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Premeditated Murder
Premeditated Murder
by Slobodan Selenic
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Parallel histories of terrible times, 2 Dec 2006
This review is from: Premeditated Murder (Paperback)
The title sounds like a bog-standard whodunit, the cover looks like cheap erotica. Whoever produced this book clearly missed the point, because it is neither of those things, and much better than both. Selenic's `PM' is instead a hard-hitting and harrowing parallel look at what it meant to be Serbian in two bitter conflicts in the Balkans: World War II and the war with Croatia in the early 1990s.

`PM' follows the story of Jelena Panic, a Serb who is trying to piece together her grandparents' fates in WWII. Having discovered a manuscript written by her grandmother (also Jelena), she seeks out old family friends to find out what happened to bring her grandfather's life to a sudden end, and the role played by Krsman, an NKVD (Soviet intelligence) officer. Jelena is aided by Bonehead, who, like Jovan before him, is a Serb nationalist with a rabid hatred of foreigners (Russians for Jovan, Croats for Bonehead). As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that there are parallels between the two Jelenas, and between Jovan and Bonehead, that go beyond simple family ties. Depressingly, the fates of the Serbs in the 1990s Balkan War mirrors those of the Serbs in WWII. Nothing has changed, and nothing has been learned.

`PM' is a difficult read for a number of reasons. It is bloody, sexually explicit and sobering, and the presence of Jovan and Bonehead revelling in the death and hatred around them is hard to stomach. However, the parallel stories are put together with such care and intelligence, and, in the two Jelenas, have flawed but likeable protagonists, that the book became a relatively engrossing read, albeit with enough shocking moments to take the wind right out of your sails. This isn't a very happy book: history repeats itself and is pretty unpleasant both times around, but, unfortunately, that is the story of twentieth century Serbia, and Selenic makes his point well. I haven't read much literature from the former Yugoslavia, but I find it hard to imagine that I will find much that is better than this.


The Lost Steps
The Lost Steps
by Alejo Carpentier
Edition: Paperback

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lyrical prose and a musical theme, 2 Dec 2006
This review is from: The Lost Steps (Paperback)
Carpentier's `LS' is the story of an academic and composer who revives a long abandoned project to collect lost and forgotten musical instruments from remote corners of the world. Originally, he and his mistress, a wannabe bohemian trapped in her narrow western mindset, view the trip as little more than a jolly, and decide to fake the instruments rather than actually search for them. However, a revolution in the (unnamed) South American state they find themselves in forces them deeper into the jungle they had been trying to avoid. The composer's distance from the world he is used to awakens a dormant passion for life that forces him to decide between his old life and a new one in the jungle. `TLS' is a real `Heart of Darkness' book, except that civilisation is to be found in the jungle, and it is the cities being left behind where the savages live.

`TLS' is set apart from other similar books by the role played by music in the composer's reawakening. Music, and the composer's attitude to it, is a constant reference point and charts his development as a character. When he hears the refined classical music of Europe in conjunction with the ongoing holocaust, it causes him to doubt traditional definitions of civilisation and progress. The first victim of the coup in the South American town is European Choirmaster, who is shot while defiantly enjoying an almost colonial decadence in the midst of poverty. His shooting is an allegory for the death of the old music in the composer's mind. From then on, his music comes from more natural sources: the sounds of animals, of wind, of running water. Carpentier repeatedly describes the sounds of every new environment the composer encounters, not merely as sounds, but in terms of music. As he gains the ability to hear the music as the world sings it, rather than simply just detached and intellectualised, as it has been tamed by humans, his contempt for his wife and mistress, and for his old life as a whole, grows. This theme, of the rediscovery of natural music, is brilliantly realised by Carpentier, and expertly serves to turn traditional definitions of civilisation on their heads.

I have rarely been so completely engrossed in a novel as I was by `TLS'. The writing is as lyrical as a Malcolm Lowry, and flows beautifully on the page. The musical theme is matched by equally musical prose, and the central idea was brilliantly realised, so that I had no problem seeing what Carpentier was trying to achieve, despite its subtlety. `TLS' is world literature at its very best, and a strong recommendation from me.


Dorfman Ariel : My House in on Fire
Dorfman Ariel : My House in on Fire
by Ariel Dorfman
Edition: Paperback

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Snapshot of an unhappy nation, 1 Nov 2006
`MHIOF' is an excellent collection of short stories by the Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman. Dorfman's stories chronicle the aftermath of the overthrow of Salvator Allende's Marxist government in a military coup that would ultimately bring General Pinochet to power as sole military dictator. `MHIOF' is a critique of the brutal regime that was installed and describes the fear felt by the ordinary people of Chile towards their new government. Dorfman would ultimately be forced to leave Chile, in part because of stories like these, which probably means that he was doing something right.

The collection focuses largely on simple stories of ordinary people brought face to face with the regime that is filling their lives with fear. In `Family Circle' a father refuses to acknowledge his son after the latter has been forcibly conscripted into the Chilean army, but only when he is wearing his uniform. In `My House is on Fire' two children play at building a fort, which starts as an imaginary refuge and becomes their only protection against a real threat. These are simple stories with recurrent themes of fear of your own country, and in your own house. However, Dorfman is not afraid of bigger, more allegorical themes, such as the final story (`Backlands'), which is a wistful, heartbreaking love story between Dorfman and Chile, in which he likens Chile to a Beautiful yet disfigured woman who he is prepared to make love to, but never to look directly at. Dorfman's stories become a snapshot of 1970s Chile, and an indictment of a military dictatorship from the point of view of one of its opponents.

The stories in `MHIOF' are short and easy to read, but have a resonance far beyond their simplicity. For most of us, the Pinochet regime is just a story from history, but `MHIOF' gives it a context and a life. Not only is this book an important education, but it was also powerfully written and cleverly constructed. An excellent collection of short stories.


If On A Winter's Night A Traveller (Vintage Classics)
If On A Winter's Night A Traveller (Vintage Classics)
by Italo Calvino
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

13 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Post-modern meta-fiction, 1 Nov 2006
`If...' is an almost permanent fixture on `Top 100' book lists, and is also a favourite amongst some of my friends. However, I had previously read one other Calvino (`Cosmicomics'), and not particularly enjoyed it because, in part, I thought that it sacrificed story for cleverness without being quite clever enough. I had avoided reading `If...' because I thought that the same might apply. I was, however, pleasantly surprised.

To describe the story of `If...' in a few lines is nearly impossible. That is because it isn't an example of fiction (in which you - the reader - read about events happening to other people), but meta-fiction (in which you - the reader - read about reading about events happening to other people). But it isn't even that simple. Are we reading a story? A story about a story? Are we reading about reading a story about a story? Calvino plays with these various levels of story and meta-story, dizzyingly switching between you (the reader), the heroes of the meta-story and readers of the stories, and the stories themselves. Just when you think you know what is going on, one of the readers will appear in the story they are reading, and the levels become confused again. If anyone has read `Godel, Escher and Bach' by Douglas Hofstadter, they may have some ideas about levels, meta-levels, meta-meta-levels, etc, and also the mess than cam emerge from confusing them. Calvino exploits this expertly, always in control of the chaos he creates, managing to pull a touching narrative out of it all concerning the relationship between a male and female character.

I enjoyed `If...' a lot, and am a big fan of so-called post-modern fiction. I think perhaps some of the hype about this book would be damped down a little if people realised that Calvino's book isn't unique, and that other (occasionally better, in my opinion) writers have similarly tried to play with the idea of what a narrative actually is (Borges, Eco, Andrukovych, Pelevin spring to mind, but there are more). I am still not a huge fan of Calvino's writing, but `If...' is undeniably a remarkable achievement. It is a mental workout with a classic narrative hidden amongst layers of deception by the author. If you like your fiction to challenge, then you won't go far wrong with `If...'.
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Moby Dick: Or, the Whale (Penguin Popular Classics)
Moby Dick: Or, the Whale (Penguin Popular Classics)
by Herman Melville
Edition: Paperback

8 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dark psychological fiction and laboured analogies, 15 Oct 2006
One of the reviewers below describe `MD' as `penance for your literary conscience', and I have to confess that is how I feel about it having read it. `MD' has always had the label of being one of those books you must read to avoid the guffaws of properly well-read people. Although I hate reading books for this reason alone, I do occasionally give in and indulge in one of the classics. Sometimes the rewards have been huge (`Ulysses' and `Crime and Punishment' spring to mind), but unfortunately `MD' joins a pile that includes `Les Miserables' and `War and Peace' as books that I have finished with a sense of `job done' rather than any great pleasure.

Having said that, I certainly didn't hate `MD', and actually was gripped through the first 100 pages as the story of Ahab's obsessive search for the whale that took his leg and his ship begins to take shape. The narrator's (Ishmael's) retelling of Ahab's increasing madness as he forsakes all else in his quest for Moby Dick's death is one of the nineteenth century's great pieces of psychological fiction, and goes far deeper than simply being an adventure story of hunters on the high seas. Instead it becomes an allegory for life as a whole and the way we all search for meaning, and is expertly and subtly crafted. Ahab is looking for redemption for himself through revenge, but knows that redemption and self-destruction will ultimately be the same thing, and doesn't care how many of his crew must perish with him. This part of the book is dark in tone and epic in feel, and is unlike any of the other mid-19th century books I have read.

However, the qualifier in the last sentence is `this part of the book', because I would be surprised if Melville devotes more than 150 pages to it (the first hundred, the last 30 and a few in between). The majority of `MD' instead comprises a series of laboured and turgid analogies between the life of a whaler and life in general. There is no bit of rigging or plank of wood on the ship that does not have a lesson to teach, and most of these lessons consist of 3 pages of minute description about the workings of a ship followed by two pithy sentences about what it tells us. Before reading `MD', I had no idea that a bit of rope could tell me all I needed to know about my relationships with women and, to be honest, I'm still not sure that it can. So the majority of `MD' is filled with minute description of a whaling ship, which I found boring and, on occasion, impenetrable. Too much maritime jargon and rather silly analogies made these parts a slog and, unfortunately, there was a lot of them.

I can see why `MD' earned its place in literary history, and there is definitely a great book in there somewhere. I would not advise anyone against reading it, because it is both a landmark in literature, and a decent read in itself. However, the positives are strewn sparsely amongst a sea of negatives, and the rewards, for me, did not outweigh the investment. If you find yourself with the time and the inclination, then `MD' is worth a go, but don't put it to the top of your `books to read' list, because it simply isn't that good.


The Belly of the Atlantic
The Belly of the Atlantic
by Fatou Diome
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.94

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Simple but effective, 3 Oct 2006
Diome's `TBOTA' is a powerful story about the aspirations of two young Senegalese who have very different ideas about the promises of a better life offered by migration to Europe. One, Salie, lives in Paris, eking out a living that puts her barely above the poverty line. Her life in France is hard and joyless, and she is struggling to keep her head above water in her new world. The other, Madicke, is her younger brother. He lives in the small Senegalese town of Niodior and, like many of the young men living there, dreams of the opportunity to play football in Europe, with the wealth and status that lifestyle brings with it. He is undeterred both by the warnings of his sister, and the tales of hardship and failure brought back by emigrants returning to Niodior, heartbroken and disillusioned. Salie tries to convince Madicke to make a life for himself in Senegal, while he is yearning for Europe.

`TBOTA' examines the harsh realities behind immigration from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, from the perspective of both someone who is aware of the realities (Salie) and someone who wants to live the dream (Madicke). It is the contrast between the attitudes of these two that makes this a surprisingly powerful read. The language and the story are both very simplistic, but this actually adds weight to the emotional impact of the book, because it does not read as a heavily intellectual examination of migration. Instead it is a simple story of hope and hidden danger, and one that is easy to believe is being repeated day after day in reality. `TBOTA' has apparently caused quite a stir in France, introducing a new voice and perspective on the debate about immigration. I see no reason why it won't do the same for English readers.


The Railway
The Railway
by Hamid Ismailov
Edition: Paperback
Price: 11.17

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A comic history of Soviet Uzbekistan, 8 Sep 2006
This review is from: The Railway (Paperback)
Ismailov's `The Railway' is a brilliant example of what reading world literature is all about for me. I barely knew where Uzbekistan was, never mind anything about its history and culture. Ismailov's book brought a whole century of the country's history to life in a way that was at times hilarious, thought provoking and tragic, and left me with a definite feeling of what Uzbekistan had gone through in the twentieth century.

`The Railway' is a sort of picaresque novel, following the adventures of many of the inhabitants of a fictional town (Gilas). The book is populated with a vast array of characters, and begins with the first Russian revolution (1905) and ends in the late 1980s, when Ismailov began writing. It chronicles the absurdity of a town on the periphery of the Soviet Union, swept up by the communist revolution but strangely immune to the worst excesses of Stalinism because of its distance from (and irrelevance to) Moscow. Gilas (and Uzbekistan) is at the crossroads of many races and nations, featuring Uzbeks, Sarts, Uighirs, Russians, Koreans, German exiles, Muslim, Christian and Atheist. The stories of most of the individuals are comic, albeit with rather dark humour on occasion. There is the man who circumcises himself with his own pistol while trying to blow his sleeping son's head off, or the man who has been drinking locomotive brake fluid for years thinking that it was vodka due to a miscommunication with a train driver. Ismailov tries to cram in as many Uzbek types as possible, to give as complete a picture of the twentieth century of this nation as he was able. However, the book is not entirely picaresque, because all of the stories lead to the life of `the boy', an unnamed character born in modern Gilas. Many of the events described in `The Railway' involve his ancestors, or somehow pave the way for his birth. The Boy is, in this sense, the product of the last hundred years of Uzbek history, and presumably represents what Ismailov thought that it means to be Uzbek at the time he was writing. This provides a focus for an otherwise meandering book and is a downbeat and serious counterpoint to what is a largely comic novel.

`The Railway' was well written and an easy yet important read. I have to admit that the profusion of different stories occasionally left me a little lost, but Ismailov provides a glossary of names at the beginning to help the confused. The book is funny and tragic, educational and enjoyable. An excellent example of Soviet writing, but also very different from what I have read from the `European' Soviet Union. Definitely worth reading.


Mr.Potter
Mr.Potter
by Jamaica Kincaid
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Long prose poem to Kincaid's father, 3 Sep 2006
This review is from: Mr.Potter (Paperback)
I was really looking forward to reading Jamaica Kincaid's stuff, but was unable to get hold of her most famous book (`Annie John') so settled for `Mr Potter' instead. It certainly wasn't a book I hated, but it also didn't blow me away either. It is a wistful look at Kincaid's own biological father (Roderick Potter), covering the whole of his life from birth to death. It is not an elegy to Potter, indeed there is precious little praise for him as a man. Instead it looks at his aimless, dreamless existence. He is unable to read or write, and has no desire to do so, and unwilling to be a father, despite leaving children (including Kincaid) scattered around his home town of St. John. He is surly, selfish, depressed and alone (though not lonely). `Mr Potter' emphasises the pointless circularity of his existence, coming from a father who was similar to him, and giving rise to children who will be similar to him. Kincaid stresses that she, in being able to write about her father, is trying to break this chain, so the book is as much about her writing being a way of escaping Potter's legacy, as it is about Potter himself.

`Mr Potter' was clearly a very personal and heartfelt memoir of an absent and uncaring father. However, the writing style made it very hard for me to get into. `Mr Potter' was written as a long prose poem, with an almost stream-of-consciousness style. Although this is a great way of getting inside Kincaid's head, it also, in my opinion, make it hard to get a sense of direction in the book. There is no narrative, and no real sense of purpose to the book as a whole. Novellas written like this can be enthralling, but at nearly 200 pages it just made it a bit of a slog to stick with. Kincaid is definitely an accomplished writer, and I wouldn't avoid reading her stuff in the future, but `Mr Potter' wasn't the great read that I had hoped for.


Tide Running
Tide Running
by Oonya Kempadoo
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unmoving and pedestrian, 3 Sep 2006
This review is from: Tide Running (Paperback)
Kempadoo's `TR' is the story of a European couple (Bella and Peter) who settle near the town of Plymouth, on the Western end of Tobago. Bella and Peter are free-spirited liberals, but Plymouth is a town with a reputation for drugs and crime, even among Tobagans. They befriend a pair of local brothers, Cliff and Ossi, and gradually draw Cliff into their Bohemian lifestyle, even to the extent in involving him in ménage a trois. Friends warn them not to get involved with the locals, but they ignore them. Eventually however, they begin to suspect Cliff's motives for his friendship and their trust in him starts to slip.

`TR' was one of those books that completely failed to interest or move me at all. The characters were not developed well enough for me to care about their fates in the slightest, and the development of the plot (such as it was) was so pedestrian that I hardly notice when the book had finished. It was supposed to be about a weighty culture clash between the Tobagan youths and liberal Europeans, but it just seemed to be about a couple having a little domestic difficulty with their alternative lifestyles. Maybe I wasn't shocked enough at the book's concept, or maybe it was all a bit alien to me, but `TR' is a book that I won't be recommending to anyone I know.


My Name is Red
My Name is Red
by Orhan Pamuk
Edition: Paperback

69 of 69 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Islamic historical fiction, 3 Sep 2006
This review is from: My Name is Red (Paperback)
`MNIR' is a whodunit set in late 16th century Istanbul. An illustrator of manuscripts (Elegant Effendi) is murdered by one of his colleagues. Black Effendi, newly returned from exile, is set the task of finding the murderer by his uncle, for whom the victim was working when he was killed. As Black delves deeper into the output of the workshop in which Elegant worked, he uncovers many tensions between the workers, including over the intrusion of European techniques into Islamic illustration, the succession to the position of master of the workshop, professional jealousy and good old-fashioned lust. Black must unravel these strands to identify the murderer before the sultan makes good a threat to have the whole workshop arrested and tortured.

Parallels with Eco's `The Name of the Rose' are impossible to avoid. Both books are murder mysteries whose resolution is based in religious philosophy, and both play very cleverly with the idea of big religious concepts interacting with the baser aspects of human nature. Fans of one will enjoy the other. Pamuk's writing is more humanistic than Eco's, and perhaps less coldly academic. Black's investigations are woven in with a genuinely fascinating love story that becomes integral to the story, rather than just a distraction. In addition, Pamuk's writing is very beautiful, and the whole book is set against the background of a wintry and claustrophobic Istanbul that is very well described. Because of this, it is slow paced, occasionally too slow, and the murder mystery aspect becomes secondary to Black's own life in places. However, in general I really enjoyed reading `MNIR' and, despite it being a big book, finished it fairly quickly. It was enjoyable and cerebral, and a great piece of historical fiction.


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