April in Books: The Lieutenant; The Sellout; The Silk Roads

After spending March in the company of some edgy short stories and classic dystopia, I was really in need of some lighter reading this month. Though in hindsight, I’m not sure whether a story of colonial brutalism, a commentary on race in modern America and a comprehensive history of the entire civilised world could really be considered “light”…


The Lieutenant, Kate GrenvilleWhen I was searching for an Australian author as part of my Booktrotting project, one of the names that so frequently came up was Kate Grenville—in fact, so frequently recommended was she that even though I plumped for Tim Winton in the end, I just couldn’t resist buying one of her novels as well to read on the side.

The Lieutenant may not be as familiar as Grenville’s Man Booker-shortlisted The Secret River, but it is cut from similar historical cloth, travelling back to Australia’s earliest days as a British penal colony. Based on actual events, it’s the story of Daniel Rooke, a British naval lieutenant among the First Fleet sent to establish the New South Wales settlement, and of his and his fellow Europeans’ tense relations with their new aboriginal neighbours.

I can’t say I was particularly swept up by The Lieutenant, but reading it did make me want to go out and find Grenville’s other historical novels. I really enjoyed the subtle way she tackles Britain’s dark colonial legacy, using an almost comic juxtaposition of the British settlers’ military pomp with some superb descriptions of Australia’s wild, natural backdrop, to really drive home just how intrusively out-of-place the colonialists were—if that’s any sign of things to come, I look forward to The Secret River and its sequel, Sarah Thornhill.


The Sellout, Paul BeattyWhen the crime-ridden L.A. suburb of Dickens is removed from the map to save California from embarrassment, one resident takes it upon himself to restore the pride of Dickens’ exclusively black-and-Latino population—his method of choice being to reinstate Jim Crow-era segregation, in the hopes that it unites the community as “apartheid united black South Africa”.

It feels like a pretty weak statement to call this an astonishing novel; after all, winning the 2016 Man Booker Prize should be proof enough that Paul Beatty’s work is something special. But even amongst Man Booker winners, The Sellout is something else. It’s one of those novels that by luck or design so perfectly fits the zeitgeist into which it emerges—taking aim at both so-called post-racial America and the very idea that such an America could even exist, Beatty conducts a satirical masterclass that’s so cut-to-the-bone funny it makes you wish it wasn’t. “This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man,” the opening line reads, “but I’ve never stolen anything.”

Admittedly, its plot isn’t the most compelling, and runs at times into baffling farce; but in the end, the events of The Sellout are hardly as important as what Beatty uses them to illustrate. If this doesn’t enter the roll-call of Great American Novels in the coming years, I will eat my copy in protest.


The Silk Roads, Peter FrankopanPerhaps its the years spent under Hermione Granger’s influence, but whenever I’m in need of a detoxing read, my go-to is almost always a large heft of non-fiction.

Generally speaking, any history book is good enough for me, but The Silk Roads has one hell of a unique selling point. Its scope is enormous—say, every major global event from the rise of Rome to the last days of the Obama administration—and rather than just repeating your old school history lessons, Frankopan swings away from the usual Euro-American perspective and refocuses on the lands of the historic Silk Roads, the trade routes through Asia and the Middle East that were once the centre of the world.

The result is a book as ambitious as it is rewarding, one that presents the historical events we think we know so well from fascinatingly different angles. If there is any one criticism I have of The Silk Roads, it’s that towards the end Frankopan’s lens was pulling noticeably back towards the West; but I think given the intention and the size of the undertaking, that’s easily forgiven.

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New Year’s Reading List

New year, new books: now there’s a resolution I can get behind. In my opinion, there’s no finer way to kick-start the year than by getting your teeth into a new book, whether that means taking a chance on an author you’ve never heard of or knocking a few of those Christmas gifts and holiday sale bargains off the to-be-read shelf.

With all the new beginnings in the air, I also like to spend some time on the approach to spring tackling some of those books I feel I should have read already, the Steinbeck and the Nabokov and the D. H. Lawrence—those books I buy from charity shops because they look all literary, but somehow never get round to reading at the time. Last year it was the time for To the Lighthouse and Fahrenheit 451, but I think with the way things are looking for the foreseeable future, it might be a good idea to make my reading list a little more dystopian this year…


The Sellout, Paul Beatty

Last year it took me pretty much forever to get round to reading the 2015 Man Booker winner, A Brief History of Seven Killings, so this year I’m determined not to be so sluggish with Paul Beatty’s 2016 winner The Sellout. Yes, that does mean giving it quite the bump to the top of my 80-strong to-read list—but given its satirical look at race relations in the US, and with many Americans currently re-evaluating whether racism is really as bad as everyone says (yeah, it really is), there doesn’t seem to be any more fitting time than the present to make myself acquainted with The Sellout.


img_3230His Bloody Project, Graeme Macrae Burnet

Another to-be-read from last year’s Man Booker shortlist, with all the praise Graeme Macrae Burnet’s fictional murder case study has garnered I could hardly say no to giving it a spin—not to mention my love of all things Scottish wouldn’t let me pass it up if I tried.


img_32351984, George Orwell

1984 is one of those books mentioned above that caught my eye in a second-hand shop, but once brought home was consigned to wait patiently at the tail end of my to-be-reads. But, as with The Sellout, the zeitgeist is pointing me towards Orwell’s Big Brother classic; after all, we probably haven’t got much time before 1984 stops being fiction and becomes enshrined as legitimate prophecy.


img_3234The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry

One of the many books to arrive mysteriously in my stocking on Christmas morning, I fell in love with The Essex Serpent‘s thistly cover and dreamlike prologue so quickly I actually started reading it the minute I unwrapped it. Now two weeks and 150 pages in, this already looks like a pretty solid nominee for my book of the year.


img_3237Stone of Farewell, Tad Williams

I read the first volume of Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series, The Dragonbone Chair, back at the end of last summer, and after taking a few detours through Middle-Earth and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, I feel it’s about time I got back to Williams’ sword-and-sorcery epics. I’m hoping the series does something to pick up in Stone of Farewell: The Dragonbone Chair was plenty enjoyable but got a bit stale towards the end, and it’ll be a shame if Stone does nothing more than pick up where Chair fizzled out.

October in Books: Dead Souls; The Final Empire; The Norman Conquest

Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol

dead-soulsSeedy Russian businessman exploits state corruption in a get-rich-quick scheme, by buying up the souls of dead peasants for use as collateral against a massive loan.

According to the blurb, Dead Souls is “the funniest book in the Russian language before the twentieth century”, but unfortunately this joke just wasn’t for me. The novel is really a series of caricatures: the plot itself is just a vehicle for Gogol to satirise the various forms of legal, financial and moral corruption in 19th century Russia. Which is fine, if you know enough about said corruption to get the satire – but as I don’t, I couldn’t really find any purchase in what is essentially the story of a man trying to find the best deal on a mortgage.

I do very much like the cover, though, even if that is where my inclinations end. Being incredibly cheap, Wordsworth Classics’ covers do have a tendency to be the naffest of naff, but I quite like Dead Souls’ “Dementors in a poppy field” vibe. That said, it’s probably not enough to stop me passing this one on to the next second-hand shop I visit.

The Final Empire, Brandon Sanderson

the-final-empireA band of thieves and street urchins attempts to overthrow a god.

It’s always great finding a fantasy book that not only does something different with the genre, but doesn’t just lean on that difference as its only selling point. Sure, on the surface The Final Empire looks like yet another story about an uprising against an evil imperial oppressor; but instead of the usual saga of knights in faux-Europe, the first Mistborn novel is more like a Hunger Games reboot led by Victorian alchemists. I imagine this would be a great fantasy novel for people who say they don’t like traditional fantasy novels, or for existing fantasy fans who want something that takes them somewhere new.

The Norman Conquest, Marc Morris

the-norman-conquest

The full story of the 1066 Norman invasion, from its origins in the twilight of Anglo-Saxon England, through to King William’s death and legacy.

I don’t know about you, but for all the emphasis put on it at school I never felt I really learnt much about William the Bastard’s conquest of England. So, with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings this month, I figured it was time to put that right.

I must admit, this did take a bit to get into. The story of William the Conqueror starts a long, long way before 1066, and Marc Morris spends almost the entire first half of this book focusing on the messy socio-political context of tenth century England that made the Norman Conquest possible. What with all the Danish invasions, failed Godwinson power plays and tenuous succession claims, it took about 150 pages for William to start making any invasionary noises.

But as with any episode in history, you can’t ignore the preamble if you want to make sense of the event itself, and as the Battle of Hastings is arguably “the most important date in English history”, it takes a lot of background reading to really understand why the Norman Conquest was so important. I still think Morris could have pared things down a little further, but compared with the simplistic “he came, he saw, he conquered” Key Stage 3 approach, I’ll happily take The Norman Conquest‘s level of depth any day.