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Weike Wang – Chemistry

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In all its forms.

Publisher: Text Publishing
Pages: 209
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-925-60367-5
First Published: 23rd May 2017; 31st May 2018 by Text Publishing
Date Reviewed: 25th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Our unnamed narrator has been proposed to by her fairly long-term boyfriend Eric. She enjoys her time with him but isn’t sure about saying yes, and she’s not sure why. As the days after an answer was requested continue to roll by, she muses over their relationship, her childhood and present relationship with her parents, and her situation as a PhD chemistry student, trying to work out what she should do in life in general.

Chemistry is a deceptively complex novel awash with superb characterisation.

It seems so simple – formatted in a medium-sized type face, with large margins and many scene breaks that are effectively vignettes, Chemistry presents itself as an easy and quick read; and in many ways it is, the text itself fun and straight forward, winsome. But once you look beyond the surface, which you’ll find happens naturally as you continue reading, the depth and complexity of the novel starts to pour from the spine.

And there really is a lot to this short novel. The first-person narrative, which flips about in time to slowly uncover for both the reader and also the narrator herself why she feels as she does, is told in a slightly broken English that reflects her situation as a Chinese American who, whilst having been in the country since early childhood, has struggled with her parent’s expectations, school bullying, and what is presented as gentle teasing by Eric (which of course you slowly see has had quite an adverse affect).

The writing also allows Wang to develop a strong comedic streak to the book, which, whilst not often commented on, it’s revealed the character is ‘in’ on herself.

At the gate, he goes through his repertoire of tricks – sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five, sit, lie down, crawl, play dead, roll over, high-five. I ask him to please be dignified about this, but I have not yet taught him that command.

You might expect that, given the sense of distance – somewhat literal – that can occur between reader and text due to the nature of vignettes, the characters would feel distant, but that is far from the case here. Despite the lack of a name for the narrator, and despite the fact that everything you hear about others is told solely through her in a report-like manner, there is an incredible strength to the characterisation of everyone, even the dog. (The dog is marvelous.) Wang has created a fully-realised cast of characters that are fantastic to read about and the lack of a name for the narrator becomes a very good argument for time spent developing characters – in this case, the lack of a name is of no importance; she didn’t need one. It could be argued you get a better sense of who the person is without it, because without a name to fall back on in order to reference her (though of course you can say ‘unnamed narrator’ as the blurb says and I’ve repeated) you are even more aware of her personality. And Wang takes this concept further – the only people who are named are Eric, and the narrator’s parents. Even the dog is called ‘dog’.

There just might be a point to that separation between the named and unnamed. Something the narrator has struggled with, that you come to feel she’s starting to realise but can’t quite grasp due to her upbringing and family culture, is the emotional and somewhat intellectual neglect she’s suffered from her parents, who at once want her to be great like her father but don’t offer the more subtle things she needs in order to reach her considered potential, a potential that she receives a lot of pressure to fulfill. One of the repeated situations in the book is that of the narrator’s visits to a counselor – shrink, she calls them, pointedly – who questions how she feels in the context of her background, trying to help her see that where she feels like a complete failure at life in general, these things have largely happened as a result of what she didn’t and still hasn’t received from her various relationships.

Let’s not forget the science and the industry – Chemistry is teaming with scientific facts made easy to understand. The narrator’s knowledge and Wang’s background in the subject make for a wonderful element that is both a backdrop for the rest of the story and a huge factor in itself. The facts are woven into the narrator’s feelings and experiences, a point here, an atom of knowledge there, so that you’re always learning (or revising!), never taking a break from the rest of the story.

Refraction is why I am not invisible. It is also why things in water, like fish, appear farther and bigger than you think, and once that fish gets pulled out of the water, you are vastly disappointed.

And yes, of course, ‘chemistry’ here is also romantic.

At its heart, then, Chemistry is a story about identity, which won’t surprise you if you consider other unnamed narrators, such as the second Mrs de Winter. It’s a story of indecision, the discovery of identity and personhood in general needing to happen before the decisions can follow. And it’s a story that will grip you until the final page, where Wang both ties things up in a beautiful, contextually reflective bow, and leaves you with the ribbon hanging loosely so that you can come to a bit of a conclusion and pulls the ends tightly by yourself.

Catalysts make reactions go faster. They lower activation energy, which is the indecision each reaction faces before committing to its path.

This book is better than a whole lab of experiments.

I received this book for review.

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Manu Joseph – Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous

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Or is she?

Publisher: Myriad Editions
Pages: 211
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-912-40810-8
First Published: 19th September 2017
Date Reviewed: 16th May 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The day Hindu nationalists win the elections, a building collapses; Akhila arrives as teams are trying to find survivors and she offers to crawl through a tunnel to help a man who is still alive. The man is muttering about a person on his way to commit a terror attack. A member of the two groups chasing the man and the girl sat in the passenger seat next to him, Mukundan isn’t sure what they’re doing is right, and is sure there’s a better way of extracting the girl, but his boss bids him to wait.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a work of fiction which switches back and forth between a number of narratives as the author seeks to explore social injustice in its various forms.

This is a book that is at once an easy read, an uncomfortable read, and a hard-hitting read that requires your attention. Joseph’s use of satire and general slight humour often lures you into thinking it’s a fun novel. That may be part of the point – Joseph gets his thoughts across through via an easy writing style that’s nevertheless full of report-like phrasing.

Sometimes, the style and structure makes the book hard to follow – Joseph, a journalist away from his novel writing, has chosen to write his book in a similar style, and adds to it many different points of view. As an example, you might think that Akhila Iyer, the medical student and social media prankster who targets people in or close to the political sphere, will be moonlighting as this Miss Laila, and it takes a while for Joseph to get to Miss Laila herself wherein you have to get your head around the fact they are two different people.

Joseph’s major commentary apart from the controversies surrounding Mukundan’s story is the difference between rich and poor, high caste and low caste, Hindu and Muslim, and in the context of politics, and due to the basis of fact underlining the book. There is lots to consider here, with Joseph’s bold dialogue looking at both past and near present, holding nothing back. One person named outright is the author Arundhati Roy, who Joseph speaks of in the context of the female author’s visit to the house of a very wealthy person and her views about how much money this person had compared to those nearby; Joseph takes his Akhila Iyer to Roy’s own apartment building where she conducts an interview with a woman who says similarly of Roy’s house. (Whether this is truth or fiction this reviewer cannot say.)

So, to the narratives, you have the man trapped inside a fallen building. You have the narrative of Akhila Iyer, often told in the chapters focused on Professor Vaid as her own narrative is taken up by the collapsed building; occasionally you hear from Akhila about her family, the mother that was often away helping other people as an activist, leaving her daughter to grow up without her. (A lot of Joseph’s commentary is about activism and the way it can simply just switch people’s situations until another wave of activism is required, the once powerful becoming the powerless and then powerful again.) You have the narrative of Mukundan, who tails Laila and Jamal, and the narrative Laila’s sister tells of the days before Laila left with Jamal. And you have the narrative of election winner, Damodarhabi.

A revelation comes towards the end that may lessen the impact of what you’ve read. It’s a good idea going into this book, to consider that the non-linear timeline might expand.

Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous is a difficult book to make a call on. Some of it is excellent – compelling points, good writing – but it does come across more as an essay or piece of reporting rather than a story or study.

I received this book for review.

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Yaa Gyasi – Homegoing

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Homegoing was on the British Book Award shortlist for the Debut Book of the Year 2018.

History is not always confined.

Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 298
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-241-97523-7
First Published: 7th June 2016
Date Reviewed: 14th May 2018
Rating: 5/5

Effia’s mother tells her to keep the beginning of her menstruation a secret. It’s long been known that Effia would marry the man next in line to be Chief but Baaba has something else in mind and Effia is traded in marriage to the white governor of the Castle. As she moves away with James, Baaba tells her daughter that she is not related to her and that her mother abandoned them. As Effia’s new life begins, her unknown half-sister is taken prisoner, held with hundreds of other women, about to be sold into slavery overseas. The sisters’ situations will reverberate down the ages.

Homegoing is a superb mainly-historical novel that starts in 1700s Ghana and continues into our present century. Spanning many generations, it spends a number of pages on each character in turn, nevertheless retaining the sense that it is a novel of one story.

Gyasi has created something rather remarkable. Within moments she sucks you into the story, her use of history in all contexts – the writing of it, the knowledge included, the bringing to life – starts it off, and then her masterful characterisation ensures you don’t let go. In terms of the history, there’s a fair amount of information that often gets looked over, as well as the horrors that continue.

The writing is wonderfully descriptive and Gyasi creates the perfect balance of narrative and dialogue. It flows very well; indeed the only negative aspect of the book is the use of ‘off of’, the only thing that stunts the flow.

But at its heart, beyond the subject matter that we’ll go on to in a minute, is that characterisation. There are few books in which multiple narratives are considered to be equally fine. Gyasi’s is one of those few. No matter how invested you are in any one story (which read almost as vignettes despite the time they span; there are no complete endings within a character’s chapter, the only closure is in the descendant’s chapter) you never once feel that sense of loss so often caused by other multi-narrative novels. Would it be nice if there was more of each character’s story? Of course. But the novel does not suffer for the lack of it. The progression is natural and easy to follow; Gyasi includes hints early on and you soon get used to the flicking back and forth between bloodlines. If you do fall behind – and you will when it comes to working out which generation you’re on to – there’s a family tree in the opening pages.

As it’s pretty obvious from the start – or at least from the moment you realise how Gyasi has plotted the book – that somewhere it’s highly likely the two bloodlines will meet in some way, it’s pertinent here to say that the book isn’t predictable on that count. This isn’t your usual ‘and magic happened and they found out who each other was’. There is indeed ‘magic’ in the book – to use the phrase that people down the ages start to refer to traditional spirituality as – and yes there is a meeting of the bloodlines, but there are no unbelieveable discoveries.

On the subject of symbolism is Gyasi’s use of fire and water, with fire particularly pronounced because water is more obviously associated with the beginning. It’s a gentle, weaving sort of symbolism, that takes you through the various generations, creating an impact – the history of a people on their descendants – as well as a sort of coming-of-age, cycling, taking back ownership.

Apart from symbolism, Gyasi explores the slave trade, particularly, as said, in terms of the beginnings and early impact in Ghana. She explores the affects of the difference between the Northern and Southern states and the impact of Southern laws on free men of the North. She explores segregation, the concept of passing, and tensions and social and political problems still occurring today. These explorations are interlaced with the chapters so that black history in America as a whole is explored in depth. Again, Gyasi’s writing makes everything flow together, showing how they are both separate subjects and part of a whole, and as with everything else the author does it with aplomb.

Homegoing is the sort of novel that stays with you, that you want to return to. In the second to last chapter, Marjorie is asked by her teacher if she feels the book she is reading inside of her. I think we all know that feeling, the one that makes reading so worth it.

You may well find it in this book.

I received this book for review.

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Charlotte Smith – Emmeline

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Previous posts refer to the author as Charlotte Turner Smith. For this review I have left out the middle name, matching the original edition of the book.

How my poor heart aches with every step you take.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A
First Published: 1788
Date Reviewed: 13th April 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

When orphaned Emmeline’s nursemaid dies, she moves away from the castle she called home. Her rich uncle, who has paid for her upkeep but not bothered to visit her, finally arrives with his son, Delamere, who becomes instantly infatuated with her. Angry at this, the uncle and aunt try to keep Emmeline away from him – and Emmeline would be happy if he did stay away – but he follows her in her travels and harasses her for marriage. All Emmeline wants is to return to her castle, perhaps with her new friends, but her choices are not her own.

Despite the fact of Emmeline‘s success when published and the great historical value it presents to us today, in the context of the here and now the things it includes are difficult; whilst what it shows could be said to show further evidence of why society has changed in the way it treats women, the scenes and characters in the book, particularly when added to the stereotypical fainting, literary devices, and padding, make for a book that is difficult to read.

Chief in this is the role a good half of the male characters play; Emmeline’s beauty – her personality is of little consequence to most – creates, at the instant of meeting, an obsession in the minds of many she meets and the vast majority go on to pursue her in earnest. What we would now consider harassment, narcissism, and emotional abuse, are major features of this book, with Emmeline and her friends travelling extensively in their quest to outrun various suitors, an effort which nevertheless fails to endear her to her uncle; it takes a long time for Lord Montreville to see Delamere’s entitlement and childish temper tantrums, which involve hitting his head against walls.

So the problem isn’t so much that it happens, because in fact it shows well the issue of Emmeline being controlled by her uncle; the issue is the way Emmeline’s friends handle it and how Smith – perhaps because her goal is to illustrate a woman’s lack of choice rather than any sort of commentary on how things are reached – often writes without commentary on it, leaving Emmeline to truly fend for herself. The times when the author is blunt, and these do increase about halfway through, make the novel palatable again, with Emmeline granted authorial leave to stop painting and singing for Delamere, things that give him the idea she likes him, that it seems the author has instructed her to do.

‘The regard she was sensible of for Delamere did not make her blind to his faults; and she saw, with pain, that the ungovernable violence of his temper frequently obscured all his good qualities, and gave his character an appearance of ferocity, which offered no very flattering prospect to whosoever should be his wife.’

And, later:

“His love, too ardent perhaps to last, will decline; while the inconveniences of a narrow fortune will encrease [sic]; and I, who shall be the cause of these conveniences, shall also be the victim.”

On the subject of a women’s choice to live how she wishes, comparisons can be made between Smith and Mrs Stafford. Smith’s husband lost them a lot of money and the author ended up living in jail with him for a time before they separated; Mrs Stafford, mother of a few children, spends more time with Emmeline than she does her husband but her life is necessarily entangled with his so that his lack of care for his family and career of gambling away his money means she must go back to him and try and work things out. In life, Smith left her husband, and died ill and with little money. In fiction her friendships enable her to have a happier, healthier, wealthier family despite him. Even Mary Wollstonecraft, who otherwise hated the book, liked Mrs Stafford.

Otherwise, Emmeline fits every stereotype of novels from the period. If a woman does not carry smelling salts she is very much out of luck, for a great deal of fainting and, on some occasions, actual dying, occurs for relatively minor reasons such as the appearance of one’s lover, the realisation that a person isn’t the golden perfect child they were molded to be and, in what is a particularly unsatisfying literary device, the jealousy of one for another who is also obsessed with a lady no longer available.

One unfortunate drawback to the usage of characters from the 1780s with extreme personality traits is that the hero of the book isn’t all that much of a hero. In comparison to others he is a knight in shining armour, and Smith uses him as a device in order to insert poetry that history tells us was more her sort of thing, but he himself can get quite angry on occasion, jealous, and, whilst historically considered the right thing to do, his enforcement of a woman’s estrangement from her lover when few relatives seem to care – including the woman’s husband – means that he doesn’t come across nearly as well as he perhaps should… particularly as Smith resorts to deus ex machina to continually put him in Emmeline’s path… which, given the rest of the novel, effectively becomes a pursuit.

Smith does acknowledge this:

‘…who seemed providentially to have been thrown in her way on purpose to elucidate her history.’

The lead-up to the ending promises a great future for Emmeline but Smith draws out the last few chapters with filler material before tying everything up very quickly in the last few pages. After almost 500 turns, or 500 swipes of the screen, it’s a big disappointment.

Given the way this review darts back and forth between saying that things are bad and then that they make sense and are good, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the reviewer – referring to herself in a fashion she has come to find synonymous with 1700s and 1800s writing – is utterly confused as to the merit of this book. But – and this might be an ‘alas!’ – she is not. Seen entirely in the context of its history, society at the time, and the life of the author, Emmeline is quite a feat. Thus, seen as a subject of study for whichever element it is chosen, it is rather good even if, as its declining fame aptly shows, it’s far from the best. But in terms of the reading experience for escape or pleasure, it is not a good one and the general, public, success of the novel is long gone.

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Edith Wharton – The Age Of Innocence

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Everything is awesome (caveat: when you’re part of the team)1.

Publisher: N/A
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: (Vintage’s is 978-0-099-51128-1)
First Published: 1920
Date Reviewed: 23rd February 2018
Rating: 5/5

1870s New York and young Newland Archer is excited at the prospect of marrying May Welland, looking forward to making their engagement official. But as he watches the opera in his club box, he spies a newcomer with his fiancée’s family; May’s cousin Countess Ellen Olenska has separated from her European husband and has come to stay in America. Ellen is rather different to the rest, her European ways at odds with New York society and everyone hopes she’ll reunite with her husband… everyone except Newland who is strangely attracted to her.

The Age Of Innocence is a marvellous novel with a highly ironic title. Set at a time of change, it looks at the way a society that does not favour the arts, or anything even one step away from their etiquette and mores, responds when they are confronted with a person who is slightly associated with it.

Wharton speaks of a society she was a member of and uses Newland to examine it as well. There is a lot of characterisation in the book but most of it is by rights and by design set aside for Newland. As the main character (the book is written in the third person) Wharton spends most of her time in his head. Her relative lack of characterisation of the other characters, barring Madame Olenska, is almost a theme in itself, with the society members effectively rendered as stereotypes as befitting Newland’s opinions of them, which, let’s just say, aren’t always correct (and can be frustrating at times). It’s an interesting sort of character-driven novel – there’s actually more plot than characterisation aside from Newland yet it remains character-driven.

In many ways everyone is a device for Wharton but none more so than the unsuspecting Newland who is used by Wharton to look at the perceived lack of female agency in society, as well as his own thoughts as to teaching his wife what he deems appropriate for her to know.

His own exclamation: “Women should be free – as free as we are,” struck to the root of a problem that it was agreed in his world to regard as non-existent. “Nice” women, however wronged, would never claim the kind of freedom he meant, and generous-minded men like himself were therefore – in the heat of arguement – the more chivalrously ready to concede it to them.

The young man was sincerely but placidly in love. He delighted in the radiant good looks of his bethrothed, in her health, her horsemanship, her grace and quickness at games, and the shy interest in books and ideas that she was beginning to develop under his guidence. (She had advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idyls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.)… But when he had gone the brief round of her he returned discouraged by the thought that all this frankness and innocence were only an artificial product.

So the story is very clever. It’s a man’s world – is it? (You might expect a woman writer in those years to question that – Wharton and Kate Chopin would have got on well – but Wharton’s craftiness will have you wondering what’s on the next page constantly and she is a master of red herrings, nay, pre red herrings.) The author gives a lot of time to Ellen Olenska, ensuring that the woman shines in characterisation away from her role as Newland’s social interest, and allows a second interpretation to take hold in Ellen’s story. The execution of the story is flawless and the ending an absolute triumph.

At once a simple story with little embellishment, The Age Of Innocence is well worth the fairly short investment of time it requires, both for enjoyment and because it’s a worthy classic. You will not regret reading this book.

1 The main line of The Lego Movie theme song seemed too appropriate not to use, however irrelevant it is otherwise.

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