Costa Book Awards 2016

If you've been on my blog before, you'll know that I absolutely love the Costa Book Awards and have enjoyed both the longlists and shortlists in the previous years. However, 2016 was the year of my thesis and I missed out on reading the fiction shortlist like I usually do. 

Now that I am a free woman again, I decided to make up for this loss and read both the winner of the fiction and poetry category to prepare myself for the announcement of the overall winner tonight.

FallingAwake

 

Falling Awake by Alice Oswald

Before I start this review, I want to highlight my absolute lack of poetry knowledge. As I mentioned in my reading resolutions for 2017 video, I am not a poetry reader. Since I've never really read any poetry, besides the mandatory poems a English literature student has to read, I had no clue where to start finding poetry to read. And then I discovered that Falling Awake by Alice Oswald has won the poetry section of the Costa Book Awards and figured that was a good enough reason to start with that collection. 

Falling Awake isn't an easy poetry collection to read. Its premise is based on Greek mythology, which I actually found a comfort because I am very interested and have learned quite a bit about mythology. The collection consists of two parts and I must say that I found the second part a lot easier to understand than the first one.

The key with Falling Awake, for me at least, was to really take my time to read and re-read and think about what exactly I read. This is probably true for a lot of poetry, which is supposed to pack a lot in a small package, but it wasn't really my thing. The second part of the collection was enjoyable and easy enough to understand that one, very focused, read was enough for me, but the first part was just exhausting.

While I think this is probably due to my inexperience, Falling Awake was only half enjoyable for me. However, I'm excited to pick it back up in a few weeks and see if some thinking and time has changed my mind about the collection and my understanding of it.

DaysWithoutEnd

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

This book completely surprised me in every way possible. Days Without End is the story Thomas McNulty, a soldier who has fled the Irish famine and is followed through the Indian Wars and Civil War in America with John Cole, a friend he met when he was still a young child.

The first thing I really enjoyed about this novel is the new things I learned. Since I went to high school in Europe, my knowledge of both the Indian War and Civil War is limited. This novel really helped me understand how gruelling these wars were and also how incredibly futile for so many people. While Thomas fights against the Indians, he doesn't understand why he has to kill them. This is mirrored in the Civil War where he is on the side of the North, but none of the soldiers seem to realise that the war is about slavery. Neither of these wars, or maybe any war at all, is a grand moral fight. It is just soldiers following orders because they will be killed if they don't. Realising this was extremely eery but also made me realise, especially for the Indian War, how extremely useless and gruesome it was. 

However, Days Without End is a lot more than just a war story. Thomas and John start a relationship together, something highly uncommon in that time, and Thomas also struggles with his gender identity throughout the novel. Without giving too much away, Thomas starts experimenting at a young age with cross-dressing. First just for work, but slowly he starts questioning his gender identity more and more. The way Sebastian Barry was able to combine the masculinity of the violent war with Thomas search within himself was beautiful. I really enjoyed the complexity of Thomas and John's relationship, both with themselves and each other.

Days Without End is truly remarkable in its original approach to a war novel. While Falling Awake was hard for me to grasp, Days Without End easily guided me through unknown topics and made me fall in love with the characters at the same time.

 

Relativity - Antonia Hayes

RATING: ★

Relativity

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a honest review. This in no way influenced my opinion of the book. 

Relativity by Antonia Hayes is the story of a broken family that is connected by their love and knowledge of the planets and physics. Ethan is raised by his mother Claire and knows absolutely nothing about his father. However, a decade later his father, Mark, reappears in Sydney and due to a complicated connection of events, he attempts to reconnect with his family.

Relativity switches between the perspectives of Ethan, Claire and Mark throughout the novel. I really enjoyed this aspect because it helps the story unfold in layers and as a reader you constantly change your perspective and ideas on what exactly is happening. There are also time jumps in the novel that kept me interested in the plot and wanting to find out what is going to happen next.

To say I am not a physics expert is an understatement. I about failed every single science-y course in high school. This meant that Relativity was a challenge for me at times. Ethan, and his father, are very interested in planets and the concepts of physics. While Antonia Hayes does a good job explaining these concepts, I sometimes did not understand how they fit into the story. There were pages of physics talk that I did not understand and I wish I was able to connect them to the story better.

The story overall was really interesting. I won't really talk about the big events that reconnect Mark to his family, because it is really exciting to see them slowly unfold on paper when you have no clue what is about to happen. Antonia Hayes is very successful in combining a character based story with an interesting and original plot. While I found the pacing often too slow for my liking, the story was gripping enough that I couldn't put the novel down.

Overall, Relativity is an original story, especially because it has an interesting and unconventional ending. I enjoyed reading this story and I would recommend it for people with an interest in our cosmos and physics. That knowledge will probably help you connect certain concepts better with the story, but even without it, it is still an enjoyable and emotional read.

Another Brooklyn - Jacqueline Woodson

RATING: ★

Jacqueline Woodson is a household name in YA, known for writing amazing books that are different from the majority out there right now. Up until last week, she was one of those authors that I knew I was supposed to have read, but never did. When I saw the cover of her gorgeous new novel, Another Brooklyn, I knew I had to read it. Technically, this book isn't sold as YA, but I'm pretty sure that any reader from 14 to 100 can enjoy and learn from this novel.

Another Brooklyn is the story of August coming of age. As August tells the reader at the beginning of the story: 'I know now what is tragic isn't the moment. It's the memory.' While this is August's story, it is also an ode to memories, tragic and not, and how our remembrances can shape us. August is an adult, thrown back into Brooklyn due to a tragic event, and tells the reader about her youth. She isn't reliable, but she is so lyrical and honest, that this book is a joy to read.

August grew up in Brooklyn with three close friends, Gigi, Sylvia and Angela. Throughout the novel, the backstory of all girls is revealed and their mutual, and very different, struggles are displayed next to each other. The book is an ode to the strength of girls, even if everything and everyone is against them.

There are a lot of time jumps in Another Brooklyn and the writing isn't a straight forward narrative. Things are left out or only alluded to, left there for you to fill the gap. However, that is what makes it so powerful. Filling the gap with an endless list of what possibly could have happened makes you relate to the characters so much more. The beautiful writing, mostly poetic throughout the story, makes it easy to relate to the girls.

I finished this novel in a day, but the story still hasn't left me. I want to know more about August. I want to hug her and Angela, Gigi, Sylvia. I want to crawl into the story and prevent certain things from happening. I want to protect them, but also experience with them. Another Brooklyn is unlike other books with its focus on memory and lyrical writing, but it is beautiful and I'm so glad Jacqueline Woodson shared this story with the world.

Heartless - Marissa Meyer

RATING: ★

At the end of the year, we always get some of the most anticipated releases! And I think that for most YA fans, Heartless by Marissa Meyer is right up there. We fell in love with The Cinder Chronicles and now she is back, taking on Alice in Wonderland in her own unique way.

Heartless is the story of Catherine, a young girl who lives in Wonderland and dreams of becoming a baker. However, Catherine's parents believe she is too good to work and needs to marry an eligible bachelor - and no one is more eligible than the king. During their courtship, Catherine meets the court joker, Jest, and the two start a secret relationship. Trying to open her own bakery, finding out how to be with Jest and living in a kingdom that is fighting the Jabberwocky is enough to make anyone go mad...

Heartless started off for me in the same way as Cinder did: cliché and slow. However, just as with Cinder, this works amazingly for the story in the long run. When you start reading the story, it seems like another cliché reworking with Alice in Wonderland characters and I was so sure I could predict exactly how Catherine's storyline would go. Shame on me for not knowing Marissa Meyer better than that by now. Just as with her other novels, Heartless is a rollercoaster from beginning to end and I really enjoyed the twists that were included.

It is no spoiler to say that Catherine becomes the Queen of Hearts (it is mentioned on the back of the book and the cover makes it pretty clear) and having that knowledge made this book very interesting to read. Catherine begins like any other girl from Wonderland, just one who happens to be an amazing baker and dreams about opening her own shop. Passages about her future dreams are heartbreaking, because as a reader, you know that it will never come true.

While I enjoyed the Alice in Wonderland references (I'm a huge Alice fan), I sometimes wished there was more description of them. On the one hand, it worked well to make Wonderland, which is a normal world for the characters, seem so ordinary. On the other hand, Wonderland is such an unique setting and it is a shame that there wasn't more detail about it. This tale takes place years before Alice shows up and it would be nice to see how Wonderland evolved during the Red Queen's reign.

Besides that, this book was an amazing read. It is original, yet is true to Lewis Carroll's world. It is in the same vein as the Cinder Chronicles, yet shows a whole new variety of characters. It is comfort reading with enough twists to keep you guessing. Just as her previous books, Heartless isn't absolutely perfect, but the characters are so engaging that you can't help but fall in love with them. Now if only someone could convince Marissa Meyer to make this a series too!