A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

I’m about to do something I swore I wouldn’t ever do. So to past me, I must apologise.

However, to present me, future me and to you, whoever you are that happens to be reading this, I won’t apologise, because I have something to say.

I’m about to review a book that I only read forty pages or so of.

I know what you’re thinking. That was either a completely life changing forty pages, or… they were a bit shit.

Actually, neither.

I’ll admit to being a bit biased before I (attempted to) read A Brief History of Seven Killings, for two reasons, both of which are A Little Life.

 

Now, even I’m starting to get bored with how much I bang on about A Little Life so I’m going to try and soon write a blog that doesn’t reference it, but here the reference is relevant.

It was indirectly recommended to me on twitter by someone claiming it to be better than A Little Life, and it also beat the Hanya Yanagihara tome to this year’s Booker Prize (which was not a huge surprise since the favourite never wins).

I felt obliged to give it a go, and I was hooked by the premise of multiple characters crossing oceans and years to tell the story.

My first issue was a small one – the paper of the pages was not of great quality. Thin pages, mean hard to turn pages and I kept skipping pages without realising it.

However, the reason I didn’t realise I was skipping pages was because the language used in the book was so hard for to follow, told in many places in the dialect of the character speaking.

Jamaican Patois is not something I’m hugely familiar with, it’s not something that crops up all that regularly in deepest Wiltshire, and so I found it hard to inhabit the mindset of the characters. It left me detached and uncaring.

What it did make me realise however, is how alienating most fiction can be to ethnic minorities. Most things are written in a formal English, one that most people don’t speak on a day-to-day basis, but is close enough to traditional spoken English that it is accessible.

I wonder how easy someone who regularly speaks Patois would find it to inhabit the characters of A Little Life or A Place Called Winter. Perhaps the limitation is mine and mine alone and it wouldn’t be a problem.

There’s an interesting study to be done here on ethnicity and reading habits, and it’s probably one that already exists if I cared enough to seek it out. But it strikes me as suddenly very obvious why there are some cultures where literacy is low – they’re under-represented in fiction, the fun part of being able to read.

I did find that if I read the passages aloud (in a very bad attempt at a Jamaican accent) there was a wonderful lyrical, almost poetic quality to the writing. This isn’t a book that was written, it was carefully crafted, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to listen to my own voice for nearly seven hundred pages.

From what I read, it certainly deserved to win the Booker Prize (a prize that is traditionally given to books that most people struggle to get into) and I would recommend it to anyone who doesn’t struggle with dialects.

I, however, will seek out an audio version so that I can listen to someone much better at reading out loud tell me the tale.

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

“I don’t read that sort of book.”

I hear a lot of that.

Some people don’t read crime books, while others avoid James Patterson-type thrillers.

People in their millions across the world rushed to read 50 Shades of Grey and at the same time, millions more mocked it for being trash – despite (probably) never having read it.

I try not to have a type of book – although will admit a preference to fiction over non-fiction, on the basis that I like stories, but stories don’t exclusively exist in a made-up narrative, so I occasionally dabble.

This is not one of those times.

I read The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood at the request of a friend of mine who absolutely adored it.

I’d never read a Margaret Atwood previously; I’d always considered her books “not my type of book”.

However, in the last few years, I’ve considerably expanded my palate and since I’d read The Goldfinch and A Little Life and enjoyed both, I thought maybe now was the time I should give Atwood a go.

The Heart Goes Last tells the story of Stan and Charmaine, a married couple living in their car in a dystopian future. They see an advertisement for a new initiative, a new, Utopian city where everyone’s happy, everyone has a home, and nobody’s hungry.

The only catch is that every other month the citizens have to swap places with their counterparts who are living in a prison. Their new, perfect lives are a timeshare.

Reading the book made me realise how much I had misjudged Margaret Atwood. It was nothing like I had thought it to be, it was nothing like A Little Life or The Goldfinch.

 

The Goldfinch was the saga of a young boy’s ascent into adulthood, A Little Life was a simple exploration of love between men, The Heart Goes Last was a clever premise gone wrong.

It races from one clever idea to another. The dystopian future is explored briefly, but that’s forgivable since every other novel has done it to death, and the point of this story was not the future, but the escape from it.

And then the escape comes and we barely scrape the surface of it before it becomes a novel about escaping that. The last third of the novel ends up in Vegas where Stan ends up living with a group of Elvis impersonators, and becomes one of them. By this point, the dystopian future is completely forgotten about.

It has many ideas, and they do raise a lot of moral questions. However these questions that are not explored in any great detail and nor do they offer any answers.

Ultimately, this is the type of book that people who want to seem clever read, but it isn’t actually clever.

Atwood has several ideas here that if properly expanded upon could become novels in their own right instead of this lightweight, un-funny, farce.

Needless to say, I’m not rushing to read any more Margaret Atwood books.

The One In A Million Boy by Monica Wood

The One in a Million Boy is dead.

This book is not about him, it’s about the people he left behind, the empty space he left in people’s lives, and how they struggle to move and change to fill the void where he used to be.

This book is about Belle, his grieving mother.

It’s about Quinn, his estranged father.

And it’s about Ona Vitkus, the one hundred and four year old woman who the boy was helping out at the weekends immediately prior to his death.

There’s a technique in art – or at least, I think there is, not being an artist, I only know what I know through secondary sources – where instead of painting or drawing the object you focus on the negative space around the object.

The negative space technique is used a lot in optical illusions, noticeably in Rubin’s vase (ok, I’ve googled a bit here), where if the space around the vase is concentrated on, the image actually becomes a picture, not of a vase, but two profiles in silhouette staring at each other.

That’s what happens here. Instead of a story about the boy, this is a story about the negative space he left behind.

By the characters talking about it, the impact it’s had on themselves, we get a picture of them instead.

The book is quite twee in places, there are no shocking twists, everything skips along at a merry pace, and there are no major traumas – even the death of the little boy doesn’t cause major upset to the reader, because it’s hard to care about him.

The negative space technique distances him from the reader. We never know his name and a large part of when he is around are the transcripts of his interviews with Ona, in which he is silent, so that they just read as a list of responses to imagined questions.

What should be the emotional heart of this book, the untimely death of a young boy, doesn’t ever quite land. And I think that’s probably intentional.

It’s a nice book, a romp, and the characters are quite lovely, so that the end of the book, which just hints at what was to come, raises a smile. It’s a gentle, inoffensive story, which is at times funny and distracts from the real world.

I’m finding it difficult to convey my thoughts on this book, and fear I’m coming across negative.

It’s a bit like a bowl of Angel Delight. It’s tasty, it’s fun, but it’s not that substantial and it won’t fill you up.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Earlier this year, I re-read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and have now progressed onto it’s sequel Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

 

I’ve previously stated that my copy of Philosopher’s Stone was the oldest thing I owned, but actually, it strikes me as I begin writing this review that it’s actually a tie with Chamber of Secrets – getting them both for my birthday, shortly after Chamber of Secret was published.

I remember being slightly disappointed at the time, because CoS wasn’t quite as good as PS (two paragraphs in and I’ve resorted to one of those people who use acronyms), so it seems strange reading it all these years later from a different perspective

Chamber of Secrets shows a slightly more comfortable Harry, and actually it feels like JK Rowling is slightly more comfortable with the writing, flowing a little more naturally, and being ever so slightly more grown-up.

It’s also interesting how much in here sets the tone for later books. The first of Voldemort’s Horcruxes that would play a pivotal part in the seventh book is introduced and destroyed here, but also is the first clue that Harry himself is a Horcrux.

When Harry talks to Dumbledore at the end of the book about being able to speak Parseltongue, the older wizard implies that it was a gift from Voldemort himself.

Unless I’m much mistaken, he transferred some of his own powers to you the night he gave you that scar. Not something he intended to do, I’m sure…

 

If he didn’t know before, Dumbledore surely realises at this point that Harry is a Horcrux and that one day Harry would have to die in order for Voldemort to truly be banished. As a reader knowing this, it may put a different angle on how Dumbledore behaves in subsequent books.

I think the reason I liked it less at the time was because, rather than a new villain, Voldemort was back in a slightly different form. As an eleven year old, it felt like a cop-out for the heir of Slytherin to be the same guy that caused all the trouble in the first book.

Later, around the time of books four and five, Chamber of Secrets felt the weakest, because in comparison to the others, nothing actually happens. There is no advancement of the story. Philosopher’s Stone had a confrontation with the real thing, and Azkaban had the reveal of Scabbers and introduction of Sirius Black, while Goblet of Fire and Order of the Phoenix had the return of Voldemort and the beginning of the war.

In comparison, Chamber of Secrets was a meaningless romp, but in hindsight it sets up a lot of things that come into play in the later books.

All these years later, I’ve changed my mind, far from being one of the weakest books in the series, it may be one of the best.

There’s one thing I haven’t changed my mind about though: Dobby.

Can’t stand him.

Talk about ending on a bombshell.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

The Torun Way book club is back.

For those of you that have been reading the blog for a while (anticipating that number to be somewhere between 0 and 0.5) you’ll know all about the Torun Way Book Club.

For those that don’t know what it is… take a wild guess.

It actually came back earlier in the summer when we read The Girl on the Train but I was going to read that anyway (and we all know how well that turned out).

This time Debs chose I Let You Go, a Richard and Judy summer pick, and also a title selected by the Loose Women.

If that doesn’t say quality, I don’t know what does.

Five-year-old Jacob is out walking with his mother when he breaks away from her and is hit by a car. He dies in her arms as the driver of the car speeds away.

The story then follows Jenna as she leaves Bristol to get away from the death of Jacob and DI Ray Stevens who is investigating the hit and run, attempting to track down the driver.

At first, the book felt odd to me. It flipped between Jenna mourning poor Jacob, trying to start a new life in a remote Welsh village and a police procedural miles away.

It felt like two different books, like last year’s Daughter by Jane Shemilt stitched together with a Peter James book. Both of them very good, but an odd combination.

I struggled with it at first. Jenna’s story seemed to be developing at some pace, meeting new people, then getting on with her life, while Stevens story in Bristol seemed to centre around the struggles of his marriage and his growing attraction to a colleague.

Then there is one of the best twists I’ve ever come across in a book. I didn’t see it coming at all.

There’s not much else I can say that doesn’t ruin the twist, so I do suggest you go and read the book, then come back to me.

There is another twist later on in the book that made me think “Oh, FFS.” – but then the twist is swiftly explained and the book is rescued.

The two parts of the story still remain separate, and I’m struggling to understand the point of delving into the police’s private lives for no other reason than padding the book out a little.

The first third of the book is definitely built around the twist, which is a shame. It would be nice to see that section become a bit more developed, because I can believe some people would have given up before the revelation.

Like I Let You Go, the return of The Torun Way Book Club got off to a shaky start, but is now back on track. It’s my turn to pick the next book. It’ll come as no surprise that I’ve picked A Little Life