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 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 — 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 – 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. 

Inktober Day 19: Owl

An owl we saw at the Hawk Conservancy Trust awhile back. If you’re into birds at all and are ever near Andover in the UK, it’s well worth a trip. Not entirely happy with how this drawing turned out (partly down to execution on my part and partly to using a new paper that I won’t be using with ink again), but sharing anyway as I’m behind on my Inktober pieces 😉