Review: Swing Time by Zadie Smith

swing timeA new Zadie Smith book is, in my life, something to get excited about. Her latest, Swing Time, begins in the early nineties with the friendship between the narrator and Tracey, two mixed-race London girls with a Saturday morning dance class in common. Later, story expands to focus on the narrator in her adult life, working for a pseudo-Britney Spears pop star.

I loved the early part of Swing Time, with its focus on the two young girls, alongside Smith’s seamlessly interwoven commentary about race, culture, friendship, family and London itself. The depiction of friendship between young girls is universal, and there’s plenty that’s infused with pathos, from Tracey’s insistence that her absent father is a dancer with Michael Jackson rather than just a parent with no interest in his daughter, to the narrator’s realisation that her friend’s dancing talent vastly exceeds her own. I was also really engaged in the narrator’s relationship with her gloriously complex mother, whose campaign to better herself through education occasionally appears pompous and creates distance between herself and her daughter.

When the timeframe switched to the later period, in which the narrator takes up a job with a self-aggrandising pop star with an aim to save Africa, my interest level dipped slightly. Tracey and the narrator suffered a childhood indignity as a consequence of one of Aimee’s songs, and the interconnectedness of the two timeframes is pleasing, but the whole storyline lacked the emotive impact of the earlier sections. As the two periods begin to alternate, the disparity in interest became more notable. When the plot moves away from Aimee’s tedious pop star antics and into her charitable work in an unspecified African country (The Guardian’s review says it’s the Gambia, and they probably know more about this than I do), things do become more interesting, but these sections seemed to me to have so little to do with the first part of the novel that I felt like I was reading two completely different books: both worthy and interesting, but awkward companions.

As a side note, I have developed a loathing for the annoying trope of not giving the narrator a name. It makes it really hard to review a book and makes me paranoid about having just failed to notice what the name actually was. Sadly, Swing Time falls into this category. I expect there’s a clever point to be made about the fact that the narrator has no real identity of her own but that stretches my patience over a couple of hundred pages.

Ultimately, Zadie Smith’s worst day is better than nearly everyone else’s best, and Swing Time is a book that provides plenty of entertainment as well as thought-provoking content. The first strand of the story really grabbed my attention¬†and, as Smith brings the story back to this late on,¬†my ultimate response to Swing Time is positive.

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Review: Faithful by Alice Hoffman

faithfulThe Premise: Shelby’s life has been destroyed by the accident that left her best friend, Helene, in a coma. Haunted by the role she played in what happened, Shelby rejects anyone who is nice to her, shaves her head and lives in the basement of her parents’ house. Most of the novel is about her attempt to slowly put her life back together and deal with her guilt.

 

Happy Bookworm: I’m a big fan of Alice Hoffman; it’s been a while since I’ve read any of her books, having slowly accumulated a large collection from the good old charity shops of Yorkshire. Like her other books, Faithful makes you care about the characters, even when their behaviour is terrible; Shelby’s guilt makes her behave horribly, but somehow Hoffman invests her with enough pathos to keep the reader on her side. There’s an increasingly important subplot in which a mystery correspondent sends Shelby postcards with messages on to keep her going, and I found this aspect of the book quite lovely. Hoffman effectively shows the complexity of Shelby’s survivor’s guilt, and the subtle ways in which the writer presents her gradual recovery work really well. I felt very emotionally invested in Shelby’s story, as well as the lives of those around her.

Sad Bookworm: I was hoping for a little more of the magical realism I’ve enjoyed so much in other Hoffman novels, like The Story Sisters or Practical Magic. Helene receives many visitors who believe that, somehow, in her comatose state, she can heal them of their sicknesses and worries, but Helene herself isn’t a sufficiently significant presence in the novel for this to be developed. I know some people really enjoy reading sad books, in which case this is a perfect read; Shelby goes through a lot of emotional pain before anything nice begins to happen, and, as I turned each page, I wondered what misery was awaiting me. As I’ve said, I was emotionally invested, but I was also quite miserable, which is not something I particularly enjoy. I actively avoid the work of Jodi Picoult, but Faithful did remind me a little of the two Picoult books I’ve endured and the reasons I won’t return to her writing.

In Conclusion: Hoffman is an excellent and prolific writer, and, while Faithful doesn’t fully reflect the themes and quality of her other books, it’s still a novel I’d recommend, unless you’re looking for a pick-me-up, in which case step away now.

Review: Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall

prisoners of geography.jpgThe Premise: Tim Marshall is former diplomatic editor at Sky News. Aside from this probably meaning that he has at some point suffered the misfortune of having to talk to Eamon Holmes, it also means he knows everything. Subtitled Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics, Prisoners of Geography goes through ten areas of the planet and gives an incredible amount of information in a short space of time, all of which will make you a fascinating conversationalist and probable pub quiz champion.

Happy Bookworm: Marshall takes the reader on a world tour, spanning from Africa to the USA, Japan to the Arctic, explaining the ways in which a nation’s geography determines its politics. This is geopolitics, and I am now obsessed with it. I learned so much from reading this book. For example, I now understand that a system of connected rivers is essential to building a successful economy and that the whole of human history has been dictated by a bunch of dudes drawing straight lines across maps a couple of hundred years ago. I was particularly struck by the fact that global political dealings are entirely predicated on the fact that all countries are completely paranoid about someone else trying to steal their stuff.
I now actually know what the Louisiana Purchase was and have an understanding of the conflict between India and Pakistan, previously only encountered in the very boring Salman Rushdie book, Shalimar the Clown. I can now also talk convincingly about why Russia is a quite scary country. Marshall guides us through all this information with the occasional smirk and some personal anecdotes and predictions, and his tone is authoritative without lecturing.

Sad Bookworm: Prisoners of Geography is too short (only about 260 pages). Why are so many terrible books so long when a complete gem like this is over far too soon? Additionally, I am now very scared of North and South Korea ever falling out with each other again. There is also a very brief mention of the UK’s vote to leave the EU and consequently I had to have a little cry while reading.

In Conclusion: I was contemplating purchasing a copy of this for my husband but now probably won’t bother as I kept regaling him with the fascinating facts I gleaned from reading it myself. It’s a brilliantly written book and the subject matter is completely compelling; it draws together a little of what you know already with a whole lot of information that you didn’t know/used to know but forgot due to having to learn the words to Gangsta’s Paradise or something equally academic. I fully intend to use the knowledge I have gained from Prisoners of Geography to educate/annoy/argue with anyone unfortunate enough to speak to me. You have been warned.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Recent Additions to My TBR

This week’s TTT, hosted by The Broke and The Bookish, is about the books we’ve recently added to our TBRs. I literally cannot stop myself from browsing Amazon/going to Waterstones/requesting books from the library, so my TBR is in a state of perpetual growth. It’s basically scary.

White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
This was meant to be a Halloween read, but my library request took a while so I’ll be reading it in November. It involves a girl eating chalk and sounds creepy.

The World Without Us by Mireille Juchau
I found this while trawling through the Not the Booker list, compiled by The Guardian. I don’t like to read very detailed synopsises (is that a word?) but the key points I remember from this one are that a girl has stopped speaking and her mum goes wandering about with an empty pram. Or something.

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
My mission to read my way around the world continues with this, which is set in India and is about politics, terrorism and family tragedy.

The Bone Sparrow by Zana Fraillon
I’ve had my eye on this YA book about a child refugee for a while. I anticipate provoking my thoughts and probably making me cry.

Iron Cast by Destiny Soria
This is set in the 19th century (yay) in Boston (also yay) and is a fantasy which addresses ideas about race. It sounds excellent.

Jane Austen: The Secret Radical by Helena Kelly
I love Austen, obviously, and I’m intrigued by the idea of this non-fiction book, which addresses the more political subtexts of her work. This is a very neglected area. I can’t wait to read this and annoy people by telling them all the things I’ve learned from it.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
Lots of people are talking about this at the moment; set in a black community in Southern California and focusing on a young woman’s pregnancy at the outset, it sounds really interesting. Also, it’s short. Hurrah.

The Blazing Star by Imani Josey
I’ve just been approved to read this on Netgalley. It involves time traveling to ancient Egypt. Yes please.

Let Them Eat Chaos by Kate Tempest
I have been looking forward to Tempest’s new poetry since reading Brand New Ancients and Hold Your Own this year. I have a feeling this is probably brilliant.

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Having read The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle recently, I’m excited to read this biography of Jackson.