Category Archives: factual

THE ICE by Laline Paul

I was reading this as Hurricanes Irma and Harvey struck the Americas and an estimated 40 million people were affected by flooding in South Asia. Anyone who still thinks the climate isn’t changing and that the effects are not dangerous isn’t paying attention. Paull has set her novel in a chilling and not too distant future when the Arctic sea ice has melted and multi nationals compete to exploit the new business and shipping opportunities that have opened up. It revolves around two close friends, Greenpeace campaigner Tom Harding and his university friend and global entrepreneur Sean Cawson. It opens with a cruise ship  detouring for a rare sighting of a polar bear and instead finding Tom’s frozen dead body, revealed by the melting ice of the Midgard glacier.

What ensues is a fascinating story about the pair’s different journeys and choices, a searing commentary on the corruption, lies and motivation of the corporations seeking to profit from investment in the Arctic region, and a thrilling and emotionally charged drama as the inquest into Tom’s death unfolds. Sean trades in exclusivity, discretion and powerful connections. He has created a retreat at Midgard for the world’s elites – and Tom has been persuaded to get on board to provide ethical and environmental credibility. When a visit to Midgard ends in tragedy, Sean is forced to confront his role in events and the value of the life he has created for himself.

The beating heart of THE ICE is a tension between two different takes on humankind, captured in one particular scene between Tom and Joe Kingsmith, Sean’s long term mentor and financial backer. The latter mocks Tom’s idealism: “Your beautiful idea of everyone pulling together only happens in the movies, war and sport”. Tom counters with an assertion that “People are better than you think.”  Paull uses small but perfectly chosen details to illustrate the vast gulf between Tom and Sean’s ideologies – one of my favourite is an aside about the Tom Harding Bequest, his friend has established, worth £100,000 and set to awarded in the first year to “Imperial College for the newly patented biodegradable Fruit-Fly drones, nano-tiny and with unprecedented maneuverability”. Very little could be further from the natural world that’s been the focus of Tom’s life work.

The friends share an lifelong obsession with the Arctic and each chapter is prefaced by a short passage taken from older writing and accounts about the region – including the effects of gangrene and an 1893 excerpt from an explorer’s journal which describes movement in the ice as “Nature’s giants… awakening to the battle.” The overall effect is of a moving and very gritty eulogy for the frozen region we have lost forever. “Climate change was too big to care about, too vague to talk about, and was just – unsexy” reflects Sean at one point. Paull has proven that literature has a leading role to play in challenging that perception. But THE ICE is a gripping story even without its dramatic backdrop of climate breakdown and Paull doesn’t labour her environmental subtext – she doesn’t need to when it speaks  so powerfully for itself. Lines like “Record deaths this month both sides of the Schengen Fences” seem almost throwaway.  The combination of personal conviction, politics and corporate greed really made it stand out for me though. A truly impressive book and a more than worth follow up to THE BEES. If it doesn’t touch you deeply, you aren’t paying attention.

 

1893

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BREXIT – WHAT THE HELL HAPPENS NOW? by Ian Dunt

brexit-what-the-hell-happens-next-by-ian-dunt

Everyone should read this book – leavers, remainers, regreters and still undecideds. It’s informative, thorough and very accessible. It’s also terrifying. From the fiendishly difficult process of negotiating with the WTO to the real scale of unpreparedness, and even ignorance, in the Government’s Department for Exiting the EU, Dunt sets out how many obstacles and challenges we must overcome. A reluctant remainer himself, Dunt gives us the good with the bad – there’s just far less good to write home about. And some things, he admits, could go either way, depending on how the Government plays its hand. His assessment of their performance to date, doesn’t inspire confidence though and there’s enough behind the scenes insight that chimes with what’s already in the public domain, to back up his conclusion, that in all probability, things are not going to be pretty. Honest, direct and, I’ll say it again, terrifying, this book kept me awake at night.

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HINTERLAND by Caroline Brothers

hinterland-by-caroline-brothers

This is a genuinely difficult book to read – not because of the way it’s written but because, although fictional, it’s like reading non fiction. The things happening to two young boys crossing Europe as refugees from Afghanistan are all too real and desperate. The very fact they are having to flee their home and travel alone, choose between going hungry or stealing, spend time in the Jungle camp at Calais and stow away in a refrigerated lorry to reach the small circle of light that is England – it’s all happening to other children and every page is a painful reminder that what is one person’s entertainment is another’s everyday existence.

Kabir and Aryan’s story has a gentle simplicity to it, woven through with moments of heart wrenching, gut punching clarity. Aryan’s map has a symbol for migratory birds along the border between Turkey and Greece – ‘Sanctuary’ he reads. That’s all. No labouring of the point -just the idea left hanging that we protect birds more than we protect children.  One evening, huddling around a fire, Kabir watches a teenager heat a piece of wire in the flames then, calmly, clasp it tight in his fingers and pull it through. “A polished line runs across skin turned yellow with scar tissue.” The boy is getting rid of his finger prints, so he cannot be turned back if he’s caught by border guards. A statement of fact and then the story moves on.

As in THE MEMORY STONES, Brothers writing can be poetic at times, especially when she’s describing the natural world. For example: “A caterpillar pleats and stretches itself along the length of a branch like a tape measure with audacious stripes.” She also has the ability to capture so much in just a few words, such as when an exhausted beyond caring Aryan  “looks up at the stars that are fading in the watery dawn and thinks of the stars where he was born, passive overseers of so much strife, and wonders how long they will have to bear this limbo, suspended between a past they can no longer return to, and a future that’s taking for ever to unfurl.” In just that one line she conveys everything from how small and powerless we ultimately are to the enormous difference we can make with our decisions; from the universal human capacity to hope for something better to our equally large capacity to live according to our differences; and from the way a few months can last a life time and decades can pass in the blink of an eye.

The brothers are typical boys in many ways and yet different in so many others. They hold a litany of cities in their heads so they don’t get lost and to chant at moments of anxiety like a talisman: KabulTehranIstanbulAthensRomeParisLondon. They ponder big questions like where they are from – and whether identity is tied up with your birthplace, your history, your culture or something else. They roll in the dirt with puppies, recognising and responding to the desire for affection and playfulness. They are haunted by the memories of their family, distressed to no longer be able to remember how their mother smelt, only that her scent was the same as that carried on her clothes. They form strong bonds with their fellow refugees, especially Hamid, who yearns to study astronomy, attracted by the starlight’s journey starting long before the conflict that has ravaged his country  “if we could imagine ourselves in space, we would be high off the ground, away from all our troubles, and we could see all of life beneath us. It would make all the fighting seem small and unimportant and pointless, and maybe it would make people like peace more”. They cry, love hamburgers, argue, love new trainers, squirm when having their hair cut, love one another. Children, old beyond their years and experiencing things nobody should ever have to go through.

As 2016 comes to a close, what the book had to say about hope really struck a chord with me – this year it’s been a real struggle to stay hopeful. So when Aryan realises that getting into the tunnel under the Channel is likely impossible and acknowledges to himself just how powerfully he’d been holding onto to that prospect as “a last ditch reservoir of hope”, I sobbed my heart out. I sobbed too at the kindness of strangers, the way fellow refugees eyes light up when they see Kabir and are reminded of the sons, cousins, brothers and nephews they have left behind or lost. And I sobbed at the inevitable conclusion to their odyssey in a world where there’s no such thing as a happy ending if you are born the “wrong” side of a border.

HINTERLAND may well be a difficult book to read but such things are relative, and perhaps this story about Aryan and Kabir may prompt some readers into doing whatever they can, however small, to bring a little bit of hope back into the world:

http://www.hummingbirdproject.org.uk/

http://care4calais.org/

http://www.hopenothate.org.uk/

http://www.refugee-action.org.uk/

 

 

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HER BRILLIANT CAREER: TEN EXTRAORDINARY WOMEN OF THE FIFTIES by Rachel Cooke

her brilliant career by rachel cooke

The premise of this book is simple – as the title suggests, it’s about the brilliant careers of 10 women living through the 1950s. I heard Cooke speak about it a few years ago at Charleston book festival but it’s taken me some time to get around to reading it but it’s every bit as entertaining and educational as she promised. As a whole, it is a compelling portrait of a decade in which women responded to the social and economic changes that took place during the second world war. The diet of wasp waists, home baking and proud home makers with which we’ve been fed was only a small part of the story – by 1957, 33% of married women worked – and here we have an actress,  film makers, an archaeologist, a high court judge, an architect, a cutting edge gardener, a cookery writer and a motor racing driver as prisms through which to explore women’s new opportunities. Each individual account is rather superficial but I didn’t mind that, as Cooke’s ambition is less biography, more broad narrative about emancipation and pioneers. Her style is relaxed and she often goes off at a tangent, but what really shines through is her obvious passion about the era, her subjects and the social history she is plotting. There’s some useful historical footnotes, a timeline (fish fingers arrived on the market in 1955) and a section on fashion, which add to the overall impression of a well researched book that’s also hugely accessible.

As well as the careers of the ten women Cooke puts in the spotlight, we get the low down on their personal lives, which are often just as groundbreaking – divorce, affairs (with men and other women), secret love children and open relationships all feature. Considering women living through the 1950s could not take out a mortgage in their own name and had to produce a marriage certificate to be fitted with a diaphragm, Cooke’s subjects are ahead of their time in more ways than one.

Margery Fish,  for example, started her first job before women had the vote and embarks on a whole new career at the age of 64. I especially warmed to her after learning that she snorted at the word “ladies” – “women were only ever women”. Another, Rose Heilbron, was a hugely popular and successful barrister who because the first women judge and, Cooke tells us, cleverly used the media to cultivate a persona that meant she avoided being seen as a potential threat to the establishment or becoming a source on envy and spite for other women, and instead was a national treasure that everyone admired. That said, Cooke speculates that Rose’s popular public profile may well have checked her career when she lost out on becoming the first woman to be appointed to the high court. Cooke goes on to note that, whilst Rose was very much a trailblazer, the conservative forces that undoubtedly held her back still exercise a strong grip on her profession: of the current 91 high court judges, only 17 are women, and only 1 woman sits in the supreme court.

HER BRILLIANT CAREER is shot through with other similar reflections on the role of women today and I’m sure Cooke’s background as a journalist is partly responsible for how wide ranging, engaging and relevant she makes her subject matter. Not a huge fan of non fiction, this actually held my attention more than the novel I’ve been reading since (of which more soon). Whether you are interested in feminism or not, this is a great read, and each and every one of the individuals featured has a story well worth the telling.

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BOSSY PANTS by Tina Fey

bossypants by tina fey

Tina Fey first came onto my radar when she did “that” impression of Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. I thought it – and she – were genius and this book confirms my first impressions: Fey is one seriously smart, funny woman. The woman thing is at the heart of this memoir, which is full of anecdotes about the sexism she has encountered through her career and some great riffs on breast feeding, juggling motherhood and work, and the pleasure of work alongside people like Lena Dunham and Amy Poehler. The latter is the source of one stand out tale: she was messing around with the writers on Saturday Night Live, doing something “dirty, loud and ‘unladylike’ ” when Jimmy Fallon, the then main star of the show, asked Amy to stop, saying “I don’t like it”. Fey describes her colleagues response – “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him: ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ ” – as a totem to which she returns time and again, the whole point of her work and a guide to how to deal with the critics that say women just aren’t funny, whether they do so directly or indirectly.

In BOSSYPANTS  we learn that Fey first developed her love and comedy and performance as a teenager who enrolled in a theatre program for young people. It was a formative experience, both professionally and politically. She says of it: “We should strive to make our society more Summer Showtime: Mostly a meritocracy, despite some vicious backstabbing. Everyone gets a spot in the chorus. Bring white shorts from home.”  We discover too that she idolises Don Fey, a strong father figure, whom she credits alongside other “cost free techniques” such as “Calamity, Praise, Local Theatre, and flat feet” for helping to raise “an achievement oriented, obedient, drug-free, virgin adult”. Don, his daughter tells us, looks like he’s “somebody” and she clearly revels in stories about him being a “badass”.

But it’s not until adulthood and Fey’s days at Saturday Night Live and beyond that the book really gets into its stride. There are some brilliant laugh out loud moments. One of my favourite chapters is of her online response to social media trolls, particularly this, to a post by “SmarterChild” on a body building forum asserting “I’d stick it in her tail pipe”:

“Dear SmarterChild,” write Fey, “Thank you so much for your interest. Whether you meant it in a sexual way or merely as an act of aggression, I am grateful. As a “woman of a certain age” in this business, I feel incredibly lucky to still be “catching your eye” “with my anus”. You keep me relevant!”

As a woman who tends to read a certain kind of book, I personally feel incredibly lucky that  I can still be moved to tears of laughter and not just tears of despair.

Equally good are the sketches about the cruise she takes with her husband, the reflections on how to survive a photo shoot, and on her first “real” job on reception at a YMCA. There’s definitely something of the sketch show about the whole – it’s more a collection of moments than a coherent whole. But the sheer force of Fey’s personality and talent makes this a stand out book for me – she’s unyielding, self deprecating and very, very funny. It’s pure entertainment and, as someone who also identifies as a bossy pants, I loved it.

 

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THE BEES by Laline Paull

the bees by laline paull

This book is unlike anything I have read before and defies all the terms I normally use to categorise books on this blog. I’ve classed it as thriller and factual but that really doesn’t do it justice. Paull has built a moving, and at the same time terrifying, story around life in a bee hive. There’s some elements that feel like a children’s story book, such as the Patisserie & Pollen area of the hive where the bees’ bread is made, and others that are distinctly adult, such as the mass blood lust which disposes of drones who have outlived their usefulness. Every kin in the hive has its place, from the high priestess Sage to the lowly Flora, and each bee is entranced by their daily diet of propaganda – Accept, Obey and Serve. But at the centre of this story is a bee who is gifted beyond what’s usual in her kin: Flora 717, strong, good at foraging and soon adept at keeping secrets from her superiors.

The hive faces numerous challenges – including an attack by wasps, a particularly harsh winter, disease and the loss of their Queen – and this keeps the narrative moving. But really this book is a homage to the incredible way in which a hive operates, albeit one that reflects the brutal realities of an uncompromising totalitarian society. The fertility police who patrol the hive are truly frightening, as is the way in which the Queen’s entourage manipulate and control the other bees.

From the way that the bees dance out directions to the sweetest nectar, to their regular Devotions to the Queen; from how they enter into a trance over the winter, to how they mummify hive invaders they’ve stung to death in propolis with remarkable disinfectant powers; from how they use scent to communicate, to the joy the forager bees experience as they hunt for flowers; THE BEES is a window not just into the hive but into every aspect of the way in which it survives. Purists might question the liberal use of personification upon which the story rests, but I was perfectly happy to go along with it, and was rewarded with a truly astonishing and original novel.

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BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent

burial rites by hannah kent

I saw this advertised on the tube and bought it on my Kindle, the combination of which meant I didn’t quite know what to expect when I started reading (no back cover blurb, no flicking through the pages to get a feel for it etc). If I had, I may well have given it a swerve, as Iceland in 1829 isn’t what usually grabs me. But that would have been a mistake and this book feels all the more special for being something I may easily have overlooked.

Kent skilfully evokes the bleak Icelandic landscape and at times her writing is exceptionally beautiful (note to self: must learn how to use the marking pages function on the Kindle so I can more easily quote phrases I love). It’ s a fitting backdrop for the true and haunting story of Agnes, found guilty of murder and arson, and now waiting out the days before she is executed. Told through a combination of official letters concerning her case, including instructions about who will pay for the blade on the axe being used for her execution, Agnes’ conversations with the priest that has been appointed to  prepare her for death, and the voice of an omniscient narrator, BURIAL RITES is one of those books that gets under your skin, slowly but surely.

Kent explores ideas like religious belief, the power of love, isolation, the absence of one final truth and the right to life with great subtlety. It would be easy to slip into melodrama given the subject matter, but Kent never does – the execution scene is exquisite in tone, pace and emotional impact. And what shines through is her obvious compassion for Agnes. Spellbinding, almost unbearably painful at times, and testimony to the way in which even the most simple acts of human kindness can transform our lives, whether we be the giver or the receiver, BURIAL RITES is a startling first novel and I look forward to more from Hannah Kent.

 

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