Speak Gigantular by Irenosen Okojie

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A collection of weird and fantastical short stories, Jhalak Prize shortlisted Speak Gigantular is a captivating read. Usually I like to take my time with short stories, reading only a couple at a time, but Okojie’s collection sucked me in and I had to stop myself from reading the entire book in one day.

Most of the stories are London based, but Okojie sets several of her tales abroad. One of my favourites, Animal Parts, reminded me of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale. Set in a Danish town, it is about a young boy who grows a tail. He and his mother live alone, ostracised by the rest of the community:

As Henri grew older it became increasingly apparent that Ann was not going to be able to keep his tail a secret from the townsfolk. As uninhibited and unashamed as any child should be, Henri ran with oblivious abandon, not aware that words were forming against him, even at his tender young age. That minds were closing firmly, decidedly, and that he was not destined to enjoy his worry-free existence much beyond his early childhood years.

I loved this story, though its scenes of bullying were brutal. It was fantastical while still being relatable to everyday life. Other favourites were Walk With Sleep, set in the tunnels of the London Underground, where ghosts wander in limbo, Nadine which was beautifully and awfully tragic, and Why is Pepe Canary Yellow? – at turns hilarious and then incredibly sad – about a bank robber who wears a chicken costume to hold up banks, persuading the staff to help him and then leaving copies of his favourite recipes behind.

I did feel that a couple of the stories were so abstract that I struggled to engage with them. For me to love magic realism, I need a certain level of reality in there so that I can ground myself. This is just my personal feeling, and others may love these weirder stories even more because of their disorienting feel, but I found myself skimming over the words at times because I was so unsure of what was actually going on.

This is an impressive collection and Okojie’s use of language is inventive. The way she sets scenes, particularly when describing Cape Verde or Lisbon, less familiar locations, is vibrant. Okojie has compiled a book that is most definitely original.

 

 

The Bone Readers by Jacob Ross

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The Bone Readers is the first in Jacob Ross’ ‘Camaho Quartet’, featuring Michael (Digger) Digson. Set on a small Caribbean island, this is a more literary style of crime thriller, to be expected from a writer as acclaimed as Jacob Ross.

When Michael (Digger) Digson is recruited into DS Chilman’s new plain clothes squad on the small Caribbean island of Camaho he brings his own mission to discover who amongst a renegade police squad killed his mother in a political demonstration. Sent to London to train in forensics, Digger becomes enmeshed in Chilman’s obsession with a cold case – the disappearance of a young man whose mother is sure he had been murdered. When the enigmatic Miss K. Stanislaus , another of Chilman’s recruits, joins him on the case, they find themselves dragged into a world of secrets, disappearances and danger that demands every ounce of their brains, persistence and courage to survive. 

This is no dull paint by number police procedural, it is an introduction to Digger’s world. We learn about the island, about his life so far, Ross showing us how he goes from living  hand to mouth to becoming an expert in his field. Chilman is his mentor, the father figure who picks him up as a witness to a crime,  then puts his trust in a young damaged man. I loved this relationship between the older, often drunk, detective and his protégé. I am excited to see how Digger develops over the course of the series.

The main crime of the book, the missing boy, takes time to develop. This is not the longest of books at just shy of 300 pages, but it was about a third of the way through before I felt that we were really concentrating on the case at hand. I did not mind this. Once we’re on the trail, the action and the peril is non stop. I enjoyed taking time to get to know the various characters of San Andrews. I felt like I knew Digger a little, understood his motivations, before seeing how he dealt with an escalating situation within a community who had many secrets to hide. This book is published by Peepal Tree Press, a small British press which is focused on Caribbean and Black British writing. Where bigger publishers may have wanted to get to the point faster, I think that this book excels because of its slow build to the crescendo.

Some people have an issue with writers using patois  to add authenticity. Some say that they find it difficult to read but for me it was an addition to his brilliant description of the Camaho communities, the landscape, etc. Dialogue is written as the character would speak, and while Digger’s first person narration is more standard, you feel like you’re in his head.  I though that the technique worked well in bringing character, Miss Stanislaus in particular, to life.

I have to say, I have no idea how the Jhalak committee are going to choose a winner. This would be a worthy contender and  I look forward to the next instalment of Ross’ quartet.

 

Confusion by Elizabeth Jane Howard (Cazalet Chronicles Book

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Book three of the Cazalet Chronicles, Confusion takes us through the second half of World War II. Most of the children are now young adults and facing the challenges of learning to stand on their own two feet as well as dealing with the dangers of wartime London.

Headstrong, independent Louise surprises everyone by abandoning her dreams of the stage and making a society marriage. Unhappiness and loneliness, which have also plagued her mother’s marriage, quickly settle in – Michael seems more interested in his ship and his mother, to whom he is extraordinarily close, than in his young bride. And both Michael and his mother are desperate for her to become pregnant, a wish not shared by Louise.

Polly and Clary, now in their late teens, finally fulfil their ambition of living together in London. But the reality of the city is not quite as they hoped. Polly is having to come to terms with the death of her mother, as well as look after her grieving father. And Clary – clever, sharp Clary, acutely aware she is neither beautiful like Polly nor striking like Louise – is the only Cazalet who seems to believe that her father might not be dead.

I enjoyed this book more than the second in the saga, probably because the children from the first novel are now adults and I could relate a little more to their problems (although, being upper middle class in the 1940s, all they really seem to do is potter about and not have to worry about getting proper jobs). Louise’s story especially I found heartbreaking, finding herself married to a man who will always love his mother more than her (favourite quote from mother-in-law to Louise: ‘If I felt that you were – in any way – making him unhappy, I should stab you to death. I should enjoy doing it.’).  The way his family treat her, for childbearing purposes alone, was very well portrayed. Not only does poor Louise have an awful time giving birth, but her husband pops his head in for all of ten minutes to say well done, then abandons her to spend the rest of his leave from the navy with his mother! A different time indeed…

There are also lots of affairs in this novel, mainly concerning the women, but it did make me laugh a little at how little they seem to enjoy them. I was rooting for Louise and Hugo (her husband’s cousin) and was bitterly disappointed for her when he, being a good egg, confessed to the husband who promptly threw him out of the house and devised a way to keep him away from Louise (not sure what Hugo thought would happen!). Hardly any of the women seemed to enjoy sex at all though (or ‘being made love to’ as it is referred to throughout) and viewed it as a necessary evil when embarking upon an affair. I was also glad to see that Sid became fed up with Rachel’s do-gooding and found herself a young student to have a fling with.

So far, this is my favourite in the saga. On to book four I think, and post-war Britain with a fair few surprises in store…

 

A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt

 

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Siri Hustvedt is probably as well known for her non-fiction writing as her novels. In this book she aims to pull together both the arts and sciences in her essays on the human condition. There are three parts to this collection, comprised of new and older essays. The first section, A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women, focuses on artists and writers such as Picasso, Louise Bourgeois and Karl Ove Knausgaard. The second, The Delusions of Certainty, is a longer piece, thankfully broken into manageable sections, which looks in detail at the mind/body debate. The final section, What Are We?, is concerned with psychology and philosophy.

 

This isn’t the lightest of reads, but neither does it claim to be. I read the book over a two month period, dipping in and out but reading it in order. There is a line of continuity throughout as Hustvedt refers often to several of the same thinkers throughout, often utilising the work of seventeenth-century philosopher Margaret Cavendish, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty and several others including Freud and Janet. There are lots of interesting ideas presented in this volume, though some I had more interest in than others.

 

Perhaps because I am more interested in the arts personally, I found the first section the most interesting. Hustvedt writes extensively on bias in the way we look at the arts, the way that men present women in artwork, but also how female artists are regarded. For me, one of the most memorable of her essays is that on Louise Bourgeois. Hustvedt writes of her own experience of studying Bourgeois and her thoughts on her art, and also of the fictional character, Harriet Burden, who features in Hustvedt’s own novel, The Blazing World. Bourgeois was an unconscious influence upon this character, the author only realising to what extent as she wrote the essay. She also talks about the way that women are labelled where men aren’t, the creation of categories such as ‘woman’s art’ or, in my field, ‘women’s literature’. We don’t talk about male art or male literature in the same way.

 

The Patriarchs disappoint us. They do not see, and they do not listen. They are often blind and deaf to women, and they swagger and boast and act as if we are not there. And they are not always men. They are sometimes women, too, blind to themselves, hating themselves. They are all caught up in the perceptual habits of centuries, in expectations that have come to rule their minds. And these habits are worst for the young woman, who is still thought of as a desirable sexual object because the young, desirable, fertile body cannot be truly serious, cannot be the body behind great art. A young man’s body, on the other hand, the body of Jackson Pollock, is made for swagger and for greatness. Art hero.

 

Hustvedt presents her arguments with confidence, isn’t afraid to criticise the flimsy opinions of others. It is refreshing to read her ideas within the context of her own experience. When she writes of her own neurological condition, or shares anecdotes of her time as a volunteer writing teacher for psychiatric inpatients at a New York clinic, this adds weight to her ideas. I put trust in her, that she had thought carefully and formed well-rounded opinions based on facts and experience. This isn’t the easiest of reads but it will certainly make you think.

 

The Girl of Ink and Stars by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

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I haven’t read a children’s book (not including YA) for a very long time, but I’d heard great things of this book, aimed at the Middle Grade age range, so when it came up on the Jhalak shortlist I was pleased to have an excuse to read it.

Firstly, I have to say that the artwork in this book is stunning. Not only is the front cover one of my recent favourites, but the pages inside are beautiful. It was also a quick read at only just over 200 pages. I can imagine that kids would love this as it’s visually attractive and the world that Millwood Hargrave creates is vibrant.

The main character is Isabella, or Isa, a thirteen year old girl who lives with her father, a cartographer, in the island of Joya. Her town is ruled over by the Governor, an imposing man with a less than benevolent manner. Everyone is scared of him and he takes what he can from the people under his watch. Despite this, his daughter Lupe is Isa’s best friend. The Governor loves his daughter, so much so that when she decides that she wants to go to the local school instead of being taught at home, he knocks down the existing school and rebuilds it to his exacting standards. One of Isa and Lupe’s schoolmates goes missing one day and is found murdered. Isa blames Lupe, who had sent the girl off to look for dragon fruit for her. When Lupe then goes missing, leaving a note to say that she went to look for the killer and redeem herself, her father gathers his men and mounts an expedition to find her. Isa cuts her hair and dresses as a boy in order to be allowed to go, using her experience with maps to convince the Governor that she is needed.

I loved the use of myth throughout this story. Isa’s father tells her about how a thousand years before, the island was not tied to the earth but would sail the ocean like a ship. There was a young girl named Arinta who saved the island from a fire demon who anchored the island and tried to claim it for the Fire Realm. The myth is linked throughout the book and as Isa makes her way across the uncharted parts of Joya on her quest, her own story begins to mirror Arinta’s. I liked this as a technique, the plot woven throughout. Isa as a character was well-drawn, though I never quite believed in Lupe to the same extent.

I do have a couple of quibbles with the book, but this might just be from an older reader’s point of view (I don’t have kids to test this on!). Firstly, I wanted more from certain characters. The Governor is a fascinating character, and I loved that he wasn’t just a 2D villain. The problem for me was that he seemed to have a lot more to say. I felt that we got half of his origin story and I was expecting to discover more so was a little disappointed to have the rest remain a mystery. I also felt that the first half of the book was quite slow to get going but then once it did…whoosh! The pace was so breakneck that I found myself paging back just to make sure of where I was. I think that perhaps a younger reader would not be reading this in one stint though so this wouldn’t be so much of an issue.

The final verdict? I enjoyed this far more than I expected. Even for a MG book there was plenty of peril and scary monsters, and I loved the new world that the author creates.

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

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I’ve been reading more YA than usual recently, and found some great books, the latest of which is this, by Nicola Yoon.

Maddy is allergic to the world. She hasn’t left her house in seventeen years.

Olly is the boy next door. He’s determined to find a way to reach her.

The premise is pretty simple: girl meets boy, falls in love. The twist is that Maddy suffers from SCID (Severe Combined Immunodeficiency), more commonly referred to as ‘bubble baby disease’. She lives at home in LA with her mum, who is a doctor, and is pretty much cut off from the world around her. She studies online and reads lots of books, but her only contact with anyone other than her mum is Carla, the nurse who comes in each day. There are air locks on the doors, and the entire house has been adapted to filter the air of anything that might make Maddy ill. Maddy’s mum has been able to afford these changes as they were awarded a settlement after an overtired truck driver caused the traffic accident that killed Maddy’s father and brother years before when she was a baby.

The story is kick started when Olly’s family move in across the street. Maddy tries not to get involved Olly’s family fascinate her. While he practices parkour, his sister Kara is clearly troubled, and his father has a quick temper that Maddy suspects turns to violence on occasion. When Olly writes his email address on his bedroom window in black marker she has to contact him and a swift friendship is formed.

From a basic teenage love story, Yoon manages to elevate it to another level with her characters. Maddy is well written, and I could feel her desperation to have a life outside of the four walls of her house. I loved the messages that she and Olly sent back and forth, and the illustrations throughout (created by Yoon’s husband David, an illustrator) were a nice addition. I was very much rooting for them throughout what seemed like an impossible situation…

Which then brings me on to the one small issue: with Maddy trapped indoors with an incurable illness all I could think of was how the author was going to resolve the story. Nurse Carla alleviates the situation for a while by letting Olly sneak visits, going through a lengthy decontamination procedure each, but when Maddy’s mum finds out, she sacks Carla and Maddy is back to square one. I found myself looking for clues to how the story might pan out, and in the end I did guess correctly (don’t worry! no spoilers here) but it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. I think Yoon just about gets away with it because she constructs the world with the novel so robustly.

Overall, a book full of emotion; enjoyable and unputdownable.

 

Sockpuppet by Matthew Blakstad

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Matthew Blakstad’s debut novel is the first in a planned series of techno thrillers, not usually my genre of choice but I had heard good things and managed to get a copy through Goodreads Giveaways.

There’s no such person as sic_girl. She’s a fake internet personality Dani Farr designed to win a bet.

But she’s just started spilling state secrets.

Dani can’t imagine why anyone would hack a bit of code she created as a joke… but now she risks losing everyone and everything she cares about.

Government minister Bethany Lehrer has put her job on the line to launch Digital Citizen, a national online ID scheme. sic_girl seems determined to bring that down. And if Dani and Bethany don’t figure out who – or what – is behind sic_girl, it won’t just be their lives and privacy at stake.

The basic premise is that there has been a data hack at Mondan, the company that Dani works for. Hired for her incredible skills at coding, she is the prime suspect when information starts to leak via her online creation. Bethany is under fire because she gave Mondan the tender instead of the company usually preferred for government contracts. We know that neither of them are responsible for the hack but who is? And what is their motive?

Some of the techno stuff went over my head but I thought Blakstad did well to walk the line between having his less savvy characters ask too many expositional questions, and make sure that his less techie readers would understand enough. Above the jargon there is a decent plot though I wasn’t sure that the balance was right. The middle of the novel was quite slow-paced for a thriller, then it all kicked off in the last quarter.

Overall I enjoyed this book. The characters were varied and well-rounded for the most part, though Dani seemed quite naïve at times. For someone with her talents, at one point she goes incognito when a friend gives her a credit card in a fake name but within hours she’s back on the grid because she can’t resist signing into a website using her existing user name. Surely she’d realise this was a mistake? For someone whose entire life revolves around social media sites she was also pretty stupid to have allowed so many incriminating photos of herself to be taken. There were a few things like this that I didn’t buy into. The end…well, I let Blakstad off because there’s going to be a follow up, but I sort of wish he’d missed out the last chapter, which seems purely there to emphasise that this is an unfinished story, the sort of ending where you only realise it’s the end after you turn the page and there’s no more.

To sum up, I had frustrations with this book but still found it a rewarding read.