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Catherine Murphy "drcath" (Norway)

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Black Dogs
Black Dogs
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Facile and unpleasant, 22 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Black Dogs (Paperback)
As ever, in "Black Dogs" McEwan turns out readable prose, a balance of description and plot points which draw the reader in. The cover hype leads us to believe this is a work of weight, which grapples with the issue of whether metaphysical concepts such as good and evil have continued relevance in a world where the idea of God is becoming old fashioned. It's an interesting issue and one which McEwan's protagonists, Bernard and June, disagree fundamentally. This is a shame, as they are married and end up spending their lives apart, though still connected as a result of this difference of opinion. McEwan leads us to the central event of the book: the occurence which June interprets as a demonstration that evil objectively exists. I was waiting for something truly significant here, but what I received was unpleasant, far fetched and oddly adolescent - the kind of nasty story usually reserved for Pan Horror compilations. I used to like McEwan, but since "Atonement" my interest has waned to vanishing point.

The Theory of Clouds
The Theory of Clouds
by Stephane Audeguy
Edition: Paperback

2.0 out of 5 stars Foggy, 13 Oct. 2009
This review is from: The Theory of Clouds (Paperback)
It's usually the sea which inspires novelists, so I suppose this author deserves points for choosing another natural phenomenon as his starting point. The novel takes the form of a series of essays about historical figures obsessed with the theory and representation of clouds; the linking conceit is that they are told by a Hiroshima survivor to his amanuensis. She becomes drawn into the hunt for an elusive manuscript, the last copy of a diary kept by the man who aspired to create the first definitive cloud catalogue.

A cloud catalogue - it's the definition of pointlessness and precisely sums up the book. It's as foggy and amorphous as its subject matter.

by Gail Jones
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eloquent but the politics get in the way, 13 Oct. 2009
This review is from: Sorry (Paperback)
Perdita is the child of Nicholas and Stella, growing up in the Australian outback with few contacts with the outside world. The family acquire a half-aborigine servant, Mary, removed from her family as part of the government's efforts to "improve" the race. Perdita and Mary become friends, but their world is shattered when Nicholas is found stabbed to death and Mary takes the blame for the death.

It's a beautifully written story, full of eloquent passages and you can enjoy it for that alone. The title refers to the Australian government's refusal to apologise to its Aborigine citizens for their previous mistreatment (possibly because of the potential for lawsuits?) and it's a pity Gail Jones chose it, because it takes away our ability to discover for ourselves exactly what this story is about. The author avoids lecturing us, but the sense of outrage is there, just hovering below the surface and that detracts instead of adding to the weight of the tale.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 13, 2011 10:23 PM BST

McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime
McMafia: Seriously Organised Crime
by Misha Glenny
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Global Underworld, 13 Aug. 2009
This exploration of the rise of international crime - a kind of sinister version of globalisation - had me riveted. Glenny is an experienced journalist and knows how to tell a story well, capturing the reader from the off with an account of a bizarre, seemingly random shooting in the Home Counties, using this to illustrate how the old boundaries of organised crime are breaking down and shifting to allow new patterns to emerge. It's a judicious mix of facts and figures, enlivened with real life material to keep the pages turning. A warning though: some of the latter are quite disturbing. Ludmilla's story of how she was duped into the sex trade by a phone call from a friend cost me more than one sleepless night, for example and there are others almost as lurid.

Glenny's work illustrates how crime, like any other business, expands into new markets as they emerge. The world is a smaller place and not just for tourists. Nowadays, you're as liable to be ripped off by scammers from Nigeria or Brazil as have your phone pinched by the friendly neighbourhood mugger. On a sober sidenote, he supplies at least two examples of how the removal of the "right" kind of crime lord - men who supply law and order as well as drugs and counterfeit DVDs - only leads to chaos and the emergence of a hundred less desirable replacements. Sometimes, leaving well enough alone is the best solution it seems.

A Small Weeping
A Small Weeping
by Alex Gray
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars A small sniffle, 13 Aug. 2009
This review is from: A Small Weeping (Paperback)
Set in Glasgow, this is the first in what is clearly intended to be a police procedural series starring DCI Lorimer and (to ring the changes) his sidekick, psychologist and profiler Solomon Brightman. A woman is found strangled in Central Station, a flower positioned between her praying hands. Then a young nurse dies in similar circumstances - but are the two deaths really the work of one killer?

It's by-the-numbers stuff: Lorimer has the usual marital issues, Brightman is the slightly prissy intellectual counterweight, there are a couple of female characters to balance it all out. There's a trip to Harris, to add a bit of colour to proceedings. There's no one much to care about, everyone is polite and fairly well functioning and the stakes never become very high. Boring, in other words.

Oh and the title...I can't read it without automatically adding the work "sore" to the end.

Under the Volcano (Penguin Modern Classics)
Under the Volcano (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Malcolm Lowry
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "I am very much interested in insanes", 13 Aug. 2009
Malcolm Lowry belongs to the small and exclusive club of "one-hit" authors, other members including Paul Bowles (The Sheltering Sky), Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) and arguably, Richard (Revolutionary Road) Yates. True, Lowry did write other fiction, but nothing on the grand, macabre scale of this work.

Geoffrey Firmin, ex consul and alcoholic is joined in the Mexican town of Quauhnahuac (a name devised especially to torment critics who must type it) by his ex-wife Yvonne and half brother Hugh. She is hoping for a reconciliation, Hugh is stopping by as part of a longer journey. It is the Day of the Dead and in the small town, which lies in the shadow of two volcanoes, Firmin drinks, reminisces and wanders inexorably towards tragedy.

It's not an easy book to read and not an easy book to rate. Lowry's prose is evocative to the point of becoming purple and his lengthy digressions into the thoughts of each of his characters can become distracting. But stick with it and this book is fantastically rewarding. No one else has managed to capture the labyrinthine workings of the human mind with such precision: the evasions, the self deceptions, the irrelevant musings, the sudden moments of clarity. The main character, Firmin, is brilliantly drawn - a shambling wreck of a man who wants to deserve his wife, but knows he can't. Followed everywhere by pariah dogs, Firmin is rotting from the inside out. He's already dead in a spiritual sense and all that keeps him together is mescal and a sense he still represents human decency in a country which is struggling not to collapse into lawlessness. It's a magnificent, terrifying portrait - terrifying because it makes a compelling case that none of us are more than a collection of ideas and memories, doomed to insignificance and ultimate disintegration. It's a bleak, blackly humorous world picture, but one well worth experiencing.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 3, 2016 8:35 AM GMT

The Boat
The Boat
by Nam Le
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars We're all human, 13 Aug. 2009
This review is from: The Boat (Paperback)
The Boat, a collection of short stories by Nam Le, came to me as one of two books, for achieving the short list for the Litopia short story competition on the subject "First Twin".

In his opening story, Le plays an authorial game. A member of a writing group claims he is sick of "ethnic lit", of writers posing on jacket covers in traditional costume, of stories with descriptions of exotic food. Nam Le is Vietnamese, a member of a writing group and every one of his stories concerns a different type of ethnicity and, of course, contains a mention of some ethnic dish.

This sly humour is characteristic and refreshing. It's needed, because the subject matter is often dark. A child describes his life as an evacuee from his native city. American planes fly overhead on secret missions, his parents visit, reassure him; then return to Hiroshima. A Colombian hitman, barely into his teens, discovers love, loyalty and the price of friendship. An aging artist receives news of terminal illness and desperately attempts to contact his beloved, estranged daughter. A Vietnamese girl boards a boat crammed with other illegal immigrants. A storm blows them off course and supplies of water and food begin to run out.

It's a moving, stunning collection of tales and if Le occasionally allows allusiveness to descend into incoherence, it's forgivable, because these are stories which should drift into silence, rather than end with a bang. And it's only at the end that the point Le makes at the beginning becomes clear: however different our background and experience may appear to make us, just under the surface, we're all human.

The Twisted Heart
The Twisted Heart
by Rebecca Gowers
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £12.99

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Curled if not twisted, 13 Aug. 2009
This review is from: The Twisted Heart (Hardcover)
I read and enjoyed Rebecca Gowers' first book, When to Walk, so was thrilled when I discovered her second, The Twisted Heart was one of the two books I received for making it to the short list of the "First Prime" short fiction competition.

Both of Gowers' novels take as their theme the trials and difficulties of modern love and in both she gives her story zing by creating characters which teeter on the border of normality. They're believable but distorted, the kind of people you can imagine meeting in the pub and never forgetting. The Twisted Heart features Kit, a post grad researching the murder of a Victorian prostitute. She believes the death is linked in some way to Dickens' fictional account of the death of Nancy in Oliver Twist (hence the title), but can't explain why Nancy's death appears to preface the real life murder. At the same time, Kit becomes involved with Joe, a Maths professor whose own life is far from straightforward. His brother Humpty is in a precarious state of mental health and has some very dodgy friends. Kit has to decide if Joe's defensiveness is just that of an older brother, or if he has other secrets to hide.

The plot resolution is no big surprise, but Gowers has a lovely, light style which carries the reader along. She has a gift for capturing the awkward moments of a relationship in its early days, those disjointed conversations where we nearly, but never quite, say exactly what we mean. She also writes her characters with affection, so we care about them and want them to be happy. And when they are, in the end, we smile.

Revolutionary Road
Revolutionary Road
by Richard Yates
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.83

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Bitter Sweet, 11 July 2009
This review is from: Revolutionary Road (Paperback)
"...from the moment they stepped off the train, as she had later told her husband, she had recognised them as the kind of couple one did take a little trouble with, even in the low price bracket."

Frank and April Wheeler live on Revolutionary Road, a train ride away from the city, where Frank is a junior executive for Knox Business Machines. They have two children, friends. April is involved in the local theatre company. Theirs is an ordinary life.

But Frank and April don't want to be ordinary. Unlike his father, who worked for Knox all his life, Frank sees his job as an ironic gesture, a short term fix until he figures out what he really wants to do. April too seeks fulfilment in her theatre project and when that ends badly, throws herself into a plan for the family to move abroad, where she will support them while Frank discovers himself. Faced with having to finally live up to his dreams, Frank does what he can to stop April, blind to how far her desperation to change their lives will make her go.

When Richard Yates died of emphysema in a rented Boston apartment in 1992, all his books were out of print. As a young man, he spent a year in Paris doing nothing but write short stories. By the end of this time, his wife left him, taking their young daughter with her. Not one of the stories was published.

It's a story of quiet failure and it's not hard to see Frank - restless, immature, a compulsive self deceiver - as self portrait rather than fiction. And Yates is merciless, not just to himself as Frank, but also to his cast of minor characters, his precise, unfussy prose exposing every weakness, every sin of omission. He treats only one character with any tenderness and understanding, and that is April, who commits the single generous act in the book - of absolving Frank of any blame when her actions lead to disaster.

It's a small book, set on a small scene, but its message is dark and universal: according to Richard Yates, we are far less than the sum of our parts.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Aug 28, 2015 2:25 PM BST

Half of a Yellow Sun
Half of a Yellow Sun
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.55

21 of 30 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not the full story, 11 July 2009
This review is from: Half of a Yellow Sun (Paperback)
Even though I've learned to ignore the hyperbole on book covers, "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Adichie seemed to be a dead cert for a good, thought provoking read. It's set in Nigeria during the period when the south broke away to form the new state of Biafra, a country which survived three years of war and famine before its eventual surrender. It tells its story through the eyes of three characters: Olanna, the daughter of middle class Igbo parents, who upsets her family by setting up home with the academic Odenigbo instead of marrying well; Richard the white lover of Olanna's twin sister, Kainene and Ugwu, the house boy of Odenigbo. The ingredients are right: an interesting part of the world, a turbulent historical period and characters which embody a range of attitudes and experiences.

And yet the recipe fails to work. If this book were a cake, it would be flat and tasteless, the kind you push away after one bite. I had to spend time, almost as long as I spent reading the book, hunting for the missing ingredient, because on the surface it's all there: an adequate plot, competent if uninspired writing, an interesting background canvas. The problem lies in the characters.

You have to love your characters to make them live. You have to know them inside and out: their likes, their dislikes, their opinions, their dreams. Adichie's characters exist only on the surface. Olanna is estranged from her twin sister for reasons which she never identifies. She witnesses the terrible slaughter of the Igbos in the Muslim north but never expresses an opinion on the reasons for the massacre, or any resentment towards the people responsible for the deaths of her relatives. Richard falls in love with an African woman without ever reflecting on the implications for her (and for him) of their relationship. Prejudice doesn't seem to exist in 1960's Nigeria, beyond Odenigbo's attempt (soon abandoned) to limit his intellectual soirees to other Africans. Ugwu, the house boy, never dwells on the social inequalities which mean he earns his living as a servant. This character is eventually promoted by Adichie as the authentic conveyor of her country's history, but up to that point, there is no hint Ugwu has anything on his mind but women.

In other words, the characters lack authenticity. They do things because it suits the author, rather than their actions flowing from their personalities and beliefs. They ring false and, without that vital ingredient, the end result lacks coherence. Unless we understand the motivation of the people in the story - the reasons why they do things, we can't follow the logic of events. Adichie, a creative writing tutor and cowed, I suspect, by the doctrine of show not tell, can't find a way to let us into her characters' heads. They seem passive, detached; observers rather than actors. It's a near miss - with a little more passion and flouting of the rules, the whole thing would spring to life. As it is, there isn't anyone for us to care about.

The story of Biafra, like that of its continent, is powerful and terrible. But it deserves a better book than "Half of a Yellow Sun" to tell it.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 7, 2009 12:35 PM GMT

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