Sunday 31 December 2017

Review: The Power

The Power by Naomi Alderman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Last review of 2017! One that goes out with a bang! Or does it...?

The Power. Winner of Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. 'Electrifying,' says Margaret Atwood. 'A stone-cold genius,' says Sarah Perry. '… it's as thought-provoking as that Atwood great, The Handmaid's Tale', says a reviewer from The Pool. This is one book that has a lot to live up to: to the reading world in general, and to me personally because I've been meaning to read it all year! I missed out on ARC copy a long while back, but finally had it gifted to me by my incredibly generous Secret Santa, Liz - go check out her blog - arranged through The Broke and The Bookish, that brings us wonderful Top Ten Tuesdays.

So. The big question. Does it live up to the hype?

I've got very mixed feelings about The Power and it bears looking at in more detail. The premise is, without a doubt, fascinating. Basically, it's speculative/dystopic fiction about a world where the physical power struggle between the sexes is reversed: women are more physically powerful than men. This 'power' comes as an electrical charge emitting from a woman's skein – an organ found on top of the collarbone. Now, Alderman has made some concerted effort to create a scientific basis for this, but falls rather short. In the acknowledgements, she thanks a scientist who helped her look at marine biology (electric eels) and the BBC science unit; yet even me, someone with just A levels in science, can see ways it could have been dealt with realistically. Realising this won't be a problem for a lot of readers – it's fiction, damnit! – I'll move on, and I did actually manage to put it behind me and get swept up by the story.

Alderman has a shifting focus between four central characters, all in third person; however, each voice is distinct. There's Roxy from England: possibly the most powerful woman in the world, from a shady and influential family. Then there's Allie, rechristened Eve, a mixed race girl from the US who's been pushed from one unsuccessful foster placement to another for all of her childhood. There's Tunde from Lagos, a young man with an entrepreneurial mind, climbing his way through life from lounging beside a pool to being one of the world's most famous photojournalists. And Margot: a US politician with grand aspirations and a disturbed teenage daughter.

Initially unconnected, their lives become inextricably intertwined from 'The Day of the Girls' onwards, when teenage girls worldwide acquire 'The Power' this pseudo scientific, more supernatural, devastating ability.

This electricity within them can hurt people, can torment people, torture, even kill. The world as we know it is turned on its head as women, as opposed to men, become the symbol – more than that: the actual embodiment – of strength. Patriarchy dissolves. Now men are afraid to walk alone, always feel safer in pairs and would rather stay inside during the hours of dark.

So, Alderman speculates what the world would be like if women, rather than men had to fear for their physical safety. As I said – a very exciting promise.


It just falls short of all the accolades it's been given. The four perspectives are uneven; this is something that many fiction writers struggle with, but it's particularly grating here. In, for example, Lord of the Rings, you're willing to invest in watching Frodo and Sam's painfully slow journey despite Isengard falling, or The Battle of Helm's Deep being much more pacy. Here, it feels irksome and almost lazy. All of the storylines should be as interesting as each other, but they aren't.

Another issue I had was the concept of a women ruled state, called Bessapara, in what is now mostly Saudi Arabia. I think this could have worked, but not in this kind of timescale. Alderman seems to be projecting a very Western viewpoint here; very quickly women who have been wearing the veil and answering to men for centuries quickly turn to violence against their former 'captors.' It just isn't plausible for me; some women may feel captive in such patriarchal societies, but not everyone. As a Westerner, it's easy to say: 'that's terrible', but for some it is a way of life. Physical strength may be what made the states as they are, but culture is deeply, deeply ingrained. There's a fine line between empowerment of women and simply disregarding others' cultures, and Alderman may be on the wrong side of the line here. Women having power means lots of casual sex, raping men and the creation of a matriarchal state that is, in fact, much more violent than we currently see. This seems a dangerous line of speculation.

Finally, the novel uses a book proposal as a framing device – a man called Neil is writing to Naomi Alderman with the first draft of his work attached (which is the novel itself). This is interesting, but I don't feel it added anything particularly.
Very mixed feelings. It had such a brilliant premise – but it just didn't go far enough. There were lots of other ideas and subplots thrown in – The Power is not a one trick pony – but when it boils down to it, there is a brilliant central arc that isn't done justice. More exploration of the main theme without oversimplifying the power dynamic of the sexes would have been better, as opposed to a slightly messy unfocused abundance of ideas.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. Full marks for the original idea – but the execution let it down; it's not a bad book, just overhyped.

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Sunday 10 December 2017

Review: Return of the Magi: A heartwarming Christmas story

Return of the Magi: A heartwarming Christmas story Return of the Magi: A heartwarming Christmas story by P.J. Tracy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Emil Rice is a good guy. Really. The fact that he's been arrested for felony twenty two times and was just caught rooting through the nativity scene outside the church... well, that's just a few bad choices, right? He can be a good guy.

Emil certainly behaves as though he believes so: a silver-tongued spindoctor whose eloquence doesn't exactly land him up where he wants, but at least it's not jail. That's got to be better. Right? Right??

To his parole officer's surprise, Emil Rice ends up being posted to do voluntary work at a mental institution. The people seem... sort of normal. Well, maybe not. They have the quirks. None more than Gloria and Edith, who are fascinated by Emil's black skin colour - and he's not really sure they're being racist. They're just plain weird. When he discovers they've been in this institution for the majority of their lives, waiting for a third wiseman to complete their trio, Emil's life takes a turn for the decidedly surreal.

Look, it's not the most brilliant of books written, and not usually a genre I would go for (a little too
'fluffy'), but actually this was a really enjoyable, pacy, non-taxing, festive read. Maybe a little saccharine - but we can let that go, can't we? It's Christmas, after all! The gradual development of Emil's character is fairly believable, surprising as the action takes place over a very short period, and the twist at the end - you knew there was going to be one, just couldn't work out what it was - was lovely.

Not a literary great, but lots of feel-good factor for the Christmas period.

I was given a copy of 'Return of the Magi' from NetGalley and the publisher; all thoughts and opinions are my own.

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P J Tracy tends to write in a very different style actually - I checked out her website and discovered that P J Tracy is actually two people (a mother and daughter team) who write collaboratively, which is always interesting. Apparently PJ passed away recently, and I'm unsure whether she was involved in writing this book or not. Most of the her author books are thrillers - go and check out her website if that is more of your thing.

Review: Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter?

Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? Beyond Trans: Does Gender Matter? by Heath Fogg Davis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Beyond Trans by Heath Fogg Davis, a transgender man, pushes the 'gender question' to its very limits. Who decides whether we get labelled with an 'M' or 'F' on our birth certificates. And why is this not mutable, like other aspects of our characters our. Why someone else gets to label us as male or female - and the very key difference between sex and gender. Calling us to reclaim our identities, Davis explores these topics in detail throughout the book, starting with the very essence of what sex and gender actually mean, as opposed to what people think they mean (many people believe them to be one and the same).

There are four key case studies: sex-marked ID (birth certificates, passports, driving licenses); single-sex bathrooms; single-sex colleges; and sexually segregated sports. Through each, there are very personal case studies identifying trans people, gay people, and sometimes cis people who have fallen prey to the world's assumptions. Some are quite shocking to read; particularly the case of Charlene Arcila, an African American transgender woman living in Philadelphia. She was refused entry onto the bus because the bus driver simply did not believe that the sex marker on her identification matched what he was seeing. She purchased a female-marked pass and was similarly rejected: there was no way that she was going to be able to settle this without a battle in court. Davis deals with each case sensitively, not so that you feel sorry for the people, but that you feel righteous anger and indignation on their behalf. This, I think is much more valuable in moving times forwards.

There was a similarly humiliating case in the chapter on sex-segregated rest-rooms where Khadijah Farmer, her girlfriend and a friend decided to go for a meal in New York City after spending the day at the city's LGBT Pride celebration. Farmer, an African-American out-Lesbian, went to use the restroom where she was told that she was in the wrong place. After assuring the other woman that she was in the right restroom, she went into the stall to do her business, only to have a male bouncer enter
the room having heard there was 'a man in the woman's restroom.' Farmer showed the bouncer her ID but (exact quotation), his reply was: 'Your ID is neither here nor there.' She was forced to leave the premises.

As well as these awful individual stories (also touching on the well-published female athlete Caster Semenya who became so used to being asked to 'prove' to her fellow racers that she was female, would willingly go into a restroom and show them; and the Williams sisters being described as 'apes' and 'man-like), Heath, offers clear thoughts on each of these problems. The chapters are structured to start with a case study, then some delving into history and legal things, as well as some philosophy, before offering a 'Conclusion' to each chapter, proffering some sort of solution. These solutions aren't perfect, as Davis recognises; in some ways they are more idealistic thinking that is unlikely to come to fruition. The idea of non sex-segragated sports, for example, I think will be incredibly contentious. And I'm not sure that Davis really offers a solution that will work for the majority of people. Although I recognise his points - woman with higher tester one levels can be banned from women's sports and occasionally allowed entry to men's sports, whereas men with low testosterone levels are not allowed to compete against women - this is something that I think people will fight about more than the others - even sex-segregated bathrooms. I don't know for certain, but it's a feeling I have.

As a book to read, it was interesting, but quite hard going. The heavy referencing was quite cumbersome at times, and although I was interested in what Davis had to say, I have read better books on the subject.

'Beyond Trans' is a good book - it gets people asking questions, it gets people thinking - but, ultimately, it wasn't brilliantly written, and I found it very slow. If you are interested in reading about transgender rights or LGBTQ ideas for a more inclusive future, I think there are other books that are more accessible. Still, Davis has produced an extremely well-researched book, and I give him all credit for that.

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Friday 1 December 2017

Review: No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters

No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters No Time to Spare: Thinking About What Matters by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

'No Time To Spare' is a compilation of blog posts written from Le Guin's blog between 2010 and 2016. I am not much of a non-fiction writer myself, but Le Guin is a particular favourite of mine, and I haven't read any non-fiction before so was eager to snap this up. I received a free copy from NetGalley; all thoughts and opinions are my own.

Perhaps if I had known that these were originally published on Le Guin's blog, I would have been less enthusiastic about reading this; however, not knowing I immediately wanted to read her words, and I'm glad I did. Reading these in a book format (albeit a ebook format - I would much rather have a physical copy) is very different to a blog. Le Guin herself touches on this in one her short writings ('A Note at the Beginning') where she was inspired by Jose Saramango's blogs (which, of course, I will now have to find some time to read.) I like her idea of a blog, borrowed from Saramango, where she doesn't have to constantly have a conversation below the post with readers. She can write something and that been the entirety of it. As someone who writes myself, I can understand the frightening nature of blogs - and I've grown up with them! (Maybe it's not a good thing that I can relate more to an octogenarian than someone like me in their twenties...)

Many of the extracts focus on ageing: what it feels like to be old, and the titular writing: 'In Your 'never had a job to retire from.' Writing is a calling, a thing of love, to be nurtured. What is this spare time? All her time is spent in doing something - whether it be writing a blog post, playing with her cat Pard, replying to her fan-mail (there's an enjoyable piece of writing on that; my advice is - don't really bother unless you're a small child and you aren't using a spell checker. That's the kind of fan-mail she enjoys the most), or staring into space. All her time is full. This way of looking at life is very kind; that is one thing that springs from these pages - Le Guin is kind. Not just in a grandmotherly, let's-look-out-for-the-children or even a Democrat we-need-to-do-something-to-sort-out-this-planet-and-this-gargantuam-mess-we've-got-into way. No, a simple pure kindness. It's something that can only be felt; in these very personal writings, Le Guin bears a little of her soul for us to see, and I am eternally enchanted.
Spare Time.' With wit, but with astonishing grace and humbleness, Le Guin explains that for her in her ninetieth years, there is no such thing as 'spare time.' And there never has been. She says she

Her writing about ageing is very moving. That's a very simple word - moving - but I cannot find a more suitable one, and perhaps should stop trying. In a writing of 2013 called 'The Diminished Thing' she addresses the American bent towards positive thinking. 'What's wrong with positive thinking?' you may ask. Well, Le Guin puts it very succinctly, very aptly. 'Encouragement by denial, however well-meaning, backfires... To tell me my old age doesn't exist is to tell me I don't exist. Erase my age, you erase my life - me.' What a way with words she has. She wishes to be respected as an 'elder' but she also encourages the respect of young people; both of which we appear to losing in modern day society.

Although some of her topics are vast, the way Le Guin writes is deeply personal. I feel like I 'know' her through these writings. This is, of course, nonsense, as Le Guin herself says when talking about receiving fan-mail. But she offers up her writings in a generous, unassuming way for us to take and do with what we will. Of course, I don't know Le Guin. I know some more about her life as it is now, I know quite a lot more about her cat, Pard (there's a lovely section dedicated to him called 'The Annals of Pard' and a very true-feeling writing about choosing a cat), but I do not know her. She is not my friend. Yet, the way she has written it is to make one feel as though you would like to be.

Other topics she covers include: the liberal use of two particular swear words that seem to have become a shortcut, but Le Guin unpicks them, their origins and their use - finding them to have more meaning than I think of when I read them in a novel. I will certainly think twice the next time I across either (which is most likely to be the next modern novel I read.) There's an interesting section 'debunking' narrative gift and its connection, or not, to literary quality, and its connection, or not, to good storytelling. I loved her piece about fantasy writing and the fear of unknown in 'It Doesn't Have to Be the Way It Is.' ('There really is nothing to fear in fantasy unless you are afraid of the freedom of uncertainty.'); her thoughts on utopia and dystopia ('Utopiyin, Utopiyang'); the way the President talks to the American people, about their worth and whether they were worthy of being asked difficult things ('Lying It All Away'), involving the first televised broadcast from the White House; the nature of growing up, muddled up with misquotations ('The Inner Child and the Nude Politician')... I could go on and on. I don't think there was a single writing here that didn't sing to me in some way. I want to go away and reread these short pieces and let them sit in my soul and speak to me.

One interesting thing I noticed was how surprised I was by how American Le Guin is; of course I shouldn't have been, but when we read the fiction of a fantasy/sci-fi writer it can transcend boundaries. So, rather stupidly, I was caught off guard by how American her 'natural' writing style is. She writes of 'The Great American Novel' and an author's quest for it (not something she has time for), and it isn't something I was really aware of; however, during reading this, I heard a programme on Radio 4 ('Open Book') which spoke to an American about that very subject. Eerie stuff. Le Guin's opinion on 'TGAN and TGOW' has changed over the last year (this piece was written in 2011) - from Huckleberry Finn (for all its faults) to The Grapes of Wrath (for all its faults) (Although she still dismisses the general idea: 'Art is not a horse race. Literature is not the Olympics.') And I, an ignorant English girl, have read neither (although works by the same authors). There were many occasions where I stopped and scribbled down a book I would like to read by way of her roundabout recommendation.

Most of all, I wanted to reread Le Guin's own books; the books where it all started, in my mind at
least (I'm not sure of the publication dates). The Wizard of Earthsea. Tehanu. All my well-loved
characters from childhood that deserve another visit. And they will get one. (Once I've finished the deluge of books I have to read to review...)

Despite knowing that fan-mail from adults that has correct punctuation and none of the charm that children's misspellings and mistakes, I do feel drawn to write to Le Guin now - hand-written, pen on paper writing. She has, for me, opened up her soul, and I crave to receive a tiny acknowledgement back. But - as she rightly says - this is not the job of the author; the author writes and the reader takes whatever meaning they want from it. 'Tell me what it means... That's not my job, honey. That's your job.' But I don't want to write and ask her what anything means. I want to write to her and feel that spark of human connection; the resonance that one feels with someone although I know it can never be reciprocal. (Although in my head, I can imagine discussing Hopkins' 'The Windhover' which she mentions in 'Readers' Questions', the sheer absurdity of proverbs mentioned in 'Having My Cake' (which also provided some information on Charles Darwin I didn't know), talking about Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey...)

Still, 'No Time To Spare' has made me want to connect to Le Guin while - how do I say this delicately - while I still can. She has touched me in a way that non-fiction writers generally do not. I cannot rate this book more highly. For this small insight into such a great mind, we are truly blessed.

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