Friday, 13 October 2017

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

"He could tell himself now, in all torturous sincerity, that in making his various arrangements on Vernon's behalf he, Clive, was doing no more than honouring his word."

In this rather slender Booker prize winning novel a cast of rather hideous, self absorbed characters are all reflecting on the death of their former lover, Molly Lane. A vivacious, free-spirit cut down in her prime by some form of dementia and then death. When incriminating photos of her former beau, the now foreign secretary, come to light, self-interest and scheming unleash some truly dark behaviour.
All roads lead to Amsterdam and a body count, so pass the champagne and settle in for a speedy and interesting read. I know I did.

This is also one of the 1001 books to read before you die which means I'm yet another step closer to that particular life goal. I'll take that as a win because today, I have a cold. On the plus side, that means more reading time. Nose to book for this bibliophile. Until the next review - adieu and watch your Champagne.

5 out of 5 - this book is not about youth in Asia.

How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland

"Over the centuries a remarkably wide  variety of individuals have spoken warmly of the enhanced sense of self they have found in doing something courageous on their own"

Have you ever opened the pages of a book in anticipation of learning something, only to discover there’s nothing within that you didn’t already know? That was certainly the case here. Perhaps, being such a solitary creature has taught me the value of alone time. That being said, everyone needs a little companionship at times. I admit I was having a bit of a moment, thinking that perhaps my destiny lies in perpetual solitude. Upon reflection, we are all on a journey and the signposted directions, for me at least, do not sit within this book. A treatise on the benefits of flying solo is not something I particularly need. I'd have to agree with the positive remarks about travelling alone, that is something tried and tested in my book. Never go to a beautifully, romantic city like Venice or Florence with a misanthropic,  ignorant,grumpy old man of a boyfriend, you will enjoy yourself far more alone. This goes double if his name is a three letter word that starts with B - trust me - I speak from experience.

3 out of 5 books do not have all the answers.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

"He caught a glimpse of Alice's wild dark fox's eyes rolling with terror and then half shutting with pleasure."

Every review I’ve just read on  about this mimics my own thinking. That is to say - Harry Potter for adults with sex and a dash of Narnia. I like all of these things and yet I did not love the book. Astonishingly, I actually preferred the television adaptation. It is worth noting that both iterations differ quite substantially in relation to the plot and also the importance of certain characters.
That being said, the central action is still enticing. After all who could resist fantastical, magical realms with added hormones? Sure, Quentin is a bit of a wet dish rag. That being said, Alice is far more interesting. Perhaps that's my inner nerd talking. I was glad when **spoilers**she gets her own back on her unreliable boyfriend through noisy shenanigans with Penny - such a strange name for a guy. Also is that what they meant by physical magic?

4 out of 5 magic tricks could be a double entendre?

Friday, 6 October 2017

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

"If your capacity for bad behaviour were being properly used, you would not be moping around in that cardigan"

In case there is any doubt, I loved this book and devoured it in no time. I've never read a book that so wholeheartedly captures the sense of unease that a woman of a certain age feels at being unwed and perpetually single. It can feel like a disease, merely because one isn't prepared to settle for mediocre misery. Those that have often look on in distaste and hidden jealousy due to the wagon on which they are hitched.

This beautiful novel is an emotional journey and it took me back to travelling to Italy with my mother - trust me that is an emotional journey guaranteed to make you regress to your hideous sixteen year old, self-conscious self. I distinctly remember talking to a lady travelling solo at another Hotel du Lac( its quite the common name for a hotel by the lake - go figure) and she seemed so grown up and self assured next to me with my mother- transporting me into a Jennifer (in the novel) like figure. Part of the genius of this Booker Prize winning novel is the recognition of parts of oneself in the imperfect characters. One minute I was the solo writer with a penchant for hidden dalliances and fear of mediocrity, the next I was the young lady (ssh I'm not that old) burdened by her mother's omnipresent shadow.

Finally, the ending, and I'm not giving that away, really makes the entire experience memorable and fabulous. ***Avast ye eyes, spoilers be ahead*** Mr Neville's limpid proposal almost had me convinced that it would be easier to settle; thank goodness Edith has the internal fortitude to recognise  that a half lived live is a lame one.

5 out of 5 quiet hotels are torture with relatives or solo.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

"We are all migrants through time"

Every now and then you pick up a book and are transported to some far away world or location that speaks to the everyday in a way that a more literal, nonfiction treatise might not. Such is the case here. I love Hamid’s writing, it is both bare and beautiful. He really got my attention with The Reluctant Fundamentalist in a far more aggressive fashion. This novel, however, ebbs and flows like the crashing waves of young love, all enveloping to begin with and then petering out into the sands of time. Getting my hands on a copy has been high on my agenda since The Book Club  featured it in April of this year.

The love story begins in an atmosphere of growing violence and terror with escalating civil unrest at times keeping the lovers apart and finally bringing them together. The reader is unsure of the exact location of their home, just the need to escape and that is where things get really interesting. Doors open up to other locations in the world and random cities experience huge influxes of refugees through these magic portals. First Mykonos becomes overwhelmed by mass immigration, culminating in violence that the pair must escape, via the assistance of a young local girl, through another door to a mansion in London. Empty spaces are filled by the needy as the world magically faces the plight of the refugee. On such an epic scale of violence, fear and cultural clash, Saeed and Nadia’s relationship weathers and alters in a profoundly human fashion which reflects the way shared experiences bind you, while growth and maturity often send you in different directions.

It can’t just have been PMT; I actually felt quite teary when I finished this, it was just beautiful. In a world full of terror and violence, it’s reassuring that regardless of where we come from, what we choose to believe in or not, what language we speak or who we vote for, there are some experiences that transcend all of these and on that level we can all understand each other a little better. One can hope at any rate.

5 out of 5 times I’ve opened up a door and thought, “Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

Thursday, 28 September 2017

I served the King of England by Bohumil Hrabal

"And then our naked bodies twined together and everything seemed liquid, as though we were snails, our moist bodies oozing out of our shells and into each other's embrace, and Lise shuddered and trembled violently, and I knew that I was both in love and loved in return, and it was so different from anything before."

I must confess to having seen the movie before reading the novel in this instance, something I’m usually loathe to do. That being said, I absolutely loved the movie and was eager to dive into the novel. Fortunately for my list ticking habits, this one also features on the Guardian’s 1000 novels everyone must read (fittingly in the Comedy section). 
Our hero, little Ditie, gives men of shorter stature a good name. Surely I can name a recent ex who 's life would improve with a dose of this character's optimism and deep ceded appreciation of women and Ditie does quite a bit of appreciating, particularly when he discovers the delights of the Paradise, a rather popular brothel. This tale is reminiscent of Bocaccio as it is earthy and amusing and yet it also includes insightful social commentary. In particular it explores the self serving lengths people will go to in the name of survival and  self promotion - marrying a nazi no less and aiming to be approved as suitable Aryan breeding material for example.
Every time the character of Zdenek made an appearance, I was reminded of my own Czech friend of the same name and his penchant for wild, roaming stories, much like this one.

While I loved the movie, I equally enjoyed the book.Now to find a man who will worship me with well placed flowers- one can dream. 

5 out of 5 naked flower arrangements.

Monday, 25 September 2017

Beloved by Toni Morrison

"All the time, I'm afraid the thing that happened that made it all right for my mother to kill my sister could happen again."

The week when work dramas and social chaos are pushing you towards some pretty silly behaviour is really not the week to appreciate a novel about slavery and killing kids and rape and other unsavoury things. I say this, by way of explanation, as I felt a little overwhelmed this week and reading this novel did nothing to help. In fact its style was so creepy and frustrating that even when horrific events happened in the novel I had some kind of delayed onset reaction to them. I was drowning in words and every now and then my head would hit the surface and think, crumbs, why am I reading this?

The answer would be, perhaps, that it is included on almost every must read list there is. How could I resist the siren call of a novel that is on almost every must read list? I couldn't. I succumbed and yet I didn't really enjoy or appreciate the experience. Upon reflection, I can appreciate its brilliance and originality. The tone and phrasing are something new to me and  only really reveal themselves as being memorable when revisiting the novel, days and dramas later. There's something wafting and dream like about it, the kind of dream that swings continually into nightmare territory. When is the perfect time to read an unsettling piece of literature? I wonder?

4 out of 5, sometimes you just have to take the unpleasant path.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Pinball 1973 by Haruki Murakami

"The goal of pinball is self-transformation, not self-expression."

It has been one of those crazy weeks that fly by and yet fill you with a sense of exhaustion mixed with tedium and a little dash of frustration. To hide from the trials of the daily slog, I dove deep into Murakami territory and was not disappointed. Reading his novels is like waking from a seriously weird dream. The details are a mite hazy, your recollections lie on the tip of your tongue and yet simultaneously a million miles away.

Imagine around 160 pages of escape into another world with an obsession for a very rare pinball machine, random bed buddy twins and the tale of the rat and his strange, meaningless sexual entanglement that ranges from all powerful to forgettable in a very short time. This is apparently the 2nd of 3 Rat stories and unfortunately it seems I've gone and read them in reverse order, which is typical. I have a habit of doing things back to front.
Throw in musings about life, relationships, pinball and fleeting obsessions and this is a delightful dreamlike escape. Not my number one favourite Murakami and yet still a delightful excursion.

5 out of 5 ball flipping gets the big scores.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Pig Tales by Marie Darrieussecq

"The director of Perfumes Plus was holding my right breast in one hand, the job contract in the other"

Fancy a really strange read? Well this certainly will fit the bill. A rather comely young woman gets felt up by her new boss  and finds her extra curricular activities take over from selling perfumes. While her male clients appreciate her youthful fecundity, misuse and pregnancy physically alter her until she is transformed into a pig. Pink, fat, can be used to make bacon - that kind of pig.
It is reminiscent of the way in which women start off as innocent and appealing and then is transformed by age and experience into something far less appealing. Sometimes the life of a pig might just be more liberating as our sow discovers.
Definitely an intriguing read and quite a quick one - which is pretty much what the heroine gets up to a lot,

4 out of 5 trotters seem unflattering.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

"While it was technically accurate that both Liz and Jane were single, this fact did not for either woman convey the full story."

It is a truth not universally known that this Pride and Prejudice transplanted to modern days has been sitting within my to be read pile since Christmas. How did I let that happen? This is fantastic stuff! Funny, well written, it is a complete delight and the pages just seemed to fly by at a record pace.
This re-telling is part of a series of re-imaginings of the works of Jane Austen by modern writers, known as the Austen Project. One of literature's most famous dysfunctional families - has their ever been a mother more mortifying than Mrs Bennett? - is now transplanted to Cincinnati of all places.
Bingley's first name is Chip and he's been on the equivalent of reality show, The Batchelor.
Darcy is a brain surgeon, Elizabeth (Liz) writes for a women's magazine and Jane is getting artificially inseminated. This is Austen but certainly not as we know it. A great story transcends the details it would seem, as this incarnation is simply delightful.
I'm keen to seek out more works by its author now, as this one was so much fun and this world needs way more of that these days.

5 out of 5 daper doctors are always called for.

Swing Time by Zadie Smith

"It seemed wrong for Goths to kiss so we bit gently at each other's necks like little vampires."

Childhood friendships are fraught. So much shared experience and yet so many opportunities to grow apart. Zadie Smith's latest novel certainly captures that aspect of the difficulties of a lasting friendship between childhood best friends, particularly where their social circumstances are particularly different. There are many aspects of growing up that Smith captures with insight, and that made for an engaging read.

It is difficult for our heroine to deal with the eminently talented and early blooming status of her friend Tracey and indeed their lives will play out rather differently. There are so many stories going on here that I occasionally got a little bewildered. I'm sure it wasn't the fact I was reading this poolside on holidays - surely not.

I wanted to love this a little more than I did.  The Madonna in Malawi like antics of Aimee, the protagonist's pop star boss, were vastly entertaining. Notwithstanding, the momentum seemed to hit a kind of lull three quarters through the novel and it felt slightly anti-climactic.

4 out of 5 dance moves will have you swinging like you're winning.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

"That was the thing about him, he just lived in his skin and didn't give a thought to the consequences of anything"

I was really reticent to read this novel, having read somewhere about the rather depressing denouement and yet, given its place on so many "must read" lists, I cracked the spine. Much has been said about how horrible a character Rabbit is and yet in someways he's relatable to us all. A once brilliant athlete in high school, his glory days are long gone and adulthood, full of responsibilities becomes an all together too dreary prospect. So, as the title suggests, he runs, albeit out on his heavily pregnant wife.

This is quite a common phenomenon  and I can kind of sympathise with that notion of impending entrapment that both parties might feel with an upcoming birth. A woman whose body is no longer her own, and a man who only comes to the realisation of how that might impact his life at a space way where it is too late to really back out.

Rabbit runs and finds his old coach and the accommodating Ruth. His self absorption continues and he weaves a path of destruction in all his romantic entanglements. For they are less about romance and more about fending off the monotony of reality. Rarely have the unuttered and unlikeable thoughts that secretly plague us all been so vividly realised. I finished this book in an hour it was engrossing. Our own poor behaviour is acceptable to ourself as we explain it away, and yet our impact on others can be so devastating and never more so than here.

I'm eager to see where the sequels go.

5 out of 5 gritty but engrossing pages fraught with imperfect humans.

Midnight Jewel by Richelle Mead

"Thinking of my ankle made me think of Grant, and thinking of him made me think of his hands on my leg, and thinking of that..."

Undoubtedly I made for a somewhat tragic figure reading a Glittering Court romance on the sand during my holiday. That being said, I regret nothing. I do so enjoy a dalliance in Richelle Mead's other worlds. In fact, I'm ashamed to admit that I've fallen in love with Grant, which might make things a little difficult for our heroine, Mira.
The latest instalment in this extravaganza of big gowns, big hair, big jewels and the odd pirate completely delivers. It might have taken longer to get into than I would have liked, however that was entirely due to life getting in the way of reading - don't you hate when that happens?
This was quite possibly the perfect selection of pool side reading material, provided no-one was looking over my shoulder. Was it the sun or was Grant getting more dashing and appealing?

The amazing Nicki was kind enough to loan me this copy and I might be returning it slightly sun damaged and sandy - I apologise profusely, I just had to finish it. Drawn into danger and adventure and excitement and sneaking out, it was just like being seventeen again. Which is kind of fitting, since the last time I was here ( on holidays in Vanuatu), I was that exact age - full of enthusiasm and unconcerned about dull things.

Far from dull, Mead's latest addition is a joy... and now I eagerly await more. Get tapping those keys Richelle, the back cover says "trilogy" and I'm hanging out for the next one.

5 out of 5 because a girl has to be a fighter and a dancer.

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

"There didn't seem to be anything alive, including ourselves. We were dislocated, we were not there, now we were ghosts."

So I distinctly remember writing an amazingly glowing review of this book and it appears to have disappeared. I blame the average mobile coverage at my current destination and yet, we shall persevere.
This has to be one of the best books I've read this year, even if it loses its driving, visceral momentum towards the end. What stand out is how very different it is. Whereas other novels have covered similar periods of history, this transports what could be a typical story into something beautiful, inherently masculine ( seriously the pages almost sweat testosterone) and yet remain tender and interesting.
I don't want to go in depth into the story, I want to leave that to you. I found myself re-reading passages and continually appreciating something new - a rarity of late.

5 out of 5 men in dresses that kick a#$@.

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Hatchet by Gary Pauls

"He fingered the Hatchet at his belt. It was the only weapon he had, but it was something."

It is very easy to see why this children's novel is a Newbery Honor recipient. Sometimes the best children's books are those who don't treat children as anything other than slightly smaller, less experienced adults and this certainly fits that bill.

I finished this on a beach chair in Port Vila, Vanuatu on a cloudy but warm tropical day - does that make you jealous? It was suitably enthralling despite being such a slim tome.
I like the way the author juxtaposes the upheaval that parental divorce imposes on a child, with far broader and more worrying issues, namely that of survival.

Bear Grylls has nothing on this kid and yet his MacGiver like skills keep the reader on board as they have a somewhat organic nature that delivers real credulity.
I might lend this to my cousin's kids as I'm sure the adventure and sense of suspense will have them entranced. I also know a few adults, myself included, who will also find this hard to put down.

5 out of 5, watch out for the berries and the bear.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

 "All I could do was to offer you an opin­ion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fic­tion; and that, as you will see, leaves the great prob­lem of the true na­ture of woman and the true na­ture of fic­tion un­solved"

I know that Virginia Woolf is considered to be one of the most amazing authors and yet I find her almost impossible to read. Not because the sentiments here aren't spot on - they are. Sadly, women face many of the same issues today as when it was first published in 1929, many still struggle for financial independence, we grapple with inequity of earnings and the glass ceiling. That being said, I feel she could have got to the point in about half the number of pages and still conveyed the same message. Her meandering style never fails to drive this reader to distraction and long for a fast forward button - terrible to admit I know.

Money, freedom and education are necessary to facilitate women's voices to be heard and to record their view of history. There I've basically summarised the essay in a sentence. Throughout history circumstance and social convention have contributed to the empty shelves concerned with the history of women, and let's hope that has changed at least. For this at the very least, we should be grateful for Woolf's contribution.
For who could argue with making the most of the opportunities that have been so hard won for us?

As the author suggests, "A thou­sand pens are ready to sug­gest what you should do and what ef­fect you will have. My own sug­ges­tion is a lit­tle fan­tas­tic, I admit; I pre­fer, there­fore, to put it in the form of fic­tion" and as an avid reader myself, I can't help but agree.

5 out of 5 for the notions, despite the long path to get there.