Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

31349579I’ve seen a few suggestions on Booktube that this is the book that should have won the Bailey’s Prize and I can certainly see why everyone was so impressed (I’m glad I don’t have to decide between this and The Power myself)

Yejide has been married for husband, Akin, for years but there is no child. Her relatives turn up one day with a strange woman- they’ve arranged for her husband to have a second wife. Against the political upheaval of 80s Nigeria, Yejide tries everything in her power to have a child with devastating consequences….

This book completely engulfed me and turned out to be completely different to what I had expected from the blurb and the title. It went somewhere I didn’t expect and I ended up reading this story well into the night, not just to see where the plot was going but also because Yejide’s life made me ache for her. I wanted badly for her to be alright.

These days I tell myself that is why I stretch to accommodate every level of indignity. So that I could have someone who would look for me if I went missing.

Despite the slow horror after horror emerging like shadows in this story it is not bleak. It is full of magic and fairytales and dark humour; Yejide isn’t the type of heroine who just lies down and lets things happen to her, “Fumi don’t let me see your broomstick legs in this place ever again.”

Mean while the rising tension of political and social turbulence seeps into their daily lives. It was fascinating and gave a wider context to the story. I felt like we were leading up to a crash.

 

Love is the driving force in this book which is why you never lose hope that things will get better. I can’t believe this is a debut novel, it is not only incredibly moving but its pacing, characterisation and plot are masterfully written. I strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to be swept away.

 

 

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Northern Lights by Phillip Pullman

51tBL7+KbKL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_How do I review a book that has shaped the majority of my reading life? I first picked up this book around the age of 10 and His Dark Materials became an obsession with me for the the early part of my teenage years, neck and neck with Harry Potter. This series is exceptional, both as a children’s book and and adult work full of complexities and exciting ideas.

Lyra Bevacqua and her daemon live carefree and half wild amongst the scholars of Jordan College, Oxford. One night she sneaks into the Retiring Room to spy on her Uncle Asriel, giving a talk to the scholars before his expedition to the North, and her life changes forever. Meanwhile children all over the country are going missing and Lyra heads on a quest North where witches fly on pine branches, bears rule in ice palaces and scientist are conducting horrifying experiments under the Aurora.

There are no words to describe how thrilling this book is, 18 years after I first picked it up it still excites me. Pullman has a gift for characterisation- these are characters that stay with you forever- the beautiful Mrs Coulter with the golden monkey, Lord Asriel, Lee Scoresby and of course, Lyra herself. I loved her as a child for the same reason I loved Mary from The Secret Garden, for being a sort of anti-heroine. She is a skilful liar and lies as often as drawing breath, she can be selfish, violent but she has a heart of pure gold and courage which is why she wins so many people over.

The story itself is both a gripping adventure story and subtle one of magic and ideas. One of my favourite moments is when Lyra is talking to a witches daemon (an outward expression of a human being’s soul) a snow goose.

He raised his wings and spread them wide before folding them again.

“There,” he said, “I have just brushed ten million other worlds and they knew nothing of it. We are as close as a heartbeat, but we can never touch or see or hear these other worlds except in the Northern Lights.”

I am re-reading this series in anticipation for La Belle Sauvage which comes out next week. It is a captivating series with so many layers that I find something different to enchant me every time I read it.

 

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

the_sun_also_risesI went into this book torn between scepticism and hoping to fall in love. I knew all about Hemingway, from popular culture, lists of the greatest writers and as a journalist in the Spanish Civil War. I had also read A Moveable Feast  back when I was a student and it was just the kind of sensory, cafe and liquor heavy prose I enjoyed then. The Sun Also Rises is the first of Hemingway’s novels I have sat down to read and while I didn’t have to force my way through it like another certain Jazz Age work, I wasn’t blown away either.

The book centres around a group of American expatriates after WW1, as they roam from the bars in Paris to the bullfighting rings of Spain, while dealing with their romantic entanglements with each other and disillusionment after the War. The star is Lady Brett Ashley and orbiting around her is the protagonist Jake Barnes. I had heard of these two before I even picked up the book as they are quite iconic.

Hemingway’s writing style is incredibly sparse and yet highly atmospheric. It is also heavy on the dialogue and often quite mundane dialogue at that. It should have been rambling and pointless and yet there is weight behind it. It’s like it all fits into the same dream. The mundane becomes relevant. I’ve seen other contemporary writers do this and found it tedious and pretentious and yet here it works.

“The world was not wheeling anymore. It was just very clear and bright and inclined to blur at the edges.”

Halfway through the book however the novelty had worn off for me. I enjoyed the writing but the characters weren’t interesting enough to me to keep me glued to a book without much of a plot. I didn’t really know much more about Brett or Jake at the end of the book then I did at the beginning despite having watched them drink their way across Europe. I also wasn’t impressed by the casual anti-Semitism thrown around by various characters and the greatest impression of my first reading of a Hemingway novel from this is; disappointment.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

71YzYD54WTLSwing Time. Zadie Smith. Copyright November 2016. Hamish Hamilton.

Two little girls dream about being dancers but only one has talent. The other is full of ideas on music, film and the people around her. Their friendship, often antagonistic, twists into something else entirely as they grow up and move in opposite directions. The unnamed narrator takes us from the housing estates in London to a village in West Africa and into the sphere of an international pop star.

White Teeth blew me away and the promise of a novel by the same author on dance really excited me so I went into this book ready to fall in love. This may have contributed to why I was so disappointed by Swing Time. Zadie Smith, again, has created memorable and distinct characters but I didn’t like any of them. I was also disappointed that dance itself didn’t actually feature much in the story, only the industry around it.

The narrative was like listening to someone’s life story and interesting career (to them) and holidays and childhood- nothing touched me. This seemed to mimic the protagonist’s lack of true passion to anything in her life, except for her childhood friend Tracy. I felt like I would have been more interested following any of the other characters stories who actually seemed to have some sort of purpose- her mother, Aimee or Tracy herself.

“A truth was being revealed to me: that I had always tried to attach myself to the light of other people, that I had never had any light of my own. I experienced myself as a kind of shadow.”

I’ve seen many people say that this is Zadie Smith’s best book yet. Swing Time has also made the Man Booker longlist for 2017. However, like with the stories of Alice Munro, I just didn’t connect with this book. I will, however, be reading another Zadie Smith because White Teeth is still one of the best books I have read and I highly recommend it if you are looking for a good place to start.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré

the_spy_who_came_in_from_the_cold_coverThe Spy who came in from the Cold. John Le Carré. Copyright 1963. Penguin 2010.

I am a huge fan of the George Smiley radio plays on the BBC but haven’t often sat down to read one of the original books. This classic was a good choice to start with and made me appreciate Le Carré is not only a brilliant storyteller but also an excellent writer.

The Spy Who came in from the Cold is a classic spy novel from 1963 set in the midst of the Cold War. Alec Leamas has just lost his entire network in Berlin due to his opposite in East Germany, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Back in disgrace at “the Circus” (the British intelligence service) the chief “Control” asks him to do one last mission; to take Mundt down for good.

I appreciated Alec Leamas as a character much more than in the radio plays now that I can read his voice unfiltered. His ability to antagonise every smooth operator he comes across was hilarious but I also liked the streak of empathy that he hadn’t managed to lose. The other characters also remained with me well after I had finished the book- Mundt, who sent chills down my spine, the characters in the library, and my favourite character Fiedler, a soft spoken and vastly intelligent communist under Mundt.

This is an exceptional book. It is written so cold and sparse and yet it is incredibly emotive. It has the kind of dialogue that I want to go back and read over and over, to hunt for hidden motivations and see what I missed. Part of the magic of this book is many hints throughout that something is not quite right and Leamas is right there with us, unable to see the whole picture.

“Do you really feel that?” Control enquired politely. And then, having looked at Leamas thoughtfully for a moment, he observed: “Yes, I really think you do. But you musn’t feel you have to say it. I mean, in our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love – like certain sounds a dog can’t hear. All that’t left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again.”

I recommend this book both for being a thrilling story and for the message it conveys that at the time caused waves. John Le Carré was the pen-name of a man who actually worked as a British Intelligence Officer and his George Smiley series challenged the notion that British espionage was morally superior to any other country. Many writers have commented on how atmospheric this book is but my favourite quote is one by J.B. Priestley: “Superbly constructed, with an atmosphere of chilly hell.” 

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

americanah-300x0Americanah. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Copyright 2013. HarperCollins 2014

I’ve been making eyes at Half of a Yellow Sun for a while now but for some reason Americanah was the first book by Adichie I actually read. I definitely didn’t regret it. Americanah is a great sprawling book that challenges the complex issues of race and identity and yet also manages to tell a captivating story.

Ifemelu and Obinze grow up in military ruled Nigeria and their love seems to be an unbreakable thing. However as one heads to America and gets labelled “Black” for the first time and the other ends up as an illegal immigrant in the UK after being denied entry into the U.S, we watch them break apart and after 15 years move slowly back together again.

The book is written from the perspective of Ifemelu and Obinze and features a large cast of memorable characters. The narrative jumps back and forth between both characters first returning to a now democratic Nigeria, their days at university and their life in the West.

My favourite part of this book was definitely Ifemelu’s blog and her chatty articles on race, class, misogyny and colourism. I loved her writing style and the fictional blog is one I would follow myself.

“If you’re telling a non-black person about something racist that happened to you, make sure you are not bitter. Don’t complain. Be forgiving. If possible, make it funny. Most of all, do not be angry. Black people are not supposed to be angry about racism. Otherwise you get no sympathy. This applies only for white liberals, by the way. Don’t even bother telling a white conservative about anything racist that happened to you. Because the conservative will tell you that YOU are the real racist and your mouth will hang open in confusion.”

 

The love story between Ifemelu and Obinze isn’t just a backdrop for the themes or the plot but the driving heart of the book. I wasn’t unmoved at their first meeting or the way they fit together. They didn’t win me over completely as individuals. Their feelings of superiority over the other characters (something they occasionally realise themselves) and Obinze’s “gentle disdain” for the wife he cheats on were things I couldn’t ignore but as a love story they worked.

I highly recommend this book not only as an engaging piece of fiction but as a masterful look at immigration, the diaspora and the intricacies of race that we often find we cannot put into words ourselves. I found myself smiling over so many characters in this book who represented people I have met in real life.

The Power by Naomi Alderman

coverThe Power. Naomi Alderman. Copyright 2016. Penguin 2017.

I was well aware of this book before I started reading. When The Power won the Bailey’s Prize for 2017 Booktube seemed to be split on whether it deserved the winning spot or not. The main criticism I kept coming across was the language is too simple for this to win a major literary prize. I myself believe that this novel definitely deserved the win. It is one of the most exciting books I have read in a long time.

The Power starts with a simple yet catastrophic idea. What if young girls suddenly had a power that could inflict terrible pain? What if they could wake it up in older women?

At first we see the male characters see the power of the teenage girls and think how can I exploit this? For money or for violence but gradually gradually we see the power shift and at first I felt so excited watching it. Vindicated. We see that what we consider normal- women feeling unease and fear around huge groups of men, women being abused physically or sexually by men, women being casually humiliated or demeaned at work, at home, on the streets- all of this was suddenly shifting to the other side. Alderman doesn’t just stop there, however, and what was first thrilling turns ghastly.

The scope of this book is fascinating! As the power dynamics from places as diverse as the boardroom in New England, to the underbelly of London, to the kingdom of Saudi, to streets of Delhi start to shift. Alderman illustrates not just big changes but the small subtle ones too, like between two news anchors.

Well now, Kristen, if a power like this existed, maybe we bred it out deliberately, maybe we didn’t want it around. You’d tell me if you could do something like that, wouldn’t you, Kristen? Well, you know, Tom, maybe I’d want to keep a thing like that to myself. The news’ anchors eyes meet. Something unspoken passes between them. And now the weather on the ones.

The story switches from the Point of View of four main characters- a girl in England, a young man in Nigeria, a woman in New England and a girl who wants to set the world on fire. The language is simple but emotionally effective and the story is exciting and complex.

This isn’t just a look at a different world. Naomi is holding up a mirror to our world now. And what the mirror shows will horrify you.