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Friday, 31 July 2020

Review: Set My Heart To Five by Simon Stephenson

It is the year 2054. A few decades previously, humans got collectively locked out of the internet and chaos. A few decades later and society was reimagined, with bots (a combination of human DNA and software engineering) living among humans. The main bot of this story is a dentist called Jared who is living a pleasant life until one day when a strange number appears. He realises it is the number of teeth he will see for the remainder of his bot life. He consults his human doctor friend who, after some questions, diagnoses him with depression. Jared thinks this can’t be true because he is a bot and can’t feel things.

Eventually he discovers that his friend was right and sets out to make a difference in his life. The only problem is that if he does that, he will be tracked by the Bureau of Robotics and his memory will be wiped.

He flees across America to Los Angeles where he sets out to write a movie. He also meets a woman who he falls in love with before realising that time is running out for him.

This novel is charming and quirky with a huge depth of feeling that builds as we discover with Jared what it means to be human. As Jared is a bot, he presents to us the inconsistencies and illogical instances that happen as a result of being human, which don’t always mean negative results but can nevertheless be nonsensical.

Set My Heart To Five is published soon and set to be a major motion picture.

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Review: The Puritan Princess by Miranda Malins

Say the name “Oliver Cromwell” and most people will immediately think of a few choice words or events. Villain, tyrant, ruthless, Ireland. The Pogues even wrote a song about him, hoping he would rot in hell! 

As the person who led the Parliamentarians to victory against Charles I, he eventually became Lord Protector of England rather than king. Several long-standing myths about him exist: he banned Christmas, music, art - basically anything fun. 

This novel will put paid to a lot of those myths for we find a very different Cromwell. 

The Puritan Princess tells the story of the Cromwell from the pov of his daughters. The family see their fortunes change dramatically, from run of the mill gentleman farmer and relatives to the first family in England, living like a royal family in all but name.

I didn’t know much about the interregnum period, but it’s a lot more conflict driven than I thought. The factions and political games are worthy of the Tudors. The court is a lot more lavish than one would have expected given their criticisms of Charles I, and the music and art scene just as dynamic. 

I loved the micro and macro dramas in the book, both on the family level and the national level. One section of the book, I won’t say which, had me weeping. Malins has breathed life into this family who are not universally talked about, particularly in school, which seems shortsighted given their significance. It is so well researched and dramatised historical fiction and I would have seriously enjoyed spin offs about each member of the family. Fans of historical fiction will really love this book. 

Tuesday, 21 July 2020

Review: The Englishman by David Gilman

Events and conflict on the border of Mali and Algeria connect to a brutal kidnapping in London. A London police officer sends one of his team to track down an elusive ex-French Foreign legionnaire in the middle of nowhere.

All of these events have connections delicate as spider webs, with one man in the middle connecting them. And Dan Raglan needs to find him, fast.

The Englishman is part thriller, part action, part mystery ‘whodunnit’ in equal measures. The action is well-paced, the plot well crafted, and satisfying as a popcorn-page-turner: From deserts in Africa to back-ends of London, to the freezing middle of nowhere Russia, Dan Raglan faces his fears and his foes, never doubting he will succeed but mindful of the cost along the way.

If you’re a fan of Bourne-like action stories, then The Englishman will definitely be worth a read.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Review: Playdate by Alex Dahl

"Have you seen Lucia Blix?
Lucia went home from school for a playdate with her new friend Josie. Later that evening, Lucia's mother Elisa dropped her overnight things round and kissed her little girl goodnight. That was the last time she saw her daughter. The next morning, when Lucia's dad arrived to pick her up, the house was empty. No furniture, no family, no Lucia.  IPlaydate, Alex Dahl puts a microscope on a seemingly average, seemingly happy family plunged into a life-altering situation. Who has taken their daughter, and why?"

I hadn't read a thriller for quite a while, so when I got an invitation to review "Playdate" by Alex Dahl, I jumped at the chance.

Elisa Blix, a married mother of two children, is working as a flight attendant. Busy, stressed, and constantly preoccupied, she nevertheless is reluctant to agree to a playdate between her daughter Lucia and another little girl she's never met before. The mother wins her over - Line is cool, sophisticated, and friendly, and Elisa ultimately decides no harm will be done. The playdate extends to a sleepover, Lucia's first, and Elisa thinks nothing of it. 

It's not until she's on a work flight back home the next day that she realises what a terrible mistake she's made. 

Playdate hits the ground running and doesn't stop. The narrative is divided between Elisa, Lucia a journalist called Selma, Jacqueline who tries to convince Lucia that she is her real mother, and Marcus, a prisoner doing time for manslaughter. The changes between narrators is slick and skilfully done, each devoting just the right amount of time to fill in a piece of the story without giving too much away. Elisa, particularly, is a well-drawn out character. A loving, devoted mother, but with a flawed past that makes you question that although the reader is rooting for her to get her daughter back, her actions make her much less sympathetic. Jacqueline, too - although she is literally a child abductor, reading about her reasons why makes you question whether she or not she deserves a sliver of sympathy for what happened to her. Elisa's and Jacqueline's stories, after all, are deeply interconnected as we find out towards the end. 

It's a fast-paced, carefully and meticulously crafted story, suspense dangling all the way through until a satisfying conclusion that leaves the reader to wonder what will happen to these characters after the close of the novel. Questions are left unanswered that leaves the characters running off with a life of their own. It's  not a black-and-white good-and-bad people story, it challenges the reader to question where their sympathies lie. 

If you're a fan of novelists like Sophie Hannah, then I urge you to give this novel your time. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2020

Review: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo

This Booker Prize winning novel almost needs no more reviews adding to the hundreds of glowing ones it has received so far, but it is such an incredible piece of work that I couldn't not write about it.

The novel follows twelve women from different walks of life. The first four of the chapters are grouped into three characters, and these three characters are either friends or family. However, the whole cast of characters are linked together in some way, some links being looser than others.

The stories cover a great many things but at the heart of it all is what it means to be a Black woman in the U.K. There are lots of intersections to these experiences - sexuality, gender identity, relationships, immigration status, class, engaging with so called 'meritocracy'. The experiences of the collective span decades, and we see how differently the older ones live than the younger ones according to attitudes of the time.

The novel is almost as much poetry as prose. Not a full stop to be seen anywhere but the prose runs freely and lyrically as if it were balancing the tightrope between conventional sentences and blank verse. The effect glues your eyes to the page, not wanting to be interrupted until the end of a character's story or chapter to understand just what happened, why these women fit together.

Too often in the media, films and TV, Black people are treated as one of two stereotypes: the thug/gangsta, or someone extraordinary. The latter is as much damaging, in my opinion, as the former. It's often said that Black people have to work twice as hard to get half as much as a White person. In all of these cases, what seems to happen is that Black people are seen as Black first, human second, and this doesn't happen with White people. This book celebrates and shines a light on the experience of Black women, in all their humanity and, yes, their Blackness. It is a stunning, invigorating read that challenges us to do away with the stereotypes of Black women and just see their stories in their richness and vibrancy.

Friday, 19 June 2020

Review: Brit(Ish) by Afua Hirsch

Growing up White, there were many things I didn't have to think about: being the only person with my skin colour at school; having a 'foreign' sounding name; people saying strange things to me, like, "Don't worry, Becky, we don't see you as White". I never had trouble figuring out my identity and how I fit into society because I just did. England, Britain, is my home and that was never questioned, either by me or by strangers.

So, why isn't this same courtesy extended to all British people, rather than just those with White skin?

This question forms the basis of Afua Hirsch's book. Born to a White, Jewish father and Ghanaian mother, she grew up in Wimbledon, the most quintessential English place one could think of, and had a privileged childhood thanks to her parents making huge sacrifices for it. But that wasn't the whole story. As a teenager, she wasn't allowed in a certain shop because she looked like a criminal (spoiler alert: because of her skin). Her friends told her, "Don't worry, we don't really see you as Black". She lived in a White community and had no idea how to access her culture. And this all just compounded at Oxford, the epitome of the intersections of Whiteness and elitism.

The book, Brit(ish), gives Afua the space to explore the struggles she faced in her own identity as well as the journey on an international scale which meant that millions of Black or mixed-race people in Britain had this identity crisis, or struggle to belong. It questions how Britain has not really come to terms with its history of the Empire, of immigration, and treatment of Black people, and how this helps precisely no one. There are also some stark facts about the slave trade here, too. When Britain passed the Abolition Act, there were 800,000 slaves in the British-held Caribbean islands. Their 'value' was £47 million. The British government agreed to pay £20m in compensation to the slave OWNERS, not the enslaved. To boot, the enslaved had to work FOR FREE for another FOUR YEARS to pay the rest of the debt!

It's these kinds of things that are just not taught in schools (I will certainly be making the change in my own educational setting) and if they were, it would make so much more of a difference than simply sweeping it under a carpet and hoping it never comes up.

Afua Hirsch looks at many things - class, spaces, bodies, and more - and what the Black experience has been in those different ways thanks to the construction of racism. Bodies, in particular, are fetishized or reviled. White people are too defensive to have a conversation about it because they feel personally attacked or accused of racism, when actually we just need to be open minded about the system we live in and are unconsciously complicit in.


Monday, 15 June 2020

"How To Be An Antiracist" by Ibram X. Kendi

Since the death of George Floyd sparked a global outcry, building to what will hopefully continue to grow into a movement, lots of people (particularly White) have been asking what they can do to help. As part of my commitment to being part of this movement, I've been reading into what it means not just to be "not racist" but "anti-racist", denoting action rather than the passivity of being "not racist".

Ibram X. Kendi has written a powerful book with just that title. The main thing I've learned from this book is that being an anti-racist is a choice that we must make every day, requiring continual reflection on our thoughts and perceptions of people of other racialised groups. Separating his book into different themes, such as sexuality, gender, and culture, Kendi has researched and explored what racism means at each of these different levels rather than just a macro, nationwide or global level. He explains the history of racism - that it, how it was created by the Portuguese in order to begin the transatlantic slave trade - and how it has seeped into every part of society.

Each chapter begins with what it means to be a racist and an anti-racist for that particular area. For example, ethnic racism is about racist policies that lead to inequalities between racialised ethnic groups (e.g. mixed-race or biracial people vs Black people with darker skin) vs ethnic antiracism which is about antiracist policies that lead to equity between racialised ethnic groups. By dividing the book this way, and using his own experiences and beliefs growing up, Kendi creates a roadmap of definitions and intersections that are vital for one to think about. For example, we can't just think about the experience of Black people vs White people. We need to think about the experience of the poor Black people vs the poor White people, or White women compared to Black women.

One of the biggest realisations that Kendi comes to in the book is that changing people's minds will not necessarily lead to policy change. Policy change, however, will lead to changing people's minds. This is because that racism was not created because of ideology and moral values. It was created for economic self-interest, and the ideology followed as a way of justifying it.

Racism is far more than just calling someone the n-word. Racism is believing that Black communities are poor because of their own faults rather than the policies which make those communities poor. Racism is having a bias to Black people with lighter skin rather than dark skin. Racism is calling Black women "welfare queens" when the biggest recipients of welfare in the United States are White people.

We need to remember that we are not living in a post-racial society because of the election of Obama. (The Trump administration has done away with that fantasy). We are not going to solve racism overnight, because the Western world was built on it. However, we all have the power to demand change from our elected representatives, in order to pursue policy change that leads to not just equality but equity between different racialised groups. We should not see just treatment of Black and ethnic minority people as a threat to our White privilege. That is a fear created by powerful elites in order to preserve their own power. Racism was created by the elites, for the elites. It's up to us to demand its dismantling.