When I was a teenager one of my favourite authors was Eugene Ionesco – I was much more into theatre/ playwriting at that time than I was into reading novels. One of his most famous plays “Exit the King” depicts a belligerent king who sees his kingdom and followers literally disappearing around him. Yuri Herrera’s novel “Kingdom Cons” shows a similarly absurdist sensibility and medieval-in-nature drama to discuss contemporary existentialist issues. But rather than focus on the perspective of the tyrannical ruler, Herrera’s protagonist is an artist/musician named Lobo who ingratiates himself into becoming a part of the court of a “king.” In reality this king is the leader of a drug cartel, but the descriptions of his followers (a witch/heir/doctor/commoners) and the manner of their business all hark back to a mythic time centuries ago. The gritty realism of gang warfare is mixed with a language that invokes vast royal kingdoms grasping for power. Lobo seeks to find his place and maintain the authenticity of his songs amidst these bloody battles to maintain control.

This is a very short novel and Herrera’s writing leaps between vast cerebral subjects to peculiar tangents. I was really up for an absurdist take on gang violence and the artist’s sensibility, but unfortunately this book didn’t come together for me. It felt too erratic and passed too quickly. Lobo’s struggle about how far he should compromise in order to gain the favour of the king and enjoy everything that goes with privilege is compelling: “he kept telling himself that to lie for Him was worth it, it was”. But this doesn’t develop as substantially as it could. It’s let down further by the sense that as an artist Lobo sees himself as fundamentally better than everyone else around him: “The only special one was him.” This really put me off his character and I found the arc of his journey sadly devolved into an unnecessary quest to save his lover.

The question of an artist’s role in society is compelling, especially when artists are under pressure to manipulate or use their artwork for political purposes. This issue was explored so powerfully in the novels “The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes and “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” by Madeleine Thien which used real historical incidents within their stories. I think it would be possible to meaningful explore similar themes in a fantastical or absurdist landscape, but Herrera doesn’t quite accomplish this in a novel so brief and cryptic. It felt particularly disappointing to me since I’ve heard lots of great things about this writer and was so eager to try one of his books. But even though “Kingdom Cons” didn’t work for me, I’d still be interested to try reading his earlier novels.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesYuri Herrera

My friend Anna James and I frequently chat about great new books we’re reading. We’ve collaborated on a few videos in the past talking about new releases or the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. Well, we’ve been plotting for ages to start our own book club and it’s finally happening.

In the great tradition of Oprah's Book Club in the US and Richard & Judy in the UK, we've formed a book club because we want to galvanize people into reading and discussing books that we love! We've selected 8 titles published in 2016-17 which are now out in paperback. At the end of each month from July-October 2017 we'll record a video where we'll discuss 2 books from the list. We'd LOVE for you to join in!

Watch this video intro to learn more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=33zfiYJzqss&t=224s

- Anyone in the world can read along
- Let us know your thoughts about each book through email at annaericbookclub@gmail.com, social media, our GoodReads group or making your own blog posts/videos reacting to the books.
- Also post any questions, reactions or topics of discussion you'd like us to talk about in the video

The books are:
Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan by Ruth Gilligan
Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta
All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan
An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao
The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa

At the end of July we'll record a video on The Good Immigrant & Nine Folds Make a Paper Swan

Thanks for reading along with us!

Neel Mukherjee may have narrowly missed out on winning the Booker Prize when his previous novel “The Lives of Others” was shortlisted in 2014, but someone ought to give this writer a crown just for writing such impactful openings in his novels. In both that book and his new novel “A State of Freedom” I was moved, surprised and totally gripped after reading the first twenty or thirty pages. The vignettes which open these novels are separate from the main plots but have the ability to capture a reader’s attention and emotionally set the tone for what’s to come. In the case of this new novel, we meet a man who returns to India after living in America for a long time with his son in tow. On their travels to tourist sites he has a conflicted sense of identity seeing his native country through Western eyes. He has feelings of guilt mixed with anxiety and disgust. Then something so surprising and eerie occurs that I became hooked. The novel goes on to describe the lives of a few different individuals whose stories connect in fascinating ways. It’s a sweeping story that makes a complex but highly readable portrait of the state of modern India, economic inequality, classism and national identity.

Although the novel deals with a lot of serious subjects and has many brutally heartrending scenes, a lot of the book is saturated by the warm sensation of cooking. In the second section, an unnamed character makes annual visits to his family in Bombay after he’s permanently settled in England. He’s writing a book about regional Indian cooking because he asserts “Indians have always known there is nothing called Indian food, only different, sometimes wildly and thrillingly different, regional cuisines. This is a fact that has been flattened out in the West.” So he develops a special interest in his parents’ Bengali cook Renu and frequently gossips with his mother about her and their maid Milly. We’re given a strong sense of the flavours of their meals and aromas like fennel, cumin, fenugreek, nigella and mustard seeds which permeate their kitchen. These descriptions are not only evocative of sensory experience but the author delineates the origins of dishes, their attachment to particular sections of society and the way recipes are passed down through generations. This character’s desire to acquire this information and neatly present it for a British audience begs questions about cultural appropriation or cultural/class tourism as he delves further into Renu’s humble origins and the slum she inhabits.

A Qalandar and his bear.

A Qalandar and his bear.

The story veers sharply when the next section describes a baby bear which emerges into a village out of the wilderness. A poor man named Lakshman burdened with caring for his family and his absent brother’s children takes possession of the bear which he names Raju. He alights upon a money-making scheme to train the bear in the tradition of some wandering ascetic Sufi dervishes who make their bears “dance” for the amusement of the public. In reality, the methods used to get these bears to “perform” requires torturous techniques and Lakshman is aware that this practice has been outlawed. Nevertheless, he and Raju set out on a journey to make their fortune. It’s a sad, poignant and tense tale as Lakshman believes he develops an emotional connection with his bear, but the reader is highly aware that the bear’s animal nature persists despite being violently tamed.

One of the biggest luxuries that divide people into different classes and levels of privilege is access to education. The novel takes a surprising turn when the next section describes the back story of the maid Milly, her impoverished childhood and conversion to Christianity. The family and many local villagers convert because they are promised “a big sack of rice. It was food for a month.” Although Milly shows a natural flair for learning and enjoys reading with a passion, her education is abruptly cut off at the age of eight when she’s forced to travel far away to work as a maid.
“‘And school?’ she [Milly] asked in a small voice. ‘Studying?’
‘Nothing doing,’ her mother replied impatiently. ‘Studying. What is that for a girl?’ You’ll be more useful bringing in some money. Now shut up.’”

Naturally, being a lover of reading this scene felt particularly heartbreaking. But it also made me inwardly cheer as Milly tries to find secret ways to continue reading in her new places of employment. 

We follow the agonizing condition of Milly’s life as she works for a variety of households. Earlier this year, I read Anne Brontë’s first novel “Agnes Grey” which recounts the life of a humble governess as she works for a series of middle/upper class families. It feels like Mukherjee uses the same method here, depicting a servant in a variety of settings to both satirize the behavior of a girl’s privileged employers and expose the egregious abuse heaped upon the servant class. While Brontë’s depiction might have been scandalous at the time, Mukherjee’s is even more so now for the way he shows Milly is not only oppressed but turned into an imprisoned slave.

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

"The world transformed - in the burnished gold of the winter afternoon sun, the umber-red sandstone used for the whole complex at Fatehpur Sikri seemed like carved fire, something the sun had magicked out of the red soil in their combined image and likeness."

Running parallel with Milly’s story is that of her childhood friend Soni who suffers devastating losses due to illness. This highlights another important schism between classes of society: access to healthcare. Through emotional scenes in a rural underfunded and understaffed hospital the author powerfully depicts how “Illness was a luxury for the rich. Illness had reduced everyone here to a beggar.” Soni’s tragic circumstances prompt her to join the “People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army” – a radical Maoist armed group bent on overthrowing the government. This brushes against the Naxalite movement which Mukherjee explored so fascinatingly in “The Lives of Others.” In this story it makes a sharp contrast between the paths that Milly and Soni take in life and elucidate the central preoccupation of the novel: what choices do we really have in determining our personal freedom?

The final section, yet again, goes somewhere else entirely and demonstrates a complete stylistic change as well, but poignantly circles back to earlier story lines. It builds to a spectacular tale that prompts uncomfortable questions about the degree to which our own independence impinges upon or inhibits the freedom of others. Mukherjee excels at describing evocative details of particular places, but also movingly comments upon universal conditions such as friendship and aging: “Childhood friendships were often like that – intense in presence and in the present tense, remote and unreachable in absence.” His characters are so memorable not only because he movingly captures the arcs of their development, but lets us feel so intensely that given a twist of fate their stories might be our own.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNeel Mukherjee
2 CommentsPost a comment

“A new book?” my boyfriend asks when he sees me reading, as usual. “What’s this one about?”
I tell him it’s a book of poetry.
“Poetry?!” he frowns (half joking).
I try to explain how it’s a particularly engaging and fun collection.

The general public, even regular readers often view poetry as inaccessible or perplexingly elitist. But Hollie McNish is a great example of a modern poet with writing that’s so easy to relate to. It’s also smart, humorous, bawdy, political and socially-engaged. “Plum” is a book that also draws you into the author’s life. Many of the poems in this collection are headed by the age at which McNish produced them and the context within which they were written. This not only helps the reader understand the motivation behind them, but builds an ongoing narrative of a girl growing into a woman, a worker, a friend, a wife, a mother, a citizen and a poet. We see her change from a teenager working at a chemist’s who sniggers at customers buying condoms to being a woman feeling embarrassed about buying condoms herself. The collection as a whole beautifully captures a sense of McNish’s evolution as a person and a writer as her style changes over time.

There are poems about discovering sex, getting groped in bookshops, arguing with the television, learning other languages and the chaos of taking her daughter to a children’s party. They all draw the reader into McNish’s life and articulate so meaningfully the contradictions, inequalities and shame she sees in society. Her poetry is particularly strong at highlighting the often maligned working class who are diminished and patronized by politicians, the media and middle class. Rather than really trying to engage with their point of view, they are often talked down to "as the poor wait and rot labelled yobs by headline cops". The poems also enumerate McNish’s own experience working a number of different jobs which gives a special credence to the way she describes a waitress’ shift so strongly: “in the heat of her boredom and beckoning orders the hands of the clocks just keep slowing down”. It’s a tradition that the queen sends a birthday message to every person in the UK that turns 100, but McNish states plainly and powerfully how “the poorer you are the sooner the queen should write”.

I couldn't find any poems from this collection online but this poem 'Embarrassed' is from McNish's book "Nobody Told Me"

Many of the poems describe the body in a way which is frank and refreshing. It reminded me of Andrew McMillan’s collection “Physical” for the way she captures the oftentimes awkward way we inhabit all this flesh. McNish gets the humour and ridiculousness of our physical development as well as its poignancy when our roles in life change. She also doesn’t shy from highlighting how it feels like language fails to describe the full complexity of this. "Morphing into an adult's body feels so odd. I tried to capture it here, but I can't." She describes the way children are spoken to in a condescending way and (especially in the striking poem ‘Voldemort’) the way girls are commonly taught to be ashamed of their genitals in a way that boys are not. She frankly deals with sex with all its pleasures and pitfalls. It’s particularly fun when she inhabits the voice of Constance Reid from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” to show her daily life and fulsome sexuality. And also, the powerful poem ‘Shrinking’ powerfully describes a modern day waitress dressed as “Alice in Wonderland.” As the book progresses, the poems grapple with how McNish is coming to terms with her own mortality noticing graying hairs or the slacking of her stomach after giving birth. The final section is dedicated to poems specifically about particular parts of the body in a way the creatively rounds out this very personal collection.

Unsurprisingly, McNish is a popular performer. I was lucky enough to see her read some poems at a Picador author showcase event and she captivated the audience. Not only does her animated language have the power to grip listeners, but she also has a direct and frank way of delivering her poems that seizes your attention. As well as encouraging you read this vibrant collection, I’d recommend that you go see her perform if she’s giving a reading near you. Of course, not many people will be able to do this but she has a YouTube channel where you can watch her reading several of her poems: https://www.youtube.com/user/holliemcnish/videos

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesHollie McNish

I can’t remember reading a thriller that is as eerily intense as Elena Varvello’s “Can You Hear Me?” This novel is partly a coming-of-age story and partly a mystery. It’s narrated by Elia who recalls the summer of 1978 when he was sixteen and living in a rural Italian town with his parents. His father Ettore Furenti was disconsolate and paranoid after being laid off from his job. The entire town was suffering from economic depression after the local cotton mill closed down, but Ettore’s behaviour became especially erratic as he spun conspiracy theories and disappeared from home for mysterious periods of time. At the same time, a local boy recently went missing and was later found murdered. The narrative alternates between Elia’s memories of that summer and a girl that Ettore has picked up in his car to drive to a remote location. Together these create a chilling account of an abduction and a boy desperately trying to come to terms with his dangerously unhinged father.

While this novel is obviously far removed from my own circumstances, the style and subject of Varvello’s story invoked a deep sense of nostalgia in me. Elia is a somewhat awkward young man who makes a loose friendship with a boy named Stefano. Their friendship develops organically. They don’t necessarily have a huge amount of shared interests but are pulled together more because of circumstances when there is no one else to spend time with. A lot of childhood friendships seem to be formed in this way and the only other book I can recall that got this so well is Tim Winton’s novel “Breath”. During their summer together they spend time swimming at a remote water hole. I have strong memories of doing something similar and the representation of this uneven friendship felt very real. But their companionship becomes complicated when Elia realizes he’s increasingly attracted to Stefano’s mother Anna. This gets even more emotionally complex when Elia realizes that his librarian mother Marta used to know Anna and scorns her.

While Elia tries to deal with these normal issues surrounding any young man’s development, he also grows increasingly wary of his father who believes that he’s been cheated out of a job and becomes increasingly absent from the home. Marta seems to bury her head in the sand about her husband Ettore’s behaviour and withdraw into herself. So this boy is mostly left to struggle with all of this on his own. Because of this, the story develops an increasing level of emotional poignancy as it goes on at the same time as it grows more unsettlingly tense. Varvello’s captivating writing style drew me in and had me gripped in that way that made me really resent having to stop reading it at the end of my commutes or lunch breaks. It’s a powerful book that reminds me of some of Joyce Carol Oates’ novels in the way that Varvello so effectively builds suspense amidst a plot involving friendship and embittered economical hardships. And (coming from me) you know that means I think very highly of it!

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesElena Varvello
3 CommentsPost a comment

It’s always fascinating when an author writes about wildly different subjects from book to book. The last novel by Monique Roffey I read was “House of Ashes” which was a devastatingly intense and complex account of a coup which takes place on a fictional Caribbean island. Her new novel “The Tryst” focuses on a short, all-consuming affair between a married couple and a mysterious woman. The result is a dynamic look at the dangerously hazy borderline between the erotic imagination and real-life sexual exploits. In particular, it prompts us to wonder about the role sexual fantasy plays in long-term relationships. Should such impulses be voiced or acted upon? If so, will our partner be repulsed, offended, intrigued or titillated? Or, if these impulses are kept private or repressed what are the consequences? It’s a tricky and delicate subject matter as many couples privately struggle with issues of sex. Roffey offers fascinating insights with this outrageously imaginative tale of untamed lust and a fantasy that quickly turns into a nightmare.

Bill and Jane have been together many years and fallen into familiar routines. Although both of them have healthy sexual appetites, passion has never been an element of their marriage. Jane harbors sexual fantasies about random men while Bill is left perpetually pining for his wife who won’t engage with him in the bedroom. Jane tragically feels that "I was trapped inside a monogamous world, inside my marriage, and inside myself." When they are out drinking one evening they encounter Lilah, a strange woman of small stature who possesses great allure and a boisterous attitude. Soon all three of them are consumed with sexual desire and they embark on an escapade, but each believes they are in full control of the situation. The narrative switches between each character’s perspective showing how each of them frequently misinterprets the motives and responses of the others. This makes a really interesting portrait of a sexual encounter where so much is based on signals which can be horrendously misinterpreted. It also poignantly shows how the outcome of realizing sexual fantasies is far different from how we imagined. Lilah is not what she seems and the plot buzzes with scenes which are rampantly sensual and fantastical. The riotous and explicit encounter between these three unhinges them and radically transforms them all forever.

Several years ago I read George Bataille’s influential and wickedly perverse bonk-fest “Story of the Eye” for the first time. It left me with a lot of mixed feelings. Roffey’s characters are just as willfully perverse as Bataille’s – especially Lilah who brags "An old Jesuit priest taught me how to touch cock." It’s interesting how Roffey gives an alternative view of a couple exploring their untamed desires within a much more domestic setting. Also, as Bataille uses a lot of egg imagery, so does Roffey invoke this potent symbol where Jane traditionally purchases a decorated egg for her husband as an ironic gift. She muses: "I wasn't sure if I didn't want children, or didn't want children with Bill. Each egg I gave Bill made me question this more. I saw the eggs as potent reminders of this failure on my part." Lilah takes these gifts and uses them in a suitably depraved way. Where Bataille’s book felt at times unrelentingly debauched without any specific purpose, Roffey is much more focused in her depiction of whether a marriage can survive a full-scale journey into the uncharted landscape of the sexual imagination. This book is also very much an entertaining story about demonic elemental forces wreaking havoc in our humdrum reality.

I found it really moving how Roffey shows her characters’ tentative relationship with their sexual fantasies. People so often find it difficult to know how to manage desire. In particular, Jane is frequently overwhelmed and consumed by her sexual fantasies but seems so hesitant about acting upon them or admitting them to her husband. In one section when relating her unconscious desires she reflects that "The dreams happened of their own accord, tumbling out on the backs of other dreams. I would wake in another man's arms, my husband inches from me, his body big and warm." That sense of having another person so physically nearby, but psychologically so far away is touching and powerfully realized. Sex is difficult. Always. “The Tryst” robustly embraces the challenge of looking at it in all its complexities. It’s also a novel with a surprisingly hopeful message – at least, it’s hopeful for everyone except for the couple’s unfortunate tomcat named Choo Choo.

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AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMonique Roffey
2 CommentsPost a comment

Back in 2011 when riots flared up in England, I remember riding home late at night on a bus that had to be diverted because Brixton was in chaos. Everyone on that bus was charged up with the news scrolling through their phones and checking social media for bits of information. It's interesting how when any major events like this happen in our local areas now a collective conversation occurs, but only within our circumscribed social groups and rarely with people we're actually sitting next to on public transportation. In the ensuing weeks the news was filled with people asking why this happened. Certainly the police shooting Mark Duggan sparked it off, but there must have been a lot of tension there already to provoke widespread arson and looting. Olumide Popoola certainly doesn't attempt a definitive answer to this complex question or speak for all the youth involved, but her engaging and vibrant novel “When We Speak of Nothing” represents something of the younger generation who felt under-represented and unheard. The author writes: "When we speak of nothing we don't end the silence." Moreover it's a heartrending tale of friendship, the British working class, first love and queer BAME (Black Asian & Minority Ethnic) youth culture.

Best friends Karl and Abu are on the brink of adulthood. They are at that crucial time of rapid intellectual, physical and emotional development. This is conveyed in part within the narrative through subjective definitions where particular words take on special meaning for these boys. They have a growing consciousness of the world outside the small social group of their friends and the bullying wannabes who hassle them. They live in the Kings Cross area of London. Abu grows to see his environment in a rounder context: both the past of this place which at one time in history housed slave-traders and the future of this place undergoing large-scale regeneration which will inevitably squeeze out people from his social-economic group. Alternatively, Karl keenly feels a division of his national identity when he's given an opportunity to meet his estranged father who lives in Nigeria. The majority of the novel is divided between Abu in London and Karl in Nigeria where both young men undergo radical changes and their connection to each other is severely tested. The author shows the particular dynamic of their communication infused with modern slang within disjointed texts and online chats. Their story is a wonderful tribute to how friendship can be more tight-knit than family.

What's particularly special about the way their connection is represented is that Karl's queerness isn't an issue until people outside their circle make it an issue. We feel his character and personality as unique in itself outside of any question of gender. There's no conflict in identity for Karl or the people who love him; the only conflict comes from outside of that. Some of the most emotionally charged scenes come when Karl, after much delay, finally meets his father and doesn't receive the welcome he wanted. Popoola conveys the crushing vulnerability of a child in this position, but also the beautiful way some strangers instantly accept him for the person he is. She powerfully shows the way people in Karl's position can receive wonderful support, but must still continually negotiate public knowledge of their full identity.

Equally, Abu is frequently made aware of his racial “otherness” when travelling in London especially when the riots begin. When news of this starts to spread he receives this comment on a bus: "'You people are a disgrace.' He had heard that so many times it made him laugh. Sometimes it was said out loud, like here. Most of the time it was the state. You. People. A threat." Not only does this diminish his identity as an individual, but adds to his justified concern about being perceived as a threat simply because of his skin colour. In this way Popoola gives a strong sense of a segment of British youth being alienated from a society which excludes them and this is what contributes towards "the city out of control because the country was out of control because the whole banking thing had gone like, way mad. Because none of them had much to be good for." 

“When We Speak of Nothing” makes an excellent fictional companion to the powerful book "The Good Immigrant" for the way it speaks about alienation amongst minority groups within the UK. I think this is a novel which a wide audience will enjoy, but particularly appeal to a younger readership who will identify with both the language used and issues raised. It's wonderfully engaging and has a distinctive, refreshing voice that strongly speaks about the world we live in now.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesOlumide Popoola

It’s sobering to look back on my post about mid-year favourite books in 2016 and recall how depressing the global news was at that point. Who’d have thought things could turn even more sour a year later? More than ever I’m convinced it’s important to celebrate good things like great new books being published and delve within them to understand the perspective of people and characters whose lives are so different from our own. This isn’t an act of escape from the world; it’s a way of embracing it!

I’ve read 45 books so far this year. My reading feels like it’s slowed down recently because life has been so busy. I feel really privileged to receive so many new and forthcoming publications, but I’m continuously struck with guilt that I don’t have time to read (let alone review) them all. I am aware it’s a good problem to have! But I’m glad I can at least mention all the wonderfully promising new books I want to read in regular “Book haul” videos that I film for my Youtube/Booktube channel. So (while this mid-year list is far from comprehensive) I hope I’ll have time to read more of the exciting other new books published this year which sit temptingly on my shelves at some point soon.

Here are my top ten books of the year (so far.) All of them except the anthology “The Good Immigrant” were first published in 2017. Click on the titles at the bottom to read my full thoughts about each of these outstanding books. You can also watch a video of me briefly discussing each of these books here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HSkLuQ10uPA

In past years, I ran a competition that worked so well I want to do it again.
Here’s how to enter:
-    Leave a comment letting me know the best book you’ve read so far this year (it doesn’t have to be a recently published book).
-    Leave some kind of contact info (email or Twitter/GoodReads handle).
-    At the end of July I’ll pick one of your suggestions and send that person one of my favourite books from the below list below.
-    Open to anywhere in the world.

I’m really curious to know about the best books you’ve read this year so whether you want to be entered in the competition or not please let me know in the comments below. But also let me know if you are intrigued to read any of my choices.

The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Dear Friend From My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert