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Category: reviews

Booker Longlist Review: The Wall by John Lanchester

This is my first book by Lanchester, although I’ve been meaning to read his novels for ages. I’ve read his journalism regularly for years. This is very prescient, obviously, not just because of the wall that dominates the story, but also because of the intersection of climate change and the displacement of vast populations. The wall surrounds an island nation which is obviously Britain in the near or not-so-near future. Every young citizen is required to serve two years guarding the wall, except for the offspring of the very elite, who somehow escape this duty. Our narrator, Kavanagh, is just taking up his post when the story opens, and the first section of the novel chronicles his experiences as a Defender.

Being a Defender is relatively dull, but the consequences of failure are profound. Defenders are trained to prevent people called Others from successfully scaling the wall and entering the fortified nation. Although everyone is chipped, and therefore Others are fairly quickly discovered and apprehended, the penalty for Defenders who fail to prevent entry is to be put to sea in small boats, on a one-for-one ratio. In other words, if fifteen Others enter the country then fifteen Defenders and other culpable people must be sent away.

The first sections are taken up with the quotidian aspects of Kavanagh’s new life. He learns the procedures to follow, gets to know some of his fellow Defenders, goes back to see his parents on his off-rotation time, and generally settles into a set routine. The language is simple and Kavanagh doesn’t have particularly interesting thoughts. If Lanchester was aiming to portray military boredom through the writing style, he does so fairly effectively. I didn’t find it boring (although I’m sure some readers will), and while the world-building is minimal you do get a strong sense of how circumscribed people’s lives are. There is a generational divide between the older people who remember a time before the Change which brought about the wall and the younger people who have only known the time since.

The second and third sections are much more action-filled. I don’t want to spoil the book for people who haven’t read it, because I thought it worked well for me to go into it without much background. You can probably guess what happens. Kavanagh develops a romantic attachment which continues through the story, and we learn more about Others and the world beyond the wall. Other readers have observed similarities with Exit West, which I can kind of see, especially in the structure, but beyond that and the fact that they are both dystopian novels set in a recognizable future, I don’t see the parallels.

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Booker Longlist Review: My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

I am reading the longlist in the following order: first, the books I have in hand, from shortest to longest. I read Lanny a few weeks ago, and by coincidence it is one of the shortest. When the list was announced I went to my library Overdrive site and snagged four of the entries available in the US. I started with My Sister the Serial Killer and finished it in an evening, since it’s short and eminently readable.

As I said in my earlier post, I’ve been avoiding this book for months. I kept seeing it in bookstores and it’s a lovely hardcover edition, small and compact with great paper and font. But I balked at paying hardcover book prices for a novella that sounded like a genre book marketed as lit fic. Then it won the Tournament of Books in the spring, and the readers who loved it really loved it. I checked it out of the library but returned it without opening it. Then it made the Women’s Prize longlist, and once again, some readers really loved it. This prize mixes the readable with the more experimental, and MStSK clearly fell on the readable side. I passed again.

But once it was on the longlist, I caved. I started reading before dinner (the longlist was announced at 4pm my time) and finished before 11pm. It was terrific! I was so wrong about this book. It is most definitely about a sister who is a serial killer, but it’s about a lot more: sibling relationships, family relationships, gender in a patriarchal society, the burdens of externally and self-imposed responsibilities, all layered into a deceptively small and light package. And the voice is fantastic.

It’s a debut novel, albeit a very accomplished one, and perhaps because of that none of the “twists” (if that’s what the author meant them to be) were a surprise. But they all fit the plot and the theme. I could see them all coming and I nodded my head at them because it made so much sense that things turned out as they did. Both the sisters are portrayed in nuanced, complex ways, and their relationship was beautifully done. I don’t have siblings, but I’ve observed TheH’s sibling relationships, and my cousins, who are mostly women, have equally complicated and fascinating relationships (without the serial killing, obviously). Everything about Korede’s attitudes toward Ayoola rang true, and Ayoola was equal parts infuriating and charismatic. Their bond came so alive on the page.

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Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi

I bought this when it was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize but didn’t get around to reading it right away. And then it won! So I put it on my 20 Books of Summer reading list. A novel originally written in Arabic by a woman author from Oman, it features multiple female characters and tells the story of social change in a little-understood region of the world. All this ticks a lot of my boxes, and the professional and GR reviews were very respectful, if a little mixed.

I’m glad I read this novel, and I’m still thinking about it, but I can’t say it was a fully satisfying experience. The theme is the social change of the country and the people through the 20thC, with an emphasis on three generations of women in an extended family and kin network. The reviews tend to single out three sisters in one generation (and they appear to be on the cover), but their mothers, grandmothers, daughter, and servants (formerly slaves) play equally important roles. We also read about the lives of the men in this community, most notably Abdallah, who is the father of the sisters and who gets the most POV pages.

The women’s stories focus on feelings and events surrounding marriage, childbirth, and their relationships with their parents, spouses and children. Even London, the daughter/granddaughter who is the youngest of the group and who becomes a doctor, spends more on-page time agonizing over her love interest and potential husband than anything else. Some of the writing about weddings and childbirths is very compelling. There is a description of the bridal and wedding process for one sister that gave me flashbacks, and there is a startling and effective childbirth scene. We spend a fair amount of time with Mayya after she has given birth and gone back to her family home for her post-partum rituals. If you aren’t familiar with extended family and kin networks in religious societies, you’ll learn a lot and even if you are familiar the characters’ stories will draw you in.

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SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for July: Below Deck by Dorien Kelly

This month’s prompt is “contemporary,” which offered me a vast range of choices. I went for this one because I still fondly remember a book Kelly wrote for the old Harlequin Flipside series called Do-Over. It was fun and funny and had an endearing romance. The book I just read is very different, though, and it didn’t work nearly as well for me. Rats.

Below Deck is part of the Harlequin series Mediterranean Nights, in which all the stories are set aboard a cruise ship called Alexandra’s Dream. I’m not a cruise ship person; the idea of being cooped up in a floating hotel with higher-than-average chances of catching communicable diseases has never appealed. (As an aside: I sailed on a couple of famous ocean liners as a child, but those were a whole different thing in a different era.) Nevertheless, it’s a great setting for a romance, since the protagonists are thrown together in a confined space, and they also get to get off the boat in beautiful locales.

Our two MCs are Mei Lin Wang, the ship’s massage therapist, and Gideon Dayan, head of security. Lin has taken the job to get away from the Chinese government, who want to question her about her late husband’s activist colleagues, and to protect her baby from personal and political threats. And of course the baby has to be kept a secret (although multiple other ship employees know about him and help her take care of him). And did I mention that Lin is still nursing baby Wei and has no breast pump, so she is constantly worrying about leaking milk and making sure he’s fed in a consistent way? Realistic and in some ways refreshing, but not really adding to the romantic aura of the story.

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Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson just released her fifth Jackson Brodie novel after a years-long hiatus in which she wrote acclaimed general/literary fiction novels. I started and put aside this one years ago, and then I intended to go back after watching and enjoying Jason Isaacs in the TV adaptation but it has languished on my TBR. Discussion of the latest Brodie piqued my interest again, though, so I picked it up and started over from the beginning. This time I was prepared for the discursive, meandering style and the lack of emphasis on the actual investigative procedure aspect, and I enjoyed it a lot. So much, in fact, that I went straight on to start the next installment, One Good Turn.

Jackson Brodie is a 45-year-old PI. He’s an ex-military policeman and an ex-detective, born in Yorkshire but who has lived in Cambridge for the last decade-plus. He is recently divorced and shares custody of his eight-year-old daughter. His ex-wife, who when married to him neither wore a wedding ring nor changed her name, is now living with a Cambridge lecturer and knits, gardens, and generally does the hausfrau things she scorned with Jackson. Jackson doesn’t drink too much, but he has recently gone back to smoking too much and spends a lot of time musing about his life in internal monologues.

The plot itself comprises three crime threads, all of which we see from the characters’ POVs. The first thread involves the disappearance 35 years ago of a young child, Olivia, who is beloved by her sisters and her mother (the father, a self-described brilliant mathematician academic, is barely involved with his family). Her now middle-aged sisters discover her favorite stuffed animal among her fathers’ things after his death, which leaves them stunned and looking for answers. The second thread is about the senseless, unsolved killing of an 18-year-old young woman named Laura ten years previously and her father’s inability to stop looking for the killer. The third thread concerns a young family in which the wife was convicted of her husband’s brutal murder and their baby daughter Tanya was given to her paternal grandparents, but who as a teenager has disappeared. There is also a fourth character, Binky Rain, a very old woman who has dozens of cats and who calls Jackson every time one of them goes missing.

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