Thursday 25 February 2021

Nick by Michael Farris Smith

 Anyone who's read The Great Gatsby, or even just seen a film adaptation, will be familiar with Nick Carraway - Daisy Buchanan's second cousin who accidentally rents a house across the bay from her, and right next to Gatsby's huge mansion - but beyond his role as narrator he doesn't really exist.

For Fitzgerald, Nick seems little more than a convenient plot device, sitting watching a love triangle tragedy unfold around him, privy to the desires and actions of all sides, fully committed to none.

Now Michael Farris Smith has brought Nick into the limelight. From his Mid-West childhood, where his life stretched planned and orderly in front of him, through the chaos of  World War 1 trenches, and a doomed love affair in Paris, to the violent saloons of New Orleans, Nick makes his winding way to a small house in West Egg on Long Island, and the green light shining across the Bay.

I'm normally a bit wary of 'spin off' books, which give characters lives way beyond the ones dreamed of by the original authors, but I read an online article by Michael Farris Smith about the inspiration behind Nick, and it somehow appealed. 

If you saw The Great Gatsby as a romantic tale of unrequited love, played out against a backdrop of fabulous parties, huge mansions, and flash cars, then this probably isn't for you. It's far grittier and more violent - like Hemingway rather than Fitzgerald - but I very much enjoyed it. It's a story that could well have stood on its own - naive young man traumatized by war, and unable to fit back into the world he left behind - but being the story of Nick Carraway gives it an extra twist. We know where he's going to end up; just not how.  

The Great Gatsby is now out of copyright so there are bound to be an endless number of spin-offs. Get in early and read this one. 

Thursday 18 February 2021

The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin

 Lenni is seventeen; Margot is eighty-three. They're an unlikely pair to become friends, but when they meet up at a hospital art class an instant bond forms between the two. 

Lenni knows she doesn't have long to live but with Margot around that doesn't seem to matter. Together they decide to paint a hundred pictures to mark their joint hundred years, to celebrate the lives they've lived rather than mourn the years they'll miss.

I think you'd expect that a story involving a teenager diagnosed with a terminal illness would be full of sadness. But Lenni herself isn't - she's full of life, enthusiasm and humour - and her story reflects that. Margot on the other hand seems to be someone who's always missed out on things in life, but with Lenni's encouragement she determines to make one last grab for happiness.

This is a lovely, life-affirming, heart-warming tale of an unusual friendship in unusual circumstances, and of two women finding out that it isn't the length of life that matters, but of making the most of the time we have.

Thursday 11 February 2021

Superior by Angela Saini

"Where did the idea of race come from, and what does it mean? In an age of identity politics, DNA ancestry testing and the rise of the far-right, a belief in biological differences between populations is experiencing a resurgence. The truth is: race is a social construct. Our problem is we find this hard to believe.

In Superior, award-winning author Angela Saini investigates the concept of race, from its origins to the present day. Engaging with geneticists, anthropologists, historians and social scientists from across the globe, Superior is a rigorous, much needed examination of the insidious and destructive nature of the belief that race is real, and that some groups of people are superior to others."

Non-fiction books on politics and social issues don't usually form part of my reading, but I'd been watching David Olusoga on TV where he mentioned race science as part of the justification of slavery, then caught Angela Saini at the online version of  Edinburgh Book Festival talking in greater depth about the subject, and wanted to know more about how pseudo-scientific ideas take root and influence public opinion.  

In a vague way I knew before of the theory that people can be divided into different races, and that some are not as intelligent (or even as 'human') as others. It was used to give 'justification' for the slave trade, for robbing indigenous peoples of land and wealth, and returned in a different form in Nazi Germany. It's a ludicrous idea, and one that I believed was totally discredited today, not one still lurking around. Superior has definitely proved to be an eye-opening read.

Saini takes the reader through the development of race theory, how it affected Europeans interaction with indigenous population of  Africa, Australia and America, and how it continues today in the social and economic effects it has on black people. What surprised me most was its proliferation today. Modern genetic studies have surely proved once and for all that 'race' is a social or cultural concept, but people still want to believe they are in some way 'better' than others - than their neighbours, the folks in the next town, neighbouring country - and unfortunately there'll be someone on the internet or in specialist, right wing journals, ready to support their claims with alleged scientific evidence. 

Superior is definitely a book that deserves the adjective 'thought provoking'. I understand now where the prejudices of my parents' generation came from, and was left feeling that it's so very easy to feed those prejudices with dodgy scientific 'facts'.

Monday 1 February 2021

Astral Travel by Elizabeth Baines

 Review by The Mole

 About a charismatic but troubled Irishman and his effect on his family, explores the way that the secrets forged by cultural, religious and sexual prejudice can reverberate down the generations. It’s also about telling stories, and the fact that the tales we tell about ourselves can profoundly affect the lives of others. In a framing narration that exposes the slippery and contingent nature of story, an adult daughter, brought up on romantic lore about her now dead father but having experienced him very differently, tells how she tried to write about him, only to come up against too many mysteries and clashing versions of the family’s past. Yet when a buried truth emerges, the mysteries can be solved, and, via storytelling’s power of empathy, she finally makes sense of it all.

An author decides to write the biography of her father, a man who seemingly never loved her and a man she spent most of her growing up years in conflict with. But to flesh it out she needs to reconnect more closely with her family. It's then that she finds that there was so much that she didn't know.

Be prepared to become involved in the story as it unfolds, piece by piece, in random order, like a jigsaw, only revealing the picture to the reader and narrator at the end of the telling. He is a man that sees the worst when there's nothing to see. He's prone to very violent fits of rage that he turns against his family. But he's a man protecting a secret - one that the writer doesn't know but her sister thought everyone in the family knew.

It's a very tumultuous journey for the reader but a journey worth staying on. 

The more I learned, as a reader, about the man then the less I liked him but I couldn't stop reading. It's very well written and there are pieces along the journey many of us can relate to, but don't expect a happy ever after. I was left sympathising with the narrator and her family but also understanding a little of why she had missed so many signs growing up while her sister hadn't.

I really loved this story, which I received an ARC PDF version of, but it's not for the faint hearted. Highly recommended.

There ought to be a "If you are affected by any of the issues in this book..." to accompany it - but if you are then PLEASE find someone to talk to about it.

Genre: Adult fiction

Publisher: Salt Publishing