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Zadie Smith – Swing Time

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Pa pa Americano.

Publisher: Hamish Hamilton (Penguin)
Pages: 453
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-14415-2
First Published: 15th November 2016
Date Reviewed: 21st December 2016
Rating: 4/5

Our nameless narrator has struggled through life, feeling in the shadow of her best friend – someone who often hates her – being uncomfortable living with a mother who, in trying to better herself, has always pressured her daughter to be someone she’s not, and working for a performer who has many demands and idealised projects. She recounts her days in these contexts and in the context of song and dance, two things that have always had their place in her life.

Swing Time is a book with a lot of promise and at times sensational writing that unfortunately doesn’t achieve much.

Smith’s writing is wonderful. She has a lot to say – though, as many have noted, too much at once this time around (the book could have done with being trimmed in the subjects department) – and in general she says it very well. Situations and characters, both good and bad, leap off the page; everything feels very real. She’s opted again for familiar settings and thoughts but she does it so well it really doesn’t matter.

In regards to that ‘in general’, there are some occasions where the writing misses the mark in ways it didn’t in Smith’s previous, NW, that look directly to current trends. Phrases needlessly hyphenated – ‘brand-new’ – and descriptions that are exactly the same as what everyone else is using right now – ‘gunmetal grey sky’ – that suggest editorial input rather than the original words. But Smith’s style is so winsome you can’t help but carry on reading.

Because this book is a page turner. The page count is daunting but Smith knows when enough is enough, using short chapters when it fits, and expanding the sections later on as the book gets to the weightier subjects. It’s a case of if you’ve liked her before you will most certainly enjoy this book no matter the flaws.

Smith hasn’t really covered any new ground with her many subjects but they remain interesting. Race is explored – being black and being mixed-race in the 1980s and beyond, the differences as time goes on. Class is explored – the narrator and her friend Tracey were born and bred on a run-down council estate and the narrator’s mother is working to often extreme lengths to prove that she’s better than that. (As such, childhood emotional and psychological problems and abuse is explored, the lectures hammered into the narrator about her ‘no good’ friend, as well as the emotional and physical abuse meted out to Tracey by her father.) The problem we have wherein famous white people go out to Africa to ‘help’ – this is something that we’re really starting to acknowledge now so whilst Smith’s text is timely she is unfortunately only regurgitating what we already know, and it’s really down to the individual reader as to whether that’s okay or not. (Smith does go a fair way here, first exploring the problem of idealisation, ‘let’s go build a school for girls because that will help… and we’ll completely neglect to look at what the residents actually need right now, including the fact the girls can’t go to school because their parents need help with the crops’. Then she looks at the absurdity of publicity that makes the western celebrity look beloved in that country whereas all the people following her vehicle are doing so because it’s a novelty. And so on – it’s regurgitation but it’s on point, ending with an exploration of money and overseas adoption.) And she looks at jealousy and the effects of childhood on mentality, personality. Of those with power and those without.

Our nameless narrator seems to have been used in order to shine a light on every other character, because the woman herself is unremarkable. She rarely has anything positive to say but then again she has had a lot of pushback – being in her head all the time it can be difficult to see when her personal problems are due to her negativity and when they are due to people putting her down, though there is a lot to be said for her childhood. But, yes, the light this allows Smith to shine on everyone else is excellent. We get to explore the impact of Tracey’s early life and choices on her growing up in a way that often provides a commentary – much more subtle than the comments about celebrity and ‘Africa’ (that’s another point, that which country is chosen is irrelevant, it’s just got to be ‘African’). Smith shows well, in the way that your thoughts of Tracey will move back and forth between pity, like, and dislike, these effects. The plight of the narrator’s mother too – her lecturing her daughter on politics, on how Tracey is below her because she, the mother, is trying to be a politician, is working on a degree when everyone else is ‘happy’ to remain where they are; her tireless work to be somebody – shows both the effects of selfishness on children and also the difficulties of social mobility. Through the mixed-race and ‘African’ characters – Smith doesn’t often repeat the name of the place celebrity Aimee makes her school, which may be a point in itself – Smith shows disparities, issues of identity, the differences in perspective, and again, that celebrity focus comes back in the form of appropriation of both culture and individual people.

‘And the dance and music?’ you may ask, ‘the swing time of the title?’ There is commentary on it, in particularly the difficulties of black Americans to gain stage and screen space, and included in this is a whole heap of information and references that have been largely skipped over by western history – this book is a resource. However, the inference of the title that this will be a book about dance is, as you will have noted by the fact I’m only just writing about it now after reams of other subjects, wrong. This book minors in dance.

On these topics it must be said the book is not at all linear. It’s not quite experimental but the narrative does dart all over the place and it can take a few lines to get your bearings each chapter because both time and location are mixed up. Why Smith chose to structure the book in this way is not clear – it does allow the subjects to be dealt with in blocks but by their very nature they are not completely confined by these blocks.

So a problem with this particular output from Smith is that she’s chosen a character who may have experienced a lot but never looks at things in a different way, never really attempts to change things, instead going along with what others tell her to do, and whilst that’s not an issue per se, it is an issue when you’ve 453 pages to spend on it with no real conclusion. The story never goes anywhere, meaning that the ending, if it can be called so, is incredibly unsatisfying. You may have enjoyed the book on the whole immensely, but the end is so incredibly disappointing that when it arrives you may feel that your previously fairly fun reading experience was for nought.

It is difficult to recommend Swing Time outright but it is equally difficult to say that this book isn’t worth reading. If the experience of reading it is of merit – as a prime example let’s use the release date of mid November, assume you got it around that time and then read it beside the Christmas tree (it’s perfect for that) – then it passes with full colours. (‘Passing’ is another subject looked at, and I know I’m going all over the place with my paragraphs; it should give you an idea of how it is to read this book!) If writing, then it’s pretty great, you will most likely be swept up by this book and find it hard to put down. If story, look elsewhere. Characters are somewhere in between.

It’s best to look at what is important to you and then combine that with the overall atmosphere, which is pretty awesome. For here I will say it’s worth a read and to really enjoy it whilst you’re deep into it because the ending is disappointing but isn’t quite bad enough to warrant it not being read.

And if that’s confusing, well, welcome to Swing Time.

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Shan Sa – Empress

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Reigning for ten thousand years. It may indeed seem that long…

Publisher: Harper Perennial (HarperCollins)
Pages: 319
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-061-14787-6
First Published: 2003; 2006 in English
Date Reviewed: 16th June 2016
Rating: 3/5

Original language: French
Original title: Impératrice (Empress)
Translated by: Adriana Hunter

Wu Ze Tian, as she would become known to history, begins life as the child of a privileged mother and a well-known but commoner father. After spending some years in a convent she is recommended to the Imperial City; a man who once aided her has found her a position as a royal concubine. Ze Tian finds no favour with her husband, the Emperor, but her ability as a horsewoman attracts the attention of his son who comes to desire her. She agrees to be his wife and thus starts a controversial era wherein for the first and only time a woman will rule China as Emperor.

Empress is an epic, fictionalised, account of Empress Wu’s life from her time in the womb and beyond her death. It’s the sort of book to read if the history intrigues you but you want to begin your lessons slowly.

Sa’s character is a difficult one. In Ze Tian you have a woman who was pulled from her life and put in a position that was both a source of envy and a horrible prospect – to be a concubine or wife was a high position in society, but most of the thousands of women kept in the City for the Emperor’s enjoyment would spend their days waiting for acknowledgement in vain. But you also have a woman who, once she gained power, was incredibly ruthless. Sa has balanced it all exceptionally well. For the most part the kindness of Ze Tian is kept to her early years – admittedly a lot shorter, page wise, than her reign – and her tyrannical decisions to said later reign. Sa does allow for moments of goodness and kind thoughts during Ze Tian’s time as emperor, but considering there is little chance at this point of your feeling any sympathy for the monarch, the author keeps it in the region of self-absorption and reflection. Sometimes this reflection just makes the horror worse, but one senses Sa just had to shrug her shoulders.

Ze Tian made a lot of positive changes in her time, even if many were later reverted. She set up a system wherein the regular person could state a grievance that would be listened to, she adjusted exams for hopeful scholars so that commoners could have a shot at governmental roles. She was a role model for women. Sa gives her what positivity she can but is realistic about the tyranny. Of course there’s always the thought in the background, which Sa addresses in the first person narrative – how much of the punishment Ze Tian metes out is due to any evil versus how much does she deem crucial to the success of her status? The narrative revolves around Ze Tian’s thoughts, everything that happens is couched in its relevance to her, how it impacts her, so, again, Sa ensures you’re getting as objective a picture as you can, at least as far as the limits of first-person go. (The book is limited by this narrative choice.)

Jousting with the graphic violence for Most Gratuitous Aspect is the sex. There’s no getting away from sex in this book; the women in the Inner Court had no choice and neither do you – there’s a lot of it, in various guises, sometimes because it’s a reflection of the facts and sometimes because – unfortunately – it seems Sa has run out of ideas. What’s interesting is that you eventually become numb to the idea of incest and old women having sex with consenting-but-under-pressure-to-do-so teenagers because it’s just so prevalent; and it’s interesting that you become numb because there’s a great possibly that that’s something Sa is wanting you to feel – the conquests were acceptable in the situation and so by becoming attuned, study-wise, to it yourself, you stop feeling so nauseated by it and start to see the societal concepts behind it.

The writing is very poetic. The translation reads well and it certainly matches the poetic nature of historical Chinese writings and artwork enough that you can assume it a faithful version. In terms of the writing’s impact on one’s reading, however, the book is very slow and can be a bit too flowery – sometimes it seems as though Sa is exploiting poetry in order to make her story longer than it should be. There is also a lot of info-dumping, Sa likes to go into meticulous, few-pages-long detail about events that could be summarised in a paragraph, and friends supposedly of many years pop up without you having heard of them before. It’s difficult to remember who anyone is in this book, the repetition makes everything so similar. No one is as important as Ze Tian and it shows.

And this is where we come to the main problem with the book – after a point, about two thirds of the way through, once Ze Tian is firmly ensconced on her throne, the novel becomes a series of repetitions. Ze Tian will worry about getting older; someone will suggest another is out to steal the throne; said accused person is condemned to death; Ze Tian is sad because she liked them; someone turns up in the royal bedroom to help the monarch remain young and energetic; that person is taken away; a pilgrimage or other journey happens; Ze Tian dreams of gods and her goodness… over and over again. Undoubtedly there was boredom to the routine of life at court and in the tedious nature of every action, every breath, having to adhere to etiquette… perhaps it is to show that tedium, and the slow decline of the body, but it’s overdone.

You’re never going to feel sorry for Ze Tian. You’re not going to like her and quite frankly it’s a relief to get out of her head. But if you can deal with the ennui I’ve mentioned, or if you’re happy to skip those sections, you might want to flick through Empress. Ze Tian’s reign was an important one, and if you’re at all interested in history your interest will be improved by knowing about her.

Or you could look for articles on the Internet and be just as, if not better, informed.

But I became a symbol of a corrupt woman… Novelists invented a life of debauchery for me, attributing their own fantasies to me.

This may be ironic.

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Helen Slavin – Crooked Daylight

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The definition of magic?

Publisher: Ipso Books
Pages: 204
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-29567-9
First Published: 24th August 2016
Date Reviewed: 20th September 2016
Rating: 3/5

When their grandmother dies, Anna, Charlie, and Emz inherit her cottage and the woods that surround it, but, already having homes of their own (well, Emz lives with Mum) they decide to let it as a holiday rental. One of these rentals is to a mysterious young woman who likes to bathe in the lake they’d always been told to avoid, and when they spot a man in the woods the sisters are worried. And it seems their grandmother is still around, helping them. Amidst this are the sister’s own stories of relationships, deaths, and young adulthood.

Crooked Daylight is the first book in a planned series focusing on three modern sisters who may have a little magic about them.

This is an interesting take on the idea of magic. It’s the sort of thing that’s been done many times before but not quite in this way which sounds like a paradox and therefore requires explaining. The three sisters – Anna, Charlie, and Emz (whose full name is Emma but as that isn’t revealed until near the end there’s plenty of space to speculate whether, perhaps, Slavin had thoughts of the Brontë sisters in mind) – are people living in our present day with our mobile phones and conveniences. This time period isn’t so much explained as it is shown through slang and the sisters’ often abbreviated language. (Sometimes it can seem as though they are a lot younger than their ages which may be a turn-off for some.) The various housing involves terraces, town houses, and their mother’s new state-of-the-art home… but then there’s also their late grandmother’s cottage in the woods that Slavin’s descriptions infer to be your fantastical wooden thatched cottage. So it’s a meeting of modern reality and slightly older fantasy, but it’s still not that simple. Slavin doesn’t explicitly address the magical elements until near the end which has the effect of pulling you deeper into the narrative as you try to work it out. Is there any magic, really? What sort? Is it just something supernatural?

So Slavin has aimed for something between reality and fantasy that skews more towards reality. It’s the sort of usage that brings to life those times when we wonder how something no one could have had a hand in could be so coincidental. It all works very well.

However, to go back to those characters and their ages that are hard to believe, it can be difficult to relate to them. It’s not that they are dislikeable per se, but they do at times get into drama and other people’s business when they should mind their own, for example one time they have a quite valid worry about a person’s safety but instead of approaching them – a tenant – to mention it, they use their privilege as the holiday home owners to enter the cottage and look around without asking whilst the woman hides in another room, uncomfortable. Another occasion sees one of them becoming quite snotty with some women who so far have done nothing to her (barring trying to stop her and her sisters when they run off with their grandmother’s body to cremmate it in the way they, the sisters, feel it should be done). There’s a disconnection between action and reason.

A seemingly minor element but a compelling one – the sisters’ mother, Vanessa. Vanessa is very different to her daughters and her own mother alike; whereas Hettie (the sisters’ grandmother – Vanessa’s mother) had something magical going on about her and so, it seems, do Anna, Charlie, and Emz, Vanessa is a scientist who lives in an incredibly modern home. Her home is so modern her daughters can’t work out how to use it and whilst this factor may bring about an extra few centimetres in the gulf between mother and daughters, there’s the slight suggestion in it that Vanessa is trying to forge her own path. Whilst the daughters are modern but affected by this magic of their grandmother’s, Vanessa is left out. Her daughters may feel neglected, and that may be true, but it’s an interesting thing to ponder on – why is Vanessa so different? Is it simply that Slavin wants to bring to the fore the difference between traditional magic, superstition, and up-to-the-minute scientific findings, or is it a look at how a person left out will try to forge their own path, their own identity? It may be something, it may be nothing – this reviewer may be over-thinking it – but it’s interesting to contemplate and the difference between mother and daughters will doubtless be further explored as the series continues.

There is no major plot-line in this book which can make it difficult to keep up with the goings on. Various threads and a large number of secondary characters make it feel like a soap opera at times but when the narrative focuses it’s pretty good. It takes a while for that particular thread to become less blurred, to show what it actually is, but the pace gets swifter once it’s settled into. It’s a case of having a lot of information at once, presumably to set up the scene for the series, but it would’ve been better for it to be unwound slowly.

The writing is generally good. Slavin often uses unconventional words – onomatopoeias, for example – that are distinct because we tend to use other words, but this becomes a quirk you look forward to and the meaning of these words is always obvious. But there is a shortage of commas – sometimes clauses that are meant to mean one thing read as something else.

Crooked Daylight is a nice read but quite disjointed. It ends well, suggesting the next book will be very good (and a lot higher in magical content) so if you like the general idea you may want to read it or at least keep the series in mind for when the next one is out.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Ashley Stokes (ed.) – The End

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They didn’t all live happily ever after.

Publisher: Unthank Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-910-06127-5
First Published: 1st September 2016
Date Reviewed: 24th August 2016
Rating: 4/5

The End is a collection of short stories inspired by scratch-work paintings. Nicholas Ruston created the paintings in the style of old film ‘end’ cards – all black and white – and the writers went off and wrote what they would. The titles of the stories have become the titles of the paintings. It’s an intriguing concept that promises variety – there’s the simple link between them of the paintings but beyond that they are very different meaning there is wide appeal.

To my mind the absolute stand-outs in this book are the stories that have taken endings literally – they’ve written the literal end of what could well have been a longer story. Suffice to say there’s a lot of extra thinking you can do after finishing them, whole novels to imagine. The Slyest Of Foxes by Angela Readman details the end of a gunman’s visit, a woman who sees what’s going on in her neighbour’s house, choosing to go round with a bowl of soap that continues a hint of razor. Harbour Lights by AJ Ashworth details the aftermath of a relationship, a very sombre note. Ashley Stokes’ own, Decompression Chamber, looks at the non-ending of the world. Crow by Aiden O’Reilly, a political-sounding ending.

But perhaps the winner is All The TVs In Town by Dan Powell. It focuses on the very end of whatever apocalyptic situation (or is it The Truman Show?) it’s talking about. Various genres within a whole, the mainstay is science fiction/dystopia with a liberal spritz of literary fiction.

The paintings themselves are rendered small but the composition and overall creation is such that that’s all that’s needed. It is indeed true to form – the aspect ration fitting cinema, the frames sporting an almost Hitchcockesque atmosphere. There’s a deliciousness in the blend of old and new – a car in one of them, for example, is mid-twentieth century, but then there’s a psychedelic design in another, with other paintings being decidedly more modern – old base, new ideas. One suspects that for the paintings… it’s hardly the perfect analogy, mass-produced as they were, but consider those foil and copper art packs your parents bought you when you were a child – the finished works were quite something.

So in this book there’s a lot to enjoy, and that there’s a base theme but no other means it’s a lovely break if you like short stories but have had enough of all the connections. The introduction to the book, which includes the background to the pictures and the commissions, is a short story in itself. The book could have done with another proof-read but overall this is a great choice for an evening’s read or perhaps even better if spread over the course of a few days.

Dark in many definitions of the word, The End offers a special experience and an introduction to a plethora of authors you may not have heard of.

I received this book for review from the editor.

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Pamela Hartshorne – House Of Shadows

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Cast your mind back 400 years…

Publisher: Pan Macmillan
Pages: 466
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-447-24958-0
First Published: 3rd December 2015
Date Reviewed: 22nd June 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Kate wakes up in hospital. She’s had a fall but can’t remember anything about it or even who she is. Everyone calls her ‘Kate’ but it doesn’t feel right… she finds ‘Isabel’ more fitting. She can work an Ipad and recognise things in the hospital but is surprised by people’s clothing and the absence of Tudor items. Her relatives don’t seem too nice and there’s that malicious voice she heard when semi-conscious that said she should have died…

House Of Shadows is a modern day/Elizabethan time-slip in which a woman recovers from amnesia with the wrong memories, memories that nonetheless match up somewhat to her present situation. Author Julie Cohen, quoted on the back cover, called it a cross between Vertigo and Rebecca and whilst I can’t comment on the first reference, there are definite parallels with the latter.

Hartshorne has created a fair premise and the book succeeds in whisking you into that delicious time-slip experience. Kate has memories rather than dreams or travels so it’s not quite as ‘involved’ as some, but Hartshorne includes the memories as scenes so that the effect is the same as any other. The history is luscious, the romance well set up and believable, and it’s got that same big old house thing going on as Susanna Kearsley’s Mariana, only here the house isn’t a neutral element, instead it’s almost a character in its own right.

Hartshorne plays with the idea of ghosts, pitting the concept of spirits against possession but taking a less definitive route to most – Kate’s son can see there’s something not quite ‘Mummy’ about the woman presented as his mother, as can Kate’s devoted dog – but still it’s not quite your usual idea of possession; there’s just something unique about it that’s as difficult to put a finger on as the reader as it is difficult for Kate to put her finger on her memories. But it’s a lovely aspect.

One of the themes in the book is the treatment of people and the concept of privilege. Much like E Lockhart in We Were Liars, Hartshorne studies the way class divisions still rule in society, particularly in the upper echelons. Angie, Kate’s friend, helps out in every way she can, running errands for the family and helping out with the estate’s visitor system, without any real acknowledgement. She doesn’t have a defined role and isn’t considered important because she’s a commoner (she’s also of Polish decent), and Hartshorne spends various moments throughout the novel looking at the difference between the family needing her insomuch as there would be some chaos were she to leave, versus the family’s view of her which is completely coloured by her class status. Then there is the general hatred of anything other than complete heterosexuality and a major hatred for disability, interestingly also shared by said disliked Angie. The lord of the manor cannot be disabled and he can’t be gay. The lord cannot be a lady and the lord must uphold all the traditions that have never and must never be deviated from. (Whilst race isn’t commented on, one assumes the family keeps a draw full of smelling salts in case they happen to encounter any non-white tourists.)

There are a few problems with this book and one of them (two, it could be said) is major: Hartshorne gives away the mystery in the first couple of pages. First you understand that there’s hatred around Kate and then a few pages after that the major twist shines brightly and as the twists in both the modern storyline and Elizabethan storyline are exactly the same – you realise that straight away, too – you don’t have much in the way of a reveal to look forward to. It’s not clear whether Hartshorne meant for this to happen – it could easily be said that it’s a case of the author wanting to provide intrigue, a hint, and happening to go too far. Instead of hints you get answers.

This means that your interest in the book changes from wanting to know what’s happened to wanting to witness the journey Kate takes to get there, but, and likely mostly due to that fact of the answer being provided so early on, this does not work. Hartshorne’s use of amnesia is a good idea in theory and it means that you start to look forward to Kate uncovering what you, unfortunately, already know, but as the book goes on the amnesia becomes more of a plot device.

The amnesia becomes a device and then it turns into something akin to a deus ex machina move – by a quarter of the way through you know not just the major twists but have figured out everything that isn’t solely minor, but the amnesia remains a device. The answers are staring Kate and Isabel in the face, the answer is glaringly obvious, and you have to ask yourself could anyone be so, so stupid?

These plot and character problems are joined by poor proof reading and weird writing choices – made up verbs and words ending with -ly when there are perfectly useful words already in existence (‘studiedly’, for instance). Plot points and information are repeated in a way that’s either down to a disbelief in reader memory or a major editing error (it’s not to do with Kate’s memory). The book could’ve done with a heavier editing hand and a few more drafts.

You may well enjoy House Of Shadows if your interest in reading it is to experience a time-slip or to look at social division but if you want anything beyond that, you’re going to want to read something else. It’s fun enough as a story, and easy to go back to – it’s quite like the situation I found with Amy Snow, wherein it may not be great when looked at as a whole but it’s a very fun experience nonetheless.

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