book review

READ THE WORLD – Northern Ireland: Multitudes by Lucy Caldwell

A collection of eleven short stories of childhood, adolescence and motherhood.

I’ve read a few short story collections for my Read the World Project (I find them to be a good way to gain an insight into a writer’s country and its people, and they’re also usual a quick read) but I’ve never had as much of a visceral reaction to a short story collection as I did with Lucy Caldwell’s Multitudes.

Each story ranges from 10 – 25 pages, some are in second person but most of them are in first person, and each story is about a female character. Each story is about a young girl, or a teenager, or a mother, and they’re each like a little snapshot in a moment of their lives. I think my favourites were “Thirteen”, “Through the Wardrobe” and “Inextinguishable”. In “Thirteen” a young teenager has to deal with her best friend moving to London, how they first of all write multiple letters to one another each week but slowly the letters stop being written. “Through the Wardrobe” is about a young trans girl figuring out why she feels sick when her older sisters are given Disney princess dresses for Christmas while she’s given a Peter Pan outfit. “Inextinguishable” is about a mother grieving for her daughter and finding some form of release in the music her daughter loved.

There are stories that feel very true to life. One story has a teenage girl being sexually harassed without really knowing what was happening, another story is about a teenager fantasizing about her teacher, or another feeling hollow and helpless.

Each story is powerful and compelling in its own way. They are stories about first loves, sexual desire and romance, but they are also about friendship, growing up and family. Some stories are sad, some are hopeful, while others are almost nostalgic and melancholy.

Caldwell really captured the mindset of young children, the pain of adolescence, and (I presume) the terrifying reality of being a parent. While I might not have been in some of the exact situations as the female characters in these stories, I remember idolising a baby sitter, losing touch with friends, and having a whole lot of feelings inside that I didn’t know what to do with. Each of the female characters felt so honest, true and relatable and that was down to the brilliant writing Multitudes is fantastic short story collection and I can’t recommend it enough. 5/5.

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REVIEW: Dune by Frank Herbert

“Spice” is the most valuable yet rarest element in the universe, it’s a drug that can be used in many different ways, and it can only be found on the inhospitable desert planet of Arrakis. When the Emperor transfers stewardship of Arrakis from the House Harkonnen to House Atreides, the Harkonnens plot to take back the planet, putting Duke Leto and his family in danger. Duke Leto’s fourteen year old son Paul and his mother Lady Jessica, escape into the desert there they meet the Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, and fight to survive and take back what has been taken from them.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Scott Brick, Orlagh Cassidy, Euan Morton, Simon Vance, Ilyana Kadushin. It was a pretty good audiobook though some of the characters voices weren’t always consistent through the story so it was sometimes a little jarring at times. I definitely don’t think I would’ve read the physical book (as it’s so large and intimidating) so listening to it on audio made it more accessible for me.

Dune is about so many things, politics, religion, family, technology, and all these things are so well-developed that you end up with a vivid world this space society takes place in. that’s not to say it can’t be a bit confusing or overwhelming at times, it definitely can, but it does pose some interesting multi-layered ideas about politics and religion and how they interact.

This interstellar society that’s formed of many important families who control individual planets, though you only really follow the Harkonnens and the Atreides, is fascinating in a way as it’s full of weird contradictions. They have technology like force fields, but they fight with swords and daggers. They have space travel but they also have a belief in magic. It’s an odd combination that makes Dune seem like a historical story sent in a science-fiction world – especially with all the political backstabbing and the royal titles.

The descriptions of the planet Arrakis, its people and its creatures (there’s humongous worms with many teeth that roam the sand dunes looking for food) makes this hostile planet Paul and his mother find themselves stranded on a truly unsettling and dangerous place.

Paul is a compelling character. He’s had a lot of training in various forms of combat and politics, plus his mother has taught him the ways of persuasion and other skills that seem like magic to many people. He’s smart and capable for a teenager, but he’s pushed to the limit when his life, and the lives of everyone he knows, is threatened. I really liked his relationship with his mother Jessica. Their relationship was constantly shifting, sometimes they were like mother and son, other times they were like equals, and then at other times Paul seemed the more mature and self-assured as he seemed to be able to see possible futures.

Throughout the book there’s little experts of books from within the universe this story is set. As the story progresses, I came to realise these exerts were theoretically written after the events that Paul and Jessica were involved in. As they were often a history of Arrakis and its people, they gave you a hint as to whether or not Paul would succeed in his aims and what would become of the characters you’re already following.

I’m pleased I’ve read Dune, though it did end somewhat suddenly. A couple of the main plots were completed but there’s still a lot more to explore with this intergalactic political system. I didn’t know before going into Dune that there’s a number of sequels. I don’t think I’ll be reading them though as while I liked the story as I was reading it, I didn’t love the characters and I’m not desperate to know what happens to them next. 3/5.

READ THE WORLD – Thailand: The Sad Part Was by Prabda Yoon

A collection of twelve short stories that are all very different. Translated by Mui Poopoksakul.

All of the short stories are set in modern Thailand and they are all witty and often are a little weird too. They mix together genres like sci-fi with romance or mystery, some of them really shouldn’t work but they do. Pop culture references abound in these stories about characters of all ages and backgrounds. Having a collection feature stories about such different people shows little snapshots of what life is like in modern Thailand for different people. The setting was interesting as it often felt like a blend of the new and the traditional.

My favourite short stories happen to be two that feature vampires – “The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” and “Pen in Parentheses”. “The Disappearance of a She-Vampire in Pattaya” does exactly what it says on the tin, it’s a mystery and the way different characters talk about the apparent She-Vampire makes you wonder if she is a vampire or not. “Pen in Parentheses” on the other hand was about a man reminiscing about his childhood living with his grandparents and how his grandfather would screen old films, including Dracula, on a bedsheet with accompanying classical music.

As is the case with short story collections, there were some stories I liked a lot and there were some I was indifferent to, but they were all pretty interesting in their own ways. Some of the stories were quite meta, with characters seeming to know they are characters and they’re just waiting to find out what the author is going to make them do. A lot of the stories have twists and turns and don’t go where you expect them to at all. This makes this collection a mostly enjoyable and unique experience.

READ THE WORLD – Israel: The Nimrod Flip-Out by Etgar Keret

Translated from the Hebrew by Miriam Shlesinger and Sondra Silverston.

A collection of short stories about different characters, a lot of which are based in Israel.

The short stories in this collection are all very different in terms of plot and length. Some are only two pages long, while others are almost 30 pages long, meaning that for the most part, each story gets straight to the point. Having stories that are only a few pages long make them even more intense, the drama is heightened and the weirdness tends not to be explained.

So many of the characters in these stories face strange ironies and their lives are often not going that well. There’s humour, usually dark-humour, in a lot of them which balances out the stories that can be more sensitive and emotional. That’s the thing I really noticed with this collection, whoever decided what order to put the stories in really knew what they were doing. I say that because there could be a run of six or seven stories that are all surreal and funny but then the next one is more grounded. This tonal shift makes the more serious stories more affecting.

From my very limited knowledge of Israel and its society, some of the stories seemed satirical, with potential character stereotypes exaggerated for affect. There’s relationship drama, whether that’s romantic or familial, characters who are, or were, in the military, and there’s comparisons between Israel and the West and some commentary on how it’s developing as a society.

I really enjoyed The Nimrod Flip-Out. The stories are all so weird and wonderful and different which makes it a book that’s easy to deep in and out of. It’s fun to read a lot of the stories at once, but it’s also a nice collection to savour.

READ THE WORLD – Poland: Lala by Jacek Dehnel

Lala has lived an exciting life. Born in Poland just after World War One, Lala grew up to be a selfless and honest independent woman who survived some of the most turbulent events in Europe. As she falls prey to the first signs of dementia, she continues to tell the stories of her life to her grandson, who faithfully notes down her adventures.

Lala was translated from Polish to English by Antonia Lloyd-Jones and I listened to the audiobook narrated by Lawrence Dobiesz which I would recommend.

Lala as a book is a little confusing as it’s marked as a work of fiction but the way it’s told, and the fact the grandson who is narrating this story has the same first name as the author, did make me wonder if it was a combination of fact and fiction, memoir and fantasy.

The scenes where it’s clear that Lala is losing her memory were both funny and poignant. My grandmother has Alzheimer’s and when reading about Lala’s antics I had to smile as there were so many things she said or did that was just like my gran. It’s a great depiction of a woman slowly losing her mind but then there’s also those moments of suddenly clarity which were lovely but also so sad as Lala was never going to get better.

Lala is a grand sweeping story as Lala tells stories about her family as far back as her great-grandfather. This is where she would sometimes confuse something her grandfather did for something her father did, then it’s her grandson who corrects her as he’s heard so many of these stories before he could often recite them by heart.

While Lala is the focus of the story, with her life before, during and after the Second World War is a big part of it, her stories of a family means this story spans over 100 years. This led me to learning a lot about Polish history that I’d never even heard of.

I really enjoyed Lala. It’s an interesting insight into Poland’s turbulent history from he eyes of a character who lived through it all, the good and the bad. It’s funny, touching and sometimes verges on the ridiculous because of Lala’s outlandish stories about the situations she’d get into or she’d hear about. I loved the way it’s told with the grandson simultaneously seeming to tell the red the stories and to be hearing them for the first time himself.

Lala is such an interesting book and it’s honest and realistic take of a woman slowly succumbing to dementia was brilliant yet sad. 5/5.

REVIEW: Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

The year is 1984, Great Britain has become a part of superstate Oceania which is ruled by The Party who employs the Thought Police to stop people being individual and thinking or acting any different to what the Party says. Winston Smith works for the department of Ministry of Truth, he’s an outwardly diligent worker and believer in the Party but really he secretly hates the Party and reams of rebelling.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Andrew Wincott, it was an engaging and well narrated audiobook.

The world of Nineteen Eighty-Four is a scary place. It’s a dystopian world where Big Brother is always watching, the Party have full control and anyone who even thinks something that’s not in line with the Party message is wiped from existence. One of the most frightening things was how from such a young age, children are almost brain washed to be perfect citizens. They learn to tell the authorities about anyone who is not being the perfect citizens, even their own parents. No one can trust anyone, and because there’s so much surveillance and the Thought Police can appear to know what you’re thinking, it’s like you can’t even trust yourself.

The another thing that’s unsettling and scary is how quickly people can apparently change and become used to a totalitarian society. Winston was a child when things began to change, and he meets older people that vaguely remember how life was, but have little desire to make a fuss and to try and change things. That’s in part because it seems so hopeless because the Party is so far reaching and powerful.

I felt myself not really paying attention at times when Winston and Julia are reading a book about how the Party gets and maintains power. It was interesting, but it was a lot of exposition to take in at once and there was so much of it that I often had forgotten what the characters were doing before all this information appeared.

It’s interesting to finally see the origin of so many popular culture references in their original context. It gives the Big Brother reality show that’s been a part of British TV for almost 20 years a more sinister tone. As does the British comedy show Room 101 where celebrities are invited to discuss the things they hate and try and persuade the host to send those hates to oblivion aka Room 101 – it’s slightly more sinister now I know that Room 101 was a torture room.

I’m happy I’ve finally read Nineteen Eighty-Four. It’s an unsettling social commentary and an engaging read. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Power by Naomi Alderman

One day, teenage girls all over the world find that with a flick of their fingers they can inflict agonizing pain and even death. As this phenomenon spreads and women of all ages learn to release powerful electricity from their bodies, the world changes forever.

The Power is an engaging read that captures your attention from the outset. It’s a story that’s building up to something so from the very beginning you’re wondering what exactly is everything leading to and what’s going to happen next. The story is largely told from four characters point of view. Roxy, the teenage daughter of a gangster, Margot, an American politician, Allie, a girl who reinvents herself as a religious figure called Mother Eve, and Tunde, a journalist and is the only male character you follow in this story. The story is told in snapshots, you get a dozen pages or so with each character and then it jumps forward a year or so and you see what’s happening in their lives now and how much, or little, things have changed.

The Power is fascinating because one would hope that if women suddenly had a power that men did not, it would finally tip the scale so that both men and women could be equal. They’d each have different strengths and weaknesses but this electrifying power women had would make them be able to protect themselves. Instead, The Power shows the scale of equality tipping in the favour of women. It does take time, but women become power-hungry, aggressive and sometimes sadistic in the way they abuse men for their own enjoyment or just because they can.

In some ways it makes sense, if you have some women who have been abused all their lives in some shape or form by men, it’s almost natural that if they suddenly had the power to cause pain they’d use it against those who hurt them. Also people are complicated! We can’t say that Men Are Bad and Women Are Good, and if women ruled the world it’d be a utopia. Women are just as flawed and as capable of violence as men. That being said, if women were so often seen as lesser-than, one would hope if they got this unique power, they would be more empathetic as they know what it’s like to be the one who’s scared to go out at night.

I hope the last couple of paragraphs make sense. The Power does give you a lot to think about, how society can change in such a reasonably short space of time, how people can forget how things were and how things can snowball into something you could never expect.

The scenes where women abuse men with their new powers are uncomfortable to read. It reminded me of when I read The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter in my Women’s Writing class at university. It’s almost more disturbing to read about women abusing men, than men abusing women and that is probably because there’s so much media showing men hurting women, that it becomes something you’re almost desensitised to. Women being cruel, sexually assaulting men, making them be in almost constant fear, it’s unnatural in many ways, and seeing that side of the society that evolves in The Power is unsettling to say the least.

The Power is an incredible book. It’s fast-paced, exciting and it’s a story that you’re never sure where it’s going to go next. There are some minor plot points that I wasn’t over keen on, and as I said it’s both unfortunate and interesting that it appears that, at least in this book, an equal society isn’t possible. 4/5.