Category Archives: Macmillan Publishers

Embassytown – China Mieville

A while back I was asking you all about your thoughts on genre fiction and said that I would try some books that were out of my normal reading ‘comfort zone’. The first book that I chose was ‘Embassytown’ by China Mieville which is said to be his most sci-fi of novels to date. I really struggle with sci-fi yet having read and really enjoyed his novel The City & The City’, which merged science fiction with an edgy crime thriller, and came away feeling like I had understood a genre I didn’t normally. So I had high hopes that with China holding my hand (figuratively of course) through the unknown world of unknown worlds and life forms I might just find myself fully immersed in a new world of reading genre.

I’d best get this first bit out the way and say that to try and describe ‘Embassytown’ to anyone who hasn’t read it yet it going to be hard work. Not because the book is completely flummoxing, though I will admit I had a pen and notepad to hand for the first 100 pages or so but that could simply be me, but because there are so many strands and themes and, well, ‘things’ encompassed in it that to try to define its 432 pages in one set of thoughts is going to be pretty tough. I could simply say that I am not the biggest sci-fi fan and yet I finished it and I really rather liked it, but that wouldn’t be enough would it. So here goes…

In another world, Areika the home of many life forms, we follow the story of Avice. Avice has returned to her homeland of Embassytown after spending many years as an immerser in the ‘immer’, a substance or lack of substance that can send you from star to star “the sea of space and time below the everyday”. As she returns at the bequest of her new husband Scile (she has been married thrice before to people of both sexes), a man of language, who wants to observe the way Embassytown operates and how the three species it hosts all communicate and live together.

This return leads her to look back from her childhood onwards and an event with The Hosts (an alien species comprised of a mixture of of winged insect and horse who speak simultaniously with two mouths, only the Ambassadors can understand, and who cannot lie), that made her literally become a story in the Areika consciousness that helps them bend the truth in the future, for if something happens it is truth? Well thats what Mieville sort of implies and its an interesting idea.  However on her return she finds that the homeland she knows is changing under the new rule of the Ambassador EzRa and something sinister has started and that something truly awful lies ahead, but in order to stop it Avice is going to have to do something that is almost impossible.

That is possibly the easiest, though by no means best, way of trying to describe the way the book starts. It’s hard to say more without giving away too much plot or discussing how Mieville throws in some unexpected, and often rather weird, twists as the book moves on. The thing is there are so many more strands to the book and for me the main one was the fact this is a book that is in some ways Mieville’s ode to language. The fact Avice actually becomes a story, or in fact a ‘simile’, I found fascinating, and this happens before the main story really gets started. I liked the fact that language could almost be a religion, though the book is also a tale of revolution.

Avice makes for an interesting narrator, if occasionally rather infuriating, as though you are told Avice’s ‘similie’ for the Hosts meant she had to eat something which caused her pain you never fully know what she went through. She does have this slight distance and mystery the whole way through the book even though you get snippets of her past and hints of her previous marriages etc she keeps something back. I always felt just a touch removed from her. Was this intentional, were we meant to question her as a narrator, is she a blank canvas on which we put our own feelings or create our own visions of the world Mieville has created? I was never one hundred percent sure. Interestingly it was characters like Ambassador EzRa that made the book come alive, there was something wonderfully creepy about the fact that unlike all the other Ambassadors these were not genetically cojoined twins with simulatneous thoughts and from the moment we met them the book seemed to light up, even if it was with a sinister and mysterious foreboding glow.

You see I am still left feeling that I haven’t actually done ‘Embassytown’ any favours of explained it well enough to do the book justice. I am sure it won’t be for everyone, and indeed the blurb does seem to miss out how much language is almost worshipped in this novel which could be a selling point, but if someone like me who knows very little about science fiction could get so deeply immersed in it then surely it’s got to be good, right? 8/10

This was kindly sent by the publishers.

A science fiction novel such as ‘Embassytown’ is unfortunately hardly likely to make it onto the Booker longlist simply because it’s a genre novel. This is a great shame because, to me at least, ‘Embassytown’ reads like a true celebration of language and words surrounded by an unfamiliar world that celebrates them too, surely that’s literature and what its all about at its most concentrated? Who knows, maybe this years judges could surprise us? I do feel like I owe this book a small apology because I simply can’t sum it up. Can anyone else who has read it do any better? Any other thoughts on any other Mievilles as I really want to read more, particularily ‘Kraken’, do let me know.

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Filed under China Mieville, Macmillan Publishers, Review

Just William – Richmal Crompton

I have ‘The Bookboy’ to thank for breaking my troubled time with reading when he kindly lent me ‘Just William’ by Richmal Crompton after we had seen a trailer for the new TV series/movie that is going to be showing over the Christmas period. You see when I was younger I listened to ‘Just William’ on audio (with some very funny memories of Violet Elizabeth Bott ‘squeaming until I’m sick’) but I had never actually read the book, and The Bookboy has very kindly lent me the whole series of ten novels.

‘Just William’, though I am sure most people have read it already, is a collection of tales about William Brown a rather scruffy and outdoorsy eleven year old who very much lives in the world of make believe of Indians and pirates and who sees every day as an adventure, much to the annoyance of his family and the local people he lives near by. That is except for the other local boys with whom he causes all sorts of mischief in their troupe ‘The Outlaws’. This first book sees William in all sorts of japes such as trying to avoid being a page boy, falling for the same woman as his brother – well she does love playing Indians after all, taking over a sweet shop and babysitting all with rather comic and naughty outcomes.

Reading them as an adult I did chuckle quite a few times, I would have loved to have been left a ‘Ye Olde Sweet Shop’ at my disposal at eleven and would quite possibly have ended up in the same situation too, yet what I found the most interesting thing about it was that reading it now it feels like a really insightful insight into society at the time of the 1920’s. For example the father of the family seems to come home from work in a rather bad mood every day, find the children rather a trivial burden and then disappear of to the study and Mum seems to spend most of the day in a frantic whirl despite the fact she has a maid and a cook. It’s slightly stereotyped and yet you can’t help feeling this was possibly the way things simply were at the time in that kind of society.  Sorry I have gone all historical and digressed!

I have to admit that I was left wondering if kids nowadays will quite get it. There’s no magic, no ending up lost on a treasure island or monsters to deal with but that was what charmed me in a way. Maybe with the new show coming a new wave of fans will find William Brown, let’s hope so because he is quite the character. I was let down a little by the fact there was no Violet Elizabeth Bott in this collection and I noticed it, I also enjoyed the book a little bit more for the history than the stories but I will continue with them. 6.5/10

I have discovered that Richmal Compton wrote lots and lots of non-William based books which I have a feeling considering the era they were written in I might love. Have any of you tried them?

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Filed under Macmillan Publishers, Review, Richmal Crompton

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

I wasn’t sure how I would react to the very real non fiction of ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot as firstly I have been very close to someone dying of cancer when I went and looked after my granddad (Granny Savidge Reads husband) during the last 7 weeks of his life three years ago and therefore I could have a rather emotional response which could be good or bad. Secondly I have never been a big fan of all things scientifical (is that a word), I was hopeless at science, not helped by the fact my Mum was dating and pregnant by my science teacher – who is now my stepdad – and taught at the school so science as a subject was a write off in my moody teenage  years and has been since on the whole. Despite all this I really, really, really wanted to read the story of Henrietta Lacks when I heard about it on the radio and though it was  full of science and made me cry it is an utterly incredible read.

I doubt any thoughts that I try and jot down on ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ will be able to do justice to the book itself but I will try my hardest. To talk about the book I am going to have to give some of true Henrietta Lacks story away but before embarking on the novel you are more than likely to know all this already. Henrietta Lacks was a woman living on the edge of constant poverty in Virginia when in 1951 she discovered she had a ‘knot’ in her body and didn’t feel right. It was soon discovered that she had cancer and though she didn’t know it, or tell anyone, initially at the time this was a devastatingly aggressive kind.

Whist undergoing her treatment some cells were taken from her cervix, she had no knowledge of this, which became the first cells which could live and thrive outside the body, and they were named the ‘immortal’ HeLa cells. What Rebecca Skloot does is not only discover just  what those cells have been used for (nuclear tests, the combating of all sorts of diseases like polio – which I only just had a jab for so made me think even further, I could go on and on but you need to read it to believe it) and how they have changed the world, she also finds out about who Henrietta Lacks was.

Skloot has clearly done hours and hours of research on the facts; looking through documents surrounding HeLa cells and passes this onto the reader without ever bombarding them with too much or showing off the level of work that has gone into this book. She also makes things like cell lines, tissue culture and genetic make up easy to digest and appeal to the layman (i.e. me) which having a BS in Biological Science I thought she might just assume we all knew what she did and she doesn’t. In fact its Skloot’s personal obsession with discovering who this woman was as well as her medical knowledge that adds a certain human something to this novel and that certain something is passion and it’s contagious.

Skloot has spent with those who knew Henrietta while she was alive and most importantly her descendants and in particular her daughter Deborah who didn’t know her mother as she was very small when she died but desperately wants to know all Skloot can find out about her. You are soon drawn into a vivid world of just what it was like for the tobacco farmers in Virginia in the early 1920’s onwards and the true, and quite unbelievable, story of one particular young woman and the family she left behind. What becomes even more shocking to the reader is not only that Henrietta had no idea what her cells would have done in the world after she had departed it but also that despite all these cells have done her family have made nothing from it, whilst companies have made millions, and can barely afford their own healthcare.  

You see there is so much in this book that it’s really, really hard to do it justice in any kind of way. It’s book that will open your eyes to some of the most important times in modern science, the not that distant injustice of racial segregation was till going on (Henrietta was on a coloured only ward) and a real life family drama that you couldn’t possibly believe isn’t fiction, but its all very real and makes for an incredibly emotional and utterly brilliant book. I cannot recommend this enough; it’s definitely one of my books of the year, if not the book of the year so far for me. It’s emotional, angering, thought provoking and mind expanding, its also incredibly readable and an important book too. Read it! 10/10

I don’t want to say anymore than that (though I could go on and on) so I won’t. Well, I will repeat that last sentence… Read it, you really need to.

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Filed under Books of 2010, Macmillan Publishers, Rebecca Skloot, Review