Given that I originally planned to get this website up and running earlier in the year, I thought I should share a few personal recommendations for books released over the last few months.
Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist – Sunil Yapa
Release Date: 04/02/2016
Publisher (UK): Little Brown Book Group
Pages: 320pp RRP: £14.99 (Hardback)
Kindle edition available here (£7.99)
When a debut novel opens by dropping the reader into the thick of a major protest – in this case the WTO Protests of 1999 (also known as the Battle of Seattle), and then powers along with a vibrant narrative throughout – it’s hard not to take notice. Sunil Yapa has made some waves with this piece, and I can see why.
Yapa shifts the focus between an interconnected group of protesters, the police guarding the conference, and a Sri Lankan envoy. For the most part, these characters provide some fascinating insights to different aspects of the anti-globalisation movement, and those affected by it. However, the novel tends to favour certain characters at the expense of others, leaving some of the cast less fleshed out – and it noticeably stumbles with its portrayal of women involved in the events of the novel (especially in the case of Officer Ju, where the opportunity to address the persistence of misogyny in activism is set aside in favour of showing off how tough she is). Violence also permeates the work, especially when the focus shifts to seek out what makes violence legitimate, but it never really provides a satisfactory answer. Whilst that may be frustrating, Yapa at least leaves us with some interesting idea by the end, some of which could inform our understanding of anti-globalisation efforts, and the act of protest in general.
The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor LaValle
Release Date: 04/02/2016
Publisher: Tor Books
Pages: 154pp RRP: £8.99 (Paperback)
Kindle edition available here (£2.15)
The works of Lovecraft were incredibly influential in the development of horror media in the twentieth century (if only for the introduction of ‘cosmic horror’). You’d be hard pressed not to find some sort of Cthulhu reference (or edition of a game) in the many avenues of modern nerd culture. Sadly, those works also carry a hideous stain with them: the prejudices and bigotry of HP Lovecraft himself (seriously, he was a pretty vile human being).
Victor LaValle openly describes his complicated relationship with the works of Lovecraft, before setting about the task of honouring the horror of the source material, whilst tackling the bigotry in its core. He retells one of Lovecraft’s most notoriously racist short stories, The Horror at Red Hook (1927), where Detective Malone investigates the sinister Robert Suydam of Red Hook, Brooklyn, and his plans to unleash the Elder Gods on this realm. Lovecraft presented the influx of witchcraft and dark magic into the area as being down to the increased presence of Asian and West Indian immigrants – all of whom are under the influence of Suydam.
LaValle takes this story as his foundation and builds something better on it. In his version, we’re introduced to Charles Thomas Tester, a young hustler who knows his fair share of magic and how to play its users (to the point of tearing a page out of a magical tome he’s delivering at the opening of the story, thereby rendering it useless to the buyer). When the other-worldly Suydam takes an interest an interest in him, Tommy soon discovers he’s out of his depth, with Suydam seeking to bring about an apocalypse where the ‘worthy’ shall serve the Sleeping King, and with Tommy stuck surrounded by a horde of acolytes only too happy to join this mad quest.
This is a great novella that took an awful story and made something better out of it, all whilst putting the boot to a bigot. There’s a part of my inner nerd that wants to see him do this with more of Lovecraft’s work, but either way, I’m looking forward to his next release.
The Sympathizer – Viet Thanh Nguyen
Release Date: 04/02/2016
Publisher: Little Brown Book Group
Pages: 384pp RRP: £18.99 (Hardback)
Epub edition available here (£5.99)
Nguyen recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for this work, and it’s easy to see why. He’s created a fascinating hybrid – something between a war novel, a spy novel, a philosophical novel, and a media critique.
Opening with a graphic rendering of the Fall of Saigon in 1975, the narrator (The Captain) is presented as an incredibly self-conscious intellectual stuck between worlds. The illegitimate son of an absent French father and a teenage Vietnamese villager, having survived a college education in 1960s America and at odds with the world around him, he’s now a double agent placed within the South Vietnamese security forces (serving under The General), reporting back to higher-ups in the Viet Cong. Following the evacuation, he finds himself resettling with the refugees in California, where alongside an interesting depiction of immigrant life in 1970s/80s America, his involvement in the attempts of The General to launch a counterrevolution (as both confidant and observer) draws him into the orbit of US politicians seeking to fund anti-communist efforts abroad and eccentric Hollywood filmmakers – all while maintaining his cover. All of this forms an increasingly absurd chain of events, throughout which The Captain seeks to remain ambivalent. A prime example of this, and one of the stand-out moments of the novel, comes when Nguyen looks at how Vietnam was unique in its depiction in media (where history used to be written by the victor, it wasn’t in this instance), creating what has become one of my favourite critiques/satires of Apocalypse Now.
That said, Nguyen’s prose can at times be a little overwrought, and The Captain is prone to frequent grandstanding on the ills of American life, Catholicism and east/west stereotypes. However, even with these key problems, this still ends being an excellent piece of work, with an eerie resonance with current events.