Review: Radio Sunrise

The pitch for Anietie Isong’s Radio Sunrise caught my eye because it seemed to be about making a documentary in Nigeria; plus, other sites describe it as satirical:

Ifiok, a young journalist working for the government radio station in Lagos, aspires to always do the right thing but the odds seem to be stacked against him. Government pressures cause the funding to his radio drama to get cut off, his girlfriend leaves him when she discovers he is having an affair with an intern, and kidnappings and militancy are on the rise in the country. When Ifiok travels to his hometown to do a documentary on some ex-militants’ apparent redemption, a tragicomic series of events will make him realise he is unable to swim against the tide.

Rather than being a teaser, this blurb is more like a summary. What I took as introductory/set-up material forms the first half of the novel. Ifiok doesn’t leave for his village until after the 50% mark and the documentary is pushed to the margins. The plot moves well and events accumulate naturally, but they’re often described in a cursory manner that doesn’t give a reader’s imagination much to do.

Ifiok is introduced as an observant journalist in the opening chapter, but so much sound, color, and vivacity are only hinted at. Things are often beautiful, opulent, or poor with few visual cues or specific details. A non-spoiler example: There is a scene in which Ifiok discusses fancy office chairs with a man who has purchased them via questionable funds. There’s a wall of dialogue about these chairs and their cost, but the reader doesn’t have a mental image to form his or her own opinion because the chairs aren’t described. Reading this scene feels like being the third wheel while two friends share an inside joke.

This sounds like a petty complaint and, if this were the only scene like this, I wouldn’t mention it. But there’s a curious mix of too much information and not enough throughout the book. Because Radio Sunrise is dialogue-heavy, conversations are the basis for most character development. The supporting cast is largely introduced via their conversations with Ifiok. Small talk is conveyed in great detail, but scenes often end when the real conversation starts, only for Ifiok to summarize its point and conclusion later. This makes it hard to connect with characters because the moments that would illuminate their views and motivations are happening off-screen.

It’s one thing to have small moments happen off the page, but there’s an instant in the climax when Ifiok is at his most passionate that should have been shown. He’s engaged in a screaming match, yet his words are unknown to the reader. Why? Because Ifiok can’t remember what he said. If he wants to forego a verbatim account, that’s one thing, but to not even give the reader a paraphrased piece of his mind? You could say Ifiok’s memory gap helps to reinforce the novel’s point, but a story and its subtext should not be at odds in such a way that one weakens the other. The ending is diminished for not hearing Ifiok’s views, even if his forgetfulness might be part of the story.

As to the positive, I liked that the story was told from Ifiok’s perspective as he tries to remain an ethical journalist—one who doesn’t prioritize bribes and money over reporting. The pacing is solid and the dialogue is ambitious; the dialogue does a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of character and plot development. There’s potential here too. Throughout, I wondered if this story would work better as a (long) short story or novella. If it were pared down, some of the transitions would be less jarring and the ending wouldn’t feel so rough. Ambiguous endings seem easier to take with short fiction, perhaps because there is much less of an investment (time- and otherwise).

Overall: 3.5 out of 5

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Jacaranda Books (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: NetGalley

Review: New Boy

I have ambivalent feelings towards Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy. Everything I would label as a weakness is either justified within the text, or partially required by her allegiance to her inspiration: OthelloNew Boy is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare project which asks modern authors for retellings of Shakespeare’s works. Some of Chevalier’s nods to Othello are clever, but some are gimmicky because conflicts originally depicted between adults can’t be mapped 1:1 onto 11-year-olds at recess. Since every negative is at least partially justifiable, I’m going to break from my usual format and adopt a criticism/response style. I usually recommend books to people because I think they’ll enjoy them, but I’m going to recommend New Boy to hear what my fellow bloggers and friends make of it.

From Goodreads:
Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat’s son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players—teachers and pupils alike—will never be the same again.

Everything occurs within a single school day, but Chevalier doesn’t let anything happen without explaining how it fits into the playground’s social hierarchy or into a character’s arc, or its function as a statement on gender/race/society, etc. There are heaps of flashbacks and establishing details. So many are offered that otherwise tense scenes are interrupted to explain something that the reader has picked up on already, either from previous flashbacks or from observing the characters. The short time frame requires these clarifications, but their overabundance makes it clear that a one-day setting is less than ideal. Also, the heavy/poetic descriptions of love and betrayal don’t ring quite true.

The short time frame increases the tension and simulates the heightened emotions you’d get in a play. Also, splitting the sections by school period smooths transitions, keeps the focus on the kids’ interactions, grounds the story in time, and charmingly mimics the structure of a play. As to the endless cutaways? Well, surely some readers enjoy a barrage of minute details…

The narrative voice is childlike. It speaks simply and overuses never (76 times) and always (44 times). (When running a search on my Kindle, I noticed an unhighlighted “never” so these counts may actually be too low.) It adds to the schoolyard vibe, but it’s monotonous. The voice can’t decide whether it wants to transport the reader back to an eleven-year-old’s way of thinking, or be an adult to explain social interactions for the reader. Is it a voice from the playground? Or the voice of a Psych 101 professor?

Man, does this book bring back memories of recess! As I read, I remembered turning ropes for double-dutch and eating honeysuckle on the swings with startling clarity. Chevalier’s simple prose gives just enough that the reader can add in the details from their own childhood to fill in scenes. Every playground stereotype is present, so New Boy is guaranteed to trigger a memory for the reader. Sure, the kids speak like adults, but they tend to do so in scenes where they’re adopting their parents’ (society’s) views on race or acting the way they think they “should” act. Why shouldn’t the kids analyze their actions and motives with an air of self-awareness? Everyone thinks they’ve got it all figured out no matter what their age.

Why middle-schoolers? I hope this was inspired by something more than to be as different from Othello as possible. The ending is too much for the story. It’s not dramatic—it’s exaggerated and overdone. It’s hard to imagine the conclusion developing organically outside Othello‘s influence.

If the group were any younger, it wouldn’t work. If they were adults, it would be too similar to the original play. This book should nod to Othello, not seek to recreate it.

Why can’t anyone have a frank conversation? One line of dialogue could fix everything. This is more frustrating because we hear again and again how intelligent Dee and Osei are. Can they really be so oblivious?

…because it’s a tragedy? And they’re children—middle-schoolers don’t speak plainly to their crushes.

Why does Dee have to be ridiculously special? She’s so unusual that Chevalier can’t even describe her in the usual ways. After describing Dee as beautiful, she explains how this word isn’t typically used for a child, but that Dee is the exception. She’s also the teacher’s pet and popular. She’s smart, likable, beautiful (apparently), and every kind of awesome with a side of awesome. Is the point supposed to be that racism is so entrenched that the only kid who can see Osei as a person is the super-special one? Maybe, but this is dangerously close to the reason Atticus Finch has to be perfect and he made me roll my eyes too. Even when perfect in service to a larger point, superlative characters are one-dimensional and boring. Somewhat ironically, Osei’s own super-specialness complicates things. He’s the son of a diplomat and lives on the wealthy side of town; even if he were white, there’d be a culture gap between him and the other kids.

Of course everyone is a bit flat and set in their roles. It’s based on a play. These characters are a distillation of [something something] which strengthens the [yada yada]. Hrm. I don’t have a proper response to this criticism… Flat characters and slim development only work for me in satire or very short fiction.

Overall: 3.4  There are some strong moments, but I grew tired of having the story over-explained. So many tangents and flashbacks kept the action at a distance, which made it feel shallow. As a retelling of Othello, it’s creative and features some inventive tributes. If I’d read it in school alongside the play, the class discussion would have been much livelier.

Translation: Read it. I really want to hear what other people think of this book.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Crown Publishing, Hogarth (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: House of Names

I joined NetGalley when I heard Colm Tóibín’s House of Names was available. My second major was in Classical Languages (Latin & Greek) and I’ve got a weak spot for mythology. Unlike other retellings which co-opt old themes for a modern take, Tóibín’s House of Names keeps the original names and plot basics. Before Agamemnon sails for Troy, he sacrifices his daughter, Iphigenia, to turn the wind in his favor. His devastated wife, Clytemnestra, plots his demise and kills him upon his return. This backdrop, which Tóibín swiftly sets up and delivers, stays true to the original but he alters the framing. The women—Clytemnestra and her daughters, Iphigenia and Electra—are in the foreground; Agamemnon and his son, Orestes, move to the back.

House of Names is written from three perspectives: those of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. There is some overlap between their perspectives, but each moves the story forward instead of rehashing the past. Clytemnestra’s voice opens the book. Through white-hot rage and grief, she describes her husband’s deception. He told her a marriage had been arranged between Iphigenia and Achilles. Clytemnestra doesn’t learn that her daughter is a sacrifice, not a bride, until it’s too late. I remember reading about Iphigenia as a sort of footnote to the Trojan War’s beginning—her death was glossed over on the way to the main story. In Tóibín’s version, it’s less a kick-off event than the foundation for everything that comes after.

House of Names carries an emotional punch that doesn’t exist in the original plays. While some passages in the source material may be moving or evocative, they don’t touch the interior lives of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra. Truth be told, I’ve never enjoyed reading plays; they seem so lifeless on the page. And what Tóibín does with Clytemnestra’s internal agony and the physical nature of her grief could never be condensed into a series of monologues.

After Agamemnon’s death, Clytemnestra’s first-person narration switches to a close third-person voice following Orestes. Initially, Orestes’ story meanders. After Clytemnestra’s bombastic opening, he appears weak and malleable. If given a choice between characters to narrate the rest of the story, no one would choose Orestes and the downgrade from first to third person keeps him at a distance. Though his situation is precarious, it doesn’t feel urgent. But his voice grew on me. As much as Orestes wants to join in and connect with those around him, he can’t. He was young when Iphigenia was killed and he doesn’t understand her death in the same way as his mother and sister; the years he spends away from home separate him from palace intrigue; and, when he does return, his status as prince divides him from the only person he trusts. He’s alone and not even the reader can get close. Told any other way, his actions at the novel’s close might feel uncharacteristic and gratuitous.

What ultimately elevates this book in my estimation is the way the acts of revenge that open and close the book strike such different chords. A lesser author would have put these acts in strict parallel or used cheap, emotionally manipulative tricks to set them apart. The beginning is quid-pro-quo, but the end is nuanced and unsettling. (That’s as much as I can say without spoilers.) The only place House of Names loses a point with me is with a relationship towards the end of the book—the characters are pushed together and it feels like a bid to tidy up an otherwise messy ending.

There are some pretty big deviations from the source plays (which offer their own discrepancies), but I look at this book the way I look at any adaptation or retelling: as its own work. I don’t want a carbon copy of something I’ve already read—I want to see something familiar through a new lens or in a new style. Taken on its own merits, House of Names is impossible to put down. Tóibín‘s prose is lyrical and often heart-wrenching. This is the best book I’ve read all year.

Overall: 4.9 out of 5.0 I’m not a purist, so changes from the classics don’t bother me. Tóibín’s language is rich and beautiful; he gives Clytemnestra a voice she doesn’t have anywhere else.

Translation: Read it. Once my ARC expires, I’m going to pick up a paper copy.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Scribner (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: Minds of Winter

As you can tell from my love letter to The North Water, I like books set in the arctic. When I was a kid, I wanted to be an explorer right after my ballerina phase and just before my Indiana Jones phase. (Current phase: I want an office with a door.) I excitedly requested Ed O’Loughlin’s Minds of Winter from NetGalley when I saw the Franklin Expedition’s prominent place in the blurb:

In a journey shrouded in mystery and intrigue, Sir John Franklin’s 1895 campaign in search of the Northwest Passage ended in tragedy. All 129 men were lost to the ice, and nothing from the expedition was retrieved, including two rare and valuable Greenwich chronometers. When one of the chronometers appears a century and a half later in London, in pristine condition and crudely disguised as a Victorian carriage clock, new questions arise about what really happened on that expedition—and the fates of the men involved.

There are many new questions, but few answers. Most chapters are flashbacks to historical events, but two modern-day characters, Nelson and Fay, surface regularly to frame the historical anecdotes without quite tying them together. The best parts of Minds of Winter are the accounts of various expeditions sent to search for the Franklin Expedition and the fabled Northern Passage.

The strongest chapters are those most rooted in history, but some passages are more effective than others. The first occurs in 1841 as Sir John Franklin’s niece, Sophia, opens a dance. While she spends time with Captains Ross and Crozier (the eventual captain of the H.M.S. Terror), there’s more detail in her character than almost any other in the novel. Her passage closely follows her inner turmoil and excitement. Unlike other sections that stuff in years of biographical details and character development, Sophia’s chapter describes a single night. It’s a beautiful and immersive scene that allows the reader to see these men from an outsider’s perspective.

Other characters and voices are captured well too, but the scene frequently changes just as their story reaches its climax or introduces an intriguing detail. Minds of Winter is ambitious; many chapters raise the curtain on a new set of characters and the reader must trust that these characters are relevant to the overall narrative. Often, the connections are tenuous and slow to appear amidst an onslaught of background information and context. It was tough seeing one story end just as I became acquainted with its style and peripheral characters, only to be introduced to another group from another decade. The overall story is slow to appear; seeds of a conspiracy are planted, but come to nothing. It’s true that open endings can spur a fun debate, but this ending is too open for my taste.

Some people will really enjoy this book and there’s an easy way to ensure you will too: Do research before reading or keep a search engine up. Familiarize yourself with the names of the Franklin Expedition and some of the key players in the later search parties up through Amundsen’s flight over the North Pole. If you know the names of key characters, the blend of fact/fiction is impressive. More than anything, this dictated my enjoyment of a chapter: familiar names elicited curiosity and excitement while unfamiliar names added to the quagmire of places, dates, and names—so many names!—of people, cities, ships, waterways, etc. Being able to appreciate the blend of fact and fiction is key to appreciating this book.

Overall: 3.8 The mechanics and writing are sound, but the story meanders in ways I found difficult to follow. The Nelson/Fay chapters fall flat when surrounded by the adventures of more dynamic, adventuresome people.

Translation: Research a bit, then read the book. I plan to add this book to my list of books to reread in 5-10 years. Knowing what to expect, I imagine I’ll enjoy it much more.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus (via NetGalley)
Image Credit: Goodreads