Book Reviews (9)

Books 9

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

Danny, a misfit with a desperate need for Wi-Fi and phone signal, joins his estranged, successful cousin Howie in turning a castle into a hotel. As they navigate their difficult relationship and the castle’s surprises, the convict narrator’s story within the story unfolds.

The story of the castle is a good one in itself – the contrast between tech-addict Danny and luddite Howie speaking to our time, their awkward relationship rooted in the trauma Danny caused Howie in childhood, the blend of realist and bizarre. But that story is being told by Ray in a prison writing class, with Ray and teacher Holly’s lives also an interesting course of events, as the challenge of life within prison interferes with the class and we learn about her own state of affairs. It’s a good touch to have a bit of meta in the mix, as the two tales reflect and reach into each other.

The castle and prison narratives are both a strong mix of human drama and the strange, with intriguing characters at the helm. The meta element really adds something on multiple levels, without sliding into the head-scratching complexity or posturing that can come when things go in that direction, making the whole deeper than its two parts.

Really entertaining, thoughtful, and moving.

The Chapo Guide to Revolution: a Manifesto Against Logic, Facts, and Reason – Chapo Trap House

The book by the comedy/politics podcast Chapo Trap House.

Chapo offers a caustic, ironic, irreverent look at (mostly American) politics from a far-left perspective, saying that ‘you don’t have to side with the pear-shaped vampires of the right or the craven, lanyard-wearing wonks of contemporary liberalism.’

The comedy is a cathartic take-down of the centre and right for Extremely Online failsons, but under the irony are nuggets of insight.

[The liberal] process pits tepid reforms against a deranged and revanchist right wing with no such inclination toward consensus or incrementalism. […] Without an organized and popular Left, liberals end up negotiating themselves into oblivion, moving the country, inevitably, to the right.

The chapter on the world provides a quick Chapo-style riff off Howard Zinn or Chomsky, the chapters on libs and on cons are caricatures of both sides with satirical summaries of major administrations (The young and ready [Obama] threw off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and declared, “Let’s find some fucking consensus!”), the chapters on media and culture are entertaining satire. The chapter on work is a great broadside against capitalism, railing against the system of wage labour (‘no employer hires anyone unless they can extract more value from them than they have to pay out in wages and benefits’) and the financial system’s destructive gambling.

Even as a Chapo fan, I don’t think their brand of bitterness and irony can make a whole manifesto. What’s missing is a chapter on the left – with, dare I say it, a bit more hope, warmth, and sincerity.

There are a couple of paragraphs here and there that mention egalitarian ideals, a new order where ‘the productive forces of society aren’t spent on inventing new weapons of mass destruction and clever ways to brutalize dissidents but on ensuring that all people enjoy the fruits of their birthright.’ Okay, but this is pretty simplistic, and only speaking to the home team. Chapo is better at tearing down than building up.

A must-read laugh for fans of the show. This book isn’t aimed at convincing newcomers, but as the hosts say themselves: your politics shouldn’t come from their dumb comedy podcast anyway.

Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life – Anne Lamott

‘Bird by Bird’ doesn’t have much detail on the nuts-and-bolts technique of writing – point of view, showing vs telling, whether adverbs are all evil or not, etc. Its focus is on things like paying attention to life, staying at your desk and dealing with your neuroses until you can finish a shitty first draft, dealing with jealousy, perfectionism, and getting out of your own way.

Lamott is funny and honest, dismissing romantic ideals about writers and being published. This was a refreshing dose of warmth and sincerity after the Chapo book. Although there wasn’t much here that struck me as new insight, her points are still important and expressed with nice jokes and anecdotes.

If you’re struggling with doubts and distractions, read this – you’ll find it very helpful. If you’re looking for help with the gritty details of technique, try Stephen King’s ‘On Writing’ or David Jauss’s ‘On Writing Fiction’.

Broken Things – Lauren Oliver

Obsessed with the book ‘The Way into Lovelorn’, 12 year old children Mia, Brynn, and Owen killed their friend Summer, following a ritual from their fanfic sequel. That’s what the community believes, anyway. Five years on, their lives thrown off track by the murder, Mia and Brynn try to find out the truth.

Another great ‘story within a story’ thing, with extracts from ‘The Way into Lovelorn’ and their fanfic providing clues to what happened that day. The darker elements of Summer’s friendship with Mia and Brynn come to light, as her obsession with Lovelorn and troubling features of her personality unfold. Each character has a distinct voice and personality, shaped by the past as her life and death looms over them.

A brilliant depiction of difficult knotty relationships, the aftermath of tragedy, and darkness tangled up with affection and hope. The mystery has some nice twists and turns, casting suspicion while building to an intense conclusion, and I found that ending a good move.

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Book Reviews (8)

Books 8

Inherent Vice – Thomas Pynchon

PI Doc Sportello investigates a plot to kidnap a real estate mogul at the close of the sixties in California, becoming caught up in a complex, colourful tangle of hippies, cops, and criminals.

He’s a convincing and complex character, an analytically-gifted dope fiend steeped in counterculture, scornful of the LAPD and authorities – concerned the lifestyle he knows is slipping away as political tides shift. The large, diverse cast is well-realised, but with many characters slipping in and out fluidly, and many plot layers forming, it can be hard to keep track. Some plot threads seem to not quite come together – but perhaps this reflects the effects of Doc’s own recreational habits.

There’s brilliant humour and wordplay, like the ‘plastricrats’ living off credit, and Pynchon somehow managed to keep weed-culture humour fresh and funny. The absurd events and trains of thought provide a psychedelic romp atmosphere to this tie-dye noir, though someone who remembers more of the period would pick up on jokes and references I didn’t.

I couldn’t believe this came out in 2009 – Pynchon’s nostalgia for this time seems so strong. But was it really as rosy a period as it’s presented through Doc’s eyes? There’s a strong current of objectifying women here, for a start. The book’s stances on police wrongdoing, American foreign policy, etc, seem to come packaged with a not particularly critical view of the excesses and flaws of Doc and his associates.

The writing is amazing; the plot a bit knotty but balanced with levity; a time, place, and spirit evoked to entertain us while also challenging our own time and priorities.

On Anarchism – Noam Chomsky

I found ‘Who Rules the World?’ a bit long, while this could have used being a little longer. It’s a little book packing a lot of content: discussing the ideas of key anarchist thinkers; the Spanish Revolution; the disagreement with state socialism; responses to various questions and concerns; and how classical liberal ideas, taken to their conclusions, can actually imply anti-capitalist or anarchist perspectives.

The word is commonly associated with ‘chaos’, conjuring images of masked mobs throwing bricks, but this has nothing to do with the philosophy. Chomsky describes the core of it as being that ‘the burden of proof is always on those who claim that some authoritarian hierarchic relation is legitimate. If they can’t prove it, then it should be dismantled.’ In the case of capitalism, he points to ideas from the 19th century labour movement in America, which responded to early industrial capitalism as ‘wage slavery’ in which a worker rents themselves to factory owners for a wage, and had ‘the assumption, just taken for granted, that those who work in the mills should own them.’

For Chomsky traditional anarchism is ‘an antistate branch of socialism, which meant a highly organised society, nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally.’

What’s here is compelling and readable – there just isn’t quite enough of it. Some points could use more elaboration. If you’re not already fairly far to the libertarian left, you’ll have questions and disagreements that Chomsky doesn’t take much time to address in detail. However, this is a very good introduction to powerful ideas, worth reading for an exposure to the Spanish Revolution alone.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – Owen Jones

This is an excellent book, examining how class war has been waged by the elite against the majority from Thatcher through to Cameron and New Labour: looking at regressive policy, the media’s demonising stance, and the realities you won’t find in the Daily Mail.

With the demise of industry and crushing of the unions, millions lost reliable work, falling into unemployment and under-employment in exploitative service-sector roles. As social problems naturally resulted in formerly bustling areas, an anti-social minority (‘chavs’, an inherently classist slur) were unfairly cast as representative of whole communities.

[As] our society has become less equal and in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased. Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society. […] What if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? […] if you were to accept it, then surely you would have to accept that the government’s duty is to do something about it [but] if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom.

Successive governments peddled the idea that aspiration isn’t about workers as a whole improving conditions, but about individuals pulling themselves up by their bootstraps into the middle class – leaving behind, supposedly, a feckless, wilfully unemployed, benefit-cheating rump.

Problems caused by neoliberalism and austerity were blamed on individuals. Rare instances of depravity were signal-boosted in the media to suit a narrative – while the larger crimes of the wealthy were minimised. This provided justification for the welfare state to be further undermined to incentivise hard work (whether or not opportunities were actually available!), making inequality worsen.

Jones says that, ‘it was the might of the working class that was once mocked and despised. But, today, with their power smashed into pieces, the working class can be safely insulted as tracksuit-wearing drunken layabouts with a soft spot for Enoch Powell.’ He has hope that this power can be restored, the class war waged back: making suggestions along the lines of a Green New Deal, a national programme to build socially owned housing, more progressive taxation, more co-operatives, and bringing back the ability of unions to really stand up for workers.

Passionate and deeply researched.

The White Book – Han Kang (trans. Deborah Smith)

It’s difficult to summarise this. Biographical prose poetry? Each short chapter shines with evocative imagery and crisp prose, brimming with beauty, grief, and thoughtful reflection on life. The narrator thinks back to an older sister that died just after birth, and how if she had lived then the narrator wouldn’t have been born – a life possible because of that loss. A present rooted in the past, the present continually falling away into an unknown future as one branch of possibility is selected instead of all the others.

That sounds really heavy, but the writing is delicate and meditative, focused on simple images and moments. Just because this is experimental and has deep themes doesn’t make it at all hard to read or appreciate. The translation retains a sense of the original Korean, representing some idioms literally, which is a nice touch.

Book Reviews (7)

reviews7

Pact – Wildbow

(Webserial: read it here)

‘Blake Thorburn was driven away from home and family by a vicious fight over inheritance, returning only for a deathbed visit with the grandmother who set it in motion. Blake soon finds himself next in line to inherit the property, a trove of dark supernatural knowledge, and the many enemies his grandmother left behind her in the small town of Jacob’s Bell.’

Considering it’s basically a first draft, another impressive work from the writer of the acclaimed and massive superhero serial Worm. Pact successfully brings the Wildbow disturbed imagination and fast pace to urban fantasy.

The magic system and worldbuilding are great fun, following rules while allowing for clever use of them. The demons have real menace – in many horror films they’re basically just strong and possess people, while here they have abilities like ‘permanently block access to higher realms upon death’ or ‘delete you and all memory of you from existence’. It’s speculated that the universe wouldn’t be so empty if not for them. Heck.

Which makes it disappointing there aren’t more demons. The plot goes in some really interesting directions, but also misses opportunities to show things it should have. Making the reader expect one thing then swerving course can be a boss move, but what if I still really want to see what I was expecting to? The other key quibble is that all the conflict/treachery/let’s-screw-with-Blake can get tiring, and too many characters are just awful people.

There are some incredible ideas, characters, and nice flourishes like the ‘group chat chapter’. I have complaints, but this was basically a first draft written at breakneck speed – and it’s still well worth a shot if you aren’t too squeamish.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley

A compelling and charming work of magical realism, set mainly in an intricately realised 1884 London.

Thaniel Steepleton, a Home Office telegraphist living his life on autopilot, is saved from a bomb by a pocketwatch someone placed in his room. He becomes entangled with its maker, the enigmatic Japanese immigrant Keita Mori, and Grace Carrow, a woman trying to prove the existence of ether before she is forced to marry – events spiralling out between possible futures and opposing geniuses.

The characters jump off the page, and the plot is full of surprises, the various elements coming together elegantly. The magical realist element was unexpected, but makes a lot of sense and is used to great effect. The different ways Thaniel and Grace respond to it drives tensions, resting on a strong bedrock of psychological realism in which both their perspectives are highly believable, making the reader question who’s right.

Recommended!

Meddling Kids – Edgar Cantero

The concept of a Lovecraftian riff on Scooby-Doo where the grown-up (and messed-up) meddling kids reunite and return to a case that wasn’t just a guy in a mask – hell yes. The execution… is a very mixed bag.

When it gets going it’s pretty fun, and the characters are generally entertaining (albeit one-dimensional), particularly the dog, Tim. If this were a film it’d be the sort of bad but good one that’s dumb as hell but keeps you watching, like a Sharknado or Revenge of the Killer Tomatoes. The book randomly veers off into script format sometimes, leaning into that atmosphere – but it’s still a distracting stylistic choice.

Some of the writing is definitely more ‘bad’ than ‘bad but good’:

Bruises sprawled throughout his slender chest and arms like industrial developments in nineteenth-century Britain.

The night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor.

Kerri’s hand was warm and white and so rarely soft like one of the only three species of flowers native to Antarctica.

She was joyfully drowning in Kerri’s hair, its fragrance and softness pounding on her senses like a cheerful Mongol army banging on the gates of Baghdad.

Kerri’s hair did get tiresome, and Andy (Andrea’s) attraction to her wasn’t handled that well: it was a bit creepy and more than a bit male-gazey. There’s also some trans comments that strike as ill-conceived. It’s unfortunate, because early in it feels like Cantero was trying to be #woke (Kerri tells Andy she thought she might have been trans, Andy clarifies she’s just a woman who doesn’t do traditional femininity).

Overall, I found this a fun ‘bad but good’ read with groan-worthy points here and there. Great concept, mixed execution.

Book Reviews (6)

Godblind – Anna Stephens

The Rilporian Gods of Light are waning, and the Red Gods are rising. The Mireces are preparing to invade, returning their Red Gods to the world by spilling the blood of Rilpor.

At first, I wasn’t sure about this. There were some pretty cool scenes and characterisation – the effects of Rillerin’s life after capture by the Mireces were portrayed with thoughtfulness. But also cartoony bad guys, occasional excessive ‘telling’, and really short chapters flitting between characters too much.

But then I got to the scene which informs us that Anna Stephens should never be trusted around a hammer. (Yikes) And it became really good!

The head-swapping was still often unnecessary, the bad guys were still quite ‘ha ha I like blood and death for some reason lol’, and a crucial – otherwise great – scene felt too reliant on rules-lawyering for me: but it was a lot of fun.

Fast-paced and brutal, with constant twists and really well written fight scenes. This is a book where if a sword hits your hand, you’re absolutely losing fingers. But there’s also impactful crisp description, and when Stephens does develop a character, she does it brilliantly. A particular scene/character arc with Crys at one point compares favourably to SPOILER LINK (a highly-regarded story), capturing his complex state of mind in that moment.

The grimness and gore are exciting – though, naturally, not everybody’s cup of tea. The writing approach has real flaws, but also signs of talent.

A Brief History of Neoliberalism – David Harvey

An eye-opening examination of what neoliberalism is, how it came to power, and its effects across the world.

Harvey meticulously outlines the contradictions between neoliberal ideology – free markets with only minimal state interference as the path to prosperity and freedom – and the reality in practice – states bailing out the chaotic financial sector, soaring inequality and social decay, economic imperialism through institutions such as the IMF. Neoliberal ‘freedom’ turns out to be the freedom of market forces and corporations to dominate.

Among Harvey’s investigations of IMF mischief, the inefficiencies of ‘neoliberalism with Chinese characteristics’, the role of the state, etc, runs an underlying class-conscious thread which may strike readers not already way to the left of Thatcher and Reagan as too ‘ideological’ (which is a dumb complaint).

This is rigorous enough to make a very solid case against neoliberalism. Not only from a leftist viewpoint, but by many of its own standards for what it was supposed to achieve and how it is supposed to function. At the same time, it’s not too hard to read.

So, after all this criticism of the last few decade’s political/economic orthodoxy, is there an alternative? Harvey doesn’t give an exact blueprint for one. He prefers to focus on making the idea that there can be an alternative a serious proposition, and promoting an ethic of equality and solidarity rather than individualism.

At first I found this ending dissatisfying. But on reflection, it’s an inspiring conclusion which neatly caps off the issues raised. Harvey setting out his preferred alternative would have to be a whole other book in its own right – and I’ve had enough graphs for now.

Thunderhead – Neal Shusterman

Scythe was *fire emoji*. This was even hotter than my new mix tape.

The world-building continues – going further into the Thunderhead, the previous book’s extracts from scythe journals replaced with passages of the AI’s thoughts. The separation between the Thunderhead, which rules, and the Scythedom, which gleans, forces it to watch the unfolding chaos without any active intervention.

The continuing cast are still solid, but new characters also shine. Greyson’s storyline takes us through aspects of this world that weren’t shown in much detail in Scythe, and he’s just such a cinnamon roll.

Everything that was great about Scythe, but more!

Book Reviews (5)

The Good Immigrant – ed. Nikesh Shukla

This book complements Reni Eddo-Lodge’s (review here) well, reinforcing some of what she said about race in British society while providing some more perspectives, and addressing issues specific to a wider range of ethnic groups.

Vera Chok’s ‘Yellow’ addresses orientalist tropes and the concept of ‘yellow fever’; Wei Ming Kam’s ‘Beyond “Good” Immigrants’ questions the rhetoric of ‘the model minority’. Riz Ahmed discusses constantly getting stopped at airports with wry dry humour. Sarah Sahim’s ‘Perpetuating Casteism’ reveals the significant role of the British Empire in exacerbating the ongoing issues of the caste system in Indian diaspora – British-imposed censuses consciously using divide-and-rule tactics with ongoing impact. There are many other valuable entries.

Vinay Patel’s exploration of his beliefs and fear of death would have been a good essay for a different book, and not all the writers managed quite the analytical slam-dunk Eddo-Lodge’s book pulled off – but a world where everyone engaged with what’s said here, and gained a better understanding of these issues, would certainly be a better one.

The Vorrh – B. Catling

Not entirely sure what happened, to be honest. Something to do with a magic forest. There were various plot threads which didn’t necessarily connect together, and made some sense in their own right but didn’t give you much of a hint what it all meant. Why is that guy trying to cross the forest? Who knows! It sort of works, because he doesn’t seem to either.

This was insanely imaginative, evocative, with an image-dense writing style (which does trip over into purple prose imo). Part of me appreciates the dreamlike, mystic approach, the way characters and readers are both confused, at the mercy of mysterious forces. Another part of me wishes there was more reason to care about the characters, to be invested in whether or not they succeed, have a bit of narrative tension. The dark, peculiar, meandering literary atmosphere has its a e s t h e t i c panache, but don’t go in expecting a standard plot-driven novel.

Catling has some weird unresolved issues, frankly. No normal person writes a long stream-of-consciousness paragraph of a dog’s violent wet dream for literally no reason, or describes what a woman made from Bakelite’s vagina is like in obsessive detail, or… sigh. Dude. Take a cold shower, maybe see a therapist, definitely stay away from kennels.

Some really fantastic ideas, in a highly unique work of fantasy. The experimental approach has its pros and cons.

The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss

This is really good. The worldbuilding. The magic system. The sympathetic characters, the nasty ones. The interplay between Kvothe telling his story and the ‘present’ interludes. Rothfuss has written an immersive and suitably epic work of epic fantasy, with humour, pathos, darkness, and excellent magic.

I just struggled with the protagonist, Kvothe. Is he a Gary Stu? It’s fine to have a character be a genius, but figuring out Chronicler’s writing system in a few minutes and learning things in days instead of months gets a bit much. Let him struggle a little bit first. Sheesh. I can buy him being a great musician, too, but not THAT great.

He’s probably exaggerating in places – but the narration doesn’t give a clear sign that he’s an unreliable narrator, and some of his feats definitely happen, in the present interludes. I’d like him more if Rothfuss either made him less over-proficient, or made him a more blatant unreliable narrator.

He isn’t a complete Gary Stu though. He has flaws which cause him real problems – he’s petty, impulsive, and really dumb in certain areas. There are places where he does reveal that he made himself seem more amazing than he actually was through trickery, and they were points I warmed to him much more.

Great story, great world, great supporting cast, mixed feelings for the protagonist.

The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula Le Guin

A human, Genly Ai, has been sent to the planet Gethen as ambassador of the Ekumen, an alliance of worlds. He struggles with the knotty politics and freezing climate, trying to properly understand the Gethenian’s unique gender status. The natives are neither male nor female, only taking on a sex during a short monthly period of ‘kemmer’. He instinctively applies human gender roles to the ambisexual natives, while they see him as a pervert in permanent kemmer.

Often fictional species are all humans with cosmetic differences, or with some heavy-handed cultural difference leaving little room for them to have divergent personalities. Le Guin managed to write Gethenians as socially and psychologically distinct from humans, and as individuals distinct from each other. The countries of Karhide and Orgoreyn have different political systems and cultures from each other, but both are clearly of Gethen.

The environment, political structures, religions, and particularly the gender element of Gethen’s inhabitants ties deeply and logically into every detail: the various words for snow, the code of hospitality, the lack of aircraft, the rules of prestige. Le Guin crafts an engaging story with rich characters, at the same time as ‘making strange’ aspects of the real world to expose insights into gender, politics, and life.

An excellent work of sci-fi for its imagination, setting, characters, story, and insight. Deserves its acclaim.

Book Reviews (4)

Scythe – Neal Shusterman

In a post-singularity world where poverty, war, and even death has been conquered, the population is kept in check by scythes, the only people able to kill. Citra and Rowan are chosen to become a scythe’s apprentice, but only one can succeed.

After reading Coffee Stars Books’ review I thought this sounded great, and I wasn’t disappointed. The world is so interesting – thrill-seekers ‘splatting’ off buildings for fun, knowing they’ll wake up in a revival centre; the ennui of having nothing left to achieve; the way people fear, respect, and celebrity-worship scythes. The characters are strong, and there’s plenty of action.

It’s refreshing to have a world that could’ve been a boring utopia contain such tension and drama. Looking forward to reading Thunderhead.

An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears

Recommended by Phil Ebersole . The story of a murder in 17th century Oxford, told by four unreliable narrators: a Venetian Catholic, the son of an alleged traitor to the Royalist cause, the chief cryptographer to Cromwell and Charles II, and the antiquary Anthony Wood. Each present a different version of events, spiralling out into schemes at the highest levels of government.

Pears has really done his work. The political, religious, and scientific ferment of the Restoration seeps from every detail. Characters occasionally think in ways alien to the modern world. Early figures of the Royal Society don’t know things that we all do now, like what blood is for. Minor things in one version of events take central roles in another. Getting the timeline to fit together across all this must’ve been quite a headache to plan, but the result pays off.

This is extremely intricate and realistic, full of twists and turns. A compelling mystery that makes excellent use of unreliable narrators, combining deeply intelligent historical fiction with an ambitious thriller.

Anything You Do Say – Gillian McAllister

Joanna hears footsteps behind her on the way home. Sure it’s the man from the bar who’d been harassing/groping her, when she hears the man speed up she acts, pushing him, sending him falling down steps to lie, motionless, at the bottom.

From here the narrative splits in two. In ‘reveal’ chapters she calls the police, while in alternate ‘conceal’ chapters she hurries home and hides it. The ‘psychological’ part of ‘psychological thriller’ is taken with gusto – Joanna’s avoidant but well-meaning personality is highly developed, both irritating and sympathetic as the book raises social issues with a deft touch.

Joanna doesn’t get much chance to work through what she’d faced at the bar, too busy addressing the fallout of her own crime (crime?), in the double role of victim and – criminal? Is there any point punishing her? What is the justice system for – retribution, or rehabilitation?

At first she irritated me a bit too much, with her poor adulting and excessive adoration for her husband Reuben. But as the dual narratives progressed she developed, and I understood more where her flaws came from. The ending didn’t fully work for me, but on the whole this was engaging.

If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller – Italo Calvino

Probably the weirdest book I’ve ever read. It’s about as metafictional, postmodern, and self-aware as a thing can be.

It begins, ‘You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.’ You read the opening but are stopped by a printing error as it gets interesting, and when you go to replace it, you end up reading another book entirely, which is also interrupted early on, and so on. You read the openings of ten novels, alternating with a second-person narrative unravelling what’s up with these books via the activities of a troublesome translator, international book fraud, and shadowy organisations.

‘If on a…’ is a playful and unique exploration of the relationship between readers, fiction, meaning, and life. I like what Calvino was trying to do – it’s inventive, clever, and will appeal greatly to fans of things being meta. This is a rare example of second-person being used well. There were some quite funny and self-deprecating passages, and the writing at its best is richly eloquent.

However, it can be dense. It’s not an easy read. Some stodgy, opaque passages were definitely a thorny struggle, and the greatest weakness was that Calvino writes in much the same style throughout – a style that has its worth in poetic imagery, ironic humour, and wordplay, but can be hard to plough through for 260 pages, and gets too pretentious. Another issue was discomfort with how the female characters came across – objectified props for men, particularly the assumed male ‘you’ of the story.

Not at all a beach read, and I have quibbles. But if you’re up for something playfully self-aware with a highly original approach, give this a go.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August – Claire North

Harry August is born in 1919, and every time he dies, he lives his life again. He and people like him, kalachakra or ouroboran, cycle between birth and death knowing what will happen because they’ve seen it before. At the close of his eleventh life, a girl comes to pass a message conveyed from the future, child to adult. The world is ending, and it’s ending increasingly sooner.

Ouroboran pass messages to their future kind through inscriptions on stone and hidden messages, and receive responses sent back through their generations. They’ve set up systems to have money, rescue each other from the tedium of repeated normal childhood, and leave jokes on historical artefacts. Their often blasé attitude to ‘linears’, people who live and die normally, was both realistic to their situation and disturbing – it doesn’t matter, everything gets reset when you die anyway.

There was some real darkness here. The soviet regime is terrible, but there’s also the spy resorting to torture while desperately saying he’s one of the good guys. Harry inevitably has a certain cynicism, and is in some ways an anti-hero, but he goes to extreme lengths to do the right thing.

The way time gets used here is a great alternative to standard time travel, avoiding much of the confusion that tends to come with it. North chose a good slice of time for Harry to cycle through. His lives take us to Soviet Russia, to China during the Great Leap Forward, to the Blitz. A great concept and well executed.

Book Reviews (3)

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race – Reni Eddo-Lodge

As Nathan J Robinson wrote regarding this book in a Current Affairs article on David Brooks: ‘The title is actually somewhat misleading; it might more accurately be called Why It Would Be Nice If White People Could Just Be Quiet and Listen For a Minute Before Telling Me Their Opinions on Race, and Then Maybe I Can Actually Talk To White People About Race.’

Many angry comments based purely on the title perfectly demonstrate Eddo-Lodge’s point. These people seem to find a provocative choice of title more troubling than, for example, that people with non-white sounding names are less likely to get job interviews. There’s a great deal of serious information in this book about structural racism in British society, and a lot of people who won’t bother reading it because they’re too upset by the title.

Eddo-Lodge points out that ‘this isn’t about good and bad people’, that easy to condemn overt prejudice can distract us from more covert and systematic issues. She links race to issues of gender and class (e.g. discussing the use of the white working class as a prop to divert discussions on race, as though the working class is all white or that we can’t tackle race and class issues together), and lambasts shallow performative wokeness: ‘a safety pin stuck to your lapel […] won’t stop someone from getting deported.’

This book argues very solidly on a range of issues, from colour blindness to white privilege to positive discrimination to white feminism to the Rhodes Must Fall movement and more, skewering weak or disingenuous arguments – certainly changing my mind on various points. There are points where the argument slackens, particularly her failure to interrogate Nick Griffin as sharply as she could have.

The stronger logical thrusts are rather satisfying. On outraged responses to the idea of Idris Elba playing James Bond, she comments, ‘This strength of feeling over classic stories being ruined wasn’t around when the Charles Dickens novel Oliver Twist was remade in a film in which the lead character was cast in the image of a cartoon cat.’

Much more could be said, but really – go read the book.

Two Serpents Rise – Max Gladstone

The sequel to Last First Snow, with grown-up Caleb as the lead, working for Red King Consolidated to deal with a shadow-thing infestation in Dresediel Lex’s water supply, spilling into a plot of corporate/political machinations with apocalyptic potential.

The pace settles in a happy medium between the breakneck Three Parts Dead and slow-starting Last First Snow, brisk and tense but with time to be reflective. Gladstone deals with the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, exposing more of the brutality underlying a society running on Craft as characters wrestle with whether the system they have can be acceptable, and what a better way might be.

The cast are more compelling than in LFS, particularly adult Caleb, and the world-building is impressive as usual. It might have been interesting to see more of how the Skittersill has changed though.

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? – Mark Fisher

A short text with a great deal of influence in anti-capitalist circles, in which Fisher outlined the nature and consequences of ‘capitalist realism’ – an ideology presenting capitalism as the only conceivable system, while – significantly – concealing its own place as an ideology, instead treating itself as unassailable natural law and anything except capitalism as ideology run amok.

The basic concept is well stated. Fisher was onto something. There are cogent points about subjects such as the injection of business frameworks into public services, or the treating of mental health as an individual biological issue. He puts ideas from Slavoj Žižek and others to good use, e.g. drawing on the Lacanian idea of the ‘big Other’ in discussing ‘an official culture in which capitalist enterprises are presented as socially responsible and caring [as opposed to] a widespread awareness that companies are actually corrupt, ruthless, etc.’

(To be honest, I’d just thought of Žižek as a living meme with a weird thing about anal fisting.)

There was definitely some critical-theory-speak I couldn’t figure out. Sorry Fisher, we haven’t all read Deleuze. Worse, Fisher uses weird dodgy logic on occasions, and severely under-explains. It’s often assumed we know what he’s on about, giving no or limited examples of what he sees as a self-evident (actually rather abstract and difficult to immediately grasp) trend in culture. And referring to a couple films for examples doesn’t always cut it when you’re trying to identify a culture-wide ideological keystone.

‘On the one hand, this is a culture that privileges only the present and the immediate[;] on the other hand, it is a culture that is excessively nostalgic, given over to retrospection[.]’ How does our culture only privilege the present? How is it given over to retrospection? How on earth is it both at once, man!? Is this unique to modern ideology? This is such a general statement that it’s hard to completely disagree, but also hard to really agree with or pull something meaningful from. It’s frustrating.

As a way to help understand key dynamics of modern mainstream ideology and point towards a 21st century approach for the radical left, this was an interesting and illuminating read. No doubt some of my confusion would ease on a re-read, and again, the central ideas are potent. However, the book too often leaps to big conclusions from little reasoning, and the Theoryese was a struggle.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old – Hendrik Groen

A fictional diary of a year in a Dutch care home, this is a poignant, often tragic exploration of ageing, bureaucratic farce, and society’s treatment of the elderly – balanced by dark and light comedy, friendship, and the resistance of anarchic octogenarians determined to enjoy life.

Hendrik forms a group staunchly committed to getting on with life without the negative, passive attitude of many of their fellow ‘inmates’. While their humour, warmth, and refusal to age gracefully lifted the mood, I still found this a bit of a downer.

It’s billed as a comedy, but I didn’t find it that funny generally. A lot of people seem to have found otherwise, so you might find it a bigger laugh. Still a good book, but not what I was expecting.