Review: Borne by Jeff Vandermeer

borne.jpgThe Premise: before I start, be assured that I am not making any of this up. This is genuinely the plot of this book. In a futuristic, post-apocalyptic wasteland of a city, Rachel scavenges to stay alive in the midst of a seemingly endless power struggle between a shady drug dealer, an even shadier corporation called the Company, and a giant, winged bear called Mord. Yes, you read that right. Everything changes for Rachel when she finds Borne, a weird alien-creature-thing that she brings home to the Balcony Cliffs, the decimated home she shares with Wick, her mysterious scientist lover. Then loads of weird stuff happens.

Thoughts: it is hard to put into words exactly how much and why I enjoyed this book. Jeff Vandermeer is a literal genius at creating mindblowingly peculiar worlds and inhabiting them with a combination of terrifying monsters and lunatics as well as everyman (or, more specifically, everywoman) type characters with whom the reader can relate; he did it with the astounding Southern Reach trilogy, and he does it again with Borne. There’s so much that’s great about this book, and I don’t use the term lightly (my former head of faculty had a pathological hatred of anyone using the word ‘great’ in their reports and I hear his voice telling me off every time I say it – here, even he would have to agree).

Firstly, the world-building in Borne is exemplary. We’re given just enough information about the collapse of civilisation to prevent frustration, but so much remains an enigma. Rachel’s city is decimated, both under the protection of and under attack from Mord, and the circumstances of his creation are gradually unravelled as the book goes on; let’s take a moment to admire a writer who can make a three storey-high flying bear a central part of a story without it rendering the whole thing ridiculous. The ravaged city itself is a scene we’re familiar with from so much post-apocalyptic writing, as well as both films and TV, but this familiarity is both used and subverted in Vandermeer’s novel; I still can’t get some of the images – like the Company building destroyed by Mord, or the warehouse where Rachel and Borne witness the effects of this broken world all too clearly – out of my mind.

Vandermeer’s characters are exquisitely drawn too. As with Annihilation, a female character is our representative in the fictional world, and I’m obsessed with the way Vandermeer creates these women; Rachel is tough but damaged, not a cliched way, but in a fashion that creates a whole world of contradictions, just like a real person. I felt really invested in her fight to survive, as well as her relationships with Borne and Wick.

The plot of Borne is spellbinding; there are so many intense developments, terrifying events and unpredictable twists that the book took me by surprise repeatedly. The premise is dizzying enough, but, suffice to say, the craziness continues throughout.

In Conclusion: Borne is a really, brilliantly creepy book. It’s not realistic (one would hope), but creates such profoundly and tangibly unsettling imagery that it’s hard to tear yourself away and refocus on the real world. Vandermeer’s brand of sci-fi is so effective and inventive; there’s no way this isn’t going to be on my top ten list at the end of 2017.


Review: No Is Not Enough by Naomi Klein

no is not enough.pngThe Premise: (from NetGalley) Naomi Klein – award-winning journalist, bestselling author of No Logo, The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, scourge of brand bullies and corporate liars – gives us the toolkit we need to survive our surreal, shocking age.
Remember when love was supposed to Trump hate? Remember when the oil companies and bankers seemed to be running scared? What the hell happened? And what can we do about it? Naomi Klein shows us how we got here, and how we can make things better.

Thoughts: a good sign of how much I engaged with this book is that I highlighted about 7 million passages while reading. Reading it, I realised I was nodding violently approximately every 3 pages. This is quite an embarrassing habit, actually, and one which I hadn’t planned on developing until I was at least 80.

Klein gets into some deep topics, from the roots of Trump’s populist success, to the shady backgrounds of the man himself and his equally dubious Cabinet; the section on how members of Trump’s inner circle manipulated and benefited from the effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for example, makes for quite chilling reading.

There are some truly awful details here about Trump and his buddies, like his gloating soon after 9/11 about his tower now being the tallest in New York, while both Mike Pence and Rex Tillerson are skewered for their profiteering and general lack of humanity. One particularly galling piece of information mentioned by Klein is that Tillerson’s retirement package from ExxonMobil runs to $180million. So that will make him nice and unbiased about oil then.

In an age of ever-widening income inequality, a significant cohort of our elites are walling themselves off not just physically but also psychologically, mentally detaching themselves from the collective fate of the rest of humanity. This secessionism from the human species (if only in their minds) liberates them not only to shrug off the urgent need or climate action but also to devise ever more predatory ways to profit from current and future disasters and instability.

Since last year and the various political upheavals of Brexit here in the UK and Trump’s victory in the US, I’ve been reading more and more about neoliberalism and the political conflicts that have led us to where we are now, and No Is Not Enough was the perfect read for me in this respect; Klein’s agenda largely reflects my own political views and the content of the book served to add to what I already know as well as adding new, horrifying information. What’s important to note is that, while Klein highlights occasionally terrifying details, the aim of the book is a positive one; building on the current climate of protest marches and an empowered opposition, No Is Not Enough encourages engagement and the seeking of positive changes. It’s an eye-opening read but not a depressing one.

In Conclusion: obviously, No Is Not Enough will not appeal to anyone who isn’t interested in politics or, you know, the planet. Klein is putting forward a specific political viewpoint and raising the idea of a liberal agenda, opposing neoliberalism and arguing for firm action on climate change. If these aren’t your views, this probably isn’t the book for you. It’s an unambiguously anti-conservative message, which fits entirely with my own views, so I found No Is Not Enough invigorating and vital. I’ve not read Klein before, but I will be rectifying that shortly.

YA Review: City of Saints and Thieves by Natalie C. Anderson

city of saints.pngThe Premise: sixteen year old Tina is haunted by the murder of her mother, and she’s sure she knows who did it. Plotting revenge from the criminal underbelly of Sangui City (a fictional location in Kenya), Tina finally finds herself in the office of the rich man who she blames for her mother’s death, but is confronted by his son; together, they are determined to find the truth.

Thoughts: where to start with this book? City of Saints and Thieves has an exciting and intriguing plot, with a violent undercurrent and pervading sense of menace. It took me a while to feel convinced by this atmosphere, but, once I bought into it, I was almost swept up in Tina’s battle for the truth, as well as her struggle to take care of the younger sister whose safety is threatened by Tina’s illegal activities. There’s a lot going on, all tied together by Tina’s strong and determined personality.

The book is unlike anything else I’ve read in YA, with its political context of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which Tina and her mother left as refugees years ago; Anderson conveys a genuine sense of danger and fear concerning the tumultuous conditions of people there, using her experience working with the UN on refugee relief in the region. I was a little skeptical about the book initially, as my preference would generally be to seek out a novel written by someone from the country at the centre of the story. The DRC is certainly portrayed here as a perilous and frightening country, but a cursory look at news headlines backs this up; only a few months ago, for example, militia decapitated over 40 policemen. Although this is obviously really troubling subject matter, it’s true, and this kind of hard-hitting political content doesn’t appear very often in YA. City of Saints and Thieves isn’t an overly didactic or preachy novel in any way, but it is hugely educational.

In Conclusion: an intriguing and sometimes alarming combination of wild plotting and real-life horrors, City of Saints and Thieves is a fresh and ambitious addition to the YA genre. I was really impressed with Anderson’s dedication to her stories – both the fictional one and its political parallel – and the result is something gripping.

The Monthly Round-Up: June

Because I am a ridiculous person, I set my Goodreads challenge at 200 this year, with the stupid aim of actually trying to complete it by halfway through the year. Don’t ask me why: I have no idea. Anyway, with June’s 33 books, I’ve got tantalisingly close with 198. Why couldn’t I just have read 2 more books this year? I will never get over the disappointment.

  1. A Jigsaw of Fire and Stars by Yaba Badoe
    This YA about a girl who survived the sinking of a ship of migrants didn’t quite grab me; the magical realism confused the plot, which otherwise was very hard-hitting.
  2. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes
    Possibly too snarky even for me, which is really saying something.
  3. Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler
    I’ve read a few of these adaptations of Shakespeare plays for the Hogarth series; this was a generally light-hearted spin on The Taming of the Shrew.
  4. Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith
    This was inventive and wild; a teenage boy dealing with confusion over his sexuality at the same time as an apocalyptic invasion of giant bugs is a fairly original plot, I suppose. It used the word “horny” about 75 billion times though which annoyed me.
  5. David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music by Darryl W. Bullock
    Probably the best title I’ve seen all year; this is a chronicle of the lives and impact of LGBT artists, both well-known and obscure. It’s really fascinating.
  6. Rat Queens, Volume 2: The Far Reaching Tentacles of N’rygoth by Kurtis Wiebe
    I enjoyed this even more than the first volume. I love the Rat Queens, the artwork, the language – it’s an awesome series.
  7. The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan
    This has been on my Kindle for ages and I read it as part of my resolution to actually read the books I’ve accumulated. I liked it; it’s a sweet story about a man who collects lost things and the woman charged with reuniting them with their owners.
  8. Spellbook of the Lost and Found by Moira Fowley-Doyle
    I loved The Accident Season so I was excited to read this and it didn’t disappoint. Fowley-Doyle writes in such a mesmerising and magical way, very like Alice Hoffman, and it works so beautifully.
  9. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
    This was far less serpent-based than I expected, and while I actually really hate snakes, this was a bit of a disappointment. There’s some nice character stuff and I enjoyed the Essex setting (being from that illustrious county myself) but it was a bit too slow-paced for me.
  10. Behind the Song edited by K.M. Walton
    A YA anthology of writing inspired by songs, I really liked parts of this, mainly the short stories. David Arnold is in it, so it’s a win.
  11. Troublemakers by Catherine Barter
    I enjoyed this YA novel about a teenage girl wrestling with her discoveries about her activist mother set against the backdrop of political tension in London. It’s an interesting and ambitious set of ideas for a YA novel and it works.
  12. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
    I liked this a lot; the mix of magical realism (doors that open into other countries) and all-too-real political conflict makes this a really special and intriguing book.
  13. Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge
    This is a really cool verse novel about a teenage boy who takes up poetry when mono forces him out of baseball for a while. I’m determined to teach this next year.
  14. Black Bazaar by Alain Mabanckou
    Much like Broken Glass by the same author, this follows a misfit in his encounters with a select bunch of weirdos. This time it’s set in Paris, but otherwise Mabanckou’s quirks remain.
  15. The Bombs that Brought Us Together by Brian Conaghan
    Very topical (refugees, bullying governments) and something I’ll be adding to my ‘recommended reading’ lists for my students, but not a book that I loved.
  16. Macbeth on the Loose by Robert Walker
    It’s that weird time of year when I read a million things to come up with new ideas for next year’s teaching. This is a play about a school play of Macbeth. It’s quite clever but a bit too consciously school-y for me.
  17. Reading as Collective Action by Nicholas Hengen Fox
    A massively inspiring academic book about the idea of reading as a tactic for understanding or promoting social change; this is a brilliant and fascinating read.
  18. Free? Stories Celebrating Human Rights edited by Amnesty International
    My second collection of Amnesty-curated stories, this is for readers younger than the target audience of Here I Stand, and I’ll be using it at school next year. The writers cleverly interweave hard-hitting social commentary into stories which never seem hectoring or laden down with issues.
  19. Red Rising by Pierce Brown
    I was so disappointed with this; I found the story far too reminiscent of The Hunger Games, but far more boring. I can’t see myself continuing with the series, even though I’ve been told it gets better.
  20. Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
    Disturbing and brilliant, this is a feminist dystopia in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale, set on a creepy island in a world that appears to have been otherwise destroyed. When I say “disturbing,” don’t assume I’m just over-using that word. I was, and am still, disturbed.
  21. Sally Heathcote: Suffragette by Mary M. Talbot, Kate Charlesworth and Bryan Talbot
    A graphic novel focusing on a real movement through the eyes of a fictional creation, this covers a lot of the rivalries between different branches of the campaign for female suffrage. It’s informative and interesting.
  22. Family Life by Akhil Sharma
    A brief but affecting story of a family that leaves India for the US, only to have their lives impacted by tragedy.
  23. A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
    The follow-up to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, this is lovely and very character-driven; much like the first book, not much happens and it’s all about the characters.
  24. Noughts and Crosses (play version) adapted from Malorie Blackman’s novel by Dominic Cooke
    I was on the hunt for a topical and modern play for teaching year 9 next year, and I found it. I can’t remember why, but I didn’t really love the book when I read it a few years ago; I think, however, that my students will get a lot out of reading this.
  25. The Girls by Emma Cline
    What a massively over-hyped book! This was really dull. I was intrigued by the idea of the Manson Family-esque cult, but the story is told from the viewpoint of an annoying girl who’s barely involved, so it was all very disappointing.
  26. Dear Boy by Emily Berry
    Smart and sophisticated poetry with plenty of arch commentary on modern life. I liked this a lot.
  27. Our Dark Duet by V.E. Schwab
    I’m not really sure how I felt about this. It seemed to go on for a long time before a central plot emerged, and my engagement wasn’t helped by the fact that I’d inevitably forgotten what happened in the first book. I really like the world of Verity, but this didn’t quite live up to expectations.
  28. Search Party by George the Poet
    Once again, here I am reading interesting things in the hope of finding gems for inspiring my students from September, and this was another success. I need to listen to George’s performances of these poems, but even on the page, they’re virbant and hard-hitting. It’s a brilliant collection.
  29. Ketchup Clouds by Annabel Pitcher
    A slightly weird YA book: a teenage girl writes to a man on death row in Texas, slowly revealing her role in a terrible accident. I didn’t quite connect with it; the idea is intriguing but the narrator is really immature and quite annoying.
  30. Moonrise by Sarah Crossan
    If there is one thing in life guaranteed to make me nearly cry, it’s a Sarah Crossan book. This is another verse novel; it’s about a boy whose brother is on death row in Texas (it is a weird coincidence that I read two books about this in quick succession – I’m not obsessed with death row or anything) and it’s predictably excellent. And heartbreaking.
  31. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather
    This short classic about pioneers on the prairies reminded me a lot of Annie Proulx. I was, however, annoyed that Penguin have brought this one out in the pretty Pocket Classics range but not the other two books in the trilogy. This creates a dilemma.
  32. Rapture by Carol Ann Duffy
    I read this sitting on the floor in the school library and it’s lovely; I’ve been trying to slog through Duffy’s The Bees for ages and not got very far, but this collection is far more gorgeous and cohesive.
  33. No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need by Naomi Klein
    Really compelling explanation for Trump’s victory, the problems it represents and how it can be resisted. I’ve not read any Klein before but I’ll definitely be looking up her other books.