BOOK REVIEW— How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee

How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Published by Oneworld Publications
Publication date: 06 February 2020

Jing-Jing Lee’s debut novel, How We Disappeared, is so accomplished that it’s difficult to believe it’s a debut at all. It is beautiful, harrowing, the writing exquisite—elegant, but not flowery, poised, but not stilted.

Set in Singapore, the story weaves deftly back and forth, from 1942 and the beginning of the Japanese Occupation, to the year 2000, drawing you into two times that couldn’t be any more different for the small but pivotal city state. Having lived in Singapore, I found myself there again as I read, at times time travelling to it as I’d never seen it; images of a more rustic and terrified city superimposed over memories of familiar places. Of course, I knew of the Occupation, knew it was horrific, but looking at it through this lens, through the eyes of a character so full of subtleties, so human, it became real. And even more horrifying. This is not to say, however, that this is a book that wallows. It doesn’t and, in that, reflects the character of the place and of its people. 

In the year 2000, the story follows two characters, one elderly, one just a child, and as a mystery unfurls, allows the reader to get to know the very interesting inner lives of both and see the city through their eyes. This timeline, as it darts in and out of the other, provides the reader with a space to breathe, process, and be thankful for not inhabiting the world of the occupation, while reminding us that people’s histories are invisible and compassion is too often in short supply. 

I cannot recommend this book more. I know I will read it again and have been waiting patiently for publication date to buy it for friends and family who I know will find it as absorbing and affecting as I did. Jing-Jing Lee is most certainly one to watch. 

With many thanks to Oneworld Publications and Net Galley for the opportunity to read and review this beautiful book. 

BOOK REVIEW — The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung

The Tenth Muse by Catherine Chung
Published by Little, Brown UK
Publication date: 07 November 2019

To say The Tenth Muse is a triumph would be an understatement. The writing is eloquent, poised, and fresh, all without feeling that it’s trying too hard to be anything. It draws you into the world of mathematics with such ease that you feel you belong, even if, like some of us, you most certainly do not.

I went into this book knowing very little about it. I’d read the blurb quite some time before I received it and beyond remembering that I’d thought it sounded interesting, I had no expectations. To be met with a story filled with so much emotion, insight—humanity— wrapped up in a plot that kept me turning pages was a rare gift. So often when I read, my critical (if not cynical) eye takes me out of the story, distracting me with what I think will happen, what I find predictable, improbable or unrealistic—this just didn’t happen with this book. I was captivated.

When I review books I normally focus on impressions, points that make it something I’d recommend or not, preferring to leave summarising to others (I’m spoiler-averse and this is also the kind of reviews I like to read); I find with this book I’m even more inclined to keep my review brief so as to leave the ground fresh for potential readers. I will say, I unreservedly recommend this book to anyone interested in literary fiction regardless of whether or not they have an interest in mathematics and, though I was given an advance copy for review, I will be purchasing this book for my mother as well as some friends.

With many thanks to NetGalley, Little, Brown UK, and Catherine Chung for the opportunity to read and review The Tenth Muse.

BOOK REVIEW — Body Tourists by Jane Rogers

Body Tourists by Jane Rogers

Published by Sceptre, An Imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, An Hachette UK company

Publication date: 14 November, 2019

Conceptually, Body Tourists intrigued me from the beginning. Though the core idea, the transplantation of consciousness, has been explored in fiction before, the blurb promised a modern take that would not shy away from societal commentary and implications.

The opening chapters delivered on those promises, a story compelling in plot, but also thought provoking. As I carried on, however, a sense of impatience grew in me—at first I wondered if it was the format, the frequent addition of new characters, but soon realised it wasn’t that, so much as a problem with pacing within these sections. They sometimes seemed to drag; there were passages that seemed to add nothing integral to the characters or plot. At times I was left feeling as though pieces were written as character studies rather than with a cohesive narrative in mind. Looking back, after reading, it seemed a shame, as I did enjoy the book and would have appreciated it so much more with some tighter editing.

With all this said, I’d still recommend Body Tourists if you’re interested in the subject matter. It explores some interesting ideas.

With many thanks to NetGalley, the author, and publisher for providing me with a copy for review.

BOOK REVIEW — The Dutch House


The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Publication date 24 September 2019

Ann Patchett has a way of bringing characters to life, constructing them bit by bit inside your mind. In the Dutch House she does this with such thoroughness that at times the book is almost too poignant. It is a tale of family, memory, perception, and identity. It tugs on heart strings, but, unlike so many books, it doesn’t feel contrived—it feels as though it’s a true a story being told, reactions be what they may, never leaving you feeling the plot or characters are mere tools of emotional manipulation. You sympathise with Danny and Maeve, you see them, hear them, you are a silent passenger sitting in the back seat of their car.

The plot is cleverly constructed, in and out of places in time—it feels effortless, but surely wasn’t. Even as Danny becomes more aware of his egocentricity, you watch his and his father’s pasts unfold, watch history repeat itself unawares. In the nuance, this book is built like a painting; while some characters are in fine detail, others are depicted in wider strokes, but these decisions feel very deliberate, a way of seeing who captures Danny’s attention and interest and in this you can see again how he unwittingly echoes his father.

A book that compels you to keep reading; I spent a couple days saying, ‘just one more chapter’.

With thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing Plc and Netgalley for the providing me an advance copy of The Dutch House for review.

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW — An Orchestra of Minorities by Chigozie Obioma, Narrated by Chukwukdi Iwuji

I read Chigozie Obioma’s debut, The Fishermen and was impressed. Now this, his sophomore novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, secures his place in my mind as one of those rare authors, the kind that can conceive a complex narrative, write it with precision and eloquence, and make it seem like magic. So many people can write, but not very many can write like this.

An Orchestra of Minorities is cleverly told from the point of view of the protagonist’s chi, a spirit that lives within him, is a part of him, but still maintains a separate consciousness. Like a thoroughly modern version of a chorus, the chi takes us through the tale of its “host”, fluidly giving us insights that could be told no other way. It’s a masterpiece in story telling.

From the beginning of this book there is an underlying feeling of foreboding, a sense there may be tragedy, but with many moments of gentleness and warmth, it is an incredibly well-balanced and compelling listen. It is primarily set in Nigeria, but it is universal; it is, among other things, a story about love, expectations both personal and cultural, and consequences.

The audiobook was beautifully read by Chukwudi Iwuji. I’d never come across him as a narrator before, but I will certainly look for him again. It was a flawless performance.

I’d recommend An Orchestra of Minorities wholeheartedly if you are interested in literary fiction or in Nigerian culture or fiction. I know I will listen to this again in the future and I plan to buy a hardcopy so I can read it in print as well.

BOOK REVIEW – A Single Source by Peter Hanington

A Single Source by Peter Hanington
Published by Two Roads Books
Publication date: 02 May 2019

Peter Hanington’s debut novel, A Dying Breed, made it on to my shortlist of recommendations last year. It was a clever, well-written political thriller that reminded me of the best of John le Carré, but I found, with its focus on journalism rather than the intelligence community, for me, it was even more compelling. So when I had the opportunity (courtesy of NetGalley) to read an advanced copy of Hanington’s follow-up, A Single Source, I had high hopes. High hopes are almost always a recipe for disappointment, but within a couple of chapters, I could tell there was no need to worry.

A Single Source brings us back into the world of the cynical, somewhat antisocial, journalist William Carver and back in time to 2011, during the Arab Spring, right into the heart of the January 25 Revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. With an interesting cast of characters, from journalists and politicians to arms dealers and refugees, some clearly inspired by real-world figures, the story unfolds. Through different parts of the world—London, Egypt, Eritrea, and beyond—multiple strands weave together to form an entertaining and clever whole.

I was living in the Middle East during this time and while I can’t attest to the accuracy of Hanington’s representation of the events on the ground because I was in Doha and nowhere near the centre of things, I can say (for having been peripherally involved), I am impressed by how he managed to capture the online atmosphere and feeling, the sense of liberation, the sense that the people’s ability to take the future into their own hands was at least partially enabled by social media.

As in A Dying Breed, Hanington shows us a world behind the one most of us inhabit, makes it tangible and wholly believable. You have the feeling that, though he’s sharing it in fiction form (and eminently readable fiction at that), he’s giving us a little glimpse behind the curtain, asking readers to open their eyes and question what goes on and why.

I have no doubt that A Single Source will be on my recommendations shortlist this year. It will be published by Two Roads Books on 02 May, 2019. If you haven’t read A Dying Breed, I suggest you do so between now and then; although it doesn’t strictly need to be read before A Single Source, I think you’ll enjoy both books more if you read them in this order.

BOOK REVIEW — The Zeno Effect by Andrew Tudor

The Zeno Effect by Andrew Tudor
Published by Matador
Publication date: 14 January 2019

As a fan of intelligent speculative fiction in general (*more on that later) including well-written apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction, I was happy to be provided with a copy of The Zeno Effect for review via NetGalley. My expectations weren’t high after looking at the summary of the existing reviews, but on reading the reviews thoroughly, I realised that what disappointed some of those readers, actually increased my desire to read the book. It seemed to me they were looking for an action thriller and instead found the book to be a more considered, perhaps to them slower, investigation of what would happen if, in a hypothetical future, a divided England and Scotland were at the centre of a world-altering pandemic. Reading the author’s bio and discovering he taught at the Universities of Essex and York, and was the Head of the Sociology Department at York, I was further encouraged—after all, how much of what would happen in an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic scenario would be down to functioning of human society? In my opinion, quite a lot.                                                                                             

Happily, I can report I was not disappointed. The Zeno Effect started out as a dramatic political thriller along the lines of Le Carré (with maybe a hint of Graham Greene)—with the crossing paths of scientists, politicians, spies, and a journalist caught up in the maelstrom of a dangerous virus released into the wild—and evolved through into a dramatic apocalyptic thriller which, though more modern, reminded me of George R. Stewart’s Earth Abides, John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, and P.D. James’ Children of Men. Some of these influences were seemingly conscious as both Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Earth Abides were actually mentioned in the narrative. 

As always, I like to write my reviews for the prospective reader and therefore do not like to go into plot details for fear of spoilers, but I will say that The Zeno Effect is intelligently written and not at all boring or lacking in plot. I started reading this at bedtime, expecting to be up for a half an hour or so, and before I realised, it had been two hours. I finished the book the following day; the story was obviously compelling. It did make me wonder about the initial middling reviews I’d read and, as I said previously, I think their lack of enthusiasm really may have stemmed from the book being different from their expectations. Looking back at my first impressions of the book now, it occurs to me this may have something to do with the cover art. I’m not a book designer, but in my opinion, it seems to follow the design conventions for mysteries and light thrillers and the large red Z was more than a little reminiscent of the covers for World War Z. For those who were consciously or subconsciously influenced by the cover to choose the book, perhaps there may have been an element of disappointment when they discovered the book to be different (more, in my opinion) than what they were expecting. They say ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ and I’d say, especially in this case, that is exceptionally good advice. 

*When I say I appreciate intelligent genre fiction, I mean books that are as crafted in writing and construction as any story would be within the literary genre. There are variations within any genre, but I think this is amplified in speculative fiction and science fiction where we have authors like Margaret Atwood, Cixin Liu, George Orwell, and Alastair Reynolds sitting like gems amongst the penny-laden coffers of zombie, vampire, and prepper fiction. (Though I readily admit that there are exceptions even within those subcategories). Given how difficult it is to find this kind of quality in such an eclectic and prolific genre, I am happy to have found a new book to add to my library and a new author to keep an eye on in the future. If you’re into intelligent speculative fiction, I’d recommend you give The Zeno Effect a read. 

BOOK REVIEW – If This Goes On (anthology), edited by Cat Rambo

This anthology of 30 science fiction stories is a self-proclaimed rally cry to Americans to stand up against their current administration’s ethics and policies. Though it never mentions Donald Trump by name, it does reference ‘45’, as in the 45th president of the United States, and it is glaringly obvious that the editor feels Trump is a problem. Although I’m not an American, am Canadian and British, living in the UK, I do follow American politics quite carefully and can’t help but agree, but this said, to me, one of the strengths of science fiction is its ability to address current cultural or political issues by taking the reader out of their frame of context and, by doing so, allowing them to form fresh opinions unhindered by preconceptions. In this way, the genre often has the power to reach people who would otherwise be defensive to the point of being unable to contemplate an opposing standpoint. Given this, it seems a shame that while the stories in this collection could have done this, could’ve reached the people whose minds need broadening the most, the editor’s notes that follow every story were so vitriolic and obvious in their agenda that it leaves the book with a restricted audience, essentially preaching to the choir. To be honest, though I agree with the editor’s concerns and frustrations, even I found her comments off-putting due to the overwhelming sense of bitterness. In the preface, she mentions this project is born of rage and hope, but it seems that, barring one or two comments towards the end of the book, the rage is prevalent and the hope is, if not lost, then at least not evident. 

The stories themselves were for the most part a joy, addressing current issues—social media, mental health, gun crime, population control and many more—in an entertaining and thought-provoking manner. I enjoyed the range of styles and themes, like opening a wrapped box with contents unknown, this collection gave me the feeling that each story held endless possibilities. One of the highlights for me was “Three Data Units’ by Kitty-Lydia Dye, which was seemingly about artificial intelligence, identity, and the relationships amongst humans and artificial intelligences, though through its world building, was so much more, also commenting on the evolution or devolution of society. It seemed to me a modern fairytale, both beautiful and sad. Another story that stuck with me was “Making Happy” by Zandra Renwick; on a superficial level, the world the author constructed was so different from our own, with pixelated sidewalks and internal screens, but if you stripped back the dressings, you were left with something that uncannily was the world we live in, with all the traps of social media and the echo chambers we inhabit. 

As it stands, I’d recommend the anthology to anyone with liberal leanings who has an interest in speculative fiction. With either a change in tone or elimination of the editorial notes, or perhaps even a restructuring of the book so the notes were at the very end of the book where they wouldn’t detract from the immersive nature of the fiction, I would also happily recommend it to people who weren’t already politically aligned with the message of the book. 

If This Goes On is published by Pavrus Press LLC and will be released 05 March, 2019. 

I was provided with an advance copy via NetGalley. 

AUDIOBOOK REVIEW – The Wall by John Lanchester

Set in the not too distant future, The Wall takes place in a dystopian version of the UK where the populace is conscripted into service on the The National Coastal Defence Structure, colloquially known as ‘The Wall’. It takes current-day issues—climate change, immigration/asylum, nationalism—and presents them to us through a protagonist whose world is just different enough from ours that you can understand how he grew up to accept the defects of his world without question. In this, Lanchester works the magic of speculative fiction, giving us the cautionary tale, allowing us to glimpse a slightly skewed reflection of our world, showing us that this could well be the bottom of the slippery slope we are descending. It’s an entirely readable and enjoyable addition the the dystopian genre, but it lacks the subtlety and complexity that comes with the best of speculative fiction and the characters could have been more fully realised. The protagonist was developed enough to create a sense of empathy, but while the supporting characters were identifiable as individuals, for the most part, I had no sense of what propelled them and that made them seem somewhat lightly sketched.

I listened to this as an audiobook and was impressed by Will Poulter’s narration. It’s the first book I’ve heard him read and I wouldn’t hesitate to listen to another.

All in all not a bad addition to my audible library and I’d recommend it if you’re looking for an entertaining dystopian listen, just best not to go into it expecting ground-breaking new ideas or predictions for our future.

BOOK REVIEW – Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

In hindsight this seems like a meandering tale that beautifully takes its own time, but while reading it, I was pulled along and I couldn’t put it down; I finished it in one sitting. It draws you in and, in the way of the best books, makes you understand something you find counter-intuitive. All the characters seem real, have little idiosyncrasies that make them come alive, and Kawakami manages this with ease where so many other authors strive for it, but their characters come across as contrived, like caricatures. 

I’d recommend this if you’re a fan of Japanese literature, but equally I think it would make the perfect introduction; it has some of the oddness you often find in Japanese stories, but it’s done with a light touch so the reader never flounders or feels as though they are missing anything for lack of cultural knowledge. 

A solid 5/5 for me and I am looking forward to reading the other works of Hiromi Kawakami.