Iris & Ruby by Rosie Thomas — Reread Review

Memory is not a recipe of a shopping list. Memory is the scent of clear water at an oasis, the brush of lips on naked skin, a plangent chord. I cannot capture these things and dictate them to another person. I am a doctor, not a poet.

Iris & Ruby, Rosie Thomas

Iris & Ruby has been on my bookshelf for over a decade. I’ve read it once before, at a time in my life when I had a lot more space for books, and so didn’t need to worry about whether they deserved a place on my ‘keeper’ shelf of not. To be honest, I reread Iris & Ruby thinking that, after this, I would donate it and make space for a new book. Except… then I enjoyed it a lot more than I remember enjoying it.

I told him about growing up as a diplomat’s daughter, shuttled between embassies around the world with loving but distant parents who insisted, when the time came, that boarding school back home was best for me and that homesickness — for a home I couldn’t quite locate — was to be overcome by people like us, never yielded to.

Iris & Ruby, Rosie Thomas

The premise of Iris & Ruby is nothing particularly special. It starts out very much in the same way as The Lightkeeper’s Daughters, and other multi-generational twining narratives, to the extent that Ruby’s entrance to the narrative reminded me immediately of Morgan’s. The plot is fairly predictable, though it’s still satisfying to see Ruby’s relationships with various family members develop. As the daughter of a ‘travelling family’, it was recognise Iris as a fellow daughter-of-diplomats. It’s a character type I haven’t encountered too often in fiction. That, alone, might be reason enough to earn Iris & Ruby a place on my keeper shelf.

I enjoyed Rosie Thomas’s descriptions of Egypt, and how she varied them depending on the character’s state of mind and progress through the plot. I even added Khan el-Khalili bazaar as a ‘place to visit’ on my new list of described places to see in real life.

Both the beginning and the ending of Iris & Ruby could have been stronger, but the middle was solidly enjoyable. I don’t think I’ll need to return to it anytime soon, but I’ll keep it on my shelf for at least a little while longer.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart — New Review, Bookclub Edition

After a run of book club books I was immediately excited about (‘muggle goes to dark Hogwarts’, ‘the navy with dragons‘), we’ve now hit a few books where the premise doesn’t particularly hook me. Which isn’t to say that the books themselves won’t be good! Only that they can’t be summed up in a catchy elevator pitch.

The beginning of The Bone Shard Daughter left me a little dubious. In good news, it came out of the gate at a good, quick pace, with things immediately happening. In somewhat less good news, it seemed to centre around an amnesia plot. When I took a creative writing module at university, it seemed that everyone wanted to be write about either being in a coma or having amnesia, so my history involves having read it handled pretty amateurishly.

Fortunately, Andrea Stewart was anything but amateurish. She managed perspective shifts in a way I haven’t seen before, and yet they immediately felt right. I didn’t even notice until the end that some perspectives are written in the first person while others are in the third, and that’s the kind of thing that jarred me out of The Light Between Oceans pretty badly!

The Bone Shard Daughter is as much a mystery as it is a fantasy novel, in large part thanks to that amnesia plot I mentioned. I was always trying to work out who characters really were, how they were related to one another, why they were acting in the way they did. I’m not a reader who constantly tries to guess where books are going, but The Bone Shard Daughter really caught me up in the way a murder mystery does. It even has what you might call ‘a second body’ partway through. My notes are full of questions: ‘Is X causing the memory loss?’, ‘Is Y related to Z?’. Many of them get answered, but there are enough left over that I really want to read the next book in the series.

Always, always at the end of these fights, Ranami would say that Phalue just didn’t understand, and Phalue would say “Well, then make me understand!” And then Ranami would look at her as though she’d asked a dog to sail a boat. It was like they stood on two different islands when they argued, and neither of them could find a way across.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

Because there was so much else going on, the character development didn’t stand out to me immediately. It was only towards the end that I really realised just how integral it was to the novel. I can’t talk about the intensity of Lin’s character arc without spoiling a huge chunk of her plot, so I won’t, but Phalue’s reluctance to come to terms with her privilege is something I haven’t seen before in a fantasy novel. The Bone Shard Daughter compares favourably with Witchsign because I’m supposed to dislike the bad parent, rather than being expected to sympathise with him. I found that much more effective.

He kept a veneer of politeness over his commands, but it was thin, and easily scratched away by disobedience.

The Bone Shard Daughter, Andrea Stewart

The Bone Shard Daughter was a very different kind of fantasy novel, so much so that it feels weird to compare it to other book club books that I’ve enjoyed. That said, this is only the third time I’ve immediately added the next book in a series to my ‘want to read’ list, which has to say something!

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot — Reread Review

As a teenager, I made a list of 101 things to do in 1001 days. One of the things on my list was to read every book by one author. I thought it would be cool to know I’d read every novel in someone’s canon. I certainly didn’t manage it in 1001 days. In fact, I still haven’t managed it (unless you count authors who’ve only written one book), but a few years after making the list, I did make an effort to read every book by George Eliot — purely on the strength that I’d quite liked Adam Bede. I got halfway through Romola before giving up, but that means I did finish The Mill on The Floss once before.

In books there were people who were always agreeable or tender, and delighted to do things that made one happy, and who did not show their kindness by finding fault. The world outside the books was not a happy one, Maggie felt; it seemed to be a world where people behaved the best to those they did not pretend to love, and that did not belong to them.

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

I didn’t remember much about the story, except a vague sense of the tragic ending. (It’s only February and this is the second tragedy I’ve read this year!) Each time I read Adam Bede, I find it’s easier than I expect it to be, but The Mill on the Floss was the opposite — I found it harder going than I expected. Perhaps that’s because there’s a bit more philosophy and religious teachings that I’m not entirely familiar with. As with Adam Bede, I got impatient with all the digressions, especially around the middle of the novel.

The characters are very different from those in Adam Bede — the setting is somewhat less rural, or perhaps it’s set slightly later and so society has progressed. Nonetheless, I really liked most of the characters who are intended to be sympathetic: Maggie, Tom, Lucy, Phillip, Bob. The characters who aren’t supposed to be sympathetic, namely ‘the aunts’, were well-drawn, too. The only character I really didn’t care about was Stephen Guest, which was something of a problem for the final act.

The promise was void, like so many other sweet, illusory promises of our childhood; void as promises made in Eden before the seasons were divided, and when the starry blossoms grew side by side with the ripening peach — impossible to be fulfilled when the golden gates had been passed.

The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot

Stephen and Maggie’s relationship just seemed so… shallow. They hardly ever had a proper conversation, they barely knew anything about each other and, as a reader, I hardly knew anything about Stephen. Maybe George Eliot intended it that way, to show how young people can be carried away by the first flood of emotion that is based on little more than physical attraction. The relationship suffered in comparison to Maggie’s friendship with Phillip, who she could have actual conversations with. In the pivotal scene between Stephen and Maggie they both ‘feel too deeply to speak’, which I just didn’t find satisfying.

Maggie’s inner struggle is definitely compelling; she wants to be a better person, and she tries so hard, but she’s flawed and has moments of weakness, just like a real person. It’s such a shame that her story has to end in tragedy. Despite having read The Mill on the Floss before, the conclusion took me by surprise. It’s fairly sudden and quite brief, but George Eliot did manage to wrap up all the loose ends quite nicely beforehand. I felt the most sorry for Tom, who hadn’t really experienced much in comparison to his sister and his friends.

Despite Maggie’s strong characterisation, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I enjoyed Adam Bede. The dialect is easier, but the philosophy and diversions are more distracting.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills — New Review

It used to be my Saturday morning ritual to watch the previous night’s episode of The Last Leg, so when I saw Best Foot Forward by Adam Hills at a work book sale, I didn’t hesitate to pick it up. The back cover promised that the book would show me that ‘being proudly different can see you find your feet’, which is a message I’m on board with.

I also decided that I would always try to uplift people, make them feel good, and remind them that life is good at every opportunity.

Best Foot Forward, Adam Hills

A lot of what I love about The Last Leg carries over into Best Foot Forward; Adam Hills is earnest, and his focus on positive comedy is uplifting. The stories he tells about the people are joyous and moving. I particularly loved the whole chapter on his appearance with Kermit the Frog. Best Foot Forward, like The Little Book of Otter Philosophy and What Katy Did made me want to be a better person. (It also made me jealous that I don’t have ‘a passion’, but that’s not the fault of the book.)

You know the beginning of Moby Dick, when the narrator says that when he finds himself growing grim about the mouth and wants to knock people’s hats off, he takes to the sea? Well, I feel like knocking people’s hats off.

Rory Gilmore, Blame Booze and Melville (Amy Sherman Palladino, Daniel Palladino)

Best Foot Forward’s ability to make me look ‘on the bright side of life’ is even more impressive in the context of the week I was having. I hadn’t seen anyone in person in over a month, I was wrapping my head around a new work system and trying to do two weeks’ work in 4 days. To put it simply: life didn’t seem all that good. And yet, I still bought in to the premise of Best Foot Forward. I never resented it for its positivity.

If I knew anyone else who liked The Last Leg as much as I do, I’d consider sending them this book to read. But then I’d think again, because I want to keep it on my shelf to read again. So instead I’ll just recommended that any such people buy their own copy.

Rating: 4 out of 5.