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JOHN (PARIS/FRANCE)

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Middlesex
Middlesex
by Jeffrey Eugenides
Edition: Paperback

16 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Middling..., 7 Jan. 2004
This review is from: Middlesex (Paperback)
Having thought carefully, having read and re-read the considerable numbers of reviews heaping praise on this novel, I still wish to stick my neck out and say that, frankly, it left me feeling rather disappointed.
My biggest reservation about it concerns the fact that it falls between two stools, and, more specifically, between two genres - family saga and first-person, introverted self-questioning, admittedly of a rather unique kind - and does not entirely convince or satisfy on either count. In particular, the present-day situation of the hermaphrodite narrator, bravely embarking on his/her first serious relationship, is too sketchy and too allusive, giving the uneasy impression that the attitude of the new girlfriend, Julia, amounts to little more than: "Yes, you're not normal, but I'm a very understanding and sensitive person myself, you know, so everything will be all right"... Exeunt to the bedroom...
In which case the hundreds of pages serving as a build-up to this anti-climactic moment suddenly seem somehow unnecessary. And irritating.


The Robber Bride
The Robber Bride
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

38 of 42 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Virtuoso chaos, 7 Jan. 2004
This review is from: The Robber Bride (Paperback)
I have just re-read this, one of my very favourite contemporary novels, and consider it to be an extraordinary achievement.
Its major strength surely lies in the highly skilful interlocking of themes and narrative technique and structure. The lives of three different women, Toni, Charis and Roz, have been ransacked in various unsavoury ways by the baleful influence of the mysterious Zenia. The reader is given ample opportunity to see things from the points of view of three characters with highly contrasted personalities and attitudes to life in general, and as a result is gradually led to realise that, while all three women are in many ways likeable, none of them is perhaps one hundred per-cent trustworthy...
Many articles and reviews have set out to establish what "really" happens in this novel, who, if anyone, is "really" responsible for what happens in the end. This surely misses the point, which is that subjective interpretations of "reality" inevitably and by definition clash with and contradict one another. And, after all, perhaps Zenia, like the witches in "Macbeth", doesn't "really" exist as any more than a personification or metaphor of the neuroses, uncertainties and vulnerabilities of the other characters?
Margaret Atwood heaps up the images which correspond to the chaos and fragility of our inner lives, and alludes very deftly to the fact that so much of what we do and how we behave corresponds to largely anarchic impulses, rather than to rational, planned behaviour.
I haven't yet read "Oryx and Crake", but I put this firmly at the top of the list of Atwood's novels. Although it wasn't shortlisted - five of her others have been, including "Oryx and Crake" and "The Blind Assassin", which went on to win in 2000 - this, for me, is the one that really deserved the Booker.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 19, 2013 5:32 PM BST


Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less
Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less
by Jeffrey Archer
Edition: Mass Market Paperback

9 of 30 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dire, 18 Nov. 2003
Intense loathing for Archer himself would in theory have prevented me from ever coming into the remotest contact with this, his first book. But a friend whose judgment has often proved trustworthy assured me that it was a wonderful read, and with an excellent plot, and consequently pressed a copy upon me.
It is one of the worst novels I have ever read - the only consolation being that it can be read extremely quickly. As far as the plot is concerned: one character swindles four other characters, who then band together in the most unlikely circumstances [how many detective inspectors disrespect other people’s privacy and chuck names around as willingly as the one in chapter four?] in order to gain revenge. Which they do, in a series of farcical scenes, totally disconnected from one another. So much for plot.
As for the characters: they are all caricatures,
and of their inner lives and deep feelings we never learn a single thing. OK, they like to indulge their lust occasionally, and knock back the expensive champagne... but with Archer we never get beyond the most basic instincts. So much for psychological plausibility.
So what’s left? Perhaps the accumulated references to the sometimes quaint and eccentric traditons of English life (Ascot, Wimbledon, Oxford University, swanky London hotels) appeal to American readers just as they do the villain of the piece?
And as for the ending... I’d been hoping for a last minute reprieve from implausibility in the form of an unexpected twist in the tail. But no. True to form, Archer rounds it all off with most predictable part of all. Pulp fiction at its worst.


The Next Big Thing
The Next Big Thing
by Anita Brookner
Edition: Paperback

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pedantic or majestic?, 13 Nov. 2003
This review is from: The Next Big Thing (Paperback)
Anita Brookner has been compared to Henry James, and the solemn precision of her prose can be either soothing or irritating. It does sometimes give the impression that she is writing about characters and situations from the beginning of the twentieth century, rather than the twenty-first. Although the context makes it pretty clear that her main character in this novel travels to Paris on the Eurostar, the name is not mentioned, and, for all we know from his general attitude, he might be about to catch the Orient Express.
The novel is a meditation on the onset of old age - the main character is seventy-three - and, as often in Brookner’s novels, on the feeling that “real life” has somehow passed one by.
Personally I found the book extremely gloomy - which, far from being a criticism, is of course a tribute to the way the impression of monotony and predictability is rendered. As for the style... if you like words like “animadvert”, “appurtenances” and even “naïf” [sic] slipped casually into a contemporary novel as if they were still on everybody’s lips, you’ll have a feast.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Apr 18, 2014 1:32 AM BST


The Restraint of Beasts
The Restraint of Beasts
by Magnus Mills
Edition: Paperback

6 of 11 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Good sketch, hardly a novel..., 13 Nov. 2003
This short novel reminded me of an excerpt from a Ken Loach film: its characters are reminiscent of those Loach characters whose hearts are full of tenderness and good intentions, but who still turn out to have been cast in life as permanent no-hopers. But once we’ve understood that they have dehumanising jobs, live on baked beans and spend their paltry wages on beer in generally unfriendly pubs, there’s not a great deal farther for us to go.
Magnus Mills admittedly has a keen ear for dialogue, especially the differences between the heartfelt, spontaneous outbursts of the exploited and the pedantic sarcasms of those who exploit them. But it’s still only an excerpt from a Ken Loach movie that I’m made to think of, and the whole thing finishes rather suddenly, leaving the reader feeling that, despite an original situation, he hasn’t really had his money’s worth as far as plot is concerned... even if, as various reviewers have, perhaps disingenuously, pointed out, that is deliberate...


Under The Skin
Under The Skin
by Michel Faber
Edition: Paperback

18 of 39 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Amazing reviews... shame about the actual book..., 24 Sept. 2003
This review is from: Under The Skin (Paperback)
"An extraordinary book", trumpets the critical quote on the front page... Well, the most extraordinary thing about it for me was the way I was bamboozled by the blurb on the back. Did the publisher really consider this "novel" to be so bad that he felt obliged to try to pass it off as something else? Let me quote said blurb: "Under the Skin introduces us to a female character, Isserley, obsessed with picking up male hitch-hikers..." The fact that Isserley is actually obliged to do what she does, rather than being obsessed with it, is clear more or less from the outset, and there we are in a sci-fi novel of the most contrived variety imaginable.
The repetitiveness of the narrative defies belief. If Faber had thought about E.M.Forster's seminal comments about round and flat characters, he might have known better than to attempt a novel in which every single character is as flat as a pancake. And the most inspid pancake.
"Beautifully written", continues the blurb. Well... If "The sun moved across the heavens like the deceptive glow of distant headlights that never got any closer" is your idea of beautiful writing, then so be it.
Reviews of this novel previous to mine have been extremely mixed. If you like cheap thrills of the most improbable variety, then go for it. If, like me, you expect a novel to explore human emotions, and to go somewhere - rather than trundle up and down, up and down the same stretch of road (you'll see what I mean pretty quickly...remember, it's about picking up hitch-hikers...) - then look elsewhere.


Daughters Of The House
Daughters Of The House
by Michele Roberts
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One to treasure, 25 Jun. 2003
This review is from: Daughters Of The House (Paperback)
Given its French setting, I would immediately recommend this exquisitely written novel to anyone who has marvelled over the consummate skill behind Monet’s Impressionist paintings of Rouen Cathedral: indistinct blurs which come into focus when you step away from them. And, in a literary context, one of those novels about a difficult and ambiguous past, where the reader reconstructs that past along with the main characters.
Considering that so little is explicitly said, the summer spent by two adolescent girls in post-Second World War France is vividly rendered. The allusive titles of the chapters - “The Frying-Pan”, “The Oranges”, “The Ironing-Board” - are an important clue to the oppressively domestic setting, but also to the way in which deep and disturbing truths lie behind apparently ordinary objects. And the same is true of words. “Her words shot out in a clatter”, reads one sentence about half-way through the narrative. And, throughout the novel, words do indeed clatter, and resound and reverberate, echoing and amplifying earlier words, combining to show how deep and unpleasant truths are to be found beneath platitudinous surfaces.
The veneer of civilised behaviour is always thin and precarious in Michèle Roberts’s novel. And there are dark forests and dark cellars to mirror the dark secrets the novel gradually unfolds. The whole novel is a dark diamond, and one which demands to be contemplated more than once.


The Killjoy
The Killjoy
by Anne Fine
Edition: Paperback

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disjointed, disconcerting, disappointing, 4 Jun. 2003
This review is from: The Killjoy (Paperback)
A hideously disfigured academic begins an affair with one of his students. The affair develops into something obsessive, and gradually more and more sado-masochistic. From the opening sentences of the retrospective narrative it is abundantly clear that things will end badly. But the sloppy construction of that narrative makes it extremely difficult for the reader to care exactly how badly. Despite some astute insights into the generation gap and moral standards, information about the narrator's past, his pride, his prejudices, tends to be thrown at the reader in irritatingly random fashion. Loose ends turn into presumably unintentional red herrings. Even the title strikes one as somehow inappropriate


The Killjoy
The Killjoy
by Anne Fine
Edition: Paperback

0 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disjointed, disconcerting, disappointing, 16 May 2003
This review is from: The Killjoy (Paperback)
A hideously disfigured academic begins an affair with one of his students. The affair develops into something obsessive, and gradually more and more sado-masochistic. From the opening sentences of the retrospective narrative it is abundantly clear that things will end badly. But the sloppy construction of that narrative makes it extremely difficult for the reader to care exactly how badly. Despite some astute insights into the generation gap and moral standards, information about the narrator’s past, his pride, his prejudices, tends to be thrown at the reader in irritatingly random fashion. Loose ends turn into presumably unintentional red herrings. Even the title strikes one as somehow inappropriate.
All the more disappointing as I had enjoyed the humour of “Taking the Devil’s Advice”. Obsessive jealousy is a rich vein in literature, from “Othello” through Proust and right up to brilliant contemporary evocations such as Julian Barnes’s disquieting “Before She Met Me”. But the convincing representation of it is a task to which this particular novel is decidedly unequal.


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