Book Review: The Brilliant & Forever by Kevin MacNeil

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A review of The Brilliant and Forever, written by Catriona Robertson, FHSCE Liaison Support Librarian

MacNeil is a wordsmith and the novel delights with beautifully written passages and moments of unexpected humour which bring to light the human condition.

After having read and loved another one of Kevin MacNeil’s books, The Stornoway Way, I was really excited to see that his new book, The Brilliant and Forever, was shortlisted for the KU Big Read and jumped at the chance to read it. I certainly wasn’t disappointed!

The Brilliant and Forever is set on a nameless island where humans and alpacas live unharmoniously side by side. There are lots of parallels that can be drawn between the island and the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, where MacNeil grew up. Anyone from a small town can surely empathise with some of the idiosyncrasies of island life.

The novel centres around an annual book festival held on the island called The Brilliant and Forever. The festival draws an eclectic crowd of locals and literary types from further afield, who hope to make a name for themselves in this remote and strange place. We see events unfold from the perspective of our nameless protagonist, who is best friends with Macy and Archie the alpaca. Our protagonist is a contemplative man who experiences moments of clarity and calm, particularly whilst cycling around the island. As the reader, you can’t help but share his love and endearment for his companions. Macy defies conventions and is full of kooky ideas and witticisms and the funny but anxious Archie is nobly leading a fight for alpaca rights. All three are aspiring writers taking part in the literary festival.

Within the book is a series of short stories which are all individual entries for the festival. Each of these stories are unique, fantastic, humorous and heart-breaking. Even in these individual tales, MacNeil’s voice comes through. There is an unbroken thread weaving the festival stories together with themes of empathy, identity, and loneliness emerging. MacNeil also brings together folklore traditions of storytelling and the modern world.

The island can be seen as a microcosm of our society. There are many divides on the island, from the rich whitehousers to the poorer blackhousers. Black houses are traditional houses from the Scottish Highlands and Islands, which were sometimes viewed as crude and inferior structures to the newer white houses. In the book, these houses represent the privileged and less privileged echelons of society. There is also divide between humans and alpacas. There are elements of segregation on the island, and alpacas are treated as second class citizens. Archie’s entry to the B&F festival is all the more remarkable as none of the judges are alpacas, and the publishers who hold power are all human. The privileged whitehousers have a veneer of respectability and civility but they struggle with perpetual unhappiness due to their materialistic culture. There are strong undercurrents of violence and an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality amongst the whitehousers.

As I read the book I found myself at times despairing and at times full of rage for the injustices Archie and others face in the novel. Ultimately, I felt uplifted by the examples of unlikely friendships and the vision of a fair and shared community for all. I’d definitely recommend this book. If you don’t enjoy it, in the words of Archie, “it’s a jazz thing you don’t get”.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Brilliant & Forever, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

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A review of The Penguin Lessons, written by Eduardo R. Garcia, Midwifery student

A foreign country in turmoil. An adventure. An unforgettable friendship.

The Penguin Lessons is a narrative told in first person by the author, Tom Michell, whose family members were distributed all over the world and inspired him with tales and stories about their discoveries, filling his imagination and making him familiar with these places. However, while this encouraged his adventurous spirit to take off, he was also moved by the desire to explore an unknown territory where his relatives had not been before, and hence why South America came as a perfect destination for his cause. Years later, during the 70s, an advertisement looking for staff in a Boarding School in Argentina would become his passage to his longed for adventure, fearless of the economic and political situation that whipped the country in the meantime.

What makes this personal journey especial is not only the wealth of insight into Argentina, its people and the description of a period that is long gone. The real core of the story is the friendship between Michell and Juan Salvador, or Juan Salvado: a penguin that our leading man rescued out of the jaws of death.

Michell’s action could have stayed as an anecdote in an otherwise more formal and serious narrative, however he decided to take the penguin under his arm and continue his travels, bringing Juan Salvado with him into the Boarding School, and making this the story of a lifetime. The bird, or the way that he is presented to us by Michell, makes us think of him as a character with his own personality and decision-making; he is a little fighter that serves as a main narrative thread, providing emotive and funny moments as this peculiar and almost fantastical relationship between bird and human develops.

Perfectly written, and unfolding wit and charm, Michell imagines the replies that Juan Salvado gives him through his eyes or actions, humanizing the character and making the readers understand his desire to protect the animal and why everyone around loves him, breaking the barriers that one could imagine as impregnable between a penguin and the human world. Because, at the end of the day, could a penguin belong with humans?

With the sensitivity of someone who has observed the damage that human actions could perpetrate in nature, the author inspires us to be considerate with the environment. Also, in reference to the title of the novel, Michell learns and demystifies knowledge and ideas about penguins, teaching us some tips in case, one day, we find ourselves in a similar situation and need to parent one of them.

Similar reads: Big Fish, Water for Elephants.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Penguin Lessons, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

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A review of The Power, written by Beth Jackson, FMBS Liaison Support Librarian

This powerful, provocative tale of how power corrupts will leave you questioning not only the dystopian world of Roxy, Allie, Margot and Tunde but our own society too. ‘Shockingly’ good.

How different would our world be if women were the dominant gender, wielding physical power over men? This is the central theme running through The Power, which examines how society changes after teenage girls suddenly develop the ability to discharge electricity through their hands. They soon learn they are able to awaken the power in older women too, and before long the entire female population are able to control, hurt and kill their oppressors – in this case, men.

How the global chaos unfolds is told through the stories of four central characters. Roxy, the daughter of a gangster, is caught in a criminal underworld and desperate to avenge her mother’s murder. Margot, a low-level American politician who once bestowed the power exploits it for political gain. Allie, a runaway who escapes her abusive foster father and becomes the leader of the new revolution, amassing followers who believe in the supremacy of women. Finally Tunde, a Nigerian journalist whose viral video of a teenager discharging her power on a male harasser kick-starts what becomes known as the ‘Day of the Girls’.

We see how their stories converge over the years as the power mechanics shift and belief systems change. Alderman does not present a matriarchal utopia by any means and graphically depicts the cruelty women are capable of. This can make for tough reading at times, but what’s most unsettling is that many of the displays of violence she posits are gender-flipped examples of the brutality inflicted on women in the real world. Considering the difficult and complex topics in the novel, the violence doesn’t feel gratuitous and serves a broader purpose of highlighting stereotypes about gender and illustrates how power can corrupt anyone.

It might not be the gentlest read among KU Big Read shortlist, but it is certainly packed with action, suspense and plenty of provocative scenes which will keep you ruminating long after you’ve finished the book.

Notable mention: If you are a fan of Margaret Atwood (particularly The Handmaid’s Tale) you might be interested to know she mentored Alderman back in 2012 (they co-wrote a zombie serialisation together!). Her influence can be felt in the storytelling and the dystopian themes underpinning the novel.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Power, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book Review: Radio Sunrise by Anietie Isong

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A review of Radio Sunrise, written by Dr Julia Wood, Senior Researcher

Ifiok, our narrator, is a journalist at Radio Sunrise in Lagos. In his world, the “brown envelop” is the driving force – it contains the bribes that decide which topics will be covered and how favourably. Sadly, he often lacks the money he needs to stuff his own envelops to procure the favours he needs to sweeten his life.

His assignments include some bizarre stories such as the missing penis case and the goat arrested for armed robbery. There are strange beliefs held by those around Ifiok. The devout Christian studio manager calls some airlines “diabolical transporters” who engineer crashes to suck the victims’ blood whilst his girlfriend considers his favourite restaurateur to be an evil being who sprinkles magical herbs by the door to increase the number of customers. Although Ifiok does not believe these stories he is concerned that a young woman may have put a love potion in his food.

Ifiok often feels sad about the bad things that happen in his country. The penis snatcher has petrol poured on him and is only saved from burning by an out of control truck scattering the crowd of vigilantes. He refers to a country of thieves: he steals stories from CNN, the radio station accountant steals his pen, and politicians steal votes while the rich steal from the poor. There is a policy to support local drama but prime time TV mostly shows dated Mexican soaps and his own radio drama has been cut.

Disappointments feature strongly in Ifiok’s story but Isong’s writing makes it colourful and humorous. The book is engaging and made me care deeply about what would happen to the narrator. It provided a window in to a world that is so different to anything I know from my life in London that the term ‘small world’ should be scrubbed out. I highly recommend it, enjoy!


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of Radio Sunrise, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book review: My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal

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A review of My Name is Leon, written by Joanne Powell, Senior Lecturer in General Practice Nursing

I so enjoyed reading and reviewing this beautifully and sensitively written book for The Big Read. The story starts with the birth of Jake and the reader soon realises that his mother, Carol, can’t cope.  Leon is nine years old and his baby brother, Jake, has just been born. The book describes a particularly difficult period during Leon’s childhood.

The book opens with his mother leaving Jake to go and have a cigarette leaving Leon and Jake together on their own.  Carol is also on her own as a single parent – both brothers have different and absent fathers and while Carol and Jake are white, Leon is mixed race. His father, Byron, is in prison, while Jake’s father, Tony, is in another relationship and has rejected Carol and Jake.

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Illustration and blurb extract

Carol has problems coping on her own and spirals into a desperate decline relying on Leon and often leaving him and Jake alone or with her neighbour, Tina. Tina raises the alarm when Leon, desperately hungry, asks Tina for money for food.   Jake and Leon go to live with Maureen, an emergency foster carer with “fuzzy red hair like a halo and a belly like Father Christmas”. Jake is soon adopted – he’s white and a baby and therefore in demand. But no one will adopt Leon who has a black father and is already too old.

This book is set during the 1980s in Birmingham during a troubled time characterized by racial tension – Irish republicanism and police brutality against black people that spark the riots of 1981. After a birthday present of a bike, Leon develops a sense of freedom and discovers the Rookery Road allotments. Here we are introduced to pivotal characters Tufty and Mr Devlin. They both introduce Leon to the concept of nurture through the planting and cultivating vegetables from seeds. However, the allotment is a political hotbed and racial tensions spark between Tufty, a West Indian political activist who Leon admires and Mr. Devlin, an aging member of the IRA. Leon, who listens too much at doorways and keyholes, is focused on being reunited with Jake and plots to find him.

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80s Boombox illustration from the book

This book is a page turner as you seek to find out how it works out for Leon. It provides an important and sometimes uncomfortable commentary on attitudes to parenting, race and adoption during the 1980’s. For me, being a child of the 1980’s, I found the descriptions of the racial tension and riots uncomfortable to read and it provoked distant memories. The novel is full of quietly shocking moments which also reveals how much child protection has moved on from 30 years ago.


If this brilliant review hasn’t already convinced you to read My Name is Leon, here’s another reason – it’s  now the winner of KU Big Read. Congratulations Kit De Waal!


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of My Name is Leon, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book review: The Elephant and the Bee by Jess de Boer

This is the first book review in a series of six for the KU Big Read @ St George’s Library. Each of the six shortlisted KU Big Read titles will be featured in a weekly review, written by a member of the University and FHSCE community.


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A review of The Elephant and the Bee, written by Natalie Pither, a 2nd year Midwifery student

This is Jess de Boer’s first book. She was born and raised in Nairobi, Kenya, into a privileged Dutch family. She was inspired from an early age to want to bring about change in the world. Following university, she had a wide variety of jobs from chef to office administrator and even as a representative for Kenya in women’s triathlon.

In The Elephant and the Bee we follow Jess’s story, in her own words, covering her extensive travels as she searches for the dream job that will really make a positive impact in the world.

The style is informal and easy to read. Within the serious message that Jess wants to convey about man’s destruction of the planet, there are moments of utter hilarity. This juxtaposition is enthralling and leads the reader on page by page and chapter by chapter, always wondering how the title of the book will eventually fit into the content.

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An example from the book of an illustration and instruction

Each chapter is prefaced by a cartoon and an amusing instruction to herself about what must be achieved ‘today’. On the cover, at the end of each chapter and at the beginning and end of the book, the reader is enticed by the design of the trail of a bee to follow the story further, adding to the attraction of the book design. This certainly encourages the reader to pick the book up and read on.

During the narrative we meet Jess’s family and friends. They provide her with not only moral support but importantly an endless source of contacts offering job opportunities the world over. It is hard not to admire her gung-ho attitude each time she prepares for the first day in a new job, often with no prior experience.

I found Jess’s narration endearing and informative in equal measure and would highly recommend this book to others. I believe it would make an excellent choice for the Big Read as it is so accessible and manages to cover some really important environmental issues.*


*Since this review was written it has been announced that My Name is Leon is the Big Read winner, although we’re sure that our readers will enjoy all of the shortlisted books.


Join the discussion. Tell us what you thought of The Elephant and the Bee, or what your favourite Big Read shortlisted book is. Come by the library to borrow a copy.

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Book review: Writing Essays by Pictures a workbook by Alke Gröppel-Wegener

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Learning Advocate Grace Pike’s review of Writing Essays by Pictures

ksAlke Gröppel-Wegener aims to make essay-writing fun. The book helps students by using bright colours, metaphors, visual analogies, tasks that include making reusable resources and encouraging exploratory writing. She starts from the beginnings of writing an essay to the end process of using feedback from your tutor. Visual analogies are present in each chapter in order to explain step-by-step the processes of research and writing at university and are especially aimed at those students who have not attended university before and are beginners to academic research.

Strengths

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Example of a visual analogy explaining ‘The Assembly Approach’

This book starts from the very basics of writing essays by breaking the stages of essay writing down, and explains terms along the way. It also explains that you do not have to use the visual analogies; you can use the book more flexibly in your own way. For those who shy away from essay writing or get bored of self-help essay writing guides, this book uses bright text and pictures to keep readers interested. There are tips to keep students focussed on the task at hand and throughout the book these tips and ideas are referred back to. There are clear explanations of what primary and secondary research is which can be a problem for some students during school and transitioning to university. When starting university and throughout their studies, some students can be unsure of how to take effective notes and this book presents innovative tips on note-taking. Group and reflective study is encouraged and this may be good for tutors as a teaching resource. There is also a link to additional tips and tricks on WordPress.

Weaknesses

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Orange and purple text and illustration.

Having shown the book to several academics and then reading the book, we all found the colour scheme and font colour to be lurid and difficult to read. Those who are not starting university and have written essays before may find this to be a patronising book as it is very basic. The visual analogies and metaphors are stretched and sometimes the images can break the text up too much and can be irrelevant.

In my own experience I have found that a scientific essay structure can vary from course to course and year to year so it may not always be suitable to use all the tips from this book. Having read the book in an hour it does make me wonder whether a student writing an essay would have time to do all the tasks along with the essay to make the whole experience effective. One particular chapter has a “sources address book or casefile” to write in for all the sources you might want to use in your bibliography or reference list. This may not be relevant to students at St George’s, as many students now use their devices to take notes and keep a track of sources. Some essay tips are ideas that should have been covered in school or college at GCSE level.

Conclusion

The content of the book may be useful for students who are unfamiliar with essay writing, and it may work as a refresher  as it covers all the essentials. The use of visual analogies, and hands on tasks may appeal to some students. However, it can be visually hard to read due to the colour choice. Students who are familiar with essays, and tutors may find it is aimed at too low a level to be useful.

Review by Grace Pike T year


Writing Essays by Pictures by Groppel-Wegener, Alke  is available in the library collection.
Call number: PE1471 GRO

Help with writing and structuring is available from Rosie MacLachlan in Academic Skills Centre or Marcy Kahan, Royal Literary Fund Fellow. More information on Study+ in Moodle (SGUL login required).