Monday, February 12, 2024

Book Review: Pity by Andrew McMillan

 The coal miners' union of the UK (NUM) started a strike in 1984, which the government of Margaret Thatcher tried to brutally suppress. The accounts of the union were frozen, and the funding was totally dried up. Other unions, including the steel workers, were also scared of persecution and failed to assist the miners. But unexpected support for the miner's struggle came from members of the lesbian and gay community in the UK.

Lesbians and Gays Support Miners (LGSM) was an alliance formed by different gay activists and organisations and was intended to fund NUM. This followed several interactions between these two extremely different groups, and they bonded over several shared issues like police discrimination, apathy from the government, and misrepresentation by the media. But ultimately, Thatcher quelled the miner's strike and started to act against the LGBT community. Though miners returned the support by actively participating in pride protests, the closure of major coal mines resulted in their becoming toothless. 

Pity is the debut novel of the British poet Andrew McMillan, written in this background and exploring the travails of a former mining town to forget its past and carry on. It deals with many interesting concepts, like social haunting, which considers that social violence done in the past continues to exist in societies even in the present, though these social ghosts are mostly concealed and express themselves through symbolism. I received a review copy of the book by its publisher, Canongate, through Netgalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Though Pity is a nimble volume of around a hundred pages, it employs a dense plot structure that acquires the form of a collage, both in its narration and composition. It is made up of many snippets of small elements that are assembled together in such a way that it is easy to get oneself lost once inside it. Instead of picking and inspecting individual elements, it is necessary to stand a little bit back and view it in its entirety to appreciate its holistic beauty. The shortness of the book offered me the convenience of reading it twice to fully imbibe the workings of the plot and understand its intricacy.

The plot of Pity follows several narrations from the multiple, alternating viewpoints of several characters. The author uses different fonts to compose the story of different characters across time. We follow a man working in a coal mine and his next two generations. His children Brian and Alex, Alex's son Simon, and his lover Ryan form the major characters of the novel.

There are three strands of narration flowing in the novel. One follows the daily routines of the coal mine worker (mentioned only as he in most of the novel) and emphasises the perils and the dreary repetition of his life. We find several passages repeating multiple times with minor changes throughout this plot line. Another strand follows his son Brian, also a mine worker, joining the project of a group of academics who are trying to comprehend how the deep personal memories of people affected by a disaster differ from the overarching narrative of it that the larger section of society believes. We are given access to many of their research notes, which provide unique insights into this.

The third plot strand concerns Alex, the second son and a closeted gay who is ashamed of it, and his troubled interactions with his openly gay son and amateur drag queen, Simon. Simon is in a relationship with Ryan, who is apprehensive of Simon's pursuit of drag shows. Simon is trying to make it into an art form by parodying Margaret Thatcher and putting on a strong political show that criticises Thatcher's actions towards the miner's strike, which is the cause of the decline of their miner's town.

Though these three plot lines barely intersect each other, it is interesting to realise that each one complements the other two. It is only by following all three closely that the reader is able to fully comprehend the historic, societal, political, and personal implications of the plot in all its immensity, which is definitely far greater than the sum of the total.

Though a short novel, Pity is magnificently profound and a triumph of story-telling art. Even with its complex structure and multiple narratives, it ultimately manages to provide emotional fulfilment to its reader.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

Book Review: Kingpin by Mike Lawson

 What happens when two dominant men play their power games? Several powerless innocents become cannon fodder. When business tycoon Carson Newman gets to know that an intern working under politician John Mahoney has found something dirty on him, he decides to silence him. This starts off a chain of events that spirals into a cat-and-mouse game between several interested parties. Right in the middle stands Joe DeMarco, a lawyer who works as a fixer for Mahoney, taking care of all dirty jobs in which the former Speaker cannot directly interfere. DeMarco decides to deliver justice to the dead young man at all costs.

Kingpin is a political thriller written by Mike Lawson, featuring his "troubleshooter" lawyer, Joe DeMarco. The novel deals with power politics and how corruption has been normalised in the topmost echelons of the political spectrum. Businessmen and politicians form duplicitous arrangements in the shadows, helped by middlemen like agents and lobbyists. To aid them, they use petty criminals and assassins. Even if they are exposed, they always manage to find easy ways to escape the hands of the law through lawyers who are experts in subverting justice. I received a review copy of the novel from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, through Netgalley in exchange for my honest feedback.

The novel is literally an edge-of-the-seat, quick-paced thriller with many twists and turns in its plot. The writer is successful in constructing an engrossing tale where several characters do what is needed to keep themselves safe, even at the cost of another's life. At the same time, he has never let the narrative become too serious by preserving a thin strand of humour running right below the main plot. The novel starts as a high-level rivalry between two giants but soon becomes a fight between many minions on each side who are desperate to keep their turf and livelihood safe.

DeMarco, our protagonist, is one of my favourite kinds of characters in this genre of thriller. He is a reckless, resourceful, and quick-thinking person who never cares for appearances—literally, a loose cannon. Though he is a shrewd lawyer who is willing to go to any lengths to protect his boss's interest, he is also ready to give a tough fight when he really feels obligated towards some cause, ensuring justice for an innocent young man in this book. The other characters are also as colourful and eccentric as DeMarco. But even then, they are relatable to the reader because their basic intention is to somehow keep themselves floating in a dog-eat-dog world.

Kingpin by Mike Lawson is a crime thriller with a background of power politics and the criminal activities that happen in its back alleys. The novel is a reminder of a situation where bribing and influencing a lawmaker is normal and no longer considered a crime. It is a tightly plotted entertainer that made me want more of it.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Book Review: Where the Wind Calls Home by Samar Yazbek

 Human beings are born free. Then society ties them up. Every one of us wants to ultimately be free of these shackles that limit us. While our subconscious is always in an endeavour to attain this independence from fetters, we ourselves love to embrace them harder due to our fear of walking against the wind. This tug of war between a subconscious that aspires to be free and the consciousness that pursues societal acceptance vigorously causes an eternal tension that is the basis of all the violence around us.

The theme of the novel Where the Wind Calls Home by Samar Yazbek is based on the friction between a man's aspiration to fly ahead and society's desperation to let him. Samar Yazbek is a prominent award-winning Syrian novelist and journalist. The novel is translated from Arabic to English by Leri Price. The novel explores the village life of Syria and shows us how powerful and corrupt politicians hold a society hostage and intrude into their livelihood and even private affairs like religion, while forcing their young men to needlessly shed lives for them. I received a review copy of the novel from the publisher, World Editions, through Netgalley in exchange for my honest feedback.

The novel begins with a lone flying eye that witnesses a funeral, which it suspects is that of its body. Then we realise that it is the hallucinations of a nineteen-year-old, injured soldier, Ali, who is the victim of a friendly fire, a bomb of his own side, that mistakenly exploded amongst his team. Soon, Ali comes to his senses and tries to assess his wounds. He starts remembering his past and takes us on a journey about how he ended up there. We find that, as a young kid, Ali never behaved like his peers and was more attracted to nature, the sun, wind, and trees. He was a deeply spiritual being who was forced by warlords into fighting a war that wasn't his. 

While telling the story of Ali, the author takes us on a spiritual journey about the human spirit, which wants to break the shackles that bind it to the ordinary and aspires to fly. Flying is a motif that repeatedly appears in the plot, as are images of height, like trees, mountains, and rooftops, which our protagonist loves to climb. An aunt of Ali, who is a servant of the sheikh, jumps from a cliff to death. Ali believes that she tried to fly away, and he always has visions of him sprouting wings and flying off from heights. Even while lying injured, he attempts to drag himself towards a nearby oak tree and climb on it as a last effort to be free.

The novel tries to portray a picture of Syrian villages where innocent villagers are terrorised by arms-wielding chieftains, grabbing their lands and forcing their sons to fight and needlessly become martyrs. Ali's brother joins the army and returns in a nailed box from the war. His mother is not allowed to see the body. Ali's attempts when he lies injured can be attributed to his fear of such a fate befalling him too. It is interesting to note that we never find out who his opponents are, and even his injuries are caused by his own side. While lying injured, he sees a mirror image of himself on his opposite side, whom he fears as an enemy. There is an interesting analogy between Ali's father, who hits him with a pomegranate stick, and the powerful sheikhs. As a kid, he believed that fathers never die, and the same irrational belief can be seen repeated in the refusal of villagers to believe that their president is dead.

Where the Wind Calls Home by Samar Yazbek is an intense reading experience that offers a lyrical, non-linear narrative that flits between past and present. It offers a spiritual journey of the human spirit that aspires to transcendence, even when suffering, to break the chains that bind it to the fears and tragedies of society.

Sunday, February 4, 2024

Book Review: Twenty-Seven Minutes by Ashley Tate

 I've heard someone say that everybody imagines that they are the protagonists of the drama that's being enacted around them. I think the latest suspense novel, Twenty-Seven Minutes, expands on this theme. We find ourselves among some characters who are deeply affected in many ways by a tragedy that altered their lives irreversibly ten years ago. Each of them views the event and consequently responds to the aftershocks of it from a self-centric perspective, while the truth is far away from any of them. They manipulate reality to suit them until they ultimately realise that closure can only be attained by facing it head-on.

Teenager Phoebe Dean was killed in a road accident while on a truck driven by her brother Grant on a bridge when they were returning late at night after a party to drop Becca, another teenager who is in love with Grant, home. On the same day, Wyatt, another teenager, goes missing, leaving June, his sister, alone to deal with their difficult parents. Ten years have passed, and Phoebe's mother plans a memorial, much to the irritation of others who are still struggling to leave the incidents behind them. But the arrival of Wyatt opens the unhealed wounds, threatening the exposure of what actually transpired a decade ago.

Twenty-Seven Minutes is the debut novel of Ashley Tate, who is an editor living in Canada. The novel is a slow-burning suspense thriller that explores the themes of personal loss, grief, obsession, and betrayal and tries to showcase how the mind tries to readjust past events to suit the psychological wants of each individual. The novel unfolds in a non-linear style, with the present and past interspersed in its narrative. It follows the perspectives of four major characters, each narrated by a third-person, omnipresent narrator.

I loved the narrative style of the novel. It uses its non-linear, multi-perspective structure to effectively disclose a tragic tale of sorrow and deceit. The reader realises different aspects of the tragedy and its effects on the characters very slowly, layer by layer, told alternatively by each of them, by narrating their present travails and their attempts to adapt. The use of the third person is especially effective, as it gives us a sense of being a spectator of the events while not being attached to any single character. To me, it gave the feel of watching the CCTV footage of an elaborate road accident involving multiple vehicles, each trying to salvage itself but ultimately ending up contributing to the bigger catastrophe.

The novel reveals itself through its four main characters. All of them start off as rather generic ones, grieving a common tragedy. But on our explorations through their daily lives and their interactions, we uncover new facets about them, revealing their varied motivations for their behaviours. The writer takes her time to establish these entities and manages to spring out new and surprising revelations about them consistently as the narrative progresses. This is another strong point of the novel. The climax had many elements that a careful reader must be able to decipher much before the reveal, but still manages to pull the rug from under their feet with a clever sleight of the hand trick.

Twenty-Seven Minutes by Ashley Tate is a suspenseful drama that unfolds at an unhurried pace and is told in a non-linear structure from the perspective of multiple characters. It is a satisfying narrative that delves into the possibilities of a truth that lies buried under perspectives skewed due to intense self-centric behaviours.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, through Netgalley in exchange for my honest feedback.

Friday, February 2, 2024

Book Review: Womb City by Tlotlo Tsamaase

 In a dystopian version of the future Botswana, where the government has the power to issue bodies to dead souls, Nelah, a woman entrepreneur and the wife of a policeman, lives in the body of a former criminal. As is the procedure, her life and thoughts are monitored through a microchip and periodically evaluated for purity, with the help of her husband, so that the former criminality of her body doesn't influence her soul. She finds this intrusive as it threatens her upcoming motherhood, which she is eagerly looking forward to.

Still, she finds ways to conceal many secrets, including an illicit relationship. But one night she gets involved in a hit-and-run incident and has to bury the victim, a young woman, to escape the consequences. To her horror, the victim re-emerges in her life as a ghost, starts killing off her dear ones, and threatens to ultimately destroy her unborn girl child, who is being developed inside an artificial wombcubator. To prevent the ghost, Nelah has to uncover many dirty secrets of the past that bind her with the victim and figure out how all of them tie up with an ages-old Botswanan ritual of blood.

Womb City is the debut novel of Tlotlo Tsamaase, an award-winning Botswanan writer. It is a futuristic Afro-dystopian science fiction novel that explores themes like sense of identity, maternal love, systemic oppression of the weak, and manipulative authoritarianism that pits victims against each other for its own benefit. It touches on several misogynistic behaviours, including racial profiling and gender bias, and tries to build a bridge to the present social structure in its effort to understand them deeply from an assumed surveillance state of the future. I received a review copy of the book from the publisher, Kensington Books, through Netgalley in exchange for my honest feedback about it.

The main theme that the novel focuses on is the identity crisis that one has to go through when you have to inhabit another strange body. In today's world, where AI and metaverses are beginning to take baby steps and where one has the opportunity to assume a different identity away from one's own body or to alter self-identity as per their own self-perception, the novel puts forward some interesting questions. It reminded me of an old Indian folktale about the dilemma of a woman who has to identify who her real husband is when a demon interchanges the bodies and souls of two men.

In the novel, the receptor of a new body doesn't have any agency in choosing their body. On top of that, the government removes all traces of the memories from their previous lives while making them responsible for the traces of criminal tendencies from the past that their bodies display. The novel displays how the instant an authority decides to intrude into the lives of civilians, even when the pretext is that of protecting them or creating an equal utopia, the existing social structure expands and engulfs that decision, causing the existing fissures in society to widen. It shows how such measures automatically give more advantages to the already corrupt strata of society and favour them while making life hell for the underprivileged.

Womb City is a novel that has an intense plot and dense prose. It uses elements of science fiction, African culture and folklore, dystopian fiction, and body horror. The writer never pulls back any punches, and the result is a reading experience that shakes the reader. The novel explores various issues of inequalities and oppression that exist in present-day societies and tries to find a solution by going back to the roots and reclaiming the cultural ancestry from the authorities who claim to be its custodians.

The novel succeeds mostly due to its evocative prose and a strong sense of purpose. The main characters are written well, and their personalities connect with the reader. But the antagonists are very poorly written. They fail to create dread or despise in the minds of readers and fail to make an impact on the overall narrative. The narration is brilliant most of the time and brings the reader along with the travails of the protagonist.

But it seems the writer forgot the importance of showing instead of telling. There are a lot of chapters dedicated to characters sitting around and explaining and then over-explaining themselves. I especially had an issue with the pre-climax meeting that spans around three chapters, where nothing happens and all the characters sit around and talk about their pasts. It reminded me of the water cooler discussions at work and diluted the overall impact of the novel for me. Overexposition is the main antagonist of Womb City. But the climax is brilliant, where every element of the plot nicely ties together, creating a unique spectacle.

Womb City is a dense and intense science fiction horror that tries to offer a perspective on systemic issues in our present societies. The novel is a violent narrative that is meant to disturb its reader and certainly achieves the intended effect, though certain structural flaws tend to minimise the effects.