Category Archives: Book Reviews

Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman

Did anyone else see that viral video of Rutger Bregman at the 2019 Davos World Economic Forum meeting? I expect that I’m not the only person who wanted to high-five him after he told a few billionaires that they needed to pay their taxes and quite their bullshit philanthropy schemes. It didn’t go down well apparently…

The Davos elite may not have liked it, but the viral video has made Bregman this week’s folk hero and has raised the public profile of Bregman, who was already a rising star in academia. On the back of the Davos video, and articles I later read, I bought Rutger Bregman’s book Utopia for Realists: And How We Can Get There to see what else he had to say about the state of the world.

If, like me, you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety about the state of the world, Utopia for Realists is in some ways very reassuring. It highlights that (as long as you don’t think about rapidly impending climate catastrophe) the world is better for humans than it’s ever been before. In the West at least, we are effectively living in what your average Medieval peasant would have considered to be a utopia. But, Bregman argues, our progress has stagnated and we need to return to utopian thinking to consider the betterment of all of mankind, with the best minds applying their minds to the problem of how to make life better for all in an increasingly unequal society. He quotes Bertrand Russell saying,

“It is not a finished Utopia that we ought to desire, but a world where imagination and hope are alive and active.”

For Bregman, we’re lacking a mighty dose of imagination, funneling our best minds into sectors like finance where they move money around, contributing very little to the betterment of society in pursuit of growing the GDP- a useful measurement of a nation’s power at wartime, but a poor barometer of social welfare. Social dysfunction improves under GDP, but for Bregman it’s no great coincidence that the US which has the highest GDP has the highest number of social problems. The things that we would see as social progress, such as cheaper life improving technology, causes the GDP to shrink. Nurses, teachers and social workers who actively contribute to the improvement of society don’t rate highly in terms of GDP. The yardstick our politicians use to measure a country’s wellbeing and progress is not fit for purpose.

In Utopia for Realists, Bregman sets out his vision for how we might come closer to a more equal society which would be more like a utopia for everyone: a universal basic income, shorter working week and, radically, open borders. His academic argument for this is strong, but I’d argue that he makes a strong moral argument as well. When the mortality rate for Somalian toddlers is higher than that of frontline US soldiers in the American Civil War, Second World War or the Vietnam War then there’s something seriously wrong with the world and it’s time that lots was done to fix this on a global scale.

This is one of those books that I’m going to insist that everyone should read, and I don’t do that often with non-fiction, so add it to your TBR pile now.

 

 

Am I Ugly? by Michelle Elman

I don’t normally review non-fiction that I haven’t chosen for myself, but when I had a query as to whether I’d be interested in reviewing Am I Ugly?, a memoir from Michelle Elman, a body positive influencer who goes by the handle @scarrednotscared on Instagram, I signed up because I’ve got a few scars of my own and I wanted to see how Michelle’s experience related to my own.

I was nine when I was run over and the accident left me with a fractured skull, broken nose, a badly broken leg and, the jewel in the crown, a full thickness degloving crush injury to my left foot. If you don’t know what that is, don’t google it. I will not accept responsibility for any damage caused to keyboards by you losing your breakfast, regardless of how long it’s been since you ate it. So, in short, a life time of experience with some none too subtle scars and a few prolonged hospital stays.

Michelle Elman’s scarring is a result of multiple surgeries to treat hydrocephalus, and the complications that stemmed from earlier surgeries. Her memoir starts with an account of her health rapidly deteriorating at boarding school and the emergency surgeries that soon followed. While the memoir is billed as an account of one woman’s journey to body positivity, and while I’m sure that it was intended as such, for me, the book wasn’t really about the scars as a profound childhood trauma that the author was left to manage without any sort of adequate support. I’d really recommend it to anyone trying to understand how a child might experience a long hospital stay and traumatic illness.

Elman has changed a lot of names in the book, including the name of her school (which can be viewed on her LinkedIn profile so isn’t a hugely effective smoke screen) presumably for legal reasons in light of the allegations she makes about her teacher’s failure to safeguard her during her illness and the diet that her house mistress puts her on. Basically, if you were toying with the idea of spending £15,000 per term to outsource your child’s education and wellbeing to an external agency, then this would put you off.

The names that she can’t change, however, are those of her parents, and it does leave you wondering what they were thinking sending a young child with such a dangerous condition to boarding school without proper oversight. Rather than rush her immediately to a hospital when realising how ill her daughter has become at boarding school in the UK, her mother makes her feign wellness to fly to a hospital in LA which has previously treated her “because they have her notes”, risking her daughter’s health on the outbound flight. Following a series of surgeries in the US, she is then in hospital in an intensive care unit where she receives limited psychological support and the medical professionals discuss her condition in front of her in a way that seems designed to increase trauma. As soon as she is well enough, she’s shipped off back to boarding school in the UK, where her peer group has dispersed, finding herself isolated from her family who are in Hong Kong, without friends, and mistrustful of the teachers who have previously neglected her wellbeing.

Once back at boarding school, the author finds herself gaining weight from her inactivity while in hospital and is soon locked in a cycle of feeling awful about her scars and her weight, wondering whether she will ever be able to have a relationship with a man because of the scars. This all comes to a head at university, where she is forced to confront that she is still suffering from the trauma of her ICU stay in America. And it’s hardly surprising. I really felt for the poor girl. To go through all of that in a secure and supportive environment is hard enough…

I think a lot of how my recovery post-accident was dealt with made a big difference to our experiences and possibly our various perceptions of our scarring. I was carted off to a psychologist to talk about my PTSD pretty much as soon as I was out of hospital, suffering nightmares and squeaking in distress every time I was taken across a road (bit of a low point that).

I don’t ever recall feeling especially self-conscious about mine, my frustration with my foot has always been the ongoing pain that it causes and the things that it’s stopped me doing. If I had the option of having my scars disappear, I’d probably keep them because they are a big part of who I am and I probably wouldn’t feel right without them (the underlying bone issues and my ongoing fear of cars though, they can f*** right off…).

What I do relate to though is the being told how brave you must be (as if there was a choice but to cope as best you can?) and the expectation that this sets up that you will keep being brave. And that this becomes a role that you have to play. I remember after one of my surgeries the nurse coming to see if I needed painkillers and still feeling okay because the local anaesthetic was still working and my grandmother telling me that it was okay to ask for the painkillers if I needed them, saying, “You don’t have to be brave.” And I fell to pieces, because it upset this whole identity that had been constructed for me in the hospital about being a “brave girl” and a “good patient”. It’s been interesting to see about how Michelle went on to experiment with different kinds of therapy to address her PTSD, and that is something I’d like to learn more about as I’m vaguely aware that’s a journey that I’m still on.

I understand that this is intended as a book about physical scars and the bravery that it’s taken to embrace those, but for me, what’s impressive about this book is the emotional and psychological scars that the author has addressed and the strength that it takes to confront those so publicly. Michelle is still so young, so to tackle the issue of undiagnosed PTSD head on is a brave move, and will hopefully raise awareness for the carers of other young people in similar situations.

The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans

On a warm summer’s evening in 1881, a beautiful young woman is murdered in front of her fiance at her engagement party in full view of fifty guests. Her killer escapes, but her murder sets in motion a chain of events which begin to uncover a dark secret. When legal clerk William Lamb finds his comfortable life ripped away from him by his mentor’s violent suicide, his world begins to crumble as he is forced to confront why an ordinary man like himself has suddenly become the focus of a sinister group with links to three of the world’s major super powers.

On paper, The Fourteenth Letter by Claire Evans has hints of everything that should make a good mystery novel. A shocking and inexplicable murder; mysterious artefacts with a long and improbable history; a character on a journey of self-discovery; criminals with their hearts in the right places; the great and good of society engaged in terrible deeds; a mess of strong female characters…

But for me, while the plot was strong and on the whole well-paced this novel fell far short of its promise. It felt like a story board where characters were moved through set pieces which had been lifted from a selection box of plot ideas then slotted into a novel. So often, the characters’ actions seemed completely at odds with their characterisation at this point that it left me unable to understand what would make them act in the way they did.

Why would a ruthlessly pragmatic woman focused only on her own survival try to rescue an elderly man that she doesn’t know from a situation that she can’t hope to escape?

Why would a wiley and discreet detective spill the details of a secret meeting in a moment of offhanded unguardedness to a journalist friend when he has so successfully refused to divulge any information to him before?

Why would an elite group with unlimited wealth and power allow themselves to be thrown into chaos by one lone drip, when they have the police in their pockets and they have enough circumstantial evidence to bring him down?

Why would the meticulously controlled Obediah Pincott just let everyone go on a whim?

There were just so many plot holes when a bit more finesse at characterisation would have tightened all of this up. The character of Savannah Shelton was the most obvious problem here. With only the vaguest hints of where she’s come from, and that she’s on the run, wanted for murder, we have no understanding of why she would repeatedly risk her life to save William Lamb. It felt very strongly that the author is hoping to leave the door open for a sequel to The Fourteenth Letter (probably one which sees the Vicomtesse Adeline return in her mask like the Phantom of the Opera and attempt to claim her grandchild/nephew/niece to continue her eugenics programme with the help of now President Cornelius Tinbergen forcing Savannah to return to America…whether she’ll still have goose-stepping German soldiers propping up her eugenics programme following the demise of her brother remains to be seen) and if it does, I hope we’ll see more characterisation.

As a plot driven novel, it’s enjoyable enough but I felt that the switch from murder mystery to an exploration of Darwinism and eugenics was a bit of a cliché fuelled stretch.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

life after life by Kate Atkinson book cover with snow fox and rabbitHave you ever wondered what would have happened if you’d done something differently? If you changed how a major event or minor detail in your life had played out, where your life might have taken you? And if you had the chance to live your life again what would you do differently?

In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson explores this concept. In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm. The midwife who has been called to attend the birth is stuck because of the snow. The doctor doesn’t arrive in time for the birth. The cord is wrapped around her neck and she dies before she can draw a breath.

In February 1910, a baby girl is born to Sylvie Todd during a snowstorm and lives to tell the tale. They call her Ursula, and she goes on to live life after life.

I’ve had Life After Life on my bookshelf for four years now but I’ve been wary of starting it. My friend gave me the book, but when I started having problems with my pregnancy warned me not to read it until I was in a better place. I was wary about what this meant and so I only really felt in the right place to approach it recently.

I found Life After Life to be an incredibly powerful book and technically brilliant. In Life After Life, Kate Atkinson tells us the story of Ursula Todd and her family multiple times, shifting small details of each telling to craft the impression of a different life but despite this repetition, the text doesn’t become repetitive. If anything, this repetition serves to increase the emotional impact as you see the near inevitability of the story playing out again and again. Nowhere was this more apparent for me than the section in which Ursula and her family are visited by the Spanish Flu which devastated so much of Europe at the end of World War Two. The scenes here weren’t obviously emotively written, but they were emotionally devastating. At the same time, this is where Atkinson carefully begins to draw out the idea that Ursula might be something more than the strange and thoughtful child that her family characterise her as, and we begin to see that her sense of déjà vu is related to tragedies in her previous attempts at living the same life.

“What if we had a chance to do it again and again,” Teddy said, “until we finally did get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

This isn’t so much a novel about reincarnation as second chances, and doing things right. It asks us, what does it mean to live your life well? In some of Ursula’s lives that move on to adulthood she experiences truly harrowing experiences, rape, domestic violence, the loss of her child, but even in the lives where these things don’t occur, and in which she has satisfying relationships with her friends and family, it seems that for the purposes of the novel, she won’t have succeeded in living her life unless her brother Teddy survives the war and his true love Nancy also survives.

I found this focus on the character of Teddy very interesting, because for me it further complicated the mother child relationship that we see between Ursula and her mother Sylvie. There are hints throughout the novel that Sylvie is living her own version of Ursula’s life after life, Sylvie makes reference to “the black bat” of darkness which comes to symbolise Ursula’s death as having been vanquished in one of the first chapters when her baby has survived, experiences similar flashbacks to comforting memories of her own happy place when going through periods of stress, but compellingly has a pair of surgical scissors in her bedside drawer to save her own baby, repeating Ursula’s motto of “practice makes perfect” suggesting that she has indeed made a mental note that this is something that she will need from one of her previous lives. Both Sylvie and Ursula single Teddy out as being special as being the one they will do anything for. Initially I thought that this meant that Teddy was the child of Sylvie’s affair, but in the same life, Ursula notes that Ted had inherited Hugh’s smile.

Part of me wonders whether there is meant to be some kind of deeper resonance between their characters that needs to be in alignment in order for a good life to be lived. In the good life which sees Sylvie save Ursula and Teddy then survive the war, their character’s best lives are lived in alignment with their right actions combining to ensure the positive action. In one of the most distressing versions of Ursula’s life, when Ursula comes to see herself as deficient and broken, Sylvie’s attitude reflects this break and this is the time that we see her character at her worst as she rejects her daughter and Ursula notes that she used to love her, and now she didn’t. This is also the story in which Ursula sees Sylvie with another man, so we can suspect that some of this is projected self-loathing. It’s clear that while Sylvie repeatedly insists that there is no higher calling for a woman than being a wife and mother, there are times at which she resents this role and seems to envy Izzie’s freedom. In one of Ursula’s better lives, it is implied that her daughter rejects this role and lives a fulfilling life without becoming a wife or mother.

In the end, as I read it, Ursula’s successful life, the one in which Teddy survives and she gets to continue her life with him, isn’t the one in which she kills Hitler. It’s interesting to see that the follow up to Life After Life, A God in Ruins will focus on Teddy’s life after the events of Life After Life, and I’ll add this to my dangerously tall TBR pile to see whether Kate Atkinson offers up any answers to the questions that Life After Life has left me with.

 

 

 

 

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Last month, after years of resistance, I signed up to Instagram (you can follow me here if you like) and started playing around with Bookstagram. It’s been a pleasant experience and I guess for me has been closer to what blogging was like when I started – a community of bookworms discussing their favourite reads with people from around the world and picking through what they loved and hated about various books. With a little more focus on the images than a traditional blog, but the level of detail and analysis in the microblogging element has pleasantly surprised me.

At risk of digression into the world of Bookstagram (best talk about that another time) this is where I came across Girls of Paper and Fire (aff. link) by Natasha Ngan. Lots of people were posting pictures of copies they’d received in the run up to Christmas, the title was intriguing, the cover was cool, I was dealing with a teething baby… reader I treated myself and bought it.

Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a fantasy world, which seems to have been inspired by aspects of Imperial China. The society is made up of three castes, paper, steel and demon. The paper caste are humans without demon characteristics, the paper caste have aspects of both human and demon, and the demon caste have animal appearances and incredible strength. The are the elite caste, with paper at the bottom and steel somewhere between the two.

Lei is a human girl born to a paper family. Her mother was abducted during a demon raid on her village when she was a child, but otherwise she lives a quiet life in a rural backwater. But people come from miles around to her father’s shop because Lei has unusual eyes, eyes which are bright gold and look like they belong to a demon in her human body. It is these eyes that catch the attention of one of the Emperor’s soldiers, and lead to Lei being kidnapped to become one of his paper girls, a harem of concubines who are selected annually for the “privilege”.

Girls of Paper and Fire has been compared to Memoirs of A Geisha, but personally I found this to be a very lazy comparison. I thought it was more reminiscent of  (af. link) Empress Orchid by Anchee Min with a girl trying to find her place as the Emperor’s concubine and the perilous, cruel world in which she lived (though maybe it was partly inspired by Journey to the West?). Even so, Girls of Paper and Fire is a more explicitly violent novel than either of these, and leaves the reader under no illusions about the reality of Lei’s life with the threat of violence constantly hanging over her. The trigger warning at the start of the book is both wise and necessary, especially in Young Adult fiction.

I didn’t think that the book was exceptionally well written, and found the writing a little jarring at first, though this either improved or became less noticeable as the book went on. Although Lei was the main character, I felt that her character was less well drawn than that of more minor paper girls and I didn’t feel that her thoughts and actions were always credibly linked. Despite this, I thought that the story was original and the concept was well executed, though I assume that Lei’s eyes are some how related to the Moon Goddess alluded to in the book who defeated the God of Knight. I’m guessing that this is a foreshadow of what will happen later in the series, but if so I would have liked to have learned more about what power or ability Lei has that makes her a girl of fire, otherwise Wren would be, for me, the girl of fire, the member of the paper girls who is different for being a Xi warrior. For all her bravery, Lei wasn’t exceptional as a character, but maybe that’s the point.

It seems almost obligatory to leave YA novels open for a sequel these days (Girls of Paper and Fire is the first part of a trilogy), but I did think that the ending of the novel was cleverly constructed to leave Lei and Wren breathing a sigh of relief, not appreciating that the word Flight in Lei’s birth blessing pendant may well be hinting that she will spend the rest of her life on the run from the Demon Bull King Emperor.

 

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar Review

“The stories are of men who, walking on the shore, hear sweet voices far away, see a soft white back turned to them, and – heedless of looming clouds and creaking winds – forget their children’s hands and the click of their wives’ needles, all for the sake of the half-seen face behind a tumble of gale-tossed greenish hair.”

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar is one of those books that you see and have to buy in hardback. It’s so beautiful that waiting for the paperback (currently due to publish in January 2019) seems impossible. And I suppose this is how the book begins to help you understand the allure of the mermaid. It had 21 reservations at my local library when I tried to reserve it.

Set in the Georgian era, the story follows an array of characters who find their fortunes changing after encountering a mermaid that Jonah Hancock has acquired. The description of the mermaid makes it sound just like P.T. Barnum’s Fiji Mermaid, and it causes a similar sensation in Georgian society, making Jonah Hancock a fortune, and drawing him into the Georgian demi-monde as Mrs Chappell, a madam in a high-end brothel, hires his mermaid to provide her clientele with a new novelty. At Mrs Chappell’s house, he makes the acquaintance of Angelia Neal, a notorious courtesan who is seeking to secure her future following the death of her protector. Hancock finds himself powerfully drawn to Angelica Neal, who rejects and ridicules him. Nonetheless, he finds himself inspired by her, and drives himself to improve his fortune to catch her attention, risking his fortune and the safety of those he cares for in his quest for her approval.

This is easily one of the best books I’ve read this year. The verbosity of the novel which reflects its Georgian setting initially holds the reader at arm’s length, only to pull you in forcefully when you realise that the quiet Mr Hancock is fully living with the son he never got to know, haunted by a life that he never got to leave which lightly touches all aspects of his everyday reality. He’s a rare thing in novels, a genuinely kind character who always attempts to behave well to those around him but who is simultaneously capable of commanding a reader’s attention. Likewise, the beautiful Mrs Neal, who is somewhat reminiscent of Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp with her taste for the highlife and scheming to find a man who will elevate her to a suitably lofty position in society, but all the while lacking Becky Sharp’s wiles and ruthlessness, risking everything for an unsuitable love affair.

Despite the vivacity of the major characters, it’s the brilliantly drawn minor characters who make the novel. Capable Sukie who could be so much more if she wasn’t a woman living in Georgian England; the neat but merciless Mrs Frost; and poor Polly, who has come from somewhere and has gone somewhere and you want to know her story but can never fully follow it.

If you’re looking for a book to read for yourself, or a Christmas present for a reader (no spoilers, but has a relatively happy ending), I would highly recommend this. It’s not often that I’ll say that something is a must read but this is a heck of a book. I could easily see The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock being adapted as a showpiece drama for the BBC at Christmas, or being picked up by Amazon or Netflix in this brave new world.

Circe by Madeline Miller, a review

“He showed me his scars, and in return he let me pretend that I had none.”

Circe by Madeline Miller

I was a huge fan of Madeline Miller’s Song of Achilles (read my review here) so you can imagine I was thrilled when I received a copy of her new book Circe to help while away the hours while I waited for my very overdue baby while I was on maternity leave earlier this year.

In Miller’s retelling of the Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, Circe is the unloved daughter of Helios, the Titan sun god, and Perse, a sea nymph. Overlooked by her mother for lacking the beauty that might secure her a marriage to a god, and thus her mother’s social standing, she is left to her own devices and mocked by her more attractive siblings. When the abandoned brother she has raised from infancy rejects her too, she is desperate for any affection and discovers that she has the power of witchcraft. But this sees her banished from her father’s palace and placed on an island in complete isolation, where she truly comes to know herself and her power.

While I very much enjoyed reading Circe, and Miller’s writing is on point as always, I thought it was interesting that it was branded as a feminist retelling of the Greek myth. For me, even throughout Miller’s version, much of our perception of Circe is derived from her interactions with the male characters. We see Circe’s struggle to find her place in her powerful and abusive father’s court; the terror she strikes into Glaucus, the human she falls in love with but who abandons her when she gifts him divinity; Apollo who takes her as a lover, but for the novelty more than anything else; the men who rape her and set her on her course of turning men into pigs…the only men she feels comfortable with are brilliant humans like Daedalus and Odysseus, but even then her relationships with those are complicated by the existence of their sons. Even when she seems to achieve a degree of freedom, it is always the result of having to bargain with the male world, I suppose that you could argue that that’s the system that every woman operates within but even when Penelope comes onto the scene and in scenes with Parsiphae, I’m not convinced that Circe would pass the Bechdel test.

As for the happy ending that Circe is said to receive in both myth and this retelling, her character certainly deserves it. But I couldn’t help but feel that it was another example of her giving something away for a man.

Oh and if this leaves you wondering, as I always have, “How do you say Circe?” The correct Greek pronunciation would be Kirky, but Miller says that she finds Sirsee to be more accessible to the modern reader.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

“Science can save a man’s life, but imagination makes it worth living.”

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

In 1883, civil servant Thaniel Steepleton returns to his depressing flat in a grey boarding house to find that it has been broken into. Nothing has been taken but his dishes have been washed and put away, and a beautiful but apparently broken gold pocket watch has been left on his bed. A short while later, that same pocket watch saves Thaniel’s life during a Clan na Gael terrorist bombing, but makes him a suspect for the policeman who sees how it forewarns him of the blast. Desperate to prove his innocence, he goes in search of the maker, and soon finds himself drawn into an adventure he could never have imagined.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is the first novel of Natasha Pulley, though I actually came to it having read her second novel, The Bedlam Stacks which isn’t a sequel as such to the series though it does operate within the same universe and features the character Keita Mori at an early stage of his life. The books can be read out of sequence, and the second was enough to bump the first right to the top of my to read list.

I find Natasha Pulley’s writing to be a bit like stepping into a warm bath. It engulfs you and is instantly comforting, her style is so fluid and natural, there’s no hesitance in suspending belief. As soon as you begin reading you are in the old broom cupboard at the home office, with the smell of tea and cleaning salts. The whole novel has vast sensory appeal, drawing you in even further to the world of Lipton tea, cream cakes, lemon soap and whirring machinery.

Part of this is Pulley’s clever characterisation as well. Thaniel experiences synaesthesia and sees sound, which not only enhances your experience of his world, but invites you to see the exceptionalism in a character who sees his existence as wholly ordinary and who has, out of a sense of obligation and decency, given up his dream of being a pianist and settled for a life whose pleasures amount to being able to afford ten candles and two baths a week.

There is a deceptive gentleness to the novel, both the watchmaker Keita Mori with his kind eccentricity, tinkering away in his workshop making fascinating steampunk creations; and scientist Grace Carrow, desperately seeking to prove her theory of the luminiferous ether to buy her independence from her overbearing parents seem, on the whole as characters that we can sympathise with. But when Thaniel finds himself caught emotionally between the opposing geniuses, who both wish to be the center of his world, we become shocked at what each might be prepared to do in order to secure the future that they hope for.

I admire any novel which managed to include a clockwork octopus with a penchant for stealing socks and shiny things as a character without wandering into the ridiculous, but The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is such a joyful mixture of steampunk, magic realism, thriller and historic adventure that I’d recommend it to anyone. I’ve already bought two copies to give as Christmas presents and I haven’t ruled out buying more.

And if you do know of a clockwork octopus of that nature, ideally answering to the name Katsu, please send it my way. My sock drawer is warm and welcoming.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street spoilers section

Some of my thoughts on how the ending explains the character of the watchmaker

Pulley successfully raised my hackles against Grace Carrow when she had her declare that women shouldn’t have the vote, considering herself a typical to most women and feeling that her sex generally weren’t capable of thinking rationally, preferring to focus on politician’s sideburns instead… but in some ways, you do have to wonder if she has a point about Keita Mori’s ability to see possible futures and nudge events to ensure a certain outcome. A person who could do that could be incredibly dangerous and would be able to control you without you really realising. And the novel provides numerous examples of Mori doing just that, slightly manipulating events to save his friend Ito, or chillingly failing to act but making sure that he was in position to witness his cousin dying in a wall collapse, an event that we know he could have predicted.

But Grace is controlling herself. We see her lie frequently to ensure that Thaniel does what she wants him to do, or to hide the truth from him when she has deliberately acted in a way that she knows will hurt him. She extends the offer of a marriage of convenience to solve both of their problems, but then changes the terms of this to want a full marriage when she sees that Mori will make it difficult to control Thaniel. She also frequently underestimates Thaniel, which she acknowledges is because she has seen him as being her intellectual inferior. She is ruthless and will go to horrendous lengths to get her own way, which doesn’t make her a reliable judge of character when she gives an opinion intended to sway Thaniel to her way of thinking.

If we are to take Mori at his word, he finds Thaniel hard to anticipate because he is indecisive, which would clearly be a character trait which would appeal to a man who can instantly and clearly see all possible futures the second they become possible. This is why he has chosen to make himself a pet octopus which is robotic and controlled by random gears rather than get the puppy that Ito suggests. He wants something in his life which is beyond the sphere of his control.

I think that Mori flipping the train bolt in the air for Grace Carrow to see after Akira Matsumoto has returned to see Thaniel receive his award for bravery is something of an olive branch, as well as making good on his threat to wreck a train earlier in the novel. By wrecking the train that Akira Matsumoto has caught so that it will break down in time for him to see the newspaper cover about Thaniel, it allows Matsumoto to return to Grace and gives them an opportunity to confess the feelings for one another that they have clearly been unable to admit all through the novel. Yes, his ability to sail the tides of chance is sinister, but he’s used it to effect a happy ending for someone who has been his rival.

 

 

The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones a review

The Russian Empire is on the verge of collapse. Revolution is in the air. The starving stalk the streets of St Petersburg and yet the Imperial Court still commute between their estates and organise their lavish balls.

Two sisters arrive in the city. Princesses from Montenegro; they are famed for their wild beauty and mystical powers. Initially ridiculed and outcast as the daughters of a provincial ‘Goat King’, they react in the only way they know how. They befriend the isolated Tsarina Alexandra and, using their gifts, they help her in her increasingly desperate quest to give birth to a son and heir. The circle closes. The girls are the gateway. Gurus, clairvoyants, holy fools and charlatans all try their luck. Then in one last, doomed, throw of the dice, the sisters introduce Rasputin into the Russian Court…

Based on the true story of the lives of the Princesses Militza and Anastasia of Montenegro, The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones is an interesting read for presenting the build up to the Russian Revolution from within the very heart of the Imperial Court. The murder of Nicholas II and the Imperial family during the Russian revolution feels like one of those historical moments that everyone has an awareness of, with much popular culture dwelling on the fate of Anastasia before the discovery of her remains, so a book which hints at the build in tension towards this while focusing on another aspect of the story- the rise of Rasputin- gave me some understanding of the wider historical context and tensions that lead to this point.

The Witches of St Petersburg benefits from being set against the backdrop of an incredible period in Russian history, but in many ways has been constrained by this as well. While I found the characterisation of the novel fascinating, and in particular thought that Imogen Edwards-Jones had captured the brittle stubbornness of the historical Tsarina Alexandra, I also found that there were many occasions during which the narrative seemed to hover somewhere between the historical and fictional worlds without being able to commit fully to either.

At times we were to believe that the sisters are powerful witches, but very often they seemed powerless, or their only power was to empower men to act on their behalf. I didn’t understand their motivations as to why they attempted to “help” the Tsarina conceive a son- surely they would have had more to lose than to gain at many points in the novel. Similarly, I could never decide whether we were to see the character of Maître Phillipe as a genuine mystic or a charlatan and the authors perspective seemed to equivocate between this. Likewise, the author filled Militza with such a revulsion for the character of Rasputin that it was difficult to believe in her desire for him at points in the novel. Was he intended to be a cult figure with no real power beyond charisma, or was he intended to be an occult figure with a genuinely dark power behind him?

I don’t normally give a trigger warning for books, but I did find that this had a fixation on pregnancy loss that was somewhat unnecessary, and if I had read this closer to the loss of our little twin I would have found this very upsetting. The Tsarina’s struggles to conceive a son are relevant to the story, and historically accurate, but the book dwelled on Militza’s loss of a twin at birth in a way that seemed very much at odds with the scant reference to her surviving children throughout the book. The most upsetting part for me though was the graphic description of a miscarriage of twins in the early stages of the novel which the author has clearly intended to be horrific (and she succeeds in this) in order to give the sisters the physical material to pay the “price” of creating Rasputin later in the novel. I understand why the author has done this, but the sisters also make reference to there being a price for saving the life of The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna after she lost the twins, and it is unclear what this is, the two prices seem to be separate.

The issue of the way in which the depictions of pregnancy loss were handled aside, I do think that this is an interesting novel for gaining a feel for the atmosphere of the Russian Imperial Court. However, if you are a purist in terms of historical novels, you may well find that the conflict between source material is too much for you.

Other readers may well feel differently about the book to me, so check out the rest of the Witches of St. Petersburg book tour to see what others thought. Thanks to Midas PR and Head of Zeus who sent me a review copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion.

 

 

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, a review

the buried giant kazuo ishiguro cover autumn leaves book and biscuit“But then again I wonder if what we feel in our hearts today isn’t like these raindrops still falling on us from the soaked leaves above, even though the sky itself long stopped raining. I’m wondering if without our memories, there’s nothing for it but for our love to fade and die.”

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro

 

Set in Britain, shortly after the death of King Arthur, The Buried Giant follows an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice as they make a perilous journey through a land plagued with ogres, pixies and dragons to reunite with their beloved son. They can’t remember what it was that has caused their long estrangement, because a strange forgetfulness plagues the land, only that they desperately long to reunite with him in their old age after their own village has deemed them to be unsafe owning a candle, forcing them to spend the long evenings in total darkness. As they travel, a series of chance encounters make them realise that the amnesia has a magical cause, and as flashes of their memories return, Axl and Beatrice begin to wonder whether their marriage truly is as strong as they believe.

Typically understated and immensely powerful though it is, The Buried Giant initially appears to be a departure from Kazuo Ishiguro’s usual terrain, straying as it does into the realm of fantasy, in a post-Roman Britain overrun with the superstitious and supernatural. In reality, human relationships are at the heart of the novel, and it addresses themes such as memory, perception and love which have been keystones of his other works.

With the exception of the bombastic Sir Gawain, who is prone to soliloquising and projection, the characters are understated. The most interesting characters Axl, Beatrice and Wistan often seem to conflicted about their own actions, but for various reasons seem compelled to uncover the truth of the past, though by the end of the novel we are left wondering whether it is best to examine the darkness of the past, or whether it would have been better to embrace the forgetfulness to move forward in peace without true healing or forgiveness. Like many of Ishiguro’s works, it tells a restrained and deceptively simple story which nonetheless leaves you thinking about the implications of small scenes, and what their implications are for understanding the story on a micro- and a macro- level.

Spoilers to follow

The Ending of The Buried Giant

So, you’ve read The Buried Giant and now you’re wondering about the symbolism and that ambiguous ending. Does the boatman come back and take Axl to the island to be with Beatrice?

My feeling is that the boatman is clearly a psychopomp figure, so akin to the ferryman who carries the souls of the dead to the underworld, and the island is a place inhabited by the souls of the dead and dying, with the fact that this location is an island having clear links with Avalon and the references to Arthurian lore that crop up through the book.

To my mind, there’s no doubt that the boatman intends for Axl and Beatrice to be together on the island- there’s no ambiguity that they will be allowed to be together on the island, the boatman frequently makes reference to their clear devotion- it’s simply a matter of when. Beatrice is clearly dying, the pain, the blood in the urine and the fever that she suffers, coupled with her frailty make this immediately obvious to the reader, and by the end of the novel it’s clear that Beatrice, the boatman and Axl are all aware of her impending death.

The boatman’s questions in this instance, seem to be a form of ritual confession, unburdening the dying and the ones they will leave behind of the unspoken resentments of the past to allow them to move forward. The boatman is preparing Axl for his wife’s death, knowing that he will be left behind to wait for his time, he even shows him barnacles that he can harvest for his dinner.

Maybe I’ve got a tendency to read a happy ending into an ambiguous ending, but for me, The Buried Giant ends with the clear prospect of the couple being reunited, the boatman frequently reassures him that it is only for this crossing, the boatman has to do his duty and take only the dying Beatrice first. Axl’s mistrust is clear as he wades back to shore, but the boatman’s parting words, reminding Axl to wait for him on the shore, nod to the prospect of their reunion.

When they first meet the boatman says, “We boatmen have seen so many over the years it doesn’t take us long to see beyond deceptions. Besides, when travellers speak of their most cherished memories, it’s impossible for them to disguise the truth. A couple may claim to be bonded by love, but we boatmen may see instead resentment, anger, even hatred. Or a great barrenness. Sometimes a fear of loneliness and nothing more. Abiding love that has endured the years—that we see only rarely. When we do, we’re only too glad to ferry the couple together.”

On their last meeting, it’s clear from the questioning that Axl has let go of the resentment and anger over Beatrice’s infidelity, and she that he kept her from his son. The boatman knows that they share an abiding love which has endured the years, “It is beyond question that the two of you will dwell on the island together, going arm in arm as you’ve always done.”