Review-ish: Natives by Akala

‘Never mind that Britain has a German royal family, a Norman ruling elite, a Greek patron saint, a Roman/Middle Eastern religion, Indian food as its national cuisine, an Arabic/Indian numeral system, a Latin alphabet and an identity predicated on a multi-ethnic, globe-spanning empire’

A while ago now, this interview of Akala on Channel 4, popped up on my Facebook timeline and I immediately ordered a copy of this book. Akala is a rapper, educator, journalist and activist, and Natives has been held up alongside Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race as one of THE books to read to educate yourself on racism in the UK.

I love David Olusoga’s book cover quote about how Akala ‘picks apart the British myth of meritocracy’. This quote does a much better job than I can of expressing the thoughts I had throughout reading this about how we have all fallen into this meritocracy trap.

I started it as soon as it arrived, and then dipped in and out until lock-down allowed me the space I needed to finally finish it. As expected from a lyricist, Natives is brilliantly written; evocative and emotive. Like Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, Akala explores race, heritage, empire and colonialism, but its through the lens of his personal experience that these topics come alive.

In Chapter 8, Why Do White People Love Mandela? Why Do Conservatives Hate Castro? Akala presents a highly researched and fascinating insight into the wide-spread hero-worship of Mandela, and taught me a huge amount about Castro’s Cuba that I, and I imagine many others, never knew.

Natives has an exceptionally high rating on Goodreads, and for good reason. Akala’s humour and style make this a particularly accessible read, one that I will certainly be recommending.

Unfortunately, BBC only put up Akala’s dramatisation of this book called Ruins of Empire briefly, but if you want something to watch I would highly recommend Black and British: A Forgotten History which expands on many of the historical Chapters in Natives.

Please feel free to share comments and recommendations below. I’d love to get a conversation going!

Review-ish: The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

‘His stories were good because he imagined them intensely, so intensely that he came to believe them.’

It feels like decades ago that I finished this, although it was just in March, I think, at the beginning of lock-down. Its one of those books that has kept popping up on my radar and I was really keen to use some of my extra reading time to read something less contemporary.

This is going to be a real snippet of a review, as I have such a back-log and I’m super keen to share everything else that I’ve been reading over the last few months. And to be completely transparent, the only notes I wrote for this were ‘tense’. That’s it.

That’s not to say it wasn’t good; it was well written, brilliantly paced and incredibly tense. But I spent much of the book thinking about the film, which is a real shame. This is one I really wish I had read first.

I have just discovered that this is the first in a series, which surprised me as it felt like a very complete piece. Reading through the Goodreads reviews to prompt my memory, I agree with many that Highsmith certainly takes you on a vivid and compelling journey through 1950’s Italy, and tests your moral compass as you find yourself willing Ripley to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, but I wouldn’t say that its best thing I’ve read recently.

As I so often say, it can be as much about timing as it is about the actual book, and maybe this just wasn’t quite the escapism I needed. Also, the film is so well-known and has a style all of its own that eclipsed the writing for me a little. But as a psychological thriller it hits the mark.

Has anyone read any vintage classics that they would recommend? Please don’t mention Catcher in the Rye as I also tried that and found it very tedious!

Happy reading!

Kelly

Review-ish: Women & Power by Mary Beard

‘It is not just that it is much more difficult for women to succeed; they get treated much more harshly if they ever mess up’

This pint-sized beauty was brought for me as a very well-considered gift. I’m a little obsessed with Mary Beard. She’s recently been named as a Trustee of the British Museum, to some controversy it seems, and currently has a tv programme on BBC called Mary Beards Shock of the Nude.

This is another slim, little one-sitting read. You can tell my attention span wasn’t great at this time, even pre-Covid19 lockdown.

These quick reads (The Myths series) and published interviews (I also read Optimism Over Despair by Noam Chomsky recently) are enlightening and ideal for quarantine reading. Although maybe not Noam. He was pretty heavy.

In Women & Power, Beard explores the silencing of women through the ages, using her expert knowledge to bring stories and historical moments to life and make them relevant for today. She also addresses the Me Too movement from her own perspective.

Having been through the British schooling system, my historical knowledge includes such highlights as; Henry VIII (divorced, beheaded, died…) WWII (from Britains perspective obvs) and a dappling of Ancient Egyptians, so this really helped remind me of why history is worth further exploration in adult-hood, and that there are many lessons to be learnt.

Others have written much more eloquently than me about the intricacies of the book, so I will link to a great Guardian by Jacqueline Rose here.

I know I don’t offer much in the way of in-depth analysis (hence Review-ish) so I will always try to share interesting observations by others. I have a back-log of posts to do, due to lockdown, and am finding that I’m not always focused enough to get them done, so I’ll keep them short and snappy for now. And hope that this gals opinions are useful to you!

Women & Power wonderfully blends feminism with my current interest of Greek myths so it was always going to be a winner for me. But I would recommend it, especially if you’re looking for some non-fiction distraction, but like me, find anything too bulky a bit daunting. It’s certainly an easier read that Optimism Over Despair.

Kelly

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Emperor of the Eight Islands by Lian Hearn

I stumbled across this book quite by accident. I was training for my first marathon and I prefer not to think about running when I’m running, as I just stop. Audiobooks are my life saver. I’d already made my way through the Lord of the Rings and I was after another epic to keep me motivated. So, I turned to BorrowBox, a way of borrowing audiobooks from your local library. I basically scrolled through all the books until I found one that was of sufficient length, and quite importantly, available for loan.

The Emperor of the Eight Islands is based on Japanese mythology. It did not disappoint. Well actually, there was one huge disappointment, but I’ll come to later. The story starts off with a young boy losing his father and coming under the protection of his uncle. This does not bode well for our young hero. It soon transpires that the elderly Emperor is going to die and the sorcerer Prince Abbot wishes the Emperor’s second son to secede. Soon, our hero Shikonoko finds himself embroiled in magic and intrigue, as events beyond his control start to take over.

Each chapter is written from the perspective of different characters, and unlike certain other novels where the jumping of the story through time and space drives you crazy, in this book, each chapter succeeds in advancing the story in a logical manner.

What I like about this book is that it does not focus on the battles, the gore and the million and one ways of mutilating/causing pain to your your enemy. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments, but these are secondary and the author focuses on the characters, their motivations and their stories.

Some people have criticised Lian Hearn’s style of writing as being too simple, but from someone who has listened to the story rather than read it, I found it really soothing yet gripping.

As for my disappointment, this stemmed from me not knowing anything about the book. After some Googling, it transpired that I had in fact listened to books 1&2 of a 4-book series. My big disappointment had been the ending. No wonder I hadn’t enjoyed it, I was only halfway through! Now to find books 3&4 and to keep running.

Guest Review by Ceri Gwyther: Legacy of Ash by Matthew Ward

This book is the first of a trilogy by up and coming author, Matthew Ward. The story encompasses two Kingdoms; the Tressian Republic and the Hadardi Empire, and follows a cast of heroes and heroines as they try and defend their home nations. 


Why do I like this book? Firstly, it is a chunk of a book. I love a good story that I can invest time into. Time to get to know my favourite character (I actually still haven’t figured out who that is), to watch them grow, and sometimes to surprise me. I like to watch the story unfold, through twists and turns, unable to put the book down when really I should be asleep. Shorter stories just don’t do that for me.


Obviously, it’s not the size of the book that matters if it is not a good story. Legacy of Ash has everything you can wish for from a fantasy novel; heroes & heroines, magic, intrigue, destiny, a pantheon of bickering Gods and Goddesses and dare I say it for fear of sounding like a preaching feminist, strong female characters. Hurr-flipping-ray. Not all of the strong female characters are sword-weilding valkyries (though some of them are), some are masters, I mean mistresses, of intrigue, some are homely and some are just dealing with the cards they’re dealt. I’d like to say that Matthew doesn’t make a sing and dance of this, but actually one of the plot arcs is specifically looking at women coming out of the shadow of their men-folk. That’s not my favourite plot-arc, but I am impressed that he did it.


Perhaps what I like most about Matthew’s work is that despite the genre, or perhaps that should be sub-genre, of his different works, there are elements that tie them all together. You can dip into his Coldharbour series, set in modern day London, or into some of his short stories and you can guarantee that there will be names or monsters you recognise that turn up unexpectedly. I am not familiar with any other author crossing worlds and ages like this, tying all the stories together.


I must admit I have a confession. I know the author. However, I genuinely enjoy reading his works and always look forward to reading the next installment.

Review-ish: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

‘Cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had’ 

I have to say, this fairly-new predilection for Greek myths has really led me to new authors (Miller) and introduced me to new sides to authors that I had previously read (Atwood and Barker). That’s why I love the Canongate Myth series. The books are small, I read this one easily in an evening, and utilise a core theme to introduce readers to new authors. And isn’t that what Offbeat Book Club is all about?

There seems to be some less-than-clear information online about who is writing for this series, but the books that have been published look very appealing. I have already gotten hold of Weight: The Myth of Atlas and Heracles by Jeannette Winterson. And, as they were published some time ago, they are often available second hand.

The Penelopiad follows the tale of the Odyssey, but from Penelope’s perspective, not only examining her relationship to the mythical hero, but also to the women that made up her court. These are presented in typical Greek fashion as a chorus of maidens and their voices carry throughout the story beautiful in the form of poetry (but in various guises each time). As we would expect from Atwood, Penelope is no longer a bit part or a passive character in the tale, but one who takes her destiny into her own hands and have to live with the consequences of her decisions.

As Mary Beard points out in her novel, Women and Power (review coming soon-ish!) Penelope has never really had a voice. She is silenced by her son, despite having rule the kingdom in her husbands absence. Telemachus, by virtue of being a man, has the authority. In this novella, we can hear, in her own words, the nuances and complexities of her experiences. She is certainly no saint, but neither is she wholly to blame for the fates of the women closest to her. 

I’ll keep it short, much like this novella. Its a weird time, and I’m giving a lot of thought to how Offbeat Book Club might help people who are staying at home more. Any ideas, then please comment below or pop my an email at offbeatbookclub@gmail.com.

Stay safe and kind. Enjoy the extra reading time!

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club Notes – January

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Firstly, a huge croeso to our the new book clubbers who have joined us this month. Really lovely to welcome you to our little group.


Secondly, after repeatedly receiving feedback from the bloke-at-home about the layout of the website and these book club notes sections, I’m going to try out a new format this month. Do let me know if its useful to you, regular book club attendees, those who come intermittently or those who read along from afar. Rather than a random list of comments and thoughts, I will try to provide more of a narrative of the discussion.


It was great to be back in the Reading Room at Insole Court and to see everyone after such a long break. 


**CONTAINS SPOILERS**
So this month, we were reading My Sister, the Serial Killer the debut novel of Oyinkan Braithewaite, a Nigerian born poet. It was recommended by a book club regular, who hadn’t read it before but thought it ticked our boxes and looked entertaining. Everyone had read it, which is no huge surprise as its a small book, and we’d had a big break since our last meeting before Xmas. We kicked off by discussing our general thoughts on the book; many of us were surprised by the depth of it. Some of us expected it to be a little light, or ‘silly’ and although it was very much an easy and quick read, and had comedic elements, it also had layers that keep you thinking well beyond the end of the book.


We moved onto discussing the theme of the authoritarian Father figure had come up in other books by Nigerian writers before. We wondered if this was reflective of the Nigerian society, especially at the class level of Korede and her family. Although not fully resolved in the book, many of us thought that Braithwaite implied that either one, or both of the girls had been responsible for their fathers death. 


‘The rain will drown you’ was pointed our as a particularly poetic phrase employed by the author. 


We discussed gender expectations, in Nigeria and in the UK and the role that your place in the family has on the expectations placed upon you. We felt that Korede, as the older sister, had been earmarked for a caring role from an early age. The fathers abuse had made Korede even more protective of her younger sister. Especially as the mother seemed disconnected from the world, and failed to see what was going on with her daughters in the present day. 


One member compared the marriage of Koredes parents to that of Muhtar and his wife. We found it poignant how loyal Koredes mother had been to her father, with the memorial party etc. But also reflecting on her little ways of rebelling, for example by wearing a colour he hated. 


We considered Korede’s own mental health. Did she have OCD? We wondered whether she actually enjoyed her role in the murders, enjoyed the drama. Enjoyed the challenge of not getting caught. She didn’t seem overly concerned about confessing to Muhtar when there was a chance that he might wake up. 
We discussed the impact on your moral compass of growing up in a society where corruption is rife. Could explain Ayoola’s lack of concern for getting caught, as she doesn’t respect authority. We got the impression that the police failed to really consider the girls as suspects as they were women and clearly wouldn’t be capable of murder! We also briefly considered why there are so few books about female serial killers, relenting that there just aren’t many female serial killers themselves. This then led to a fairly inappropriate discussion about fair representation and the lack of female serial killer role models!


We had a brief chat about social media etiquette in when it comes to mourning. How Femi was truly considered dead once there were no more mentions of him online. We thought this said a lot about our value. And how wrapped up Ayoola was in her own world. Was she a sociopath? She seemed to lack empathy and seemed quite vacuous. But we were aware that we only had Koredes viewpoint of her to go on. 


Neither sister appeared to have friends. Although the side characters were all really interesting. We found that Mohammed served a purpose, to show us that people considered to be of the lower classes could be victims of the upper classes way of life. Korede didn’t seem to have a good relationship with anyone, other than Tade who we felt she put on a pedestal. 


We touched on the horror of discovering that their Dad considered selling Ayoola, and the fact that this might have led her to see relationships with men as transactional, the lack of details about the murders and the poetry within the book as well. We also briefly discussed why Korede became so obsessed with her sisters boyfriends, and wondered whether she was desperate for a close relationship. 


Overall, we all felt that we would recommend it to others and enjoyed the conciseness of the writing. 

Further reading/watching:

  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
  • Killing Eve on BBC iPlayer

Review-ish: Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

‘We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the “ideas” with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.’

I picked up this beast with some trepidation, after it had been mentioned so many times on various podcasts that I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I’m a massive fan of modern American fiction, including Truman Capote, so it made sense that a book that explores his downfall would peak my interest, but I was also worried that it might have been over-hyped. In all honesty, I think I got into writers like Capote and Kerouac because I thought they made me look terribly cool when I was in my early 20’s, but I still do really enjoy the style of the time.

I actually devoured this book and then immediately passed it onto a friend, which is very unusual for me as I’m such a book hoarder. The subject matter itself is fascinating; I found myself googling each individual Swan and gawping at the glamour of them, but its wonderfully composed. Greenberg-Jephcott is a magician at conjuring up these waspy scenes, but also at capturing Capotes voice perfectly.

It would be too easy to paint portraits of these women as awful, self-centred and vain (says the socialist in me) OR as innocent victims to Capotes machinations, but instead, the Swans are far more fascinating to me than the writer himself. Although, his re-telling of his own history is so deftly done.  

The chorus of the Swans throughout the narration is so clever, a modernised version of the choruses used in Greek drama (for those of you who had rubbish English teachers like me). I have just read The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, which is part of Canongates ‘Myths’ series, and she utilises the same tool.

I have no criticisms of the book at all, and really don’t want to spoil it for anyone. So please read this and tell me what you think! And tell me your favourite Swan. I”m obsessed with Lee Radziwill.

Review-ish: Kindred by Octavia E Butler

‘Slavery was a long slow process of dulling’.

I was really thrilled to have stumbled across this on one of my many charity shops jaunts around South Wales, as I had heard of it, but knew nothing of the plot. The copy I picked up, as you can see, is a contemporary edition, so I hadn’t really considered when it was written.

I read it whilst on holiday in Portugal, and whilst it wasn’t an easy beach read, it was still good to be able to be fully-absorbed in it. Kindred is a hugely popular book, written in 1979 and therefore there are many, many better musings and academic writings on this than I can ever provide, so rather than delving too deeply into themes etc, I’ll just share my thoughts.

The concept is clever, and allows the reader to consider the similarities between the African American experiences in LA, 1976 to the Maryland of 1815. The linking of fates, the brutal and disgusting treatment of human beings as property, the realities of life for mixed race couples and the exploration of ancestry were brilliantly executed and fascinating.

In recent years, I have discovered that I have an aversion to time-travel stories (I think this began with the trauma of The Time-Travellers Wife). I struggle to watch films about it. I can’t handle the sliding-doors of it all, or the missing-people-by-moments-ness. Very articulate, I know. But I actually found the time-travel nature of this worked really well and wasn’t too painful for me!

So yeah. There’s a reason why its considered a classic. Get to it. It would make a great book club read as there’s so much to talk about. And I can see why its used for educational discussions.

Well 2019 might have been a ominshambles of a year, but holy moly I read some good books. I have never bought so many copies of the same books, but have loved forcing them upon friends and family as gifts (top buys were All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, not reviewed on here due to Doerr being a British male, The Electric Michaelangelo by Sarah Hall and A Year of Marvellous Ways by Sarah Winman).

What books did everyone get for Xmas? I got a beautiful illustrated Studio Ghibli book of Princess Mononoke and maybe my 5th version of the Wizard of Earthsea as part of a stunning omnibus. I’m very aware that the book hoarding might one day kill me.

On another note, the reason its taking me so long to get my reviews out is because my laptop is. just. so. slow and I really have to talk myself into even turning the bloody thing on. I’m having cold sweats thinking about doing my tax return on it.

Kelly

Insole Court Book Club – December

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

This month saw us being welcomed graciously into the Insole Court Volunteer festivities, and for many of us, seeing a Mari Llwyd for the first time (worth a Google if you are unfamiliar with this Welsh tradition).

The Mars Room caught my eye after being short-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2018, having recently read Telex from Cuba, Kushner’s debut novel. I was really pleased that it prompted such interesting discussions for the group, of which you can read more below, and as always, comment if you feel like it!

Quite divisive. Some found it hard work. Some couldn’t finish it. Some found it very compelling.

Very sad, no feeling of hope.

Really felt like you knew Romy.

Indictment of the US judicial system.

Some of us read it quite quickly, others read it in chunks.

First third of the book slower than the rest.

Reflected on how hard it must be to have so little information about the outside world, we were shocked.

Interesting how they made their own lives behind bars.

At times could be quite amusing, some dark humour.

Tremendous characters.

But paints such a bleak picture – particularly the woman slumped on the bus at the beginning.

So hard for rehabilitation to happen in that environment.

Many of the characters are the victims of circumstance.

Shared histories and history repeating. Cycles of poverty. Hard to survive.

Romy was close to making a better life for herself before Jimmy betrayed her.

Jumping between time lines was clever but didn’t always work out.

It definitely didn’t reflect the San Francisco that we picture, and we felt that many American cities aren’t what they seem, like Washington DC. Every city has a darker side.

Her memories, although often at a distance, are very specific.

Juxtaposition of the Mars Room and prison.

Discussed what would happen to Jackson if it were in the UK.

Jackson represents hope and goodness, the only character in the book to do so.

At the end, she reflects that she gave him life, but is it such a good thing?

Her use of train tracks to present life and inevitability.

Kushner is very good at writing different view points. Reflections of different classes.

The chapters written in a different font were Ted Kaczynski, which was totally missed by some of us (me.)

Prison is a primitive way of dealing with crime. Lack of resources and will for rehabilitation.

She doesn’t talk much about race in prison, which is often a key focus of many prison dramas in the US.

Kayne West says that 1/3 black men have been in prison in the US.

Discussed the classism of crack cocaine vs. cocaine use.

Discussed institutionalisation, routine, living alongside other people.

Discussed what books we would pick if we were giving books to people in prison.

  • Responsible Boy on BBC
  • Telex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner
  • Manhunt: Unabomber on Netflix
  • Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner

Better late than never with the notes, I hope! We’re always keen to hear your thoughts, so please comment below.

We’re next meeting on Tuesday 28th January at 7pm, where we’ll be discussing My Sister, The Serial Killer by Okinyan Braithwaite. See you then!

Kelly