Mini Review: ‘The Inheritance of Loss’, by Kiran Desai

TheInheritanceOfLoss

I mentioned in a previous review that some books make me cry. This was one of them. I was on the tube when I read the last line, felt the heat rushing into my face and had to stare unblinkingly at an advertisement for insurance or toothpaste or a dating website while I silently struggled to compose myself. It’s is a tragic book, bristling with anger and injustice; it’s profound, beautiful, achingly sad, but also very funny, at times. I’ll never forget the line, ‘No fruit dies so vile and offensive a death as the banana.’ Just brilliant. I tend to rate books based on beauty and feelings and I often fail to recognise structural issues or plot holes unless I’m reading with the intention of finding them. Because of this, criticism sometimes makes me think, ‘Well, yes, that wasn’t perfect, I suppose, but does it matter?’ It doesn’t work this way when I have my editor hat on, of course, but I wasn’t wearing that hat when I read this book; I just let myself get lost in it, and I think it’s very, very good — a deserving winner of the Man Booker prize. That’s my humble opinion.

Verdict: Read it, absolutely.

Advertisements

Mini Review: ‘MaddAddam’, by Margaret Atwood

MaddAddam
 
It pains me to say it, but I didn’t enjoy this one as much as I enjoyed the other two in the series (‘Oryx and Crake’ and ‘The Year of the Flood’). There was plenty of Atwood’s characteristic brilliance, but the book as a whole seemed to depend too much on the other two; it was set on filling in gaps rather than exploring new ground, and many of the characters were little more than names if you didn’t remember them from before. Indeed, part of the problem might have been the time that passed between my readings. I should’ve re-read the first two in anticipation of the third one, but I didn’t. The difficulty with being Margaret Atwood is that your books are always going to be compared to other books by Margaret Atwood, which is an impossible standard to meet over and over again… and criticism might seem unfair when you consider that the book is still better than the majority of books out there. All that aside, Zeb’s tale was highly entertaining and the Crakers were, are and always will be one of my favourite speculative creations. Blackbeard (and his relationship with Toby) holds the book together.
 
Verdict: I’d never advise against reading Atwood! Read the first two, then read this one, then let me know what you think.

 

Mini Review: ‘Vurt’, by Jeff Noon

Vurt

This book is a psychedelic roller coaster of beautiful and hideous magic. Set in a gritty, mad and fucked-up imagining of Manchester, people (which is a complex term, given the presence of humanoid dogs, shadow folk, robots and various hybrids) embark upon shared virtual reality drug trips induced by tickling the back of the throat with colour-coded feathers. These are more than just trips though; people can get lost in the Vurt, and this is what has happened to Scribble’s sister/lover Desdemona. Now he wants to go back into a rare and dangerous Vurt to save her. There’s incest, bestiality, a bit of extremely wild driving under the influence, a couple who are fused to each other by their dreadlocks,  a muttering and tentacled alien blob creature that is practically made out of hallucinogenic drugs… If offered one of the feathers, I’m not sure if I’d flush it immediately down the loo while wearing rubber gloves and a face mask, or if I’d put it directly into my mouth. I guess it would depend on the colour. I’d like to think I’m wise enough to avoid the yellow ones, and yet… I don’t want to know, but I do!

Verdict: Why are you not already reading this?

Mini Review: ‘The Casual Vacancy’, by J.K. Rowling

TheCasualVacancy
 
It took a while for me to get used to the idea of Ms Rowling dropping ‘fucks’ and ‘cunts’ into her writing, but I loved this book. She is so good at plotting and so brilliant with characterisation that I can’t fault her, and it’s not just because I was (and still am) a massive Harry Potter fan. The Casual Vacancy was long and tragic, tackling important social issues like poverty, domestic abuse, rape, drug addiction, self-harm, class prejudice and racism, to name but a few. Despite the seriousness of the subject matter, it was infused with plenty of Rowling’s wry observational humour; my favourite. I enjoy comic tragedies, and this is a particularly good one.
 
Verdict: Definitely read it, if you haven’t already. I was slow to pick it up, but I’m glad I got there eventually.

Mini Review: ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’, by Eimear McBride

AGirlIsAHalfFormedThing
 
The fragmented stream-of-consciousness writing was difficult to get used to and difficult to enjoy, but it worked, somehow, with this young woman’s dark and terrible tale. I flipped a few times from thinking that it was the most pretentious thing I’d ever read to being absolutely awed by the raw, emotional battering of it. It was fascinating how the scrambled syntax and gaps and repetitions still managed to place clear scenes into my mind’s eye, but they were experienced so differently. The sickly horror of being tangled up in her thoughts and reactions, of being her, but unable to change anything, was traumatic. By the end, I felt as shattered as the prose.
 
Verdict: I’d say read it because there is nothing else like it, but don’t expect it to be easy and do expect to be deeply upset by it.

Mini Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’, by John Green

TheFaultInOurStars

 I lost two grandparents, neither of whom were particularly old, to cancer in the last 18 months and, like everyone, I’m pretty scared of the disease. I thought this book would aggravate my problematically frequent and fearful musings on the topic, but it didn’t. There was a sense of normalisation, inevitability, randomness… I can’t explain it fully without having to abandon the ‘mini’ in my review, but basically I felt less scared of cancer after reading this. If it happens, it happens, and I’ll worry about it then, because what else can you do, actually? You can eat right, try to be healthy, but ultimately you can’t absolutely rule out the possibility of it happening to you or someone you love, even if they’re young. I guess that’s what I got out of reading this; some reinforcement for my more logical cancer thoughts. I mostly enjoyed the book, but it didn’t (couldn’t) live up to the expectations brewed by the hype and it didn’t make me cry, even though many books do and, given the subject matter, I assumed this would be one of them.

Verdict: Worth reading, not for the snarky (and sometimes unconvincing) teenage banter, but for the way that the themes of dying and death are handled. It’s modern, it’s interesting and it’s bittersweet. No, I have not seen the movie.

Mini Review: ‘The Dark Road’, by Ma Jian

TheDarkRoad

POSSIBLE SPOILERS.

This book was so horrifying that, once I reached the middle, I couldn’t put it down. I needed to know how it would end and, more importantly, I just needed it to end. The squalour, the violence, the unbelievable cruelty and rape endured by Meili and the injustice of the whole situation made me feel slightly ill and very angry. The final scene was brutally, viscerally awful and, despite how bizarre and unexpected it was, it felt, in retrospect, inevitable.

Verdict: Read it if you have a high tolerance for weird and disturbing translation fiction. Otherwise, don’t.

My 3-Month Deportation Trip

Unlike my blog, I have been very much alive these past few months. I’m back in London after staying with my family in Cape Town for a quarter of a year. If I had been told when I was deported that I wouldn’t be back for such a long time, I’d probably have had a bit of a tantrum, but, as it turns out,  I really enjoyed my deportation trip. When I wasn’t working or doing admin, I got to spend time with people I’ve missed terribly and do many things that mean so much more to me now than they did before I emigrated. There were a few major life events, but I won’t go into those here. What I will go into is a lazy list of things I enjoyed during my time in Cape Town.

1. MOUNTAINS

Table Mountain and the city.

Table Mountain + the city.

2. FORESTS

Newlands Forest.

Newlands Forest.

3. BEACHES

DSCN3619edit

Noordhoek Beach + family.

4. SKIES

Kommetjie Road, sunset.

Kommetjie Road, sunset.

5. CAVES

Boomslang Cave + brother.

Boomslang Cave  exit/entrance + brother.

6. BOTANICAL GARDENS

Kirstenbosch Gardens.

Kirstenbosch Gardens.

7.  AMAZING VIEWS FROM HIKES WALKS AND HIKES

Fish Hoek, twilight, from the trail to Elsie's Peak.

Fish Hoek, twilight, from the trail to Elsie’s Peak.

8. PICNICS

9. HOME-COOKED MEALS

10. 2-FOR-1 BURGER NIGHTS AND ALL-YOU-CAN-EAT PIZZA NIGHT WITH OLD FRIENDS

11. CAKE AND TEA WITH FRIENDS, DINNER AND WINE WITH FRIENDS, PIZZA AND COCKTAILS WITH FRIENDS, SNACKS AND FIZZY DRINKS WITH FRIENDS

12. BRAAIS

13. SUSHI, MORE THAN ONCE

14. THE BEST FISH AND CHIPS IN THE WORLD (HAKE AND CHIPS FROM FISH HOEK FISHERIES, IF YOU MUST KNOW)

15. GOOD WINE AND DELICIOUS FOOD AT A WINE FARM WITH MY AUNT, MOTHER AND GRANDMOTHER

16. MORE TEA THAN I CAN HANDLE (JUST KIDDING, I CAN HANDLE ALL THE TEA)

17. CATCHING-UP WITH WITH PEOPLE AT RAFIKI’S, BANANA JAM CAFE, THE BRASS BELL, KALK BAY, FISH HOEK BEACH, VARIOUS MALLS, MY FAMILY’S HOME AND ELSEWHERE

18. MAJOR NOSTALGIA WHILE CHOOSING GEMSTONES AT THE SCRATCH PATCH WITH AN OLD FRIEND

19. A MAGIC SHOW

20. OTHER RANDOM EXCURSIONS TO PLACES THAT ARE LOVELY WITH PEOPLE WHO ARE AWESOME

21. FAMILY OUTINGS AND SHENANIGANS, ONCE INVOLVING TEQUILA

22. WATCHING MOVIES WITH MY MOM + POPCORN

23. QUALITY TIME WITH MY CAT

24. BOARD GAMES, CARD GAMES AND OTHER GAMES, SOMETIMES WITH OLD FRIENDS, SOMETIMES WITH NEW FRIENDS AND SOMETIMES WITH FAMILY

25. MOVIES AND RESTAURANTS AND A FERRIS WHEEL AND VARIOUS HAPPY MEMORIES WITH MY PARTNER IN TOTALLY LEGAL ACTIVITIES

26. SCENIC DRIVES

27. PERFECT WEATHER

28. SUNSHINE (THE LATE MARCH/APRIL GENTLE VARIETY, NOT THE FEBRUARY INFERNO)

29. LOTS OF SPACE

30. LOVE AND HAPPINESS (CHEEEESE)

I wanted to write a pointlessly in-depth post about my feelings, but I probably won’t. I could sum it up by saying that I feel overdue for a long and intense cry, but everything is good and I’m not sure what to cry about, so I haven’t done it yet. Just too many feelings, I reckon. TOO MANY FEELINGS. Thank you to everyone who  made these last few months so lovely and memorable. Yes, even you, UK Home Office. None of it would’ve happened without your bullshit, so thanks for that.

Home.

I’m home. I’ve been home for a while. I still haven’t figured out exactly what to say about it apart from the obvious.

It’s good to be back with my family. It’s good to see old friends. I’m happy to be reunited with my cat. I don’t know where I belong. I miss Luc. I miss London. I miss the past because it’s not the same as the present even though the settings and most of the characters are the same. I’m uncertain about the present. I’m uncertain about the future. I’m excited about the future…

I thought it would be weird, and it is weird, it’s just a slightly different type and intensity of weird to what I had anticipated. I have a big, tangled mess of complicated (and boring) feelings that I don’t feel like picking apart for blog purposes, so I’ll just post a picture instead.

This is me on top of Elsie’s Peak last week, looking down over my home town of Fish Hoek. The photo was taken by my mom.

Home.

Home.

Review: ‘The City & The City’ by China Miéville

First review! I don’t know how to do these, but I feel obliged to post something after saying I would.

This is a weird book. Mild spoilers ahead.

The City and The City

The body of a young woman is found in the decaying city of Besźel and the case is taken on by Extreme Crime Squad Inspector Tyador Borlú. His investigation takes him across a complex border into the booming metropolis of Ul Qoma, a city that occupies the same physical space as Besźel. The concept takes a bit of explaining, but it’s brain-tingling once it clicks. The two contrasting and intricately overlapping urban landscapes exist in a complex scramble of ‘total’ and ‘alter’ areas and bits that ‘crosshatch’ or bleed into each other, these fragmented boundaries observed by locals through a hard-learned and deeply ingrained process of ‘unseeing’ and ‘unhearing’ things that leak through from the alternate city. The differences between the two are defined by architecture, technology, culture, dress, legally separated colour palettes and other subtleties and not-so-subtleties. It’s a fraught and impossible system, but not one that’s followed simply by choice: failure to respect the boundaries constitutes a ‘breach’, and such violations summon the shadowy and seemingly omnipotent organisation, known aptly as ‘Breach’, to deal with offenders. This ‘dealing’ seems to involve permanent disappearances.

Tyador’s investigation takes him through the legal crossing between Besźel and Ul Qoma, and what is already a highly unorthodox case begins to unravel as it becomes in entangled in the controversial mythology of ‘Orciny’, a third city, secret and dangerous, believed by some to exist in the gaps between the other two; people in Besźel unsensing its traces while thinking it to be Ul Qoma, and vice versa. You get the idea. Conspiracy theories,  unquestioned authority, obscure forces controlling people without them being fully aware of it… The political aspect of the book feels authentic, with its frustrating bureaucracy, international bickering, pointless nationalism and the ragged, battered ranks of the unificationists or ‘unifs’, cowering in the shadows of the Breach. It all makes me feel like going on a dangerous urban adventure, joining a political movement and maybe getting a tattoo, although I’m not sure what the tattoo would depict.

I felt that aspects on the concept were over-explained at times; unnecessary reinforcement of the world-building that was perhaps to the detriment of other elements of the novel. Conversely, some bits weren’t explained enough, and I felt that the ending was a bit frantic and slippery, with the plotholes resolved in a slightly haphazard fashion that involved the introduction of new ideas and clarifications too late for my liking. The answers to some of the questions that had loomed throughout the narrative were not as satisfying or as profound as one might’ve hoped (perhaps appropriately?), and while elements of the conclusion were fascinating, I don’t feel that it did justice to the rest of the novel or the world that had been so carefully constructed in the first two thirds. It needs a sequel, perhaps.

There were quite a few strange or awkward sentences in the book and I wasn’t sure if the author was trying to represent the foreignness of their language through unusual bendings of English or if the editing just wasn’t entirely up to scratch. Sometimes it felt appropriately strange and other times it jarred and I had to reread sentences to clarify them. Despite these occasional syntax glitches, I enjoyed the writing and was convinced by the characterisation of the protagonists, and by the dialogue.

Overall, I felt that the novel was reasonably well handled despite its complexity, the concept convincingly inserted into an otherwise familiar rendering of the world as we know it. There’s a real, gritty, anxious feel that appealed to me and spurred me onward. It’s clearly a commentary about stuff and things, borders and politics, difference and sameness, but I didn’t feel like Miéville was trying to force any black-and-white agenda through his prose. His socialist leanings are evident but not overstated. Sometimes I felt as though I couldn’t quite put my finger on the point, as if it was always just out of reach, but mostly that didn’t feel like a problem. Part of the authenticity of the politics exists in the swathes of grey; neither this nor that, neither right nor wrong. He doesn’t tell me exactly what to think, and I appreciate that. He has created a dystopian world, but he hasn’t polarised it or left it completely devoid of hope. There’s the possibility of redemption, despite the fractures.

*

The verdict, in short: Imperfect, but interesting. Worth a read, particularly if you like gritty dystopian fiction and original concepts. I’ll be reading more of Miéville in the future.