Leaves’, ‘Hans-my-Hedgehog’ and ‘Godfather Death’, Pullman brings the heart of each timeless tale to the fore, following with a brief but fascinating commentary on the story’s background and history. In his introduction, he discusses how these stories have lasted so long, and become part of our collective storytelling imagination.

These new versions show the adventures at their most lucid and engaging yet. Pullman’s Grimm Tales of wicked wives, brave children and villainous kings will have you reading, reading aloud and rereading them for many years to come.”


I’m not entirely convinced by this collection of fairy tales.

Of course, Philip Pullman is an excellent storyteller – his His Dark Materials series is proof enough of that – but it feels as though he has held back in this collection. There are some tales that are enchanting  – such as his retellings of Snow White, Rapunzel and Cinderella, and his fleshing-out of characters is convincing – but I must admit I skimmed many pages, bored. Grimm Tales is not his finest work – I feel as though he is far more skilled at original tales rather than reshapings of old.

Though I love the style, and I have a deep love for fairy tales, this collection simply did not cut it for me. I’ve given it three stars because there were a few I liked and loved, but overall, I’m not impressed by Grimm Tales. The beautiful cover cannot make up for the lack of excitement within the pages of this book.  I wish I could write a more fulfilling review, but there is very little I can add, save that I have read other, better collections than Grimm Tales.

Review | Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

Image

Paperback (Pan Macmillan, 459 pages)

First published 2013; this edition published 2014

Rating on Goodreads: 5 stars

“Cath and Wren are identical twins, and until recently they did absolutely everything together. Now they’re off to university and Wren’s decided she doesn’t want to be one half of a pair any more – she wants to dance, meet boys, go to parties and let loose. It’s not so easy for Cath. She’s horribly shy and has always buried herself in the fan fiction she writes, where she always knows exactly what to say and can write a romance far more intense than anything she’s experienced in real life. Without Wren Cath is completely on her own and totally outside her comfort zone. She’s got a surly room-mate with a charming, always-around boyfriend, a fiction-writing professor who thinks fan fiction is the end of the civilized world, a handsome classmate who only wants to talk about words …And she can’t stop worrying about her dad, who’s loving and fragile and has never really been alone. Now Cath has to decide whether she’s ready to open her heart to new people and new experiences, and she’s realizing that there’s more to learn about love than she ever thought possible …”


 

I am Cath.

I’m sure many readers will empathise completely with her, and it was almost painful for me when I realised I suffer from the same worries and anxieties (diagnosed with social phobia last year. It’s not a fun ride, kids.). Cath is so alive even though she spends most of her time in her room (I don’t blame her, bedrooms are safe). I’ve not seen a character so painfully human in a book for years, and it is this compelling ability to make characters truly come to life that makes Fangirl stand out from the crowds of YA angst look-at-me novels.

The characters are so, so beautiful. I could cry at how wonderful Rowell’s creations are. They have failings and flaws and oh goodness they are so imperfect that it’s perfect. I love books that are character explorations, and I would definitely class Fangirl as one of those.

Alongside her struggles we see her relationship and involvement with not only people, but the world of the internet that so many teenagers will love and be familiar with, myself included. To find a book that explores the realm of fan fiction took me aback, and yet filled me with cautious joy. Would this novel make a mockery of that which so many hold so dear?

Thankfully, it does not. Fangirl paints an honest, joyous picture of ‘nerd-dom’, and I found myself smiling as Cath divulged her love of fan fiction to others and found that the others had genuine interest in understanding it. The little things that every nerd will recognise made me both laugh and grin. What a brilliant concept this book is, giving a voice to those who aren’t necessarily understood and prefer to stay away from social events. It’s refreshing, to say the least.

I do have two niggles, however. One is the abrupt ending – I want to know more! I didn’t like how it ended so suddenly, and I wonder if it was intentional. The other is the excerpts of Cath’s fan fiction. Although I know fan fiction plays a huge part in the story, I found myself scanning rather than reading the excerpts, impatient to get back to Cath’s story. Of course, I’ve no doubt the excerpts relate to events in her life, but I still couldn’t bring myself to sit still and read them. Perhaps on the second read (and there will be a second read, no doubt), I’ll stop and read them, and maybe understand and appreciate.

Fangirl, aside from these niggles, is a wonderful, beautiful novel. Utterly realistic, more realistic than any book I’ve read in a long time, and it is this that makes it truly great. Ms Rowell, you are a genius.

Review | The Vanishing Witch – Karen Maitland

19015894

Paperback (Headline Review, 480 pages)

(Proof copy, 688 pages)

To be published August 2014

Rating on Goodreads: 4 stars

“Take one wealthy merchant. Add one charming widow. And one dying wife.

The reign of Richard II is troubled, the poor are about to become poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets. It’s a case of every man for himself, whatever his status or wealth. But in a world where nothing can be taken at face value, who can you trust?

The dour wool merchant?

His impulsive son?

The stepdaughter with the hypnotic eyes?

Or the raven-haired widow clutching her necklace of bloodstones?

And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it’s time to fight back, it’s all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn.”


I liked this. I liked this book a lot.

I’ll start by saying that I was given a proof copy to review by the lovely people at Bookbridgr and Headline Review – and, being a lover of historical fiction (and a medieval history student), I was only too happy to do so.

And it did not disappoint. Although it was slow to start, and I was a little clueless as to what was going on in the beginning, it soon became apparent. The plot of The Vanishing Witch gradually reveals itself rather than unfolding all at once, allowing the reader to savour it. It is infused with witchcraft and the dark supernatural, with characters so multi-faceted that you don’t quite know who to trust – I certainly made mistakes in trusting the wrong characters as I read further on!

The historical setting is lush, richly described, providing a detailed backdrop for the story, and I honestly now have a desire to visit Lincoln because of this novel. I’ve always been intrigued by old medieval towns – and Lincoln has added itself to the list.

The characterisation of each player in this plot is done extremely well, so much so that I’m going to have to read the book again to figure out the early signs and see if there are any forewarnings in their acts that I might have missed before. I’m certainly keen to do so. I think my favourite characters have to be Leonia and Edward – and if you read this book (which you definitely should), you’ll soon understand why. I should mention a soft spot for Hankin, too, and his family’s plight. My heart really did wrench for them.

All in all, a wonderful novel. If you’re a medieval history lover like myself, it should be on your list to read. If you like historical novels with added twists, it should be on your list to read.

Just put it on your list to read. You won’t regret it at all.