Category Archives: Penguin UK

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis

Sea Monsters by Chloe Aridjis Title: Sea Monsters
Author: Chloe Aridjis
Publisher: Chatto & Windus, Penguin Random House UK
ISBN: 978-1784741938
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 stars

Sea Monsters is a mesmerising novel. Really it is. About a seventeen-year-old Luisa who lives in Mexico City and takes off one autumn afternoon. She gets on to a bus to the Pacific Coast with a boy named Tomás who she barely knows. He is everything she isn’t and maybe that’s the pull. What are they on the lookout for? What is it that they are seeking? Well, for that you must really read the book.

Sea Monsters is coming-of-age in a way that I have rarely read before. Aridjis makes it even more great by jumping between narratives – from character-driven to research and plot driven which had me hooked. The storyline is most certainly unsettling, given the teenager being the protagonist and, on the run, however, it is the routine that drives the novel and the knowledge of how most voyages either fail or make it.

The book is about the search for meaning and what life is all about. It may also seem quite a cliché come to think of it, but it isn’t once you start seeing the writing for what it is, and more than anything else it is about individual quests which will leave you a dazzled reader. The book is all about Luisa’s choices and how they impact her and the ones around her. The writing reminded me of Lucia Berlin, Maggie Nelson, and a little bit of Anne Tyler as well (her initial novels).

Sea Monsters is the kind of book that is subtle, enjoyable, and raises pertinent questions along the way – they need not be answered though. They are asked perhaps to just get the reader to mull over them. It is the kind of book that is graceful, fantastical (read it and you shall know), and extremely eloquent. I would definitely reread it at some point.

 

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Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

BLRW Title: Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Dark Star Trilogy)
Author: Marlon James
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241315583
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 640
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 stars

Black Leopard Red Wolf is a piece of art – it needs to be read with such intensity and focus. This came to be as I went along with the read, it sort of grows on you and then you are hooked. I might gush right now, however, you just cannot read it in one sitting – you need time to devour it, embrace it, and most importantly love it. A lot of people have compared it to Tolkien or GRR Martin’s works but let me also tell you that it is extremely different from any of those writers’ creation. It is for one set in several worlds – each complete in their own and not so much – it challenges the reader at every step to figure and know more, only to turn back the pages to make the connect between places and people.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf may not also be everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, I would urge everyone who has little interest in literature to read it – only to be aware of what literature is and what it can achieve. With the sheer style of writing, that almost changes with every chapter, the crumbs of information left here and there for the reader to pick up on, and more than anything else it achieves to bring out a lot of emotions in the reader. From love to envy to desire (raging at that), to sometimes even anger towards situations and people caught in it, you just can’t get enough of BLRW.

BLRW is high-fantasy, it is also a book that challenges you, your world, the way you think, and how you most commonly perceive the world to be. It makes you see ancient worlds seeped in African myths that perhaps you weren’t aware of. So in that sense, it also makes you go down the rabbit hole of mythology that makes you a more-aware person at the end of it. For instance, the way James writes about the Anansi Tales or the Sundiata Epic and makes it a part of his story, is what most writers might have struggled with. And it is only the beginning – the first in the Dark Star trilogy, at around six hundred and twenty pages.

What is the book about?

The book is set in several ancient kingdoms. It is the quest for a missing boy. Tracker is one of the questers who has been hired by a mysterious figure to bring the boy back, given the fate of a kingdom. You get to realize this only when you are halfway through the book. So wait for it, and even then James doesn’t give it all away. Tracker isn’t the only one who has been hired. It is a motley crew – a chatty giant, a shape-shifting leopard, a witch, a buffalo, a girl raised to be the food of the ogres, and a water goddess who melts into puddles. Tracker is known for his nose. His nose is known to lead him to any missing person. This is all I shall reveal about him for now. Also, where Tracker is from? Where are the other characters, what is their role to play in this quest, etc are questions that I am sure will be answered in the remaining two parts of the trilogy.

The group dynamics are what one would expect – there is humour, there is conflict – sometimes with little or no resolution, and there is a camaraderie of sorts between them. Marlon’s Tracker and Leopard might be linked to Achilles and Patroclus, but they have so much more rage, fury, and desire.

Also, might I add that the start of the book gives you a list of 80 characters that will appear and reappear throughout the book or the trilogy in this case. While this is intimidating, it is most certainly very helpful to go back to time and again. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is violent, it is not your usual comfort-food story that is based on folktales that heal you. Men, women, and children are raped to death and that in a way only brings out the tenderness of the protagonist. While African mythology is largely at its base, plot, and structure, it is also earthy, salted with stunning chase and fight scenes, unfolding at a very leisurely pace. Marlon James’ world is superlatively unique and that’s what makes Black Leopard, Red Wolf so darn refreshing. I honestly don’t think that it can be compared to any works of high-fantasy. The worlds built – shape and reshape as you the reader, goes along with the book. There are surprises and shocks along the way that make the story tumble on its head, making you wonder as the reader if you ever got it right to begin with.

Might I also add that the queer perspective of the book is brilliant. I have not in my reading of fantasy literature come across a prominent queer protagonist (there are many on the surface and as sidebars to the protagonist, but just someone as complete as Tracker for sure, I haven’t) and Marlon James nails it down pat. The love so to say between Tracker and Leopard is of magnanimous proportions and that can only be understood once you are one-third into the book. For me as a queer reader, it was overwhelming, and full of love. It was the kind of love that I was searching for in fantasy literature but hardly found it and I am extremely glad that Marlon James wrote about it.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is a novel that resists categorisation and classification of any kind and rightly so. It is set in a world that is researched brilliantly given the myths handed down from Central and West Africa. It is a world that does not conform to gender. It breaks it to the core. It is a world of political corruption, queer identity, and love and some glorious sex while we are at it, between black men.

A lot of care and thought has gone in the making of these characters. Marlon James really couldn’t be bothered with the relatability aspect, and yet as a reader he leaves it all up to you. Queer love to me is at the heart of this novel – it is beautiful in every single way and stands up against patriarchy. Also, the following two books are versions of the same elements told by other characters – almost like a Rashomon style of telling the story. Yes, there are black fantasy writers such as N.K. Jemisin (whose Broken Earth trilogy also has queer characters), and Walter Mosley, and even Nalo Hopkinson to name a few, however none of them were or are able to bring out the aspect of race and queer identity in the same way that James has.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf is to be read for its dejected women – who are brave and fearless and will make their voices heard. Read it for the thrill, adventure, and quest that will grab you by the throat at every single page and not let you go. The plot intricacies that will make you want to reread it at least once more. Read it because it is subtle, in your face, loud, violent, and sexy. You must read it because it is the best you will read this year. Or at least, one of the best. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleTitle: Normal People
Author: Sally Rooney
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN:978-0571334643
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages:  288
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

So, I got to read this book last month and I must say that I enjoyed this one a lot more than “Conversations with Friends”. It felt as though Rooney has finally found her voice and she must stick to that. “Normal People” is a breath of fresh air that raises so many questions of class, race and above all, it speaks of love and what happens to it over time.

Connell and Marianne grow up in the same town in rural Ireland. They attend school together and are familiar with each other as Connell’s mother is a cleaner at Marianne’s house. Connell, after school,  visits his mother at Marianne’s house so they can go home together. And in that time he gets to know Marianne, who is plain, stubborn and friendless at school. They share a connection, a bond and soon discover that there is something between them. Furthermore, they both get accepted to Trinity College in Dublin and this is when things change. Marianne is now the popular one and Connell is on the sidelines. What happens next and how they realize that they will always be in and out of each other’s lives is what the book is about.

I think “Normal People” is one of those books that has the power to wake you up from your stupor and see love, for what it is – complicated yet simple and a whole lot of wrongs till you get it right. The writing hits you hard and there are a lot of books mentioned which I loved. Connell and Marianne are loveable, endearing, and there are times you also detest them for doing the things they do. But there is always hope and some redemption.

“Normal People” is written in a manner that speaks directly to the reader. Rooney comes to the point quite directly and that is extremely endearing. The characters’ hearts and emotions so to say are placed in front of the reader, without judgement and the story plays itself out quite meticulously, to the point of being extremely relatable.

Last Stories by William Trevor

Last Stories Title: Last Stories
Author: William Trevor
Publisher: Viking, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241337769
Genre: Short Stories, Literary Fiction
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Of all that I have read of William Trevor’s work, one thing is certain: There is a sense of magic to his prose. His sentences take you by the hand, lead you on (you give in quite readily as well) and for sure you will never be disappointed. As a reader, you will be at a loss, because you loved every story and that hasn’t happened in a while with a short-story collection. You then realize that you after all read Trevor and make a promise to reread the collection and you do. Nothing sweeter than to honour this kind of a promise.

I am obviously referring to Trevor’s last collection of stories, posthumously published and aptly titled “Last Stories” (though I think to some extent that was very lazy). “Last Stories” is a collection of stories that is mysterious, enigmatic, sparse and yet spot on – the pace of the prose is languid and easy and somehow has the potential to draw you right into it.

Now to the stories. Trevor wrote of common men and women – those who are lost and are struggling to come to terms with life. I think after Alice Munro, Trevor is hands down my second favourite short-story writer. Every story that I have read by him has left a mark on my mind, heart and life.

All through the book what tugged at my heart is loneliness and longing that is consistent in almost every story. “Mrs Crasthorpe” is about a middle-aged widow who is only seeking companionship, only to be rebuffed later on in the story by a widower. It definitely broke my heart and that too with luscious prose at its center. And then there is “The Piano Teacher’s Pupil” which is perhaps the most cheerful story of the collection. Miss Nightingale is the protagonist of this story who has known a bit about disappointment in her life, who in her fifties is almost reminiscing about her sixteen-year-old affair with a married man. Like I said, loneliness and longing are at the heart of every story in this collection and Trevor doesn’t let you forget that.

In “At the Caffe Daria” a wife whose husband left her for her best friend, renews her relationship with friend, after the husband’s death. And then there is “The Unknown Girl” featuring Emily, a housecleaner who commits suicide after speaking of love to the son of the house. William Trevor knows the harshness of the real world and yet somehow his characters never let go of some hope, in whatever way and manner, even in death so to say.

His stories spell disaster, confusion and loss of innocence (if there was any) for his characters. They grow-up but perhaps a little later. Or they also grow-up a little sooner than expected. Life is unfair and unkind to them and yet they are survivors all along. “Last Stories” will remind you of his genius and make you wonder why he had to leave us so soon. A beauty of a book.

 

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne

The Adulterants by Joe Dunthorne Title: The Adulterants
Author: Joe Dunthorne
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241305478
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

Ray as we are told is not a bad guy. He has just cheated on his pregnant wife a couple of times. He isn’t popular among his friends. On most days, he doesn’t like them either. His job is that of a freelance tech journalist and he doesn’t do much when it comes to that as well. Everything in his life is at a languid pace – nothing happens and nothing is expected to till a string of events take place, only to make him see that he has a knack to just make things spiral downward and perhaps affect lives (including his own) in ways he did not imagine.

“The Adulterants” is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud in so many places and this is despite the irony. The book is also dark in so many places. Dunthorne has this uncanny ability to make you stop in your tracks amidst all the humour and fun and let things take a turn that you never expected. And yes, there will be a lot of times when Ray will not be liked (as that is the point really), but what Dunthorne does is shows us human nature and nothing else and for that no one should be begrudged.

Sometimes tongue-in-cheek and most times just profound (in a way one can’t imagine really), “The Adulterants” is a book about coming-of-age (no fixed age you see) of an everyday man, trying to cope with life in his thirties. It isn’t as if Dunthorne isn’t aware of the fallacies of Ray, but it is also that the protagonist is just there and whether or not the reader warms up to him, you will still feel a sense of odd affection.

And how can I forget London, that plays such a major part in this story as the city where it all begins and ends. I just wanted to pack my bags and be there! “The Adulterants” is a perfect book for our times – of how we are, why we are and what does it take sometimes to see things differently.