Tumanbay by John Dryden

The wonderful audio drama Tumanbay has returned for another series to BBC Radio 4. Here is my review of Series 1, which first appeared on my What Big Ears blog. You can listen to both series on BBC iPlayer or on iTunes.

If you want to know more about the real Mamluks, BBC Radio 4’s In our Time has a great episode on them (also on iTunes).

I haven’t got to Series 2 of Tumanbay yet but I’m looking forward to a binge-listen soon!

 

What Big Ears

tumanbayBBC Radio 4
Series – 10 episodes

In the Mamluk sultanate of Tumanbay, there is a sense of impending danger. The fearsome armies of Queen Maya are on the march, and her spies are believed to be everywhere in the walled city. There is constant suspicion in the city and the court.

Tumanbay is a society built by former slaves. The wise among them know their lives are contingent, that all they’ve achieved can be taken away. Their struggle is relentless, even – especially – if they are at the top. Nothing is as it seems and power is constantly shifting between competing factions. Torture and shame await those who fail.

This is wonderful drama, full of twists and moral ambiguity. There is a large cast, but the characters are vivid and distinctive so you soon know where you are, if not who to believe. There is Gregor, played by Rufus…

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The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

the heart goes last margaret atwoodYou know how in novels we generally get to follow the heroic ones? And by extension to imagine ourselves in that position, being heroic? Atwood turns that on its head in this satire. Charmaine just wants everything to be clean and nice. Stan wants things to work out, for once. They want life to be simple. Like most of us.

At the beginning of the novel they’re living out of their car, having lost their jobs and their home after yet another financial crisis. Life is bleak and frightening, but they are offered a chance of escape. A prison has long been seen as the saviour of a deprived community, bringing with it secure and well-paid jobs. Consilience is an innovation. If prisons needs communities and communities need prisons, why not have a place where people are both? One month inmate, the next citizen. The only catch, they have to sign up for life, and once in, there is no way out.

In Consilience, Stan and Charmaine get to live every other month in a pastel, idealised, 1950s kind of a world, drenched in the positive thinking of modern corporate life (‘Shout out for the Brussels Sprouts team!’). Stan and Charmaine are safe and well fed and happy to play by the rules. And yet –

This book is bright and fast and funny but behind the humour it’s bursting with ideas. And that title. What a great title.

View The Heart Goes Last on Goodreads

Enjoyed this? Take a look at The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

the woman upstairs by claire messudIt’s not unusual to develop a crush on an entire family. It’s one of the rites of passage of adolescence, to fall not just for a person but the people who love them, the home that embraces them, their shared rituals and beliefs. You glimpse the promise of another way to live.

However, Nora, the protagonist in The Woman Upstairs, is not an adolescent. She is a professional woman in her forties, eaten up with bitterness and disappointment over the way her life has turned out. She wanted to be an artist, instead she’s a teacher, living alone. When she is befriended by Sirena, a professional artist, she sees everything that she is not. Sirena is a charismatic outsider. She also has a successful husband and an intelligent, attractive child.

Nora is an intriguingly untrustworthy narrator. She tells us she hasn’t led the life she wants. She has been nice and compliant, as a woman should be – but she doesn’t sound nice at all. She never had the chances she deserved – but then she describes opportunities that she turned down. She says she’s a good teacher because she has the open worldview of a child, yet her art is rigidly controlled.

Even as we see Sirena and her family through Nora’s eyes, we get a sense that their lives are not as idyllic as she suggests. Sirena faces her own challenges, as a woman and as an artist.

At the beginning of the book, Nora describes her life as like a hall of mirrors. Behind every mirror is another mirror. There is no end. The narration, like the hall of mirrors, constantly turns back on itself and challenges the reader’s perceptions.

From Nora’s personal relationships to her art to her memories, everything about her both illuminates and undermines the central question of how she came to be where she is now. Even at the end of the novel, when Nora appears to reach a resolution, you’re not sure whether to believe her.

View The Woman Upstairs on Goodreads

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin translated by Megan McDowell

Fever Dream by Samanta SchweblinTwo people are in a hospital. Amanda is feverish and believes she is near death. David is a boy who is not her son. David is pushing her to recount the events that led up to her illness.

She tells a story of her family and his. It begins as an innocent holiday friendship but has a sinister undertone. David’s mother tells Amanda that her son fell ill before they met, apparently due to exposure to something in the environment. She is convinced that she lost his soul when his body recovered, that this was a bargain she made with a healer.

The tension builds as the story unfolds in a long, breathless narrative (it’s a short novel, but conversely one very long chapter). As she tells the story, David pushes her to remember certain incidents, while dismissing others which she wants to pursue.

I read on, intrigued at first, then a little impatient, but anticipating that there would be clues and allusions to the meaning of the narrative. Is the story chronological? What is hallucinated and what real? Where is David’s mother and Amanda’s daughter?

Then I got to the end and it just sort of – well, ended. And I’m deflated. Am I being dense? Did I miss something? I didn’t expect a neat resolution tied with a bow, but I thought that there would be insights and inferences, ideas which would resonate and send me back through the key scenes to interpret them anew. Now I’m not sure what the themes of the book are, apart from ‘pesticides are bad’ and ‘parenting is scary’.

Perhaps my expectations were too high. Fever Dream is innovative in its form and beautifully written (and translated) but I feel like I wanted something more.

I received a copy of Fever Dream from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Fever Dream on Goodreads

Want to know more? Read this interview with Samanta Schweblin on Lithub

 

Shaheed! by Will Miller

Shaheed! by Will MillerShaheed! is a fresh and original story set around a South London estate and the young people who live there.

It begins with Jahangir. He is a fourteen-year-old returning from Pakistan, where he has been living with his uncle. They have been trying to track down Jahangir’s brother, who was kidnapped by the Taliban, and in his time there, Jahangir has learnt a lot about weapons and conflict.

Lorelei is Jahangir’s sister’s friend. She is the daughter of a Croatian single mother with a troubled past. Lorelei’s mother is beautiful and enigmatic and frightened of the man Lorelei used to think was her father. When her mother suddenly wants to take her to Dubrovnik, Lorelei doesn’t know why, or whether she wants to go.

Jahangir and Lorelei’s stories become interwoven. The novel takes in gangs, sexual violence, drugs, religion, the terrorist threat and the response of the state. It’s a heady mix. There are odd occasions where it feels a little weighed down with exposition, or where the pacing could be picked up, but on the whole it has great energy and the characters are rounded and engaging.

There’s a nice balance here between realism and adventure, drama and insight. Jahangir, Lorelei and a number of their classmates have experienced trauma that many adults cannot imagine. This has marked them, but they also behave like normal teenagers, texting, teasing, flirting. The way the humour and the darkness coincide is sensitively done by the author.

I recently picked up a popular thriller and there was a young male character who was involved with drugs and gangs in London. He felt unconvincing, like something the author had seen on TV, a scan of a photocopy of a fading Polaroid. By contrast, Shaheed! feels authentic and vital. Even though I’m not the target audience, I learnt a lot and was gripped to the end.

I received a copy of this book from the author via a Librarything member giveaway.
View Shaheed on Goodreads

You or your characters – who’s in charge?

Someone recently asked me why I had made Jim, one of the protagonists in my novel Not the End, a twin. I couldn’t really answer that. I didn’t feel I’d made him anything, he just came to me that way.

It would be nice to think I could produce characters to order, be at the head of an army of compliant puppets. That’s now how it works for me. Characters turn up when they feel like it, often at night, whispering in the dark or shouting outside the window. They trample over my carefully tended plots. They ignore the path I have laid out and forge their own. I run round clearing up after them, changing my story to make sense of their apparently implausible or irrational behaviour, adapting my structure, shifting the narrative arc.

In fact – they’re just like real people. They aren’t predictable and they resist coercion. Doesn’t that make for a better book? If there are to be twists and surprises and thought-provoking developments maybe they need to surprise the writer as much as the reader. Perhaps in their contrariness my characters are saying that what appears reasonable is not actually true.

The downside of character-driven writing is that everything takes so long. They always make me wait. I’m so envious of writers who can write a great plot-driven outline, plug in characters with the correct dimensions and set them marching to their drum. Am I just weak? Should I exercise more authority?

For my next-but-one novel I’ve been experimenting. I’m trying a plot-driven approach, writing a crime novel working from one of those template plots. Rather than waiting for my characters to decide how they want to respond, I’m going to prune them into shape. (Spoiler alert: it’s not working out so far.)

Why shouldn’t it though? If drama is about conflict, about putting your characters in a position where they really don’t want to be and seeing how they react, then why would you ask them nicely first? And I’m not a snob. There are some plot-driven writers who produce complex and interesting characters (and plenty of literary authors who can’t plot to save their lives).

For me the difficulty is that, like real people, characters grow and change. I’ve been writing my main work-in-progress for a couple of years, and had it in the back of my mind for longer than that, but the other day I had a moment of realisation, that a character’s feelings about a key event in his life are quite different from what I thought. And that there’s still much more about him that is enigmatic to me.

Writing a novel isn’t just about narrating a series of events in a particular order, it’s about answering a question that I’ve asked of my characters and myself. That’s why I never get bored with writing. Exhausted and exasperated, yes, but not bored. I’m always learning. And it’s the characters who are telling me something I don’t yet know.

Cover story – The Former Chief Executive

The Former Chief Executive by Kate Vane
Here it is! The cover for my new novel The Former Chief Executive.

The painting is Head of Woman in Green Kimono by Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco. I am very grateful to her for permission to use it.

I chose it because the novel focuses on the character and reflections of a strong female character rather than dramatic plot twists. I wanted a cover that suggested that tone and mood. I also wanted to juxtapose the image of a woman with the (intentional) ambiguity of the title – to reinforce that this former chief executive is a woman.

And here’s the book description:

Without your past, who are you?

Deborah was a respected hospital manager until a tragedy destroyed her reputation. She has lost her career, her husband and even her name.

Luca wants to stay in the moment. For the first time in his life he has hope and a home. But a fresh start is hard on a zero-hours contract, harder if old voices fill your mind.

When a garden share scheme brings them together, Deborah is beguiled by Luca’s youth and grace. He makes her husband’s garden live again. He helps her when she’s at her lowest. But can she trust him? And when the time comes to confront her past, can she find the strength?

This sharply drawn short novel explores the distance between the generations – between health and wealth, owners and workers, guilt and blame.

The Former Chief Executive will be published in paperback and Kindle on 8 June – and is available for preorder on Amazon.

If you are a blogger or reviewer and would like a copy, please email me at k8vane@gmail.com and say whether you would like mobi, epub or pdf. I’m also happy to do guest posts and interviews.