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.

Mars: Making Contact – Rod Pyle

With Nasa’s new lander, InSight, due to launch in 2018, and the Mars 2020 Rover set to touch down just two years later, all eyes are on Mars. Rod Pyle traces the history of the Red Planet in this stunning new publication from Carlton Publishing Group.

519q2nj3sl-_sx258_bo1204203200_The universe can be a pretty lonely place. What are we but a pale blue dot, orbiting an insignificant star, in one of any number of solar systems, in an unquantifiable amount of galaxies that make up the universe? For generations humankind has hoped to one day discover life beyond our world, to finally know that we are not alone in the universe. Of all the planets in our solar system, there is one which will forever encapsulate the human desire to discover alien life, that dull red dot flickering in the distant night’s sky – Mars, our, not-so-identical, twin sister.

For millennia, Mars has held a special place in the human psyche, fascinating explorers enamoured by its dull red appearance and unusual celestial motions across the night sky. In the past, the relative closeness of the Mars to our own home seemed to hold the promise of hardy plants, animals equipped to handle long cold winters, and a whole new world of secrets and history. Over the years, however, we’ve come to learn quite a lot about our distant neighbour, and the truth is far from appealing.

Multiple flybys, orbiters and landers throughout the years have awarded us a deeper understanding of our sister planet, and opened our eyes to the truth of that which once lay just beyond our grasps. The first fleeting images of Mars, awarded by the success of the Mariner 4 flyby, revealed a hostile frozen desert – similar to Earth in terms of geology and physics, but cold, dry and lacking in any kind of atmosphere that would allow for the development of life.

Mars: Making Contact traces the history of Mars here on Earth, as the lonely red sphere in the night’s sky evolved from an otherworld entity, to a place, and as the secrets of Mars continue to unfold. Author Rod Pyle reveals the many human interactions that have occurred with our sister planet, and lays out the hope of more to come, as we move towards the first human mission to the hostile red sands of Mars.

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

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

“People think dreams aren’t real just because they aren’t made of matter, of particles. Dreams are real. But they are made of viewpoints, of images, of memories and puns and lost hopes.”
― Neil Gaiman

Kafka on the Shore – Haruki Murakami

Some time ago, after reading After Dark, I said I wanted to explore more of Haruki Murakami’s work, well I finally got around to it, and I’m very happy I did.

Earlier this year I read Norwegian Wood as a book club selection (review to come, our club has yet to meet due to a few members taking their sweet time to read the book!) and I loved it. I loved it almost as much as The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and you know how much I love that book! I don’t know what it is about certain translations (that they are beautiful maybe?) but I just can’t get enough of them. I was so taken by Norwegian Wood that I began to think that Murakami might actually be one of my favourite authors, but I couldn’t make such a decision based on two books, to find out for sure I needed to read more.

So, I set myself the task of actively reading more Murakami (to begin with I decided I’d read one book a month, but what with all my other commitments that is starting to seem like wishful thinking) and first on the list was Kafka on the Shore. Now, Norwegian Wood is said to be somewhat of an anomaly in Murakami’s portfolio, but Kafka on the Shore is quintessentially Murakami-esque – so I thought this could be the decision maker.

Where Norwegian Wood is a unique take on a classic tale of love, Kafka on the Shore is weird, wonderful and unashamedly unique!

It’s as if when you’re in the forest, you become a seamless part of it. When you’re in the rain, you’re a part of the rain. When you’re in the morning, you’re a seamless part of the morning. When you’re with me, you become a part of me.

kotsIn Kafka on the Shore storylines combine to trace the extraordinary journeys of two seemingly unrelated characters. Kafka Tamura runs away from home on the eve of his fifteenth birthday, haunted by the words of his father’s dark prophecy. Ever since the mysterious departure of his mother and elder sister Kafka’s life has been full of questions. Now his aim is simple, to travel to a far off place and live in the corner of a library. The journey, it seems, may hold the answers.

Elsewhere in Nakano ward, the dim-witted but amiable Nakata tracks lost cats and enjoys the simple things in life, like eels, and pickled vegetables with rice. But this is all set to change with the arrival of a tall man in a top hat and boots, whose interest in the neighbourhood cats is far from innocent. With his simple life turned upside down Nakata is forced to leave Nakano ward, and embarks on journey unlike anything he has ever experienced before, or his simple mind can even comprehend.

As Nakata and Kafka’s stories unwind and intertwine the remarkable interlaces with the ordinary and the world takes on a wholly unusual shape – fish and leeches fall from the sky, and cats converse with people, while WWII soldiers live, unageing, in the depths of unnavigable forest, and living ghosts lurk in the perimeters of consciousness.

Kafka on the Shore is a classic tale of quest and enlightenment, with a wholly unusual twist, which goes beyond the boundaries of classic literature. Murakami’s characters embark on a journey of stunning proportions, a voyage of self-discovery through inexperience. Neither Kafka nor Nakata know what it is they are looking for, but the answer is out there, and the journey introduces them to many strange and wonderful characters, with whom brief encounters prove to be life-affirming.

Anyone who falls in love is searching for missing pieces of themselves. So anyone who’s in love gets sad when they think of their lover. It’s like stepping back inside a room you have fond memories of, one you haven’t seen in a long time. It’s just a natural feeling. You’re not the person who discovered that feeling, so don’t go trying to patent it, okay?

Kafka on the Shore is strange – there is no getting around it. Weird and wonderful things occur and the reasons behind these occurrences are not immediately, if at all, clear. Each chapter harbours events which, however deep and profound an impact they may have, lack any logical explanation. Try and apply a logical filter to Murakami’s and you will no doubt find yourself disappointed and frustrated.

I found it useful, in having read Kafka on the Shore to try and get some insight into  Murakami’s own thoughts on his writing. Murakami has explained his writing process as similar to dreaming, rather than delving into the fantastical: “Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life. It’s also a way of descending deep into my own consciousness. So while I see it as dreamlike, it’s not fantasy. For me the dreamlike is very real.”

Kafka on the Shore, then, can be seen as the amalgamation of two different worlds, the combination of the conscious and the unconscious. Think of the book as you would a dream, and suddenly things become much clearer. I was reminded, in reading this, of the talk I went to by Nigerian author Ben Okri last summer in which he spoke of exploring a new way of thinking in his writing, to show that text does not have to follow strict criteria. The world that you create, he said, can be sequential and logical, or circular and dancing. Kafka on the Shore falls firmly into the latter category.

Despite everything, it’s not a difficult book to read. The obscure and the philosophical, which may at times feel somewhat overwhelming, for me were lightened by Murakami’s abstract humour. Here I could give examples of the pimp dressed like Colonel Sanders, or Nakata’s continued reference to going for a ‘dump’ – but for me, the most hilarious part of the book, was Oshima’s fantastic shutting down of two women who refer to him as a ‘typical sexist, patriarchal male’.

My verdict – I liked it. But nowhere near as much as Norwegian Wood. I definitely need to read some more before I make a decision on just how much of a Murakami fangirl I am. The book won’t be for everyone – fans of the logical and sequential and those of you unsettled by violence against animals should steer clear of this one – but I’m certainly not done with my Murakami journey just yet.

Private Pleasures – Hamdy el-Gazzar

“All I know is that when I whisper to dirt, my conversations are less than meaningful.” ― Maggie Stiefvater

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I was drawn to Middle Eastern literature after reviewing A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. I enjoyed the book so much that I had to see what else there was on offer. Also, and this may seem a bit naïve on my part, I have really enjoyed other translated texts I have read, in particular French translations, and the work of Haruki Murakami – so I was interested to see how an Arabic translation would read.

I chose this book in particular because I was intrigued by the synopsis in the publisher’s catalogue:

Private Pleasures describes the three-day sex, drink, and drug binge of a thirty-something newsreader in the back streets and crumbling apartments of his native Giza, that pullulating mass of humanity that, like an ugly sister, sits opposite Cairo on the Nile’s west bank.

Sex, drink and drugs – it seemed like it could be interesting, so I requested a copy.

For me the book got off to a good start, you know I am a sucker for a rich description, and I was drawn into el-Gazzar’s initial portrayal of Giza square:

Behind us, Giza square is a raucous pullulating, raging inferno, filled to its farthest limits with lights, sounds, and shapes and crowded to overflowing with bodies, objects, and goods of every conceivable kind. The square is a giant, twisted oblong bathed in the evening lights shining from the buildings and tall towers scattered about the corners of its celebrated streets: Murad, University, el-Sanadeeli, Saad Zaghloul, Salah Salim.

This wasn’t the most beautiful description I’ve ever read, but it really appealed to me. This scene does not paint Giza Square in a particularly romantic of light, or spread the square out in front of the eyes of the reader to scrutinise in the smallest details, there is no description of the buildings themselves, or the eyes of the people encased within the square. Instead it is described in its entirety as a teeming cess pool of activity filled with bodies crawling over one another, likes rats in a ship’s hold.

Unfortunately, after my initial delight at the author’s descriptions, it all went downhill.

I first got the inclination I wasn’t going to like the book when al-Gazzar introduced Simone, the beautiful, fair-skinned street walker. Any liking I had had for the author’s description of Giza went out of the window with his crude analysis of Simone. Her breasts are, ‘round and large as pomegranates’, she is chewing a ‘large piece of bubble gum in her small mouth’ which she rolls around with her ‘red tongue, popping it like a child.’ – These description are nothing like as evoking as those previously used. They are almost childlike, and then, as if to prove my point, he rounds off his description by summing up her face as ‘innocent and attractive’ – one of the vaguest statements I have ever read.

The introduction of Simone seems like a good time to bring in the sexual aspect of the book, I say ‘aspect’ but really there is little in the book which is not sexualised to the highest degree possible. I don’t mind overly sexual books, but this one is nothing short of obscene and downright ludicrous. I was most perturbed by the protagonist’s sudden interruption of his friend in the midst of doing the dirty with the fair Simone:

Impetuous and crafty, I galloped towards them like a donkey in heat, grabbed her breasts hard with both hands, plastered myself against her from behind, and plunged it between her white buttocks.
I lifted her thighs from the floor and put her into a kneeling position so that she looked like a coddled white bitch quietly standing there, and then I spread her legs apart till her buttocks clenched and quivered.
With schooled professionalism, she raised her backside into the air and displayed her two red passages.’

I didn’t just dislike this description; it made me cringe to think that anyone would ever describe sex, however primitive, in this way.  The idea of someone raising their backside up with ‘schooled professionalism’ is completely perplexing, even more so is the fact that she displayed her ‘two red passages’ – I’ve never heard the female anatomy described in this way before, and I don’t think anyone should ever use it again.

Unfortunately, this was only the beginning of a too-long succession of sex scenes, perverted streams of consciousness, and other randomly sexualised scenarios. The most ridiculous of which is a lengthy tale about a young girl possessed by a demon who made her overly sexual in every way shape and form:

Her family lived in constant fear that her breasts would burst forth in the faces of the passersby, that she might on some occasion reach down to her drawers, rip them to pieces, and throw them in people’s faces.

Yes, her family lived in fear that ‘her breasts would burst forth in the faces of passersby’. I’ll leave that at that, I don’t feel as though I need to explain why I found this ridiculous and unnecessarily perverse. By all means be in fear of the fact that she may disgrace the family, but not that her breasts will ‘burst forth’, no one lives in fear of that.

I felt at one point close to the end, when the three day-drink and drug binge which gave birth to two hundred pages of perverted stream of consciousness and overly self-pitying reflection was over, that the protagonist may have been about to redeem himself. After his wife had spent three nights devotedly feeding him warm milk while he recovered from his self-inflicted wounds, I thought that perhaps he would see this as an opportunity to make things right with her, to start again, from fresh, but I was to be disappointed.  Instead, after eating the food his wife prepared for him he went out again to smoke and feel sorry for himself some more.

One the whole, I found the book to be, not only perverted and grotesque, but completely self-obsessed and self-pitying. The protagonist was one of the most unlikeable characters I have ever come across. I was so relieved to have finished the book, after committing far too much of my time to struggling through each and every page.

With this as my first experience of an Arabic translation I have to say that I do not think it works well in English at all. Perhaps it reads much better in its native language, but I found it to be difficult and ugly to read. There was no beauty used to the language; it was harsh, and awkward. The whole experience has put me off of the idea of reading Arabic literature, if not for good, then for a while at least. Perhaps I will try again with something a little less controversial, but for now I feel happy to be ending this chapter of my reading life.

I was sent a copy of Private Pleasures by the publisher in exchange for a review.