Thursday, 27 April 2017

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

"Considering one's life requires a horribly delicate determination, doesn't it?"

There are times when a gritty exploration of a difficult romantic relationship full of alcohol, insults and vomit might be an intriguing idea. Digesting this little tale in between deadlines probably wasn't the best way to get an easy night's sleep. Ignore me,though, it is expertly rendered, if not difficult to read. 

Could this be the reason I had two days alcohol free ?- no that was budget related. Mind you if I had the protagonist's penchant for vomit, then perhaps I would refrain more often.
First love is an insightful and detailed exploration of an unhappy relationship delivered in a concise package and has been shortlisted for this year's Bailey's prize for fiction.
Do not expect an upbeat romantic comedy and you will be entertained by its incisiveness. Impressively crafted and certainly an author to watch.

5 out of 5 time painful relationships are better on the page than reality.

When Falcons Fall (Sebastian St. Cyr #11) by C.S. Harris

"Sebastian suspected he knew exactly what was suddenly troubling the vicar."

Some days I am just so grateful to have a friend like Nicki, who persuades me to explore new and addictive book series such as the Sebastian St Cry novels. I was initially a little ambivalent and am now a fully-fledged convert. That should perhaps be obvious by the fact that I’m on book 11 of 11 and now eagerly anticipating the next instalment. Basically I, like Hero, can’t get enough of the dashing Viscount Devlin and who could blame me?
The world he inhabits might be full of murder and the odd detailed autopsy, nevertheless there’s joy to be had. His wife is always a delight, such a feisty and resourceful character, who plays an equal role in investigating untimely demises as a true partner to her husband. It has been entertaining to see their relationship develop throughout the series, although this particular outing focuses far more on the mystery.

Who is the mysterious Emma Chance? Does she have some connection to Sebastian’s look alike (and **SPOILERS**) mysterious half-brother? One thing is for certain, Sebastian is convinced she did not die of her own accord. It seems visiting Shropshire is no respite from a body count for Sebastian and his wife, much to the reader’s intrigue.

There are a cast of likely characters here and the suspense certainly kept up through the entire novel. Let’s just say I could not go to sleep until it reached a resolution. Just as I take a sigh of relief and am about to put my head to the pillow, I’m tempted by the tantalising excerpt at the end of the book. I try and look away and yet it has me in its grip. Seeing as the hardback was just released I feel there’s quite some time until I get to soak in the pages of the next St Cyr outing, Where the Dead Lie paperback.

5 out of 5 times one should not go sketching without one’s Abigail.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

"Lust and desire, which placed private interest over the public good, was a bourgeois luxury and a political crime."

Investing time into a 300+ page novel is sadly something I really lack adequate time for these days, and that is my loss. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to exploring this highly praised novel ( shortlisted for the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and last year's winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize). You know me, sucker for a shortlist.
There are sublime moments within the novel that place it firmly in the winner's seat, and yet.... I really struggled with this one. I feel that I've gained a new understanding about the social upheaval and struggle of the cultural revolution, a period in history that was completely foreign to me and that, I find really impressive. My struggles were with keeping track of the many characters and time frames given my own time constraints - reading a few pages per night just before heading to sleep. Perhaps if I had read the novel on a plane or by the pool on holidays, my response would be slightly more favourable.  Perhaps this is a work that demands undivided attention for better appreciation.

I still think its great, and I just wish I could have immersed myself more fully within its pages. I did love the book within a book and reflections on the transgressive nature of storytelling.

 4 out of 5 people should never smash a violin.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

A Boy's Own Life by Edmund White

"People say young love or love of the moment isn't real, but I think the only love is the first. Later we hear its fleeting recapitulations throughout our lives, brief echoes of the original theme in a work that increasingly becomes all development, the mechanical elaboration of a crab canon with too many parts."

A gorgeous novel that transports the reader into the life of a young boy growing up in the 1950s. His family life is vividly depicted along with his struggles to come to terms with his growing attraction to men and failed attempts to 'cure' his homosexual leanings. There is so much feeling here and torment in trying to find a way forward. 

The writing perfectly conveys the yearning and confusion of young adulthood - the quest for love and acceptance is something we can all relate to. Certainly the sense of feeling apart from your peers is one that immediately takes me back to adolescence. There are moments within the novel of complete heartbreak, of the joy of discovery, and an awakening of the powers of adulthood.

It is clear why this novel is one of the 1001 books to read before you die, and I'm very glad I have.

5 out of 5 love letters are a bad idea.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Mary by Vladimir Nabokov

"It had lasted no more than four days - four days which were perhaps the happiest days his life"

No reality can ever compete with the glorious and perfect memories of young love. Memories are untroubled by the angst and worries that might have existed in reality. They are edited and perfect, like an amazing portrait in a gallery, preserved in its perfection. 
This little tale from the author of Lolita,  at times beautifully outlines such ideas.
There are sublime descriptive pieces in here and yet they are interspersed with some real filler.
Most of us can relate in some way to Ganin, frustrated with everyday life and dreaming of some ideal that can never be. Perhaps that is the curse of getting older.

4 out of 5 times misery doesn't always love company.

What Maisie Knew by Henry James

"Maisie's eyes opened wide again; this was so different from what she had expected."

Yet another rare occasion where I'd seen the movie before reading the book. Hard to believe seeing as it is a classic. Perhaps it was the allure of Skarsgard, yes definitely. What struck me with the film and was further underlined by the novel, was how despicable Maisie's parents are. Here is an impressionable young child, trying to make sense of a fractured family life due to her narcissistic parents.

I've been rather busy with work and reading this in fits and starts. The dense language and strange pacing evoke the meandering thought process of a child, and yet make reading difficult. This is not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination and quite possibly my least favourite James novel. Maisie's tale is probably rather familiar to many broken families these days and far more common than I imagine would have been the case in 1897 when it was first published.

Maisie's parents have divorced and Maisie spends her time divided between both households. Her father re-marries her governess - hello cliche - or shades of Affleck (allegedly). Her mother is equally frightful and yet manages to ensnare a new lover in the form of Sir Claude, who seems to have a real rapport with the young child. When Sir Claude and Maisie's former governess end up cheating on their respective partners with each other, brought together in some part by their interactions about the child, things get very messy.

As for the rest, I'm sure I can leave it to you to explore the sub 300 pages for yourself. It certainly makes for an interesting comparison with the cinematic outing. The film from 2012 has been modernised and is perhaps therefore much more easy to access and relate to. Both share, at their centre, the innocent upbeat perspective of a young child attempting to make sense of a complicated adult world. I'd be interested to re-read the novel when I've got more dedicated time because I think that my review might be bumped up another star in that instance.

4 out of 5 stars from this precocious kid.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Under the Skin by Michel Faber

"Already he looked much like all the others she had picked up; later, when his clothes were off, he would look more or less identical."

I've avoided reading this for quite some time and I have no idea why. This is one of those rare instances where I watched the film before reading the novel and I'm slightly miffed because I was haunted by Scarlett Johanssen and a little too aware of what was really going on. Both the novel and the film are excellent and if you've not encountered either, I think perhaps, as is usually the best bet, go for the book first.

So how to discuss the novel without giving too much away. It is rather difficult. Potential spoilers coming. There is this fascinating juxtaposition of the way we treat dogs versus cattle and they way (spoiler alert) the aliens harvest their human meat. The alien identifies as human and the locals as lower life forms. Her reaction to sheep is particularly interesting. 

Apart from harvesting lonely, male, hitchhikers,the protagonist wrestles with her transformation to fit in with the locals - the overblown boobs based upon a local magazine ( I think we know which kind), the mutilation of her natural form and the troubling feelings that immersion with the vodsels have evoked.  Faber has this amazing way of humanising the aliens and by doing so, causing the reader to think closely about what it means to be human.

Good news also that this is another tick on the 1001 list and the guardian list. Yes, I'm list mad, you should know that by now.

5 out of 5 - A thrilling read.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

There is no maze more labyrinthine, it would seem, that the human mind. Written in 1985, this strange collection of tales of neurological patients from the pen of renowned Neurologist, Oliver Sacks (perhaps best known for Awakenings – the book that inspired the movie) is just as quirky as the title suggests.

The old woman plagued by the Irish songs of her youth, the man convinced he’s still 19 when clearly in his seventies, the twin idiot savant mathematicians, are characters that shock and fascinate. Perhaps this book was the perfect remedy for complete and utter abject work frustration. It seems that the peculiarities of unusual mental maladies make for far greater entertainment than report writing.

Perhaps what is most frightening is the potential for our own faculties to deceive us, that is something that is very difficult to process.

5 out of 5 crazy stories prove truth is often stranger than fiction.

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Chess by Stefan Zweig

"There's not much point in describing the game."

Does chess drive you a little berserk? Then perhaps this is the novella for you. Perhaps I jest, and yet this thin sliver of a book is fantastic and certainly worth reading. Mirko Czentovic,somewhat of an idiot savant and the current world chess champion, is leaving New York for Buenos Aires on a cruise ship.
On board he encounters a man with an almost uncanny ability to predict his moves, little does he know what a game with him will deliver.
It is really easy to see why this Austrian novella is included in the 1001 novels list, it is original and really draws the reader in.

5 out of 5 - good things do come in small packages it seems.

Monday, 3 April 2017

Lion by Saroo Brierley

"Fate had delivered me from dire straits into a comfortable existence - perhaps I needed to accept that the past was past and to move on"

I managed to read this in a night and it certainly is easy to read. Not having seen the film I was eager to read the book first and see what all the fuss was about. Having seen the trailer about a million times, I sensed I was in for an emotional journey. The facts alone are staggering.
Having said that, I didn't seem to connect with the emotion here. The tale is told in a rather factual way, particularly given the sheer scale of Saroo's journey, I found this surprising. Who knew Google Earth could reunite families from across opposite sides of the planet.

4 out of 5 train journeys sometimes send you off the beaten track.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Gut by Giulia Enders

"Periods of stress mean the brain borrows energy; and, as any good housekeeper knows, good budgeting is always better than running up too many debts."

When your gut isn't good, then really, nothing is. I'd been hearing a lot about this book and being someone who is often stressed and suffering with some rather irritable innards, I was  interested to explore this work further. 

Julia has an engagingly simple way of describing the mysteries of our insides, including some of the strange mind to gut connections that are intriguing.The illustrations that accompany the text are delightfully childlike, which is not such a bad thing to be when discussing the shape of your number twos. It seems of late that I've been reading a lot about different ways of seeing the world and all the action that is going on and yet hidden from view. That seems vastly appropriate here. 

Apart from practical advice about how to sit more effectively on the throne, this captivating read really demonstrates some of those wonders that we don't think about within our body. In our fast paced lives today, where everything goes bing, it is our guts that are saying - enough already, and who could blame them. Be careful what you put in, chill out, all those things we think instinctively are probably spot on and yet we tend to do the opposite.
I can't believe I actually read a book recommended by my Aunt Norina, this is a first. Perhaps it is just a sign that we are all in a topsy turvy place right now, hell bent on trying to achieve unrealistic expectations, stressed out by high rents and incomes that don't rise at the same speed, and our alcohol intake goes up to combat it while doing the opposite. Love your gut and yourself just a little bit more and I'll try and do the same.

 5 out of 5, because you should go with you gut.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Ignorance by Milan Kundera

“She makes love wildly, lasciviously, and at the same time the curtain of oblivion wraps her lewdness in an all-concealing darkness. As if a poet were writing his greatest poem with ink that instantly disappears.”

Kundera waxes poetically with an economy of words that is simply marvellous. Here two émigrés return to the Czech Republic after an absence of more than 20 years.
A chance encounter, for the woman, with the one that got away. For the man, a strange encounter with a ghost from the past that he no longer remembers, and that momentarily frees his mind from the  frosty reception of reunions with relatives and the haunting circumstances of losing a loved one. Originally written in French, the novel is a translation and yet eminently quotable and beautifully delivered.

There is an all pervasive sense of honesty in the writing. We all create our own narrative of love and life. It is rarely mirrored by the other players. Sometimes I feel that the disconnect between those stories is a divide that will never be bridged and that the notion of a truly shared experience is a nonsense. I am perhaps a little bitter and twisted, that is one reason why I loved this sad and reflective novel. The only sense of freedom and joy within the novel is brief and between the sheets. Only in the harsh light of day and the realisation that each party had a completely different agenda, does the tale reach its unfortunate anticlimax.

Memories are an unreliable narrator, for they are coloured by our own fears and desires. The notion of home and returning home, referencing the journey of Odysseus, is prevalent here and it is an intriguing one. We remember the place that shaped our youth and yet, should we move away, we grow apart and change with our surrounds. Yet, housed deeply within us, is that notion of home which bring a strange pull. That being said the idea is often vastly different from the reality, as the home of our youth, or in this case that of the two protagonists, has undergone significant change. Time only stops still in memory.

 5 out of 5 a speedy delight and one more tick on my 1001 novel journey.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud

"There was Mum, dragging the stove from John's broken-down van."

Many moons ago, I remember watching the film based on this novel and being utterly captivated by the strange story. The book, for me, was a vastly different and delightful experience. The innocence of the child narrator lends the tale a rather unique point of view. The reader, like the younger sister is trying to understand the behaviour of her mother. The title comes from the girls' favourite words. They are the only words they recall hearing their travelling companion, the stricken Maretta say.
The child's perspective means that circumstances are simply accepted and the reader is forced to draw their own conclusions. Is Julia having  romantic relationship with John (Maretta's husband), is that what leaves Maretta speechless and sickly? The narrator tells us only that "John was Maretta's husband. He had brought her along at the last minute only because, I heard him tell my mother, she wasn't well."
Similarly the succession of love interests and spiritual guides are introduced factually and often we're forced to jump to our own conclusions, an experience very different from the movie which focused on a woman's journey for meaning  and struggle with coming to terms with the requirements of still nurturing her children.
The book leaves us with a sense of the fish out of water sensations that the younger sister is troubled by, her responsiveness to any interest or positivity from other adults and fervent desire for some semblance of normality. We feel her need to escape,  away from nappy stealing neighbours, child beating teachers and the fear that her mother will turn into a fully fledged sufi, leaving  her behind, uneducated and unprotected in a strange land.

Beautifully written, it is no surprise that this novel is on the 1001 novels to read before you die list ( hurrah another one ticked off) and also the Guardian's definitive 1000 novels everyone should read list.

5 out of 5 journeys are different from every perspective.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

"It is a long story, and it does no credit to anyone: there is murder in it, and trickery, lies and foolishness, seduction and pursuit. Listen."

Okay so last week I waxed lyrical about Neil Gaiman and it seems I've gone on a Gaiman binge. Now this would all be fine, had I more of his work to savour,however, I have to wait for him to release some more. Fortunately, his instagram feed tells me he is currently in a productive mood while in a train across America. Nothing like social media to keep tabs on people (and your favourite authors) - am I right?

When I read that there was a new novel coming out based on Norse mythology  I was really excited because the source material is rich, gory and fantastic.This is part fairy story, part nightmare as the trickster Loki reeks havoc and the adventures of familiar characters such as Thor and Odin spill forth with a tone that is both familiar and strange. The reader is transfixed with childlike wonder and yet the deeds and misdeeds are far more adult.Being restrained by the entrails of one's son is definitely the stuff of nightmares; giants are intimidating and Thor really can drink - does that mean he gets hammered?

Myths and legends allow us to contemplate our best and worst behaviours in an atmosphere of the superlative and the fantastical. They fire our imaginations and leave us spellbound. This is why they last throughout the centuries, the strange mix of inherent truths and entertainment. Gaiman's interpretation is fabulous and he is form in this regard (hello Anasi Boys  and American Gods for example). Speaking of which, perhaps my desires for more of his work can be sated by delving into the new American Gods  series - we shall see.

5 out of 5 times giants get a gruff deal.


Thursday, 23 March 2017

The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman

“I believe that in the battle between guns and ideas, ideas will, eventually, win. Because the ideas are invisible, and they linger, and, sometimes, they can even be true.”

How can I express my rapture for the voice of Mr Neil Gaiman. I gravitate towards his work like Pooh chases honey and as such, some of the pieces included within this collection of his non-fiction musings (speeches, reviews, introductions) on a number of topics were rather familiar to me. That is in no way to detract from my unadulterated affection for its content. Gaiman has the ability to make words sing. I am profoundly jealous the way he wields simple words with the kind of deft skill that can just as easily make me smile or cry. His wife is similarly infinitely talented; they must be the most intimidating couple to meet, but I’d love to.

I digress with my ‘fan-girling’ and should get back to the book, because if you’re still reading, I assume that’s what you came here for. Happily it’s a rather large volume that promises to take you on a wide variety of journeys. From comic book heroes to fairy tales, from science fiction to pornography, the subject matter is wide, diverse and intriguing.
After reading this, my aim in life is to write a novel and have Neil Gaiman write the introduction - that would be possibly the most life affirming circumstances this pea brain can envisage.

Rather than go on about the detail. I suggest you get yourself a copy and discover this joyous collection of words for your own enjoyment.

5 out of 5 myth, legend and fantastical, fabulous sentences.