Category Archives: 4th Estate Books

The Sport of Kings – C.E. Morgan

Those of you who have visited this blog for some time (it will be ten years old this year which seems madness) will know that I have a slight aversion to horses both in real life and in fiction. So when I spotted both Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare and C.E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings I was somewhat vexed. Internally and then I cursed myself as I had popped both of these books proof copies in the recycling last year, because of the horses. However in the name of reading the whole of the Baileys Prize longlist for the second year running, I momentarily cursed the Bailey’s judges for their choices and then picked up the most daunting of the two, The Sport of Kings. Within an hour I was completely and utterly gripped, who could have seen that one coming from the cover or synopsis, yet this is not really a book about horses and horse racing, it is about so much more than that.

4th Estate Books, hardback, 2016, fiction, 545 pages, kindly sent by the publisher and then re-bought by me for me (that’ll learn me!)

As The Sport of Kings opens we join a young boy Henry Forge as he runs to escape his father< john Henry, from something awful that has happened in one of the barns and which he is being blamed for. Two lines in and Henry is asking himself ‘How far away from your father can you run?’, in many ways is actually the constant theme in the book as it moves forward. We soon discover that Henry is the master’s son of a vast plot of land and one of the wealthiest and longest running family dynasties in Kentucky. We also soon learn when he gets home and the belt is brought out, that his father is also a monstrous, bigoted, misogynistic tyrant as he proves time and time again throughout the first hundred pages.

His voice loud against the clattering, John Henry said, “What you don’t yet comprehend about women, Henry, is a great deal.” He stared at the cars as they flipped past. “I wouldn’t say that they’re naturally intellectually inferior, as the Negroes are. They’re not unintelligent. In fact, I’ve always found little girls to be as intelligent as boys, perhaps even more so. But women live a life of the body. It chains them to material things – children and home – and prevents them from striving toward loftier pursuits.”

I know, awful isn’t he? And this is just the John Henry that Henry (I know a lot of Henry’s and we have a Henrietta to come, but that is what the Forges are about) sees. One of the brilliant things which C.E. Morgan does is let us see John Henry from other characters eyes, both his wife and his staff, and we see many of the things we shouldn’t – but I don’t want to spoil anything (I did an admittedly thrilled ‘oh my goodness, well I never’ about 50 pages in). Honestly, this book has lots of lovely sensational moments throughout, which also made it so readable and epic.

Anyway, I digress… The more Henry’s father rages and orders the more Henry wants to go against him, infuriating his father by announcing when he inherits the land it will be used to breed the finest race horses, the ultimate revenge in his eyes and also the ultimate escape as he goes on to learn everything he can about them filling his mind with anything but his father. But as they say the apple never falls to far from the tree and, as we all probably know too well, in spite of ourselves elements of our parents run into us despite our best intentions and we soon see Henry has far more of his father in him than he would care to admit or acknowledge.

Ginnie said, “Henry, are you going to get married?”
Henry made a face. “Someday, maybe, I don’t know.”
“Let’s you and me get married!”
“You? No way, you’re ugly.”
“I am not!”
Henry sighed. “When I get married, I’m going to marry a beautiful woman. My father says not to waste energy on ugly girls.”
Great dollop tears formed in Ginnie’s eyes. “A pretty girl won’t be half as fun as me!” She whined, but Henry was distracted by the blooms of his breath in the suddenly icy barn air.

Ginnie is right, I won’t say why but she is and this leads us onto the middle section of the book which not only sees Henry’s daughter Henrietta start to take a real prominence in the families thoroughbred business, her tale also brings with it a darkness to the whole breeding theme throughout the book as well as hiring a young man, Allmon Shaughnessy, whose life in the darkest, poorest parts of Cincinnati couldn’t be more different than the colour of his and Henrietta’s skin and here is where the heart of the story, for it is a ripping yarn, starts to reveal itself.

In the first scene of Allmon’s tenth year, a girl dies in the cement garden. Her name was Gladys Gibbons, just a tiny little thing on the third floor opposite with skin the colour of chalky churned-up river water, a soft cheek and a pert ski-slope nose like a white girl’s, maybe the kind with money. That nose made her a beloved pariah, as despised as she was envied by girls who didn’t yet know what envy was. She had the stamp of difference on her face, and that stamp was a pass. The girls in her building put their hands to the skinny vale between her shoulder blades and shoved. Knocked her against barriers, into doors, down onto cracked sidewalks and onto her knees. She thought: I’m ugly. And there was no grown person to tell her otherwise. So the wind of natural confidence died.

How beautifully and vividly written whilst utterly heartbreaking is that? You see The Sport of Kings is not really a book about horses and racing, it is a book about race, class, bigotry, power and privilege and how those who have it and those who don’t fare over several decades in American History and it saddens me that people, myself included, might avoid it because they think it is about horseracing when it is so, so, so much more. And it is an incredibly powerful example of an epic book that contains all of those themes whilst also being an incredibly addictive family saga to with affairs, murder, incest, poverty and riches, secrets and ok, horses. As one character sums it up so brilliantly “Those Forges are motherfucking nuts.” They are.

In many ways what I think made me enjoy it so much was it had all the elements of a Victorian sensation novel, which I adore, with all the twists and turns, melodramas and characters of incredible depth. You have the main characters Henry, Henrietta and Allmon who come with whole family descendent stories behind them and who effect the Forges dynasty in huge ways, but you also get every characters back story too (a trope I really love in a big sprawling book) even the smallest of characters. And you never know when one of those smaller characters might come back to a big dramatic effect when you least expect it… oh, I might say too much.

This could of course make it sound like The Sport of Kings is a never ending, far too filled and possibly flabby book. Not at all. If anything I would have quite liked for it to have been another hundred or more pages as I felt the final section was somewhat suddenly rushed and a bit manic, one of my only two qualms in the book. The other being that I can’t decide if I feel like Morgan does something incredibly brave, making a huge point with one of her characters story arcs or if in fact she really, really lets them down (a bit like J. K. Rowling did with A Casual Vacancy, though in this case it didn’t ruin the book for me) which had me slightly riled for a while after putting it down and I am still debating.

The Sport of Kings thrilled me and surprised me. It also reminded me why sometimes picking up a dense family saga can be such a wonderful reading experience. You find characters you live and breathe with, even the ones you love to hate; you have big chunks of history to digest with all their politics and social questions around to think about and the ripples that affect everyone afterwards. I was lost in a ripping good epic yarn, for that is really what this book is and I would highly recommend you get lost in it too. You’ll race through it – sorry, I couldn’t not.

Has anyone else read The Sport of Kings and if so what did you make of it? If you had been put off somewhat by how it was sold have you changed your mind? If you’re thinking about giving it a whirl now you can get it here. I know I certainly want to give C.E. Morgan’s All The Living a read now.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Books of 2017, C.E. Morgan, Review

Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

As if the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist wasn’t enough for you today there is also the release of a new Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie book. No, not the novel that we have all been waiting so desperately for (I mean the royal ‘we’ aka me, you may feel this way too) but another mini book along the lines of We Should All Be Feminists released on International Women’s Day. And a very Happy International Women’s Day to all of the women who read this blog, you are all wonderful and you all need to read this book.

4th Estate, hardback, 2017, non-fiction, 62 pages, bought by myself for myself

When a couple of years ago a friend of mine from childhood, who’d grown into a brilliant, strong, kind woman, asked me to tell her how to raise her baby girl a feminist, my first thought was that I did not know.
It felt like to huge a task.

And so opens Dear Ijeawele. Thankfully, after some thought, this is not too huge a task for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the results become (slightly tweaked, she admits in the introduction) the text which we read which is a light yet forceful letter to a friend discussing the fifteen ways in which she things she could bring up her daughter, and subsequently her own daughter, to encourage them to be a feminist raising her as one.

Now I am not going to be able to cover everything that Ngozi Adichie does in this book and nor should I because you should all be going out and reading it and buying it for your friends as I will be doing. However I can say that she covers everything from marriage to money, femininity to the politics of gender, and indeed the gender of politics. She covers money, sex, domestic chores, the power of reading, male role models… I could go on and on because in just over sixty pages she covers all this and more. I have no idea how she does it all, but she does. This, slightly ironically, leads me to one of the first points I found particularly interesting.

Please do not think of it as ‘doing it all’. Our culture celebrates the idea of women who are able to ‘do it all’ but does not question the premise of that praise. I have no interest in the debate about women ‘doing it all’ because it is a debate that assumes that care-giving and domestic work are singularly female domains, an idea I strongly reject. Domestic work and care-giving should be gender-neutral, and we should be asking not whether a woman can ‘do it all’ but how best to support parents in their dual duties at work and at home.

What I found particularly fascinating about Dear Ijeawele is how much Chimamanda stripes everything back and not only simplifies things but blows the wind out of the sails of anyone who would want to argue with her. There is no room for debate, no little cracks of questioning to wriggle through, these are her thoughts, these are the simple reasons why it is so and could we all please just see sense, sort it out and move on. Here’s to that.

What also makes the book/letter all the more powerful is that in writing to a friend there is a real warmth to it that seeps into your bones as you read. Not that We Should All Be Feminists is a cold book, far from it, I loved it. Yet it was a blunter angrier teenager in comparison to this wiser, calmer big sister of a book that also knows it can crack the occasional joke, often to make the power behind its humorous intent have a longer and more resonating effect as the undertone is picked up.

There have been recent Nigerian social media debates about women and cooking, about how wives have to cook for husbands. It is funny, in the way that sad things are funny, that we are still talking about cooking as some kind of marriageability test for women.
The knowledge of cooking does not come pre-installed in a vagina. Cooking is learned. Cooking – domestic work in general – is a life skill that both men and women should ideally have. It is also a skill that can elude both men and women.

The final thing that I thought was so brilliant were the constant reminders of how Feminism Lite can be more harmful than simply being a feminist yes or no. Though Chimamanda also, without ever physically writing it, brings up the point of people being Feminist Lite because feminism seems to have become an ugly word. Hmmm, and we all know which parts of society are encouraging that don’t we. I will not bring up the orange monster that shall not be named on this blog ever, but we know the type, we know the contenders. Ngozi Adichie puts it very simply, you are either a full feminist or you are not.

What she also layers on top of this is that feminism is not just about men vs. women,  it is also about women vs. women and most importantly what it is really about is one simple, yet as we are seeing seemingly impossible, word… equality, for everyone. Equal culpability, responsibility and sharing of our attitudes, minds and thoughts.

But here is a sad truth: our world is full of men and women who do not like powerful women. We have been so conditioned to think of power as male that a powerful woman is an aberration. And so she is policed. We ask of powerful women – is she humble? Does she smile? Is she grateful enough? Does she have a domestic side? Questions we do not ask of powerful men, which shows that our discomfort is not with power itself, but with women. We judge powerful women more harshly than we judge powerful men. And Feminism Lite enables this.

I am a huge fan of this book as I was its sibling/predecessor. What I love about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is that she so eloquently and calmly takes you through it all and makes you feel, once again, like you are having a conversation with her. All in all the perfect book not only for International Women’s Day 2017 but for every day and for everyone.

I heartily recommend you get yourself a copy, which you can do here. Who else has read Dear Ijeawele or indeed We Should All Be Feminists? What other feminist texts would you recommend everyone be reading before the next International Women’s Day? I would love more titles to go off and look for as I am sure would everyone else popping by.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Non Fiction, Review

A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

“And then what?” How many times have we been asked that by a small child or indeed remember asking it as a small child ourselves? Yet when we are young and are first read fairy tales you never ask that question when the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’ appear at the end. Michael Cunningham does this in A Wild Swan and Other Tales which somehow manages to combine the magical with reality and has some truly wonderful moments for doing so. From the very start of this collection we are greeted with Dis. Enchant, not quite an introduction rather a statement of intent mixed with a slightly knowing question that makes us ponder the question of when we went from the innocent all believing to the more cynical and, dare we even think it, more wicked selves, this sets the tone for everything to come.

9780008140380

Fourth Estate, 2015, hardback, short stories, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the weeded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely… would you? Does their aura of happiness and prosperity, their infinite promise, irritate you, even a little? Does it occasionally make you angry?
If not, blessings on you.
If so, however, there are incantations and ancient songs, there are words to be spoken at midnight, during certain phases of the moon, beside bottomless lakes hidden deep in the woods, or in secret underground chambers, or at any point where three roads meet.
These curses are surprisingly easy to learn.

I may have let out a small cackle myself having read that. In fact during A Wild Swan and Other Tales I cackled on quite a few occasions as Michael Cunningham looks at what went before once upon a time and what followed on from happy ever after with this collection of ten stories which mainly feature fairytales that many of us will have grown up loving. From favourites Snow White to Beauty and the Beast and from Jack and the Beanstalk to Rapunzel each tale is taken back to its darker routes and then given a slight tweak or twist all encompassed in a rather gothic essence and large sprinkling of as much dry wit as there is magical fairy dust.

It is hard to give much away about the way in which Cunningham does this without ruining the twist, which is of course what makes them all so (prince) charming to read, however I will try. In Beasts we discover that if you fall for a beast you might still be falling for a beast just one that is more apparent and has been changed for good cause. In Steadfast: Tin we look at how we fall in love with the people we really wouldn’t imagine and then how we make that love last and how complicated marriage can be, even if built on true love it can still go awry. In Her Hair we look at if looks matter and if so what happens if they fade.

Throughout each tale Cunningham’s wry wit is what keeps them either endearing, cackle inducing or all the more twisted. In the title story A Wild Swan there are several very funny moments all around the impracticalities of having swans wings instead of arms, on the subway or in a club etc, that actually become bittersweet and all the more thought provoking when you realise that the tale is in fact about imperfections and even disabilities by which people are judged. This black humour is also used just as often to be simply downright funny, sometimes even with a knowing wink, well slight of hand.

Jack and his mother still don’t have a black American Express card. They don’t have a private plane. They don’t own an island.
And so, Jack goes up the beanstalk again. He knocks for a second time at the towering cloud-door.
The giantess answers again. She seems not to recognise Jack, and it’s true that he’s no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit – the tight pants and synthetic shirt he boosted at the mall. He’s all Marc Jacobs now. He has a shockingly expensive haircut.
But still. Does the giantess really believe a different, better dressed boy has appeared at her door, one with the same sly grin and the same dark-gold hair, however improved the cut?

I must also mention the illustrations before I move on, which are wonderful. Using only black and white artist Yuko Shimizu creates wonderful gothic images of depth which have you noticing more and more. The book itself is designed to be a work of art. The hardback edition also has a wonderful embossed cover with swans on, which you might not get on the paperback and certainly can’t get on the Kindle edition, coughs. Each story is given its own illustration to accentuate the world of the tale that Cunningham has created. It’s beautiful.

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To show I don’t have completely rose tinted glasses on this collection just because I love a good fairytale and a good reworking of one, I have to admit there were a couple of stories that didn’t quite do it for me like the others. Both Little Man and A Monkey’s Paw were two which I felt didn’t quite work either in there more modern reincarnations or in sync with the rest of the collection despite their best efforts. Little Man, a reworking of Rumplestiltskin, is a clever account of the rarity of a single man who would like a child of his own and can’t really go about that by normal means, it just felt slightly long and the ending (which you will all know) didn’t quite work in its modern confines – it felt a bit wedged in. A Monkey’s Paw was good but as it isn’t based on a fairytale it felt a bit out of place in the collection though it has a wonderful take on both grief and what it is to be very different from what people call the norm. Eight out of ten isn’t bad though which is, funnily enough what I would give this collection should I still give ratings on here.

Overall A Wild Swan and Other Tales excels and I think the best examples of those moments are with my two personal favourites Crazy Old Lady and Poisoned. Crazy Old Lady looks at what it is that would make a women go slightly crazy and leave New York to go and build a house made of candy in the woods before two children (who you might have heard of) come calling and do the unthinkable. Poisoned looks at what happens between Snow White and her handsome prince after the wedding, when it soon turns out that he might have a slightly disturbing kink. These two tales have the whole essence of what the originals did, the brutal, the gothic, the sinister and the sexual and who can argue with those traits.

I really, really enjoyed A Wild Swan and Other Stories, I was thrilled and comforted by both its sense of the new and sense of nostalgia all the way through. It was the perfect collection to end my reading year on in 2015 and was the perfect introduction (I know, I know it is shocking to admit this) to Michael Cunningham’s writing. I need to get cracking and read much more of his work… And get back to reading more and more collections of new, twisted or simply retold fairytales too.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Fairy Tales, Fourth Estate Books, Michael Cunningham, Review, Short Stories, Yuko Shimizu

The Bees – Laline Paull

For someone who always bangs on about how much they dislike horses in fiction, as I am so suspicious of them in real life, you might think I am not a lover of nature. Actually I am a bit of a nature geek, I will lose the tiniest bit of street cred I have left now by saying I used to be a bird watcher or ‘twitcher’ (we won’t mention the stamp collecting, oops) and any television show with David Attenborough I have to record and will then watch enraptured. It is my fascination with nature that led to a small obsession over the New Year that I simply had to read Laline Paull’s debut The Bees a tale about a hive of bees. Even the fact that these bees talk (and we all know that I am deeply distrustful of talking animals in general) didn’t put me off. I did wonder if it might be a little Disney like yet as I discovered it couldn’t be further on the opposite end of the spectrum, The Bees is a gripping and often chilling literary thriller – make no mistake.

9780007557745

4th Estate Books, paperback, 2015, fiction, 400 pages, bought by myself as my first treat of the year

The cell squeezed her and the air was hot and fetid. All the joints of her body burned from her frantic twisting against the walls, her head was pressed into her chest and her legs shot with cramp, but her struggles had worked – one wall felt weaker. She kicked out with all her strength and felt something crack and break. She forced and tore and bit until there was a jagged hole into fresher air beyond.
She dragged her body through and fell out onto the floor of an alien world. Static roared through her brain, thunderous vibration shook the ground and a thousand scents dazed her. All she could do was breathe until gradually the vibration and static subsided and the scent evaporated into air. Her rigid body unlocked and she calmed as knowledge filled her mind.
This was the Arrivals Hall and she was a worker.
Her kin was Flora and her number was 717.

And so Flora is born into the world of the hive and the hive mind. As a lowly worker Flora instinctively knows  from birth she only lives to do four things; accept, obey, serve and be prepared to sacrifice everything for her beloved holy mother, the Queen. But Flora is not like the other bees, something which one of the Sister Sage’s (the priestesses of the hive) notices from her birth, she is different. While mutant bees are usually destroyed by their own kind, Flora has talents others of her kin don’t (speech and the ability to act alone, worker bees naturally just collect and dispose of the dead until they are, well, dead) and so is removed from sanitation duty and is allowed to feed the Queen’s offspring, before becoming a forager out collecting pollen. However Flora is also different from all the bees in another way (which I won’t spoil for you) and soon Flora becomes both a threat to the hive and potentially its only hope of survival.

Laline Paull does so many brilliant things with this book it is frankly rather difficult to know where to begin. Firstly though let us start with Flora 717 who, after getting over the initial unusual narration from a talking bee, is a wonderful protagonist and the perfect antiheroine in a novel that i by its very nature one of totalitarian regime. She questions things, she questions everything, she answers back, she does things she shouldn’t and she’s blooming brave in the face of many dangers. She’s gutsy and we all like a feisty protagonist don’t we? She is also an outsider and so we have empathy for her, especially when things take a darker and more complex turn.

Paull also creates a dark, controlled and claustrophobic world where orders must just be obeyed and the constant threat of ‘The Kindness’ lies in the eyes of all the other bees working to one hive mind. These are not cute and cuddly bumble bee’s, these are honey bees which, pun intended, are not as sweet as they sound –  for example there is a massacre, which happens once a year,  that I found genuinely shocking. There is also the danger of the outside world as a constant threat to the hive. There are other insects (let’s just say that spider and wasps aren’t bees natural allies) as well as other mammalian intruders including humans ourselves. The latter, along with the chemical threats to a bee, also highlight how in many ways we are abusing and endangering bees, which the environment needs and how a decline in them could be catastrophic in the long term. It has certainly made me rethink the value of honey.

Then there is also the world of the hive and how it operates. For the bees it is normal and they know no different but as readers we naturally humanise it, meaning from the start of the novel we compare their world to a totalitarian regime rather than nature doing what it has to do. Paull knows this and uses it wisely to highlight the cause and effect of such a culture. She also brings much more into the analogy of humankind as bees, if you know what I mean, in terms of gender politics, class, monarchy, religion and being different. There are layers and layers and layers, it’s a brimming book.

I mentioned above that this is a gripping novel. There is the pace and directness of the prose which to me read like a thriller, each chapter leaves you wanting to read on be it that something had happened in the hive or indeed to Flora herself. You also want to read on because the life of the bee and the beehive is so utterly fascinating. Both during reading and since I finished reading I have been coming out with endless facts about bees that I learnt through the book to anyone who will listen and several who won’t. Did you know bees can sting other bees without dying? Did you know bees were actually related to wasps but flowers changed all that? Did you know that there is a special mating ritual with a princess bee and her suitors? I could go on.

All this came together to form an absolutely brilliant novel; if you haven’t guessed it by now I absolutely loved The Bees. It is one of those books that has, like a beehive, so many levels to it. You can read it as a fascinating nature book (Laline only embellishes a few facts here and there for fictional purposes, bees don’t live a year for example) with an insight into the world of the bee. You can read it as a literary novel about feminism, society and beliefs. You can read it as a thriller or a fantasy, almost sci-fi like, novel too. However it is you read it, do read it. I cannot praise it highly enough.

So there we go my instincts were right, it’s a corker. Maybe insects are my think as I have also read and loved Grasshopper Jungle recently another very different book for me. Anyway, I will be very surprised if The Bees doesn’t get a nod from those lovely folk at The Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction and even more surprised if it isn’t in my top five books of the year in December. If you would like to hear more about The Bees then listen to the latest You Wrote the Book where you can find me in conversation with Laline. Who else has read The Bees and what did you make of it?

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Books of 2015, Harper Collins, Laline Paull, Review