We by Yevgeny Zamyatin review summary
book review, Books

Review: We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I pinky swear that the next book I review won’t be from the dystopian genre. I can promise that because I’m reading Normal People right now (absolutely hooked on that, by the way). Anyway, my fellow bookworms, here we are: a snappy review of We by Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin. Let’s do this.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Length: 226 pages

Publisher: Penguin Books

Other bits: this edition translated by Clarence Brown; first published in 1924 by E.P. Dutton Inc, translated by Gregory Zilboorg; Zamyatin lived in Newcastle upon Tyne for a time while working at the shipyards, overseeing the construction of icebreakers.

Synopsis

Zamyatin’s We is set in the twenty-sixth century AD in the OneState: a totalitarian society completely based on rationality and mathematics. This see-through city of straight lines and glass is ruled by the Benefactor and shielded from the natural world by a massive Green Wall – which becomes so prominent it feels like a character in its own right.

The OneState is inhabited not by citizens, but by numbers. I mean they’re human beings, but they’re called numbers; our protagonist is D-503 – that’s what the ‘ancients’ would have called his ‘name’.

D-503, like the other numbers of OneState, is marching through life devoid of passion and creativity when we meet him – but that all changes when he finds he’s come down with a terrible affliction: he has a soul. Oh dear.

My thoughts

When I say life in the OneState is regimented, I mean it. Everyone lives in strict adherence to The Table – a state-approved (and enforced) schedule where even free time and sex is pencilled in at the exact same time as the rest of the state. That’s kind of where the name of the novel comes from – there’s no I, no individuality, here. There is only the we, the collective, and deviating from that isn’t exactly an option. Totalitarian states aren’t too keen on that whole ‘freedom’ thing.

In this glass city of uniformity, freedom is seen by the overwhelming majority as something negative. It’s synonymous with unhappiness, and the Benefactor is indeed benevolent for having saved them from such unhappiness by providing the strictest rules and stripping back privacy and choice to their barest of bones.

None of those complications about good and evil: Everything is very simple, childishly simple – Paradise! The Benefactor, the Machine, the Cube, the Gas Bell, the Guardians: All those things represent good, all that is sublime, splendid, noble, elevated, crystal pure. Because that is what protects our nonfreedom, which is to say, our happiness.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

And to be quite honest, I’m certain that this blind adherence to and comfort in rules is something all governments want. Don’t get me wrong – we need laws and rules to function as a society – that’s something that happens wherever humans form communities, government or no. But we must always question authority and seek to hold those in power accountable.*

*Yes, I was a very stubborn child/teenager. Spare a thought for my parents.

One thing that really struck me was how, despite living in a world where having a soul is considered a terminal illness, the language employed by our narrator is beautiful:

On the corner in the white fog. Blood. Cut with a sharp knife. It was her lips.

We, Yevgeny Zamyatin

The language seems to become more poetic as the novel progresses, reflecting the D-503’s gradual realisation that he has such things as a soul, imagination, dreams, lust, love, and so on. As his world fills with these almost-extinct artefacts of humanity, the pages he writes become more vibrant, more passionate, more powerful in their expression. Until he’s forced to bring his account to an end, of course, but I won’t reveal anything about that. I hate spoilers myself.

Anyway, that’s it from me, ladies and gents. If you love dystopian literature, this one’s a must-read, not just because it inspired other greats and makes you, the read, think about your own freedoms and status as a citizen – but because it feels so timeless and is written (and translated) so well.

Have you read this piece of Russian literature? Tell me what you think!

-Kelly

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book review, Books, Living Abroad

Review: The Book of Newcastle

Well we are living in strange times, aren’t we booklings? In the spirit of staying positive during this rather surreal period in our lives, I’ve been filling my time with the following:

  • Reading more (duh)
  • Writing
  • Working on career things
  • Yoga
  • Learning to make pasta
  • Planting herbs (a spectacular failure thus far)

As you’ve probably already guessed, the reading and writing portion of that little list has a lot to do with today’s post. A couple of months ago, the lovely people at Comma Press got in touch and asked if I’d review their latest collection of short stories: The Book of Newcastle. Naturally, I said yes, because I love the Toon for becoming my home and really respect the awesome work Comma does as a not-for-profit indie publisher. Onward to the review!

The Book of Newcastle, ed. by Angela Readman & Zoe Turner

Genre: Urban/Short story

Length: 121 pages

Publisher: Comma Press

Other bits: features short fiction by Jessica Andrews, Julia Darling, Crista Ermiya, Chrissie Glazebrook, J. A. Mensah, Sean O’Brien, Angela Readman, Glynis Reed, Degna Stone, Margaret Wilkinson.

Synopsis

The Book of Newcastle forms part of a wider series aptly named ‘Reading the City’, and offers readers a curated snapshot of the city through ten distinctive literary voices. Each story features characters looking to carve out a space for themselves; somewhere where they can get reacquainted with some part of themselves or their past, and in doing so find some sense of comfort or peace in the present.

My thoughts

This fine collection of stories doesn’t just handle tragic tales; they capture, in vivid snapshots, that great northern spirit of resilience. Every protagonist we meet, however briefly, in this collection seems to be going through something – coming to terms with something beyond their control. This leitmotif seems to reflect the way this industrial powerhouse of a city has faced challenge after challenge, transformation after transformation, always ultimately making it through to the other side often stronger than before.

Some stories will grip you more tightly than others – but this is, of course, down to your particular tastes as a reader. That’s part of what I like about short stories; reading collections like this is an opportunity to discover genres, styles, and authors you wouldn’t typically approach as full-on novels. If I had to choose three favourites from this collection, they’d be: Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove by J. A. Mensah, Duck Race by Crista Ermiya, and Ekow on Town Moor by Degna Stone.

First up is J. A. Mensah’s vivid narrative inspired by a two-hour storm on 28th June 2012 – but not just any storm. This one devastated to 23,000 homes across Newcastle and cost roughly ÂŁ8 million in damage to residences, roads, and businesses all over the city.

There was nothing out of the ordinary about that day in June. It was another almost-summer’s day in Newcastle. Then it happened: rainwater fell and made rivers of the streets. Pulsing through the veins of the place, it entered drains and sewers. Flowing through pipes that led to toilet bowls and kitchen sinks, it revealed unseen connections as it entered people’s homes in a deluge of dirty water. The storm came, seemed like it might last forever and then vanished.

Thunder Thursday on Pemberton Grove, J. A. Mensah

The descriptions in this story are wonderfully vivid, and the author seems to use the narrative structure to mirror the physical structure of the Tyneside flats which actually emerge as protagonists in their own right as the narrative progresses. I love how the characters’ lives weave together, becoming one messy but wonderful tapestry by the end of it all.

Crista Ermiya’s piece, Duck Race, grabs us and puts us face to face with possibly one of the most awkward social situations you could think of: a weekend with your ex and his pregnant girlfriend. What?! Yes. Just imagine.

While they wait at the finishing line, Elle asks Chuck something that has been nagging at the back of her mind all weekend. She says, slowly, ‘Chuck, when you called to ask if you and Merel could stay this weekend, did you know then that Merel was pregnant?’

Duck Race, Crista Ermiya

But things are a hell of a lot more complicated than that. You really feel for these characters, starting from Elle, who has accidentally said ‘yes’ to hosting her ex and his girlfriend for the weekend, to the pregnant new girlfriend who likely feels that there’s an inside joke she’ll never get in on when it comes to the two lovers-turned-friends. You really feel for these characters. Elle and Chuck clearly still have residual feelings and perhaps hold on to hard conversations they never had, and as a reader you feel surprised that Elle isn’t angrier for what feels like Chuck’s lack of consideration for her feelings. ‘Hi, can my pregnant girlfriend and I come to stay for a weekend?’ Girl. No. Don’t do it. Why’d you do it? We want to reach into the story, hang out with Elle and drink gin with her until we talk her down from it all.

The last story in the collection was probably my favourite in terms of emotional intensity. Ekow on Town Moor focuses on three relationships – that between mother and son, man and self, man and world. For years, Ekow has used running as a way to centre himself and handle whatever life throws at him – but can he, should he, run away from the pain of losing a loved one?

The mist should have cleared by now but instead had turned into thick fog, and the city had almost disappeared from view. It was time to head home. He ran down the hill barely keeping his balance. He pushed harder until his heart started thumping against his ribs and it felt like it would burst. He wanted to keep running, didn’t want to return to his flat, didn’t want to go back to the hospice because he didn’t know what would face him when he did.

Ekow on Town Moor, Degna Stone

I enjoyed reading through such a diverse range of voices united in their passion for Newcastle, and would recommend this to anyone who’s lived here for any amount of time, be that a week, a month, or their whole lives. Getting to know the place you call home is essential, in my view, and reading about it is just one great part of that. The Book of Newcastle is in a word charming, and definitely worth your time.

-Kelly

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The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa review
book review, Books

Review: The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

I think I’ve recovered enough from the devastating effects of this beautiful novel to finally share my review with you guys. I mean, I’m going to do my best, but this incredible piece of fiction just does so much with such a gentle touch that I barely know where to begin. Here we go.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Length: 288 pages

Publisher: Harvill Secker

Other bits: translated by Stephen Snyder; 2019 National Book Award finalist; New York Times 100 Notable Books of the Year

Synopsis

There’s a nameless island somewhere in a nameless sea where things – and sometimes, people – disappear. It starts off small, with things like hats and ribbons. Then a little bigger, as inhabitants are forced to say goodbye to birds, roses, even books. And the Memory Police are there to *ahem* oversee the disappearances. But there are some who can’t forget, and that fact alone puts them and their loved ones in danger.

When a young novelist learns that her editor and friend, R, is at risk of being picked up by the Memory Police, she comes up with a plan to keep him safe right under the floorboards of her home. As the world around them seems to fall away one day at a time, they hold on tighter than every to her writing as a lifeline to the past and their own existence.

My thoughts

In a word: devastating. One of those rare books that whack you so hard over the head with the feels that you need a week or so to recover emotionally before getting into your next read. Ogawa’s novel traverses a wide range of themes, but if I had to describe the whole book in a teeny tiny nutshell I’d say it’s a perfect narrative representation of loss in its myriad forms.

We’re dropped into life on this unnamed island where right away, something just isn’t right. You can feel it. Maybe you can’t put your finger on it, but something’s definitely off.

The island is stirred up after a disappearance. People gather in little groups out in the street to talk about their memories of the thing that’s been lost. There are regrets and a certain sadness, and we try to comfort one another. If it’s a physical object that has been disappeared, we gather the remnants up to burn, or bury, or toss into the river. But no one makes much of a fuss, and it’s over in a few days.

The Memory Police

As you settle into what you’ll soon discover is quite an unsettling novel, you’ll realise that this is the same “can’t put my finger on it” sense of unease that the characters experience whenever something is disappeared from the island.

Disappeared from the island? What? Huh?

Enter, the Memory Police. Men in sharp uniforms with even sharper jawlines and zero mercy. When something disappears, most of the inhabitants dispose of and forget about that thing without much thought; but there are some islanders who don’t forget the things that the Memory Police disappear. And that very fact puts a target on their backs.

The narrative contains a story-within-a-story; the protagonist is herself a writer in the middle of a novel about a young typist who loses her voice. This sub-narrative becomes entangled with her life, starting off as a gentle love story and mutating into something far more sinister as things go from bad to worse in her world and more things – and people – are disappearing.

Above all, this is a story about loss. Loss of people from our lives, be it through death or distance, loss of memory, loss of things to the wear and tear that comes with time; loss of entire body parts, loss of movement, loss of liberty.

So…yeah. Please read this book. It’ll ruin you for a week, then you won’t be able to stop talking about it for ages.

-Kelly

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
book review, Books

Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

It feels appropriate and a little serendipitous that I should ‘celebrate’ my subtle rebranding of this blog (we’re going to be a little less ‘all over the place’ and more ‘books’ from now on, kids) with this: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. Holy shit do I have a treat for you.

Margaret Atwood The Testaments

Before we dive in, let’s do a quick recap of The Handmaid’s Tale. I first read it circa 2009 when I should have been revising for my A-levels, but naturally, I kept finding better things to do. I devoured that novel in two short days. Even now, as I type this, it’s as fresh in my mind as it was the day I read the last few words on the very last page. And that was more than 10 years ago.

The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. If she deviates, she will, like dissenters, be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. But even a repressive state cannot obliterate desire – neither Offred’s nor that of the two men on which her future hangs.

Brief synopsis from The Handmaid’s Tale

To say this book had an impact on me would be a bit of an understatement, but neither one of us has all day. It helped me to understand and appreciate just how easily our rights – not just women’s rights, by the way – could be snatched away with the flourish of a pen in a room filled with privileged men. It’s our duty to guard the freedoms so hard-won by those who came and suffered before us.

Basically, I think it’s essential reading, especially if you’re interested in:

  • Speculative/dystopian fiction
  • Politics and equal rights/feminism
  • Totalitarian societies with a generous splash of religious fanaticism

Moving swiftly on.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Dystopian fiction

Length: 432 pages

Publisher: Chatto & Windus/Vintage

Other bits: Sunday Times #1 Best Seller, shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize

Synopsis

Set some 15 years after The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrative unfolds through the stories of three very different characters living at a pivotal time during the Gileadean regime. Things aren’t as solid as they seem in the first book; everything seems to be barely held together with chewing gum. The witness testimonies of two young women are joined by a third, older voice, belonging to one of Gilead’s key founding figures: Aunt Lydia.

Dear Readers: Everything you’ve ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we’ve been living in.

Margaret Atwood

It reads ‘easy’ in the sense that the prose flows beautifully and keeps you just hungry enough to get to the next word, page, chapter, story. But there’s nothing easy about the harrowing and at time heartbreaking details of what these women had to experience, witness, or even do.

My thoughts

I love how we get a closer, unflinching look at Aunt Lydia, one of the founding members of Gilead who we’ve only seen through Offred’s eyes thus far. This time, instead of seeing here purely as a stoic symbol of woman-on-woman oppression, Aunt Lydia is armed with a pen and set to tell her own story. We find out how she got there and what has to happen to a person to make them do things they would never have even considered back in their normal lives.

We get a closer look at what it’s like for girls growing up in Gilead – what kind of education do they get? How are the children of handmaids treated or viewed by society? What are the rules and rituals surrounding marriage? Delving deeper into the mythology of Gilead is a fascinating ride, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not one to give you spoilers. But be prepared to be very pissed off.

The ending? I loved it. Satisfying, although I did predict some parts of the resolution along the way – that doesn’t bother me much, but I do know that’s a pet peeve for some readers. Anyway, the ending: tantalizing enough to leave you wanting more, but we get the answers we need.

It’s more important than ever that we read and share stories like this one. That we stay vigilant when it comes to the rights we’ve won and yet remain, it seems, at the mercy of another entitled white male’s signature. Take what’s happening under Trump’s presidency, with Planned Parenthood. Or my home country, Malta, where women were – until relatively recently – denied so much as the morning-after pill, called sluts, murderers, and worse for wanting a say in what happens to their bodies. This is not fiction. This is happening.

History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Margaret Atwood

And it’s not just about women’s rights. All our rights, no matter who you are or where you live, are about as permanent as the paper they’re printed on. Rip it up. Change a law. Add new laws. Close a clinic. Send in the military. Decide who’s allowed to read and write. Decide who can have a voice. It doesn’t happen all at once, you guys. It’s a slow burn. Before you know it, the whole house is on fire. Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum.

-Kelly

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book review caitlin moran how to be a woman
Books, review, thoughts

#CurrentlyReading: How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran

book reviews

If you know me, you’ll know that I have something of an addiction to books. I own roughly 350 books spread across 4 bookshelves around my house, and I have absolutely no intention of stopping until I get my own Beauty and the Beast style library. Am I asking for too much? Possibly. Will I give up? Unlikely. Anyway, unhealthy obsession aside – I’m starting a series of blog posts called #CurrentlyReading – essentially book reviews before I’ve finished the book, just because the book in question is just too damn good to wait (or  too terrible to continue).

caitlin moran how to be a woman

To kick off this literary love-affair, I’m excited to share Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman, published in 2011 by Ebury Press.  I first heard about Moran through one of my favourite BookTubers (Leena from JustKissMyFrog), and put her on my to-read list along with another 20 or so books. I completely forgot that I wanted to buy How to Be a Woman until I saw it at Blackwell’s in Newcastle (also known as my second personal nirvana after Waterstones) and quickly snapped it up before my little brain could forget again. I am now hooked. This book is part-memoir, part-humour, and 100%  pure wit. She takes us through her own life, from awkward childhood through to impossible puberty and that mysterious thing called Womanhood in a seemingly effortless thread of questions, like:

  • Why do women get Brazilians?
  • Do we have to get Brazilians?
  • Why is everyone asking me about babies?
  • Why is everyone asking me about my love life?
  • Why is everyone getting married?
  • What about porn?
  • Why do bras hurt?
  • Is there a better name for ‘the vagina’?
  • What are the worst names for ‘the vagina’?
  • What’s this ‘fashion’ thing?
  • Children?!

And so on and so forth, hilariously mingled with Moran’s very relatable personal anecdotes. I rarely laugh-out-loud when reading, but this one has had me snorting cappuccino out of my nose in the most unattractive way possible. One of the blurbs on the cover is from Grazia and describes the book as, “The book EVERY woman should read.” Quite frankly I’d like to take this further and say anyone who is or indeed knows a woman should read it, even if it’s just for the laughs. We do our best learning when we’re laughing anyway. I like to think so, at least.

Let me know if you’ve read this book or anything else by Caitlin Moran in a comment below! What are your thoughts? Is this something you’d read?

-Kelly

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top 10 books to read
Books, Lists of Love

Top 10 Books on my To-Read List

As a self-confessed book-hoarder, bookworm, and bibliophile, having an out-of-control list of books I want to read is a part of the job. Another thing we book-fiends revel in is talking, writing, and gushing about books until we hear the gentle click of the kettle as it comes to a boil. Enough chit chat – on to the books!

1 | Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

I’m utterly obsessed with vikings and Norse mythology, and I think Neil Gaiman is just fantastic. When I hit Waterstones in Newcastle and saw this beautiful hardback edition of a book that merged those two things together, I just had to have it.

2 | Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest

Now this is actually a collection of poems by English spoken-word poet, Kate Tempest. I only really started to appreciate poetry when I was reading for my degree in English, but since then I’ve more than made up for it by making time to read good poetry, especially by writers who are still alive and kicking today.

3 | Event by Slavoj Zizek

Slavoj Zizek is a brilliant philosopher who, yes, I discovered at university but want to learn more about. Enter Event. 

4 | The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

After falling hopelessly in love with The Great Gatsby and dealing with the inevitable book-hangover that followed, I’m ready for my next dose of Fitzgerald. Let’s say it – the man has a knack for badass titles.

5 | A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes

A colleague of mine with excellent taste in books recommended this to me, and I’m going to trust her completely on this.

6 | The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

Shame on me for not having read this already, I know. I’m sorry, please forgive me. But I’m here now, and I’m ready to enter Discworld.

7 | Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of those writers who make you feel like you’re sitting down for a chat with your ridiculously good-humoured friend who’s also casually clever.

8 | East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This one is one of the heavier reads that I challenged myself to read a year ago. Ish. I’ve obviously failed. But I love John Steinbeck and will consider this blog post a promise that I will read it this year. Hold me to it, guys.

9 | Underworld London by Catharine Arnold

I love a bit of history – especially when it’s mixed in with some gritty crime. The full title is Underworld London: Crime and Punishment in the Capital City. Need I say more?

10 | The Elder Edda translated by Andy Orchard

Ah, we end where we began – with norse mythology! The Elder Edda is a collection of anonymous, Old Norse poems alive with the culture and history of the people who created them. It was actually one of the texts that inspired J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, so it gets my vote twice.

Have you read any of these? Let me know what you thought in a comment below.

Until next time!

Kelly

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