The death of Michel Tournier prompted me to reread this book of short stories -- one of the first books I read comfortably in French more years ago thThe death of Michel Tournier prompted me to reread this book of short stories -- one of the first books I read comfortably in French more years ago than I care to remember. They are entertaining, sharp little tales -- fairy stories set in modern times, often with an underlying significance that will be appreciated by adults. Puberty, old age, sex, fetishism ... I think my favourite is the title story, but I like L'aire du muguet (about a long-distance lorry driver) and La fugue du Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb spends the night with the Ogre family, smoking dope and telling stories) as well....more
I didn't think this was as good as The Lions of Al-Rassan, but I still enjoyed it, for many of the same reasons. This time, Kay uses Byzantium as hisI didn't think this was as good as The Lions of Al-Rassan, but I still enjoyed it, for many of the same reasons. This time, Kay uses Byzantium as his base, in the time of Justinian and Theodora (while setting it in the same mirror world as Al-Rassan, a few centuries earlier). I know a fair bit about them, thanks to Gillian Bradshaw's excellent The Bearkeeper's Daughter, which did a better job of Theodora than this one does, I think. However, Sarantium excels in the other characters who drive the story: mercurial mosaicist Crispin and his travelling companions. I particularly liked the way each character explored their options and puzzled over the meaning of life in their own ways, based on their own experience. And the central scene in the Aldwood was particularly powerful (even though I don't normally like magic in my historical fiction).
Less keen on: Kay's gimmick of jumping backwards and forwards in both time and viewpoint, I suppose in order to keep the reader guessing. It was particularly irritating in the chariot race and subsequent banquet; these scenes should have been allowed to shine on their own. Generally, the parts where characters reflect and converse are better than the "action" parts. And the ending; it's the first half of a "duology", and it just stops at a convenient point. I think each novel in a sequence should stand on its own as a story, and this one doesn't. But I enjoyed it enough to be looking out for the sequel....more
Classic Anne Tyler -- I know she always writes pretty much the same book, but she's so good at family dynamics. Abby and Red Whitshank are a very typiClassic Anne Tyler -- I know she always writes pretty much the same book, but she's so good at family dynamics. Abby and Red Whitshank are a very typical Tyler couple -- Red sturdy and gruff, Abby an over-protective mother hen clucking over her brood. The first scene, where they receive an out-of-the-blue phone call from one of their sons telling them he's gay, made me laugh out loud. It kept me entertained with its typical mixture of humour and pathos. The flashback story of how Junior and Linnie Mae got together was a bit of a shocker, beautifully done, but it felt entirely detached from the rest of the novel, since none of the other characters knew about it or were ever likely to. My fifth Anne Tyler I think, I do enjoy them but best not read too close together....more
Little to add to reviews of this. It's a remarkable work, an odd mixture of lyrical, metaphor-stuffed prose and crude, transliterated dialect. Janie iLittle to add to reviews of this. It's a remarkable work, an odd mixture of lyrical, metaphor-stuffed prose and crude, transliterated dialect. Janie is a compelling character, and it's a daring way of approaching black culture in the 1930s. It's not just about black culture though -- the story of a woman starting to find her own voice is universal. The ending is a bit melodramatic and there's something really odd about the way the court scene is presented -- most writers would have made a meal of this, but Hurston brushes through it in a page or so, so that we never hear Janie expressing her love for Tea Cake in her own voice. It's a good read though....more
Even when he's not at his best, Jonathan Coe provides sheer reading pleasure. You can settle happily into his books knowing you're going to enjoy themEven when he's not at his best, Jonathan Coe provides sheer reading pleasure. You can settle happily into his books knowing you're going to enjoy them. This is a kind of sequel to his wonderful What A Carve Up!, that searing satire on rampant Thatcherism (which Coe now wrongly describes as "preachy" and "crude and simplistic"). Coe is still angry, but he's got more weary and cynical since then (but the ending of this book is just as bonkers as the ending of What A Carve-Up!). And once again there are many references to obscure old B-movies (I'm sure I must have missed many of them).
The few surviving Winshaws make appearances in this book, but the five separate stories are held together (tenuously) by Rachel, first as a 10-year old girl being scared by her brother in a spooky church, and finally as an Oxford graduate acting as live-in tutor to the children of an insanely rich couple with an 11-storey basement. In the process Coe attacks a lot of obvious targets: social media, trolling, reality TV, vacuous celebrities, the super-rich, tabloid journalism ... but it's all done in a rather obvious way. There's nothing startling or revelatory here; but still, it's Jonathan Coe, so he's clever, and he often makes me laugh out loud. PC Nathan Pilbeam solves crimes using sociology, politics, economics, psychogeography, and the theories of Freud. To investigate the murders of stand-up comedians, he turns to Aristophanes ... he's known to his colleagues as "Nate of the Station".
There is a deep paradox here though. One of the funniest parts of the book is the investigation into the murders of comedians, who are without exception "young, tousled, slightly overweight white men wearing a loose brightly coloured shirt, untucked at the trouser." Their assassin is motivated by a loathing of political comedy because it allows people to simply laugh at corruption and injustice instead of feeling that they should do something: the “fucking Guardian-reading Pinot Grigio swilling middle-class wankers feel they have to do NOTHING except wait for the next crappy one-liner”. Which is exactly Coe's own argument in an article in the LRB, Sinking giggling into the sea. And yet, he is guilty of it himself! As the Guardian review says, "Coe’s postmodern back-covering would destroy the books of lesser writers. Fortunately, his many virtues make his work indestructible." There's a good interview with him here....more
Finished! OK, let me get this of my chest first: please stop saying this is like Jane Austen. Jane wrote short, witty books. This is not a short, wittFinished! OK, let me get this of my chest first: please stop saying this is like Jane Austen. Jane wrote short, witty books. This is not a short, witty book -- although yes, it does have plenty of social humour. I suppose Dickens comparisons may be closer to the mark -- though to me it doesn't have the colourful characters and social commentary of Dickens.
Above all, this book is FAR TOO LONG. It could easily lose 500 pages and be much the better for it. There isn't even much of a plot till the last 200 pages, and the characters aren't compelling enough to carry it on their own. Yes, many 19th-century novels were almost as long and discursive as this, but they had substance and character development. I wasn't bored for an instant reading the mere 600 pages of Middlemarch for the third time recently. With this book I gave up several times because it was just so boring and repetitive. I was also disappointed with the female characters -- in every case, mere chattels to be manipulated and fought over by men. If you think that was women's lot in that era, I have one word for you: Emma. In fact Jane Austen's books are full of lively, vivid female characters, so that's another point in which Clarke differs from Austen. I'm giving it two stars because I did manage to skim/finish it, albeit only because I was on holiday and had nothing else to read.
And there are a few good things about it. I liked the idea of setting the book in a slightly twisted version of early 19th-century Britain. She'd done her research and created a great period atmosphere. I enjoyed the cameos of real people like Byron and Wellington. Her magic was convincingly clumsy and arbitrary, and the footnotes were an amusing idea, if a bit overdone. I also liked the ending -- it wasn't the obvious, easy choice. If only she'd had a real plot and an editor with a big red pen, it could have been a good read....more
I was ill-prepared to read this novel, and for that reason I can't really give it a star rating. To appreciate it properly you need to know a fair bitI was ill-prepared to read this novel, and for that reason I can't really give it a star rating. To appreciate it properly you need to know a fair bit about social and political circumstances in 19th-century Russia. It's definitely a novel of ideas, not just a murder mystery or a character study. There's some gripping storytelling and excellent character development, but I got bogged down in the philosophical and theological discussions, and many references and significant aspects sailed right over my head.
So worth reading, but do your research first!
Edit: but, a question for anyone who knows more than I do: the trial scene at the end. I found both prosecutor and defence lawyers' arguments dramatic but unconvincing, both based on circumstantial evidence and sheer speculation. In the end, a most likely innocent man is found guilty. Jury trials were, I believe, a relatively recent innovation and I wondered whether Dostoevsky was making an implicit criticism of this method of human, as opposed to divine, justice?...more
This was a sight-unseen Bookcrossing book (chosen on the basis of the first sentence). I'm not a reader of mysteries generally; I'd heard of Barbara VThis was a sight-unseen Bookcrossing book (chosen on the basis of the first sentence). I'm not a reader of mysteries generally; I'd heard of Barbara Vine and knew it was one of Ruth Rendell's pen-names, but I'd never read any. After a few recent duds, it's good to feel you're in the hands of a master storyteller from the first page (and indeed the first sentence).
It's not so much a whodunnit as a whydunnit, and even a whatdidtheydo. A bleak little tale, with clues and red herrings very cleverly scattered through it. The viewpoint switches effectively between the three main characters, each with their store of regret and guilt poisoning their life in different ways. She allows you to figure out part of the story fairly easily, but I really didn't see the final twist coming. Perhaps a bit too neat, but it adds a final note of grim humour. Don't read this if you want to like the main characters; nobody comes out of it well, except for one unlucky victim. Otherwise, it's a great choice for a summer read, and I'll look out for more from her....more
Hmm, halfway through this collection I was leaning towards two stars, but it grew on me slightly, so I'm generously upgrading it to three. I do oftenHmm, halfway through this collection I was leaning towards two stars, but it grew on me slightly, so I'm generously upgrading it to three. I do often read short stories but these are very different from my normal fare of Alice Munro or Elizabeth Strout. Munro and Strout encompass whole lives in 30 or 40 pages. Most of the stories here are very short; the longest around 15 pages, the shortest half a dozen, and tend to focus on a single small incident, with no plot as such. The kind of thing you might read to stave off boredom in a doctor's waiting room. In the worst cases, they read like sterile creative writing exercises; in the best, they offer insights into a whole range of different people at a distressing or remarkable moment in their lives. There's a lot of death, divorce, loss, fear, approached in almost all cases with very British restraint.
A few highlights: Remember This, Half a Loaf, Ajax, First on the Scene. Black marks for the predictable, annoying, middle-aged-man fantasy fulfilling of Keys and The Best Days. But I've been disappointed with almost all Swift's work since his early work, especially the wonderful Waterland, still one of my favourite novels. In fact I stopped reading him altogether after the terrible Tomorrow, and I still won't particularly go out of my way to read more....more
This was a Bookcrossing book, so not actively chosen, and I didn't have high expectations. After a couple of tough reads (notably The Brothers KaramazThis was a Bookcrossing book, so not actively chosen, and I didn't have high expectations. After a couple of tough reads (notably The Brothers Karamazov) it was good to pick up something light. It's not great literature, and some of the characters might seem a bit stereotypical (Jess, Kevin) -- but in general the character development worked well. I liked the way Ginsberg skilfully drip-fed information about their pasts, and their reactions and failings when faced with difficult situations were believable. I did guess the denouement for one character, so the end wasn't exactly a surprise. And there seemed to be a few loose ends; I never worked out why Joe and Allison did not have a child. But then this wasn't about suspense, even if we are kept guessing what has happened to Diana until almost the end. It's not a thriller, but a character-driven story. A worthwhile holiday read....more
I was quite disappointed with this after The Goldfinch. Firstly because the main character seemed exactly like Theo in The Goldfinch. Feckless, amoralI was quite disappointed with this after The Goldfinch. Firstly because the main character seemed exactly like Theo in The Goldfinch. Feckless, amoral, prone to drug-taking -- giving the impression Tartt only has one stock character, and is over-fond of describing drugged states.
I thought it was a mistake to reveal the murder in the prologue. There was still a degree of suspense in terms of why it happened, but there could have been more. And then the murder happens halfway through the book. It's pretty much downhill from there, rambling repetitively on about the characters' disintegration. I stopped caring.
It had its good points; Tartt has some great turns of phrase and there was some social comedy that was quite amusing, notably the events surrounding Bunny's funeral. But overall, meh....more
I don't quite know what to say about this novel. It won the Goncourt, and it's not a bad book by any means -- but nor is it a masterpiece. French reviI don't quite know what to say about this novel. It won the Goncourt, and it's not a bad book by any means -- but nor is it a masterpiece. French reviews on Goodreads and Amazon seem to be divided between those who say it's beautifully written, and those who say it's "butchering the French language" (because of its use of "fragnol", a mixture of French and Spanish).
I would say both. I really liked the voice Salvayre gives to her mother. This is probably partly because we have quite a few neighbours who left Spain for France in 1939 or later, and I can hear their voices, with that r-rolling Spanish accent, even if they speak better French than Montse. I felt it made her character more vivid and realistic. Then evidently the passages paraphrasing or directly quoting Bernanos were well written. But the parts in Lydie/Lidia's own voice often seemed clunky, inelegant or downright grammatically incorrect in places. "José raconta son séjour dans la ville et la ferveur splendide qu'il y avait trouvés"? That seems plain wrong to me. "Il s'en dédiait. La récusait." I think the verb she's looking for is dédire (to retract), not dédier (to dedicate), in which case the imperfect is dédisait. But what do I know? The Goncourt jury was chaired by Bernard Pivot, and he knows a lot more about French grammar than I do. Note: I can see it could be a frustrating read if you don't know any Spanish -- some complete phrases in Spanish are not translated, and Lydie's mother's invented words are only easy to figure out if you know the language, for example, "je me raccorde" is obviously "I remember".
There are some quotable quotes:
Révolution, liberté, fraternité, communautés, ces mots qui, accentués en espagnol sur la dernière syllabe, vous envoient immédiatement leur poing dans la figure.
The novel as novel -- I think maybe I'm just not sufficiently aware of French novel-writing culture. I didn't understand why she chose to alternate between Bernanos and Montse. Obviously Bernanos presents a contrasting view, but there's no connection between them, and I couldn't help suspecting he was there to pad the novel out. Maybe there's something I don't understand there, since French readers seem happy with this device. She also uses rather stock characters to illuminate the conflicts in Spanish society. That helps to make things clearer, but it feels a bit forced.
The passionate feelings Salvayre still has about these events are often well conveyed though. On the young Republican soldiers:
Et lorsqu'ils parviendront au front, mal nourris, mal armés, hébétés de sommeil, transis de froid et dans un état de fatigue tel qu'il leur rendra supportable le meurtre collectif qui leur aurait paru abominable en toute autre circonstance, lorsqu'ils n'auront plus la force de rassembler deux pensées, lorsqu'ils seront uniquement occupés à survivre et à se battre sans plus se poser des questions, lorsqu'ils accompliront des gestes d'automate sans plus aucun conscience du bien et du mal et sans le moindre affect, ils déchargeront leur fusil, au signal, sur d'autres jeunes gens à l'allure plus martial ceux-là, uniformes impeccables et bottes impeccables, mais tout aussi abusés par la propagande de leur camp qui magnifie mensongèrement leur combat et leur promet, contre une médaille posthume, ou le plus souvent contre que dalle, la reconnaissance éternelle de la patrie, tu parles.
Some individual scenes were very striking, notably the one where Montse and Rosita, sitting in a cafe in Barcelona, watch a man burning bundles of banknotes, and the scene where Montse's parents are invited to meet her new in-laws. I wished there'd been more of these beautifully observed moments. But elsewhere there was a lot of telling-not-showing; instead of scenes of conversation and action, as you would find in a British novel, Salvayre simply tells the reader what the characters are feeling and thinking. So ultimately it all fell rather flat for me. At the end (this is not a spoiler), Montse leaves for France with her young daughter. Not a word about what happens to her parents, her sister, Don Jaime (who has become quite important in her life by then) or his family. This seems strange to me -- Montse has not come across as someone who would simply abandon her entire family.
Given that I didn't know what to say, I seem to have written quite a lot :-/ So three stars for a book which was not bad, but could have been so much better. And I'm still looking for modern French authors to enjoy....more
A Bookcrossing book by an Australian author I've never heard of, but she seems well respected and I like short stories, so I thought it was worth a trA Bookcrossing book by an Australian author I've never heard of, but she seems well respected and I like short stories, so I thought it was worth a try. It was OK; she's a good writer, but it was all rather gloomy with occasional flashes of black humour. Good enough but shoe won't topple Alice Munro from her perch :)
And I get to review a book on GR with 0 reviews -- quite rare!...more