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Peter Ho Davies – The Fortunes

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Some things don’t change, some things do; they all should.

Publisher: Sceptre (Hachette)
Pages: 222
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-340-98025-5
First Published: 6th September 2016
Date Reviewed: 7th September 2020
Rating: 5/5

1800s – Ling is an early immigrant to American; America seems a better life with its promise of gold, but as it turns out, Chinese people are not welcome, and struggle in lowly positions. Ling manages to break the mould a little, and leave for a better job, but there are always questions and discomfort in the background. 1936 – Hollywood star, Anna May Wong, has struggled throughout her career to gain non-stereotypical roles; as an Asian American there are rules regarding race that she can’t get around, and now she has come to China to her ‘home’ land, finding that as much as she’s ‘other’ in America, she’s not Chinese here. 1980s – a friend of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man killed in 1982 by white men because they thought he was Japanese – looks at what has happened and the fallout. Present day – John, a Eurasian, has travelled to China with his wife, the final stage in their adaptation process, and the trip and his prior writing has him questioning issues of race, situation, and the history of racism against Asian Americans.

The Fortunes, a book with an overarching theme – story, really – told in four stories, is a fantastic work that looks at the experiences of Chinese Americans and in turn Asian Americans over time, from the first immigrants during the gold rush era.

Ho Davies’ choice of four stories and the way he uses subtlety to connect them – because whilst you can see the themes, there’s still some subtlety to it – is compelling. Initially, whilst you’re reading the first story, it can be frustrating – here you are, completely ‘in’ Ling’s world, interested in seeing where it goes, meeting the various people, learning the history – and then it ends, and moves on to the next story, but once beyond that, or once you’ve accepted it, so to speak, the author’s choices come to the fore and you find yourself on a certain kind of journey. For those who don’t know much or anything about the historical, real, people, there is history to learn. Beyond that you’ve the methods – the language, the way of description – Ho Davies’ employs to tell his stories, to explain, and to teach.

For people who aren’t Asian, there’s a lot here about the experience of difference, of racism, historical and present-day, of stereotyping. Likely – or possibly (I’m not in a position to say for definite) for readers who are Asian, the value will be in the writing down and popularising, and the validation. The stories in The Fortunes are spaced out from the 1800s, they apply to separate eras in order to bring a full overview, and the constant moving forward of time shows how slow change has been in coming, and, although society has moved forward, that there is more that needs doing.

In story four, present-day fictional John looks back at other periods in time, pulling the stories together, suggesting that they are more novel than separate stories. If you’d already been wondering if there would be some joining up, this is where it happens. John’s thoughts, and his situation as a writer with the subjects he writes about, question the role of narrator and the place of the author in the book; with the stories sharing a theme and, whilst all different in character, sharing nevertheless a certain something that’s difficult to pinpoint exactly, there seems almost a novel-in-a-novel aspect to the book, Ho Davies’ pen being near enough to see. This of course links to the stories themselves, but also has a place in the text as a text, so to speak, the literary nature of it and the use of language being most apparent here.

You could perhaps say it’s a fractured narrative.

The Fortunes is, as said, fantastic. It looks at things in a certain way – perhaps not new, exactly, yet it kind of is – and offers a different way to read and learn about subjects (the use of the factual documentary footage Anna May Wong had made instead of the backdrop of one of her films, for example, is intriguing). Read it as both a novel and four novellas; to define it definitively either way would be wrong.

 
Chibundu Onuzo – Welcome To Lagos

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Slice of lives.

Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages:
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 26th June 2020
Rating: 4/5

As Chike’s regiment prepares to do something he wants no part in, he and Yemi break ranks and escape. In so doing they meet Isoken – a young woman who has been assaulted – Fineboy – who does this and that and nobody’s completely sure about him – and Oma, who Chike finds himself attracted to and the feeling’s mutual. Together the unlikely group travel to Lagos to look for a place to stay and jobs to make money. It’s difficult – sometimes there are buildings, sometimes there are spaces underneath a bridge – but things take extra turns when they meet Ahmed, a journalist, and later a government minister.

Welcome To Lagos is an interesting novel that looks at the coming together of five different people – two already known to each other – in a way that explores both the characters themselves and the city of Lagos.

Akin to many novels, Onuzo’s narrative almost seems too easy until you scratch the surface, but unlike other novels that are akin to this, once the surface is scratched, it almost seems too clever. That may sound against Welcome To Lagos‘ favour; it isn’t. What Onuzo presents is a novel that can be enjoyed on a variety of levels; to be sure if you want to know why there is so much talk surrounding Onuzo you have to be prepared to spend a bit of time digging deeper – that surface dressing really does look easy – but if you did happen to have a bit lesser time you would still in theory get something out of it.

As you may guess given it’s very unlike me to suggest a novel should be read at it’s surface – you could do this, but you shouldn’t.

Part of the reason for this is that it would make the articles in the book seem disjointed. Onuzo employs both a regular third person narrative and the use of fictional journalism to tell her story. You have the main bulk of the book composed of the lives and short travels of Chike and ‘co’, interspersed with articles written by a secondary character who also moonlights as a primary character: Ahmed. Where Chike and his friends move around Lagos, live in a few different places, allowing Onuzo to show you around Lagos at a grassroots level, the articles show the wider story, including the politics that run the city as a whole. These narratives intersect, both through the use of Ahmed (his in-person appearances are rare) and in the later introduction of a politcian to our characters’ lives.

So to the friends – with Chike at the effective helm, the story focuses on five runaways who have joined together; Chike and Yemi have run away from the regiment, Isoken is mentally scarred from harrassment and assault; Fineboy is along for the ride; and Oma wants to leave also. The characters are both individuals and one homogenous group – in their grouping and story progression, they become one character – Lagos. They represent different aspects of it as well as creating reasons for other aspects to show, and then Ahmed, the Chief, and the various teriary characters tie everything together. And it’s more ‘parts of its sum’ than ‘sum of its parts’.

One of the book’s strengths is in the way Onuzo slowly reveals what’s going on with Isoken – you’re told from the start but with the book’s narrative generally looking at things from Chike’s perspective, it takes a bit of time. It’s done slowly, in actions rather than words.

Two other aspects of note: the conflict at the beginning of the book, and the use of religion. As Chike and Yemi decide to break ranks we get a glimpse of what they’re leaving behind – a lot of killings; it’s an interesting look at the situation, with Onuzo paying a lot less time and attention to it than you’re expecting, showing by not showing it that it may be ‘simply’ an every day thing for the company. As for religion, it’s constant but never too much; Chike reads the Bible to his friends in the evenings and there are brief discussions. It forms part of Chike’s character and informs the others in a way that is accessible to all.

Welcome To Lagos is both deceptive and open, in different ways. With the fairly diverse cast of characters it takes a few chapters to come into its own; it’s also quite its own book. Some questions remain at the end but not many; Ahmed’s role is perhaps the one most likely to cause curiosity – he may be up to interpretation; but over all this is an enjoyable read in both the usual and literary senses.

 
Isla Morley – The Last Blue + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Terri Fleming! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Terri Fleming (Perception) discuss looking at the further lives of Mary and Kitty Bennet, working with Austen’s original stories and prose, Mr and Mrs Bennet’s relationship, and organising bookshelves.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Far from gloomy.

Publisher: Pegasus Books
Pages: 326
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-643-13418-5
First Published: 5th May 2020
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2020
Rating: 5/5

1972 – a young man has come into town and he’s asking questions, questions of the type Havens doesn’t want dragged up. We return to 1937, when Havens and Massey, photographer and journalist respectively, travelled to Chance, Kentucky, to find out about some local news and end up instead two of few witnesses to the life of an outcast family, living away from others on account of two of the children having very unusual skin. The siblings are blue.

The Last Blue is Morley’s fantastic third novel based on a real medical occurrance, and set in such a time (a century later than the factual history) that it effectively looks at further social issues, too.

The 1930s setting means that the fictional Buford family of Morley’s creation live during the time of racial discrimination; this results in a interesting aspect of the book where, as the reader, you can see a similarity between treatment of these white-blue people and black people; it can at times seem very allegorical – difference is not to be tolerated.

So there’s a lot of discrimination in the book – the Bufords are hated simply because they are different. There are times of extreme violence, and there are a number of looks at the affects and effects of violence as a whole.

Put together in terms of literature, the effect is brilliant – this book gets you thinking. And it almost creeps up on you as the story starts out fairly slowly, almost quietly. However this simply allows you to get a hold of the situation better.

Our main characters – our narrators – are the aforementioned Havens (first name Clay) and one of the ‘blues’, Jubilee. Morley uses an interesting narrative voice, far closer to first person than your usual third person, meaning that you get a number of effective sub-narratives, so to speak. The writing style, like the slowness of the book’s beginning, is deceptive – you’ll be thinking you’re in a soft fantasy novel for a while (even after reading this); at the start you do have to work at that surface to see under it, and that fact is one of the best parts of the text. And our characters are great to hear from, in fact one of the best aspects here is that one is just as intriguing as the other.

(On this note is Morley’s use of birds in the book. Birds are both a factor of life – we begin the book with Havens going to feed a pigeon -, and, in the way Morley situates them in her fiction, a symbol.)

Havens’ passion for photography informs a lot about the novel. There are two points of interest here: the first is the detailing. Morley provides a suitable amount of detail about photography in the era, which covers the role of a photographer in the media (Clay is in some ways what we’d call a photojournalist). Crucial is Clay’s ability to take colour photographs. The second is in the use of photography and imagery as a theme; as Havens comes to know Jubilee, photography becomes a way to tell not only a story in the way we know it can do, but also informs the progression of their friendship.

There is some lovely romance in this book, and it does exactly what you might think – highlight issues in its particular way as well as simply enhancing the story.

It is difficult to discuss The Last Blue in depth without revealing the story; hopefully there are enough pointers to show how successful Morley is in what she’s done. The text is both novel and study, a wonderful creation that you’ll want to keep with you for its fiction and its relation to multiple aspects of historical and contemporary reality. It is also just a very good story.

I received this book for review.

 
Dan Richards – Outpost + Podcast

Monday’s podcast is/was with Dan Richards. Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Dan Richards (Holloway, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Climbing Days, Outpost) discuss asking to join well-known people for lunch and producing fascinating interviews for your book, travelling the less beaten paths of your mountaineering great-great aunt, finding society in isolated places, and looking ahead to how we might continue to approach humanity’s harming of nature after the benefits to scaling back have been shown by this current crisis.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Isolation before it was cool.

Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 295
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-786-89155-6
First Published: 24th April 2019
Date Reviewed: 28th April 2020
Rating: 4/5

Richards looks into the value of various isolated buildings and places – sheds, Svalbard, a Martian research centre, a Japanese temple high in the hills – seeking to find out why we are drawn to them and how they inspire creativity. The book includes elements of Richards’ previous books on art, nature, and travel, pulling the subjects together.

I’ve always been drawn to simple structures (p. 57).

The places Richards visits sometimes gel with what you might expect – a small building in the wilds of Iceland; Desolation Peak in America which Jack Kerouac visited and wrote about – but others are very much the opposite; when looking at isolation, you might not think of those places that inspire community. Chapters focused on the research centre in Utah – which Richards spends mostly on an interview (some chapters are more about his own experience, others focus on other people) – and in Svalbard, where the author is never alone, call into question our inherent need for society.

The Svalbard chapter is particularly poignant – as it shows the requirements for others (away from the tourism people need to be careful given the danger) so too does it show how society, humanity, can have a detrimental effect. As much as we may enjoy the isolation, the impact of it – the continual movement of people through it – so too does the ecosystem become impacted. Perhaps the most notable part of the book is Richards’ contemplation and further discussion with the reader of the role humanity plays in the life of the polar bears, in which he recounts the story of bears drowned in the sea as they have to go further and further out to find slabs of ice; having memorised where the slabs were, there comes a problem when they are not found. The irony in being able to witness the movement of polar bears whilst being a part of the problem is not lost on the author.

I believe the more we know about our world, the more we see, the more deeply we engage with it, understand its nature, the more likely we are to be good custodians and reverse our most selfish destructive behaviour (p.10).

Shedboatshed – the chapter about the modern artwork of the same name – will likely divide opinion; it’s certainly one of the more prominent examples of the unexpected. The art work, by Simon Starling, is covered in an effective two step process – a museum visit and an interview with the artist – marking a change in the proceedings. It’s a different travel and a wholly new concept of isolation – the piece is, both in short and literally, made up of a shed that was then dismantled and recreated as a boat, taken to the water, and then rebuilt into a shed; if you like modern art or are even just interested in the idea from afar, it’s a fascinating chapter, but nevertheless may take some getting used to. If it’s not your sort of thing, it may feel like you’ve started a different book. Whichever side you fall on, however, you will probably appreciate Richards’ motive for discussing it, as well as the various extra ideas surrounding it. (One such is the idea that the display of the piece as well as its practical use adds to its history and conversation). The spin off mid-chapter to briefly cover Roald Dahl’s writing hut also helps provide more context, however much it may seem fairly far from Shedboatshed.

The book’s language and general structure make it an easy read. Richards very much takes the reader with him, always addressing them, and the focus on a few core concepts for each location means an in-depth look at what the author deems most important and interesting to relate; you don’t always get a ‘full’ feel for everything but the attention to the overall theme means a more coherent book.

Richards’ enthusiasm for the places and the travel ensures you come away from Outpost with a fair amount of knowledge, and serviceable knowledge, too. It is in many ways – inevitably? – escapist, but the various points of poignancy in it leaves you with much to think about.

I have interviewed the author.

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Fran Cooper – These Dividing Walls + Podcast

Today’s podcast is with Weike Wang! Email and RSS subscribers: you’ll need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Weike Wang (Chemistry) discuss having both a scientific – in epidemiology no less! – and a writer background, making use of extracts and white space and preferring them beyond more long-form prose, the difficulties of studies and incorporating friends’ experiences in your stories, and fictional dogs who are inherently important to the text.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here. You can also subscribe to the podcast via RSS.


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Between us.

Publisher: Hodder
Pages: 256
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-473-64156-3
First Published:
Date Reviewed: 9th April 2020
Rating: 5/5

Edward moves to Paris to get away from his life in Britain. In the apartment building he finds himself are many residents. Some know each other well enough, others are a mystery. And hopefully, to some people, no one new who is different will move in in future. Meanwhile, tensions in wider society echo this worry of difference.

These Dividing Walls is a terrific novel that offers a glimpse at the lives of a small fictional community in Paris, a group of people previously less close. Whilst it is a glimpse in the main sense of the word – the period of time is short – it inevitably shows a great deal more, with Parisian society in general included.

Where to start? The writing is of course the first element to be apparent. Cooper has a precise skill at language; hers is a poetical style; the words flow and the text is both beautifully and deceptively simple, sentences that continue to roll along no matter the subject at hand at any one moment. The text itself is an entire reason for reading the book.

Set in the present day – only a few years ago at the time of this review – the story starts with Edward; as he gets used to the building so too do the other residents’ lives become apparent. The narrative is both character and situation driven, with chapters given over to the different individual residents in the third person. Stripping back the brickwork, Cooper’s cast run the gambit from worried, isolated people, to those in grief, and to those who seek to maintain the status quo by nasty or extreme means.

To that last clause the reference is racial diversity. In a show of what is to come in general, the residents of the apartment building are split between those happy to accept new people of whatever racial background and religion they are, and those who want only people with an ancestrally French background. The Brit was accepted.

And what is to come? These Dividing Walls is heavily invested in the sociopolitical. using factual events, protests, terrorism, as its basis, the fiction constructed looks at social unrest; religious and racial intolerance leading to mass gatherings, targeted attacks, and retaliation. Here the characters’ viewpoints and general personalities provided detailed reasonings for the wider society. It is damning and Cooper doesn’t hold back, showing thoughts and what they can lead to.

Away from this is the subject of motherhood, of the invisibility of mothers when there are cute children to catch people’s attention, and of post-partum depression. Cooper’s look includes a wonderfully described example of how a lack of understanding of the condition can have negative consequences, the opportunity to display both the feelings of the mother and the incomprehension of the father to excellent studious effect.

The subject of grief also marks a couple of characters’ lives, and, needless to say, it’s looked at with the utmost care.

The way These Dividing Walls has been structured means that the content is both a literary escape and an intricut look at contemporary life. If the surface concept, the idea of people in one building is simple, Cooper reminds us that every life is full and complex, and that we are all effected by the wider situation.

It starts in a visual vacuum, diversions afforded by brickwork. It ends with the walls torn down in various ways, with a metaphorical dynamite that is metaphorically as powerful as the real life cirumstances behind the fiction.

 

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