The Djinn Falls in Love – Mahvesh Murad & Jared Shurin eds.

Retellings of fairy-tales, folk stories and myths are huge at the moment (and have been for a while). Authors like Angela Carter, Philip Pullman and Joanne Harris have explored many of the stories which are hugely familiar to us all and made us think very differently about them. There doesn’t seem to be a fairy-tale character who doesn’t now star in their very own YA franchise and my favourite, Alice in Wonderland, crops up everywhere. The universal themes of stories which we have heard from our childhoods help to give us a sense of familiarity (which the best authors then undermine like mad). But of course not every culture tells the same stories so I was interested to read this collection of tales based on the tales of djinns (or jinns or genies) which we only know in the West from Disney films.

djinnContrary to everything I thought I knew (and which most people raised in cultures where these beings are as well-known as elves and gnomes are to us could have told me) most djinn don’t live in bottles. They don’t necessarily spend all their time granting wishes and they don’t all speak like Robin Williams – these djinn are much more interesting and diverse. These djinn are people. Interestingly the biggest named author in the book (the incomparable Neil Gaiman) wrote one of the stories I liked least – although, to be fair, it was a chapter from American Gods and maybe I could tell that, while complete in itself, it wasn’t a whole story. The rest of the stories cover a multitude of genres and time periods: I particularly enjoyed some of the more sci-fi/dystopian ones (Saad Hossain’s Bring Your Own Spoon, for example), but most of them had some elements of speculative fiction in there. The one which may stick with me longest, however, was chillingly real – REAP by Sami Shah – and featured a blend of magical beings and realistic drone warfare.

A really interesting collection and, like the best short story anthologies, it will lead you towards lots of brilliant new authors.

Jane

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Arrowood – Mick Finlay

I was brought up in the days when you had to like one thing or the other. It started with the choice between the Bay City Rollers and David Cassidy, moved on to Wham vs Duran Duran and reached its peak in the Britpop era. Obviously, I’m awkward. I spent the seventies quite liking all the big names in pop but saving my actual fandom for the Wombles (I was 7 – surely I was meant to like kids bands rather than wasting my time wanting to marry Donny Osmond…), in the eighties I was still listening to everything but developing my teen love of Prog Rock (played Yes and Genesis at my wedding, there’s nothing like a twelve-minute long first dance…) and in the nineties, alongside Blur and Oasis, I’d discovered folk-rock and Nick Drake. Let’s face it, if I see a crowd all looking in the same direction I’ll have a quick glance and then a good look round to see what they’re missing. In the late Victorian London of Mick Finlay’s novel I’m the kind of person who would have read all about Sherlock Holmes in the paper and then wondered about all the cases he didn’t take. Which is how most people seem to discover Arrowood…

9780008203184William Arrowood is a detective and he’s, frankly, got no time for Sherlock Holmes. Which is a shame because most of the rest of London have got such a crush on him it’s almost as if Benedict Cumberbatch were already in the role – there is a great running joke throughout the book that whenever Arrowood and his assistant Barnett meet anyone new they start to enthuse about the great Sherlock, much to Arrowood’s disgust. Our heroes, however, take on the cases of people who are too poor to afford Baker Street rates and they delve into cases which seem much more sordid than anything Dr Watson would care to describe. In this book they are searching for a missing young Frenchman but soon become involved with the criminal underworld (in the form of a gang who have London sown up and would like to move onto stitching up Arrowood and Barnett), the fight for Irish independence, human trafficking and prostitution. The plot is rather nicely complicated and I really liked some of the characters. It looks as though this book ends poised to begin a whole series – in which case I look forward to hearing more about Neddy, the obligatory urchin, and Arrowood’s indefatigable sister.

Jane

Earth – Jeffrey Jerome Cohen & Linda T Elkins-Tanton

Sometimes the things we see everyday become so familiar that we forget all about them. I swear I’ve had mornings when I’ve managed to make and consume cereal, fruit and a refreshing cup of tea and I don’t even remember opening the fridge. And I can get home after work and have no memory of the bus at all. Odd isn’t it, how the stuff that is the most use, is just not even on the radar? I mean, I’d really notice if the bus wasn’t there as it would be a 4 mile walk home (and uphill all the way…), but once my bum hits the seat it is virtually invisible to me. The very clever people at Bloomsbury noticed this phenomena and have commissioned a series of books called Object Lessons – which they describe as a series of short, beautifully designed books about the hidden lives of ordinary things. Objects covered include remote controls, dust, bookshelves, bread, passwords and hair (which sounds like my average day to be honest) but the volume I read covers a slightly larger subject: the Earth.

29875710I’m not sure how the other books in this series are written but this one takes the form of a series of dialogues (letters, emails, transcripts of conversations) between two academics in very different fields. One a scientist who studies planets and their formation and the other an English professor specialising in medieval studies they don’t seem (even to themselves) a natural pair of collaborators but they find that they have enough in common to write this book. I found their discussions fascinating – they both sound like interesting people who don’t allow themselves to be limited by their academic disciplines – and they ranged from why Noah encourages us to be selfish in our attitudes to  climate disaster, how hard it is to  grasp the scales involved when thinking about space, time and temperature to the Dream of Scipio. They talk about the Earth but also about their lives and families: birthdays are celebrated, cake is eaten and many questions are pondered.

If you are interested in science or intelligent discussion then this book could be worth a read. Science used to be known as ‘natural philosophy’ and this book seems to combine the scientific and the philosophical. And, of course, if the earth isn’t a subject which particularly interests you then you could always check out other books in the series – I’ve got my eye on Bookshelf (but that’s possibly just a professional interest…)

Jane

A Natural – Ross Raisin

Nailing colours to the mast here – I come from a family of West Ham supporters. However, I tend to get distracted from the actual football by everything else in life and don’t really keep up with teams, matches or much else. (Also, this season, I’ve been looking the other way because we’ve not had a very good year…). I’ll always root for Bradford City – who can forget that Cup run in 2015 – but West Ham is the team closest to my heart. For some people, however, football is an all-consuming passion – they know the players, the stats, the names of all the support staff, who supplies the best pies, where the reserve team train: everything. And this isn’t just for the big name clubs in the Premiership, Serie A, the Bundesliga or La Liga – small, local teams can inspire just as great an obsession. Possibly more since you are more likely to have either been to school with the goalie or bump into the Chairman at the local chippie. I, personally, love this kind of local support – it takes it back to the days when your team was about your town, not about who can buy the best players regardless of where they are from…Anyway, this is a bit of a digression but it is, at least tangentially, relevant to Ross Raisin’s latest book.

30335538Raisin seems to specialise in writing about the male psyche – and especially about men in difficult emotional situations. We read about women going through hard times a lot – and in some excellent books – but men’s emotional issues are often overlooked. Raisin’s first book was about a troubled youth in rural Yorkshire and his second about a middle-aged Glaswegian dealing with grief and homelessness – now this one looks at professional footballers. Of course, most of what we hear about this group – the inflated salaries, lavish lifestyles and drunken antics – means that we don’t expect to sympathise with the characters but the realities of the day-to-day life of young men in the lower reaches of the English leagues seem much harder. We follow two players through the novel – Tom, released by the Premiership side he played for as a schoolboy, and Easter, the team captain who is losing his form – but are shown the experiences of many men. Youths earning £1000 a week, perhaps, with no-one to stop them developing expensive gambling habits, entire teams at the mercy of bullying managers and the weaknesses of their own bodies: when to be injured is to risk losing your place in the team but not giving your all physically runs the same risk. And, above all, the impossibility of showing any emotion in an environment where the fear of appearing to be anything less than a ‘manly’ man is paramount. And, of course, all in an environment where men are regularly in physical contact and frequently naked – the only thing feared more than being thought to be gay is actually being gay. In this atmosphere we explore the emotional repression and self-hatred of men at the peak of physical health but suffering mentally. Not such a cushy life, after all.

Jane

 

The White Hare – Michael Fishwick

You think you know what to expect with certain genres – heroines in romances are usually attractive (even if they have to work to be noticed), heroes are brave (even if they need to convince themselves) and heavy metal guitarists have long hair and tattoos. And, of course, folk singers have beer bellies, beards, and fingers in their ears. So it was a very pleasant surprise a few years ago when Seth Lakeman hit the folk music scene (and crossed over into the pop charts) with his song The White Hare. I’d like to say I was mostly struck by the energy of his playing (I’ve seen him destroy a bow in two or three songs when he plays the fiddle), or the dark undertones of the song but, to be fair I was mostly drooling slightly at his good looks. I know, shallow…So I thought I would make amends by reading a book called the White Hare to see if the slight air of mystery and menace in Lakeman’s lyrics transferred to this story.

whitehareThe story is centred around a young boy, Robbie, who has been troubled and angry since the death of his mother. That anger seems to have followed him, his dad and his dad’s new partner, as they have moved to a small rural village. Robbie has few friends but is drawn to other outsiders – Mags, an older girl who knows the land and its creatures intimately, and Alice, a sensible girl in his class who stand out as one very few black faces in the village. Mags shows him a mysterious white hare and swears him to secrecy – but will not say why. We gradually discover that the hare is strongly linked to some dark local legends but also that, just because something is legendary doesn’t mean it isn’t also very real.

This book is an exploration of Robbie’s path through loss and grief but it is also a story of the mythology of an area. It delves into the mysterious and into the rather more mundane (although unpleasant) lives of a family with power over  a small community. The mystery and menace are there – once again, folk music has not lied to me…

Jane

 

Exit West – Mohsin Hamid

Magical Realism seems to be one of those styles of writing which really divides people. I managed to totally split our shop book group down the middle when I got them to read One Hundred Years of Solitude (and when I say ‘down the middle’ I really mean that one or two agreed with me and enjoyed it – the rest found it odd and irritating) but it is a genre I generally enjoy. It was, however, not the genre I was expecting when I picked up Mohsin Hamid’s latest. His previous works have been experimental in their form so I guess the surprise was that Hamid was working within an existing format – it is no surprise, however, to find that he does it very well. In fact I checked out the main characteristics of the genre and I reckon he has ticked most of them…

exitwestNadia and Saeed are young people in an unnamed city (my feeling is that it is based on Syria or somewhere similar in the area but that feeling would probably change with whatever war was in the news…) who, like young people the world over, meet and begin to develop a relationship. This is dramatically intensified when simmering unrest develops into a civil war, cutting off normal means of communication. Nadia is passionate and impulsive; Saeed thoughtful and more socially/religiously conservative but they are sure they love each other. Probably. When the situation in their home city worsens further they decide to escape.

So far this doesn’t sound very ‘magical’. The realism of the unrest/civil war/atrocities is, well, very very real. The deaths, most of which seem to be civilians who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and described with almost emotionless brutality and the day-to-day problems faced by those caught up in such conflicts are also covered in dispassionate depth. I think this feeling of disconnectedness was the first hint for me of what was to come so when the method of escape being used came up I was ready to accept it. Doors. Black doors. Which lead to other cities, other lives and other possibilities.They don’t all lead to lives of luxury – the ones heading to the affluent West tend to be heavily guarded – but Nadia and Saeed move gradually westwards, through the Greek Islands and London before ending up in California. Of course, realism is still a factor, so when people move via these doors they still meet the same problems refugees face in our own reality: prejudice, poverty, political manipulation. Nadia and Saeed face the fact that their relationship was formed in an almost unreal situation and, now they are halfway round the world from home, they have to find out if it has any future.

I’m not sure if I should class this book as speculative fiction, magical realism or literary fiction. It is all three. It is also a fascinating study of what it could be like to be displaced and how the world could react to an increasing influx of refugees to the West. It is beautiful and scary and well worth a read.

Jane

Massacre of Mankind: a Sequel to War of the Worlds – Stephen Baxter

There is an affliction that affects people of a certain age – i.e. me –  whereby any mention of The War Of The Worlds is associated immediately with Richard Burton’s narration, David Essex as the Artilleryman, Phil Lynott as the Parson and Justin Hayward’s Forever Autumn! Yes, Jeff Wayne’s fantastic musical version was the first proper album I bought with my own pocket money and left a huge impression on me. It was to be another five years or so before I read the actual book by H.G.Wells. The Wells book, published in 1898, is deservedly a classic. It’s not a long book, but the impression of the Lowellian Mars of the late 19th century being not a wise but a hostile, predatory world, keen to acquire territory inward as the sun cools and their own world dries, and overwhelming a Britain that was then a world leading imperial force – has a kind of dark, unsettling power that still can move a modern reader. I am re-reading it now.

baxterStephen Baxter – with the authorisation of the H.G Wells estate – has created a sequel which is enjoyable, if imperfect. To begin with of course, in 2017 we know what the real Mars is like. But Baxter, rightly, sets his sequel in the same universe as the original, where the Martians still regard our Earth with envious eyes and draw their plans against us. This makes the book a science fantasy now of course – set in a solar system that no longer exists – but the suspension of disbelief is quite quick as Baxter throws you into a well-paced narrative set in the 1920s, some years after the original invasion. And the Martians come again, and this time, they’ve learned.

I liked the characters. Narrated in the first person by journalist Julie Elphinstone, former sister-in-law of the original narrator (who reappears too), Julie is a strong-willed woman who is given a mission by Major Eric Eden – serving under Churchill – to infiltrate the Martian’s Redoubt,  their primary operating base  located in the ruins of the town of Amersham. With a cover story of communication with the Martians, and the actual purpose hidden, Julie is swept into the world of the British resistance, and into the military cordon round the Martian base. There are lots of colourful people here that I enjoyed meeting – journalist Harry Kane, Verity Lambert, Albert Cook (the artilleryman from the original book, making a reappearance), each of them have their own story and experience to tell – and for the first two-thirds of the book the story motors along. And yes, the story eventually does go international this time, with waves of Martians landing all over the planet.

I found the final third a bit of a disappointment – although it’s clear from the earliest pages that the second Martian War is eventually won, so this is not a ‘spoiler’, the manner of winning seemed very contrived.  Baxter develops a good idea – from the final chapter of Wells novel, there is a hint of the future strategy of the Martians, including invasion of the swamp-world Venus further inwards – and the significance of planetary-scale signs or ‘sigils’. I just somehow feel that Baxter had to rush the ending.

Nothing can match Well’s classic of course. I think Baxter has done a pretty decent, if workmanlike job of writing a sequel, and if you liked the original (or even the album!) do give it a whirl. ULLA!

Rob