Book Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

blogging, book blogger, book blogging, books, fantasy, fucking beautiful, fucking tragic, history, must read, reviews, slavery

Underground Railroad

5_star_rating_system_4_stars1

Anyone paying attention to my weekly reading rundowns of late will know that October and November weren’t exactly stellar reading months. I can’t even remember when I started The Underground Railroad but it was at least the beginning of October. I only finished it last week. Admittedly, I took a quick beak in between so I could read And Then There Were None but still. It took me fucking ages. Not because I didn’t enjoy the book but because I’m such a terrible reader. It’s been a couple of months of work madness and illness. The kind of nights when I’d settle down to read only for my eyes to immediately start to droop. I genuinely never thought I was going to get through it. But I persevered. I mean I had to. This was ‘THE’ book of 2016 and we’re nearing the end of 2017. I couldn’t leave it any longer. Although, having still not read loads of my most anticipated reads of the last 2 years, I could have guessed it was going to be a struggle. One day I’ll learn how real book bloggers do it and get through multiple books a week. Though, I suspect to do that I’d have to give up work. Although, after the day I’ve had, I wouldn’t be dead against that idea.

I’ve not read anything by Colson Whitehead before so I wasn’t really sure what to expect here. I mean I’d heard nothing but amazing things from it and it was near the top of basically every best books list of 2016. Plus, any book that was endorsed by Barack Obama is probably going to be worth checking out, right? It also sounded really amazing; a strange mix of history and fantasy/science fiction that is based on the abolition of slavery. Surely if there was any book that was going to grab someone’s attention then it’s that. Whitehead takes the narrative that we all know and gives it a new spin. The underground railroad was, as we all know, a metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped slaves escape their captivity. In The Underground Railroad that concept becomes a fully-fledged network of rail tracks that span for miles deep underground. It is both a simple and brilliant idea that manages to bring a sense of wonder and magic to such a harrowing subject.

We are taken on our underground journey along with slave Cora who is encouraged to escape from her vicious owner by a fellow slave, Caesar. The pair find themselves running for their lives and placing their safety in the hands of strangers. After a tense wait, they are quickly ferried away in a rickety old boxcar to start their new lives. The train leaves intermittently so any fleeing slaves are forced to wait and see what their future holds. As they travel between new communities and try to forget the past, the pair are being pursued by a ruthless slave catcher, Ridgeway, who has a personal vendetta with Cora. Or, at least, her mother. Years earlier Cora was abandoned when her mother, Mabel, escaped from the same plantation. Ridgeway was unable to track her down and it is a failure that has haunted him ever since. He vows to make amends by capturing her daughter and returning her to her rightful owner. There is an unending sense of doom throughout this novel even as Cora steams ahead on her journey. It always seems highly unlikely that she will ever be free.

Despite how long it took me, The Underground Railroad was a fantastic read. Whitehead’s prose is beautiful and his descriptions of the railroad itself are spectacular. He has a rare ability to mix fact with fiction without ever ruining the sense of realism. You know there is a lot of artistic license at play here but there is such a strong undercurrent of fact that it always feels possible. The novel isn’t so much of an exploration of slavery and American history as it is a way to recapture the history of slavery. One of the key ideas within the novel is how people remember certain events or, in most cases, remember incorrectly. The topic of black history is so often taken over by white people. It is their description of events that make up the foundation of the past. Whitehead is taking back the history of the black American struggle not by faithfully reconstructing it but by representing it incorrectly. And it is all the more effective and memorable.

My only issue, if I had to admit to one, isn’t actually one to do with the novel itself. I’ve read a lot of reviews praising Colson Whitehead for not holding back. As one review describes he “opens his eyes where the rest of us would look away”. I guess he does but I can’t say that I really found the things he was saying that different to any other slave narratives; I mean aside from the fantastical elements. The novel does a great job of highlighting the plight of the slave and the danger of escaping the clutches of an evil plantation owner. However, it isn’t breaking new ground. Whilst I was studying for my Postgraduate degree I did a module on empire and race in the Romantic period so I had to read a fair few first hand accounts of people who were kidnapped and sold as slaves. The Underground Railroad is, for the most part, just another account like this but, really, less realistic. A lot of people I’ve seen on Instagram have said this was a difficult read because it was so harrowing: I have to disagree. I think, for the most part, the violence is underplayed or glossed over.

I’m not saying it’s a bad novel or not worth reading but I can’t agree with the people who believe it is breaking down boundaries. It’s not the happiest read but it’s also not the most gratuitous. Not that I’d want it to be torture porn or anything. It handles the conditions of slavery with a deft hand and that’s a good thing. However, it is in no way a comparison to the real-life accounts you could read. What Whitehead does it open a dialogue about slavery and the the reaction to race in the modern world. His themes are all very relevant today and throughout history. You can see it in the way he alludes to classic literature and modern events. He uses the backdrop of slavery and one young woman’s situation to show us a deeper truth. But it’s not a truth about slavery. That’s been available to see for years… just not written inside a novel.

The Bees By Laline Paull‎

anthropomorphic, bees, books, dancing, fantasy, fucking beautiful, review, sci-fi
We’re into the third month of the year and I’m still incredibly far behind my Penguinspiration target of 30. Although, I have just got through 2 more and am well on the way with a third so I might actually get there by 2017 or something. Recently, despite all my best efforts, I caved and bought a handful of the Penguin Little Black Classics because they cost 80 fucking pence each. They’re all pretty tiny so I’m hoping I can cheat a little and count them as 1 each. Anyway, as I mentioned, I’ve just finished a couple of books and, with the announcement regarding the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist recently I was overjoyed to discover that one of the books was on it. I’m never this ahead of the times. I feel quite proud. So I thought I’d talk about it.

Nowadays, I do most of my reading on my lunch-break from work, which clearly explains why I’m doing such a tiny fucking amount. As I’m sure my fellow readers will know from first-hand experience, this means I’m constantly being interrupted by people asking me what I’m reading. Whilst this is one of the most irritating things known to mankind, I’m never one to miss the chance to talk about books. When trying to describe Laline Paull’s The Bees I was met with much mocking and it was nothing to do with Nicolas Cage for once. It was because every time I tried to describe it I’d make it sound like a fucking children’s book.
As the title suggests, this is a book about bees: one specific bee really, Flora 717. She is supposedly meaningless sanitation worker; the lowest of the low. However, Flora 717 stands out in more ways than one. She’s bigger than her sisters and is the only worker of her class to be able to talk. One of the mysterious Sage priestesses spots Flora’s potential and sees that she is reassigned to help feed the newborns. It is the first step on a never-seen-before rise through the ranks that leads the poor bee to discover things both great and world-shattering.
Despite the titular bees having an unusual predisposition to communicate in English, Paull’s novel starts off with a very strong and scientific feel about it. I enjoyed the initial pages describing Flora’s birth and introduction to hive life; they didn’t feel too gimmicky or Beatrix Potter-y. Slowly things start to get weirder and the anthropomorphising gets a little more serious. When the bees are described as eating pastries and pitchers of nectar then it started to feel a little silly and harder to justify to my sceptical co-workers.
It’s a tiny but infuriating thing about this book: everything is so close to being perfect. There are just odd little moments or occurrences that just stand out. The supposedly insignificant human embellishments on hive society that stick out like a fucking sore thumb. I’d have been much happier if Paull had stuck to her more factual descriptions. It’s clear that a lot of research went into the novel and it seems fucking stupid to dilute all that with a load of twee descriptions of bees acting like human beings.
These slight misses can be seen throughout the book: with similar lapses being visible in the plot and characterisation. There are so many random events and unusual decisions made just so Flora can get to where she needs to be for the narrative to work. For the first half of the book at least, Flora feels less like a character and more like a vapid narrative tool. Everything is circumstantial and the narrative is annoyingly episodic rather than flowing.
However, Paull’s writing is fucking beautiful regardless of this. The prose envelops your senses in much the same way as the Queen’s Love hypnotises her loyal daughters. The description of Flora’s first few flights in her new role as forager are, frankly, breathtaking. From the second Flora gains her freedom we start to see her fleshing out. The scenes within the Dance Hall where she communicates direction and key foraging spots are full of joy. She finally has purpose and desires.
The second half of the book is almost at odds with the first and becomes more akin to the publisher’s desire to create “Watership Down for the Hunger Games generation”. With her newly found independence from the hive mind kicking in, Flora is able to see beyond the Queen’s Love and uncover a disastrous secret. The Beessuddenly becomes Watership Downmeets fucking John LeCare or some shit.
However, there are still unanswered questions here: the plot still feels fractured and unsure of itself. The political thriller at the centre of Flora’s story is less clear than the spotlight Paull places on social and racial difference. There are so many oddities that are just unexplained: why is Flora so special for fuck’s sake? It leaves the reader a little bewildered and attempts to compensate by mixing them up in too much drama and action to notice.
I don’t wish to give the impression that I disliked The Bees because I didn’t: I fucking loved it. I loved it from the moment I read the plot summary on the dust jacket. As a debut, it paves the way for a strong future and, despite it’s insect-based setting, speaks to its audience on many familiar levels. It’s hardly necessary to point out that the strict class system, scenes of unadulterated violence and the devotion to an almost unseen ruler all reflect real-world totalitarian states. Nor does it seem worthy to waste time commenting on the importance of gender within the narrative, the book has often been compared to The Handmaid’s Tale for good reason.

Despite all of this good stuff, I can’t help but wish it had been better: perhaps shorter, less playful in areas and more defined in terms of plot. It didn’t blight my enjoyment per se but I found my attention drifting through parts and waiting for the action to pick up again. Although, it did increase my fascination for bees: they sound fucking awesome. 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014)

Benedict Cumberbatch, CGI, dragon, fantasy, Luke Evans, meh, Middle Earth, Peter Jackson, review, Tolkien
600x600bb_10__08100.1578192190Watching The Hobbit trilogy has felt a bit like Christmas dinner. The first course is absolutely delicious and you come away satisfied and hungry for more. By the time the second one gets under way, you realise you’re getting fuller and could probably have made do with some smaller portions. Then comes the dreaded final course. After the first two you’ve had so much fucking food you might burst but then someone brings out the Christmas pudding. You know you don’t need it but you eat your portion anyway and spend the rest of the day, uncomfortably full, half regretting you’re decision. It’s all lovely in itself but together it’s just too much.

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

books, fantasy, George RR Martin, meh, review, Tolkien

On one of my random lunchtime bookshop trips I found this beauty on sale for half price and decided to pick up a copy. I thought I’d heard about it from someone on YouTube but, after some research, I’m pretty sure that I was mistaking it for another book. Nevertheless, I found myself at the starting point of a few uninspiring novels and, after being excited by the writing in the final sentence of the first page, I started my journey.

Half a King is fantasy writer Joe Abercrombie’s first foray in the ever growing world of Young Adult Fantasy. It is the first in the Shattered Sea trilogy and Abercrombie introduces us to Yarvi, Prince of Gettland, who, thanks to a disability since birth, has remained an outsider in a kingdom that values strength over all else. Just as Yarvi is on the cusp of giving up his right to the throne he is informed that both his father and elder brother have been killed, forcing him to take the Black Throne. Before Yarvi is able to get his head around his new position he finds himself betrayed; his chair stolen from under him whilst he is sold into slavery. What follows is his bull-headed quest for freedom and ultimate revenge.
Abercrombie, like many fantasy authors, is clearly trying to build on some of George RR Martin’s success and plays the Tyrion Lannister card with his hero Yarvi. Unable to rely on the physical prowess that both his father and brother have in spades, the young Prince has spent years moulding his mind and training for the Ministry. Yarvi is an interesting character and his growth along his journey is certainly something worth following. He has something of an everyman quality about him and is somebody that readers would definitely sympathise and identify with.
However, I have to question Abercrombie’s inclusion of the disability. For the most part it only figures as a way for the writer to further the plot and create the correct environment for the narrative to work. Throughout his journey Yarvi becomes a stronger and more self-confident leader but there is never any real acceptance of his physical impairment. There is a slight hint that he becomes less bothered by other people’s response to it but he still lets it control his life. I’d much rather there had been a moment of utter acceptance where, like Tyrion Lannister advises in Game of Thrones, Yarvi is able to “wear it like armour”. Instead it becomes nothing more than a dull and unnecessary literary device from a writer unwilling to look deeper to give his main character flaws.
This is a problem I see throughout Half a King: it just doesn’t go far enough. There is very little character development except in the group Yarvi spends the majority of his time. The novel is narrated from Yarvi’s point of view so the only understandings we have of people are the often childish insights he offers us. We learn some of their history but hear nothing of their drive or dreams beyond what they tell Yarvi, which, in order to move the plot forward, is very little. None of these characters really exist in their own right and are only included to move Yarvi’s story forward instead of participate. The desire to keep the plot moving forward has led Abercrombie to ignore any of the pesky but desirable exposition and deeper exploration of the people he is presenting to us.
Now I realise that in terms of good fantasy we have been spoiled by the like of Tolkien and George RR because of their unfailing conviction to the world they create. I mean these writers both immersed themselves, their characters and, most importantly, their readers in a rich and ancient world with its own languages, customs and complicated geography. Abercrombie takes very little time within the novel to develop the ideas of the world he has created. We get a sense of the Viking-like people and their focus on war but, other than the brief stops Yarvi’s ship makes when he is enslaved, we don’t get to see much of the wider world. We get references to the history thanks to the elf-ruins the group come across but, as with so many parts of the story, these are forgotten about as quickly as they are introduced. I can only hope that Abercrombie is opening up the world in his future novels because without any amount of depth there is little to keep the reader engrossed in this setting.
Now I realise this all sounds very negative but I did find myself wanting to finish this book. The reason that so many of these areas are underdeveloped is because Abercrombie is so focused on ensuring that the plot is continually moving forward. I guess that is my one criticism of both Tolkien and George RR: the pair is known to keep their heroes from reaching their destination with whatever distractions that they could find. Half a King is fast-paced and always moving towards its ultimate goal with the same tenacity and blind-sightedness of its main character. It is a positive that means the novel is an easy read that keeps the reader involved.
Abercrombie has a gift for description and some of his imagery is beautiful.  It is also the first time I have experienced such decent action sequences in a written work. As much as I enjoyed the ASOIAFseries so far I have to say that Martin’s skill doesn’t exactly lie in his fight sequences or battles. Half a King doesn’t include a great number of heavy action sequences but those that do arise are handled pretty deftly by the writer. They are drawn with care and attention and are planned out to ensure a lack of confusion for the reader.
Ultimately, Half a King is a good read if a little unadventurous. The novel was just never going to live up to the hype surrounding Abercrombie’s first YA novel. Despite the excellent writing on display, there are obvious flaws. It is annoyingly simplistic, perhaps a consequence of the different audience. I think for most of my reading I imagined Yarvi as a much younger child than he was meant to be because his actions and thoughts seem so childish. If it weren’t for the moments of violence I would have genuinely believed I was reading a book meant for pre-teens. Even the story is less complicated than I think the audience deserved and the so-called ‘surprising’ plot-twist became obvious about half-way into the novel.
Of course this could all just the curse of the first in a series. Without a doubt this is a solid foundation for Abercrombie’s future novels and there are several plot points that were hinted at that could create some exciting work. The slow introduction of Christianity above the multiple ancient Gods is something that was occasionally hinted at so I’m hoping Abercrombie has a plan for this development later. However, there are certain things that he would need to work on whilst continuing. I can only hope that there is more depth to the two further novels of the Shattered Sea series.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

books, captivating, fantasy, fucking beautiful, mental illness, review

I first read about this book on Huffington Post months ago and I spent weeks searching every bookshop to track down a copy. Of course I could have just clicked a few buttons on a certain website but I’m trying to avoid it. By the time I actually found a copy IRL I was too far into The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August to finally sink my teeth in. Suffice it to say that I powered through that novel in order to finally read the book I’d been desperate to get my hands on. Every day beforehand, I was drawn to the beautiful, metallic cover art and prayed it would be as delightful as it sounded.

Rene Denfeld has spent the majority of her life working with the men convicted of serious crimes. In her first work of fiction, The Enchanted, she draws upon her experiences as a death row investigator to tell the story of a rundown American prison. Narrated by a nameless inmate, it brings together the interweaving stories of the many inmates and employees. The most prominent of these being the connected stories of York, a convict ready to face his fate; the lady, an investigator hired to get him off; and the disgraced priest she is drawn to and who is secretly falling in love with her.

The Enchanted is, without a doubt, a fucking beautifully written book. Denfeld is able to use the English language in such an mind-boggling way that even the horrific events that are being described seem wondrous. There is plenty of room to make comparisons with Alice Sebold and The Lovely Bones and the overall effect of the novel is equally haunting. Denfeld’s lyrical prose is some of the most exciting work I’ve read in a long time. I finished it a few days ago and I’ve already lost count of the people I’ve tried to force to read it. Seriously I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m fucking obsessed. 

Our narrator is an avid reader who uses the scant selection of books available to him to escape his current situation and the events that led to his incarceration. He finds the freedom that he both cannot achieve and cannot handle within the work of these author’s. Our convict has further removed himself from the atrocities of prison life by establishing himself in a fantastical world where golden horses run free, small men hammer in the walls and flibber gibbets feed off the warmth of death. Don’t worry if this all sounds a bit Roald Dhal to you: The Enchanted is kind of a mix between One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Green Mile.

The narrator uses his deep understanding of human nature and his handy omniscience to analyse the behaviour of the other inhabitants of the prison. Most importantly the convicted killer York who has agreed to give up his fight for reprieve and is ready to die. Unfortunately, the lady has been hired to do exactly the opposite of that. Through her investigation, the lady looks back over both York and her own difficult upbringings and asks the question of what determines the kind of person we will turn out to be. Her personal experiences allow her to see the person behind the horrible crime and understand some of the factors that push people into such despicable acts.

The Enchanted introduces us to that moral grey area between good and bad and asks the reader to decide who they should sympathise with. There is humanity amongst those who are guilt of carrying out the most inhumane acts and, vice versa, those in positions of power are easily corrupted. The Enchanted is dealing with identity and reality: the parts of themselves that people show and the parts that they keep hidden. Both the narrator and the lady have the ability to see beyond an unpleasant exterior and find the story and beauty hidden underneath.

Denfeld introduces us to some contemptible people and holds a mirror up to a corrupt and dangerous world of prison life. However, through her enthralling prose she shows us that there are two sides to every story.  We discover that no matter how clear someone’s tale may seem there is always something lurking beneath the surface to change everything. Nobody’s story is complete. Even stuck in the dark, damp dungeon, our narrator is able to use his imagination to transcend his miserable existence and become part of something exquisite. Once I’d entered the enchanted world I didn’t exactly find myself in a hurry to leave it.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch, CGI, dragon, fantasy, Martin Freeman, Middle Earth, motion capture, Orlando Bloom, Peter Jackson, review, Tolkien

The Hobbit came out last year amid great despair that it wasn’t a fitting adaptation of Tolkien’s loved children’s fantasy. As you may recall, I loved it and thought the real-time Dwarf dinner would have been exactly how Tolkien would have envisioned a film version of his simple tale. I was filled with excitement for the second instalment as soon as I stepped out of the cinema that first time but, thanks to the pressures of Christmas and a shortage of staff at work, I was left to wait until last week to view it. With the state of mind I was in, Peter Jackson would have had to do something horrific for me not to be even slightly impressed. Particularly when one of my many great loves, Benedict Cumberbatch, was the sexy voice of Smaug the dragon.

The Hobbit (2012)

Andy Serkis, fantasy, Martin Freeman, Middle Earth, motion capture, Peter Jackson, Tolkien
241899id8_TheHobbit_Intl_BILBO_27x40_KEYART.indd(I found it hard to try and maintain an objective view whilst writing this as I openly admit to falling in love with this film (is that possible? Hell if people in Japan can marry video game characters I can love a film) from the opening sequence. Apologies for any gushing praise that may infiltrate this piece… although not really because, as we all know, “love means never having to say you’re sorry”.)