Category Archives: book prizes

Book Review: Home Fire – Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire, a story about a British Muslim family and their involvement with radicalisation. Isma is the older sister, and has acted in a parental role to her younger siblings since their mother died when she was a teenager. The younger siblings are Aneeka and her twin brother, Parvaiz. He has gone abroad to join the media wing of ISIS. Parvaiz is persuaded this is the right thing to do after meeting some men who knew, and fought with, his father – he was a jihadist and died on his way to Guantanamo.

He didn’t know how to break out of these currents of history, how to shake free of the demons he had attached to his own heels.

Isma is studying in America for her doctorate, and she meets the son of the British Home Secretary, Eamonn, while she is there and she has a brits abroad based friendship with him. He, intrigued by her family story (she talks about her father, but not her younger brother) meets up with Aneeka when he’s back in London. Beautiful, captivating Aneeka sees this as an opportunity to get her twin home without him being punished…

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I’ve read a bit about Home Fire since it got on the Man Booker Prize longlist this year. I also heard an interview with Kamila Shamsie about it on Open Book on Radio 4. Home Fire is a retelling of Sophocles’ Antigone. I, clearly enough to anyone who knows me or has read my blog before, have no idea about the story of Sophocles! So I have bought the Penguin Little Black Classic of it to read later on.

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My poorly kindle and my favourite bag.

I found this story of a British Muslim family captivating. Their father’s association with ISIS and the effect it has on them is interesting. Other aspects of being a British Muslim are also explored, as you’d expect from a story like this. Eamonn has his father’s success to deal with too. I’m sure I will have more to say about Home Fire after I have read Antigone!

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Beer and Home Fire.

P.S. I received a free copy of Home Fire from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley.

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Book Review: History of Wolves – Emily Fridlund.

History of Wolves is the story of a lonely teenager, living in a remote part of Northern Minnesota. It’s all forests and lakes. Linda, lives with her parents in a cabin, the leftovers from a hippy commune that broke up while Linda was much younger. Her parents don’t interact with her much and she’s left to her own devices for the majority of the time. She ranges freely though the woods and kayaks around the lakes when she feels like it.

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Linda is an outsider at school. She becomes the interest of her, repulsively described, new history teacher, Mr Grierson – he encourages her to enter a history competition, and here she completes a piece of work called the History of Wolves. She becomes interested in trying to interest him, and grooming of various types is a theme throughout the book. He rejects her advances, but soon has to move away over a scandal involving another student, and he spends some time in jail for sex offences. Linda continues to be interested in Mr Grierson, and she follows his movements via a website tracking sex offenders. Linda seems to be disturbed by his rejection of her.

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Linda notices a family moving into a cabin across the lake, and she becomes a babysitter for their four year old son, Paul. His mother, Patra, is often alone with Paul as his father is an astrophysicist often away working in Hawaii.

During the first half of the novel there are a few hints that not everything is quite right in the cabin across the lake. There is mention of a trial, and Paul says something strange about God…

At the trial they kept asking, when did you know for sure there was something wrong? And the answer probably was: right away. But that feeling faded as I got to know him.

Linda is telling the story in History of Wolves from later in her life, when she is 30. We find out a bit about how her life has turned out. The effects her mentally absent parents have had on her. How the events of the novel have affected her. As well as being about how people can be influenced, and grooming, it’s about responsibility. It’s clear that an adult grooming a child is completely wrong, but what about when an older man seems to influence a younger woman, even if she is an adult? If a child knows about something going on that they feel uncomfortable about, how responsible are they for it? what if they are 15? It’s also about religion, and belief.

It’s not what you think but what you do that matters.

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History of Wolves on my kindle and a very gigantic puppy.

I really liked History of Wolves. It is shocking, and horrifying, and really makes me wonder about Emily Fridlund’s experiences that led her write to this book! I think it was a very deserving Man Booker Prize shortlisted book. I’m going to be thinking about it for a long time. I’m very deliberately not giving away any spoilers in my review, but come back to me when you’ve read it so we can talk about it properly, ok?  and just in case you didn’t realise from the rest of the review, you won’t find out anything about wolves from this book!

P.S. I was provided with a copy of this book by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley!

Book review: Autumn – Ali Smith

Autumn is the first in four planned seasonal books by Ali Smith. It’s a gorgeous look at the relationship between a young girl (and then woman) and an old man, set against the back drop of Brexit Britain.

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We meet Elisabeth as a young girl (around 8, I think). Her and her mother move into a house next to an old man, Daniel Gluck. He is used as a free babysitter by Elisabeth’s mum. The old man and the young girl go on walks where they talk about language, and art, and life. These walks continue until Elisabeth is 15 or 16, by which time her mother has become worried about their friendship and had forbidden Elisabeth to continue this friendship, which she disregards. From early on in their friendship:

She saw through a crack in the curtains Daniel coming up the front path. She opened the door even though she’d decided she wasn’t going to. Hello, he said. What you reading? Elisabeth showed him her empty hands. Does it look like I’m reading anything? she said. Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant. A constant what? Elisabeth said. A constant constancy, Daniel said.

By the end of the timeline of the story, he is 101, and Elisabeth is around 30. He is at the end of his life in a nursing home – trapped in a deep sleep, and she visits, reads to him and ponders the state of Britain after the EU referendum, and reflects on Daniel’s life and the profound effect his friendship has had on her.

Added to this, we get some dream like sequences from Daniel’s mind (in fact, this is how the novel opens with a dream sequence that takes us to the migrant crisis in Europe and to tourists trying to holiday on beaches with dead people washing up on the shore). We also learn more about Elisabeth’s mother and her activism in response to an immigrant detention centre being built near her home. There’s also a lot about the pop artist Pauline Boty and about the Keeler affair. It’s all quite disjointed, but it works well during the book.

The plot doesn’t run in a linear way, rather we get memories of different times throughout the present day story. The parts on art reminded me of How To Be Both – the only other Ali Smith I’ve read (review).

The post Brexit descriptions are stark and horrifying in the same way my mind is still horrified by the outcome of the referendum vote. It feels very current and accurately shows the tangle of thoughts that different people must be having over the same issues. It’s hard to describe, but some passages just broke my heart. This rant from late on in the book sums it up quite well:

Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on it’s way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how these liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to anymore. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says.

Finally, the relationship between Daniel and Elisabeth is very touching, and a bit of a spoiler, but it remains innocent. I was so glad it didn’t take a different turn. From when they first meet:

Very pleased to meet you… Finally. How do you mean finally? Elisabeth said. We only moved here six weeks ago. The lifelong friends, he said. We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.

I can’t wait to read the next books in this series.

P.s. I was provided with a copy of Autumn by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks NetGalley!

 

The Goldsmiths Prize Shortlist 2017

I’m new to the Goldsmiths Prize. It’s a prize given to a novel that breaks the mould for how a novel should be written. It’s only open to writer in the UK and the Republic of Ireland – that explains why Lincoln in the Bardo isn’t a contender, otherwise it really fits the criteria!

The blurb from Goldsmiths says:

The six shortlisted books offer resistance to the received idea of how a novel should be written. Variously, they break the rules on continuity, time, character arcs, perspective, voice, typographical conventions and structure. As such, there is a wildness to all of our chosen books that provokes in the reader a joyful inquiry about just what a novel might be there to do.” (Dr Naomi Wood, Chair of Judges)

Previous winners are:

2016: Solar Bones – Mike McCormack. This was longlisted for the Man Booker prize this year, and I have a copy waiting to be read because it sounds really great. It’s one sentence. One sentence!!!

2015: Beatlebone – Kevin Barry. I haven’t read this, but I bought a few copies to give as xmas gifts for people a few years ago – on the strength of several reviews I read. I wasn’t reading much myself back then, so didn’t get around to reading it myself.

2014: How to be Both – Ali Smith. Ahhh one I have read, and one of my earliest reviews, from before I really started blogging.

2013: A Girl is a Half-formed Thing – Eimear McBride. I just bought a copy of this a few weeks ago. Must read it soon. Must read it soon.

From the shortlist this year I have only read Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor. Hmmm it wasn’t a book I liked, as you can tell from my review, but it sure has an unusual structure! From the rest of the shortlist there’s a few books I’ve been interested in reading: First Love by Gwendoline Riley, and Phone by Will Self (I read Great Apes a few years ago and really enjoyed it). As happens far too often, time and other books have got in the way.

Here this years shortlist (click for links to more information):

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I look forward to seeing who wins on November 15th.

Which ones have you read, and who do you want to win?

Book Review: The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

It feels wrong to say I enjoyed reading The Underground Railroad, although I did, because it’s subject matter is so harrowing, yet so important.  The experience of Cora, a plantation slave who tries to escape to the North, in civil war era USA, is heart breaking and captivating. The description of her time on the plantation was very difficult to read. It’s not that I was ignorant to what slavery must have been like, it’s just never been presented to me in such a visceral, clear way. The text feels so immersive to Cora’s daily life. It’s stark and awful. And you can not fail to make links with modern day America with this in their recent history.

When the work was done, and the day’s punishments, the night waited as an arena for their true loneliness and despair.

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Colson Whitehead’s work is not an attempt to make a strictly factual account of slavery in America, but the experiences of the characters are firmly rooted in fact. The Underground Railroad is a physical underground railroad in this story, but in reality it refers to the network of moving escaped slaves around to get them out of the south and into the north, where slavery was illegal (sort of…).

After Cora escapes she makes several stops in different states, each state has a very different set up with regard to the treatment of slaves, or freed slaves. This set up of the different systems in each state is not historically accurate – but each thing described is something that happened – just not in the neat state by state way it appears in The Underground Railroad. For example, in one state there is secret medical testing on the black population. This reflects the experience of people much later on – but is still a thing that happened and is still yet another example of how freed people were not really free after all.

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Fitting a bit of reading in at lunchtime.

The Underground Railroad opens with Cora’s Grandmother Ajarry’s story. She is captured in Africa, and brought to America. I was glad that the slave ship had come from Liverpool because I think it’s too easy for British people to frame slavery as an American thing that we were nothing to do with.

Cora’s experience after leaving the plantation is of a life full of danger and uncertainty (as was her daily life on the plantation). I’m deliberately not going into the specifics of the situations she finds herself in, because I don’t want to reveal more of the plot than is necessary to discuss the main themes. She experiences freedom where she feels more restricted and confined that she ever did on the plantation. She questions what it means to be free (spoiler alert: she will never be free because of the society all around her). She feel responsible for tragedy that befalls most people who try to help her. She is frequently so close to danger and The Underground Railroad is a really gripping read in addition to being a great emotionally moving novel.

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Friday night reading. 

The Underground Railroad won this years Pulitzer Prize for literature. It was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but hasn’t made the shortlist. All I can say is the ones that did must be spectacular!

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Love this author picture at the back of The Underground Railroad. I like to think he’s thinking ‘my book is amazing, and now you know it too’. Hoorah!

I loved reading The Underground Railroad and would highly recommend it. It’s an emotionally difficult read, but the prose is not complicated. It’s going to be one of those novels that stays with me for a long time. This has to be the thing i remember about it the most though:

The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist!

It’s Man Booker Prize shortlist day! Woo hoo!

Here’s the short list from the Man Booker Prize website

4321 by Paul Auster (US) (Faber & Faber)
History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund (US) (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (UK-Pakistan) (Hamish Hamilton)
Elmet by Fiona Mozley (UK) (JM Originals)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (US) (Bloomsbury Publishing)
Autumn by Ali Smith (UK) (Hamish Hamilton)

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Picture of the shortlist from the Man Booker Prize website.  http://themanbookerprize.com/news/man-booker-prize-announces-2017-shortlist

I’m glad to see Lincoln in the Bardo on the list. It’s the only one I’ve read from this list and I loved it (review here). So I’m currently backing this one.

The only other longlist book I’ve read and really, really liked was Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (Review coming soon). It has won its fair share of awards already, so I suppose it’s nice to give others a go.

I have quite a few of these ready to read (Autumn, History of Wolves, and Elmet I think) so I’ll try and get through them in the next month (spoiler alert: I probably won’t manage many).

Which is your favourite to win?

Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Lincoln In The Bardo is a lovely, interesting, odd book about the transition of Abraham Lincoln’s beloved son, Willie, between the world of the living and the world of the dead. While he is between these worlds – in the Bardo – he meets many of the other inhabitants of this in-between place. Over the course of his first night in the Bardo, his father visits his corpse several times. The backdrop to these events is the American Civil War.

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I listened to an audio book of Lincoln in the Bardo. It starts of as an extremely difficult listen – this could probably be avoided by knowing something about the unusual structure of the book before beginning to listen to it. A lot of the first 15 short chapters are quotes from other sources. My thought process through this hour went something like: What is going on? Are these quotes from real books, or imaginary ones? What even does the phrase ‘op cit’ mean? I’ve heard it 1000 times already and I’m quite worried that something has gone wrong with the audio book and I’m just being read a long list of footnotes.

Once you get into it you realise that all the chapters dealing with the historical setting are presented as a series of quotes from other texts. These make up about a third of the book – there are over 100 chapters in total. Through these we learn about Lincoln and his wife having a state banquet while their beloved son is gravely ill upstairs. We learn about the civil war and about Lincoln as President. In fact, any action that isn’t taking place in the Bardo is presented in this ‘quotes from other sources’ form.

In the Bardo, Willie meets many other ghosts (best word I can think of to describe them!). They change form depending on their feelings and most have an appearance relating to their death, or their opinion of themselves in life. Our main characters are Mr Bevins, a young, gay man who changed his mind during a suicide attempt, but was too late to be saved. He appears as a human with multiple eyes, ears and arms. The number of these changes frequently. We also have Mr Vollman, a man of advancing years who took a younger wife. He was kind to her and expected no intimate relationship, but she fell in love with him over time. She indicated she was ready to consummate their marriage, when he was unfortunately killed before he went to meet her in bed. His form in the Bardo is himself with an overly large engorged member, to put it politely. It’s size changes throughout the book. We find out these facts early on in the book, I’m not giving away any spoilers here.

There are many other residents of the Bardo. They are, to different degrees, confused about their current state. They refer to their coffins as sick-boxes, and many harbour a belief that they will return to their former life. Willie is unusual because, they tell us, most young people go over to the other side very quickly. Willie, 11 years old, resists and this marks him out as unusual.

There are 166 characters in the book and they are all voiced by different actors. The stellar cast is what drew me to the audio book over the print one (Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, Don Cheadle). Though I could only pick out Nick Offerman and David Sedaris as they are Mr Vollman and Mr Bevins. George Saunders voices the third main character The Reverend Everly Thomas. Even though I initially had a difficult time with the audio book, I ended up really glad I had listened to it over reading the print book. I ended up being really helped by recognising characters voices. I would have really struggled to recognise repeat characters if I was just reading it.

In the Bardo, there ends up being a battle of sorts to keep Willie in the Bardo, giving him chance to see his Father again as he visits his body.

I ended up loving Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s an exploration of parental love and grief. It’s about the death of one compared to the death of many (through chapters focussing on events in the civil war). It’s about living a good life, and what that even means. It’s about friendship and death. It’s written beautifully and is so lovely and poetic. Because I was listening to the audio book while driving I couldn’t keep track of my favourite quotes.

The death of one is a tragedy, the death of millions is just a statistic.

Marilyn Manson, The Fight Song.

Yes, I know. It’s a great song though and this concept is beautifully explored in Lincoln In The Bardo by Lincoln having to deal with the death of his beloved child at the same time as having to make decisions about the civil war that result in many, many deaths.

I have to be honest, a cursory look at my Learned League stats will tell you I have awful knowledge of american history. It’s currently my worst category and I have only 3/35 questions correct on this topic. It shouldn’t be a surprise to find that my knowledge of Abraham Lincoln extends from this:

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It’s probably not supposed to be what you get from Lincoln In The Bardo, but I really enjoyed learning more about Lincoln.

Lincoln In The Bardo is primarily occupied by death, yet I found it to be an uplifting read. It’s partly historically educating, quite funny, sad, hopeful, and a beautiful read. I would be interested to hear how anyone got on with reading the print book, over listening to the audio book?