I only mooched this to make up a 3-book mooch with another book that I really wanted. What a surprise! I know Russell as a playwright; I saw the origi...moreI only mooched this to make up a 3-book mooch with another book that I really wanted. What a surprise! I know Russell as a playwright; I saw the original productions of Breezeblock Park, Educating rita, and Shirley Valentine back in the 70s and 80s. Russell's ear for dialogue and storytelling is well to the fore here; many of the chapters could stand alone as dramatic monologues, especially the hilarious accounts of the country singers and the coachload of Rotarians.[return][return]Raymond is the "wrong boy", always in the wrong place at the wrong time, turned from hero to zero by adult misinterpretation of a silly game. From then on he is betrayed or misunderstood by almost everyone he encounters (especially the adults) and what starts as comedy ends in tragedy when he is committed to a mental institution.[return][return]Russell has always been brilliant at mingling comedy and pathos and he doesn't fail here, although I felt the happy ending was rather weak. Of course the actual events in the story are not particularly realistic, but they way they are twisted by adults to make the odd and imaginative Raymond something he is not is horribly convincing. I really enjoyed reading this.(less)
What an odd little book! It clearly takes some inspiration from Cold Comfort Farm, except that here the family is upper class and the intruder a very...moreWhat an odd little book! It clearly takes some inspiration from Cold Comfort Farm, except that here the family is upper class and the intruder a very odd, lonely girl called Stella, who has left her family in London and come to look after a disabled adolescent. The style is very quirky, staid and rather pompous. It veers from Jane Eyre through Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh. Stella is a walking disaster; everything she attempts seems to go drastically wrong, culminating in a near-death experience. It's entertaining at times, and it was interesting to gradually uncover what had happened, but Stella is a rather infuriating character, and the book is horribly overwritten in places. In fact all the characters were irritatitng except for the disabled adolescent Martin, who seemed the most mature and level-headed of the lot. But then one of the themes is how infuriating families can be, so this was certainly deliberate.[return][return]So it was OK but I'm not sure I'd read anything else by Cusk.(less)
I enjoyed "The House At Riverton" for what it was -- an engaging summer read -- and this second novel is in the same vein. Almost disturbingly so -- n...moreI enjoyed "The House At Riverton" for what it was -- an engaging summer read -- and this second novel is in the same vein. Almost disturbingly so -- note the considerable similarities in the jacket images, then discover that both books use the device of a dying woman looking back on her life, and construct some of the mystery by frequent changes in time and place -- in this case between 1908, 1913, 1975, and 2008.[return][return]Again the story and setting could be said to be derivative (Hodgson Burnett even makes a guest appearance in case you missed the reference!) but Morton makes up for it by her skills as a storyteller. It is a bit long-winded at times, and the jumping backwards and forwards can be irritating (I think this is about the 6th book in a row I've read that uses this device!) but once again she gets you involved in her characters' lives. [return][return]The little "plus" in this one is the inclusion of fairy stories written by Eliza, one of the key characters, in the early 20th century. They shed light both on Eliza's character and on events in the lives of the other characters, in a charming and unusual way. OK, there are times when things turn out a little too neatly (a long-lost and implausible letter revealing a part of the story that would have been impossible for the characters to discover otherwise, plus a few other convenient coincidences). It's easy to guess Nell's parentage by about two thirds of the way through, and the ending veers dangerously close to tweeness. But this book is all about escapism, not realism, and I think Morton is also deliberately introducing fairytale elements into her characters'lives -- she says in her afterword that the book is partly a tribute to the fairy stories she enjoyed as a child.[return][return]Basically this is just a good read, perfect for curling up by a log fire on a chilly winter night! But you need to be the type of reader who enjoys getting involved in a slow-moving and complex story.(less)
**spoiler alert** hm. Dull. I discovered Salley Vickers via a book group read, Miss Garnet's Angel. I enjoyed that because I liked the character of Mi...more**spoiler alert** hm. Dull. I discovered Salley Vickers via a book group read, Miss Garnet's Angel. I enjoyed that because I liked the character of Miss Garnet and her journey of self-discovery. But the other two Vickers books I've read since have failed to grab me. She's a psychoanalyst and in this book it shows. Far too much heavy-handed exposition of characters' states of mind, with the three main characters almost ciphers standing for ideas. I never really cared about them. It all just seemed too obvious, and the "twists" were far too heavily signposted. Just in case you didn't "get" Zohin/Zelda, Zohin watches The Crying Game with Mickey. Yes, yes, got it! But in case we haven't, there's the scene of the bonfire, which is entirely superfluous. We've already grasped what's going on by that point. The fact that other characters (especially Peter) didn't realise despite ample opportunity was more startling than anything else in the story. Likewise, Frances' pregnancy is very obvious long before she discovers it herself.
There are better books about ways of coping with relationships and death. Home: was hard going, but it was more profound and moving than this.(less)
I have loved every Andrea Barrett book I've read, most especially The Voyage of the Narwhal. Somehow I was a little disppointed with this one. Maybe i...moreI have loved every Andrea Barrett book I've read, most especially The Voyage of the Narwhal. Somehow I was a little disppointed with this one. Maybe it was because the first copy I received had a 16-page section missing in the middle! Kudos to the Book Depository for getting a replacement to me within a week, but I was reading something else by then and had lost the thread; I had to skim-read to get back into it.[return][return]So long story short, as usual Barret beautifully incorporates science into a story of real people living difficult lives. It's a subtle meditation on group dynamics anc casual xenophobia.(less)
Excruciating. This novel is narrated by repressed thirty-something schoolteacher Rachel, living in Manawaka with her ailing, manipulative mother. Rach...moreExcruciating. This novel is narrated by repressed thirty-something schoolteacher Rachel, living in Manawaka with her ailing, manipulative mother. Rachel is the first-person "unreliable narrator" in similar vein to the narrator of Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal. Hopelessly shy and self-obsessed, Rachel is still a virgin, dreaming of love and cursing her mother's constant harping on "what other people will think", even though she herself is haunted by exactly the same concerns. When she meets Nick, it's clear to the reader, but unfortunately not to Rachel, what he's up to, and the outcome is inevitable. But Rachel does grow and learns by the end of the novel, and sets out on a new journey -- though I for one was not convinced she had really broken free from her old ways.[return][return]The novel was originally titled A Jest of God, and was filmed by Paul Newman as Rachel, Rachel (with Joanne Woodward in the title role). Surely Laurence must have been infuriated by the tacky cover and blurb of the (bookmooched) film tie-in paperback edition that I read. If I'd been reading it in public, I'd have felt obliged to wrap it in brown paper. "The powerful novel of a woman enmeshed in dangerous passion" it claims. "Rachel had waited a long time for love ... In the midst of a long hot summer she met Nick. He sensed her desperation -- and the sensuality that pulsed through her..." Aargh. This doesn't remotely reflect the subtlety and psychological anguish of the book.(less)
If you only read one novel set in India immediately after independence
... make it Midnight's Children. Rushdie’s book is dazzling, surreal, inventive...moreIf you only read one novel set in India immediately after independence
... make it Midnight's Children. Rushdie’s book is dazzling, surreal, inventive, witty. Vikram Seth’s book is none of those things.
Clearly I am in a tiny minority here, and life would be boring if we all agreed. So I'll just give a couple of reasons why I was disappointed with this book. I gave it two stars, because I did finish it, and I abandon books I truly loathe. Plus the last 200 pages almost made me forgive him for the previous 1300. Almost.
1) He sets the tone with the epigraph: “the secret of being a bore is to say everything,” according to Voltaire, who apparently also though that the superfluous was “a necessary thing”. You have been warned! I suppose it's predictable that as a fan of Alice Munro, who can fit enough substance for a novel into a short story, I am not going to enjoy a novel with enough substance for a short story stretched out to 1500 pages. Although I can and do enjoy the right long novels: Middlemarch is my favourite novel of all time, and I like both War and Peace and Anna Karenina enough to have read them twice.
At times Seth is clearly just taking the piss, as his epigraphs hint. Page 1241: some of the characters go to a cricket match. We are told exactly what time they get up, who goes in which car, what time they arrive, where they sit.
India’s opening batsmen were still at the crease. Since India had scored 418 and 485 in two previous innings in the series, and since England were all out for 342 in their first innings, there was a good chance that the hosts would be able to make something of the match [snip:] Leadbeater opened the bowling to Roy with a maiden, and Ridgway supported the attack from the other end, bowling to Munkad. Then...
No, I can't go on. There are pages and pages of dull, irrelevant detail that don't advance the plot or illuminate the characters. Pages and pages where Seth describes the characters’ motives, psychology, and history, instead of letting them reveal them by their actions and thoughts. Pages and pages about the political situation in India, which could have been lifted from a history textbook (I have to say I was again glad I'd read Alex von Tunzelmann's excellent book on partition, Indian Summer, so I had some idea of the background to the story). Word-for-word accounts of parliamentary debates. Extracts from court yearbooks. I longed for an editor with a big red pen, visualising whole sentences, paragraphs, and chapters being crossed through and superfluous adjectives struck out.
I spluttered with rage on page 1370 when the Seth-like character Amit, criticised for writing a long novel, says “I hate long books. If they're bad they merely make me pant with the effort of holding them up for a few minutes. But if they're good, they turn me into a social moron for days ... Proust makes me weep, weep, weep with boredom.”
I kept putting it down and leaving it for days or weeks at a time while I read something I liked better. Yet curiously I kept picking it up again, just because so many people have raved about it. I decided to treat it like a serial, picking it up every couple of weeks and reading till I got bored again. I learned to flip over scores of pages without reading them at all. And actually in the last 200 pages a good story suddenly appears, that builds on what went before and becomes briefly interesting. There are some entertaining satirical scenes, and some that are touching, or would have been if they hadn't been so over-written. This would have made a good 500-page novel.
Of course, Seth is making a point with this long novel, with its many mingling tributaries which I think are supposed to recall the Ganges. He clearly wants to be compared to someone like Tolstoy, or George Eliot, combining the personal and political/philosophical in one overarching narrative. I will grant that he must have done a massive amount of research, and his depiction of the stresses and strains of Indian society in the 1950s is convincing. I give him credit too for Lata's non-obvious choice at the end, which makes the Lata storyline more than a mere (Western-style) romance. I've seen comparisons to Austen too, which annoyed me at first, but yes, there are obvious similarities – the inevitable wedding bells at the end, the mordant social satire (especially the Chatterjis and Haresh’s various encounters) -- and the fact that just as with Emma, you have to wonder how well the marriage between these two characters is going to work!
2) “Vivid, evocative and beautifully written,” says the Literary Review, and a lot of other people. Where is this beautiful writing? To me, beautiful writing is writing that makes me stop, return to read a sentence or paragraph again for sheer pleasure. It's Alice Munro or Jonathan Raban, communicating emotion with an economy of words and a gift for choosing the right ones. This novel is verbal diarrhoea. The writing seems stilted and pedestrian, conveying (too much) information and little else. The quotations above are not untypical, though I did pick one of the most boring parts for the first quote. And I have spared you the poetic doggerel that litters the pages.
So there! As I say, other people have enjoyed this book and even re-read it. I was just glad to heave it aside and vent my spleen here. If you have a great deal of time to spare and like your eyes to glaze over with boredom from time to time, or of course if you are interested in recent Indian history, this is the book for you. “Make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life,” said the Times. Sometimes I thought it would.
Footnote: I've just read an Amazon review comparing Seth to Trollope. YES! Exactly. If you love Trollope or Dickens (I don't), then you will enjoy this.
Initially I thought I wasn't going to like this book, with its bitter, misanthropic narrator Willy, who appears to be quite comfortable with his own n...moreInitially I thought I wasn't going to like this book, with its bitter, misanthropic narrator Willy, who appears to be quite comfortable with his own nastiness. But the second half was better and more interesting than the first, as Willy starts to recognise how badly he has failed the family he abandoned, and realises that "only when you die do your run out of chances to be good". There are some scenes here that are so excruciating (e.g. Willy's encounter with his older daghter) that they make you wince.
Heller's journalistic roots show in her acute observation of human behaviour, even if it veers to caricature here. As in Notes on a Scandal, she shows a talent for narration via a fundamentally unsympathetic main character (although I have to say I often felt sympathy for Barbara in Notes on a Scandal, whereas I never felt a twinge of it for Willy, because he seems to have no excuse for his consistently selfish behaviour). Barbara and Sheba's ambiguousness, along with more rounded characters, make Notes on a Scandal a better book to my mind.(less)
This got rave reviews when it was published a couple of years ago, from readers as diverse as Ian McEwan ( "engrossing, exquisitely original"), Robert...moreThis got rave reviews when it was published a couple of years ago, from readers as diverse as Ian McEwan ( "engrossing, exquisitely original"), Robert Harris ("enthralling...original"), and Nigella Lawson, who was so absorbed she skipped lunch.[
I don't really understand all the hype. It was a pleasant enough (short) read; Preston writes beautifully, but at the end I did wonder what the point was. The novel is so understated as to be almost inaudible; all that is clear is that he's drawing parallels between the digging up of the frail remains of things and the excavation of his characters' repressed thoughts and feelings. It's rather reminiscent of On Chesil Beach in that sense, although McEwan was excruciatingly forensic in his description of the young couple on their wedding night. Here, small, isolated incidents are reported, but just as you feel something is going to happen, Preston moves on to something else. In the end you know as much about the characters as you would if you had dug up their material remains in 600 years -- which is of course part of the point of the book.
Footnote: I hadn't realised till I read other reviews that Peggy Pigott was Preston's Aunt, and it was this almost chance discovery that spurred him to visit Sutton Hoo and write the book. This too gives some insight into how much of our own and our family's past can be hidden from us.(less)
Another cracking good read from Kate Atkinson. I enjoyed her other two Jackson Brodie books but didn't think they were as good as Behind the Scenes as...moreAnother cracking good read from Kate Atkinson. I enjoyed her other two Jackson Brodie books but didn't think they were as good as Behind the Scenes as the Museum. This one is. It rattles along with her idiosyncatic combination of humour, murder and mayhem, crazy coincidences, identity switches, and engaging characters. I felt the end fell a little bit flat after all the twists and turns earlier on, which had kept me furiously turning pages. A subplot about a murderous estranged husband seemed unnecessary and out of place, one sympathetic character was bumped off quite gratuitously, and I do wish she would be nicer to Louise and Jackson :) But apart from that, I loved it! Oh, and I hope we meet Reggie again.(less)
It hardly seems necessary to add the the hundreds of reviews of this book. I thought the previous two books were over-long, repetitive and in serious...moreIt hardly seems necessary to add the the hundreds of reviews of this book. I thought the previous two books were over-long, repetitive and in serious need of some copy-editing to trim them down. This one is a hefty tome too, and could have been shortened by at least 50 pages by cutting some of the rather dull middle section. But JKR is back on form, and I thought this made an excellent end to the series, with most loose ends neatly tied up and the significance of various plot elements from earlier books neatly revealed (sometimes via too much exposition, but not at the expense of the story). The last couple of chapters almost achieved the gripping suspense of _Goblet of Fire_, even though I had guessed what was going to happen when Harry confronted Voldemort in the forest.[return][return]JKR will never win the Nobel Prize for literary style, but she is a great natural storyteller, and has manged to develop the style of content of the books to mirror Harry (and her target audience's age), with later books being very clearly aimed at older teenagers, and addressing much more serious themes.[return][return]Footnote: although I avidly read Greek myths when young, I had never made the connection between Harry and Orestes before this.(less)
OK, I've had to abandon this. It's not just the 700 pages of small, densely packed type that make it tiring to read; it's also (deliberately) written...moreOK, I've had to abandon this. It's not just the 700 pages of small, densely packed type that make it tiring to read; it's also (deliberately) written in the style of a Norse saga, with almost no dialogue, no chapters, and loads of characters, so if you can only pick it up occasionally, you soon lose track of who's who (and don't care either).
I doubt I'll pick it up again; Jane Smiley is one of those authors, like Rose Tremain, where the first book I read (A Thousand Acres in this case) was so good that the others I read subsequently were a disappointment.(less)
This is a book I'd heard much about, but never read. A.S. Byatt makes you work hard; it's not a book to pick up for a quick 10 minutes just before goi...moreThis is a book I'd heard much about, but never read. A.S. Byatt makes you work hard; it's not a book to pick up for a quick 10 minutes just before going to sleep! Unfortunately I didn't have much time for reading due to pressure of work, and that's what I did, often leaving it aside for several days. I got completely bogged down in the exchange of letters and sidetracked to Barbara Pym as light relief for a few days too!
Don't get me wrong, Byatt is an incredible writer and frighteningly clever. I really enjoyed the way she'd got the 19th-century tone so right, and the pastiche Victorian poetry is fantastic (I admit that I skipped most of Ash's turgid poems, but I liked Christabel's Emily-Dickinson-like ones and thought it was interesting that her long Melusine poem was clearly influenced by Ash's style).
There were parts where I got really wrapped up in the 19th-century story, though most of the modern characters left me a bit cold, and sometimes the jokey campus novel (especially the farce in the graveyard) didn't seem to sit well with the rest of the story. And I found the rather twee afterword with Ash and the child a bit of a letdown after the power and subtlety of the novel -- it seemed as if some marketing type told Byatt she had to have a happy ending! (less)
Somehow Philip Hensher has managed to pass me by up to now, but when I read a review of this novel and discovered it's set in Sheffield during the 197...moreSomehow Philip Hensher has managed to pass me by up to now, but when I read a review of this novel and discovered it's set in Sheffield during the 1970s, I couldn't resist. It's billed as a state-of-the-nation saga on a Tolstoyan scale, following the fate of two families, the Sellers and the Glovers, from 1974 to 1994. It's certainly Tolstoyan in size, weighing in at a hefty 736 pages, but it lacked the historical sweep of Tolstoy. Tolstoy sets the minutiae of his characters' lives in the wider historical context with lots of references to major current events, and, in War and Peace, intersperses the action with long philosophical disquisitions. Hensher doesn't do any of that -- he focuses (very well) on the characters' daily lives, and the way they grow and change while remaining recognisably the same people.
All the same, I found it a bit baffling that they barely seem to notice the Falklands war, and apart from one character, a student radical, the miners' strike and collapse of Sheffield's industry brushes lightly by them. But at least Hensher manages to convey the atmosphere of an era without stuffing his narrative with brand names, the way David Mitchell did in Black Swan Green. He also very noticeably shuns the popular device of using music to situate the characters. In a rather supercilious and self-serving essay about state-of-the-nation novels published in Prospect, he says snottily: "I was a teenager when the Clash are reported by Coe as playing in Fulham. I wouldn't have cared. At the time, my records were mostly of Mahler, Schoenberg and Boulez." I'm rather glad I read this after I'd finished the novel, so I wasn't put off by his condescending tone when writing about authors like Jonathan Coe and Sebastian Faulks.
But he writes well, and he can convey emotion and character wonderfully; two scenes that stood out for me were the one where Katherine Glover returns home after being arrested by the police in connection with fraud by the owner of the Broomhill florist shop she works in, and a compellingly creepy scene where Sandra Sellers meets her secret admirer Tim Glover twenty years later. So I did enjoy it, and it's worth reading -- he just does himself a disservice by comparing his work to Tolstoy, because his strength is precisely in the mundane details of ordinary lives. Looking at his backlist, he appears to be startlingly versatile.
But the defining state-of-the-nation novel for me is still Jonathan Coe's What a Carve-Up And I even thought Tim Lott's Rumours of a Hurricane did a better job of summing up the change of mentalities during the 80s. Read this for the characters rather than the period atmosphere. And take his views of Jonathan Coe with a pinch of salt.(less)
Inevitably over-hyped because it won the Costa First Novel Prize. But although it's not a work of staggering genius, I found it both touching and funn...moreInevitably over-hyped because it won the Costa First Novel Prize. But although it's not a work of staggering genius, I found it both touching and funny, and it even became a page-turner in the last few chapters. It's set in a massive shopping centre in Birmingham; a young girl disappears in 1984, and her fate ends up bringing together disaffected shop manager Lisa and traumatised security guard Kurt twenty years later.
It's partly a satirical view of alienation in the consumer society as epitomised by a temple to consumerism. I'm sure city dwellers will relate to this more than I did, since I'm happy to say I virtually never visit such places, and find them deeply depressing when I do. But it's also about "what is lost" by lifelong failure to be truthful, brave or simply daring enough to do something different. There are so many examples of this throughout the book. The ending could be seen as a bit contrived, but because you've grown to like the characters it's good to see them starting to tell -- and realise -- the truth about themselves and others.
It reminded me a lot of Jonathan Coe and Kate Atkinson, but not derivatively so -- the same minute observation of ordinary lives, and even a missing child and a detective, the same as Kate Atkinson's Case Histories -- except that here child and detective are the same person. She's not as accomplished as they are, but this is a promising start.(less)
This book surprised me. I'd read Jane Stevenson's historical novel, Astraea, a few years ago and was underwhelmed -- interesting premise, but the char...moreThis book surprised me. I'd read Jane Stevenson's historical novel, Astraea, a few years ago and was underwhelmed -- interesting premise, but the characters were unengaging. But I really enjoyed this collection of 3 novellas all centring round "good" (or not so good) women. All have an element of revenge, and all revolve around "unexamined assumptions".
The first story, in which an unpleasant and snobbish architect trades in his wife for a younger but less socially skilled model, and duly gets his comeuppance, is full of spiky humour and cruel social satire. The second, in which a Sheffield housewife discovers her spiritual side by seeing guardian angels, seems like a light, amusing tale, but suddenly veers to an all-too-real sadness in the final pages. And the last story was a delight: I loved the character of recently widowed Alice, who has always been a "good wife and mother", silently at her husband and son's beck and call, until her son and his upwardly mobile wife start angling to push her out of her beloved house and carefully tended garden so that they can move into the rapidly appreciating and upmarket property themselves, and get their sons into a "good" school (paid for by Alice!). Her horticultural revenge is satisfying, but even more so is her discovery of her own feelings and independence beyond her family. I could almost see the shock and bewilderment on her smug son's face when she finally stood up to him.
These are feminist stories at heart, but not militantly so. Beautifully written, funny, thought-provoking, sharply observant of human foibles, with characters built up through a wealth of domestic detail. A real pleasure to read.(less)
I didn’t dislike this book -- I wouldn’t have finished it if I had -- but it didn’t live up to the cover blurb. Jonathan Coe saying it’s “extraordinar...moreI didn’t dislike this book -- I wouldn’t have finished it if I had -- but it didn’t live up to the cover blurb. Jonathan Coe saying it’s “extraordinarily rich and satisfying” makes me sit up and take notice, but it definitely wasn’t up to Coe standards ... absolutely nobody does tragicomedy like Jonathan Coe!
Kate isn’t a particularly likeable character, but I don’t have a problem with that -- it’s quite possible to enjoy reading about obnoxious people! The trouble was that all the characters seemed to be caricatures with no real depth -- OK if it’s a purely comic novel but not if you are attempting to be more “profound”, for want of a better word, which I think Nobbs is here (I haven’t read any of his other books). Parts of the plot were very implausible, which is OK on a fantasy level, but Kate seemed to be seriously lacking in judgment most of the time and didn’t do a very good job of learning from her mistakes! She doesn’t seem to develop much -- she’s basically the same at 100 as she was at 20, which seems implausible given her experiences.
I did laugh out loud at times, especially at some of the conversations between patients and Dr Ramgobi in the ward, but the novelty wore off with frequent repetition (especially the business of farting, which is funny a couple of times, but not beyond that). Towards the end, during the rapid canter through the last 45 years of Kate’s life, I got bored, and I didn’t care in the least who had murdered Graham (since he was such a nonentity anyway). It certainly could have been 100 pages shorter.
So Nobbs is no Jonathan Coe! I could imagine Coe or Kate Atkinson taking the same basic idea and making it really compelling, both moving and funny. This book probably also suffered in my eyes because I read it immediately after Jane Stevenson’s Good Women, which truly does combine comedy and pathos. (less)
Well, this is certainly a contrasting view of Eastern European immigrants compared to Rose Tremain's The Road Home, which I read last! I actually pick...moreWell, this is certainly a contrasting view of Eastern European immigrants compared to Rose Tremain's The Road Home, which I read last! I actually picked it up mainly for that reason.
It was ... OK. But certainly not Booker or Orange prize material -- what were they thinking when they shortlisted it? It's billed on the cover as "hilarious ... amazing ... extraordinary" and it isn't any of those things. I did smile a few times but never laughed out loud. To be fair I think the blurb does Lewycka a disservice -- the black comedy is obviously intended to make some deeper points, which seem to have passed some readers by completely (the ones who said "I didn't bother reading the bits about tractors/the historical bits because they were irrelevant"). They are clearly there for a reason, or several reasons. One aspect is the fact that Nikolai and the ghastly Valentina reflect two very different waves of migration. Then there's the animosity between sisters Nadezhda and Vera, caused at least in part by Vera's traumatic wartime experiences which Nadezhda does not understand or appreciate. And there is some insight into the experiences that forged the characters of the family.
But it didn't really work for me -- it fell between too many stools. For black humour to work as humour, pathos, and serious message simultaneously, the characters have to be deeper and less "cardboard cut-out" than these. Valentina is obviously intended to be an outrageous stereotype, but if she had been less outrageous it would have been easier to perceive that she is a victim of change too. Some of the exposition was clumsy, and the style could be irritating -- it drove me mad when conversations (presumably in Ukraininan) between Nikolai and Valentina were written in broken English. The main characters seemed to exist in a bubble, with the sisters' husbands and children floating about on the periphery of the story, not developed at all. I was quite bored for the first half, but things did improve as the story progressed; the last few chapters were more engaging.(less)
I've read enough of Amélie Nothomb's books to be convinced that I greatly prefer her autobiographical novels to the rest of her output, which seems to...moreI've read enough of Amélie Nothomb's books to be convinced that I greatly prefer her autobiographical novels to the rest of her output, which seems to be mostly short potboilers designed to shock the bourgeoisie. I loved Metaphysique Des Tubes, her memoir of her life between birth and the age of 5, and Stupeur Et Tremblements was hugely entertaining.
This novel covers the two years she spent in Japan in her early twenties, including the same period as that covered in Stupeur et Tremblements. But here she eschews the daily trials of her working life and instead describes her inadvertent relationship with and engagement to a Japanese boy to whom she is teaching French. She is much gentler with the Japanese here than she was in Stupeur et Tremblements, probably because Rinri is so utterly charming. There are her trademark jokes about being Belgian, and funny set pieces, notably the evening when Rinri cooks her dinner for the first time (Swiss fondue from a kit) and an excruciating dinner party with 11 of Rinri's friends. But she also has a chapter in which she reveals her passion for mountains during a night alone in a snowbound refuge and an epic 10-hour descent from the mountain the next day.
As always, apart from the humour and mordant asides, what I love about Nothomb is the elegance of her style. She is not afraid of writing in the first person, and she ignores the modern fad for writing in the present tense. Past historic all the way here, and lots of lovely imperfect subjunctives. She is ever-curious and observant. Waiting for Rinri after she has watched the sun rise from the top of Mount Fuji and then run down to the bottom in 45 minutes (it takes Rinri several hours), she reflects, "Heureusement, il est impossible de s'ennuyer en regardant passer des êtres humains, surtout au Japon." It's equally impossible to be bored reading Amélie Nothomb. (less)
I found this collection of four novellas (Stevenson's first) a bit disappointing after enjoying Good Women so much.The first story is too similar to t...moreI found this collection of four novellas (Stevenson's first) a bit disappointing after enjoying Good Women so much.The first story is too similar to the first story in Good Women -- a snobbish, too-clever man fatally underestimates a woman he considers his social inferior. In the remaining stories, she dips into radically different milieus: aristocratic students in Amsterdam, an Irishwoman who becomes a Buddhist nun in India, a group of snobbish, unpleasant art historians in the Home Counties. To me, the stories seemed little more than sterile exercises in style, and the last one was particularly nasty.(less)
**spoiler alert** This book is definitely worth reading, but I was a bit bemused by all the 5-star reviews on Amazon comparing Hosseini to Tolstoy and...more**spoiler alert** This book is definitely worth reading, but I was a bit bemused by all the 5-star reviews on Amazon comparing Hosseini to Tolstoy and describing it as an “instant classic”. It’s certainly not great literature, although once you get into it, it is a compelling read. The style is a bit “flat” -- maybe because English is his second language? -- and I found it hard to get into at first. But soon I was drawn in, and found parts 2 and 3 particularly gripping -- while the ending was a bit of a letdown. There was a bit too much “telling” rather than “showing”, particularly the exposition of Afghan history which was introduced in rather a leaden way. Other than that, the whole thing is basically a soap opera, but well enough plotted to keep you reading to find out what happens next.
But I was always aware that this was a man writing from the point of view of a woman (or rather women), and this was never totally convincing (some men can write very convincingly as a woman -- Henri Troyat springs to mind). He didn’t really convey any depth in the characters, especially the men -- I thought initially that Rasheed was going to be quite a complex character, but he ended up just being a brute, and we never got to understand how he ticked. Tariq was a bit of a cipher, and Maryam’s self-sacrifice after her first-ever assertive act somehow didn’t quite gel -- I found it hard to understand her being prepared to abandon Laila and her children in this way after all they had gone through together. And in practical terms, it seemed quite plausible to me that one extra dead body in Kabul at this time could be explained away very easily!
Still, you would have to be a brute yourself not to be moved by this story, and it’s chilling to reflect that Laila and Maryam’s experiences must have been repeated many thousands of times in Afghanistan. The contempt for women shown by the Taliban is horrifying, and their ascendancy reminded me strongly of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution as described by Jung Chang in Wild Swans. As a means of raising awareness in the West of what has been happening in Afghanistan over the past 30 years, this novel is highly effective, and I applaud Hosseini for writing it!(less)
I wasn't disappointed by this book, because I am now pretty sure Rose Tremain will never write another book as brilliant as Music & Silence. This...moreI wasn't disappointed by this book, because I am now pretty sure Rose Tremain will never write another book as brilliant as Music & Silence. This is a good read, with a topical subject: a Polish man who has to come to find work in the UK to support his mother and daughter back in Poland. I liked Lev; he was a believable character, and most of the ups and downs of his life in Britain were realistic -- though he was much luckier than most new immigrants when he found a job in a very smart restaurant! On the other hand it was rather predictable that he would end up at some point picking asparagus and living in a caravan.
The book mingles humour and pathos well, and is good at conveying the sense of alienation and loneliness felt by an unwilling immigrant who knows he will never really belong, and his return home is not all sweetness and light. I also liked the way he almost accidentally discovered something he really wanted to do. So I did enjoy it and found it a satisfying read in many ways, but it's not a masterpiece.(less)
This was a double volume of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I enjoyed the Pursuit of Love; she seemed like a 20th-century Jane Austen...moreThis was a double volume of The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. I enjoyed the Pursuit of Love; she seemed like a 20th-century Jane Austen with her wit and sharp satire. The Radlett family obviously owes a lot to her own, as I know from reading her sister Jessica's Hons and Rebels. All in all it was a fun, frothy read. I liked the second novel less; it seemed to be rehashing a lot of what was in the first, and it was less funny the second time atound. Plus -- I know it's a satire, but I found Polly and Boy really unpleasant and quite creepy characters. And there was a bit too much of Fanny, an essentially boring character who just served as a narrator in the first book but here takes too much of a central role.(less)
Zoe Heller excels at misanthropy. It can be funny (Everything You Know) or cringe-making (Notes on a Scandal) but here it just seemed to go a little t...moreZoe Heller excels at misanthropy. It can be funny (Everything You Know) or cringe-making (Notes on a Scandal) but here it just seemed to go a little too far. I felt like shaking Heller and saying, "You know, there are some people in the world who are kind and generous!". Not in Heller's world there aren't. Notes on a Scandal created a wonderful uneasiness, because I had a sneaking sympathy with Barbara while still being creeped-out by her behaviour. Here, Audrey is so horrible that you cannot imagine why her perfectly pleasant friend Jean would put up with her for so long -- or indeed why the members of her abused, dysfunctional family have not fled long ago. Even Audrey's apparently maganimous gesture at the end of the book seemed to me to be more manipulation, aimed at neatly pulling the rug out from under her enemy's feet and setting herself up (quite unjustifiably) as a saint.
I got fed up with the book after about 200 pages, but it did redeem itself later, and I'm glad I finished it. Zoe Heller writes well, is keen-eyed and waspish in her misanthropy, and she addresses some interesting issues. Most notable for me was the way that families (and particularly Audrey in this case) define their members' characteristics in infancy and are blind to any changes that happen later. So Karla is forever type-cast as a dim, pliable victim. Adopted drug-addict son Lenny is referred to by Audrey as her "baby" when he is 34, and Audrey is clearly uncomfortable with the idea that he might actually shake off his addiction and cease to be dependent on her. Heller also cleverly explores what the characters believe in and how it shapes their lives (mostly in nasty ways!).(less)
So disappointing. Why did Steven Galloway feel the need to make up a story about the siege of Sarajevo, when the truth is shocking enough? Was he in S...moreSo disappointing. Why did Steven Galloway feel the need to make up a story about the siege of Sarajevo, when the truth is shocking enough? Was he in Sarajevo during the siege? Thought not. This short novel undoubtedly has good intentions, but it felt cheap, simplistic, and exploitative to me. Don't read this -- read Bill Carter's Fools Rush In instead. He was there, and conveys degrees of ambiguity, terror, anger and suffering that this book only hints at.
Compared to Birdsong, I found this a little bit disappointing. It's a good novel, but I never felt I was inside someone else's head as I did with Bird...moreCompared to Birdsong, I found this a little bit disappointing. It's a good novel, but I never felt I was inside someone else's head as I did with Birdsong. The writing as ever is beautiful, but the basic plot is thin, and the love story lacks something because Peter Gregory is absent for much of the book and seems a bit of a nonentity as a result. Charlotte sometimes seems just too naive, though admittedly she is young, and believes that she can control reality by her own thoughts and actions: so she goes to France because she believes she can save her missing lover just by wanting it enough, and to Drancy because she thinks she can save her friend's father simply by turning up and asking for him. Incidentally I didn't realise till about three-quarters of the way through that Charlotte is the daughter of one of the characters in Birdsong, and at least one other character from the previous book makes a rather implausible appearance here too.
Like Birdsong, it's obviously well-researched, and I felt it gave me more insight into French attitudes to the Vichy government than some of the recent non-fiction books I've read on the topic, such as Rosemary Bailey's Love And War In The Pyrenees and Lucy Wadham's The Secret Life of France. It's obvious why the war is such a sensitive subject for those who experienced it, whether they resisted or not. The casual anti-Semitism and the belief that the Vichy government would restore order and dignity, and keep out the Communists, ring true. And Faulks is still excellent at conveying the horror and misery of war through realistic detail; the sequence at Drancy is horrible.(less)