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

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny


standard deviation by katherine heineyIt’s not often that I feel so unstrongly about a book that I don’t know what to write. But that’s where I am with Standard Deviation.

Graham is an executive who lives in New York. He is married to Audra, but was once married to Elspeth. Audra is an uber-extrovert with no filter, Elspeth icy and reserved. Graham is somewhere in-between. When Elspeth comes back into this life he muses a lot on the nature of his relationships with the two women.

Later on the focus shifts more to his feelings for his young son who has Asperger’s and a passionate interest in origami. He worries that he will never make friends or feel secure in social settings. But when his son joins an origami club, it is suddenly he who belongs and his parents who feel excluded.

And so it goes on. There some amusing vignettes that are moderately thought-provoking. Where am I on the introvert-extrovert continuum? I never knew origami was so complicated. Would Graham really be attracted to two such different women when in real life people tend to recreate the same kind of relationship, for better or for worse, over and over again?

The structure of the book is slightly odd. It reads more like a series of connected stories. In fact what it feels most like is a TV sitcom, one where each episode has its arc and then everything goes back to pretty much where it was. The children are a little older, the annoying neighbour may have been written out, but the characters are fundamentally unaltered by events of the recent past.

It also has a lot of set-piece scenes which are similar – particularly the ones that involve a group of ill-matched people sitting down for a meal. Again, this is something that happens in TV (pretty much every episode of Gavin and Stacey was premised on the two families meeting for a party on a flimsy pretext) but this book is different from a TV comedy is that it’s not that funny. It’s more wry smile than belly laugh.

A novel needs narrative drive. Standard Deviation is well written, engaging and with some sharp observation but I’m afraid it dragged for me.

I received a copy of Standard Deviation from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Standard Deviation on Goodreads

Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

neurotribes by steve silbermanNeurotribes opens with a question – why is autism suddenly so visible? From popular culture to the children of the author’s contacts in Silicon Valley, he keeps hearing about autism. He sets out to discover why.

His quest takes in the history of our understanding of autism, the reasons for the increase in the diagnosis and the changing experiences and treatment of autistic people.

Neurotribes is written with the pace of a thriller, and vividly brings to life academic rivalries, tabloid panics and science fiction fandom. Interspersed are the stories of the people the author has encountered along the way – autistic people, their families and carers, clinicians and writers, and even movie stars.

Parts of the book are very dark, including the accounts of institutionalisation of people dismissed as ‘feeble-minded’ and the horrors of Nazism. It is a timely reminder that Hitler was not an aberration but a man who exploited ideas which were widely articulated in Europe and the US at the time.

A running theme through the book is the tension between those who think that autistic people need to be ‘cured’ and those who think that society benefits from the strengths of autistic people and should accommodate their particular needs. The book ends on a positive note as it discusses the self-advocacy movement and profiles autistic people who have found their own ways to live fulfilling lives.

I found Neurotribes a fascinating and moving read.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Neurotribes on Goodreads

For a different perspective on this book, read Calmgrove’s review