Gaining My Politics

Books that have shaped my world view

The date today is 1st October, 2020. It is the first day of Black History Month in the UK. Two days ago, Trump and Biden had their first televised debate of the US election. The Coronavirus pandemic has now been ravaging the planet for almost a year. About 4 months ago, George Floyd’s death saw people all over the world standing up for the Black Lives Matter movement. My personal life has also been a series of challenges this year, with events that deeply shook my sense of self and my place in this world.

In short, it has been quite a year. My cultural and political allegiances have been pulled apart and pushed into a new shape I can’t see clearly just yet. And lately, it has got me thinking about the books that have shaped my politics from a young age up the present. Some of these books are the result of deliberate searching; others simply fell into my lap at the perfect moment. Books are like that – they only come along when you really need them. They only show their true worth when you are ready to receive it.

What follows is an account of some of the books that have made me the political being I am today.

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman

Noughts & Crosses, Penguin Random House Children’s UK

I read Malorie Blackman’s Noughts & Crosses series at the age of 16. It was a year of bookish consumption and gluttony. I read hurriedly and greedily, skipping from book to book. From classics of the literary canon (Gulliver’s Travels, Frankenstein, Persuasion) to modern classics, revolutionary titles, fantasy and teen fiction. None of them imposed on me by a curriculum.

I read Blackman’s entire series within a couple of weeks. (I should point out that I am not a fast reader, so that’s pretty monumental by my standards – you will find this to be a recurring theme in this blog.) I think it would be fair to say that the speed with which I read may have undermined the messages I should have learned from it. But as a teenager, I was far more interested in the action itself, rather than the politics that was undeniably the driver to it all. What I remember most about the story isn’t the incredible overturning of racial stereotypes. What I remember most is the tension and the sexual awakening of the character’s lovers – a tragic Romeo and Juliet narrative.

But whether I realised it or not, this book was teaching me so much more about politics – race and terrorism.

Crossfire is the fifth part of the series, only published last year (2019). I have not read this latest addition.

Seventy-Two Virgins by Boris Johnson

Seventy-Two Virgins, HarperCollins Publishers

This book was part of that same year of voracious reading, when I spent most lunch times with my nose in my book rather than talking to my peers. I come from a Conservative family and at the age of 16, as is the case for many young people, my politics mainly consisted of parroting what I heard my parents say. At that time, if someone asked who I would vote for, I would probably have said Tory, although I couldn’t have told you why. At that time, all I really knew about Boris Johnson was that he seemed like an affable clown that got stuck dangling over London once, while abseiling to advertise the London Olympic bid. But my dad would say he was very smart, in spite of that, and that he liked Boris. So that’s why I picked up this book from my school library when I came across it.

My mature political (and staunchly liberal) leanings colour my remembrance of this book. But at the time, I did not see what I would now, that it was undoubtedly affirming damaging racist stereotypes. At the age of 16, I read it with the eyes of a child and the shallow political identity one gains from parents through osmosis.  I did not read with depth or with agenda. I learnt a few things about the process of parliament and was presented with some opinions on terrorism.

But really, Johnson’s novel did not leave much of a mark on me. I hope I am being true to my recollection when I say that this is simply because the writing did not inspire me. My reason for recounting it now is because I sat here thinking about which books have brought a new perspective into my personal political landscape. And as awkward as I feel in sharing this, I read a book written by our current Prime Minister during my formative years, so it would be obtuse of me to omit from this account.

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

Nineteen Eighty-Four, Penguin Books Ltd

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four in the summer I turned 17. At that age, my A-level English Literature studies had introduced me to what the syllabus termed “Critical Reading” – i.e literary criticism. We were quite deliberately encouraged to start reading with greater context and to consider alternative viewpoints. It was during these lessons I first heard the word Marxism. I was still without the understanding that would allow me to generate real life responses to what I read, but it was a beginning.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was perhaps the first novel I read with real, if immature, political awareness. The ideas this book related were truly mind-boggling, incredible and terrifying. Language as a weapon and a tool of oppression. As an adult, I have seen some of these tactics in practise and I am fearful for the path that lies ahead for our global political landscape.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale, Vintage Publishing

Once again, this book came at around the same time as those previously recounted – I read The Handmaid’s Tale in its entirety on one November night at the age of 17. I vividly remember staying up to read this book through the night. I could not put it down until I was done, and I mean that quite literally. To this day, I cannot recall another novel that has so captured me.

The Handmaid’s Tale is characterised by taboo. Both the topics under discussion and the actions of the characters are driven by the things we “should not talk about”. The role of women in society is painfully distorted, with particular attention on the function of sexual intercourse and menstruation.

The TV adaptation came along a few years ago and the book’s sequel, The Testaments, was last year’s joint Man Booker Prize winner. The ardour I hold for the original text meant I was very nervous about whether these more recent incarnations would hold up. Thankfully, they do.

How To Be A Woman by Caitlyn Moran

How To Be A Woman, Ebury Publishing

Skipping forward several years now, to the age of 25. At this time, I undertook a rather deliberate search for feminism. It took me some time to be confidently and vocally feminist and I can cite Caitlyn Moran as part of that journey. In this biographical work, Moran discusses her own journey to womanhood. She references Germaine Greer (author of The Female Eunuch) several times, but not with the blind adoration of a sycophant: with perspective that felt refreshing and personal. One of such references is how Moran came to stand on a chair and shout, “I am a feminist!” I did this when I went for a walk in the woods not long ago. I said it loudly and proudly and it felt freeing and wonderful.

There was a time when I was not so loud and proud. I used to fear being labelled as “one of those girls” (deciding to call myself a woman rather than a girl is another recent development). By which I mean being labelled as “difficult”. Accusations get thrown at people who call themselves feminist: man-haters that don’t truly believe in equality and can’t take a joke. With any political movement, the individuals that make up the whole can hold vastly different ideas. Political movements evolve, splinter groups form with ideals and goals of their own that might be at complete odds with the rest, but they are all under the banner of Feminism. There are people in this world who call themselves feminists that are doing more harm than good, people I would strongly disagree with.

But what I mean when I say “Feminism” is equality. They are, to my mind, synonyms. But Equality, with a capital “E”, is very busy these days, with so many kinds of injustice to overcome. So we separate the issues under subtitles that allow us to focus our attention on one at a time. Intersectionality, which I learnt about it in the next book, is a more recent term that asks us to consider all the factors that result in inequality concurrently, because only in this way, so advocates believe, can we make real positive change.

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started on this title earlier this year (aged 26). But I know that I was prepared to find it difficult. The title sets up the reader for confrontation and, as a general rule, I don’t do well with confrontation. Furthermore, although I, like many a modern person, believe myself to be an advocate for equality and anti-racism, it is rare that I, or people like myself, truly partake in a subject that makes one’s own history culpable in a present that continues to favour white people over black and brown people. Being born into this modern era of what we might casually call racial equality is a convenient lie. We have made strides forward, absolutely, but to imply that there isn’t a lot more work to be done is to massively undermine the continued difficulties experienced by those with darker skin tones in Western society.

This book astutely points out what is already obvious in our society, if only one takes the trouble to think – really think. Eddo-Lodge’s observations were difficult for me to listen to. As a modern young woman, I flatter myself with the traits of liberal and open-minded, but as Eddo-Lodge identifies the ways in which I am privileged – which I am, undoubtedly – it forced me to confront some things I had always managed to hide from my conscious mind. At times, this book made me feel defensive, but subsequent analysis of that feeling left me with guilt and troubled clarity.

Discussing race is something I have always found difficult. I am, after all, white, and there is a reason that Eddo-Lodge says she is “no longer talking to white people about race”. I do not want to be one of those white people who shies away or undermines the race conversation. But neither do I know how to approach such a difficult topic with the sensitivity and historical knowledge it deserves.

As I have grown older, experienced more, met different people to myself, I have repeatedly found myself wanting. Wanting, primarily, in education. British history is not a pretty one, but we are not told about it at school. We are not told about the times we were the aggressors, rather than the victims or heroes. We are not told about the cultures, the peoples we invaded, destroyed and plundered. I am still reluctant to look for the evidence myself, fearful of the guilt and horror I will find. But reading this book was a step in the right direction.


It is highly tempting to carry on naming books and delving further into my own psyche and the texts that have surely influenced me in all kinds of political topics. But, when we boil down the essence of what literature, what writing is for, it is to offer a new perspective on the world that we might not otherwise have come across. To write is to be political. To read is to be political.


Other books of political note from my reading back catalogue (click on highlighted titles to see my review):

  • The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien – Chinese Communist Revolution
  • Golden Hill by Francis Spufford – Colonialism
  • Smoke by Dan Vyleta – Industrial Revolution, Classism
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – Feminism
  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer – Feminism
  • The Seasonal Quartet by Ali Smith (Autumn (2017), Winter (2018), Spring (2019), Summer (2020)) – British Politics, Brexit, WW2
  • On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder – Democracy
  • A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – Russian Communist Revolution
  • Reunion by Fred Uhlman – World War 2
  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty – Racism
  • The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler – World War 2
  • Regeneration by Pat Barker – World War 1, Mental Health
  • The Book Thief by Markus Zusak – World War 2
  • What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe – Classism
  • A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf – Feminism, Writing
  • The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben – Environmentalism
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers – Environmentalism
  • The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan – Gender Identity
  • A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Mental Health, Sexuality
  • Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks – WW1
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – Feminism
  • The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen – Mental Health
  • Reasons To Stay Alive by Matt Haig – Mental Health

Natash Pulley Double Bill Review: The Bedlam Stacks & The Lost Future of Pepperharrow

It’s easy to think that nobody could really arrange the world like clockwork. All sorts of things would get stuck in the mechanisms … But clairvoyants have a knack for arranging time, and it was not without a sense of irony that Keita Mori was a watchmaker.
In his workshop, it was difficult to see what he was making until it was done. A sort of organised chaos characterised the way he worked, so much so that he could be constructing something for months or years and it would it only look like a tangle of something generically worrying – right up until it got up, walked off, and turned out to be an octopus.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, “Prologue”, Natashy Pulley, pIX

I have read Natasha Pulley’s full catalogue of published novels to date – 3 in total: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, The Bedlam Stacks and The Lost Future of Pepperharrow. I loved every single one and whatever comes along next, you can bet I won’t be waiting for the paperback. Hardbacks ahoy.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow is the sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, with The Bedlam Stacks being an expansion of the same world with cameos from Keita Mori – the eponymous watchmaker. And the world is intoxicating. When I read The Watchmaker, I would have called it magical realism, but The Lost Future and The Bedlam Stacks have leant more deeply into fantasy and sci-fi. The Watchmaker alluded to magic while the storyline was still very firmly rooted in the human experience. But in these two subsequent novels, the storyline is far more affected by the magic and its mechanics that I would change my classification. My old bookseller pal will be pleased – he insists that fiction steals all the good stuff due to intellectual snobbery… but I digress.

You can read my full review of Watchmaker here.

Let us first turn more specific attention to The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, sequel to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. We return to the tale of Keita Mori, watchmaker, clairvoyant and Japanese nobleman, and Nathaniel Steepleton, telegraphist, pianist, translator and Londoner. The Lost Future of Pepperharrow takes Mori back to his roots – Tokyo. Thaniel gains a position at the legation as a translator and so their new adventure begins.

Returning home isn’t an easy experience for Mori, as politics of family and government rake up the past and obscure the future.

Natasha Pulley does a fantastic job of creating mystery and intrigue throughout this novel. Unlike her key character, you cannot predict what’s going to happen and in spite of all you know about Mori, you are guaranteed nothing.

New characters bring new dimensions – unknowns are a must for any sequel, but even more so when clairvoyants are part of the mix. Recurring characters are used sparingly but effectively – their familiarity to the readers being undercut by their function in this story, primarily as providers of instability and narrative upset.

As the story progressed, I was pleasurably distressed by the events. I had fear and hope jostling against this magical world’s complex mechanics.

The only thing that falls down is the science. I recall this was the same in The Watchmaker. When Pulley’s characters start going into detail about how and why this world is the way it is, it fails to elucidate the reader effectively. However, I don’t hold this against the reading experience; it is notoriously difficult to explain physics with verbage.

As with The Watchmaker, the story is carried by enigmatic characters and challenging relationships.

Superhuman, preternatural Mori might be, but he is not immune to fallability – is perhaps the most fallible. He might be able to organise the machinations of governments; but try as he might, he cannot overcome his personal fears and shames. Is it brave to live in a world where you know exactly what’s going to happen? Or to live in a world where even the smallest possibility of disaster plagues your every waking moment? Exactly what characterises Mori’s insecurities or his feats is never revealed to the readers. Pulley allows us to see through the eyes of his companions, his lovers, but not Mori’s own. And there is nothing favourable about the perspective of a lover – who else is more likely to fret and fray, to find fault and worry at all the possibilities. Is he evil? Does he love me? Can he love anyone? Is he invincible? These are the questions we are asked to consider.

He’d always thought that Mori was brave because he always knew what was going to happen, but that turned out to be a serious misjudgement of character.

The Lost Future of Pepperharrow, Natasha Pulley, p458

The Bedlam Stacks is a separate narrative, but if you read them in order of publication, the overall timeline is consistent and there are lovely nuggets and easter eggs for the keen observer to discover and smile conspiratorially.

The Bedlam Stacks takes us to Peru, where smuggler and horticultural expert Merrick Tremayne is sent by the East India Co. to find Cinchona trees. These trees are the only source of quinine – a vital component for malaria treatment.  But Peru is guarding its resources, so smuggling is the only route out.

When Tremayne arrives, the settlement he stays in during the expedition becomes far more interesting than quinine. The native religion, the way of life in this place so removed from western civilization, called uncivilised by western travellers, is nothing but. This is an ancient and reverential place; living simply does not mean being unsophisticated. Call it folklore, magic or religion – the history here is undeniable.  But put history up against the frantic appetite for “new” and “more” that characterises the EIC and the sprawling destruction and appropriation of the British Empire, and folklore will struggle to stand its ground.

The wooden statues that guard this place are emblems of a timeless culture and a civilisation that began hundreds of years before our own. But these guardians are far more than that. The way of life in the region – as with the country – is being eroded by the west. And the people of the Bedlam Stacks are the bridge between the old and the new. They live in contradiction, the result of generations before being forced to leave behind tradition. But while habits are easily broken and forgotten, the induction of thought and emotion engendered by the generations before is not so easily taken away.

It’s a miracle, actually; sickly prematurely ageing worrying inbred horsey idiots have managed to convince everyone else their way is best by no means than firmness of manner and the tactical distribution of flags. I can’t believe no one’s called our bluff yet.

The Bedlam Stacks, Natasha Pulley, p300

In The Bedlam Stacks, folklore fights back.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that immense good humour that froths on every page Pulley writes. Her characters are brimming with it and I cannot but hope for them, live for them, turn hundreds of pages for them.

Book Review: “The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” by Natasha Pulley

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street

by Natasha Pulley

 

“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” is one of those books whose resolution you desperately chase, but whose end you sincerely wish would never come. Discover forever. That’s the possibility that Natasha Pulley gives us. Possibilities that hang luminous and tempting in your foremind. Strands of narrative like the strands of a spider’s web, floating in the imperceptible breeze.

Mori the Watchmaker can see all the possibilities.

Thaniel is a clerk at the home office. That’s probably all he ever would have been. If Mori hadn’t seen the possibilities.

watchmaker of filigree street

Magical realism is in vogue. How modern it is to indulge in a bit of magic. Natasha Pulley’s story floats effortlessly on this veil of literary mystery, this effervescent, illusive (perhaps empty) phrase, magical realism. What does it mean? Superficially, it means a story that is grounded in what is known and human and understood, but with something extra thrown in, something mystical, something unexplained – magic. Something that illuminates the story in a way that straightforward realism cannot. That is, in my opinion, the noble and elusive hope of magical realism.

Magical realism is not science fiction or fantasy. In the traditional sense at least. Although many an avid SF fan will insist that fiction is stealing the good stuff under its umbrella, while rejecting SF as an intelligent and complex genre in its own right. Personally, I find SF/Fantasy to be, most definitely, a genre worthy of more respect across the realm of literature. In the not too distant future, children will study J.K. Rowling and Patrick Rothfuss at school in place of dusty Dickens and tiresome T.S. Eliot.

But this is all beside the point.

“The Watchmaker of Filigree Street” is magical realism. A solid foundation of Victorian London. With political strife and everyday life. But woven through every chapter, paragraph and sentence, are the glittering threads of something far more extraordinary.

Now out in paperback, The Bedlam Stacks, Pulley’s second novel.

bedlam stacks

Title: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street
Author: Natasha Pulley
Published: 14/07/2016
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN: 9781408854310

 

Book Review: “The Music Shop” by Rachel Joyce

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The Music Shop

By Rachel Joyce

music shop

I’m a big fan of Rachel Joyce, since reading The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so as soon as I heard about The Music Shop, I had to read it immediately and it didn’t disappoint.

The Music Shop is about a man called Frank, who owns a record shop in the late 80s. Music is Frank’s way of interpreting and existing in the world and he has the extraordinary ability to listen. He understands the melody, the meaning, the emotion that a piece of music can contain – how it can elate, enrage or embrace you. And now, whenever a customer walks into the ordered chaos of his record shop, he will listen and he will find the song they need. It’s probably not what they came in asking for, but it’s what they need nevertheless. Frank will listen to you and hear the secret song inside you and make it real.

Then one day, a woman in a pea-green coat with eyes like vinyl faints outside Frank’s shop and changes everything.

Joyce has an extraordinary touch. She observes people minutely and exactly. But she does not pin down her characters with exactness. She is rather like a lepidopterist, who can gently cradle a passing butterfly in her hand. She examines carefully and with dedication. But only for a few seconds before releasing it once again. Hers is a gentle and respectful fascination with the human experience. She does not care for melodrama or action sequences. Joyce pays attention to the quiet existence of life that we can all relate to. Loneliness, grief, tender love and fierce friendship. And through it all, her words are warm and funny and generous.

“Jazz was about the spaces between notes. It was about what happened when you listened to the thing inside you. The gaps and the cracks. Because that was where life really happened; when you were brave enough to free fall.”
(p97)

Click here to see my review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

harold-fry-1

Also see The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Vegetables, then Pudding

I have too many books right now. The TBR pile is now a full shelf. A rather large shelf. Ok, more than one large shelf. Fiction, non-fiction, classics, smart thinking, philosophy, science, long, short, new, old, fantastically free, bargain bucketed or painfully purchased. It keeps growing!

So, Continue reading

3 Reviews!

I failed to post a review during February, so have three to make up for it:

“My Name is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout

lucy barton

 My Name is Lucy Barton is an honest account of family and a true representation of how life and love can be so complicated and yet so simple. Strout’s tone is refreshing and unsentimental, and for me, that is both its strength and its weakness. I struggled to feel invested in what is essentially brief and largely uneventful. Strout’s strength, however, is creating an environment in which empathy is eminently possible.

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” p41-2

“I have since been friends with many men and women and they say the same thing: Always that telling detail. What I mean is, this is not just a woman’s story. It’s what happens to a lot of us, if we are lucky enough to hear that detail and pay attention to it.” p28

The charm of this novel is in its little glimpses of human tenderness. Lucy shares those feelings we all have but are often too embarrassed or ashamed to admit. Lucy and her mother do not have an easy relationship. They are real because they are normal and mundane but complicated, like all of us.

“Reunion” by Fred Uhlman

reunion

In the afterword to this novel, Rachel Seiffert’s phrase puts it perfectly: “His restraint is formidable”. Sometimes the most difficult thing for a writer to achieve is restraint, the tendency to embellish being too difficult to resist. Uhlman’s narrative is stripped back, leaving only what is essential. I found reading this very short novel to be an unusual challenge, simply because of its brevity. I had to deliberately slow my reading, so as not to skim past something important. It is imperative you pay attention to every word, or you’ll miss something delicate and urgent.

This book is about friendship, the essence of what it is to find another person with whom you can share, with whom you feel natural. And the fragile state of adolescence, on the brink of adulthood, but still so much the child.

“Just as I took it for granted that it was dulce et decorum pro Germania mori, so I would have agreed that to die pro amico was dulce et decorum too. Between the ages of sixteen and eighteen boys sometimes combine a naïve innocence, a radiant purity of body and mind, with a passionate urge to absolute and selfless devotion. The phase usually only lasts a short time, but because of its intensity and uniqueness it remains one of life’s most precious experiences.” p13

This is the state in which we join two sixteen-year-old boys. Full of potential, minds to be readily moulded… or taken advantage of.

A thin, at times imperceptible veil floats above Hans and Konradin’s friendship. Konradin’s parents shake hands with Hitler in a photo. Herr Pompetzski delivers a lesson on the “dark powers” at work everywhere. A schoolboy tells Hans to “go back to Palestine”.

This book can be read in a matter of hours. Remarkably swift, delicate and poetic, Uhlman’s style reminds me an equally short novel: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. It is, like Ulhman, Seethaler’s ability to hold back that makes the narrative so powerful. They refuse to dress up a story that can and will speak for itself, with its humble words and noble human intention.

“A Little History of Philosophy” by Nigel Warburton

little history philosophy

Does what it says on the tin. From Socrates through to Alan Turing and Peter Singer, bitesize chapters relate the history of philosophy from its birth to present day. You couldn’t call it a full history, since it focuses primarily on Western philosophy. Nevertheless, it is a lovely introduction to philosophy for students or for anyone with an interest in the subject. These philosophical episodes also coalesce with pivotal moments of political and scientific change: Rousseau in the French Revolution, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Karl Marx theorising Communism, Alan Turing cracking the Enigma code. Joining the philosophical dots through history helps to paint a picture of humanity and continued attempts to improve ourselves.

The tone of the chapters evolves as you read. Warburton is almost flippant and comedic at the start, when discussing Socrates. But this may well be a reflection of the ancient historical accounts we have access to. The erosion of time has made them into characters, rather than people. You cannot help but find Pyrrho to be an amusing character. Pyrrho was an early sceptic who believed we can know absolutely nothing. Our physical senses are likely to mislead us, so he therefore ignored them entirely.

“So, whereas most people would take the sight of a cliff edge with a sheer drop as strong evidence that it would be very foolish to keep walking forward, Pyrrho didn’t … Even the feeling of his toes curling over the cliff edge, or the senstation of tipping forward, wouldn’t have convinced him he was about to fall to the rocks below. It wasn’t even obvious to him that falling on to the rocks would be so bad for his health. How could he be absolutely sure of that?” p17

As the book moves further toward the present, the tone becomes more sincere and the questions more relevant for a modern reader. Will computers be able to achieve consciousness? Is abortion moral? Reading this book is like studying a unit called “Introduction to Philosophy,”  with lectures from a university professor (which of course they are). Warburton fulfils his role as teacher by introducing an increasingly provocative style that encourages the reader, or student, to explore and question.

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Book Review: “Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor

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Ashes of London

By Andrew Taylor

ashes-of-london

It’s 1666 and the Great Fire of London is raging, but bodies are being found that have nothing to do with the flames. The burnt landscape of 17th century London is wonderfully grimy and decadent. Through the eyes of young Whitehall clerk, James Marwood and Catherine Lovett, the disgraced daughter of a once rich Regicide, we see people from all walks of life.

The charred London landscape is made richer by plenty of well researched history into the political landscape. Charles II is still dealing with the aftermath of his father’s execution and the disaster of Oliver Cromwell’s rule. There are still those who think of Charles II as a usurper; those who still await the return of the true king – King Jesus. Such believers, known as Fifth Monarchists, were supporters of Charles I’s execution, and have all but disappeared since the fall of Cromwell. Though most were pardoned by the new King, those men considered to be instrumental in his father’s death, have been charged of treason and sentenced to death.

James Marwood’s father was lucky and escaped execution. Catherine Lovett’s father is still on the run. Now, more and more of Lovett’s friends are turning up dead. And Catherine and James’ lives are getting more and more complicated. Cat and Marwood are complete strangers to one another and their individual plots run parallel throughout the novel, almost crossing many times. By keeping them divided, their apprehension (and therefore ours) keeps mystery, confusion and foreknowledge at the edge of the frame. These sensations – like the characters – chase, run and hide from each other constantly. While Taylor’s imagery isn’t the best, his plot development is first-rate. This is a novel chock-full of action and plot twists. Together with a hearty dollop of political intrigue, you are compelled to keep turning the pages.

“Dear God, I thought, my life is haunted by these religious fools.”

 

Books of the Year 2016

I didn’t start this blog a couple of years ago intending for it to be enitrely made of book reviews, but having started working in a bookshop in January, I have posted at least one book review a month this year. So I thought it was only right, having come to the end of 2016, that I give you my top 5. So in no particular order…

A Whole Life

By Robert Seethaler

Genre: Fiction
Published: 2014

a whole life.jpg

Review: “…A whole life in less than 150 pages. As you read, the sense of empathy settles quietly within, without your noticing and Egger, though often a stranger within his own story, is not a stranger to you for long…more

The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

Genre: Fiction
Published: 2005

the book thief

Review: “…Germany is in the hands of the Führer, and Liesel Meminger is a book thief. Both Hitler and Liesel know that words have power. Words can save a person’s soul or inspire people to do unspeakable things…more

Golden Hill

By Francis Spufford

Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 2016

golden hill again.jpg

Review: “…A glittering gem of a book, this historical New York adventure satisfies every requirement for a fantastic novel. Language that glitters and glides across every page…more

Smoke

By Dan Vyleta

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Published: 2016

smoke dan vyleta

Review: “..His world is wreathed in the so-called Smoke: the physical manifestation of sin. But if one Smokes when one feels love, lust, pain, is it really as simple as that?…more

The Name of the Wind

By Patrick Rothfuss

Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2007

name of the wind

Review: “…The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is surely a fantasy for adults. The most sophisticated of its kind I have come across. The language is rich and beautiful and the world Patrick Rothfuss has lent himself to flourishes under his care…more

 

 

 

Review: “The Child that Books Built” by Francis Spufford

The Child That Books Built

By Francis Spufford

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Golden Hill by Francis Spufford is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Possibly even the best. Spufford’s masterful storytelling and delicious, effusive creations captured my imagination in every possible way. Sensuous experience, corporeal characters, and a plot that transports and invigorates its reader; Golden Hill is the kind of book that forces any reviewer into excessively compounded, erudite sentences. This book is awesome.

I’m not even reviewing Golden Hill  and I have fallen into raptures (click here for my review). But to segue, the reason I am now reviewing The Child That Books Built is because of Golden Hill. I couldn’t get enough of Spufford’s voice. I read GH and immediately went in search of more.

To my dismay, Spufford has yet to publish any more fiction. The title I settled upon, therefore, is a biography. I am not, generally speaking, a non-fiction reader and have never read a biography cover-to-cover before. Needless to say my Spufford infatuation has changed that.

This book is precisely what it says on the tin – The Child That Books Built is about how books were his friends and teachers as he grew up. Interspersed with light psychology (which I am partial to), some frank confessions and plenty of books, all in fabulous Spufford style. Entire passages deserve to be read aloud and I did just that. My colleague was much bemused to find me sat alone on the work sofa reading to myself.

“We can remember readings that acted like transformations. There were times when a particular book, like a seed crystal, dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a supersaturated solution, and suddenly we changed. Suddenly a thousand crystals of perception of our own formed, the original insight of the story ordering whole arrays of discoveries inside us, into winking accuracy.”

The title of this book, unlike many books, sums up the content admirably. Titles often outright ignore their purpose of being informative, something Spufford discovered to his frustration as he got older:

“If a children’s book was called The Blue Hawk, it would have a hawk that was blue in it … Perfectly straightforward. Adult authors, on the other hand, seemed to be constitutionally incapable of giving a book a truthful name. … The Centaur did not contain a centaur: it turned out to be just some bloody metaphor.”

Spufford’s voice perfectly combines observational humour and gently fluttering revelations, making his experience universally empathetic for book lovers. He recounts and relives his experiences of literature as a child, re-reading his favourites as he writes the book. His enthusiasm is contagious and one could not be blamed for seeking out all the books he rhapsodises throughout – from the magic of Narnia and The Hobbit, to action packed James Bond, to the eloquent sci-fi of Ursula Le Guin, to metafictional Herman Hesse, a lifetime of books. A love story, an addiction that persists and experiences that fuse with one’s very being.

 “It is the directions [books] can point us in that we value – and then the way those interact deep down in our reading minds with the directions our own temperaments are tentatively taking.”

“When a fiction does trip a profound recognition … the reward is more than an inert item of knowledge. The book becomes part of the history of our self-understanding. The stories that mean most to us join the process by which we come to be securely our own.”

This adult was built by books and I hope I am too.

Alphabetty Spaghetty Review of Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

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“Nod” by Adrian Barnes – Book Review

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Adrian Barnes

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“Nod” is a dystopian sci-fi set in Vancouver, Canada.

One morning, Paul wakes from a beautiful dream to learn that no one else slept the night before. And this happened everywhere, all around the world. Apart from a few individuals, no one sleeps from that day on.

Biology continues in every other way and the countdown is on for when the human race can no longer survice without sleep. Paul however, who still sleeps, must be a sober witness to his world going mad. His wife is losing her mind and everything he once held dear is disintergrating. People begin to turn on each other and factions start appearing. New religions and new theories are emerging; the world is a new and terrifying place. Chaos reigns.

But what of people like Paul, who still sleep and dream? And then there are the children who dream and sleep. They have stopped talking and isolated themselves from the chaos. They smile and play and seem to have a world of their own. What will be their future?

Barnes raises many questions in this novel, and with his protagonist being a writer, he is well placed for some existential indulgence. There are some obscure literary references – not quite enough to alienate this particular reader though I suspect others might find it jarring.

“During my time in Nod, I came to believe that if something can be imagined it must be possible. Want proof? We imagined space flight, then it happened for real. We imagined holograms and they happened too… So is a Rice Christian or a Blemmye or a burning ice cube or a green sun or a widowed scarecrow just some meaningless assemblage of sounds and letters? Or, in some way, are they all real? Wow, I’m really babbling here in Babylon, holed up in my tower of words.”

Overall, I found this novel to be a bit disappointing. There is a lot of potential in the ideas expressed but instead of resolving these issues, they are left completely open ended. I’m all for literature making one think more deeply about the world and our fellow humans and I’m not asking for all the answers to be handed to me. But I feel the novel would have benefited from a little more direction if it is to be regarded as a successful story and not just an exploration of ideas.