Tag Archives: Penguin UK

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. 

Whistle in the Dark by Emma Healey

Whistle in the Dark Title: Whistle in the Dark
Author: Emma Healey
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0241327623
Genre: Literary Fiction
Pages: 336
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I read “Elizabeth Is Missing” some time ago and loved it. Having read that, I had very high expectations from “Whistle in the Dark” and thankfully it did not disappoint at all.

Jen and Hugh are a fairly ordinary couple – middle aged, middle class and not with too many aspirations, or so it seems. Their eldest daughter, Meg has left home. The younger one, Lana lives with them and is a recluse, like most teenagers, are meant to be. At the heart of it though, Lana is a troubled young girl, who is undergoing therapy and has tried to harm herself. Jen wants the closeness back with her daughter, so she takes her for a painting holiday to Peak District. Lana disappears for four whole days and is discovered, well and bruised and shaken, but alive.

Lana will not speak with her parents about it, no matter what. She says she doesn’t recall anything but Jen refuses to believe that. She is devastated by the loss of her daughter and relieved when they find her, but she can’t place her head around Lana’s inability to tell them what happened. Jen starts recreating in her head what could have happened, getting paranoid like any mother would, speaking to Lana’s friends, checking her social media accounts for traces and trying to scrutinize her memories of the trip. All of this is happening and Meg is being ignored, feeling left out.

“Whistle in the Dark” is about parents and children and the complex relationship they share. It is about loss, grieving and wondering what will happen when children will leave the nest and fly in the open sky. I loved the writing. It is frighteningly real, sharp, life-like and almost presents both sides of the story. Even though I am not a parent, somehow I could relate to Jen more than Lana. It was almost as if her pain and determination to protect her children, became immensely real.

“Whistle in the Dark” is a book that makes you think of the social dynamics of our times and what perhaps love is all about, parental love more than anything else. A read that is relevant, empathetic, and profound.

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.

Meatless Days by Sara Suleri

Meatless Days by Sara Suleri Title: Meatless Days
Author: Sara Suleri
Publisher: Viking
ISBN: 978-0241342466
Genre: Biography
Pages: 192
Source: Publisher
Rating: 5 Stars

Books that are reread are mostly far and few in between and when that happens often, you must rejoice. “Meatless Days” by Sara Suleri is one such book. I remember reading it for the first time, a couple of years ago and loving it. It was unlike something I had ever read. A memoir that was so irreverent and profound at the same time. Well, it was refreshing to hear someone write like that, as though Sara was in my living room having a conversation with me about herself and her family.

“Meatless Days” is a book that perhaps cannot be even bracketed into a genre and yet for all practical purposes, we must. The complexity and intricacy of both her language and the content of the book astounds the reader, makes you laugh and sometimes make you introspect.

The book is about Pakistan, postcolonial, post-independence and a world that treats its women way differently than its men. It is about Suleri’s Welsh mother, her Pakistani father, her tenacious grandmother and her five siblings. She writes about the wandering soul with such soul that you can only empathize.

Her journey out of Pakistan, the gaze of an outsider and yet strangely an insider is a universal emotion that perhaps every reader can relate with. At the same time, for some it might prove to be a difficult read as the nine chapters are completely disjointed and string together beautifully through Suleri’s distillation of experiences of love, loss and family, and takes form in powerful poetry-like prose.

“Meatless Days” changes with every chapter – the form does, the writing to some extent and so will your emotions as you turn the pages. Suleri’s prose is unique, may rarely come across as too complex (but that’s only because she has so much to say) and yet so liberating and rewarding at the end of it all. A lost-classic for sure, which I am glad has been revived as a part of Penguin Women Writers initiative.

The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature by Viv Groskop

The Anna Karenina Fix Title: The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature
Author: Viv Groskop
Publisher: Fig Tree, Penguin UK
ISBN: 978-0241308639
Genre: Literary Non-Fiction, Memoirs
Pages: 224
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 Stars

I am a sucker for Russian Literature. I have read Anna Karenina twice and the Brothers Karamazov about two and a half times (I dropped it half-way the third time, because it was getting too much for once to handle) and not to forget Master and Margarita about twice as well. There are many more Russian works of great significance and most of it is classical or semi-modern. What I also love is books about books and “The Anna Karenina Fix” merges these elements beautifully. It is a book about books but Russian Literature and how it can save your life (well in more ways than one) and also how one can actually learn from it.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” by Viv Groskop is a handy guide to life as learned from the works of Russian Literature. Be it Chekov or Turgenev or Akhmatova, every book or author chosen by Groskop in this book has had a role to play in her life – in making her live it day after day, month after month and year after year. It is a warm and fuzzy (well, not so fuzzy) book about humans, their frailties, passions, desires and weaknesses when it comes to that.

The book charts the author’s relationship with everything Russian – language, art, culture and how she weaves her memories with the classics is something any reader who loves books will enjoy. At the same time, Groskop introduces the Russian classics to you if you hadn’t heard of them and does a very good job of that. Also, even though there are spoilers, but that will not take away from the experience of reading these Russian books if you want to at some point.

“The Anna Karenina Fix” is a solid book about living life and how to actually go about it through some Russian books. It is sublime, lucid and provides a great reading list as well. She also could have gotten preachy about the life lessons, however that doesn’t happen at all. If anything, it is all about what you can take away personally from these books and apply to your life (if you want to, that is).

Academic research material is not heavy-handedly used in the book. If anything, the language is extremely simple, just as it should be. “The Anna Karenina Fix” is the kind of book that creeps up on you unexpectedly and stays long after. It is also the kind of book that will make you read other books, which is a double-win if you ask me. So, go, read this book!