Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong

radio sunrise.jpgThe Premise: Ifiok is a young journalist working for Radio Sunrise, a government-sponsored station in Lagos. He wants to do the right thing but doesn’t really try very hard and, consequently, finds his life beset by complications; from the forced end to his radio drama to the appearance of a young and attractive intern, Ifiok really needs to be a little more morally proactive than he actually is.

Thoughts: Radio Sunrise is a really easy and quick read (under 200 pages), but one which introduces a range of more serious and complex topics. I’ve read a number of books set in Lagos recently, and the idea of corruption seems to be a running theme; as Ifiok makes one stupid decision after another (mainly involving an inability to keep his trousers on), it’s easy to question how much the circumstances that surround him have nurtured this behaviour.

My favourite part of the novel was the later section, when the opportunity to make a documentary about ex-militants takes Ifiok back to his parents’ home, where his lack of a wife is a serious concern. Ifiok’s moral hypocrisy in meeting and judging a woman who seems perfect aside from her mysteriously nice jewellery collection exposes the satirical nature of Isong’s novel, in which cultural ideas are skewered.

In Conclusion: for anyone wishing to read more diversely, Radio Sunrise is a good pick; it’s short but interesting and engaging, and its setting and themes create some nice intersections with other recent novels, like Chibundu Onuzo’s Welcome to Lagos, which came out around the same time. I think the blurb’s description of Radio Sunrise as “hilarious” is pushing it a bit, but it is an entertaining and rewarding read.

YA Review: A Quiet Kind of Thunder by Sara Barnard

quiet kind of thunder.jpgThe Premise: Steffi is elective mute. Rhys is deaf. The headmaster at their school pairs them up, assuming their shared communication problems will help them to bond and, in a rare display of successful fictional teacher interference, he’s right: Steffi and Rhys’ relationship quickly develops into something Steffi never expected. But does their relationship just face too many obstacles?

Thoughts: since the release of Barnard’s debut novel, Beautiful Broken Things, I’ve felt like the black sheep of book blogging; while everyone else in the world seems to have adored the book, I didn’t like it. This made me feel particularly awkward when attending a book event and meeting Sara Barnard who, by the way, is lovely.

So I’m really pleased to have enjoyed her second novel far, far more. Where Beautiful Broken Things‘ narrator was annoyingly non-descript, Steffi is a fully drawn and dynamic character; it’s also abundantly clear that Barnard has thoroughly researched Steffi’s problems, and so this is also a really enlightening read, particularly in its depiction of anxiety. The way in which Steffi’s issues are presented, and the varying types of support (or lack thereof) that she receives from her family and friends seemed to cover the full range of responses.

While romance is certainly an important part of the plot, it’s kind of organic and sweet, developing slowly (like the quiet thunder of the title) until it seems like the natural thing to happen. It’s not unduly dramatic, although the complication late on did draw more parallels with the accident-based denouement of Barnard’s previous book. I liked Steffi and Rhys; they were the sort of couple you can root for, without finding them overly nauseating. I liked how Barnard presented some of the specific pitfalls of teen relationships too; it seemed far more realistic than some of the more rose-petals-and-burning-candles portrayals seen elsewhere in YA.

I think Barnard is particularly good at showing the relationships between teens and their parents. As a parent (although to an admittedly quite stroppy four year old rather than an actual adolescent), I found myself empathising with Caddy’s parents in Beautiful Broken Things when they banned her from seeing bad influence Suzanne, and I felt similarly here, with Steffi’s parents and step-parents all expressing their own concerns about her university plans and burgeoning relationship. The best YA, like a Pixar film, will appeal to both teen and adult readers on different levels, and A Quiet Kind of Thunder really does that, I think.

Also, it has a beautiful cover. Can we just take a moment to think about that?

In Conclusion: I’m glad I picked up A Quiet Kind of Thunder; it’s touching and sweet, but also very realistic and quite brutal at times. Very much like being a teenager, then. I recommend it.

Baileys Prize Long-List Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

the power.jpgThe Premise: overnight, the world’s girls develop strange, electrical powers, including the ability to fatally zap people at will. Suddenly, women are the dominant sex. The Power is narrated through the perspective of Roxy, the daughter of a gangster; Allie, who uses her newly developed powers to escape an abusive home and later becomes a figurehead for a spiritual movement; Margot, an ambitious mayor with a daughter whose powers are problematic, and Tunde, a Nigerian man with journalistic dreams who seizes the opportunity to chronicle what’s happening.

Thoughts: a week after finishing this book, I’m still not sure I can properly formulate sentences about it. I stayed up past my bedtime to finish it and then found myself unable to sleep, so focused was I on the issues The Power raises.

Firstly, it’s a really intriguing and compelling story. The shift in power from men to women is a simple enough premise, but is explored here with great complexity. There are moments of gender-role-related satire, like when men are advised not to go out without personal alarms, and Alderman’s creation of a world in which women are in charge is certainly an engaging one; not one, however, that seems particularly appealing based on what Alderman shows us here. It’s this area which I had a problem with, and I’m still troubled by it. The creation of a ruling sisterhood seems like an appealing thing (I’m thinking of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, for example), but Alderman takes the idea of power and the means of maintaining it too far, in my opinion; anyone thinking of reading The Power should be aware that rape occurs more than once in the novel, and the apparent portrayal of it as an inevitable manifestation of one group’s power over another did not convince or engage me.

It’s disappointing that this was my over-riding feeling on finishing The Power as, prior to the last quarter, I found the characters and their related but distinct stories really interesting. Margot’s political machinations, juxtaposed with her (occasionally questionable) concern for her daughter, provides a fascinating aspect to the over-arching plot, while the intersecting stories of Roxy and Allie also appealed to me.
The book’s jacket features a wildly enthused Margaret Atwood proclaiming The Power to be “electrifying! Shocking!” and that “you’ll think twice about everything,” and my literary idol is not lying there; there was certainly plenty in The Power that shocked me. The Atwood influence is, I think, very evident when reading Alderman’s book; at times, it is as if she has read a chapter of The Handmaid’s Tale and tried to rewrite it; the framing narrative, consisting of a male author writing to Alderman for advice on his novel, is the closest thing to The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Historical Notes I’ve ever seen. And it works, and comparing something to Atwood’s masterpiece is certainly not an insult; it just felt a little too close at times.

Conclusion: Having written my thoughts, I am no closer to deciding what they actually are. It’s very confusing. The Power is definitely an interesting book and one that is worth reading. I’m just not sure how productive it is to construct such a terrifying picture of a world dominated by women. My house is dominated by women and it’s awesome.

Have you read The Power? I feel a really urgent need to discuss this book with people, so, if you have, let’s dissect it in the comments.

Review: Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi

ghana-must-goThe Premise: the Sais are a Nigerian-Ghanaian family, separated by geographical distance and deep emotional strife. Brought back together by tragedy, they are forced to confront their problems.

Thoughts: that summary made this book sound really cheesy, which it isn’t; I just don’t want to say too many things about the plot, because I didn’t know much about it when I read it and I think that helped me to enjoy it. Selasi has created a classic dysfunctional family, which is my number one favourite literary trope; having moved from Ghana to Boston, Kweku Sai and his wife, Fola, raise their four children in comfort until Kweku suffers a professional injustice and abandons his family. It’s a decision that impacts on each of them, and from which the family never truly recovers. Selasi begins the novel with Kweku back in Ghana, before focusing on each of his children and his estranged wife in turn. This, along with the incredibly poetic writing style, makes Ghana Must Go slightly confusing to begin with, but it’s absolutely worth sticking with.
The slow reveal of details about the Sai parents and their children – Olu, who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor; twins Taiwo and Kehinde, clearly deeply haunted by something in their past, and “baby” Sadie, forced to serve as Fola’s emotional support after Kweku’s disappearance – kept me utterly intrigued throughout Ghana Must Go. The sometimes dreamlike writing meant that I had to occasionally go back and reread a paragraph to check that I hadn’t missed anything; it’s not a book to skim-read. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the big reveals and was only half-right; Selasi plants clues in really subtle ways, which means the final few chapters are shocking at times, but there are clear pointers earlier on.

Conclusion: Ghana Must Go had been on my TBR list for months, and I’m so pleased I picked it up; it’s a really engaging read and I enjoyed my time with the Sai family. Selasi has crafted them beautifully, making each of them sympathetic without idealising them. I really liked the details about Ghana too, which give the novel such a rich sense of setting. I’ll be looking out for more from Taiye Selasi.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think? As always, I’d love to know if I’ve inspired you to pick it up. Recommendations always gratefully received too.