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Philip Pullman – La Belle Sauvage

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Publisher: David Fickling (Penguin)
Pages: 544
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-0-385-60441-3
First Published: 19th October 2017
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2018
Rating: 3.5/5

The first months of Lyra Belacqua’s life: when not at school, Malcolm works at his parents’ pub, regularly visits the convent across the river, and paddles down the water in his canoe. One evening, the pub is visited by three men who politely decline the invitation to dine in the main room instead of the more private one they chose upon entering. Malcolm overhears snippets of conversation, and over the next few days it starts to come together. Baby. Prophecy. The Magisterium. Meanwhile Dr Hannah Relf is studying the Bodleian Library’s Alethiometer, using it to gain answers to questions that a secret group of people have hired her to find.

La Belle Sauvage is the first book of The Book Of Dust, the decades-awaited follow up trilogy to His Dark Materials. It serves as a prequel. Written in a way that’s similar to the Young Adult tone of the ’90s books but with enough nods to those readers who have since grown up, it’s (likely) accessible to new readers but certainly best read by those who’ve read the originals.

Looking at the book in isolation, it’s mostly solid. The writing is good, there’s some scary content, and whilst the second half is monotonous it remains a page turner. Possibly due to the fact that Pullman long ago established his aim, the use of religious fervour in this book is even stronger than before. Here Pullman constructs a system that mirrors many religious and political methods in history, his League of Saint Alexander creating snitches of children in order to flush out any hints of rebellion and scare people into submission. There’s a lot of background detail provided but it’s in order to further express how awful the rulers are rather than a case of infodump.

Malcolm’s a believable hero if not particularly compelling, and his counterpart – who I won’t name because it takes a while for them to be identified – is a fair match, even better, perhaps, despite having little to do. Hannah Relf is okay. One of the villains is only there to ramp up the horror and disappears with his own sets of unanswered questions. But in more important news, if you’re looking for Lyra, you’ll be disappointed, and this is where the long wait and the present come into conflict – Lyra remains a speechless baby throughout.

Is it a fair book? Yes, but when the set up of Lyra as a resident of Jordan College was established in Northern Lights, enough back story was provided. We know where Lyra’s going to end up so the worries in La Belle Sauvage aren’t of any import. And it’s difficult to say that the horrors in His Dark Materials are not somewhat damaged in impact by this new book – one can’t help but think that the people of Lyra’s world might have been on the look out for the Magisterium’s next move and thus not been quite so shocked by the happenings in the north ten years later.

There’s also the world-building. There’s not much of it – presumably because it’s expected that readers are well-versed in Lyra’s Oxford – but what is included doesn’t ring true. In the course of the book we see Malcolm collecting disposable nappies and baby formula, which is at odds with the old-fashioned steam-punk that defined Lyra’s world before.

In sum, this book, isolated from its literary context, is a good enough read. Even the monotony isn’t enough to hold it back. But in the context of history it’s an average and rather jarring addition that would’ve been better as a short story.

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Andrew McMillan – Physical

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In all its flaws, in all its beauty.

Publisher: Jonathan Cape (Random House)
Pages: 45
Type: Poetry
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-224-10213-1
First Published: 9th July 2015
Date Reviewed: 1st November 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Physical is a short collection of poems that’s focused on the male body and sexuality – relationships, encounters, day-to-day life. It uses a specific style to focus attention on a few ideas at any one time. (It is also apparently inspired by poet Thom Gunn – I don’t know enough about his work to comment on this properly; I can only say there is similarity in the themes and the approach to them.)

There are some fantastic passages in this book that have the power to leave you a little stunned in the way of all great poetry (that sort of pause effect this reviewer is coming to love). As it’s short it can be good to read it slowly and it pays to take your time over the lines, to really read into what is being said; McMillan often uses double meanings that are rather clever, a line ending acting also as the start of the next line.

taken allegorically     he is beating on himself
until the point at which the inner river of the word grace
runs passed and everything lays down in calm
and walking back across the stream to his possessions
he feels the bruise that is staining his thigh
and he wonders at the strength of one so smooth

One of the stand outs is the very first entry, Jacob With The Angel, which takes a biblical tale, looking at it from both the usual and another angle. It’s a variation full of artistic license and provocation that asks you not to look at the story in another way exactly, but in a way that asks you to consider a potentially different meaning or possibility behind the words. McMillan explains himself outright, saying, “taken literally” then “taken allegorically” – it’s a story exploration of possibilities that makes you admire the thinking behind it.

At the risk of making it seem as though this review only concerns the very first few poems (because an example of style using the third poem follows this paragraph), another stand out is Urination. The whole being just as blunt as its title, this piece looks at discomfort in public situations, childhood memories, having to use the toilet at home when in a relationship. It seems an almost odd choice of subject but McMillan makes it important, stylist choices making it so much more than you’d think it might be. (And to get away from the first poems the multiple-page-spanning-or-is-it middle section of the book is worth reading just for the use of white space.)

In terms of McMillan’s use of pause, white space, to denote meaning and so forth, The Men Are Weeping In The Gym – about power and things that are seen as weaknesses – is one poem that illustrates the method constantly and consistently, so that you can just extract a couple of lines from the rest to show the method in action. For example:

the bicepcurl     waiting     staring
straight ahead     swearing that the wetness
on their cheeks is perspiration

A good use of language, a play on grammar, sentence clauses, and when added to McMillan’s tendency to put words together that aren’t ‘supposed’ to be together but could be – twelveyearold; slowpunctured; shortflightstopover – words that in McMillan’s collection become their own entity, it’s quite something.

Quite something – that’s it in a nutshell. Physical is powerful, stunning, mind-blowing, but not quite perfect – a word which of course has value here because in the context of the collection not being perfect is sometimes the point. The collection repeats itself to interlink, to draw connections between poems, but it also repeats itself literally, subjects that are in reality separate scenes but on the page sound very similar. Is that a problem? The answer is subjective – it really depends on how much you’re enjoying reading about the themes; McMillan’s writing itself never waivers. It’s another reason to take your time.

However you feel, it’s safe to say that McMillan’s book is a valuable addition to the world of poetry. To be taken literally.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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Jemma Wayne – Chains Of Sand

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Current, constant, conflict.

Publisher: Legend Press
Pages: 315
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-785-07972-6
First Published: 1st June 2016
Date Reviewed: 12th September 2016
Rating: 3.5/5

Udi wants to move to England, to join his cousins. Life in Israel does not offer him what he wants. His girlfriend and family may want him to stay but he hopes for more than menial jobs. In England, British Jew, Daniel, wants to move to Israel, seeing it as his destiny and the place he just ought to be. His friendship with Safia will never progress to a relationship because she is Muslim and he feels it would be wrong, and when he meets Orli in Tel Aviv he feels a draw greater than the one he feels towards Safia, and greater than the one he felt towards his old long-term girlfriend. Amidst these stories is that of Kaseem and Dara, a relationship that secretly crosses the border.

Chains Of Sand is a novel set during the here and now of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Taking on the narratives of Jews, Wayne has written a book that has the potential to divide before it brings everything back together for a short time at the end; in looking at the conflict, Wayne writes from a specific viewpoint first and foremost. She details the day-to-day of fighting, of security and the way such security has become par for the course by both necessity and anxiety. She shows the conflict between modernity and tradition, how in theory one might want to dispense with tradition but in reality it’s ingrained within them, sometimes in ways they don’t realise until they do dispense with it. She shows how holding steadfast can result in familial conflict and how not holding steadfast can result in familial conflict. And she shows obvious cultural differences, violence, lazy contentment-filled days, and everything in between. Reading from afar it’s a big reminder of everything that isn’t covered in the news, of the regular life going on behind the conflict, but also the irregularities that are ever apparent and the intolerance – whilst working from one side of the equation she shows the various intolerances as well as liberal views.

So this book is a look at the conflict right where it is happening, as well as a look from afar. It includes direct knowledge, lived knowledge, and rose-tinted glasses. But something is lacking in the overall presentation and it isn’t until much later that it becomes apparent that what’s lacking is emotion (other than thoughts of love, which themselves aren’t always convincing, the context more often lust). There is a divide between reader and character that is down to the way the story has been written and presented; as the end pages draw near this lack disappears and in its place is the emotion that the rest of the book needed, that helps you relate, that gives you a reason to read, that gets rid of the dryness. This is not to say that every thought any character has should be laced with emotion but a subject of this magnitude and current relevance… you gain knowledge of viewpoints and of the working of the war but the characters’ thoughts, when dealing with it, don’t really ask you to think or engage; it can be a struggle to work out what you are supposed to be taking from it as a reader. Is there a message? It seems so, but trying to work out what exactly that is (until the end, which is a bit late and a bit too much, playing catch-up) and even trying to just look at the book as a study is difficult without that authorial invitation to involve yourself in the text.

Some of this is due to the writing. The writing is okay but there are some odd choices of words, odd phrases that jolt you out of the narrative, and a strange way of translating tone and inference that doesn’t match the situation. (As an example, there are various lines of dialogue that end with “…, no?” which when dealing with Israeli characters seems a way to translate how Hebrew compares to English ways of speaking but it’s then used by British Jews when speaking their fluent first language of English.) It’s not a bad style by any means but the lack of flow often means sentences need a couple of re-reads to understand.

Something included that really works is Udi’s background – Udi is an Iraqi Jew whose family moved to Israeli. His presence in the story enables Wayne to study something that doesn’t get much of a look in – racism within – and open up the narrative far beyond stereotypes. There is a section, for example, where Udi and his friends go to a nightclub, but Udi is denied entry because the doorman will not believe he is Jewish rather than an Arab Muslim. This, whilst a different subject, helps set up the short narrative of a cross-cultural relationship wherein Wayne really delves into the variety of opinions in the region, the liberal sides of the equation, whilst harking back to a type of narrative that is tried and true and thus has a firm basis for the reader to start from. This said, some other uses of tried-and-true come across as devices and detract from the reading experience.

The timeline is confusing – with three narratives, two periods of time, and oft-usage of the present tense, the general confusion of who is speaking and when continues throughout. Most especially because within those sections once you’ve figured out the who and where and when, which becomes easier, you’ve then got to constantly adjust between paragraph and multi-paragraph sections within chapters and these aren’t labelled or set apart from the rest. It means that you could be reading something important but you won’t know because the context is not there and as you don’t really want to be reading a lot of text over and over you miss some of it.

Chains Of Sand has a good idea behind it – one thinks, it is difficult to be definite – but it is confusing. It informs, it’s bold in what it does, and it’s fairly balanced in its overall focus, if not in its characters, but you do need to be prepared to do a lot of legwork.

I received this book for review from Midas PR.

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Abubakar Adam Ibrahim – Season Of Crimson Blossoms

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Yes, it’s likely to fall apart.

Publisher: Cassava Republic
Pages: 339
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-911-11500-7
First Published: 20th May 2016
Date Reviewed: 2nd June 2016
Rating: 4.5/5

Grandmother Hajiya Binta and drug dealer Reza meet when Reza breaks into Binta’s house. He steals her jewellery and threatens to kill her but there is a moment between them; he returns in peace. The two begin an affair that must be hidden – not only is the age gap wide, in Binta’s culture it is shameful. As Binta hides the affair from her family and Reza tries to work out the conflict between his care for her and the murders he commits for others, we also see the trauma of Binta’s niece, Fa’iza, starting to slip through the cracks in the armour she created for herself when her father and brother were killed.

Season Of Crimson Blossoms is a book that looks at a fair few things, namely the emotions and sexuality of an older woman and the life of Reza; it also delves into corruption and religious conflict.

Ibrahim is one of those writers who writes the opposite gender really well and succeeds in giving life to the various ages of his characters. In many ways his book is about the effects of culture on women in conservative Northern Nigeria and it’s a well-rounded study. He looks at the effects of violence through memories. And it’s through Fa’iza’s story that Ibrahim’s talent sparkles for the first time.

When we hear about Fa’iza, beyond her liking for romantic novellas and film stars and television, it’s in the form of a flashback. In the space of a mere few pages, Ibrahim manages to provide the sort of shock most authors spend time leading up to – he shows us the reason Fa’iza can be quiet, the horror of what she experienced as a child. As men beat down the door to the family home, Fa’iza’s father has the family run to the bathroom where they stay cramped for some minutes before they are found. It is an incredible piece of writing, as stunning as if he’d been working on it for several chapters.

This is an unrelated moment to the one above, but it’s another, even more succinct, that shows Ibrahim’s skill:

He was there when the other boys spotted a girl in tight black trousers heading up the street. Her hair – permed in Michael Jackson Thriller style – streamed behind her as she swung her hips ostentatiously.
Then the chants started.
Biri da wando!” the boys sang, running after her. Some ran ahead and pulled down their trousers and wiggled their little backsides before the embarrassed girl. The racket drew more boys from their houses and playfields and Yaro, too, was sucked in. Women in purdah came out and stood by the front door, trying to call back their sons, but their voices were drowned in the maelstrom.
Then the pelting started.
Missiles of damp mud struck the girl on her offending trousers, the imprint of dirt standing out starkly against the black of the nylon. She started crying, cowering and shielding her head from the missiles. The racket went up several decibels. Some women ran out and tried to dissuade the boys, but they were too many. In the excitement, they did not see Zubairu, who was not much taller than the biggest boys, until he reached out and grabbed his son. Like flustered bees, the boys scattered, dodging into neighbouring houses and running down slime-covered alleys. […] She poured in some damp guinea corn from the basin beside her and when she heard the flogging start, she began pounding. The harder the boy cried out, the harder Binta pounded, her pestle thumping heavily.

There is not too much of this type of scene; there doesn’t need to be – once you’ve read a few, with the narrative alluding to other situations, you’re all set, as it were, for the rest of the book.

Binta likes Reza because he reminds her of the son she lost. Reza likes Binta because her face reminds him of the mother who was never there for him, who left him, tore his hands from her hijab as she went to leave. Their relationship, as much as it’s sexual, is their way of grieving. Binta’s loss of her son, Yaro, is compounded by the fact culture forbid her from showing him, the oldest child, any affection. She always wished she could show him she cared because as an oldest child herself she’d experienced the same thing, knew what it was like to be neglected. And so her time with Reza, though sexual, could be seen as a penance, or a making up for what she didn’t do, spending time with someone who looks like Yaro who wouldn’t be far off his age. Whilst inappropriate socially, the relationship serves an innocent, important purpose.

At first appearing to be a case of a drug ring, Reza’s narrative expands to working for corrupt leaders. You see Reza’s conflict – on one side he’s assigned people to kill to help others get further on the board. Chess is alluded to. On the other side he has Binta spending time with him and nudging him to go back to school and gain an education. He’s always working on things Binta has no idea of; his oft-repeated ‘you understand?’ at the end of dialogues packs in different concepts: it’s the way he speaks, it’s a phrase with a lot of subtext behind it that differs every time, it’s the way Reza tries to signal warnings.

Ibrahim is very open about society, culture. This is what makes the character of Binta stand out – she’s taking a chance with Reza and is being led by her sexuality, talking of being free. Her relationship with her deceased husband was not a bad one per se, but she laments not having been able to enjoy their time together as a couple. She takes a chance in the name of sex, knowing she might be found out and worrying about it, but she’s led by her desire to be happy before she becomes too old. It would be shameful if she were found out.

The relationship between men and women and the differences between how they can live their lives are given time, too. Binta has a suitor but he’s never present in their conversations, always listening to his radio, preferring to talk about politics. The reality behind Binta’s daughter’s separation from her husband is revealed slowly – is she a bit over-the-top or is there something else? But at the end of the day, as much as it may be down to either or them, Hureira’s husband can take another wife.

I believe it was E Lockhart who said that a book should deliver a series of small shocks. Ibrahim’s novel is the best example of this idea I have ever read. Whilst it may not be a constant series of shocks – if it were you’d be at risk of becoming numb to it all – the 1-3 page horrors I spoke about earlier fit this perfectly. They’re short, small. They are a big shock due to Ibrahim’s ability to create such powerful scenes in such a short space of time.

Season Of Crimson Blossoms is a book to read slowly. Not because it’s boring or because you’re going through a patchy part but because you want to appreciate it, you want to think about what you are reading and you want to savour the writing; it’s a sort of close reading, only off the page. It’s really very good.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Robert Merle – The Brethren

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All for one and one for… sort of.

Publisher: Pushkin Press
Pages: 402
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-782-27123-9
First Published: 1977
Date Reviewed: 21st September 2015
Rating: 3.5/5

Original language: French
Original title: Fortune de France (Fortune Of France)
Translated by: T Jefferson Kline

Pierre was born in a time of war. Some time before his birth, his father, Jean de Siorac, made a pact with Jean de Sauveterre; whilst the Siorac family grew in number, de Sauveterre stayed with them, sharing leadership duties. The war is as much about land and rulings as it is about religion: as Calvin states his ideas reform begins to sweep across France and the people of Mespech begin to join them.

The Brethren is historical fiction, the start of a series that suggests the rest will be epic. A fairly long story, it focuses on Pierre’s childhood and the background of the family. Heralded a modern Dumas, though not quite the same, Merle looks at those who were both at odds with and in favour of the crown.

This book requires a fair amount of attention, composed as it is of battles both factual and not so, other pieces of information, and a number of characters. You’re forgiven for confusing people on occasion – Merle tends to include descriptions with his references and dialogues (for example Colondre’s lack of speech, Coligny’s battle experience). Though technically repetitive it never seems so as it’s helpful. The story is very well set in its era with the benefits of hindsight the author can include. The women are occasionally allowed to be involved in battle (to an extent) and Jean de Siorac’s understanding of health and hygiene is ahead of its time. (As far as the latter is concerned, it’s interesting to note the way what we would now consider common sense is discussed as an unhealthy obsession. Needless to say, however, the good hygiene pays off!)

This book sports action but it’s mostly related third-hand as I’ll be discussing shortly. The story therefore deals more with the domestic side of the sixteenth century – Pierre’s upbringing, the effect of reform on a divided household, childbirth and wet-nursing, and relations between masters and their servants. The family at Mespech have a good relationship with their tenants – they don’t offer in the way of money but there is a relative equality and no one goes hungry. This element, the relationship between the well-off and not so, is perhaps the strongest element of the book.

And there is humour. Some of it must be seen in its historical context to work, for example the woman who always talks of being ‘forced’ into having intercourse, who is always the brunt of laughter because everyone knows she went willingly, enjoyed herself over the course of fifteen times, and uses the notion of being forced to mitigate the problems that would accompany infidelity. Such comedy wouldn’t work nowadays, would be awful. Whether or not Merle’s humour here is comfortable enough for the reader is something else, of course.

The characters are okay – the men developed, a pun that’s intended because the women, as much as they can talk and banter with the men and as much as they don’t have to stay in the kitchen, are somewhat reduced to body parts – again, explained in a moment. Due to the way the story is narrated by a child rather than any of the adults there is not quite enough development for you to feel particularly strongly but then this is the start of a series.

Amongst all the goodness, then, are a fair few problems. The first is the way so much of the book is non-fictional. Historical fiction often deals with fact but Merle has included information as though he were writing a text book, whole swaths of historical information which is often background context rather than anything that affects the characters directly. This means the book is semi-non-fictional and begs the question of how smaller the page count could have been without it.

Merle is absolutely obsessed with breasts. Almost every time a woman is mentioned, so too are her breasts as well as, often, her size. (Most older women are very large, most young very thin.) The female characters are mostly servants of the household but one would not be remiss in believing they’re also there to serve lusts. There are two scenes wherein all heads turn, all gazes fix, upon the firm buxom wet-nurse who takes out her beautiful white breasts during dinner to suckle the lucky little babe the men wish they could replace. Talk of heads enveloped by chests almost forms a theme. Doubtless the male characters would not gawk so much if Merle wasn’t forcing them to do so.

There’s distance between narrator and reader. Where Pierre narrates what happens to his father, third-hand, there is distance and the story is perhaps not as interesting as it could’ve been if, say, these adventures had happened to Pierre himself. This looks set to change in book two, but for this, book one, it’s very much the case.

Finally, exclusive to the English translation, is the language. Merle wrote his story in a sort of sixteenth century French which may sound hard going and potentially off-putting but that’s the way it is. The translator has written the English version in modern English, a little on the Victorian side; what you’re getting is one person’s interpretation more so than you would usually. The lack of comparable sixteenth century English may entice some readers but those wanting to read Merle may find the English drier and less thrilling than the French.

The Brethren has a lot going for it but also a fair amount that’s not in its favour. It is quite fascinating, the modernity of the characters is capable of winning you over, and most importantly it will make you want to continue to book two; but it is best noted that it’s far from flawless and has the ability to disappoint in places.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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