BOOK REVIEW—The End of the Word is a Cul de Sac by Louise Kennedy

The End of the World is a Cul de Sac by Louise Kennedy
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (UK & ANZ)
Publication date: 8 April 2021

The small blurb on NetGalley intrigued me. It read:

Announcing a major new voice, The End of World is a Cul de Sac is the debut short story collection from the twice shortlisted Sunday Times Audible Short Story Prize writer Louise Kennedy.

The political is intertwined with the personal, as Louise Kennedy reveals how ordinary lives can get caught up in a wider, national drama.


Sarah, abandoned by her partner, sits alone in their brand new house.
Orla, facing the strange revenge of her husband, is forced to judge a contest in the local fête.
Peter raises his daughter in rural seclusion, at what might as well be the end of the world.


Kennedy started writing at the age of forty-seven, and her prose is instilled with a clarity and wisdom born of her own experience. 

Beyond the above, I knew nothing. I requested the book and then waited quite some time before receiving it, so didn’t even remember much of that when I started reading. Half a page into the book, I realised the voice in my head was Irish; when I finished the next page, I Googled Louise Kennedy and that confirmed she is an Irish writer. I found it pretty impressive that her voice came through so strongly, as if magically resonating in my head. I went back and reread the the beginning paragraphs, wondering where my brain had decided this was an Irish narrator, and though the names used were Irish, I think it was mainly down to the cadence having a distinct Irish patter. In and of itself, it’s quite beautiful to read. 

There’s no question Kennedy can write—she’s eloquent and her words are evocative, bringing to mind clear vignettes of her characters’ lives. In this way, with admiration of her craft, I enjoyed reading the stories, but I found that, as a collection, it was beyond bleak—a wallow in the seamier side of life. In a time where my confidence in humanity is already running low (too many selfish responses to the pandemic, politicians willing to blatantly lie and undermine the very integrity of democracy, etc.), I just really didn’t need a relentless dose of more depravity and depression. Is this the world as Kennedy truly sees and experiences it? Is this more a norm than than I’m aware of, or is it just a tight focus on a subsection, something akin to poverty tourism? I’m obviously not in a place to judge, but I do know that with the exception of “Wolf Point” there was so little hope or positivity within the pages that I don’t want to believe this is the whole of the world for anyone, even if there are people who can see aspects of their lives within. A bit of balance would have gone a long way. 

With many thanks to NetGalley and Bloomsbury for the advance copy for review. Though this book wasn’t for me, as initially stated, Louise Kennedy can certainly write. 

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.

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.