Original Book Reviews, Recommendations and Discussions

Reviews of Modern Fiction

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In-depth, Original Modern Fiction Reviews

Modern Fiction is defined as novels set in a period that is less than 100 years ago, i.e. the 1910s, and later. Browse all authors referenced on this site.

More Modern Fiction – Short Reviews

J – A Novel, by Howard Jacobson

J by Howard Jacobson, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, 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. (Continue reading…)

Perfect Little World, by Kevin Wilson

I imagine a woman must’ve sat Kevin Wilson down and explained to him in excruciating detail what pregnancy, childbirth, breast-feeding and the mothering instinct feel like – the pain, the physical sensations, the associations, memories and convoluted reasoning. These descriptions in his latest novel, Perfect Little World, are not the descriptions you’d read in a medical handbook. They seem to be intensely personal and individualistic, even a bit voyeuristic. Reading how “Isabel (Izzy) Poole”, the main character, feels during those moments is like feeling it yourself, and it is really not pleasant. However, Perfect Little World is a near-perfect depiction of what happens to people when they have children, the good and the bad. (Continue reading…) For Wilson’s previous book, The Family Fang, go here

Britt-Marie was here, by Fredrik Backman

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. (Continue reading…)

The Evenings, by Gerard Reve

This is the first English translation, published in January 2017, of the famous Dutch novel. It is a novel about boredom – tedium – monotony – ennui. You’d think that with such a subject the book would be, well, boring. It isn’t. Remember the TV series Seinfeld? Pretty much nothing happened in each episode, yet, it was entertaining. Seinfeld is often described as being “a show about nothing”, since many of the episodes written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are about the minutiae, the small humdrum matters, of daily life. It’s same in this book. (Continue reading…)

Troll - A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo; Copyright 2000 by Johanna Sinisalo; English translation copyright by Herbert Lomas, 2003; 278 pp., paperback ABOUT TROLLS --There is a whole body of memes about trolls. There are cute troll dolls, like in the 2016 animated movie, Trolls, and the more “realistic” trolls, hairy, ferocious, living in forests, and confined by the emissions of electricity pylons, that feature in the 2010 Norwegian “found footage” film Trollhunter. For the Trollhunter film’s final scene, a clip of former Norwegian Prime minister Jens Stoltenberg speaking about an oil field outside Norway called the “Troll Field”, was edited to create the appearance of him admitting the existence of trolls.

Troll – A Love Story, by Johanna Sinisalo

(This novel could be categorized as Science Fiction or Fantasy.) If you’ve never imagined that trolls are an actual “thing” to people in Scandinavian countries, read this. Honest to Pete, you will come to believe this troll is as real as your dog or, more disconcertingly, your husband or wife. It is haunting, marvellous, and really refreshingly different, and confronts the reader with questions about the nature of love and alienation. It is no fairy-tale, nor is it a fantasy, though it is about a troll. A troll is a class of being in Norse mythology and Scandinavian folklore, classified somewhere between a smart animal and a cave-dwelling humanoid. Despite today’s globalized world of connected technologies and electronic media, there are ancient folkloric beliefs that are alive and well in Iceland, for instance. (Continue reading…)

Published by Harper, New Work, 2016

300 Days of Sun, by Deborah Lawrenson

Some magazines don’t publish negative reviews because they want to review books that people will buy. The problem with that argument is that sometimes badly written books sell well, Fifty Shades of Grey, for example. An example of this is a “popular” book, 300 Days of Sun, which has glowing blurbs all over its covers, and was on the “best sellers” table at my local book shop. Frankly, I was bored out of my tree with it. I’m sorry I didn’t like it and cannot praise it, but not every book is loved by every reader, and authors, putting themselves out there, should know that. It’s just the way we are all wired differently. So the reason you should read this review is so you know why it isn’t very bad, but why it isn’t very good either. It’s not so simple as just being about sales or media hype. (Continue reading…)

Cover of the U.K. version: Publisher: Granta Books; 01 edition (7 July 2016), 480 pp.

Do Not Say We have Nothing, by Madeleine Thien

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. 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…)

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

A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles

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. 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…)

Penguin Random House, 2007 (1st ed.)

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz

Some books are hard to read and hard to finish. It could be because of obscure references, bad editing, bad translation, weird printing, etc. But I’ve recently got through two novels that were hard to read and to finish because of the style in which they were written. One is The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, in which it is literally the language that is the problem – it might as well have been partially written in Klingon for all I understood of it when I read it the first time. Another problem was the subject – it is about immigrants and the persistence of their culture even in their new life, like invisible hands pulling them back to their homeland. The specifics, that of the Dominican Republic, were completely foreign to me until I read this. However, by the time I got it, three, four readings later, the poetry of Junot Díaz’s English/Spanish had completely infused my mind. (Continue reading…)

Published in US by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, division of Penguin Random House, New York, USA, 2016, e-book cover

This Census-taker, by China Miéville

Like it says on the title page, this novella is mystery fiction. I could not figure out, even though I have read it three or four times already, where it is set or when. On first reading it is short and simple, but somehow seems obscure, and trying to clarify it simply creates more questions. However, I thought it was strangely charming and very, very good. Not his best, since it is on a smaller scale than his previous books, but still, pretty darn amazing. Miéville is a Poet of Sci-Fi. But unlike all the other novels in which he has created secondary worlds that are completely coherent and minutely detailed, from the through-the-looking-glass London in Un Lun Dun, to New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station, to Besźel and Ul Qoma in The City & The City, this is an indeterminate, nameless setting. (Continue reading…)

 The Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David LagercrantzThe Girl in the Spider’s Web, by David Lagercrantz

In August 2015, the Swedish publisher Norstedts published a fourth Millennium book, written by Swedish author David Lagercrantz, called The Girl in the Spider’s Web. The original title in Swedish is Det som inte dödar oss (meaning “that which does not kill us”), and again features the characters of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist created by Larsson. Larsson’s long-time partner had said this was a bad idea, and she was right. I bought the book, and tried my best to read it, but even stuck without an entertainment system on a transcontinental flight I could not for the life of me get further than about 100 pages into it. (Continue reading…)

The Weekend, by Bernhard Schlink

The Weekend, by Bernhard Schlink

Readers who appreciated The Reader (1995), by Schlink, would want to pick up this more recent novel (the translation was first published in 2010), in expectation of another skilful, intriguing read. Not so this one, featuring a group of Germans on a weekend get-together, that includes Baader-Meinhof sympathizers and a convicted murderer and terrorist. It leaves a nasty taste in the mouth of the reader, partly through boredom and a lack of empathy, and partly through a bit of revulsion. I confess the motivation and thought processes of the weekenders left me cold, despite the lengthy discussions about the nature of revolution and terrorism in Germany. (Continue reading…)

I picked this one because of my fascination with the...errmmm...crazy rich Asians making new homes in Canada, chasing up property values and adding a Feng Shui flavour to the little grey homes in our street. It was moderately entertaining, and completely forgettable. It reads like a product or property catalogue, and Kwan defines sophistication and elegance by brand and dollar value. In that sense, his descriptions of the afore-mentioned crazy, rich Asians simply emphasize the image of the characters as a group, as shallow, materialistic, and prestige-hungry. Even with Mandarin and Malay phrases thrown in to add authenticity, the plot is as thin as diet soup and the explanation for the romantic entanglement is, frankly, condescending: the Chinese-born American mother turns out to be the heroine with the elevated set of morals. Trust Americans to save the day. This was Kevin Kwan’s debut novel, and he fell squarely into most of the traps of spouting clichés, stereotypes and truisms.

Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan

I picked this one because of my fascination with the…errmmm…crazy rich Asians making new homes in Canada, chasing up property values and adding a Feng Shui flavour to the little grey homes in our street. It was moderately entertaining, and completely forgettable. It reads like a product or property catalogue, and Kwan defines sophistication and elegance by brand and dollar value. In that sense, his descriptions of the afore-mentioned crazy, rich Asians simply emphasize the image of the characters as a group, as shallow, materialistic, and prestige-hungry. (Continue reading…)

The Exiles Return, by Elizabeth de Waal

The exiles return

(Published by Picador, Jan. 7, 2014)
I loved, no, adored, The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, so I read this, which is by his grandmother Elizabeth. The novel was unfinished, and lay untouched for decades, and his grandmother herself had not cared too much for getting it published. De Waal stitched it back together (he explains this in the foreword) and this is the result. It is a product of her time and upbringing, and so portrays fairly accurately, I think, the setting of Vienna, Austria, during and after the Anschluss in the 1930s, and 1954 to 1955. While it is fiction, it is clear that Elizabeth was writing very much from her own experience and her voice is quite clear. She must’ve been a fascinating person. It is by no means perfect – the structure is a bit clumsy and the motivation of the characters is somewhat superficial. But it is worth reading – and reading between the lines – if you know the history of the Ephrussi family depicted in The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Originally published: Macmillan Publishers, 1987

Espedair Street, by Iain Banks

(Originally published: Macmillan Publishers, 1987)
I am a total Iain Banks fan, so was looking forward to Espedair Street, which was first published in 1987. Sorry to say, it was not good, not as good by a long shot as any of his later novels or Sci-Fi fiction. I have problems remembering what it’s about. I can’t recall if there was anything notable about it.

Usually I write notes and put stickies all over a novel if it’s interesting, or good, or it makes me think. This one? Not even a page corner folder over as a reminder. It’s about this former rock star who lives in an abandoned church and is bored and lives a useless life. What does he do? Can’t remember. It involves a girl. Do I care? Naw. What’s worse, the lyrics that Banks thought up for this guy’s songs are really awful.

A man called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

I was puzzled by why this novel was a hit with so many people. It is again, like The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, written in a simple, highly structured way, with the same expressions and images repeated over and over and the same things happening again and again in each chapter:- the main character, Ove, visits his wife’s grave; he makes plans to kill himself; he has an encounter with modern society which aggravates him, for instance at the shops; he walks around the neighbourhood and taps/pulls/knocks three times on everything; and he gets interrupted by various human predicaments in mid-suicide-attempt. (Continue reading…)

secretarySecretary, by Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay), Mary Gaitskill (short story) 

Much more unsettling and memorable is Secretary, the 2002 film, in which the reserved secretary gets involved with her boss who is into S&M. Same sort of set-up as Fifty Shades of Grey, but more is achieved while less is said. The film is based on a short story from the book Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill (who is, or was, really into S&M). Gaitskill thinks the movie script version of her story is “too nice”. I would not say the movie is nice. I’d call it restrained, or down-beat. By the time these two characters eventually do the deed, the reader, and viewer, is positively pent up with expectation. Like the decoration of the office in which the characters find themselves, their interaction is spare and controlled, so that the emotion that surfaces eventually shines like a bright spot of blood on a white napkin, remarkable by its contrast. (Continue reading…)

Miramax Books, 1994

The Piano, by Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger

Some of the most gripping sex scenes I’ve ever read are from The Piano – A Novel, by Jane Campion and Kate Pullinger. Set during the mid-19th century on the West coast of New Zealand, it revolves around Ada McGrath, who arrives in New Zealand harbouring a passion for playing her piano, but does not speak, and her efforts to get back her piano from one of the locals, George Baines. It’s one of my all-time favourite novels because I understand the motivation of the characters; I have a great love of pianos, especially other people’s pianos. I gravitate towards them like some people do to other people’s cats. (Continue reading…)

Fifty shades of GreyFifty Shades of Grey, by EL James

I think Fifty Shades of Grey is famous despite breaking some of the above-mentioned rules, more precisely, leaving something to the imagination, having a good plot, and not using bad imagery. It is famous primarily because it bought an insalubrious practice, BDSM (bondage, domination, sadism, and masochism), into the mainstream public’s interest and reading fare. And it is successful for the same reason that the Harry Potter series by JK Rowling is successful: It obviously meets a need in readers, and it has become a franchise and the movie versions are pretty good and make up for the books in which the writing is not that fabulous. Frankly, If I had a loonie for how often my blood froze when I read in the Harry Potter books about how “Harry’s scar ached”, or any of JK Rowling’s favourite, oft-repeated phrases, I would be well off for Christmas. (Continue reading…)

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

This novel cannot be discussed without reference to Lee’s first and famous novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. However, as Go Set a Watchman is set after the events in To Kill a Mockingbird, comparisons are both inevitable and useful. Go Set a Watchman is adroitly written, with hardly a word out of place and nothing extraneous or repetitive. Reading it as a novel of and about the 1950s it is still interesting and (quite surprisingly) engaging. It might be a sequel (or even a type of prequel) but it can stand alone as a very good work of fiction. (Continue reading…)

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

The lead character in Hausfrau, “Anna Benz”, must be one of the most disagreeable people I have had the misfortune to experience in a novel. Not vicious or dangerous, but rather self-indulgent, passive, helpless, self-pitying, weak, out of control, and needy oh, good grief, so needy. To create such a memorably exasperating creature takes skill, so congratulations to Essbaum. All I could say at the end of this story of predestination, adultery, German grammar and psychoanalysis set in a charming Zurich suburb, was “good riddance”. I wondered, after I had finished it, what the point was – why Essbaum wrote this and what it is. Is the author to be praised for creating a novel of such unrelenting inevitability, in theme, plot and characterization – or not? (Continue reading…)

The-Family-Fang-CoverThe Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson

It says on the cover that The Family Fang is a comedy – But I did not find it funny. Engrossing, yes, but leaving a nasty taste in the mouth, and reminiscent of a number of other equally discomforting stories about dysfunctional families. But with a twist in the tale (or a flash of a fang) that makes it worth the reading. All I can say is that Kevin Wilson, him of the dewy-eyed, dimpled smiley face on the back cover, must have a very dark imagination and is, quite possibly, brilliant. It takes a very good actor to convincingly create a quite awful character. It takes a very clever writer with prodigious creativity to depict such insidiously awful family. (Continue reading…)

the fat years

The Fat Years, by Chan Koonchung

Remembrance of horrors past

The Fat Years is a profoundly disturbing novel. It has been banned in mainland China and officially has not been published there. However, the author has said digital copies were disseminated “on the Internet within the Chinese firewall” before being deleted. Koonchung does not speculate who specifically deleted his novel, but the title of an article by him, “Chinese Author: My Book Was Banned in My Home Country”, strongly implicates the Chinese authorities. It is a cross between Science Fiction, a mystery and satire. Not knowing enough about Chinese history to judge which aspects are being satirized, I could only assume it is set in a dystopian future China. The mystery aspects of the novel are secondary to the futuristic, imaginative premise and the sub-texts of class struggle and freedom of access to information…(Continue reading…)

The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis

It took me about three chapters in to realize what I was reading about – where this novel is set, and in which time. The language – a mixture of German, English, Polish words, an Austrian dialect, and Nazi slang – would make much of this inaccessible to people who do not speak the languages. I do. But even so, referring to “Stucke” – which in proper German is Stücke, meaning pieces, to refer to body parts of chopped up Jewish prisoners – takes some getting used to. It got worse page by page from the moment that I realized what was being described – the giant death camp and rubber works at Auschwitz III. But this connected me to the name of the novel: IG Farben, the builders of the Buna Works, was a German chemical industry conglomerate, notorious for its role in the Holocaust. (Continue reading…)

the goldfinch by donna tarttThe Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

Chained to the past like a goldfinch to a perch

This beautifully printed novel merits serious consideration and stands up to in-depth analysis. It is has 700+ silky pages of narrative in practiced, elegant prose with multiple themes woven through it, primarily; the mermerising, redeeming nature of “the line of beauty”; the maniacal nature of the commercial market for art and antiques; the eternal nature of truly sublime art and the fatal, unchangeable, doomed nature of man. Whether Donna Tartt manages to successfully develop and convey all of these ideas in this book is debatable, but ultimately, it is an intriguing novel with interesting premises, posing thought-provoking questions. While the plot revolves around art, it is not a Künstlerroman about an artist’s growth to maturity, but rather a Bildungsroman about an art lover’s growth to maturity, with the 17th century artist, Carl Fabritius, as an ever-present type of Ghost in the Machine. (Continue reading…)

amnesiaAmnesia, by Peter Carey

In Peter Carey’s new novel, Amnesia, the subtext of press freedom is woven through a plot about hacking, love, eco-terrorism, politics and journalism. And sometimes, it seems to be less of a sub-plot and more of a raison d’être. The novel, published in Oct. 2014 by Penguin, Australia and in the US by Knopf in Jan. 2015, is set in today’s Australia and deals with current issues, but is actually a history of the less salubrious moments in Australian government going back to the early 1900s. Carey has issues with the current Liberal Party right-wing government, with their stance on climate change, and a definite bee in his bonnet about freedom of expression and the Australian press. (Continue reading…)

the quarryThe Quarry, by Iain Banks

The Quarry was Iain Banks’ last novel before he died of cancer in June 2013. Iain Banks has always been an author I greatly admire, and whose novels – both literary and sci-fi – and non-fiction (Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram) I practically lapped up in my enthusiasm for the peculiar worlds and characters he so deftly created. When picking up a Banks novel, I prepared myself for a mental marathon, since they were usually long and complex, and took a while to get into. I was expecting this when I picked up The Quarry. The narrator, Kit, is not yet of age: “very clever, if challenged in other ways…I am weird, strange, odd, socially disabled, forever looking at things from an unusual angle”.(Continue reading…)

Stick out your tongueStick Out Your Tongue, by Ma Jian

Knowing what I know now about Chinese fiction, I can understand the controversial and very much banned Stick Out Your tongue, and the controversy about it, much better. I have read it quite a few times and each time I didn’t know what to make of it. It is a collection of short stories or long short stories on the same theme – Tibet and Tibetan sky burials – making it a novella. On the cover is praise from Nobel laureate, author and artist Gao Xingjian: “One of the most important and courageous voices in Chinese literature.” The book originally came out in 1987, in the Chinese literary journal, People’s Literature. Result: a government crackdown; the novella was denounced, the editor of the journal was sacked, all the copies of the edition in which it had appeared were ordered to be destroyed. (Continue reading…)

Rhino RanchRhino Ranch, by Larry McMurty

Larry McMurtry knows how to write, that’s for sure. His technique is perfectly suited to his subject matter, in this case, Texas country: strong, no-nonsense and to the point, like the State, by reputation; dry and a bit caustic, like the cowboys and oilmen of whom he writes. His sentences are short, succinct, spare, perfectly expressed. His paragraphs are short but pivotal, always moving the story along. The characters’ words are few and their thoughts are brief – because of how they are but also because this is a feature of McMurtry’s writing. He writes like one would think real people speak – abbreviated, choppy, interspersed with asides and the occasional swearword. (Continue reading…)

worst person ever 2Worst. Person. Ever. by Douglas Coupland

Coupland is terribly famous, not only in Canada. He has won heaps of awards. When I was reading this novel he had an exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery which featured a giant head on which people could stick gum (they did – the smell and texture in the summer heat was interesting) and his exhibition was all over the newspapers. His sculptures are high profile and instantly recognizable. In The Guardian he was described as “…possibly the most gifted exegete of North American mass culture writing today.” So I apologize in advance for what I’m about to say to all the fans of Douglas Coupland. (Continue reading…)

Lionel ASBOLionel ASBO, by Martin Amis

This is satire, and it bites hard. Lionel ASBO ( his surname stands for anti-social behaviour order) is possibly the nastiest, least likeable, most unlikely to improve, most threatening, most hate-filled and saddest character ever created. He is a masterpiece of degeneracy, violence and perversion. Yet, very subtly, he knows it. It kills him. This novel makes fun of today’s England, and I got the horrible suspicion that the whole thing is plausible, possible and not very far from the truth. The England created by Amis is a hell-hole. Is it too much, too fierce, too unremittingly noir? Perhaps. But there are moments when Amis lightens up makes Lionel realize his limitations, depicting him momentarily as an object of pity and shame…(Continue reading…)

The Elephant Keepers' ChildrenThe Elephant Keepers’ Children, by Peter Høeg

The trick to understanding Peter Høeg’s writing is to pay attention from the first page, in this case, the cover. Note the apostrophe in the title after “keepers”. This means there are more than one elephant keeper. The title refers to ideas or problems or ideas that are so elephantine that they subconsciously force you, like an elephant’s keeper, into uncontrolled behaviours. “Mother and Father’s elephants are not the Indian variety that can be taught to sit on your lap and do the crossword puzzle and stand on their front legs and wag their tails. Mother’s and Father’s elephants are the African species that wander great distances without warning and that you can be on reasonable terms with but never be certain of. “ (Continue reading…)

day_of_the_oprichnik_by_vladimir_sorokinDay of the Oprichnik, by Vladimir Sorokin

Day of the Oprichnik gave me nightmares – literally. The cover shows a bear, with a dagger and a watch – the Russian brown bear being a popular symbol of the pre-Soviet and current Russian Republic. The dagger is a foretaste of things to come in the novel. The watch indicates that this is a day and a night in the life of one oprichnik (Russian: опри́чник, IPA: [ɐˈprʲit͡ɕnʲɪk], meaning man aside. Oprichnik refers to a member of the organisation known as the known as the Oprichnina (1565-1572) an organisation established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to govern the division of Russia and act as suppressor of the internal enemies of the Tsar through murder, rape, torture, terror and theft.
This is a day in the life in the future Russia, Moscow, 2028, where the Tsar is God, and once more on the throne, worshipped by a cowed nation. (Continue reading…)

Lights out in WonderlandLights Out In Wonderland, by DBC Pierre

Vicariously living the drug-addled, suicide-obsessed life of the delinquent first-person narrator, Gabriel Brockwell, in DBC Pierre’s Lights Out in Wonderland, was a strange and unnerving experience. But I got through it, mainly because I was too weirded-out to stop reading. The book has nothing to do with Lewis Carrol’s Wonderland. The title refers to the fact that, in reality, life is brutal and not nice and people fool themselves into thinking everything will turn out fine – in short: the lights will inevitably go out in Wonderland. Gabriel’s life goes down the drain at a smart pace and one reads on with a rising sense of dread of the outcome. (Continue reading…)

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson

This seemed to be a good idea for a novel, an old-age-pensioner version of “Forrest Gump”. It was mildly funny and entertaining at first, but after the so-manyeth incident where the old man and his companions almost get into trouble but then get saved by some amazing coincidence, it becomes predictable. It is basically a modern version of a folkloristic quest tale. Allan Karlsson, the 100-year-old man of the title, meets a number of oddball characters on his quest to get out of the old-age home in which he has ended up, and recalls the quests on which he embarked throughout his life. (Continue reading…)

SQUiRREL SEEKS CHIPMUNKSquirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary, by David Sedaris

Very plainly in the genre of folklore, this collection of cautionary tales contains modern versions of the medieval bestiary. A bestiary is a compendium of stories about animals, birds and sometimes plants. Originating in the ancient world, bestiaries were made popular in the Middle Ages in illustrated volumes containing each animal’s natural history, an illustration of it and an accompanying moral lesson (like The Tortoise and The Hare – slow and steady progress will win, or The Ant and The Grasshopper – hard work is better than idleness). (Continue reading…)

Umbrella, by Will SelfUmbrella, by Will Self

Writing as avant-garde jazz

You have to be determined to finish Umbrella. It’s 379 pages of text with no line breaks. Seriously. Self does not use paragraph breaks, nor indents, nor chapters to structure his narrative or help the reader to make sense of what’s going on. At an average of 13 words per line, 29 lines per page, this makes 142,883 words, non-stop. I have, in all my years of reading, never come across anything like this. I’ve read long and wordy, poetic and convoluted, dense and complex works, from Salman Rushdie (surreal, melodramatic, elaborate) to Gabriel García Márquez (magic realist, lyrical, flowery), and everything in between, including the almost-impossible-to-read, mystifying prose poetry By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, by Canadian author Elizabeth Smart. But this is something else.
Most modern fiction works have nothing on the sheer linguistic tour de force that is Umbrella. It was shortlisted for the 2012 Man Booker Prize, and you can see why. Other reviewers have said that perhaps the nearest equivalent to Self’s style is that of James Joyce. Self’s writing style can be a serious impediment to readers even attempting this book. At times I felt I was reading the literary equivalent of tonality-free, avant-garde Jazz, in which meter, beat, and formal symmetry all disappeared. (Continue reading…)

And the mountains echoedAnd the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini

Tenderness and trauma

Khaled Hosseini’s latest novel has made me cry and made me miss my family. I knew, when I bought it, that I shouldn’t read it, but probably would. I looked at it lying in the heap of to-be-read books like a mousetrap hidden in a shoebox. I knew from having read his other books that Hosseini has a genius for capturing and depicting, in the most pared-down, discreetly poetic words, the poignancy and passion of relationships as well as the horrors of deprivation and separation. I thought it would make me cry, and it did. I read it in one sitting over the next 12 hours because I couldn’t put it down – and this is the effect of Hosseini’s writing.  (Continue reading…)

the Rosie projectThe Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

The conundrum of Asperger’s and true love

I initially liked this novel, written from the point of view of a man who shows quite a few symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome. He is precise, pedantic, unsocial, uncommunicative, excessively analytical and non-empathetic. He likes reaching decisions through logical reasoning and making lists, and likes to dissect his experiences as if he were looking at himself through a microscope. I found it amusing in places, well put together, with the voice of Don Tillman, the lead character, carefully developed and consistent. In depicting this character, Simsion got it right, but… (Continue reading…)

Wish you were hereWish You Were Here, by Graham Swift

In this novel Swift describes the same thing, over and over and over again, in the most painstaking detail. The same scene, the same moment, the same views, the same conversations, through only a handful of characters. Niall Williams also dissects family relationships and tragedies, but does not belabour them as Swift does in this instance. Willams has a light, subtle touch, Swift goes on for page after page, re-hashing the same idea, literally, while the reader initially aches for some movement in the plot, and eventually just skims over the repetitious parts. The atmosphere is strained and bleak, with many scenes of people driving in bad weather, waiting around with a sense of dread and regret, and dealing with death and loneliness. The same phrases: “wish you were here” and “caravans” are repeated with a psychoanalyst’s attention to details and meaning of the context. (Continue reading…)

Only say the wordOnly Say the Word, by Niall Williams

The frame narrative of this intriguing and sad novel is a writer, Jim Foley, who has “written all these pages to face something in [himself]… To face the fear of losing you, of losing my life, that lay within me through autumn and winter. It is what writers do, imagine and feel the pain of others…here then, in these pages is mine…Here is the truth told in a story.” The story that he tells is of his wife who had died, which led to him being unable to write any more. Williams is an expert in precisely and honestly expressing the most human, most complex emotions. Even when writing about the most horrible occurrences, the most destructive cruelty, he never over-dramatizes. (Continue reading…)

Red mandarin dressRed Mandarin Dress, by Qiu Xiaolong

Inspector Chen, hero of this novel, has a weak stomach. He does not like the odd delicacies offered at receptions and traditional Chinese restaurants, such as live boiled turtle soup and live braised monkey’s brain. However, to trap his suspect into a confession, he sets up a horrible banquet with “cruel food”, dishes to make even the greatest gourmand squirm. He toys with the suspect, stage-managing the scene, and finally revealing the strange and shocking truth. Chen is a mesmerising sleuth. He is insecure, self-indulgent and prone to symptoms of anxiety. But he is also kind-hearted, highly observant, intuitive, persistent and clever. No reader of a mystery can ask for more, other than a gripping plot and dramatic denouement, which the novel does possess. (Continue reading…)

Skeletons at the feastSkeletons at the Feast, by Chris Bohjalian

This novel turns the subject of survival during the Holocaust and escape from Germany on its head. Instead of refugees fleeing from Germans, it has fascist Polish aristocrats, fleeing from Allied and Russian forces. Instead of a Jewish protagonist suffering in a death camp, it features a Jew who denies his identity in order to reach safety. Instead of an Allied soldier standing up to the enemy, one of the main characters is a Scottish prisoner of war who avoids the fighting altogether. Simultaneously, Bohjalian places these unusual characters in the well-documented, conventional setting of the last days of Germany in WWII. (Continue reading…)

the grass is singingThe Grass is Singing, by Doris Lessing

Unlike the books of other Southern African authors of world class stature, Breyten Breytenbach, JM Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Alan Paton or André P. Brink, that I have read and re-read, the only book of Lessing’s I have read is The Grass Is Singing. And I read it only once. I mostly liked it because of the title and the use of nature as an antagonistic character and a source of conflict – the sweltering heat, the need and waiting for rain. The phenomenon of grass “singing” in the heat is typical of the Sub-Saharan region and something perhaps only someone born there can truly understand. It’s not only something you hear, it’s something you can feel on your skin, and taste. It gets in your head. She quotes a highly evocative section of TS Eliot’s “Wasteland” on the dedication page, which sets the tone for the rest of the novel. (Continue reading…)

mary poppinsMary Poppins, by P.L. Travers

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, 1934 & “Saving Mr. Banks”, 2013

The Mary Poppins books were not altogether sweet and cuddly, and neither was P.L. Travers. Both books and author were products of their times. The film Saving Mr. Banks is about the production of the 1964 Walt Disney Studios film version of the first Mary Poppins book, by the same name, and stars Emma Thompson (she of Nanny McPhee, talk about typecasting!) and Tom Hanks. The film centers on the life of Travers, shifting between 1907 with her childhood in Queensland, Australia, the 1961 negotiations with Walt Disney, and the subsequent making of Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews as the umbrella-wielding Nanny and Dick van Dyke (he of the mock Cockney accent) as the chimney-sweep, Bert. With its romanticised view of a middle-class family in 1910 London, UK, Mary Poppins is classic Christmas movie and TV fodder, along with The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Railway Children and other children’s favourites. But, there has always been a largely unacknowledged darker side to all these books. They all feature a missing, or withholding, parent or caregiver. (Continue reading…)

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