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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Review: The Book of Night Women, Marlon James

It's the turn of the century in the West Indies. In patient, painstaking strokes, the narrator of this book tells the story of Lilith, a slave born on a sugar cane plantation, and her fellow slaves on Montpelier Estate. 

I should start by saying that this is not an easy book to read. Think 12 Years a Slave but arguably more horrific. In fact, I almost stopped a few times. It's not fun to read about whippings, rape and killing. But I kept going because a) the writing was so good and b) stories like this need to be told, and shouldn't be avoided just because they are uncomfortable. 

The overarching plot is about the conspiracy of "Night Women", a plan to have multiple estates in Jamaica rebel at the same time to try and drive the whites out and set up their own republic. This is the undercurrent rather than at the fore of the story, however. The main focus is on Lilith, her development and her struggle to be reconciled with the life of a slave when her spirit just won't agree. Plenty of things happen to try and tame that 'wickedness' (as the whites have it), even transferring her to another estate, but Lilith doesn't lose that inherent sense of this is not right and she is meant for more. 

Homer, the head house slave (even amongst slaves there is a hierarchy - field slaves are at the bottom of the heap, with house slaves at the top), tries to teach Lilith what she must do and how to keep her head down while still bringing her into the Night Women conspiracy, but Lilith doesn't always pay heed. Homer, whom was brought over from Africa, gives Lilith pause to wonder whether it is more painful to be born a slave and never know freedom, or to have lived free but have it taken away. 

The overwhelming feeling I got while reading this book was an unfathomable sense of how human beings are capable of such cruelty, both those inflicting it and others looking at it thinking it is acceptable. I also think it's a really important kind of book to read in today's climate, when racial and religious tensions run high. It's crucial that we never again get to a stage where we become desensitized to, or ignore, these kinds of horrors. 

It also poses larger questions of what it means to be human and who gets to decide. An interesting point raised was that, on most estates, there could be about 30 slaves to every white person. Overwhelming odds in favour of the slaves, so why did they accept the status quo? It's a testament - obviously not in a good way - to how well Westerners were able to use fear and fear of pain to bring down powerful, proud people.

This is a book that is hard to put down, and a brilliant piece of literature. I would just recommend a strong stomach - and not reading it before bed.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Review: Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

One of the things I enjoy about reading a book that I know others have already read is because I can basically just live-tweet about it to them. So, big thanks to Augusta and Stevey for being on the other end of this (and coping with the unintended panic I caused).

Louisa Clark is a bright, vivacious twenty six year old with an apparent appetite for life while simultaneously not wanting to leave her small town. After being made redundant from a job at the local cafe, The Buttered Bun, life becomes one whole string of god-awful jobs that she can get with her limited qualifications.

Until one day she meets Will Traynor. He is a quadraplegic, for whom his parents want to hire a carer alongside his male nurse. A companion, more than anything. Except Will isn't having this, not at first, and does his level best to make Louisa feel as small as possible.

But that changes, slowly and surely as they change each other. Will becomes more open and sarcastic with her (his way of showing affection). She stands up to him and pushes him to try new things that he hasn't since the accident. She wants to show him that it is possible to enjoy life in the most debilitating of circumstances, particularly when she finds out his wish to go to Dignitas.

As well as being a person battle to get Will to change his mind, this book raises a whole load of questions about euthanasia and assisted dying. Whose choice is it versus whose it should be? Is it selfish? Is it worthy of being prosecuted?

Choices are another things look at throughout the story, namely because Will doesn't have any and that frustrates him. Whereas Louisa has a lot but doesn't know what to do with them.

At its heart, this is a love story of two people who are polar opposites in every sense, but whose extraordinary circumstances cause them to change each other's lives for the better. It is funny, clever and profoundly moving, It will have you laughing one minute and crying the next. Above all, it is book that you wish you could read again and again for the first time.

Review: The Taxidermist's Daughter, Kate Mosse.

Blood, skin, bone.

This refrain passes through like an old haunt throughout this dark and Gothic tale. The story opens in a churchyard, where villagers watch and wait to see the ghosts that will enter the church, omens of what is to be expected in that year.

Connie Gifford is a young woman who lives in an ageing house with an ailing father, driven to drink by an event that Connie can no longer remember. Time and again she tries to coax the truth out of him, but to no avail. The only times he is conscious of her asking her such a question, he begs her to not remember. Her father used to be a taxidermist and Connie learns his skills, the art of preserving even after death, even when things seem lost.

Later on we meet Harry Woolston, a man - quite simply - looking out for his father after his father displays some unexpected behaviour. His path crosses with Connie's and they quickly become friends, although neither could expect just how much they are already entangled in each other's lives.

The plot thumps along like a heartbeat, racing at some points and slowing down in others although the tension is always there on the edge. Place and characters are crafted with equal care and, as the mystery unravels, the reader is left with mingled revulsion and fascination for the turning out of events.

There are places in this book which demand a strong stomach. The mystery letters written at the start of each part, reveal the hidden character's thirst for justice - justice, not revenge - although it is a while before we learn for what. Once we know, it's almost as if we wish we didn't. What is seen cannot be unseen, and all of that.

This is a spooky, atmospheric tale that grips the imagination and demands your attention from the off. These sleepy towns hide much more than appearances suggest, and the mystery, buried for so many years, is about to finally come to light, for good or for ill.

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Review: The Keeper's Light, Anjillica Navarro

Note: I exchanged a free copy of this book in exchange for a review.

From its tense, fast-paced opening to the cliffhanger conclusion, The Keeper's Light is the first in a series of fantasy novels that explores the power of light and darkness. Though the theme is common in fantasy, the way it is used is not.

Elizabeth, our heroine, was taken away and hidden just after her birth. Her parents endowed her the power of the Light of Wills just before their death and entrusted her to close friends. The threat? A man called Kaleb whose motives (other than his desire for conquest) are unknown until the end of the novel.

Elizabeth grows up in relative peace and security, until the time comes for her to return to Beldom. On the journey, she experiments with her power for the first time as well as finding out what has been kept from her.

Back in Beldom, things are not going smoothly. There is obvious corruption on the Council and the Boundary, which keeps the people safe from Kaleb and his darklings, is weakening.

This fantasy novel would appeal most, I think, to young adult readers - particularly those who enjoy a healthy dose of romance, too. Navarro's world-building is solid and the characters are well-rounded, Cedric and Maurice being my favourite. Things seem a little bit too easy for Elizabeth in the beginning, but the use of her powers become more believable later on, especially when it is shown how much of a physical drain they are on her.

The plot ticks along well and the action scenes towards the end are gripping, particularly the conclusion. I turned the page expecting to see another battle - but I'll have to wait for the next book for that.