All my Antics, Mostly Reviews

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a landscape and sunset, three trees in the foreground, 2 mountain ranges in the background

Two Strands

A Review of Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing

Cover of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

When I picked up this book, I wasn’t aware of the journey this book would take me. Now almost two years later, now that I’ve read it from start to finish, I’m saddened I hadn’t picked this up earlier. I started reading Homegoing by Ghanaian-American author Yaa Gyasi, last month at the height of Black Lives Matter Protests against police brutality in the US and around the world. I couldn’t bear to use my usual random method to select books to read next from my to-be-read list, and so I deliberately picked a book by a woman of colour from my bookshelf.

Not that it should need an explicit occasion to do so, but sometimes it needs a jolt to recognise the privilege and exclusion that is prevalent in publishing. I’m aware that as a white reader, especially in Germany, I will encounter books predominantly written by white authors in any book shop I patronise. And it takes conscious effort to break simple habits and to seek out the voices of authors with less privilege.

That said, there’s no point in putting up with bad books. So this review will serve as a recommendation for an enthralling novel written by a woman of colour.

The Physical Book

a wooden stool

I own the 2016 Vintage paperback edition of this book, and it’s a very floppy book. Holding it out horizontally by its spine, the far edge of the book drops down to a 45°-angle. The cover is soft and somewhat coarse, and the same extends to the paper it’s printed on. The only high-gloss page is an insert of blurbs that juts out as a yellow stripe behind the shortened front cover at the right edge of the book.

And while the physical qualities of my edition don’t leave a particularly solid impression, the cover art is just something I fell in love with. The colour choices are impeccable, and I regularly strive but fail to recreate this kind of texture in my own art.

The Setting

Cape Coast Castle with a sunset

Homegoing is set in our world. The plot sets out in the late 18th or early 19th century in what we, nowadays, would call Ghana around the city of Cape Coast. But with history and slavery, one plotline at least moves to the US and there with historical events through different parts of the country.

Gyasi manages to describe, notably the Ghanaian settings, with enough care to make them feel lively and lived in. I think, for places in the US, she is more reliant on a shared understanding, of what these places look like. Nevertheless, these descriptions feel vivid enough for me to supply the right backdrop to the characters of this novel.

The Characters

Intergenerational as it is, Homegoing follows two Asante lineages, starting with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, the daughters of a woman called Maame. Effia and Esi grow up in separate families. Their paths cross without their knowledge when Effia marries the new commander of Cape Coast Castle and Esi is held in that very same castle for transport to the Americas as a slave. From there, two separate family histories develop.

Portrait of an Unnamed Woman

Every main character gets their chapter in chronological order, alternating between one side of the family tree and the other. Since they are all part of family history, one of the side characters in each chapter becomes the point-of-view character in a subsequent chapter. This allows each point-of-view character an exceptional depth and roundedness. We learn about their whole life, not only what they did during their adulthood. We get to know them during their formative age, and we learn how they imprinted on the next generation in their old age.

To me, this emotional depth to each character makes this novel solid. You rarely get this many different people in one novel without losing depth to each of them. In some regard, this feels as if every character got their own short story, but each short story provides the context for the next. Even if especially the American chapters, make their characters into the messengers of a history lesson a bit too often.

And these characters, surely, are varied in their outlook in life and their emotional struggles. We find women and men who hold together families, but also women and men who pull them apart. On top of that, there’s something hidden in James’ chapter, that made me happy or at least look up in curiosity. James seems to feel love for his best friend, that goes beyond platonic love. And I’m definitely up for covert homoromantic representation.

The Plot

Stone necklace and chained shackles

Considering this is a debut novel, bringing the format, the characters and the plot together into one book, seems like a gargantuan task. And I’m quite sure a more distinguished reader than me, would find more fault with it than I do. Nevertheless, I think a more experienced writer could have given this book a more consistent throughline overall.

For me, much of the tension of this novel came from the spoiling glance at the family tree, printed in front of the first chapter, and my anticipation that the youngest family members with chapters of their own, Marcus and Majorie, would meet eventually.

As such, this novel is held together by a pull of symbolism that caries through the generations on the African side of the story. And a particular current of demographics and history, especially on the American side of the story, where characters exist somewhat driven only by historical events and not by their independent plotline.

For the Ghanaian characters, that is much less true. Their struggle and is guilt and blame more than anything else, in the words of Laura Miller:

“Homegoing”—the title is taken from an old African-American belief that death allowed an enslaved person’s spirit to travel back to Africa—is rooted, like the Bible, in original sin. Unlike the Biblical transgression, however, the source of the curse that dogs an Asante woman’s descendants through seven generations defies pinpointing and straightforward assessments of blame; you might as well shun your own hand. 

Laura Miller (2016): Descendants, in The New Yorker

The Writing

To me, the writing was mostly unremarkable. A better writer could have maybe pulled the plotline together more coherently or elevated the story with more elaborate prose. But after all, this was Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel with considerable scope, so I can forgive non-remarkable writing without much trouble. Especially, as I think there is much potential in Gyasi’s writing, that will and could improve with more experience and maybe a less sprawling topic.

Summary

For me, this debut novel is without a doubt worth a recommendation. While its sprawling nature and largely unremarkable writing might make it fall flat for some readers, it presented an interesting, captivating story for me. Of course, this book isn’t worthy of a Nobel prize in literature, but that is an overly pretentious expectation for a writer. This book has its special pull for me, even if that didn’t come from the plot itself, but from my expectations and a collection of great characters.

As a whole, I enjoyed the depth, the unique structure of this book gave its characters, especially the strand of the family that remained in Ghana. And I enjoyed the look into Ghanaian history, that gave me the appetite to look into it more. The same unfortunately can’t be said for the view into US history. Though it certainly offers a unique perspective of slavery founded in the loss of family history, that is stark in contrast to the other strand of the family.

My last book review was Where the Terrors Keep. My next review is probably going to touch on Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

Where the Terrors Keep

A Review of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep

John Flack – Book Cover, 1982, Goldmann

Crime stories have been a staple of my childhood, long before I picked up any science fiction or fantasy books, I was most likely engrossed in some thriller. My reading started with a lot of German books that combined crime with humorous story-telling. When I started to read English language books, I had moved on from my obsession with crime stories. Now I return to one with fresh eyes in this Review of a German translation of Edgar Wallace’s Terror Keep, which is the first entry in the series of books about the detective J.G. Reeder. The German title is John Flack.

Really in light of current events, I feel it is even more necessary to point out, that this work should at least be read with the idea of “copaganda” in mind. Terror Keep neither accurately reflects current or historic police work, nor does it offer any worthwhile views into mental health. Any story about fighting crime in the traditional sense centres a view of crime that ignores any socio-economic factors, and makes police officers into heroes as they fight “real evil”. This book offers no different perspective. It at best entertains, but you can’t escape the ideas that fiction of its kind normalises. Crime in the real world is rarely as devoid of social context as it is here.

The Physical Book

Back to the book at hand. My copy is a 1982 paperback edition hand-me-down published by Goldmann. Of course, this book has seen better times, the paper has browned with age and feels coarse, and the jacket is showing signs of wear and tear as well, but it’s holding up reasonably well for the time it’s spent being read and being stored on various bookshelves and in numerous storage boxes. It isn’t particularly long, and about 30 pages are devoted to informing the reader of various other books in the publisher’s catalogue.

The Setting

Now, Terror Keep is set in 1920s UK, predominantly in London and an imaginary town called Siltbury on the cliffed coast of southern England. Both places are treated as backdrops that only need description where it figures into the plot. Siltbury is left to the reader’s imagination and familiarity with southern English towns, and London stars as the world-famous city it is with a handful of recognisable places.

More important than Siltbury itself, however, is the mansion in which much if the second and third act of this book takes place: Lamar’s Keep. It’s a cliffside manor, with a horrifying dungeon and curious inhabitants and visitors.

The Characters

Cliffed Coast, with a wall atop and white clouds drawing over a clear sky

Most of the characters show up at Lamar’s Keep and its surroundings over time, but that’s not the interesting thing about them. Well, the interesting thing about them is that they are not interesting in and of themselves. They are pretty flat, maybe some of them are more well rounded over the entire length of the series, but they stick closely to archetypal versions of a detective story.

We have in order of appearance the mentally insane, empathyless and driven villain, who happens to be a criminal mastermind. He, fundamentally, is just an ableist trope. We have the well-experienced investigator, who doesn’t shy away from a fight. We have a love interest for the investigator, who becomes a damsel in distress. We have multiple other policemen, who are either characterised by incompetence or as mere cannon-fodder and, finally, we have multiple henchmen of the villain, who all get a weird name pointing to earlier wrongdoings.

The most striking departure from this character template has to be Miss Bellman, ostensibly the damsel in distress and love interest, who at least for first half of this book seems to hold out pretty competently and well for herself, but the realities of 1920s ideas of womanhood will get to her soon enough.

The Plot

JG Reeder fighting his way up the rigged stairs

The characters aren’t, what makes this book a gripping read though. The thing that kept me riveted to the book was the ease of how different elements of the plot flowed into each other, how the characters, setting, and plot intertwined. And lead from one page to the other.

There’s not much to be said about the plot that wouldn’t spoil it, but it’s constructed with clear intent, keeping the reader guessing without alienating them with too contrived plot-twists. Some explanations and crimes mentioned within this story fall onto the gimmicky side of plots, but they were not gimmicky enough to rip me out of the flow of reading this book. There’s a well-crafted tension that was pulling me along throughout the entirety of the book.

The Writing

Edgar Wallace wrote many of his books by way of dictation, and the casualness of his writing certainly shows, the point is not to tell a story in its most beautiful manifestation, but a good thrill and a gripping story. In this vein, the writing is mostly unremarkable.

There were a few moments and passages in this book where certain word choices pulled me out of the book, but I think I have to pin those down on the translation, which certainly seemed somewhat clunky at times. Often maybe through no fault of the translator. After all, there’s at least one passage of basically untranslatable wordplay around the suites of playing cards, which the translator solved by annotating explanations of these jokes. But there might have been more passages where the translator was considering such annotations but eventually decided against them to avoid interrupting the flow of the book.

Summary

This book certainly is a gripping read and a fun one at that, but it isn’t a book that makes a good point about life or anything. It’s not meant to be. It’s just a fun story meant to entertain a reader, sitting in bed on a stormy night, or watching the waves on a sunny beach.

There are, without a doubt, problematic parts in this book, that suggest ideas about our world that might not be worth repeating because they’re demonstrably untrue. And these parts make me question if this book is worth reading in 2020. I’m not saying you’re not allowed to enjoy it. Far from it, I enjoyed it myself, but I don’t want to recommend this book. It’s a well-crafted thriller from almost 100 years ago. It’s showing its age. That doesn’t make it a bad book per se, but there are also better books to search out. It’s probably a guilty pleasure for me.

My last book review was about Terry Pratchett’s The Long War: The Long Wait. My next review will be about the wonderful Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Two Strands.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

The Long Wait

A Review of Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter’s The Long War

It took me quite a while to get to this book, maybe a bit too long. I remember loving the first book of The Long Earth series, but it’s now nearly 4 years since I finished The Long Earth. And maybe my love for the first book of this series needs an update because The Long War, the second book of this series, definitely didn’t conjure up feelings of love from me. A fit of anger every 50 pages seems to be a better description of the feelings I hold for this book. Nevertheless, I managed to soldier through even if it took me unusually long between reviews. That’s not the fault of the book alone, a global pandemic certainly didn’t help my focus, but the book certainly had its part. So, without further ado, I’ll bring to you my explanation of why I am so angry with this book and why I still kept reading it to the bitter end.

The Physical Book

My 2014 Corgi Edition of this book, is a pretty standard paperback book. After a month of reading and at times abusing this book, the soft touch foil lamination started to fray off the cover’s paper at the bottom edges, but this is definitely not a remarkable book in this regard. A younger me would have probably destroyed the cover by peeling the lamination of completely at this point though.

As for the cover art, I think it continues the trend of being unremarkable. It’s not bad, it’s not great, but from the struggle I myself had with the art for this review, I know this book isn’t easy to translate into art, it’s to inconsistent to develop objects or scenes that would be striking or lastin in memory.

The World-Building

I think the world-building is truly the strongest suit of this book and the entire Long Earth series. The series is set on Earth around the 2040s, but in The Long Earth humanity at large learns to step into stepwise adjacent worlds, worlds that are similar to so-called datum earth, but took a different path in the probability tree that characterises earth’s geological history. And there are plenty of these worlds, to both the so-called East of the datum and to the so-called West of the Datum. Not all of these worlds are habitable, some are pretty lush places to settle.

These worlds are only shown in vignettes or broad descriptions, only certain places in the vastness of the Long Earth are visited or described. The singular places that are described feel real enough, but also don’t show much character necessarily.

The Characters

This lack of character that plagues some of the worldbuilding, is even more rampant in the actual characters. As a sequel, this book, naturally, doesn’t have to put much effort into setting up new characters, but at few new characters are set up nevertheless making this book pretty large in scope of characters. This, of course, is an opportunity to represent a certain diversity of characters, but it also makes some of these new characters quite shallow or into mere plot-devices.


Spoilers for Specific Characters

Roberta Golding, for example, is set up as a young girl that just knows everything but has an absolute lack of empathy. She feels to me like she is coded as autistic, and her framing as the smart kid made me viscerally angry quite a few times. For most of the book, she’s accompanied by a group of minor characters that seem solely characterised by their Chinese nationality, which seems questionable to me to say the least. Not that any of her actions would matter for the plot of this book. Roberta isn’t even mentioned as a character in the list of characters for this book on its Wikipedia article.

The best addition to the cast of characters in this book is probably the priest Nelson Azikiwe, who represents a refreshingly unique perspective, even if his plotline also ends abruptly and without any character growth.

End of Character Spoilers


And this is probably the main problem with the characters. There are too many of them to give them all at least small but satisfying character arcs, and the structural issues of the plot, make even the character arcs of those lucky few, that are supposed to have development, end too abruptly.

The Plot

And the plot is where the real issues lie. The plot is what made me hit myself with this book multiple times and once even made me throw it away in anger mostly for not resolving plot lines properly, what follows in the next few paragraphs contains spoilers, so be warned, but I can’t explain the structural issues properly without referencing how they end.


Spoilers

The main problem I see is that this book continually hints at something larger, some epic fight to come, some epic exploits to follow, but every time, the plot builds to the point where the reader is hooked, the plot isn’t resolved, but either you are sent into an unrelated chapter, things are fixed by the AI Lobsang in a Deus ex Machina fashion or, the plot is just resolved post facto, by a garden party where you get to know that everyone is alive and maybe a few hints as to what happened between the height of suspense and the narrative now.

As stated before this wrecks a lot of potential for character arcs. And while I understand that not every story necessarily needs characters that grow, there isn’t any big overarching mystery set up, except maybe the expectation of a war to come, that never arrives, and ends in a complete fake-out.

End of Plot- Spoilers


I think the amount of characters doesn’t make this easier, but I even struggle to summarise the plot without making obvious spoilers, because for the most part this book has characters in search of a plot, and if they find a piece of plot they are almost always robbed of concluding that plotline satisfactorily.

The Writing

As for the writing style, this book again is pretty unremarkable, it’s reasonably well written but that just doesn’t overcome the structural issues with the plot or the assortment of characters to bring under one roof.

Summary

Now, would I recommend this book? Hell no! I know a few people who really were engrossed by the world-building and who really enjoy the whole series of books, but to me with hindsight even the first book had some of the issues of this book.

If you really like world-building this book might be a pretty enjoyable and rompy read, but don’t expect a good story. I think you can read it for the vignettes of worlds, but the book is absolutely bereft of growth. For the most part it’s characters in vague search of a plot and the titular long war that never comes.

My last book review was The Blue of Distance about Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. My last review of a fiction book was Who Let the Dogs out! about Wolfgang Schorlau’s Der Freie Hund. My next review is about the gripping Terror Keep by Edgar Wallace.

If you liked my review, you can as always support me on ko-fi. Or you can get prints, stickers and other items with some of my designs on redbubble, at chwiggy.redbubble.com

The Blue of Distance

A Review of Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost

I first read this collection of essays about a year ago. Then it was the book discussed in Life’s Library Book Club. Now I read it again, with different eyes, more discipline and a stressful world around me. With the COVID-19 epidemic going on around me this book got a whole other depth of meaning. Now it was not only the book I read to participate in fruitful discussions with friends but also the book that I needed to quench my thirst. My thirst for the far, my wanderlust, my “Fernweh” – as the Germans call it – had never been as pressing as now when the boundaries of my travels weren’t financial hurdles, but the need to save struggling healthcare systems.

When I first read this collection of essays, I remember not particularly liking it. It seemed verbose and I was getting lost in it, which to be fair would have been an apt accomplishment for a book titled A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Now on a second read, I have more thought about Solnit’s very personal stories all connected by the common theme of loss and getting lost.

Rebecca Solnit

On this second read, this became a deeply insightful collection. And it inspired me to a lot of artistic productivity, so much so that I struggled with placing it all in conjunction with this article. There’s a depth to Solnit’s writing, depth of references that not only makes you feel being lost, it lets you smell, and see and hear getting lost. What I had interpreted as verbosity on my first struggling read through this book, that took me months, I now saw as a deep richness. Certainly, that was helped by already knowing the gist of the stories Solnit was about to tell me, but it also helped to read faster, more precisely, not stopping in the middle of a thought but at the end of essays.

In a sense, the last time I read this book, I was getting lost in it, and now again I’m getting lost in it but in a very different way. Then I was getting lost by missing the point the direction to understand where I was; now I was getting lost in an experience.

Solnit’s writing still is dense like a thick forest. And I don’t fault anyone for finding it too dense. Especially on a first read, this book might really make one feel lost at reading it, but now after I read it a second time, I can only shake my head at what I missed.

Now I almost wish I had more to say about it. I wish I could give you a song to navigate this book, I wish I had taken more notes to talk about the intricate details of this book, but that possibly has to remain something for the future because I still was too lost to write plentiful annotations; still, this book was too dense for me to see outside the thick of bush. Still, it was too dense for me to not get lost in details, still too thick to give you an adequate overview.

There’s no argument to this book really. Unless, you accept “get lost and experience the world around you with new eyes” as an argument. This book is just an eye-opening journey of thought through the landscapes of North America. And that probably is the worst you could say about this book. It is at points very American. But then these are personal stories. The Author is American. An expectation of an un-american experience would to an extent be misguided.

Summary

I can only recommend you to get lost in this book, full well knowing that getting lost in this book might not be possible for every reader.

There’s a real chance you might get too lost at reading this book, and I won’t fault you for putting it down and never returning. This book isn’t for everyone. You need a tolerance for frustration for dense prose, for feelings of being lost and alone. But if you’re ready to accept these feelings, if you tolerate being frustrated, this book is a treasure. A wealth of nature to behold opens up before you if you manage to get lost in these experiences of home and of far away.

My last book review was about another essay collection. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks. And my next book review will very probably still be about Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s second entry in their Long Earth Series: The Long War.
If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.

Thanks

A Review of Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude

This is quite a short book and I suspect it will also be a short review for that exact reason. And well for other reasons as well. I find myself within the turmoil of a global pandemic and the response to it. I’ve spent multiple days with too much anxiety to even care for myself. And now with the help of my friends, I’m slowly adjusting. So I want to display my gratitude as well, say thanks, to my friends and my family who keep me company albeit virtually. But I also want to thank the people out there who are first in line. All the doctors and nurses and hospital staff who risk their lives, and their and their family’s mental health to save others. Thank you.

Without much more ado, I’ll talk about Oliver Sacks’ little collection of essays, published posthumously, written shortly before or after his eventually lethal diagnosis with cancerous metastases from an earlier melanoma in his eye that had spread to his liver.

These essays have a special place in my heart. I’ve read the three essays within this book many times over, but they never fail to warm my heart. They are filled with the titular gratitude for a well-lived life and full of wisdom, fun, and a gripping curiosity that fills so much of Oliver Sacks’ writing.

If you can I would honestly recommend you to pick this little book up or at least search out the essays within. At this point, however, I don’t think there’s much to say. So thank you for bearing with me and this extraordinarily short review in extraordinary times.

Stay safe and take care.

My last book review was about a German crime novel: Der Freie Hund. And my next book review is The Blue of Distance about Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost.
If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.

Who Let the Dogs out!

A Review of Wolfgang Schorlau & Claudio Caiolo’s Der Freie Hund

Again, this is a German book. And I don’t really know why I’m still doing these reviews of new German books in English, but apparently, this is what I’m doing now. As with my last review, I got this book as an advanced reader copy through vorablesen.de where you can find a short review of this book (German). This is a crime story coming out later this spring. Its authors are the quite prolific writer of political crime thrillers Wolfgang Schorlau and the relatively unknown Claudio Caiolo who seems to be an Italian actor, I’ve never heard about before. That, however, isn’t surprising because I’m not really knowledgeable in the world of the famous.

Now with the last book, there was in my opinion pretty solid hints that an English translation could at some point be available. For this book, however, I don’t think that is at all likely to happen. The primary author doesn’t even have a stump of a Wikipedia page in English, and as far as I can tell none of his books is available in English. So why am I writing this review in English? Well because I want to!

The Physical Book

This book as the last one was published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch as a paperback. This one a bit more sturdy, with thicker paper, and thicker cover, even with flaps folding out from the inside of the cover. God knows, what they are called. Maybe, one of you will enlighten me.

The cover is I think a pretty classic one for a crime story, a photo of Venice with a cruise ship beneath the dark looming clouds of a storm. Not un-striking, but also not particularly interesting in my opinion.

The Setting

Venice is a beautiful city. Perhaps, it is too beautiful for its own good. Considering the torrential outpours of tourists it receives every day. Capturing a city so fundamentally torn apart in a crime novel is definitely an interesting idea, even though a famous one. After all, that’s what Donna Leon has been doing in by now almost 30 instalments of her Guido Brunetti series, that has found a wide TV audience in Germany by way of our public broadcasting’s thirst for crime shows.

As a setting now for Schorlau and Caiolo’s novel, Venice takes an interesting role. Especially the tourism and the political, environmental and structural problems it poses are integral to the setup of the quite political plot. That aside, however, Venice also lacks descriptive depth for me. At no point did I really feel at home, felt included within the city of the novel. We did get a tour through the city by the way of a somewhat shoe-horned in love affair of our protagonist, being an architectural student. Even the auditory experiences our protagonist experiences on a short trip to Cefalù on Sicily, let me feel more at home there than in Venice. And while that discrepancy actually fits in quite well with the emotional connections the protagonist is experiencing, it left me a bit too distant from the main location this book takes place in.

The Plot

The plot of this book is relatively straightforward with a few twists that genuinely took me by surprise strewn in. At times, it gets quite violent, and the authors don’t shy away from describing splattering blood, death and crime scenes.

At the very least this plot manages to navigate within a very interesting field of topics between politics, corruption, and the Italian mafia. Repeatedly there are hints to past tragedy and a long history of the protagonist with the mafia, that work as an interesting subplot to the story of a murder. Little time is spent on forensics, more so on personal relations and a somewhat uncanny ability of our protagonist to unveil the lies of others.

The plot however definitely does take a while to pick up and really only captured me in the second third of this book. Especially the romantic encounters the protagonist Antonio Morello experiences took me out of it too much from time to time.

The Characters

As with the plot, there’s not really much I have to say about the characters. Our protagonist Antonio Morello is reasonably well fleshed out, some minor characters lack a bit of depth and motivation beyond that what would generally be expected in a whodunit.

Morello is an interesting character, between his relationship with the mafia in Sicily and his transfer to Venice, we learn a great deal about his history and the reason why he seems incredibly adept at picking up sensory clues beyond the visual. And while the trope of disability coming with extraordinary savant-style advantages is definitely tired, I don’t think this leans too heavily on the experience of Morello’s blindness in childhood.

As for representation, this book definitely venters around heterosexual men. There’s a gay character, but his homosexuality is framed more like an extension of his role as a villain than as something that adds anything to the plot. It’s not queer coding per se, just a weird addendum in an otherwise presumed to be a straight world of characters.

Especially in the way the authors describe women that only show up once or twice within the book, there’s an excellent example of what one could call the straight male gaze. Appearances are described with the underlying intent of explaining which woman seems worthy of sexual attraction. Now don’t get me wrong I’m not male and still attracted to women, but there’s a degree of objectification in describing the stockings of a maid, even if it furthers the characterisation of one of the police officers as a sexist, that gets resolved later.

The Writing

And this sexism is not at all a problem of plot and characters alone, it manifests within the writing or at least diminished my enjoyment of it. I just don’t really want to read objectifying descriptions of women. What I found interesting, however, was unique stress on experiences outside the visual. Descriptions of auditory and olfactory sensation were incredibly immersive to me and went beyond what the average crime novel offers in my experience.

Other than that the writing seemed acceptable to me even if I especially at the start before I got used to it, sometimes the abrupt switches between scenes and characters made me think I had jumped a page accidentally.

Summary

I don’t think I would really recommend this book. It was an okay read, thoroughly captivating at points, but also somewhat flawed in its writing and treatment of women and LGBTQ characters. It brings an interesting mix of ideas to the table, but that didn’t suffice to convince me to want more of this book or more of this as a series.

If you’re really into political thrillers and crime stories involving the political this book may be worth picking up, but I wouldn’t be too disappointed if this book never gets a release in English. I’m not sure if I’m interested in picking up more books from the same writer, but I also wouldn’t frown at getting one for my birthday.

My last book review was about Qube by Tom Hillenbrand. And my next book review is about the very short collection of Essays Gratitude by Oliver Sacks.
If you like to, I would really appreciate your support on ko-fi. A few bucks help a long way and if you want to you can find some of my art even some of the works I created for this book review on redbubble for sale as stickers and posters.

Qubism

A Review of Tom Hillenbrand’s Qube

For a change, this is a review of a book I got as an advanced reader copy. It’s a German book by an author who has been translated into English before, so there is a realistic hope that this book will be translated into English at some point. Ostensibly I’m writing this review only in English because my audience i.e. at this point still almost exclusively my nerdfighter friends are mostly English-speaking and only in small parts speakers of German.

Though that probably isn’t the weirdest part of this review. No, crown probably goes to the fact that this is part two within a universe called Hologrammatica by Tom Hillenbrand. I have in fact not read part one yet, and I don’t know if I will, just for logistical reasons, so bear with me should that first part have substantial influences on your reading of this second instalment. But without much further ado, let’s get into this review of Qube.

Though I probably have to make the disclaimer here, that I received this book as an ARC, and didn’t pay for it. I’m trying to not let this really influence my review of it, but this is called transparency. Here’s my review on vorablesen.de (German).

Physical Book

Now, holding a book in your hand that’s only about to be released to the wider public has a special feel to it. This book is a pretty standard German paperback though. That means it’s nothing special, but it also isn’t crap. The cover design is simple yet intriguing, so basically the way I like my covers to be, even if I’m as of late a bit bored with red and black and white cover designs. Yes, yes those are striking colours, and easy to combine in ways that look good, but I just want something more daring.

The Setting & World-Building

Qube takes place in a future post-climate-change, after the advancement of computation into the realm of true artificial intelligence, or short AI. And while you might want to insinuate that this book might be a bit too much in love with technology, this nevertheless remains a world you can find yourself swallowed in without the immersion being broken by inconsistencies or other problems of world-building.

Sometimes however the technobabble masks too much of the plot and its really interesting themes though. Sure, there’s a plethora of technology to explain in this book from holograms, to mind-uploads and body swaps to the ins and out of information security and AI, that might be too much for a technologically non-interested reader, but sometimes I would have preferred to have more of that outsourced to the glossary, at the end.

I’m not going to dissect the world of this book in regards to its plausibility in regards to being a prediction of the world in 2091. That is a road I don’t want to travel on. There are definitely technologies in here that sound more like magic to me than like technology, but as Arthur C. Clarke’s famous adage states:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Arthur C. Clarke

The Plot

Beneath this splurge of technology hides a quite multi-faceted plot. Hillenbrand, especially in the first half manages to juggle multiple interlace threads of plots, separated by almost torturous cliff-hangers. Sometimes, of course, a particular thread was more interesting and cut short by an intermezzo of all the other plot-threads, but that is the price you have to pay for this interspersed way of telling a story with multiple main actors spread around the earth and at times the solar system. Yes, this novel contains space travel, though the main plot remains steadfastly on the earth.

There the plot starts rolling with a headshot that almost kills Calvary Doyle, an investigative reporter on track to solve a mystery around the last incident around AI in 2049. The police investigations into Calvary Doyle’s attempted killing prove to be more complicated than a simple case of attempted murder however and start to involve multi-billion-dollar companies, AI, death and a plethora of body-swaps.

The Characters

And who carries out these body swaps? Mostly Commander Fran Bittner, sometimes Francesco or Francesca depending on the appearance of his current vessel. And that is probably one of the most interesting points in regards to the characters. We get to enjoy some form of non-binary, maybe genderfluid, maybe bigender representation. Of course, it might be stifled by German’s lack of gender-neutral pronouns and also might not be really concerned with much of what the LGBTQ community is concerned with, but the main character’s gender is explicitly discussed at least once as “outside of the binary”.

Other than that the book is just filled up with a normal amount of solid characters. To me, none of them feels overdrawn or like paper cut-outs to fill the story, but all of our main characters seem to have understandable motivation. The main characters are of diverse genders, though definitely lack in racial and ethnic diversity if not as Fran Bittner body swapped into a body of another race. Only side characters get to be of another background natively in this regard.

One last criticism of the characters I have to mention: their naming. And this criticism is somewhat in keeping with the aforementioned technobabble this book succumbs to. The names Hillenbrand throws around, are too stereotypically English. They are exactly what you think a German would make up when tasked with finding stereotypical names. They sometimes don’t read as names at all, and sometimes are just funny. Especially, in the first couple of chapters, these names really got to the point where they ripped a hole in the hologram of my immersion

The Writing

Naming and technobabble are probably the points that hurt Qube‘s writing the most. There’s a little issue of pacing towards the end of the plot, though if that actually is an issue or just a plot-twist probably depends on your reading of the book, for me at least it was a hump I had to drag my ADHD brain over to then get back to enjoying the book quite a lot.

In terms of writing, this book seems to be a pretty standard sci-fi thriller. There’s nothing that sticks out like a sore thumb in here, but also nothing that is egregiously well written, except maybe for the plot interlacing.

Summary

And I think that is also a good summary for this book. It’s an interesting and solidly written sci-fi thriller. It’s genuinely gripping at points, but it’s no masterwork.

There are a whole lot of great thoughts and ideas here, from immortality via body swaps to artificial intelligence. There’s some non-binary representation, but a lack of racial and ethnical representation. I think a bit more focus on one of these ideas, a smaller scope wouldn’t have harmed this book, but as it is it’s still an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. And you definitely don’t need to have read part 1 of the Hologrammatica series to understand Qube. At least I didn’t even notice there was a part 1 to this.

My last fiction review was about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. And my last book review was about Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? My next book review concerns another German book: Der Freie Hund by Wolfgang Schorlau and Claudio Caiolo.

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Realistic Expectations

A Review of Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?

This is a first for these book reviews. This time I’m reviewing a work of non-fiction instead of a fictional story. Of course, this doesn’t fit into my usual structure of book reviews, so please excuse if this get’s established as it goes and is maybe a bit rougher around the edges than usual. But let us get started: This is a very short book. It only contains roughly 80 densely packed pages, but these are ram-packed with insightful information and thought-provoking ideas. It describes our reality through an interesting philosophical lense and examines the influence capitalism has on the perspective and framing with which we view our world, our lives and our surroundings.

I first found this book through somewhat unusual circumstances. Well maybe, these circumstances aren’t too weird in a modern globally-connected world. I found them through a YouTube video by PhilosophyTube. Namely Olly’s first video on mental health and suicide, I put below. [Content Warning: light flashes, talk about suicide, self-harm and mental health]

But back to the book, which itself talks about mental health in a different light as Olly Thorne does.

Physical Book

This book is an exceedingly short book, it’s almost more of a collection of continued essays or maybe a lengthened scientific article. For my 2009 Zero Books paperback edition that comes packaged as a very thin book with wide pages more resembling the ways scientific articles are printed than how books in fiction are presented. As it’s thin it’s pretty flimsy but doesn’t suffer from the troubles of thick paperbacks with strong backs.

The Argument

The main argument within this book is that there is a worldview, which Mark Fisher calls capitalist realism, that permeates society in late-stage capitalism and hinders efforts to leave capitalism behind by creating the illusion that there is indeed no alternative to capitalism.

Fisher generally sees one way to break down this veil behind which capital is hiding. Namely, he thinks. we need to find the real that destroys our preconceived capitalist reality. He sees a few big contenders for general topics that could manage to rip the curtain of capitalist realism down: the ecological crisis caused by capitalism and so inherently unsolvable by capital, for example, climate change, mental health and education.

There’s one particular point about the interface between education and mental health Fisher draws that almost made me stop reading this book. My gripe essentially is that while yes, I can see an inadequate blaming of mental health issues on individuals, I also think this book ignored the very real troubles of mental illness that would still persist even within a society where the systemic causes or external stressors of our current society were removed. Especially, his mention of ADHD, from which I personally “suffer”, elicited that reaction in me, because I genuinely feel problems arising from my mental health that are not caused or even exacerbated by society, but just are part of how my brain works.

The Writing & Style

Fisher draws upon tons of sources, especially Slavoj Žižek and finds a ton of analogies in pop culture, especially movies and books. His style is one I found very typical for philosophers of the late 20th and early 21st century. Somewhere between academic and free-flowing essay. What makes this book hard to read are its presumptions of prior knowledge. The expectation that you are familiar with the thoughts of a broad range of philosophers and jargon of anti-capitalism.

There’s at least to some extent a thread running through this book that kept me on line with reading it, but I struggle to put into words what that thread was. Maybe it was just the idea of having finished a book quickly soon. It was short enough to do that, even if the ableism around page 24 irked me enough to slather a “Fuck You” into this book.

Summary

In the end, I wonder why so often I’m drawn to books on philosophy when reading them so often leaves me dissatisfied or angry, and exhausted at the lengthy sentences.

I don’t think I really would recommend this book to a general audience. A broad and deep knowledge of philosophy, which I do not possess, is probably required to get the full extent of insight this short book provides. It draws references to other philosophers and pop culture again and again, and it does a disservice to not understand those references.

For a general audience, this book remains too conceptual to be of much value, and it stays too much in the description of the de facto world we live in instead of actually pointing to a liveable alternative except in the last few pages where Fisher points to actionable strategies in the fight against capital, but those are somewhat removed from the main thesis of this book.

Now I would cringe at the idea that a book needs to be actionable to be of value, but I think together with this and the hints of ableism and anxiety about change dispersed within, this book isn’t ready to be read by a general audience, it is more a working paper, for others to expand upon. Being well versed in anti-capitalist theory definitely improves this read.

My last book review was Sickening Love of Privilege? about Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. Up next a review of the German book Qube by Tom Hillenbrand: Qubism.
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Sickening Love of Privilege?

A Review of Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera

I think, this, for the first time in the admittedly short history of my book reviews, is a review of a book I didn’t particularly enjoy. With writing about something that I didn’t enjoy outright, there come some difficulties and hurdles. These hurdles are especially pressing, as I didn’t hate this book – it just bored me quite often. Boring things always are particularly hard for my ADHD-brain, and I’m surprised I still managed to read this book so quickly despite the fact I often only managed to press on with a feeling of obligation.

Why did I feel obligated to read this book? Well, it’s lauded as one of the big works of Gabriel García Márquez who incidentally is a Nobel laureate in literature. This should give some indication to the importance this book assumes, and nevertheless, I did not enjoy it as much as I had expected. So this review will be tasked with the job of figuring out why this book disappointed my expectations, and maybe if this is an outlier in Gabriel García Márquez’ work.

As should be noted here, I don’t speak or read Spanish, I can cobble together a few words here and there with my Latin and French, but for this, I relied on a hopefully faithful translation into German by Dagmar Ploetz. To be exact I read El amor en los tiempos del cólera in its German translation as Liebe in den Zeiten der Cholera.

The Physical Book

My edition of Love in the Time of Cholera is the 14th German paperback edition published by Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag in April of 2014, originally published as a paperback in Germany in February of 2004, 10 years earlier, and as a hardcover in 1987. The original Spanish edition was published in 1985.

The book itself is a paperback of middling sturdiness, its cover kept in dark red and purple with a flaming parrot painted by Brad Holland on the front. It’s an understated book despite the saturated colours on its cover. Fitting with the heat this book contains on so many levels.

The Setting

Never is the city in which the plot primarily unfolds named, and that’s not to a detriment. Through some research and collection of geographical hints dropped within the book, the city could be identified as Cartagena in the north of Colombia, but as a reader, I’m not as much interested in the reality of a place as much as I’m interested in how much I feel like I can become a part of it. García Márquez manages exactly that with his descriptions of city through the lifetime of two adults some time from the latter half of the 19th to the earlier half of the 20th century. Through a changing environment and very much changing story, the city retains its own character.

This place is not, strictly speaking, beautiful. The city is not luring me to a visit (at least not a time-travelling one), but it is nevertheless a fascinating place, that came vividly into my mind with every single one of the 509 pages of this book I turned.

The Plot

This plot is an outlier in the things I usually like to read, to some extent at least. It is centred around love. The title doesn’t hide it, but the love is not just a side story in a cholera epidemic, no it’s the main point and arguably the only “cholera” this story has to offer. This metaphor might be a bit blunt in English or in German but becomes a play on words in Spanish, or so I’ve heard.

The plot revolves around three main characters and their play around love and marriage. Florentino Ariza plays an extravagant play of courtship when he deeply falls in love with the young Fermina Daza, only to be booted out by her father and the successful and more privileged Dr Juvenal Urbino, who just returned from his studies in Europe. Still, Florentina Ariza vows eternal fidelity to Fermina and never marries. He sets out to wait for Dr Juvenal Urbino’s death in the hope to then get back together with the love of his youth.

He keeps his vows at first completely, but then only superficially as he discovers sex and tries to forget his aching love, that his mother at first compared to cholera, through sex. He becomes an outright sex-addict and his adventures cascade into more and more morally questionable behaviour as the plot progresses. Meanwhile, Fermina Daza experiences the heights and lows of her married life with Dr Juvenal Urbino.

This recounting of their adult lives is framed by the first and last chapter. The first chapter describes the last days of Dr Juvenal Urbino’s life and his death, with a parrot and a mango tree. The last chapter describes life after his death and a fateful voyage on one of Florentino Ariza’s company’s river steamers.

The plot keeps a surprising amount of elegance even if for me the constant love and sex of this story fell somewhat flat. I’m just not too interested in who fucks whom and loves whom with eternal faithfulness, I would have rather have the suicide with which this book opens explored more, but you can’t always get what you wish for.

The Characters

The two characters this story centres around are two very different humans, at least on a surface level. After closer inspection, they exhibit striking similarities, however. Both Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are societal upstarts, moving into the upper society of their city throughout their life. One through marriage, the other through work in anticipation of the end of said marriage.

The main characters are fully fleshed out over their lives. Our narrative point of view jumps back between Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, with interludes of Fermina Daza’s husband Dr Juvenal Urbino being the focus of this story. And we follow these characters basically through their entire life from their adolescence to their death or their last years of life. No character is without their moral flaws. At least Florentino Ariza engages in outright gross behaviour at points in this story. Nevertheless, he remains one of the most constant identification points for the reader and to some degree, their flaws make them more human, even if they are still all members of privileged society, and to a striking extent cishet white and male.

Being gay is used as an element of social derision at many points in this book, but that’s probably in keeping with the time this book is set in, but nobody is actually gay. Black characters are mostly only introduced as potential love interests and with a weird racialising tone in their descriptions, to a point they are objectified. At several points, I was left wondering how much of these descriptions had to find their way into this book to capture the racialised tone of the time, or if it could have been framed better. At least a counterbalance to the racialising inner monologue of our main characters would have been a welcome refreshment.

Florentino Arizo appears definitely as a love-stricken sex addict, who doesn’t even recoil from morally questionable affairs with people way younger than him. Fermina Daza appears as a somewhat unwilling wife and victim of cultural expectations of womanhood and Dr Juvenal Urbino seems to be basking in his glory and privilege without being conscious of said privilege.

The Writing & Themes

So neither the characters nor the plot managed to grasp my attention. What kept me from throwing this book aside. Well, aside from the weird feeling of obligation I felt to read this book, there was the writing. I really enjoyed many of the descriptions this book had to offer, ad I felt engrossed by the general mood this book managed to set.

This might just be a case, of “this is not the best book to start with for Gabriel García Márquez”, but it was disappointing to me that a well-written book like this fell down in the plot department. The writing manages to incorporate its themes so well, and the structure is thought out excellently, it feels just like a world you can dive into without trouble.

Thematically, this book sets out multiple different points. There’s the comparison of love as an illness, that is masterfully incorporated in the wordplay around cholera and the physical heat. This oppressive heat was almost recognisable on my skin as I turned the pages of this book.

There are a few other themes that struck me while reading. One of them is the environment. This probably fits in with the theme of illness, at least they are closely connected. The destruction of the natural beauty of the woodlands and mangroves, the dead fish swimming in the overfished lagoon and the sewage of the city itself go hand in hand with the dangers of the cholera epidemic that stays in the background for the entirety of the whole plot. Though there are probably even more themes in this book that a reader could find, and that I could talk about after closer inspection and maybe a second read.

Summary

I struggle to recommend this book. If you’re interested so far, you should definitely be okay with reading detailed descriptions of sex and even sex in, in my opinion, abusive situations. This is not an easy read, and it definitely isn’t a book that hides its gruesome elements, be they death or promiscuity and rape.

Other than that, if you enjoy love stories and stories that follow through the lives of others, this is definitely a book for you. Though if you’re just starting out with Gabriel García Márquez, I would maybe recommend starting with another book or even better with his short stories. I myself am not terribly familiar with Latin American culture and writing and I’ve been told there are better things out there, but I also have to concede that in all of Latin American Writing there will be parts lost on me, just because I’m generally not familiar with it.

Maybe these losses hurt my general view on this book, but still for me this was a so-so experience. I enjoyed the writing, themes and descriptions. I missed some nuance to the characters sometimes, but enjoyed how relatable if morally questionable they appear, but I could not give much praise to the plot and story of this book, which just was too much of a privileged love story, that reminded me a bit too much of the somewhat cliché German institution of Rosamunde Pilcher movies.

My last book review was Four Gods of Nature about Ann Leckie’s The Raven Tower. Up next probably a review of a non-fiction book: Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative?.
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Added the Gay in Post?

It’s been a while since I did one of these, but now with much further ado my next review of a song from early Eurovision. We’re still in 1956.

So let’s get started with this review of Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie sung by Mony Marc of Belgium properly. Le Plus Beau Jour De Ma Vie was the 10th song performed during the Grandprix Eurovision de la Chanson Européenne in 1956 and was the second entry for Belgium that night.

Despite the weird touch reminiscent of Chinese music the imitations of church bells, this melody starts out with, this song honestly tickles my fancy more than the winning song we talked about the last time. It at least feels more unique in this field of all too similar songs.

This song is obviously about the most beautiful day in the life of the singer. Talking about her wedding in the most cliched way possible. There’s not much that interests me beyond that face-value description, but I think I just enjoy the mood the melody sets out. Sadly this song is maybe a bit too straight for my liking. That’s why the art to the right rightfully ignores the talk about “lui” and “Prince Charmant”, and finds a way to make this into a lesbian wedding.

Maybe I’m just getting used to chanson-style songs over the course of this project. Maybe I’ve always enjoyed this genre, but I’m definitely not opposed to listening to it. And with this particular Belgian song, I’m just transported into a kitschy but beautifully nostalgic world – accompanied by a very clear voice.

There’s not much else to say about this song, nor is there much to say about its singer who has apparently kept herself out of the limelight of public attention.

As always I’ll leave you with the playlist of reviewed songs:

This is part 10 of my ESC-Reviews. If you want more feel free to check out my last one or check out my book reviews.

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