BOOK and AUDIOBOOK REVIEW — Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication date: 15 September 2020


Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi is compelling, clever, and couldn’t be a more fitting return for the the author who sixteen years ago brought us the brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

A modern allegoric tale that works beautifully on all its levels; I’ve never regretted my spoiler-free approach to reviews more, as I really want to discuss the allegory at the heart of this intriguing story. Simultaneously simple and complex, every piece seems to have its place both on the surface and below, the labyrinth setting layered and reflected in characters and themes.

As I say, it seems the perfect return for Clarke and it made me wonder, on top of the dominant metaphor, how much her own experience was was imbued into the foundation. She’d been so wildly successful with Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, then became ill, leading to the long gap between novels. As someone who’s followed a similar (if more humble) path, I can’t help but feel this novel may be closer to the author’s heart and mind than perhaps any of us can know. But, this theory is another indicator of the brilliance of the book—it’s one of the stories that will probably mean something different to everyone, allowing readers to find in it pieces of themselves, their own rooms to explore within their own labyrinthine interior worlds.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book and, so too, the Audible edition narrated by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It was the first book I’ve heard him narrate and I hope it won’t be the last—his voice is so easy to listen to and his intonation is lovely and subtle. Not all actors are fantastic narrators, but he definitely is.

As always, this is an honest review. I bought this book and audiobook with my own money and wasn’t in any way incentivised to write this. Though sometimes I do receive copies for review, I only ever share my genuine opinions. Thank you for reading this—I hope if you read and/or listen to Piranesi, you love it as much as I do.

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 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 – 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.

Somerset

A couple weekends ago,  we went for a quick trip to the coast in Somerset. We stayed in the beautiful and very welcoming Swain House in Watchet and had a great mini break. It was the first time in ages we’d been out with our cameras and, though my eyes are feeling a bit out of practice, it was lovely. Here are a few shots from the weekend.