A Maze of Death – Philip K Dick

A Maze of Death is another of Philip K Dick’s novels that I had never read, he wrote about 40 novels, and over 100 short stories. It is yet another one that is brilliant, although decidedly strange. A Maze of Death tells the story of a group of humans who have each been chosen to colonise a world, named Delmak-O far from other human civilisation. 22397054Each of the fourteen colonists has a different skill and profession, but none have an idea why they have been chosen to colonise this planet. Once the last colonist has arrived they attempt to communicate with the organisation that has sent them to the planet, but the communication system fails. After this they try to work out their true mission on Denmark-O; this only results in them rounding on one another and eventually, a number of murders.

Dick is an excellent science-fiction writer, this novel is more proof of that, however this also shows that he can write flawed characters, and can write very dark stories. As the story develops, and the world seems to become more dangerous, each character reveals parts of their psyche. They each have flaws; be it the overly sexual Suzie Smart, or Ignatz Thugg who eventually becomes a murderer. The group has no way of functioning together, they elect a leader, but this is disputed as one of the characters was not present. Within 24 hours the whole group is either dead, contemplating suicide or confused by the whole situation.

This novel is weird, it has a number of twists and is definitely not easily understandable. One character begins to understand what appears to be going on, but has no way of escaping, except through death. I would recommend this as one of Philip K Dick’s strangest novels, but it is also thought provoking, and in places very humorous.

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Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life – William Finnegan

I’m no surfer, I may look like one, watch surfing, and know the names of some surfers, but I have surfed once in my life. It was one short session at the East Wittering on the south coast of England. William Finnegan, the author of this book, would probably not even bother trying to surf this break. It is tiny, but is known to be a good place for beginners like myself. Finnegan was raised in California and Hawaii, perfect places for him to learn to surf, and later perfect his technique. This book is incredible, it won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography in 2016, but to me it is a homage to surfing more than it is an autobiography.

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Throughout this book Finnegan tells anecdotes from his life. He grew up surfing near Los Angeles, before moving to Hawaii with his family. It was here that his true love of surfing began to emerge, surfing as often as he wanted and often without telling his family that he was leaving to surf. Even at a young age he met various characters that influenced both Finnegan’s life and his surfing style. Although obviously targeted at readers who enjoy surfing, Finnegan has managed to write a book that is accessible to everyone, I don’t understand some of the terminology but he explains it well.

Finnegan is allowed, through surf and writing, to do something I would love to do. He travels the world, working when he can, but mostly following his dream. With his friend Bryan he travels the South Pacific, following leads to new waves and exploring islands that were still untouched by tourism. The two young men travel to Fiji, Australia, Bali amongst others, meeting lots of people who are part of the small surfing community. There is the boat full of Australians who sail about to find breaks, the rumours of waves on remote islands, and the stories of illness and injury.

Much of this autobiography takes place before the emergence of surfing as a professional sport, he comments upon this, especially later when he starts to visit Madeira in Portugal. Part of this book seems to be lamenting globalisation and the loss of some surf breaks to other surfers, and to the general public. I’ve already recommended to a couple of people as it is such an accessible and interesting read. The mixture of biography, surf history and travel writing make it extremely good, and perfect for any reader.

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall

This book actually has a ridiculously long title; Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. 

Christopher McDougall was once a war correspondent, but has since branched out into the world of running, fitness and general ethnography. In this book McDougall explains the journey he has gone on in search of a cure to his running injuries, the attempt to interview a lost tribe, and the emerging sport of ultra-marathon running. The story all starts with McDougall visiting his doctor having suffered a number of injuries when running; from this point he then tracks down various people to discuss his injuries, their causes and the ways to overcome them. He leads us on through a number of stories about his conversations with ultra-marathon runners, scientists, and tribesmen.

McDougall’s writing style makes this enjoyable for everyone, I had actually bought this book for my brother, then decided to read it myself; I think he would be far more interested in the content, but I was engrossed. He visits the Tarahumara people of Mexico, a tribe renowned for their ability to run long distances without serious injury, journeying to meet them and attempting to find out the secret to their success. As well as discussing the stamina of this tribe he also looks at their lifestyle, diet and a little at their history. The Tarahumara don’t wear running shoes, they use a single strapped sandal made from a rubber tyre; on goes McDougall to the next part of his book. maxresdefault

How many people do you know who own a pair of running shoes? Just about everyone I know has a pair; mine a currently languishing in the bottom of a suitcase! McDougall looks into why we all have running shoes, and how these effect our bodies when we are wearing them. Looking into the history of the running shoe, McDougall traces it back to Nike in the 1970s, he questions our need for them. By looking into the evolution of the human body; using research by Harvard and Utah University scientists, McDougall discusses how they came to the conclusion that we are actually designed to run long distances. He then looks at the way in which running shoes actually counteract some of the aspects of our body that have evolved, especially the soft cushioned soles.

Born to Run is written in a manner that expertly combines these assertions with stories about the personalities within the history of ultra-marathon and legends of the Tarahumara region. When McDougall tracks down the Tarahumara and the legendary Caballo Blanco, an elusive gringo living in Mexico, he becomes involved in the organising of a ultra-marathon that is the ‘Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen’. The Caballo Blanco’s dream is to pit the Tarahumara against ultra-marathon runners, some of whom are now professional athletes. This race adds drama to the book; McDougall himself takes part, and uses the accounts of his fellow races to build the story. The winner of the race in the end seems inconsequential, the race, and the story of getting there, is all we really need.

Chris McDougall clearly loves running, this is purely a book fed by his interest in the subject.Throughout the book he does go on tangents but these are always linked back to the point he is trying to make. He has a story to tell, one that is told with passion and feeling, but is articulate and well thought out. I think it might be time to get the running shoes out!

Purple Hibiscus – Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie

Adichie has written three novels; I read the third first, the second second and finally her debut recently. Purple Hibiscus is again a story of post-colonial Nigeria. Set in the backdrop of a military coup and a new dictator rising to power, we follow the fortunes of Kambili and her family. Kambili’s father, Eugene, is the owner of numerous factories and an outspoken newspaper, whilst also being the main benefactor for the local Catholic church. Kambili and her brother, Jaja, are raised in a strict religious household, being punished for not respecting the church or achieving top marks in their school work. We see the story of the family through Kambili’s eyes as her father violently and psychologically exerts his power over the family. This novel is essentially about them growing up and realising they can stand up to their father. Adichie uses this novel to set out the themes that she later explores in her other novels; the opportunities held by leaving for America, social upheaval and political instability.

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The two children are sent to spend time with their Aunty Ifeoma, Eugene’s sister, and her children. This is a key part of their life; they come into contact with the traditional beliefs of their heritage, and learn skills that ordinarily are done by their family’s staff. Aunty Ifeoma is a university lecturer who is liberal, and seen by the new regime as dissident. As they spend more time with their aunt, cousins and a priest named, Father Amadi, the two children’s parents are continuing to drift further apart. Father Amadi awakens Kambili’s sexuality. Jaja is also growing into a man with his own opinions and starts to rail against his father, especially his strict control over the family.

Eventually their mother, Beatrice, frustrated with Eugene’s treatment of her, poisons him. Jaja takes the blame for this. The last section of the novel is set a few years later, with Jaja due to be released from prison. Kambili has grown into a confident 18 year old, and Aunty Ifeoma has moved with her family to America. In this last section Adichie tackles the subjects of bribery and corruption in Nigeria; Kambili and Beatrice have been able to secure Jaja an early release from prison.

For a debut novel, this clearly outlines the themes that Adichie later explores in Half of a Yellow Sun and Americanah. For any fan of powerful writing Adichie is a brilliant author, she has truly set a standard for African writing in the 21st century. The imagery that Adichie uses in her writing can evoke so much emotion, and can make me imagine Nigeria quite clearly. I would love to visit Nigeria to see this country and be able to put more images to the scenes that she has described so well.

The Mysteries of Udolpho – Ann Radcliffe

Ann Radcliffe is one of the foremost exponents of the gothic novel, yet is one of the least known. Gothic novels often combine fiction with elements of horror, death, the supernatural and romance. The Mysteries of Udolpho is probably her most famous novel, having been hugely influential on Jane Austen, especially her novel Northanger Abbey. In this novel we follow the eventful life of Emily St. Aubert, a young French woman who suffers the tragedy of losing her parents early in the novel, before getting entangled in various devious plots. Despite never having visited Italy, much of the action is set in Venice and the surrounding areas, it is believed that Radcliffe got much of the imagery she uses from travel literature of the time.

Emily is put in the care of an aunt, Madame Cheron, who soon gets involved with an Italian, Count Montoni. The two women then move with him to Italy, supposedly to a luxurious Venetian mansion, and a lavish lifestyle, this however, being a gothic tale does not happen. They are soon embroiled in the questionable life of the count. The Udolpho of the title is a decrepit castle that Montoni has inherited by dubious means. He uses the castle to isolate the women and tries to enforce his will upon them. Madame Cheron, now Madame Montoni, has vast estates which he wants for his own. As for Emily, he wishes her to marry a wealthy gentleman. Emily has previously fallen for a young man, Valancourt, and wishes to wait for him to rescue her. All the makings of a classic gothic novel.

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Later Emily is able to escape, but her aunt has died. After her escape she manages to return to France, where her life coincides with that of another family at their property in the south of France, Chateau le Blanc. She takes control of her property in France with their help, and investigates the relationship between them and her own family. Valancourt also returns to the plot and redeems himself, having lost much of Emily’s respect.

Throughout this novel Radcliffe uses the classic tropes of a gothic novel, and helps to define the genre. The supernatural occurrences that happen at both Udolpho and Chateau le Blanc are eventually explained by human, or natural causes. Romance is another key feature of this novel, Emily and Valancourt being the main characters who meet, lose each other then reunite. Radcliffe was big on nature, and took a lot of time describing scenes. Our heroine, Emily, remarks on the beauty of nature, whilst our villain, Montoni, in unconcerned with the beauty around him. Radcliffe’s novel is a classic, and certainly worth the effort it takes to read, being over 600 pages long. If you like Frankenstein or Dracula, give this a go as well.

The Power – Naomi Alderman 

This novel won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, and with good reason. Alderman has written a sci-fi novel unlike any other that I have read before. Rather than a battle between humanity and extra-terrestrial, or one with futuristic technologies set far in the future, she has developed an alternative reality in which women are more powerful than men. The novel is bookended by conversations between a male historian, who has been researching evidence that men used to have more power, and his female editor who describes his book as shocking, and even suggests he should publish under a female pseudonym.

At the age of 14 or 15 young women around the world are experiencing a new sensation, and a power has awoken within them, they are now able to shock other people. They are then able to develop this power in other older women. As this new power is awoken across the globe we follow four protagonists; Allie, Roxy, Tunde, and Margot. Throughout the novel we follow the rise of each of these characters to positions of power. Allie becomes the leader of a new movement, taking on a role as Mother Eve. Roxy joins the movement and is one of the most powerful women in the world, but returns to her London gangland roots. Margot is a politician, initially hiding her power so she doesn’t alienate her electorate, but then rising through the system. Although being male, Tunde becomes a world respected journalist, having managed to gain the trust of women around him, and developing this into trust in most women. Over the course of ten years these characters introduce to the new world in which men are scared of women, and the gender power balance has dramatically shifted.

This novel is excellent, a page turner throughout which you are constantly confronted with imagery that reflects the male dominated society that we live in. Female led revolutions in Riyadh and Delhi highlight the current situations regarding rape culture and misogyny. Alderman has crafted a novel about female empowerment that is intriguing, absorbing and brilliant. I think, however, that the real point that she makes, is that power is abused regardless of who holds it.

Swing Time – Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith is, in my opinion, one of the most talented British writers currently working. This novel was one of the emotional texts I have read in recent years. Set in London, New York and West Africa, it tells the story of two childhood friends and their lives over three decades. They meet at a dance class in the 80s and are linked by their mixed race heritage, over time this becomes the only thing linking them as their lives diverge. These two characters allow Smith to explore the nature of friendship, fame and family. Swing-Time.png

These two girls are very different in their journey through life; one being incredibly talented, but is more exploratory in her lifestyle, being sexual active at a young age, drinking and eventually not fulfilling her talent as a dancer. The other, less talented but more sensible, and mentally stable, becomes the successful one of the pair. She graduates from a position at a music television company to working for a famous pop star. Alongside these two main characters there is a cast of characters that help build the complexities of this novel. The two mothers, one a proud black politician, the other the white alcoholic. Two fathers; one absent and in prison, the other a post man who appears to give in to his wife’s wills. These four characters are used by Smith to show that although the two girls are similar in their ethnicity they are from very different families.

The story is told in a non-linear way, using the narrators memories to show her personal history. Smith actually starts the story at the end, and we have to read through to find out how the narrator has got to the position she is now in. This novel is extremely powerful, it gives an honest account of a childhood friendship, whilst also showing that we have to work at all of our relationships. Throughout the novel Smith touches on a number of the social issues of this age, each main character I assumed to be a millennial, and share the concerns of this generation of people.

Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen

I have said previously that I’m not a huge fan of autobiographies, yet here I am writing about another one. Like the Johan Cruyff one I have read before, this is the autobiography of a hero of mine. Bruce Springsteen is one of the musicians I have always had in my life, there with Dylan, Prince, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The Boss is iconic, and this is his story of his life.

Throughout this book Springsteen is eloquent, informative and emotional. He tells stories from all parts of his life, from growing up in New Jersey, to doing the Super Bowl half time show. We learn about his childhood, his formative years, the beginning of his musical career, and eventually he reflects upon it all and the live he now has. Springsteen also recorded a companion album, Chapter & Verse, that I listened to extensively whilst reading the book.

If you are a fan of music in any form this book is brilliant as Springsteen explores his influences, songwriting techniques and the way the music industry works. Springsteen talks about the moment he first heard The Beatles, and how this inspired him to buy his first guitar, and then later the fact his mother was willing to take out a loan to buy him a new guitar. These little insights are linked to songs he later wrote, which may not be truly biographical but do reflect some situations in his life. The reader is also given a history of The E Street Band and how Springsteen brought them together to become the band that are synonymous with him, and equally deserve the recognition he has.

I loved this autobiography, not just because I consider The Boss one of the most important musicians in my life, but also because it gives such insight into the workings of such a brilliant band as The E Street Band. Give it a go, with Chapter & Verse as the soundtrack and you will be mightily impressed by this legend of music.

Civilisation and Its Discontents – Sigmund Freud

Everyone has heard of Freud, but how many people have ever read his work? I never had until now, despite doing a philosophy course at school. This is one of his most important texts, an book on psychology, and the differences between society and individuality.  He writes about humans needing to feel a sense of freedom whilst society tells us to conform to the rules that have been set.

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I do not have an amazing grasp of psychology or philosophy, this is partly why I try to read about it, yet I feel this is one of the easier texts to read. Understanding it properly is the real challenge. Freud’s book asserts that humans are naturally inclined towards certain acts, which are then forbidden by laws set by society. For example, we seek sexual gratification, yet rape and adultery are forbidden. In no way does he justify these acts, he is just stating that humanity is naturally inclined towards such acts through out sexual needs. He also discusses violence, especially towards those in authority, humans are naturally indisposed to commit violent acts yet we control ourselves in order to not enact our feelings.

Throughout this work Freud discusses various ideas, most of which seem to be influenced by the First World War. The war was probably the biggest example of humans as a group fighting for a cause despite maybe not personally believing in it. I feel like I need to re-read to gain more understanding, but as a text it is very interesting, and I have definitely taken in some of Freud’s ideas. I’m going to start steering away from this kind of non-fiction text in for the next few books I read, mostly to give my brain a rest.

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

I quite often look at shortlists for literary prizes to help select which books I’d like to read soon. This has been nominated for, and won, numerous prizes since its publication last year. We all know that awards are not always given to the most deserving people, but this novel definitely deserves all the accolades it receives. The Underground Railroad is a work of semi-fantastical and historical fiction; it tells the story of Cora, a slave escaping a plantation in Georgia, who uses a series underground trains to flee to the north. Colson Whitehead has bravely written about a key part of American history, and adapted the true history to highlight the sheer inhumanity of slavery in the south. The trains on Whitehead’s underground railroad are dangerous, infrequent and head to unknown destinations, but they are used because escapees are so desperate to get away from slavery.

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The reader follows Cora on her journey, and sees the various events and incidents that happen to her as she strives for freedom. Whitehead has obviously done his research very well and has fictionalised history for a modern audience, almost suggesting what may have happened if emancipation had not been enacted. He brings Cora’s story to life in an manner that is so good its impossible to not get emotional whilst reading. We also are given small non-linear chapters that explain the roles of various people in Cora’s life; her mother, a slave catcher, a emancipation sympathiser and a fellow escapee. With these short chapters we learn about the each character and the influence they have on Cora, an interesting way of developing her character.

Throughout the novel there is a grand narrative that follows more than the characters within the novel; it is essentially a narrative on America during slavery, but also seems to be a comment on the whitewashing of black American history. I don’t want to comment too much on this however, because I am a white middle class male… Whatever you read into this novel, it is excellent.