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Phil O'Sofa (England)

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Vernon God Little
Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1.0 out of 5 stars Soon becomes tiresome, 22 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Vernon God Little (Paperback)
I suppose I should have learnt by now to avoid Booker prize winners, as they're almost guaranteed to be disappointing. This was one of the worst, however. The attempts at humour are pathetic, mostly reliant on inventing absurd situations and mocking small-town American ways: mildly amusing at first, but soon becoming tiresome. The same can be said for the attempts at Texan vernacular, which I found unconvincing, perhaps because the author is Australian.
It feels as if he thought, hey, wouldn't it be great to write a novel based round one of those typical US school massacres, and went from there. The blurbs on the back are even more misleading than usual: this book is original, certainly, but originality by itself doesn't make for great literature.


Atonement
Atonement
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

2.0 out of 5 stars Slow going, 21 Feb. 2015
This review is from: Atonement (Paperback)
I was expecting more from this novel, which has received a lot of praise and been made into a movie, but in fact the book supports the old argument that a good novel rarely makes a good film, while a lousy one can, the point being that there's far too much in a good novel to cram into two or three hours of movie time.
And that pretty much sums up the problem with this story: there isn't anything like enough happening to justify a full-length novel, especially one that drags on for 370 pages. These pages are filled with elaborate descriptions about nothing much: endless turgid prose written in a style that tries so hard to be literary that it almost ends up like a parody of true literature. To me, it felt as if the author was attempting to write like Proust, but not quite succeeding.

I almost gave up after a couple of chapters, it moves so slowly, but having nothing better to do at the time, I kept at it, and eventually it picked up just enough to keep me reading, though it wasn't really worth it. Although the later chapters are different in tone and subject from the first part, being set in the battle-fields of northern France and in a London hospital (rather than a stately home), the excessive detail is still there, as if the main point of the story is to tell us what life was like in the war. The ending is a let down.


A Change of Climate
A Change of Climate
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good, 18 Feb. 2015
This review is from: A Change of Climate (Paperback)
This is, I suppose, a family saga, and certainly the Eldred family is unusual enough to be interesting, yet just about normal enough that we can relate to them. It's very well written, and is convincing in that the author really seems to know what she's writing about.
The only reason I don't give this five stars is that it flips back and forth in time a bit too much for my tastes, and also it's a bit lacking in focus. It's mainly set in 1970s Norfolk, where the family take in `sad cases' from a London hostel, but there's a disturbing episode from a decade earlier, when the newly-married couple lived in southern Africa as missionaries.
So part of the story deals with apartheid, while on another level it seems to be about marriage problems, though I won't say more because I don't want to give too much away.
I still haven't got round to Wolf Hall, but after reading this I think I'll make the effort, as Ms Mantel is clearly a very good writer.


The Year Of The Flood
The Year Of The Flood
by Margaret Atwood
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

2.0 out of 5 stars Yawn, 28 Jan. 2015
This review is from: The Year Of The Flood (Paperback)
The same kind of post-apocalyptic idea as Oryx and Crake, a sort of sequel, I suppose. At first I felt a bit more empathy for the main character, Toby, and this his kept me reading, just about. But even so, I skimmed through long stretches of pretty tedious stuff, not badly written, but not very involving either.
Added to this problem is the annoying fact that we aren't told till near the end what's happened to apparently wipe out most of the population. The flood of the title isn't a real flood, but some sort of `dry' flood, a virus or something, one guesses (I won't give it away, though it doesn't make much difference).

The ideas here don't seem particularly new and they aren't very interesting either - the world is apparently run by a private security corporation called CorpSeCorps, though to be honest I never really figured it all out, or cared that much. It's all too similar to Oryx and Crake and the novel is far too long for the limited plot. The characters are devoid of any genuine emotion or any reason why we should care much about them, the men especially, though I thought Adam One, the head of the hippy-ish Gardeners, had some good lines, quite sensible really, but not very biting seeing as how it's meant to be satire.
In fact it's clear that a lot of the Gardeners' philosophy, as written in the `hymns' that appear now and then, is meant to be taken seriously, so this might just be the point of the novel for Atwood: hidden behind the satire are her genuine philosophical answers to life, the universe and everything. Pity it doesn't make for a great story.


Everything I Never Told You
Everything I Never Told You
by Celeste Ng
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Disappointing, 28 Jan. 2015
The novel gets off to a good start, promising a well-written mystery/thriller, about a teenage girl who goes missing from her family home. This lasts for one chapter, then the body is found and the tone of the novel changes completely, slowing right down and becoming a story about what it means to be a Chinese immigrant in mid-20th-century America, with lots of back story and little action.
A bit later on the theme changes again, as a young woman who wants to become a doctor struggles against the male domination of society. And then, as if that isn't enough subject matter for one story, we get to the theme that lurks at the heart of the mystery: how parents can mess up their kids by burdening them with their own failed ambitions.

Told in the third person, we flit between different points of view in a way that sometimes makes it confusing as to whose head we're inside. Adding to this confusion is a tendency to flit back and forth through time, almost from paragraph to paragraph.
But the biggest problem is that the idea behind the story is totally unconvincing and so are most of the characters. Although the book is well written and an easy read, to the extent that I didn't actually feel like giving up on it, I just didn't get drawn in at all. This is the biggest issue for me: none of it rings true.


Things: A Story of the Sixties with A Man Asleep (Vintage Classics)
Things: A Story of the Sixties with A Man Asleep (Vintage Classics)
by Georges Perec
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

2.0 out of 5 stars Describes things very well, but don't expect a story, 22 Jan. 2015
Although Perec was a brilliant writer from the use-of-language (or technical) point of view, perhaps comparable to Proust for composing beautiful sentences, the way he chose to tell the two stories in this edition - Things and A Man Asleep - I found quite tedious after a short time.
The first chapter of `Things' sets the style - a rambling description of an apartment in Paris, told in the conditional tense (eg: The second door would reveal a study ... the walls would be lined with books ...)
The point is that the narrative represents the desires of a young Parisian couple who want all the material things that life can now give (in the early 1960s), but they will forever be disappointed because they can never earn enough to buy all these things.

It's an interesting idea, and Perec must be one of the first writers to explore the failings of the modern consumer society, the pointless search for happiness amongst material possessions. But unfortunately it doesn't lead to a great novel. The characters are deliberately kept vague and shallow, so of course we are never drawn to them - we can't even dislike them because they barely exist. But it's not just characterization that's lacking: there's no real plot and no dialogue, just a great deal of description, or `telling'.

The second short novel in this volume, A Man Asleep, is told in the second person (You are alone ... You often play cards all by yourself ...) and follows a young man who finds himself indifferent to the world around him, but as with `Things', it lacks the usual requirements of a good novel.
Again it has a Proustian flavour, both in the subject matter (lying in bed unable to sleep, pondering the dark shapes of the furniture) and in the length of the sentences (whole pages, sometimes), but without the joyful side to Proust, or the humour. Perec suffered from depression and both stories are semi-autobiographical - hence the depressing mood and subject matter.
Perec undoubtedly explored some interesting ideas in his writing, which seems to be about the use of language as much as anything else. For me though, clever writing cannot compensate for the lack of a good story.


In Diamond Square: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
In Diamond Square: A Virago Modern Classic (VMC)
by Merce Rodoreda
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Don't give up, 19 Jan. 2015
This is a remarkable novel, but it isn't immediately obvious. At first I was thinking, well, if this is `the most beautiful novel published in Spain since the civil war', as the quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez says on the cover, it doesn't say much for modern Spanish literature. But as I read further, I began to see his point.

In fact, it isn't until about halfway through the book that it really gets to the point of the story, a failing that these days would consign it to the obscurity of the slush pile. This is because the author tells her tale of courtship, marriage and life as a working mother in 1930s Barcelona as a straightforward account of ordinary hardship, bringing up two kids and coping with her husband Joe's unpleasantness and his obsession with keeping pigeons, and doesn't even mention the civil war till it begins to affect her personally, when Joe and his mates join the local militia and go off to fight.

So the first half of the book is not very interesting and even at times quite trivial, almost like early chicklit, told in the first person and mildly humorous, with a slightly annoying habit of starting every second sentence with the word 'And'. But it's an easy read and well worth sticking with, because when we get to the hardship brought about by the civil war, we've become involved with the characters and the whole thing feels totally convincing, and at this point it becomes really interesting and soon after this, about three-quarters of the way through, it hits a high point and becomes really very moving, and at last I understand what Marquez meant.

The novel is unlike anything I've read before, telling the story of life in Barcelona leading up the the Spanish civil war, and continuing through and after the war, through the eyes of an ordinary woman who doesn't care about politics and just wants to survive. So very different from Hemingway's 'For Whom The Bell Tolls', but just as good in its own way. Just keep reading, because this turns out to be a great novel. As a final note, I suggest that the Prologue is best read after you've read the novel, as it doesn't add to the story but could detract from your enjoyment of it.


Lila
Lila
by Marilynne Robinson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.89

4.0 out of 5 stars Superb writing, as usual, 11 Jan. 2015
This review is from: Lila (Hardcover)
Having read the author's other books, including Gilead and Home, I was expecting this novel, which `follows on' from those two (though it's set slightly earlier), to be slow moving and full of religious reflections, a little tedious, perhaps, but with the compensation of beautiful writing.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was the writing up to standard, but the story is actually more interesting and not so slow moving, with even a bit of action here and there, though that is never the point of Ms Robinson's novels, of course.

The story is set in and around Gilead, a (fictional) small Iowa town, in the 1930s and 40s. It doesn't matter one bit if you haven't read the other novels, as this is a self-contained story about Lila, a desperately poor, unwanted, somewhat awkward and unattractive young woman who shelters one day in the church of the reverend John Ames, a main character in the earlier novels. He takes an interest in her, perhaps out of pity, and before long they get married, despite a big age difference.
There are the usual Robinson reflections on morality and religion and much quoting from the Bible, though this never seems overdone. Rather, it is used as a way of judging the kind of tough life Lila grew up in, amongst thieves and prostitutes, with compassion and understanding.

I have two relatively minor criticisms of this novel: one is that it verges on being too sentimental, in a Dickensian sort of style, and the other is that, especially into the second half of the book, we flit from present to past in a way that isn't always clear, as Lila goes over the events that brought her to Gilead. Does superb writing make up for these slight failings? In this case, I think it does.


Fahrenheit 451 (Flamingo Modern Classics)
Fahrenheit 451 (Flamingo Modern Classics)
by Ray Bradbury
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

4.0 out of 5 stars Great theme and good writing, 29 Dec. 2014
Some interesting ideas in this dystopian novel, written in the early 1950s but set in an unspecified future in which books are burnt because the authorities don't want people getting ideas about anything. The way Bradbury grasped the significance of what were, at the time he wrote this, very recent developments, is really impressive. People are brainwashed by interactive TV that fills all four walls of the living room, spewing out mindless chatshows and games, while high-speed highways are a common cause of death and jet bombers patrol the skies. He even predicted a kind of mobile phone and 24-hour banking technology - pretty impressive in 1952!

His writing is really good, too, in places as good as anything I've read, though often it's more workmanlike, getting the job done with no messing around. The only reason I don't give this five stars is that it is, if anything, a bit too sparse; there isn't much in the way of character development, and the plot is pretty thin. That's probably because Bradbury developed the novel from a short story idea, knocking it out in a couple of weeks. Well worth reading, though.


The Conservationist
The Conservationist
by Nadine Gordimer
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Starts off well, but fades away, 20 Dec. 2014
This review is from: The Conservationist (Paperback)
The opening is really good, very evocative of time and place. The appeal lies in the unique character of the life it describes - the situation in apartheid South Africa, early 1970s, where a wealthy white businessman runs a farm as a kind of hobby and a place to escape to at the weekends. Although the story revolves around a dead body found on the farm, this is anything but a thriller - slow-moving, unconcerned really with the dead man, who was black and therefore of little interest to the white farmer or the police.
But what the story lacks in entertainment value is made up for by interest value, the beautifully descriptive passages of a world most of us would never otherwise know anything about, the way the poor Africans live, the relationships between them and the white landowners, and also the Indian shopkeepers.

But although the novel won the Booker Prize (in 1974), it is not without flaws (actually it's one of the best Booker winners I've read, but that's not saying much). The biggest problem is a lack of plot, action or any kind of suspense. It rambles on and eventually the good writing and the interesting descriptions of time and place are not enough.
Another issue is that, although it starts off as a third-person present-tense narrative, things become confusing further into the story when the author sometimes switches to first-person and/or past-tense, seemingly at random, a situation made worse by the fact that dialogue, which she indicates by the long dash (European style) rather than quote marks, is often jumbled up and not clearly attributed. Quite often I was unsure who was supposed to be speaking, or indeed if anyone was speaking at all, or if they were just the thoughts of the main character, Mehring, the white farmer from whose veiwpoint, for the most part, we see things through.
But then we start seeing things from the point-of-view of other characters too, and this overall confusion, combined with the lack of real story, begins to outweigh the good points to the writing, so that I only continued reading because I'd already got that far and wanted to see it out. The ending doesn't amount to much, either, so overall I don't rate the novel very highly.


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