Talking Books

Book Review of The Underground Railroad

underground railroadA complex story that would have been better explored in the written word rather than by audio, which is how I experienced it.

What’s powerful about this book is its bleak depiction of the cruelties of slavery  – of the lives of slaves on plantations, of slaves on the run who are hunted like animals and never feel safe, and even of free black men and women in a time where their brothers and sisters are kept as property.

The story centres on Cora – a black woman with some degree of freedom through her mother’s possession of a small pocket of land, although no matter what she does, she cannot escape capture and enslavement.  She escapes and lives under an assumed name but is taken – she is freed again and lives amongst other runaway slaves, but that same slave-catcher comes for her.  I guess like Cora, none of us can escape this history.

It’s important to understand that Whitehead has included many fantastical and anachronistic elements in the novel – likely to suggest the connections between many human cruelties and the ongoing nature of these.  For example, Whitehead makes the metaphorical underground railroad into a real one.  Cora also encounters a eugenics movement – this time looking to sterilise black women to limit the number of blacks in America.

Fascinating and compelling, this is indeed a story worth attention, discussion and no doubt at some point – study in schools.

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Book Review of This Census Taker

census takerChina Mieville’s mind works in beautiful and mysterious ways, although this wont be among my favourite of his novels.

This Census Taker – a book I listened to first on audio and then read because I felt I must have missed stuff – has an intensely bleak setting and emotional tone.  The premise is engaging – but doesn’t really go anywhere leading to an unsatisfactory resolution.  It’s the kind of journey where you just have to appreciate the scenery because the destination just isn’t the point.

We start with a young boys who lives in a remote location, up the hill from a small town.  His mother is emotionally mute, although has taken pains to ensure he can read and write.  She occasionally tells him stories of places she lived before this.  His father though, is a figure of real fear and mystery.  He is a key-maker, but his key are far from ordinary.  They are like magic – opening up opportunities, trouble and the darkest desires of those who commission them. He has a predilection for brutally killing small animals and throwing them down a ‘rubbish hole’ a natural geographical feature on the hill which blocks view of anything thrown into the hole.

We begin the text with the boy’s claim that his father murdered his mother – and claim that initially comes out that his mother murdered his father.  It’s the first of many hints that our narrator nay be unreliable, and that his childish mind and remembrances (he is telling the story in his adulthood as a census-taker) may not be quite right.

With no evidence, while some people believe his claim, the boy is left in his care, treading carefully around a man he doesn’t understand.  Some of the townfolk initially ostracise him, but eventually it appears his particular skills encourage them to seek him out again.

One day, a census taker appears and provides a sympathetic ear to the boy, who pours his heart out to him.  We are left questioning, which man is more dangerous? (And, is he or the boy the census-taker of the title?)

So much is left unanswered in this book.  I like the sense of mystery – but I also like my mysteries to be solved – or at least solvable.

Book Review of Big Little Lies

BLLI avoided reading this incredibly popular book for quite some time, assuming it might be pretty average chick lit written only for mass appeal.  But I have to admit, I listened to this on audio and was completely spellbound.  I listened to it every moment I could and towards the end actually found myself sitting and doing nothing just so I could listen.

There are probably two reasons for Liane Moriarty’s success with this novel.  The first is with clever storytelling.  The blurb will tell you the book focusses around a death at a school trivia night, and this is true – but there is plenty  of drama in the lead up to this, and Moriarty cleverly capitalises on this by revealing just a little bit of detail at a time. the story of the months before the trivia night is interspersed with the interviews and investigations after the fact.  Every little tidbit gets your brain going – who died and how?

Secondly, there are actually some incredibly serious issues at play here – the foremost of which is violence against women.  You’ve probably heard about this already.  And also the difficulties of class, family and divorce.   So no, not as light as I thought it was.  And more importantly, Moriarty seems to actually have something to say about all of these issues.  All are dealt with in complex ways, and believable ones.  The characters in this novel could have been incredibly two-dimensional, but they’re not.  There is a kernel of emotional truth in all the choices that they make.

I’m glad I finally got to Big Little Lies.  If you haven’t yet, I would definitely recommend it.

Book Review of The Boy on the Bridge

2017-05-02-boy-on-bridge-carey-0032-azambelich2015’s The Girl With All The Gifts was a breathtakingly original dystopian fiction. Sadly the follow up – a prequel – The Boy on the Bridge lacks some of the magic of the original.

We return to the world of the first novel – one dominated by “hungries”, where a small group of survivors led by an organization called Beacon, are either soldiers or scientists looking for a cure. A particular expedition is the focus, and the only points of interest are the fact that they are in the same vehicle eventually commandeered by the exceptional Melanie at the end of the first novel, and by the fact that one of the doctors finds herself illegally pregnant on a Tour of Duty.

As Dr Khan’s time of birth nears, the tension finally builds (in the last third of the novel) when they discover the same group of more conscious zombie children that have somehow managed to retain enough consciousness to function beyond the hunger that traditionally dominates the “hungries”.

We know the team piloting Rosie are doomed, but not how. A delegation to the young hungries has devastating consequences for the crew and leaves a young whizkid scientist with the key to solving the zombie virus – but it comes at an unthinkable cost.

Fans of the first novel might be interested in this, but I found it slower paced and less engaging. The mystery of the first novel has already been solved. The end is interesting – as it leaps forward several years to give us clues as to how the whole series is going to conclude. What I can say for M. R Carey though is that he is exceptional at creating characters and fleshing them out with great skill and care. You will care about the characters at the end of this book.

Book Review of The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

la belle sauvage

The long-awaited prequel to Phillip Pullman’s classic YA series, His Dark Materials is finally here. And fans of the original series will not be disappointed with not only a return to the world of the beloved main character Lyra Bellacqua, but a return to Lyra herself.

Just an infant, Lyra is still driving the narrative of La Belle Sauvage.  Hidden away with nuns, Lyra is already being pursued by a number of groups, and especially the real villain of this novel, Gerald Bonneville, a man so evil he torments and savages his own daemon (remember the charming quirk of this world is that each person expresses a part of their soul as a small animal).

The main character of this series though is Malcolm, a young boy who stumbles onto adventure whilst working in his parents’s pub.  Malcolm hears both about the existence of the hidden baby Lyra, and those pursuing her and takes an interest in her prospects.  This also leads him to connect with a group opposing the Magisterium – a rapidly growing group of religious zealots which we know take over the political landscape from His Dark Materials.  The closest relationship he forms is with Dr Hannah Relf, who reads Alethiometers.

Malcolm’s tender heart is captured by the baby, and when a flood occurs, he decides to take her to Oxford to seek sanctuary.  He is joined by Alice, a plucky girl he meets in the kitchens.

The two spend the second part of the novel hiding the baby from a variety of magical and non-magical foes.  This meanders a little, and feels a little like padding out the real story.  But all is clever and engaging.

A delightful return to a beloved magical world – it’s undoubtedly going to be popular with fans.  Pullman has given them more of what they want.

Book Review of Sleeping Beauties

Sleeping BeautiesStephen King co-wrote this novel with his son Owen, passing the chapters between them and re-writing each other.  The result is a novel that feels very much like King himself – his stamp is all over it.

Sleeping Beauties imagines a world in which women fall asleep and begin constructing some kind of cocoon. It’s a dangerous kind of slumber – when someone attempts to wake them unnatural strength and aggression is the result.  The world of men goes pretty much as you would expect – sense and reason fall very much by the wayside.  King is clearly a feminist.

Meanwhile, the women wake up in an alternative setting and begin setting up their own society which, while technologically behind the times, is pretty successful.  Time passes differently there, and while the Aurora virus has only taken hold in the real world for a few days, a year or more passes in the world of the sleeping women.

Behind it all is Evie Black, the supernatural force you would come to expect from a Stephen King novel.  Both malevolent and insightful, its hard to cast her as either hero or villain. She clearly sits somewhere in between.  Awake and safe in a prison cell, she forms much of the conflict in the text as the characters battle for what to do with her.

Nothing extraordinary here, this novel is very much “in the pocket” for King.  No more than a comfortable read.

Book Review of The Last Tudor

In the afterword to The Last Tudor Philippa Gregory says she may not revisit what haslast tudor been an incredibly successful series of novels about women during the War of the Roses and the Tudor Ascension. And while I have really enjoyed this series – its easy to see why. She is stretching a little here in this final installment.

There are actually three narrators in The Last Tudor – all of which have part of a story to share about Elizabeth’s coming to power. The first is Lady Jane Grey – who was crowned queen for all of nine days. She was then imprisoned in the tower by Queen Mary and later executed for treason. Lady Jane is an uninspiring narrator, and it is actually a pleasure to move on to the second narrator, her younger sister Katherine.

When Elizabeth comes to the throne it is still amongst talk of her unmarried status. And as time speeds by and she remains unmarried (clearly due to her love for Robert Dudley in this text) pressure mounts for her to name an heir. Unfortunately for Katherine, she is too likely a successor. Elizabeth, portrayed as tyrannical queen desperate to hold on to the throne at all costs, sees Katherine as a threat. When Katherine marries into another high-ranking York house for love and in secret, she makes herself a target. Elizabeth imprisons her, her husband and her children.

Although we follow Katherine’s tragic yet touching history for some years and long into her confinement, the youngest sister Mary takes her turn narrating. Mary is the most interesting of the three sisters – a pragmatist with a unique perspective. Pretty as a doll but likely what would have been referred to as a dwarf in those times, Mary is incredibly wary and astute about Elizabeth – who never let any of her ladies marry. Mary too weds in secret, but far below her. She too incurs Elizabeth’s wrath.

It is interesting to see each of the sisters through each other’s eyes, and their damning portrayal of Elizabeth, who is long considered to have ushered in a ‘golden age’ in British history. The last section is by far the best, but it’s clear this is wearing thin. A novel parallel to this, set from Elizabeth’s perspective, would be most welcome though.