Category Archives: Book Reviews

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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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

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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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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Oathbringer

Before I even write anything, there are three important things you should know about this book.

  1. This is not the first book in the series, it is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t read any books in “The Stormlight Archive” abandon this review immediately because everything will be spoilers for the first two books (no spoilers as per usual for the book at hand).
  2. This book is the newest book in a series of 10 books so if you don’t like waiting for books to be released, maybe don’t start the series just yet. Brandon Sanderson is an absolute powerhouse of an author, and churns out books like you wouldn’t believe (I mean, just look at the progress bars on his website), but he hasn’t started book four yet so if you don’t want to find yourself in a George R. R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss situation, consider yourself warned.
  3. This book is absolutely enormous and should be worth at least three if not four books on my Goodreads challenge and should be at least somewhat to blame for how far behind I am.

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“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson is an epic fantasy novel and the third book in “The Stormlight Archive” series. The book is set in a fictional world called Roshar and is inhabited by lots of different races. The book primarily focuses on people called the Alethi who divide their society into two major class groups based on eye colour. People with light coloured eyes are the upper class, and people with dark coloured eyes are lower class with lots of levels in between the two. Another feature of the world is the existence of spren, different coloured and shaped creatures that are drawn to and appear when people experience strong emotions. Finally, are the parshmen – a race of humanoid creatures enslaved by the Alethi and who appear to be related to the Parshendi, a race of humanoid creatures that can take different forms and who are at war with the Alethi.

As in the rest of the series, there are a number of protagonists. First is Dalinar, an Alethi highprince and warrior feared for his brutal battle tactics, whose visions about resurrecting the order of the Knights Radiant, mythical warriors who can bond with spren, have started to come to fruition. However, as Dalinar starts to lead with a new vision for Alethkar, he must come to terms with his own past and face his actions that he can’t even remember. There is Kaladin, the reluctant darkeyed warrior who after taking a legion of condemned prisoners and turning them into fighters, has himself become a Radiant. However, the burden of leading his men into this new prestigious identity, and his struggle to protect people on either side of an unavoidable war, begins to take its toll on him. Then there is Shallan, the lighteyed artist whose skills in creating illusions as a Lightweaver mean that she can create new versions of herself. As she becomes more adept in her skills, she starts to use her alternate forms to cope with anxiety and trauma and begins to lose her grip on who she really is.

Did I mention this book is enormous? Because it. is. enormous. It’s over 1,200 pages and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. This book builds on a lot of the lore and history of the world that is alluded to in the first two books and begins to uncover some of the darker histories of Alethi and the circumstances of the enslavement of the parshmen. There are a lot of spinning plates in this book. The impending war with the parshmen and the Parshendi. The Everstorm. The spren. The Knights Radiant.

It’s a lot to keep on top of, and admittedly, there are definitely some parts of the book that I’m more interested in than others. I think Kaladin and Shallan are my favourite characters and I always look forward to their chapters. I think Kaladin is a great lens through with to experience the politics and conflict of the book, and Shallan really showcases the magic element of the story and what Knights Radiant and their spren can really achieve. Sanderson also fleshes out the story notably compared to other books by focusing much more on the mental health and neurodiversity of his characters. We have a character struggling with addiction, another struggling with depression, another struggling with anxiety, and one who appears to have a form of autism spectrum disorder.

I do think that Sanderson’s characters are definitely starting to feel more filled out however, there is so much going on in this book, it does occasionally feel a bit overwhelming. I know it’s epic fantasy, but it did take me a little while to ease back into the story because there was so much going and so much lore to remember from the last two books. Having so many protagonists gives the reader a 360 degree view of the story, but it also makes it hard to keep on top of who is who and what is going on at points all over the world.

I think I felt a bit like the pacing in this book was a bit off-kilter. There’s a particular part of the book where there is an incredibly long amount of time spent in Shadesmar that doesn’t really seem to further the plot much at all or inform the reader much about additional lore. The latter half of the book focuses a lot on a battle that seems to drag on a lot and get a bit ridiculous in scale. I think that the secret to a book that is 1,200 pages long is to make it feel like it is far, far shorter, but I think at about the three quarter mark of this book I was about ready for it over.

Again, this is a huge novel and there is a lot to say about it, but I think to summarise: it’s a very long book that is mostly very good but the large cast of characters and some of the pacing choices made it get a little confusing and slow at times. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Will I read the next book in the series? Yes. Am I relieved it’s over and I have a big break until the next on is out? Definitely yes.

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