Book Review 5 – Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Do you want the good news or the bad news? What’s that you say? The bad news first? OK well here it is. This is going to be my last blog post on this website. I know what you’re thinking – she’s had enough. Five weeks of reading have done her in. She’s thrown in the towel. Would I do that to you? Never! Let’s give you the good news. Next week’s blog post will be coming to you from my very own website 52goodbooks.com The enthusiastic ones amongst you will find that if you click on this link before Monday 9th October you get nothing, nada, zip. The website is currently under construction whilst my web developer (oh yes, I have one!) makes it all nice for you – ain’t he sweet? The reason for this sudden move is down to a few teething problems with the blogspot account, but fear not you’ll still be getting the same weekly dose of my literary ravings at the new address.

Fess up – who nicked my copy of White Teeth?!

So, on to this week’s read. Is it a surprise that the brilliant Zadie Smith was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize? Absolutely not. I scanned my bookshelves and found her name came up a few times. Turns out Smith is a household favourite, we appear to have two copies of ‘Autograph Man’ – one for each hand… though I can’t lay either of my hands on my copy of ‘White Teeth’ at all… I know it’s around here somewhere. Grr!

Smith’s latest book, ‘Swing Time’ is the story of a young woman who is born and brought up on a London housing estate and ends up travelling the world with her overbearing celebrity employer. You get the sense that Smith knows people, she really understands what makes them tick and it is this more than anything that makes her books so compelling. Her character dissection is a thing of beauty. Sometimes she hits the nail so squarely on its naily head that it makes you want to weep:

“Maybe luxury is the easiest matrix to pass through. Maybe nothing is easier to get used to than money,”

she says, whilst describing a poverty stricken man’s enrapturement with the affluent world he is thrust into. I never want to forget this statement. That’s why I picked it out and wrote it down here as evidence (as if Smith’s books aren’t enough – who am I kidding!) of Zadie Smith’s sublime understanding of the human condition.

And yet, I can see why ‘Swing Time’ has not made it to the Booker’s shortlist. There were things about this book that I’m sorry to say, irked me. About a quarter of the way through (or perhaps less) I noticed something peculiar about the protagonist and her parents; none of them had names. I wasn’t going to mention this, because it seemed somehow spoiler-y, but honestly having this prior knowledge changes nothing for a reader. In fact it probably would have helped me had I known this, because once I had noticed this incognito narrator it totally threw my expectation of the kind of book this was going to be. I kept thinking that there must be a reason that she was nameless. I was primed for something crazy to happen, maybe her mother was going to turn out to actually be her, maybe she and her best friend were the same person, maybe something even more bonkers than I could possibly cook up in my limited imagination was going to happen. Of course, it didn’t. And then I felt underwhelmed. You get to the end and it’s like, she just had no name. Get over it.

I wonder if the name shortage was some kind of commentary on the lack of pizzazz, the absence of mojo, the complete want of chutzpah the protagonist portrays. I can’t say I particularly warmed to her. I understood her – Smith’s talent is such that you always understand the motives of her characters, but the permanent presence of characters that dominated her began to jar after a while. Her mother, her childhood best friend, her boss. I felt like grabbing her by the nameless shoulders and shaking her. Life just appeared to be a spectator sport to her. She sat there and watched to see what would come her way. Her apathy irritated the bejesus out of me. All in all, I’m glad I read the book, if only to get back in touch with Zadie Smith’s stunning excavation of the human mind, but I’m afraid this one won’t be going on my favourites list.

My portrait of Swing Time’s protagonist

So, week five and the ‘to be read’ list continues to swell. It seems the more I read, the more I go to websites and social media on book related topics and become aware of what other bloggers and reviewers are recommending, the more I notice posters when returning books at the library; and the longer the list of what I want to read becomes. Then in amongst all this; these posters and websites and well-established reviewers is my own little blog. It’s nice to be a part of this mechanism and, for what it’s worth, recommend some books myself. It has been really heartening to hear several people tell me that the blog has inspired them to get out a book and read for themselves. So let’s end with that thought in mind. I’ve done this weeks reading and am onto the next, but what about you guys? What have you been reading? Why not share a comment and let the rest of us know? As a mummy friend of mine often says, ‘Sharing is caring!’ So, care to share anyone?!
Don’t forget, see you next week on 52goodbooks.com for my review of another Smith (they get everywhere)! Autumn by Ali Smith has been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and you’ll get the lowdown on my blog next Monday.

Book Review 4 – Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

I first came across Mohsin Hamid a decade ago as I trawled Waterstones near

My signed copy of The Reluctant Fundamentalist

my then office in Piccadilly. I hadn’t heard of him before, but there in prominent position, with a ‘signed by the author’ sticker were a whole stack of fuchsia covered hardback copies of ‘The Reluctant Fundamentalist’. I idly picked one up, scanned the blurb and thought ‘yup, I’m gonna like this,’ and I took it to the till. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, like Exit West, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and this alongside Hamid’s scrawl on the first page was enough to seal the deal for me. I wanted my very own signed book. Until last week, this was the only book I had ever owned that was signed by the author. (The more recent acquisition is I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell; which I will of course be reviewing in a couple of weeks.)

I hadn’t been following the Man Booker longlist all that closely when I first heard Hamid being interviewed about his latest book, Exit West on a Guardian Books podcast. If you have heard anything about this book you will know that it is about these strange doors that are portals through which refugees escape, thereby, as Hamid explained on the podcast, dispensing with the necessary and perilous journey that is faced by every asylum seeker (which is a whole story in itself) and focusing more on the human element and what happens to those who actually make it.

In Exit West we follow the story of Saeed and Nadia who meet in an unnamed country which is experiencing civil war. The book explores Saeed and Nadia’s feelings about leaving their home. I liked the fact that things weren’t black and white. Just because you might die if you stay where you are doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t think twice about leaving everything you have ever known. Equally, once the migration has actually taken place life is far from ideal. What happens to a relationship when all you have left in the whole world is each other? When you no longer have a place to call home and can’t guarantee your future? What then?
Exit West isn’t just a commentary on the refugee experience. It is a story about ordinary people, about love and life. It is a story about the choices we make, but also the legacy of those choices. ‘We are all migrants through time,’ Hamid reminds us. We are constantly reminded that existence is transient. That things have happened before and that they will happen again. The book is contemplative and philosophical and Hamid is an expert crafter of words, churning out page long sentences without batting an eyelid. But is it a prize winner? We shall have to wait and see. Hubby and I are off to the Man Booker Prize Readings in a few weeks at the Southbank centre, where the shortlisted authors will be talking about their work. I’ll be listening closely for any clues for 17th October when the winner is announced. Good luck Mohsin Hamid!

A glimpse of what’s to come

So there we are, four books down… I must say, so far so good. I haven’t found it too difficult. In fact the more I delve into the world of reading, the more I begin to think perhaps 52 books isn’t so impressive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that reading a book a week isn’t any sort of challenge to me. It is, after being out of the habit for so long. It would be so easy to put my book aside and just watch TV or browse the internet, so I am pleased that at least thus far I’ve stuck with it. It’s just that others put me to shame. I am following a rather marvelous woman on Twitter who goes under the name of Bibliophile Book Club, and she posted the other day that she had read 141 books this year. 141. No really, 141. By the time this goes out she will probably have got another five or so under her belt. I am in awe! But I guess that is her challenge (she’s wondering if she might hit 200 by the end of the year) and this is mine. I’d better learn to walk before I can run ?.

Come back next Monday – we’ll be taking a look at a Man Booker Prize longlisted book, Swing Time by Zadie Smith

Book Review 3 – Tin Man by Sarah Winman

They say don’t judge a book by its cover but any publisher worth their salt would tell you that is nonsense. If nobody judged a book by its cover then all books would have plain white covers with simple black typeset print giving the title and author. And if that was the case then the world would have been deprived of the canary yellow beauty that is Tin Man.

The choice of colour isn’t incidental. The story is told around a famous yellow painting and the colour crops up again and again under various guises. It’s an extension of Sarah Winman’s touching tale of a trio of friends. As if the story itself has seeped out onto the jacket.

Tin Man begins with Ellis, following the quiet and melancholy rhythms of his world. Ellis is cautious, tender and bruised. The latter part of the book is told from Ellis’ friend Michael’s point of view. Where Ellis is lonely, Michael is desolate, parched of hope.

Tin Man’s fragile characters are utterly endearing. They don’t shout and rampage. This is a book where lives unravel, but slowly, poignantly and with an ethereal beauty that leaves you gasping.

Winman also breaks ground with her writing style for example through her refusal to use speech marks around dialogue. It is remarkably done. I don’t think I was once confused about when a character was speaking. Part of this is to do with the poetic style she employs. The book is almost one long poem that is more engaged with the characters’ feelings than the action. In one sentence Ellis will be lying in bed, in the next he is out in the street. Winman dispenses with the banalities of the quotidian and focuses on her characters experiences. The outcome is a strong affinity between the reader and her characters. We live in their heads and their hearts. We feel the depth of their pain. We bask in the warmth of their memories.
A certain famous yellow painting
Alongside the speech marks, Winman also more or less dispenses with chapters. Tin Man is merely made up of a few separate sections all of which contain a storyline that flits between past and present. It works. Too well in fact. Since there weren’t so many natural breaks I had to force myself to put the book down in the wee hours of the night to make sure I could get some sleep! This particular problem was resolved quite quickly. You can’t hold yourself back from Tin Man. You find yourself immersed in it until it is sadly, achingly, but satisfyingly over. It is testament to Winman’s ability to put such beauty on the page that I read this book in three days.
You’ll remember that I am trying to read a book a week. This book was devoured so quickly that I forgot I was even taking part in any such challenge!
In the next few weeks I’ll be embarking on something of a man booker fest. First up is a shortlisted one. Come join me next Monday when I’ll be poring over Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West.

Book Review 2 – Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli

Welcome back everyone and thank you for following me into week two of my 52 book quest. Another week over, another book read and another tweet sent – this time to that genius of a man Carlo Rovelli.

You may be wondering what brought me to this book. The truth is (and this is just between you and me so don’t go spreading it about) I am a bit of a closet science nerd. All those programmes about space and black holes, far away galaxies and the search for extra terrestrial life; I’m always hooked. So Reality is Not What it Seems was always going to be right up my street. I originally discovered this little scientific gem through a Guardian Books podcast and it immediately spoke to that latent science nerd that dwells within me. I knew then that it was my kind of book.

However between buying the book and reading it I set myself this 52 book challenge, and as I mentioned in the last post I was concerned about having to get through the book in a week. It turns out I needn’t have worried. Rovelli actually wrote Reality is Not What it Seems, specifically for me.

‘I’ve written with a particular reader in mind. Someone who knows little or nothing about today’s physics but is curious to find out…’

He might as well have followed this up with, ‘Yes, you, Rekha Shane from 52 Good Books. I wrote it for you.’ That’s not to say there wasn’t a certain amount of head scratching and Googling going on whilst I read. There were concepts that I kept chewing over and only coming away with a hazy understanding of, like a dream that I was sure I could recall that persistently eluded my grasp; but these moments were interspersed with flashes of enlightenment. I remember being sat on the Southern rail service to London Victoria (rarely a delightful experience) and suddenly grasping the efficiency of electromagnetic fields. I think I must have been the happiest passenger in Southern rail history.

Rovelli’s t-shirt suggestion

Essentially this book brings physics to the masses. Rovelli is keen to show how cool science is. I’m inclined to agree, science is way cool. The universe we live in is fascinating. How could we not want to find out everything there is to know about it? Mind you, I figured he may be going a bit far with his suggestion of putting the loop quantum gravity equation on a t-shirt, but then I’m not a scientist. Keen to find out if there were people out there wearing t-shirts like this, I asked my brother-in-law, who is a genuine, bona-fide astro-physicist, whether he owned such a piece of clothing. Disappointingly he didn’t, but he did say he once met someone with a tattoo of Schrodinger’s equation on their back. I have no idea what Schrodinger’s equation is, but the fact that someone thought it was brilliant enough to permanently ink onto their back is simply awesome. See, science is cool! Anyhow, let’s get back to the book.

There are two parts to Reality is Not What it Seems. The first part is about the history of physics and established scientific principles. Rovelli makes a clear demarcation between this and the second part of the book where he moves into much more speculative territory. Now I wouldn’t usually do spoilers (the electron did it!) but I’m not sure I’m going to make any sense anyway (let’s just say that Rovelli is better at this than me) so let me try and sum up the major thesis of the second part of the book. Space is apparently made up of a kind of space atom which are not actually in space but themselves are what space is constituted of. This struck me as a bit “Emperor’s new clothes,” but stick with me because things are about to get weirder still.

Rovelli goes on to say that both space and time disappear at this level, which sounds a tad spooky, but from what I understand is just a scientists way of saying, don’t use space or time in the equation. Not putting space and time into a physics equation however appears to be tantamount to social suicide in physicist circles. It’s one sure fire way to make certain you’re talked about around the physicist water cooler. But then you know what they say; the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. Rovelli is blasé. He reminds us that if we didn’t challenge populist thinking we would still think the world was flat and resting on a tortoise’s back.

Let those sticklers ride their tortoise. The rest of us can hitch a lift to reality instead. It really is, not what it seems.

Thank you for coming back to my blog. Swing by next Monday to read my review of Tin Man by Sarah Winman.

Book Review 1 – The Power by Naomi Alderman

So before I get to the nitty gritty of the book, I thought I’d start with how this all began… I recently joined twitter – not to tweet, I might add, I actually have the grand total of two followers, which is fine, that wasn’t the point (not initially anyway). I wanted to join so that I could follow the things I’m interested in, libraries, local events, GBBO, Doctor Who etc. But one post-work friday afternoon I was sat in the garden reading, and it occurred to me that I could use my Twitter account for the other thing I had got it for, customer service (in a positive sense in this case). So I dashed off this tweet with a pic of my copy of “The Power” and tagged (or whatever the Twitterati call it) Naomi Alderman the author. A couple of minutes later my phone buzzed and I opened it to find that Naomi Alderman herself had liked my tweet! So I may only have two followers, but I have ‘likes’ in high places. And so begins this blog. I hope to do the same every Monday, on Twitter, and follow it up with a little book review on this blog. So by this time next year I will have read 52 books. Simple right?(!)

Anyway, The Power. This book won the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. I think it is technically classed as sci-fi (or at least it was in Croydon Library) and I never really thought I was interested in sci-fi till I read this. The thing is the book is about more than just the other worldly sci-fi stuff. The fact that women around the world develop the ability to electrocute people with their bare hands is almost beside the point. When I started reading the book, I thought the title ‘The Power’ was just a reference to the electricity that runs through the women, but it is more than that. The book deals with where power in society lies, how that becomes threatened, how it shifts in a situation like this. What happens when the physically weaker sex become the stronger one? The premise may be fictional but the stage it plays out on is very much real.

Alderman constructs a world where everything is totally different to our own, and yet eerily similar. The Power is, at times challenging and at times uncomfortable reading, but through to the last page, a veritable monster of a tale that keeps you gripped. An absolutely deserved prize winner.

Next week, I’ll be reading Reality is Not What it Seems by Carlo Rovelli. It’s not a novel. I bought this before I decided to start a blog and now I have just realised that I am going to have to read a book about physics in one week. GCSE science was an awfully long time ago… Wish me luck – I’m definitely going to need it!