Review: WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan (Harper Collins/Knopf/Serpent’s Tail)

EdugyanE-WashingtonBlackCAA gripping, beautifully written story about freedom, science, and finding one’s place in a hostile world

When two English brothers arrive at a Barbados sugar plantation, they bring with them a darkness beyond what the slaves have already known. Washington Black – an eleven year-old field slave – is horrified to find himself chosen to live in the quarters of one of these men. But the man is not as Washington expects him to be. His new master is the eccentric Christopher Wilde – naturalist, explorer, inventor and abolitionist – whose obsession to perfect a winged flying machine disturbs all who know him. Washington is initiated into a world of wonder: a world where the night sea is set alight with fields of jellyfish, where a simple cloth canopy can propel a man across the sky, where even a boy born in chains may embrace a life of dignity and meaning – and where two people, separated by an impossible divide, can begin to see each other as human.

But when a man is killed one fateful night, Washington is left to the mercy of his new masters. Christopher Wilde must choose between family ties and young Washington’s life. What follows is a flight along the eastern coast of America, as the men attempt to elude the bounty that has been placed on Washington’s head. Their journey opens them up to the extraordinary: to a dark encounter with a necropsicist, a scholar of the flesh; to a voyage aboard a vessel captained by a hunter of a different kind; to a glimpse through an unexpected portal into the Underground Railroad. This is a novel of fraught bonds and betrayal. What brings Wilde and Washington together ultimately tears them apart, leaving Washington to seek his true self in a world that denies his very existence.

From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy plains of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness of life. This inventive, electrifying novel asks, What is Freedom? And can a life salvaged from the ashes ever be made whole?

I first learned of Esi Edugyan’s latest novel when the Man Booker Long-list was announced. I was surprised that a novel that wasn’t even out yet would be on the long-list, but it led me to try to hunt down a copy. Harper Collins Canada was very kind in supplying me with an ARC, and I started reading it the weekend before it was published. I really enjoyed reading this novel. Continue reading

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Upcoming: THE BIRD KING by G. Willow Wilson (Grove)

WilsonGW-BirdKingUSG. Willow Wilson is the author of the critically-acclaimed, award-winning Alif the Unseen (an NPR and Washington Post Best Book of the Year) and the critically-acclaimed Ms. Marvel comic series. I’ve long been a fan of her work, and her next novel has really caught my attention. The Bird King is described as “a fantastical journey set at the height of the Spanish Inquisition” and “a jubilant story of love versus power, religion versus faith, and freedom versus safety”, here’s the official synopsis:

Set in 1491 during the reign of the last sultanate in the Iberian peninsula, The Bird King is the story of Fatima, the only remaining Circassian concubine to the sultan, and her dearest friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan has a secret — he can make maps of places he’s never seen and bend the shape of reality with his pen and paper. His magical gift has proven useful to the sultan’s armies in wartime and entertained a bored Fatima who has never stepped foot outside the palace walls.

When a party representing the newly formed Spanish monarchy arrives to negotiate the terms of the sultan’s surrender, Fatima befriends one of the women, little realizing that her new friend Luz represents the Inquisition, and will see Hassan’s gift as sorcery, and a threat to Christian Spanish rule. With everything on the line, what will Fatima risk to save Hassan, and taste the freedom she has never known?

Fatima and Hassan traverse Iberia to the port, helped along the way by a jinn who has taken a liking to them — Vikram the Vampire, who readers may remember from Alif the Unseen. Pursued all the while by Luz, who somehow always seems to know where they will end up, they narrowly escape from her generals by commandeering a ship, and accidentally also the snoozing Breton monk belowdecks. Though they are unsure whether to trust him, because he is a member of the very same faith they are running from, they nevertheless set about learning from him how to crew a ship. And as it becomes clearer both that there is no place on the mainland that they will be safe, and that the three of them are destined to stay together, they set out to do something they never thought possible — to find the mysterious, possibly mythic island of The Bird King, whose shifting boundaries will hopefully keep them safe.

An epic adventure to find safety in a mythical realm, The Bird King challenges us to consider what true love is and the price of freedom at a time when the West and the Muslim world were not yet separate.

The Bird King is due to be published by Grove on March 12th, 2019.

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Upcoming: AMERICAN POP by Snowden Wright (William Morrow)

WrightS-AmericanPopUSI already have a review copy of Snowden Wright‘s upcoming American Pop — the fictionalized story of the Forsters, the founders of America’s first major soft-drink company. I’ll probably be reading it very soon, though I’ll be holding off on posting a review until closer to its release date (it’s now due to hit shelves until next year…) Now that there’s a cover, though, I decided to feature it on CR. Here’s the synopsis, which caught my attention:

The story of a family.

The story of an empire.

The story of a nation.

Moving from Mississippi to Paris to New York and back again, an epic saga of family, ambition, passion, and tragedy that brings to life one unforgettable Southern dynasty — the Forsters, founders of the world’s first major soft-drink company — against the backdrop of more than a century of American cultural history.

The child of immigrants, Houghton Forster has always wanted more — from his time as a young boy in Mississippi, working twelve-hour days at his father’s drugstore; to the moment he first laid eyes on his future wife, Annabelle Teague, a true Southern belle of aristocratic lineage; to his invention of the delicious fizzy drink that would transform him from tiller boy into the founder of an empire, the Panola Cola Company, and entice a youthful, enterprising nation entering a hopeful new age.

Now the heads of a preeminent American family spoken about in the same breath as the Hearsts and the Rockefellers, Houghton and Annabelle raise their four children with the expectation they’ll one day become world leaders. The burden of greatness falls early on eldest son Montgomery, a handsome and successful politician who has never recovered from the horrors and heartbreak of the Great War. His younger siblings Ramsey and Lance, known as the “infernal twins,” are rivals not only in wit and beauty, but in their utter carelessness with the lives and hearts of others. Their brother Harold, as gentle and caring as the twins can be cruel, is slowed by a mental disability — and later generations seem equally plagued by misfortune, forcing Houghton to seriously consider: who should control the company after he’s gone?

An irresistible tour de force of original storytelling, American Pop blends fact and fiction, the mundane and the mythical, and utilizes techniques of historical reportage to capture how, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words, “families are always rising and falling in America,” and to explore the many ways in which nostalgia can manipulate cultural memory — and the stories we choose to tell about ourselves.

American Pop is due to be published by William Morrow on February 5th, 2019. (As far as I can tell, it will be available on import in the UK, but not sure if it’s getting a full release.) The novel has already been getting some great advance praise. For example, this blurb from Jonathan Dee:

“The House of Forster is built on bubbles; watching each wealth-addled generation try not to blow the family fortune and/or disgrace its name provides not only excellent Gothic fun but a panoramic tour of the American Century — and Snowden Wright’s voice has all the Southern charm and lightly worn wisdom you’d expect from a writer with a name like Snowden Wright.”

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Upcoming: WASHINGTON BLACK by Esi Edugyan (Harper Collins / Knopf / Serpent’s Tail)

EdugyanE-WashingtonBlack

I first learned of Esi Edugyan‘s Washington Black after I saw it announced that it was on the Man Booker Prize longlist — despite not yet being available. (I still find it a little strange when as-yet-unreleased novels are included on prize lists.) Nevertheless, I think it sounds really interesting:

When two English brothers take the helm of a Barbados sugar plantation, Washington Black — an eleven year-old field slave — finds himself selected as personal servant to one of these men. The eccentric Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde is a naturalist, explorer, scientist, inventor and abolitionist, whose single-minded pursuit of the perfect aerial machine mystifies all around him.

Titch’s idealistic plans are soon shattered and Washington finds himself in mortal danger. They escape the island together, but then then Titch disappears and Washington must make his way alone, following the promise of freedom further than he ever dreamed possible.

From the blistering cane fields of Barbados to the icy wastes of the Canadian Arctic, from the mud-drowned streets of London to the eerie deserts of Morocco, Washington Black teems with all the strangeness and mystery of life. Inspired by a true story, Washington Black is the extraordinary tale of a world destroyed and made whole again.

I can’t wait to read this novel. Washington Black to due to be published in Canada by Harper Collins (September 4th); in the US by Knopf (September 18th); and in the UK Serpent’s Tail (August 2nd).

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads

Upcoming: TIME WAS by Ian McDonald (Tor.com)

McDonald-TimeWasYesterday, Tor.com unveiled the cover for Ian McDonald‘s upcoming novella, Time Was. I think it sounds really interesting. Here’s the synopsis:

A love story stitched across time and war, shaped by the power of books, and ultimately destroyed by it.

In the heart of World War II, Tom and Ben became lovers. Brought together by a secret project designed to hide British targets from German radar, the two founded a love that could not be revealed. When the project went wrong, Tom and Ben vanished into nothingness, presumed dead. Their bodies were never found.

Now the two are lost in time, hunting each other across decades, leaving clues in books of poetry and trying to make their desperate timelines overlap.

Time Was is due to be published by Tor.com in April 2018, in North America and in the UK. McDonald’s latest series is the Luna series: New Moon and Wolf Moon (published by Tor Books in the US, and Gollancz in the UK).

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

Interview with ANNA SMAILL

smailla-authorpicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Anna Smaill?

I’m the author of The Chimes, a dystopian novel about a world dominated by music. The Chimes is my first novel, though I’ve also published a collection of poetry – The Violinist in Spring. I spent many of my formative years studying the violin, and music has been a big influence on both my poetry and fiction. I also currently teach New Zealand literature in the English programme at Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. My husband Carl Shuker is also a novelist.

Your World Fantasy Award-winning novel, The Chimes, published by Quercus in North America, is out now in paperback. It looks rather fascinating: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?

The Chimes takes place in a world where music has replaced the written word, has become a force of communication, and is the highest form of intellectual and spiritual pursuit. The book explores music as a totalitarian force, and asks how something so beautiful might also be a source of violence and control. It is a standalone novel. I haven’t entirely ruled out returning to the world of the book, largely because I would love to check in on the two key characters Simon and Lucien and see how they’re getting on. This is largely nostalgia, though. I felt a real sense of loss when I finished the novel, and I still miss the sense of immersion in that world. Continue reading

Excerpt: DESPITE THE FALLING SNOW by Shamim Sarif (John Blake Books)

SarifS-DespiteTheFallingSnowShamim Sarif‘s Despite the Falling Snow is out today, published by John Blake Books. Below, you will find a short excerpt from the novel. Before that, though, here’s the synopsis:

The enthralling narrative of Shamim Sarif’s powerful second novel moves between present day Boston and 1950s Moscow.

After an early career amongst the political elite of Cold War Russia, Alexander Ivanov has built a successful business in the States.

For forty years, he has buried the tragic memories surrounding his charismatic late wife, Katya — or so he believes. For into his life come two women — one who will open up the heart he has protected for so long; another who is determined to uncover what really happened to Katya so long ago. The novel’s journey back to the snowbound streets of post-Stalinist Moscow reveals a world of secrets and treachery.

Shamim Sarif’s elegant writing delicately evokes the intensity of passionate love and tragic violence.

Continue reading