Book review: “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

So earlier in the week, I posted about the Man Booker 2017 shortlist and today I want to tell you about a prize winner, The Power by Naomi Alderman which won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in June. This year’s shortlist was a strong one, so it did well to come out on top. I’d also read Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Stay With Me from the shortlist; this latter book is wonderful and so I was expecting great things from The Power. I took it on holiday with me and read it in just a handful of sessions (my favourite way to read) and I’m afraid to say I was a little disappointed. For me, it was not better than Stay With Me.

Naomi Alderman

I’m not a huge fan of science fiction; my last foray into this genre was Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, which I think I probably enjoyed more than The Power if I’m honest. Because I’m not a big reader of this genre I find it quite difficult to review. I’m not sure what the norms and expectations are, so the things I might criticise or dislike are perhaps standard constructions in science fiction. For example, when reviewing a historical novel, we expect accuracy, realism, research. When reviewing a novel set in our own time we expect realism in the sense of standards that we recognise as possible. With science fiction, however, it irritates me that all normal conventions are suspended. Perhaps that why SF writers write in this genre, because they are free of those constraints, but to me it seems a bit lazy. I’ll give you an example: I enjoyed Station Eleven but I couldn’t get this nagging thought out of my brain that we were dealing with one small part of the United States, and I just couldn’t quite believe that the rest of the world had been similarly afflicted and could not make contact – pre-electricity societies managed to get around the globe fairly successfully!

img_3831However, The Power is a prize-winner and seems to have been universally lauded, most notably by Margaret Atwood (Alderman’s literary mentor) whose ground-breaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale has just enjoyed a very successful television adaptation. The premise of The Power is a subversion of current social norms where men dominate, to one where women discover that they have a physical superiority, an ability to electrocute and disable, even kill, men. The novel begins (presumably in the current time) when women begin to discover they have this power and start to use it in ways that enable them to dominate. The story is told through the experiences of a number of women and a male. First there is Roxy, the young daughter of a London gangster who, once she discovers her power, undertakes a purge of all her male foes, her father’s enemies, and her half-brothers who threaten her, to become the top gangster in her field. Then there is Margot a small-time US politician who discovers she has the power and uses it, over a period of years to eliminate her political enemies and rise to great things. Initially, Margot has to hide her power; society is initially hostile to it, and therefore those who have it, seeing at as a threat which could upset order and stability (yes, much of the novel has to be read as a deep irony). Margot, as a politician is also connected with a number of corporations who would no longer support her if they knew she was a carrier of the power. Third, there is Allie, a teenager adopted into a right-wing southern American Christian family (more irony). She is abused by her adoptive father and in one of his assaults she electrocutes and kills him. She then escapes to a convent from where she morphs into Mother Eve, the head of the cult which spreads the power worldwide. One of the followers of the cult is Tatiana Moskolev, the estranged wife of the President of Moldova, who sets up her own republic in the north of the country and establishes a brutal regime where men are mere playthings, sexually abused and murdered at will. Finally, there is Tunde, a young Nigerian, who when we first meet him is trying to seduce a young woman, unsuccessfully as it turns out, because she gives him a small but still very humiliating electric shock when he makes his move on her. It is clear the power dynamic has shifted! Tunde senses that change is about to come to the world and so he sets about travelling the globe, posting his obervations on the internet and thereby becomes an international journalistic sensation.

The story has a complicated structure, which at times I found difficult to follow. It is very much a satire, but not in the mode of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won last year’s Man Booker Prize. There are parts of the book which are almost too brutal, too visceral, too emotionally raw for satire (maybe it’s me, maybe it’s the age we live in?). At 42 the author is not much younger than me, so I can’t say it’s a generational thing, although I note that among the many other strings to her bow she is a computer game designer. I wonder whether the kind of violence common in that medium means the author has a different perspective (taste?) for use of violence and physicality in art.

It’s a clever book, the idea is fantastically original, subversive (women dominating men!) and mischievous. Alderman is also a very able writer, and it’s an impressive read. I did find the book a page-turner, but it fell off towards the end for me. It just got a bit…silly! But then I also accept that maybe it wasn’t supposed to be credible, and that is indeed the powerful central irony. It’s a good read, but I still preferred Stay With Me for the Bailey’s Prize!

What did you think of The Power? I’d be interested in your perspective if you’re a regular reader of science fiction.

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My 100th post! (And the Man Booker shortlist)

This is my 100th post and I feel it’s quite fitting that I should be writing on the very day that the Man Booker 2017 shortlist has been announced. Last year, I set myself the task of trying to read all six books on the shortlist before the prize winner was announced. I managed three and a half! This year, I’ve cleared the decks and am going for it again – all six books by 17 October…34 days.

If you haven’t seen the shortlist, here it is:

 

Autumn and Exit West have been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while. Autumn is a post-Brexit novel and is about the fissures that became apparent in UK society after that referendum, seen through the eyes of elderly Daniel and youthful Elisabeth. It may help with understanding this social turmoil. Exit West is also about social and political turmoil and its effect on the lives of ordinary people, lovers Nadia and Saeed, forced to flee their homeland when it is torn apart by civil war, and seek refuge in the West.

Veteran prizewinner Paul Auster’s latest novel, 4 3 2 1, has won praise for the deft handling of a complex storyline in which he explores four possible paths that an individual’s life could take. It’s the longest book on the list by some distance! Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders is the first venture into fiction by a well-established writer and is a fictionalised account of the true story of Abraham Lincoln and the loss of his eleven year old son at the start of the American Civil War.

Finally, from two less well-known writers, to me anyway, A History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which is about a fourteen year old girl living a sheltered life in rural Minnesota, with unusual parents, and her association with a new family that moves into the area, forcing her to confront some uncomfortable truths. And Elmet  by Fiona Mozley, another first novel from a young British writer, is also about the effects of growing up in an unusual family and how that prepares people for a challenging world.

I haven’t read any of these (no head start for me this year then!), so I can’t judge the shortlist at the moment, but I am surprised by some of the omissions. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness are everywhere at the moment and have been highly praised. It’s always surprising to see Zadie Smith left out of this kind of list, huge talent that she is. Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here in June,is possibly the best book I have read this year and I’m astonished that it’s not shortlisted. That novel will be my benchmark for judging these.

Anyone care to join me in the shortlist challenge?

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Book review: “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan

I read this for my August reading challenge, which was to choose a book, the title or cover of which was reminiscent of summer. I chose On Chesil Beach because I love Dorset, possibly my favourite county in England, and I love Chesil Beach, which we visited on a family holiday about three years ago. Chesil Beach is one of those fascinating geographical features, dating back to Jurassic times, which reminds you that human habitation on earth is a mere blip in time. It’s an 18-mile stretch of shingle beach, separated from the mainland by a saline lake called the Fleet Lagoon, and formed thousands of years ago as deposits of sediment were plopped near to the coastline, but not on the beach, so creating a ‘barrier beach’ separated from the actual coastline. It’s a haven for wildlife as well as being one of those mysterious oddities that Wessex (yes, I’m a huge fan of Thomas Hardy!) does so well.

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The front cover of On Chesil Beach shows a picture of a woman in a white dress walking along the beach at what appears to be either dawn or dusk. She is walking away from us, into a vague distance. The sky is grey-blue, twilit, with a slash of brightness from the emerging or receding sun. In the far distance are cliffs and the sea on either side of the beach is grey, somewhat forbidding. The skirt of the woman’s dress, and her hair, are blowing in towards the land; there is clearly a strong breeze coming in from the sea. This image is everything I love about the English coast. It reminds me that nature is in charge here, that the earth will prevail. This area is part of Dorset’s Jurassic coast where fossils are easily found and where there is much evidence of the prehistoric past. It is a humbling place to be.

Chesil Beach is the setting of McEwan’s moving, domestic tragedy. Set in the summer of 1962 it begins in a hotel where Edward and Florence are having dinner in their suite on their wedding night. The awkwardness, the tension and the weight of expectation are apparent from the outset, and the detail with which McEwan describes every aspect of the scene made me feel like I was living every excruciating moment of the evening in real time. It is clear very quickly that this is a book about sex. It’s 1962 so the couple have not yet experienced the benefits of the sexual liberation of the 1960s and are still victims of the much more staid post-war attitudes of the 1950s. Despite being newlyweds, and therefore supposed to be a happy young couple, it is clear very early on that each is in a very different place; it is apparent that they have had little intimacy, sexual or otherwise, prior to their wedding. Edward has been ‘patient’ assuming that all will be well once they are married, while Florence has been hoping simply for strength, that she will be able to endure what she thinks will an unpleasant duty once within the confines of marriage.

“They separately worried about the moment, some time soon after dinner, when their new maturity would be tested, when they would lie down together on the four-poster bed and reveal themselves fully to one another. For over a year, Edward had been mesmerised by the prospect that on the evening of a given date in July the most sensitive portion of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman. How this was to be achieved without absurdity, or disappointment, troubled him…..But what troubled her was unutterable, and she could barely frame it for herself. Where he merely suffered conventional first-night nerves, she experienced a visceral dread, a helpless disgust as palpable as seasickness.”

And therein lies the nub of the whole book really, how these inner truths reveal themselves, how the pleasant mask of their love begins to crumble and how the relationship is affected under the pressure of these problems.

The book is structured in five parts: the first part is the awful wedding night, subsequent parts provide the back story to Edward and Florence’s relationship, their early lives and their very different backgrounds – class difference plays a big part in the novel too and whilst this is not named as an explicit barrier between them, you get the sense as a reader of her as more refined, affluent, uptight, middle-class, while he is seen as ultimately more vulgar, preoccupied by earthier matters and that this is somehow a consequence of his socially humble background.

I don’t wish to spoil the ending for you if you haven’t read the book, but the final part, the denouement, takes place on Chesil Beach itself, as the two individuals encounter one another at the climax of their so far bitter wedding night experience. It is like a classical scene, like a game of chess as the two manoeuvre around their respective problems. It is a very fine, forensic study of a 1960s relationship that could barely be called a relationship.

A stunning read, which I didn’t expect to be so good. Highly recommended.

(Apologies for any typos I haven’t spotted – my daughter’s hamster gave me a nasty bite on the middle finger of my right hand it has badly affected my typing!)

If you have read this book, what did you think?

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Book review: “The Lady and the Unicorn” by Tracy Chevalier

Tracy Chevalier’s second novel Girl with a Pearl Earring was published in 1999 (really, it was that long ago!) and was a sensation. I remember reading it at the time and was bowled over. It was made into a film starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth in 2004. I’m afraid to say that I have not read any of Tracy’s subsequent work and until now would not have been able to name any of her nine other books (although I love the look of New Boy, published this summer, and recommended it just a few weeks ago).

The Lady & the Unicorn imgI picked up The Lady and the Unicorn at the secondhand book stall at my youngest daughter’s school summer fair and read a large chunk of it whilst there. It would not normally have caught my eye on a bookshelf as the cover is more suggestive of a cheap sexy romance (nothing wrong with that if that’s your thing!), but I was very quickly drawn into the world that Chevalier evokes, as she also did so brilliantly in Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The novel is set in Paris and Brussels in 1490-92. Parisian nobleman Jean Le Viste wants an impressive tapestry in his home, a way of showing off his wealth, status and fine taste. He commissions local artist Nicolas De Innocents to paint a design which will then be turned into a tapestry by specialist weavers in Brussels. The subsequent story is about Nicolas’s travels between the two cities, the time he spends in Brussels with the family of weavers and the effect the work has on all their lives.

It’s a very simple premise and you would be forgiven for wondering how a full-length novel could be strung-out from this. Like Girl with a Pearl Earring, it’s the characters, their motivations, their internal lives and the relationships between them that drive the narrative. Here, Nicolas des Innocents is the central figure. He is young, virile, charismatic and mischievous. In Paris, he threatens to destabilise the Le Viste family when the youngest daughter Claude falls for his charms (he has already seduced the maid!), but socially, he is an outsider, a class well below his employer, and thus it is important he is kept at arm’s length. In Brussels, he penetrates the family more deeply as he needs to work alongside the weavers to design the various features of the tapestry and to help realise these in the final product. Nicolas the charmer develops a close bond with the weaver’s blind daughter. I’ll leave it at that – no spoilers here!

The book is written from several perspectives, with each chapter narrated by different characters. This allows us as readers to observe the events of the story from a number of viewpoints. It’s a sexy novel, there are simmering passions throughout (to that extent the suggestive cover on my copy is not far wrong!). It provides an insight to the issues of the period – honour, social status, the role and standing of women, as well as the process of creating a tapestry and the meaning behind all the imagery – and Chevalier has a brilliant talent for bridging the past and the present and showing us that in many ways day to day concerns remain the same throughout the ages. I particularly like how the author marries her skills for story creating into some bare facts about a real tapestry (it does exist) and real people. This is what she did in Girl with a Pearl Earring too, of course.

Whilst this novel clearly did not make the same splash as Chevalier’s more famous earlier book, it’s a good read and I would recommend it. Glad I found it on that book stall!

Have you read any of Tracy Chevalier’s books?

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August reading challenge: a book with a summery cover

Last month I ticked off my July reading challenge pretty quickly, having skipped through Evan Davis’s Post-truth: Why we have reached peak bullshit and what we can do about it fairly quickly after a train journey.

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This month, mindful that we are in the middle of the holiday season, the challenge is to choose a book, the cover of which is reminiscent of summer. (Whilst I definitely do not judge a book by its cover, I’m afraid I’m a sucker for the book that jumps off the shelf and grabs my attention!) Between the Baileys Prize in June and the Man Booker longlist in July, I’ve bought quite a lot of books recently, so I thought I’d dig through my not insubstantial pile of unread books purchased over the years for inspiration.

2017-08-05 07.34.39I have chosen On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, which was published in 2007. I suspect it has been languishing unread on my shelf for a number of years! The cover is, arguably, not particularly summery, showing a young woman walking along Chesil Beach in Dorset, at what looks like dawn, but could possibly be twilight. For those of you unfamiliar with Dorset, Chesil beach is a unique natural feature of the area. Geographically, it is known, I believe, as a tombolo. It is a 20 mile stretch of shingle beach that lies in a long, fairly straight line from Abbotsbury (near the swan sanctuary) to the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Whilst it is connected to the land at each end, it sits apart from the main beach along its length, creating  a kind of lagoon which is a haven for bird life.

Dorset is one of my favourite counties of England. I wouldn’t say I have spent lots of time there, I have been maybe four or five times, but each time I’ve visited I have found it the most beautiful, fascinating and interesting place. It is also deeply connected with my literary life. I am a huge admirer of Thomas Hardy and a few years ago, following a horrible relationship breakdown, I spent the most wondrous and life-affirming fortnight cycling around the county, visiting many of the towns, villages and monuments which appear in Tess of the D’Urbervilles and other Hardy novels. Jane Austen also has connections with Dorset, and who could forget The French Lieutenant’s Woman, a wonderful book, set in Lyme Regis, possibly the loveliest seaside town in the world.

Dorset also has many fascinating geographical and historical features; you can go fossil-hunting in Charmouth, and there are of course, the incredible cliffs at West Bay, made famous as the site of the murder of Danny Latimer in the TV series Broadchurch. The beaches are spectacular, my favourite is the beautiful, horseshoe-shaped Lulworth Cove. As I write this, I am reminiscing about a wonderful week we had there with the children two of three years ago, and aching to go back, even though the weather was typically British!

So, I will look forward to reading this book, as I set off on a short trip to Dublin later today to visit my in-laws.

What books remind you of summer?

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Summer holiday reading suggestions

The 2017 Man Booker longlist was released yesterday and there are a number of books on the list this year which most avid readers and observers of the book world will recognise. A wide mix of well-known and debut authors, women and men, and diverse countries. So, if you’re looking for some summer reading suggestions, you could do worse than browse the list. I’ve only read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I reviewed here back in June, and which I absolutely loved, but there are plenty of the others in the list that are on my TBR pile, including Arundhati Roy, Mohsin Hamid and Colson Whitehead.

However, I think it is fair to say that when it comes to holiday reading, most of us are usually looking for something a little lighter? (Which Days Without End certainly is not!) Something you can read and enjoy on the beach with one eye on the kids? Something you wouldn’t mind leaving on your holiday rental’s bookshelf? If these are your criteria, I would suggest the following from my most recent reads (the title links through to the reviews).

Firstly, Holding by Graham Norton, which I enjoyed on audiobook (you will too), but which would be equally good as a hard copy and which, for me, is perfect holiday reading. Secondly, Sometimes I Lie by Alice Feeney, a decent thriller which I enjoyed, despite it not being my favourite genre. Thirdly, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, which is a lovely life-affirming book.

The Music ShopThere are of course, a lot of titles published in the Spring and early Summer, marketed specifically for the holiday reading market. I’ve been perusing the titles and these are the ones that have stuck out for me. The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce, is a love story set in the 1980s about Frank, a record store owner, and Ilse, a German woman whom Frank meets when she happens to faint outside his shop. It’s had good reviews and Rachel Joyce’s earlier novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, did very well.

 

Eleanor OliphantEleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is on my summer reading list. Set in Glasgow, it’s about the emotional and psychological journey of a young woman from shy introvert with a dark past to living a more fulfilling and complete life through friendship and love. I’m looking forward to it.

 

 

 

Into the water imgPaula Hawkins’s new novel Into the Water is everywhere, following the phenomenal success of The Girl on the Train which I’ve just finished listening to on audiobook. I had to find out what all the fuss was about! I enjoyed it, but I found most of the characters a bit irritating (that could be the influence of the actors reading, however) and, as I said, thrillers are not my favourite genre. Into the Water is another psychological thriller about a series of mysterious drownings. Like The Girl on the Train, I think, it’s as much about the internal dramas experienced by the characters as it is about ‘events’ so I’m sure it’s gripping.

Your father's roomFinally, a little-known book that has caught my eye is Your Father’s Room by Michel Deon. Set in 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo (perfect if you’re off to France for your hols!) it is a fictionalised memoir based on the author’s own life. Looking back on his childhood in an unconventional bohemian family during the interwar period, the elderly narrator recounts how the events of his early life, including family tragedy, affected him growing up. I really need to read this; I’m writing a book myself partly based on my grandmother’s life in East London in the same period so I think I could learn a lot from how the author approaches this genre.

 

I hope you have found these suggestions helpful. If you have any of your own, I’d love to hear them. 

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My life with Jane Austen

Today marks the 200 year anniversary of the death of Jane Austen. She died at the age of 41 in Winchester, having moved there whilst ill to spend her final days with her beloved sister Cassandra. She lived almost all of her too-short life in Hampshire. She first lived in the village of Steventon, where her father was the local vicar. After her father’s death she spent some time in Southampton, but it is Chawton near Alton with which she is most closely associated and where, between 1809 and 1817, she wrote most of her great works. Her former home is now the Jane Austen museum and provides a centre for scholarship of her work as well as a place of pilgrimage for her many millions of fans across the globe.

Like many women writers of her time, Jane did not achieve fame and fortune for her work in her lifetime. It was only in the second half of the 19th century, many decades after her death, that she grew in renown, although many at the time still did not favour her writing. It was considered too subtle for Victorian tastes, lacking in powerful sentiment and extravagant prose. It was only really as literary taste evolved that she was more widely appreciated in the 20th century as being way ahead of her time.

2017-07-18 12.56.38I fell in love with Jane Austen in my teens, and I have never fallen out of love with her. The first book I read was Pride and Prejudice, and I remember I much preferred this colourful collection of sisters to Louisa May Alcott’s in Little Women! But it wasn’t until I read Emma for my English Literature A level that I really ‘got’ Jane Austen and I was blown away. Even now when I read Austen I still see her writing as impossibly brilliant. And then when you think about the life she led, her modest rural upbringing, her insight into human character is barely plausible. After Emma I quickly gobbled up all of Austen’s work (sadly, there is too little of it) and my favourite is probably Mansfield Park.

At times, I have felt rather unfashionable saying that Austen is in my top three favourite authors (another being Emily Bronte, who only wrote one book, and was said not to be a fan of Austen). Many people, who have not read Austen deeply, assume she is rather staid and formal and for the middle-class and middle-aged. But to me she is an icon, a woman doing what she was good at in an era when women writers were virtually non-existent and if they were published it was under a masculine pseudonym. Yes, you can argue the range of her subject matter is limited, but she is so much more than that. She tells truth.

In this bicentenary year, there are many celebrations planned, many of them in Hampshire, unfortunately for me! You can find out about the various events planned here. She will also grace the new British £10 note to be issued by the Bank of England in September:

Austen note

The anniversary of Jane Austen’s death provides an opportunity to celebrate her great achievements as a writer. For me, she deserves to stand alongside Shakespeare as one of the literary greats at the heart of British arts and culture.

What is your favourite Austen novel?

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