Zadie Smith ‘Swing Time’

—She would not press play until she had Fred and Ginger exactly where she wanted them, on the balcony amongst the bougainvillea and the Doric columns at which point she began to read the danse as I never could,img_1054 she saw everything the stray ostrich feathers hitting the floor, the weak muscles in Ginger’s back Fred had to jerk her up from any supine position spoiling the flow ruining the lines, she noticed the most important thing of all which was the dance lessons within the performance, with Fred and Ginger you can always see the danse lessons.

Swing time is the story of an unnamed narrator and the four female characters that influence her life up to the point at the end of the book where she is 33 years old and she finally takes the time to begin to question herself.

The First and foremost of the influences on her life is her childhood friend Tracy, from the initial quote, who lives on a nearby estate and who she meets at dancing classes, drawn together by their exact same skin colours:

—Tracey and I lined up next to each other, every time, it was almost unconscious, two iron filings drawn to a magnet.

The narrator is defined by what Tracy is and what she herself is not. Tracy is a gifted natural dancer, determined, earnest and speaks her mind about everything except her father, Louis, a local character no longer living at home, thrown out by Tracy’s mother. Tracy grows up becoming rebellious, getting in to a dancing school and drifting away from the narrator.

In parallel to friendship with Tracy, the narrators home life is in flux as her West Indian mother strives to exist through education in a single minded climb through learning obtaining a university degree, becoming a local councillor and then a member of parliament, the price to pay is her lack of time for her family, her husband leaves home and her lack of empathy towards and time for her daughter who spends more time with Tracey:

—I was not a dancer at all –although I took too much pride in my singing, in a manner I knew my mother found obnoxious. Singing came naturally to me, but things that came naturally to females did not impress my mother, not at all. In her view you might as well be proud of breathing or walking or giving birth.

The story then moves on to its second phase as Tracey begins to get secondary roles in west end musicals, the narrator’s Mother goes through a relationship with the ‘Notable Activist’ and then lives with her assistant, Miriam. As this happens our Narrator begins a ten year role as a personal assistant to Aimee, a mega rich superstar traveling the world on private jets, to ensure that Aimee can be free to live her life in the full whilst ensuring that the narrator can have no life of her own. Aimee unfettered by day to day life, all taken care of by her assistants, moves seamlessly from one idea or obsession to next, one in particular will take up a good deal of the narrator’s  time, a school for young girls in The Gambia:

—Governments are useless they can’t be trusted Aimee explained to me and charities have their own agenda, churches care more for souls than for bodies and so if we want to see real change is this world….well then we ourselves have to be the ones to do it, we have to be the change we want to see. By we she meant people like herself of financial means and global reach who happen to love freedom and equality, want justice, feel an obligation to do something good with their own fortunes. It was a moral category but also an economic one and if you followed its logic all the way to the end of the revolving belt then after a few miles you arrived at a new idea that wealth and morality are in essence the same thing therefore the more money a person had then the more goodness or potential for goodness a person possessed.

The fourth female character to influence her life is Hawa, a young teacher at the village school in The Gambia, a young balanced woman, happy with the simple village life she lives and the gossip that goes with it, Hawa as the other strong female characters in the book are shown as contrasts to the narrator who nonetheless sees her as having some things in common with her. Hawa is however ten years younger than her and as this final quote shows cannot avoid her destiny to marry, which again is seen through the narrator’s reaction:

—I couldn’t rid myself of a nagging sense of error that having misread everything beginning with Hawa who opened the door of her compound wearing a new scarf, black that covered her head and stopped half way down her torso and a long shapeless shirt, the kind she had always ridiculed when we saw them in the market, she hugged me as firmly as ever….oh sister good news I am getting married. I hugged her and felt the familiar smile fasten itself on my face the same one that I wore in London and New York in the face of similar news and I experienced the same sense of acute betrayal, I was ashamed to feel that way but couldn’t help it a piece of my heart closed against her.

The wheel eventually turns full circle with Tracy bringing up her children in her childhood flat, no longer able to dance, still angry, an anger that in her case gives her a certain balance and the narrator having stepped off of the treadmill with only questions before her. Finally it is only the narrator that seems to have an acute sense of observation but no character, a shame for the book.

First published in English as ‘Swing Time’ by Hamish Hamilton in 2016

Anthony Doerr ‘All the light We Cannot See’

—He leads them single file down two twisting staircases and along several corridors and stops outside an iron door with a single keyhole. “End of tour,” he says.img_0992 A girl says, “But what’s through there?” “Behind this door is another locked door, slightly smaller.” “And what’s behind that?” “A third locked door, smaller yet.” “What’s behind that?” “A fourth door, and a fifth, on and on until you reach a thirteenth, a little locked door no bigger than a shoe.” The children lean forward. “And then?” “Behind the thirteenth door”—the guide flourishes one of his impossibly wrinkled hands—“ is the Sea of Flames.”

Anthony Doerr in his 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner brings us the parallel stories of two main protagonists whose paths cross in Normandy in 1944, Marie-Laure, a young girl living with her father, the locksmith at the Natural History museum in Paris and Werner Pfennig, an orfan living in a mining town Zollverein in the Ruhr and why Werner has for a mission to find and eliminate her but does not.

Marie-Laure, as a young girl goes blind and her doting but meticulous father builds her a 3 dimensional scale model of their quartier so that she can go anywhere in this quartier and get back home. In the museum is the mysterious Sea of Flames, a most valuable jewel, hidden as described in the opening quote behind thirteen locks whose legend says:

—The keeper of the stone would live forever, but so long as he kept it, misfortunes would fall on all those he loved one after another in unending rain.

In Zollverein Werner and his sister, Jutta are brought up in their austere orphanage after their father is killed in a mining accident and his body never recovered, by a French mother-tongue nun, Werner is gifted with radios, can build and repair them from a young age and one night Werner and his sister tune into a far off broadcast in french:

—The Frenchman’s voice is velvet. His accent is very different from Frau Elena’s, and yet his voice is so ardent, so hypnotizing, that Werner finds he can understand every word. The Frenchman talks about optical illusions, electromagnetism;
Time slows. The attic disappears. Jutta disappears. Has anyone ever spoken so intimately about the very things Werner is most curious about?

For the children of the orphanage there is no way out, the orphanage raises the children and all boys from the age of fifteen “without exception” will go down the mine.

The story is built from these foundations, Werner is recognised for his key and necessary radio skills, sent to an elite Hitler youth school where he designs, manufactures and then operates, in the field during the war, radio emitter detection devices and his team then mercilessly kill the operators. Marie-Laure and her father leave Paris during the invasion carrying one of four copies of the Sea of Flames for which one is the original. Anne-Laure spends the war with her reclusive uncle who before the war emitted captivating stories not knowing if he had listeners and during the war emitted for the resistance but unable to resist putting something of his pre-war broadcasts into his performance, whilst Anne-Laure picked up the messages to be broadcast.

And yes of course this particular radio is the point of intersection of their stories and under the allied threat and then attack of Saint Malo, Werner does the right thing.

This is an exceptionally well researched story with a necessary touch of fantasy, its pages are filled with thousands of details, it has however left me pining as a reader for something akin to the French mouvement of the past, La Nouvelle Vague for films, or maybe Punk for music, that is to say the risk of wing and a prayer writing or maybe just not using computers. I feel a little like a consumer, somebody has done all the work for me

First published in English as ‘All the Light We Cannot See’ by Scribner in 2014

Liz Moore ‘The Unseen World’

—Her father had made his cream sauce and was assembling the salad he had dreamed up of endive and grapefruit and avocado.img_0991 He was moving frantically now and she knew that talking to him would be a mistake. His hands were trembling slightly as he worked. He wanted it all to be simultaneously precise and beautiful. He wanted it all to work. “What am I forgetting,” he said to Ada tensely.

In the Unseen World Liz Moore offers us a multilayered ideal of a gifted child Ada brought up in the eighties in Boston by her brilliant father who spiritually nurtured  her in a home educated environment, taking her regularly into his laboratory at the BIT (Boston Institute of Technology) where she would converse with her father’s research students and in the evening help her father organise his elaborate dinner parties for his laboratory members. An idyllic world narrated by Ada herself. Until little clues such as the opening quote leads us towards the implosion of the idyll and of Ada’s certainties as her father who has educated Ada to have an ingrained mistrust of government, and police slowly slips into Altzeimer’s disease.

The description of the slow deterioration of his mind in this book seems remarkably close to reality. Ada who cannot imagine life without her father does her best to minimise the effects of this illness to the outside world, this illness which has descended prematurely upon David as she calls her father, until one day when David goes missing and after searching for him all day and all night with Liston her neighbour, David’s senior laboratory researcher, they finish by calling the police thus slowly beginning the inevitable march towards David’s hospitalisation.

The hospitalisation of David is then the real start to the book, Liston volunteers to adopt Ada only to discover that David was not the person he claimed to be, no person by that name had obtained his first degree and in several layers, flashbacks to his tragic youth and to the events that caused him to need to change his identity, up to how he had been able to be employed by the BIT, David’s Background is explained to us.

David’s life work had been on artificial Intelligence, working on a computer code called Elixir which was capable of interacting with people (mostly David and his lab assistants as well as Ada. David had left the information about his past with three sources, two of which died prematurely and Elixir for which he left a disc with a code to Ada who did not crack the code for many years when she herself was working in a laboratory on virtual reality.

The future development of David’s Elixir and Ada’s work would lead to “The Unseen World”. The UW where when Ada is able to travel into it Elixir is present but has taken David’s form.

And of course the only person with the access to all the information in the book to be able to write it wasn’t a person at all.

First published in English as ‘The Unseen World’ by Windmill books in 2016

Marlon James ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’

—In the Eight Lanes and in Copenhagen City all you can do is watch. Sweet-talking voice on the radio say that crime and violence are taking over the country and if change ever going to come then we will have to wait and see, but all we can do down here in the Eight Lanes is see and wait. img_0987And I see shit water run free down the street and I wait. And I see my mother take two men for twenty dollars each and one more who pay twenty-five to stay in instead of pull out and I wait. And I watch my father get so sick and tired of her that he beat her like a dog. And I see the zinc on the roof rust itself brown, and then the rain batter hole into it like foreign cheese, and I see seven people in one room and one pregnant and people fucking anyway because people so poor that they can’t even afford shame and I wait.

In a crack den in New York in the 80’s, seven people are viciously murdered by Josey Wales, the head of one of the two gangs running the drugs in New York, both Jamaican, called the Storm Posse and the Ranking Dons. In this long and well documented book, Marlon James traces back to the events that lead up to this killing. How could gangs from such a poor country as Jamaica, as illustrated by the opening quote of life in the ghetto, build up such a violent and organised presence in New York?

Each of the chapters in this 2016 Booker Prize winning book is told by one of at least fifteen different first person narrators, gang leaders, gang members, CIA operatives, and recurring characters Alex Pierce, a writer for Rolling Stone Magazine and Nina Burgess who had had a one night stand with ‘The Singer’ as Marlon James, writing where necessary in Jamaican patois, takes us back to Jamaica in the 70’s where the president Michael Manley brings in left wing reforms and cosys up to Communist Cuba thus infuriating the USA and hence the CIA, as Barry Diflorio, a CIA operative explains to his wife:

—On January 12th the Wall Street Journal called Michael Manley’s PNP the most inept of all western governments. February, Miami Herald, Jamaica is building up to show down. March, Sal Resnick in the New York Times writes that the Jamaican government is allowing Cuba to train its police force and align itself with black power elements. July, US news and world report says Jamaica’s Michael Manley has moved closer to communist Cuba. August, Newsweek says that there are three thousand Cubans in Jamaica….The man asked for a hundred million in trade credits and just thinks he can shit in our faces by kissing up to communists.

The two political parties fighting for power in Jamaica, Manley’s PNP and the conservative JLP know they need to win Jamaica to win the elections and whoever wins Kingston wins Jamaica and whoever wins west Kingston wins Kingston, so each side backs gang bosses in the west Kingston ghetto,  Papa-Lo in Copenhagen City and Shotta Sheriff in the Eight Lanes and the CIA armed them up, as Bam Bam,a gang member, says:

—Two men bring guns to the ghetto, one man show me how to use it but they bring other things first, corned beef and Aunt Jemima maple syrup that nobody know what to do with and white sugar and Coolade and Pepsi, that big bag of flour and other things nobody in the ghetto can buy and even if you could, nobody would be selling it.

In the first part of this book, the intricate workings and evolution of political and gang land power is illustrated around the true event of  Marley’s free concert for peace in Kingston in 76 which he held just 48 hours after a group of seven gunmen burst into his house during a rehearsal where Marley was shot in the arm and both his wife and his manager took bullets. Marlon James paints the “singer” as a man trying to broker peace between the two gangland bosses, a peace which would have been against criminal and political interests, whilst surrounding himself with dubious characters as Papa-Lo says:

—Listen to me now. Me warn him y’know, my magnanimous gentlemens. Long time I drop warnings that other people close, friend and enemy was going get him in a whole heap o’ trouble. Every one of we know at least one, don’t it? Them kinda man who just stay a certain way? Always have a notion but never come up with a single idea. Always working plenty of scheme but never have a plan. That was certain people. Here is my friend the biggest superstar in the world and yet him have some of the smallest mind to come out of the ghetto as friend. Me not going name who but I warn the Singer. I say, You have some people right close to you who going do nothing but take you down, you hear me? Me tired to say that to him. Sick and tired. But him just laugh that laugh, that laugh that swallow the room. That laugh that sound like he already have a plan.

In this politico-gangland landscape, Marlon James introduces two witness characters, the music journalist who turns investigative journalist Alex Pierce who slowly stumbles onto truths for which a professional killer is dispatched to visit him and Nina Burgess, who witnesses the events at Marley’s house and then goes on the run, this latter, intelligent but scared, in the way she speaks is the funniest person in the book, in this example she is hiding with an American in Montego Bay:

—Every time he watch Monday night football it was about motherfucker this or motherfucker that or its called a spread offense motherfucker. Nobody in the game uses their feet but it’s football, I love how Americans can just claim something to be whatever they feel it is despite clear evidence it’s not. Like a football game with nobody using any feet that takes forever.

Amidst all of this chaos there are the Rastafarians for which no one of the Jamaican narrators has a kind word, take this example from Josey Wales:

—If a man call himself Rasta today, by next week that is ‘im speakin prophecy, he don’t have to be too smart either just know one or two hell fire and brimstone verse from de bible or just claim it come from Leviticus since nobody ever read Leviticus this is how you know, nobody who get to the end of Leviticus can still take that book seriously, even in a book full of it that book is mad as shit don’t lie with man as with woman sure I can run with that reasonin but don’t eat crab, not even with them nice soft sweet yam and why kill a man for that and trust me the last thing any man who rape my daughter gonna get to do is marry her.

Marlon James winds us forward in the last part of the book now that the Jamaican gangs have weapons and generate cash from drugs to their implantation in the US and their distribution of Colombian drugs and the disarray this provokes best epitomised by this short introduction by the narrator Sir Aurthur Jennings a long dead politician after the seven killings:

—Flights to New York and Miami, business bursting out of back pockets, one thousand dead, money comes out in the wash and buffets up the ghetto. In the ghettos abroad people sniff, cook, boil and inject. Colombia Jamaica Bahamas Miami it’s an amazing scenario we see murders everywhere DC, Detroit, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago buy guns sell powder.When building monsters don’t become surprised when they become monstrous new riders, new posse, the likes of which they have never seen. In New York the headline type is an inch thick, Jamaican got city hooked on crack.

I listened to this book on audio, ideal for all of the different accents I would have had difficulty sounding so well in my own head. I should point out this was my favourite book of my 2016 reading and you should not miss it!

For anyone who has read up to here, I add this final link to an article that is a true source of information on the background of this book.

Christopher Tayler

I can’t resist a last quote on one of Marley’s most enigmatic songs:

—But in another city another valley, another ghetto, another slum, another favélas, another township, another intifada, another war, another somebody is singing Redemption Song as if the singer wrote it for no other reason but for the sufferer to sing, shout, whisper, bawl and scream right here, right now.

First published in English as ‘A Brief History of Seven Killings’ by Oneworld Publications in 2014

David Lodge ‘Small World’

—There are three things that have revolutionised academic life in the last twenty years, though few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialling telephones and the Xerox machine. img_0986Scholars don’t have to work in the same institution to interact , nowadays they call each other up, or they meet at international conferences.

Back to 1984 to close my year on a third book loosely linked to literary theory, after The Night and La Septième Fonction du Langage, through mostly imaginary characters, with a few exceptions such as Saussure and Roland Barthes. Was 1984 so long ago? This was pre-internet, the revolution had not yet happened. In hindsight, as one of the characters, Morris Zapp explains to us in the opening quote, the great changes of the previous twenty years which are at the heart of the book, these changes seem tame and so far away compared to the changes that have occurred since then.

A second reflection on time passed is that this book is clearly also pre-AIDS, with the book’s morals linked to my memories  of the seventies:

—Well you see, about ten years ago those two were nominated for our exchange scheme with Euphoria – in America, you know. Zapp came here for six months, and Swallow went to Euphoric State. Rumour has it that Zapp had an affair with Hilary Swallow, and Swallow with Mrs Zapp…one day…he and Hilary Swallow flew off to America together, and we really didn’t know which pair we would be getting back: Zapp and Hilary, Philip and Hilary, Philip and Mrs Zapp, or both Zapps.

So this book takes place in the academic jet setting world of English professors, with foreign travel, hotels and sexual encounters being the driving force, the conference subject matter being merely the oil that keeps the machinery going. The two main intrigues concern firstly a new well endowed UNESCO chair of Literary Criticism, with all the main characters vying for this appointment and secondly the relationship between the young  Persse Mc Garrigle from university college Limerick and The mysterious Angelica Pabst who herself is trying to finish her doctoral dissertation on Romance, as she herself explains later on in the book:

—The paradox of our pleasure in narrative, according to this (Roland Barthes’) model, is that while the need to ‘know’ is what impels us through a narrative, The satisfaction of that need brings pleasure to an end….Romance, in contrast, is not structured this way. It has not one climax but many, the pleasure of the text comes and comes and comes again. No sooner has one crisis in the fortune of the hero averted than a new one presents itself.  No sooner has one mystery been solved than another is raised. No sooner has one adventure been concluded than another begins.

And effectively speaking, Persse spends most of the book seaking out Angelica, constantly moving from one climax to the next as Angelica seems continually to be something else than he at first imagined.

Who will be awarded the UNESCO chair, who will leave his or her partner for whom? Will Persse and Angelica end up together, is romance more about the quest than the finding?

First published in English as ‘Small World’ by Martin Secker & Warburg in 1984

Ben H Winters ‘Underground Airlines’

—Yes. She sniffed. —Your Negro will need to be cleared.
Again, as at the border. Scalp and armpits, teeth and tongue; pants down, shirt up. img_0982They had a room for it, just off the lobby, and an attendant, a tired-looking free black man who scowled and said nothing as he ran his clumsy fingers over my body. I stood absolutely still. I held my arms out. It would have been the school at Bell’s, the first time, the first of such searches I had endured in my life. Lesson 1: your body is not your own.

I an ending 2016 with this book from the BBC’s 10 best books of 2016.

The USA, today, slavery was never eradicated, and remains constitutionally enshrined in the Hard Four, Alabama, Louisiana, Carolina and Mississippi. Written in the amendments to the constitution at the moment of the compromise that avoided the civil war as in this quote from the eighteenth amendment:

—No future amendment of the Constitution shall affect the five preceding articles … and no amendment shall be made to the Constitution which shall authorize or give to Congress any power to abolish or interfere with slavery in any of the States by whose laws it is, or may be, allowed or permitted.

The main protagonist in this book, whose true name we never learn, He is known as Victor or Brother or Mr Morton or Mr Dirksen (we will call him Victor here) and is an undercover operative in a dangerous line of work, he is a slave catcher, employed by the US Marshals Service to track down escaped  P.B’s, (Persons Bound to slavery), which the northern states by law must return to the slave states, the escaping P.B’s being clandestinely helped by the Underground Airlines of the title.

This book lets us imagine an alternative future, but I do believe that descriptions of this twisted world, where the proximity of the slaving south has a negative impact on the way the white northern states see there black citizens, seen in the following quote from a northern state town, are also supposed to make us think about today’s actual world:

—Freedman Town serves a good purpose—not for the people who live there, Lord knows; people stuck there by poverty, by prejudice, by laws that keep them from moving or working. Freedman Town’s purpose is for the rest of the world. The world that sits, like Martha, with dark glasses on, staring from a distance, scared but safe. Create a pen like that, give people no choice but to live like animals, and then people get to point at them and say Will you look at those animals? That’s what kind of people those people are. And that idea drifts up and out of Freedman Town like chimney smoke, black gets to mean poor and poor to mean dangerous and all the words get murked together and become one dark idea, a cloud of smoke, the smokestack fumes drifting like filthy air across the rest of the nation.

Victor at the beginning of the story picks up a case from his handler and everything seems wrong, and we as readers will follow this case as does he, Victor is himself an escaped slave being manipulated by the Marshals Service who have trained him, his descriptions of the different black people he meets is chilling at first:

—“Late-summer honey, warm tone, #76” is one of 172 varietals of African American skin tone delineated in the US Marshals Service field guide in a chart called “Pigmentation Taxonomies,” located in chapter 9 (“ Identifiers/ Descriptors”). I, myself, am “moderate charcoal, brass highlights, #41.”

Victor follows the leads he digs up, realising he is being manipulated and that there is a secret that could strike at the very heart of the system he is being asked to retrieve. After following the chain of the Underground Airline, Victor eventually needs to go back into one of the Hard Four to continue his search giving us the reader a chance to contrast and compare the north and he south and as in the initial quote, to imagine some of the ideas the system must hinge on. This is a dark book, but a page turner and worth the read.

First Published in English as “The Underground Airlines” in 2016 by Century

Michael Connelly ‘The Wrong Side of Goodbye’

-Chief Valdez ….when he was with the LAPD….ran afoul of a lieutenant named Pounds, who filed an internal complaint and unsuccessfully attempted to have Valdez demoted or even fired.img_0974 Valdez avoided both and just a few months later heard about a detective named Bosch who himself got into an altercation with Pounds and ended up throwing him through a plate-glass window at Hollywood Station. Valdez always remembered that name, and years later when he read about a now-retired Harry Bosch suing the LAPD for forcing him out of his job on the cold case squad, he picked up the phone.
Valdez couldn’t offer Bosch a paycheck, but he could offer him something Bosch valued more: a detective’s badge and access to all of the tiny city’s unsolved cases.

So Bosch is back, no longer with the LAPD whose hierarchy Connelly has milked to death in this long series, but as an unpaid detective in San Fernando -Barely bigger than two square miles in size….an island city within the megalopolis of Los Angeles working the unsolved crimes. The release from the LAPD lets Connelly take us back to the fluidity of some of his earlier works such as Black Ice or The Poet  and leaves the reader without that empty feeling of ‘why did I read another one of these?’ that some of his later works have left me with. That said, writing this a week after reading it I have completely forgotten the story and have had to re-read parts to remind myself.

This is then, as is to be expected today a book with two non-intersecting mysteries whose only common point is the detective and his limited time to handle two affairs. (I’ll have to read some of his earlier works to see if it was the fashion then) The first affair is a private detective affair where Bosch is contracted by Whitney Vance, a very old billionaire, at the centre of an industrial giant, who is without offspring, to find a woman he had been close to in the 50’s and to see if he had any descendants through her.

-What do you want me to do? Bosch asked again.
-I want you to find someone for me, Vance said. -Someone who might never have existed.

But of course this won’t be straightforward

—Don’t be naive, Mr. Bosch. I am sure you conducted a modicum of research before coming to see me. I have no heirs, at least known heirs. When I die, control of Advance Engineering will go to a board of directors who will continue to line their pockets with millions while fulfilling government contracts. A valid heir could change all of that. Billions could be at stake. You don’t think people and entities would kill for that?

The second affair is with The San Fernando police and a serial killer, where no one before Bosch had dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s And realised that the cases were linked.

I did read this through quickly, the mystery and twists held to the end, and if I should forget, do remind me never to volunteer to be Bosch’s partner!

First Published in English as “The Wrong Side Of Goodbye” in 2016 by Orion Books