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Eloisa James – When Beauty Tamed The Beast

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Tale as old as 2011.

Publisher: Avon (HarperCollins)
Pages: 372
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-062-02127-4
First Published: 25th January 2011
Date Reviewed: 13th January 2019
Rating: 3/5

Linnet is ruined; having chosen for a social event a dress that she didn’t notice bulged in a particular area, society now assumes she is pregnant, and not without reason – she’d been flirting with a prince. Now with a non-existent baby on the way, she has to marry fast, but who will have her? The sole option is the Earl of Marchant, an impotent doctor whose father is desperate for a grandchild and obsessed with royalty. But Marchant is known to be a difficult man, and Linnet decides she’ll make him fall for her swiftly and then she’ll try to get over the whole thing.

When Beauty Tamed The Beast is James’ 1700s (or so) romance adaptation of the classic story. The second of a series, it’s a standalone amongst other fairy tale re-tellings.

This book is split roughly 50-50 in terms of adaptation content, where half the time the story falls in line with the rest of James’ work, and the rest of the time is spent conforming to the adaptation enough that it switches between very-loosely-based-on and fairly-faithful retelling. It’s often funny, there are truly silly moments, it’s well-written, and time is spent developing the relationship. Some of the literary devices to create the fairy tale come naturally, such as the old castle, which James’ chosen time period gels with well, but there are a noticeable number of elements and scenes where the classic tale is shoehorned in, such as the hero’s exclamations of “I’m a/the beast!”.

‘Hero’ is open to interpretation here – many will love Piers, who is James’ bookish take on Hugh Laurie’s character, House; others will perhaps take a step back, often. (This reviewer had not seen House M.D. until reaching James’ acknowledgements, but 3 minutes on YouTube was enough to see that Piers and House are one and the same, history aside.) The Hugh Laurie context by itself works very well, and if you read the book with that in mind it may be easier, however with the romance and ‘uninspired’, so to speak, heroine, it may give you pause – Piers is not a great person, and whilst the backing of the fairy tale says a lot, he can go a little too far. Linnet, whilst not a great person to begin with, very quickly falls in beside Piers, so you’ve effectively got two not-great characters but with an added vibe to Piers that can be difficult to read about.

The inclusion of a physical disability, another aspect of House, is well presented in terms of reality, and James tends to balance the pain and upset (and, in this case, in keeping to the tale, anger) with your regular personality. There is a point towards the end where it gets a bit too… inspirational (and the heroine’s plight only adds to this), but that’s at least a short section. More to the point is the penultimate conflict towards the end, the chapters of illness and making the heroine ugly to help inform the balance of the relationship – unnecessary, given the conclusion is hardly going to end on a sad note. It’s also too long.

The best part of the book is the first half – though humour runs throughout, it’s in the first half that the story works well and the literary devices for the sake of the re-telling aren’t hammered home.

However, for all it could have been a bit more original in its re-telling – oxymoron intended – When Beauty Tamed The Beast succeeds in being an enjoyable quick read. Just consider Beauty and Beast to be a mere idea, the library (of this book) bog standard compared to Disney’s 1991 version, and replace ‘Tamed’ with ‘Gamed’ for a better fit.

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Weike Wang – Chemistry

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In all its forms.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 209
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-60367-5
First Published: 23rd May 2017; 31st May 2018 by Text Publishing
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her fairly long-term boyfriend Eric. She enjoys her time with him but isn’t sure about saying yes, and she’s not sure why. As the days after an answer was requested continue to roll by, she muses over their relationship, her childhood and present relationship with her parents, and her situation as a PhD chemistry student, trying to work out what she should do in life in general.

Chemistry is a deceptively complex novel awash with superb characterisation.

It seems so simple – formatted in a medium-sized type face, with large margins and many scene breaks that are effectively vignettes, Chemistry presents itself as an easy and quick read; and in many ways it is, the text itself fun and straight forward, winsome. But once you look beyond the surface, which you’ll find happens naturally as you continue reading, the depth and complexity of the novel starts to pour from the spine.

And there really is a lot to this short novel. The first-person narrative, which flips about in time to slowly uncover for both the reader and also the narrator herself why she feels as she does, is told in a slightly broken English that reflects her situation as a Chinese American who, whilst having been in the country since early childhood, has struggled with her parent’s expectations, school bullying, and what is presented as gentle teasing by Eric (which of course you slowly see has had quite an adverse effect).

The writing also allows Wang to develop a strong comedic streak to the book, which, whilst not often commented on, it’s revealed the character is ‘in’ on herself.

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

You might expect that, given the sense of distance – somewhat literal – that can occur between reader and text due to the nature of vignettes, the characters would feel distant, but that is far from the case here. Despite the lack of a name for the narrator, and despite the fact that everything you hear about others is told solely through her in a report-like manner, there is an incredible strength to the characterisation of everyone, even the dog. (The dog is marvelous.) Wang has created a fully-realised cast of characters that are fantastic to read about and the lack of a name for the narrator becomes a very good argument for time spent developing characters – in this case, the lack of a name is of no importance; she didn’t need one. It could be argued you get a better sense of who the person is without it, because without a name to fall back on in order to reference her (though of course you can say ‘unnamed narrator’ as the blurb says and I’ve repeated) you are even more aware of her personality. And Wang takes this concept further – the only people who are named are Eric, and the narrator’s parents. Even the dog is called ‘dog’.

There just might be a point to that separation between the named and unnamed. Something the narrator has struggled with, that you come to feel she’s starting to realise but can’t quite grasp due to her upbringing and family culture, is the emotional and somewhat intellectual neglect she’s suffered from her parents, who at once want her to be great like her father but don’t offer the more subtle things she needs in order to reach her considered potential, a potential that she receives a lot of pressure to fulfill. One of the repeated situations in the book is that of the narrator’s visits to a counselor – shrink, she calls them, pointedly – who questions how she feels in the context of her background, trying to help her see that where she feels like a complete failure at life in general, these things have largely happened as a result of what she didn’t and still hasn’t received from her various relationships.

Let’s not forget the science and the industry – Chemistry is teaming with scientific facts made easy to understand. The narrator’s knowledge and Wang’s background in the subject make for a wonderful element that is both a backdrop for the rest of the story and a huge factor in itself. The facts are woven into the narrator’s feelings and experiences, a point here, an atom of knowledge there, so that you’re always learning (or revising!), never taking a break from the rest of the story.

Refraction is why I am not invisible. It is also why things in water, like fish, appear farther and bigger than you think, and once that fish gets pulled out of the water, you are vastly disappointed.

And yes, of course, ‘chemistry’ here is also romantic.

At its heart, then, Chemistry is a story about identity, which won’t surprise you if you consider other unnamed narrators, such as the second Mrs de Winter. It’s a story of indecision, the discovery of identity and personhood in general needing to happen before the decisions can follow. And it’s a story that will grip you until the final page, where Wang both ties things up in a beautiful, contextually reflective bow, and leaves you with the ribbon hanging loosely so that you can come to a bit of a conclusion and pulls the ends tightly by yourself.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

This book is better than a whole lab of experiments.

I received this book for review.

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Tahmima Anam – The Bones Of Grace

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One epic love letter.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 407
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-847-67977-2
First Published: 19th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th June 2016
Rating: 4/5

Zubaida was studying in America when she met him: Elijah, a man she came to know for just a few days; she had to leave for Pakistan when her university department’s hopes of uncovering an ancient fossil were realised. But when the project came to an abrupt halt, Zubaida went back to her native Bangladesh and married her childhood friend, effectively bringing an end to her acquaintance with Elijah. Years later, after meeting and splitting from him again, she has chosen to tell him everything in a letter.

The Bones Of Grace is a somewhat epic story that also includes another story within the story. It’s the sort of book you’ll likely either love or hate (very difficult to rate!) but either way appreciate the background detailing.

What first strikes you is Anam’s writing – it’s sublime. There are no two ways about it. It’s the sort of writing that is so wonderful, so well put together, so constant, that it has a very real affect on the novel’s flaws. You won’t dismiss the flaws, but you will feel as though you want to dismiss them. But what’s interesting is that this isn’t necessarily Anam’s natural writing style, it’s all Zubaida – during the story within a story, where we hear directly from Anwar (and it’s just that Zubaida has included his words in her letter) the writing is very different. More… male, appropriately. (Anwar is a man looking for his past love who puts his search on hold when he runs out of money.) Zubaida’s words, the flow of her writing, does make up somewhat for what could be called a frustrating narrative.

And I could imagine almost every day of your childhood, because it would have been documented in films or on television – in that way, you had probably lived a deeply unremarkable life, had experiences without specificity, and that had bothered you, the way my own past grated at me. All the things that irrritated you were things that I longed for, and all the things you longed for were things I took for granted.

I want to tackle this narrative before moving forward (hopefully the above extract exudes the quality and how the narrative can be both beautiful in what it says and, to use a word from the extract, grating). Whether Zubaida is annoying is really up to you, your personality, and, likely, down to your own experience of love and heartbreak. That Anam has captured her particular tale in a very honest way is hard to dispute – I think we’ve all had times when we’ve realised we’re dwelling too much on something and need to stop discussing it, and that that doesn’t always mean we stop thinking about it – it’s just a case of whether you’re happy to spend 400 pages on it and, indeed, whether you believe in this woman, Zubaida, writing a 400 page letter of excuse and apology.

Of course without the number of pages, we wouldn’t have a novel, we’d have a pamphlet, a novella at most, so this is where the background and ship-breaking comes in.

“It’s a cruel industry. For years we’ve been working slowly, patiently with the owners. Suddenly she comes and tells us how terrible things are. A film isn’t going to change anything.”

Anam uses Zubaida to look at the end-of-life of ships, in this case a cruise ship. There is the time when the ship is created – overseas – and sets sail, multiple times – overseas – and then, when it’s deemed too old, it comes to Bangladesh where men work for little pay, breaking it into pieces to be sold on. Zubaida comes to the beach as a translator for a western reporter who is looking to make a film (and possibly press charges against the management). Through Zubaida, Anam shows the horrors of the situation – the lack of safety, the deaths, and the exposure to chemicals and other toxic ingredients the workers face. It’s a uniquely-realised story. The inclusion of Anwar’s story, in which he comes to work at a ship-breaking beach, adds to the level of detail involved.

Then there is the palaeontology. Zubaida’s passion is the study of the fossil of a walking whale – a creature that slowly evolved to live under water whilst other creatures evolved to live out of it. Her journey is set around her attempts to get access to the fossil, first overseas then through the removal and sending of the bones to America. The journey shows the conflict between work (the will to, in this case) and relationships. Anam is an anthropologist which means you get a lot of detailing, but her writer self stops it becoming too much.

Amidst this is Zubaida’s lifelong mental conflict – she was adopted, lives in a well-off family and her fiancé is rich, but she doesn’t know anything about her birth mother and starts to feel a need to know where she came from. This is where privilege and class enters, where the underlining of Zubaida’s poorer beginnings limits what there is for her to know. It’s there in the background when she begins to question, no matter what category the question comes under; her thoughts of love, duty, and Elijah are informed by her adoption. In meeting Elijah she finds herself thinking of things she’d never thought about before and quite possibly never would have otherwise, and family duty and a general lack of mental strength hold her back from taking it further. She has all this luxury in consequence of being with Rashid, she’s lucky, she shouldn’t be thinking of Elijah. But she is thinking of him.

And amidst this turmoil is a minor story – minor in how much time it takes up (it’s big in terms of real-world impact) – of war, of the effects of it and of war crimes coming to light. Zubaida’s mother has spent her years working towards justice. Her father’s work and business has been ethical. You see glimpses of the Bangladesh war.

Now the ‘twist’, if it can be called so, that you start to see when Anwar makes his entrance (because if a stranger becomes involved you know there’s got to be a connection somewhere), isn’t as predictable as you might first think. It’s quite likely you’ll guess correctly, and, yes, of course this part of the narrative could be considered a device because how likely is it that it’d all happen in real life and so on, but it’s a novel after all. The reveal is pretty satisfying – it won’t blow your socks off but it may well make up for any frustration you had been feeling due to the way Anam goes about it. Make no mistake – don’t go assuming the twist the main reason for the book. It’s not – the book is all about the journey, the writing, the history, the palaeontology, and the ship-breaking – but it does give it an extra lift.

The Bones Of Grace is a slow-paced book. There’s not really any action in it; certainly that it’s one long letter should suggest this as a possibility. It’s very much a literary book, an issues book, wherein the pleasure is in its bookish sensuality.

If you like the sound of that and if what’s heralded as good about it hits the right notes for you, it’s likely you’ll fall completely in love with it. If it doesn’t hit the right note, you’ll likely still appreciate it but it may take you a while to get through.

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Midge Raymond – My Last Continent

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Some have check-lists. Others just a particular passion.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 306
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-35548-2
First Published: 21st June 2016
Date Reviewed: 4th July 2016
Rating: 4/5

Deb works as a naturalist. She’s rarely at home, instead spending most of her time studying penguins and teaching tourists, travelling to Antarctica and spending nights there. On one such trip she met Keller, an ex-lawyer who had signed up as a dishwasher in a bid to get to the coldest continent; he had persuaded her to let him tag along on explorations. Speaking now of the past, Deb interweaves these stories with the one in which a cruise ship has veered too close to the ice – a ship Keller happened to be on at the time.

My Last Continent is an oft-epic tale of Antarctic exploration, the damage of tourism to that environment and the effects of very real dangers, complimented by an at times very moving love story.

Dealing with the storytelling first, the story jumps this way and that way in time – the only constant is that you know you’ll be heading back to the story of the ship wreck and that that story will command the end section of the book. The structure means you know a disaster will happen – the ‘present day’ chapters, for want of a better term, are labelled in terms of days before the tragedy and the rest of the chapters move about on a very flexible time scale, any when from ‘six months until shipwreck’ to ‘twenty years before shipwreck’. This means that it’s difficult to get a sense of where exactly you are in time because the structure is so jumpy, but it’s not a loss overall. Yes, you may be confused by, for example, Deb mentioning Dennis in a particular chapter when you’d thought he’d not arrived in her life by that time, but as the main event is that shipwreck, it’s not much to worry about.

As you know how the book will end (you know what’s happened to Deb and Keller before Keller is introduced in person) this book’s romantic element is focused more on the journey than any result. This works in Raymond’s favour; whilst you as the reader may feel you can pull back somewhat from being enveloped, knowing how it will end and that you’re reading of Keller in the past also means that Raymond can throw caution to the wind. Would Deb and Keller’s story sound, yes, sad, but also too… mushy… in another book? Perhaps. But here it works. That’s not to say we’ve Titanic – Jack and Rose – levels of romance, because we haven’t. Raymond’s dedication to the research element of her story, and her non-tourist characters’ dedication to their work, has a very grounding affect on the romance.

Let’s look at Raymond’s dedication to the facts – in My Last Continent we have a book that sports a lot of info-dumping, but in this case the result can be considered a unicorn, that word now used as much to describe things that are miraculously unique as much as it describes a mythical animal. When you consider fiction normally, info-dumping is bad because it tells us things we could work out on our own – just tell us the basic details, we can add the dining room and picket fence all on our own. We know how people eat, sleep, bathe. But as Raymond is talking about Antarctica all bets are off – how many readers have been to Antarctica? It’s a case of knowing Raymond has info-dumped but truly being able to gloss over it because it’s interesting. We need the world building. (This said there are a couple of conversations that push it a bit too far, conversations that are obvious devices, that could have done with a rewrite.)

The information serves a second purpose. Beyond helping you form a not-so-stereotypical image in your head, Raymond is concerned about conservation and the impact human exploration has on the wildlife and climate of Antarctica. She doesn’t preach – what she does most is to show the effects. Her story, which effectively casts you, the reader, as a passenger on the journey along with the fictional tourists who will come to be aware of the problems. Sometimes you’ll know about the problems because Deb’s talked about them, other times your ever-expanding knowledge will clue you in itself. So this means that you are reading a work that sits on the fence between fact and fiction and is obviously heavily tuned towards teaching, but this lesson doesn’t over-burden. And that’s all down to Raymond’s crafting of the romance.

Raymond doesn’t draw too many lines. Whilst she points out that tourism is a problem, her tourist characters are mostly people who want to help, through their discovery of the problems en route. Many characters are there to show how dangerous the continent can be. As much as tourism is a problem, she says in subtext, these explorers are here and whilst they’re studying they aren’t immune from that label themselves.

In reading My Last Continent you’re signing up for a romance in snow that’s anything but a winter wonderland. You’re signing up to a book that’s not quite fiction. You’re signing up for a book that’s not a relaxing read. You’re here to learn. But for all that you get an excellent introduction to Antarctica, a fast-paced story, a good romance, and knowledge you can take with you beyond the last pages.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Suzanne O’Sullivan – It’s All In Your Head

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Well, not quite.

Publisher: Vintage (Random House)
Pages: 315
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-099-59785-8
First Published: 4th June 2015
Date Reviewed: 27th April 2016
Rating: 4/5

O’Sullivan is a doctor of Neurology and her particular interest is in Psychosomatic Illness. Here she reccounts stories of patients, talks about the history of somatic illness – hysteria, neurasthenia – in a bid to bring more light onto a subject she feels isn’t taken seriously enough.

It’s All In Your Head is an unfortunately titled work that nevertheless pulls itself away from its cover to be something rather important and informative.

First things first – I’m no doctor. I can’t vouch for O’Sullivan’s research or anything like that, but I will say she deals with illness and disease objectively in most cases. Her book is well-written – it’s not dry and the pages turn swiftly; there’s a sense she wanted to bring an element of the style of fiction (not fiction itself, of course) to make the book more readable. It works.

O’Sullivan is on a mission to get Psychosomatic Illness taken more seriously and for the most part she does this with flying colours. Yes, there are many stories that are not concluded – presumably this is because she doesn’t always see patients a second time – but she does follow through when she can. The only thing is that many chapters supposedly based on one patient – chapters are named for the patient at hand – drift off to others.

This is very much a medical history book as much as one on modern day care. O’Sullivan gives a substantial amount of time, split up over the chapters – which means it never becomes too heavy – to detailing the progression of medical findings and beliefs. She details Hippocrates’ thoughts, those of Galen, and spends time on Charcot and Freud, who both went to lengths to work out what was going on. She speaks of the social thinking that weighed on prognoses, for example the ‘hysteria’ largely considered a female problem that was down to the female reproductive system and the way the uterus would move around the body (yes, they really thought that happened – where the organ could go without people having a moving deformity at times is anyone’s guess). This information may not really achieve anything as such, but it brings a bit of variety to an otherwise understandably repetitive work. (This said, O’Sullivan does literally repeat herself on occasion, and you’ll be wondering if you’re experiencing déjà vu or just don’t have the knowledge to note the specifics.)

O’Sullivan is objective and honest in regards to herself. She speaks openly of her youthful giggles when someone who said they couldn’t see showed signs that they could. She speaks of times she made the wrong decisions. And she goes very boldly into controversial territory, speaking out about CFS which she considers to be caused by psychological issues. This section may well put readers off, and she is very strong in her view with less source work than she otherwise uses. She knows her opinion is unpopular. And O’Sullivan’s conclusion is very firm – disabilities caused by Psychosomatic Illness should be on a par, culturally and socially, with physical disabilities caused organically (a ‘regular’ cause if you will – Cerebral Palsy, MS, paralysis due to an accident).

It’s All In Your Head talks about an important issue in medicine that needs more research. It details how someone can have a physical reaction to emotional trauma and that as such the trauma should be addressed rather than the patient laughed out of the room, but it does go a bit too far on occasion.

I received this book at the Wellcome Book Prize blogger’s brunch.

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