Saturday, 26 December 2009

Chinua Achebe - Things Fall Apart

This is a tough ask. I had very little experience of Africa, let alone African literature. I was leant this book by a friend and it’s short length - 187 pages - made it a good book to read when travelling on the train. Indeed, it took only two train journeys to go from cover to cover and I was left with a lot of questions, the biggest one being, how can I review this book?

The main character, Okonkwo, is well respected in his village but beats his wives, of which he has three, and his children. At one point in the story, he nearly shoots his second wife for making an apparently snide remark about his gun not working properly and his ability to use it. What a great way to prove her wrong by shooting at her. He misses too.

There are two main parts to the story. At the end of the first, Okonkwo kills his adopted son. He is going to be killed anyway, such is the life and traditions out there, but Okonkwo insists on going with the killing party to prove his worth to tribe, and then showed exactly how much of an asset he is by delivering the killing blow to the child.

The second part involves ‘the white man’ coming to Africa. Despite having severe issues with Okonkwo’s behaviour up to this point, I was on his side when it came to the Christians forcing their religion on the tribes of Africa.

And this is where the book is good, in that it generates different emotions in the reader. I hated Okonkwo form start to finish but at least he had the guts to stand up for what he believed in.

Taking the writing itself into consideration is a task in itself. It has a narrative style similar to The Book of Mormon. It is well written with no mistakes and also contains a glossary explaining all the native words. For me, this wins points over Vikram Seth‘s An Equal Music, as he frequently put in bits in French and German and offered no translations, which I found annoying. A glossary would have been nice in this instance.

However, there were many characters all operating at the same time and with their unfamiliar names it all became a bit confusing. Okonkwo’s first wife is constantly referred to as ‘Nwoye’s mother’ which seems a little degrading considering his other two wives are named.

Recommendations… I would say that if you are interested in looking into African Literature, then Things Fall Apart is a pretty good place to start. If you are already interested in African Literature then you have probably already read it (Things Fall Apart is the most widely read African novel written in English.)

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe was published by Heinemann Educational Books Ltd in 1958. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Vikram Seth - An Equal Music

I hold my hands up, I know next to nothing about An Equal Music’s main subject matter - classical music. My only experience with instruments of any kind is playing Guitar Hero on the Xbox360, and although I can grind out most songs on expert, it’s not real music. I know that.

My lack of intellectual credibility towards classical music was made even more apparent when I read a piece of the narrative that stated a viola was bigger than a violin. I consulted the internet to check because, I swear when I was studying music in year eight, I was taught that the viola was the smallest of the string instruments. Maybe that’s why I didn’t take GSCE music. And why I can’t play guitar.

After my idiotic period, I took a little time to find out if Vikram Seth is a musician of some kind. He is not, so, for me, that makes An Equal Music an expertly researched and beautifully written novel. The amount of detail he goes into when describing the musical sections of novel show an in depth understanding of not only the mechanics of the instruments, but also the bonds formed between the musicians themselves.

The dialogue is brilliant throughout. In places, Seth has four characters talking at the same time without it getting confusing. There are also some really funny bits, especially near the end when Michael, the main character and narrative voice, gets a call from a wrong number.

Right, that’s the praise out of the way. Now for the problems, of which I had two and they are big ones. The narrative grated on me severely. In the middle section of the book, Michael and Julia and in Vienna and Venice. There is a lot, and I mean a lot, of self involved narrative about the scenery and Michael’s feelings. It seems like a cross between verse and prose and whereas it is good writing, it’s in the wrong place and totally destroys the pace of the novel. I felt I was wading through loads of unnecessary details to get to the good stuff.

My biggest issue, however, is with the relationship between Michael and Julia. I don’t think anything I’m about to say has anything to do with bad writing. He could have intended the following reaction.

Michael is a self-absorbed, selfish asshole. I accepted most of the issues he had throughout the story, his suffering over long lost love Julia, and I did feel sorry for him… Until I found out why he left Julia in the first place.

Michael fell out with his music tutor, Carl, in Vienna where he met, and fell ‘in love’ with Julia. He ups and leaves without even leaving a note for her. Ten years pass and he meets Julia again in London. She is now married, but they have an affair. Julia brings an end to the affair with a letter. Michael says, and I quote, ‘How could you say all that in a letter?’ Well Michael, let me take you back ten years when you left her without saying a word. And you’re calling her the cruel one? Fuckwit.

I’m not defending Julia though. She started the affair and only ends it because she thinks her husband finds out. The whole issue of love between the two characters is one I didn’t believe in. At times, it seemed that Michael only loved Julia’s music. This was hit home by his reaction to Julia saying she wasn’t going to play with other people again. Michael acted like she had torn his heart out.

Whether it was Seth’s intention to create this image of musical elitism with these two characters or not, I don’t know, but one thing is for certain: An Equal Music is quite obviously a brilliant novel. It worked me up so much, I think I need to have my blood pressure checked.

I would recommend this book to fans of classical music and avid readers alike. In fact I’ve already recommended it to a friend. At 484 pages, it’s a nice manageable length despite some of the unnecessary prose. (Vikram Seth is also the author of A Suitable Boy, the longest book written in the English language.)

An Equal Music by Vikram Seth was published Phoenix House in 1999 (Same year in a row. How random!) RRP £6.99 (Paperback)

Monday, 7 December 2009

J.V. Jones - A Cavern of Black Ice (Sword of Shadows, Book One)

Fantasy is a tricky thing these days. A book only seems to be classed as fantasy if there are Elves, Dwarves and Orcs in it, typically with the Elves and Dwarves killing the Orcs and then the Humans come along, kill the bad guys and everyone is happy, except the Elves who inevitably have to leave to make way for the Humans and then the evil in the land is sealed away for an indefinite amount of time, until the Orcs come back again to find The One Ring to bring back the Dark Lord - you see where I’m going? Fantasy struggles to get away from The Lord of the Rings and the connotations associated with it. It’s almost as if Mr Tolkien wrote a fantasy rule book to go with his masterpiece that states, ‘all fantasy must contain at least one of Elves, Dwarves, Rings, Dark Lords - and Humans must always win the day.’

I’m merely speaking from personal experience here, but I’ve been struggling to find any kind of original fantasy material that doesn’t contain Dark Lords and Dwarves and Elves (oh my!) That was until I decided to actively tried to find new fantasy. I went to the sacred land of and scoured their book lists in search of the hidden fantasy scrolls… and that’s where I came across J.V. Jones’ Sword of Shadows series, of which, A Cavern of Black Ice is ‘Book One.’

The first thing I noticed about A Cavern of Black Ice was the sheer amount of text. Each page is a wall of writing and there are very few long sections of dialogue to break it up. In fact, J.V. Jones is tremendously sparing when it comes to character discussions. All her characters seem to play the strong silent type when having a conversation. However, when something needs to be explained, a character who has said no more than ‘hello’ previously, will spill two pages worth of uninterrupted dialogue directly into the reader’s face.

That said, the majority of the prose is vivid and imaginative. It brings her fictional world to life through well constructed description and emotion. There is a lot of it though, perhaps too much in places. The book extends to 804 pages and part of me feels like the story could have been told closer to 500.

One of my major issues with
ACOBI is the use, or should I say abuse, of viewpoint. It changes from character to character constantly throughout the novel. By the end I’d lost count of how many perspectives I’d seen the world through and where it can be a good device for giving the reader a wider view of the world, I felt it hindered the plot drastically. There are sections where the viewpoint is with Raif, the main protagonist, and as soon as I was getting really into his journey and adventures, I reached the end of a chapter and the viewpoint switched to someone else as far away from the action as possible. It ruined the pace and suspense to the point where I was forced to take a break and let my mind adjust.

That said, it was never enough for me to lose interest completely and I ploughed through to the end. The end of the first book anyway. I’ll get around to reading the second one eventually but I feel like I need a break from snow, ice and wolves. Maybe I’ll go find some Orcs….

Recommendations, recommendations… I would recommend
A Cavern of Black Ice to any fan of fantasy fiction and also fans of really good prose. But not my mum. She is still attempting to get through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

A Cavern of Black Ice by J.V. Jones was published by Orbit in 1999. RRP £8.99 (Paperback) - £6.96 from Just to clarify, I don’t work for Amazon.