‘Beijing Smog’ by Ian Williams

Social media is a powerful thing, even in a world where government-sanctioned firewalling attempts to keep it under wraps. In a place where public opinion is learned, not formed, and freedom of expression is non-existent, innocent Tweets, shares and updates can be taken all too seriously. Even the smallest of jokes can end up spiralling out of control.

41Q5eoeLSxL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_So goes the story in ‘Beijing Smog’, the debut novel from Ian Williams, former correspondent for Channel 4 News and the Sunday Times newspaper, who spent more than two decades living, working and reporting on China. Dark, cynical and somewhat satirical, Williams presents a modern Chinese society that is suffocating and depressing, and might prove for hard reading were it not for an entourage of well-rounded, relatable characters, and, what I hope will prove to be, Williams’ signature satirical humour.

A book of multiple pathways, ‘Beijing Smog’ centres first and foremost on the life of Wang Chu, a video-game-addicted computer science student and the unexpected father of revolution, who hides behind the screen of his smartphone, in a world inhabited by crazed monkeys, brain-hungry zombies, and poorly drawn aliens.

Wang’s devil-may-care attitude to social media has a far more prominent effect on his followers than he could have ever imagined. How could anyone have foreseen that an innocuous Tweet, subtly poking fun at the modern Chinese government, could start a revolution? That all it would take to undermine the ruling Communist Party is a simple, crudely draw stick alien with a wide bulbous head and round, sloping eyes? It started life as a joke, but the Party are not laughing.

As he wanders blindly into the heart of the storm, Wang’s story intertwines with that of two others: Chuck Drayton, an American diplomat, sucked into the world of cyber security not by desire, or ability on his part, but apathy and incompetence of everyone else; and Anthony Morgan, a listless British businessman, striving to keep his Chinese partners on track while revealing his true feelings via VPN with gloomy predictions published under the Twitter tagline @Beijing_Smog. As their stories collide, the alien revolution set in motion by Wang takes on an unpredictable life of its own, threatening all those involved, none more so than the Party itself.

This is a book about espionage, corruption, censorship and alienation. Cyberspace and the choking Chinese smog form a striking metaphor of the disorientation that clouds the main characters’ brains and the wider Chinese public. As government sensors work tirelessly to conceal, delete and mould online opinion, businesses boom with the sale of inadequate gas masks and smog apps and university students hide within a world far more palatable than reality. It may seem apathetic; a generation of students unable to look up from their phones and at a total loss when the internet goes down, but it is online that revolution is brewing.

This is not an historical novel, nor an exact representation of life in the People’s Republic, but rather a book which seeks to capture the madness and intensity of life within a highly censored society. This is something that Williams achieves without a doubt, his sparky style and dark satirical humour creates a world where student sinks overflowing with ramen dishware, shabby coffee shops with more tab than substance, and cracked smartphone screens, sit alongside bloated, machete-mutilated corpses, hungry Siberian tigers, and invitations to ‘tea’ with the university authorities. A world where a single slipped word could see a person disappear.

This review was first published online for E&T Magazine 

‘There’s a Bear on my Chair’ by Ross Collins

I’m a sucker for a book with rhyming couplets.

Rhyme offers so much opportunity to explore the written word in children’s books – archaic and dated words fit right into the flow of text, alongside nonsense terms and odd turns of phrase. In short, anything goes. Get the rhythm right and the rest will follow, children are sure to love a book that rhymes.

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This book caught my eye in WHSmiths during one of my regular lunchtime strolls at work, and I decided to give it a read, sucked in by the triple rhyme in the title, and the furious mouse on the cover image. What’s his story?

It’s a simple book – but the simplicity is what makes it so excellent. Collins writes in rhyming couplets using only ‘Air’ words, and the result is quite delightful.

The story has a childish humour running through it that adults and children alike are bound to enjoy. A poor little mouse discovers a selfish polar bear sitting in his favourite chair, which simply is too small to share. The poor little mouse attempts all sorts of amusing tactics to shoo the bear (to make him go back to his lair), he gives him quite a nasty glare, he tries to tempt him with a pear, he jumps out in his underwear, but nothing works. The bear just simply does not care. You get the picture.

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In the end, the mouse gives up, being driven to the end of his tiny mouse tether by this big troublesome bear. He leaves his house, distraught and beaten, to find a new place to rest.

Once the mouse has gone, the bear, of course, gets up and walks home.

Here we find the delightful twist in the tail.

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I confess, I laughed. I laughed loud, and insisted that my colleagues give the book a read. Waiting patiently for the satisfied chuckle I knew was coming once they reached the end of the book.

It’s simple, but clever, and I really didn’t see it coming.

This book would be perfect for sharing with children, to help foster a love of reading from a young age. It’s no ‘Cat in the Hat’, or ‘Green Eggs and Ham’, but it does have a vaguely Dr Seuss-esque feel to it, in style, substance, and illustration – a winning combination that truly represents the power of the written word.

 

Asteronymes – Claire Trévien

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Asteronyme is the word for a sequence of asterisks used to hide a name or password. I wonder what this book of poetry is hiding.

Poetry is a like a window into a person’s soul, but not all windows are clear. Words can paint the desires and emotions often left hidden in the depths of the unconscious mind but it is not always apparent what emotions the words are hiding, just as you can never been sure of the meaning behind the asterisk in any given password.

In some ways I find that poetry is the most personal form of literary expression. There is always passion in writing – even the most terrible novel, or simplest anecdote can tell you something about a person – but delve into the world of the poetical and you have something more. Sometimes the simplest method of expression is in poetical thought, but to express doesn’t mean to be understood.

The poems nestled within this obscure blue cover relay extremely personal experiences, and linguistic experimentation. Trévien takes the reader with her on a journey through the Scottish Island of Arran, a remote place wrought with contradiction, where ancient rocks and history meet the cruel harsh reality of digital life.

Alongside caves adorned with the mythical carvings of old, where snow-peaked mountains meet coastal palm trees and the post-industrial rush of life, past, present and prelife experiences come together to explore the remote Scottish countryside. Trévien’s voice emerges in an explosion of lyrical, poetic exploration which speaks of the destruction of timeless places by the passing of time itself.

Ruin, neglect and progression come together in an expression that is all at once playful, creative, and explorative, and challenges the boundaries of traditional poetical construction. Trévien’s words are at times humorous and crass, and other mournful and waning, serving as an elegy to destruction and neglect throughout time.

I don’t often take the time to read modern poetry, preferring instead to stay loyal to my grandfather’s dusty edition of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, and a crumbling copy of Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, but I’m very pleased I decided to pick up this humble little collection up. It really is a breath of fresh air, and I found myself wanting to experiment with some of the new techniques and styles uncovered within the text. To be sure my attempts are nowhere near as eloquent as Trévien’s, but it was lovely to have the desire reawakened within me.

If you are looking for a new collection to revive your senses and inspire your creative spirit you really need look no further than Asteronymes. Trévien is definitely a very exciting new voice to the world of poetry.

Not forgotten – Lesley Ann Anderson

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You have probably wondered what happens to us after we die – is there a heaven or hell? Can we expect to be reincarnated into something very distinct from our human selves? Do we become absorbed into an inky black nothingness, remaining only as memories after the lights turn out? Or maybe there is something different waiting for us after death. In Not Forgotten, author Lesley Ann Anderson explores this final idea. Delving into the complex nature of life after death – not just in the form of what happens to people that die, but of the lives of those left behind. .

The storyline centres on the rather complicated lives of seventeen year old Anna Munro and her dad, Mick. Mick is a bit of an oddball, having been thrown full force into fatherhood by the untimely death of his wife when his daughter was just a toddler. He spends his days indulged in a constant attempt to escape from reality and the hardships of fatherhood and life as a widower, absorbed in walks, books and music. For Anna life is not so simple and escape doesn’t come in the form of nature or the arts. Every night when Anna goes to sleep she feels herself being lifted from her earthly body, or has her semi conscious hours plagued by ghostly figures and incessant whispering.

The teenage years are a difficult time for any young girl, but particularly so for Anna, with new and strange things happening to her body and mind she turns to her father for help only to find out something very new and strange about herself. Assistance comes in the form of Anna’s maternal grandfather, Henryk – a beautiful, old country soul who escaped Poland for the green hills of Scotland during the Second World War. To help Anna understand her new found powers Henryk takes her to Poland, to the ancestral home of her great grandmother Rosalia.

Not Forgotten is a complex and intriguing book, exploring the many avenues of life and death. There is no central character but rather a range of people with conflicting desires and emotions, who have all been scarred by the tragic nature of human mortality. Anderson delves into relationship between love, loss and life, painting a striking picture of life after death, as those left behind struggle with conflicting emotions and grieve for those who have moved on.

Death is not final, and does not only come to us at the end of our lives, rather it is always with us, moulding and shifting our desires, our hopes, and our dreams, and preparing us for the inevitable, from the moment we are born to the day we die.

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

It occurred to me yesterday that 2016 was a terrible year for my personal book reviews. I read and reviewed 28 books for E&T – and loved every second of it I might add – but I really did let my personal stuff fall by the wayside. Turns out there are a few I reviewed, and then left the word documents gathering theoretical dust in my hard drive, so I’m dusting them off this week and will be posting them fresh for you all to see.

 

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I’ve had this book for a while, but only decided to pull it down from the shelves in my reading room after David Bowie passed away. As I said, I have let things slip.

I was so upset by his death, so much more so than any other person that I cannot claim to ‘know’ in any real sense. Perhaps it was the very public way that he decided to go, to give it all up with one final hurrah, but it had a very real effect on me, and I spent many nights listening to Black Star and Lazerus while quietly sobbing.

Anyway, shortly after his death I was in Waterstones and saw a copy of The Night Circus with ‘DAVID BOWIE’S FAVOURITE BOOK’ emblazoned across the front. Now don’t get me wrong, this wouldn’t have been enough to make me actually buy the book – I’m still not sure how I feel about this marketing tactic – but it did make me go home and start reading the copy that I already had.

It was the beginning of a week spent reading in the bath until my skin was grey and clammy and the water temperature had dropped a little below tepid. I was absolutely enamoured by this book, a book I had had on my shelf for months – David Bowie’s favourite book.

Imagine you are a small boy, who doesn’t yet know his place among friends or family and is striving to find meaning is his life. One day, as if from nowhere, a mysterious circus tent appears in your home town, and it calls to you.

The Night Circus – or Cirque to Reves – is different to other circuses – there are no sad looking clowns with oversized button holes, or dusty, skinny elephants tied to chairs, rather, it is a place of true magic. At the heart of the circus as some of the most incredible people you will ever meet, wonderful sorcerers, incredible contortionists, talented acrobats and marvellous mystics, all of whom are enamoured by the magic around them. It is beautiful, and captivating, but underneath the black and white façade, something far more sinister is going on.

The Night Circus is not a circus; it is a game of chess, the black and white squares on the board coming to life, twisting and turning into a stunning array of blacks and whites, each pattern striking out against the other. At either side of the board, hidden by their army, stand the two kings. The Night Circus is their pawn; it is a war, a vicious war fought by fame and glory – a war of magic, and fame, and destruction, fought between two competing shadows.

Erin Morgenstern has one of the most beautiful writing styles I have ever come across. The words flow across the page driven by rippling monochromic imagery, made of more than just the ink which paints the page. Even the simplest of phrases or gestures, are given a beautiful, flourishing turn – the opening of umbrellas after the rain becomes the ‘popping’ up of toadstools, lovers hold one another in an ‘emerald embrace’, and a ‘single perfect diamond’ stands out amongst a ‘sack of flawed stones.’

I really, really enjoyed this book. It is mysterious and intricate, filled with stories within stories and lives hidden behind the scenes, and there is so much waiting to be discovered. It struck me that Morgenstern constructed the book as if it is circus itself; with each page the reader is drawn closer and closer to the centre while glimpsing hidden corners and secret passageways that could unfold with the slightest touch. Along the way there is imagery within metaphors, magic overlapping magic and so much more than I could ever give credit to in such a short review.

I get the impression that there will always be more to this story than first meets the eye. There are hints and stories hidden within the text that may only emerge at a second, or maybe even a third reading. It is up to the reader to decide why the book was written and to think about the true meaning behind the circus. This in itself is beautiful; just like the fans of the circus I feel enamoured but ultimately clueless.

Fans of David Bowies, lovers of the obscure, seekers of magic or beauty – read The Night Circus. I implore you.

 

 

 

The Power – Naomi Alderman

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Equality, prosperity and power are just some of the aims of feminists past and present – but what would a world controlled by women actually look like? In her fourth novel, author Naomi Alderman inverts traditional gender roles to create a world where women quite literally hold all the power and men tremble at their feet.

Love it or hate it, utopian and dystopian fiction has a lot to say about how people live their lives and the desires, dreams and fears that lurk under the covers of society. Dystopic works throughout the 20th century have explored totalitarian states, brainwashing, societal complacency and overpopulation. They reflect societal fears of a future in which too much power has been lost to the state, through the wonderful world of science fiction.

This genre suits feminist complaints by questioning the conventional exercise of power between the sexes, often delving into frustrations of women in a patriarchal society. Previous works explored the prospect of women-led civilisations in which gender roles are reversed or worlds where women live alone, having somehow discovered the secret to asexual reproduction.

There is a reason you don’t get many all-male utopias, but I’ve often wondered why there aren’t more novels that explore what a world would be like where women not only ruled, but ruled with power. So many science-fiction novels strived to illuminate societal inequality through exaggeration and role reversal, or the creation of purer, softer societies where women rule each other with soft hands, but I have yet to come across a book which inverts the status to devastating effect.

‘The Power’ is just such a novel.

Naomi Alderman’s latest novel is a manuscript written 5,000 years in the future, documenting the rising power of a female elite. The story begins with the ‘Day of the Girls’, when teenage girls across the world wake with a strange new power. It starts as a subtle throbbing sensation between the collarbones and crackles across the skin, filling the air with electrostatic discharge and the smell of rain and rotten fruit, before emerging as a spark of light from the tips of the fingers.

What would the world look like if men were afraid of women rather than women being frightened of men?

A slight warning, while not fully divulged in this review, the book contains one or two themes that some readers might find disturbing.

Through the guise of a fictional future researcher, Alderman follows the stories of four characters and how they are affected as the world begins to change. We meet Roxy, a tough, foul-mouthed daughter of a London crime lord who is out to seek revenge; Allie, a dual-heritage girl from Jacksonville who, having suffered unspeakable abuse at the hands of her foster father, rebrands herself as charismatic faith-leader Mother Eve; Margot, the aspiring New England Governor along with her confused daughter Jocelyn; and Tunde, a plucky Nigerian journalist who strives to uncover the ugly truth behind the rising female power.

‘Men have evolved to be strong worker homestead-keepers, while women – with babies to protect from harm – have had to become aggressive and violent.’

A few videos emerge across social media platforms showing girls seemingly electrocuting men with their hands. The initial reaction is one of disbelief, but as more and more begin to appear, society is forced to attempt to address this strange new phenomenon. As childish tussles give way to deadly brawls and schools are forced to begin gender segregation, the very fabric of society unravels and young women are recruited to fight a bitter battle between the sexes that ravages Eastern Europe.

In Alderman’s present, electricity is no longer a thing of convenience, but a power to be held within the hands of women, to throw off the shackles of oppression. The future, however, is anything but bright, and all thoughts of equality are thrown to the wind. Ideas of a softer, more maternal society give way to hordes of women who rule with iron fists, as men are assigned their place on the bottom rungs of the ladder, forced into submission as slaves to the female race.

The storyline is complex and multi-layered, presenting a future where women have forgotten the male-dominated times of the past – the systems overthrown within the main body of text – and men are thought to be the fairer sex. This book is so much more than the latest attempt at a feminist dystopia. It is refreshing and insightful, combining a gripping storyline alongside an interesting analysis of societal ideas about equality and fairness within gender roles.

This review was first published on online for E&T magazine.

Head in the Cloud – William Poundstone

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What’s the point in knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up? In this new release from Oneworld Publications, William Poundstone sheds light on the importance of knowledge, even when Google is just a stone’s throw away.

It is often said that we are living in an information age. Gone are the days of trawling through text books and library archives to find the material to complete your latest homework assignment. The internet possesses all the information you could ever need – and then some. Pick up your smartphone or connect to your computer and you have a wealth of data available at your fingertips. But while it’s true that it is incredibly easy to look up facts on Google, it’s not so easy to remember any of them. Some have argued that having such a wealth of information available to us is making us stupid.

In his new book, ‘Head in the Cloud: The Power of Knowledge in the Age of Google’, William Poundstone turns this theory on its head. Being better connected doesn’t necessarily mean we are better informed and the internet is not making us stupid, he argues. Rather, it is making us less aware of what we do not know. We’re living, Poundstone believes, in the golden age of rational ignorance. People are more interested in the lives of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West than bothering to learn who painted the Mona Lisa and millennials use acronyms such as BTDTGTTAWIO (been there, done that, got the t-shirt and wore it out), but are unable to recall the single word uttered by the raven in Edgar Allen Poe’s famed poem.

So what does being well informed actually mean? Does it really matter?

Speak to any self-proclaimed gamer and you will likely tap into a wealth of information that’s missing from the mind of the average Joe. Perhaps you don’t have a clue what processor lurks within your PC, or how to overclock the latest Nvidia graphics card, and why would you? Unless gaming happens to feature high on your list of priorities, you’ll probably never need to know this random information.

Equally, some of you will have got through life just fine without ever having known the catchphrase of Poe’s raven. If someone was to ask you who invented Post-It notes, what year Tinder was developed, or what the fastest land mammal on earth is, you could retrieve the answer from the cloud within a fraction of a section of clicking ‘search’ on Google. This poses the question: ‘What’s the point of knowing anything when facts are so easy to look up?’

Interestingly, it turns out that the benefits of staying well-informed extend much further than being everyone’s go-to teammate in the monthly pub quiz. Poundstone reports results of internet surveys analysing the rate of public knowledge, with outcomes suggesting that better informed individuals are, on the whole, healthier, happier and quite significantly wealthier. Not only this, but factual knowledge is heavily correlated with personality traits, including political opinion. Did you know, for example, that those who are able to locate a country on a map are less likely to be in favour of invading it? This is just the very tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill-informed voters.

‘Head in the Cloud’ is hilarious, humbling and brutally honest, and will likely make you doubt yourself, and everyone around you. This book is not merely a declaration of the woes of an ill-informed public, it also serves to highlight the benefits of broadening your horizons, offering insight and advice on how to best use todays media to stay informed. If you take only one thing away from this book, let it be the knowledge that there is no such thing as irrelevant information and that you could probably benefit from a little more time spent with an atlas, encyclopaedia and Oxford English Dictionary.

This review was first published in print for E&T magazine