Portrait Artist of the Week — Rankin

I haven’t written about it yet here, but when I’ve been up to it, I’ve been watching and painting along with Sky Art’s Portrait Artist of the Week, which is a live show on Sky’s fb page that’s happening as a Coronavirus replacement of their regular Portrait Artist of the Year programme. They invite portrait painter from a previous series and a celebrity sitter to come on the show from their own homes, converse and create a portrait over video. Viewers watch on fb live and are welcome to take part in painting their own version of the sitter then share their work on Instagram under the hashtag #mypaotw.

The sitter this week was the photographer Rankin. Coming from a photography background myself, I really enjoyed listening to the conversations. As I’m still unwell and wasn’t up for traditional painting (nor did I think it would be a good idea to paint in bed with my white sheets!), I worked on my iPad Pro, in Procreate, with my Apple Pencil. As always though, this is freehand, no tracing or digital trickery 🙂

Rankin by Miko Mayer

Veritas Ergo Iustitia: MCMLXXXIV/MMXX

Veritas Ergo Iustitia: MCMLXXXIV/MMXX, mixed media (graphite, collage, on clay board)
by Miko Mayer

VERITAS ERGO IUSTITIA: MCMLXXXIV/MMXX

 

I’ve been finding it disconcerting how much reality is imitating fiction. 

We’ve watched for ages as Trump and Putin have used plausible deniability and so called ‘alternative facts’ to reframe reality, replacing truth with whatever they find convenient. Overtones of the dystopian within our times—think of George Orwell: ‘the mutability of the past’, ‘the denial of objective reality’. In 1984 he wrote, ‘who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’. To watch this in action, even in other countries, was disturbing enough; for it now to be happening in UK as well and, during the initial stages of this pandemic, to watch most of the mainstream media and much of public completely enthralled by the government’s narrative… I’ve truly been at a loss for words. 

Following international and independent journalists and scientists, it was obvious that when the UK government was saying it was science led, following the best advice, at the best times, the international community was watching with consternation. The data out of other countries was clear, it didn’t ‘change’, and every day the UK insisted things like mass gatherings weren’t likely to increase the spread of the virus, was another day which would inevitably lead to thousands more cases and eventually exponential growth. In a further step towards the dystopian, for some reason, the domestic media followed the government’s talking-points—perhaps they didn’t want to cause panic or perhaps individual journalists were being hemmed in by their corporate conductors, but they didn’t ask the questions that so obviously needed asking. News from other countries was a stark difference—they watched us from afar and calculated what things like lack of community testing, herd immunity, or not joining procurement schemes would mean for our country. In time, the media here started becoming more critical, but this took too long and only came after catalysts that could not be ignored, like open letters from scores of domestic scientists and academics.

The government eventually started following some of the internationally recommended procedures—social distancing, lockdowns, more testing—putting human lives ahead of political and economic fears. This was a huge step in the right direction, but even so, they refused to admit they could’ve done more sooner. They maintain they’ve done everything right all along, that we’ve avoided the worst, while, in reality, we have more deaths than any other European country.

At the start of the pandemic, the UK government’s response was at best inept and inadequate, at worst calculated and callous. I’m somewhat relieved to see they’re taking things more seriously at the moment—are not seemingly in a rush to obliterate the lockdown and run headlong into a second wave—but I don’t think we should forget how things have gone along the way or, in trying to be supportive citizens, lose our ability to think and question critically what is going on around us.

Is this 2020 or 1984? 

 

BOOK REVIEW—The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey


The Book of Koli by M. R. Carey
Published by Orbit (an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, an Hachette UK Company)
Publication date 16 April 2020

I enjoyed M. R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts immensely. I went into it not knowing at all what it was about; if I’d have known, I might not have picked it up for fear of it being a genre book, but by the time I realised what I’d gotten myself into, I was hooked and well impressed by Carey’s storytelling skills. This, taking something that had been done to death, writing it well and making it seem fresh, went a long way with me, so when I heard about his new book, The Book of Koli, of course I wanted to read it. The blurb promised another world, a hostile one where even the trees were predatory. This, too, intrigued me. It was one of those moments when you get a new book, combining an author you’ve enjoyed and a subject you’re interested in—a Christmas morning moment.

I settled in to read, but within half a page, I had to stop and give my head a bit of a shake. It was written in the first person, in very stylised—and atrocious—English. I probably outwardly cringed (inwardly, I certainly did). I gave myself a bit off a pep talk (‘perhaps it just starts this way,’ ‘you’ll get used to it,’ etc.) and ploughed on. Over the next few pages, I found myself correcting Koli’s grammar constantly and at one point actually worried that if I kept reading, I might end up picking up bad habits (I’m one of those people who unconsciously mimics other people’s accents, I don’t think this actually extends to bad vocabulary or grammar, but I did have the momentary worry). My hope that the style would give way to a more conventional use of our language was never fulfilled, but, eventually, my brain calmed down and I settled into the rhythm of the story.

It soon became clear this was another post-apocalyptic world, but one very different from The Girl with All the Gifts, one further in the future, far removed from our world, where technology had almost mythical status, technological items were treated like artefacts, and aspects of the world, such as the carnivorous plant life, seemed fantastical. The story is largely a coming-of-age tale set in this strange world where the mysteries of the environment and culture unfold as the young protagonist, Koli, a teenage boy on the cusp of adulthood, finds his feet. It’s enjoyable in many ways, but I think approaching it like a YA novel, a decent one that can be enjoyed by the young and adults alike, is probably a good starting point. Parts of it, such as the pop culture references presented through the tech, like inside jokes between the past and the reader, were entertaining.

It appears as though it’s the first book in a trilogy and, though this isn’t the most glowing of reviews, I will probably read the next book to see how it develops. With the YA caveat, I’d recommend this to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting. I’m aware I might feel disappointed because my expectations were high and I am the kind of reader that is disconcerted by blatantly disastrous grammar, even if it is intentional.

Though this is a mixed review, I’m still very grateful for the opportunity to read the book and would like to thank to NetGalley, Orbit, and the author.

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.