Here we are, back again with my monthly round-up on books I’ve read, those I’ve loved, and my highlights of some of those being published this month. I’ll be honest, it’s been a ridiculously hectic month – I am doing way WAY too much atm – so I haven’t been as prolific as usual with the reading. Which is a damn bloody shame as not only is my TBR pile ridiculously tall now, it’s also ridiculously high quality.
Below is a summary of what I’ve skimmed off the top this month – and what lies in wait still to be read…
What I’ve Read
This month I finally read the publishing sensation, Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi and, frankly, I’m glad I did as though this book wasn’t quite what I expected, it was, in fact, MILES better than my expectations and provided not just a fascinating insight into life in contemporary Baghdad, but also a fascinating examination of the complexity of human motivations – revenge and reunion, desperation and criminality, and the lure and corruption of power.
I had expected a somewhat contemporary wartime retelling of Mary Shelley’s classic but though there is an animated corpse comprised of body parts from many dead people here, this is more a novel about a cast of characters in a section of Baghdad who are trying to survive and even thrive in a city destroyed by war, invasion and a loss of hope and faith. Whether it’s the Iraqi journalist, the local police chief, the lonely old woman waiting for her son to return from war, or a local junk dealer who is privately assembling a macabre single body made up of body parts of those blown apart in suicide bombings, this is a novel about a community trying to adjust to the power vacuum around them, and the need for a hero many clamour for to take revenge in their name.
A quite extraordinary book; and so easy to read. It may not have won the Man Booker International prize it was shortlisted for, but it is well worth all the attention that surrounds it.
As you all know, my love for non-fiction remains as strong as my thirst for fiction and, this month, it’s been a phenomenal if sobering read. Roadmap to Hell: Sex, Drugs and Guns on the Mafia Coast by Barbie Latza Nadeau is an impressively researched but desperately depressing book that details how the refugee and migrant routes through North Africa and across the Mediterranean have been exploited by sex traffickers to kidnap tens of thousands of women every year from across Africa and bring them into sex slavery in Italy and across Europe. The book goes on to examine how the Nigerian gangs largely behind this have come to an uneasy understanding with the Italian mafia to continue this business to the profit of both, and how the endemic corruption and deeply entrenched misogyny and racism in Italy continues to enable this terrible criminal industry that is, literally, destroying black women.
The book is mightily impressive in its depth but also in its breadth too (despite being only 200 pages) in that Barbie also looks at how these modern slavery routes are now so well oiled that they are being used to bring in not just drugs and weapons to Europe, but also ISIS members and their sympathisers. I’ll never look at Italy in the same way again.
What’s Coming Out
The book dominating the publishing headlines this month is My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. I adored Eileen, Ottessa’s dark (DARK!) novel about one woman being lured into committing a terrible crime, and I’m certainly not expecting her follow-up to be much different in tone.
Here, it’s June 2000 in New York and we follow an unnamed woman whose parents are both dead (her mother from suicide) who is deeply depressed and tired of her boring and seemingly-pointless middle-class life, and who thinks the remedy for this is to put herself into a prescription drug-induced coma for twelve months to see if she can sleep it off and re-enter society a better person. “I’d be renewed, reborn… every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” The book is sold as a dark comedy – but also expect more than a few skewering observations on our consumerist lives and the influence of Big Pharma.
If there is one book competing for space with Ottessa, it is Suicide Club by Rachel Heng. This book is quickly becoming one of those growing by word of mouth. This one too is also set in New York but, rather than the past, we are in the near-future. Here, medical technology has progressed far enough that life expectancy now averages three hundred years. Immortality is now within society’s grasp – only, this will come at a price.
You see, immortality is only going to those the government deem worthy – ‘lifers’, they are termed. Those obsessed with exercise, yoga green juices and early nights. One of these is Lea, now one hundred years old. But a near-brush with death shocks Lea to the core, challenging her ideas of being able to live forever. After this, she decides to track down the Suicide Club, a group branded a terrorist organisation by the state who are fighting for the right to live – and die – as they choose.
Classic of the Month
Last month, I recommended Man Booker prize-winner Penelope Lively, and Man Booker is featuring heavily again this month both with Frankenstein in Baghdad above and in my recommendation for Classic of the Month: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James which won the prize back in 2015 and which remains one of the most ‘wow’ books I’ve read, and one that gives me hope that sometimes, just sometimes, the prize is awarded to the right authors.
Never has Jamaican culture and history been written as vividly as this. Ostensibly set around the attempted murder of Bob Marley in 1976, it follows a host of characters linked to this terrible crime to examine the poverty, violence and corruption of gang life in the Kingston ghettos, and the racism and imperialism of CIA interference in Jamaican politics and their attempts to destabilise and overthrow the socialist government of the time.
This book is violent, shocking and undeniably raw. But it is also the desperation of the lives that Marlon depicts that gives this book its power. It’s easy to trivialise this book as Tarantino-esque because of its casual violence, but this novel is far better than that; this is a stunning, visceral examination of corruption both personal and political.