Frankenstein in Baghdad

Modern retelling of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” set in Iraq

Content warning: war, violence, fake blood

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Frankenstein in Baghdad” by Ahmed Saadawi is a horror novel that puts a modern spin on Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” by reimagining the creation of the monster shortly after the US invasion of Iraq. The story is set in a neighbourhood in Baghdad, the capital city of Iraq, where an old woman called Elishva lives alone waiting for her son Daniel (whom everyone, including her daughters, believes is dead) to return home. She has two rather unsavoury neighbours: Faraj and Hadi. Faraj, a real estate agent, hopes to buy Elishva’s large, historical and largely undamaged home. Hadi, a junk dealer, hopes to buy her vast collection of antiques. While waiting for Elishva to finally give up her possessions, Hadi has been engaging in a strange compulsion to collect body parts after the many explosions in Baghdad. When the enormous corpse goes missing, up-and-coming journalist Mahmoud investigates the escalating violence and strange murders that start occurring in the city.

This book started out very intriguingly with a report from a mysterious committee that makes recommendations in relation to the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department and the arrest of an author who had prepared a 250 page story. The book then starts from there. Thematically, this was an incredibly interesting story that uses the corpse made up of disparate body parts as a shrewd metaphor for the war in Iraq. Saadawi presents a scathing look at the way war becomes self-sustaining through corruption, greed, revenge and desensitisation. Mahmoud provides an interesting perspective as a character who straddles ethical and unethical journalism. Jonathan Wright’s translation from the Arabic feels smooth and nuanced.

However, I struggled with some parts of this book. There were very few female characters in this novel and the women who were featured seemed to fall within the tropes of crazy cat lady, ice queen and replacement love interest. None of the women have much agency or personality, and this even the violence in the streets and due to bombing mostly focuses on men being killed. This is also partly a horror novel, and while the symbolism behind the corpse is very strong, the mechanics of how he gains and sustains life are very disturbing. I think I probably found the chapters with Mahmoud the least engaging. Despite the fact that there was probably a good reason for his story being largely separate from the corpse’s antics in Elishva’s neighbourhood, every time the story returned to him it felt jarring and dull.

Anyway, this isn’t an easy topic or an easy book, but as my ARC wasn’t a complete copy (which I didn’t realise until I reached the end), I was hooked enough to buy an eBook version and finish the last few dozen pages on my eReader. This is my first Iraqi novel, and it was a vivid and visceral insight into the impact of the war on a city.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad

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Love and Other Inconveniences

Incredibly readable romantic poetry from Trinidad and Tobago

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“Love and Other Inconveniences” by Rhea Arielle is a collection of poetry that traces the life cycle of an intoxicating but doomed romance. Divided into three Acts, the book walks the reader through infatuation, heartbreak and self-love.

I started reading this book while waiting for the bus, and I was so engrossed I had finished it by the time I arrived at work. As is probably pretty apparent from this blog, I am not a huge consumer of poetry but there was something about Arielle’s incredibly unique and tactile way of writing that was very arresting. Her poems are very brief and very poignant and I love the way she handles space and time. I don’t often share quotes from books I read, but here are two that I particularly loved:

There are no locks on your future
so why do you knock at the door
Let yourself in.

When your lips
part to speak
the winds shimmer
under your voice
and carry music
to my waiting ear.

Romantic poetry is certainly not for everyone, and the themes in this book are very familiar. However, Arielle brings a freshness to a topic that most people can relate to.

This is the kind of poetry that even people who don’t normally enjoy poetry can enjoy. I liked it so much I bought a copy for my friend.

Love and Other Inconveniences

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Timeskipper (Saltatempo)

Magic realism in a post-war Italy

As is becoming tradition, I received a copy of this book in last year’s RedditGifts book exchange (in March 2017, to be precise), and I am only just now getting around to reviewing it. I’ve already received my book from the 2018 exchange, but it’s highly unlikely that I’ll get around to reviewing that until next year either. One thing I always put in my exchange preferences is that if my Santa is from another country, I really like to receive books from that country. While this doesn’t always work out to be particularly interesting because a huge proportion of people on Reddit are from the USA, in this case I was really excited to get a translated novel by a renowned Italian author.

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“Timeskipper” by Stefano Benni and translated by Antony Shugaar is a magic realism novel about an eponymous young boy from the mountains in Italy who is on his way to school when he bumps into a god in the woods. Given the gift of a duoclock, Timeskipper now has the ability to see into the future. For his small village in post-war Italy, the future looks pretty bleak as the politics and progress threatens the idyllic rural lifestyle he, his family and his friends live in. The future is also filled with plenty of adolescent anxiety and this novel is a bildungsroman as much as it is political satire.

This was a rich and clever novel that captured the psyche of a teenage boy excellently. Timeskipper is a charismatic protagonist who tells the most outrageous stories that neither the reader nor the other characters can ever fully determine how much is true and how much is hyperbole. I think some of my favourite parts of the book are Timeskipper’s interactions with his long-term love and on-again-off-again girlfriend Selene and how irreverent they are with one another, and how they navigate the changing times. I also really enjoyed the absurdism of the student protests and I felt like Benni was at his best sending up the intricacies and self-importance of student politics.

However, there were some things that made this book a bit difficult. You can’t really talk about a translated book without some words on the translator. This is a very complex book, and Shugaar made a valiant effort to convey all the nuance of Benni’s very rich writing style into English. However, there were a lot of things in the book that did not seem to make sense and I couldn’t tell if it was a translating choice or if it was a mistake.

For example, throughout the book chickens are referred to as chickins. Typographical error? Specific choice? Benni’s joke that didn’t translated to English? I have no idea. Doing some additional reading, I think that there is a lot of symbolism and are a lot of references in this book to Italian historical events but to someone not familiar with Italy’s history these literary devices weren’t readily apparent. Shugaar is cognisant of this, but it is not until you get to the translator’s note at the end of the book that some of these issues are raised. I think that what would have been more helpful would have been to include footnotes throughout the book like other translations I’ve read to help convey meaning where a direct translation isn’t always available.

Anyway, while this was at times a difficult book to read, Benni’s playfulness and pointed observations nevertheless did make it through translation. It shows a different facet to post-war Italian history, and I’m tempted to read other work by Benni to see how it is handled by other translators.

Timeskipper

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Cicada

Another brilliant and poignant short graphic novel by leading Australian illustrator

I think that it’s fair to say that this author and illustrator was a huge driver behind my love of graphic novels. I absolutely adored “Tales from Outer Suburbia”, and he has had a few new books out this year. When I saw this one in store, I absolutely had to have it.

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“Cicada” by Shaun Tan is a very short, very touching graphic novel about a cicada who works in a big corporate office. I really can’t tell you much more than that, I’m afraid. Tan’s work really just needs to be experienced first hand.

This is really an excellent example of Tan’s excellent illustration skills and succinct and subtle storytelling. Tan is constantly shining new light on the migrant experience in Australia and is master of the allegory.

If you’re a bit new to graphic novels as a medium, or if you haven’t had the opportunity to read Tan before, this is an excellent place to start and you won’t be disappointed.

Cicada

 

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No Country Woman

Carefully-considered memoir about race, belonging and growing up in Australia

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher, however I have been looking forward to it for a long time ever since I found out the editor of Feminartsy (a journal I write for occasionally) was working on it. I also interviewed her in the most recent episode of my book podcast Lost the Plot.

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“No Country Woman” by Zoya Patel is a memoir about growing up as a third culture kid with a Fijian-Indian background in Australia. Divided into loose thematic chapters, Patel blends personal experience and social theory to reflect on what it means to belong somewhere and the colonial and economic drivers behind generational migration.

This book is an excellent insight into what it is like to navigate two cultures. Patel has a crisp, cool writing style and patiently and piercingly walks the reader through issues such as racism, poverty and identity. She unpacks the theme of belonging in exacting detail and examines what it means to look the same, sound the same, share the same cultural identity and share the same beliefs as people in Fiji, Australia, India and Scotland.

I particularly enjoyed Patel’s words on economic inequality, and her chapter on poverty in India. I think that examination of class is often absent in other memoirs I’ve written, however Patel is forced to confront issues of privilege on a family visit to India as a child and the stark comparison between the lives of family who left and family who stayed. I was also really fascinated by Patel’s experience with language, and the complexities around language, identity and belonging. In a country where the number of people learning a second language in school is on the decline, I was interested to read about the role of language in belonging and the interrelationship with cultural identity.

I think it needs to be said that this is not a book about overcoming adversity in the same way as other women of colour like Maxine Beneba Clarke‘s horrendous high school bullying experience and Roxane Gay‘s trauma as a teenage girl. It certainly isn’t filled with the same rage and hyperbole as Clementine Ford‘s book either. Patel’s family are tight-knit, resilient and entrepreneurial, and are the backdrop rather than the focus of the book. While this book is certainly very personal in many parts, Patel has a measure of reserve that sets this book apart from other memoirs.

While sometimes it can be incredibly engaging to read something that seems entirely unfiltered, I think that Patel’s memoir serves a different purpose. Rather than being an exposé of self, it is an exposé of systems, and provides an academic lens through which to examine personal experiences. While some people connect with the ultra-personal, I think that this style of memoir is particularly effective and I think most readers would find it hard to argue with or minimise Patel’s points.

Memoir is a growing genre in Australia and is an excellent way to explore different perspectives. This book is a particularly sharp look at the realities of race and migration in Australia, but more importantly the diversity of those experiences.

No Country Woman: A memoir of not belonging

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The Rain Never Came

Post-apocalyptic Australian fiction

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

“The Rain Never Came” by Lachlan Walter is post-apocalyptic fiction set in a not-too-distant future Australia plagued by drought. Bill and Tobe are best mates who live in a derelict town that has been all but abandoned. They spend their empty days drinking at the local pub. However, when the pub’s bore runs out and they see some mysterious lights on the horizon, Bill agrees to leave town with Tobe.

Australia really lends itself to desert dystopian stories and the premise of this one was interesting. Set around Western Victoria, I enjoyed imagining the hot Victorian summers I grew up with taken to their extreme. I was intrigued by the mysterious ruling entity that decreed that everyone had to be moved to northern regions where there was still rain. This is an action-packed book and once Bill and Tobe are on the road, the action is non-stop.

There were some things that were a bit difficult about this book though. Walters writing style is very active and his characters are constantly doing things like walking, looking, smiling and laughing. Although as the story progresses, we learn a little more about Bill and Tobe’s past, what I really wanted to learn more about was the world they lived in. It wasn’t completely clear why people were being forced to leave the towns, and I would have liked to have had some more reveals about what led to this situation and what the purpose of the mass removal was.

A compelling idea, but I would have liked more world-building and character development.

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The City of Brass

Middle Eastern fantasy that I can’t stop thinking about

This was a set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and after dipping our toes into making themed food for our previous book, my friend went all out and made an absolute extravaganza.

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I was a bit slow getting started on this book because my last one took so long, so when it came to buy a copy I couldn’t find one locally at short notice. Instead, I bought a copy for my Kobo.

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“The City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty is a fantasy novel and the first in “The Daevabad Trilogy”. Nahri is a young woman who lives on the streets of the sprawling city of 18th century Cairo with nothing but her smarts. Surviving on a number of hustles, Nahri has a real aptitude for languages and, to a lesser extent, healing. However, when an improvised healing ritual for cash goes awry, Nahri finds herself beset by monsters and whisked away by a mysterious djinn.

I can’t stop thinking about this book. I keep getting random flashes back to different scenes weeks after I’ve read it. Often a really good book is really good in a particular way: the writing is beautiful, the characters are compelling, the plot is surprising, or the ideas are unique. However this book is good in a different way. The thing that makes this book excellent is its balance. Like a line of dominoes, as soon as you start reading they all start toppling and click, click, click – everything falls into place in the most satisfying way. Chakraborty keeps a perfect amount of tension throughout the book, and the story never grows stale. One criticism I often have of modern fantasy is that it’s often not very imaginative and draws on well-trodden tropes like elves and orcs and angels and demons. This book instead draws on Middle Eastern and African mythology and Chakraborty’s own experiences studying in Egypt and the history and culture of the region seep into the story and make it rich and convincing.

I’ve been trying to think about what I didn’t like about this book, and I’m really struggling to come up with anything at all to be honest. Probably the only thing that I found a bit hard was the complex politics of the city of Daevabad and keeping track of the different districts, factions, djinn and shafit – part human, part djinn. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the Daeva, one race of djinn, claim the name of djinn for themselves, further confusing things for the reader.

Nevertheless, this story was a great read and ended up being one of those book club books where everyone agrees it’s great and runs out of things to talk about. Luckily we were kept busy with some incredible food. If you’re looking for some very engrossing fantasy that is definitely not run-of-the-mill, look no further.

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The City of Brass

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