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Andrew Blackman – On The Holloway Road

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A trip for freedom.

Publisher: Legend Press
Pages: 202
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-90655-808-2
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 7th October 2013
Rating: 5/5

Jack lives a monotonous life. He wakes up in his mother’s house, tries to continue writing his novel, fails, goes out every now and then, rinse and repeat. One evening he decides to eat a dreary kebab in a dreary shop but his meal is interrupted by Neil Blake, a man of a similar age who has led a more colourful, slightly illegal life. Whisked away by Neil’s friendly nature, Jack finds himself at pubs and parties. Then Neil suggests a trip to Scotland.

On The Holloway Road is a clever and well written book, inspired by Kerouac’s On The Road, that deals with the themes of life and freedom. Written in hindsight from Jack’s perspective, the story is slow, aptly lazy in its pace at times, and a little satirical.

The characters are complete opposites, and not supposed to be liked particularly. Neil is impulsive, he dislikes any limitations placed upon him by outsiders, and he is full of charm, but he can be thoughtless and selfish. Indeed he would laugh at being told to think about repercussions – the reader is likely to think ahead and question Neil’s decisions, and it is exactly that action that Neil would denounce. Neil lives in the moment, lives for freedom, has experienced the other side of the coin and sees its flaws. In comparison, Jack has little will, in fact what will he does have is a side effect of his spending time with Neil. Jack is content in his monotony, his typical life that fits neatly into the slot, and though he isn’t happy he won’t do anything to change that.

Jack’s overall dullness is a major reason the book is slow. Rather than an error on the part of the author, the pace is a decided upon element that shows you just how different Jack and Neil are. Neil’s dialogues are fast paced and full of words, as Jack says, but it is the difference in nature that allows the reader to see where Jack’s safe life might be too safe, whilst of course showing that Neil falls a bit too much towards the other extreme. The book is very much a character study as well as a different take on Kerouac.

It is character-driven, and it is plot-driven, yet at the same time it would be difficult to say that there is a plot as such. The plot is vastly in the realm of the book’s themes. Blackman has crafted a commentary, a very sharp commentary that strikes at the heart of current political, social, and law elements that protect/hinder (depending on the way you see it) the people of the United Kingdom. Through Neil and Jack, Blackman shows the limits of the people’s freedom, the limits imposed by the government and councils. There are many scenes where Jack finally lets go a little, Jack the good lawful if boring citizen, and is rewarded by a penalty of the exact type the duo are trying to escape. As an example, a trip to a country park costs them £100 in car parking fines when they get back to the car and notice the fine details of the parking space.

Freedom here is woven into the larger political context. The story shows the differences between someone who is institutionalised, or just used to, the way of the land, and another who isn’t. And of course what is interesting as well as understandable is the way it’s the person who has been to jail that wants to be free, especially as it is a freedom in lifestyle that Neil wishes for (in other words Neil isn’t wanting the ability to go and kill someone). It’s the case that everywhere they go, Neil says they are or should be free. The government soon tells them they aren’t.

Leaving my Figaro marooned in the grass, I walked forward to get a better look. Warnings were being shouted through a megaphone. Acts of Parliament were being invoked. Arrests were being promised. The appearance of fairness, of reason. Disperse now. A chance to avoid arrest.

And if reason failed, as it surely would, then violence would be justified. Protocol would have been followed. The blows of the batons would have legal sanction, while any retaliatory violence would be grounds for prosecution.

Jack is no one without Neil, and indeed it comes as no surprise to understand, through Jack’s words, that he relies on Neil to ‘live’. It’s one of those things you know instinctively, and it just takes Jack’s words to cement it. And as for Neil, it seems that freedom he wants is nowhere – no matter restrictions or not, you get the sense he will always be against something. In this way the ending is very appropriate, the particular ending for him says a lot about the character and what Blackman is trying to say.

To refer to the inspiration, Kerouac’s On The Road is used both behind the scenes, so to speak, and in the story as an element in itself. Jack and Neil listen to the audio book whilst travelling; it is almost a double usage of the work, between the tape cassette and Blackman’s references to it as the author. It forms a lot of the philosophy and quotations are borrowed and reworked so that they fit in with Neil and Jack.

As the book reaches its ending, another clever aspect becomes apparent. The way it is written, the way the story is referenced, makes it seem possible that it could be about Blackman, that it could be about anyone. Twisted into the last chapters is the final resolution – the answer to what happens after the book concludes, there is even a hint as to what happens a lot further down the line. If only Jack takes the chance.

It seems he did, or perhaps he hired Blackman to do it for him as the author clearly knows more than Jack, just as Neil does. Blackman is almost the unbiased third party, the person in the middle of the two.

On The Holloway Road is superb. It is likely to appeal most to British readers, as they will be able to relate to the political details well, but the references to Kerouac and the commentary will interest readers of other nations too. And the theme of freedom is universal as are likely some of the civil elements.

I know the author as a fellow book blogger.

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Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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You might not become vegetarian after this, but you’ll definitely think twice before consuming most foods again.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 411
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4088-1218-1
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 1st August 2013
Rating: 5/5

Pollan looks at three methods of creating food – industrial, natural farming, and hunter-gathering, in order to find the ‘perfect’ meal. Following some of the foods from field to table, he explores the effects the different methods have had on our world and our health and aims to make his reader aware of the entirety of what they are eating.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an in-depth book written in a casual, friendly, style, that seeks to inform.

Besides the obvious information, the best aspect is undoubtedly Pollan’s style, his approach to the work. Humorous, unbiased in general and open when not, he comes across as both an expert and layman and the book is enjoyable and engrossing.

The biggest ‘takeaway’ from the book is surely Pollan’s detailing of the industrial food industry. Albeit that the book concerns America and therefore may not be so relevant elsewhere, the details of unnaturally fed cattle, of drugged-up animals, petrol-filled pigs, and cruelty, is enough to make you want to put the book down for a moment to clear your mind. Some of what’s written is hard to read, especially when you know your digestive system depends on the very food discussed – both meat and vegetables are described in equal ‘ickiness’.

This is balanced by Pollan’s second study, natural farming. ‘Beyond organic’ (organic as a completely natural method having been debunked earlier), this is where Pollan introduces the reader to the farmers who work entirely with nature. Of particular interest are the sections that deal with natural farming being easier because the farmers are working with nature instead of trying to change it.

The hunter-gather sections aren’t quite as historic as you might expect, but as you learn, it is as good as Pollan can get within the limits of present life.

Pollan isn’t out to turn people into vegetarians, but nor is he comfortable with changing the mindset of vegetarians, either. There is an inherent bias towards the omnivore, naturally, and many vegetarians who are such for reasons of principle, may find the latter sections of the book hard to comprehend. But Pollan doesn’t debunk vegetarianism or denounce it as silly, he provides unapologetic and undefended reasons why and in what circumstances it is okay to be a meat eater.

And he doesn’t ever condemn those who like fast-food, instead simply cautioning against it.

At times the book can be repetitive and Pollan’s choice of words and phrasing is strange, but overall this is a very solid book with a fair amount of research. Easy to read, it is accessible to anyone and should inspire an admiration of Pollan, if not of his work per se, then certainly his approachable style.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an important book that contains knowledge everyone ought to have. As much for what it doesn’t say – perforce, as Pollan speaks of not being allowed inside industrial slaughter houses – it is recommended to everyone who so much as ponders what they’re putting in their mouths at meal times.

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Richard C Morais – Buddhaland Brooklyn

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When worlds collide.

Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 275
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-846-88241-8
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 7th June 2013
Rating: 4/5

Japanese Reverend Oda was sent to the monastery as a child by his parents. The action saves his life and he comes to enjoy living in the temple. But the temple is moving on, modernising, and where there are now western Buddhists there is the requirement for a competent priest to move to America. The temple believes Oda is that person, but Oda feels very differently. And working with and teaching westerners who have not grasped the teachings may prove difficult.

Buddhaland Brookyn is a peaceful book, in its words, about cultural clashes and how they influence the working together of a group of people who must be a team. It demonstrates how, with more thought, people can overcome their differences and work together. Morais offers a poignant character in the person of Oda.

Yet it must be pointed out immediately that Morais’s Buddhism here is not at all the sort you are likely expecting, and this is true no matter how much or how little you know of the religion. Reverend Oda smokes and has sex, eats meat and drinks alcohol, and his fellow priests go shopping on the high street for golfing clothes. It is indeed best that the potential reader knows this beforehand so that they can decide whether or not it would work for them. This is in part because it means that so many of the cultural differences that would ‘usually’ occur in such a situation, are not here. (It should be noted that Morais says, in the acknowledgements, “My novel should in no way be considered a serious religious work…”.)

Yet the absence of the expected Buddhist tenets does allow for Morais to concentrate on the less general areas of conflict that might have occurred. Instead of dealing with, for example, the decadence of his American congregation, Oda must teach them that their faith is a little misplaced (for example believing that prayer helped a company survive). This is where the heart of the book lies, in the transitions that need to be made by the congregation, as well as the understanding Oda must develop of his adopted land.

Oda is at the heart of the book – his change as a person is the most important. This may seem odd considering that it should be the western believers changing in order to be true Buddhists, but Morais made the right choice. As mentioned, Morais’s Oda is a wonderful character, and it’s evident that the writer has spent a lot of time getting him ‘right’. And the flow of the story, the way it has the capacity to draw you in for countless minutes before you realise just how many pages you’ve read, is a very good thing. It ought to be said, however, that this does mean the secondary characters are not as developed and a lot of their inclusion is down to the easily-identifiable stereotypes they provide (Morais is not being prejudice, he uses stereotypes to make the conflicts simple to understand).

The book ends quietly, there is no great statement or revelation. It should be noted that depending on the reader’s feelings about Buddhism, or, more so, religion in general, they might find the compromises made – in light of what happens in reality – disappointing. Yet the book’s story and voice, and the feeling that it could have been a memoir, keep it relevant and engrossing.

This Brooklyn presents a very different Buddhism, but for what it is the book is a success.

I received this book for review from Alma Books.

Edited on 11th June to reflect the information later provided of Morais’s long-time interest in Buddhism.

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Paulo Coelho – Manuscript Found In Accra

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Questions and answers in a straight forward format.

Publisher: Knopf (Random House)
Pages: 188
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-34983-3
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 29th April 2013
Rating: 4.5/5

Original language: Portuguese
Original title: Manuscrito Encontrado em Accra (Manuscript Found in Accra)
Translated by: Margaret Jull Costa

Coelho presents one of the ‘lost manuscripts’ – a fictional take on a real situation – and divulges its contents. As a town prepares to be attacked, a philosopher answers questions from the worried residents.

Coelho’s books are based in spiritual, philosophical content. In Manuscript Found In Accra he takes this a step further, styling the book as a question and answer session, keeping the text concise and devoid of superfluous detail, and borrowing from scripture. Indeed enough here is borrowed from scripture to make you wonder whether this book was produced too quickly, yet it fits the theme to have it included as Coelho writes the manuscript as one akin to the books of the Bible.

It is a very short book with little plot, but this means, as said, that there is nothing more than what needs to be said. Coelho’s never suggests he isn’t out to change minds, and the teachings are a good mix of common sense and thoughts that people tend to reach after a lot of thinking. The book is akin to Plato in style, and reads just like the ancient philosopher himself.

As there isn’t a plot besides the general setting of a town on the brink of extinction, it is possible to describe the questions without ruining the book. The prospective reader will find the following themes, amongst others: defeat being a bad thing, solitude, how to live happily, and love. The themes are more detailed than this list can suggest, though they work as general answers.

It could be said that this is a lazy offering from Coelho: short, sparse, lots of empty space on the page. It could be said that in essence it is more of the same from him. But those looking for a book of wisdom to be dipped into will likely appreciate this. And that is the take-away here – it is similar to the rest of Coelho’s work, but it still has its place on shelves.

I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.

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Manisha Jolie Amin – Dancing To The Flute

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If laughter is the best medicine, music is very close behind.

Publisher: Alma Books
Pages: 290
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-84688-238-8
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

Kalu doesn’t remember his early childhood. Living on the streets he takes any job he can get and has made several friends of the people who live in the town he found himself in. But Kalu has a gift for music and when he meets a healer who helps him with the wounds on his foot he’s not quite prepared for the offer the healer makes. A famous now-reclusive musician for a brother, the healer knows that he can help Kalu achieve his potential and give him a home. But it’s up to Kalu to decide if it’s for him, and wrapped up in his indecision are all the friends in the town who he would have to leave behind.

Dancing To The Flute is an intriguing novel that focuses on music and the way it changes people, both as a passion/career and a way of helping others in whatever ails them. Looking at Kalu but also involving the stories and lives of others, Amin seeks to provide an introduction to India, its music and culture, and proposes an artistic way of dealing with problems.

Amin writes in an interesting manner that begs inspection. The style is simple, reflecting Kalu’s age and nature, however the writing is not childish in any way. There is magic in it, a flow that makes it easy to read, the very sort that is appealing as a bedtime story – even if the content is not for children. Indeed, in regards to Kalu, there are times when the writing style more aptly describes Kalu and his friends than do the words themselves.

Most of this can be attributed to Amin’s decisions and artistry, but furthering that the writing has a certain atmosphere that ties neatly into the Indian culture presented. The slow pace, the peaceful nature of the writing – music aside – and the way the words drift along match the idea of “Indian time”1 where the pace of life is slower and things may take longer but everything is done well all the same.

There are gaps in time – the book is more a series of scenes than a flowing narrative – and whilst it is not a bad element, it does suggest that the author wanted to speed things up, to get through Kalu’s days quicker and to the end of the book sooner. This makes sense given that Kalu’s days as a student are somewhat monotonous, but it means that it may be hard for the reader to keep up with the changes that come with growing up, and it is hard to keep a hold on what is happening with the other characters, too.

This links in to a problematic aspect of the book, and that is the way the character of Kalu is presented and written. Amin seems to not be sure exactly of who her character is. When Kalu talks it is easy to gain an insight into him, as a child especially, however when Amin goes back to narration what she says confuses the picture and changes Kalu’s personality and feelings. It is difficult to truly immerse yourself when the main character is not developed in this key way, and sometimes there is even cause to wonder whether Kalu is truly passionate about music.

Whilst this issue does happen on occasion to other characters, for the most part they are well drawn and consistent. Malti in particular is a brilliant character, and the way Amin portrays the confident happy girl followed by the quiet sad woman is rather wonderful. Indeed at first it may appear as if Amin has simply changed Malti’s personality to fit the tale, but this is far from the truth. Where the older Malti is concerned, Amin at first denies the reader important information. The author provides clues but doesn’t spell it out until later on, giving the reader a chance to look at things from an outsider perspective before being informed as to the truth. It’s a very interesting method of storytelling and demonstrates just how much care and attention such situations require. Malti’s story is perhaps the best part of the book and whilst it may seem convenient to use Kalu’s gift in solving it, it fits the theme of the book and brings an atmosphere to it that may be puzzling at first but makes sense the more you read.

The book’s strength lies in the message, of music being an aid and of helping others in the way that best suits their needs rather than one’s own. Apart from the general narrative, Amin includes tales from Hindu mythology and people not included in Kalu’s life to further illustrate the power of music and in particularly the power and importance of music in India’s cultures and religions. She uses the famous musician of her story to relay facts about Indian raags at the beginning of each part of the book, and the book itself is thus structured to mirror this musical style. This means that the book does not conform to the usual build up and climax that many books contain, but moves along a different format, so to speak. To be sure there are climaxes but they are included in a way that allows the music to take precedent.

Dancing To The Flute may have its problems, but the music and the way it affects the people in the book make up for a lot. Incorporating Indian words followed by their English counterparts, the novel is a good choice for those who want to learn about language and culture without feeling lost (assuming the reader does not speak any Hindi, of course). The story could have been more developed but the sentiment is there all the same. Dancing To The Flute will appeal to those interested in culture, music, India, and the trials of life.

1 A concept introduced to this reviewer by an Indian, which the reviewer realises may not be used across the board.

I received this book for review from Alma Books.

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