Review// Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

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Author: David Mitchell
Series: Standalone
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: July 14, 2020
Book Length: 608 pages 
Publisher: Sceptre
Review: 3/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

Utopia Avenue are the strangest British band you’ve never heard of. Emerging from London’s psychedelic scene in 1967 and fronted by folksinger Elf Holloway, guitar demigod Jasper de Zoet and blues bassist Dean Moss, Utopia Avenue released only two LPs during its brief and blazing journey from the clubs of Soho and draughty ballrooms to Top of the Pops and the cusp of chart success, to glory in Amsterdam, prison in Rome and a fateful American fortnight in the autumn of 1968.

David Mitchell’s new novel tells the unexpurgated story of Utopia Avenue; of riots in the streets and revolutions in the head; of drugs, thugs, madness, love, sex, death, art; of the families we choose and the ones we don’t; of fame’s Faustian pact and stardom’s wobbly ladder. Can we change the world in turbulent times, or does the world change us? Utopia means ‘nowhere’ but could a shinier world be within grasp, if only we had a map?

My Review:

I really enjoyed this book overall; give me a historical fiction about music and I’m always going to be eager to read it.

The author really made me feel as though Dean, Elf, Griff, and Jasper were actual icons in the 60s, and along with all the real celebrity cameos it set the scenes well. However, sometimes, I have to admit that it didn’t seem believable that they would run into that many big names so casually. I don’t know what the music scene was like back then from my own knowledge, so I could be wrong, but the cameos felt a bit too in your face at times. I think the book got off to a really strong and promising start; I especially liked the way the author wrote all the flashbacks, and as the backstories of the main characters were revealed, I began to enjoy the book more and more.

Despite that though, there were a few things I didn’t particularly enjoy. For starters, Jasper’s backstory with the Knock Knock felt too long winded – I began to get a bit annoyed by it, and I didn’t like the magical direction it took because I didn’t think it suited the book at all. I wish Griff got more of a backstory too, because after 600 pages, I still feel like I barely know his character, despite him being one of the main ones. The biggest disappointment for me though was that I really did not enjoy how the book ended. I could tell that so much thought and work went in to writing the beginning and middle parts, but the ending felt unsatisfactory and kind of like a cop out. I do appreciate that it wasn’t predictable, but I don’t think it had a satisfying ending, and it did not leave me longing for the characters and story long after I put it down.

Even though I personally wasn’t a fan of how it ended, I would still recommend this book if you like historical fiction about music and bands. It was well written overall and kept me engaged and eager to see where the story was going to go.

– Catherine

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Review// The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

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Author: Elena Ferrante
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #2
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: September 22, 2012
Book Length: 471 pages 
Publisher: Europa Editions
Review: 5/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

My Brilliant Friend introduced readers to the unforgettable Elena and Lila, whose lifelong friendship provides the backbone for the Neapolitan Novels. The Story of a New Name is the second book in this series. With these books, which the New Yorker‘s James Wood described as “large, captivating, amiably peopled … a beautiful and delicate tale of confluence and reversal,” Ferrante proves herself to be one of Italy’s most accomplished storytellers. She writes vividly about a specific neighborhood of Naples from the late-1950s through to the current day and about two remarkable young women who are very much the products of that place and time. Yet in doing so she has created a world in which readers will recognize themselves and has drawn a marvelously nuanced portrait of friendship.

In The Story of a New Name, Lila has recently married and made her entrée into the family business; Elena, meanwhile, continues her studies and her exploration of the world beyond the neighborhood that she so often finds stifling. Love, jealousy, family, freedom, commitment, and above all friendship: these are signs under which both women live out this phase in their stories. Marriage appears to have imprisoned Lila, and the pressure to excel is at times too much for Elena. Yet the two young women share a complex and evolving bond that is central to their emotional lives and is a source of strength in the face of life’s challenges. In these Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante, the acclaimed author of The Days of Abandonment, gives readers a poignant and universal story about friendship and belonging.

My Review:

“… she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often, to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”

I loved this book so much! The dynamic of Lina and Lila’s friendship as they’re growing into young adults was enthralling. They could not be more different, yet they compliment each other; they really are two sides of the same coin. Together, these two reach an equilibrium that could not be possible alone.

Admittedly, I really saw a lot of myself in the narrator, Lina. Lila is definitely the ‘pain in the ass’ of the two, as one character had put it, yet something about her draws Lina to her (and vice versa). The same could be said for me – as much as Lila annoyed and frustrated me at certain points in the book, I still couldn’t get enough of her; her energy was contagious, pulling me in like a magnet.

One of the best things about this series is that the author really makes you feel like you are there in Naples with the characters. I feel such a connection to the people sights in ‘the neighborhood’ – the old grocery, the new grocery, the Solara’s bar and pastry shop, the Cerullo shoe store, the old library, all of it. My favourite parts had to be all the ones surrounding the summer holiday in Ischia. This author really has a way of making you feel like you are there while reading, and it was a lovely escape from the state the world is in right now. Not to mention, the juiciest parts of the book happened in Ischia! I was truly shocked by what had transpired and was so eager to keep reading to see what was going to happen next. I would love to visit Ischia one day on summer holiday, if only to recount the feelings the book gave me in real life.

Just like the first book, the second also ended on the biggest cliff hanger! I am so eager to start the next book and admittedly also a little apprehensive because once it is done, there is only one more left, and I am not ready to say goodbye to these two just yet!

-Catherine

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Review// The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

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Author: Chloe Benjamin
Series: Standalone
Genre: Fiction
Release Date: January 9, 2018
Book Length: 346 pages 
Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
Review:3.5/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?

It’s 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side, and word has spread of the arrival of a mystical woman, a traveling psychic who claims to be able to tell anyone the day they will die. The Gold children—four adolescents on the cusp of self-awareness—sneak out to hear their fortunes.

The prophecies inform their next five decades. Golden-boy Simon escapes to the West Coast, searching for love in ’80s San Francisco; dreamy Klara becomes a Las Vegas magician, obsessed with blurring reality and fantasy; eldest son Daniel seeks security as an army doctor post-9/11; and bookish Varya throws herself into longevity research, where she tests the boundary between science and immortality.

A sweeping novel of remarkable ambition and depth, The Immortalists probes the line between destiny and choice, reality and illusion, this world and the next. It is a deeply moving testament to the power of story, the nature of belief, and the unrelenting pull of familial bonds.

My Review:

What I loved most about this was the premise: the whole, ‘four siblings living in NYC in 1969 go and visit a psychic that tells them each the day of their death’ thing sounded pretty cool from the onset, and I just knew I had to read it. All of them are told their death day in private, therefore, each sibling does not know the dates given to the others. The rest of the book, told in four separate parts – one for each of them – centres around their lives and events leading up to and including their death days.

I thought that this book was going to have a little more magical realism than it did, however, you don’t really figure out if the fortune teller had any ‘real’ powers or not. If anything, it leans more toward it all just being coincidence and rather, it appears as though each Gold sibling – Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya – is the victim of self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t believe their deaths would have happened on those exact days had they not spent their lives obsessing over what the fortune teller predicted.

The two siblings whose stories I found most interesting were Simon and Klara. I loved how close they were, how their relationship evolved in their youth, and how the death of one affected the other. Unfortunately, those were parts one and two of the book; by the middle and end when I got to Daniel and Varya, I wasn’t as intrigued by what was happening. Since they are the older siblings and the first half centred around the other two, by the time I got to Daniel and Varya, it felt like I had missed some of their major character development. I didn’t get to read about them growing up – it kind of just skipped forward in time to their adulthood’s – so there was a bit of a disconnect for me with regards to how invested I felt in their story lines.

Nonetheless, this book was a thought provoking one. If given the opportunity, I would never want to know my predicted date of death. You’d think that it would have the power to make you live life to the fullest and soak up every moment you have, but as illustrated by these siblings, I think it would definitely freak me out too much! 🙅🏻‍♀️

Have you read this book? Do you want to read this book? If given the chance, would you want to know your predicted death day – why or why not?! Let me know, I’d love to know other people’s opinions!

-Catherine

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Review// My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

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Author: Elena Ferrante
Series: The Neapolitan Novels #1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Release Date: October 19, 2011
Book Length: 331 pages 
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Review: 4/5

Goodreads Synopsis:

A modern masterpiece from one of Italy’s most acclaimed authors, My Brilliant Friend is a rich, intense and generous hearted story about two friends, Elena and Lila. Ferrante’s inimitable style lends itself perfectly to a meticulous portrait of these two women that is also the story of a nation and a touching meditation on the nature of friendship. Through the lives of these two women, Ferrante tells the story of a neighbourhood, a city and a country as it is transformed in ways that, in turn, also transform the relationship between her two protagonists.

My Review:

The phrase, “don’t judge a book by its cover” plays its role heavily here. If it weren’t for me having watched an episode of the show based on this book first, I never would have even given it second glance because of how unappealing the cover is to me.

The book transported me to Italy – the little Neapolitan town where Elena and Lina grew up appeared in my mind as if I were recounting it from my own memory rather than from the descriptions of a character in a novel. As someone whose familial roots are in Italy, and who has seen firsthand what the culture there is like between people in small towns, this hit the nail on the head. The gossip, violence, comradery – it all was very accurately portrayed. If there is one thing I didn’t like though, it’s that there were so many families, and so many characters in each family, that even by the end, I had trouble figuring out who was who, and to what family they belonged! Nonetheless, it did a great job of capturing what a small town in Italy is like for the reader – at least from what I can say of my own observations.

I really enjoyed reading about the childhood and adolescence of these two girls, and how their relationship blossomed and changed throughout the years. Although both very smart, I liked the contrast in character between the two – Elena being polite, meek, and a studious “good girl”, while Lina was the rebellious, headstrong, and mischievous one. Going into it, I had the impression that the ‘brilliant friend’ was referring to Lina, as Elena is the narrator of the story, so it surprised me when Lina referred to Elena as her ‘brilliant friend’ at one point in the novel. I guess, in a sense, each one is the other’s brilliant friend, but for different reasons. Both of these girls hold the friendship and opinion of the other in high regard, and although neither outright admit to it, it is clear that there is a power struggle within their relationship. At times, this greatly annoyed me, and it felt like their relationship was based solely on these little silent competitions: who moved on to middle school; who got their period first; who was prettier; who got a boyfriend first; who got married first. Admittedly though, this narrative is also what kept things interesting.

This book definitely ended on a cliff-hanger, and in a very odd spot too! I am very much looking forward to reading the next book in the series to find out where their story takes them.

-Catherine

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