Review: The Famished Road – Ben Okri

I’ve never been a massive fan of fantasy genre books (Ahem… with the exception of Harry Potter) but the Famished Road is well off the scale on the fantasy realms. Telling the story of Azaro, young spirit child, in a Nigerian village it’s a trippy ride back and forth from reality to the spirit world to dreams and you’re not always quite sure where you are. 

The world in which Azaro has decided to make the break into for good (no longer wanting to be a spirit child who will die in a few years and devastate his parents) is a developing society where capitalism, politics, urbanisation and poverty form a melting pot – chaotic and messy even without the trippy spirit scenes. 

Azaro’s view of the politicians who come to the village has a child like innocence aboutwho and what these people are, but he is then the person to work out that the free milk given out by the politicians is what’s making all the villagers ill and how the milk event signified the start of the political changes ahead. 

“The milk and its peculiar night growths were my singular memories of that Saturday when politics made its first public appearance in our lives.”

The book is long (over 500 pages) and I found the extensive scenes of spirits hard work to read and ended up skipping a few pages here and there trying to get back to reality. However the book does have a number of snippets of wisdom that resonated with me and I did enjoy the parts which were slightly more grounded.

The view of the spirit children on humans: 

“We feared the heartlessness of human beings, all of whom are born blind, few of whom ever learn to see.”

Some fatherly advice:

“Learn to drink my son. A man must be able to hold his drink because drunkenness is sometimes necessary in this difficult life.”

And on the whole:

“Grow wherever life puts you down.” 

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Review: Moon Tiger – Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger is the story of Claudia, a woman coming to the end of her life, reflecting and drifting back and forth from the past to the current time, both consciously and subconsciously. The book tells the story of “the bit of the twentieth century to which I’ve been shackled, willy-nilly, like it or not”.

Claudia is a journalist and historian, who’s frustration with the boring parts of history lead her to write populist history books, which cover the action. Yet she’s at odds personally with making a living from her profession. Her character comes across as one of those slightly eccentric unpredictable old ladies who are great fun to come across at any point in your day!

Claudia has a child which is clearly an inconvenience – from the tie it makes between her and her ex boyfriend who is the father of their child, Lisa, to the ‘boring’ child and adult she sees Lisa to be. Towards the end of the novel there is some recognition of the possibility that Lisa may actually be more interesting that she gives her credit for, but only a glimmer!

“Children are incredulous. My Lisa was a dull child, but even so she came up with things that pleased and startled me.”

This books raises questions for me about the end of life, and how people at that stage in their life can seem to be a million miles away from the hubbub of every day life and ‘not all there’. However Claudia is still very much a live and active just in her mind not in the present and is frustrated by being trapped in her failing body and people’s perceptions of her.

This is one of the few bookers I’ve found really easy to read and gripping and I felt disappointed when it finished.

Favourite quotes
“Emotion is dormant; it lies quiet, biding it’s time. And then every so often something brings it raging forth”
“It was always mildly satisfying to see British racial complacency matched if not excelled by French xenophobia”

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Review: The Ghost Road – Pat Barker

The Ghost Road is the last part of a trilogy about World War One, I’ve not read the first two but decided to jump straight in with number 3. It’s set in the final months of the war and follows the lives of two main characters, Dr River and Billy Prior. 
The novel portrays the sad senselessness felt by soldiers fighting the remaining days and weeks of war knowing the end is coming but still having to fight and give their lives. 
Dr Rivers, one of the key characters is a doctor treating shell shocked and injured soldiers in England, using sometimes unorthodox methods to try and return them to full health. This narrative is interspersed with vivid memories of living in a remote tribe and cuts interchangeably back and forth, the ‘well’ doctors mind seeming more confused and troubled than that of some of the patients he’s treating.
In addition to Dr Rivers, the key character is Billy Prior an officer from a working class background who’s treated by Rivers early on before returning to France despite concern for his welfare and the offer of a desk job. The novel touches on a number of taboo subjects for the time, homosexuality being a key one – with Prior seeking out men for sexual acts having just left his fiancée. 
The book felt short, but I also didn’t feel like it needed to go on for much longer. I wonder if I’d feel differently about it had I read the first two novels in the trilogy and if it would seem like a more complete story being told. 
This book, along with many others I’ve read about war time, and in particular ww1 reinforce the devastation and damage done to a whole generation of young men in fighting and witnessing the horrors of war. Having studied WW1 literature for A Level English Literature the references to Sassoon and Owen and felt familiar and knowing their poetry reinforced the themes coming from this novel.
Quotes: 

“In trench time he was old. A generation lasted six months, less than that on the Somme, barely twelve weeks”

Billy Prior on the number of poets in his camp 

“I think it’s a way of claiming immunity. First person narrators can’t die.”

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Review: Rites of Passage – William Golding

William Golding has to be best know for his famous novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, a novel I’ve not read since school, but is a story of savagery in an isolated and trapped environment not dissimilar to the ship in Rites of Passage.
Rites of Passage tells the story of Talbot, and young English gentleman en route to Australia (we’re not sure why specifically) on an old war ship, who is recording his journey in a journal for the audience of his uncle.  
Talbot is a novice in the maritime life, shown in his excitement to learn the ways of the men onboard 

“I have laid my Marine Dictionary by my pillow; for I am determined to speak the tarry language as perfectly as any of these rolling fellows” 

And much later when describing a funeral onboard 

“This ceremonious naval occasion was one of great interest to me! One seldom attends a funeral in such, dare I call them, exotic surroundings!” 

The book is written with a lighthearted air (note the multiples exclamation marks in the quote above) in a conversational, informal tone as if Talbot is hurriedly telling the story minute by minute. But the book has a number of more threatening undertones, a malicious and manipulative captain and the uncertainty of what is going on in other parts of the ship, made all the more mysterious by the creaking and groaning of an old boat at sea. In relation to this, Talbot writes of his cabin as a hutch which reminded me of a small animal returning to its place of safety, but also reflecting how trapped you are onboard a ship. 
Despite the old fashioned language the novel felt easy to read, much more readable than any number of other winners I’ve read so far, but I’d say this is more of a day to day book than a ‘save it up for your big summer holiday’ read. 

Some favourites quotes: 

“Well, I thought to myself, these is this in common between Good Men and cinders – we must never disappoint them!” 

“Here we are, suspended between the land below the eaters and the sky like a nut in a branch or a leaf on a pond!” 

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Review: Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha – Roddy Doyle

 To me this novel is a growing up story, one that starts very much in the peak of childhood, old enough to be allowed to roam the streets to play with friends but blissfully unaware of the challenges of adult life. It’s written in a way that you can imagine a 10 year old prattling away in a stream of consciousness about their day, the latest facts they learnt from their library book and endless questions about the world. 
However for 10 year old Paddy Clarke, the protagonist, it is also a time of change both personally, for his family and the town in which he lives. 
It reminded me somewhat of the poems ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ by William Blake – the two sides and views to a situation. Paddy’s childhood innocence is chipped away in the same way the fields surrounding his home are slowly cut up by new developments, pipes and roads. 
The disruption in his family life has a big effect on his day to day behaviour with his gangs of similarly restless young lads, he stays up all night to try and make it better between his parents, and tries to spend more time between them trying to make them laugh together but he gradually realises that it’s not about him. 
I found it hard to pick our short, snappy quotes as lots of the prose is like a child talking – in a roundabout rambling way skipping between stories and people. 
Quotes:

“I jumped on Sinbad’s (hot water) bottle. Nothing happened. I didn’t do it again. Sometimes when nothing happened it was really getting ready to happen,”

“Dreaming was only nice while it lasted” 

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Review: Bring up the bodies – Hilary Mantel 

I’ve been dreading reading this book ever since I failed to complete reading Wolf Hall and a part of me wasn’t sure what to do as this is the sequel to Wolf Hall which I hadn’t learnt the end of! To get over this I listened to an abridged version of Wolf Hall on audible before then downloading the full version of ‘Bring up the Bodies’. There was no doubt for me that I wanted to listen to this rather than read the book – given the struggle id had with the first book. 
I’m not too proud to change my opinion on something and having now listened to both these novels I actually really enjoyed both stories, as well as learning a lot of basics about English history and Henry VIII I probably should’ve picked up at some point in high school history lessons (I do appreciate it’s still a novel!). 

Whilst Wolf Hall told the story of Katherine of Aragon, this book follows on with Herny VIII’s relationship with Anne Boleyn and its downfall once Henry has decided he now likes Jane Seymour. The book shows the manipulation of the King by his many subjects and how he plays the legal system and his status to get his own way once again. 

Thomas Cromwell, the protagonist is both a strong and weak character, strength through his seemingly ever growing power base, but also weak much deeper down through his obsession to do anything to please the King and stay on the tight side of him at any cost – perhaps something he learnt from the Cardinal who fell onto the wrong side of Henry in the Wolf Hall novel. Although the story is told from Cromwell’s voice the female characters in the book seem to have much more to them than the male – something I hadn’t noticed specifically in Wolf Hall. Not only Anne Boleyn who you expect to be conniving and manipulative but the women around her and even the quiet Jane Seymour who quietly takes Anne’s place at Henry’s side. 

Listening to this has really changed my mind on Mantel, and once this challenge is complete I do feel tempted to look up some of her other novels too and also the third in the series in this trilogy when it’s complete. 

Favourite quotes

‘You’re as likely to shit rubies as to learn an Englishman’s secrets’

‘In all their dealings he has buttered him like a parsnip’

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Review: A brief history of seven killings – Marlon James

When a book starts with a four page long list of characters you get an early sense of the level of complexity that’s going to follow – and in the case of this novel its 686 pages of it!

This book took me an eternity to read having started it on holiday in late January and only just finishing it at the end of March. It’s not an easy read, the narrative is split and lead by a number of different characters (who aren’t all consistently part of the novel) and the prose is written in a Jamaican accent (think a Jamaican equivalent of trainspotting) – but once you get into that flow and read it in that accent it’s ok!
The novel is about the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in Jamaica in 1976, but the bulk of the novel is focuses around the people around ‘the singer’ and their loves rather than Being a story about Bob Marley himself.

For someone with no real knowledge or understanding of the politics, history and culture of Jamaica this book is a real dive into the heart of it. The backdrop of extreme gang violence and drug crime around a musician associated with peace and love was somewhat of a surprise to me, more the extent to which James highlights it than the fact is exists. Life is incredibly cheap in the ghettos of Kingston and again when the plot moves to America it takes the cheapness of life with it to Miami and New York too.

I enjoyed this book the most when I was reading on a hot beach with nothing else to be thinking about than getting swept up in the book, it felt like much harder work reading it the odd chapter at a time on the way to work or when I was tired before bed. So whilst it’s a tough read, I still think it’s worth it – just save it for a long holiday on a hot beach, with some headphones playing the best of Bob.

…killing don’t need no reason. This is ghetto. Reason is for rich people. We have madness.

You can’t come guns blazing if you don’t have any guns, he’ll, if you were coming to pick up guns

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