Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

I felt compelled to revisit Vonnegut’s iconic anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse Five, for two reasons. Firstly, because from time to time (and our times are no exception) we all have to remind ourselves of the macabre of wars.

Vonnegut shows us the true colours of war. He dismantles all the naively romantic notions anyone may have about war, the unrealistic heroism and the false premise of winners and losers. I didn’t enjoy reading Slaughterhouse Five, but then it wasn’t written for anyone’s entertainment. It is stark, cruel and unforgiving. It is a warning. People die – good people, bad people, losers as well as conquerors, soldiers and civilians, youngsters and the elderly, dogs, horses, allies and enemies. No one is exempt. No one is immune. No one is above it. And so it goes. Vonnegut shows it in raw, ugly detail, and that detail is no fiction.

War and death equalise everyone. No nation is idealised and no nation is condemned in its collective totality. Faults and failings befall all. It is a brave concept not to idealise the winners. In fact, Vonnegut shows quite effectively that war destroys everyone and everything. Every construct of what’s right and wrong, good and bad, justifiable and inexcusable is absolutely false. The “victorious” Americans are bombed on par with German civilians in an “open” city of Dresden. The bombs don’t discriminate between “them” and “us”. It is all “us”. And this is the irony of it – wars are started because of divisions, but as they rage everyone pays the same price, feels the same pain and has only one life to lose.

My second reason was to explore the time-travel idea in the book. It is harrowing for Billy Pilgrim to go over and over again through his terrifying war experience. Time doesn’t work chronologically in this tale. The war never really ends. It remains present throughout Billy’s entire life. Events from his birth, childhood, wartime and his post-war civilian life are mingled together. The trauma he has lived through can never be consigned to the past. There is no past. There is no future. Time is not linear. Everything is happening simultaneously, all the time, and Billy jumps in and out of events while they carry on unfolding on an endless loop. Billy’s sojourn into the alien world of Tralfamadore is his brain’s way of coping with the scars left by the war on his psyche. Those who lived through war will never put it behind them. That message really hits home when you think of all those child refugees physically leaving war-affected areas but having to spend the rest of their lives trapped back there forever.

It is such a powerful idea. War is timeless. Once you have unleashed it, it will not end.  Slaughterhouse Five should be a compulsory read for young people to digest before they enter adulthood in order to dispel their childhood “jolly-war” myths and shield them against glorification of war.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini

This book is about the First Contact, but not as we know it. I was fascinated by how this concept evolved in To Sleep in a Sea of Stars. It starts with Kira, a xenobiologist exploring an uncolonized planet, discovering mysterious dust which soon envelops her in a form of an invasive exoskeleton. It is undeniably intelligent but it is also a parasite that uses Kira’s body to come into being and to transport itself. It is able to defend itself against any attempts to examine or destroy it. It can be lethal. In an apparent act of self-defence it kills Kira’s fiancé and her several friends. To start with, this organism appears violent and hostile, and Kira is trapped within it. It can even penetrate her mind and she, in turn, experiences its memories and emotions. Soon the relationship between them begins to transform into something more symbiotic. It isn’t just that Kira has to get used to the creature controlling her. It is also that the creature protects and guides her. This theme of a transforming and transformative relationship between a human and an alien is wonderfully conveyed through characterisation and plot developments.

Another great asset in this book is the prose: it can be fast and action-packed, pacey and dramatic, but it is also lyrical and introspective. A whole universe has been created outside and inside Kira’s fusion with Soft Blade (the alien’s name). This story is a space odyssey both on a macro- and micro scale. The science behind it seems wonderfully real and even though I didn’t follow all of it, it felt credible.

However, there are some disappointments. The story is way too long and too windy. Half of it would be equally effective. I must confess to skipping many sections in the middle as I found them tedious and superfluous. Although the book is classified as sci-fi for adults, I could not shake the impression that it was written with a young reader in mind. The description of Kira’s romantic relationship at the start of the book was too safe, too sugar-coated and too infantile for my liking. The Jellies (hostile aliens) were also a bit cartoonish and stereotypical in their appearance and disposition. Having said that, this is a sci-fi book and it fits well within its genre.

You will need a lot of time to truly be able to indulge in this book and immerse yourself in it, but it will be time well spent.

A Divided Inheritance by Deborah Swift

A Divided Inheritance : Epic historical fiction by [Deborah Swift]

This is a powerful and emotionally captivating story which crossed the boundaries of genre: historical, adventure, romance, tragedy. It is literature with a heart.

I reached for it on recommendation and my expectations were high. The book surpassed them. I found it intriguing to start with and as I went deeper into it I could not put it down.

The story is set in Spain’s Golden Age under Philip the Pious when the country was firmly in the grip of Holy Inquisition and religious intolerance aimed at its Arab population. Moors, once the conquerors, are now persecuted, divested of their rights and property and deported to Northern Africa. In parallel to that, Protestantism has superseded Catholicism in England, and Catholics are forced underground to practise their faith. The persecutors in one country are the persecuted in another, and that irony is not lost on the author. She shows the plight of Moriscos (Arab converts to Christianity) with great empathy. Their rounding up for transportation on ships to Morocco and their futile resistance resonate and bring to mind other similar tragedies in more recent history. The setting of the story in time and place is masterfully delivered.

As are the characters and their personal stories. Swift demolishes stereotypes as her characters develop and leave the comfort zone of what’s familiar and are thrown into the mill of history, misadventure and hardship. I loved the way Elspet transformed from a little English lady into a true heroine. Zachary too underwent his character-building transformation. Two people from two socially irreconcilable backgrounds were ultimately reduced – or rather elevated – to their common denominator, that of just being human.

A wonderful tale.

How the Marquis Got His Coat Back by Neil Gaiman

I must confess I haven’t read Neverwhere and, at first, I was a bit lost in this short story. But I quickly found my way by simply following the Marquis de Carabas who in his turn was following the scent of his extraordinary coat stolen from him in mysterious circumstances. We have traversed most puzzling worlds of Below London where tube stations come to life to become characters in the story. Thus we have the Elephant, Victoria and the frightening Shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush. I found that world bewitching.

The Marquis de Carabas’s quest brought to mind another short story, “Overcoat” by Gogol. There too an owner unlawfully deprived of his precious coat moves heaven and earth to retrieve it, and not even death seems to be able to stop him. The coat represents his life. Here too, the coat has given the Marquis his name, his identity and his direction in life. Without it, he is incomplete. His older brother, Peregrine, is his guardian angel in the (many) hours of need.

I have reached for this story because I loved Good Omens and I wanted to discover a bit more about Neil Gaiman. I am hooked.

Devilishly thrilling Dark London (2) short stories collection from Darkstroke

Dark London: Volume Two by [Mark Patton, Angela Wren, Chris Dommett, Alice Castle, Richard Savin, Alan Taylor, Marie Gault, Tom Halford, Denise Bloom, Harper Channing]

Dark London (Volume 2) is a collection of short stories, each unique and distinct, each different and yet all of them have the same common denominator: London. The stories tell a tale of a city that never sleeps, knows how to hide its darkest secrets in the layers of its past, and is made of the tough stuff of its inimitable people.

There are a lot of shades within Dark London, many different eras and a lot of variety ranging from the contemporary and lighthearted cozy crime in Dulwich to the blood curdling horrors. You will find yourself traipsing London on a night bus in the company of highly-principled illegal aliens and you will end up in the middle of the inexplicable, sinister and freakish Gothic show which may not be from this world but it has London written into it.

Suspend belief, bring your own comfort blanket and have a go. You will find yourself devilishly thrilled.

One for the Baby by Tony Parsons

One for my baby
One for my Baby is Tony Parson’s second book. I was sufficiently impressed that I will go looking for his first.
As someone who often struggles to get into a new book I am impressed when I find one that quickly captures my interest. One for my Baby was one of that rare breed of books.
Beautifully written, it intertwines the tales of many lives and covers a multitude of trials and tribulations experienced by its characters. I think that few people could read this book and not find something that touches their own life experiences. Very moving.
Reviewer, S. Wylie

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

You open this book and you find yourself in a world that is bizarrely familiar yet utterly outlandish. It feels like the second coming of Animal Farm. Animals (particularly rabbits) are on a collision course with humans, and if you have a shred of humanity in you, you are on the side of the rabbit.

Fforde’s portrayal of our twenty-first century society is spot on. You recognise the characters, the events and the trends: UKARP, a right-wing party led by a PM going by the name of Nigel Smethwick, a TwoLegsGood movement of middle-class reactionaries, the entrenched perceptions of an “unbridled” rabbit infestation/invasion on the green shores of Britain. We are talking rabbits, the little furry animals native to these isles. They were here before us. They fully anthropomorphised in 1965 and continued to multiply in their usual rampant way. The more they started resembling humans the less acceptable and more inconvenient they became. They had to be separated from humans and ghettoised in a new MegaWarren in the depths of Wales.

This story is hilarious. The world Fforde has created (and based on our very reality) is astounding in its every detail, and it is funny because it is so relatable. There is pure observational comedy there that will leave you with a laugh-out-loud bellyache. But this story also hits a nerve. It is a satire about the decline of our society, the loss of what once was a clear moral compass but has now become a murky moral muddle, about the unrestrained rampage of bigotry and intolerance.  And about good people caught in the middle of it, scared, suppressed, but hopefully still trying to do what’s right.

I loved this book.

The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

The Silken Rose: Beware the She-Wolf from Provence ... (The Rose Trilogy) by [Carol McGrath]

The Silken Rose begins on a genteel note: thirteen-year old Ailenor of Provence arrives on the shores of England to be married to king Henry III. We join Ailenor on the journey of discovery of the alien and most fascinating world of 13th-century England. Guided by McGrath, tentatively at first, we dip our toes in the medieval customs, mentalities and sensitivities described with flourish and attention to detail. Soon we find ourselves fully immersed in a time-space bubble.

Ailenor may only be a young girl, and on many levels she acts like one: she enjoys beautiful things in life, the company of her ladies, lavish feasts,

poetry and embroidery. She is eager to please her king and fantasises of becoming Guinevere to his Arthur. She is beginning to awaken sexually. But we soon learn that one mustn’t be fooled by her young age and romantic fantasies. Ailenor is a she-wolf (a term she violently resents). She is ambitious, perceptive, even manipulative. She loves her king romantically but she also has more pragmatic objectives: she must give him an heir and sway his favours to secure her interests. She makes true friends (such as Nell, the king’s sister). She loves them dearly and supports them. But she also knows how to convert friendships into political alliances. She confidently navigates her way among the hostile barons and treacherous rivals. What started as an idyllic fairy tale of a royal wedding and giggling maidens soon becomes a darker, faster-paced tale of intrigue, assassination, betrayal and flights of blinding rage.  In order to survive and protect her children, Ailenor hardens and perfects the art of factional war and smart diplomacy.

MacGrath’s tale has the flowing quality of a powerful river which, once you’ve dipped your toes in, sweeps you off your feet and carries you with the currents, rapids and waterfalls of power struggle and survival.

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath

A beautifully spun historical yarn with multiple layers of fact interwoven with just enough fictional adornment to produce an utterly engrossing story.

Handfasted Wife is the script equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry. It depicts one of the most momentous happenings in British history: the brutal and bloody clash of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman worlds. Harold’s defeat at Hastings marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Within that rift in the flow of history sits the story of Harold’s handfasted (today: common law) wife, Edith Swanneck. Her personal strife to preserve her pride and her family is compellingly conveyed. McGrath looks at the rapidly unfolding events through Edith’s eyes and responds to them through her actions and ingenious political manoeuvres. Edith comes across as a strong, intelligent and pragmatic woman who nevertheless is possessed of great passion for both her children and her husband. She understands and accepts the demands history places on them and at the same time fights for what she considers to be rightfully theirs. She makes great sacrifices and remains steadfast and faithful to a husband-king who is obliged to reject her in the name of vital political alliances.

McGrath paints a vivid picture of the political intrigue immediately prior to the Norman invasion and thereafter. The cruelty of the victors, their savagery and greed are powerfully conveyed. The conquered nation is also shown are diverse and multi-dimensional: there are traitors aplenty as there are the most devoted servants, loyal to the bitter end. Women in particular hold the centre stage in this fantastic tale. History told from their perspective is no less exciting than its masculine version, but it is much more intimate and intricate.

I loved The Handfasted Wife and will read the rest of the trilogy. I would recommend it to anyone wishing to be swept away in the currents of history populated by living, breathing characters fighting for survival, power and dignity.

A Crown in Time by Jennifer Macaire

Jennifer Macaire has a knack for transporting the reader in time, alongside her characters. In A Crown in Time she brilliantly depicts the raw and unforgiving era of the Crusades. The moment you step into the story, your senses are assaulted with images, odours, sounds and textures that all come together to sweep you off your feet and take you right into the black heart of the Dark Ages. Macaire knows her stuff. She comfortably navigates the era when and the areas where her book is set, and you as a reader know that you’re in good hands. Gone is the vague romanticism of the Crusades and in comes the stench of death, dysentery and unwashed bodies.  The sea crossing to North Africa and back left me reeling with sea-sickness. The brutality of human interaction in those days made me thank my lucky star that I was born eight hundred years later.

Then there are the characters. Isobel, the woman who travels from 2900 to save the French dynasty, isn’t a pre-progammed robot. She is fallible. She makes mistakes. She is unsure about her task. The threat of time-erasure hangs over her head and she doesn’t quite know how to avert it. Things go constantly wrong and she responds as best as she can. You can tell she is lost and that she is on her own. She not only needs to fend for herself (and that’s not an easy task even for her medieval contemporaries), but she also takes it upon herself to take care of Charles, her streetwise orphan sidekick. And of course she is tasked with protecting Jean, the future father of the kings. She invests herself in that task on more levels than one. And it doesn’t quite go to plan. But she has to go on and every new chapter is filled with new challenges.

A visceral read, full of passion and heart.