SEVEN CIRCUMSTANCES

Original Book Reviews, Recommendations and Discussions


Flummoxed by a “J” – J – A Novel, by Howard Jacobson

J by Howard Jacobson (Originally published: August 14, 2014, 326 pp., publisher: Jonathan Cape)

Sometimes a novel just flummoxes me. I have tried my best to get to grips with “J” by Howard Jacobson, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but the novel made me feel vaguely worried and confused while I was reading it. That was probably the author’s intention, since those sort of feelings drove him to write it. It is set in a Britain of the near future, at a time after a calamitous global event. This event is called “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” or “Twitternacht” (with reference to “Kristallnacht” and Twitter.) As a result of this event, many people got killed, or were forced to move to other countries or back where they came from; everybody got given random, different names (oddly spelled), social media was banned and art was reduced to inoffensive, pleasing aesthetics so as not to arouse any extreme emotions ever again. The protagonists are “Kevern”, a carver of  Welsh love spoons, and his lover, “Ailinn”.  Continue reading


Nice but Light-Weight – Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here, by Fredrik Backman, translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch, published by Sceptre, an imprint of Hodder & Stoughton, UK, May 3, 2016, 336 pp., paperback.

I did not like Backman’s previous novel, A Man Called Ove, but was spurred on to buy book no.3, Britt-Marie Was Here, by a very insistent salesperson in the Chapters bookstore, who had been so entranced by it that she was practically hugging her own copy. I bought it against my better judgment and I was underwhelmed all over again, despite trying my best to be objective. When Backman writes, he repeats certain words and phrases over and over, and makes each chapter and paragraph follow the same basic pattern, so that it sounds almost like a children’s rhyme, a medieval poem, or a traditional fairytale. The novel is nice but light-weight, like a pretty balloon. Because I do not agree with people categorizing a frothy piece of writing like this one as a literary masterpiece, I will, below, debunk the myth. In any case, when I see the words “international bestseller”, particularly “New York Times International Bestseller”, on a book’s cover I am immediately suspicious.  Continue reading


From the inside looking out – A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

Published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, New York, Sept. 6 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

This is a stylized, studied novel, about a stylish gentleman, written in elegant style. It has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, of events passing and times moving on, and of the struggle to adapt to changes or stay in the previous era. Towles conjures up a romantic and fascinatingly intricate pre-WWII-era hotel in Moscow, the “Metropol Hotel”, in which the main character, “Count Alexander Rostov”, lives. The Count is a surprising character – he is a gentleman and a gentle man, yet he can handle a gun and is not afraid to use it (which is a hugely enjoyable moment!), nor is he afraid to pull strings and do a bit of theft and smuggling on the side. He is as intriguing and multi-faceted as the rest of the gallery of charming rogues working in the hotel. Readers will find this novel very entertaining and suspenseful – and the best bit, I can assure you, is the ending, and in order to understand it, you will have to remember what you read right at the start of the novel.  Continue reading


“Kǔ lé”, a state of both joy and sorrow in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Published by Knopf, Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., and Granta (U.K.), May 31 2016, 475 pp., hard cover.

Published by Knopf, Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., and Granta (U.K.), May 31 2016, 480 pp., hard cover.

This important novel about two families of brilliant musicians in China during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958 – 1961), the “Cultural Revolution” (1966 – 1976) and the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, will have you crying buckets, get into a deep funk, and nurse an aching heart for days afterwards. Reading it creates a feeling of “both joy and sorrow”, which Thien, in the novel, calls “kǔ lé” (or “bitterness in the music”, or “joy in sorrow”). The story is not entirely dark, but rather bitter-sweet, and amidst the tragedies there are happy moments and hopeful glimpses of a better future. But while I read it I often wondered in exasperation: Just how could people put up with this relentless repression? How could they put up with such massive insults to their dignity, how can they have such cowed acceptance of the bullying and betrayal by their own neighbours, peers, friends, and colleagues? How could they stand the mindless repetition of idiotic slogans? The novel illuminates the darkest, and most censored, years of the 20th century in China, and after I read it, I felt relief that I had the dodged the bullet of being born Chinese in those times.  Continue reading


A perfect world you’d kill to escape from – The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., A Penguin Random House Company, September 24, 2015. Emblem paperback edition (depicted), Aug 09, 2016, 400 pp.

Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House of Canada Ltd., A Penguin Random House Company, September 24, 2015. Emblem paperback edition (depicted), Aug. 09, 2016, 400 pp.

The Heart Goes Last held no surprises for me. Dystopia set somewhere in the future? Check. All doomed to implode due to typical human weaknesses? Check. Clever advertising references and initially interesting, futuristic products? Check. Ordinary people up against the machines, that brings out the worst in them? Ditto. People stuck in a type of bubble or petri dish situation, every move recorded by Big Brother? Ditto again. Atwood’s latest vision of the future has been overtaken somewhat by developments in technology and many individual aspects have already been depicted in earlier novels and films. However, all the combined features of the dystopian world she has created make for an entertaining creation. I can definitely see this book being filmed, scene by scene. Atwood introduces the gated community, “Consilience”, and the associated prison, “Positron”, which are combined into a massive social experiment and into which a down-and-out couple wins access. This man-made, ostensibly pastoral “enclosed world” brings to mind WestWorld (the 1973 film and 2016 HBO series), and The Truman Show (1998). It’s definitely been done, and with more panache, but there are a few clever ideas in the novel too, like those creepy, blue, knitted teddy-bears. Other familiar sci-fi “tropes” in the novel include:

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“Moonstone” and other books, by Sjón – Prepare to have your head messed with, brilliantly

Moonstone -The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón. Translated by Victoria Cribb. First American edition published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2016. Originally published as “Mánasteinn – drengurinn sem aldrei var til” by JPV/Forlagið, 2013.

Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, by Sjón. Translated by Victoria Cribb. First American edition published by Farrar, Straus, Giroux, New York, 2016. Originally published as Mánasteinn – drengurinn sem aldrei var til by JPV/Forlagið, 2013.

Sjón: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Reader of Sjón. Her current mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no Reader has gone before. Apologies to the writers of Star Trek, in this, its 50th anniversary year, but this is what reading the novels of Icelandic author Sjón is like. The first American edition of Sjón’s novel Moonstone – The Boy Who Never Was, was published earlier this year. While I read it, I often wondered just how it is possible for someone to express so precisely, in such visually compelling language, such foreignness, not only to readers not from Iceland, but also probably for readers from Iceland. It is in English, capably and truthfully translated by Victoria Cribb, but at the same time it is a journey into places, minds, characters, mores  and subjects that I had never before encountered in a novel.

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They don’t exist: The High Mountains of Portugal, by Yann Martel

Hard cover, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2016 (originally published February 2, 2016)

Hard cover, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Canada, 2016

Let’s just get one thing out of the way: the title of the book and the setting: First, there are mountains in Portugal, but they’re not that high. I’m sure Yann Martel’s novel The High Mountains of Portugal has by now caused the northern parts of Portugal to be overrun with readers clutching copies of his book, desperately searching not for Pokémon but for a little village and a little church with an odd altarpiece in the far northern mountain ranges, such as they are. But Portugal is pretty flat compared to, let’s say, Spain, its neighbour in southern Europe. The highest mountain peak is on an island in the Azores, southeast of mainland Portugal, called Mount Pico, at 2,351 metres. The actual highest mountain on Portuguese soil is Serra da Estrela (the Estrella or Star Mountains) at Mount Torre. But Serra da Estrela is in the north-centre part of the country, and is not a distinct mountain summit, but rather the highest point in a mountain range, and it’s only 1,993 m high. And while it has rocky outcrops, snow, even cliffs, Serra da Estrala certainly has none of the icy Alpine peaks and ravines of Europe. So, if you are looking for a high mountain range in northern Portugal, to where the luckless character in the first story in this book drives in his Peugeot in 1904, the most likely spot would be the Montesinho Natural Park, in northeastern Portugal.  Continue reading